Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Golden Khan of Ethengar: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Sourcebook covering dangerous rider-tribes and their supreme Khan in the classic TSR setting of Mystara.

BACK IN THE GAME

GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar
comes late in the lifespan of the Gazetteer series. We only have one more (GAZ13: The Shadow Elves) that maintains the format; the final volume (GAZ14: Atruaghin Clans) switching up styles in a way that seems like a rush job. There's also a boxed set not assigned a GAZ code oddly. The previous two gazetteers have been problematic. GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar has great stuff but feels like designers chose to lighten the tone to allow Orc & Co. PCs. Then there’s the previous volume, GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin. It heads off in a strange direction that makes it the weakest of the series. So I came back to rereading Ethengar with some trepidation.

And I fell in love again. I’d used some of the material from this for a campaign over a dozen years ago. I recalled solid material, and going back I immediately found story and adventure ideas popping up. The authors of Ethengar recognize what works in the series: surface/reality contradictions; easy but interesting character options; campaign discussions; rivalries among groups; and clear cultural elements. Ethengar also offers a distinct society, unlike anything else presented in the series. The borrowings from the Mongol and Central Asian cultures are handled well, with a world that’s both inviting and strange. Ethengar also pays off some of the promises made in earlier volumes, such as the amazing
GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri, where we first got some insight into the exiled Ethengarian family of Singhabad.

THE BOOK ITSELF

The supplement comes with two booklets: a 32 page Player’s Guide and a 64 page DM’s Guide. The folio cover has a decent Clyde Caldwell illo (though not his best). The folio interior has a map of the relations of Ethengarian tribes- as they’re publicly perceived. There’s also a map of the region divided by tribes as well as a clan camp diagram. The enclosed map is double-sided again thankfully. One side offers two excellent “city” maps for the two different locations of the Golden Khan’s encampments. The other side has a classic hex map for the region, but with new elements distinct to the Ethengarians (poor/good grazing lands, horsefair sites, etc). As well a set of armor illustrations for various humanoid raider peoples (nicely labeled) and diagrams of Ethengarian arrows finish out that side. The booklets once again have Stephen Fabian’s art, with some of my favorite illustrations of the series. Ethengar marks the first entry in the series by the amazing Jim Bambra, known for other TSR products as well as contributions to some of the most amazing Warhammer Fantasy products (Death on the Reik, The Enemy Within). Matt Connell and Pat Whitehead provide additional material, but the book doesn’t feel at all like the product of multiple authors. In fact, it is one of the best written and clearest of the gazetteers.

GM’S BOOKLET
The strength of this supplement lies in how well it focuses on playable material: what does a DM need to run the setting? What kinds of elements might come up at the table? How might other details (like history) be considered in this culture? Throughout the author manages to focus the discussion and present everything cleanly and clearly. For example, some Gazetteers have spent many pages going over history. This volume offers only two pages, plus a timeline. Yet within that smaller page count, we get a sense of the cycle of history and what it means to present-day society. Likewise the geography section, handled in three pages focuses on the essentials, with clear headings to make referencing the material easy. The section on culture offers a glance at daily life and The Camp, which lies at the heart of the people. The calendar of the land is covered in three pages. In other gazetteers we’ve gotten a run-down of holidays. Ethengar offers some of that, but combines it with the seasonal life-cycle of the tribes. As a nomadic people the seasons signals times of change and movement.

The Khanate itself offers DMs an interesting challenge. More than any other nation, with the possible exception of The Broken Lands, the Ethengarians have a hostile relationship with other nations. Called “The Outsiders” they have historically suffered Ethengar hostilities, with invasions of the Heldann Freeholds and Principalities of Glantri. But the present situation has shifted, with a new Golden Khan who has begun stronger ties and interactions with the Outsiders. Some see this as a good thing, some as a cunning stratagem, and others as a violation of the old ways. That central conflict and the place of the new Khan drives the relations between the eight tribes. The book presents those tribes succinctly, focusing on one or two interesting details which could lead to long term stories.


