Writer: Chris Kutalik with contributions from Robert Parker
Art: Jeremy Duncan, Jason Sholtis
Design: Mike Davison
Editor: Trey Causey, Robert Parker, Humza Kazmi, Anthony Picaro
Publisher: Hydra Cooperative
Length: Approx. 72pp
First Edition, First Printing 2015
Previous Reviews in This Series
Recently, I reviewed the first Hill Cantons book that Hydra Cooperative published – Slumbering Ursine Dunes. Surely it is no surprise that I am doing its follow-up, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko! (Spoilers: I’m doing all four of the big Hill Cantons books.)
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is the sequel to the first of Hydra Cooperative’s Hill Cantons books by Chris Kutalik. The first was a desert pointcrawl set in an expansive magical wasteland filled with walking bear soldiers, were-sharks, and rusalkas – the wildest sort of Slavic acid fantasy you could wish for. Fever-Dreaming Marlinko takes that setting, that energy, and that aesthetic into a city-spanning adventure sandbox. While it is, of course, very intrinsically a Hill Cantons book in all ways, many of the tools it builds the adventure upon can be repurposed by the enterprising DM to structure their own cities. Let’s dive in!
The art in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is by a trio of extremely beloved OSR artists. The cover was done by Jeremy Duncan, who has done work for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Grognardia Games, Melsonian Arts Council (Troika! – I’ll get to it eventually), and many more. It is a terrific piece of artwork that, to me at least, is the definitive vision of the Hill Cantons’ Slavic fantasy. Within the book, illustration is handled by Jeremy and the wonderful Jason Sholtis. They trade off pages in an almost alternating fashion. As you page through the book, you are switching between Jason’s trademark grey washes and unforgettable faces, and Jeremy’s incredibly intricate, hyper-detailed scenes. It’s an amazing effect that really ratchets up the fantasy of the book. The cartography is handled – hand-drawn in full color! – by none other than Luka Rejec in his first appearance in the Hill Cantons books. It’s incredibly appropriate to the book; it was made for this setting. It looks amazing. The color palette is simple but the effect it has is massive. It feels like an illuminated manuscript. I adore these maps; the overview of Marlinko itself is one of my favorite maps in all of D&D, anywhere, any book. In all, the visual component of this book is stellar.
The graphic design of this book is a step up from its predecessor, but it is still the simple single-column layout found in Slumbering Ursine Dunes. If you read that review, you will easily grasp my thoughts on this book at a base level, but there are distinct improvements. All tertiary information has been moved to appendices at the back of the book, for example, and pages are broken up with tables in a different fashion. Some parts of the book wrap text around the art in a little more artistic fashion than Slumbering Ursine Dunes attempted, and there is more art and more variety in the art.
Marlinko is designed, as the introduction explains, to be used as a central hub for exploring the world of Zem and as a way to introduce short adventures that serve as a pleasant change of pace for dungeoneering parties used to wicked wilderness and chaotic caverns. It promotes this through a similar approach as that taken with the pointcrawl theory in Slumbering Ursine Dunes; that is, to de-emphasize everything that is not directly interesting, fun, and gameable. Chris strips the drudgery and dull detail common to most city setting supplements out of the equation. He focuses on the things that are strictly useful for running a city; while shops and service providers have their place as necessities, a building-by-building key of infinitely recursive masturbatory fiction is thrown into the bin in favor of the things that provide instant interest and adventure hooks.
The city of Marlinko is split into sectors called contradas, which are much more than simple neighborhoods. They are nearly alive themselves, and directly impact the lives and identities of those within. Each is distinct in numerous ways, and the book does a great job of communicating these varieties to the DM. The contradas and their buildings and inhabitants are very imaginative and interesting. It is impossible to read through them and not become immersed in the mythical Slavic acid-fantasy of the Hill Cantons. This book makes an even stronger showing of this particular quality than even Slumbering Ursine Dunes; the city of Marlinko really makes the sensations and aesthetics of the Hill Cantons immediately accessible to the imagination. Like studying a language intently can cause you to dream in a foreign tongue, spending nights in Marlinko with your friends is a great way to have your brain occupied with a train of thought that quickly identifies itself as distinctly Hill Cantonal.
