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The Midderlands – OSR Setting Mega Review

This review includes The Midderlands, The Midderlands Expanded and the Midderlands GM Screen created by Glynn Seal, Edwin Nagy and Mark Nolan of MonkeyBlood Design.

Disclaimer: I bought a copy of The Midderlands but received review copies of The Midderlands Expanded and the Midderlands GM Screen.

OSR (logo by Stuart Robertson)The Midderlands is an indie Old School Renaissance tabletop roleplaying game setting.

Now, it’s just possible that there may still be people in the world who don’t know that means. So then. First a word on the Old School Renaissance.

This is nothing to do with the historical period or art style or with schools of any kind. The OSR is a movement in the tabletop roleplaying community that seeks to recapture the magic of the early days of tabletop RPGs, particularly early Dungeons and Dragons. The original D&D was more like a board game or wargame than most RPGs are today. In those early days rules were sparse, there was only one saving throw to go around and dwarves were a character class instead of a racial option. A far cry from our sleek modern games with their hundreds of options, mechanical rewards for roleplaying and carefully honed rulesets.

Why then are OSR games so popular, even amongst people who are too young to be weirdly nostalgic about the original games? Well, I’m not the best person to answer that, but from what I understand some roleplayers are attracted by the limited rules, because they allow more room to roleplay and improvise. Others enjoy the randomness and difficulty of many OSR adventures, feeling perhaps that more mainstream fantasy games make things too easy for the players and don’t give them a chance to use their brains to solve puzzles and avoid traps. (Or to have those brains sprayed all over the room by an unexpected spike trap or sucked out by an interdimensional horror or turned to cheese by some kind of cursed item.)

Now me, I don’t tend to play OSR games (unless you count Ghastly Affair), but I do like reading setting books and I love the OSR because (arcane rules aside) it’s led to the creation of some wonderfully unique settings. Something about the OSR seems to attract the creative, the rebellious and the downright eccentric.

The Midderlands - Book and Map 01One such gonzo gem is The Midderlands.

While many fantasy settings are based on a sort of cod-medieval Europe, the Midderlands goes a step further, taking the English West-Midlands and twisting them into a grim, grimy, gritty, green-tinted land full of monsters, weirdness and subterranean horror. The Midderlands Expanded takes that concept and applies it to the whole of England (The Havenlands) as well as Scotland (Scrotland), Wales (Oldenwale), and the surrounding islands. The neighbouring kingdom of Emeraude (Ireland), is mentioned but not detailed in either book and the author advises that game masters (GMs) take the Dolmenwood setting detailed in the Wormskin zine and use it as the setting for Emeraude. The whole setting is (in the author’s own words) intended to provide ‘game-juice’, which means providing enough inspiration to GMs to allow them to create their own adventures, rather than simply recreating someone else’s stories. The Midderlands books are written in a casual and occasionally sweary style that does sometimes wax poetic, particularly when talking about lime-green tentacles, viridian demons and the like. This style suits the oddball weirdness of the setting pretty well.

Much of the strangeness in the Midderlands is caused by the fact that, in this world, the Earth’s core is formed from a magical, mutagenic, reality-warping, green substance called Gloomium. This substance seeps up through a massive network of caverns called the Middergloom until it reaches the surface, causing immense amounts of weirdness along the way. The deeper you go into the Middergloom the more mutated and powerful the monsters become. Which isn’t to say that abominations from any level of the Middergloom might not take it into their (sometimes multiple) heads to come crawling up to the lands of the light. And some of the things that live near the surface are pretty horrendously dangerous anyway, the Six-Headed Sewer Gripe comes to mind.

The Midderlands - Book and Map 02The sky of the Midderlands is pretty strange too, it also has a touch of green to it and is referred to as the Drab. It’s quite capable of raining down frogs and doing other inexplicable and unhelpful things at the drop of a pointy hat. Closer to the ground you will often find large clouds of a green and menacing mist called Midderfog (as though the pea-soup fogs of Victorian London had spread out across the whole country). Things tend to be even more bizarre and chaotic inside patches of Midderfog than they are in the rest of the Midderlands.

