SW2.5 Supplement Review: Monochromatica

Welcome to Yandere World, enjoy your extremely creepy stay

Time to dip back into Sword World 2.5, the popular Japanese answer to D&D, with the latest supplement/campaign world translated by the Sword World Translation Project: Monochromatica. But this time we’re not returning to the default world of Raxia. No, we’re headed way beyond, almost-but-not-quite outside the universe completely, to a whole new realm where color is power and the gods are nutbars.

It’s gonna get weird.

I: Where are we?

They Bubbled and Bobbled the Fingal Dopple

Many eons before the story opens, there was a war between the gods. (This is known Sword World lore, so don’t look so surprised.) On one side were the gods of the First Sword, who were dedicated to peace and harmony; on the other, gods of the Second Sword, desiring only power and anarchy. Clashes between these forces caused ripples in the structure of reality. Small pockets of space-time formed in the barrier which separates Raxia from other universes. These so-called Bubble Worlds are essentially bizarro mini-versions of Raxia, with their own local flora, fauna, laws of physics, and gods, who alter the structure of their pocket universes to their whims.

When these bubbles formed, populations of Humanoids, Barbarous, and other creatures living in the Divine Civilization Era were sometimes trapped inside, and have since evolved their own little cultures in Galapagos-like isolation. But Bubble Worlds are not totally separate from the main reality. Creatures, items, and people from Raxia can sometimes fall into these alt-universes and spread their knowledge among the population. Therefore, many bubbles still have familiar features to Raxians, like the various branches of magic and Magitech and such, though with different proportions and levels of significance.

For some bubbles, the membrane is so permeable that people from the prime reality are fairly common, and the population will be at most faintly curious about their isekai’d cousins. On the other hand, leaving a Bubble World is usually much harder. The few people who came back with stories of funky otherworlds were historically treated as kooks. Recently, with the rise of the Adventurer’s Guild and other means of organized information gathering, these stories are gaining more traction.

II: Yes, but where are we?

Fifty shades of gray

In the Bubble World of Monochromatica, the people have given all the color in the world over to the gods. Maybe it was to curry their favor. Maybe it was to ensure their survival. Maybe they didn’t have a choice. However it happened, now everything’s in living black-and-white and the gods have enormous amounts of power.

The concept of “color” isn’t entirely foreign, though; it’s mostly associated with the gods and god-adjacent concepts, including life and death. Upon death, most living beings will become vividly colorful for a brief time before their bodies fade back to the usual monochrome. Oftentimes the only time anyone gets to see someone’s real skin, eye, and hair color is the moment they die. Plus of course the gods themselves appear as in-color beings when they venture out in person.

And they really are in person. In this setting, the local gods are not only previously living beings (as they all are in Sword World), but they still have physical bodies. When they say “church is god’s house” in Monochromatica, it’s not just a homily. There are numerous gods at all power levels, some with only a few followers (and consequently very little power) and others who are known and worshiped by all.

The biggest homegrown gods are:

Aznareps, the Root of Despair: 2 goth 4 u. Pretty much wants to destroy the world, or at least cause so much jealousy and despair that nobody wants to live there anymore. Always appears obscured in black flame. Ancient depictions reveal them to be a giant eight-winged serpent. Not really an improvement.

Biblically accurate Aznareps

Ethirael, the Sleeping Goddess: Goddess of the dreams of Monochromatica, be they snooze-type or aspiration-type. Appears as a woman with the head of a blue jellyfish, tentacles and all. A beautiful female face appears on the jellyfish head, with her eyes perpetually closed.

Tirkat, Keeper of the Boundaries: Goddess of lines that should or should not be crossed, from national borders to “that’s your side of the car seat, this is mine.” Appears as a stunning woman from the waist up and a huge crimson spider from the waist down. Worshiped by explorers, inventors, researchers, and anyone looking to push the envelope.

Neraingatos, Daughter of Time: According to legend, as long as she dances, time flows normally. When she stops, everything stops. Whether this is true or not, nobody (mortal) has ever seen her standing still. Appears as a slender woman with limbs that taper into needle-like points, surrounded by a golden glow.

