Saturday, December 18, 2021

Game Review: Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City

Cover, Ultraviolet Grasslands and
the Black City, by Luka Rejec,
©2019 Luka Rejec

: Luka Rejec
Publisher: Exalted Funeral
Marketplace: Exalted Funeral
Engine: SEACAT

I am treating this December as my month the catch up on things I've really been meaning to do for the blog. That includes articles I've been dying to write, catching up on reading things that I'm dying to read, and creating reviews I have been putting off.

One review I have been dying to get out of my head, but have found the job so big it is difficult to fully articulate my thoughts is Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. This book is huge, complex, and gorgeous.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
The year before last, Luka put it up as a pay what you want item temporarily to celebrate Karl Marx's birthday. Being the perverse contrary and I am, I decided to promote Luka's capitalist venture by paying a little more than the suggested pay what you want price. Go figure.

I'm glad that I have this book. And it is definitely on my gaming bucket list to run or play in.

So, how do we explain Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City?

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

I've heard it described as a journey across the psychedelic landscape. That's a good start to explain it. But it doesn't even begin to capture the whole thing.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
The game play is structured along the same lines as The Oregon Trail. You play pilgrims leaving the Violet city, the outermost bastion of the known world and human civilization, to travel across the Utraviolet Grasslands in hopes of reaching the fabled Black City, where they alien priest-kings are known to grant wishes to supplicants.

Your character, whoever they are, has left everything behind in hopes of getting this one wish, whatever It is granted or perhaps to bring back mysterious magical treasures that would allow them to return and become unimaginably wealthy.

The journey, however, is perilous, and very few return.

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
The landscape of the Ultraviolet Grasslands is truly one of the most wild pieces of psychedelia I have enjoyed outside of Möbius's Chronicles of Om in Heavy Metal magazine back in the 90s. It's borrows notes from Heavy Metal, Fantastic Planet, the art of Möbius, The Masters of the Universe, the Hyperion chronicles, Winds of Change, Wizards, Zachariah, and A Wizard of Earthsea, all jumbled in with enough other '70s psychedelia and science fiction that it is hard to pinpoint where the influences begin and where Luka Rejec's considerable creativity begins.

Massive Crawl

The game itself works primarily as a point crawl. At each region there is a stopping point where characters can find supplies, or at least a safe shelter to rest. From there, they can explore to discover interesting opportunities, bizarre discoveries, and either dangers, or wonders. From that location, the players have to choose a direction that will take them to the next region on the point crawl.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
This mixes the simple, easy point crawl structure that Chris Kutaliak uses in the Hill Cantons books, which I will also try to review this month, with the exploration structure I love so much about Hot Springs Island, where there's always one thing that characters will discover on their own, but so much more to explore.

The regions themselves are strange and wondrous. Among the places that characters can discover are a tiny Moon floating only a ladder's climb off the surface of the Earth, a vast chasm that reaches all the way to the underworld robot that is partially a living thing buried under the earth, a giant bridge that crosses the chasm made out of force fields so why do that people have come to live there, a canyon of howling winds where everyone who looks in one particular direction dies, and no one knows why, forests of intelligent, regenerating trees guarded by genetically engineered behemoths, and a city made out of a conch shell of impossible size.

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec
Characters gain experience by actually having experiences: exploring new and wondrous things, learning strange secrets, interacting with unusual locals, and seeing bizarre vistas all grant experience points. So does carousing, and Luka includes a carousing table system that I love, and have lifted for one of my own projects.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
Many of the dangers in UVG have nothing to do with combat. Starvation, disease, dangerous mishaps, destroying oneself by meddling with things that man was not meant to understand and wise adventurer should not be playing with often present greater dangers than mere monsters.

Taking a note from The Oregon Trail, which is major influence on this game, characters have a chance of mishaps on every leg of the journey. From simple mishaps, to strokes of luck, to great tragedies can befall you, using a charisma saving throw at the beginning of each new chapter of the journey.

There are even a few chances that the player characters might accidentally destroy the world or catapult themselves off into space too explore something far greater than their original pilgrimage.

