Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Dave Arneson's Blackmoor (almost final)

Dave Arneson's Blackmoor

The History of Blackmoor

Dave Arneson's Blackmoor was the first fantasy role-playing setting. At least, it was the first one that mattered, they may have been others, but it was the one that started the avalanche that was the role-playing hobby, being the original setting for what would evolve into Dungeons & Dragons.

But, it's had a rather spotty history when it comes to actually being published. It's never really been done properly before now. The first published sign of it was "Blackmoor", in 1975, a supplement for Dungeons & Dragons (which Dave Arneson co-created). This was really just a bunch of new rules for D&D, but it did contain some small amount of campaign material, including a short adventure, called "The Temple of the Frog"

Anyway, the creators of D&D had a split, and Blackmoor was never published as an official setting for D&D from TSR. But Judges Guild put it out as "The First Fantasy Campaign". around 1977 or so. This had a lot of setting material, but was not presented in any real coherent manner. It was pretty much just a jumble of stuff: characters, battles, new rules, locations. I think there was just one Blackmoor product from Judges Guide.

Anyway, about 10 years after that, Gary Gygax had a split from TSR. This apparently opened up the door for TSR to start publishing Blackmoor. But instead of putting it out as a setting for their Dungeons & Dragons game (as opposed to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragon game), they incorporated it into the existing setting for D&D, Mystara. Specifically, the distant past. There were 4 TSR Blackmoor modules, DA1-4. These could actually be played by characters in the current day of Mystara, thanks to the magic of time travel. And one boxed set (Wrath of the Immortals) dealt largely with the long lost gizmos of Blackmoor being re-discovered in "modern" Mystara times. Unfortunately, Mystara was killed off as a setting only a few years later.

So, it pretty much laid in limbo. Until the coming of d20, which would let people publish D&D material, albeit without the D&D name, just d20 (other than the bit about requiring the D&D Player's Handbook). And so it finally surfaced. But this time, as a fully fledged setting. Not just a jumble of notes, not just a backstory, not just as a few modules. But an actual campaign setting, complete with ongoing support (at least for 1 year, so far, knock on wood), done by Zeitgeist Games, published through Goodman Games.

My History with Blackmoor

I had had an interest in the "new" Blackmoor, even belonging to the email list for it. It had gained my interest largely because I am a Mystara fan, which had incorporated Blackmoor into it. But generally being broke, I had put it on my low priority buy list. But then a few months ago, someone sent me a review copy of the Blackmoor adventure, The Redwood Scar. I'm not sure who sent it, since there was a sticker over the return address and nothing in the envelope besides the adventure.

While whoever it was apparently wasn't impressed enough with the resulting review to send me anything else* (though I should be glad they didn't send hate mail, like some companies have), I was impressed enough with Blackmoor as a setting that I put it on my high priority buy list. And after some misadventures (while ordering online can seem so easy, sometimes it isn't), I finally got it.

Did it live up to my expectations? Well, yes and no. It's a good setting, but there is less detail and much less of a "nostalgia" factor than I had personally hoped for in a setting book, while a lot more "crunch" than I thought (and like for for a setting book). Basically, a lot more of the book was rules than I thought (say 70%). Not that I mind new rules, but I bought the book mostly for the setting.

The Book Itself...

After a very brief preface by Dave Arneson, the book jumps into the races of Blackmoor. Not surprisingly, it's pretty much the standard D&D mix - Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves, Elves, Halfings, Half-orcs. There are slight differences.

The humans come in a few different flavors. Thonian, basically the normal human; High Thonian, who are smart and well groomed, but somewhat clumsy; and Peshwar, a race of semi-nomadic horse riding people.

Similarly, there are two sorts of elves. The Westryn, which pretty much coresponds to the "Wood Elf", that is, woodsy, insular, and fairly strong and the Cumasti, which is more or less the "High Elf".

The only real oddity is an offshot of Halfings, the "Docrae", who are feisty warriors, instead of the normal halfings of the setting which are the traditional "hobbit" sort.

Next up, somewhat mirroring the Player's Handbook, are new classes and how the existing classes fit into Blackmoor. Blackmoor introduces 3 new core classes, the Arcane Warrior, the Noble, and the Wokan.

