Publisher: Hydra Cooperative
Marketplace: Drive-Thru RPG (SUD, MIoE, FDM, WHFD)
System: Labyrinth Lord (OSR Compatible)
I have been putting this review off for a long time; if I'd had my head screwed on straight, I would have done so when they were a part of a Bundle of Holding recently.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes, The Misty Isles of the Eld, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and What Ho, Frog Demons! are four interconnected modules set in the Hill Cantons setting created by Chris Kutalik, the setting is also detailed in his Hill Cantons blog, and in the Hill Cantons Compendium, Hill Cantons Compenduim II, and Hill Cantons Cosmology.
When I finally got tired of keeping up with the slow, painful bloat of Wizards of the Coast-era Dungeons & Dragons, and started looking for fast, fun alternatives in the Storygame and OSR movements, these books came up on my radar pretty early on. And getting a look through them on Questing Beast's YouTube Channel is what eventually pushed me over into grabbing a bunch of OSR games, especially the free version of Labyrinth Lord, and eventually led me to starting this blog.
The Hill Cantons Quartet look damned good thanks to the expert layout and design by the Hydra Cooperative crew and the art from the mighty Luke Rejec (whose opus magnum, Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City is the most beautiful TTRPG book it has been my pleasure to own.)
What really sells them, however is the sheer wierdness of their setting. The Hill Cantons fuse the oddest bits of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, with Slavic mythology, and liberal dose of Douglas Adams style humor to create a world that feels like somthing lighthearted, imaginitive, wild, and strange. It definitely is not your standard-issue Dungeons & Dragons setting. And playing it can feel like a breath of fresh air.
Each of the four modules is set in Marlinko Canton, a loosely-ruled settlement on the edge of The Wierd... an ever-spreading area where reality becomes stranger and more unhinged by the day. While Marlinko Canton still has some semblance of predicatable reality, and normalcy, it is fading with every year. Each module is totally independant, but it has hooks that can draw you seamlessly into events in the other modules, if you have them available, and the events of one module can shift the context of the other three wildily.
Overview of Slumbering Ursine Dunes
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a point crawl adventure (a term Kutalik popularized), that is an adventure where a number of points with encounters are spread across the map in various points. The terrain, or some factor of the adventure makes it difficult to move freely across the map: instad the PCs will usually have to follow one of several branching paths to explore the different points rather like the nodes of a flow chart. Here is the Slumbering Ursine Dunes map to illustrate:
|Map of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes
So, for example, from point 5, the party might be able to move to points 3, 6, 7, or 13 because of the constraints in the terrain. This in effect allows the confined and limited space of a dungeon to be played in an outdoor setting.
In the case of Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the PCs find themselves exploring the valleys between gigantic and perilous sand dunes where three rival demigods are playing out intrigues against one another with the help of crazed centaurs, humanoid bear mercenaries, cave dwarves, werebears, pirates, and cultists, while a race of alien elves from The Cold Hells, the Eld, scour the ruins for an ancient artifact that will give them dominion over the Wierd and Hell.
The Dunes are rife with bizarre encounters, such as primordial cave dwarves, sapient beavers who engineered wonders of a previous age, madmen living in the fallen head of a stone god, grues, arboreal rusalkas, and demonic sloths.
Likewise the treasures in the dunes include such oddities as magic orbs that induce orgasm, magic rye bread, rare books of sarcastic poetry,
Two small entrances to two small dungeons can be discovered at points in the dunes as well, both of which contain things that the four factions in the setting would desperately like to have in order to take power over the dunes and drive the others out.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes offers "unlockable" classes: new character options that the PCs once they have encountred a member of that class. The Cave Dwarf is a primitive neanderthal-like antecedent of the fantasy dwarf. The War Bear is a humanoid bear from a highly militarized culture with a special focus on polearms.
Overview of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko
Marlinko is a fractious city divided into four Contradas. Each contrada has its own powerful guilds (often with severe mission creep, like the Guild of Seers, Augurs, Runecasters, and Wainwrights), aristocratic leaders, and major industries. A series of sporting events, the structure of the city politics, and the nature of the city's class system gives each Contrada a sense of identity and competition with the others. Even the city's festivals and religious observances vary across Contradas.
A great deal of pride and influence for the Contradas us hung upon a bi-annual race where convicts chosen to represent each Contrada, with the winner getting their freedom, and the lovers are hung. Intrigue around the race is feverish.
Each Contrada boasts at least two factions, several unusual NPCs, a place where PCs ate likely to seek services (hirelings, treasure identification, healing, lodging, magical training, etc.) and an odd, and flavorful encounter list that includes everything from mundane thievery to encounters with local books, to an odd mix-up with a village idiot... even an escapee from the local tiger-wrestling pit (there's a mini-game for that.)