That is not to say that There are no monsters. One of the most interesting elements of the game are the recurring menace of the vomes, creatures born of artificial intelligences that once controlled vehicles and drones, the Vomes have long outlived the society that created them, lost their purpose, and gone insane. Now they are manufactured by rogue factories, or, in some cases, infect living beings through nanotechnology.

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec
The Vomes are terrifying because they are insane and unpredictable. They may heal you or even give you new powers, but they are just as likely to tear you apart for spare parts, possess you, or kill you on sight. And they are so varied in appearance that you cannot quite be sure something is a vote until you hear it trying to communicate.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
The Black City itself is both everything it said to be and nothing like your characters would imagine. And player characters can learn of other, even more wondrous destinations beyond the Black City, opening the game up to whatever the group cares to imagine.

The Engine

The Ultraviolet Grasslands and Black City are built on SEACAT, an OSR retroclone designed by Luka Rejec to capture his philosophy on gaming. Mechanically, it is not vastly different from D&D5e, but uses many older-edition and OSR inspired simplifications, and you can pick it up without too much difficulty.

SEACAT uses a d20 roll over with FCs described by a difficulty that can be interpreted as a flat DC, like in regular d20 or randomized with a roll from the GM. For example a "Difficult" task is rolled against a flat DC15 or against a GM"s roll of 1d12+9 or 4d6 depending on the amount of randomness desired. D20 rolls add a Skill rating + Stat (Strength, Agility, Endurance, Charisma, Aura, Thought).

Stats range from 0-5 and skills use a level-based proficiency bonus of 1-4 that may be multiplied if the character has special expertise.

Rolls are subject to Advantage/Disadvantage. The skill list is open-ended and players may invent new skills. Natural 20s always succeed, natural 1s always fail.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
A character may build up a pool of hero dice (rewarded for role-playing, service to the table, etc.) That can be added to a die already rolled, or to buy extra advantage dice.

Both random and point buy character generation methods are available. SEACAT is classless. PCs select 3 skills and roll or choose a background.

Characters level up as in D&D, but have a maximum level of 9. Hit points are flat and level based.

UVG has a fatigue scale and ability damage mechanics that are often far more important than hit points themselves. Encumbrance uses a slot system.

Magic and some technologies are fuelled by hit points and ability score points to cast. Spells have levels that determine the cost. They also take inventory slots by default. Some characters can become wizards ad develop spell slots and a discount on the cost of magic, but this is risky to achieve. And there is a save required to cast spells, failure results in magical corruption and mutation

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

.What SEACAT has to offer that is particularly noteworthy is that it has great mechanics for group cohesion, resource management, and travel. It revamps much of the overland travel and gives journeys themselves a character sheet with their own statistics to keep track of that makes travel far more interesting.

Subtle but intelligent tweaks, such as rearranging how experience works makes a huge difference in the experience of the game. Combat in SEACAT is designed to be far more lethal, and characters to advance by being clever survivalists.

Monsters are significantly simplified, needing only a challenge level and some notes on their position. All other stats are found on a table based on their level.

The version of SEACAT offered at the end of UVG is a draft. A more complete independent version of the game and several new systems based on it have since being published.

What I Loved

The Artwork

Luka Rejec us an incredibly talented artist. I first became aware of his work through Chris Kutaliak's creations in the form of Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isle of the Eld, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and What Ho, Frog Demons?, and immediately fell in love with his style. If I were to try and describe it, I might say it is Ralph Steadman meets Mobius meets Roerich. 

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

I will post a few of my favorite pieces and let them speak for themselves. Each region has its own color palette, and slight variations in style. He has an amazing job of making his world a little stranger with each illustration.

I desperately want a Tarot deck by Luka Rejec.


Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
I have never seen anything quite like UVG before or since. It is a brave, crazy, absolutely brilliant creation. While I can clearly see influences, not a single location or event in this setting is lifted from somewhere else and pasted in. You will see nothing like this module elsewhere. It shows us what an RPG can be if we discard conventions and let our imagination soar.


