Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gazetteers of Mystara: The Review List

GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

Classic D&D region supplement covering a fantasy nation with an eastern European flavor.

OVERALL

This is a nice, thematic supplement with interesting material. It requires work by the GM to bring it to the table however. DMs wanting an well-detailed setting to run a classic D&D or OSR game will find a lot to love here. The cultural discussion and interesting NPCs make this a great read. Not having played the conventional D&D modules associated with this world, I don't have a nostalgic attachment to the material. Instead, as a GM I'm looking to see what I can borrow for other campaigns. On that count, this supplement works. I've used it as an area in my patchwork fantasy world for many years now. The mechanics on offer are minimal, and the serial numbers on the module could easily be filed off and ported elsewhere. 


GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam

Classic D&D region supplement covering a fantasy nation with an Arabian flavor.

OVERALL

I have to say I'm of two-minds about this supplement. I'm at something of a disadvantage based on my background. In high school and college, I took Arabic as my language requirement; I majored in Anthropology with a focus on the Middle East; and I studied for a year in Egypt. I'm a little wary about representations of other cultures- and the fantastic has been used as cover before for some pretty awful depictions. I'm not necessarily a subscriber to Edward Said and his Orientalism approach to all depictions of the foreigner. But I am a little wary when the figure of Mohammed gets rewritten in such a thinly veiled way. I have to wonder if as transparent a version of Jesus in a fantasy setting would be received well? That being said, I think this book is pretty amazing for how it manages to bring together some of the key elements of classical Arab traditions: the split within the faith (essentially the Sunni/Shia division), the division between urban and nomad culture and the values associated with it, the focus on scholarship. It balances the difficult differences and contrasts of the Muslim and pre-Muslim world.

Several of the gazetteers take a whole region and compress it down to a single nation, as here where the tribes/provinces represent the distinct and different facets of the Arab World. I think the Emirates is a pretty great supplement- but I think it stands better as a fantasy treatment of Arabian history than perhaps it does as a living part of the Mystara setting. I think a couple of opportunities get missed here- especially about what faith and religion really look like in a world with Immortals instead of gods. The material here contradicts itself from section to section. Still, I have used The Emirates in my own campaign. Where I've changed and transformed the material from the other gazetteers, I've used this one pretty much whole cloth. In the end, that ought to be my yardstick for judging this material. I've been able to bring it to the table and it has served well as background for many sessions over the years.


 GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri

Region sourcebook covering a Magocracy in the Mystara setting.

OVERALL

I love this book. A DM could easily run a campaign just using the stuff given here. That economy is admirable- a booklet which offers in 96 pages what many books would have needed twice that to do. There's little waste here. There are a few goofy things- like the Scottish Liches and the Apocalypse Now references in the adventure section. But it offers a wealth of ideas, cultures and peoples. Most of all they're fun- even when they're a little sinister. Even the bad guys here have to function in cooperation with the other families, making it both more real and more interesting than the Red Wizards of Thay ever were to me. I've used the ideas, families and characters from this supplement for years. My players know those family names and can remember the distinctive traits of many of those lines. I count that as the mark of great source material- when it creates fun and memorable moments at the table. 


GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi

Region sourcebook covering an island confederation dedicated to "adventure" in the Mystara setting.

OVERALL

The weakest of the gazetteers so far, The Kingdom of Ierendi still offers much for a DM. It adds some interesting color to the setting- and some global material in the naval discussion. It does raise the goofiness bar a little- if you like more staid and serious settings, then Ierendi may be well out of your comfort zone. I'm a little surprised at the absence of any West World references in the adventure theme park section. For my own campaign, I took some of the key concepts and changed them up significantly. Ierendi remains a naval power, an island nation, and a former penal colony. I've played up the tensions its existence creates between several different powerful kingdoms who see it as their “property.” I used the Honor Island concept, although that particular chantry was destroyed in an earlier campaign. I also think of Ierendi as a much larger set of island, dozens and dozens of them, some of them with magical micro-climates. Perhaps the biggest change came in my conception of the rulership of the nation. Given that our game world leans more towards fantasy combined with steampunk and swashbuckling, I ported over the concept of Al Amarja from Over the Edge to here. So Ierendi City is a kind of strange crossroads of magic and conspiracy, the 'Casablanca' of my game.


GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim

Sourcebook for Elves in the classic D&D setting of Mystara.

OVERALL

I think you have two ways of considering The Elves of Alfheim. On the one hand, it works quite well as the sourcebook for Elves in the Mystara setting. You have an interesting, fun and rich take on the culture- without any artificial need to shock, darken or make the Elves eXtreme. They fit with the relatively lighter tone of the whole setting. There's a simplicity there that allows the DM more room than something highly specific or off-the-wall might. These stories and incidents rely on classic story tropes and motivations, which can make for some really excellent campaigns. On the other hand for DMs looking for a new take on the Elves, it may not be as useful. Or it might be if all you've been over-saturated with books offering a new take on Elves as psionic, spike-limbed hermaphrodites. I think there's enough in the way of good ideas to be borrowed (as I have done in my campaigns) to make this another gazetteer worth recommending. And I say that despite my bias against Elves. 


GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome

Supplement covering dwarves and their nation within the Mystara setting.

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... 


GAZ7: The Northern Reaches

Region supplement covering three Viking-like nations in the north of Mystara.

