TSR Games Review: Broodmother Skyfortress (LotFP)
Published: 2016, Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Author: Jeff Rients
Reviewer: Andy Action
The true strength of Broodmother Skyfortress is not the amazingly fun adventure locale and its inhabitants, nor the gorgeous art direction, cartography and layout of the book itself. These are great and this review will explore them in detail, but the true strength of this publication for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird-Fantasy Roleplaying System is the author’s sage advice and expert guidance on how to run a kick-ass adventure for high-level PCs in your campaign. It is a case study in old school game preparation technique and the mindset behind it, combined with a killer module that follows its own advice.
Followers of Jeff Rients’ well-known old school gaming blog will already know the value of the content therein, but for those who don’t, Broodmother Skyfortress is not just a solid primer, it is an actual “greatest hits.” Distilling decades of experience into something both readable and fun is no easy task. Through a spirited first-person narrative (and an often self-deprecating humorous style,) Rients assumes the “teacher/mentor” role without pretense or condescension. This approach makes reading this wild and woolly adventure as fun and informative as it must be to play!
Essentially, Broodmother Skyfortress is a template for what a rollicking high-fantasy RPG scenario should be, masquerading (or doubling) as a pre-made adventure. Of course, the actual adventure scenario is presented here in full: a dynamic floating cloud fortress that serves as a home for some uniquely psychotic Giants (more on these later,) but the book doubles as a “how-to” guide on custom-fitting this (or any) adventure to the specific needs of a GM’s campaign milieu.
This is the essence of old school.
This is what the classic TSR module B1 In Search of the Unknown (1978, by Mike Carr) does for low-level dungeoneering, albeit in more primordial fashion. With the benefit of nearly four decades since B1’s publication, Rients takes the time to simultaneously fully develop his scenario and to lay its component parts out on the dissection table for analysis, comparison and vivisection. He asks, no – demands, that that the reader/referee change and alter their vision to fit this taste and play-style. Then he shows you how to do it.
The adventure itself is set in a wild location: twenty-seven fully detailed areas spread between the titular Skyfortress proper, the “Surrounding Cloud” and the “Underneath it Too” section (beneath the Skyfortress.) Locales such as “The Golden Obelisk,” “King of All Apple Trees” and “The Great Shroom Cavern” highlight the uniqueness of this adventure site and the stellar cartography of Jez Gorden brings them to life in both vibrant and functional ways. The two maps are split between the front and rear fly-leaves of the hardcover book, making them easily accessible and include wandering monster tables directly on them – a good choice there, whether that was the author’s, the cartographer’s or the layout designer, Alex Mayo’s.
Descriptions of each area are equally functional and fun, often including random tables (a 1d6 “Random Skydrive Mishaps” table and a table describing the results of varied quantities of gold being scraped off the Golden Obelisk) along with great illustrations by artist Ian Maclean that readily convey the intended vibe of the adventure at-a-glance. There is no “boxed text” here – just succinct descriptions that are vivid and playable. Abutting the area descriptions are Monster Placement Rules (random charts for the locations of the Major NPC Giants,) Wandering Monster Tables (reprinted here, broken down by sub-area,) and a useful variant on the standard reaction table; the “Likely Initial Attitude/Behavior During One or Two Monster Situations” chart. It is reminiscent of the 1st Ed. AD&D Players Handbook “Racial Preferences” chart, but on steroids.
The Skycloud serves as home base for the “Brood,” a collection of seven Giants, each individually developed by the author. They are total sociopaths – mean, nasty and uniquely capable of destruction in their own right – but the adventure also demystifies the dynamic of relations among them, as well as character foibles that can be exploited by thoughtful (or equally devious) PCs. Depicted as mythologically huge purple titans with hammerhead-shark heads and centaur-quadruped elephantine bodies with humanoid arms/hands (see the module’s cover!) they are individuated in seven fully fleshed-out NPC entries, with each one more unique and bizarre than the last. Names like “Chainmonster,” “Vomitboy” and “The Mad Maiden” convey the gist here. Rients has done what Gygax didn’t do in his classic 1978 “G-Series” (G1, G2 & G3) modules: develop the major NPC Hill Giant/Frost Giant/Fire Giant personalities in each locale. Even Nosnra, Jarl Grugnur and King Snurre Iron Belly were really just stat blocks in the modules as published. Of course, doing this was implicitly part of the DM’s job – any DM worth their weight in electrum pieces would do so in preparation for their campaign – but, in specifically doing so here, Reints SHOWS you how it’s done.
