The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Monday, 26 October 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land

This is a review of the OSR setting book "Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land", written by David McGrogan and self-published. The book is a 320 page work in a strange non-standard 9x7 printed format, which frankly seems like a choice meant to just stand out but strikes me as a bit hipster and serves no useful purpose I could discern.  I have to note, that's probably the only critical thing you're going to see me say here.

I'll mention that the book is illustrated throughout with a sprinkling of magnificent little sketches by Matthew Adams.  These illustrations are in a weird style that's trippy and makes me think of a kind of gonzo-fantasy version of Ralph Steadman's art.  The art is, I think, a big part of what impresses the style of the setting onto the reader, in a similar way to how the art in Zak Smith's books inform his work, or the medieval art that absolutely plasters every page of Dark Albion creates a very particular atmosphere for that book.

Yeah, I love this book. I actually got it several months ago, as I get so many books for review these days, and review them in the order they were received.  So Yoon-Suin has been working its way up the queue for some time. But it hasn't just been sitting there. I've already made use of Yoon-suin. I "cheated" a bit and read it almost as soon as I got it. I've used it in Dungeon Crawl Classics, where I made great use of its "gonzo" elements, and in Arrows of Indra where I've used it for it's "eastern" elements.

Those two elements, gonzo style and eastern trappings, pretty much sums up the whole setting. Yoon-Suin is an example, quite possibly one of the very best examples (at least in the sense of being such an ideal example) of the style of what I've termed the "3rd Wave OSR" products.  These are the products like Red Tide, Dark Albion, or Vornheim that combine unusual settings (the kind that are not regular by OSR standards) with rule-material to modify the standard OSR (D&D) experience into an ideal format for the setting in question.  While the earliest (1st wave) OSR products were largely just dedicated to reproducing D&D-rules as precisely as possible or creating adventures that looked as close as possible to the same type of adventures that might have existed in the original D&D period, and 2nd wave OSR products were dedicated to experimenting in interesting ways with systems (LotFP and DCC being two great examples of 2nd wave), the 3rd Wave of OSR products is focused on doing very interesting things with Settings, and with rule-modifications to fit unusual settings.

That's definitely what Yoon-Suin does.

The lands of Yoon-Suin are vaguely inspired by Himalayan (Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese) culture and mythology, but with a truly weird twist.  This is in no way the precise historicism of my own Arrows of Indra, but there's certainly a strong stylistic element.  The setting chooses to push toward the weird and 'gonzo', rather than trying in every case to use the most conventional or traditional mythological material (as AoI does), Yoon-Suin always goes for the weirdest, plus a lot of stuff that as far as I can tell comes right out of the author's head rather than any historical/mythological source.  I don't think this makes it better or worse than Arrows; what I could say about it is that if you want to put it into an Arrows of Indra campaign, it could change the tone of that former game into something way more unusual.  And since you could place it in some remote area of the Himayant mountains, you could even do this while still keeping the rest of your campaign setting more "Epic India" conventional. Yoon-Suin could serve as the weird mountain wilderlands of your Arrows game, as indeed it did for me.

The book divides its setting material into four fairly different regions: the Yellow City and the Topaz Isles, The Hundred Kingdoms and Lahag, Lamarakh and lower Drak Yul, and The Mountains of the Moon and Sughd. The introduction of the book, besides providing a rough overview of these various regions, gives some advice to how to use the book to generate a campaign.  The setting of the book is not presented in a static way; instead the regions have general information, and then tables which are used to randomly (or by selection) generate details about the area where the game will be taking place. There are also tables for creating connections and groups linked to the PCs, and rumor/hook tables for providing adventure seeds. There's other tables too: random encounter tables, and tables for fleshing out smaller areas. So a GM would, at the start of a campaign, create a unique interpretation of the setting.