Formless Chaos Medoro: Y’AI’NG’NGAH YOG-SOTHOTH … ahem. Medoro is a playful trickster god who likes to wander around Monochromatica being cheeky and causing trouble. They appear in a different Humanoid guise every time they venture out. Nobody knows their true form. Just a silly guy, a funny li’l guy.

Also, oddly, the ancient gods from Raxia (Lyphos, Tidan, Dalkhrem, all them) are worshiped here like anywhere else. Some of their churches are transplanted faiths from Raxians who fell into the Bubble World; others were already established gods when the bubble came into being. They grant spells to Priests like normal, even. These more traditional gods don’t make contracts with people like the locals do, though (see below).

III: Return of the Mack

The preferred term is “people of color,” DAD

Besides colors and lack thereof, the other big concept in this Bubble World is “lingering attachment.” Any living being who dies with a strong longing or regret can attract the attention of the local gods. If their worldly attachments are strong enough, one of these divinities will offer them a contract; if they agree, they will be resurrected on the spot. These returned beings are called, with exceeding originality, “Returned from Death.”

Note that I said “beings,” not ”people.” Pretty much any living thing can be Returned from Death, from plants to animals to mythical beasts. “Regret” is a broad term, apparently. The quickest way to identify a Returned from Death is to find some small hint of color on their person (eye color, maybe, or a lock of hair) which will grow and become more vivid as they deepen their contracts with the gods. Eventually they’ll become full-color people or critters walking around in this grayscale land.

You’ve got red on you

You may remember that people who are resurrected over and over in Raxia will accumulate soulscars and eventually become Undead. This isn’t the case in Monochromatica. Returned from Death (which I’ll just call “Returned” from now on) who die by normal means come back to life scot-free, without a spell even, due to their divine contracts. While this is a short-term boon, after a few decades the fun may fade. The only way to stop the endless cycle at this point is either to give up your regrets and move on, or be killed by another Returned.

Becoming a Returned has other sweet bonuses. They’re the only ones in this world who can cast magic spells or use class abilities like Spellsongs or Evocations; they get interesting and useful superpowers called “Gifts;” and, if they gain enough power, they’ll eventually become rampaging monsters who mindlessly spread wild, corrupting coloration throughout the world until they can be destroyed.

Um. Maybe not that last one.

When a Returned … returns, they don’t remember which god they made a contract with. All they know is, they’re back, they have a cool Gift, and they can go follow their dreams. But the more they use their Returned abilities, the closer they get to their contracted divinity, until one day they have a breakthrough and their existence is completely aligned with their chosen god. Suddenly they become a divine conduit, and all that god-color-power flows into their soul “like a muddy stream,” as the book evocatively puts it. The person that was the Returned ceases to exist. There is now only a mindless avatar of power known as a Deformed.

You can paint with all the colors of the wiiiiiiind

Color Overflow, as it’s called, causes anything a Deformed touches to gain color. But it’s false color, random and bizarre. Yellow grass and red bushes under a canopy of blue and orange leaves. A purple brook teeming with day-glo fish. Marmalade trees, tangerine skies. Groovy. Any living thing that spends too much time in this Stained Land becomes likewise stained, dies, and resurrects as Deformed themselves. For people from Raxia, seeing Stained Land is strange and off-putting. To a Monochromatican who has spent their whole life in black-and-white, it’s terrifying.

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky

Luckily, Returned can kill Returned, which includes the Deformed. Returned hit squads called Hunters are often called out to destroy these dangers. If the Deformed dies, the Stained Land they create will very slowly (like, decades slowly) return to normal. Of course, Deformed can also permakill Returned, so it’s not a perfect solution. Worse, a Returned isn’t immune to the corruption of a Stained Land, and hanging around in one long enough will turn them into Deformed too.

Currently, Monochromatica is divided by a large swath of Stained Land crawling with Deformed monsters. The locals have built a series of watchtowers along the border and will often call for the Hunters if monsters try to enter the black-and-white areas. Nobody really knows what’s on the far side of this corrupted land. The colors have even spread into the sea, where shipping is increasingly affected.

