Somewhere between Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Douglas Adams‘ Magrathea, and the twisted mind of Neil Gaiman lies the world of Critical!: Go Westerly by Geoff Bottone and Jonathan Lavallee. This is a book to be savored slowly over a few readings so you manage to catch 80% of the puns, and even after the first two reads I suspect I’m still missing a few parts of the joke. But that’s the trick that Geoff and Jonathan manage to pull off somehow – the balancing act between pure comedic entertainment and playability.
So you’ll forgive me if I break this review into a couple of chunks. There’s no way I could possibly do it justice without focusing on two separate qualities of the material… First, the world of C!:GW and then the rules in another piece. I want to savor this bizarre world and share some of the juicy bits I found along the way.
Just to get it out of the way… This is not Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Glorantha, Middle-earth, Westeros, or any other world you may have seen in the past. There’s a bizarre quality in the Kingdom of Westerly something like if the movie Brazil, the worlds of Stardust and Discworld had a mutant love child with some of Monty Python‘s Camelot thrown in for good measure. If you’re not a fan of wordplay and humor-based gaming, this probably isn’t the game for you. But if you like puns, damn this is a good time.
We’re going to skip chapter 1 for now and start with chapter 2 – Our Wandering Heroes. Across nearly 25 pages, we learn about nine different pre-made characters. Not that it’s hard to create characters mind you (and we’ll cover that in the next part of the review), but it’s great to just jump in with both feet with a completed sheet if you don’t quite have a concept in mind yet. Or, if you’re the GM (or “Bartender” in this case), you can toss these characters in as NPCs if you need to fill out a party.
Perhaps you feel like playing a fighter/chef with anger-management issues like Tara the Raging. Young, impetuous, and determined to prove she’s ready to take on the world, Tara is destined for Grog Anonymous meetings in her dotage (if she survives that long), telling stories of how she battled an evil lich and lived to tell the tale… With skills like “Unmatched Swordfighter,” “Big Time Drinker,” and “Super Cook” she’s balanced out with some bad habits like “I Smell Booze!” and “What Did You Call Me?”
Each of the nine characters is similarly equipped with a full background and character sheet you can pick up quickly and run with. My favorite of them all is Urist Axebeard, the world’s tallest dwarf. Ostracized and kicked out of dwarven society, poor Urist has been looking for a place to belong forever.
But it’s the image of the dwarf by artist Avery Liell-Kok that I just can’t get out of my head – imagine a human wearing unmodified dwarven armor and you get an idea. Looks like the poor guy is wearing a scale male halter top designed for a “chick in chainmail” and it’s simply hilarious. (The rest of the art – all done by Avery – is awesome as well.)
So you have a character (whether you created one or picked an existing one). Next up is learning about the world in chapter 3 – The Places You Will See. This chapter covers pages 43 to 92 – nearly 50 pages of this 180 page tome. And I had more fun reading these 50 pages than a few recent novels I’ve plowed through…
The Kingdom of Westerly is made up of three main duchies – Ovest, Zakid, and Prend – with Ovest being the most important with the Kingdom’s capital set up at Ovestgaard. Ovest is home to the ruling Stout family along with many other self-important egomaniacs of high fashion, art, luxury goods, and a general feeling of superiority over everybody else. The Duke Brian Stout may in fact be a little off his rocker, making demands and throwing hissy fits regularly – but that’s probably ok considering that he’s only five years old. Don’t forget to go on a tour of Hoggart’s Castle and visit the Gift Shoppe while you’re there…
While you’re in Ovestgaard, be sure to stop by the original White Griffon Tavern – the first tavern in the White Griffon Tavern franchise. Run by Mila the Mighty, an adventuring lass who wanted a better tavern-going experience as an adventurer. When she made her coinage as a hero, she started the White Griffon and has several franchises across the kingdom raking in the dough as a shrewd business woman.
And if you’re musically inclined, you could always try and apply to the Scale Schoole of Musicology. It’s tough to get in and tougher to survive the curriculum. Only the strong, talented, and determined survive to learn the particular arts of sabotaging fellow students’ performances, instruments, and chances for a bright future while ensuring that their own futures are kept intact.
If music’s not your thing, perhaps you should attend the Gwendolyn School of Advanced Swordplay and Cooking in the city of Tam. The GSASC will teach you “how to use a blade to do pretty much anything, from gutting an enemy to filleting a fish.” And graduates are definitely in demand wherever they roam to when school is done. Employers know GSASC graduates can hold their own in a kitchen or on a quest.
The Duchies of Zakhid and Prend are just as colorful to visit. Though I recommend you avoid visiting Terne, the most boring city in the kingdom. “No one goes to Terne unless they absolutely have to, because Terne is terminally dull.” It’s so dull that historical events that may plague the rest of the kingdom manage to skip it. During a great earthquake, Terne was unaffected. “Many of the townsfolk, sympathetic to the other people in the duchy, jumped up and down to get in the spirit of having an earthquake, but it wasn’t the same.”
Other points of interest… Watch out for the ELFQ, a militant group of elves who believe that “the humans of Westerly exist solely to drag the elves down and keep them from being even more amazing than they already are.” And try to avoid the Anarcho-Fantasmagoria, a group of Faeries working against anyone seeking law and order. They are the embodiment of chaos in the kingdom.
This is really only the tip of the iceberg. The book is full of hilarious tidbits like these – like a rope warehouse owned by the Himp family or a necromancer named Phr’ed. I was literally laughing out loud to the point where my daughters wanted to know what the heck was so funny!
Before I disappear here, I do want to mention one thing I noticed throughout the book (beyond the fact that the PDF and my iPad don’t seem to like a couple of fonts used in it here and there)… It really needs a good proofreading. There are multiple typos, name issues, and so on scattered throughout the book. They’re not horrendous, but the editor part of my brain just can’t ignore ’em.
The world and characters are awesome, so how are the rules? You’ll have to wait until next time to find out…