Though it came out in September, I’ve had limited time to look through We Are All Mad Here, the fairytale sourcebook for Monte Cook Game’s Cypher system. This isn’t because I wasn’t interested in it, but more because I wanted some time to give it the attention it deserved. Today, let me tell you what I think about this beautiful book by the amazing Shanna Germain.
Before I start in on the book, let me take a minute to say where I’m coming from in this review. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are some of my favorite books of all time, and don’t get them confused. At one point I had the whole of The Hunting of the Snark memorized (I can currently get through only about 70% which is disappointing) and I start the day by singing the “Unbirthday Song” several times a year to the consternation of my family. I take my “Wonderland” stuff pretty seriously and so my expectations for this book are pretty high. With that said, expecting a game or story set in Lewis Carroll’s world is missing the entire point of things. The details of Wonderland are not consistent from scene to scene, so why expect them to hold true in your game as well? What I think matters most in a game inspired by Carroll is the tone. It should be whimsical and surreal, leave people off-balance but more bemused than afraid.
With that context in place, let’s dive into the book!
Part 1: Once Upon a Time
Shanna Germain starts off with a broad mandate for the book: all fairy tales everywhere. This is not to say that it provides a story or setting that can accommodate any fairy tale (not even the Heartwood setting listed below) but that this book wants to be inclusive of any interpretation of fairy tale. While mentions are made to Chinese and Japanese stories, the focus in this book is firmly rooted in the European term “fairy tale” rather than stories of spirits, kachina, or loa that could be said to be similar. This is good since it avoids whitewashing other culture’s tales but I think it deserves to be called out explicitly.
This first part of the book starts with preparing your game which involves thinking a bit about mood, setting, and the role of PCs. The only explicit instruction you’re given is to “make magic awesome” which is certainly a part of anything under the broad fairy tale label (including fables, nursery rhymes, urban legends, and others mentioned here). The second chapter gets into building a fairy tale setting which can be a tricky thing. Part of the appeal of a fairy-tale-based setting is the familiarity of it but this can stray into clichés fairly easily (there’s a lot in here about striking that balance), and you can also make a completely new setting that just harkens back to fairy tales.
I think the most helpful bit here is discussing whether you’re telling an established fairy tale or something new. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a great example of this. Lewis Carroll’s original story has been retold many times, faithfully but succinctly in the 1951 Disney movie and with somewhat more of the original content as a 1999 TV film. There are also versions which retell the story but do it dramatically differently, including Tim Burton’s creepy Alice in Wonderland or the 2009 miniseries Alice. The story is all there in these ones, though it might not happen how the audience (or players) expect. Then there are interpretations like parts of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere which makes many references to Wonderland but is entirely its own thing. To help with making an original setting, this book breaks fairy tale settings down into a half dozen different subgenres and has lists of tropes and random tables for inspiration. Overall, a thorough exploration of fairy tale settings that I love.
Next, it takes a look at fairy tale campaigns to take place in your fairy tale setting. From quests and impossible tasks to initiations and battles between forces, there are tons of guiding advice and story hooks in this third chapter to give any GM confidence to set up their fairy tale campaign. The GM advice in the fourth chapter (“Running Fairy Tale Games”) is likewise deep and useful, it actually has a lot of advice that I intend to use alternately for Invisible Sun and City of Mist (my two currently-ongoing campaigns). There’s a story about poisoning the sun which I love and advice to “describe, don’t define” which is great for any surreal storytelling. This is also where we get our first mechanics, including rules for death that’s impermanent, curses, and blessings. The next chapter is for the players and has similarly great advice. Suggested types, descriptors, and foci from the Cypher System Rulebook are listed out here and iconic fairy tale characters are broken down into character elements that fit well. Imagining Little Bo Peep as an Appealing Speaker who Masters the Swarm just made my day. Character arcs and equipment round things out as well.
The final two chapters of this part include cyphers, artifacts, and creatures and they are chock full of awesome stuff. A new cypher forms table (including apple, fairy dust, spindle, and a rose) makes all existing cyphers instantly better for this sort of game, plus there are 99 new cyphers built for fairy tales. The Drink Me bottle and Eat Me bottle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are here, as well as an itsy bitsy spider, Jack’s candlestick, the Tin Man’s tears, the croc’s clock (from Peter Pan) and many more. There’s also the Bellman’s map of the ocean which is a pretty deep cut and I love it. There are more than 30 artifacts too, including a tisket a tasket, Hook’s hook, the genie’s lamp, seven-league boots, and more. I won’t go into each one but I haven’t seen any that I didn’t like.
NPCs are split into different areas: water, forest, sky, land, city, belowground, and specific to the Heartwood setting. A list of existing statblocks to use starts things off and there are around 60 new ones from the Erlking and cailleach to puss in boots, the Red Queen, and the Wicked Witch of the West. Again, all of them are awesome and go a long way to show that the Cypher system is simple but not simplistic.
Part 2: Adventures Three
The middle part of this book contains three different adventures, two of them short thumbnails and one a fully detailed story. I don’t want to have any spoilers so I’ll spare just a sentence for each:
- The Apple-Pip Witch: A classic story of siblings on a quest, these ones off to rescue their father the king who is held captive by a witch with lots of witchy tropes.
