Writer: Jeff Rients
Layout: Alex Mayo
Art: Ian Maclean
Maps: Jez Gordon
Editing: Craig Judd
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Length: Approx. 160pp
First Edition, First Printing 2016
ISBN: 978-952-5904-50-5 (PRINT) / 978-952-5904-51-2 (PDF)
James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess role-playing game is nothing short of a massive hit in its corner of the market. That corner only seems to grow with time. One of the many reasons for the success of the line and its creator is the exceptional quality of the products, and that comes down to the incredible talent that James Raggi has been savvy enough, and lucky enough, to surround himself with. Above and beyond his own skill and vision, James has demonstrated he has an eye for some of the best talent in the industry, and keeps them coming back to contribute with a commitment to an almost unprecedented level of fairness and transparency for an RPG business. The result is that Lamentations of the Flame Princess continually puts out incredible books – which brings me to the purpose of this post: Jeff Rients’ Broodmother Skyfortress.
I decided awhile back on Twitter to start something of a project by rereading modules and adventures, new and old alike; additionally, to seek out other classic modules and new-production OSR adventures and read those for the first time. The purpose would be to ponder the similarities and differences between the “originals” that existed the first time around, when the playstyle we call OSR was just called “D&D”, and the newer waves of adventures seeking to hit similar styles and notes to those classic modules from back in the day. Obviously that’s a bit of a project, but everything starts somewhere, and I started with Jeff Rients and his LotFP adventure, Broodmother Skyfortress.
Let’s start with the short version: Broodmother Skyfortress is fantastic. If you haven’t read it, you’re missing out, and if you want to correct that, you should buy it here.
Why is it fantastic? A lot of reasons.
If you’re like a lot us in the hobby, after you finish carrying the book to the checkout counter because of the shark-elephant giant painted on the cover (be honest), you suddenly wonder if the rest of the book is worth it. Obviously, with any LotFP book, we can start with the quality of the product – it’s a gorgeous book, in the same way most of the line is, with incredible Kirby-esque art and layout work that includes frenetic, brightly-colored, eye-catching custom border art for every page. Alex Mayo did a fantastic job through and through here and successfully evokes the sensation of leafing through a Silver Age Marvel comic, and he makes it look effortless and natural as you transition section to section. Similarly, Ian Maclean must be praised for a lot: the Jack Kirby stylings and comic book flavor to the art are utterly unique (in the OSR side of the industry, anyway) and a perfect match to the gonzo weirdness present in the book’s script; he manages to make every picture energetic and dramatic like the comics inspiring so much of the work, and he manages to sneak in a bunch of tongue-in-cheek art featuring Jeff Rients himself. Don’t let the words “comic book art” scare you off either – if you’re hoping for a classic OSR jaunt, Rients writes a weird fantasy adventure here that is suitable for the “canon” Lamentations setting, such as it is, and therefore easily compatible with your campaign world or any printed campaign you favor. The art merely accentuates the weirder, awesome side of the OSR and the old games we played back in the day, when ideas we decided were Awesome Enough were as valid as the ideas we decided made sense. It fits. As always, you can count on Lamentations of the Flame Princess to produce exceptional products when it comes to layout, art, and style.
So, knowing this, you breathe a sigh of relief at the quality of the book itself and you start to wonder about the content, written by Jeff Rients. For those not in the know, Jeff is a people-read-it-on-purpose, big deal OSR blogger in his own right, a subject matter expert on a couple of topics in academia, and has written a number of RPG supplements from contributions to Fight On! all the way up to hardcovers. More importantly, he is gifted with an amiable tone as an author that lends itself well to this LotFP book. To best review this book, it is worth noting that Broodmother Skyfortress is split into three major sections, and I plan to tackle this in three parts as a result.
First, the preamble, where Jeff introduces the book, his goals, his inspirations, his style, and his email address(!). He immediately establishes a friendly rapport with the reader that pays dividends throughout the book. He skillfully presents all of this in such a way as to prepare any reader for what is to come, which comes in handy (and is reinforced) later on in the book. Most importantly in this preamble section is the part where I said he writes in such a way as to be absorbed by “any reader”, because Broodmother Skyfortress is accessible equally to a brand new OSR/LotFP gamer and the seasoned veteran greybeard – and this is key to the structure of both the adventure and the book as a whole.
