Welcome back to Dungeons Mastered, a tabletop roleplaying column from someone still figuring this shit out. I’m Tyler Crumrine, your RPG concierge and game-master-in-training, and this week we’ll be taking a look at four books by Patrick Stuart: Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Deep Carbon Observatory, Uncertain Worlds, and False Readings.
Two people turned me on to Patrick Stuart. The first was Ken Baumann, publisher of Sator Press and author of the novels Solip and Say, Cut, Map and the Boss Fight Books entry EarthBound. Ken’s a GM, a big fan of tabletop roleplaying, and occasionally posts really helpful advice and resources on his blog. He also recently launched Satyr Press, a Sator imprint dedicated to publishing “innovative, beautiful, and limited-edition tabletop RPG books.” Stuart is one of Satyr’s first authors, and after pre-ordering The Maze of the Blue Medusa (which I’ll be discussing in our next entry), I started to look into the rest of his work.
The second person was China Miéville. Miéville’s been a favorite fantasy author of mine for a looooong time, and the thing I absolutely love most about his writing is its world-building. Miéville is very anti-Tolkien (no orcs, no elves, no trolls), and he creates these stunningly unique, lush, urban, fantasy landscapes. So when Miéville had this to say on Stuart, I was immediately sold:
Superpositioning with strange panache, [Fire on the] Velvet Horizon is an (outstanding) indie role-playing-game supplement and an (outstanding) example of experimental quasi-/meta-/sur-/kata-fiction. Also a work of art. Easily one of my standout books of 2015.
I can’t help but agree. Stuart has a penchant for the weird and wonderful that defies expectations, and reading his work has helped me break away from tropes in my own campaigns. Enough preamble, though—let’s get to the books.
FIRE ON THE VELVET HORIZON
What is it?
To piggy-back off of Miéville, Fire on the Velvet Horizon is as much an art book as it is a monster manual. Illustrator and frequent collaborator Scrap Princess sketched roughly 100 monsters, at which point Stuart labeled and wrote detailed backstories for each of them. And I do mean detailed. Just check out these samples: Thug Bugs and Flammeous Lads.
Once the writing was done, Scrap expanded on sketches, collaged words and images together, and laid them all out in one hefty, 100+ page, 8”x11”, full-color paperback.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike most monster manuals, Fire on the Velvet Horizon is completely stats-free, making it a great fit for any vaguely fantasy roleplaying system as long as the GM is willing to do the nitty-gritty of number crunching on his or her own. Alternately, many of the monsters can serve purely as plot devices rather than enemies.
I think Stuart summarizes the book best himself, though, in his introduction:
I hope this makes you feel a little like you felt when you opened a Monster Manual for the first time and saw arranged, in a neat block, a world of strange encounters and a compilation of living things, each carrying its own fragmentary history, a little like a story and a little like a tool lying in a box, with its handle arranged towards [you], asking to be picked up and used in some work of your own.
What do I like about it?
If you’re like me, you probably grew up steeped in Tolkien-esque fantasy, whether it be The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Warhammer Fantasy. It’s a fun world, but as far as settings go, it’s also kind of old news.
And while D&D definitely has its own flavor—you won’t find Mind Flayers or Beholders in a C.S. Lewis novel—players often have a certain amount of game-specific literacy as well. Bugbears may have been surprising when the Monster Manuel first came out in 1977, but now they’re a D&D staple. Ditto with similar systems/settings like Pathfinder or Dungeon World—regardless of which game you’re playing, if you’re pulling from the same bestiary session after session, eventually you’re going to run out of monsters that your party hasn’t encountered before.
It’s very, very unlikely, though, that players will have seen monsters like the ones in Fire on the Velvet Horizon. Take the Boa Contructor, for example, a giant serpent with a mouth full of almost-man-sized hands. It’s deadly—capable of wielding a sword in each of its 100+ teeth-hands—but it’s also highly intelligent and a master craftsman. Sometimes mature Boa Constructors will choose to trade services with a town (or party of adventures) for consistent food rather than devouring them. A skilled Boa Constructor is also known to create some of the finest custom armor in the world, but this requires the subject step into the creature’s mouth to make exact measurements. Or so the Boa Constructor will claim—whether the serpent is telling the truth or not depends on the GM.
