I have some fiction-related stuff coming soon, but this is another RPG-related post, specifically a book review.
Last summer while we were visiting Canada, I briefly looked through the surviving portions of my RPG book collection and was a bit surprised to discover how many books I’d only skimmed. There was a while there, living in Edmonton, when I was able to pick up a lot of semi-recent game books for relatively cheap, and I sort of just bought them, put them on the shelf, and maybe skimmed them once. I guess that’s why they got left in Saskatoon, which is why they’re surviving portions of my collection. Funny how that works.
Since I am now accumulating something of a new collection, I’ve decided that I should try reviewing them, since that will ensure I at least read them all instead of just accumulating them in the hope of someday checking them out. I’ve actually been working my way through a full line of a totally different game (Wraith: The Oblivion, a favorite I’ll likely never run again, at least not with its original ruleset) but I needed a break from that.
So I decided to review a Lamentations of the Flame Princess book. I have a lot of those—almost everything that’s been in print since I came back to RPGs—but I haven’t said much about them, despite the system being my go-to system for D&D-like games. Today’s selection is Blood in the Chocolate by Kiel Chenier, which won gold at the 2017 Ennies for Best Adventure. It’s a mashup of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, early modern Peru/Netherlands, and the dungeon crawl. Basically, an evil Spanish woman fills in for Willy Wonka, while the Oompa-Loompas are replaced with a mysterious group of (fictional) indigenous Peuvians warped into inhuman form by some evil Mayan magic that transformed a certain cocoa tree into a kind of living magical wellspring of chcocolately magical
goodness, er, evil, and it’s set in a chocolate factory on the snowy coast of the Netherlands. While people trying to describe the LotFP aesthetic often namedrop Hammer Horror films, I felt like this was a little more along the lines of, I dunno, Blue Moon Productions or something. Still B-movie gore and sexual ick, but funnier and lighter somehow.
I think it’s a fun setup. I haven’t run the adventure, though it’s one of the few I may actually end up running straight from the book. I also think it’s no mistake that the book contains a reference (and a portal) to another of the LotFP big winners in the setting/module category: Zak S.’s A Red and Pleasant Land. After all, it’s inevitable there would be some comparison and some connection between the two books: Blood in the Chocolate and A Red and Pleasant Land share something notable in common: they both present warped, creepy, nasty funhouse-dungeon versions of famous children’s books (and films: Blood in the Chocolate actually feels equally inspired by the older, creepier film version, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as the poster image below suggests). A Red and Pleasant Land is, after all, pretty much Alice in Wonderland dosed with a few hits of Dracula (and a pinch of Ravenloft and a dash of Hellraiser for good measure). It’s impossible for me not to think of the two books as being linked in some way.
Oh, wait, the two books actually have two things in common: both books put a premium on art. In the case of Blood in the Chocolate, it’s by Jason Bradley Thompson, who I first ran across as the creator of a graphic novel (and map) of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (which I’ve promised myself I’ll pick up in 2018) though he’s more famous among RPGers as the creator of large illustrations depicting walkthrus of classic adventure modules from TSR. The art in Blood in the Chocolate is cartoony and cute, except… well, except it’s also really bloody and depicts some horrifying stuff. That makes for a fun, creepy juxtaposition, and I think I’d have to scan some of the images so I could show them to players without compromising the information in the book.
Oh, and I guess a third thing… they’re both really good RPG books.
Where I find Blood in the Chocolate parts ways with A Red and Pleasant Land is that it’s a fair bit simpler. It’s an adventure, not a campaign setting, so it’s got a few fun, random tables, and it’s a lighter sort of enterprise—a “romp,” as the back cover copy puts it. I think that’s the right word for it. A Red and Pleasant Land is darker, and more viscerally creepy in the way fairytales sometime are: Blood in the Chocolate somehow manages to still be fun in a laughing-aloud sort of way, even when it’s got the creepiness turned way up. I’m not saying that one approach is better, but rather that it’s a difference. Blood in the Chocolate could make for a gloriously gonzo one-off, though you could play it series and dark if you preferred, and let the players miss some of the easter eggs, where I think A Red and Pleasant Land is a more demanding undertaking, somehow, though maybe that’s just because of the sheer amount of material in the book that I’d end up feeling like I should find a use for in-game, and because there’s a creepy richness to the setting that almost demands it be more deeply explored.
Blood in the Chocolate is obviously designed to be much easier to useable as a one-shot, and maybe could even be a good first adventure for a group of novice players. I say that because I find that for people new to the game—people who don’t haven’t internalized the idea of a dungeon-crawl or the mechanics of tabletop RPGs—the familiarity of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is there for them to hang onto, a source of comfort that’s both funny and creepy but also easy to grasp, while they work on learning the concepts involved in the game itself. They may struggle to remember where the Saving Throws are on the character sheet for that first session, but at least they’ll feel like they kinda-sorta know what the dungeon crawl is about: it’s about surviving this factory, the way Charlie survives Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. That said, this is also an adventure that rewards the experienced player: there’s a lot of fun to be had in the weird juxtaposition of Dahl’s story with the dungeon-crawl adventure structure/aesthetic.
The book is printed with the usual high-quality standards one expects from LotFP, and the cartography, by the author, is also nice and clean, very simple but also very readable and well-arranged throughout the book. I think it’s worth having regardless of the system you use: modifying it for use with any other OSR game (or, with a tiny bit more effort, any dungeon-crawling game) should be no trouble whatsoever. The management and presentation of the information within is very, very good: textbook clarity and organization, in fact. If you make elf-game materials yourself, you can study this for a textbook example of clarity and usability.
Oh, and I’m posting this at the moment because the author’s having a bit of a banking crisis, and has launched a crowdfunded project to get him through the holidays. The project looks fun: Weird on the Waves looks designed to serve as a sort of Vornheim-of-the-Seas with wavecrawling, sea monstrosities, merfolk as a character class, a couple of starter adventures, tables galore, and more.
There’s two tiers ($5.99 / $10.99), one for the basic project and one for an expanded edition. If you’re interested in that, and in supporting someone who could use a hand and who produces good stuff, go check out Weird on the Waves.