Writer: Seann McAnally
Layout: Seann McAnally
Art: Public Domain (various sources)
Maps: Public Domain
Publisher: Nerd Glows On
Length: Approx. 139pp
First Edition, First Printing 2018
A few days back I wrote an article about the suitability of the early American colonial era for use as a setting for role-playing games. I like to think I made a half-decent case for it, but as I wrote it, I realized I knew what would make a stronger case, and made a note to return to this book and review it to give people a taste of the “colonial gothic” genre in action.
Times That Fry Men’s Souls is a setting, a selection of encounters and adventures, a whole host of toolboxes and tables to generate immersive features for the game, and some weird monsters and strange encounters all wrapped up in a colonial hexcrawl. Times That Fry Men’s Souls is a universal/system-agnostic book with stats described in a universal manner (“as chain” instead of AC 5, for example). It definitely bears some obvious leaning towards LotFP given the subject matter, propensity for (optional) weirdness, era, and a specific credit in the backmatter, but you can obviously run this in any D&D-derived system without actual conversion.
The place we always start is the art, so why change that now? Times That Fry Men’s Souls is very light on art; what art there is in this book comes primarily from very old period-appropriate public domain stuff. An extensive credits section at the start of the book identifies the pieces and the sources. The few pieces present in this book are actually really neat. The cover gives a decent indication of what you can expect to see, but the unfortunate fact is that there’s about three actual illustrations in the entire book. There isn’t much more to say about this front – what art you find in this book is very cool and quite unique, but unfortunately in extremely short supply.
As far as graphic design stuff, this book is quite well-done. It is a single-column format, designed to resemble a period-appropriate periodical. There is an aged look to the paper and numerous decorative borders and dividers as needed; the font is readable without losing a certain historical aesthetic. In the first section of introductory pages, these aspects are the only adornment. However, beginning with the hexcrawl content, there is an addition: the majority of the book has a light grey image of items and foliage at the bottom of each page, appearing across each spread behind the text. The last segment of the book is bordered with black to present a torn or burnt page look to the appendix. I’m not certain what was gained by doing so; if I were to do it, I’d probably have made it match the first section of aged paper sans the grey image spread.
Overall the layout is quite solid. It is similar to a Hill Cantons book in that it employs that straightforward single-column layout with a fairly large text size and does not skimp on the text. Each hex in the central hex crawl element of this book is given one page and one page only; this is a terrific element of the book’s design. It makes running individual hexes over the course of a session very clear and easy.
A few things could stand out more, and I suspect that if it were not for the adherence to the 1700s design language we would have seen tables and boxed/sidebar detail more commonly for things like enemies or inset hex tiles or what-have-you. However, because of the inherent limitations of the mimicry of an 18th century book, it does have a few weak points.
Another issue with the otherwise very clear layout is the amount of flipping needed to manage the weather and travel conditions as you progress. I strongly recommend reproducing some pages from this book, including that page, and keeping it on your DM screen or in your pile of notes or whatever you use for that purpose to avoid this.
In the PDF format, I would have really liked for the table of contents to be in-line links to the content listed, so I could click and be taken directly there.
In general the layout of this book is no impediment to its use, the artistic design of emulating a book from the colonial/revolutionary era is a hit as far as I’m concerned, the spreads at the start of each major section are very sharp indeed, the page texture is less bothersome to look at than the D&D 5E page textures, and the organizational order of contents is convenient. The single-page/spread framework is excellent. Earlier I compared it to a Hill Cantons book, and in many ways it is really akin to the best of those, with its strong use of facing pages and its excellent appendices – but also in that it has a few minor weak points that hopefully the creator learns from for next time and iterates into an even greater design. This book does layout well. If you can avoid the flipping with a couple judicious notes/photocopies, you are going to have a good time running this out of the book!
The book’s writing is solid. It is the book’s strongest suit (which is good, given the lack of art!) and it really shines. It is clear and speaks naturally. It may just be me, but I have a fondness for small details in books and RPGs alike; things which make the world feel more complete. I find that present in this writing. There are useful, small words and phrases tucked in many of the hex descriptions which are suitable little details to drop as-is into the description you convey to your players.
In a related train of thought, the writing in Times That Fry Men’s Souls can, at times, go on longer than strictly necessary – it’s good writing, and you enjoy reading it, but it’s sometimes more more verbose than is ideal for the table. It is possible that the blame for this is shouldered equally on three pillars – the author, who naturally wants to add life and interest; the editor, who is uncredited here and who has failed to cut things down as much as possible without losing critical elements; and the layout, which again is mimicking an bygone style and so lacks the modern conveniences of strong bulleting and such. I find myself wanting to write CliffsNotes in the margins with a red pen. It’s not that I mind doing so, but it is prep I could avoid doing if the formatting and editing had lent themselves more to the table experience than to the reading experience, so to speak. That’s a common hiccup of game books. To be clear, the book is not a slog, there is no great epidemic of runaway detail, but some hex entries simply run a little long here and there and would have been stronger at the table and better served by another, more critical editing pass.
