Thursday, 26 March 2015

Yoon-Suin! It's pretty good. (Part One)

One of the things I was most excited about on returning from holiday was that my copy of Yoon-Suin would be waiting for me. In fact, it was too big to fit through the door, but my wife kindly picked it up from the post office for me and I've been devouring it all week. The version I have is the print edition from Lulu, which sells for £12.50 plus shipping, but you can also get the PDF, which sells for a mere £6, and even then it's only because of the crappy exchange rate at the moment.

I cannot put my finger on what this cover reminds me of,
except that I'm sure it was something in high school. 
Yoon-Suin is the work of David "noisms" McGrogan of Monsters and Manuals, and it is a campaign setting for old-school fantasy RPGs (although I think it would be simple enough to use it for more recent games; that's certainly what I intend to do). It's somewhere between a sandbox creation tool like you'd find in a Sine Nomine game and a more detailed setting guide.

Ooh, it's even got a trailer: 

It has an absolute crapload of tables, which if you know me will tell you that I am inclined to like it. Here, have a look: 

Note the unconventional sideways-digest format (or whatever you call it). Some people don't like this because it makes it hard to shelve the book, but it does mean that it lies flat relatively well (relatively) and that the tables fit neatly and readably on one page. I bet it displays well on laptop screens, too.

Yoon-Suin is a fantasy setting that borrows influences from a sort of south/southeast Asian milieu, a world where everyone is drinking tea and smoking opium and the sun is beating down except when it isn't. The heart of this thing is the Yellow City, a metropolis ruled by an aristocratic caste of slug-men, with hapless crab-man slaves at the bottom and humans on most of the rungs in between. Temples and observatories pursue arcane secrets, hereditary clans of cockroach wranglers scrape for a living in dusty alleys, noble houses pursue convoluted intrigues, all that sort of thing. Meanwhile, out in the wilderness, explorers hack through trackless jungle, tribes of grasshopper-men herd their giant caterpillars across the plains, and umpty-bazillion (well, OK, "one hundred") little kingdoms and city-states endlessly plot and war, sometimes with the aid of giant crayfish.

The author has described Yoon-Suin as:

"Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks".

Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.

OK, so it's sort of a weird fantasy world based on a different source than your typical European-style one. But what does the actual book give you to run this world with? The answer is a lot.  In addition to the description of the setting (in the form of a traveller's journal), we get a whole Yoon-Suin bestiary. And I'm not talking about the usual setting-specific update to the Monster Manual you get in most setting books, I mean 78 new critters (although some of them are Yoon-Suin-ified versions of D&D standbys). For each region of Yoon-Suin, we get not only lots of tools for generating hex content, but lots of mini-plot-generating tables. I don't know how to describe these better than "like in Stars Without Number, y'know," but basically they're little random tables that create not only locations and their inhabitants but the interactions between them.Here, for example, is the table for generating a band of revolutionaries hiding out in one of the ruins of Big Rubble the Old City that surrounds the Yellow City: 

You'll probably need to enlarge that to read it, I guess. 
So basically there isn't a huge map of each region with every piddling little thing detailed; instead, what there is is a method of generating the region quickly -- and not just generating the stuff but also the tensions and relationships (and therefore the game hooks) that go with it. I'm particularly fond of this method because it makes it very easy to generate the kinds of things that will fit well with how my group likes to play (and how I like to run). I described this thing in an older post as "like Traveller but if its world-generation system focused on the kinds of things I care about," and the same principle applies here. It's much more interesting to me to know that this village has been swept by a craze for a new kind of tea rather than that it has 900 inhabitants and they mainly grow sorghum. 

There are loads of these kinds of tables, basically one each per thing that you might find in that region, with more detailed sections on the more important characteristic features. And a bunch of stuff on monster lairs. But just in case you want something a little more fleshed-out, there's a big section in the back of each region with sample locations appropriate to be dropped into that area. 

Now, I've been reading Yoon-Suin on the assumption that it is the kind of place that my players (who, as you can see in earlier posts, are sailing for adventure on the big blue wet thing) are going to rock up to and start meddling with, meddling being pretty much their thing. And that's all well and good. But what if you want to start a campaign in Yoon-Suin? This is where I think the book really shines. 