There’s a wry, downbeat, off-kilter humour on display in this setting which is as quintessentially English as the landscapes it draws on. You’re not going to run into The Knights Who Say Ni! or a space-faring time-travelling chicken-soup-machine repairman in the Midderlands, but if you got either of those references then you probably won’t be too surprised by the style of humour in these books. The Midderlands version of the legend of Lady Godiva, for example, ends rather less happily than the original. The Lady ‘Godyfa’ rode naked through the town of Coven Tree to ask the townspeople’s forgiveness for her husband’s heavy taxes, this forgiveness was not forthcoming and the townspeople burned Godyfa in a wicker man. This event is commemorated in Coven Tree every year by the Ride of the Naked Lady, followed by the burning of an effigy of Godyfa in a new wicker man.

Craziness aside, a lot of care and thought has been put into making this setting more grounded and believable (if you like that sort of thing). Towns and cities often have a particular industry, product or trade that they’re known for – pottery, cutlery, mushrooms, nails, brewing and so on, and this informs the conflicts across the different regions.

For example, the town of Cairn Nook needs a lot of timber to fuel its mining industry. The nearby forest of Cairn Chase has been heavily cut back and the town’s Lady has banned unlicensed logging on pain of death. Someone is still cutting trees from the forest however and the Lady of Cairn Nook is headed for a confrontation with the local Guild of Ironworkers who are the prime suspects (though some people think that they are being framed). This confrontation could set the stage for a series of adventures that all fit into the local politics and make the world feel more relatable and immersive for the players. And, honestly, it makes a change from being sent off to find the Gold Amulet of Plot-Importance to rescue the Elven Village of Loveliness from the Wicked Wizard of the Week.

The Midderlands (map 01)There’s also a wealth of little details which help to make each place come alive: local legends, races and delicacies and rivalries and love affairs between particular non-player characters (NPCs). Some of these will be oddly familiar to natives of England, e.g. the people of Worchwych smother all their food in a spicy sauce called Worchwych Sauce and the small town of Abbot’s Bream is home to a merchant company call Quidland Commodities. Others are (so far as I can tell) pure fantasy, e.g. the town of Ironbridge is served by a secret mine and anyone sharing the secret of its location will be killed, while the Grey Abbey near Duddingly is home to an order of thirteen Leper Knights. Aside from adding character these details are intended to be the sparks that set a GM’s imagination alight and help her to come up with new adventures and situations to throw at her players.

For true Brits the experience of reading these books is like a guessing game; you decode names, spot references to towns, tales and customs that you’ve heard of or visited and wonder if others were just invented by the author. True Brits should also remember that the Midderlands books were written with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour. No offence is intended to the regions or peoples that are mirrored in their pages. Indeed, the author urges you to change or remove anything you don’t like.

(Luckily, I took the book in the spirit in which it was meant. Otherwise I might have been put out by the description of Hertshire in The Midderlands Expanded as the “****-all county where nothing ever happens”. Its namesake, Hertfordshire, is a historic county which has witnessed three battles of the Wars of the Roses, was of great importance to the Romans, and contains the childhood home of Elizabeth I and the site of the first English Martyrdom. It is the only place in the world where the mysterious rock called pudding-stone can be found, was slightly invaded by a French Dauphin, was the setting for at least one Austen novel. It is also home to a studio which created the first lightsabre model as well as C3PO and R2-D2, was instrumental in the Peasants Revolt and was once ravaged by the rampaging armies of Boudicca.

As I said, it’s all in good fun and I didn’t let this description get to me.

Not at all.

I’m fine.

Lots of things happen in Hertfordshire, even to this day.

Lots of things.

….

…..

I saw a horse the other week.)

The Midderlands books will be a very different experience for readers who haven’t lived in the British Isles and England in particular. (No amount of British TV will prepare you for the Midderlands experience.) I imagine it will seem a lot stranger and more exotic, with some customs and tales seeming quite random and inexplicable (all the better for a lover of fantasy).

Humans are the default race in the Midderlands and the rest of the Havenlands. There are no elven forests or dwarven kingdoms or anything like that. Other sentient races do exist however, including a huge variety of different types of goblin. Some goblins are harmless slug-eaters that human farmers actively encourage onto their land, while others are murderous tree-dwelling bandits that snatch travellers from the road, rip out their throats and steal all their shiny objects. A third type of goblin gets cravings for particular kinds of food and, if cornered while stealing said food from human settlements, will scream very loudly and use its flinty arrow-sharp nose to poke its opponent’s eyes out.

