Review: Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren
Publisher: Feral Gamers Inc.
Game Engine: System Agnostic
I am going to start this review by saying that Feral Gamers Incorporated have made me a fan, more than anything, because they are striving to create the best games that they can.
I made the first article on this blog a review of their role playing game Delve 2e, a fantasy survival role playing game that uses a custom engine, taking parts from Dungeons & Dragons, parts from Warhammer fantasy, and mixing them with their own ingenious Mechanics for handling time and barter. It was a game that I could find no real mention of on the internet, and only one review of on YouTube. And it is a game that I thought deserved some love.
My core philosophy in writing reviews is this: anyone can criticize. If, however criticism only identifies flaws, and fails to celebrate strengths, it is as Hemingway put it, a matter of cowards watching a battle, then shooting the survivors. Good criticism identifies a work's strengths so the Artist has incentive to give us more of the same. And it offers suggestions on how to deal with weaknesses. That way, the critic helps later works become stronger, and is in service to everyone.
Feedback is not just the breakfast of champions. It is a crop you cultivate to better feed the world.
After I posted my review of Delve 2e, both here and on DrivethruRPG, it felt as if they took the feedback I gave them to heart. The creators at Feral Gamers addressed the criticisms they could within a couple of weeks. I am very proud to say that I have had to put Editor's Notes and corrections in that first article.
One of the strongest points of Delve 2e is its setting. The PCs of Delve are Castaways on the Island of Cragbarren. A mountainous Island that once held a thriving civilisation... and now is full of ghost towns, overrun with monsters, and abandoned by its neighbors. Thanks to a magical fog, it is also a navigational hazard that has several shipwrecks every year.
Delve 2e details the Southern Beaches, a cave complex, and the Village of Wreck Haven... a shanty town of people who have been wrecked on the island and their descendants, barely scratching out a living, and mostly neither brave nor skilled enough to survive the monsters between the coast where they washed up and the last town of the fallen native civilisation just three days away.
The basic play arc of Delve 2e is that the castaway PCs become adventurers who live by their wits off of salvaged goods in Wreck Haven until they are strong and well equipped enough to venture further into the wilderness and ruins of Cragbarren. Eventually, they will brave the trek to the town of Gnarling, and from there explore the island from a places where they can translate their found riches into gear, magic, and training. The endgame is to explore the demon infested City of Stench and confront the Demon Lord that has cursed the Island.
The setting is compelling, dark, and the named NPCs engaging. It is well designed to let PCs enjoy starting from nothing and build everything they have with their wits and their own two hands. In fact, the Cragbarren setting is by far the strongest element of the game.
However, the Delve 2e core book only details Wreck Haven and the City of Stench... with nothing in between. Other locations, like Gnarling are mentioned, but not detailed. Instead, the game referred to a second book, The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren. This is a book that details the rest of the setting, and is intended to be a resource for both players and GMs. In fact, the PCs receive a copy at the end of character generation.
It is clear that Delve 2e and The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren are meant to be a bundle. In fact, Delve 2e makes reference back to the 'Guide often enough, it feels like an incomplete product without it. Online, however, Delve 2e is not bundled with the 'Guide, and when Delve was offered for free online for the duration of the Pandemic, the 'Guide was not.
Much to Feral Gamers Inc.'s credit they fixed this by offering the 'Guide as a PWYW title, and emailed all the customers who had picked up the book that it was available. I was so impressed with their response that I immediately bought it well above their suggested price.
I was not disappointed.
The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren is a 33 page document detailing 33 locations across the Island of Cragbarren. It includes one detailed town and four dungeon maps, with additional random location generating tools.
ArtI am a sucker for evocative art. The images in the 'Guide are eerie and evocative; they create a great time for the bleak, haunted feel of Cragbarren. They have no living figures to create a sense of tension, but don't really need them, as they appear in the context of a handwritten guide of hearsay about the Island, images from the accounts of explorers make sense. However, In this case, it might have helped immersion and the fiction of the book as guide if the images had been done in sketch style (as in the conceptuslly similar A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island), or perhaps as medieval illumination.
|"Tree of Sacrifice at the Edge of the Forest of Ghosts."