OVERALL

So I'm not interested in Skyrim, primarily because of the Norse-esque setting. It doesn't grab me. But I had a really good time rereading this supplement. It gave me a number of ideas, and certainly made me think I could do something in that genre. There's a lot to like here- though the Players Book has a lot of mechanics which are less interesting to me. In the DM Book, the adventure section feels a little bloated. I would have liked to see more background and NPCs, especially for the other two major nations. Still I enjoyed and got a lot more out of this than some of the other Viking supplements I've read, like Ivinia and GURPS Vikings. And I suspect I'll be tracking down some more history of the region, to help me put everything in context. Bottom line: a great gazetteer for people who love Mystara and a good gazetteer for GM's looking for Norse-esque fantasy material. 


GAZ8: The Five Shires

Sourcebook covering a halfling-dominated nation in the setting.

OVERALL

I'm a little more split on The Five Shires 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. 


GAZ9: The Minrothad Guilds

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

OVERALL

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. 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. 


GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar

Sourcebook covering Thar, land of the Orcs, Goblins, Gnolls, Trolls, etc. (oh my...) in the classic D&D setting of Mystara.

OVERALL

The Orcs of Thar
is an interesting design- more of a buffet than a carefully planned meal. And the buffet cuts across several different cuisines (Extensive Mechanics, Serious Background, Cartoons, Narrative Humor, Wargame, Props). It is both more and less serious than you might expect. If you’ve read the gazetteers, then you might come to this with expectations. But when you see the art and supplemental bits includes you might feel let down and assume the book will just be silly. If you press on and ignore that, focusing on the actual background and material given for the Broken Lands and its people, you’ll find a surprisingly rich work. It takes some effort to tease that out- and there’s less of it than one might like (forced out by the inclusion of some other materials). I’ve read over this a couple of times and I’m still not sure what to think. What I like, I like a great deal. What I don’t like, I really dislike. But given the biases I started from and mentioned at the start, I’m inclined to think it will work for others. If you like the silly bits then you’ll definitely find useful material. For DMs running a solidly Mystara campaign, the first choice will be how much of the silliness you want. In some ways what’s presented here really undercuts the Orcs of Thar as a threat. Tone goes a long way to establishing adversaries as interesting and compelling. Regardless of approach this book offers the start of an interesting take on these peoples. 


GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin
Sourcebook covering a merchant-centered nation in the classic TSR setting of Mystara.

OVERALL

I probably tipped my hand about my reaction to The Republic of Darokin book at the outset. The setting feels weirdly disconnected from reality, in the sense that the society rings false to me. As much as anything, I’m disappointed by the lack of drama and conflict. There are bits and pieces- rivalries between some of the houses and the like, but they are few and far between. That’s disappointing because all of the other Gazetteers, even those I had problems with, offered those kinds of moments and contrasts. That means that making this region as deep, complex and compelling as the other in the series will require much more effort on the DM’s part. Mystaran DM’s may find this interesting, but GM’s looking for material to adapt would be better advised to look at other Renaissance sourcebooks (The Swashbuckler's Handbook for example). 


GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar

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

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. 


GAZ13: The Shadow Elves

Supplement covering a race of secretive, underground Elves in the Mystara setting.

OVERALL

I enjoyed reading through The Shadow Elves. I’ll admit I was worried at first that it would just seem like an “evil underground Elves” treatment, but there’s some complexity to the world given here. Players have some options about their path and personality. History and culture have shaped this people, and their responses and attitudes have a logic to them. The Shadow Elves aren’t omniscient spymasters and manipulators behind the scenes of the surface world, but they do have an agenda and plots in motion. The internal contradictions and secrets within Shadow Elf culture present interesting play opportunities. Some elements of the material draw heavily on the ideas of Blackmoor, radiation magics, and the alien spaceship engines. That’s to some people’s taste and not to others. However it would not be particular hard to modify those and keep the essential spirit of the supplement. Mystaran DMs will find ideas to build from here. Other GMs will find material they can easily adapt to another campaign or setting. 


GAZ14: Atruaghin Clans

Region/cultural sourcebook covering a Native American style set of peoples in Mystara.

OVERALL
I don’t think I can offer a final say, given that I’m only reviewing about 75% of the supplement's material. The 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. 


Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia

Boxed set covering the two major empires in the Mystara setting: Thyatis- a Roman analogue- and Alphatia- ruled by wizards.

OVERALL

Dawn of the Emperors has something for everyone. Unfortunately, you may only get a taste of what you want. There’s a lot to like here. I especially appreciate the current set up of both Empires. For example, the relatively recent ascent to the throne of Thyatis by a former gladiator presents a crossroads. Wed to the daughter of the late Emperor, how will this figure shape the future of the Empire. Will it shift to become more of a Republic? Will it maintain the middle path between Emperor and Senate? Or will it move to a more absolute despotism? The history of ancient Rome offers many interesting parallels and I can imagine many different Thyatian Empires depending on the DM.

Allston manages to keep either empire from obviously being the Evil with a capital E. Alphatia, at least on the surface, more obviously leans that way, but it remains incredibly subjective. DotE continually complicates easy judgments. As a reader, I want to see more of that. I want to know more about both Empires- but given the space we can’t reasonably get that. Some material could have been cut (the poorly duplicated maps, some of the rules reprints, the record sheets) in favor of more substance. Despite that I really enjoyed reading this. Mystaran DM will find more ideas here than they could possibly bring to the table. Other GM’s will find some great concepts, but not at the level of depth of past entries.