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 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