Review: Red Tide

Posted: 13 April 2011 in Reviews

“Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session.” Kevin Crawford, Red Tide

Red Tide: Adventure in a Crimson World is a sandbox campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord and other old school fantasy RPGs from Sine Nomine Publishing, home of Stars Without Number. I snagged the PDF version from DriveThruRPG for about $7, but you can also get hardback or softback versions. My version is 173 pages.

I have been wondering for a while what Kevin Crawford would do with a fantasy setting, but now I wonder no more, for this is it. I am not disappointed, it’s well worth the price of a couple of pints of beer.

Although aimed for Labyrinth Lord users, this would work with OD&D, AD&D 1st Edition, or any of the retroclones thereof with little effort on the GM’s part.


A Rising Tide (1 page)

This is a one-page summary of the setting premise. In short, 300 years ago the world was consumed by a red mist, infested by demons. A few survivors fled to the Sunset Isles, a former pirate haven, and huddle there in relative safety while the red mist roils a hundred miles offshore.

A Crimson Past (7 pages)

This is a more detailed history of the setting. The long-vanished Empire is not detailed, nor need it be; the history explains how the survivors escaped, how they landed on the Sunset Isles, their wars against the indigenous Shou, the age of prosperity, the revenge of the Shou, its aftermath, and the present situation. The chapter closes with a summary timeline.

People of the Isles (7 pages)

This works through the standard fantasy RPG races; dwarves, elves, halflings, and several distinct nationalities of humans – Eirengarders, Eshkanti, Gadal, Imperials, Kueh, Skandr. There’s a capsule description of each one, covering physical appearance, psychological and cultural traits, and any peculiarities of religion.

The chapter likewise explains the Shou, essentially the stock goblinoid races, each being one tribe of the Shou.

I especially enjoyed the dwarven and elven religions, or more accurately, the lack thereof and the impact this has.

The Lay of the Land (8 pages)

This describes the physical geography of the Sunset Isles; climate, travel by land or sea, random encounter tables for each terrain type, and a gazetteer of important places with capsule descriptions of cities and other points of interest.

There are also several different versions of a regional map: A hexmap marked with physical features and climate bands, a black and white labelled map with less detail (suitable for the adventurers to see), another physical geography one with a keyed hexgrid for the GM, and finally an unmarked full colour physical map. One for every taste.

State and Society (17 pages)

This chapter – for the GM’s eyes only -  opens with a political map of the largest island, showing the six human successor states, as well as dwarven and Shou lands.

Each state is then discussed in more detail; population, ruler, society, government, laws, clothing and cuisine. We have the dwarven holds, a vaguely German Imperialist state, two Chinese Imperial powers (one benevolent, one not so much), one Japanese, one lawless border kingdom area, and one patchwork of goblinoid tribes. The nice Chinese state, Xian, gets more coverage than the others; the nasty one, Tien Lung, has a variant spellcasting system powered by human sacrifice.

Next comes a section on institutions; slavery, coinage, gender roles, religion and the various pantheons.

Heroes of the Isles (7 pages)

Here, we find a discussion of how the adventuring classes fit into society, which expects them to provide:

  • Early warning of Something Wicked This Way Coming.
  • Cheap, disposable mercenaries.
  • A safety valve by which society can channel the overly violent and ambitious into hopefully useful tasks.

Each class in turn is then touched on, explaining how they are viewed by society and how, if at all, the Labyrinth Lord rules need to be adjusted to suit the setting.

Several new classes are introduced:

  • The Scion, an elven soul reincarnated in a human body (shades of Babylon 5!), which has variant rules for spellcasting.
  • The Shou Witch, an NPC class with variant spellcasting rules.
  • The Vowed class, which offers Monk-like and Assassin-like PCs. (The core Labyrinth Lord rules don’t have a number of the advanced classes such as these, although there is a supplement which includes them.)

The Vowed class is my favourite of these. I could see a whole campaign built around a group of Vowed PCs.

Red Sorcery (19 pages)

This chapter discusses the nature of magic in the setting; lists new spells for magic-users, clerics, Scions, and Shou witches; describes magic items unique to the setting, and how to reskin stock magic items to fit the campaign better.

Initially, the section speaks to gods, souls, and the afterlife for each of the sentient races. This underpins the explanation of magic as the interaction between the mana generated by the land and the caster’s soul; those races with level limits on magic use, or no magic use at all, do not have souls in the same way that men do.

Next, there is a discussion of the three main traditions of magic in the Isles: The High Path, Astromancy, and the Stitched Path. PCs will normally use the High Path. Clerical spells are gifts from the gods, and not learned in a formal arcane school.

Thirdly, there is a discussion of magic in society; how common spellcasters are, what they do for a living, how they are taught.

Then, into the meat of the section: The spell lists, which expand on those available in Labyrinth Lord itself. Ones that caught my eye in particular were:

  • Martyr’s Fury (4th level clerical). For the duration of the spell, the caster becomes an unstoppable killing machine in the service of his faith. At the end of it, the caster is permanently dead, forever. I could see this as the culmination of a lengthy campaign, it which it is the only way to stop the Big Bad.
  • The Scion Wyrds, a selection of spells which allow the Scion to twist probability around himself, selecting the best outcome from any of the parallel dimensions in which he exists. I could have a lot of fun with these.

Part five brings us to the setting’s unique magic items and materials, chief of which is Godbone, a black glossy stone offering protection from the effects of the Red Tide and its creations, and said to be the remains of the principal Shou god. Godbone can be used to craft armour or weapons, or be carried as a protective amulet.

I loved the idea of the Prayer-Wheel Hammer; a +1 warhammer whose every strike brings the wielder spiritual merit.

Finally, there is a section on styling magic items. When an item is found, the referee randomly determines which culture created it, and then looks up the relevant subsection to personalise its appearance and activation method. A potion, for example, might be in a thumb-sized jade bottle, a glass tablet inscribed with prayers, a resin-stoppered gourd, a stone flask, a barley-flour pasty, or take the form of a flower blossom.

A Bestiary of the Isles (10 pages)

More monsters for the GM to throw at his players. Here we find the Imperial constructs, abandoned for centuries, and which reminded me of EPT’s take on the same creatures; infernal demons of various ranks; variant lizardmen, ogres and goblinoids; and various flavours of Tidespawn, creatures serving the Red Tide, created either from the dead elsewhere or those cultists in the Isles who have been tricked into serving the Tide. The section on Tidespawn offers tantalising hints of how adventurers might free a land from the Red Tide – that would be an epic adventure for high-level PCs.

The Houses of the Lost (56 pages)

This chapter provides the GM with the tools for creating a sandbox campaign. First, then, it explains what that means – one where the focus is on what the players want to do at the moment, rather than one with an overarching plotline; one where the world is alive, and things happen in reaction to the efforts of PCs and NPCs even if the players aren’t there to see it. It also talks about the shared responsibility of the GM and the players to make things interesting, and the fact that the Plot Immunity and Sorting Algorithm of Evil tropes do not apply in a sandbox.

The referee is advised on what he needs to create, and how to organise and store it. In particular, he is encouraged not to do more than is absolutely necessary, and to recycle maps, NPCs and so forth, reskinning them for new adventures.

After this, we come to the first stand-out GM tool in the book; Sites. These are divided into Court, Urban, Borderland and Ruins. Random tables are provided for each, allowing the GM to choose or generate important features.

  • Courts have people of importance and the source of their power, a conflict which the PCs can become embroiled in resolving, and minor NPCs.
  • Borderland sites have tags, like worlds in Stars Without Number; they may be Dangerously Naive, have a Sinister Alliance, or suffer from Raiders. As in SWN, each tag brings with it a capsule description, and a selection of potential friends, enemies, complications, things and encounter locations. Simply put, this rocks.
  • City sites also have tags, but not a lot else – this is fine, they don’t need any more.
  • Ruin sites are more traditional dungeons. Having chosen or diced for what type of ruin it is, the GM uses a Borderland site tag or the site destruction table to determine how it became ruined, dices for the type of inhabitants.