Monsters like Boa Constructors could easily inspire a dozen different adventures. Stuart’s descriptions often include a degree of both risk and reward, and this book contains over 100 of them. Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a treasure trove of strange, intriguing, and downright terrifying monsters, and I guarantee that unless one of your players owns the book themselves (because honestly, it’s just as nice a coffee table book as a RPG resource), they’ll never see them coming.
What have I stolen from it?
My D&D party first encountered Ryder the Cryptospider while locked in a prison cell in Vornheim (more on Vornheim next time, too). And it wasn’t long before he became one of their favorite (and most useful) companions in the game. According to Fire on the Velvet Horizon, a Cryptospider is:
A small, intelligent spider so harmless and weak that it seeks to escape harm by sleeping in your pocket in the day. For this, it trades the secrets that it catches at night.
Twice a day, on waking in the evening and before it goes to sleep, the spider will politely request food. […] On being fed, the spider thanks the host in its small voice, then climbs on their sleeping head and starts to build its nightly web.
An abandoned idea or misplaced memory may blunder into the web during the night; the Cryptospider will catch it, paralyze it with its bite, and wrap it up in silk. When morning comes, the Cryptospider will offer its host all the thoughts it caught that night. Only swallow the squirming silk cocoon, and as it dissolves smoothly in the stomach the idea inside will come to mind, as if it had never been lost.
After striking a deal with Ryder, the party used his powers to discover the location of a spare key a guard had forgotten he’d hidden. Now Ryder travels alongside the party in Shaklima the dragonborn’s pocket, sleeping the day away until he’s offered food in exchange for his services. Most recently, Ryder discovered the final memories of a man who was turned undead. After sharing it with the party, they were able to gain some insight into a lich’s lair they had to tackle a few play sessions later.
Ryder’s a fun tool for when the party gets “stuck,” a useful storytelling device, and a pet/companion who adds a little extra magic and mystery to the world without being too overpowered. He’s a perfect example of the kind of creativity Fire on the Velvet Horizon’s monsters can inject into your setting. Although sometimes, I think my party calls on him just to make me talk in a funny little voice.
DEEP CARBON OBSERVATORY
What is it?
Deep Carbon Observatory is the first straight-up adventure we’ll be covering in Dungeons Mastered. Written by Stuart and again illustrated by Scrap Princess, it’s about 90 pages long with four fairly extensive maps (The Drowned Lands, The Dam, The Profundal Zone, and The Observatory). Unlike Fire on the Velvet Horizons, though, some stats for the adventure’s encounters are also provided. The book is optimized for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which I’ll be covering at some point) but can be easily transferred into any simple fantasy roleplaying system.
It’s a tough adventure, but unlike most RPG modules, it doesn’t come with a specific level-cap. Stuart instead describes it as “suitable for a lucky mid-range party, a stupid high-level party, or an exceedingly clever low-level party.” Chances are it’ll be difficult regardless of level, but if your party is having too easy a time, feel free to ramp things up until they’re getting through by the skin of their teeth. An element of danger is crucial to the adventure’s overall aesthetic.
I don’t want to spoil anything else for potential players, though, so I’ll leave you with a brief synopsis from the book’s product page:
[Deep Carbon Observatory] takes players from a town devastated by an unexpected flood, through a drowned land where nature is turned upside down and desperate families cling to the roofs of their ruined homes, hiding from the monstrous products of a disordered world, through the strange tomb of an ancient race, to a profundal zone, hidden for millennia and now exposed, and finally to the Observatory itself, an eerie abandoned treasure palace, where they will encounter a pale and unexpected terror which will seek to claim their lives.
What do I like about it?
