Tuesday, 26 February 2019

The Unbalanced Creator Returns? - A Review of The Tricks of Treachery Isle

"Nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted on Cormorant Isle! And yet you find that you must rely on dangerous strangers if you hope to leave the Isle alive. Who are these tricksters and what is the secret that they will kill to keep hidden?"


Available HERE, from Game of the North.

Our mystery continues. 

Based on the writing style, formatting, repeated use of a few phrases and the general tone, I am 99% certain that the creator of Game of the North, is also the creator behind Unbalanced Dice Games,

This is someone I first talked about back in 2017, and again, Bryce has sent me an adventure by someone who writes a lot like them. (EDIT - he already reviewed it here.)

I think Bryce thinks this is some kind of extended art-crime faux-naive experiment, I think they are for real, or possibly Bryce in disguise.


The creativity is high

The influences are CLASSIC.

The prose is as deranged.

And the layout is insane.



A very great deal of this adventure is utterly charming and bonkers.

A few elements are;

A Witch who flies around on a huge sword and shoots fire from her mouth and hands, but who only burns ships, not people. If you find her lair and try to fight her, she comes at you with the Zweihander, which acts as a mount if she is defeated.

Some excellent treasures, including a magic knife which once belonged to a heroic tamer of birds, and which becomes more powerful the more birds the PC tames.

Some charming mechanics, including this for a fear effect; "-anyone bringing a light into this room is likely to see their own dark reflection in the black glass provoking a save vs. Spells. On a failed save the PC becomes Frightened and looses a finger – as they chew through it trying to stifle their terror."

A really magnificent opening scene; the PCs approach a beach from the sea, a brutal battle is underway, just before they reach shore it is ended by the chief Knight of the winning side drowning his opposite number under the surf. As they arrive, the same Knight welcomes the PC's, tells them he is on an honourable mission, and asks for their help.

On almost every page is some novel, charming, lively, vivid, original or interesting element or idea, almost always drawn from the gen-pop of fantasy, but with the glow of a distinctive imagination.

Its hard, or very difficult, to actually run. That said, this feels more actually-runnable than anything I have seen from this creator before.




ADVENTURE STRUCTURE

Its a hex-crawl on an island, with ten keyed locations and a handful of factions or dominant elements, so far, so simple.

Even though its a hex crawl, the description of the adventure comes in 'Acts', Act One - The Haunted Castle, Act Two - The Isles Deceptions, Act Three - The Masters of the Isle'

Like most of the Unbalanced Creators stuff, things are described in-sequence, assuming that the PCs will go from place to place in a particular order.

There are two main locational arrangements, a Knight vs Knight Haunted House situation, which the PC's are expected to be drawn into first, has two main locations. Then there is an 'elemental dungeon' thing with water, earth, fire and air-based areas, each of which can be opened up by climbing a central tower and solving its mysteries.

(The locations are good, and through very strange, and in some cases quite affecting, they do have a coherent logic which can be discovered in play. In some ways they would be easier to play through than to DM since the players cannot become mixed up in the prose and design of the adventure itself but only get the end result, which is broadly coherent.)

Then there is an evil pumpkin-person, replaced-inhabitants situation, with a giant monster-summoning at the end. The final boss monster is absolutely not what you are expecting.

All of these are linked in sometimes-tangental ways, so that you could, maybe, end up being pulled from one to another laterally across the direction of the intended plot.

There is also a deep mythology involving elemental hells on the moon, which I think is maybe influenced by the Kabbalah?

However, the Creator has actually included commentary and advice for using the adventure in different ways;

"Right off the bat you might notice that this adventure has many parts & these don’t seem immediately related. This is intentional. The adventure as it is presented is intended to progress in a generalized sequence as indicated by the numbered areas. 1- Characters arrive on the island. 2- Characters meet & join with the group of knights. 3 – Characters venture to the haunted house & encounter the witch. 4 – Characters explore the island. 5 – Characters subdue the major threats of the island. This last part is best perfromed if followed in a specific sequence.

