Monday, May 5, 2008

REVIEW: XXXI

The limited edition XXXI -- a reference to 2007 being the thiry-first year since the founding of the late Bob Bledsaw's Judges Guild -- is the first product in Adventure Games Publishing's Wilderlands of High Adventure series. Released at GenCon 2007, XXXI is a 48-page staple-bound booklet with a stiff cover. The cover, although it does include a small piece of black and white art by Peter Bradley, as well as the product's title and byline, isn't a cover in the "traditional" sense, since it actually includes game text on it and is in fact treated as the first page of the book (it's even numbered so). This gives XXXI a kind of "incomplete" appearance to grognard eyes, since we're expecting an outer cover with advertising text like the TSR modules of old. However, XXXI is far from incomplete -- it's 48 pages are densely packed with text, using the two-column layout style so beloved of old school gamers.

Before continuing on with the review proper, a brief explanation about Adventure Games Publishing and its products. AGP was founded by James Mishler to bring Judges Guild's Wilderlands setting to Troll Lord Games' Castles & Crusades system. The Wilderlands of High Fantasy was published in a series of releases by JG, starting in 1977, making it one of the oldest published campaign settings in gaming. The Wilderlands have a distinctly "sword & sorcery" feel, in keeping with the origins of the hobby and put the "hexcrawl" on the map (no pun intended) as a viable alternative to the dungeoncrawl style of play. AGP's Wilderlands of High Adventure -- notice the slight name change -- are a variation on the classic setting, retaining most of the basic geography and details, but being more "coherent," in the sense of making explicit connections between its disparate parts. In addition, this new take on the setting is native to C&C, a very fine system that is itself a different take on an existing one -- in this case D20 -- that has a more old school feel.

One of my main complaints about XXXI is its title, which makes it hard to know just what it's about. As it turns out, the book is a description of the Imperial Town of Tell Qa, which is a complete setting for urban adventures, as well as a springboard for lots of other excitement and intrigue. The center of the book contains a nice map of Tell Qa done in the style of the old JG modules, right down to most buildings being regularly shaped and streets laid out in a grid-like pattern. I mention this not as a complaint, because, truthfully, I have no complaint about this set-up at all. Certainly it's not very "realistic," since ancient and medieval cities had little in the way of urban planning. But there's nothing realistic about the Wilderlands or early gaming in general. Indeed, the quest for verisimilitude in gaming is a later importation into the hobby and not one I find particularly appealing.

XXXI details Tell Qa from top to body -- its history, population, currency, defenses, and (of course) its locations. Tell Qa is a smallish city, with about 3300 inhabitants, but it's a very flavorful place nonetheless. A dependency of the City-State of the World Emperor, Viridistan, Tell Qa is also a hotbed of Mycretianism, a peculiar monotheistic religion that seems a fantasy analog of Christianity and Mithraism whose worship has been outlawed in many areas of the Wilderlands. This creates some excellent tension in the city and many possibilities for adventures. Mind you, XXXI already provides adventure hooks in spades as it is. Mishler's locations are wonderfully diverse and in keeping with the classic JG spirit. Each locale is practically a mini-adventure in itself, with eccentric NPCs that not only have distinct personalities but also situations and conflicts that the referee -- I mean, the Judge -- can easily spin into fuller scenarios. Fans of Tom Moldvay, who is listed as one of Mishler's inspirations, will find several "Easter eggs" in the text to delight them as well.

XXXI also includes a smattering of new rules for use with C&C, but easily adaptable to other old school games. The most extensive of these is the Mycretian class, a pacific (though not pacifistic) cleric-like class of "pre-martyrs" who travel the Wilderlands spreading the word of the One True God, Mycr, and are possessed of many supernatural gifts. I doubt the class is for everyone, but I certainly found it intriguing and one that would do much to bring a touch of the exotic to a Wilderlands campaign. XXXI also includes two new non-human races, a rumor table, and details about Mycretianism and its sects.

All in all, it's a nice, tight package that is well worth its $10.00 price tag. Because it was a limited edition -- I think only 300 copies were printed -- it will eventually become unavailable, so I'd recommend purchasing it if you have any interest either in the Wilderlands or in a well-crafted old school fantasy city. The product has less utility if you're not interested in either, so its appeal won't be universal. My only real complaint about XXXI is the same complaint I have about many neo-old school products -- the layout and graphic design. I sincerely wish that someone would make an old school product with new school production values. Troll Lord Games comes close to this with C&C, which uses Peter Bradley's excellent -- and very modern -- art to good effect. But that's not enough in my opinion and I'd be a less cranky grognard if I saw some take up this challenge. Again, there's nothing wrong with imitating TSR's style from the late 70s, but the one thing I think newer games do genuinely have on their more illustrious predecessors is presentation. I may just have to do something about this myself, if only to show you don't need to ape the past to carry on the old school spirit.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms.

2 comments:

  1. In evaluating the grid layout of Tel Qa it is important to realize that this town is/was an outpost of an empire...much like an outpost of the Roman empire.

    Roman towns were, in fact, highly planned. They retained their grid layout, especially within the walls of a former legionary fortress...which is what Tel Qa is like.

    Follow this link to the Roman city of Timgad: http://www.pbase.com/cyrilp/timgad

    Timgad is a bit of an extreme example, but only because the Roman city is so clearly visible. Many medieval cities across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have this same plan hidden under their later streets In other cities, such as Regensburg, the legionary fort is encompassed in the later town, but still visible as a grid long after the walls were gone.

    Hit any Google search for "Roman fort" and you'll see just how common they were.

    In the context of a menacing fantasy world, Tel Qa's walls and street layout make perfect sense.

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  2. Funny you should mention this, because James Mishler explained, via email, that this very point would have been explained in the text if he had had more room for it. As it is, the book is so jam-packed with information that it was dropped.

    It's a minor issue and doesn't bother me anyway. In fact, I find the grid layout much more charming than something that seems more immediately realistic -- perhaps all the more because I know it's actually there for a reason.

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