Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Five Shires: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook covering a halfling-dominated nation in TSR's classic Mystara setting.

While not a race book in the way that GAZ5:The Elves of Alfheim or GAZ6:The Dwarves of Rockhome were, this entry into TSR's Gazetteer series covers a nation with a 97% halfling population. (For more on the gazetteer series and Mystara, see here). I find hobbits interesting because they're really the point at which you have to admit that you're stealing from Tolkien. Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes all have at least some historical and mythic antecedents. Many depictions of Elves had them closer to the fae and the faerie than the depiction in modern rpgs, but in spirit they come from Norse mythology. Of course Orcs also come pretty straight from LotR but in their case you have thin cover with the idea of “dark folk” like goblins, hobgoblins, trolls and ogres- all of which have ancestors from the great old tales. But Hobbits don't- they're short, inoffensive, and non-magical people. Which is why we also have the less specific term “halfling”. And why we have Kender in Dragonlance and Shea & Flick in The Sword of Shannara or even the Nelwyns from Willow. And when you title your sourcebook for 'halflings' in your setting The Five Shires, you're also inviting comparisons.

One of the other worries I had going into rereading this was it would have more “goofiness” than I was comfortable with. The jokes had been a little over the top in GAZ4:The Kingdom of Ierendi; the related Mystaran series Creature Crucible also fell into that trap. And, having looked forward, I knew that GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar painfully went in the direction of fantasy comedy. Thankfully, GAZ8: The Five Shires doesn't lean that direction entirely. The other worry comes from considering the original Tolkien source. What is there to do in the Shire? I mean in LotR we had Nazghul showing up (and asking for directions) and then the Scumbag Saruman bit at the end of RotK. But other than that, we have a fairly peaceful place where the conflicts seem to be more about family, kin and feuds- with a lot of fist-waving, name-calling, and bride-theft. And much as I might want to play a Faulkner-esque fantasy rpg with a halfling-filled Yoknapatawpha County, I can't imagine that would be a big seller. At the same time, I don't want halflings that go too far off the reservation (i.e. the feral cannibal hobbits of Dark Sun). 

The Five Shires continues with the new Gazetteer standard of splitting the interior material into two separate booklets, one for DMs and the other for players. This approach continues for the rest of the series (with two exceptions, Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia, GAZ14: Atruaghin Clans). The folio cover interior has a several excellent city maps. The poster map goes back to single sided- with a classic hex map of the region, four colored and keyed city maps, and an interesting set of location cross-sections. Clyde Caldwell returns for a great cover, but Stephen Fabian is absent as the artist. Instead we have Artie Ruiz, and man I do not like his art. He has a weird sketchy style and when he shows people they have 1980's hair or seem traced. It isn't my favorite approach. That aside the text design for the books remains solid: three columns, tight text and everything decently organized. Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forg
otten Realms, penned this volume. That's a point I'll return to. 

In 72-page DM's book begins with some general words of advice followed by the history of the halflings of The Five Shires. Interestingly, the peoples of the Shires call themselves “The Hin.” It's an odd term and just doesn't sound right to me. It adds another layer to the whole hobbit/halfling/hin terminology problem. I'll end up using all three in this review. The material right away addresses my concerns about the hobbits being treated comically- actually going perhaps a little far in the other direction stressing the grittiness and internecine warfare. Also unusual is the lack of connection to the Blackmoor history, since that's been a factor in every other gazetteer. Instead we get the tale of a hard-scrabble people who landed in this place, fought against the Orcs and others, battled among themselves, the fall of the great old realm, corrupt old Dwarven domination, dark folk invasions, rebellions, clanstrife, more wars with the Orcs, more rebellions, and finally a time of heroes. Seven detailed pages of this. It feels a little like overkill in places. Don't get me wrong, I love history and depth, but at the same time when I read through game material, my eyes are always on the prize: how could I bring this to the table? The history here may be rich, but I think it could have been trimmed without too much loss, especially compared to previous gazetteers which did more with a great span of time in fewer pages.

The real world analogue The Five Shires uses isn't exactly clear- at least to me it doesn't jump out. There's a definite Northwestern European vibe throughout, and I suspect we have elements from Irish history? Usually the naming conventions used in the gazetteers is a giveaway so I know it isn't Welsh or Scottish. If it is English, then the author's done a good job of keeping that from feeling like a literal adaptation.

With the extensive history out of the way, the book moves to cover the other key aspects of the Shires: climate, geography, holidays, relations with neighbors and regions. There's some pretty specific discussion of the Hin military, with stats and the strong suggestion that defense of the realm is a key factor in daily life. The theme throughout seems to be of a prosperous and fertile region, with several significant outside adversaries and a long history of internal fighting and politics among the nobles and families.