But this isn’t the only way that this adventure can be run. A simple & straightforward modification would include the knights, the haunted house & the leshens of the island. One could forgo the haunted castle & simply focus on the elemental focal points on the isle – the guide tower, the dragon’s lair & the mereid’s marsh as well as the Leshen’s henge. What’s best is to leave these decisions to the players & to give them the option to explore the island & make the choices for themselves."




LAYOUT AND INFORMATION DESIGN

The layout is utterly insane.

As is usual for the Unbalanced Creator, there is random shifting between centre-aligned and left-aligned text, but that's just for starters.

There is an ornate table design which is used for the first tables on the opening pages, and then never again.

There is a nice little piece of ornamentation which is used to fill a white space, with another large piece of white space left blank.

We have bolded elements to each entry, which are something like read-aloud text, and which are bolded in orange with a grey background.

We have moved from one column (the first thing I reviewed from this creator) to two columns, (which I think came later) and now to a three column layout.

EXCEPT - the flow of text across the page sometimes leaps between columns and in a few cases there are page divisions which are not indicated by the text at all, meaning the first time you read through it, it just seems crazed, then you realise there is an invisible division.

Here's the first act starting spread, you can see that the first page is normal with a sequential flow across three columns. (I added these tints so you can see which sections of text relate to each other. The page as-read is white.)




Then the second page has this mid-line division, which is obvious here, as I've highlighted it, but really isn't the first time you read down the first column.

Then we get a big slice of white with a standard flow continuing on the next page after;



Things seem to settle down, but after a while we get this piece of amazement;



The final descriptive element of this section, which describes what to do once every part has been thoroughly explored, has been layed across the bottom of the page in basic font with nothing to indicate what it is.

Absolute Madlad.

The organisation of information on a larger scale is actually pretty old-school. Its divided into parts;

First the opening being rules for navigating the island. Then each locations descriptive text in sequence. Then a series of stat blocks for the creators homebrew system with some important character and behavioural elements included. Then a series of images, some are public domain images of the NPC's and creatures and there are maps for the keyed areas. Then right at the end there are some custom treasures.

This is all just-about usable. Bits and pieces are spread over multiple pages, but dividing maps and keys is something from a lot of adventures, I'm assuming you are meant to print everything out first and then combine sheets as needed.

At least one triggered encounter - with some lost and feral children, has a massive meta-effect on the structure of the whole thing. The childrens leader is obsessed with investigating the islands locations and mysteries. They will lead the children to do this after you contact them. With each element they investigate, there is a 25% chance they will succeed, effectively 'emptying the dungeon' and a 75% chance they all just die doing it.

And they 'all' die on a bad roll apparently.

So depending on how you roll, you could have these NPC's handling everything for you, or they could just die and you find the bodies somewhere.

Like most of the creators ideas, its actually a good concept; a group on the island who want to investigate the same things and who will effect the meta-structure of what goes on, plus they are children so they are both potential competition, but you really don't wand to hurt them or let them get hurt.

But you only find this out in their description.




PROSE AND DESCRIPTION

The prose is as delightfully odd as usual. Everything you need is here, hidden in the looping sentences and partial re-descriptions, just not necessarily in the order or arrangement you might expect;

"When the Party arrives here – presuming they come here directly from the beach – they arrive at night and the mischief of the island’s irascible, suspicious Witch can begin. Otherwise the area is as described here – less the troubling interventions of Zasimus the Witch."

That's a beautiful way of saying that the Witch is there at night and not in the day.

Here's the Unbalanced Creator (if it is indeed them) telling you that an area is difficult to approach from the sea, due to a cliff;

"Gygis’ Temple sits at the base of a valley that leads to the ocean. Where the lands meets the sea there is a precipitous decline –effectively a cliff – though not very tall – it does descend onto broken, dangerous stones. As such – this area is extremely difficult to approach by sea – requiring a few d20 Stat checks just to sail near enough followed by 2 d8 Scale Walls checks."

Here is the eruption of an important NPC ghost;

"The ghost of Pritzak Dohh will scream & bluster liberally in ancient Sundus – which smart PCs may be able to interpret. He exclaims that the age of the flesh is over & that the Jack-o-lantern men – the Leshen are the new way."



THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT

Of all this, the loops in the prose itself, the loops of the assumed path of the adventure through the apparent hex-crawl, the looping of the text through the crazed layout, the originality of the content and vividness and gauche energy of the elements used, give the process of simply reading the Tricks of Treachery Isle the feeling of a rather cryptic adventure.

It's like a Grandma's puzzle, which she has devised over time, and expects to enthral and bemuse, and is very pleased with, but of which she has forgotten exactly how it works, and so experiencing it has both the pleasure of the puzzle as intended, but also trying to work out exactly what the hell Grandma was actually thinking.



THE META-MYSTERY

Who this is and what exactly is going on is still unknown, at least to me.

If this is the same person then they produce a LOT of stuff on a very regular schedule. If it is the same person then it looks like they dropped Unbalanced Dice Games and then started Game of the North.

The sheer volume of stuff makes it seem impossible to me that this is a joke or performance of some kind. You need to be really into it to write this amount of stuff.

Its possible this is someone affecting or allowing themselves to affect this particular style and aesthetic as a partially deliberate choice.

But if they are faking it, that's even more work. Faking the crazy prose, the layout, the adventure structuring and doing all that while also coming up with genuinely good adventure elements and original-yet-classic ideas, I don't know how you do that.

It's possible its Bryce. It's possible its one of you.

17 comments:

  1. I was just thinking about this guy two days ago and spent 30 minutes looking through your site to find the review. Synchronicity!

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  2. Unbalanced Dice still releases things, Fighting Foolishnesses and Magic Madnesses.
    Maybe a curious thing that adds to the mystery: once I set the first three books of Magic Madness(es) for myself in nice layout, bolding, parsing, white space, all of that, and then offered it for free, through DriveThru, to the Unbalanced Dice Games author. It was declined, without even looking and without even communicating with me directly, although all channels were open. Just 'Thank you but no' kind of answer through a third party. The UDG author seems to be very secretive and protective of their identity.

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    1. If you can get it (it isn't free) try to read "The Afterworld - a Guide to the Worlds Beyond Death" – I wonder how you'd appraise the style of this one. Game of the North credits two names as creators (fictional names obviously): Tricks of Treachery Isle credited to Kingtycoon Methuselah and The Afterworld credited to Jeremiah Methuselah. If Kingtycoon is so similar to UDG, I'd like to know what you think about the style of the other one.

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  3. Gate of the North sounds like it's related to your Alaska theory, Patrick.

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    1. Now it is curious to see if the theory appeared earlier than the name or the Gate of the North is later addition, because if Gate of the North established after the theory was published, it is too good a coincidence to be a coincidence.

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  4. The GotN rulebook is previewable. Though that does not help.

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  5. Are you sure they’re not just lazy?

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    1. They make a hell of a lot of stuff for a lazy person.

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  6. My best bet is that it's either Bryce in disguise or somebody who hangs round on Dragonsfoot.

    Or Kent.

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    1. Can't be Kent, not enough racial slurs.

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  7. Nah, like I told Patrick, I publish under a different name. All the creativity has been beaten out of me by life.

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  8. Ummmmm...since Joesky is back unexpectedly this week...

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  9. It may be true outsider art. I have met a few people who will create a lot and will be convinced that their work is completely structured and coherent.

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  10. Waiting on House of Leaves, but a rulebook, adventure by way of UDG, with marginalia, an actual play report, and related blog entries.

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  11. Jeremiah Methuselah is a personal friend of mine who lives in Cleveland, who sometimes goes by his online name Kingtycoon. Very creative but not so strong on organization. Not sure who Bryce the author of UDG is, but don't think they are the same person.

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  12. I read this the other day and really liked it. I'm pretty sure it's a genuine attempt to communicate by someone who is just a bit unusual, rather than any kind of elaborate prank: it does contain all the information you'd need to use it, just not laid out in a conventional or intuitive fashion. And the material itself is great. I'd rather have something weirdly written but powerfully imagined than another 32 pages of cleanly-produced nothing.

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