© 2018 FGFantasy
Variety of LocationsFrom Goblin caves to machine-filled Dwarven ruins, from abandoned cities to villages of dangerous cultists, Cragbarren offers a massive array of different locations. Each enhances the feel of loneliness, melancholy, or menace that pervades the setting.
Campaign Building MysteriesEvery location has some peril and mystery around it, but some, like the Floating Islands, Dwarven Fortress, Lost Tower of the Unholy Shroud, and the Village of Grey are so compelling that they could probably be the basis of a massive, multi-adventure arc.
System AgnosticWhile the Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren serves as a setting guide for Delve 2e, it has no mechanical data in it, nor is anything in the setting book reliant on ideas exclusive to Delve. This setting could be easily dropped into any number of OSR games and play beautifully. A loot-as-ability game like Knave or ICRPG would enhance the survival and scavenging element of the setting quite effectively, for example.
The Intetnal InconsistencyIn Delve 2e the Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren is given to the PCs by the NPC Cedric the Guide. He gives copies of the tome away to castaways as a welcoming gift. It gives the GM an excuse to simply hand the Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren to the Players and let them decide what to explore.
However, almost everything in Wreck Haven is salvaged, recycled, or repurposed. There is no industry to speak of. Scavenging and gathering are major activities. What's more, books are at a premium in Wreck Haven, with the general store owner paying a premium for books to add to her jealously guarded library; something that is a point of dispute with the local wizard who runs the Mage's guild, the trader, and a local librarian.
With books and paper at a premium, and no industry, how do these books get made, let alone mass-produced by Cedric?
Likewise, most people who make It to Wreck Haven never leave. Only a couple of PCs are said to have left the Village and reached Gnarling. The sheer volume of information here is just not consistent with the setting, where just reaching Gnarling is a major campaign milestone.
The manual is a fine setting book, but its existence in game makes no sense. It just creates too many questions, unless Wreck Haven somehow possesses a small lumbering industry, a mill, and a printing press, and that the Island is not nearly dangers as reported. Or it is full of lies.
A sense of HOW the book is created that fits the ramshackle, poverty-stricken backdrop of Cragbarren is needed.
Blank Slate Dungeon MapsThe 'Guide contains four dungeon maps for locations that will make decent low-level dungeons. The maps, however, are just numerated floor plans; they contain no key or description. I understand the design choice: this is a blank map that can be stocked or restocked as needed. However, without some detail, they add nothing to the book.
The ideal balance might be a description of the contents of the room other than whatever monster is currently lairing there. Possibly in the voice of an explorer, scrawled on the map. For example: "this room has rusted mine cart tracks and Goblin graffiti", or "I heard something huge snoring here; I didn't go in."
No information on Wreck Haven
Delve 2e creates a really vivid home base for the PCs in Wreck Haven. It's Inn, Library, Smithy, Trading Post, and Mage's Guild are run by fascinating NPCs with dynamic relationships and clashing interests. The descriptions are interspersed in the rules. When both Delve 2e and The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren are taken together, they create an incredible setting. However the data in Delve is presented in a way that is intended as a riles tutorial.
If a summary of the setting of Wreck Haven were presented in Cedric's voice -including only the descriptive information about the shops and their proprietors from Delve 2e - The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren would be usable as a standalone product without reference to Delve 2e and still have all of the content that makes Cragbarren such a stunning setting.
The Three Questions MethodAs is, The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren offers enough inspiration to run a couple of successful campaigns on Cragbarren with only a little creative work.
If I we're to suggest anything that would lift this product up from, "Good" to "Exceptional," it would be to steal a trick from the toolbox used over at Monte Cook Games in Numenéra, and try to add three unsolved mysteries, rumours or question to each location. In some cases, the 'Guide does this, including one or two hooks already, while others are just a broad description.
Where the 'Guide already does this, the hooks blend seamlessly into Cedric's voice. Ultimately certain areas, such as The Statue of the Dragon (p.20) or the Village of the Dead Forest (p. 23) could use a little more of the same.
One of the beauties of The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren is that it's narrator, Cedric is clearly unreliable and relies a lot on gossip and hearsay. In-game in Delve 2e he also appears lazy, and cowardly. Nothing put in this book need be true or accurate.