Friday, 21 February 2020

Forgotten Realms: Old School Redux

I've reviewed the Forgotten Realms as a setting before. To sum up the issues with the setting:
In its present incarnation it's an unmanageable mess, plain simple. The tabletop equivalent of the Marvel universe - Overburdened with an absolute immensity of 'canon' , loads of 'story line' developments that have no relation to gamers, universe-wide 'crossover events', desperate retcons and a handful of mary sue novel characters blazing a trail of shit through the setting that no one cares about. 

WotC have done what they can to salvage the wreckage in 5e. An ill defined event to normalize the wreck that was 4e, move the timeline forward to let the passage of time erase as much of the canon baggage as possible, be intentionally vague about what has actually changed and otherwise just leave the setting the fuck alone, so gamers can walk around without tripping over 'setting lore' at every step. It's ok I guess, as a cardboard background for generic D&D on the shelves.

But as I see it, it began its descent into chaos with their first setting-wide event (the aptly named "time of troubles"). Which was only two years after the setting was first released. So the halcyon days of the setting didn't last long.

But that early setting, best encapsulated perhaps by the original gray box and Jacquay's The Savage Frontier, had a lot going for it. I quite like how it puts takes a Tolkien-esque setting and dumps a fledgling feudal/mercantile Sword & Sorcery civilization into it. There is something to work with here that really captures players' genre assumptions of D&D. But to me, it still needs a bit of work to really accentuate what works and what doesn't. This merits further exploration to me.

So I am going to try and riff a bit to change what doesn't work to my mind and put some stuff in to accentutate the good stuff. I am mostly rewriting some of the history to paint a bit more coherent picture that more properly explains why the modern realms are the way they are today (Cormyr and Dalelands for example, I find make far better sense as successor states of Myth Drannor rather than millenia old minor nations dating back to before Myth Drannor). This itself I find also paints the picture of this Redux well enough.

Forgotten Realms: Old School Redux

First, Ed Greenwood's introduction in the gray box to set the tone for all that follows:

"Most of the area under discussion here has until recently been covered by wild forests and unsettled grasslands. Civilization is still a novelty in much of this world, even the oldest of cities on the Inland Sea, or the founding of Waterdeep, the greatest City of the North, are within the memory of the oldest living elves of Evermeet."

"City-states are common, and nations on the increase as more of the wild lands are pushed back and gathered under a single king or government."

"Finally, the Realms are a land of adventure, and therefore adventurers. It is the time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and be destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men can control."


The Realms is  a setting of once-high romantic fantasy, in the vein of Tolkien's Middle Earth, that has fallen into a state of decay from which humanity is emerging as the dominant power. City-states dot the realms as isolated survivor-states of former realms, whilst a growing feudalism and mercantilism is giving rise to an emergent phenomenon in the realms, that may yet prove more influential than what has come before it: Human nation-states.

The state of mankind in the Realms is somewhat analogous to the transition from the post-roman barbaric migrations in Europe to a feudal society (except that Rome here is the elven Myth Drannor and the roaming barbaric tribes are orcs, who simply move on after pillaging, leaving it to the human survivors to build a far more scantly populated post-imperial society than post-roman Europe).

A History Primer

Ancient Times - The Age of Magic
For untold millenia before mankind grew out of barbarism, the elves and dwarves had civilized and tamed the Realms. The first human civilizations emerged in two places:

Far to the south and east from the Heartlands (which is our primary topic), in what is known as the Old Empires. Alas, these lands are so distant from the Heartlands so as to have barely affected them at all. These ancient empires are said to still exist in the far south as crumbling relics, a fossilized monument to a bygone age.

The second starting point of human history, in the Heartlands, begins with Netheril, which arose perhaps sometime just before or just after the the Old Empires in the south.
For millennia, this greatest of magical empires dominated central faerun. Although the mainlands of that empire are now buried under the sands of the Aunaroch desert that spelled the end of it ages ago, it seeded the Heartlands with outposts and infrastructure that would sow the seeds for future human endeavors in these lands. 

The Age of the Orc
When Netheril fell, so did human civilization - Centuries of orc warfare, low populations and scattered points of civilisation meant that mankind survived only in fortified city-states increasingly isolated from each other, and the haphazard and short-lived existence of villages and barbarian tribes across the landscape.

