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Wednesday 8 October 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Whisper & Venom Compendium

This is a review of the campaign setting/adventure collection called "Whisper and Venom", published by Lesser Gnome games, written by Zach Glazar and John Hammerle. It is a hardcover book, with a 106 page count, and is intended (according to the cover blurb) as a "fantasy role playing adventure and regional setting for use with any classic fantasy roleplaying game; designed for 3 or more players ages 14 and up, character levels 3-5".  The cover is full colour in a somewhat old-school art style depicting what looks like a warrior and magic user fighting  a kind of lizard creature.

Interior artwork is a mix of color and black & white pieces, all of a uniform style and high quality.

I should mention, first of all, that while I will be focusing my review on the book itself, the publisher insisted on sending me a "complete package", which included (in addition to the book):
-a "Companion map booklet" that has a collection of the area map and the floorplans of adventure locales
-a full-colour map of fairly large size, which is quite beautiful although the region itself is relatively sparse in terms of cartographical features.  The map is of the campaign region, which features some mountains and badlands, a river with a tributary, and a couple of settlements, and that's it. Its very pretty, but I don't know if it merited that kind of level of attention.
-a package containing some "lesser gnome" logo temporary tattoos (yeah, seriously); and, much more impressively, a set of very nice cards featuring full-color images of the various monsters detailed in the book, and their statblocks on the back.
-finally, a single miniature of the "lesser gnome" character (a gnomish wizard with a particularly silly mustache)

So all these additions are neat, I suspect they have to do with the kickstarter project for funding the book.  But none of them are in any way essential to the product itself.

So what is "Whisper and Venom" all about?  In the first place, it's a campaign setting, covering a relatively small region (well, from my own perspective, but I tend to like large sprawling campaign areas). Even so, the material is enough that you can have quite a bit of adventuring in the "Whisper Vale", certainly enough to get you from level 3-5, as the book implies. And quite possibly beyond, with a bit of GM creativity in building on what the book already provides.

So what do you get in the book?  First, a small but fairly detailed setting.  The chief locale and home base for a PC party is the tiny town of Whisper, a bucolic kind of place in the forgotten corners of a fallen or decadent empire, mostly known for its quality ales. Nearby is also the town of Cleft, a dwarven town of craftsmen who have a sterling reputation for work, but in reality have fallen into laziness. There's also Swindle, described in the game as a "smutty hamlet" of goblins, who produce 'rotgut' liquor that has assured their long term prosperity. Their rotgut is of a particular quality because they use indentured servitude of a tribe of pixies.

Of course, this being a good D&D setting, not all is well. There's another tribe of more aggressive goblins, who've taken over the ruins of an old monastery.  They found something, something strange in those ruins, which has mutated them and made them larger and tougher than normal. There's also an evil, "black-hearted" gnome wizard around (in fact, the iconic one that is the company's logo).  Naturally, I feel a certain kinship with any product that presents gnomes as black-hearted.

In addition to descriptions of the various locations I've already mentioned, the book provides about ten pages worth of information on the kinds of characters you can find in Whisper; these are provided with descriptions on the NPCs' backgrounds and personalities, and not as statblocks.  Not all of the characters mentioned have direct adventure hooks or anything of the sort; you get stuff like the local seamstress (who we're told "takes pride in being the best dressed woman and the mistress of the most finely decorated home in the Vale") or the local blacksmith (who can repair shields and armor; and can't ascertain the exact properties of enchanted items but "knows good craftsmanship when he sees it").  There are some slightly less mundane characters too, like the strong willed local druid, a seductive nymph, a goblin exile from Swindle; and a full two pages on Thopas, the aforementioned black-hearted gnome sorcerer.

This son of a bitch here:

In a somewhat odd (but comprehensible) choice, the actual introduction to the book only shows up around p.25; as everything that comes before that (all the aforementioned stuff) is, I suppose, meant to be readable by players.  From p.25 onward, you get the stuff that players theoretically should not read (as it has the adventure material).  Whisper and Venom, being an OSR product, is meant to be played as a sandbox setting.  There are a series of fully-fleshed out adventure locales, but also the potential to have adventures (that would need to be further developed by the GM) anywhere else in the setting, and there's no specific order absolutely required to be followed in the adventures (though there is a kind of natural progression).

The GM section notes some suggestions for how to introduce the players to the setting, with some small adventure seeds, and an old-school style Rumor Table (complete with notes as to whether the rumors are true, partly true, or false).  There's information on wandering monsters (and in the back of the book, you get full wandering monster encounter tables for all the important regions of the setting area).  There's also an explanation of the two major new hostile monsters of the setting: the mutated "L'uort Goblins", and the also-mutated giant lizards known as Attorals.  All these mutations are being caused by the corrupting energies of a planar gate located in an underground area of the setting, which is causing a lot of trouble and is the theme of one of the fleshed-out adventure locales.  The Attoral lizards have a poisoned spit attack that, because of mutation, now doesn't actually poison as such but rather creates mutation effects; there's a table for these effects, and some of them are a bit 'metagamey' (for example, you might have an effect of "next attack roll treated as a natural 20" or "next hit against player rolls again", or "next saving throw fails, regardless of roll").  I suppose this is forgivable only because the mutation is caused by a weird interplanar magic.

In terms of the detailed scenarios, you get a ruined monastery, occupied by the L'uort goblins as well as an infestation of giant bees; the monastery catacombs with the predictable undead; then the main base of the L'uort goblins, the deep subterranean area where the Attoral lizards came from; and finally the underground area of the aforementioned extraplanar gate.  All of these sections are, I would say, a very good mix between traditional old-school dungeoneering with unusual features; they don't fall into nostalgic orthodoxy or total predictability, but instead have a feel to me reminiscent of some of the medium-weird AD&D1e adventures. Not totally out there, but not just killing giant rats and orcs.  In fact, even the bad goblins of the setting have managed to be done in a way that's fairly interesting, so that's quite a good thing.

The next 30 pages or so of the book are the appendices.  Here we get a full statblock and description of all the monsters described in the setting, many of which are new and quite interesting.  As well as the Attorals and goblins aforementioned, you have stuff like Monster Beetles, a giant crab, a murkbeast (described as a cross between a giant leech and a huge crustacean), the demons from the planar gate, and others (including a couple of new undead).  Statblocks are what you could call OSR-standard, AC is listed in descending format.  You also get the encounter tables for every area of the region, and some new magic items found in the dungeon areas.

Finally, there's some notes on specific encounter areas, how to handle particular encounters or how they were handled in the playtest. The back end of the book also has a repetition of all the encounter and regional maps (I guess in case you lose the booklet).

So what can we conclude about Whisper and Venom?  I don't think its total perfection, but it is a very solid and creative sandbox OSR setting. It can probably be ported into some remote corner of most typical settings. So all in all, it accomplishes what it set out to do.


Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown + C&D's Crowley's Best

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