I mentioned elsewhere recently that I'd like to see more bloggers go beyond their wheelhouse, write on themes, content, or whatever else they haven't before, or usually wouldn't. This is me putting my money where my mouth is and doing something I've never done on this blog before: writing a review.
28 pages total, a few pages short of that for content what with the title page, back page, and so on. Public domain art, well-picked, moody. System-neutral.
The zine's based on a series of blogposts Monsieur did. I'm not gonna go back and cross-check what's in those vs. the zine, but you could probably get a lot of the juicy bits from those.
Intro's nice, dark fairy-tale that gets you in the right headspace, sets the stage for this fantastical place, its thematic dichotomies, the when/where/why/how of it being plopped in your world as the strange and unknown where none before have tread - classic adventure material. This is kept on going throughout, as the strength of the zine as a whole, in its wealth of imagination and in the tensions of its narrative heart chugging along beneath: heat & cold, love & hate, stasis & revolution. It strikes a sweet spot between vanilla fantasy and the gonzo hodge-podge.
Fun monsters, locations, ideas, and imagery abound.
There's a significant gap between what I'd consider a great blogpost, and what I'd consider a great work that people are paying for. Again, I'm not accustomed to writing reviews, so I hope that the critiques of this zine I'll be laying out below are accurate and constructive.
The zine could've been improved primarily in three ways: more efficient use of its space, more attention to mechanics, and less ambivalence in its writing.
About 6 of the zine's 28 pages are dedicated to a fascinating place called Draailant, where humans overthrew their gods and created a coal-powered cult of progress. One of the last things mentioned in these pages is that people from Draailant can't really go to the Thawing Kingdom, and would be quickly eaten by Half-Thawed (an iconic sort of monster that poses interesting problems in play) if they did, and that the very air in Draailant is hostile to people from the Thawing Kingdom. To me this space would be better used for folks, inventions, etc., from Draailant which players would actually interact with, besides the delightfully Boschian little devils.
Tables that are like bits and pieces of an encounter table, or sub-tables of an encounter table, are present throughout the zines: travellers you might encounter, animals and monsters of the Thawing Kingdom, occupations of people in the Thawing Kingdom, etc. I think these would be more useful if unified into an encounter table instead of leaving it to me, or anyone else trying to run the setting, into one by our own effort.
Monsieur and I are alike in that we prefer the prose-y and imaginative to the mechanical and banal, however for a complete setting zine I think there needs to be more fleshed-out and harmonized on the latter end. For example, there's a neat mechanic for accumulating supernatural Cold from spells and suchlike, but the way to lose that Cold is basically handwaved. We're told that you must spend time by a fire in good company, but for an hour, a day? Either way it would greatly affect the mood of playing in the Thawing Kingdom. Similar situation for stats for monsters. I don't quite need them, but they'd be nice to have.
That stuff, to me, is a lesser issue than what was done with the locations. As mentioned previously I like what's listed for them, they'd make great entries for a hex- or pointcrawl, but in the zine they're only listed. Putting that list into a framework I could run right out of the box would go a long way to making me willing and able to use this zine for a campaign. Including a dungeon (or two, or three...) would also help in this regard.
The writing's good, except where important things are left out for ambivalence. There's a bit too much "possibly, perhaps, could have, could be, some say, who knows" for my liking. For example, one of the locations has a mad, murderous wizard. We're told: "Possibly there is a method to his madness, but what that may be is unknown...". Mystery should enter the game in play, between the DM and players, not between the writer and the DM. That's just putting more work on the DM's shoulders. This is present in the mechanic for stocking the locations with loot too. There's some nice loot tables, but for the actual stocking it's entirely vague and abstracted.
While the main zine I can recommend with reservations, the Thawing Kingdom's "Bosscrawl" addition I can't recommend at all. Vague, abstract, no stats, no maps, not even personalities for the White and Black Swan Knights who feature as major characters in it. Where there is specificity it takes the form of telling you what must or does happen without room for player intervention or ingenuity. The only real value in this addition is in its vague gesturing towards spatial relations between locations mentioned in the main zine. There was potential here, but that potential wasn't even close to being realized. It feels like a cashgrab. I'm disappointed and I know Monsieur could've done better.
There's another blog, from a time when the OSR blogosphere was breathing its first. That blog is Leveraged Sell-out, and on that blog there is a section of a post (The Money Seat) that I think of from time to time:
"For me, the $200 was a drop in the bucket. I might have paid it twice for all I know. It was a number you shrug at; and to put it in my friend Hugh’s terms: “only 2/3rds of a bottle.” That’s how Hugh measures things—in bottles. For him, the practice renders any sum trivial and makes spending casual and breezy, like it should be. A Lord Willy’s shirt—1 bottle; A black market Wii some IT guy is trying to sell on the corporate bulletin board—2 bottles. The habit is contagious, and just last week, when I heard the Back Office had put together some micro car called the Tata Nano, all I could think was: Holy shit. This thing is only like 8 bottles. And then, I do that on a Tuesday."
Now I do not make investment banker money. For me, $200 is a couple buckets at least. The basis of comparison of exchange between money and alcohol is the commonality with my life.
This zine is $6 ($9 with the addition of the "Bosscrawl"). That's a few tall boys, and I can blow through an unwise number of those on a Tuesday. Though I cannot drink it, and it will not get me to sing along with music I enjoyed in my unjaded youth, from that perspective the price seems reasonable - for the main zine.
Check out The Thawing Kingdom if you're ok with taking the time to handle the mechanical work yourself, or if you're hungry for inspiration. In content it's more of a gazetteer of an interesting place than something you can easily pick up and play. The "Bosscrawl" is not worth the price being asked for it. I hope this review was helpful, and look forward to what Monsieur puts out in the future.