There are enough unsolved mysteries (such as the fate of a lost adventuring party, or a God missing from the Tomb) that the PCs can easily turn a single encounter into an intrigue-laden adventure.
Marlinko is also depicted as a city that is infested with fraud and corruption, with rules on PCs becoming the target of a Con game. PCs generated in Marlinko can belong to a mountebank class designed to emphasize the art of Ddeception and fast-talk.
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko also has a robo-dwarf class available.
There are also two adventure sites in town, one of which will get the PCs entangled with both a local lich and the Eld, who appear as a threat through all four books.
Overview of Misty Isles of the Eld
In the Hill Cantons Quartet, the Eld are seeking an ancient high-tech warship - The Golden Barge - (found in Slumbering Ursine Dunes) which they will use in their own inscrutable wars in the Hells, but not before leveling Marlinko Canton as a weapons test. They work with liches, cultists, spies, and assassins in their seach for the vessel. Which includes abducting people who might have a notion about its location, and interrogating them before torture and experimentation.
The Isles themselves were once a paradise, but the Eld have superimposed their own hellscape over the space that the island occupies: a cool, foggy island covered in giant grubs that serve as living walls for the pointcrawl.
The Isles setting is full of grotesquery, mutated monsters, and intentionally uncomfortable sexual imagery that makes the Eld feel sick, twisted and alien in all the right ways - players will love to hate them. Kutalik takes great pains to give you a sense of Eld culture: detailing art styles (geometric bands interlaced with pronography), favored torture methods (paralysis or shellacking and put on display), cultural preferences (disdain for public spectale), materials (bio-engineered flesh, chrome, and shellacked gnome), and technology (giger-esque biomechanical obscenities, souls and psionic impulses of misery.) Reading the module gives you an excellent sense of how to play the Eld.
They are also highly organized, and the module provides you with a clear plan of how the Eld will respond to the PCs continued interference with their operations. This includes actively hunting the PCs down with repeated, escalating forces as the PC's activities progress.
The Misty Isles of the Eld features four adventure locations, three small ones and one nearly full-sized dungeon. These locations allow the PCs to erode the Eld's grip on the Isles, and potentially force them to retreat to the Cold Hells... or unleash the missing fifth god (or at least his foot) from the Tomb of the Gods in Marlinko... which they have been using (along with the disappointment from unsatisfying sex in the Canton) as fuel for their machines
Like the other modules, the locations and encounters here are a mix of strange, darkly humorous, and potentially deady. My favourite highlights of the Misty Isles of the Eld include: A walled garden where faeries and Narnia-style talking animals are kept in a state of deep trauma for the shadenfraude of the Eld, a henge of shellacked peasants, an eerie pleasure dome left completely abandoned as the commander of the island has banned fun. a sadistic dentist's office and torture chamber, a steno pool of uplifted alien monkeys, a brain in a jar controlling a soul-extraction facility, a customer-service robot programmed to kill anyone who voices grievances (which it asks for,) and Samuel taylor Coleridge coming off a very bad opium trip.
The Misty Isles of the Eld includes a Psychonaut class that includes its own very simple and powerful psionics system that comes at the cost of slowly mutating as the character gains levels. This is a common class among the Eld, but many humans of Marlinko Canton also develop it.
Overview of What Ho, Frog Demons!
The first of these is the titular Frog Demons. As creatures from the Hot Hells, the Frog Demons are in many ways the opposite of the Eld: they are chaotic, wild, pleasure-seeking creatures that enjoy corrupting and tainting mortals instead of enslaving them like the Eld. These creatures are building a fiendish temple where they can spawn and eventually overwhelm the region. While the frog demons can be encountered randomly gathering supplies for the dungeons, the big hook involves a bounty on a magic staff issued by a crown official that is obsessed with frog demons... and the noble himself disappearing while trying to explore the temple.
The second of these is the Beet God: a 500-stone sugar beet that has attained sentience and tenuous divinity. It is now trying to build a cult by spawning mind-controlling beets that infect the brains of those exposed. It begins its reign of terror in a small farming town, and then expands swiftly, gaining power as it goes.
The module provides a few adventure locations: the temple of the frog-demons ( a small dungeon with a planar portal) a point-crawl of the environs around the village Ctyri Ctvrt, a separate town adventure map, and a traditional dugeon crawl through the manor at the center of town: which now are the power base of the beet god, and his plant-infected minions (beetniks).
Aside from those central locations, What Ho, Frog Demons! has a large number of additional locations that have the seeds of adventure, including a tower of bone that Kutalik originally used as an entrance to the Stonehell module by Michael Curtis, a point that can be turned into an improvised adventure, or use a free-to-download adventure Kutalik originally wrote when he was 12. and a small village, Bad Rajetz, where in the original Hill Cantons campaign was divided between four evil factions that keep their war hidden from outsider views in a dungeon complex beneath the village. There is also a cavern complex ruled over by Deodands (a la Jack Vance) who attempt to rope their prey in with pyramid schemes and timeshare marketing sessions in order to lull them into a false sense of security before eating them.
