For consideration – The Gardens of Ynn

OK, another review. This time its a fantastic module that gave a whole new way of generating content – which has come to be known as a depthcrawl.

The Gardens of Ynn by Emmy Allen

Once again, I’m giving a review of a module that i’ve run a few times. The premise for this one is a little more complicated – as it’s not really an adventure, but more of a setting. This place is a garden, as in the “formal european landscaped garden”, that was made by an ancient race of elves. Sometime in the past the elves were wiped out by a magical disease, and the gardens became overgrown and wild… Enter the player characters… shenanigans ensue!

History

Like Prison of the Hated Pretender I’ve now run this setting for three different tables.

  • First time was a small group playing a “historical” game in 15c italy. A Noblewoman and mercenary go into the garden and bring back a strange glass-butler. The townsfolk are scared so the pair try to go back, get lost, and die to a candle-golem. We were playing Dungeon World (using self made “Class Warfare” playbooks) so the translation of monsters & treasures was a little shaky. They had wandered into the garden after some “family drama” sessions and wanted something different. It was a fun few sessions but the group went on to play different games.
  • The second time was with a different group of players who had never played an RPG before. We were playing using the World of Dungeons. They had asked for a “more gentle” roleplay experience and the Gardens seemed to match that desire. It was a lot of fun and they escaped the gardens and entered “Neverland” of Peter Pan fame afterwards. One of the players is still with us nearly a year later and is now addicted to RPGs. I think that was a successful introduction.
  • The third time was with a mostly different group (although that one player had her second journey into the Gardens) This was the first time we were using the “intended system” (in our case Old School Essentials) so there was no last minute translation needed. This was the longest entry into the Gardens (3 sessions of very focused “get to the exit” adventuring) and really showed some fun encounters.

The Module

I found this to be a breath of fresh air. I have the PDF (which is dirt cheap) and honestly its a little rough, but well done. The art is all public domain, the rules text is casual in tone, and the descriptive text is slightly dreamy (whimsical?). This is almost the opposite of “dark and gritty” – this feels like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia.. It looks light, pretty, elegant, but is fucking terrifying once you actually examine it in any detail. The world has its own rules which don’t necessarily feel consistent until you see the patterns underneath. You will get:
– Introduction – just what is this place? How to run a game here.
– Locations – Points of interest with puzzles, places and oft time treasures.
– Details – Modifiers – different rules and changes.
– A Bestiary – Whimsical and nightmare inhabitants of the gardens
– Tables! – all sorts of weird and wonderful things to make the gardens feel more strange (flowers, treasures, foods, dreams, and all that wonderful stuff)

The rules needed to run the game are in the introduction, and while relatively simple are not very cleanly described – I’ve messed things up (in different ways) each time i’ve run this, but nevertheless its been fun. The basic procedure is that you roll a 2d20 for the location and details that the players have entered, then depending on their behavior (passing through or exploring) you roll a d12 or d20 for what is going on. As the players go further (deeper) into the garden, the 2d20 roll gets a bonus, and the location/details get weirder and weirder.

A little thing that bugs me, is how the “events” work. The changed roll which depends on the players actions make things a little more tricky – the event will often have a huge impact on how a location is described (you know, having a giant fuck off golem-lawnmower tearing up the place should be fairly obvious even from a distance) but the players don’t get this info until after they have decided to investigate or move away from a location. Honestly its also my weakest point in that I often forgot to roll for an event if the players immediately decided to just move past a location. Problem is, I cant figure out a more elegant way of doing encounters (d12 gives more passive encounters, d20 gives more interesting/valuable/dangerous encounters)

The Locations and Details are just fantastic. Just reading through them gives me inspiration, and makes me want to run yet another game in this setting. You normally get 2-3 locations to a page, with a short description and a few bits that make for an interesting puzzle. A few are much bigger (Tower, Mask Gallery) and need a whole spread to explain.

The inhabitants are just wonderful – sentient giant chessboards, pastry monsters, carnivorous peacocks, Compost Fungal gardeners, Clockwork lawnmowers etc etc. What I really loved was how so many of these creatures were “puzzles” as well. The players were sometimes overwhelmed, but often if they figured out what the creature wanted/was they were able to bypass trouble. It is so much more fun to play than “monster attacks, beat it up till someone drops” style of play that seems common in many adventures.

Only once did any players encounter one of the truly terrifying creatures – the Sidhe. These are the insane creators of the garden who have somehow survived. They are something like a lich-vampire-elf-magic-user. Beautiful, insane, able to command anything in the garden, and very dangerous magic users. They cast 2 spells in a single action, have a bunch of “at will” spells and a bunch of very dangerous spells. I love them!

In any case, every entry to the garden has been radically different, and this has an amazing amount of replayability. Every time my players have gone in I have been left with the impression that at least some would like to go back despite the dangers.

Lessons Learned

Well, in each of the 8 session that i’ve run this setting my procedures have changed. I’ll just list the things I do now, or plan to do for my next incursion.

  • Read the introduction on how to run the gardens. Write down or flowchart the rolls that are needed.
  • Get a handle on how time works in the Gardens. 1 turn for exploring, 1 turn for travelling. Remember that days are nights are 2x as long in the gardens.
  • Read the whole book – a few times. Try rolling up a few places to practice putting together a location/Detail/Event. My first times were very slow, but after a couple of tries you should be able to do this pretty seamlessly.
  • Experience some of the inspirational media – get some pictures by Arthur Rackham, watch/read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Coraline, The Cat Returns and Spirited Away – try to get that feeling of Beauty, Light, Dreamy, mildly Insane, and fucking terrifying at the same time.
  • Get or make a cheat sheet that summarises the main tables you will be rolling on time and time again. I use the wonderful one made by Eldritch Fields – note that this is made for LotFP so the armour AC numbers are higher that you might expect.
  • Make a “Hothouses” and a “Tower” location beforehand. These are a pain in the arse to try making at the table – Make a little map for the Hothouses (which can be reused for the Orchid Houses) and put together a tower with all the floors and interior planned out – its a mini-dungeon! If your players run across either of these places you will be very thankful to have a layout ready to go. (I had to pause for 10 mins to scramble putting together a tower when I first encountered one)
  • Be able to look at the entries for Locations, Details, and Inhabitants at the same time. I split the pdf into separate files so I was able to have each open at the same time. I had my cheat sheet in one tab, Locations in another, Details in a third tab, and the Bestiary in the last tab. This was I could have the Location and Description up side by side to quickly skim over the text while I was talking to my players. Then I swapped to the Bestiary if an encounter went south.
  • Most important – give the players a reason to be in the gardens. I can easily imagine spending a great many sessions wandering around in these gardens – but be aware it is very easy for characters to get lost and die in there. The best sessions i’ve had were when the players were trying to travel through the gardens and the madness they found was something they were trying to get around, rather than just exploring each location in detail.

Conclusions

Yeah, again, Go get it! 80 pages of whimsy and terror. More usable content than most books I own. Every time I’ve read this book it inspires me to run it again. But be careful, it is not really an adventure in and of itself. While it could sustain a whole campaign, I feel the need to attach it to something/somewhere else. I have run it along side Neverland and Dolmenwood and it fits very well. But any setting where some kind of fairytale feel is acceptable would work very well. Through Ultan’s Door might work?

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