It is worth noting that the Skyfortress itself isn’t detailed until Chapter 4. This clearly displays Rients’ credo that adventure preparation (and the mindset behind it) are even more important than the adventure itself. By extension, the referee must know their Players and campaign world as well as (or better than) they know the adventure location.
That’s the big takeaway here: Broodmother Skyfortress is a treatise in HOW to better prep for and run your games. Rients accomplishes this by not only pointing out which facets of his adventure (or any adventure, by extrapolation) should be customized, but by giving you several thought-provoking questions to answer – sometimes in checklist format, sometimes within the text itself.
Chapter 1 is rife with direct challenges to the referee: “What would happen if a bunch of giants showed up here and wrecked the place?” “How do the PCs get up to the Skyfortress?” “Why the heck are we going to the Skyfortress anyway?” And, the more abstract and over-arching, “Yo, Jeff! What if I don’t have a campaign yet?” Each of these contains a few paragraphs on Rients’ methodology towards answering these questions, along with a few creative broad-stroke possible answers in bullet-point form, plus what amounts to a “Rumor Table” titled “Random Near-Encounters With the Giants (1d12).” The result here is the inevitable conclusion that of course these questions (and likely many others) need to be answered, or at least addressed, by a DM before running any game.
Chapter 3, “Stuff You Need To Work Out Before Play,” explores this in even more detail. Rients provides checklists (yes, he wants you to mark up your book) for “Major Issues” that must be addressed before proceeding. The answers, of course, lead to more questions, which he further fleshes out in the pages to come. Herein, methods for “re-skinning” the adventure and its inhabitants are discussed. Are the Giants actually Space Aliens, Angels, Mutants or Shark-Elephants in your campaign? Was the Skyfortress originally built by Titans, Angels, Space Gods or Real Gods? The “answers” that follow are accompanied by several possible “consequences” that may arise from each choice and “pro-tips” on how to deal with them. Notable artwork carries these various possible permutations through to their natural extrapolations. The final analysis by the reader must be that this adventure, as published, can serve as a barebones framework upon which to hang your own ideas, or to run entirely as presented.
After the “adventure” portion of Broodmother Skyfortress, the book changes tone and shape. The Appendix, from pages 95-160, is a self-proclaimed “Greatest Hits” from Jeff’s Gameblog. Subjects include PC motivation, carousing tables, a questionnaire to kick-start a campaign setting, plus old school treatments of wandering monsters, experience points, low-level spell casters, morale, magic items, alternate STR & DEX rules in mêlée, henchmen & hirelings and spellbooks (70 of them are detailed!). A brave choice for this publication, the inclusion of this content shows that LotFP’s publisher, James Raggi IV, knows a good thing when he sees it. Whether it was his suggestion or not to include these blog posts as an appendix, the articles serve to bolster and round out the theories/practices developed in the previous sections of the book and within the adventure itself.
For those sensitive or fearful of Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ reputation for featuring adult content, there is little to fear here. With a few minor exceptions (a bit of bloody violence on the front cover and a few images of breasts on the female shark-elephant giants,) there is nothing beyond what is already familiar to anyone involved with old school roleplaying games. Rients’ writing style is colloquial and personal but not to a fault. The art direction, layout and physical presentation of the book are stellar – kudos go to artist Ian Maclean and layout/designer Alex Mayo. The illustrations vary between black & white old school line art and full-color “comic book” style pieces which are overt homages to Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Conan the Barbarian. Front and rear covers are full color paintings, both beautifully rendered.
The image on the back cover of the A5/digest-sized hardcover (printed in Finland, first printing limited to 2000 copies) tidily sums everything up: a depiction (and direct homage) to Erol Otus’ painting on the TSR module B2 Keep On the Borderlands’ back cover, wherein the Keep is being razed by the Giant Brood of the Skyfortress!
What image could be more iconoclastic (kill your idols!) and nostalgically reverent at the same time?