Writer: Jeff Rients
Layout: Alex Mayo
Art: Yannick Bouchard (cover) and Journeyman (interior)
Maps: Glynn Seal
Editing: Jarrett Crader
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Length: Approx. 32pp
ISBN: Print 978-952-7238-15-8 / PDF 978-952-7238-16-5
First Edition, First Printing 2018
It’s finally time to review something I’ve wanted to review for a long time, and something that, for most of that time, I didn’t expect to get to review the way I wanted to. I prefer to review from hard copy when I can. It just gives me a better sense of the book for whatever reason. Obscene Serpent Religion 2 was one of Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ GenCon 2018 convention exclusives. I was extremely hype for this book, as it was written by a favorite author, Jeff Rients, and it ended up being drawn under very interesting circumstances by Journeyman, also known as Journeyman1029, who is a pretty cool Twitch art streamer and Twitter dude.
It is a small A5-sized softcover module that sold out pretty much instantly and has not been reprinted since. Some retailers and eBay sellers relisted copies at inflated prices which have mostly since leveled out, but I wasn’t really willing to fight that uphill battle at the time and resigned myself to the PDF edition. Awhile back, while working with Exalted Funeral to get my preorder copy of Luka Rejec’s Witchburner, the lovely folks over there managed to dig up a long lost copy of OSR2 from their old stock for me. I was ecstatic. And here we are!
I’ll begin where I always do – the art. It makes a lot of sense that I start here because it’s one of the most interesting parts of the book’s production by far. This book was originally supposed to be illustrated by a different interior artist, but at the very last minute, they had to drop out of the project. James went to Twitter (and other outlets) looking for an artist who was capable of doing an emergency contract – turn around 14 pages of complete art within about six days! That’s where Journeyman stepped up. For those unaware, that request is absolutely brutal and, for most artists, a largely impossible timeline.
Journeyman streamed his artistic process live on Twitch for this book. It’s part of what got me so excited for the book, to be honest. This poor bastard was chained to his art table for between six and ten hours a night after his day job, every single day, for about a week. The guy just didn’t sleep. He just sat there with a pencil, a pen and nib, jars of ink, water, brushes; every piece in this book, like all of his work, is done by hand in traditional media. Throughout the process he remarked on his thoughts and plans, explaining where corners could be cut for time, where certain pieces could be left less distinct in order to ensure other pieces were locked down with sufficient detail to be the big hit pieces of the book. It was a strange form of triage I had not gotten to see firsthand before that, and incredibly illuminating. In the end, Journeyman managed to pull it off and ended up actually overdelivering on art.
All of this is to illustrate why the art in this book runs the gamut from great to perfunctory. Some pieces are absolutely killer; like those of the Snake Creature toward the end of the book, a moldering corpse midway through, and a pair of unfortunate mutants also located toward the middle. Other pieces, primarily the setup pieces early in the book, are pieces that show less detail; they sufficiently set the tone and illustrate their subject matter clearly, but they don’t wow you. The hits, though, are genuinely exquisite. It’s actually too bad that some of them are not full page art; they’re underserved by the layout in that regard, but the 32-page softcover format is quite limiting. Some of the pieces of the Snake Creature, especially her clutch of eggs and her pose with dagger and skull, are absolutely amazing pieces that would stand out in any book.
Journeyman’s the first person to talk on his streams and Twitter about how he wishes he had a proper deadline for this project so he could have really delivered his best work; he followed this project with a proper deadline for LotFP when he was immediately hired to illustrate The Punchline by Zzarchov Kowalski. The difference shows. Another interesting thing to note, as someone who got to be quite familiar with the pieces as they were drawn and painted, is how much depth of tone and brush detail gets flattened in the scanning and digitizing process. Also interesting to see how much gets cut off and trimmed to fit a book sometimes. Neat to see, I guess. Most books I don’t get to have that kind of background knowledge from which to compare.
Yannick Bouchard did the cover, as he has done for a great many Lamentations of the Flame Princess books. He does a terrific job. My wife hates the cover and calls it creepy as hell, which means it is doing a great job.