The booklet takes an odd detour at this point, with a discussion of the mysteries of Blackflame, a concept from the D&D Companion rules. Each hin clan has a Crucible of Blackflame, their most sacred relic. This serves as the heart of many sacred mysteries, and the book spends five pages going over those. Beyond the role that it serves in the clan and the methods the keepers use in managing it, the book offers uses for Blackflame. It can, for example, be used for magical crafting. The process is detailed in game terms and several sample magic items are given. It is an interesting little detail with some possibilities for stories in the Shires.

Pages 21-33 detail the various NPCs present in the Shires from nobles to ambassadors to bandits. This is one of the more useful sections of the book, with stats and lots of story ideas offered by the character descriptions. They're loosely organized by type with the majority lumped under “other notables.” The author could have made these more accessible to the GM with some better sub-headings. As it is you have to search through too much. You also have to deal with the art at its worst and most 1980's in this part. That's particular bad in the section which follows, on Halfling Pirates. Those pirates have a major role in the life of the Shires, with local Sheriffs denying their existence.

By far the largest section of book goes through the various sections and areas of the Shires in detail (with b&w section maps provided). This layout/design choice doesn't appear in the earlier gazetteers and definitely has a more “Forgotten Realms” module design feel to it. In some of those FR books that felt like someone throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck (FR5 The Savage Frontier as an example). Here it works decently because the scale is significantly tighter. From pages 36-54 we get descriptions of cities, oddball people, neat sites, landmarks and so on. DMs will probably neat to make a secondary set of notes and indexes to remember where the interesting parts are. The remainder of the DM book, covers campaigning in the Shires. The previous volume, The Northern Reaches, focused on fewer but more detailed and fleshed out adventures. The Five Shires, on the other hand, offers fourteen adventure seeds over nine pages, discussions of monsters new and old in five pages, and a grab bag of other details in the last four. 

The Players' Guide to the Five Shires comes in at 24 pages. It focuses on creating a halfling character from The Five Shires, with a focus on the explaining the culture over adding new mechanics. Or so the book suggests, but the material here does offer a number of new mechanics- including morale and saving throw bonuses for halflings standing on their native soil. Halflings level 5 or above gain a new power called “denial.” (Though this power doesn't seem all that special among gamers I know...). In any case, once per day a halfling standing in the Shires may say No! To one single spell or magical attack. The hobbit then takes a little damage an rolls on the Denial Table, with appropriate modifiers based on a number of factors. As a mechanic it adds an interesting option, but it feels more than a little dropped in.

The main focus of the cultural section here is on the clan as the most important unit in halfling life. The book suggests a number of ideas on how players might gain reputation, rank & influence and what offices of the clan they might interact with. Clans and place within those clans substitute for other considerations of wealth, class and nobility among the hobbits. One of my favorite bits in the section offers an explanation of halfling adventurers. The hin go through a period called the yallara or “wild time” in which they're expected to hell around, go out and find themselves. A number of other topics are touched on: smuggling, law, the Sheriffs, language, runes, tobacco, home, and names. There's a section on music and storytelling among the hin. The book offers some suggestions for handling tall-tale competitions among with the players. It also offers the lyrics to several hin songs. Yes. It does.

Finally The Five Shires ends with discussion of high level halflings and their options in the D&D system. More notably it offers an completely new hin-only sub-class, The Master. This is a kind of pseudo-Druid based on lore the hin gained from a lost race of elves. The halfling must be at least 8th level to become a master, at which point they can (after much training and isolation) switch over to the new advancement table, which goes from 1 to 35. It is a spell-using class, with some advancements to the denial ability common to the hin. The book discusses several new abilities for the Master and presents fourteen new or modified spells unique to the class. There's a weird break here- with the Master presented in the Players Guide, but with the repeated admonition that members of this class wouldn't adventure with a group. If this is an NPC-only class, why put it here?

I'm a little more split on The Five Shires book than I've been on others in the series. I think it works great as a Mystara sourcebook, offering an interesting place to travel through and some cool background for halfling PCs. It works to offer a really serious treatment of this race. Really serious. In fact, it feels almost a little too high-strung, making sure readers know that you shouldn't joke about the hin. It's subtle, but that slight tonal difference makes me suspect that the material here might not have begun life as a Mystaran book. It really feels more like something from Forgotten Realms. I may be wrong on that score. Still if you're running a Mystara campaign, this book offers many ideas.

For GMs looking for material to borrow for other campaigns and games, they may find less to like. That's the approach I usually take with these books and in going through each to review, I've been inspired with new story, character or place ideas. Here, not so much. It didn't convince me as much as the other entries in the series. It didn't feel like a solid and unique take on hobbits I wanted to port elsewhere.

The Five Shires map here is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at