[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints.
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]
IntroductionOkay, I figure other, more insightful people than me have already told you what you need to know about the contents of Red & Pleasant Land. The short answer is, it's really good and really pretty. Even if you have no interest in running the whole setting put forth in the book, it's chock full of mineable goodness. If nothing else, if you are of a staid and vanilla turn of mind like myself, this will help you to push your own boundaries and question your own assumptions about what you can and can't do with a game, which is good exercise for your brain.
So, what I propose to do here instead is to review the layout, graphic design and usability of the book specifically. Yes, I know that implies a lot of moxie given that Zak S. has won a technology award for his previous graphic design work, and Jez Gordon is the DIY layout hotness with good reason. That being said, I've noticed that most reviews tend to give the physical appearance/usability one paragraph tops, and then focus on the content. Maybe that's the right way to go for almost everybody, but I really like this layout stuff, and paying attention to it will hopefully help me get better at my craft. And hopefully it'll be useful to some other folks along the way. So let me know if you'd like to see more of this sort of thing, and any requests, and I can get on it.
Oh, and a bit of a disclaimer - I have not used this book in the heat of play, so some of my suppositions about usability could very well be totally wrong. If you have used something and found the experience different from what I imagine, do please let me know.
The Physical CharacteristicsTo begin with the very beginning, let's look at the cover and binding. First, it's gorgeous and sturdy, with a cloth-covered hardcover, which appears to be bound with through the fold sewing (but I could be wrong there - at any rate, it's sewn, not just glued), which doesn't quite allow the book to lie flat, but does let you put one facing flat and hold the other side up at about 90 degrees without doing any damage to the spine - it's good and sturdy. I figure if you need a more extreme version for table top use, print out the relevant pages from the PDF. There's also a lovely book ribbon for keeping your place, which has come in quite handy for a read-through. The embossing is attractive, and the cover artwork is Zak's usual quality work, and part of the original "gag" that led to the production of the book, but I personally think the classy cloth bound cover could have stood alone without it - minor nitpick there, though. Like pretty much every LotFP product, the size is a slightly large digest (A5) which is large enough to read without squinting, and small enough to fit comfortably in the hand or on the crowded gaming table, or to throw in a backpack with other things. Oh, and the paper inside is matte and textured and ivory colored and thick. It looks good and it compliments Zak's art without reducing readability (if anything, it's probably easier on your eyes than stark black on white). Overall, the book is nice, it's sturdy, and it's well proportioned for its intended uses.
Forematter, General Layout Nerdery, and OrganizationSo, opening up the book, the front end paper is a map of Voivodja, and the back endpaper is an illustration of a number of denizens thereof, many of whom you'll recognize if you've watched "I Hit It With My Axe" or read Zak's play reports. They are wearing a plethora of interesting clothes and give a good feel for the sumptuous, slightly over the top nature of adventure here. The map is very high level, but like most of Zak's maps, it features a lot of useful, immediately gameable information - distance, names, terrain, and a clever encounter table tied to terrain. It's placement is useful for reference and it has lots of whitespace for adding notes and new locations.
CreditsSo, turning past the title page, we get to the credits, which I've alluded to earlier. The book is written by Zak S., most of the art is by him as well, Jez Gordon did the layout and some of the maps, and James Raggi edited and published, with the printer being Otava Printers in Finland. I'm going to guess that they're the same printers James has been using for a while now, and I gotta say, the physical quality of all of the books I've gotten has not disappointed, so I'm glad James has them to work with. I was also pleasantly surprised to see my own name in the acknowledgements - I must have commented on one of the contributory Google+ posts, so thanks, Zak.
Table of ContentsNext up is the Table of Contents, which shows us that the overall organization of the book is logical and useful for both reference and initial reading. It has three tiers of organization - I'll name them "Chapters", "Sections", and "Topics", but they aren't called anything in the book. Chapters have a roman numeral and are larger and bolder. Sections are bold, and Topics are smaller and plain text. The whole thing is fit on a two page spread with 4 columns each. What this means is that just about every specific thing short of room contents is in the table of contents, making an index unnecessary. The bolding scheme makes it easy to find high level stuff easily, while more time allows you to find specifics, rather than trying to strike an ideal balance between abstraction and detail in choosing what to include in the contents.