Glynn Seal did the introductory map of the town. It does its job ably, but I feel like the strict 32-page budget for this project denied us some useful maps that could have gone with the few sites Jeff does specifically illuminate, such as the church and the pub. Not the end of the world; ten seconds on Google nets you playable maps for generic churches, inns, and stables; who is gaming in 2019 without the ability to scribble some straight lines on a whiteboard/flip mat or print out some free maps from the internet? But still. I would have liked to have them as inline elements of this book. Even a 36-page softcover would have afforded the chance for those, and probably also one or two more full-page zingers from Journeyman’s spread of art pieces.
The layout by Alex Mayo is usable, though not exceptional. I love Alex’s work, and have praised it before, but it seems like the crunchtime rush of this very short-timeline book really cut into how much time he had to do his usual excellent work here. Elements in the introductory section especially seem a little disorganized; it’s not painfully disorganized in a critical way, but it does necessitate more flipping than I’d ideally like to see in a perfect world. The snakeskin background to the pages is kind of neat, and the short format means it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Some text elements stretch across pages but remain on the same spread, which is nice to see. A lot of the writing structure of the adventure doesn’t lend itself well to the super sharp layout we see from Alex most of the time because it lacks explicitly-mapped locations and other things like that, as it is not particularly site-based – meaning he can’t break up the pages between art and text as cleanly as he did on projects like Broodmother Skyfortress.
Talking about the text structure is as good a segue as any to start talking about the writing of the adventure. Obscene Serpent Religion 2 is a very simple scaffolding to run a small town which appears idyllic enough at first but quickly deteriorates and reveals its troubling, murderous, paranormal underbelly. The town of Nonsbeck is home to the usual cast of characters for a small village, including farmers, drunkards, blacksmiths, and clergy. It is also home to an extremely unnatural Snake Creature, which is rendered as a six-armed snake lady and which has established a blasphemous snake cult in the shadows of the village. Classic Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Jeff writes this up as essentially a sharp highlight reel toolbox for running the town; he gives you specific pieces of the puzzle with the idea of letting your players knock the bits around the table until they either flee for their lives or end up in so deep they have to deal with some really dangerous, campaign-altering problems of their own creation. Everything the party does will have a consequence on your world one way or another.
I like this approach. I like that the town is specifically left loose and open to interpretation so I can put it together the way I want. It makes it easy to use this book in an existing campaign or even as the start to a campaign itself. I can make the town (and therefore the cult) bigger or smaller at any time in the prep process. I cannot overstate the value of a module designed to go where I need it. A lot of modules presume to take up a lot of campaign bandwidth; that is to say, if I want dungeon module XYZ, I absolutely must place it in a swampland somewhere (necessitating I point the players or campaign in that direction), and I absolutely must have this specific township with these specific NPCs in it (necessitating I then apply some kind of prep energy to a town and townsfolk as well). Even modules I really like do this. It’s sort of a feature creep that modules get caught up in. Often, it works out great, but just as often I end up finding a way to discard of all that baggage (and doing work myself in the process) so I can just keep the parts I want. Jeff does not burden us this way with Obscene Serpent Religion 2. It’s like comparing a set of dominoes and Gloomhaven.
Jeff gives us a few tools to run the adventure besides, including some introductory notes, a ton of specifically-highlighted adventure hooks within the setup, retailer wares lists, noteworthy statblocks, a roll table for noteworthy visitors to the tavern, and a table of local names for the town of Nonsbeck.
The characters are well-imagined and detailed without expecting you to memorize a biography like AP History class; this is owed, largely, to Jeff Rients’ authorial voice being given towards memorable turns of phrase and punchy adjectives. This is nice, because I find townsfolk are really easy to accidentally make “same-y” both when writing something and when role-playing it at the table.
