Friday, February 10, 2012

The Dwarves of Rockhome: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Supplement covering dwarves and their nation within the Mystara setting.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, STOUT?
Would it be too much if I said that Dwarves get the short end of the stick in fantasy rpgs? This week I continue with my tour of the gazetteer series with GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome. Like the previous volume, GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim, it focuses on a race and a nation. My perspective on dwarves may seem a little odd, given that I may have bad-mouthed elves a little bit in my last review. Dwarves, I think, more than elves get stuck with a few fairly limited cultural and physical traits. I've certainly seen more and wackier variants on elves in various rpgs than I have of dwarves. They also have the problem of a “close cousin” in the form of the gnome. I've talked before about my dislike for gnomes- and often when they're placed in a fantasy context, they simply take up roles normally associated with Dwarves (tinkers and gadgeteers).

Dwarves get stuck with a good deal of baggage, with one of the most common tropes being their decay and extinction. Some of that comes from Tolkien's world, and his original Northern European sources. So in many settings we have dwarves broken and divided- having been overrun by the forces of darkness or chaos which have exploded up through their ancient holds. Warhammer borrows a little from this approach for example. Two of my favorite game depictions of Dwarves use this approach. The Mostali of Glorantha are clearly shattered and declining, though they keep on. I love them because they can actually be read as a metaphor for rules-lawyers. The recent CRPG Dragon Age also has the Dwarves in decline, holding onto only two of their old places and those beset by darkness. What I love about Dragon Age is the awful and severe caste/class system presented and the horrible Machiavellian maneuvers among the nobility. One reason I really like The Dwarves of Rockhome is that the Dwarves aren't fallen- they aren't in decline. Instead they're a potent and powerful force, with some structural limits to that power, that offers a vibrant option to the human world.

For more on Mystara and the Gazetteers, see here.

THE PRODUCT ITSELF
Aaron Allston, author of the really excellent Karameikos volume, returns to pen this one. Like Alfheim, we get a nice dense 96-page booklet. As with the others products in the series, the overall design is excellent. The amazing Stephen Fabain with amazing illustraiotns of people and places. The additional images showing layouts and machines are equally excellent. A couple of design points bear mentioning. The enclosed map is once again double sided, on a slightly different and sturdier paper than the previous ones. One side shows the map of Rockhome as a whole, plus cross-sections of some features, and city maps for upper and lower Dengar. The reverse side has graphics for modular city blocks, in two sizes. I'll come back to that. Interior folio cover is the only odd bit for me in the whole thing. On the previous series entries, this has offered additional maps or the like, a kind of pseudo-screen. Instead here the “Outsiders Perspectives on...” sections have been printed. Usually these are in the booklet or even a pull-out section. Bizarrely, the text blocks are printed in dark pink ink on a pink background- really, really hard to read.

In past reviews, I've walked through the book fairly thoroughly. However, my head cold this week suggests I approach this more generally. The booklet's broken into three relatively equal parts: the Players' Section, the Gazetteer Section and the Adventure Section. Like the Elves of Alfheim, Rockhome offers a nearly platonic group of Dwarves. Sure- there are a few shifts (no inherent racial antipathy towards the Elves for example). But overall you get an incredibly solid, clean and useful treatment of this race.

PLAYERS' SECTION
This is useful for both DMs & Players. The former may want to make copies to hand out for the latter. I half expected this to be a pull-out section, but I don't think that would work. This material needs to come before the rest. Instead you'd need a seperate booklet (which they do in some of the latter gazetteers). The Dwarves of Rockhome have a pretty awesome history, with nice ties back to the world of Blackmoor. Dwarves are divided into different clans, each with a different approach to life, different focus and different ideals. That's a classic approach- and mirrors how they set things up in Ylaruam, Alfheim and Glantri: developing interesting and dynamic internal relationships within the power groups of the nation.

Unlike Alfheim, Rockhome takes on the race-class question a little more directly. It introduces rules for dwarf-clerics, a new class which players can take from the beginning. The rules offer other new options- including an even more expanded discussion of the idea of skills presented in earlier gazetteer volumes. That makes sense, as dwarves might have to rely on those abilities more than others. Several options and ideas for dwarven items and armor, lifestyle, politics and roles are discussed in depth. Options for dwarven craftmagic and science are given, allowing players- high-level players to make things. The player section ends with a discussion of dwarven cities and settlements which are all built using some basic block layouts. The blocks shown on the back of the pull out map can be arranged and rearranged in different patterns, and the book talks about how those function and gives several examples. It reminds me of ICE's approach to Moria, but ever better and more clearly done here.

GAZETTEER SECTION
This opens with an even deeper treatment of dwarven history. We have racial animosity with the orcs, but not the elves. My favorite bit from the whole thing is the concept of Denwarf, an immortal-created guardian set to rule the dwarves in the early days who stepped down eventually but may return. It is a great detail- with some interesting tensions. Several cities and sites are describe din detail along with their block arrangement. These are really well done- and the breakdown of clan influences in each settlement offers a great hook for the GM. Twelves pages of NPCs- well described with motivations and personalities offer rich opportunities to the DM. They also confirm the classic dwarven approach to names- solid and serious like Barad rather than anything lighter. A treatment of monsters, including some new ones rounds this out.

ADVENTURE SECTION
This spends some time considering the three major approaches GMs will likely have toward Rockhome: passing through, one or more dwarf PCs, or an entire dwarven campaign set here. I expect the last is a rarity, but the book really offers the tools to pull that off- with tons of individual stories and an exciting overall story arc. It talks about what makes a dwarf and adventurer, and what their clan and people then means to them. And as a dwarf rises in rank and role, how dwarven politics might impinge on their life.

Probably the most interesting section appearing here are solid rules for adapting the Gazetteers to AD&D. I expect this was an attempt to open up the line to more gamers. I can't comment on the mechanics given, it only takes up a little more than a page, but it shows how TSR was evolving. The section ends with 16 pages of adventure seeds and ideas. Three major and extended adventures are plotted out- broken down by level. Then it gives several pages of smaller stories, with level suggestions. There's great ideas here- easily adapted by any DM.

OVERALL
I think you have two potential audiences for this. If you're a Mystaran DM (or a D&D Dwarven player) then you really ought to pick up this book. It is really well-written and a pleasure to read through. On the other hand, if you're a general fantasy rpg GM looking to drop a Dwarven nation into your campaign setting, then this is an excellent choice. There's mechanics here- but far more is giving over to cultural, society and adventure ideas. That's actually the way I ended up using this material in my own campaign. I'd had a place marked on the map as “Dwarven Lands” for several years. While they'd met Dwarves, I'd never really done anything with them. Finally I sat down and decided to, with some easy changes, just drop Rockhome into the game. Ironically, within a few sessions I wiped out the country, but that's another story...