Review: Qelong

Qelong is a sandbox setting for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay by Kenneth Hite set in a war torn fantasy southeast Asia. The Qelong river valley is being poisoned by a cast aside magical weapon leaking a substance called aakom. The aakom is a concentrated magic that corrupts and draws people toward Chaos. Several factions battle for resources and control over the land. No one can be trusted and the very air you breath is toxic.

What’s it for?

Qelong is a sandbox setting that puts player characters in moral and tactical dilemmas in order to survive. Qelong is a region that has been ruined by a war between two powerful archmages. The wizards who are battling in an area bordering Qelong have no concern for the destruction.

The war between archwizards creates the context in which the player characters find themselves. The residents of the valley are trying to survive and are being poisoned by the aakom leaking from “the cylinder.” The people of the valley are in a bad situation. Their homes and infrastructure have been smashed and the land has been poisoned by magic pollution that corrupts all living things with Chaos. The result is situations where the player characters will have to seriously consider burning villages and plundering holy sites merely to survive the adventure.

Qelong is a setting with the intention of inducing the feeling of horror that is created by the consequences of war on the civilians caught in the middle of a fight between forces greater than themselves. While I suspect there are not a lot of game groups that are interested in having that experience; Ken Hite succeeded in accomplishing the intention. Playing Qelong is a dark experience and not for the faint of heart.

Who is it for?

Qelong is for anyone who wants to have an experience filled with moral dilemmas and terrible dangers. Player characters will have to make awful choices in order to survive. Villagers who seem friendly will turn out to be cannibals. Others will try to rob or murder player characters for their possessions and money. Some villagers will be willing to work for the PC’s as guides and porters. Once the PC’s have had a few encounters with the locals, the players are likely to be very wary of taking anyone into their service.

This is a setting for gamers who want a feeling of discomfort or horror.

What’s it like?

You’ve probably got the sense that playing Qelong is an intense experience. If the referee squeezes all the horror that can be found out of the setting; all but the most jaded of horror fans will be squirming.

Characters will find themselves in situations where they either have to run, burn a village down or die. They must stay alert and focused throughout the session, or die. The land, the air, the food, the water are all poisoned. The terrain is difficult and dangerous. Weather can be a challenging factor. Monsoon rains will swamp and sink boats. Your players will learn that the river is a danger but staying on the water is safer than landing. Tigers, cannibals, mercenaries and monsters abound on the land.

The longer the PC’s stay in Qelong, the more exposure they get to the aakom. There are ways to limit that exposure but there is no escaping it. My group only played two sessions. They were very careful to use purify food and drink spells and learned early on that consumption of dried lotus arrested the absorption of the aakom. Even with those precautions, they were absorbing aakom and would have started having casualties if we stayed in Qelong much longer. Aakom poisoning results in one of several “curses” that the referee rolls for on a table. Using lotus to prevent the poisoning has its own drawbacks.

Playing Qelong was an uncomfortable emotional experience for me. I was never sure just how much horror to pour into the situation and I dialed it back in some circumstances. I don’t want to use the word “enjoy” to describe playing Qelong. I did get satisfaction from it. I learned how to create problems for players that had no “winners.” Like all LotFP adventures, the adventure is intended to be an experience of horror.

Some groups will not enjoy Qelong. It is not uplifting or heroic. It is a grotty, dark setting that will challenge players and game masters. It asks questions that will make you feel uncertain about the answers.

I think Qelong achieves what Ken and James set out to accomplish. If you want horror and dark fantasy set in a south east Asian inspired setting, this is going to fit that bill. It has themes of colonial exploitation, the horrors of war and the consequences that everyone who is involved suffer.

This isn’t for everyone. You are not going to step away from the table feeling good. If you are looking for escape, entertainment, feeling heroic or powerful or want to have fun; Qelong is not for you.

There are critics who believe this sort of thing should not be a part of tabletop role-playing games. I disagree.

