Saturday, March 21, 2015

Yoon-Suin

Yoon-SuinYoon-Suin by noisms
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most fully-realized tabletop role-playing game supplement I have ever had the pleasure of owning. And I've owned a few in my 35 years of tabletop gaming. Where to even begin?

For those unfamiliar with RPGs, there is no "plot" to this book. The plot is constructed by the players and the Game Master through the course of role-playing. Yoon-Suin provides a framework in which the players' characters seek out adventure, face danger, do their "thing". The wonder of this is that the author has abandoned all semblance of medieval Europe or a fantasy derivative thereof, where the vast majority of RPG campaigns take place.

The setting here is a strange, sometimes surreal, version of an undifferentiated Asia, mixing aspects of Southeast Asia, China, and India. If I had to point out the closest corollary, I would say that Leng of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is the best candidate. This is a land of opium dreams and mummified undead monks, of gaudy, pungent markets and assassins slinking past the light of paper lanterns to surreptitiously fulfill their dark contracts, of cut-throat trade for tea and the dread ruminations of Old Gods once thought dead or long forgotten in the interstices of eons-past.

It is as thorough as one could make an imaginary world. Cultural customs, social structure, even the fine points of language and alphabets are contained therein. For the lazy game master (read: me), there are a plethora of adventure "hooks" that are intriguing and bizarre. There are many reasons, hundreds, really, for a character to want to adventure here. And those reasons will never be the same from one gaming group/campaign to another.

The reason is, so much of the setting is determined randomly.

Yes, randomly.

Each of the major areas: The Yellow City and The Topaz Isles, The Hundred Kingdoms (yes, there are actually 100, each of them different) and Lahag, Lamarakh and Lower Druk Yul, The Mountains of the Moon and Sughd, is outlined in a brief introduction giving a general overview of the city or kingdom in question. This is followed by tables - many, many tables, rich, glorious, fun-filled tables - which are used to "build" the setting on the fly.

For example, the section on The Yellow City and The Topaz Isles, contains tables that determine the main characters (Non-player characters) and others of a given group or site. Some in this section include "Cockroach Clan" (who are extended families who her giant cockroaches using pheromones and gestures), shrines, archives, "Club Fighting Troupe" (just what it sounds like, a group of "tough, strong, and often badly brain-damaged" fighters whose lives are "brutal and short, but often a luxurious stream of sex, opium, and conspicuous wealth"), noble houses, tea shops, opium dens, seekers of secret knowledge, etc. Within each group or site is a table used to determine who the main NPCs are and to determine rumors/hooks about the given group or site. Beyond these site-specific tables are general tables used to determine NPCs not tied to any one sub-location (along with their names and motives, again, randomly-determined), "General Rumours and Hooks" (yes, randomly determined, with such possible results as "Astronomer - Steal the Spouse of - Cockroach clan chief" or "Opium den owner - Extort from - Philosopher", etc), "Yellow City Rumors" (such as: "A callow magician has summoned something awful from beyond space and time [note the nod to Lovecraft]; it roams the streets of an area of the City at night"), "Random Locations and Encounters Round the Yellow City" and "Yellow City Surrounds". After this is a section called "Sample Hex contents" with 18 specific, fully fleshed-out encounters such as "The Dreaming Crabs," "The Observatory at Pometa," etc. The Old Town of the Yellow City is given it's own special sub-section with tables for determining several encounters that will only take place in this ghost-town within a metropolis: potential encounters with revolutionaries, squatters, exiles, a magician who has taken up residence in the Old Town, and so forth.

Beyond the remaining sections that allow for the generation of other areas is a series of appendices which are alone worth the price of the book (incidentally, you'll need to go to Lulu to get a physical copy of the book, or you can go to RPGNOW to get the PDF version). There are tables for randomly determining poisons (with everything you need to know regarding the game mechanics of how each poison works, as well as an origin that tells what the poison is derived from), an opium effects table (for eight different types of opium and their effects, as well as the in-game effects of opium addiction and under what circumstances one becomes addicted to opium), and many varieties of "Specialist Tea". There are sections on trade, a stripped-down psionics system, methods and results of fortune-telling, a short primer on trade language characters and pronunciation, a table showing the uses of giant worms, arachnids, and insects (because you want to know how much it's going to cost to get that Rhino Beetle as a steed, duh!), magical tattoos, hirelings, deities (yes, generated randomly - God *does* play dice, Mr. Einstein!), and even a listing of books, music, and other games to be used as inspiration.

Cap this off with a series of maps, both the traditional hex-gaming type and the non-traditional traditional Japanese print type, and you have what I consider to be the single best campaign setting supplement I have ever had the pleasure of owning. I plan on spending some time killing off would-be adventurers in horrible ways and disfiguring them and their relatives for generations to come introducing players to the wonders of Yoon-Suin, as well as drawing inspiration from it for my own nefarious ends writing.

I cannot recommend this strongly enough to gamers and non-gamers alike.

And for those who are reading this on Goodreads and wondering why the heck I'm reviewing a tabletop role-playing supplement, I recommend reading the very first section of the book: "The Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl: Being an account of a traveller in distant places" published by The Geographical Society of the Yellow City. It's as fine a piece of short fiction as you will find in any written role-playing supplement, and a darned site better than many novels that have arisen from the fantasy RPG community (damned by faint praise, I know - but seriously, it is very well-written and evocative). By the time you finish its 17 pages, you will find yourself trapped in Yoon-Suin, addicted like a heavy-lidded opium-fiend, rooted to your spot, like a mummified monk being worshiped as a god by a congregation of vicious, poverty-stricken devotees.

There is no escape.

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