Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Reflection in a Polished Cheese - A Review of Operation Unfathomable

I backed this on Kickstarter and put off reading it until the hardcopy arrived, which it did a few days ago.

tldr; I didn't really like it as much as I was hoping. You might though.


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VEINS COMPARISONS

It's strange and interesting to read this as it covers a similar subject matter as Veins and, if you were to yank out elements of it and abstract the tone, there are lots of parts that wouldn't feel out of place in the Patrickverse. Huge silent segmented giants with glowing eyes wandering the underworld fulfilling the decayed instructions of their ancient creators, intelligent fungal lifeforms performing strange experiments on surface beings and willing to trade fungal hyper-weaponry just to see the effects, an extinct race of beetle-people who created other intelligent species then went mad and genocided everything, leaving only ruins and capering insect ghosts, a cult worshipping nullity itself, a chaos godling sleeping on a beach of gold.

Sounds pretty Patricky, right?

NO.

This is nothing like VotE in either structure, tone, feel, expression or any other way.

It's primarily a dungeon, not a toolbox. A while ago Sholtis did an underworld fragment for Knockspell #5, which Iown. This is that, massively expanded with loads of new stuff, background, items and options. But everything is grown from that one root. A simple, not-quite-railroad Con game.

Jason says he based a long running campaign on this and all the potential elements for such a campaign are present in-utero, races, factions, history, lore and lots of references to a wider world. But this is not a toolbox for creating that campaign, except in the way that any reasonably complex or detailed adventure could kick one off.

All that crap I did about light, climbing, 3-D movement and procedural generation, caving and getting food underground is all completely irrelevant here. Light barely matters, there is underworld gloom in most places. Climbing barely matters, everything is on a plane. Food doesn't matter much. You can still get mutated though.

I think I literally used a comparison to serial television in Veins. Yes, "The cave used in most games is the cave from serial television. A flat-floored arch-shaped space with doors." I was thinking about the caves from Star Trek, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants or any of those TV shows from the 60's.

Well these are those caves, and this is those shows. More than anything else this reminds me of 60's television.

None of this is either here nor there when considering quality, different creative aim, different rules must apply.



OK ENOUGH ABOUT COMPARISONS - WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY LIKE?

Its a relatively simply, well-tested, strong Con-Game One-Shot with expansions. If you were to 'speed run' the adventure based on the opening mission then you could get it done in maybe half an hour. The opening setup has some pretty good idiot-locks to basically polearm people into the adventure and get them doing stuff.

Like, if you imagine the kind of person who I always think of as being the person you meet at cons, who sits down to play a one-shot and then wants to be a tool about why they are going on this particular adventure. Well that shit is covered here.

You can kind of tell that OU is a thing that has had a lot of contact with idiots (not the creators, but rando players they probably didn't know) and so it has a reasonable amount of idiot-proofing in the design.

A very strong element of the design is the encounter table. Encounters are meant to be common and highly vivid. There are multiple different kinds; phenomena, other parties & travellers and Wandering Horrors and each of these sub-tables has a die-lock on it that goes up and down depending on what kind of route you are on. So if you are on the main highway then you get the full range and the smaller passages gives you a smaller range of encounters.

In particular, the Underworld Travellers section, and the effects of that section, do a lot to tie the game together. A lot of the traveller encounters have complex relationships with each other and each others political and cultural business and they are all very vivid and interesting.

Vividness is a strong point in OU. Liveliness and human particularity.

All of these encounters have a very haptic, open feel to them. They are all a little arch and present themselves as ripe for role playing on the DM's part.

Because you are probably going to be meeting a lot of people, a lot of the complexity of the game is going to be about playing out these meetings and what you do or don't do about them. Since everyone has business with each other, the moment you make an ally, you are probably going to run into someone who is an enemy now because they hate the dude you are with, that puts the party in the middle of a little drama and there are a lot of these little dramas waiting with a lot of contextual background info locked into them.

The interrelationship of the living elements also makes the rando, somewhat paratactic Phenomena and Horrors less annoying since you will almost never be encountering them 'alone', instead there will be one or more NPC's hanging out with you to go "Oh, its the Sounds Without Cause'.

The very small physical size of the space, the high encounter probability and the close interrelationship of intelligent encounters gives the feel of a Dense Toybox World.

Though it is physically small there is a lot to do and encounter. It makes a kind of insanity of the imagined space but I don't think that will matter at all for the kind of person who is into this. It seems like the opposite situation than WotC's African thing where there was just a shitload of boring jungle between you and the Main Thing, here we have multiple Chaos Godlings, Giant Clone Wizards, Null Priests and what have you on what would psychically be the same suburban street, or at least one city block.

It's by no means a bad adventure, it should work pretty well. But it depends what your definition of 'fun' is. Because you are definitely going to be having 'fun' and only 'fun'.



THE TONE

The tone is the main thing I dislike about this. It's somewhere between Hydras usual tone and very High Rientsien, though the stuff like Star Trek references and the outright comedy elements push it even higher than High Reintsien.