The content of this book is absolutely fantastic. The hex encounters are great. Most are directly out of a history book, filled with personal interest and curious NPCs of a great number of backgrounds and purposes. The hexes are usually filled with several points of interest; often they will have one or more specific keyed encounters and one or more location events or elements. An example picked at random is hex 103, which has a pair of runaway children with dark secrets, a stone giant with custom mechanics, and a flock of fowl to pursue as wild game. Its neighbor, 104, has a cabin with a pious medicine man, a private agent seeking the runaways in 103, and a cluster of herbaceous trees with several mechanical purposes. This is common throughout the book, providing both excellent descriptive qualities and excellent interactivity to each hex. Each hex contains its own monster stats, which is terrific and prevents page-turning.
Ahead of the hex descriptions themselves is a useful index of story threads, giving the DM an easy reference for where encounters in each hex may guide players. Some are brief, such as one thread entitled “Deliver Justice to the British Officer” which takes place in 405 and 504 only. Some are much more complex and span numerous hexes. This is very handy both as a key to where to point the party and to make sure those hexes are noted and suitably conveyed by the DM to ensure their interactivity is not missed out on. The same index also lists, specifically, animal encounter hexes, partisan forces encounter hexes, the weird encounter hexes (monsters, Lovecraftian strangeness, etc), and hexes containing herbs, foods, special custom mechanics and so forth.
After the portion of the book dedicated to the hex crawl is complete, a second major chapter of the book details ten strong, specific adventures for the PCs to encounter. While this book tries to straddle a fine line between history and weird fantasy in order to appeal to groups of either bent, these adventures definitely trend heavily towards the strange and weird. Plenty of Satanic monster children, lesser demons, and fae creatures abound in these adventures and they are extremely up my alley. For the most part, these can be slotted into most places on the overworld hex map, and if they have specific requirements they are noted appropriately in their individual introductory texts. These each fit on a single spread and have self-contained monster stats, preventing you from needing to flip.
Lastly, this book features a very large chapter worth of backmatter consisting of tremendously useful contents. The introduction at the front of this book warns that Times That Fry Men’s Souls does not contain background detail to educate the DM or players on the colonial/revolutionary era of American history, but, like any good hex-or-point-crawl sort of setting book, the included tables can do a whole lot of heavy lifting in that regard. I am confident that if you handed this to a person who wasn’t versed in the period, and had them read just the appendix full of tables and a perhaps few hexes with their statblocks, you could have them come away with a reasonable bearing on at least some elements of the era.
These tables are tremendous, covering personal items, weapons and armor of the era, names for a terrific variety of factions involved in the northern colonies, character backgrounds, NPCs, locations, foods, and of course random encounters. The “weird” content is again segregated into its own tables so the individual DM can turn that dial up as high or as low as they want it.
There are a few small missteps in this book’s production that I must mention, and they both come down to editing. This book does not credit an editor by name, so perhaps it was self-edited. Whatever the case, though, it could use another pass.
First, there are typos in the writing here and there, often in the form of orphaned words. An example of this can be found in the introductory texts at the beginning of the book under the section on money: “There’s plenty of lot of paper American money, but no one wants it.”
Second, the table of contents is wrong. For example, it states that “Random Weirdness” tables are on page 131. They are actually on the following spread at the bottom of page 133.
Time for a conclusion!
Times That Fry Men’s Souls ably earns seven patriotic minuteman opossums out of ten. It is a really well-thought out book that successfully targets an underserved market niche with terrific writing and well-designed content. It is clever and has plenty of fun and strange encounters. The “weird” elements are imaginative and interesting, the hexes do not feel boring or empty, and the backmatter is invaluable for any game of a colonial gothic bent. Times That Fry Men’s Souls is clearly aware of its neighboring books, from suggesting you use a magical mirror (one of my most favorite devices for setting travel!) to throw your players into Carcosa to referencing Lamentations of the Flame Princess in the inspirational (or perhaps even home system?) bibliography. Save for a few weaknesses in editing and a serious lack of otherwise very interesting artwork, this book is absolutely great.
If you agree, disagree, or just want to talk about how cool it is to shoot a demonic child in the domepiece with a musket before it spits fireballs at you and a crowd of vigilantes, post in the comments or hit me up on Twitter where I am usually talking too much as @dungeonspossums.