I ran into the Sly Flourish blog back in the 4th edition days of D&D, but as I moved away from the system, I eventually moved away from following the blog. Last fall, however, I picked up one of Mike Shea’s books, read it, reviewed it, and have been consistently checking in with his work since then.
I initially missed out on Fantastic Locations, but I now have a copy because I backed the upcoming Fantastic Adventures at a tier that gave me access to this work as well.
But Wait, There’s More
One thing I wanted to touch on with this review is that when you purchase this book through a site like Drive Thru RPG, you can pick up the PDF or the print on demand, and there is also an option to get a print copy of the Art of Fantastic Locations. The Art of Fantastic Locations is a separate book that has just the artwork of various sites described in the book, separately. This makes them easy to show to players at a table without giving away too much.
The book is 96 pages, with three pages of Kickstarter backers. The book has white backgrounds, clear section headers, and bordered pages. There is artwork at the beginning of the location chapters to illustrate the location detailed in that section.
The illustrations are important to note. They are colored line art, and they are laid out to give a quick overview of what each location looks like. Both the artwork and the formatting is clear, and the text is easy to follow. The illustrations are colorful and provide powerful snapshots of what the text is attempting to convey.
While there isn’t a lot of background art on the page, the overall appearance is very good at doing what it sets out to do. Because I’m terrible at describing art, despite taking those art classes in high school, I’ll just say that these are comic book style illustrations that do a nice job of summarizing a location in a manner that can be taken in quickly. The overall look is simple but very well constructed to do what it sets out to do.
I can understand why the locations got their own separate book, and I’m tempted to order a print copy myself, even if I don’t use it for a face to face game.
We Need Fantastic Locations
This is the introduction of the book, and it explains what the product is attempting to do. Essentially, this book is a “bestiary” of locations. There aren’t full adventures tied to them, and there is usually only enough history to give you some points of connections to add it to an existing adventure or campaign structure.
This section also points out that the intent of the illustrations isn’t to give a detailed map with any kind of scale, but to give an overview of the locations and how they relate to each other. There is also a section that explains how each area of a location is connected, and how one would travel from one area to the next.
It is also noted that while the book was written with fantasy RPGs in mind, many of the locations could be used as ancient ruins in the modern world or in various sci-fi settings with few changes.
All the Locations
I usually steer clear of trying to review monster books, because you have hundreds of pages of entries that could probably merit discussion one at a time. This book has a similar setup. There are twenty locations spelled out, each one with a few pages of description each.
Each location has a brief history, suggested potential inhabitants, and location aspects. The location aspects are very similar to what you might see in Fate—they are short descriptive phrases that exist to get across the “facts” of a location without going into too much detail.
Individual sections of a location (pillars, towers, courtyards, etc.) are described in their own parts of the chapter. In some cases, these individual sections will have their own suggested inhabitants and area aspects as well as the larger suggestions for the overall location. There are also notes on how areas are connected to one another and what characters need to do to get from one to another.
In broad strokes, the twenty locations including locations like pyramids, ice caverns, lost underground cities, fallen palaces of angels, volcanic prisons, weird libraries, giant trees filled with magical rooms, crashed skyships, and even a rolling death machine big enough to house a dungeon crawl.
A few of these jump out as favorites of mine. There is little more evocative than visiting a prison suspended by impossibly large chains in the Dungeon of Fire, a prison hovering over the heart of an active volcano. The Theater of the Mind is possibly the first time I’ve ever contemplated what a bard-themed dungeon would look like. I like the idea of the Blighted Evertree as a corrupted place that once grew fey creatures like fruit, and I would love to run players through the Infernal Machine as a moving dungeon on its way to wreck a city if they can’t make it to the control room.
True to the opening section, the ideas that spawned in my mind as I was reading weren’t limited to a Dungeons and Dragons style game. The first two locations in the book made me think of a Force and Destiny game where the players are seeking ancient lore about lost Force traditions, and the Infernal Machine triggered more of my Shadow of the Demon Lord GM brain than my standard D&D thought process.
What’s important to convey is that book gives you enough information to be evocative, but leaves a lot of blanks. X was built by Y thousands of years ago to generally do Z, but it could have been destroyed by A, B, or C, depending on the needs of the campaign. The control panel in a given room looks complex, and unlocks this area, but you can resolve this with a skill check or come up with a puzzle, etc.
It’s really quite a nice balancing act, giving enough detail to make you want to use the site, but then to shove your brain in a direction where you are filling in details instead of looking for more of them in the text.
Running Fantastic Locations
This chapter focuses on some best practices for using the locations presented previously in the book. It talks about using just a room or two from the description, the value of having artwork to show your group, how you can extrapolate what is in a scene from a broad location aspect, and some quick “bullet point” examples of setting up an adventure that walks PCs through the various areas within a location.
Building Your Own Fantastic Locations
This section goes into the thought process around making a location noteworthy and fantastical. It outlines a slightly less detailed version of the process used in the book to create locations, assign them aspects, and note the connections between them.
Getting There is Half the Fun
With twenty locations and some solid advice on how to make areas a bit more grandiose than you might otherwise make them, most GMs are going to find worthwhile information in this book. I had multiple adventure ideas spring to mind while reading it, for multiple game systems.
Where Is The Exit
If you are clear on what this book is, I can’t think of many downsides. I guess if toolboxes, even useful ones, aren’t your thing when it comes to RPG purchases, you may not like it.
An Unexpected Journey
This book is another one of those products that remind me of how much flexibility that independent RPG publishers have. I don’t know that most large publishers would risk something as conceptual as a “bestiary of locations,” but it’s a brilliant concept, and very well realized in this product.
This is useful to people across the RPG spectrum, and the art just makes even more worthwhile.
***** (out of five)