Saturday, April 18, 2020

Review: The Black Heart of Paradise

This 48 page setting and adventure for Mothership is both one of the best TTRPG books I've ever read, and possibly the least usable. It flips the spirit of OSR on its head, requiring scrappy and inventive problem solving not from its players, but from any intrepid Warden who attempts to run it. Its use of language is obtuse, its maps and other visual aids inscrutable, its organization haphazard, and yet I like it more than any other Mothership material I've read.

The easiest and perhaps the best way to run The Black Heart of Paradise is as a surreal but welcoming destination for rest and recuperation, without any of the horror (more on that later). The Planetary Trader Skaana, the module's setting, hosts all manner of destinations for recreation and stress relief. Each delights and intrigues more than the next:
  • Tour classic ships docked in port, complete with hokey, larping employees and goodie bags.
  • Indulge in a glut of dining experiences, drugs, comics, and film.
  • Stroll in the Skaana's bizarrely landscaped and architectured walkways and parks
  • Visit my favorite attractions: A whopping 7 karaoke bars, each with its own theme and multiple songs complete with lyrics for your players to sing!
Last and potentially least are the 10 casinos which dot the ring-shaped strip surrounding the Skaana. Each encourages your group to play an out-of-character mini-game to represent the games of chance played inside. You'd expect to find these games in the pages of experimental RPGs and lyric games, but here they feel somewhat out of place. Many involve physical tasks, and range from standing pencils on end to playing popular-media-spoiler chicken. The success of these games depend largely upon the tone of a given campaign and the people at your table. For some groups, the extra-diegetic break from typical Mothership horror will provide levity and much-appreciated psychological relief, and for others it will fall flat.

Stopping here and using only the abovementioned material, a Warden gains an invaluable tool for between-adventure R&R and a location players will adore. There's more than enough material here to make each trip to the Skaana memorable and supremely charming. I cannot stress how much I enjoyed reading and look forward to running this portion of the module. Idiosyncratically evocative writing breathes vivid life into the Skaana and its many attractions, and I've rarely wanted to visit an imagined world more than this. It's weird and specific in a way rarely found outside intensely artsy indie video games and poetry. That said, beyond lies madness for both you and your players.

Details of the horror that befalls the Skaana hide in the text, requiring thorough investigation on the part of a reader who hopes to make sense of it. Nuggets of critical information intersperse unrelated sections throughout the book, and unsourced references to as-yet-undescribed people, things, and events abound. This will not make sense on a first read through, and it's still fairly fuzzy on my second.

The thing is, the horror is really good. It's disturbing and fascinating and I really want to run it to see how players handle it. I'm just not sure it's worth the monumental undertaking required to make it usable. I'd need to re-write large sections and re-organize the entire sequence of events to have any hope of running this successfully. I just might do it, and I'll be sure to post my notes if I do, but the prospect is daunting. Below lies spoilers.

The setup for the horror is genius. A religious manufacturing plant produces a new line of parasitic prayer-aid chips called "Motherchips" that burrow into your skin and foster divine communication. Of course, things go awry when the chips call forth a terrifying creature from another dimension rather than any god conceived by humans. This "Hermit Horror" arrives near the Skaana, warping time and space and spawning a host of horrific chimeras of beast, man, and machine to ravage the pleasure station and other surrounding vessels.

Beyond the eternally confounding organization of the Horror's arrival and the catastrophes that follow, the implementation of a few key elements left me somewhat disappointed. The instigating Motherchips themselves provide paltry mechanical benefits rather than something more open ended and interesting that you'd expect. Here begins a pattern of design that I tend to associate with D&D 5th edition play: overuse of mechanical effects rather than descriptive ones and railroaded plot. The PCs in Paradise are often treated as VIPs for no discernable reason beyond being the PCs. They're made privy to important information and tasks with little to no preamble. Things happen at them constantly and monumental decisions hang on their whims.

But you'll recall that I said that the horror was good, and it is. It begins with a pod of hybrid orca and shadow-spiders arriving on the Skaana and consuming everything in sight. More equally frightful chimeras follow, and the station descends into panic. My favorite part from this section are the tools the module provides to help establish atmosphere. The players witness scenes of horror caused by the extra-dimensional visitor on viewscreens. In the midst of these stressful events, the casinos and bars (those still in tact) stay open to service patrons such as the PCs, and the module includes several spine-tingling scenes witnessed from inside the windows of such establishments. This stuff is gold.

There's a whole section dedicated to assisting a pregnant woman's birth aboard a ship that crashes into the Skaana during the infestation. It's both morbid and sweetly human and I think it's a brilliant inclusion amidst the carnage. At the end of it all, if your players haven't died or fled the Skaana, they'll have the opportunity to either engage the Hermit Horror in ship combat or delve inside it to put an end to this madness.

The Hermit Horror dungeon is a microcosm of the module's strengths and weaknesses. There's a procedure for rooms moving around that I still found confusing even after a user on the Mothership discord helpfully broke down the process. The map is unhelpful, to say the least. The space is poorly defined and rooms vague in shape and size. The things in those amorphous rooms are some of the best material in the book. Bizarre creatures and machines found within are the stuff of nightmares, and would make for an unforgettable session even if the GM failed to rise to the task of describing and managing the space.

There's more I could talk about here, much more than I could reasonably contain in a review. The ascii art and maps that both define the module's unique aesthetic and compound its problems with clarity, for instance. Reading over my review, I fear that I was too negative. I think I've been fair in describing the module's shortcomings, but it's difficult to put into words exactly why I loved it so much.

The Black Heart of Paradise reads like something uncovered on a forgotten, haunted forum or deep within the files on a hard drive left in the woods. To wrestle with its language and navigate its eccentric structure is to ply the labyrinthine strip and battle aberrant creatures aboard the Skaana. Its distinct voice and aesthetic are inseparable from the mayhem of its complexity. The deeply intimate prose enveloped me in an atmosphere all its own, and I soon felt at home nestled in its peculiarities.

If you enjoy RPGs of any kind, you should buy and read this. It pushes the boundaries of what RPGs and RPG writing can be. It will inspire you, and there's plenty here to lift directly into your games even if you don't feel up to the task of running it in its entirety.

The Black Heart of Paradise was written by Schwa Kyle and is currently available in PDF form for $4 on DriveThruRPG. Here's a link:
Buy it.


  1. Probably the best review I've read of any OSR product.

  2. Hmm i think some one thought he was a genius, because her was High.
    Its a oldschool rip off.
    Save your credits.

  3. Thank you for this! I agree with this review 100%. I'd read through the module a couple times and was still super confused about about the flow of narrative. The maps (if you want to call them that) are useless, which makes it very hard to visualize and communicate the relationships between areas to players. I solved the shortcomings by simply porting the best of the content to the Prospero's Dream (Pound of Flesh) environment to exploit the interesting content with a more defined environment. I only paid $4; which is what the content is worth without a better editorial clean up and the addition of player facing materials.

  4. I found your article to be thought-provoking. It raised some interesting questions that I hadn't considered before. Thanks for expanding my perspective!