Written by Jonathan Wojcik
The Exile Zone Player Character Reviews
I guess I really am doing a lot of personally nostalgic stuff this year. I've talked about how big I was into Magic: The Gathering and all manner of Tabletop RPG settings when I was a kid, but also that I never had anybody to play the latter with and only one or two people to ever play the former with. Regardless, from 1995 to the early 2000's, I was a devoted monthly reader of Inquest, America's most popular non-video-gaming gaming magazine. Every issue was packed with articles and features of every conceivable variety, not even limited to the subject of gaming alone but such topics as obscure movie monsters, scary real-world animals and even all-original creatures to incorporate into your gaming campaigns. In short, an issue of Inquest looked very much like your typical geek entertainment website today, and sometimes even a little bit like this very website, which I guess was probably a big part of my inspiration to write about whatever the hell I wanted as soon as I had the means to do so.
But most impressively of all, some issues of Inquest included their own entire, original games or gaming adventures, one of the most memorable of which was by far The Exile Zone.
I usually limit my "Halloween Articles" to things that were marketed as horror or at least "spooky" in some way, and admittedly, The Exile Zone wasn't really presented as something creepy and gothic, but more Wild and Adventurous. One look at its overall contents and storyline, however, and there's no denying that the concept is a firmly ghoulish and grisly one. The actual Inquest issue contained everything the players needed to know, and I don't actually own that anymore, but I do somehow still own this little booklet that came packed with the issue, and this was what contained everything the Dungeon Master needed to know - including the all-important monster profiles.
See, the story of the Exile zone is that some sort of magical experiment once cursed an entire land with a field of chaotic, transformative energy. Any living being stepping into this field was instantly transformed into a random monster of no previously known species, and could be changed back only if they escaped the area alive. This hexed place was eventually taken over by a mad sorceress who came to call herself "K'mar," using the chaotic magic and its many mutant creations to conduct all manner of strange experiments of her own.
K'mar eventually developed a business arrangement with the nearest human settlement: they would provide fresh victims for her of their own volition, and as a reward, she would not only leave the rest of them in peace but provide them with an endless stream of goods. Exotic goods.
You see where this is going, right?
The small town apparently grew into a major metropolis in no time, every single citizen sharing the wealth that came with a seemingly limitless supply of delicious new meats and luxurious furs. Even things like the city's roofing tiles are made from the chitinous plates or metallic scales of creatures that, for SOME reason, nobody has ever heard of until a few years ago. None of the citizens actually know the truth of what they're eating, wearing, and exporting by the caravan-load all around the world. None of them make the connection between their abrupt, unheard of prosperity and the mysterious Exile Zone where "criminals" are banished by a police force whose zero-tolerance policies are merely chalked up to protecting all those valuable, valuable goods.
It goes without saying that, one way or another, the players of the campaign are to be branded as lawbreakers for any trivial reason the town guard (in other words, the DM) can come up with, including asking one too many questions about where all these nice leather boots and chitin brooches and monster mince pies are really coming from. Compatible with multiple RPG systems at the time, the Exile Zone allowed almost any game master to throw a curveball at their players - temporarily warping them into weird, wacky creatures to solve a twisted mystery and defeat a horrifying villainess!
The booklet included stats for seven playable monsters created by the Exile Zone's magic, with the wonderful suggestion that the DM should pick out monsters "appropriate" to each player, whatever they decide that means. And those monsters were...
I can't help but feel this is the "main" monster option, for some reason, even though it's not even the first one in the booklet. It looks at first glance like it's just some sort of slightly buggy dragon, but it's quite a bit stranger than that. For one, it gets its name because it can spit a quick-drying natural cement from its throat to immobilize prey, but then it feeds by drinking blood through what appears to be its tail, anatomically its true mouth! What's especially fun is that for each of these monsters, the book offers a "Weird Sensations" section to enrich role-playing. In this case, a player transformed into the Winged Slurry feels like their throat is perpetually full of phlegm that can never fully be cleared out, and weirder still, the scent of blood will cause them to uncontrollably drool...through the tail.
THE WINGED SLURRY
LOVE that a player option is just a big ol' earthworm with fangs! Not only that, but its slimy coating is corrosive enough to facilitate tunneling quite rapidly through almost any substrate, as well as dissolve prey that the worm has wrapped itself around. Unfortunately, while their new wormy brain has a strong desire to be under the ground and feels very uncomfortable when exposed, the player will still find the act of tunneling to be unpleasantly claustrophobic, the soil tight and restrictive against their skin. Further, the worm can only swallow in a coiled up position.
