Monday, October 29, 2018

[Review/Overview] The Stygian Library by Emmy Allen

Emmy Allen released a new book, The Stygian Library. Emmy's stuff is always great (I'm really looking forward to trying the ice age weird fantasy, Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow), and, of course, she is the author of The Gardens of Ynn, which I'm a big fan of.

The Stygian Library follows the same structure: it is a procedurally generated environment, with plenty randomness, but also with a strong thematic coherency at the same time.

The Library is made up of randomly generated locations (mostly rooms). The player group begins on Depth level 0, then move deeper and deeper. For each step, the DM rolls a Location and a Detail, combines them. The Depth rating is always factored into the generation of the next room, so the Stygian Library gradually opens up, and the players are able to reach the more obscure and weird places.

There are also randomized Events and Encounters with the inhabitants of the Library. The Bestiary is quite extensive, full of library-themed creatures: animated books, origami golems, dust elementals, and, of course, the Librarians: they are divided into five color-coded orders, each with its own set of duties, spells, abilities.

I really dig the atmosphere and the tone of this setting. This is how Emmy describes it in the introduction:
Whilst some of the contents in this book can be portrayed in a rather dark light (it is, fundamentally, about necromancy), it’s not intended as a particularly grim setting. One thing that often strikes me about the fiction I enjoyed in my youth is how the dark and the whimsical so often go hand in hand. Not as a subversive contrast, but rather how the imagination (when allowed to wander) will flit between ideas that fill us with wonder and with dread. Like exploring an empty house, all it takes is a slight change in context (nightfall, say) to make the experience creepy.
So, The Gardens and the Library are built using the same principles, There is one major difference between the Gardens and the Library. Ynn is all about exploration, wonder and adventure. The Stygian Library offers the same "sense of discovery", but it is also vast (potentially infinite) repository of knowledge, so it is very likely the player characters visit it with a specific goal in mind.

Emmy presents a simple, but elegant subsystem for tracking the players' progress towards their goal. There is a Progress score, its initial rating is tied to the highest Intelligence rating in the group. The score increases if the group talks with somebody knowledgeable, or finds a book about the topic they are researching, etc., and decreases if the party is lost or misinformed. The DM sets the difficulty of finding the information (e.g. 20 for basic knowledge, 35 for dangerous obscurities). If the Progress reaches this value AND the group is deep enough into the Library, the precious information is found.

Furthermore, the presence of the Librarians, their active and engaged factions, also gives the Stygian Library a different, more "narrative" style, than the slightly more passive, dreamy, utterly lost inhabitants of the landscapes of Ynn.

So, overall, I think The Stygian Library is not only a great follow-up to The Gardens of Ynn, but also presents its own developments.

The only minus is that the .pdf is still just a simple text, without any hyperlinks or bookmarks... This book would benefit ENORMOUSLY from a well-marked structure. For example, it'd be great to be able to click a header on the Location Table, and be taken to the description. Maybe something for a future edition?

Get the Library here, it's $4. And check out this hilarious mind-bending play report!

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