About ¾ of the way through Deep Carbon Observatory, Stuart gives my favorite advice I’ve ever read in an RPG resource thus far:
If you cannot kill at least one player […] then you are probably doing something wrong. Kill them. Make them afraid. Explain nothing.
There’s a lot to love in this book, but something I really appreciate is just how unapologetically terrifying the adventure is. It almost feels more Lovecraftian than Tolkienesque at times. Seeing how Stuart laid out the adventure, and how much he refuses to explain (by choice rather than convenience), has done a lot in helping me learn to hold my players’ hands less and embrace tossing the unexpected their way.
It’s also taught me to try to kill them. Like, really try to kill them.
What have I stolen from it?
I haven’t had the pleasure of running Deep Carbon Observatory in full just yet, but Stuart’s antagonists—The Crows—are vivid enough that I couldn’t help but steal one for my own campaign: the dwarf ranger (and psychopath) Ghar Zaghouan.
My party found Ghar in a high-security cell shortly after escaping their own in Vornheim. He seemed normal enough, even calm, considering his situation, and pleaded with them to free him as well. The party eventually agreed (by 2-to-3 vote) to help…and immediately regretted it. As he was freed, he stole their only weapon (a sword lifted from a dispatched guard), knocked them aside, and went on a killing spree throughout the castle. On one hand, it left the party defenseless. On the other, his path of destruction paved the way for their escape as well.
While retrieving their equipment from one of the palace’s towers, though, the party came across Ghar’s prized possession—his enchanted bow—and his collection of exotic poisons (also described in loving detail in Deep Carbon Observatory). Assuming he was dead, or at the very least owed them, they took it. They’ve yet to have a chance to return it to him. Maybe they never will. Or maybe Ghar will retrieve it first.
What is it?
Uncertain Worlds is a book of “Game Objects”—little ideas and fictions you can throw into your campaign—from Patrick Stuart’s False Machine blog. Everything in the book is available for free online if you want it, but since posts go back to 2011, this “greatest hits” collection is much, much easier to navigate (not to mention nice to have at hand while playing).
Especially since the book covers so much. It’s about 75 pages and chock-full of content (40+ “objects”) for a variety of roleplaying genres. Whether you’re running a science fiction, fantasy, or superhero setting or an alternate-history game like Achtung! Cthulhu, there’s something here for you.
Don’t believe me? Just check out the table of contents. The categories with (d#) after them are tables (i.e. roll a d10 to choose 1 of 10 random antagonists), whereas the rest of headings include about 1-2 pages of description.
- The Caliphate of Holes
- Report of an Island
- Three Cities
- Lanthanum Chromate
- Ganglia Moor
- What Hell Knows
- The Truth
- Three Rivers
- The Virid River, or “The River of Drowned Queens”
- The ‘Or,’ or “The Civil River”
- The Perse, or Kaldr Hjarta river
- Two Dark Oceans
- Eight Navigating Houses of Nox
- Mariners Song of the Nightmare Sea
- The Sea of Shadows
- A Plane of Fire
- The Prince of Carcasses
- The Sorrows of The Thane of Coates (6d6)
- Doppelgängers (7d7)
- Snail Knights (1d20, 3d10)
- Science Fiction
- The Omnistructure in Decay
- Science Fiction Fortifications (d6)
- A Knight of Mars
- Three Ancestral Mecha
- Two Oaths, One Song and a Curse
- Cryogenic Rats
- Exo-Suits of the Hot Girls (2d10)
- HackShips of the Cryogenic Rats (3d6 six times)
- Masks of the Creatures from before Time (d10)
- Heroism and Super-Heroism
- Heroes (d6)
- Villains (d10)
- There are so many signs of trouble (d30)
- My Means of Destroying You All (d20)
- Miscellaneous Things
- Bootleg Bots of the Unset Strip
- Bunny World (4d10)
- A System of Time
- She Is (d10)
- An Achingly Portentous Prophecy
Like Fire on the Velvet Horizon, the collection is rules-agnostic, encouraging DMs to take the inspiration and run with it rather than clutter the pages with stats. It’s also a hell of a ride.
