I recently got my copy of The Seclusium of Orphone* of the Three Visions as part of the reward package from the Lamentations Rules and Magic reprint kickstarter. Now that I’ve got more than a couple hours to rub together, it’s time for that review I’ve been promising..
(*I see what you did there)
You can go here to look at my rating criteria. Remember, these ratings are for my needs and tastes, not necessarily yours, but I try to explain my reasoning as best I can.
“Every Wizard’s story is.. Max and Where the Wild Things Are”. – Pg. 20.
This book is a useful and inspiring toolbox, appropriate for virtually any universe with magic innit. Elements of its presentation are gorgeous, the writing is excellent, and the art evocative. The essays within will likely change the way you run your games, and for the better. Poor layout choices and redundant content, however, make it feel rushed; at once padded and incomplete. For something so chart-heavy, there are some basic elements missing that would have been helpful. Still, the framework it provides for both magic and Magi – which are explained just well enough to use without treading on most campaign worlds – is delightful and the book itself quite good for a GM looking to add some proper “fucked-up” to his wizard’s homes.
Make no mistake, this may not be the best of Lamentations’ products, but it’s still well above-average for the industry. I probably wouldn’t have bought the print edition based on my first impressions, but after reading and using it the inspiration value alone is worth the price of admission.
Detailed breakdown after the jump.
Out-of-Box Utility: As a Module: 2/10. As a Toolbox: 6/10
If you walk into this book expecting something playable, you’re in for a Bad Time. The titular Seclusium of Orphone is unusable without hours to days of hard work. It’s mostly fleshed-out, but presented in a “choose-your-own lair” format, with dozens of options for magical devices and projects, people, and their motivations/goals. In addition, the maps are incomplete or non-existent. An experienced GM will have no serious trouble building a map off of the generated results, but a newbie could easily be crushed by the profusion of options. It also feels a shame to choose only a few of the buffet of options provided when all of them are so deliciously presented. The remaining samples are even less-developed, and a GM looking for a quick fix is going to be SOL.
No, Seclusium is basically like the Lifepath system from Fuzion or Mechwarrior 3e, only for Wizard’s houses instead of characters. It’s all about creating a Very Magical Episode for your characters to stumble upon – and maybe stagger out of. On that count, it succeeds mightily. Rather than trying to play with the samples, I’ve been building my own during my long hours on the bus. Like other Lifepaths, I find it seeds my own creativity nicely, and it’s been great for breaking writer’s block. Jim Raggi suggests using this book of portals; I’d add the Random Esoteric Creature Generator (if you can find it) and your choice of the hundred or so name generators out there; a book of traps could also come in handy. The tables are mostly effects-based, so you’ll have to do some hacking just to use what you generate, but they do give you the crunch off the bat.
The book is a valuable tool for several things outside its “intended” purpose, as well. Vincent writes about Magic extensively, and one section in particular – a passage on the difference between Wizards and Magic-Users – set off some serious wheels in my head instantly (more on that as I can be arsed). Most of the individual generators for stocking the Seclusium stand on their own, not just as part of the whole. There are monsters, Magical items from tools to toys, NPCs, locations, and many more; they are designed to leave extremely interesting blanks for the GM to fill but still provide enough mechanics and detail to riff from immediately. Unfortunately, one of the “blanks” is a template for generating your own Seclusia. It’s not a critical omission, but it is irritating.
Like most Lamentations books, there’s additional plug-in rules tucked in the back. In this case, it’s a simple and elegant “perception” mechanic from Baker’s home rules. Succeeding on a roll allows the player to ask the GM one or more questions their character would have a reasonable chance to know. Warriors can get tactical judgements like “how confident is he?” or “Does this look like a good place to set an ambush”, whereas Magi can see magical emanations, etc. Not sure I’ll use it, but it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to remember and adjucate at the table. Better, it forces both the players and the GM to put thought into the situation instead of just handing out information from a chart.
The material can fit into virtually any time period or “level” of fantasy. Indeed, the interior art shows a Seclusium passing through time from about the 13th century through to the 21st – and the consequences of violating it. Low-fantasy campaigns can get their Kourae and Sheelbas of the Eyeless Face; High fantasy games get a quick way to infest a city with wizards, and the PCs get something to which they can aspire. Call of Cthulhu or other modern games get some seriously nasty surprises.
As mentioned above, the individual tables inside are also quite portable, especially for magic item creation. Same goes for the sample characters, and really almost any of the items and locations presented. The book itself is an open-ended toolbox. No faults here.