- I’ll Gnaw Your Bones: A darker and stranger tale of talking animal characters captured by trolls and having to trick their way out of their captors’ mountain tunnels.
- Between Worlds: The full adventure is a story of liminal characters who live in our modern world but are beholden to a fairy queen and need to venture into a magical realm through their dreams to make good on their debts.
Part 3: Lost in the Heartwood
This is the premade setting that comes with We Are All Mad Here. You don’t have to use the Heartwood but if you are pressed for time then it’s ready for characters to drop in, and if you’re making your own setting it’s rich with elements to mine. A central premise of the setting, drawing from the book’s title and Lewis Carroll’s writing, is that only those touched in some way by mental illness can enter the Heartwood. They might live with a life-long disorder, have a loved one who lives with it, or be experiencing some new mental illness brought on by grief or trauma.
The first chapter is about depicting mental health in games and it has it’s work cut out for it. This is a tricky topic, let alone covering it as part of a fantasy setting… and certainly even trying to cover it four pages of this overall book. Issues of representation and trivializing experiences are discussed as well as (briefly) table safety measures. The book does mention the free Consent in Gaming product so that expands things considerably. Overall, I don’t know if this chapter covers everything it needs to but it certainly is a good resource that I intend to use in the future.
Campaigns in the Heartwood (named for the darker, stronger part of a tree) typically start with characters from our world somehow pulled to a small woodland cottage known as the Heart of the Heartwood. This cozy space of dried herbs, woven textiles, and a roaring fire is clearly otherwordly but it isn’t too upsetting and it can even become a familiar space in adventure after adventure set in the Heartwood. The cottage is actually carved out of a large tree and leaving through the door can drop you out into anywhere really. The first time you might step out onto a manicured croquet lawn and the next time the door opens onto a cliff leading down to a raging river. It all depends on the story.
In this setting chapter there are descriptions for many different places in this surreal and dreamlike land. The town of Nightingale is a relatively safe place with a mechanical, whistling bird at the center and strict rules against dragons, curses, and Wendys. The Broken Crowndom is a fallen realm whose king perpetually slumbers and dreams up nightmares that become real to savage the land. The Enchanted Forest is a deep place of shadow and mystery with all sorts of scary things in it. The Sea of Innumerable Echoes holds all the sea creatures of fairy tales as well as the Never Never Isles of Peter Pan fame, and a seedy city called Catchfools inside the belly of the Terrible Dogfish. Lastly, the Welkin Barrier is a cloudland up above the Heartwood, a land of wonder and grey sorrow.
Heartwood characters get some new mechanics of all sorts, in addition to plenty of advice for altering what’s already out there. We get five setting-specific descriptor options Bewitched (voices in your head), Changeling (the fairy tale kind), Fragmented (multiple selves), Frumious (bestial but really Jabberwock-themed), and Haunted (plagued with anxiety and prescience). There are also six setting-specific foci of Befriends the Black Dog (beast companion and reflavored dark matter powers), Curses the World (fear and mental powers), Feigns No Fear (morale boosts and combat abilities), Lived Among the Fey (lots of faerie powers), Made a Deal with Death (heroic powers and healing), and Sheds Their Skin (beast powers and changing form). Lastly, there are a few new character arcs themed on the Heartwood setting for Become an Advocate (helping those in need), Put Down Roots (build a place for yourself), Develop Coping Strategies (overcome your struggles), and Take the Wrong Path (make some bad choices).
There also two Heartwood adventures to launch your campaign. What the Moon Dreamt is a story about insomnia when the Moon has disappeared form the Heartwood’s sky (the Heartsky? Who’s to say?). Without it’s light, nocturnal monsters are becoming bolder and bolder and true heroes are needed to set things right. Doing so will take the player characters all over this realm until they can find the Moon’s hiding spot and convincing it to return. The Prince Who Would Seek Death is about an immortal prince who is tired of living forever and is hoping for one last fatal quest. The questgiver is Carroll’s White Rabbit and he leads the player characters to a split path that take them along journeys of Love, Life, and Laughter respectively. Whichever one they take they wind up at the cave containing the prince’s death so that they can retrieve it for him and let him find his death at last. This story about giving someone back control over their own life is easily my favorite out of the book’s tales.
So much of this setting are deep cuts of Wonderland stories that I only noticed because I’ve read them a dozen time. The sleeping Cardinal King of the Broken Crowndom is from the Tweedledum and Tweedledee’s story in Through the Looking Glass and the Moon in the first adventure is similar to the start of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” The disappearing path in the Prince story is similar to the one that Alice became lost on before finding the tea party. I can see other references too to stories like “Pinnochio” and “The Snow Queen” so I know I’m missing some as well. In all, this setting is a perfect example of the approach detailed earlier: making references to fairy tales as touchstones, including exciting morsels for the superfans, and requiring no expert knowledge to engage. I love it.
I had big expectations for this book, and it certainly met them. Not only do I think this book covered everything that one would need to gain confidence with fairy tale stories and design their own, I’d consider myself an experienced fairy tale storyteller and I feel inspired in new and exciting ways. This book is a must-have for anyone running fairy tale stories using the Cypher system but also should be on the list for anyone running magical fairy tale stories in general, from Changeling: The Lost to City of Mist. An excellent book from an excellent author at an excellent company.