With its long, thin fangs and beady red eyes, the Baleworm really lives up to its name, and looks like the most frightening of the main roster.
This is a fun one! This burly, hunchbacked beast is covered in a stone-like natural armor, and its arms terminate in pickaxe-like talons. Those talons are used to smash through earth and stone for the minerals on which it feeds, but of course its great strength comes at the cost of speed, only capable of moving by lifting itself on its arms and swinging its body forward. This one's weird sensations include how uncomfortable it is to keep its heavy arms raised, and that it has an intense craving to eat solid rock...but it can't actually bite through it.
I love the creature's face. The fact that its mouth is just an opening at the bottom leaves most of it looking like a blank, medeival helmet, the thin yellow eyes like an illuminated visor. It looks tough and fierce, but it also looks serious, maybe even serene at the same time.
This feels like the one the most players would want to be; it's "cool" in the most conventional way of the options available. It does, however, still have a fun and unique feel to it as well, not just a lithe cat-like predator but a shadowy, almost gargoyle-like monster with those wonderfully ghoulish, bony hands, although I misremembered it as being almost faceless when it does in fact possess a kind of silly lion-like mouth and nose. This monster is just what you'd expect; light and fast with incredibly keen senses as its main weapon. So keen, the heightened awareness can make the Stalker player fearful, jumpy and paranoid. It's also mentioned that unless its feet are firmly anchored, its tail flutters around and is almost uncontrollable.
This actually sounds like the most interesting one from a gameplay perspective. The Flowmorph is nothing but a soft, sluggish ooze, and despite the "shapeshifting" shown off here, it takes years for it to learn a form it isn't already familiar with, and it still can't take a given form all that well. This means that the Flormorph player can fashion a crudely humanoid shape if they so desire, but there really isn't much of a point to doing so, and they have very little actual combat ability unless it gets a chance to envelop and suffocate a foe.
What the Flowmorph does get is incredible resilience to all but fire damage, and of course the ability to squeeze through the tiniest gaps and hide just about anywhere. This is a form that can solve myriad problems for the rest of the team if used creatively, and force a previously battle-oriented player into flexing their brain. The "weird sensations" this time are simply the fact that its default form is a puddle, and that it really just wishes it could relax in a cold, hard place.
The most grotesque transformation in the campaign is nonetheless one of its best fighters, as this slimy, shambling, tentacle-faced heap can spew symbiotic maggots from its delicate blisters that can eat through almost anything, even stone or metal. It is, however, the least pleasant form to be in, as it is covered in huge boils that feel perpetually ready to burst and it can constantly feel thousands of maggots squirming around under its skin. Obviously this one is my favorite on principle, even if I think the Flowmorph might be the most fun mechanically. The totally eyeless face, dripping flesh and overall putrid look of the thing is all very cool, and I really love the little flair of the tentacles being striped. Beetlejuice striped! This one's got everything!
Some DM's might want to give players a monster form that they would enjoy the most, but I feel like sticking players with the form they'd find the nastiest or most personally inconvenient would really be the way to go. Force your genius spellcaster to play the lumbering Geophage. Make a big, barbarian bruiser crawl around as a soft little slime. And stick your dashing half-elf range with stinky, dribbling maggot-flesh!
The last monster given an illustration and full stats is, of course, the nefarious K'Mar. Many other creatures are described in text alone, such as her giant crab-like personal guardian, "porcupine wolves" that patrol her grounds and the gaunt, needly-clawed humanoids she selected to dissect unwanted specimens and process them into all those raw parts the city plays arts and crafts with, though it's left mostly up to the reader to flesh any of those out any farther.
K'mar herself is a seemingly unlimited shapeshifter, and battles by assuming whatever form can best defeat her most immediate adversary. If the Grubskin sprays its maggots in her face, maybe she turns into a big hungry maggot-gobbling amphibian. If the Baleworm tries to constrict her, maybe she becomes a creature covered in snapping blades. That sort of thing! As she nears her last legs however, the booklet suggests she favors the form of a red dragon, and later still, a fire-breathing dragon-spider hybrid it calls an "Arachnagon."
And if we still aren't quite certain that this is specifically a horror campaign... the defeat of K'mar is supposed to break the spell of the Exile zone, transforming every single thing it has ever affected back into its natural form instantaneously.
Every single thing.
The book has an entire epilogue sort of section for how that goes down in the surrounding city, but you can use your imagination.
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