The second section is the adventure itself, comprising nearly two-thirds of the book (the preamble, while critical, is short). The adventure is of a comfortable length; it’s probably not something that needs to take forever at the table. I’ll first describe it in brief: a rampaging group of shark-elephant giants from a citadel in the sky is raiding the lands below, and it’s time to stop that nonsense at the source. In terms of some sort of critical review, I’d describe the adventure as a great balance of module resources and intentional gaps; Jeff presents a number of additional moving parts and frankly optional pieces seamlessly, which allow you to take the adventure and turn it into something unpredictable and different entirely from the presumed experience; the skeleton of the adventure is built from more than enough concrete aspects (such as the underlings of the titular Skyfortress, the structure itself, the individual giants, the risks and rewards) to run out of the book exactly like you see it. But, like a lot of the best OSR products, the most valuable meat is layered on top as what I would call “structured gaps” – portions which are not explicitly predetermined or prescribed, but which are left open, predicated on the finer moving parts of the book and your table’s tastes and choices. Take for example the giants themselves – each is an individual with unique motivations and behaviors, and there exist power struggles and factions between these seven different shark-elephant behemoths. The giants are constantly moving around between areas of their fortress and going on varying raids to the lands below, determined by the referee’s use of a number of tables and their personalities. Jeff doesn’t tell you what happens; he doesn’t strictly require you to use this information at all, in fact. But if you do, the solutions and difficulties that your players will experience will be unique from those that my players will experience. As with nearly everything, describing this sort of technique, which exists to enable the emergent gameplay we all stuck with (or came/returned to) old school gaming to experience is much easier than actually developing the pieces to encourage it. Jeff may have produced one of the definitive examples of this excellent philosophy of design. The result, on the whole, is an approachable, easy-to-run adventure that can be played pretty much right out of the book or expanded to a greater level of intricacy with zero additional legwork by the DM (besides, yknow, playing it out at the table), and it gives players all the freedom in the world to take the driver’s seat. It can also play out entirely differently every single time you bring it to a table. That’s what these games are all about. In terms of organization, the entirety of the adventure section is laid out and defined well, with organized monster and activity tables, rules for placing and moving enemies throughout the extremely active fortress, and more. It is presented in an almost modular fashion, which is to be appreciated by most of the kit-bashing adventure surgeons out there who like to borrow and repurpose parts of their favorite books into new and different adventures, but which should also suit the step-by-step approach that would be comfortable for newer players. There is a sufficient amount of detail to each element of the adventure. Whole pages are dedicated to each of the giants individually, with go-big-or-go-home splash art all over the place. The locations are given lively descriptions, but as with much of the book, a recurring theme is to leave the DM room to make it their own without “breaking” anything – in fact, instructions are given explicitly for modifying huge aspects of the adventure to suit a given DM’s desires, from reskinning the shark-elephant giants into many other forms (including suggested mechanics) to changing the themes and tones of the adventure with very minor tweaks that, again, require basically zero legwork. Plenty of detail is added to the adventure’s complications, such as the faction of underlings in the flying fortress’ lower reaches.
The third and possibly the most exepectedly valuable section of all is the last third or so of the book. As I said on Twitter awhile back, it may be the best book published so far to serve as a genuine Beginner’s Guide to OSR Gaming; this third of the book could probably be restructured and expanded into a straight-up “OSR DMG” and be a world-class ambassador for the hobby. Jeff dedicates a full third of the book to resources designed to get someone going from zero to game night. He gives the reader the nitty gritty on the nature of campaigns and a guide to quickstart campaigns from basically scratch to playable in minutes; he gives the reader a genuine explanation of the old school appeal which is exceeded in its usefulness only by its loving sincerity; he gives them questions to flesh out their game and give voice to their ideas that otherwise might not be easily articulated by new DMs (or many veteran DMs for that matter!); he offers tips for how to make players, especially new players, bite the OSR/TTRPG bait and set the hook to keep them coming back as engaged table mates. Through these essays and tables and Q&As, he also gives you a lot of tools needed to lift large elements of his home campaign wholesale, which is a great way to give a leg up to newcomers to the hobby needing some quickstart help. Jeff presents all of this in the same conversational style I mentioned earlier as being used in his preamble; it’s like an old friend’s elevator pitch to a newly-curious pal, transitioning into more and more detail as the audience gains their footing and gets excited and starts having more and more specific questions. This third of the book is worth its weight in gold. Though many of the parts are actually not expressly “new,” having been taken directly from Jeff’s blog and polished up for primetime, there’s something to be said for having a physical collection of these key introductory concepts to hand to a fresh, prospective old school DM or player and have them able to flow directly through the personal, conversational pace of Jeff’s writing in a single spot, so that a complete and immediate picture can be formed in their mind. This third of the book is clearly set as an appendix to keep it out of the way of veteran players who already know what they want and need out of an OSR game and how to get it, but for a newcomer, it’s worth directing them to this section before the adventure – it’s almost too bad this compromise had to be made. This section is valuable to the rest of us; it contains some fun and useful roll tables and optional resources as well as essays that explain mechanics and approaches that clearly mean something to Jeff (morale, for example) and therefore help to allow a seasoned gamer to infer a lot about how the writer envisioned the adventure playing out. This third of Broodmother Skyfortress lit my brain on fire on re-reading this book; it was something I may have glossed over a few years back but which I immediately valued and appreciated now. I can think of no better book to hand to someone (obviously with the LotFP core rules or a B/X-compatible system) new to this side of the hobby. This is such a perfect introduction to the game for the OSR-curious that it would be a pity for it to ever go out of print/pdf availability!
What’s the utterly unsurprising bottom line?
Broodmother Skyfortress is a fantastic book on its own, and an excellent contribution to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess corpus. I heap praise upon it for very tangible reasons: any time a book is so accessible to new players as to be an ideal introduction to an entire segment of the hobby as diverse as the old school gaming world, while also being a no-brainer high-value buy for veteran gamers looking for a new adventure with unique character, as well as being presented with LotFP’s characteristic gorgeous production values, that book should be praised. Alex, Craig, Ian, Jeff, and Jez did a fantastic job here. Buy this book for yourself. Buy it for someone you know who wants to dip their toe into the OSR. Buy it for someone who you think would love the OSR even if they’ve never heard of it.
Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they’d all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.
BROODMOTHER SKYFORTRESS: 10/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows: