Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Weird on the Waves (Review)

For a while now1, I’ve been dreaming of a maritime campaign, so I jumped on Weird on the Waves a year or so ago. It’s finally out, and it’s OK I guess.

Background

Weird on the Waves started taking pre-orders in 2017 as a LotFP-compatible product. It released in 2020 with generic D&D rules and notes for both “old school” and “new school” styles of play. It is available from Kiel Chenier’s itch.io page for $5.99 or from his other storefront (?) for $10.99. I don’t know what the difference is, but I got mine from itch.io if there is one.

The Elephant in the Room

Is Kiel Chenier cancelled? I don’t know man. If he’s a grifter, he seems benign. I did keep an eye out for any of the worst issues of Blood in the Chocolate and didn’t find them here.

Overview

The setting is the Caribbean in 1666, just before the “golden age of piracy”. But something is wrong: ships can travel to the Caribbean, but they can’t leave again. Instead, they find the islands surrounded by a sentient, hateful ocean full of strange and magical islands.

Chapter 1 - The Weird Waves

In addition to the setting pitch and the list of inspirational media, this chapter also explains basic D&D terminology in a way that’s not enough to be useful on its own, but enough that it might not match whichever system you are using. I would have preferred if it just owned OSR-style stats or 5e-compatibility, and didn’t feel the need to explain dice notation again.

This chapter also contains the part of the game that I’m most likely to borrow from: the basic “gameplay loop” of Weird on the Waves. That is the structure of finding a lead and following through and the procedures for sailing (like other games have procedures for exploring a dungeon or hexcrawling).

Chapter 2 - Character Creation and Play

This chapter also suffers from system indecision. It has rules for things that your base game should already have2, like swimming, drowning, encumbrance, experience, etc. It has some suggested backgrounds, but without the mechanical heft of full 5e backgrounds, which is probably fine. It does also have rules the base game is unlikely to have, like firearms and a general-purpose “maritime” skill.

Chapter 3 - The Mermaid

When characters die in Weird on the Waves, they can be brought back as a mermaid by the ocean, but without their memories. The mermaids here are suitably weird (we are treated to some of Kiel’s own art), and the bulk of the class is a d100 random-advancement table. It has details for “New School” and “Old School” games.

Chapter 4 - Goods and Equipment

Maybe someone likes this, but for the most part I don’t care what the cost of a cutlass is, or the range of a blunderbuss compared to a musket, meticulously-researched though I’m sure it is. I appreciate the miscellaneous bonuses that come from ship’s pets, and I like that all the currency conversion rates are as simple as possible.

Rules for disease also end up in this chapter, because medicine is here. Fair enough.

Chapter 5 - Ships and Sea Vessels

Like equipment tables for boats. I would be perfectly fine with four basic ships and then keep the section with perks and customizations, but I assume that some people get a lot out of this.

Chapter 6 - Sailing the Sea

Here is real meat. If Chapter 1 had procedures for “dungeon exploration”, Chapter 6 is the random encounter tables and rules for morale. (It is actually random encounter tables and rules for morale, so that wasn’t a great analogy.)

Chapter 7 - Ship Combat

I’ve read a bunch of ship combat rules, but I’ve never actually run any. This looks simpler than Pathfinder but more helpful than B/X, so that’s promising. Ocean hazards are also in this chapter, and I’m not sure why they’re not in the previous one instead.

Chapter 8 - Ending Combat, Days, and Voyages

Unlike the last section of Chapter 7 (“Ending Combat”), the title of this chapter refers to repairs after combat and also other parts of the sailing procedure that happen at the end of the day (e.g. morale checks) or the end of voyages (e.g. selling treasure).

Chapter 9 - Wave Master Rules

This chapter has a setting overview (“the ocean is magic and hates you”) and details (“the government of Cuba”) and GM advice (“historical accuracy is overrated”). There are also rules for “Wave”, “Weal”, and “Woe” dice, which represent the will of the malevolent sea. Wave dice get added to the GM-side of contested rolls, Weal dice are added to player rolls (like inspiration maybe), and Woe dice are rolled for prompts to make a situation worse whenever a player rolls a natural “1”.

This chapter also has all the random tables, and they seem all right.

Chapter 10 - Adversaries and Monsters

There are three kinds of monster in here: small or mundane animals, NPCs, and weird creatures. I could probably do without stats for “Cat” and “Dog”, especially because the important parts (bonuses for having a ship’s pet) are already elsewhere. I could also do without stats for “Sailor” and “Commoner”, because the base system should already have these, and I wouldn’t have to convert anything.

The weird creatures are one of the best parts of the book though, from a flavor standpoint. We’ve been told before that the sea hates humans and mocks them, but these creatures are actually showing that. The ocean learns that humans need vitamin C to survive, so it makes carnivorous citruses that suck vitamin C. Explorers start littering guns and ammunition, so the ocean induces crabs to become fortresses. It really captures the weirdness and hatred and confusion of the setting.

There are also some named NPCs (mostly historical figures) to serve as rivals, patrons, etc. These are fine and useful.

Chapter 11 - The Horrors of Pig Island

A short adventure, but probably solid. There are only so many ways to do a shipwreck adventure, but this one is cleaned up, with a little bit of Circe, and showcasing some of the atmosphere of the Weird on the Waves setting.

Chapter 12 - Race to Mondo Island

This adventure really showcases the sailing protocols, but doesn’t seem to add much. The PCs have a map, hire a crew, encounter some weird stuff, and hopefully return with the treasure. If nothing else, this is a useful illustration of how to use the tools in the book.

Impressions

  • The PDF is not accessible at all. This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument against this book. The text is not searchable, there are no bookmarks, and every page is a flat, lo-res, grayscale image. Ostensibly, this is to prevent piracy (irony noted), but I don’t understand quite how, because people pirate PDFs all the time. This is only slightly alleviated by the inclusion of a hi-res map booklet.
  • In what I assume is a result of this decision, the text of some tables is larger than the space allows, leading to crowded, hard-to-read entries like this:
  • The book is a one-person effort and the limits of that show. For example, it could really use an editing pass to catch all manner of little things (the wrong “its”, “Île/Isle” confusion, etc. In one place, the book refers to a “Weird” die, even though the new types of dice are “Wave”, “Weal”, and “Woe”.) It reminds me of Ynn in that respect: strong concept but lots of loose ends.
  • No rules are given for renown, although the text mentions it a few times. It’s not a big deal to improvise, but I remember one of the things I did like about the Pathfinder pirate rules was a subsystem for tracking “infamy”.
  • It doesn't need to be 224 pages. A lot of space could have been saved if a single system was picked, or some things were left assumed. But I wouldn’t mind the length so much if the PDF were searchable and indexed.
  • The art is a bit of a letdown. Kiel referred to the book as a “millstone around his neck” in the preface, and I’m glad for him that he finally got it finished (I know the feeling). But somewhere between concept and finished product Kiel’s own art was replaced with standard-issue public domain art3, and I find it uninspiring. To see what could have been, I have reproduced two pages from a 2019 sample document (left) next to their released counterparts (right).

Conclusion

Would you like me to review your product? Here’s how to make that happen:

  • Write a solid product that blows me away.
  • Write a product of any quality that happens to be on top of my pile when I’m in a writing mood.
  • Ask me? I don’t know if this will work, nobody’s ever tried.
  • Write a product that doesn’t exist, that I already really want to read and make it infuriatingly close to good.
I would say that I could definitely get some use out of this, except for the accessibility issues. If I can’t search it or navigate it, it’s going to be more hindrance than help at the table.

Islands!

Weird on the Waves has a weird island generator, so as is tradition, I gave it a half-dozen spins. It’s got occupants (1d12, 9 entries), shape (1d20), resources (1d8, 6 entries), buried or hidden treasure (1d6), and noteworthy features (1d100, ~30 entries).

Island 1

Occupants: Spanish colonists (60 commoners, 10 sailors, 1 noble)
Shape:
Resources: Coconuts (Provisions)
Buried Treasure: Buried trove (Ivory (0.1 tons, 12000 gp), Fresh water (1 ton, 100 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: The island is cursed, causing all who dwell upon it to slowly be turned into different kinds of fish people. The transformation is slow, causing anyone who stays there longer than a month to develop fishy traits.

