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Friday 22 August 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Red Tide

This is a review of the RPG setting/supplement “Red Tide: Adventure in a Crimson World”, written by Kevin Crawford, published by Sine Nomine publishing.  The review is of the print edition, which is a softcover, 170 pages long or thereabouts, with a full-colour cover (mostly red, though) featuring an imitation of the Japanese style of classic drawings of waves (only red, of course). 

Interior art is all B&W, with many interesting pieces of what seem to be typical D&D-style fantasy art, art with a slightly “Asian” thematic, illustrations of monsters, maps, and a considerable number of sample floor-plans at the back of the book.

You know, when I first heard of Red Tide and what it was about, I was fairly worried.  In part because of some accounts that were not altogether accurate, but in any case, what it sounded like it was going to end up being is a typical anti-imperialist modern college-liberal self-righteous bullshit hippie-morality tale masquerading as an RPG. And with what the premise of the book is all about, in the hands of a lesser writer no doubt that’s exactly what it would have been.  Had it been written by one of the Swine, it would have been your standard throwaway utterly-unclever “Civilized Humans BAD, Noble Orc Savages GOOD” pseudo-activist fairy-tales, and the author would no doubt have been really satisfied at how “brilliant” he was for making such a “bold” (that is, stupid) statement, and had all the pseudo-activist crowd pat him on the back for it.

But Kevin Crawford is clearly not one of the Swine, and he went a different route: instead of doing something along those lines, he went ahead and did something that was REALLY clever and bold, by not falling into that trap and instead writing something about the pragmatic complexities of a bad situation.

Mind you, that’s not what’s really smart about Red Tide.  No, what’s smart about Red Tide is that he did it in a way that you actually have a playable and interesting setting! That is, it actually fulfills its stated purpose of being a game setting to play D&D in, rather than just a facade so that the author can hammer a morality-story of his ideological-choosing down your throat.

At this point, you may not have any idea what I’m going on about, so please allow me to explain the basic premise of Red Tide: its a fantasy setting, ostensibly compatible with Labyrinth Lord (which of course means its basically compatible with any old-school edition of D&D or its variants), that details a world where most of reality has been consumed by an apocalyptic event; the aforementioned “red tide” that has swept across the world devouring everything in its path, except one small chain of islands.  Here, the last civilized survivors of this world came in search of refuge.  They found these islands full of native humanoids (collectively called the “Shou”, but mercifully termed orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, etc.).  The civilized humans, elves, dwarves and halflings proceeded to conquer the island and make a fairly merciless war against the barbaric natives, who until then had spent much of their time fighting amongst themselves.  Mostly victorious, they drove the humanoids back into the wilder parts of the islands’ interior (though since then the Shou have fought back in various waves, sometimes retaking significant territories), and the civilized folk then proceeded to establish various different types of small kingdoms on the islands.

Now, the setting does have some elements of questioning this invasion, though the author has also gone to great pains to demonstrate the Shou as brutal and merciless in their fight against the refugees; but the real secret kicker of the setting (the sort of thing I don’t normally divulge in a review, but in this case I think its important to do so) is that the Shou are key to having any hope of holding back and defeating the Red Tide.

Again, in the hands of a less interested or talented world-builder, we’d see a black and white soppy morality tale of evil imperialists and noble savages with mystic powers who are unquestionably right, but fortunately Crawford avoids this trap.  Instead, the Shou are depicted as brutal in their barbarity and unaware of their own significance, and the colonists as a desperate mix of good and bad, all trying above all to survive. The Red Tide itself is more than just a macguffin for the story, rather its an alien entity bent on consuming all reality in its path, and capable of insinuating itself into peoples’ dreams, twisting their minds and bodies to corruption by playing on their hopes and desperation.  Both the Shou and these “tidespawn” make fascinating opponents for any adventuring group, though the latter are of necessity to be destroyed while the former must usually be destroyed for pragmatic purposes, but in any long-term campaign would need to ultimately be made aware of their destiny if there’s any hope of stopping the end of the world.

There’s notable sophistication in this setting and a GM can run it in a number of different ways.  Like his former work, Stars Without Number, the inclination of the author is to direct GMs to run it as a sandbox, with an open style of play directed by the PC party and their movement and choices, in how they interact with an emulated living world.  There is a chapter of the book dedicated to how to do this, and a number of aids I’ll talk about a bit more below.

I should note, in case it was not already obvious, that Red Tide is not a complete RPG; it is a setting and sourcebook, but requires that you have LL or some other D&D-esque ruleset to play. In theory, you could also play it with some other fantasy rule-set but this would require some modification.
So what do you get in the book?

For starters, there’s a lengthy background on the setting itself; important in this case because of the unusual particularities of the setting.  Next you get guidelines of how the various races of baseline-D&D (humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings, plus humanoids) fit into the setting; all of them are familiar but also particularly tweaked to fit the setting. Humans are divided into various racial backgrounds; you have the Eirengarders (who are “european”), Eshkanti (who are “arab”), Gadaal (“celts”), Imperials (the most significant/dominant civilized human group in the setting, who are basically “Chinese”), Kueh (“japanese”), and Skandr (“vikings”, who were actually settlers on some of the islands prior to the time of the apocalypse).