Realms such as Anauria, Hlondath, Illusk and decadent Asram emerged in the wake of Netheril for a while, but none could not stem the tide of orcs, increasing isolation and natural hazard and all eventually left the land to untamed growths and barbarism.

Dwarves also saw their last great realm of Delzoun pillaged by humanoids in the same period. The time after the fall of Netheril belonged above all else to the orcs. And for an age mankind cowered in its shadow.

The Age of Myth Drannor / Age of Wonder
This changed about 1300 hundred years - When the elves of Cormanthor opened Myth Drannor as a haven for all races and erected The Standing Stone to commemorate the welcoming of all good people to the elven woods (this also marks the first year of Drannor Reckoning [DR], the commonly accepted calendar of the heartlands).

Under the protectorate and civilizing influence of the elves, mankind began to flourish. Elves routed the orcs and for five hundred years, the Pax Myth Drannor spanned all the heartlands and kept the the roads safe from the Sword Coast to the Sea of Fallen Stars. From the elves, humans began to rediscover the lost arts of magic and with the threat of humanoids on the wane, began to develop vassal states enjoying the protections of Myth Drannor.

South of the Myth Drannor sphere of influence, in the lands north of the now receding Old Empires, proud city-states had already developed on the Vilhon Reach, and these now prospered further from the rich trade that began to flow from its northern neighbors.

On the Dragon coast, settlers from the Vilhon Reach erected trading posts that would soon grow into cities in their own right, connecting the Inner Sea of Fallen Stars with the emergent civilizations of the Sword Coast.

And on the eastern shores of the Dragon Reach, city-states such as Tantras, Calaunt and Procampur began to emerge in what was once untamed wasteland, opening new traderoutes to the south and east.

Even the harsh Moonsea began to be civilized, buffering Myth Drannor from the savageries of the lands beyond. Fabulous Northkeep was erected there as the first shining beacon of civilization in these lands and proud protectorate of Myth Drannor.

In the Western Heartlands, the storied Kingdom of Man, in truth an alliance of elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and mankind made in the image of Myth Drannor's Pax, brought the first measure of peace and civilization to these lands since the fall of Netheril.

Even the savage frontier north of these lands slowly began to be settled for the first time since the fall of Netheril.

It was not to last however. When Northkeep was destroyed by dark hordes from Thar, Myth Drannor retreated from the Moonsea area.
The humans of the Moonsea, left to fend for themselves, were forced to become a hard and cynical people to survive. This development is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of the martial city-state of Zhentil Keep, whose Bane-worshipping warriors have since spread across the Realms as the beliggerent and subversive mercenary company named the Zhentarim.

The Kingdom of Man fell to goblinoid hordes in 702 DR, and Myth Drannor found itself unable to assist its vassals with the same strength it had in former centuries.

When demon hordes finally assaulted Myth Drannor itself a decade later, there were no allies left to help. In 714 DR, the grandest experiment in civilization was left in ruins, which to this day are festering with demons and corrupted magics.

The Modern Realms

In the six centuries since the Fall of Myth Drannor (or simply "The Fall"), elves have isolated themselves from the rest of the world in hidden sanctuaries, where visitors are as likely to be shot before questions are asked, as they are to simply to be asked to turn around and leave.
Dwarves remain holed up in the last few fortified citadels they still control of their former great kingdoms, fighting off the humanoids that now roam their ancient departed halls.

It has been left to mankind to try and rebuild civilization. In the heartlands of Cormanthor, a few human successor states soon emerged in the wake of the Fall.

In the very heart of the Cormanthor woods, human refugees from Myth Drannor spead into the vales dotting the ancient woods, finding that their new rural way of life made them too insignificant for evil forces to take notice of. The Dalelands, as they eventually became called, have lived on ever since under the cover of rural and decentralized inconspicuousness. Though elves still inhabit the deeper woods, the dalelander know to stick to their well-throdden paths and villages where most monsters will not go.

On the western rim of old Cormanthor, a feudal society emerged soon after the Fall where, in the image of the gallant elven champion, righteous warriors assumed lordship of the peasant population they protected. The greatest among these "knights" (as they came to be called) they named 'King' and thus was born the kingdom of Cormyr. In the centuries since the Fall, much of what was once deep woodland has been tamed to make way for town and agriculture, but much monstrous wilderness still remain to threaten the fragile communities of this kingdom.

