Friday, March 2, 2012

The Minrothad Guilds: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook covering a merchant-centered island kingdom in the classic TSR setting of Mystara.

I'm well known in our group for getting names wrong. I have a habit as a player of forgetting the other PC's names and just making things up. At this point I don't even try to recall their actual name. As a GM, I have the great fortune of a wife who always has a handle who any particular NPC is- even years after they were first introduced for a session. My problem with names extends to misreadings as well. I ran a large portion of one campaign based on the Strangers in Prax sourcebook. Years later I realized the main NPC- the group's patron was named Arlaten instead of Artalen. I'd read that book dozens of times, but never caught that until then. The same thing happened with at mythical figure from the H├órn setting- one we named our late cat after. It was called Dejekis and not Dekejis. So I wasn't entirely surprised when I went back to reread the GAZ9: The Minrothad Guilds and realized that was the actual spelling, and not the Minothrad Guilds as I'd always thought it. I like mine better still because it has that “minnow” initial sound and they're is a seafaring people...?

The Minrothad Guilds covers another island based nation operating in the fog-shrouded Sea of Dread- west of Ierendi and south of Karameikos. The supplement offers quite a bit on the lives of sailors, trade and piracy. The Minrothad Guilds comes at the mid-point of the Gazetteer series, where the line's settled into maturity. The basic elements have been established and readers (and writers) know what to expect. If memory serves me correctly, the earliest books still sold significantly better than the latter ones. I suppose that makes sense- with new players wanting to buy things in order. But my impression, based on working in a game store for several years, was that Glantri and Karameikos stood out for readers. The other interesting development that some of the cracks do begin to show in the coordination of the projects. Having read along the series in order, you hit details and ideas in later books that make you go “really?”. Minrothad seem to loom large as a rival to Ierendi, but they're hardly mentioned in the earlier book. The trading and naval power suggested in this volume isn't really suggested in most of the earlier volume. It can fit, but it requires the reader and likely the DM to rejigger materials. It doesn't directly contradict (as sometimes happened with metaplot plots from WW) but instead changes some of the ranks and hierarchies. Of course, as a late-comer, Minrothad has to fight to fit into the world, as task it does with pretty decent success.

The series remains true to form in most respects with this supplement. The tri-fold cover has three decent city maps with some odd color choices. The cover has another excellent Clyde Caldwell illustration. Once again, the booklets have been split in two, one for the players and the other for the DM. The poster map is unfortunately one of the ones I'm missing from my collection. That's too bad because it is pretty awesome with ship illustrations, location maps and a massive trade map of the Known World- that's worth the price of admission alone. Text design and layout remain excellent. But the quality of the art drops off in this one. John Lakey's illustrations look decent, but don't reach the heights of Stephen Fabian's work. The images themselves are smaller and more infrequent in this volume of the series. But that's more notable in comparison to the others; alone it looks fine. Deborah Christian and Kim Eastland provide their first and only entry into the Gazetteer series. 

Usually I start with the DM's guide, but in this case I need to flip that. The Minrothad Guilds has some actually interesting secrets going on in it that come out in the later volume. So I want to set up the basics before I get to the risk of spoilers.

To start, it is easy to see some strong parallels between this nation and Ierendi- both multiracial and naval centered island nations. But where Ierendi is inviting and all about travelers coming there, Minrothad is much more insular and closed, with Merchants going out elsewhere rather than adventurers arriving there. They have a wide-ranging trade network that wields significant clout across the continent (perhaps more than earlier books suggested). Adventurers who come to the Guild islands will find their choices highly circumscribed: internal trade is highly regulated, thieves are regarded as an anathema, warriors must be a registered member of a guild to gain training or a legal position, and magic-users cannot cast without supervision from a licensed member of the local Tutorial Guild.

The 32-page "Player's Booklet" begins with some sharp and tightly written summaries of the area from different perspectives. I often find these first person narratives a little forced, but here they're handled well- with one exception. At times some of the narratives celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day. That wears out its welcome very quickly. With background and history set up, the book moves into a number of the crunchy aspects a player might have to deal with: index of the islands, flora & fauna, weather, economics & trade, law, general culture, holidays, and beliefs. Most topics get a page, but some have a couple, with all of this covered by page 15. Next comes a discussion of the races of Minrothad, pages 16 to 19. Those include Wood Elves, Water Elves, Humans, Hobbits and Halflings. The Elves come from an offshoot of the great post-Blackmoor migrations of the distant past with the former elves keeping to themselves in the forests of Minrothad and the later moving to a position of command and dominance. The humans descend from Nithian stock, though the racial traits described don't exactly line up with that. Both the halflings and the dwarfs among the Guilds are refugees. The former from human slavers on the island (freed in a rebellion backed by the elves) and the latter escapees from Glantri. The race discussion offers a few details along with a discussion of the skills such characters begin with. The skill system introduced in the other books has been even more condensed to fit here.

