Rereading Dictionary of Mu

05Sep14

I’m rereading +Judd Karlman’s Dictionary of Mu. I can probably count on my fingers the RPG setting books I actually like, and this one stands head and shoulders above them all.

At its root, I’d say the best thing about the Dictionary is that it has a point, and it drives that point home like an obsidian blade to the heart. The setting is about something, and it uses every trick at its disposal to get your players to engage with those core themes: “How does the past constrain the future?” “We may not choose how we find the world, but by our actions, we choose how we leave it.” “What is the point of hope in a flawed world?”

The writing is more enthralling than anything called a “dictionary” has a right to be. Oghma, son of Oghma, has not just one voice, but several. He is the devoted scribe dutifully cataloging the world of Marr’d as he finds it. He is also the incisive and judgmental critic who comments on the proceedings in the margins. He is also a self-deprecating, world-weary soul who must have seen every dream slaughtered before his eyes, except that his words might spark the hope of a better world.

The book overflows with mood, and attitude, and abundant grist for the plot mill. It deftly avoids metaplot through the alphabetical organization, and the fact that every major NPC is a potential PC. Everyone has their own story—no one is too big, or too small, to be the protagonist of their own tale. I’d like a lot more setting books if just that single innovation were to spread like the powerful, infected blood of the Jarl of Spiders. When the future of the red planet is in the hands of your players, how can they help but engage with its themes?

I should point out that the dictionary itself is made into a living document. The setting-specific rules require that as play continues, the players must write new entries for the dictionary, merging the stories they spark at the table with the very verses that inspired it.

The breadth of influence is another tactic used to draw players to engage with the premise. Among planets, only Earth has a longer bibliography, and the dictionary draws on a stunning amount of it. Burroughs’ Barsoom is just the beginning. Tidbits are pulled from scientific facts, David Bowie songs, the stories of the Bible, mythologized history of Genghis Khan, rumors of ancient Egyptian astronauts, and more. And yet, all of it is presented with a spin—the proper twist to make it fit in the brutal, desparate, dying world of Marr’d. And that spin is part of the whole point of the thing. Because if some guy named Judd can take the Bible and spin it into this blood-pumping, heavy metal album cover, sword-and-sorcery explosion, then how can you and your players shrink from the challenge of putting your own spin on Marr’d? It’s your story. Go play it.

I can’t stop writing about the genius of this book without mentioning how it looks. The illustrations by +Jennifer Rogers and the layout by +Luke Crane are phenomenal. We often hear about how pictures can tell a story, and so rarely do we see it in RPG books. No one poses on Marr’d. Every drawing looks like it was lifted from a pulp magazine, illustrating a scene in a developing short story. Characters are defined by action, urging the players to follow suit.

Distressed layout is hard. I typeset books for a living and I can’t imagine laying out this beast. The background texture is vivid enough to make it look like it was actually dug from the crimson sands, while still being light enough to avoid obscuring any text. The fonts are easily read, but full of character. Oghma’s scrawl is always at odd angles. This works together with the rule about writing your own dictionary entries. They will look like they belong in the book, because they do—it has already been scribbled in!

Books this good cannot be complimented enough.

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