Character creation guides take a similar approach to my own Dark Albion, focusing on how to fit a character into the setting (though the author also explicitly points out that there's no problem with the PCs being 'foreigners'). But native PCs get tables to determine area of origin and social background.  Here we also get the first presentation of the demi-humans of the setting: slug-men and dwarves.  Yeah, you heard me, slug-men. There's also a racial class: Crab-man. Yeah, crab-men.
Humans, dwarves and slug-men default to choosing class as well as race: humans can be any class, slug-men can be magicians or clerics (here called 'holy-men') and dwarves can be warriors or thieves (here called 'adventurers'). Holy-men roll randomly for their God on a set of tables that generate random appearance and 'portfolio' for the deity (no name list, though, which I think could have been nice).

The Crab-man class are the lowest social rank of the setting.  They're also dim-witted, and can't speak or read human languages (though they can understand them). Their large claws can be used to attack (for 2d8 damage!) but they can't handle many types of equipment that other races (who have hands and fingers) can. They get natural armor from their shells, that toughens as they go up in level.

The Bestiary has a large selection of monsters, over 40 pages. The creatures are all remarkably unusual.  Many of them, though not all I think, are based on Indian and Himalayan mythology. There are several, in fact, which are the same types of monsters I included in Arrows of Indra, but most of these take a very different approach than I did.  That's because most creatures in that incredibly varied and millennia-old mythology had many different descriptions based on region and in different periods.  So the Asura in Arrows of Indra were presented as pretty standard "demons", while here they are presented as three-headed giants. Bhuta in Arrows are undead; while in Yoon-Suin they are nimble goblins who steal babies. My Nagas were a race of NPC demihumans (because that's what they most resemble in the Mahabharata), while Yoon-Suin's Nagas are contemplative alien demigods.  In general, as I said, this is a question of opposite (but cool) design approach: I wanted Arrows of Indra to present creatures that would be easily approachable to D&D players, while McGrogan clearly wanted to emphasize the unusual. Which is frankly great for me, since it means that nothing in either book feels too much like a repeat of the other and both books meld well.

I had Giant Snakes in Arrows (a very common monster in the Mahabharata-period legends), Yoon-Suin has Flesh-eating Giant Oysters. There's Grasshoppermen, which I'm pretty sure are not a feature of Indian mythology. Oh, and there's also Mi-Go, but they're not the Plutonian aliens from Call of Cthulhu; they're more like Yeti. Note that this is not some conceit on the part of the author; "Migo" was the Bhutanese term for the (Tibetan-name) Yeti.

The setting material takes up about 200 pages to cover its four major regions. The Yellow City and Topaz Isles features the city (and environs), which is the biggest and oldest city of the world; ruled by the Slug-men aristocrats. Below them are the humans and then the crab men, the lower (and lowest) castes of the city obliged to serve the decadent slugs. The city is rife with opium, magic, giant cockroaches, gladiator pits, crime and all sorts of other stuff.  There's also huge sections of the old city that are abandoned and in ruins, perfect for adventuring. Almost all of the material is presented in the form of spectacular random tables.  This includes random encounter tables, but the latter aren't just lists of numbers and monsters, they include fantastic details that allow the encounter to set up itself creatively (similar to the sort of thing Kevin Crawford has done in SWN, Red Tide and his other great books). There's also some great mechanics for ancient magical artifacts, and the tricky process of figuring out how to use them.

Lahag and the Hundred Kingdoms feature the haunted wilderness of Lahag and the balkanized human city-states that pepper the region. So naturally this section has rules (again mostly in the form of setting-element-heavy tables) that generate random polities. These polities have different types of rulers and government, assets and challenges, and flavor details. Once again, you get tons of other detail-tables, including associations, encounter tables, local area generation, rumors, and some more 'sample hexes' of pre-loaded descriptions. The haunted Lahag also has a pretty great random-spirit generation table system.