The rest of the book, from page 20 on, discusses the Guilds and related politics. Five of these guilds are families, each dominated by one of the racial groups. Beyond those are several political guilds, including the Mercenary and Sailor Guilds. There's an overall flowchart of the relations of all of the guilds and then a separate flowchart for each family guild. The text breaks down the roles and responsibilities of members and positions in each. Membership within a guild also comes with a caste, based on a person's skill. I don't care for the term caste here- the structure the authors describe is much more fluid and allows for advancement through hard work. That's not exactly a classic caste situation. There's some general discussion of the place of the guilds in politics and what membership in those groups means for Minrothaddans (ugh...). Its a ton of really interesting information, but straddles the line between being useful more for the player or the DM. On the one hand, players wishing to run a Guild character will need to have some familiarity with these structures. But what's given here feels a little overkill- some players may be turned off by the density. While I generally like the splitting of the player and DM I think a chunk of the material in this booklet belongs with the DM material. More discussion of player level concerns- and more options for players from here (as the other gazetteers offered) would be welcome.

Interestingly, the 64-page "Dungeon Master's Booklet" begins with discussion of the challenges facing a Minrothad campaign- the insular nature of the setting, the restrictions and intolerance towards certain castes, and the lack of classic adventure spots. It offers an honest appraisal of the setting that's very different from many books. The Minrothad Guilds do offer opportunities, but different ones than most supplements.

The book next goes through the History of the Guilds, clarifying and revealing some of the key secrets and issues behind the history as presented in the Player's Booklet. There and in the following sections on Government and Crime (pages 4-11) we see that many of the stated positions of the early booklet as cover for more and less sinister doings within Minrothad. Most importantly- and spoilery- is the active role and presence of the Thieves Guild in the nation. Beyond that we get an interesting picture of the feuds and battles happening behind the scenes among the Guilds. I especially like the concept of a recurring plague of Lycanthropy which causes tensions between the humans and others, as well as being used by some in power as a bargaining chip.

The next section covers piracy in detail, with specific discussion of operations, roles and skills. This applies especially to the pirates of Minrothad but can obviously be used elsewhere (such as with the halfling pirates from GAZ8: The Five Shires). It includes guidelines for running pirate encounters and exchanges. Next the book offers a new character class, the Merchant-Prince, essentially a senior craftsman or ship-captain. To be a Merchant-Prince, a character must meet stat & skills minimums, be a master in a guild relevant skill and have made significant income (20K gp) each year for the last four years. Even with this, the character must roll to see if they're accepted as a Merchant-Prince. So as you can imagine, this is more of an NPC class. Advancement in the class offers the character access to spells, including the 38 new or variant spells presented in the book. Most are described in relation to their ship-board use, and most of the new spells revolve around the sea and weather.

Next, pages 23-34 offer general and playable rules for handling trade in a campaign: how to hire, finding cargo, typical ships, caravans, port classes, customs and so on. DMs interested in running games with any kind of trade or merchant aspect will find this useful, especially in combination with the map (which I'm missing and still pissed about. Just thought I'd mention that again.) The mechanics here remain abstract with enough specifics for particular trade goods to make it work. The next section also offers rules and ideas not specific to Minrothad, but useful for most DMs on ships and sailing. Where GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi offered some ideas for ship combat, the seven pages here talk about sea encounters, how ships move, weather and many other topics.

With those extensive and more general rules sections done, Minrothad finally shifts back to the specifics of the Guilds. Three pages look at the secrets of the Elves, mostly surrounding the artifacts from their respective Immortals. Finally on page 45 we get a more specific rundown of the cities, places, and islands of Minrothad. At ten pages this feels significantly shorter than most other gazetteers, but the information provided is well-written and interesting. Its enriched by four pages detailing key personalities of the region, broken down by Guild and Clan. Finally the book ends with five pages of story seeds, broken down by level (Basic, Companion, etc). The elven offered are pretty thinly described, even the most detailed. The booklet ends with a reprint of the rules for adapting the gazetteers to AD&D.

It's worth mentioning that Bruce Heard, product manager for the Gazetteer series and author of the excellent Glantri book, has started a new blog which you can find here. He has a great entry on how he came to write that and how the series was seen within the TSR fold (you can see that here). I particularly like the description of these books as “gold bar” products, for the sense of the depth of material they offer. The Minrothad Guilds really lives up to that. The setting is interesting, and one that cuts across the lines. Players who want to run characters from there gain an interesting background, but a tough one to bring into play. DM's may find the limits of the setting and culture to difficult for their group. But they represent a novel challenge. Add to that the dynamite general material the book offers- on pirates, on trade, on sailing. For GM's interested in any of those topics this is a book worth reading. It may not have the depth of later (especially d20) sourcebooks devoted solely to these topics, but what’s here is great and most of all playable. 

The Minrothad map here is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at