The Midderlands (artwork 02)I love the way that goblins, trolls and other creatures actually form part of the eco-system of the Haven Isles. In D&D and similar games there’s a tendency to have lots of monsters (orcs, goblins, giants, bugbears, were-rats, gnolls) that might also have their own kingdoms but still tend to spend their time as part of roving murder-bands that kill, loot and possibly eat everyone they meet. I’ve never understood how the economies or ecosystems of such worlds could possibly function. But in the Midderlands most creatures have a recognisable niche and not necessarily as a man-eater. There are trolls (or half-trolls, whatever that means) that just live on the banks of rivers (preferably under bridges), and eat fish, these creatures are only dangerous to humans if they’re antagonised. This is wonderful, because once again it makes the setting more believable and it gives players a strong motivation to learn about the creatures they encounter rather than just blindly attacking them.

Okay, let’s look at the different Midderlands products in a bit more detail.

The Midderlands

The Midderlands (cover)The first book for the setting, The Midderlands explains the nature and character of this green and unpleasant land.

Aside from introducing the unique quirks of the setting (such as the nature of Gloomium) the first section of this book briefly details the government, weather, currency, geography, tech level and religions of the Midderlands. It also provides random tables of mutations caused by exposure to Gloomium and has pictures of the heraldry of the eight largest towns that can be found in the Midderlands, which is a nice touch. The final part of this section is a list of Midderlands words, such as yow, wazzock and jedded, and what they mean. (Oi, wazzock! Get yow clumpy feet off my land or yow’ll be jedded!) This is a great idea for helping GMs and their players get into the spirit of the setting.

Next is a list of locations in the Midderlands, including sixteen hamlets (small villages), eleven small towns and eight large towns. There’re also brief descriptions of twenty-two points of interest, including a warlock’s tower, some magical standing stones, a windmill, a gaol, an abandoned mansion and a large gothic cathedral. Finally we get details on the rivers, lakes and forests of the Midderlands, some of which are very dangerous places to visit.

As I’ve mentioned above, the authors like to sow the seeds of adventure so there are many mysteries and hints laid out amongst the descriptions of hamlets and woods and so on. The hamlet of Alderwych has a church bell whose clapper is said to be a mace which was found at the site of an old battle-ground and has been known to spontaneously drip blood during blue moons. The town of Duddingly has an aging and decrepit Lord and the populace lives in fear of his cruel son inheriting the lordship, meanwhile the Lord’s family live in fear of their own ancestral crypts for reasons that are not revealed to the reader. There is a village of necromancers and a forest guarded by a being that is a cross between an ent and a giant mushroom. You get the idea.

Many of the settlements in this section are accompanied by maps, each one with a key that lists places of interest. If you used this book for nothing else it would be an excellent source of town and place maps for games. (Now might be a good time to mention that this book won a Gold ENnie Award for Best Cartography this year.)

The Midderlands (map 02)

Next there’s a fairly brief section called Oddities of the Midderlands. This contains thirteen magic items, five spells and a handful of descriptions of flora and fauna unique to the Midderlands.

My favourite items were the Iron Mask of the Pig-Orc and the Gloombug Lantern. The Mask is used to punish criminals and forces the wearer to make pig noises after every fourth word, but also grants night-vision to the wearer and has a chance to force anyone who sees them to goggle helplessly in surprise, unable to move or react in any other way. The Gloombug Lantern is a glass case filled with Gloombugs (gloom-touched green fireflies) and the Midderlands has an entire profession dedicated to collecting the insects to make them (those who practice this trade are called Gloombuggers).

Oddities - sample

Of the spells, the one that stuck in my mind was Morgontula’s Vomit—the power to throw-up spider webs on your enemies. Charming.

The flora section is short but sweet. Highlights include a couple of great alternatives to the standard fantasy healing or health potion—a legendary regenerative mushroom called the Golden Mycena and a type of rhubarb so tasty that, if baked in a pie and eaten, it can heal all but the greatest of wounds.

The fauna section is slightly longer and covers some Midderlands creatures which haven’t been statted out. There are venomous centipedes which like to eat earwax, giant hornets, green magpies and a number of different types of magical or unusual freshwater fish. I like this aspect of the Midderlands. Fantasy writers are often keen to fill forests and caves and ocean depths with monsters (and the Midderlands setting does this too), but lakes and rivers are often neglected as sources of monsters and strange creatures. So the predatory Blithen Pike which grows up to six feet long and can change the colour of its scales to blend in with its surroundings really sparked my imagination and made me want to write some river and lake adventures for my players. Other types of fish grant magical effects to humans who eat them, if they are prepared in the right way. Precisely why cooking a Wort Tench, rolling it in nuts and honey and then eating it, protects the eater from evil magic for a time is unclear, but, like the rhubarb pie, it makes a fun alternative to quaffing magical potions.

