Friday, January 20, 2012

The Principalities of Glantri: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Classic D&D region sourcebook covering a Magocracy in the Mystara setting.

GREATER THAN THE BORROWED PARTS
Though the Red Wizards of the Forgotten Realms setting get more attention and have lasted longer, Glantri's IMHO the more interesting and playable nation of mages. The third in the gazetteer series (see here for more on the series as a whole), Glantri is essentially the Western European analogue within the Mystara setting. But- and I may sound stupid saying this- I didn't really get that until I went back to reread the series. Other entries, GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam for example, wear their sources on their sleeve. The Principalities of Glantri conceals that beneath details of magic and the melting-pot background of nation. It is a country of immigrants, powerful noble families here having united under the banner of magical superiority. Only those possessing sorcerous skills have rank or power here. Each family borrows from a particular culture (German, Spanish, Italian, Scottish, etc) but that always felt like a surface trapping when I read the book. As a whole, Glantri feels most like France, with the different provinces sharing a common heritage, but with distinct expressions of identity and a strong independent streak. In rereading I spotted more of the literal borrowings, but they still work. For all that it riffs on those European stereotypes, GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri manages to elevate those ideas and do something new with them.

The Principalities of Glantri remains my favorite of the gazetteers, with Karameikos coming in a close second. I've used ideas from it more than any other volume in the series. And I've only really only presented surface elements. We've had a few sessions skirting Glantri, but I've used characters from there, with their distinctive approach to magic and the cultural ideas. That's trickled down and informed other parts of my setting.

THE BOOK ITSELF
GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos presented a small nation, with two distinct cultural groups, and a focus on local NPCs. GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam compressed a large number of cultural groups, essentially a sub-continent, into one country and focused on ideas and themes. GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri again takes a large and diverse cast of cultures and brings them together, but with a tight focus on noble family. Beyond that, Glantri organizes itself very differently from the previous two volumes. Larger than the last two, 96 pages instead of 64, it presents a structure for a specific campaign. Glantri presents the tools for a DM to run a full party of mages from apprenticeship through adult adventuring life. That campaign has the characters uncovering the secret behind the power and powers of Glantri itself, the Radiance. Despite its difference, this approach still fits with the rest of the line.

It isn't surprising that Glantri- in some ways the most full-fleshed and developed of the gazetteers- comes from Bruce Heard, product manager for at least the early line. His name appears on most of the significant Mystara products in one way or another. The Principalities feels like something that the author has run and played with, rather than a product created to fill a niche ("OK we've got a Hobbit place on the map, who wants to do that?"). Heard's name also appears on the later version of Glantri- Glantri Kingdom of Magic- when TSR brought the setting up into AD&D 2e. I dislike that later product intensely, in great part because I like the material here so much. Instead of adding to it, that knocks down and ravages it in the name of change. Eventually I'll get to a review of those products after I've worked through all of these.

Besides the change in length, Glantri only has a couple of other minor changes to the physical design of the series. The main saddle-stapled booklet comes with a folio cover as usual. Instead of the tri-fold of the first two, this cover is a bi-fold. The two interior pages have location maps- one a common Wizard Keep and the other The Great School of Magic. The latter's a little disappointing, because it doesn't really look all that grand. It would be a few more years before we saw epic mage locations like those of Ars Magica, Harry Potter and Redhurst, so that can be excused. The enclosed poster-sized map is the first in the series printed on front and back. One side shows the hex-grid map of the Principalities, plus three inset map locations that are OK, but not great. However the reverse side offers a really awesome map of the City of Glantri- wonderfully laid out with canal waterways. Three inset images present details of the harbor and special buildings. This is one of my favorite city maps. It is interesting and useful- I can imagine running a chase using it.

The booklet sticks to the same three columns with tiny text of the previous two volumes. Some of the pages have a watermark, but those with illustrations or colored sidebars don't. Stephen Fabian provides the excellent art- there's a nice mix of images for key NPCs and illustrations of material discussed in the text. This book, more than the previous two, relies on narration and stories. We get tales from newcomers and foreigners, as well as testimonials from important NPCs. Just about every major section has some kind of game fiction dialogue. These are very targeted, with the narrator describing a particular event, person or institution. I'm often pretty negative about game fiction fluff- but here it works well. It sets the tone of the material and offers some insights on presenting the ideas to the players.

WHAT IT OFFERS
The Principalities of Glantri provides some of the same basic material as the previous two entries in the series: history, economy, geography and so on. But the actual execution of that material, as I mentioned above, is in the form of first and third person narratives. The stories say as much about the narrators as they do about the topics. The author also sets up the gazetteer explicitly as a campaign from the outset, discussing how the pieces presented fit into that. But even if you're not planning on running a Glantri-mage centered game, the material still works. I can attest to that, having adapted the ideas across years of my house campaign and across several different systems. DMs should be aware of a couple of important structural restrictions right off the bat. Dwarves are welcomed in Glantri, but mostly because of their desirability for magical experimentation (i.e. they can survive longer). Second, and perhaps more importantly, clerics of any kind are illegal within the lands. That's an interesting distinction- and offers some insight into a world where ascended Immortals take the place of gods.

I don't want to dwell on the specifics of the chapters- they thoroughly covering important aspects of life in this nation. That's tough to do given the diversity of peoples here. The DM will have to do some serious filling in of details of normal life, since the focus stays on the elite of the country. Different family lines govern each Principality, each with a distinct origin and cultural background. While they share a common adherence to the magocracy, they are (of course) at each others throats. That makes Glantri an interesting and highly political setting. A number of the families don't even come from this world originally. Most of the material presented in the first third of the book focuses on setting up those different families and their personalities for the players.

