Writer: Chris Kutalik with contributions from Luka Rejec
Art: Luka Rejec, additional cartography by Karl Stjernberg
Design: Layout by Luka Rejec, with cover design by Trey Causey
Editor: Luka Rejec, Robert Parker, Humza Kazmi
Publisher: Hydra Cooperative
Length: Approx. 112pp
First Edition, First Printing 2018
Previous Reviews in This Series
At last we come to the fourth of the major Hill Cantons releases, What Ho, Frog Demons!, bringing us up to speed with all the modules set in Chris Kutalik’s Zem setting. Like the third before it, this one is a partnership with Luka Rejec. Despite incredible contention from Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (for depth and world-building using gameable lore) and Misty Isles of the Eld (for sheer utility), this book may be the best in the series, and I’d like to share why I think that. On with the show!
As usual, the pretty pictures come first. This book is illustrated cover-to-cover by Luka Rejec, with cartography by Karl Stjernberg. It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Luka’s work. This book is one of his best. The variety of styles on the table from him within just the pages of this book is amazing. While browsing it on my large monitors, my wife walked by and asked who the artists (plural) were – when I said it was all Luka, she replied with amazement that he can go from simple, stylized art to extraordinarily detailed pieces so easily throughout a single document. It’s hard to get bored here. It’s also got enough unifying characteristics between pieces to keep the tone consistent and accessible. Tucked away in the pages of this book are tons of tiny jokes and references in the art alone, with Mr. Rejec throwing down nods to everything from Wizard of Oz to the Muppets to the popular Russian Preved Medved meme. This book has far more art in it than any of the previous books; the series has increased its art noticeably from book to book and What Ho, Frog Demons! is no exception. Nearly every concept, no matter how bizarre or alien or tongue-in-cheek, is illustrated here, and lavishly. Some of Luka’s most gorgeous full-page art is found here, including some lovely landscapes that are full of adventure. Most of the pages have art, and those that do not have art have very clear reasons why not (it’s a full-page table, for example). Moreover, pages with art often have two pieces of art. It’s really kind of preposterous and blatantly apparent that it was a labor of love by Luka Rejec. In addition to the volume, there is the matter of the quality of the art – Luka claims to be in the midst of a five-year-long plan to better his drawing, and if you compare What Ho, Frog Demons! to earlier works, you can see that he really is giving it his all, and it shows.
Karl Stjernberg’s cartography is some of my favorite in the entire industry. It has such a sense of joy and life to it that it’s very hard to see it and not smile. It’s not the bog-serious style of meticulous reproduction and attempts at photorealism seen in some works; while that is incredibly impressive in its own right, and certainly has its place, Karl’s work is very approachable and fun to look at (and graphically clear!) in ways that many maps just aren’t. For me, at least.
The layout of Hill Cantons books has been its weakest point throughout the series. That sounds harsh, but we’re talking about a totally acceptable layout that simply never reaches the excellence of the writing or art of the books, and so it’s quite literally the weakest element. Look at any dominant sports team: they’re all good enough to make the pros, but they might not be a Pippen or a Jordan, y’know? While never actively bad in such a way as to render the book useless or frustrating, the layout in the Hill Cantons books has simply not been as cutting edge as that found in, for example, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess books. This book is definitely the strongest in the series, and improves upon its predecessors in every way. More use of spreads, more fun and attractive placement of art, better sizing and layout of tables for use in-game, and so on down the line. It’s still single-column, it’s still sometimes running off of a page or a spread, so it isn’t perfect, but it is simple and easy to follow nonetheless. At a certain point of function the rest is nitpicking, personal taste, and general artsy demands from being spoiled otherwise, and What Ho, Frog Demons! has definitely passed the barrier of quality and ease-of-use to where I am just being picky. One step backward, though: no easy map index at the back for reference and reproduction – this is not to everyone’s taste according to an informal poll I posted on Twitter some months ago, but I like to see it.
