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Rackham Vale - OSR "Zine" Review

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maderschramm:


Rackham Vale - OSR "Zine" Review
by PM Schramm

Rackham Vale is amazing. Usually one doesn’t start off a review this way, as it makes more sense to point out the intricacies of the work, breaking down the various details held within, building your conclusion as you go along. But, it is not often when a book - “zine” is not really the correct term for this product - moves your imagination in such a way as Rackham Vale does. I wanted to make it very clear to any all who come across this review, just in case you watch or read only the introductory paragraph, that no bookshelf should be missing Brian Saliba and Craig Shaffer’s excellent contribution to the Old School Renaissance.

Look, Feel, and Space Utilization

Brought to life as a Kickstarter Zine Quest 3 entry, Rackham Vale goes above and beyond anything that could be construed as a mass market zine. This 152 page setting guide printed in perfect bound on high quality, glossy paper feels nice in the hand and to touch. Within, the coloration is black and white, with subdued grays that highlight the beautiful detail of Arthur Rackham’s sketches - the artist born in 1867 from which this imaginative work was birthed.

Reading through, it is impossible not to completely immerse yourself in this world that Brian and Craig have created around Arthur’s artwork. Imagination runs wild as you eagerly devour page after page of gorgeous drawings with witty captions, useful tables, and extrapolative text. Reminiscent to A Red & Pleasant Land, another OSR work of magic and whimsey, the possibilities that run through one’s head are endless. The authors of this book know that, and pour gas on the fire, drawing similarities to a Brothers Grimm illustrated fairy tale - another work which Arthur Rackham is known for.

The artwork is beautiful, obviously, but after reading through, the perfect binding is a disappointment. This book deserves a hardcover adaptation and going with the perfect binding for cost saving measures is selling it short. That said, the interior front cover does have a few tables on it that will be used throughout play within the eponymously named setting. The rear cover has a calendar, unfilled, for moon phases, that looks like an empty Excel sheet. For a release that prides itself on its beauty, the stark contrast here is noticeable, as it is neither nice to look at, nor useful. Why not have the calendar pre-populated with the phases of the moon for the player? Along these lines, the facing rear page is nice to look at but not useful, as is the facing title page at the beginning of the book. The authors of Rackham Vale took noticeable steps to ensure that the layout was both easy to use and pretty to look at, but these examples are some of the rare misses within.

Content

The content awaiting the reader to dive eagerly into does not disappoint. It begins with some introductory notes, including what a referee should do to prepare his table to explore Rackham Vale. We then are shown a map of the setting, also included on a supplemental postcard delivered with the zine, which is then followed by page after page of locales ripe for player exploration; for example: The Golden River, The Vale High Road, The Vaur Hall & King’s Head Tavern. Page after page of exquisite artwork and ideation await - each locale a separate entry, with its own drawing and one to two pages of offset tables and text to flesh them out, absorbing the reader with the fantastical and mystical. The layout is stuck to almost to a fault here. Some of the larger locales within the setting could use additional fleshing out, and a single offset page sometimes isn’t enough to do them justice.

After the 18 individual settings is the “Factions” section of the book, which is really only a single spread on pages 54 and 55: a mind map of how the various factions within the setting perceive one another. Does this need to be its own section within the middle of the book? Perhaps not. Instead, it could have been easier to find if it were on one of the interior covers. As it stands, the layout here has a mistake: the image is too close to the center of the perfect bind, which cuts off some of the text. The map itself is also difficult to decipher at a glance and quite busy.

Up next is a set of adventure hooks, to bring industrious characters into the setting. Most of the hooks are interesting and help build the world as opposed to just giving the players something to hunt while within the Vale. Cleverly, the creature specific hooks use notation such as [Investigation] or [Combat | RP] indicative of what aspects of a roleplaying game the chooser of that hook can expect. It would have been helpful here as well if the hooks were numbered, allowing a referee to roll randomly to select one, rather than having to individually pick one out for a player.

The remainder of the usable content in the book is a massive bestiary containing 23 creatures and a few more random tables to help construct the setting on the fly. Each monster sports its own artwork and stats, along with some text to flesh out the roleplaying opportunities each provides. For example, Brella the Spook, who, “Though not one for conversation, if a conversant creature can contrive a way to see him, they will find that he drops his facade of mischievous snickering and tittering after a while to pine for his lost home.” This text is coupled with snippets of what the creature likes and hates, along with what they want, and their allies and enemies, making them easy to run within a campaign set within the Vale.