South of Cormyr and the Dales, the trading communities of the Dragon Coast were left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. They've grew into fiercely independent and festering pits of rogues, backstabbing and corruption.

The Vast on the eastern shore of the Dragon Reach soon regressed to untamed wilderland, but less than a handful of human city-states, now left isolated and independent after the Fall, remained as points of light, where mankind could shelter themselves behind its walls against the encroaching spread of chaos.

A few centuries later, in 913 DR, settlers seeking their fortune in new lands away from the now stagnant and quarreling city-states of the Vilhon Reach, founded the mercantile nation of Sembia on the edge of the old Cormanthor woods and its rise has seen proper trade begin to emerge in the region for the first time since the Fall.

In the Western Heartlands, no successor states have emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Kingdom of Man and the land has reverted to mostly uncharted hinterlands, dotted by a smattering of small holds, villages and keeps that spring up, only to be abandoned within a generation or two.
A handful of small city-states and scattering of walled towns are the only enduring signs of civilization here. The most significant of these is the emergent city-state of Waterdeep, which has become the main hub of the Sword Coast. A hope perhaps, that civilization may take root here again some day.

North of these lands lie the Savage Frontier, where civilization ends. Even moreso than the Western Heartlands, the North is an untamed wilderness grown over the ruins of long lost empires such as Netheril and  dwarven Delzoun. It is teeming with orcs, trolls, barbarian tribes and monsters, who regularly descend upon the hapless palisade of villages that eke out short-lived lives in the wilderlands.

Paradoxically, the last unspoiled remnant of Pax Myth Drannor lies in these northern wastelands. Silverymoon, though originally no more than a frontier outpost erected in the finals days of Myth Drannor, has survived untouched, as if frozen in time, from the halcyon days of Pax Myth Drannor and is now famed as "the gem of the north", a sanctuary of arts, lore and magic where people of all races continue to live in harmony amongst its gilded streets, marbled domes and arched bridges.
This is all thanks to its succession of powerful "High Mage" rulers who have protected the city from its savage neighbors since the days of Myth Drannor. The current High Mage is a powerful sorcery queen whose just rule has extended for nearly two centuries.

The Lands Beyond
Where the history of the Heartlands have seen ages of splendor ended by long ages of darkness and something new having to be built on its ruins, mankind south of the old Pax Myth Drannor have had a different evolution of history

The Old Empires to the south, though withered and decayed, still stand as they have since the days of Netheril. As the Old Empires receded from their wider territories, the successor states that sprang up in its wake - the Empires of the Sand and the cities of the Vilhon Reach - have themselves grown now millenia old by now.

Where they touch the borders of the Heartlands, they remind the fledgling realms there that their civilizations are still no more than barbaric upstarts in the eyes of the old kingdoms to the south. And yet, for all  its proud unbroken history, the southlands are stale - Visitors to these land find a sense that their times of prosperity have come and gone and they are merely living out their last ages of decadence and insularity on the shoulders of past glories they can no longer emulate themselves.

In the Unapproachable East, even more exotic successor states to these ancient empires developed. Woodland realms ruled by powerful sorcery queens and witch covens. And dread Thay, the legendary kingdom of the red wizards, where undead are said to walk the streets and slaves toil to build arcane ziggurats and towers of their wizardly rulers.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Setting Review: Primeval Thule (+new setting map)

NB. If you're only here for the cool new map, it's at the bottom of the post.

Primeval Thule is a "sword and sorcery" pastiche setting that takes its primary inspiration from Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft - For D&D. It has books for 5e, 4e, pathfinder, 13th Age and Savage Worlds. Here I will be reviewing the book for 5e.

Despite the strong influence these authors have had on the D&D genre, D&D settings who take these as a primary and overriding influence are rare, so a setting adopting a more purist interpretation of these is a welcome addition. The concept art for the setting certainly makes an evocative intro:

What other settings might compare to such an effort? Setting to one side pastiche OSR efforts (such as Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea), then Wilderlands of High Fantasy has a lot of S&S, but its (delightful) kitchen sink approach means it can not be considered a focused effort for the genre. Dark Sun perhaps is the best attempt at the genre. Not in the least because it is a genuinely innovative and well executed take on the genre as opposed to the pastiche efforts seen elsewhere (note: I love a good pastiche. It's a timeless stable of fantasy - And Primeval Thule being a pastiche effort in no way detracts from its merits. It just means I evaluate it on how well it manages to pastiche). 