It is impossible to understand evil if you don’t look it in the eye. Playing a game where evil is being done as a matter of survival for the non-player characters is one way to look evil in the eye. Not everyone wants that but to say it should not exist is incorrect. The setting treats the outcomes of colonialism and imperialism with respect. If something is awful, depicting it as awful is the right thing. Offering someone the experience of just a taste of those horrors is appropriate and valuable.

A stated inspiration for this setting was the film Apocalypse Now. I think Ken captured that feeling very well.

If you don’t know the film, it is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness. Both the film and the book were works of art making a statement about the horrors of imperialism, colonialism and racism. Conrad’s story is set on the Congo River in the late 19th century during Belgian colonial period. In the mid 1990’s, I spent a few weeks in Brazzaville, Congo. It was not a nice place. I picked up a gut bug that had me afraid I would die and wishing that I would.

Children begging for food at the wire. I was on security detail for a facility providing transport to American citizens getting out of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) due to the civil war in 1996-1997.

It is hard to explain the poverty and misery to people who have never seen it first hand. It was bad enough but where I went it was not the worst part of central Africa. Across the river, The First Congo War was raging. The violence in DRC has waxed and waned for more than 2 decades. More than 5 million people have died from the wars and displaced 4.5 million more in a country of 105 million. For comparison, COVID has killed about 5 million people world wide.

Having an experience like Qelong can give you enough distance from reality to think about real world events and their long term consequences. That detachment I personally find valuable. It gives me the mental space to think through various questions like, “What would I do if I was in that situation?”

Recommendations for Referees

If you want to run Qelong you will need to read through the book and take plenty of notes. There are very well designed and constructed tables throughout the book but they are not fast enough to generate encounters on the fly. I tried this the first session and it resulted in a slower pace to the game than I like.

The maps are useful though not always clear. I would recommend printing them out and marking down your encounters.

One thing that some GMs’s will like is that Qelong provides a framework without telling you exactly how to use that framework. There are enough prebuilt NPC’s, monsters and locations to give you the feel of the place. There is a lot of structure and encounters for you to use but you will need to fill this structure out for a campaign running longer than a few sessions. Ken gives you the bones but you will need to provide a lot of the meat of the encounters.

I recommend that you go use the tables to write up encounters with stats for NPC’s and monsters in your preferred format. The book is not easy to use in a more improvisational way. The prep won’t be difficult but you will need to put some time in. It isn’t a linear adventure path style of product. This is a sandbox and you will need to prep it accordingly.

Depending on how your players go about their objectives in Qelong, the adventures you have there could be a hex crawl or a point crawl. My players bought boats and stayed on the canals and rivers. They hired a half dozen porters and bought canoes that could be portaged. They wanted to avoid the mercenaries on the river and did so by going around and using the canals. This approach made the game a point crawl. The PC’s stayed on the canal until they saw something to interact with like a village, stupa or lotus field. There is a player map included in the book. My players referred to it when interacting with the locals and gathering information.

We played using the LotFP rule set and it worked great. Any old school system would be fine for Qelong but I do think it works particularly well with the LotFP system.

We played up to the point where the group found the cylinder, used a scroll given to them by a bishop back in Europe to send the thing on and out of the valley. That was the end of session two. The party had been tasked with deactivating the cylinder by the Catholic Church. The Pope was concerned that European mercenaries might get the bright idea of bringing the cylinder back with them from Qelong and wanted the thing deactivated. My players stayed focused on that objective and mostly ignored the other hooks. They wanted to get in, do the job and get out. There was little interest in exploration of the valley from my group. Everything and everyone in the valley wants to kill you, why hang out if you don’t have to?

Since the objective had been met, the players opted to call their time in Qelong to an end. We didn’t even play an “Escape from Qelong.” They didn’t enjoy it that much. To be honest, I didn’t either. I appreciate the adventure for what it is.

For me, it wasn’t that appealing to play more of it than we did.

One thought on “Review: Qelong

  1. Pingback: The Best Thing LotFP Did for RPG’s – Grumpy Wizard

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