Friday, April 6, 2012

Atruaghin Clans: A Fragmentary Review

WHAT IS IT?
Region/cultural sourcebook covering a Native American-style people in Mystara.

FROM THE FLAMES

Before I head into this review, I need to take a moment to set the boundaries. A few years ago I had a house fire that consumed the basement and most of the first floor. That included our game room, which meant I lost about 80% of my rpg collection. Over time I’ve managed to replace a chunk of that. Immediately after the fire a member of our gaming group gave me a disk with pdfs of some of the books which I had lost. That included GAZ14: Atruaghin Clans, the subject of my review today. However, the pdf in question only had the maps and the 64-page Players Booklet. I’ve hunted around since then and have only found hideously expensive print copies or other pdfs also lacking the GM’s booklet.

So my review will be fragmentary, perhaps a review which gives a sense only of the player’s perspective on this. Some might ask- why do the review of just part of the product? Or I might defensively put that question up to answer myself. Simple: I’ve reviewed every other entry in the line so far, I really don’t want to skip one. Perhaps in the future I can come back and add to the review.


And this result points to a basic problem: WotC still hasn’t figured out how to handle electronic publishing for their archives. I literally can’t legally buy a pdf of this. There was a brief moment when WotC did sell the old classic TSR products, and I bought a bunch of them. They weren’t great scans- in fact many of them were awful, but I liked being able to go back and look through, reread, and lift elements from those products. Then they pulled everything cutting off future players from the opportunity to give them money and be able to read those books. On top of that, I can’t even redownload my legally purchased products- rendering me SooL if my hard-drive crashes. Oh wait, it did crash and I did lose those pdfs like
FR16: The Shining South and FR10: Old Empires which I bought. Oh well.

So again, this review is of only the Players' Booklet and the maps from this supplement.


THE BOOK ITSELF

The Atruaghin Clans is technically the last gazetteer in publication order, but I’m reviewing it before the boxed set Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia because that set oddly lacks a “GAZ” designation. For readers used to the rest of the series, the design of this module will come as something of a shock. Instead of the tight, three column layout of the other books- this one opts for two columns which larger fonts and much more white space. It looks raw and unfinished on the page, as if they decided to get the product out the door as quickly as possible. For example the page header, run along the top edge before, is presented as a large block shifted down to consume space. I taught writing for years; I recognize the tricks used to pad out material.

Clyde Caldwell
turns in a decent cover illustration and Stephen Fabian supplies his always excellent interior artwork. Fabian also supplies some great full-body outfits from the different clans for the folio interior. The enclosed map is single sided, showing some of the areas not previously detailed (like the edge of the Kingdom of Sind). The poster maps also includes several cross-sections of important clan artifacts and locations. William W. Connors, author of GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin, returns to present this volume.

THE PLAYERS' BOOKLET
The Atruaghin Clans offers a version of Native Americans within the Mystara setting. Like many of the previous volumes (GAZ7: The Northern Reaches, GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar) the supplement takes a pretty broad few of that culture including elements drawn from Southwestern, Northeastern, and Central American cultures. I’ll admit that I’m not well informed about these peoples; I’ve read history & anthropology, but this never piqued my interest as much as other regions. That means that I probably miss the seams that others might spot. The author himself notes that material is necessarily an adaptation of Indian and Amerindian cultures. I’m so used to the phrase Native American that those terms threw me when I reread this.

Unlike all of the other
Gazetteer supplements, the Players' Booklet is the larger of the two, clocking in at 64 pages while the DM’s Guide is only 32. The Clans themselves have been only hinted at in previous gazetteers and modules. The booklet suggests previous materials- notably the Trail Maps- have errors and this version should be considered correct. This is the first we’ve seen of that kind of retcon in the series; the pseudo-gazetteer Champions of Mystara: Heroes of the Princess Ark would do significantly more.