The Arcane Warrior is pretty much like the Paladin class, only they cast arcane spells, not divine. Many D&D settings add a Noble class, basically an upgraded version of the NPC Aristocrat class. Lastly is the Wokan. This seems borrowed from Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It's sort of a witch-doctor/shaman class.

All of them seem pretty well balanced and follow typical d20 conventions. The Arcane Warrior does seem awfully restrictive, though, they essentially have to follow the commands and whims of the Wizards Cabal, which many players might not like. And while not terrible, the Wokan does seem a bit underpowered. Sort of a wussier druid.

While most of the existing D&D classes fit into Blackmoor as it, Sorcerers face a rather daunting challenge. It seemed they are banned in Blackmoor, and hunted down and killed (or worse), pretty much exactly like the witch hunts of the real world. This isn't touched upon much in the main setting book, but is expanded upon much further in the "Wizards Cabal" sourcebook (review of that forthcoming).

The magic chapter is fairly large, around 30 pages. While magic in Blackmoor is more or less the standard D&D fire & forget system, it does get tweaked a bit, at least for wizards. Basically, in lieu of having to carry a spellbook around, they use a "spell focus". Basically a magic rock that they carry. This pet rock also serves as the material component for spells cast with it, which is pretty handy. (I personally always ignored material components for spells, unless they were extremely expensive, so it's not too different for me, but might be for some).

Finally, we get to an overview of Blackmoor as a place. It's actually a fairly small place, the region has a population of around 160,000 and the entire map is only about 300 miles by 150 miles (with the kingdom of Blackmoor proper only being about 150 x 50 and with a population of around 70,000). As perhaps fitting of its roots in a wargame , Blackmoor and the region around it is largely shaped by war. You have Blackmoor, which used to be a northern province of the Thonian Empire. Next door is the Duchy of Ten, which has recently been conquered by a group of very strange humans called the Afridi. Beyond that, there is the infamous Egg of Coot (apparently not named for the famous E.G.G., but someone else), which is on a land to the north, and also some Viking like people called the Skandaharians who like to raid for the sake of raiding.

Blackmoor has some friends, or at least non-enemies - besides themselves, there are two groups of elves in various woods, the Cumasti and the Westyn; assorted Dwarves in their mountains, and to the west, in a plains area, a group of American Indian style humans called the "Hak"

Each town of the region gets at least 3-4 paragraphs devoted to it, with larger towns getting larger writeups. No maps of any city or town, including Blackmoor, though you do get a reprint of the map of Blackmoor from the cover pages.

I actually hadn't heard of any of the cities other than Blackmoor, but the biggest city in the region is a city called "Maus" which is in the vein of Lankhmar or Greyhawk (or Yggsburgh), or at least big and somewhat crime ridden.

Blackmoor has its own pantheon, and this gets detailed in about 15 pages. Some of it seems derived from Norse mythology - there's an "Odir" but seems quite like "Odin", a "Baldin" who seems close to "Baldur" and so on. Not complete or exact, but some seem to be the same.

Some gods also seem to be the same from the old Mystara setting, which Blackmoor was assoicated with for a while. I'm not sure if this was accidental due to a common name (like Terra) or due to that mixing (like Ordana), or if the latter, which was original to which setting.

Anyway, it's got pantheons for all the various groups that live in Blackmoor, complete with symbols and domains. Nothing particularly remarkable one way or the other.

Blackmoor was home to the first role-playing characters, some of whom survived to have quite a lengthy adventuring history and left their mark upon the history of Blackmoor. 15 pages goes to writing some of them up. Most of the writeups are fairly brief, and generally don't go into their famous adventures much, just mentioning them in passing.

The Great Svenny is the one many have heard of ( ).It's interesting that many of the characters have somewhat odd names. But in fact, many of those characters were apparently named after the players own names. For instance, "Funk" is an odd name for a character. But that was the last name of the guy who played him as well. Same with Oberstar. (The begining of the book has a list of the original players and the type of character they played, but not the name, so unless the connection is obvious, it's hard to tell who played who).

New monsters get about 20 pages. Many are new humanoids, or variations on normal D&D ones. Afridhi and Skandaharian, which are just tough humans; Beastmen (similar to the ones from Mystara, part man, part animal.); Ash Goblin and Baleborne Orcs, basically improved versions of those; Gatormen and Froglin, one is a combination Gator and person, the other a frog and goblin.

Also some new elemental creatures - in Blackmoor, metal and wood are also elements, so there is an elemental and mephit for both.

To my eye, nothing seems amiss with the stats for any of the critters. Though if you want to play one of the human races as a player character, they have pretty hefty ECLs.

There's an included adventure. I quite liked this adventure, though it's quite different than what you think when you think "Blackmoor". The original "Blackmoor" supplement had the "Temple of the Frog" in it as an adventure/dungeon. An update of that would have been neat. But instead it's part journey, part investigation, part (at the finale) dungeon crawl, though the dungeon is quite tiny.

It is a well done adventure, though. The PCs have to talk to a lot of different people, and most the NPCs have definite personalities, if not descriptions.

The physical quality of the book is pretty high. It's 240 pages, but feels bigger, having thick paper. The layout is okay, but nothing remarkable, either. The typeface is fairly big, but the margins are normal sized.

The art is generally very good. The cover piece is a generic Larry Elmore piece that doesn't really say "Blackmoor". In fact, to me it says "Dragonlance" more than "Blackmoor", since it depicts a blue dragon being attacked by some heavily dressed people with a mountain in the background (including one guy with a lance). But for some reason, the piece is so small on the cover, it's actually hard to tell what it is without looking closely, it's like you are viewing the scene through a porthole on a very tiny ship. And although it's clearly Elmore, it's much drabber than his usual stuff, very much brown, dull white, and blue.

The interior artwork is much more eye-catching. There's several different artists with various styles and ability, but there is quite a bit of it and it's generally prominently placed in the middle of the page. The artist whose work stands out the most is one who signs his pieces a squared, presumably Allan Alegado (since he's the only artist with the initials A.A in the credit listing). His stuff is very interesting - at times, he has something of a Jim Holloway style (which is sort of realistic, but with a slightly comic touch), then some are more stylized. Another artist (one who doesn't sign his art) is quite good, but his art came out somewhat dark, they almost look like charcoal sketches. (Unless they actually were, then oops.). His portrait of the antagonist of the adventure is particularly striking.

Ultimately, I was somewhat disappointed with this book. What makes Blackmoor appealing as a setting is its long and highly developed history, both fictional and actual, not new rules material. By focusing on the latter, the reader misses out on what makes Blackmoor special. It also doesn't help the DM actually use Blackmoor as a setting. Books of additional rules for d20 are quite common, while if a DM needs more background on Blackmoor, they'll have to purchase the old TSR modules, as well as the old JG product, or do it themselves (which is fine, but sort of defeats the purpose of using a preexisting setting or buying this book).

For instance, 2 of the most famous things about Blackmoor are the aforementioend Temple of the Frog, and the City of the Gods. But these 2 things never get mentioned, except in the preface saying they were legendary adventures. But we do learn that elves don't use a longsword, but a "longblade". With pretty much the same stats at the longsword. Just a different name. One of the other famous things, the villainous "Egg of Coot" does get a mention, but only a long paragraph.

While you really shouldn't live in the past, it shouldn't be forgotten, either. To a certain extent, a lot of the heritage of our hobby started with Blackmoor, so it would have been nice for it to have been written down, to preserve it for the future. While I don't think this book should have solely been that, I think it missed a great opportunity to go behind the scenes, explaining what the origin of the various places and characters were. And anecdotes about them. More interesting to me than knowing that Elves use "longblades" or prestige classes that PCs would never take. Things like that could have been put in a sidebar or something.

I also have to wonder just how it was adapted to the third edition D&D rules. For instance, the whole Wizards Cabal vs. Sorcerers thing. Since Sorcerers didn't exist before 3e, how was this introduced into Blackmoor, exactly? Was it sort of grafted into the history, or did Blackmoor have something equivalent to the Sorcerer class that was persecuted.

But anyway, it's still a good product, I would give it a B-.

As far as a setting goes, while it can be used on its own, it's basically a fairly small area in the north, so it can be plopped into most other settings without too much of a problem. And it seems almost tailor made to fit into the Wilderlands setting from Judge's Guild with some similar geographical and cultural features. (And in fact, apparently when Black was published by Judges Guild as "The First Fantasy Campaign", this was a suggestion).