You get quite a few details on the geography and topography of the islands, called the Sunset Islands, including very decent random encounter tables (only the first of a plethora of excellent random table material in this book; like with Stars Without Number, the author has gone out of his way to provide a great deal of awesome random elements to help with play!).

The setting itself is by its nature geographically limited; everywhere outside the Sunset Isles has been consumed by the red tide, after all.  However, the islands themselves are still quite large and provide an ample amount of diverse locales for adventuring.  There are vast areas of wilderness still ruled by the Shou, and then a number of different city-state areas settled by some of the major racial groups of refugees.  These each have their own particular character: Xian is the great capital city of the Imperials, Tien Lung a corrupt and decadent city ruled over by degenerate wizards, Altgrimmr is a dwarven stronghold, Hohnberg is the Eirengarder city with a european feel, Kitaminato is the Kueh city which has given itself over in a dark pact with the demonic Hell Kings in order to survive, and Nordheim is the chief city of the Skandr vikings.  There are several major islands (including one that is larger by far than all the others) and a number of smaller islands that feature remote and peaceful villages or dark and sinister lairs of powerful wizards or demons. The setting features ruins both in the form of the Westmark, a region that was once settled by the colonists but then overrun and and destroyed by the Shou, and also in the form of more ancient ruins that were created by ancient lizardmen that were once the original inhabitants of the isle but have long since collapsed into decadence.

The setting material provides a number of excellent maps, both hexmaps and otherwise, detailing the geographical features, points of interest, climate, and political boundaries of the islands.

About 17 pages of material are provided detailing the important city states, and their views on things like slavery, magic, religion, gender and economy.  You also get a chapter dedicated to explaining the roles and how to play the different classes/races in the setting. Largely speaking, these are the standard LL classes/races, but there are a couple of additions, such as the Scions (elves born in a human body), Shou Witches, and the Vowed (a monk class with some interesting wuxia-style martial arts).

There’s also a section on magic and how magic works in the setting, along with a few new styles of magic (including the atrocious Stitched Path magic of the decadent Tien Lung wizards), new cleric spells, magic user spells, magic for shou witches and Scion “Wyrds”, as well as some new magic items.

There’s a ten page “bestiary” chapter, which covers some of the specific monsters of the setting, including the Hell Kings, the various Shou humanoid types, and the somewhat cthulhuesque “tidespawn” (the mutations created by beings who’ve been warped by the Red Tide).

The chapter on how to run a Sandbox is impressive, in fact more impressive than its equivalent in Stars Without Number, including guidelines for creating specific sites in the sandbox, complete with random tables to help you define the natures and challenges of these places.  This is an incredible resource for a sandbox game. A “court site”, for example, might be a noble’s court, an extended family, a business, a school, a temple, or a Tong (gang).  Each one of these will then have a (optionally randomly determined) number of important people, and a conflict (again, randomly determined if the GM wishes, through tables in the book).  Each specific site type has its own tables for determining the type of important people, the sources of these people’s power, and other NPCs that might be met there. And just as there are “court sites”, there are also “borderland sites”, “city sites”, and “ruin sites” (in this case complete with NPC statblocks). This chapter is one of the largest of the book, covering 55 majestic pages.

The book also has a shorter chapter detailing the secrets of the nature of the Red Tide; I think I’ve already divulged more than I should on this subject, but suffice it to say that the Red Tide has been thought out, and while obviously any GM could change its nature if he desired, or just leave it a mystery in his game, the book itself doesn’t abandon GMs to their own speculation on the matter.  Instead, it has a definite nature, purpose, and a way (however slim) of defeating it (though that would clearly be the herculean task of an entire campaign, probably one that would require reaching very high levels).

Finally, much like in SWN, the end of the Red Tide book contains a number of truly excellent “game resource” tables: a set of tables to quickly create a Red-Tide cult, person and place name table for Dwarves, Eirengarers, Elves, Eshkanti, Gadaal, Halflings, Imperials, Kueh, Shou, and Skandr; notes on the types of businesses that might be found in villages, towns and cities; quick NPC-creation tables, room dressing tables, and a spectacular (and useful!) set of sample blueprints for villages, temples & shrines, underground tunnels, border outposts, deep and hillside caves, estates, and ruins.

So, on the whole Red Tide is an excellent product. It certainly cements Crawford as one of the truly great writers of the OSR, and one of the rare ones who can write not just system (which, let’s face it, is not all that hard when you have D&D as a base to go from) but setting, which is a much trickier beastie.  As a game setting it makes for an excellent campaign world, and while its quite contained, there’s certainly decent amounts of material that a GM of any other setting could borrow for use in their own world; both in terms of actual setting details and in terms of methodology (the book might just inspire me to do similar “site” templates for my own Arrows of Indra game).


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + H&H’s Beverwyck

(Originally reposted May 23, 2013)


  1. Excellent review. Now I have *another* RPG book to add to my wish list.

  2. Thanks. That will no doubt be music to Mr. Crawford's ears!

  3. Hasn't this already been published somewhere ? It seems familiar.

  4. If you mean this review? It was published previously on my old (now defunct, Xanga) blog. It was also posted to theRPGsite. If you look at the bottom of this entry it points out the dates; every 5 days or so I post a "classic" from my old blog.