Destroying a Deformed or Returned monster leaves behind a multicolored gemstone called a Colored Sphere. People can sell these Spheres to the Monochromatica version of the Adventurer’s Guild, the Red Blood Engine. Let’s all just take a moment to appreciate that name. Metal.

The Red Blood Engine has the technology to extract the divine power from Colored Spheres and use them in proto-electromechanical devices called Red Blood Circuits. These Circuits are used to power large-scale civic projects like public lighting, smelting furnaces, and intercity rail. Everything powered by a Red Blood Circuit glows a creepy crimson color. The whole Red Blood technology is unique to Monochromatica; any devices somehow brought back to Raxia become inert.

One must have a splash of color

IV: Gifts and other . . . gifts

Oh, you shouldn’t have

The Returned gain access to funky, double-edged powers called Gifts which only work within Monochromatica. These are semi-divine spell-like abilities like mutual chains which increase the damage you do to a foe and the damage they do to you; summoned butterflies which cause anyone in the area to fail their Willpower rolls; magical traps which zap anyone who tries to move; pillars which rise from the ground, protecting everyone in a location but preventing them from making melee attacks; etc.

Each Gift has a flowery description of its appearance, and most also have an overkill effect called a Spill which happens at least one out of six times. Spills will often take the Gift to unintended extremes. Sometimes this can be helpful. Probably not, though.

And the Master of the Game spake, and said: Lo! Thou gainest +2 to thine actions for one round

Gifts are connected to a new form of combat unique to this supplement called Grid Combat. This is essentially Sword World’s Simplified Combat, but on a grid. Makes sense. Positioning becomes important in Grid Combat, since Gifts have specific areas of effect. At the same time, there are still boundaries between the Rearguards and the Frontline, blocking rules are similar, and you can conduct a melee attack against anyone in the same area without having to be directly adjacent. It’s an interesting take on the sort of “everybody piles together in one big melee” combat that Sword World usually does, if a little odd conceptually. Without Gifts, though, this is just a more complicated version of Simplified Combat, probably not worth using for regular fights.

As a Returned does things to pique the interest of the gods (finishes adventures, levels up, is resurrected or awakened from unconsciousness, causes a Spill, etc), they receive Contract Seals, which they can use to buy or improve Gifts. The number of seals they have in total is called their Contract Depth.

Around Contract Depth 12, they can learn the name of their contracted god. This nets them a Blessing. Much like Gifts, Blessings are all kinda strange and edgy. Someone contracted to Aznareps can sever people they kill from their regrets, ensuring they can never come back as Returned. A person contracted to Medoro can change their appearance with time and concentration. Ethirael sends prophetic dreams. Neraingatos gives the ability to briefly stop time. And Tirkat allows people to leave Monochromatica and return to Raxia, though she reserves the right to yank them back anytime she needs them.

The contract will continue to deepen until they reach Depth 31 and Color Overflow becomes increasingly inevitable, which for most characters will be around 9th level. The only reliable ways to prevent Color Overflow are to stop leveling up, or find a way out of Monochromatica for good.

V: Playing in Monochromatica

If you wanna be my baby, it don’t matter if you’re black-and-white

As you’ve probably surmised by now, the PCs are all Returned from Death with lingering regrets about their former lives. The basic conceit is for the party to start new characters who died suddenly in Raxia or a Shallow Abyss and made a pact with a Monochromatica god for a second chance, or somehow got yanked into the Bubble World and attracted a god’s attention along the way.

After making a regular character, players must also choose a personal regret or attachment, and gain a few Contract Seals to purchase some beginning Gifts. Every character must take one level of a Gift called “Clinging to Life,” which gives a small bonus to HP and all the powers of a Returned. Beyond that, it’s the player’s choice.

The most obvious attachment for a Raxian is wanting to return to Raxia to see their family or feed their goldfish or something. If that doesn’t appeal and you can’t think of anything, there’s a handy chart of suggestions to roll on or choose from, from Revenge to Protection to Atonement.

