By Christopher Helton
Red & Pleasant Land is a combination of a setting and adventures, ostensibly for early editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game but adaptable by a clever GM to just any tabletop roleplaying. Tabletop roleplaying games deal heavily in clichés or rehashing old tropes or adapting other people's ideas to the RPG format. Flashes of originality are few and far between, and when they happen they stand out because they stand so far apart from everything else that you see in the gaming market.
On the surface, Zak Smith's supplement from Lamentations of the Flame Princess may not look that original. After all, Gary Gygax penned AD&D adventures inspired by Lewis Caroll's "Alice" stories, and versions of Dracula has shown up in all sorts of gaming settings. Both of these stories are deeply implanted upon the psyche of creatives because of their primacy. You could easily dismiss Smith's Red & Pleasant Land as being derivative or unoriginal. Then you open up the book (or the PDF) and all of that is dispelled.
I am going to talk about the physical book for a bit, before getting back to the content. First off, let me say that I love how this book feels in my hand. The smaller size of the book makes it easy to manage at the table (plus a bound in bookmark for keeping track of important tables while I game) and much easier to carry around. I can keep it and a copy of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess core rules in my bag and be ready to go at some gaming. I am a big fan of portability in gaming, and this book delivers in spades on that.
Outside of its size, Red & Pleasant Land does not look or feel like a gaming book, and this is a good thing. The illustrations (many of which use the players from Smith's home game as models) are idiosyncratic but evocative. His illustrations pull you not just into Smith's creation, but into his mind, and let you experience his world as he sees it. Comics benefit greatly at times from the focused and singular viewpoint of the writer/artist being able to interpret what is in their heads, unfortunately this is something that has never been as prevalent in tabletop gaming and I think that it is that singularity of vision that helps to make Red & Pleasant Land such a singular product.
Game books are often the work of a handful of writers and artists coming together (hopefully) under the guidance of a single developer. While the developer may have one vision of where a game book should go, this can get diluted by the multiplicity of voices traveling in a multitude of slightly differing directions. Much like how video games are struggling with the idea that they can be art, so too do tabletop games suffer from the tug of war between a single voice and the multiplicity of the chorus trying to synchronize into that voice. We can get closer to the "art" of the single voice in many indie and small press RPGs, but it still isn't quite there yet.
So, the contents of Red & Pleasant Land. Our weekly group is using the setting of the book as a loose background for our current campaign. However, gamers being fickle creatures, we are instead using the Classic Marvel Super-Heroes roleplaying game as our ruleset instead of a version of Dungeons & Dragons. This did take a little work on my part to shove the square peg into a round hole, but we did it and after a few weeks we are enjoying it. The fact that Red & Pleasant Land has the idea of alternate worlds built into it, sometimes with slightly different takes on how the various creatures work. The fact that the Marvel game already had a version of vampires in it gave me a foundation to tweek. One of the great strengths of tabletop RPGs is the fact that each group plays in a slightly different way than others, and each group's approach to the material of a setting is slightly different. If a game book cannot support that, it makes it ultimately useless at the table.
Smith's approach to creating a supplement works from the idea that a game book will be taken apart at the table, and that what ends up being put back together as may only slightly resemble the starting idea. To that end, he provides you with the raw materials that he himself uses at his own table: creature stats, pieces of art, and random tables that cover everything from strange, random things that the characters may encounter, things that you find on the bodies of creatures, ways to instantly create locations, even the weird taxes that may be asked of characters by the inhabitants of the world of this book. The weird logic of Lewis Carroll's worlds leak into your games through all of this information that you can slice, dice and reassemble into your own unique world.
Red & Pleasant Land also has one of the hardest dungeons that I have ever had the pleasure of inflicting upon players. Our group was one of the ones to playtest the Card Castle in the book, and everyone enjoyed the challenge of the dungeon. It made everyone think about their character's actions rather than just letting them bulldoze their way through the dungeon which made it much, much more challenging than a more traditional dungeon in the hands of other fantasy RPG designers.
Some may say that if you recreate everything, then what is the point of buying someone else's supplement? That is an excellent question. It could be a matter or laziness, or it could be a matter of just not having the time to create something new from whole cloth. For me, as a GM, the appeal of Red & Pleasant Land comes from the fact that, as strange as my world building ideas can be, I don't think that I would have come up with the idea of a fantasy world torn by a seemingly endless war between two vampiric factions, whose methods of war are based upon the ideas of Lewis Carroll. I don't pick up a lot of pre-made settings just because they don't often fit in thematically with the sorts of games that I want to run as a GM, or the types of stories that I want to approach in a gaming situation. Even though I am not currently using it as is, Red & Pleasant Land is the sort of supplement that a GM like myself wants to have, and I hope that more gaming publishers start to make them.
Small, compact, concise but full of inspiration for campaigns and ideas for games, Red & Pleasant Land is so much more engaging than a bigger book that just has a list of dry information and more and bigger new powers for your characters. By being a fluid book that encourages the GM and players to create their own iteration of the world contained you end up getting more play out of a book. The world explored by one group may not be the same as that explored by another, and this is a great strength of Red & Pleasant Land. I hope that we will see more singular artistic visions for gaming like it.
By the way, all of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess catalog is available through traditional distribution, so if you would like to see your Friendly Local Gaming/Comic Store carrying them let them know you want them. Act quickly, however, because the first printing is rapidly approaching going out of print and it may be a while before you can get a physical book.
Christopher Helton is a blogger, podcaster and tabletop RPG publisher who talks about games and other forms of geekery at the long-running Dorkland! blog. He is also the co-publisher at the ENnie Award winning Battlefield Press, Inc. You can find him on Twitter at @dorkland and on G+ at https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherHelton/ where he will talk your ear off about gaming and comics.