Saturday, January 25, 2020

Fronds of Benevolence

Fronds of Benevolence is the first published scenario for Troika!, and I can't seem to be able to stop singing its title in my head to the tune of the utterly terrible Paul McCartney song "Hope of Deliverance", so thank you very much for that, Andrew Walter, author and illustrator of this wonderful little book!
I recently ran FoB (stop that singing, Paul!) on an open gaming night with a random group of players. We had a blast, getting about four hours of play out of just 3 of about a dozen sites and encounters featured in this slim chapbook due to its general high concentration of weird and adventurous. There are a few structural stumbling blocks in the scenario, but they are more than made up for by the sheer amount of great material.

The Hook
The Duke DeCorticus, plant creature and benevolent ruler of his peaceful duchy Plandra, asks the characters, who happen to be his pals, his servants, his worshippers or something else along those lines, to help him out with a little problem: The vertical city of The Wall has suddenly stopped providing him with the Rare Earths he need to survive. Meanwhile, plantophobic pamphlets with titles like Theoretical Injustices Assume Reality: A Short Treatise on the Absurdity of Botanical Beings Assuming Rule Over Mankind show up. DeCorticus needs the characters to get him some rare earths, and fast - for should he die, the whole region might sink into a mire of petty war ...
The characters have to possible destinations: Either go to The Wall and find out why shipments have suddenly stopped, or travel to a giant plant called the Blue Oak that supposedly presents an alternative source of Rare Earths.
As the adventure text itself mentions, this is basically a setup for the character to travel through some of the locations detailed in the chapbook and for the GM to have agents of their enemy (the so-called Auric Liquidators) turn up whenever they feel like it. There's not really a big mystery to unravel about the pamphlets and their origin - it's simply about getting there, getting rare earth and getting back in time to save Duke DeCorticus (who will die after 4d6 days - seriously, if you play FoB by the book, you're going to make random rolls for a lot of stuff! You don't have to, of course. I rolled how long DeCorticus would survive, but with most of the "1 or 2 on d6" encounters in the book, I just made an executive decision).

What's in the Book
Fronds of Benevolence is structured as a point crawl, providing a map (which is actually more of a mindmap) of the relevant locations, connected by lines with traveling times between them. While the map looks pretty straightforward at first glance, it is not always easy to reconcile with the text; it is kind of hard to figure out how the characters will be able to get to which of their destinations. It all becomes clearer on the second reading, but I feel that clarity has been sacrificed on the altar of brevity in some cases.
What follows after the introduction is the descrption of two possible means of transportation provided by DeCorticus: a space-going Golden Barge and a so-called Stilt Loper (think martian tripod, but more fragile) which both come with peculiar and occasionally suspect fellow travellers; and the description of the places that the characters might pass through (which have such inspiring names as the Eye Bleed, the Vomiting Precipes or the Rainbow Wastelands and include an asteroid with space moles on it the characters might crash-land on). All of this is described in terse, but evocative words. So what's the sound of FoB? (and I'm not talking about you, Paul, so shut up!) Take this description of what will happen if the characters should fall into one of the sinkhole of the collapsing mire with their stilt-loper:
 [...] they are surrounded by absolute pitch darkness and the gibbering and howling of certain masses of humanoid flesh that coagulate in these tunnels. Groupings of  pale orange specks denote eyes, but where one body ands an another begings is spectacularly ambigious. There's a 1-in-6-chance daily that when lost in the sinkhole tunnels, they discover a teleportation device that (if they can operate it) places them straight at the base of The Wall.

The locations are followed by an appendix featuring descriptions of and stats for creatures and antagonists, which should be especially useful if you want to mine FoB for a longer campaign (see below). My favourites are the Wine Coloured Raiders (Red) and the Wine-Coloured Raiders (White); the former are tusked creatures that ravage that badlands and take turns as mount and rider; the second are roaming scholars of the same species, who are eyed with wariness and suspicion by their red cousins.
The inside covers feature random rumours, random meals for the 17 course menu aboard the goden barge, random occupations for NPCs and random names. They're are fun and certainly useful, though I couldn't really say, because I always forget to actually use these things in play.

What's Not in the Book
FoB leaves a lot of dots to connect to the GM - I had to read the text twice to figure out the exact connection between the Carcosa-inspired Emptied City the characters may come accross and the three Gardener Knights (armed with secateures, a great shovel and poison spray) protecting the heart of the Blue Oak. Also, the geographical relationship between some of the locations are a little bit vague; for example, if you follow the mindmap, it seems that the only way for the characters to enter the enormous Blue Oak from the mountainous Eye Bleed is from somewhere near the top and then travel down to its roots where they can find the coveted rare earths. However, it is never made clear why that should be the case. I guess it might be supposed that they just hop from a cliff on one of the boughs, but this is never made explicit.
Also, while most of the location entries are sparkling with interesting encounters, The Wall falls a little flat as adventure location. NPCs don't feel as interesting or as useful here as in the other places. The text directs you to mine the backgrounds from the Troika! core rules for people to interact with, which works fine, but it would still have been nice to have one or two NPCs that are more specifically designed to help or hinder the characters in their search for rare earths.