After this we have the Creatures of the Midderlands section, which is the largest and most intriguing part of the book, describing twenty-four monsters and giving example NPCs and custom-made character classes for almost all of them. At some points when I was reading the locations section of this book I thought that the Midderlands was a fairly prosaic low fantasy setting, the creatures section firmly put paid to that idea, this is where things get properly weird. I’ve mentioned some of the strange monsters of the Midderlands already but please permit me to bring up a few more.

Creatures - sample

Insects that can teleport themselves across different dimensions but can only use this power to travel between glass bottles. Killer dodos called Intestinal Hawks due to their penchant for tearing out and consuming the entrails of their prey. Leonine but yet-and-at-the-same-time horse-like creatures with shimmering scales, vestigial dragonesque wings and club-like tails. Goblinoid beings with great fanged maws that prey on rabbits, using their sonic blasts to stun the poor creatures before devouring them. Man-eating, cold-blooded, human-rat-goat-warthogs. And the Oorgthrax, whose description I’m just going to quote directly from the text: “a monstrous serpent, nearly 20 feet long, with a bulbous head covered in stalks of various sorts: two eyestalks, a mouthstalk, four handstalks, and four mace-like spikestalks.

All of the monsters are original and interesting and just reading the descriptions was a blast, I’d love to be able to unleash a few of these creatures on my players. The illustrations of these creatures are cool too, helping greatly to get the unique, horrific and sometimes comical nature of these beings across to the reader.

The inclusion of stats and descriptions for example NPCs from each species presented in this section was a nice touch, letting you see the creature ‘in the wild’ as it were and giving you a pile of premade villains, allies and odd encounters for your players to encounter. Each NPC is unique, coming with their own motivations and mannerisms that aren’t always typical of their species.

The racial classes were of less interest to me, since I don’t intend to run the Midderlands using an OSR ruleset (well maybe just one adventure involving a Moby Dick style hunt for a monstrous Blithen-Pike but no more than that, I swear), and I can’t tell you whether these classes would fit well into an OSR game or not. (Though I should mention that the authors’ themselves admit that they haven’t created these classes with game balance in mind.) Personally I’d have preferred the space to be used to include some more weird and wonderful monsters. Still, it’s a bit of fun and I’m sure some gaming groups will get a great deal of pleasure out of playing blind vigilante goblins and cone-headed lightning-ogres.

After this there is another shortish section called Adventures in the Midderlands. Most of the page count of this section is made up of an adventure called, Spies in the Sewers. This is a perfectly serviceable low-level adventure which includes tavern brawls, bandits, spies, random encounters and horrible unexplained sewer-tentacles. As you’d expect from the Midderlands, this adventure fits neatly into local politics and could be the start of a larger campaign centred around espionage and skulduggery between rival powers.

Adventure - sample

The adventures section concludes with just over a page of ideas for the kind of adventures that only the Midderlands can provide. My favourite of these is a quest to collect some slug-eating goblins for a farmer so that he can win a prize turnip competition. I was less bothered about the random in-world games that PCs can take part in, but that just seems to be something that OSR roleplayers enjoy.

The Midderlands concludes with a section on hex map locations and an appendix. (OSR games tend to split maps into hexes, with each hex being a distinct location, I assume that this is a D&D 1st Edition thing.) The hex map locations detail interesting landmarks or encounters that you can use in your games, ranging from half-buried jade statues to ghostly armies. Some of the hexes move, which is fun. The appendix contains some handy tables of Midfolk insults, Midfolk names and trades, weather patterns, town names and Crap you find on Midfolk.

Overall, I had a great time reading The Midderlands. It’s unique. It’s original. It has a good cohesive theme, and it’s funny, what more can you ask of a fantasy setting?

If you like to write your own adventures but need a starting point or a book which you can mine for original ideas and monsters, then this is the book for you. Also worth reading just for fun!

The Midderlands GM Screen and Gloomium Randomiser Chart

Just as with the books, the art style of the GM Screen is wonderfully distinctive and distinctively wonderful, it actually reminds me a little of the art from Fallen London (a browser-based MMORPG which spawned two more games, Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies).