Basically, there's a whole system for generating the social groups that the PCs have starting connections to, as well as what problems those groups have (i.e. what they might need the PCs to go out and do for them). For me, it's the perfect middle point between being richly complex and being usefully simple, and I wish a tool like it existed for, say, Dragon Pass. (Adds "create simple campaign-start generators for Dragon Pass" to list of crap to do, around item a million.) 

I like this subsystem so much that I think I will roll one of these up and do a second post on it, just for fun. 

So is there anything I didn't like about Yoon-Suin? Not much. There are a few minor points I noticed: 

  • I like the scribbly art by Matthew Adams, but more of it would have been even better. Graphically, this is a pretty bare-bones presentation compared to some of the other things I've been reviewing lately (on the other hand, £12.50 isn't much for an RPG book these days. I can't remember what Red and Pleasant Land cost, but I suspect it was about double that). There are also a few cases where the reproduction of the art isn't perfect. 
  • It could have used another going-over by an editor; there are a few minor errors in the text. 
  • I am not familiar enough with old-timey rules to know whether the monsters are useful mechanically. I'm just going to do it with 5e anyway. 
The next thing I need to figure out is where the border is between Yoon-Suin and Qelong on the map.

Right then: in my next post, I put some of the Yoon-Suin random table love into practice, creating a setting for a theoretical campaign. With my current schedule, though, this might not happen until the weekend or even later. 


  1. Procedurally-generated settings are a fascinating thing to me, not least because they feel like they are both a throwback to the old school and an import from modern computer dungeon crawls.

    1. I don't think they're an import from computer gaming, particularly; I feel like it's ... I feel like it's two things.

      1) A lot of people were turned off by what AD&D became and by the complexity of 3rd, and they jettisoned a lot of elements of old-timey D&D game design. One of the big things of the OSR has been trying to show that these tools actually have merit outside of just nostalgia.

      2) They're an updating of those old procedures to focus on the things that the designers of those games think are important. Like in the Sine Nomine games, where the planetary generation system exists to produce things that create hooks for the PCs (rather than random hazards or a realistic simulation).

  2. Thanks, mate. I'm chuffed with this review (obviously) and I'm looking forward to reading part 2.

    Just a word about the picture quality and editing - basically that's all my fault and something I'm aware of. Believe it or not I used to do proofreading and editing professionally, but when you're very involved in a book you tend not to notice the little flaws until it's too late. Now every time I open it I find a typographical or layout error. Grr. The pictures being slightly lower quality than they should be is also down to my inept layout skills.

    On Luke's point, I don't think it's computer gaming either. I think it's actually something that evolved in the aftermath of the creation of 4th edition D&D. That really seemed (around 2008 or so) to generate a whole new movement of people who were a bit turned off by the way things were going and wanted to go back to first principles. One of those first principles was sandbox play, and procedural generation stems from a lot of people thinking hard about how to create sandboxes quickly and well - and then blogging about it. I put it down more to a kind of "brain trust" which developed through the blogs and now G+, rather than being something from computer games.

  3. "feel like they are both a throwback..." I think Luke is just pointing out that "procedurally generated content" seems to be where its at for both RPG's and Computer Games (without one necessarily influencing the other) at the moment, which for me at least, is no bad thing, in both fields.

    I picked up the Yoon-Suin pdf a week or two back, haven't had much chance to get my nerd on and generate some plot (I started an ACKS sandbox with a faintly pseudo-oriental feel recently, and Yoon-Suin should really help to flesh things out!).

    I might even mash it up with "Mad Monks of Kwantoon" for extra fun...

    Well. There goes my afternoon! :D

  4. Soooo, after an afternoon of rolling dice and referencing tables, it turns out the monks of Xiangalore, a monastery devoted to the amassing of knowledge, have more problems than just the local bandits using their robes for a disguise to let them get about the region, they also a have a demon in their midst, absorbing their knowledge and life forces!

    The inhabitants of the village to which the PC's will be returning when they finish their current "fetch" quest are prone to selling strangers into slavery (to the Elves, just across the border...), so now I know what happened to the Paladin's long lost half-sister...

    The tables for creating the warring polity's of Lahag will be very handy for creating the "...warring baronis to the north" if the party head that way.

    Yup, Yoon - Suin is made of awesome :D

    PS: Apologies for the thread-jacking!

    1. No apology necessary, man, that's great stuff.

      I spent about an hour last evening rolling dice and I believe I've got a couple of months' worth of plots in my notes. I'll write up the post on Monday!