Also worth noting, is if you are a big con goer, there is a "Living" Blackmoor campaign. Or as they call it (to avoid trademark troubles), a "Blackmoor, the Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game"

* Actually, a few months after I wrote the sentence Goodman Games did send me some more stuff, so I guess it was them. Ironically though, that delayed this review while I reviewed those books.

Monday, October 24, 2005

About time.... finally queued up my review of "Song of the Blade", which I submitted over a month ago. Usually 2 weeks is the most.

Blackmoor: The Wizards Cabal....

The Wizard's Cabal is the first sourcebook for Dave Arneson's Blackmoor. It's the third product, there was an adventure released about 6 months ago called "The Redwood Scar".

While nominally about the Wizard's Cabal, it's actually sort of a jumble of stuff, not unlike the original Blackmoor supplement for D&D. It includes background information on the Cabal; quite a few new magical rules (including a spell point system for arcane spellcasters); a short-ish city based adventure; and a short story.

The first section is on the Cabal itself, starting with its history and indeed, the near recent (say within a few hundred years) history of the Blackmoor region itself. It seems that Blackmoor is very conducive to magic, so lots of wizards moved there. It also gives raise to lots of sorcerers. The more powerful ones decided to make themselves rulers (in typical D&D fashion, actually)

Anyway, it seems that the various magic users didn't get along with each other. So they started fighting among themselves. This went on and on for a while and the region became war ravaged.

Meanwhile, this one wizard decided to not get involved, and just kept on studying. And studying. He apparently made several breakthroughs in magic, most notably the use of a spell focus (basically a gizmo that can substitute as a spellbook and give the eschew materials feat).

One of the factions (sorcerers, as it were) fighting the Mage War decided for some reason that it would be a good idea to raze this guys hometown. And so they did. This didn't sit well with this wizard, and so he decides to enter the fray. And so he does and in a short time, he wins the war.

(This is one of those things that doesn't jibe with d20 rules - I mean, usually you don't get an increase in character ability while just sitting around and studying, and you do get stronger by going around killing stuff)

Anyway, after winning the war, he sets up the Wizard's Cabal. Basically, it's really more a guild than Cabal, since you don't join, they break your legs or worse. Also, apparently because he still held a grudge against sorcerers, they were also banned. If you were one, you pretty much either get killed or subjected to medical experiements.

Beyond that, there's some information on later wars, including Blackmoor's war of independance and invasions by the Egg of Coot and the Afridhi (humans who are sort of like the bad guys in the original Conan movie)

8 pages describes a fairly simple spell point system. It includes rules for any sort of arcane spellcaster to use (Wizard, Sorcerer, Bard, plus Blackmoor's own Arcane Warrior and Wokan classes).

Included is a low level adventure related somewhat to the Wizard's Cabal. It's more investigative than anything else - going around and talking to people.

Basically a cabal wizard has lost his precious spell focus and so is largely helpless without it. He hires the PCs to get it back for him. It's also something of a two parter - he is in town hunting down a renegade sorcerer.

So presumably the PCs go to the crime scene and start talking to witnesses. This is actually well done, the NPCs have fully fleshed out personalities and descriptions.

Later on, NPC names get a bit silly, often being aliterative. Zoejee Zackerway, Siggnafter Sillias, Ligmy Loterman, Socryt Sasimeyer, etc, etc, etc. Which really only works for porn stars. Another name is a code from a series of video games.

It's apparently one adventure from the "Blackmoor: The Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game", which is basically their version of "Living Blackmoor", games run at cons. Apparently there are 12 others, but apparently unavailable unless you are a member.

The last 30 pages or so is a short story set in Blackmoor, along with game information based on the story. The story tells a tale of "Col, the Clockwork Inquistor", who to my mind seems cut from the same cloth as Drizzt.

It's actually not a bad story. But the praise for it in the introduction is quite a bit over the top, basically 3 paragraphs saying how great a story it is.

It's sort of an odd looking book. The focus was apparently trying to fit as much into the book as possible over looks, so the margins are basically non-existant and there is very little white space.

Power Wizards Whatzit Guide...

Stategy guides and hint books have a lot history for computer adventure and role-playing games, existing almost as long as the games themselves. I remember long before the internet, reading walkthroughs and hints from Scorpia in Computer Gaming World and on the dialup service GEnie.
They've now become almost an industry to themselves, with virtually every game getting at least one official guide and many popular games get one or two unofficial guides.