The content of the book is again, largely Chris Kutalik’s lovely writing. It has a healthy dose of additional content and development from Luka Rejec, which is a boon to the work as Luka is both extremely imaginative and also personally entrenched in many of the fables and conceits that this setting, Zem, is based on. There is something of an inflation in this book compared to prior books in terms of page count and (I estimate, because I’m not gonna go count) word count. I suspect this is because both authors had so much to say on this book and so much to add that editing it down any further was probably close to impossible without losing too much of what they wrote. There is as loss of the brevity found in Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, meaning there is much more reading in this book, but I think it is broken up into more digestible chunks than Fever-Dreaming Marlinko most of the time. Overall I am glad the writing is in there, because I think this may be the most well-rounded of the Hill Cantons books and it really hums with that Central European weirdness that makes Zem great, but there is definitely more to chew through on this book. I’ve also said before that Chris has a great way with words and a friendly, direct, and interesting voice. That is no different this time around, and he has managed to absolutely litter the book with jokes. There’s tons of humor in What Ho, Frog Demons!, perhaps more than any previous Hill Cantons book, and it is extremely enjoyable because of that. It’s clear both Chris and Luka had a great time with a lot of this book. It’s not going for ridiculous or a disruption the suspension of disbelief, but it has more than enough smiles throughout that the DM and the table will get a laugh here and there.
This book is full of gameplay content. It is at least as dense as Misty Isles of the Eld, but I suspect it is even more full of content. It’s ridiculous how much immediately accessible gaming is in this book. It can’t go a page without it. This book comes with a complete, fully-detailed hexcrawl of the Marlinko Canton – not a pointcrawl as is common to the series, but an exhaustive hexcrawl – and two fairly large dungeons. Wrapped around those dungeons are two complete adventures with numerous launching hooks to get them started depending on how you choose to use them (slotted into your own campaign, for example, or with various styles of play group).
There’s a lot of weird and interesting sites on the hex map, plus a complete town generator and tables of adventures/misadventures, which makes for an extensive amount of overland fun before even touching the listed dungeon adventures. As much as I’d like to give an exhaustive account of the sheer volume of events and locations (to say nothing of the element of randomness changing the game from time to time), there’s just so much going on that you could spend ages in this hexcrawl just experiencing things… if not for the ticking clock.
Replacing the Chaos Index in this book is the Infection Index, which determines the spread and danger of the Beet God’s vile mind control plague. It works a little differently – only ticking upward, unable to be reduced by player choices except for a complete elimination of the source of the threat. It is intrinsic to the adventure, and so, unlike the Chaos Index in the first two Hill Cantons books, this is not realistically optional. It is very simple to track and requires essentially no attention or bandwidth from the referee.
It is my belief that this book is the strongest of the entire series. As I mentioned in passing, Marlinko and Misty Isles also make strong claims to that title: Marlinko for its depth of world-building through gameable lore and exposition both; Misty Isles for the imagination and density of useful material, and for its presentation as almost modular in its approach to setting. I don’t think anyone preferring either of those is wrong. But, at the end of the day, I think What Ho, Frog Demons! is giving us the most or the best of so many aspects that make the series great: a frankly gluttonous amount of lovely art, more interesting and high-quality stuff to do than you can shake a bear soldier’s glaive at, humor and sincerity in equal and perfect measure, weird Slavic myth, tons of world-building through actual gameplay components like tables and mechanics, and useful tools to expand the Hill Cantons game or to improve and modify your own setting. It also shores up some of the series weaker points, like layout.
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.
WHAT HO, FROG DEMONS: 10/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:
It is no surprise that this one gets five Big Beet Possums of Smerc out of five (RIP Debelinko). It’s just terrific. Misty Isles was my introduction to the series and Slumbering Ursine Dunes made me recognize the greatness of Chris Kutalik’s writing; Marlinko made me genuinely appreciate and love the setting as a whole. But What Ho, Frog Demons! is a cut above in my opinion, and it has joined the list of the most beloved of my other all-time favorite indie RPG books. Some small missteps in layout and perhaps in length(?) cannot nearly detract from this being held up high. Just terrific work from Chris and Luka, who together make the Hill Cantons come to life.
As always: share your thoughts with me. You can post below in the comments or you can tweet at me on Twitter where I talk too much as @dungeonspossums. Let me know what your personal ranking of the Hill Cantons modules is!