From the comedically bizarre cat-ruled Violet City at the start, to the terrifying and grotesque Forest of Meat, from the strangely familiar Last Serai, to the totally alien Refracting Trees, The Ultraviolet Grasslands is increasingly strange and surreal. It is always smashing your expectations and keeping you from falling into the boring or familiar. There is a little bit of everything to experience from the perverse to the sublime, and from the debauched to the Heroic. You will not be bored.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
Overall there are 32 regions with a couple of stopping points at each and an average of 10 locations to discover.


Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City emphasizes the two most neglected pillars of modern Dungeons & Dragons: exploration and resource management. Mechanics for handling food, water, animals, and hirelings are cleverly constructed to be easy to use and heavy in importance. A caravan that runs out of supplies is likely to be immobilized and die out without a lucky break. Rules on desperation moves, like eating your "horses" are included that make survival seem like a real challenge.

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec
With hundreds of possible discoveries, players will never get to see everything, or have the same experience twice.

But the game does not lack for ruins to explore and monsters to fight or flee from as well.


Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
One day UVG is going to be held up as the perfect example of how to reward players in a way that creates a tailored game experience. Exploration brings XP, but comes with a cost on time and supplies. Carousing and mingling with the NPCs they meet in the Ultraviolet Grasslands does,too, but at the cost of resources and at risk to the character. Every reward comes at a potential cost that will force players to make careful, calculated decisions about how to proceed in the future.

Character Sheet Rule

As a clever flourish, SEACAT only permits players to use one side of a letter-sized sheet for character records. This creates a physical limitation to how ny strange skills, statted minions, special augmentation, etc. that they can accrue. If it doesn't fit on your sheet, you can't have it.


Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec

Luka begins this book with a story of the loss of his father, that, as a man who loves his father and sons, touched me deeply and filled me with a melancholy that shows itself throughout the book.

Growth Points

The Cover

With all the amazing art inside, I just don't understand the original black and violet front cover of UVG, it doesn't capture the interior at all.

SEACAT is Okay...

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

It is a pretty solid "O5R" (a system that takes D&D5e as a base and makes it more "Old School", like Cha'alt and 5e Hardcore Mode.) But I don't think it adds much to the book.

It could have as easily included it's notes on time, caravans, and it's monster systems as modules to hack into 5e or the OSR engine of your choice.

As is, the book is locked in to SEACAT through some of its nomenclature and mechanics. It requires a little work to adapt the setting of you wanted to use an engine like Knave, ICRPG, or Into the Odd, which I think could be a lot of fun to use with this setting. 

I don't hate the engine. It's okay, and has some elegant flourishes. I just feel this book deserves as big an audience as possible, which might have been easier to attain if it were system agnostic.

The Ultraviolet Grasslands should be a setting that fits on as many shelves as possible.


One thing that drove me crazy about UVG is that it does include a fair amount of reference to the mechanics of SEACAT but the system is at the end of the book. The notations are at times flustering. And some heavy page turning was required to make sense of what I was reading.

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec
Eventually, I just let it ride... Ignoring notations so I could take in the enormity of the Art and Setting in a sort of milf altered consciousness. Which was a great way to read it the first time through.

I would rather have had at least a cheat-sheet in the front. But, as is, I understand the stylistic choice, the setting is the best part - and the point- of the book.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
Keen readers might observe that I might have well levelled this same gripe at Cha'alt, but didn't, The reason it is more of an issue here is that UVG's way of expressing mechanics is so different that it isn't instantly readable like a game that lists HP, AC, and Damage. Even when the mechanics are nearly identical "under the hood."

I suspect the difference in notations was a way Luka Rejec hoped to separate Setting from Game, again, to keep the setting the rightful star of the game

As a fun note... Because of how it is presented, UVG is pretty easy to adapt for Numenéra, which is a game that shares a lot of common influences and a similar aesthetic.

I will also note that some useful terms like "Vomes" are defined in sidebars placed in unusual places in the book.


Beautiful, strange, unique, and highly replayable, UVG is a unique game about strange journeys deep into super-real, psychedelic spaces. It is one of the most creative - and alien - books I have enjoyed since starting this project. Reading or was a voyage itself, once I turned my designer-brain off. I think it would be a great addition to the library of anyone who appreciates Möbius, Heavy Metal magazine, Surrealism, or who is looking for a game where exploration feels like the heart of the experience.

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

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