Chris has random encounter tables for each contrada, which reinforces their individuality. It also lends a great degree of replayability and variety to the city when it is presented at the table. This is one of the book’s many strengths. While a mass market city supplement focuses on driving home detail after detail about every city street, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko stresses the variability of every moment in a busy city. It feels alive and active as a result. This is a critical element of the book’s value and, likely, correlates to the popularity of this book in word-of-mouth discussions.
Another key element of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is the news and rumors table, which is full of Hill Cantons flavor like a slow-smoked brisket. The introduction to this book entreats the DM to really dig in and familiarize themselves with this table before running the game, and once you do, it becomes clear why. First, it’s impossible to read it and not come away with an understanding of the tone of the Hill Cantons – the sly sense of humor, the colorful Slavic theme, the way the city plays a role in the lives of the people within. Second, reading it completely makes many of the other elements of the book make a little more sense together; it ties up small bits of the city’s setting information and the NPCs the book details in such a way as to give a sense of belonging, as if you’re a local yourself.
Like Slumbering Ursine Dunes before it, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko contains two complete adventure sites, one of which is a little bigger than the other. These are fully-keyed, and more than suitable for use as intermittent sojourns between exploring the rest of Zem (or your own setting). Luka Rejec’s isometric, full-color, hand-drawn maps for these are just terrific! One of these adventures in particular really brings the fantasy of the Hill Cantons alive.
The factions of Marlinko, the laws of the societies within the city, and the petty gods worshipped in the various contradas are detailed as well. These are fundamental to running a game in Marlinko and also set the DM up with every tool needed to stay in Marlinko long after the two included adventure sites are exhausted. To this end, Chris also wrote up an entire section on continuing your Marlinko campaign, complete with three detailed, intricate plot hooks for the DM to drop into the world and elaborate on as the players bite.
The Chaos Index mechanic again makes an appearance here. The weird magic of Zem is intrinsic to the setting and the actions of the players as well as their mere existence in the world changes the level of strangeness constantly. This is less necessary here than it is in Slumbering Ursine Dunes, but it does make the Hill Cantons seem more wild and untamed and bizarre, as the “acid fantasy” moniker suggests, and I personally love it.
I said earlier that Mr. Kutalik made a conscious decision to strip out the boring parts of a city supplement, without losing any functionality. He proves this in a later part of the book when he manages to include, in the span of about a dozen pages, rules and tables for buying goods, buying real estate, carousing, hirelings, and valuable local magical spells. All of that – and it is comprehensive, useful, and in many cases specific to each contrada! – in just a dozen pages. At the risk of upsetting someone out there with an uncharacteristic jab at something, this book is literally more complete and functional at running a fabulous fantasy city than all of the city content in books like Wizards of the Coast’s Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which was released several years after this book.
Again, Chris dedicates the last chunk of the book to cool things we can take away all on their own if we want: two new classes, the Mountebank and the Robo-Dwarf; a tiger wrasslin’ minigame suitable for gambling; a brief bestiary; and a handy name list and pronunciation guide.
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.
FEVER-DREAMING MARLINKO: 10/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:
This review got a little long, but let’s close it on a short note: Fever-Dreaming Marlinko gets five hallucinating possums out of five. It is completely fantastic cover to cover: art, writing, tools. It is one of the best books in the DIY/OSR D&D scene, period. It is one of those books you can recommend without even a hint of hesitation. It is a book that undoes decades of strict module thinking and presents a vivid, living scenario for the players to occupy, where their interactions with the moving pieces and the world at large are congruent to the fantasy. The weakest point is layout, but the layout is a little bit improved over Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and even though it’s still not as bar-elevating amazing as some other books out there, that is still more than enough to push it over the line into the top echelon in my rating system. Big ups to Hydra Cooperative on this book.
That’s two down out of four. Let’s meet back again soon for the third! Until then, though, share your thoughts with me below or over on Twitter where I fill every waking moment 280 characters at a time under the name @dungeonspossums.