What do I like about it?
Whether in writing or roleplaying, I always have the hardest time getting started. Once a plot is underway, I can connect the dots—especially with the help of my players—but the initial seed tends to elude me, I think, partially because I’m too hard on myself. I don’t want to let anyone down, and I know how important it is to have a strong foundation.
Reading Uncertain Worlds, though, I can’t help but feel like Stuart has done the hard part for me. His tables and settings offer JUST ENOUGH details to get your mind going—not so much that you can rest on your laurels and let the book GM for you.
To compare it to dramatic literature, he gives you the setting and character list, but without the stage directions or dialogue. The rest you have to fill in on your own.
And these ideas are so cool that you’ll really want to. Some of them even feel like they’re daring you to. Take the final lines on the Virid River, for example—a river that drowns all queens who try to cross its banks:
Despite the large number of queens recorded to be lost, the river seems almost over-full. There are a lot of queens down there. Some suggest they were washed out of the Sifir when the great temple fell. Others say the Virid runs through many worlds and that all drowned queens, wherever they are sunk, wash inevitably into its waters.
Legend says that if one queen ever crosses the Virid, or navigates it from source to sea, the spell and curse upon it will be broken and the bones of the drowned old queens will be released and a mighty flood will wash them all into Jukai Bay, forming a shoal of bone, broken sceptres and murky jewels.
A tempting and interesting idea to the rulers of Jukai, and the tribes of the Melanic Moors, though both decry any belief in the legend.
The queens beneath the surface know it, though, and they cry out for the shadow of that one who will come to touch the river’s banks.
She has not come yet.
By offering a variety of possibilities rather than DEFINITIVE ANSWERS, Stuart leaves the rest to you. Maybe it is just a legend. Maybe the real adventure doesn’t start until afterward, when a mad rush occurs for the queens’ treasure. Or maybe your party tries to escort a queen across, isn’t aware of the curse, and inadvertently find themselves responsible for a death in the royal family. Would the king believe a story about a vengeful river that happens to only kill queens?
It’s the dominoes that these “Game Objects” can help you set up in your campaigns that make this book really special, and just how much you use is up to you. Be careful, though. A nudge can go a long way.
What have I stolen from it?
I generated one of my all-time favorite NPCs via Stuart’s “Snail Knights” tables. To give you an example of how they work, here are all the table descriptions and what I rolled for each:
Many are the tales of the Knights Of The Snail, their Slow Quests and Fates-Delayed, (for fate comes not quickly to a Snail-Knight, and that by strange and turning paths).
Oft deluded, always honourable (except for Sir Gorget Vile), endlessly turning in their slow spiralling search. For it is said that a Snail Knight will always start their quest as far from its object as can be, and may never approach it head-on, but only by paths oblique, yet growing slowly closer all the time. And it is said that they will always find the centre of their search, no matter how weird and distant it is. Great is the courage of the Snail-Chevalier, great their legends, great the names of those who sit around the Table-Whorled and nobly serve the Cochlear Throne.
Their Names: Roll a d20.
I rolled an 11 and got: “Sir Furnace of Furness.”
Their Sloaths, or, What They Seek: Roll a d10.
Many are the quests of the Snail Knights and many strange things are the objects of their Slow Oaths (or ‘Sloaths’ as a Snail Knight might say: “by my Sloath!”)
I rolled a 3 and got: “To defeat the Knight Chromatic, who holds the night sky black, and thereby restore it to its multicoloured state.”
Their Arms: Roll a d10.
The arms of the Knights Of The Snail are well renowned.
I rolled a 6 and got: “Snickety-Limb, the famed Paraplegia Sword which grows deadlier the more limbs its target has, destined to be swallowed by a snake.”
The Madness of this Knight: Roll a d10.
And famous also are the terrible delusions of the Knights Of Snails, for all of them are mad mad mad.
I rolled a 2 and got: “Adores the Moon.”