After the forward, the booklet presents the narrated history of the clans in two pages. From there we immediately jump into character creation. Unusually Clan characters use different dice pick methods for generating ability scores. For example, players roll 4d6 each for INT and WIS and discard the highest die. Clan characters also gain a random “totem.” In a somewhat bizarre approach, the player rolls first for type (Fish, Crustacean, Avian, etc) and then diet (herbivore, carnivore, etc). Players then select the specific animal that fits with that, so if I rolled an Omnivorous Mollusk then I would pick…


…holy cow. I have no idea what I would pick. Apparently a cowrie is one. Thank you Google.


The book suggests not limiting the player with those rolls, but I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just let them pick? In any case, players generate several other details including siblings, status, and age. Next the player may choose skills. Interestingly, Atruaghin Clans clearly was published after the Basic D&D
Rules Cyclopedia (here called the “Games Cyclopedia”) and it suggests that the actual rules for skills can be found elsewhere (the RC or the Hollow World or Dawn of the Emperors box sets). That’s a step forward as it means that the gazetteer doesn’t have to reprint that material as most of the other supplements have. Players select a class (including some presented in other supplements) with some restrictions (i.e. no demi-human race/classes). Finally players must select from one of the five clans (Children of the Bear, Children of the Tiger, etc) each of which has some cultural differences and slightly different skills. The rules offer some options here, but overall it feels thin- other books have done a better job distinguishing between characters from a particular nation. It is also a little strange to get the various clan options before being presented with a discussion of those clans or even given a real sense of the history or place.

Next the book introduces the idea of the Shamani. Shaman with an “i” at the end. It seems to me another name could have been picked, especially since we’ve already seen two distinct kinds of shamans in the series, both using that title. The Shamani are lawful pseudo-clerics who act as spiritual advisors for the clans. They’re an independent character class with their own level progression table. Seven pages go over their available spells, some new but most identical or slight variations on existing spells.


After this the book goes through each Clan in turn:


Children of the Horse (26-33): Warrior clan with no spoken language. Living in the valleys, they echo the Plains Indians of North America (complete with tipis). The offer ideas on hunting, counting coup and medicine bundles.

Children of the Bear (34-40): Builders and craftsmen of the Clans, they have the most contact with outside traders. They’re cliff dwellers, requiring some interesting engineering to accomplish.
Children of the Turtle (41-48): Culturally sophisticated fishers and sailors. The culture described seems to borrow from some of the Northwestern/Pacific Native American practices, an interesting approach to wealth and property.
Children of the Tiger (49-55): Most alien of the livings, living in a harsh and violent jungle region. They do not follow the same scriptures as the other Clans and instead war with them. Pyramid builders, they echo Aztec or Mayan traditions. It is unclear from the Players book if there’s any connection with Azca.
Children of the Elk (56-62): Forest-dwelling gardeners. They have the lake-shore villages and a interesting systems of markings.

The page counts there are deceptive given the number and size of the illustrations in each section. It’s unclear in each section how much of the cultural material is exclusive to that clan or applies to all or some of the others. The last two pages of the booklet offer a blank generic character sheet- not one specifically designed for the clans. That’s another instance of filler.


OVERALL
I don’t think I can offer a final say about The Atruaghin Clans, given that I’m only reviewing about 75% of the supplement. The player's booklet feels half-finished and undeveloped. It has some interesting ideas, but padded out to about twice the space they deserve. I’m even more curious now about what secrets the DM’s Guide offers, I’d hope some NPCs, deeper history and a sense of the Clan interactions. As it stands this is among the weakest of the gazetteers, but less on content and more on presentation & quantity. It isn’t representative of the high marks of the rest of the Gazetteer series. I think the most bothersome thing about the book is that it feels like someone ordered if published before completion- just as this review is fragmentary, so is this supplement.


The map of the Atruaghin Clan lands is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at mystara.thorf.co.uk

GAZ 13: The Shadow Elves
GAZ 14: The Atruaghin Clans
Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia