Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Review: UVG - the Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City

With all the awesome things released this year it blows my mind that one I will use first is both free and, according to its author, incomplete.

Luka Rejec released an introductory version of the "Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City" last week. It's a 78 page point crawl with only one location fleshed out. According to Luka's Patreon, the complete version will be released in August of this year. While I'm looking forward to it, this teaser version has plenty to offer.

The cover by Luka Rejec


At long last, WONDER!

I downloaded UVG for the artwork. Luka's work has a way of expressing a great deal of detail and movement with a few simple lines. It reminds of the work of Jean Giraud, A.K.A. Moebius, while showing me something new and original. His work carries a sense of wonder and the fantastic while not settling in any particular genre. I am a fan.

"The Rusty Arc" by Luka Rejec

The Ultraviolet Grasslands leans into this same aesthetic. Luka is is upfront about the influence of the Dying Earth and psychedelic heavy metal on the setting/adventure. The sense of an ancient world, full of sorcery and super-science haunted by the, "long ago," is carried through the adventure's descriptions of the rotting technological remains, strange locations and local inhabitants. 

The new creatures and cultures introduced by the book add to the strangeness with a light touch. Each group, from humans to para-humans, has a brief description and then a table of rumours you can build your campaign's version of them from. Randomly generating the true and false features of these para-humans helps preserve that sense of uncertainty in the unknown and doubles down on the exploration theme of a fantasy RPG. It reminds me a bit of how Traveller's 76 Patrons was set up with a single premise or set of characters with multiple details on a table under each. It allows for the whole thing to be used more than once and be surprising for both the referee and the players.

UVG captures the wonder that the small press RPG community seems to be reaching for recently. It is exactly what I've been looking for. Judging by the sudden addition of Patreons since last week's release, I'm not alone.

"Tower and Hill" by Luka Rejec


Innovation!

It seems like almost every notable small press RPG release from the DIY D&D and OSR communities has some sort of game-changing innovation. UVG certainly delivers in this area. Luka created some new rules for travel which simplify encumbrance and travel while still making them work in a new way. His ambition was to convey both the vast size of the adventure area and the danger of travel through his weird savanna. I'll know for sure once I incorporate it into my regular game, but from reading it, I'd say he succeeds. Besides that success, he also creates a rules-light system for speculative trade that reminds me of Classic Traveller. The simplicity of Luka's system gives the players real choices about how much cargo to carry versus supplies, how large to make their caravan, and even what form of transport and retainers to use. All of these choices have an impact on the speed of travel, potential for encounters and even the likelihood of starving to death. Things like caravan speed and visibility also change the chances of starving and having an encounter.

Hacking up Treasure for UVG - Luka Rejec

I like the switch from days as a unit of time for travel to weeks. It helps to create the sense of isolation in the wilderness when there is only one encounter rolled per week. The party is on its own so they better have what they need. 

Because space and weight are issues that can kill a party, treasure can't always be hauled away with ease. Because of this feature, there are rules for hacking up the treasure for the best bits. This form of looting does terrible damage to these finds, turning the party into vandals, but it allows them to make choices about how they want to deal with large pieces of treasure.

While the UVG is a sandbox filled with all kinds of creatures and points of interest, the distance is the biggest enemy that needs to be faced. I enjoy this feeling of the vast openness as an opponent and can do a lot with it. It certainly marks this adventure as something special and reminds me a bit of how the darkness is handled in Veins of the Earth.

I like how once there is trouble, or something to explore, we return to shorter time units, from days for starvation, down to seconds for combat. It's a way of narrowing the focus and placing the players into the context of the current size of the environment they are interacting with. I'm looking forward to saying things like: "Four days into the second week you see movement on the horizon..."

Luka Rejec's Caravan Record Sheet for UVG makes tracking the new important bits easier!


How does it work?

Luka describes it as a rules-light, RPG point crawl and it is that, but it is clearly set up with some version of 5th edition D&D in mind. The saves reference the six classic statistics. Also the rolls for success use a roll high verses a ladder of target numbers. 

I tend to run a heavily modified hack of the Black Hack so the stat-based saves fit in fine, but the progressive target numbers are a bit harder to work with if you aren't using a skill system. The easiest thing seems to be dividing the stat by three and adding it to the d20 roll, but the most accurate might be to compare how much the check against a stat is made or missed by to the target number ladder. Someone using LotFP might want to multiply skill pips by two and add that amount to the d20 roll.

Despite the few 5e-isms built into the system most things are designed for cross compatibility. Encumbrance and movement rates are simplified when translated into a weekly turn system. All prices are in "cash" so it doesn't matter if you are using a gold piece, silver piece, or tic-tac as the main currency. All the creature and transport descriptions are expressed in terms of hit dice so they will work with any of the D&D editions or clones with minimal work. The weird weapons and items work with minimal conversion as well. 