GM Screen Art

The screen is small, folds easily and is very lightweight. It’s not quite pocket-sized but it’s not far off and it could be tucked into one of the Midderlands books quite easily, just the thing for the GM who needs to travel light or likes to keep some gaming supplies with them in case of emergency. My one issue with it is that since it’s a mini-screen (four A5 panels laid out end to end in landscape orientation), you might well struggle to hide your notes from your players with it. I did some (highly scientific) practice peeking and concluded that if you use maps, GM character sheets or sheets of A4-size notes, you’ll need to keep your players at least a seat away from you if you want to keep your secrets. For secret dice rolls or notes on a phone though, it presents no problem.

GM Screen Art 2

As a tool for a busy GM who wants to run a quick and clean game in the Midderlands setting without too much page-flipping this GM screen is invaluable. It packs a huge amount of useful information into a small space—a currency conversion chart, a list of Midderlands words, random NPC first names and surnames, a table of to-hit bonuses for PCs and monsters and a chart that allows you to see at a glance what you need to roll on a D20 to have a monster hit a target with a particular armour class. Then there’s travel times between large Midderlands towns, gods, inn names, items for barter and (marvellously) a cheat sheet of different words that mean green so that you can describe that eponymous Midderlands colour without repeating yourself. There’s also a ton of random generators for items your PCs find on Midderlanders (the Crap You Find On Folk table from the first book), weird events, the weather, mutations (Gloomium deformities) and body locations.

GloomiumThe Gloomium Randomiser Chart is an A5 card with a hex shaped grid on it that looks a bit like a spider web. You can drop a die onto it and whatever the section the die lands on gives you a random effect, mostly bonuses or minuses to hit or to damage. It’s a fun way to underline just how bizarre and chaotic regions tainted by Gloomium are and it shouldn’t slow gameplay down unduly. It’s mostly only useful if you’re using an OSR system or something like modern D&D and Pathfinder. But then, running a Midderlands adventure in a non-D20 system would take quite a lot of conversion.

Overall the GM screen is a handy, portable tool and an attractive addition to a gaming table, but if I was running a game in another setting I’d probably reach for a larger screen or use this one as a backup.

The Midderlands Expanded

The Midderlands Expanded (cover)Since I have a physical copy of this book I can mention a few features which I found useful. The book has two ribbons attached to the spine (one grass green and the other pine green), which look good, are very handy for marking pages and saved me a lot of time scrabbling around for bookmarks, more books should have these! The different sections of the book have little coloured squares on the edge of their pages, so you can easily see which part of the book to flip to in order to find a particular kind of information, which I also appreciated. The authors are clearly keen to make use of all the available space too—inside the front cover there is a full colour recreation of all the maps of The Ratdog Inn (the adventure location detailed in the book). The inside of the back cover has a handy list of all the new monsters in the book and their stats.

The book comes with a complete map of the Havenlands. The map has been divided into hexes to make it easier to find particular locations and to calculate distances. It makes for a good prop and a good practical tool for GMs who are running games that involve overland travel. The back of the map contains examples of the Midderlands’ trademark green and ghoulish artwork. There’s plenty of full-colour (okay, full-green) illustration pages inside the book proper as well. Some of these are really rather gorgeous, with my favourite being The Lord’s Tower, a twisted spike of a building with blade-like protrusions jutting out from it and pointing menacingly at the sky.

The Midderlands (map 03)This book literally covers a lot more ground than the first one, nearly half of its pages are used to describe the counties, towns, islands and forests of the Haven Isles (Havenland, Scrotland and Oldenwale). Inevitably there’s less detail on local politics and more of a focus on regional disputes and power structures, but that just sets a larger stage for your characters to act upon. The book doesn’t focus much on the differences in culture between Havenlanders and Scrots, for example, though even foreign readers are likely to be able to fill in a few details of whiskey-swigging kilt-clad warriors marching to the rousing tune of the bagpipes (this is fantasy after all, historical accuracy is optional).

A lot of the ‘game juice’ in this section comes from conflicts and plots which you could have found in the real historical Britain. It’s a bit like a more low-key Game of Thrones in that respect. The Dukes of Chesternshire and Greater Mersea are engaged in nearly open warfare over control of the River Mercy, and the county of Darbyshire is about to get drawn into the conflict, while the folk on the other side of the Oldenwale border have their own part to play. Over in Suffolkshire, the Duchess Amelia Klarchester plots with her pet assassin and lover, Lord Jon Mastiff, to take over Norfolkshire and unite it with her own holdings. Many smaller rivalries also simmer between the folk of various towns, counties, businesses and guilds.