TypefacesNow then, on to some type nerdery. Zak is fond of denigrating the importance of typefaces, but I like them, so I pay attention to them. The titles and section headers appear to be primarily in Parmapetit with assists from FoglihtenNo07 (it might be the other way around), which results in a somewhat loopy and whimsical look that sets the "Alice in Wonderland" tone for the piece while remaining clear and readable for quick reference. The body text is in Neuton, which is apparently a "slightly Dutch inspired serif" that fits generally into the "Roman" category. Read more here if you're the kind of person who likes to read about typeface characteristics. From the point of view of this review, it's clear, readable, and doesn't get in your face about being a "theme" typeface. It provides a range of fonts for weights and emphasis (italic, bold, extrabold, light, extralight, etc) that are put to good use in the text for highlighting important things and distinguishing sections.
Typography/LayoutLet's talk about the basic layout followed through most of the book. Margins are small, as you'd expect from Zak - he likes to get as much content on a page as possible, and the "classical" margins are less relevant to a game book that spends more time on a table than perched between thumb and fingers. The only gaming nitpick here is that there's not much room for notes if you're into that sort of thing (I've recently been breaking a lifetime aversion to writing in books, so I noticed this). Sections are titled with the same titling font, and begin with a big, fancy drop cap capital initial. This makes them easy to pick out, which is helpful. Topics are titled by a simple large all caps bold that is easy to find without being obtrusive.
Text is divided into two ragged right columns per page, and lots of allowance is made for art to break up the blocks of text. More on the art later. The leading looks pretty generous, while the tracking looks just a teeny hair tighter than "standard" - but I'm eyeballing this and could be totally wrong. The net result is that the text is easy to read "like a book", but individual lines are distinct enough to easily pick out when referencing things. This is especially useful for things like stat blocks and lists. More on tables later. The last thing I'll say is that I'm not positive why Jez went with ragged right instead of justified for two column text. My guess is that it was some combination of looking better wrapping around art and not wanting it to look too rigid or polished. I may just be enamored of justification since I recently learned how to do it "properly". Finally, lots of use is made of bullet points and numbered lists, which works well. We'll dive more into that in some of the specific sections.
Introductory Material & The AliceAs for sections, he first is a half-page flavor intro to Voivodja, the Place of Unreason, the "Red & Pleasant Land", followed by a half page "how to use this book". This section is appreciated for explicitly acknowledging and setting the stage for its multi-functional usefulness, which basically breaks down into "use as is", "mine for ideas", "get inspired to do something totally different", and "kill pesky animals". I'm sure there are more not covered here, but those seem the most relevant.
This is followed by a fairly brief introduction to the Place of Unreason, (~15 pages) that gives an overview of salient features with a relentless focus on what's useful and necessary for making the game interesting. You'll be seeing a lot of that. It accomplishes a lot by implication and aesthetics - by referencing well known literature, art, and folk lore, western culture fills in a lot of the gaps, with the book going for what's gameable. So, even subject matter is a choice that affects what you can and need to convey in your text or visually to get a "complete" result.
Beasts & PeopleNow, the Beasts & People section has some stuff that got me really excited while reading through it. First off, this section does about 40-60% of the lifting in defining the setting (I used very scientific measurements to determine this). Most of the descriptions are admirably brief: the "major NPCs" of the setting get 1-2 pages max, and the longest monster description for "guests", or demons, comes in at 5.5 pages, because of extensive random tables to build your own. Despite this brevity, the monsters and people all have motivations, rivalries, and hooks.
One way this is accomplished is through the 4 major factions of the setting - Heart Queen, Red King, Pale King, Colorless Queen. Each creature that belongs to a faction has this really nice icon at the beginning of their entry. The icons are both pretty as well as just the right size to immediately give you the relevant information without crowding the text.
Only three creatures don't have illustrations - horses, a Gryphon, and Pale Pawns - and all three of them have been adequately illustrated elsewhere (Pale Pawns are basically described as vampire dandies).
Entries are organized alphabetically for reference, but there's a nice note at the beginning about a few general entries to read first if this is your first time (like the rules for Voivodjan vampires in general). Also, most of the rules shared by multiple monsters are repeated in each entry. Repetition in game material meant to be referenced is super useful but is often cut for seeming unnecessary when the book is viewed as a book you read cover to cover. Generally, I like what terms are bolded in the monster entries - things like spells, specific abilities, and each stat in the stat block (with regular weight numbers). The stat blocks could maybe stand to be a touch more set off, but the fact that practically every monster fits on one page, or at worst, one spread, combined with the relatively straightforward stats makes that a minor issue. Oh, and while the general description for each monster is a paragraph or two of standard prose, almost everything else is bullet points, which is again good for reference.
