Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.
The Thawing Kingdom is a setting zine by Rowan Algoet (aka Bottomless Sarcophagus) I think I backed it for a zinequest one year? I have quite specific desires in something that calls itself a setting: It needs enough dynamite that if I drop PCs into it, things will start happening immediately. I’m not really someone who cares to read a lot of lore or background history unless it impacts the actions of the PCs and the world in the here-and-now.
The first page of this, the introduction, is a short story. It’s good, I just really don’t think stories have a place in settings. I think the important parts of this story could have been encapsulated in a sentence or three, or perhaps even in description elsewhere. I can see some very cool stuff here, if they were to appear as entries in tables later: A maze made of the bodies of frozen queens; A shrivelled heart that traps a monster from outside of time.
The next section covers folk who live here. There’s a good table of 20 backgrounds, and a lot of interesting world building buried in prose. After that, a section on the nature of the ice that is thawing and beasts and places associated with it; again, excellent world-building buried in prose. Another section on the very cool, god-slaying tech-bro kingdom to the south (more on this place than on the titular kingdom, actually). This whole section – the first 16 pages of the zine.
Then it gets good, dense with ideas: Lists. The major locations really deserves to be detailed further; the minor locations all have probabilities associated with them and I wish these had been substantiated a bit. Mysterious treasures couldn’t be more perfect.
I have very mixed feelings on Thawing Kingdoms, because it is very idea-dense, but half of it is presented in a way that makes it very challenging for me to use without a lot of work converting half of it to something more practicable. There are three main things I’m taking away from it: Firstly, the history and world-building is best buried in tables and lists. Putting it in prose encourages wordiness, but most of this cool stuff could be reduced to a d10 list and that could be distributed throughout the setting so that things could be gradually learnt through play. Secondly, it’s pretty important for me to have some more detailed locations, because while the paragraph-long locations are excellent, I’d prefer those, and a few page-long ones, instead of those, plus sentence-long ones. Finally, I can’t process longer prose well in the context of role-playing games. Shorter prose, broken up, works well. Page-long isn’t processable – I’d have to write a lot of notes, or more likely, I’d have to rewrite the first half of this to make it work for me, and that would be better some by the author and worked into the rest of the book.
The concept here: Of a kingdom recovering from a cursed sleep, full of the evil and dangerous remnants of that curse, is so incredibly good, and the content here is so incredibly good, but for me it’s marred by format, and diluted by the very cool adjacent kingdom, which detracted from the focus on the primary subject (although it deserves its own zine, in my opinion).
Anyway, this setting zine is full of amazing ideas and you could do far worse than using the content in your campaign. The formatting doesn’t work for me, but I couldn’t rate the content highly enough.
27th March, 2023