There are zanier, darker and more magical places and events amongst these pages as well. There’s an island where they make a certain type of whiskey which causes bouts of clairvoyance in those that drink it. Arcane chalk can be obtained from the dark-green cliffs of Blackover. The once-thriving town of Darkpool has been left all but empty after its entire population disappeared one night without warning or explanation. And there’s the menacing circle of Havenhenge with its mighty obelisks carved from hellstone and its secretive order of watchers, all of them women. Cern, the Antlered God, also known as The Great White Hart, floats unmoving in a magical circle in the centre of a lost and damned village somewhere in the depths of Aven Forest. Eden Burg Castle in Scrotland is guarded by a skeletal army that waits, patiently, for any mortals foolish enough to challenge their dominion. In Oldenwale, the people who inhabit the mountains of North Powyd grow angry at their chieftain’s failure to protect them from the depredations of venomous ‘hugging snowbeasts’.

If any of these tales whet your appetite for adventure then you already know what you need to do once you’ve finished this review!

The Midderlands (artwork 03)

Short descriptions of a handful of neighbouring countries are also provided, these are Gaulandia, Emeraude and The Serpentlands. The completely alien Serpentlands (an obsidian island plateau situated roughly where Norway should be, coloured blue instead of green and populated by an extremely violent race of serpent-people) receives the highest word-count and comes complete with a city map and plots seeds for what could be a grand campaign centred around an inhuman invasion. This was all rather tantalising and left me wondering whether a future supplement or zine would expand on this looming ophidian menace.

This section rounds off by discussing the coastal waters of the Haven Isles (vital for a fantasy version of Britain) detailing some interesting shipwrecks and providing a table for generating your own wrecks.

The next section adds more oddities to supplement those found in the first book. There’s a good number of magical artefacts in this section (nineteen in all), a couple of which are tailor-made to be the stuff of epic quests. I liked the Staff of Blood, which is now in two pieces, one full of offensive magic and the other defensive, and which no one knows exactly how to repair without being mystically transported to a distant desert. Other intriguing artefacts include the supernaturally effective Northolkshire Scarecrow and the clairvoyant kaleidoscopes called Scrotoscopes.

Then there are four new spells, three of which are for the Dragon Singer character class and are quite fun and evocative.

The Midderlands Expanded - Spells

Next is some more Havenlands flora and fauna. Highlights include Old Hob’s Acorns, magical acorns which can be used to summon and control rampaging oak spirits and have a strong folkloric feel, and Slate Bangers, murderous little stone-imps that inhabit mines and resemble kobolds (that’s the dwarf-like earth-spirits of European myths, not the little trap-laying dragon-people that D&D turned them into).

After that is a section called folk that covers a range of cults, gangs, guilds and ‘lone wolves’. There are evil druids, horribly mutated pirates, mounted bandits, secretive sorcerers and a vicious undead highwaywoman. None of these are statted out or described in huge detail, just enough information that you could put them into a game if you wanted to, as long as you had a decent grasp of your preferred system’s character creation rules.

The Midderlands (artwork 04)What follows is a series of Notables—NPCs that have been statted out. These Notables range from interesting side characters that add a little local flavour to certain areas, such as a bear-tamer and a cruel town-crier, to potential villains for your players to face, e.g. Captain Halgun Grimm, a mercenary leader and sadistic psychopath with a habit of killing his own men in unpleasant ways. And this is a Midderlands books so of course there are some oddballs like The Birdman, a wandering sorcerer of unknown intent who can talk to birds and has his own random table of cryptic sayings to confuse players with.

There are also three new classes in this section, one for each of the three main countries of the Haven Isles. Like the monster classes in The Midderlands I can’t speak to their effectiveness, but I can judge them in terms of flavour and originality.

The Oldenwale Dragon Singer is a great exemplar of fantastical Welshness—combining the Welsh love of singing with the dragon motifs that are intimately associated with that proud country (though you do have to be quite high-level to get the more interesting abilities). The Scrottish Highland Shaman is fine, no problems with it. Though I’d have liked to have seen a Phantom Piper, a woad-covered Highland Berserker or a claymore-wielding Immortal instead. The ruthless Witchfinder draws on an iconic character from a dark and shameful period of English history and comes complete with a righteous attitude and a big hat with a buckle on it, great stuff!