The end result is Sir Furnace of Furness, a knight who is sworn to defeat the night, but who is secretly in love with the moon. When I realized just how tragic this completely random NPC’s plight was, I was stunned. I love Sir Furnace, and because he can only pursue his goal through “paths oblique,” he makes for the perfect reoccurring character. Every once in a while his and the party’s paths will cross once again, and he’ll be one step closer to achieving his Sloath. I’ve become so attached to him, though, that if he does, it may just break my heart as well.
What is it?
False Readings isn’t an RPG resource per se, but it elaborates on Stuart’s other work in enough ways that I think it’s worth including here.
False Readings is a collection of short fictions by Stuart, including the tales of two Snail Knights (found in Uncertain Worlds), a story set in Jukai (also mentioned in Uncertain Worlds), and a first-person narrative from the point of view of Ghar Zaghouan (one of the antagonists of Deep Carbon Observatory). If you loved any of the above (like I did), False Readings does a great job of fleshing a few of Stuart’s earlier ideas without providing so much detail that it would squelch creative freedom on your part.
The rest of the stories aren’t necessarily roleplaying-related, fantasy, or even connected. A number of them are just Stuart (admittedly) messing around with form and genre. Each story is interesting enough, though, that I think fans of weird fiction or fantasy will enjoy this book regardless of whether they have any interest in RPGs.
The best way to think of this book is as kind of a literary demo reel. The stories are engaging on their own, but—like Stuart’s other books—the real fun is imagining where they could go next. And Stuart mentions his interest in expanding some of them in the chapters’ introductions. The question is whether a publisher eventually picks up some of these ideas or the reader does the heavy lifting on his or her own.
What do I like about it?
I’ve gushed about Snail Knights a good bit in the entries above already, but holy cow are Stuart’s “Knights of the Snail” stories amazing. I honestly felt the same way I did reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King for the first time, and other than Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, no other fiction has captured that feeling for me. There’s a magic, humor, and underlying tragedy to these stories that is beyond endearing. They only make up about 70 pages of the 260-page book, but I could have easily read hundreds more.
Which, hopefully, isn’t too far off. False Readings only contains two stories of Knights of the Snail—“The Tale of Sir Bird Spiralling” and “The Tale of Sir Duno Chrime”—but there are 18 more knights to go. Eventually, Stuart wants to complete all twenty and release them as an illustrated book with Matthew Adams, whose initial sketch inspired Uncertain Worlds’ Snail Knight table.
If you’re a fantasy or even just fiction publisher reading this, please, please fund this project. If I didn’t run a play-publishing company already, I’d consider doing it myself. It’s a breakout hit waiting to happen, and I’ll be the first to pre-order.
What have I stolen from it?
Another one of my favorite stories from the collection is “The Isogyre.” It’s only about 2500 words long but has two really cool ideas that I’ve lifted from it.
The first is a type of magic that operates at the cost of “burning” the user’s memories. Furthermore, the nature of the magic depends on the memory being burned. A water spell is cast, for example, by burning the memory of a man drowning. The magician conjures a river, but is unable to remember anything about the drowning incident ever again.
That is, unless maybe the memory is captured by Ryder the Cryptospider. The concept hasn’t appeared in my campaign yet, but I’m keeping it in my back pocket for a rainy day.
The second idea is the curse of The Isogyre itself—a stone that can bring a person back to life, but only if the person who killed them loved them. It’s the kind of gift for tragedy I’ve come to expect from Stuart’s writing, and another idea I’ll hopefully be working into my own storytelling if the right situation presents itself.
And that’s all for another edition of Dungeons Mastered! Next time we’ll take a look at a collaborator of Stuart’s: Zak Sabbath. The pair co-wrote the recent Maze of the Blue Medusa, and Zak’s solo books—A Red & Pleasant Land and Vornheim—are two of my all-time favorites. I hope you’ll join us, and as always, if you have any resources you’d like to see discussed in upcoming entries, please feel free to make recommendations in the comments! Until then, stay sharp adventurers.