Which brings us to the design team: David Noonan who worked on a bunch of D&D books for WotC from 3rd to 5th edition, Stephen Schubert, once lead-designer on 4e D&D, and Rich Baker, who wrote a bunch of 3e books (including the Forgotten Realms setting), wrote some books for the original Dark Sun line and was the lead designer on Dark Sun for 4e. An interesting cast for a mainstream setting effort in a genre that is typically the domain of DIY creators in the OSR.

The setting at a glance

Primeval Thule is a sword & sorcery pastiche that most calls to mind Conan's Hyboria. It is set as a bronze age society in Greenland 25,000 years ago, three centuries after the sinking of Atlantis.

It has all the things you'd expect - decadent city-states, lost worlds, barbarians, corrupt priests and wizards, slaves, savage wildernesses and such. It narrates this in the form of a travelogue from someone from another land. This allows the book to explain also what it is not ("there are no knights here, O king") and frames the callous and brutal nature of the setting as it would appear to a non-native. It is not quite The Wanderer's Journal from Dark Sun, but it does its job well enough.

The book does a good job of describing the lay of the land (which is dominated by jungle and glaciers) and its flora and fauna and how hostile all of it basically is to humans. Reminiscent of Dark Sun (albeit less extreme) and sets the tone in a good way.

Besides a plethora of unnamed lesser gods, there is a widely worshipped pantheon of nine deities of civilisation (half of them evil), who generally oppose the many slumbering Old Ones seeping through the cracks.

Your go to monsters are not orcs, goblins, ogres, devils and demons, but beastmen, deep ones, serpentmen, winged apes, mi-go, moonbeast, Shoggoths, giant snakes, sabertooth tigers, rakshasa, headhunters and cultists of the Old Ones. Your otherworldly critters tend to come from beyond the stars rather than other dimensions (parallel earths are still a thing). I like it.

The bad

I have read some online critiques that it does not do what it sets out to do (which is - properly pastiche the Conan+Cthulhu genre) but I mostly disagree with this. Some of the critiques are put down to inconsistent editing and tone of the setting and others are, imo, simply a product of a much too restrictive view of the genre.

One argument I will address is the presence of demi-humans. Elves I find are quite well executed - They have their home city which is eerily quiet because they are all basically stoned out on drugs. Love it! 

Then there's dwarves, which is less well executed. They are a race of arms dealers and mercenaries who have only one city (and a few wild clans in the icy north), so there is that. And in the bronze age culture of Thule, they are the only ones who know how to craft iron and steel, a secret which they guard zealously (including hiring assassins if they discover thieves or looters wielding steel). Nice touch. And then what? I am missing some attempt here to situate them better in a S&S context. Accentuate their greed, maybe make them incapable of empathy (clan loyalty does the job) and obssessive nature. Guys like these maybe:

"Heard you carry an illegitimate steel sword, guv. That's about to end."
rather than this
This is the picture in the setting book for "Thulean Dwarf".... :(
I don't know... But something more.

And then there are halflings. I don't know what the fuck they wanted them in for. They are described as savage-but-friendly woodland dwellers who prefer to hide from others and are very good at that. A kind of Dark Sun-lite take on them? I don't know what they are doing here. Absent a good new take on them, I'd simply erase them. Outside the player-facing description, they are referenced only very briefly in the atlas, so it's an easy job. If kept, I'd go the Dark Sun route and have them stand in for REH's Picts: short, absolutely savage and hostile head-hunters. Thule has head-hunters anyway, so not a far stretch.

Either way, making any of these a player race seems odd given their rarity and doesn't fit well with the tone of a S&S setting. The kind of races I am looking for in a setting like this is Amazons (sadly absent) and Atlanteans (which we do get). If you must have a demi-human PC, make it a sidebar as a strictly optional rule for those rare groups who come into contact with them.

