WARNING, MAJOR DOOM-CAVE SPOILERS AHEADParis was so remote from any shop that participated to the Free RPG Day that I had missed all the fun this year. That's why the PWYW release of The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children was an event for me. Last year was basically the same and Better Than Any Man was quite a blast. I loved almost every bit of it - especially its long introduction about playing in a Faux Renaissance-Europe setting. I'm a Solomon Kane/The Enemy Within/Dark Ages Call of Cthulhu sort of player and always thought that Old Europe makes a perfect fit for grotesque and horror fantasy, So Dark All Over Europe as the Sisters of Mercy say.
James is the best publisher around the OSR. Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, Vornheim and Better Than Any Man have all pushed up the limits, wrapped our RPG subculture into Art and vice-versa, crashed the few fences that needed to be crashed and promoted real production value where the standard was still rooted in the 1980s. We, small DIY players/enthusiasts/designers now strive to keep up with the level of expectation he's set (except for the ENnies crowd who seem to ignore just about anything about what's been published this year). He may not be the best writer this time, though - to each his own.
For when I read The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children, I can't help thinking that it's been a rush job. Not so much on the production side, not really on the writing side, no. Worse. On the imagination side. The plot is so contorted that it could have been part of a season of Lost, it relies heavily upon a "it's science-gonzo-fuckmagic" instead of even trying to show a seeming of logic. It's so circonvoluted that it makes me think of a BBS Forum Fanfiction plot. You know what I mean: "he loved her but she wasn't her then because then she was me but my evil twin is so powerful because he's made love with Alucard and now his baby is singing and your ears bleed so yes, I can type with my CAPS LOCKS on". Were there some fun in this that I would have been sold, to hell with logic! Alas, the only reason I see for such a plot is that it makes us think of the Bodysnatchers and that it's cool. It is indeed, except about all of James adventures make us think about the Bodysnatchers. You can even do that to yourself if you fuck with a summon spell by the book. So yeah, Bodysnatchers once, right, Bodysnatchers twice, we get the hint but every effing adventure? No, thank you. You get the weird and the grotesque when you have an ordinary, it's a balance that keeps the surprise element hitting as hard as it must and keeps the players on their toes. When you get turned into a turnip, transformed into a rotting fish, mind-warped and grow an extra leg off your ass every adventure (I think you got everything you need here for next Free RPG Day, James), it's not weird anymore, not grotesque anymore, it's just a theme, a color, a background ; and it's boring because nothing else happens, because if everything's always special, then nothing is.
Don't get me wrong, I love when my characters warp. I've played a half-demon who randomly became a monk and whose skin was green and could synthezise light as plants do, and he was my favorite character for a long time - before becoming an undead cat. It wasn't boring, never was, because every other character struggled to remain normal and because that happened over time, because that wasn't a routine. You'll find a lot of random tables in the Doom-Caves as well. Those of you who have bought my stuff know how much I love random tables, I've designed a whole city just with random tables (not like Vornheim, a complete city - neighborhood by neighborhood). I'm the sort of guy who draws 4 cards from the Deck of Many Things when one pops up. But here, most tables could be subsumed in 2, maybe 3 effects - to such an extent that the tables aren't really useful. 1 - you gain 1 point in a stat 2 - You gain 1 point and your friend Bob loses 2, 3 - You both lose 1 point and dance a Polka, etc. What's the point? I mean, what is there to tinker with since most results come to similar conclusions? It's just random for the sake of being random as it's weird for the sake of being weird and that's bad design. And deep down, when you strip the thing to its bones, there's a room with a wizard and a set of machines and traps. I'd say "yawn" if it wasn't for the adventure's upside.There's a mechanism for collective intelligence, the Ladder, which is brilliant because it builds an incredible tension just by itself, a mechanical tension, perfectly suited to the theme. There's this incredible environment to explore as well. It's well-detailed and thought-provoking and reminds me very much of Paul Keigh's adventures, as published by Geoffrey McKinney in his Psychedelic Adventures line. These adventures, the Dreams of the Lurid Sac, The Streams of the Lurid Crack and the Gleams of the Livid Plaque are location-based adventures set in weird gonzo places where factions compete. Unlike the Doom-Caves, they're not very detailed and leave a lot to the Referee's imagination, like the Doom-Caves they distantly feel like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, complete with the mandatory alien abduction, the robots and the awful monsters from Outer Space. If you put them together with the Doom-Caves, you've got a whole crossover campaign to play and it sounds like your players will remember it.
I'm not giving stars, who the hell I am to give marks? but as written, I think I'd pass on this one and get back to my campaign notes, I'm running Better Than Any Man very soon and it's a tough nut to crack.