Another Point of Interest in UVG - Luka Rejec

Basically the innovations are rules light and completely compatible with any system, while the details like weird weapons and armour are mostly expressed in terms of the 5e D&D rules with ascending AC for the armours and weapon terms such as, "finesse," and, "versatile." Any DM/referee using a stripped down "O5R" style rules will not need to convert anything. For the rest, it can be converted or ignored as usual.

The point crawl itself has a series of destinations arranged on the map with the different routes between them marked in how many weeks it usually takes to travel them. There are also spots for placing or generating, "points of interest," near the destinations or off the routes that the party might want to spend some time investigating. These points of interest are investigated in days instead of weeks. There is one sample, but no random generator for the points of interest. You'll need to create those on your own. I expect the full version will have more.

In this introductory version of the UVG, only the first destination, the Violet City is fleshed out. The rest are given a paragraph of description that is enough for anyone looking for inspiration, but leaves a lot of work for the referee to detail. The other locations are available to Luka's Patreon contributors up to #22, The Cage Run, but more are being added all the time. I like it as is. The paragraphs give me enough to work with that I can add details on the fly or make a few tables to generate some points of interest. I might even cannibalize LotFP's Carcosa for some points of interest and other terrors left over from the, "long ago." 

Point of interest from the "Long Ago" - Luka Rejec


UVG! What is it good for?

The sandbox can be used whole hog as described in the adventure and there are plenty of hooks to entice a wide variety of players to enter the Ultraviolet Grasslands. That's my plan.

The rules for hacking up parts of treasure for encumbrance reasons are going to be part of my campaign from the next session onward! 

UVG's rules for overland travel through what is essentially a desert are great! I'll be rolling those into my normal game for long distance travel. The simplicity and presentation of important choices to the players are the perfect tool for me. I may make some modifications for water-based travel so I can keep everything consistent. A new obstacles table is the first thing to create, but the UVG one is a great model!

The rules for trade and even market research could be used in a seafaring campaign or other trade-based adventure. If you spent a long time creating a vast world full of vibrant detail, or you spent a lot of money on supplements of the same, the trade and travel system might be a way to get the party moving around the map so you can use more of it. 

The Para-humans of the different factions in the UVG can easily be lifted and dropped into any fantasy world. There's no reason why the Cat Lords or Porcelain Princes can't be secretly be in charge of Vornhiem, Calimport, Lankhmar, or any home brewed city. 

The art is fantastic and could inspire a kick-ass campaign on its own! Knowing that the art would be awesome is a big part of why I took the time to check this intro UVG out! Without it, I might have waited for the finished product.

Final Thoughts

For a teaser product, the intro version of the Ultraviolet Grasslands is surprisingly complete and usable. The table of contents makes it easy to find specific information. The layout is clean. There are caravan tracking sheets that are well designed to be compatible with the system for the sandbox setting. The point crawl map is made to be printed, written on and used at the table. It is designed to be a tool and I can see it working well for me. The tables for obstacles and bad happenstances are nice details as well. The example of the Violet City is a fine template for fleshing out the other destinations. For a free product, I could not ask for more. It's more than a lot of referees will ever need to run a long campaign. 

It's barely referenced, but elves appear to be an affliction in Luka's campaign that infects the half-elves and turns them into tree-hugging monsters. I have my own horrific version of elves, but I'd love to know more about these ones!

I'd love a little more information about the purple mist. I may have missed it, but other than its change to the sunrise I'm not sure what it does. 

Did I mention the art? The art is great! I printed it out as an A5 booklet in black & white and it all looks great! The muted colours in the PDF set a wonderful tone and help create the feel of the sandbox setting for the adventure.

Even though I'll be incorporating the intro version of UVG into my campaign as a location as soon as I can, I'll definitely pick up the full version once it's available. Hopefully there will be a print version of some kind. Luka's ideas are different enough from mine to add a lot to my game, but still close enough I can use his work with almost no changes. I can just drop the Ultraviolet Grasslands onto the western edge of the map and start giving my players hints and hooks.

There are plenty of NPCs in UVG!


How to get UVG and more from Luka!

If I've peaked your curiousity, there are a few places to go for more: 

You can find the intro version for the PDF on Drive Thru RPG here. I printed it out as a half-letter sized booklet on a laser printer and it works great at that size. I'm torn on my expectations for the size of the final product. I am hoping the final product is A5 for the ease of use at the table, but I also want it to be A4 so the art is bigger!

There's more information on Luka Rejec's Patreon. You can get access to more detailed descriptions of the destinations by contributing as little as a dollar to the patreon. I expect I'll be sign up myself, now that the review is done.

If you are interested in seeing more of Luka's work, his website for his art and writing is here. He has a "rough portfolio" of art here. His art is also featured on his twitter here, and on his Instagram here.



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