Thursday, July 18, 2024

Monsters of Murka Brings Hilarious Satire to Dungeons & Dragons

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Welcome to Murka, a political satire D&D 5e setting that is as silly as it is dense with unique flavor. Created by TTRPG publisher Action Fiction, Monsters of Murka is more than, as the title might indicate, just a bestiary. It includes over 200 pages of setting lore, player options, monsters, spells, and so much more.

Before diving too deep in the murky waters of Murka, it should be noted that this setting is built around satirizing U.S. culture and politics in both playful and sharp ways. While there are many surface level pokes at the landscape of this country, there are also deeper examinations of the country’s troubling history and its current systemic flaws. Some portions are handled better than others, but ultimately this setting is suitable for any group that does not prioritize complete escapism. With this setting, it is particularly important to properly use safety tools with your group (such as the great resources by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk).

With all that said, let’s crack open the review copy provided by Action Fiction!

Trumplins raise a Murkan flag as WritWrits look on

Land of the Free

As one would expect from a political satire, there are many parallels between the history as well as the current events of Murka and those of the United States. These parallels are not exactly subtle, such as the Frozen War acting as the Murkan version of the Cold War. Despite some of the superficial elements that play to the humor of the setting, there are some thoughtful critiques buried within this lore. The designers do an imperfect job dealing with every nuanced point when it comes to the satire, but there is at least adequate effort to not just leave it at a base level, patriotism-laden telling of this nation.

The setting would not be overwhelmingly complex for anyone knowledgeable of U.S. history and modern politics. It does, regardless, feels fleshed out in the ways that it diverts from its analogue. For example, its version of Amazon, known as The Zone, is powered by a pocket dimension with detailed out disturbing implications.

Monsters of Murka calls most specifically to the political climate when Donald Trump was still President, with the reigning leader of Murka being The Don. Both broadly and in the context of the three written-out setting locations (Washtown, Sea-Addled, and Holly Woods), there are numerous factions described that support or, more importantly, oppose the rule of the Don. These factions include the creations of the Don and his most ardent supporters: the trumplins, tromps, and drumpfs. It might be obvious from this paragraph alone the naming devices are slightly low effort spins on real-life names, but the silliness does tend to work within the pages of the book.

In addition to its coverage of the political sphere, Monsters of Murka also takes a stab at pop culture– even using D&D’s creation as part of its creation myth. Some of the pop culture references don’t quite land or, at the very least, feel out of place. The D&D mythos is integrated well enough between elements like the faction of the Warlocks of the Shore and the Stones of Destiny created by “The Great Gygaax and the Amazing Arnesson”. It is, however, questionable whether or not the inclusion of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson parodies should have been included in the settings’ pantheon.

The smaller details of this setting are what truly bring out most of the enjoyment. In Murka, exposure is actually the lowest (and nearly worthless) denomination of currency, while having a the highest denomination, known as a Buck, can protect you from certain class features and monster abilities. Other details, such as a new kind of dragon known aptly as draguns were the inspiration for Murkan guns, flesh out the world in fun avenues. Each setting location also includes a list of ads, rumors, and adventure seeds that add plenty of humor and depth to the setting.

A Cleric of the Explosion Domain who looks like Terry Crews

Home of the Brave

Now it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of this book’s design. To start, the artwork is top-notch and adds a decent percentage of the book’s humor. Throughout the subclasses section, there are high-quality pieces of art that mimic various pop culture figures. This aspect of the artwork could feel dated in years to come, but it does generally work in its current state. The layout is effective when it comes to presenting the important locations of the setting and the maps fit nicely into this strong presentation. On the other hand, the layout when it comes to certain classes could have been improved, which will be explained more in the paragraphs to come.

It is truly impressive that 15 subclasses were included in this setting book. It’s easy to say that the flavor of these subclasses are their best attribute, while the design and layout have some flaws. As an example, the Illuminated subclass for Artificer is lacking in both descriptive text clarity and layout presentation. It was confusing at first glance to discern the connection between the class features and the Minds presented later on. While it’s not completely uncommon to include lengthier feature choices at the end of the subclass description, there were no clear indications that the Minds were in fact the same as the ones noted in the very first feature.

There are also some glaring missteps in the design that go unaddressed. The most obvious of these issues comes in the form of the Path of Gainz Barbarian subclass providing heavy armor proficiency at a high level despite the Barbarian’s signature feature Rage not permitting usage while wearing heavy armor. Certain features also seem a bit unbalanced and like they might require tweaking on a DMs part, such as the Oath of Independence’s Channel Divinity.

On a positive end of the subclass design, many of the subclasses carve out a perfect niche within their class. There is humor and unique mechanics galore within the features and descriptive text of these subclasses. Many of the subclasses also make clever use of Reactions through their features, along with other effective choices.

The monsters, as advertised in the title of the book, do not disappoint. The monsters certainly feel distinct to the setting, while still holding true to the design characteristics of classic D&D monsters. There could have been a bit more focus on how to reflavor a selection of existing monsters, but that is not wholly necessary. The Don and creatures associated with him do take up a decent chunk of the bestiary, but the artwork and design is delightful enough to make it less of an issue. The three new types of dragons (Freedom Dragons, Rustic Draguns, and Tactical Draguns) are all highlights, particularly due to the fact that there is one created for each life stage (wyrmling, young, adult, and ancient).

One smaller issue noticeable when it comes to the monsters is some confusing choices in terms of monsters’ classifications. For example, The Don is referred to as “monster” for his creature type. This could be a misprinting or a deliberate choice to make a new creature type, but it could have used clarity considering the ramifications of a creature’s type on certain spells, magic items, etc. In similarly confusing fashion, the Don’s creations which were referred to earlier in this article are all different creature types when it feels like they should have either been classified as creatures warped by the Don (aberrations) or created through magic experimentation (monstrosities).

The magic items were one of the few areas that felt a bit out of place. The pop culture references are most clearly contained within the magic items. While there are attempts to connect it to the large setting, it just felt like some items were included merely to make a reference rather than because they truly belonged in this book. The weapons and explosives are a nice contrast to this in the way that they are integrated into the subclasses and used to satirize the stereotypical fascination with guns in the U.S.

Overall, the design is fairly sound. Given how much content is included in this book, it is admirable how well most of the design work gels the various aspects together. However, I think it should be stated that the strength of the book is largely in the way the tone and lore inform the design instead of the design taking the forefront.

The Verdict?

With a setting that is steeped in political satire, it could have fallen flat in the balance that the genre requires. Monsters of Murka provides opportunities to truly engage politically in a safe space, and tackle topics like white privilege (which this book terms Human Privilege). It does have some shortcomings in tackling the complex range of social issues included in the book, which include its descriptions of the Natives veering slightly into stereotypes (despite respectable attempts to critique the treatment of Natives, in Murka and America). Largely, the setting is moldable enough that some of the shortcomings in its parallels can be addressed when crafting an adventure in this world. As noted in the opening of the article, this is a setting that should be approached delicately with your group if you choose to purchase it.

Considering the depth of the content provided by Monsters of Murka, I would consider it a worthy investment for a politically-engaged group. It could be used as an avenue to tackle political issues that pervade everyday life in this age, while also giving avenues for creative explorations of revolutionary thoughts. Monsters of Murka ranges from $15 to $30 on DriveThruRPG. There also expansions available as well.

Images via Action Fiction

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