From there, the PCs enter Monochromatica. The rules suggest they quickly be met by a guide who helps explain the world and how things work. (The alternative, to let them flail around, may be funny but probably not good for player engagement.) Ideally this guide is a Returned Hunter from the Red Blood Engine. The PCs are then encouraged/somewhat railroaded into joining the Red Blood Engine to use their Returned powers for the good of all, and start their epic journey to find some way out of this creepshow.

Welcome to the lower level of a Multi-Layered City! Enjoy your … er … Welcome!

Most PC groups will become Hunters fighting monsters and Deformed who threaten the monochrome commoners. Pretty much any monster from Raxia can show up in this world in regular, Returned, or Deformed varieties. Consequently there aren’t a lot of unique monsters described in this book, but the ones that are are particularly powerful and bizarre. The Warped Berserker, for instance, is three or four Barbarous merged into a single Deformed body who can use Gifts and Divine Magic together. Hue Spirits are Deformed Fairies, with all the sinister mad capriciousness that entails. Strangest and most tragic are Innocents, Deformed children whose pure wishes and desires cause them to appear and act as normal Monochromaticans, naively spreading Stained Lands and slowly color-poisoning everything and everyone around them.

No, she’s thrilled to be here, honest

The book ends with three scenarios, each intended to take around 3 hours of play, which will carry characters from beginners to level 4-5. The first has the adventurers hijacked into Monochromatica, where they end up protecting a train from Deformed monsters. The second takes them to the Multi-Layered City of Le Veille where they have to break up the world-ending plans of the Cult of Aznareps. Finally, they venture into the Stained Lands to find a means to travel to Raxia, and possibly even come back again. You know, if they want to.

VI: Thoughts

Such as they are

My first impression upon seeing this book was: Holy crap this is dense.

My current impression, after reading it through and writing this review, is: Holy crap this is dense.

I mean, the concept is fairly simple. Bubble Worlds, sure, we already had Shallow Abysses, it’s not that far removed. Gods being capricious greedy buttholes, yeah, been there. World without color? Okay, interesting, let’s see where this goes …

But Monochromatica takes these ideas and runs alllll the way down the field with them. It takes Sword World as a whole, adds a huge scoop of bizarreness, and shakes it like a snow globe. What settles out is a whole new world with the regular bits and pieces assembled in new ways. It is funky and it is cool and it is ambitious and it is artistic and it is weird. It also opens up a multiverse of sorts, where GMs can remix the game however they like, dump the players in, then bounce somewhere else when they get tired of it. Though the easy D&D comparisons are to Planescape and Spelljammer, it actually reminds me more of Eberron or Dark Sun; not necessarily in theme, but in how it takes the all old familiar refrains and makes something different out of them.

Monochromatica is not for first-time Sword World players. I can’t stress this enough. You have to know what Raxia is about before you experience how thoroughly this setting messes with it.

But do I recommend it for experienced players? That depends on where your group is at. Raxia is a big playground all on its own, with labyrinths and magic trains and floating cities and portals to the netherworld and whatnot. If you’re lucky enough to have a group who plays Sword World regularly, and seems happy with it as is, there’s already plenty to keep them occupied without having to leave the world behind.

Where this setting would shine most, I think, would be with older gamers. Monochromatica sometimes feels like a meditation on life and death, longing and regret. Players who’ve been around the fantasy RPG block, who’ve already slain more than their share of dragons, or who want a more layered experience in their games, would (I feel) really take to this setting. There’s still plenty of action and excitement and really wild things, but there’s this sort of underlying feeling that you’re not fighting evil. You’re fighting inevitability. The light is dying. Get to raging.

As a greybeard grog who’s played more games than you’ve had hot dinners, I love the hell out of it.

Monochromatica is an original. It’s certainly its own thing. It’s a game setting. It’s a magnum opus. It’s a philosophical treatise. It’s a dessert topping.

It’s a lot. If you like your campaign to be a lot, you’ll love this.

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