The bestiary section follows this and contains almost as many monsters as there were in the original book (more if you count the seven different types of Tentacled Horror from the Middergloom, each one larger and more dangerous than the last and living deeper underground, with the most apocalyptically powerful and nightmarish creatures living in the Gloomium Core of the world itself).

As I say to my players, it’s time to throw more monsters at you!

Gloomgools are horrible vampiric creatures from the Middergloom with massive fangs, fishy crests and an insatiable thirst for blood. An author favourite, Mud Cows are like small elephants with half a dozen spiked tentacles in place of a trunk. Gloomium Dragons look and sound cool but would require access to the Sword & Wizardry: Complete Rulebook or some modification to use. The Branchspite Golem is a hateful creature made up of the detritus from a forest floor, a fun alternative to a treeman or dryad. Salt Misers are sort of slug-centaurs that have a genuinely demonic and disquieting appearance, despite their innocuous name.

Once again this is a brilliant section. I wasn’t blown away by every creature but some of them were quite brilliant; Glynn Seal has a real talent for making monsters. There are some awesome illustrations in this section too, some in colour and some not. I found myself literally gloating over the toxic green picture of the spidery Spawn of Morgontula as I imagined showing it to my players. The hideous and vaguely piscine Gloomgool also makes for a very ‘lovely’ portrait. The Leviathan is in black and white but still looks so wonderfully gribbly that I’m using it as the picture for a Lovecraftian sea-god in my current campaign. It’s a pity that not every beast got a picture (I want to know what a Hugging Snowbeast looks like!), but you can’t have everything. This Bestiary doesn’t contain any racial classes for playing these monsters or any sample NPCs (though there is a Mudcow NPC in the Notables section). Honestly, I don’t miss the classes and I can live without the sample NPCs (though they would have been handy) if it leaves more room for new monsters.

The adventure section contains a short horror-themed adventure that has the PCs exploring The Ratdog Inn, stumbling across body after body as they seek to understand who or what massacred the inn’s inhabitants. This adventure also includes some useful tips on creating a good horror game atmosphere at the gaming table.

This section describes another adventure location that doesn’t have a pre-written adventure associated with it but contains a good number of plot hooks and a great amount of detail. This is the Tor Bazaar, a series of caves that lie beneath the town of Brignorth and house various shops and merchant stalls, as well as tunnels that lead down into the Middergloom.

Like the first Midderlands book, TME rounds off with more hex locations and an appendix. Some of the hex descriptions serve as hooks for complete adventures themselves, such as the burial site of the wicked and mutated Demi-Beast of Northtonshire.

The Midderlands (artwork 07)The appendix is just as useful as the one in the first book. It includes descriptions of new gods and demons, pictures of secret signs of the Midderlands and what they mean (a fantastic idea), ways to personalise the descriptions of weapons and armour, a table of non-magical heirlooms and special rules to use if PCs decide to burgle a house. For those who like their political adventures there’s also a table of the Dukes and Duchesses of the Havenlands and a relationship map of the key political figures of the Midderlands region.

Overall, I really loved this book, it looks beautiful and the illustrations and plot-hooks it holds have already given me some fresh inspiration for my own games. Definitely recommend, particularly if you enjoyed the first book!

And that’s it for now. I hope that your day is as full of wonder as a malachite sky, that your dreams are replete with turquoise dragons and avocado clouds and that no centidemonpedes burrow into your ears as you sleep.

You can buy Midderlands products from DriveThru RPG and RPG Now or go directly to the source, here. There are one or two small supplements and a newly launched Midderzine that haven’t been reviewed here because I haven’t yet read them.

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2 Comments

  1. Edwin Nagy says:

    Richard–thanks for this amazingly deep and humorous review. It’s always fun to see what people glom onto as they read through the Midderlands books. I’m also pleased that nothing struck you as horribly out-of-place. As an American trying to write British, so to speak, I was a little nervous about some of my pieces. Anyway, most glad you enjoyed the books, and I hope you and your players get lots of fun out of them! Cheers, Edwin

    • Richard Marpole says:

      No worries, I had a great time with these books and I’m looking forward to putting some of the ideas I got from them into practice!

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