Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sunken Empires

As I'm sure you've noticed by now, I don't write many reviews. Part of this is because I don't tend to write about things I dislike. Part of it is because I'm not a fan of negativity and too many reviews are just too negative, even when the reviewer likes a product.

That said, however, I'm going to try to write more reviews.

As my regular readers know by now, I'm running a series of one-shot games with a variety of systems and genres for a small group of friends (and I have good news on that front, too, by the way).

Being who I am (a voracious reader of books), I like to pull ideas in fron a variety of sources. Especially for those games without built-in settings.

I recently read this, and it started me thinking about a coastal fantasy or fantasy/horror game. While I could easily integrate the sunken forests into a Call of Cthulhu game, I didn't want to do another Cthulhu-flavored game this soon after my last game.

I received an e-mail last week informing me that the latest Open Design project, Sunken Empires was now available for review. That's right: I got a free copy of this one for review - and I'm glad I did.

Now, I have the Seafarer's Handbook for D&D 3.0. It ... it was okay. It was (unsurprisingly) rules for playing sailors and having adventures on the sea. Like most of the "Legends and Lairs" series that Fantasy Flight Games did, it was long on rules mechanics and short on flavor.

I'm a big fan of flavor. Flavor is especially important when your plan is to translate ideas to another system.

Sunken Empires was written by Brandon Hodge for the Pathfinder system. Like most RPG's, it begins with an introduction. It's interesting enough, and tells the history of the Aboleth. It's worth reading, too - especially because the Aboleth are referenced a number of times throughout the rest of the book. I'd forgotten about the D&D tournament scene - it was something I was unaware of until the late 90's, by which time (I think) it was dead and gone.

The first chapter of the book is all about "historical" sunken cities in real-world myth and legend. The author specifically discusses Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu. Each of the three cities begins with a discussion of the history of the city - Atlantis, for example, was first written about by Plato. Plato's description (as written by Hodge) reminds me a great deal of the Biblical tales of Sodom and Gomorrah - humans become corrupt, and God (or Gods) decide to destroy it as an object lesson.

Hodge then discussed the cities in a bit more depth - not much more, but enough to give us some flavor. Each city gets just over a page of its own, plus a sidebar. These sidebars call themselves "Design Notes," but what they are is plot hook generators.

Following these three cities, Hodge designs a lost city of his own - just to show us how it's done. The resulting city is as believable as any of the other three, and is rich with plot hooks and story ideas for a fantasy game.

Most importantly to me, this chapter is 100% rules-free. It's usable with nearly any game. I could easily see using this chapter in a Spirit of the Century game (not least of which because both Mu and Lemuria feature heavily in pulp writings from the 20's and 30's). It wouldn't be too difficult to move the twin cities of Cassadega forward to a more modern pulp setting, either.

Chapters two through four are rules-and-stat-heavy. I'll be honest: they were a bit of a slog for me, especially as I am not currently playing any Pathfinder games. I can take a few of the ideas from these chapters and tweak them to work in the games I'm more likely to be playing, but Chapter Five is where things start to heat up for me. I am familiar enough with Pathfinder to be able to say "nothing in these chapters seemed hugely broken," however. These chapters are your lists of weapons and armor and spells and Feats and so on. One thing did catch my eye, here: There are no new classes. There are suggestions for modification of existing classes, instead.

The spells, Feats, and items all seem to be relatively well-balanced, with very few exceptions. Every land-borne wizard bound for an aquatic adventure, for example, should take the "Will to Live" feat. The next time I play a Wizard in Pathfinder, I'll take "Puddle Jump" over "Dimension Door." Every time.

Chapter Five is the chapter on underwater adventuring - he starts out with guidelines for GM's to keep from just utterly annihilating characters from the beginning. These guidelines are broken down by level, but are easily adapted to other game systems. Low-level characters, for example, shouldn't be pulled into the deepest parts of the ocean. It's common sense, but a lot of GM's can still handle a reminder or two.

The author then breaks ocean terrain into three zones, with a few pages on what to expect from each zone. It's a good breakdown and has some rules suggestions for GM's. The paragraph on "Sea Stacks" reminded me of Haystack Rock in Oregon (If you've seen The Goonies, then you know what Haystack Rock looks like).

Chapter Six is the monsters chapter. There are some excellent creatures here that I will be adapting to the Burning Wheel RPG when I have some spare time. I'm especially fond of the Goblin Shark. The end of this chapter (and the book) is dedicated to the Aboleth. They are presented as monsters and villains, and the book provides a number of variants which serve to make the Aboleth more versatile and less predictable. These variants also make Aboleth society seem a bit more well-rounded and realistic.

All in all, I'm satisfied with this book. Even though I won't be playing Pathfinder any time in the near future, I will definitely be using some of the ideas from this book in a Burning Wheel game in the not-too-distant future.

Oh! And the most important question for me: "Does it Kindle?"

This book rendered on my Kindle DX with no problems or hesitation. The font was a bit small, so those of you with the Kindle 2 may want to wait until you have the 2.5 update before trying to read it on your Kindle.

Sunken Empires is available from RPGNow and the Kobold Quarterly store.

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