You can usually run a Hydra module with modernist irony but there is usually enough density of feel that you can push it down into actual-feeling and scrape out many of the ironic elements without having to do a full engineering job on it. Like, a were-bear or Were-Shark Pirate can just about be run as actually-scary if you fiddle with them a bit.

You can't do that with this. It's a comedy really. And it's so densely integrated that if you want to run this in Hipster Mode you would need to literally take it apart, boil it down and reconstruct it from the start.

Again and again and again while reading this I wanted to feel something and that fucking tone came up and smirked in my face. It was a lot like that Thor: Ragnarok movie with the endless Dreamworks-grin Wheadoning skating over the frozen oneric depth of what the story was about. I was bristling somewhat as I came to the end of this adventure, not from any one thing but just the slow accumulation of cheese.

And I really don't give two tenths of a fuck which particular Star Trek: TOS actor, in which role, an NPC sounds like. I don't care about references to anything especially godamnn fucking Nerd Culture references.

Well that's me done shitting on it



DID YOU LIKE ANYTHING THOUGH?

The sub-encounter behaviour rolls are good. A lot of the living encounters have various weird things they are up to that don't involve you at all. Many of the animals are potentially dangerous or not, depending on conditions.

Really the whole encounter matrix is good I think.

The vividness, playability, feelyness, liveliness and specificity of the living encounters is very good. Characters and elements pop off the page and want to be played and embodied. They hold a good polarity between being comprehensible and expressive. IF you don't mind the cheese.

The idea of the PC's being given weapons just so they can test them, and the price being a full report, is interesting.

The Dead Failed Colossal Pal made me sad.

There is a full Alternative Adventuring Party/replacement Adventurer Group in the back Appendices. Again, they are vivid, playable, fun and benefit a huge amount from Jasons characterful and almost tactile portraits.

The pistol rules for the Underworld Rangers and Science Fungi are pretty good if you want to introduce some science fantasy into your game.

The Blind Antler Men feel genuinely strange, same with the Segmented Giants.

The Art Generally;


THE ART

It's monochrome. I really like it. Most is byt Jason I think, other stuff by Chris Brandt, John Larrey and Stefan Poag. I think I could recognise Sholtis and Poag's art the easiest and I like theirs the best from what I could tell.

I think it might be printed at a slightly wrong size or wrong resolution in some cases. It looks likes there are a handful of times where small images are made big and it doesn't quite work.

Jason's NPC's and Monsters are, I've said it before but I'll say it again, specific, lively, interesting, expressive, animated and often humorous.

Some of the big full-page illustrations, especially of the Segmented Giants have the kind of strange oneric feel I wish there was more of in the book. The Blind Antler Men and Psycophage manage to be genuinely creepy.

Many of the other monsters, the Tyrannoclops (we never get to meet one living?) the Glutton Newt with its maniacal grin, and the Worm Sultan, are full of energy and glee.

If there was a part of the book where the creativity matched what I was hoping for and wanted to feel, it's in the art.

The layout is by Jez and is as broadly good as Jez usually is. Monochrome. Informational hierarchy is usually tight though a few minor errors crept in. Informational chunks are usually broken-to-spread with relatively few thought-orphans, though again, some are not. The map is lovely but I think came late in the process as it has some strong potential linking elements that either weren't taken advantage of or weren't part of the creators intent.



MINDLESS NITPICKS

- References to monster in encounters don't give exact page, just numbered element in a section, that's a flip I don't need.

- Cave swallows steal rope but you barely need rope down here anyway.

- In the map the Googlepede runs all over the place and if it actually linked with the tunnels it passed under and over it could drag PC's around & dump them in different places in an interesting way, but that doesn't happen, its just one singular area with an effective death state.

- Same with the river.

- Lots of lassitude effects - is Sholtis a sleepy guy?

- Slight bolding flaw page 61, section 14, last element.

- Main Map has encounter areas numbered - but not the page numbers, they managed page numbers on the encounter chart but not the map?

- Appendix of Coplementary Hirelings is small for a book of this size & layout (but alt adventurers are plentiful & good, see above)

- How is the Science Fungus Dirigible not getting more time?

4 comments:

  1. I actually completely disagree with you. I don't think this is Veins-incompatible at all, in fact I think they would mesh really well. I can totally picture alkalions and anti-phoenii roaming around in here. Segmented worm men and googlepedes are totally Veins. All you have to do is:
    A) replace the dungeon gloom with Blackness
    B) jumble up the rooms a little bit. They still connect in all the same ways, you just need to use the Veins randomizer a little bit. Instead of arches and flat tunnels going from place to place, it's like little choke-holes and crawlspaces leading out of ceilings and stuff.

    Really, the only difference is just the tone in which these things are presented. In Unfathomable, everything is "humorous". In Veins, everything is "horrific"

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  2. It took me a minute to figure out what 'high rientsien' is. Then I laughed.

    Does veins play straight when you run it?
    I plan my sessions really serious. But they usually don't wind up that way.

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  3. I really appreciate being able to read your perspective on a book that is (at least vaguely) related to yours. I have a copy, haven't read it, but am still excited to read it.

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  4. Sometimes, I like horror. Other times, I prefer humor... or a mix of both. So, this sounds cool to me! Thanks for the review .

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