Island 2

Occupants: Coconauts (110 coconauts)
Shape:
Resources: Coconuts (Provisions)
Buried Treasure: Sealed crate of textiles (175 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: Site of a cursed item. A random cursed item is hidden somewhere on the island. The item is a valuable treasure, but holds a terrible curse if used or possessed by a character. The exact nature of the cursed item is up to the Wave Master.

Island 3

Occupants: Uninhabited by humans
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Buried Trove (Spanish wine (0.2 tons, 300 gp), Livestock (2.1 tons, 75 gp), Clothing (1 ton, 300 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: The island is cursed, causing all who dwell upon it to slowly be turned into different kinds of fish people. The transformation is slow, causing anyone who stays there longer than a month to develop fishy traits.

Island 4

Occupants: Dutch merchants (100 sailors, 2 captains)
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Buried Trove (Dyes (0.2 tons, 500 gp), Textiles (0.3 tons, 525 gp), 14 Provisions (0.4 tons, 140 gp), Materials (1 ton, 100 gp), Narcotics (0.5 tons, 1000 gp), Rum (1 ton, 400 gp))
Noteworthy Feature: Within the island is a cave system with 17 chambers, forming a treasure-laden but heavily trapped dungeon.

Island 5

Occupants: Buccaneer camp (13 buccaneers, 1 captain)
Shape:
Resources: Island cedar trees (Materials)
Buried Treasure: Sealed crate of textiles (175 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: An abandoned settlement. Tobacco and sugarcane has been planted, houses and camps built and intact, but completely empty save for a few splashes of blood. Pirates didn’t kill these people, but something did. Setting up a camp here is easy, but encounters are doubled.

Island 6

Occupants: English colonists (50 commoners, 10 sailors, 1 captain)
Shape:
Resources: Sea cave (Hiding place)
Buried Treasure: Cache of Barbados rum (12 barrels, 480 gp)
Noteworthy Feature: An abandoned settlement. Tobacco and sugarcane has been planted, houses and camps built and intact, but completely empty save for a few splashes of blood. Pirates didn’t kill these people, but something did. Setting up a camp here is easy, but encounters are doubled.

Notes

These are pretty good, combining a lot of the best features of other tables I’ve liked. I like that most islands are inhabited, I like that every island has a secret treasure, and I like the little maps. The only thing that feels “off” is the specificity. When it lines up well, the specificity makes the whole thing come together beautifully (Why does Island 4 have two captains? Obviously there are North and South camps, and they are fighting over the extensive treasure caverns.) But then when it doesn’t line up obviously, it can be tough to make it fit (How is the livestock “hidden” on Island 3?). In other places, I wish there was a little more detail, like about the cursed item on Island 2. The "weighting" of some of the tabes feels off slightly, but I can't put my finger on it.

Are any of the islands giant turtles?

No turtles, but one possible island is a fossilized whale that begins to move again when the characters uncover its calcified heart. Same vibes.


1 I recently caught up with an old friend and we were talking about D&D. I told him about the nautical campaign I was dreaming and he said, “Ian, you need to do that already. You gave me the same pitch in High School.” Now I’m worried because I don't remember that at all.back

2 Or not, as you might know if you’d ever looked for LotFP’s drowning rules. This uncertainty goes some way to explaining, if not excusing the bulk.back

3 Which isn’t to say that this can’t be done well. I quite like the public-domain collages in Johnstone Metzger’s work, and I find that Emmy Allen’s work tends to recontextualize the images enough that they don’t bother me.back

3 comments:

  1. Wait what were the issues in Blood in the Chocolate

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    1. Blood in the Chocolate had two big issues that it's worth addressing separately:
      1. In attempting to ridicule the excesses of colonizers, it fell back on racist stereotypes of the colonized. It punched down at least as much as it punched up.
      2. I gave up trying to phrase it more politely, but "berry death orgies". There may be a place for sexually explicit or disturbing content in RPGs, but they need to be treated with more care and with more warning.
      Kiel has since acknowledged these issues apologized for them: https://dungeonsdonuts.tumblr.com/post/622455367339835392/i-am-sorry-for-blood-in-the-chocolate-and-what-it

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  2. The change in the art seems disappointing. The original pages have a lot of verve and energy to them.

    I think some of your advice about writing a system-neutral product could be really useful to others. I don't know that I'd have thought about that while I was writing something - but your reader's perspective seems really helpful for pointing out potential blindspots.

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