The Golden Khan and his Golden Court are covered in six pages. That court will be an important fixture for an Ethengar campaign, for travelers or native characters. While the set-up obviously echoes Marco Polo’s experience, having the current Golden Khan be more open-minded and inviting is a smart design move. This is a radical shift, so tensions run high within the kingdom. That means many factions shifting for power and trying to subvert or destroy one another. Since the change has occurred relatively recently, players can take advantage of new opportunities and carve out a niche for themselves.


While keeping a central focus, the DM’s booklet covers many different topics. One of the longest sections of the book presents the NPCs of Ethengar. These characters only get a small stat block, with the focus instead being on their personalities, agendas and potential plot hooks. A four-page pull-out section considers the military forces of the Khanate. This includes War Machine and Battlesystem stats. Two pages covers several humanoid tribes of the Steppes. These Orcs and Goblins offer an interesting contrast to the human Ethengarians. They borrow much from their neighbor’s culture and stubbornly cling to life despite the nomad’s predations. The DM might handle these peoples as infiltrating enemies or as more sympathetic underdogs. An extensive section details the Spirit World of the region, offering a different take on the intersection of the supernatural and daily life.


The last third of the book deals with adventures and campaigns here. It offers several campaign frames, most revolving around the Golden Khan’s future plans. Although Moglai Khan appears enlightened, he carefully lays the groundwork for future invasions and conquests. He recognizes that eventually he will have to turn the energies of his people outward or risk being consumed by them. The book offers other interesting campaign variations including dealing with the humanoids, a “no-war” option, and a future where the Golden Khan dies early. Most importantly the material considers the elements necessary for the two primary campaign types in Ethengar: outsiders passing through versus a group of native PCs. The sections on staging common events and bringing the world to life are especially rich and useful. The book finishes with an excellent and extended adventure framework, a mini-campaign outline and a page of scenario hooks.


PLAYER’S BOOKLET

The smaller Player’s Guide begins with nine pages of background, broken into easily digestible chunks. In the past I’d had some problems with the gazetteer player sections offering an info dump. I’ve also criticized some first person narrations for feeling gimmicky. Somehow this section, despite providing rich information in the voice of different characters, manages to feel real and useful. Covering the basics of Ethengar life: the nature of the Khans, customs, crime, appearance and faith; it is an excellent primer for players who want to play a native and PCs thinking about traveling through.

The section on creating Ethengarian characters takes an excellent (and new) approach. Previous gazetteers have offered new skill rules and/or a single new class based on the region. The Golden Khan of Ethengar offers several slight variations on the standard classes. Horse Warriors are fighters, gaining a few unique bonues, Brataks are native Thieves, Hakomons are Magic Users, and local Clerics can select from Ethengarian Immortals with new spells. These local variations offer every player something novel. They make a fighter from here distinct from a Karameikan or Darokinian. That’s a great approach and one I can see going back and adding to the previous gazetteers. Rather than reinventing the wheel, designing entirely new classes or just distinguishing with new skills, this gives a simple alternative. The rules do include a new class as well, The Shaman, based on the spirit world mentioned in the DM book. It also includes rules for tribal standing, wealth, new arms & armor and skill mechanics (with some new ones like Terrorize and Make Yurt). Finally it presents a sample name list, plus basic rules for converting the supplement to AD&D.


OVERALL
I really enjoyed The Golden Khan of Ethengar. I’ve used material from it in the past and will do so again in the future. Cleanly written and tightly focused, it offers DMs (and players) what they need to actually play these concepts out. Yet at the same time, there’s plenty of room for everyone to craft their own spin. The author manages to balance concrete details with interesting multiple possibilities. The Ethengarians could be a benevolent force, with a Khan moving it towards modernity or it could be a dangerous and subtle force lying in wait for the right opportunity to strike. Or it could be both. Like the best of the gazetteers the material embraces conflict, complications and contradictions. I recommend this to Mystaran DMs and to any GM looking for resources covering a nomadic, horse tribe or historical Mongol peoples.


The Ethengar map here is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at mystara.thorf.co.uk