Altogether, really top marks for the monster section - most of what makes the setting interesting and unique is conveyed by, you know, the people and things characters will actually interact with. There's an added bonus that the monsters can be easily ported if you're looking for a creative and slightly weird monster to put somewhere else, but a lot of them fit into their factions and ranks in cool ways that makes them all more rich together than alone.
Adventure LocationsIf monsters do around half of the heavy lifting for getting the setting into your brain, the adventure locations do maybe 30-40% . You get to see the Heart Queen's Palace and the Red King's Fortress, and both are wacky and wonderful, and will give you very creative ideas for running "dungeons". Implicitly, both show you what "Unreason" really means, and give you a model for the kind of challenges you can throw at players here, so they do a lot more than just give you cool places to explore. And most of the weirdness and puzzles are made to be modular and portable (and are even called out as such in the introductory material, so that's cool). For the actual layout, each location begins with some general notes, a random encounter table (d100, natch), and a full location map that fits on one spread.
Maps & IllustrationsLike all of Zak's maps, they pack a lot of information, but I find these much more immediately comprehensible than those in Vornheim, which I found confusing initially, and awkward for my brain even after I got them. The R&PL maps still take some study to get familiar, but once you know the place, almost everything you need to run the whole location except some puzzles and set piece rooms is right there, which is super cool. All of the rooms are labeled right there on the map, but also have numbers for reference to the keyed description. Side views are incorporated where useful and necessary, and are clearly marked. The door, locked door, and secret door icons are nicely useful, but I really like the notation used for doors in the floor and ceiling. There's a yellow square and then an orange arrow leading to the connected piece of the map. If it's in the ceiling, the arrow overlaps one side of the yellow square frame (it goes "over" and "up), but if it goes down, the frame overlaps it (thus showing it going "down"). This is a really neat visual way to convey complex information clearly and easily. Nice.
The best part, though, is again repetition. Pieces of the maps are repeated throughout the keying, such that you are never more than one page flip away from the map relevant to what you're currently reading (okay there's one page that's two flips away from the relevant map). This is a fantastic solution to the difficulty of getting detailed enough room descriptions into one spread. Everyone, everyone writing/laying out dungeons, please do this. I'm going to try to start incorporating it into my own work. Really useful. Oh, and the illustrations throughout are both evocative and often useful (especially for the weirder rooms with crazy effects).
Room DescriptionsNow, speaking of room descriptions, these are brief, bulleted, and generally focus on only what is different/interesting/tactically relevant for the room, with the rest being covered by the scene-setting in the general description and your own understanding of what would be in, say, an opulent ridiculous palace or an impenetrable vampire fortress. Occupants and references to other rooms are bolded, and most of the spatial relationships not covered by secret doors or weird passageways are left to the map to show. It's not quite as systematic as Courtney Campbell's Set Design method, but I don't think to take a highlighter to the text to make it playable.
If I wanted to run one of these, I think all I would need would be an initial read through to get the whole thing, some note taking for any changes I wanted to make, and a quick refresher immediately before play. For a location with more variation in aesthetic or a huge number of rooms (like a megadungeon), I could see maybe wanting or needing a more systematic approach to room descriptions, with a clearly defined way of ordering information, bolding, italicizing, et cetera, but this system looks pretty right for these particular dungeons.
Extra Rules, Random Tables, and Other ResourcesThe remaining 10 - 20% of getting the setting across (if that's what's left, I don't even remember) is done by that general intro at the top and the sample locations and random tables. There are three random locations, showing the three generic sort of territories in Voivodja - forest, garden, and interior. They very well may have been generated by the random tables following, because you see some shared features between them. All three are presented as a one-spread illustration/map with notes right there, effectively giving you three one page adventures. You could make a pretty great setting book with nothing but these and a thoughtful monster section. I would like to especially give a shout out to the "marble madness" style map of the interior (I think Jez did that one) - it rather easily shows a super complicated place, including a section with sideways gravity.
There's a brief section on some widely useful rules - rank, duels, mass combat, skirmishes, and a spell. Not much to say here except that they're clearly presented with the same useful headings and section divisions from the rest of the book.
Tables & GeneratorsNow, the tables (what, you thought you'd get a book by Zak that didn't feature random tables prominently?). There have been tables throughout the book, but I thought I'd leave the description of them to this section dedicated to them. First, many of the tables from earlier in the book, presented either in the introductory material, monsters, or some of the locations, are repeated here, which is great, with only one or two left with a "see page whatever" place holder.