What we Actually Did
We spent most of our gaming session on the Golden Barge with a bizarre fight against the Auric Liquidators that worked against the characters, getting in the spirit by describing the goofy and macabre results of hits - one of the bad guys ended up running around for the whole fight with one point of Stamina and one of his own throwing discs, which had ricochetted from a bulk-head when he had fumbled, sticking out of his scalp. I ended up having the Auric Liquidators summon a void beast by means of a kind of grammophone (the adventure provides the void beast as a possible random encounter). The real stars of the journey, however, was the group of geriatrics who took an anniversary trip on the Golden Barge and were so excited to be in an actual adventure, with actual dead people, and right on their dinner table, no less! They made for some true Flying Circus moments.
After that, the rest felt more like an epilogue, with some asking around on The Wall (the characters ran into a quickly improvised rhino-man who had no real interest in talking to them, but they gleaned some vital information from the newspaper he was reading), and a kind of anti-climatic final fight against the plant-hating baddy who was, of course, behind the pamphlets and also behind stopping the suppy of rare earths. (Note to self: remember that bad guys don't pay stamina for spells, or they'll go down MUCH too fast!) By then, it was late anyway, and we had to get finished.

What was Great
Laughing out loud while reading the scenario. Laughing even more while playing it. And the fact that after an evening of gaming, I still had only used about a quarter of the locations detailed in the book. It would have been easy to turn this in a longer campaign with further missions leading to other locations in the book. The scenario seeds are certainly there (though they are not made explicit).

What was Not so Great
While I'm comfortable with improvising missing details, I get nervous when I notice that the details are there, but a little too hidden. Just tell me that the Knights at the Blue Oak are the same Knights as the ones you can find out about in the Abandoned Gilded City! Also, as I mentioned, the pointcrawl map has some problems.

A collection of wonderfully peculiar NPCs, creatures and locations with just enough connective tissue to turn it into a story at the table. Whole-heartedly recommended!

Where to get it?

Fierce: 4 out of 5 creatures
Beautiful: 5 out of 5 creatures


  1. Jakob! As the author and illustrator of Fronds I really appreciated this thorough review! I'm glad you enjoyed it at the table, sounds like your group played it in exactly the spirit it was intended. I appreciate the comments about clarity both in the map and the text - you're correct that over connections were left out for brevity (it was supposed to be a chapbook - I just got carried away!). Clarity is something I'll work on with my next book.



  2. Hi Andrew, good to hear from you, and congratulations again (and thanks for) the great adventure! I noticed that I neglected to mention the artwork - I'm terribly bad at writing about art, so I tend to avoid it, which is a pity when it comes to something like "Fronds" (and also the Troika! rulebook), where the illustrations are such an integral part of the whole thing.

  3. Yesterday, I played through FoB again for another one-shot. I turned it into a semi-sequel to last months session (though with different players), where Team A, which had went to The Wall, hasn't yet succeeded in acquiring rare earths, and so a Team B is sent to the Blue Oak to look into the alternate source.
    Again, we had a great time - I got to use most of the other locations, so we had a battle against three Ybaba-Ygaks in the Collapsing Mires, bad weather in the Eye Bleed (which was particularly threatening to the parchment witch in our group) ... and a boss fight against the three Ghost Knights at the foot of the Blue Oak that very nearly turned into a TPK, with the rhino man Frickle being the sole survivor (mostly thanks to his thick skin). Skill 11 is a real hard nut to crack! Things might have gone differently, but the parchment witch Xemena (which was being played to the hilt as haughtly, inconsiderate and just plainly evil) decided early on that the best course of action would be to trade the lifes of the rest of the group (including that of the poisoned, but still just-so living stilt loper pilot they were carrying along on the back of one of the two porters in the group) as sacrifice to the Holy Tuber in exchange for some rare earths, and basically turned on the group in the ensueing fight. I was a little wary about that whole ting, fearing that the PvP element brought on by her player might ruin the fun for others, but it turned out alright (though I'd say it was a close thing and could have turned sour).
    In the end, sole survivor Frickle killed one of the knights and then Xemena, but the latter's approach was still vaildated, because Frickle then was able to strike a deal with the two remaining knights, sacrificing the souls of the dead and dying for the needed rare earth.
    Oh yeah, two rolls on the Oops! table - one turned the big wooden spoon of Bandra, the Befouler of Ponds, into a sentient creature, which got its own initiative tokens and attacked a random person everytime it was drawn, and hickups, which sadly prevented her from casting any further spells ... which was really kind of unfair, since she had just before creatively used her Undo spell to protect Xemena from the insidious whisperings of the Holy Tuber (which, otherwise, would have caused Xemena an ongoing -3 penalty to Skill) - and then, when Bandra was quite helpless, that damn witch turned on her! Well, I think it was okay in the end, but I kind of felt for Baldra, who was dealt a bad hand and had nothing to show but an ignoble death for her trouble ...

  4. Holy epic play report! Glad you managed to wring some extra play out of the "other" branch of the adventure. And how devious of them to try to save the Loper pilot just for a sacrifice!