OSR: Review: Veins of the Earth vs. Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead

"What?", I hear you ask.

Look, reviewing one book isn't interesting. Reviewing two is more fun.

Oh hey look, a custom image header, like those fancy big-time bloggers. I even had art commissioned.

Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead
: 96 pages

Published: 1994
System: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but about 3/4 system-less.
Author: Skip Williams
PDF Cost: $12.95 on DriveThruRPG, but if you google it, the very first result is a scanned PDF. Make of that what you will.
Hard Copy Cost: Used copies sell for about the same, plus shipping.

Veins of the Earth
Length: 375 pages
Published: 2017
System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but almost completely system-less
Author: Patrick Stuart
PDF Cost: $19.99 on DriveThruRPG
Hard Copy Cost: 66 Euro, which, at the time of writing, is quite a lot.
The cover of the Guide to the Ancient Dead has an ancient mummy or something with two torches, a giant stone throne, and a lot of text. System, book name, and setting are clearly stated. Veins of the Earth has a scribbled guy falling down a red chasm, trailing either a rope or an umbilical cord. No text. No name. You can't judge a book by its cover, but if you like the cover on the left, you'll like the contents on the left. And if you like the cover on the right, the book's contents will be right up your alley.

The Guide to the Ancient Dead 

is a classic AD&D setting book, in that it makes me not want to run RPGs. I can't find the post I'm thinking of, but some OSR blogger said "If you say 'here is a tribe of barbarian orcs' and then spend 20 paragraphs describing them, and in the end, get to the same conclusions and tropes I would have if you'd just said 'barbarian orcs', than you've wasted my time."

That's how I feel about the Guide to the Ancient Dead. There is content but it's hidden behind layers of "get on with it already". The writing style isn't just descriptive, it's exhaustively descriptive.

Read chapter 1, sentence 1, and tell me if it adds anything to a book called "Guide to the Ancient Dead".
Most of the ancient dead were once living, breathing people who have defied death to walk again among the living- as mummies. Their tortured spirits remain bound to their now-lifeless bodies.
And imagine that for pages and pages, past/present tense issues and all. There are long paragraphs about the connection between the "positive energy plane" and mummies. Fear is (as usual for the period) treated (and dismissed) as a supernatural ability rather than the sensible reaction of a person facing a walking corpse. Fear lives in the same category as regeneration or darkvision.
The ancient dead are enigmatic creatures that are often hard to identify and thus are hard to combat. [...] I have identified five broad categories that I find useful while discussing and classifying the ancient dead. These are power rank, physical origin, form, and state of preservation.
Some of the categories listed are interesting. Some are useful for gaming. But there's no mystery here and no sense of wonder. Pages of powers, but they're just grey square lego blocks you can use to build a grey square lego mummy. The entire book feels like it was rushed or written in one go and never substantially edited or examined from first principles. It feels padded. "Is this useful to anyone?" was never asked for sentences like:
You might not be free to choose the site of the battle. If you can, study the area. An intelligent mummy fighting on its home ground undoubtedly will try to exploit its knowledge; do your best to anticipate what it might do.
My studies have revealed an account of a mummy with a unique and baffling power. The creature had command over its own body weight and could render itself light as a feather. This supernatural weightlessness allowed it to tread on water, run straight up vertical walls, or perform other astonishing feats of mobility.

Veins of the Earth

is an entirely different kind of book.There's an introduction that's clearly* inspired by the musings of Bill Bryson, but a little more fanciful. It lasts 2 pages and never says the same thing twice.

*It was clear to me. Patrick claims otherwise and since he wrote the thing he's probably right.

Then there's a page telling you what the bits of a statblock do. As usual, for completeness, there are silly bits like
NUMBER ENCOUNTERED: The number usually encountered.
but that's forgivable. And then, gloriously, comes the bestiary.

Someone online said they were reading one entry a day as a reward for completing part of a project. That's not what I did. I stuffed the entire box of chocolates into my mouth and started licking the wrappers. Readers, this is some good stuff. You might not like every entry but some of them are going to make you sit upright in your chair with your brain full of bubbles and sparks. This book isn't a setting guide or a monster manual or a bunch of tables. It's pure GMing motivation. I have a list of things from Veins that I need to implement.

The writing is evocative rather than descriptive. The prose is so purple it will give you a tan. So if a description like
A vast she-wolf made from the skeletons of pre-natal children holding tightly to each other. Her eyes are distant telescopic views of cities burning. Her teeth are broken obsidian Kanji clutched by bone babyhands. Her howl is a fleet of bombers disappearing into a hurricane. She has a crown. A band of burning gold like something out of a poem by Blake or a Saint’s mushroom vision. She is not from here. She outranks you.
offends you, then this book is not going to be useful.

After the bestiary comes a section called the "Law of Light." Print it out and stick it on the inside cover of all your other OSR books. This is the best and shortest and most useful description of how to explore a dark room that I've ever read. Or just print this
Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it.
and use it when designing rules, dungeons, games, or hell, training new employees.

And then there are rules for climbing and building caves and cave systems and encounter tables but trust me... if you get that far, you'll need to take a break and sit back and think for a few days. They are all good, even if the 3D hex-based cave mapping section does seem a bit silly to me.

Other stuff. There is an index. It's a very good index. If you like the cover art, you'll like the art in this book. If it just looks like scribbles, you won't. There's some pseudoscience in this book, but I'll take it over the Positive Energy Plane any day. If you don't like most LotFP stuff, check out this book anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure that the post you're thinking of is this one from Joe Manola's excellent blog Against the Wicked City: http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2016/11/conceptual-density-or-what-are-rpg.html.