The contents of the tables are all useful for Voivodja, many are useful as-is outside of there, and some are useful anywhere with a bit of modification. Some of the plot hook and intrigue generating tables, for example, would make good fodder for copying the text out of your pdf and doing a search & replace (which Zak points out in the text). Most of the tables have a red header with white text, bold black numbers, standard weight entries, and alternating fill rows - page color and a light pinkish/orange sort of color, with strokes on the lines between rows. Edward Tufte might have some issues with this "chart junk", but I think he has not applied his energies to the different demands of RPG products. Plus they look better than plainly presented tabular with no fills or strokes, and aesthetics are more important to an RPG than to a scientific report. Altogether legible and useful, and none spill outside of a spread, which is definitely useful and appreciated.
Three of the tables deserve special mention for doing cool things: Encounters, Intercepted Communique, and the Location drop tables.
EncountersThe Encounters table especially excites me as giving a lot of useful information in a compact form. It's takes up both sides of one spread, but is actually two slightly different tables. Each page has a full list of all of the characters and creatures listed in the book, and to the left of each name is a simplified version of the faction symbol used in the Beasts section - a little colored square, some with a smaller colored square in the middle. So that's the first cool thing. The next is that on one page, you have columns presenting the chance of encountering each creature based on where you are (forest, interior, etc), and on the other, you have columns for each faction - so only those creatures in a faction are given a chance of appearing in that column. So whether you need to know "what would they find here?" or "what sort of Heart faction thing do they find?" you're covered. Either one of these alone with the addition of the faction icons would have been neat, but both together are extremely useful.
Intercepted Communique GeneratorNext is the Intercepted Communique generator, which is both hilarious and full of potential for starting adventures. It is (I think) an example of a multi-step Complete Creative Result Generator. This would work for just about any intrigue focused game you could want with only a modicum of changes (mostly to the "to" and "from" entries).
Not much to say on it layout-wise, though I felt like a little more visual separation between the tables for those rolls taken in sequence without a a header might be helpful for a GM in a hurry. For example, under "To. . ." (bolded) is a 1d6 table for a salutation, and then a 1d20 table for the recipient. There is a slightly darker line between these, and obviously the numbers change, but in a hurry, you might just roll a d20 and miss out on the salutation. With a little more time (like pre-session prep) this wouldn't be a problem, but perhaps a little more space or a mad-lib style sentence with blanks for each roll would have been a helpful visual cue.
Location Drop TablesThe drop tables are not anything new if you've seen Vornheim or the many works influenced by it. I like the concept of drop tables - they have a ton of information built into them and they make use of the spatial characteristics of dice in addition to their sides and numbers. On the other hand, I think you'd need fairly small dice to make use of these tables, and you'd have to be holding up the half of the book not being used to keep the other side flat for the roll. Altogether, possibly more useful blown up to letter-ish size, printed out, and put into a box top to contain the dice (like some of the stuff Dyson Logos has been experimenting with). Given these reservations, I really appreciate that the drop tables are reproduced as more traditional tables, so you can use whatever method works for you.
The ArtOh, and I promised I'd talk about the art. All illustrations are by Zak, and they are very definitely his style. While I find his work technically impressive, much of it is not my personal favorite style, which probably says more about me than anything else.
Now, in terms of gameability, the frequent illustrations not only make the book more fun to look at, they go a long way towards jamming the setting into your brain. I probably lied about the division of setting-conveyance above, since I short-changed art. It goes a long way to giving you the aesthetic of the place, which is a huge part of this setting (and maybe any game setting? I'm gonna say yes).
More prosaically, the art provides an aid to mental bookmarking - you can go "oh yeah, the section on that one wing of the Heart Queen's palace has the creepy lionfish thing in it". And having almost every monster illustrated is fantastic - I tend to like Zak's monster art a lot more than his other stuff, so maybe I'm biased there, but it makes the weird new creatures a lot more concrete and evocative and saves effort in the written description, which gives you more elbow room for talking about behavior and motivations.
Quibbles & NitpicksI only had a few quibbles and nitpicks, but they were there, and for the sake of completeness, here they are. There were a few typos throughout the text (not a lot, certainly fewer than most DIY/Indie/whatever type products, but some). The Rabbit has the Pale King's icon, but his text says he works for the Heart Queen (on the plus side, this could serve as an inspiration for some intrigue). And one of the handouts is missing from the back of my printed copy (though it's present in my PDF, which is probably where I would get it from if used, anyway). Unlike Vornheim, the chapter headings at the top of the page, and the page numbers at the bottom are somewhat small, and the page numbers are centered on the page, which certainly looks attractive, but makes flipping through the book to a specific page a teensy bit less convenient than outside edge number.
But really, that's all I've got in terms of layout/typography/editing issues.