I'd like to thank Doug for submitting this review. As I've stated many times, but I can never state often enough, The Tavern is yours and it is significantly better when members of the community participate in its content - Tenkar
Review of The Vast in the Dark – a Zine About Exploring Dark and Alien Megastructures of an Infinite Realm by Doug Kilmer
I’ll start this review with a thank you to Tenkar’s Tavern for showcasing the Kickstarter ZineQuest (note - The Tavern's YouTube series of Fireside Chats for ZineQuest 2021 can be viewed here) I would never have been aware of this movement, or the great products that were offered this year, without the heads up. I purchased way too many products for my wallet and so far don’t regret one.
Charlie Ferguson-Avery’s The Vast in the Dark is one of the best. Published by Feral Indie Studio, it is not only an incredibly useful toolbox, it drips with an original atmosphere and dark character, which is hard to achieve in this now mature industry literally full of thousands of settings.
From the back cover:
The sky is black as night. A tectonic rumbling can be heard overhead: the ruins sprawl out with a fractal madness. And a vast sea of colorless sand stretches out into the darkness.
That writing alone gets my attention.
The electronic version of The Vast in the Dark is available here for a minimum contribution of $5USD. As identified above, the product is the result of a successful Kickstarter project in early 2021 that has already delivered in full. The electronic product is 28 pages long, including front and back cover, insides of covers, table of contents, and two pages that are predominantly art. The remainder is a toolbox for the creation of this alien environment. The writing is fairly tight and concise, and it is simple and clear to read. The booklet makes great use of evocative art that reinforces the brooding atmosphere, and the layout is functional and minimizes wasted space.
While technically system neutral, the author recommended systems include DCC, OSE, Pathfinder, Knave, White Hack, and Black Hack. So obviously, this is going to have an old-school vibe. As a backer of the Kickstarter, I also have a saddle-stitch print version, which is a handy 5” x 8” and fits well with my Old School Essentials books.
What it has…
As I mentioned, this is a toolbox to adventure in a “crumbling alien wasteland.” At its heart, it is a sandbox for hex crawling. Definitely OSR-ish, hence the system recommendations. Within the limited page count is everything you need to randomly generate an ancient wasteland of some past empire. The ruins of megalithic structures littering a sandy waste, dotted by conclaves of other travelers caught in the dark clinging to existence.
The Vast in the Dark is not meant to be a full setting, but rather what I will call a “side setting.” This product can pretty much be bolted on with any setting. I think it is best used as a diversion from your main campaign, possibly a jaunt on the other side of the veil or being caught up in the planes. Three to four games sessions ought to do it; enough to frustrate your players, make them appreciate escaping this place, and definitely memorable fodder for your players to talk about in years to come.
Yes, the Vast has that level of potential to turn ugly and hopeless for the party. Walking out of here without some form of permanent mark probably won’t happen. And it shouldn’t in my opinion.
There is no wasted space in this zine. A brief explanation of the setting, rules on exploration in the Vast (e.g., navigation, becoming lost, and quirks that your character can take on due to being too long in the wastes), and an inventory system. The zine also provides a modicum of the mundane necessities of life (e.g., food), a lodestone-based (one of the few setting resources) currency system, and some discussion of the Vast’s society. There are even three representative factions that can be found while wandering the wastes.
The zine also provides a quick and simple exhaustion system. This is key to playing in this environment, as it reflects the slow wear and tear of struggling to survive in an alien environment. Characters gain levels of exhaustion when they miss a night’s sleep, are severely wounded, push themselves beyond the norm, and go without food. These build up and can result in an illness or injury, which puts tasks using the associated ability at a disadvantage until rested or healed. Truly reflective of the dark and gritty of the Vast, and definitely will be a challenge to even veteran players of old school systems.
Cool, but not the real treasure.
The random Vast generation tools are the true value. The method starts on the macroscopic level developing regional terrain maps, and then works inward to local scale hexes, and lastly ruins. The regional and local mapping uses a die drop method to generate the locations of ruins, pillars, and empty wastes. Pillars are enormous constructs made of lodestone that seem to be holding up whatever is above beyond the sight of the ground. Like the ruins, they can also be inhabited.
For ruins, a simple room-by-room grid-based mapping method is provided that can be used on the fly. Example types of rooms, features, treasures, and encounters are all in the booklet. It comes with an associated time tracking guide for room exploration. All very old school.
The Not so good…
I only have two minor criticisms, both of which are admittedly not valid given the limited page goals of zines: not enough original monsters; and, just not enough content. That’s it. This product definitely leaves you wanting more. I look forward to a companion in the future. Maybe something that fills in what is on top of the pillars.
The lack of unique creatures to encounter is really the only gap in this booklet. The uniqueness of how the Vast is presented justifies the need for original creatures. There are certainly a plethora of monster manuals that can be pilfered for non-standard creatures, but I want the author’s vision on this as well.
On the old five-star system, have to give this a near-perfect 4.5 out of 5. At $5 for the pdf, this is one of the best values I have come across in years. Personally, I can’t wait until my players cross the veil and realize they are not in Kansas anymore.
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