What Ho, Frog Demons! includes tools for creating a bucolic-but-quirky Slavic-feeling village, a plethora of monsters taken from a mix of Eastern European folklore and Jack Vance's Dying Earth.
There are enough odd encounters. strange NPCs, unsual smaller sites, and events in What Ho, Frog Demons! to keep a campaign rolling for quite a bit of time with minimal planning, although deciding how you want to handle the bone tower and Bad Rajetz, and perhaps mapping a ore elaborate version of some of the adventure sites is going to be required.
It does not add additional classes or PC mechanics to the system, although it can include all of the material from Hill Cantons Compenduim II.
What Sets the Hill Cantons Quartet Apart
The Hill Cantons Quartet has several things going for it that has made it one of my must-haves from the very beginning.
Breaking the D&D Mold
The Hill Cantons modules include dark, often adult humor, weirdness, quirky NPCs, gonzo encounters, and moments of pure surrealism that will make your players feel more like they are in Xanth than in Greyhawk. There is clearly D&D-style action going on all over the game, but it never lets itself be another cookie-cutter D&D adventure.
Chaos /Anti-Chaos Factor
One of the unique innovations that the Hill Cantons Quartet brings to the table is the inclusion of Chaos and Anti-Chaos factors. These are numerical trackers that slowly rise over time, which change the setting in subtle ways. Some locations change depending on the factor, for example. Some of the encounters get wierder.
In Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the Chaos Event Indes slowly ticks up the longer the PCs spend in the dunes. their choices raise or lower the Index over time. Once it gets over 3, rndom strange omens and portents begin happening once per day. At 6, events step up, having noticeable mechanical effects on the game or precipitate dangerous encounters. At 10, the events get severe, and potentially campaign-altering. At 15, the events happen even more often, causing the whole area to become dangerous and chaotic.
In Fever Dreaming Marlinko the Chaos Index tracks how much The Weird is infecting the city. Players journeying to major adventure sites, using powerful magic in the city, or creating disorder by crossing or killing certain influential NPCs will raise it. Slaying powerful monsters, clearing dungeons, or eliminating certain villains will reduce it. At Chaos 1-2 odd events or the general mood in the city will seem to change on a daily basis. At Chaos 3-5 a few of the same omens as in SUD might happen, but in general steet brawls, festivals, riots, or tiger wrestling events occur. At 6-9 cults, strange mass weddings, monster attacks, mass hallucinations, and demonic invsions can occur.
In Misty Isles of the Eld an Anti-Chaos Index slowly rises as the PCs interfere with the Elds' operations on the island. As the Anti-Chaos index rises to 10, the Eld get weaker (losing hit points, becoming lethargic), and the Island's original nature as an untouched paradise reasserts itself; the some of their sites collapse, become more acessible, or are replaced by original locations, which can give the PCs at least one safe location. At Anti-Chaos 15 the Island reverts, and the grubs become giant moths that leave the island; the Eld are forced to flee, and thier structures crumble in the following weeks.
In What Ho, Frog Demons! a Beet Infection Index is used to track how far the Beetnik invasion has spread. As it does so, more hexes fall to the Beet God. Eventually, this leads to clashes with royal soldiers and quarantine zones. At Infection Index 10, Marlinko Canton will be cordoned and the Overking's army will slaughter the infected and burn every town in the infected hexes... but fail to destroy the Beet God.
This tool can work wonders for keeping a campaign dynamic.
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko describes how a carouse is like to go, and how much it will cost in a given Contrada. If the PCs have rolled the cost die and the value is higher than their level, they must make a Save vs. Poison, or have gotten blackout drunk during a bender, and roll on a table of possible humorous or embarassing outcomes on a table specfic to the Contrada. What Ho, Frog Demons! adds an additional carousing setup for carousing in country inns in the rest of the Canton.
Ths gold spent in carousing translates into XP for the character, giving players a reason to spend some of their ill-gotten gains. While the tables themselves add a lot of flavor - and humor - to the setting. The only version of carousing rules I have seen that I liked more were in Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, and used a similar XP-for-carousing mechanic. If I were looking for a straightforward carousing system, I could not go wrong stealing this one.
While Chris Kutalik didn't invent the pointcrawl, he popularized the term "pointcrawl" and published a way of designing and describing them that makes them easy to use. They are a masterful template of how to write using that adventure structure effectively.