However, a guide to a pen & paper roleplaying game is somewhat novel. I can't think of any before this series, "The Power Gamer's 3.5 Strategy Guide". It's dedicated to helping players create characters who excel in combat (and all around adventuring) created purely through the use of the actual core-rules, not additional splatbooks.

I guess for one reason, creating characters to take advantage of the rules system or maximizing a characters abilties according to the rules is often given a bad name, "Min-maxing" or "Munchkin". But it's like watching reality TV. A lot of people do it, few people admit it.

Another thing, few companies want to admit their rules systems are broken or can be exploited. Since d20 lets anyone publish, not just the company that put out the original rules, other companies can.

Although the name of the book say it's for wizards, it's actually also applicable to sorcerers and well. On the other hand, it says for other arcane spellcasters, but the other arcane spellcaster, the Bard, isn't really covered. So it's for Wizards and Sorcerers. Or "Mages" as the book collectively refers to those two classes.

The book divides spellcasters into 4 archetypes - Blaster, Controller, Saboteur, and Support Specialist. Blasters deal damage to enemies, Controllers manipulate and weaken opponents, Saboteurs alter the battlefield and and Support Specialists make the rest of the party better.

The first part of the book deals with creating a character. That is, which races work the best, and how to assign a character's stats, as well as feats and even which familiar is best.

While some of this is obvious, a lot depends on what sort of role the mage will play. For instance, while everyone needs a high intelligence (or charisma for sorcerers), "blasters" will need a high dexterity to help them with their ray and touch attacks.

Spellcasters have two special sorts of important feats: metamagic (which improves spells cast) and magical crafting (which lets them make magical goodies). The wizard gets a fair amount of feats, but a sorcerer doesn't, so just which feats to pick can be very important.

Which is better, "Empower Spell" or "Maximize Spell"? In most cases, according to the guide, "Empower Spell" is better since it costs one fewer spell level.

Similarly, just which item creation feats are best to get? What are the downsides of each one?

Spell selection.

For damage spells, there is a handy chart which displays the average amount of damage done by that spell by each level of the spellcaster. Including lower level spells maximized and empowered by metamagic.

Some of the advice could be clearer. For instance, there's a section called "The Half Life of Burning Hands" which dicusses how some spells are more useful at lower levels, but then get to be less useful as the casting level increases. It shows a chart of an empowered Fireball vs. Cone of Cold and how Cone of Cold does more damage at higher levels.

I would have liked to have seen charts (or simply a list) of spells that are also less useful at high levels. It mentions that "Scorching Ray" is starting to get long in the tooth at 15th level, but provides no alternatives to it.

They say clothes make the man, and there is certainly some truth to that when it comes to what sort of gear a mage has. This guide shows which items are generally too costly for what they deliver, while what other items are bargains.

This is especially useful for players who are familiar with earlier versions of D&D, but not 3.5. Because some magic items have changed dramatically in their usefulness. For instance, Bracers of Armor. They used to be pretty decent. But now they cost more than the bonus they give is really worth, since a similar result can be acheived by using 2 pearls of power to simply cast "Mage Armor"

The book is apparently aimed more for function than looks. It's nice and clean looking, but has no artwork in it except for the occasional diagram or chart. As it is, the book is pretty much full, so I guess there is no room for artwork, but if there had been, I think some cartoon/comic style illustrations similar to some in the original Dungeon Master's Guide would have been apropriate.

The book is a fascinating analysis of the wizard and sorcerer classes, and in a way, of the magic system of d20. It's not just for power gamers or munchkins, any d20 player will gain insight into the arcane magic system. Also seems quite valuable for potential game designers, especially ones making new spells, to accurately gauge the power of their new spells.

It's not perfect though. I would have liked to have seen more info on multi-classing and prestige classes. There's really very little info on that, just a small bit in the feat section analyzing some possible feat selections for a fighter/wizard or paladin/sorcerer. The exclusion of prestige classes is somewhat glaring, since I would suspect most high level characters would take one, as many offer additional abilities at no real loss.

So it seems to me, they could have had a more comprehensive book, including that (prestige classes are important to mid to high level characters) and perhaps some artwork and made into a 128 page book (which also generally are a better deal for the consumer, since they only cost a few dollars more). Still, that and a few mistakes are about the only flaws in this product. B+