The adventure wants you to plant the seeds early. Make the town of Nonsbeck a regular stop, make the NPCs repeat their appearances so the players get used to them and feel comfortable with them. Jeff gives us plenty of tips and hints for how to achieve this seamlessly at the start of the book. I strongly recommend following that advice and having a the calming, gentle atmosphere of Nonsbeck be a pleasant departure from the pace and dangers of the rest of your campaign, so the players associate it with pleasantries and good people. Making them like the major NPCs is icing on the cake. Once you lay this groundwork and set the trap, though, OSR2 really sings. The plot is dark and gets weird in a hurry, and should provide that great LotFP moment where your mangled party makes that tense and really unpleasant realization that it’s time to either flee like cowards or die (or worse) like idiots. Like I said – classic Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
Obscene Serpent Religion 2 is extremely good at helping you set out the banquet, so to speak. The introductory pages spell out the recipe and baking times for the town of Nonsbeck, to push that pained metaphor one step farther. It’s very front-loaded with content. It gives you the town, teaches you how to nurture your players’ feelings towards the town, points out the elements of the town that make it tick. It then does a great job of bringing it all crashing down very, very rapidly.
The book does not (as most modules should not, really) provide a concrete ending. How could it? There’s a lot of variables in tabletop role-playing that make it difficult to predict an end case. Jeff supplies a few pages of finishing advice to guide the referee’s hand in the final outcome of the adventure based on possible broad strokes behaviors. The “end” portion of this book is dedicated to the big bad Snake Creature and her extraordinarily bizarre timeline-hopping powers. Whatever the players choose to do in this adventure, they’re going to create problems for themselves or anyone. If they really, really see it through, at any personal cost, and get a little bit lucky, they can make sure they at least don’t let the world get ruined. But the book doesn’t explicitly tell me what has to happen. This is right up my alley, because, again, I like sandboxes and I like sandboxes that do not presume to take over a lot of decision-making bandwidth for my campaign, to include presuming a result in most cases. When this book came out last autumn, I saw some people asking Jeff about the “lack of ending” and it sort of confused me because he’s writing an adventure framework, not a Dragonlance novel. If you are someone who really wants your modules to directly guide each part of the adventure with specific win conditions, this may not meet your needs.
Lastly, while I am on the subject of the writing, I should note that it is not without a few errors in editing here and there, though; there’s even a rather long sentence just erroneously floating in the middle of nowhere on page 16.
So, to summarize my feelings?
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.
OBSCENE SERPENT RELIGION: 7/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:
Conclusions are always fun to write for some reason. Obscene Serpent Religion 2 solidly makes three time-traveling demon possums out of five. Don’t panic! I’ve said before that it’s best to view my rating scale as the 6-10 on a normal, sane person’s 1-10. I don’t feel excited about the 1-5 to even bother reviewing them. If I were going to use a ten-point scale, I’d give this a 7.5-8 out of 10. Please stop panicking – I really, really like this book, and I highly recommend the PDF – it just had a few issues.
My thoughts on this book should be clear by now: It feels like just enough elements of it were rushed that it doesn’t truly excel at layout and polish the way LotFP and the OSR are most famous for – but the nonlinear mini-sandbox Jeff set up, along with the potentially far-reaching consequences, is terrific. This book makes it easy to use this content anywhere in most game worlds and extremely good at sparking the imagination about ongoing dangers, and it wisely points out adventure hooks instead of hoping you catch clues in the text.
It’s easy to imagine how really exceptional this could have been if Journeyman and Alex had been given a proper timeline to work together. It’s also easy to imagine how easily Jeff’s cool ideas could have languished without Journeyman’s best pieces here, which together are striking enough to almost push this book into 4/5 territory despite the issues here and there.
This is an extremely fun, short, memorable little module. It immediately made it onto my list of Ideal Things to Throw at LotFP Players. Whenever I get the chance, at last, to run a proper long-term spooky old-school/LotFP horror campaign full of the weird and grotesque, this will be a centerpiece. I’m not joking; I drew it up. As it stands I say, get the PDF, because the physical copy costs more and you won’t be missing out on much, and run this adventure immediately. Plus, PDF lets you zoom in on Journeyman’s best pieces and you can pretend they’re full page pieces.
If you want to argue with me about my very terrible, made-up, no-good arbitrary rating scale or disagree with my conclusions about this book, hit me up in the comments below or over on Twitter @dungeonspossums.