Thursday, April 30, 2015

"The father of every misfortune"

This is the first of what I hope to be many reviews--many of the books I've purchased over the last few years are quite good, and warrant all the attention they get, and more. Today, I'll be reviewing Dreams of Ruin, a setting book describing the Forest of Woe, a cosmic/planar threat for high level campaigns. It's by Geoffrey C Grabowski, who seems to be making a jump to the OSR from Exalted. As a heads up, I did receive a review copy.

Dreams of Ruin is currently undergoing a kickstarter. It is going to be released on May 15 under a restrictive Creative Commons license, but will be available under more generous terms depending on how well the kickstarter goes.

The primary drive for this setting is the Forest of Woe, which is a self-propagating curse or a self-casting spell or an infectious metaphor induced to intrude upon reality. In practice, it is a monster-filled pseudo-forest that grows until it covers and destroys an entire world, hopping from one plane of existence to the next. It was created by something like a magical Manhattan Project that was also a sort of alt lit Masonic ritual. The beginning of the book has a full script of this ritual, so here's an excerpt:

This is Dreams of Ruin at its best. A great idea, cool implementation, something explicit and player-facing you can drop into a game (DoR suggests as a vision if someones casts Legend Lore, but they could also unearth it as a script or it could turn into a freaky reoccurring dream/motif/whatever.) All of the monsters are like this, too. Here's a bit about the trees that make up the Forest of Woe:


 Awesome! There's also
  • giant hand-spiders described as "the wind-up strangler-priests of the forest running on broadcast power"
  • a magically projected anti-pattern that prevents institutions from effectively dealing with the Forest
  • an entire section on magical social engineering
  • animate puppets that act out Grand Guignol murder sprees on each other
  • murderous sprites with various modes of behavior, controlled by the drugs the Forest provides them. 
All of which are either really cool, really usable, or both.

Unfortunately, Dreams of Ruin is not like this all the way through. The Forest of Woe is an act of primal malice, rolling down from antiquity with glacial inevitability, but Dreams of Ruin consistently presents it in a really fussy, actuarial manner. It spends many pages discussing ways to deal with the ever-expanding forest, but does so with charts like this:

Yes, it has a column for how much volume your Divine Ichor source is outputting. This is the key frustration of Dreams of Ruin--it has things like using fountains of god-gore to sanctify and destroy a cursed forest (COOL), but then requires the use of lots and lots of fussy math and book-keeping (NOT COOL).

One of the most egregious examples of this is research. Players can learn more about the Forest and how to fight it or use it by investing in research laboratories. An example project is researching spores--to do so, players must build a device to trap the spores in a Temporal Stasis bubble that still allows researcher to magically probe it. To construct this device, players must spend 2.5 million gold pieces and have access to the spells Arcane eye, chain lightning, continual light, dispel magic, ESP, floating disc, maze, limited wish, magic aura, prismatic sphere, secret chest, telekinesis, permanency, imprisonment, spiritwrath, and identify.

This is just way, way, way too much. Every single topic of the Forest, from the different kinds of creatures to the trees to the spores to its various magical effects, has its own set of required spells and a lengthy explanation of how the lab works. On top of that, players must choose if they are conducting Arcane, Divine, or Druidic research, each of which yields different discoveries. The discoveries themselves aren't that helpful---much of the time the DM has to decide how these revealed bits of knowledge are actually helpful, which is barely more useful than not putting them in the book at all. To compound all of this, the Forest itself has its own complex lifecycle of shedding monsters and spreading at various speeds, so the DM and players have to figure out how much research they can get done before the situation gets worse.

The methods of confronting the forest are equally complex--aside from the infinite holy water fountain table, there's charts on how many Geases clerics and magic-users of various levels can cast per day to create an authoritarian society immune from the stultifying effects of the Forest, and tables that enumerate the percent reduction of productivity when a society uses various means to inoculate itself agains the Forest's curse.

Everything is just this huge tangle of complicated timelines and rules and costs, not only constrained by the elaborate and interconnected schedules of research periods and Forest growth but occluded by huge amounts of information that isn't of obvious use to DM or player.

I'm also not a huge fan of the way magic is presented in this game. Grabowski took all of the magic rules as written in Labyrinth Lord at perfect face value and then extrapolated them until he reached a sort of Vancian industrial age. It's interesting, but requires a very deep knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons and doesn't really allow for many other conceptions of the supernatural. DoR includes suggestions on what to do if the game is taking place in a low magic setting, but in games with a more fairy tale or mystical flavor, much of DoR doesn't really work.

Dreams of Ruin is a book with a lot of good stuff that you can drop into your game. The ritual, the ecology of the Forest, and the basics of research are all things you can use as starting points for more usable mechanics, as well. However, it would be a real challenge to use Dreams of Ruin as written to run the Forest of Woe, and would likely require as much if not more preparation than if you decided to come up with rules of your own to support the books premise. At the end of the day, Dreams of Ruin is the rare kind of game book that is actually useful as inspiration.


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  2. I grabbed Dreams Of Ruin after reading your review and I am about halfway done. The whole thing could use a creative editor,: someone who could make Grabowski slow down and explain his leaps of logic. He takes a lot of creative concepts for granted without explaining himself, as if he couldn't slow down explain because he had to move onto the next concept. It could also be much, much better organized.

    All that is a shame, because there are a lot of really great ideas in there, and his overall vision is pretty clear. It is definitely, definitely awesome to have a threat so daunting that the players need to coordinate a manhattan project against it. It's too bad this book doesn't actually tell me how to run that game. If the book weren't so restrictively licensed, I might have enjoyed taking a crack at re-presenting some of his ideas.