Lamarakh and Lower Druk Yul are the "flooded lands", where boat tribes live, with great jungle. Beyond that (Lower Druk Yul) is a vast grassland devoid of civilization where the grasshoppermen are found. These are areas for long-term wilderness-exploration play. You can generate boat tribes, various monster lairs, river pirates, isolated cults, etc.  Of the four regional chapters, it's the shortest at 24 pages (compared say, to Lahag that has 54).

Sughd and the Mountains of the Moon are areas of forbidding mountain peaks (like the Himalayas); and the land of Sughd where mountain valleys produce fantastically wealthy plantations of wealthy Merchant oligarchs (in Tea, Opium or other things). Here you can set up oligarchies (with trade resources, issues, and assets; as well as flavor locations), social circles for the PCs, rumors, random encounters, etc.

All the different regions are presented in a similar way but each have a unique style, and are oriented to different types of play.  The focus on random generation of locations and encounters is of course an enormous pleasure to me, and also something extremely useful for quick application and for enormous variety.

The book ends with a set of multiple appendices (of course, it's OSR, so there has to be lots of appendices!).  I'm just going to go ahead and list them:
Appendix A: Poisons (random tables to generate a range of different poisons)
Appendix B: Opium (table with different colours, effects and methods of use of Opium; plus rules on addiction and prices)
Appendix C: Specialist Tea (table with colors, prep methods, side-effects and rarity; plus notes on effects, and prices)
Appendix D: Trade (simple rules to handle values at source and different sale points, random product tables, and rules to generate a random cargo)
Appendix E: Psionics (very simple psionic rules)
Appendix F: Fortune telling (very simple table for generating random prophetic visions)
Appendix G: Suggested Traditional Monsters (list of each region in Yoon-Suin with some Monster Manual monsters that might be found in each area)
Appendix H: Languages (a guide to languages and pronunciation)
Appendix I: Random Ruin, Lair and Dungeon Generation (actually only two tables: a random locale for a ruin/lair/dungeon to be found at, and a random twist to said location)
Appendix J: Useful Worms, Arachnids, and Insects (a list of trainable insects and giant insects)
Appendix K: Magical Tattoos (21 different magical tattoos and how they work)
Appendix L: Hirelings (random tables to generate hirelings)
Appendix M: Deities (random tables for deity appearances and topics of influence)
Appendix N: Inspiration (a short list of books, music and games that influenced Yoon-Suin)

After the appendix, we have some maps. At the start of the book there was a small map of all of Yoon-Suin.

(this map, at the front, is the nicest one in the book)

Here at the back we get two maps for each specific region, first a map done in the artistic style of most of the book, and then a hexmap. I have to say that the sketch-style maps are pretty but not super practical, while the hex maps are pretty uninspired. Ironically, the maps are one part of this book that I don't think were done in a very effective way, failing to inspire.  But I suppose that's the consequence of absolutely all detail being generated randomly from one campaign to the next.  In a way, the maps are fairly bare so that the GM can fill it in as he cares to.

But really, there's barely anything bad you can say about Yoon-Suin. It's a masterpiece.


Currently Smoking:  Lorenzetti Volcano + H&H's Beverwyck


  1. You're a delightful read, Pundit, but don't try to make "3rd Wave OSR" happen - it won't.

    1. It's already happening, both as a phenomenon and a term. It's being used on other blogs now, including people I don't really know. Sorry.

  2. As a phenomenon aligning with your definition of the term - maybe. But the term itself and the "waves" preceding it don't really align with publication history. To be honest, I find the supposed 2nd wave to be wonky at best and the so-called 3rd wave was factually already happening years ago. But you are right, who am I to speak on behalf of other people who want to use the term?

    1. Waves don't necessarily happen one after the other; that is to say, there's still a 2nd wave (and even a 1st wave) going on. But the OSR clearly did follow a kind of progression: Clonemania - LotFP-stuff - Setting-focus. There are products coming out now that would NEVER have been accepted as "real OSR" in the early days of the movement.