In spades. The magic items are delicious, the sample wizards have personality and the magic is eerie. The author’s asides help you make more of your own weirdness, and are good for priming the old mental pump before tearing into the content.
(GM) Engagement, Treasure, Puzzles and Traps: 7/10
(Combined here, given the purpose of the book)
Such treasures as are presented are damn near perfect. Wizard’s toys are and should be dangerous as Hell. The author at one point uses an excellent example of a Bad Thing for players that is in no way a trap or even technically cursed. He also goes out of his way to remind the GM Seclusia need to support their population, and encourages placing supplies, toys, and other “fun” or useful treasures. The examples contain several magic items used to suggest intrigues between the wizard resident and others about the world, not to mention the other inhabitants.
Speaking of which..
One of the odder presentation choices the author made was re-using the same NPC names in each sample Seclusium. I think the purpose was to show that you can use the same tools an infinite number of ways, but it was a bit confusing at first. The way it reads, it’s not clear whether or not these are in fact different people; I immediately started brainstorming connections between the different Seclusia in time and space. It was almost disappointing when I got to the point where it becomes blatantly obvious they aren’t the same folks, because some of the things it implies about the relationship between Orphone and Bostu the Necromancer were frankly awesome.
On the traps front, puzzles are basically ignored and the magical defenses tables are Spartan (mostly effects-based) but usable.
Aesthetics: 5/10 (mostly excellent, but there are a few glaring problems)
It’s pretty clear that either D. Vincent Baker or Jez Gordon (the layout guy) are fans of William Morris’ principles of bookbinding and decoration (see this post for some Morris commentary). The endpapers are gorgeous, the initials are pretty little woodcuts, and each page is unobtrusively but attractively watermarked, all with a unified floral motif. Cynthia Sheppard’s art complements the text nicely, and is well-placed. Melissa gets more screen time than the rest of the mascots, which is fitting given the Magical focus in the book.
The writing is clearly intended to evoke that of the late Jack Vance, and does so very, very well. Some of the biggest problems in the work, however, are aesthetic – especially in the writing. Baker’s tone saws wildly from Vancian archness and arcanisms (90% of the book) to casual, bloggy and conversational (the rules and added comments). While the tone shifts are entirely appropriate for the content presented, the two types of texts aren’t really set off from each other. It’s quite jarring in a couple of places; the immersiveness of the book would have been markedly improved by marking the “Out-of-Character” sections off in sidebars or with plainer text.
In addition, there is a lot, and I mean shitloads, of two to three-sentence blocks of prose reprinted as many as five times within the book. Entire bloody pages are virtually duplicated between the introduction, the tables, and the sample Seclusia. It makes the work feel padded. A lot of the punch of the otherwise excellent writing is hurt by having half the entry spoiled in the title (and before that, in the section table of contents). The redundancy combines with another problem to make the work itself feel incomplete.
So, to make a book you gather up and stitch together groups of pages, called “signatures”. The standard in the industry is either sixteen or thirty-two pages to the sig, and the content in the book needs to fit in those limits. I’m sure you’ve seen the books with three or four “extra” blank endpapers floating around: those didn’t have quite enough content to fill the last signature. Accommodating this structure is one of the hardest and most important duties of the layout man, and it feels like Mr. Gordon failed in it.
The Seclusium.. is bound in four 32-page sigs. I understand that sometimes you just can’t cut enough to lose one, but there are 20-odd pages either blank or with naught but an identical sigil. It feels just the tiniest bit excessive – especially when so much of the content seems stretched and/or incomplete elsewhere. The blanks are inconsistently placed at the ends of chapters, and each chapter (even OoC ones with less than a page of actual content) has a header page and a siglum page attached. While this was a tightly-budgeted project and commissioning more art was obviously unfeasible, so much.. “creative use of white space” looks sloppy. Slapping those pages in the back with some basic content – say, a template for making your own Sanctum – would have helped the utility of the book a lot. The vast amount of empty space also makes some of the omissions more glaring. The section on the “stages of a Seclusium”, for example, doesn’t even list the stages. You have to gather them by implication from the surrounding text+, and some aren’t described at all. I get the sneaking suspicion that actually completing one of the sample Seclusia could have cut an entire quire from the book, or filled the existing ones, at no great loss in utility, teaching quality, or inspiration.
+The stages: Foundation, Expansion, Stabilization, Abandonment, Decline, Destruction. The Seclusium is most vulnerable – and gameable – in the Expansion and Decline phase, and the book focuses on Decline.
I’d buy it. It ain’t perfect, but it works, and it gets me thinking.