The ruin sites section also explains the “diagram dungeon” technique, which trades accuracy and careful mapping for speed and ease of construction. Each type of inhabitant has its own page, with statistics for credible encounter groups of monsters, likely treasure, plot twists, and background information. We have ancient constructs, exiled nobles and their retinues (my personal favourite), evil cultists, hermit wizards with their apprentices and servants, lizardmen, kobolds, malign elves, necromancers, and more.

This is cracking stuff, easily transplanted to another setting.

Secrets of the Mists (6 pages)

This is intended for the GM, and provides the secret explanation of what the Red Tide actually is, how it operates, what it wants, and its purpose and use in the GM’s games. Likewise, it explains the secret origin and history of the Shou and the Sunset Isles themselves, and the role they are intended to play in the campaign. Finally, the Azure Ministry provides an explanation of Shou and half-Shou PCs, should the need arise.

Game Resources (27 pages)

This was the part I was most looking forward to, and rightly so as it turns out. There are tables for randomly creating an NPC or a blasphemous cult; pages on each race offering random name tables and descriptions of their clothing and cuisine; a table showing which businesses can be found where, and what services they can provide the adventurers; random purposes and dressing for rooms, including what treasures can be found there; and a selection of generic maps.

I’ll dwell on the maps for a moment, as I believe every game should have generic maps to reduce session prep time and help the busy GM. In the PDF version of the rules, layer controls can be used to select which map, text etc. you print – a nice touch.

The maps include a generic village, an underground temple, a shrine, an underground maze of passages, a border outpost keep, a monster’s burrow, hillside caves, a walled estate, a ruined village, a ruined keep, and both blank and example diagram dungeons.


As I began reading Red Tide, I thought “This is good work, but not so different from any of the other setting books on the market.” I warmed to the setting as I read on, though, and as usual Mr Crawford has created a tightly-integrated and consistent setting, with intriguing twists on the stock genre tropes.

I’m unlikely to use the setting as it stands, but the GM tools and resources are worth the price of admission on their own, and I expect to get extensive use out of them. Highly recommended.

  1. Sandra says:

    Buying this book just for the “diagram dungeons” was a big mistake.
    I expected something really weird and efficient and flowcharty and good but they’re a joke.
    The rest of the book is good (for people who think this setting is good).
    The “diagram dungeons” are nothing.

    • andyslack says:

      Thanks Sandra – good to clarify that for anyone else likely to buy it for the same reason.

      Personally, I found up to about page 60 or so it’s setting specific, the next 100 pages or so I thought were generic. I was able to use most of it for my own setting without much trouble.

      The diagram dungeons though are pretty straightforward, and amount to saying “Let’s ignore all those boring corridors”; similar ideas are used in LUG’s Moria supplement for The Lord of the Rings RPG, GRAmel’s The Carnival at Nal Sagath adventure, and no doubt others I haven’t read.

      • Sandra says:

        I expected something like but better (since Stars Without Numbers had a lot of good ideas), instead I got something that feels much worse than just getting graph paper and biting the bullet. Getting some geomorphs could be a good idea, too.
        I mean, either go the symbolic route (like Gnome Stew above, or Zak’s brilliant Urbancrawl rules), or make a proper dungeon, this is just… Oh, well. You’d only expect someone that bought the book just because they thought “Diagram dungeons? That sounds neat!” to be disappointed.

        I try to explain it to people (it’s only about a half page in the book, page 113):
        It is like a matrix of squares. You draw a room in each square.
        The quote is:
        “[I]t amounts to a 7 x 7 grid of empty squares spaced
        evenly a little distance apart from each other, with rows labeled A
        through G and columns labeled 1 through 7. Each square represents
        a room or location of importance. Corridors or connections are
        represented by drawing a line from one room to another connecting
        the appropriate walls.”

        You still have to stock the dungeon, and note distances and so on.
        And you throw away lots of information that could otherwise be interesting.

        Anyway, I don’t mean to knock Crawford. It’s clear that he’s put a lot of work into the rest of the setting.

        I was just curious about what diagram dungeons were, that’s all, and I was disappointed that they were nothing.

  2. Sandra says:

    Your review was good, too. This was my mistake and no one elses.

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