Saturday, March 24, 2018

Your RPG is Great: The Gardens of Ynn

"Ynn is a perpendicular world. Compare the concepts of parallel worlds: from any place in the real world, you can cross over to an equivalent in the parallel world. Any place has it's parallel version, just shifted slightly. A perpendicular world, meanwhile, exists at right-angles to reality. Crossing over at a certain point, the further one travels into the perpendicular world, the less like reality it becomes."
Thus begins The Gardens of Ynn (available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG), devilishly creative pointcrawl written and designed by Emmy Allen. It clocks in at exactly 79 pages of gameable content set in and around a lush, overflowing garden on the edge of reality, one that's slowly being consumed by an intelligent thought-virus called the Idea of Thorns. If the above piques your interest, read on.

Because — as the namesake would imply — I only review things I like on Your RPG is Great, you the reader probably expect a certain, respectable level of praise and flattery. However, such a level would be grossly inappropriate, because The Gardens of Ynn is one of the best RPG products I've read in a very long time.

Where to begin, where to begin: I've read the file cover-to—well, there's no back cover, but it ends on a nice table — twice now, and every bit of it is superb. Like its older sibling A Red and Pleasant Land (from which it draws clear inspiration), Ynn exists as a place divorced from the real world; in fact, it is only accessible by performing a particular ritual to create a door out of a normal garden wall, a door that closes in 24 hours' time. In this way, Ynn is not beholden to the laws of your particular game world, or even the setting: I'd feel just as comfortable dropping this into my current Tomb of Annihilation game as I would Ravenloft, or hell, even Traveler. It's clearly written and statted with Lamentations of the Flame Princess in mind (although the writer states she tested it with a cobbled-together collection of systems and house rules), so anyone experienced with the system should be able to retrofit it to pretty much anything else they want to use.

Once you're inside the gardens, the real fun begins. Characters progress via an ingenious system of reaching a new location and choosing to either stay and investigate, return to a previous location, or push deeper into the unknown landscape. For each new location, several rolls are made to decide areas of interest, possible events, and likely encounters, with things getting weirder and deadlier the further you progress by way of a bonus added to the roll for each new area you explore. In this way, both high and low-lethality areas can be generated by the same table. It reminds me so much of old Wizardry and Ultima games (which were themselves inspired by D&D dungeoncrawls) and makes player mapping and progression an absolute breeze.

The locations themselves shine just as bright. Emmy Allen has managed to marry the sterile beauty of a Hayao Miyazaki backdrop to the weirdness of Wonderland in a way that never feels forced. PCs will encounter plant skeletons and giant frogs amidst vast fields of grass and babbling brooks. They will fight (or preferably, flee) from ethereal, feral sidhe inside a shattered greenhouse with sunlight glinting off of every pane. Ynn is terrifying, yes, but its terror is not the peal of thunder or encroaching shadows; it's primal, like the silence that indicates a predator is nearby or the glimmer of something strange in the tall grass. Your characters are not welcome in Ynn, and it will kill them just as readily as other, darker places; the only difference here is that they will die in a bed of soft flowers, with the sun shining down and a cool breeze blowing overhead.

As if it wasn't enough that we were given a thoroughly unique and interesting setting, The Gardens of Ynn also includes a new player class, to be used when replacing dead PCs. Because the PCs will never encounter other (living) adventurers here, new PCs assume the role of Ynn Changelings, souls that have been twisted by the gardens and as such command unique powers that allow them to subsist solely on foraged vegetation, grant them an increased chance to hide in tall foliage, and even survive rudimentary forms of death by temporarily becoming plants themselves. The overarching plot, The Idea of Thorns, is also given some weight, and includes a Death Frost Doom-style endgame scenario should the PCs unwittingly bring it back with them to the real world. It's cool, and I can easily see an entire campaign spinning off from just a few sessions spent in the Gardens, as the players try to control and quarantine the Idea before it spreads.

Regarding art and layout, this adventure is perfectly serviceable. The artwork, while mostly public domain, has a tight aesthetic fittingly reminiscent of woodcuts. I count 45 distinct pieces over 79 pages, so on the denser side, although the majority of them are quarter and spot illustrations meant to break up the text more than anything. The text itself is two-column, and most pages feature a simple but attractive border that further reinforces the theme of vines and stems. There are more than a few typos, but nothing that seriously impedes comprehension (at least that I could find).

A typical page. In particular, note how the art and layout play off each other.
All of this brings me to a realization: that this $3 module self-published using public domain art is better than 99% of the professional RPG stuff I've bought and consumed over the past 4 years. What it lacks in polish, it makes up for in charm; what it lacks in production value, it compensates for with tremendous ease-of-use and density of ideas. It's long been said that more free RPG content is released in a year than a person could run in a lifetime, but what does that mean for the future of the hobby? What right do the big game companies have to charge $40 a book just to sell me the same tired plotlines and threadbare characterization that can be found in any bargain-bin fantasy novel?

Go and buy this right now, before Emmy realizes what she's done and jacks up the price. Hell, buy it after she jacks up the price: I bought it at $3, and I would buy it again at $30 just to know that my money was going towards making more things like it. Emmy Allen, Your RPG is Great.