Qelong Review: In the Sweat and the Rain

Have you ever thought the Vietnam War would make for a great fantasy adventure? Or that what your players need is to take a harrowing riverboat journey into the heart of darkness? Well then I’m happy to say that Qelong is here! And it is the perfect module for you. You magnificent weirdo.

Like this, but with swords!

It goes without saying that their will be spoilers ahead, so players avert their eyes!

Qelong is a sandbox module written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and is the mud-soaked brainchild of the great Kenneth Hite, author of the amazing Trail of Cthulhu. And as I mentioned above, it does a lot to flip the traditional OSR-style sandbox on its head by transporting the players from fantasy europe-land to the war torn province of Qelong, on the fringes of the Kingdom of Sajavedra. In peacetime, Qelong was probably a very lovely place, gentle canals and prosperous rice farms bumping up against stupa towers and magnificent jungles. The river-crossed land however has the immense misfortune of being caught between the two magical tyrants battling it out for control of the nation, and the fact that neither of them gives much of a damn about Qelong goes a long way to explaining what a bloody mess the province has become.

The setting itself is obviously a fantasy take on southeast Asia, specifically Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its in broad enough strokes that you could effectively put it in any setting as the outer province of a distant kingdom. I utilized my own ‘Mythic Europe’ setting, and had the players sail to Qelong from Amsterdam in search of riches and glory. It would work just as well as distant country in the Forgotten Realms, or as a forgotten part of a dangerous plane in Planescape. Like everything else in Qelong, you are presented with only the broad strokes of the culture, and it will take some GM’ing work to fill in the details.

This peaceful sight is quite the rarity during gameplay

Indeed, Qelong thrives on the big picture of its sandbox setting. The book presents its readers with a solid top-down look at the province, detailing only a handful of major locations and the main power players in the region. This combined with a useful rumor table and well fleshed out random encounters means that the broad view is enough for an experienced GM to run with.

It also helps that the setting is wonderfully weird too. The war between the sorcerous tyrants is far away. And none of the four factions battling it out for control of Qelong are not your typical warlords. We have a resurgent snake-cult seeking to spread its influence and re-make the valley in their own image. These naga naturally come into conflict with an order of lotus-smoking (oh boy, we did learn to love The Lotus) monks who seek to preserve Qelong at any cost. Throwing a wrench into this otherwise typical fantasy clash of good vs evil are the Varangains, a band of mercenaries from the player’s home turf that seek to steal everything and everyone they possibly can before bailing out to live the high life back home, and the Myrmidions, an unthinking, unfeeling, absolutely massive army of ant-infested corpses seeking to eat everything in their path.

You are gonna learn to hate these little bastards

The little touches in Qelong also really help to enrich the experience and sell the setting. I enjoyed how the banners of the two warring wizards are quite similar to each other, making them virtually indistinguishable when dirty or damaged. I thought it was neat how their were multiple types of ghosts, each with their own desires and purposes, one for village guardians, one for grieving mothers, etc. I like how the random encounter tables are most dangerous in the fertile rivers and fields, and that the harsher terrain can actually serve as a respite from certain foes, can’t have a destroyed village full of angry ghosts if their weren’t any villages to destroy in the first place! Oh yes, and the entire valley is being poisoned by a carelessly discarded magic weapon.

Thats the other big theme that runs through Qelong. The whole valley is being poisoned by a magical substance called Aakom, which suffuses everything in the valley. The food, the water, the air, peoples bodies, nothing is safe. And as the poison makes its way into the characters blood and brains it has a variety of deleterious effects. People who are poisoned begin to slowly lose their minds, develop rashes, and some even gain volatile magical powers and a cruel desire to use them. Not to mention when you finally do kill these people theirs a good chance their aakom infested hands will wander away to strangle unsuspecting innocents.

Oh Qelong…

The rules additions presented in the book were useful, and they all found some use during my time running Qelong. Although they are not revolutionary exciting things, mostly just functional. The rules regarding Aakom poisoning are finicky though, with all sorts of conditions for when you do and don’t gain aakom points. I just ended up simplifying it to be more usable.

Indeed, aside from a single players personal plot arc, aakom poisoning never really became a major factor at my table. I blame this mostly on myself, given that I routinely forgot to track it accurately, mostly forgot about how it would affect henchmen and had a crazed dwarf doctor give some curatives away a little too generously (damn me!).

You know you want to try it…

If I have a major criticism of Qelong, it is that its framework first approach to sandbox design has left it somewhat sparse, for example, major locations are not give maps, only their location on the hexmap and a brief description. Meaning that if you want your players to sneak through the Varangian fortress at Sajra Amovel, you will be making that map yourself. However, this only had a small impact on my overall experience of running, Qelong provides you with an amazing framework to build your own sandbox campaign on top of. If you we’re looking for something that is more ready to run ‘as-is’ then I would recommend Slumbering Ursine Dunes or Keep on the Borderlands. But, if you get a kick out of giving your own spin to published material, and would love to see your players hump their way across a war-torn magical jungle, then Qelong will be sure to give you a many sessions of malaria-ridden fun!

A post with my various Qelong houserules will be forthcoming! Including my full adaptation of the Golden Lotus into a DCC wizard’s patron.

The original version of this article was first published on my previous blog, The Gamemaster’s Codex, on February 1st, 2020.

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