How I Have Used the Hill Cantons Quartet
I have not run the entirety of the Hill Cantons Quartet, but I steal from them constantly. Frog Demons and Demonettes, complete with weird random mutations have been a mainstay of my Xen Campaign. The Oracle of Inkandus, one of my larger dungeons stole several of its traps as well as at least one of its named villains.
I use my own version of the Chaos Index when I include events that change my campaign; usually cribbing the tables straight out of Slumbering Ursine Dunes and replacing events and items on it for ones apropos to my setting.
I have included War Bears in a few places in my setting, and the Bucolic town generator is set aside for use in the nation of Borea in Xen, as it has a similiar Slavic feel as a nation. I have likewise plundered a good chunk of Marlinko whole cloth and plunked it into my setting.
The Eld have been the basis for my somewhat more emo Echthroi, and I have reskinned many Eld mechanics and magic items for them. The Idea of the Cold Hell and Hot Hell of the Hill Cantons inspiired part of the cosmology of my world.
I used bits and pieces of other location maps and charactrs, especially from What Ho, Frog Demons! to enrich my game as needed. These books have been my go-to source for emergency plundering, even though my own campaign is far less gonzo than the Hill Cantons. They are an absolute goldmine of ideas.
Some Caveats and Growth Points
WHFD is Beet God All the Way Down
What Ho, Frog Demons! is actually pretty light on the Frog Demons... they aren't hooked very well into the rest of the events in Marlinko Canton. While the blurb on the back boasts 4 detailed adventure locations, three of them are different layers of Ctyri Ctvrt: outer region pointcrawl, ton, and manor. Other adventure sites, the Tangled Maze of the Twisted Druid, Lumaš, Bad Rajetz, the Caves of the Demodants, Tomb of the Demodand King, etc, are very much left to the GM to sort out. I could have very much used less of Ctyri Ctvrt and more small sites... maybe more frog demons.
Were I to run this as written, I might make a Frog Demon presence part of the Bad Rajetz setting.
FDM Could Use Some More Trouble
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko has two major threats: The Lich who is secretly uses a small force of undead to abduct people to keep her young and beautiful, while trading in secret with the Eld, and a cult of transplanted Christians from Earth who, in absence of bibles or guidance from a larger context, have taken their religion to a very dark place. These can make for a fair amount of trouble in Marlinko, but I could have used a little more intrigue added in.
The Humor is Often Very Adult
This is just a note for those who didn't catch it: the humor in these books is often very dark, weirdly sexual, or casually and graphically violent. Not for children, or adults with delicate sensibilities. This is in the part of my bookshelf my son is not allowed to go through next to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess material Personally, I like it this way. But it bears saying,
I would definitely include the Hill Cantons material in my list of Punk RPG material: it isn't afraid to experiment, shock, and break conventions... but it does so in an oddly apologetic manner. There are places where the books try to cross certain lines (lewd public acts, creepy petrification fetishes, necrophilia with the undead, pro-communist stances, etc.) but then shies back or uses a note from the editor joke to let the reader fill in the blanks. It does this so consistently when toeing the line that it starts to feel a bit frustrating after awhile. If you are going to shock me... shock me, I am a grown-up, I can take it.
Why Was Bad Rajetz Left Underdeveloped in WHFD?
In What Ho, Frog Demons! Bad Rajetz was an oddly compelling location... A town famed for leatherwork (esp. Bondage gear), being clannish, and inbreeding. Underground, four treacherous factions (Demon-worshippers, Old Pahr Heretics, X, and Crowdfunders) are at war for dominion over a dungeon complex. This was an extended part of Kutalik's original campaign, and so, somewhere in his notes, is likely to be very developed. I am surprised that we don't see more detail on it.
What Ho, Frog Demons! is designed in part to bring the other three modules together. It gives greater context to them, puts them in relation to one another, and has tools to hook PCs into all of the other modules.
One thing I wish it would do is to unify the Chaos Index of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Slumbering Ursine Dunes with its own Infection Index so that there was one unified tracker for how much of a mess Marlinko Canton was in. As it is, you can't track the events of SUD in tandem with FDM, as they often have contradictory tracking criteria. Tracking all three separately can also lead to so much happening at once that it has potential to overwhelm the PCs.
A system where the trackers work together in an interconnected system would be really helpful.
The Hill Cantons Quartet remains one of my favorite resources to mine for inspiration. It always adds a dash of strangeness and gonzo humor to my campaign. There's nothing like a pack of frog demons, a bucolic town with bizarre traditions, or a random robo-dwarf to perk up your game.
I have yet to run them as a campaign, but it is high on my list, as I have players with the kind of wicked humor that would jive well with these adventures.
I consider the Hill Cantons Quartet to be some of the finest example of what Dungeons & Dragons can be when it is not bowlderizing itself or trying to cultivate mass appeal. These modules know they are meant for a spall contingent of thick-skinned guys who like it weird and flies their flag accordingly.