THE FAMILIES
House of Sylaire aka d'Ambreville: "Mutant Werewolves of Averoigne"- I mention them first both because they're the most powerful and also because they have the strongest tie to classic D&D history. Veteran players may recognize them from the module X2: Castle Amber (Ch√Ęteau d' Amberville). They came to this world from that one. They're also a lift from both Edgar Allen Poe stories and from Clark Ashton Smith's stories of Averoigne. CAS remains my favorite old-school fantasy author, and it is interesting to see how his weird fantasy ideas translate into a game more heavily influenced by the likes of Vance, Tokien and Howard. As you might imagine, the d'Ambreville borrow from French cultural traditions.

House of Crowngaurd aka McGregor: "Chauvinistic Scots of Chaos"- another family who came here from the same world as the d'Ambreville. Heavily invested in necromancy, they are governed by a leader who has converted himself into a lich through the powers of Radiance (a concept I'll come back to).

House of Igorov aka Gorevitch-Woszlany: "Expansionist chaotic vampires"- another family with necromancy in its blood. Trace their family line back to the Traldaran's of Karameikos. As you can imagine, they come off as very Transylvanian.

House of Linden aka Vlaardoen: "Vengeful Followers of the Fame"- a family descended people originally from another world, their fellow refugees went on to found one of the two great empires in Mystara, Alphatia. They seem to be borrowing from the Dutch, but those connections are pretty light.

House of Ritterbeg aka Von Drachenfels: "Warmongering Military Technocrats"- The military backbone of the nation, and one borrowing heavily from Prussian and German cultures.

House of Silverston aka Aendyr: "Sneaky Alphatian Imperialists"- Rivals of the Vlaardoens they descend from more recent exiles from the Alphatian Empire. They don't borrow distinctly from a single culture.

House of Singhabad aka Virayana: "Lawful Pacifists of Ethengar"- They originally come from the nomadic peoples of Ethengar (covered in GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar). They have the most tolerance for clerics.

House Sirecchia aka di Malapietra: "Poisonous Thyatian Machiavellians"- They come from the other major empire of Mystara, Thyatis. However they have a more classic Renaissance Italian feel to them- which differs slightly from how the Empire ends up portrayed in the later boxed set Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia. In fact, they have more in common with the presentation of Darokin (GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin) the nation of merchants.

Clan of Alhambra aka Belcadiz: "Proud Elven Swashbucklers"- This Elvish family doesn't come from the Elves of this continent, but rather from a land far away. They're short, hot-tempered and based on Spanish themes.

Clan of Ellerovyn aka Erewan: "Tree-Loving Elven Ecologists"- This Elvish family, on the other hand, comes originally from Alfheim (covered in GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim). They're more classically 'Elfy'.

So you can see Glantri bursts with ideas and plots. Several excellent sections break down those families, provide insight on their relations and describe the major NPCs of each. That material bleeds over into the other major power-players in the lands- guilds, brotherhoods and secret societies.

LIVES AND ADVENTURES
The middle third or so of the booklet (running from page 38 to 63) covers Glantri City and the Great School of Magic. While the various provinces have their own towns, villages, and castles, Glantri city is the hub. Most campaigns will begin there, and it alone could offer the background to many sessions worth of gaming. This chapter breaks down the city by neighborhoods, provides a calendar of festivities, and outlines the laws, atmosphere and daily life of the city. All of it is great and useful information, well-presented. More than any other GAZ in the line, Glantri brings to life a city with rich detail for the DM to draw from. On the other hand, I'm a little surprised in going back how little information the booklet actually gives for the Great School of Magic. It offers some mechanics and details (tuition costs, some feat-like bonuses which can be picked up, and graduation tests) but it seems a little bit of a missed opportunity. That may be in hindsight, given other more famous magic schools which popped up. Still the ideas given are excellent and fun.

The last third of the booklet offers substantial DM tools and mechanics. First, it provides a toolbox for creating new spells and magic items. Such things cost gold to create- representing resources invested in the project. Next, the book explains the secret of the Radiance, magical energy present in Glantri and tied to the Immortal Rad. The secret's in the name and ties back to elements from the Blackmoor background. This section provides some ideas on how the players might learn these secrets, harness spells from the Radiance and even change the course of history. That's, however, optional to the setting and feels a little unnecessary. Beyond that, the section offers new seven secret crafts (with new spells): alchemy, dragon magic, elements, illusions, necromancy, runes, and witchcraft. These offer some great ideas for a GM wanting to expand high-level magic in their campaign. Finally, the booklet finishes with a list of adventure seeds, broken down by level. Many of these are linked- given the GM the skeleton of a long-term campaign in this region.

OVERALL
I love this book. a DM could easily run a campaign just using the stuff given here. That economy is admirable- a booklet which offers in 96 pages what many books would have needed twice that to do the same thing. There's little waste here. There are a few goofy things- like the Scottish Liches and the Apocalypse Now references in the adventure section. But it offers a wealth of ideas, cultures and peoples. Most of all they're fun- even when they're a little sinister. Even the bad guys here have to function in cooperation with the other families, making it both more real and more interesting than the Red Wizards of Thay ever were to me. I've used the ideas, families and characters from this supplement for years. My players know those family names and can remember the distinctive traits of many of those lines. I count that as the mark of great source material- when it creates fun and memorable moments at the table.