Though I recognise the inconsistent tone of the book at times (grim and brutal setting... with 'heroes'. Episodic adventure, here's some campaign arcs), they are more cosmetic flaws than anything, easily brushed away and do not significantly detract from the upsides of the book:

The Good

First of all - This is a solid pastiche. It oozes flavor, hits a lot of great notes and you have no problem envisioning Conan having Conan-esque adventures in Thule. It works. What few things I may be missing can easily be inserted.

Besides the overall good execution of the setting atmosphere and depth, the setting stands out as being more than just a tourist guide to the setting as many books of this type end up being, with a strong focus on helping both GMs and Players to get into the setting and make use of it. Make no mistake - This book wants to be used for gaming.

On the player side, we get narratives for 5e - which is basically backgrounds, but anchored in the setting and with a few extra mechanical bennies. An excellent and simple way to get players immersed in the setting from the get go. It's stuff like "Free Blade", "Dhari Hunter", "Katagian Pit Fighter", "Jungle Trader", "Star Lore Adept", "Ice Reaver" and "Sacred Slayer". They all come with nice suggestions for where one might be from and what classes work well with them. All settings for 5e should come with their own background selection like this. It's great stuff. Also, no paladins. Worth mentioning.

On the DM side, there is advice for how to run S&S adventures with an emphasis on episodic adventures, horror, the rare and alien nature of magic,  XP for gold and, bit odd given the emphasis on episodic adventures: suggestions for campaign arc. But whatevs. Having a few red threads running through a campaign is no bad thing in a sandbox campaign either, if the railroad can be avoided.

The rest is there to support the DM at the table and fuel his imagination. No less than 24 dungeons get quick writeups. The Atlas has nice little sidebars on what kind of adventures could be run in each area. Scatterred through the atlas are select maps of dungeons in the region. And the focus in the atlas is generally on "Here's the quick intro to the place, here are blurbs for interesting NPCs to have some fun with and here are adventure locations for you to explore". It's good solid game-friendly material.

I like terse and slim settings that don't burden me with 'canon' and excessive lore. Thule is on the heavier side for a setting book, but its focus is absolutely on the game utility side rather than developing lore and trivia. A top effort in this regard and something that makes it a really worthwhile investment to pick up rather than just make your own setting. It packs the book with info to get your imagination going and develop stuff, rather than encyclopediatically tell what it is all about.

One last thing on the "good" list deserves its own entry:

The Map

My first impression of the map was one of those things that turned me off the setting a bit to begin with. I mean look at this:

In terms of artistry, this is as functional as it gets. Just plain colours, no iconography, barely even any gradients. But when you look at it in detail as a game map, it is marvelous. It does the same thing that I praised the Tales of the Lance map of Ansalon for doing in my review of that map. It fucking loads the map with adventure sites.

What's the deal with Cruel Haddar's Tomb in the Skullthorn Wilds? What is in the Dungeon of the Man-bane in the Semiji Jungle? The Sleeping Fortress in the Valley of the Last Breath? The Caves of Entropic Wonder at the edge of the Serex Glacier? Or City of the Risen Apes in the Kurmanur Wilds?Or Lair of the Thought Eaters in the Sussurian Jungle? Or the Tombs of the Marrow Reavers? Temple of the White Ape? Caves of the Red Plague? Eyrie of the Sky-steeds?

I don't know, we are never told anything about them. But it makes me want to fucking go there and find out. I could go on listing sites; the map is absolutely littered with them. And some of the locations do get short blurbs in the Atlas to get you going.

It's the kind of map that makes me want to run an open sandbox campaign where the players (not the PCs) have full access to the map and can indicate to the DM what sites hold their interest and then the DM can seed the rumours table with these and more.

Fortunately, the basic nature of the official map means that it wasn't all that difficult to separate the different geographical types and legend of the map into layers and re-draw a new map on top of it with just a bit more artistic effort. 

That's right, kids. Never say your uncle Anders doesn't bring you any treats!

Below is the map I whipped up in a day or two, in two versions. A clear one and a more faded 'older-looking' map. They are really big (6853x5514, 37 MB) so you get all the wonderful detail of the map if you want to print this on a giant-sized sheet. I'm printing it on A3 later this week and looking forward to the result, but this could easily take A2 as well.

This is just a preview. Click here to download the full-sized image.

This is just a preview. Click here to download the full-sized image.