Usability

With such glowing praise, one may find themselves asking, “is there anything that isn’t great about Rackham Vale?” The answer is indeed yes. One of the key points within the setting is the keeping of and divulging of secrets. Just like any childhood fantasy, secrets abound within the book, highlighted by underlined, dotted text. These secrets hold sway within the world, and there are many creatures and places within that deal in or with them. The book recommends when a secret be given to the players to, as notated on page six, “flip through the book and find a secret deliberately or at random.” Such an ask is quite unwieldy. If the authors came up with a better way to disseminate these secrets, perhaps in a long random table, with links to the page numbers with said secrets, this type of action would be much more successful. In addition, the secrets of the world of Rackham Vale are the most interesting part about it, because nearly every entry, if not all of them, have one or more secrets that expounds upon them, building the world in a beautifully compounding and entrenched way. I found myself putting down the book wishing that this had been something the authors had doubled down on. Traders that dealt in secrets, secrets held for ransom, secrets that when uttered rend the very bindings that hold the world in place. As written the secrets have some utility in dealing with one of the creatures, the No-Moon Crone, but otherwise fall short of what this book could have been, which leaves the reader feeling a bit empty inside when all is said and done. When I run this world for my players, that is something that I will add and adapt, but I wish it would have been included from the start.

Secrets aren’t the only thing that have the reader paging and searching for answers within the text of the book. On page 44 with the Yapple Tree, it’s simply a one sentence entry, telling the reader to look at the Serpentangle bestiary entry, but it has no page number listed. Instead, you must flip back to the table of contents, which isn’t on the frontage page, but instead one page in, hunt for the entry in question, see that it’s on page 126, then flip there to get the information about the…what was it again? Oh yes, the Yapple Tree, which is mentioned in the “What It Is” section of the Serpentangle.

Conclusion

There are a few additional errors in Rackham Vale, most editorially related, that should have been caught in a proof read, but that are persistent in the final print. Examples include a missing space on page 13 between “the” and “Vale” at the top of the page; on page 24 there’s an erroneously labeled d16 table labeled as d10 instead; on page 31 the upper d12 “table” is missing entries for results 6 and 7; on page 67 “Brella” is listed as “Bella” in the poison section of his statblock; on page 71 a low-res version of one of Rackham’s works is used, or perhaps a smaller drawing was scaled beyond its usable size (a real shame); sometimes the spacing is a bit strange, such as in the statblock entry on page 109; and the shading of the tables at the end of the book, such as on page 145, is difficult to discern, causing the entries to bleed together, making them hard to differentiate from each other. Perhaps whitespace or a darker shade of gray could have been utilized here instead to make it more readable.

Besides these errors, there are a few mechanics that need work. For example, rather than a standardized size, many tables use strange denominators, such as d18s and d16s, which aren’t easy to use unless you happen to have those dies available or are comfortable with rerolling results higher than the table’s on a d20. Additionally, on page 24 there’s the description of a bronze ball attached to a crane that players might need to avoid. The mechanic used here is to make a STR Save to avoid being “bonked into the river.” STR Saves are a mechanic that are not in Old-School Essentials, which this book has been written for. There’s also the mention of DEX Checks which, while they are a mechanic within Old-School Essentials, feel uninspired when so much else of this book is genuine. Reading the mechanics for the Leviathan on page 97, we see that it is chock full of attribute checks that would be much more interesting if they instead allowed the player to solve the problems presented by looking elsewhere than on their character sheet: “Bitten victims must succeed on a STR check or are grabbed. On subsequent rounds, grabbed victims must succeed on a DEX check to avoid being chewed for an automatic 10d8 damage. Success means the victim is loose in the Leviathan’s mouth and must make another DEX save the following round to escape,” doesn’t sound very OSR to this reviewer, and instead seems to have been built around a much more boring system. Even the next page on finding a stone lodged in its gullet is an INT check rather than something more exciting, the notation on armor class being written as AC +5 [-5] seems to miss the point of how THAC0 worked in the first place (it would have been much simpler and cleaner to say “a 5 AC penalty”), and the authors seemed to confuse the fact that death and poison saves are the same thing in Old-School Essentials. All in all, it’s a real shame when you see wonderful entries elsewhere, such as the magnitude of the revelry of the Nimberlangles affecting the power of their spells in the very next bestiary entry.

But enough nitpicking. I comment on these things because I loved the book so, and hope some additional cleanup is provided in what this book really needs, which is a hardcover rerelease. As incredible a work that Brian and Craig have created here, anything less just isn’t fair to Rackham Vale.



Purchase at DriveThruRPG

Author was provided a copy of this book in the hope he would review it.


https://ko-fi.com/geaspublications

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