Points of Light, written by Robert Conley and Dwayne Gillingham, packs more old school goodness in its 48 pages than any product published in 2008 has any right to. Don't believe me? Take a look at the 11-page PDF preview and then come back here. Even a quick skim of that preview will make it clear what I'm talking about. Quite simply: Points of Light is the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for the 21st century -- and in some ways it's better. Hyperbole comes easily to me, doesn't it? Perhaps. Let's take a closer look at the book before continue with my effusive praise.
Points of Light describes four different settings, each one broadly consonant with the notion of a dangerous wilderness punctuated by small outposts of civilization. As everyone knows, this is the default setting assumption of 4e and the book's title is an allusion to it. I'll grant you that, when I first heard the title, I wasn't enthused. Like most things about 4e, "Points of Light," as a phrase, reminds me too much of my college philosophy classes, where 18 year-olds, confronted with Plato's dialogs for the first time, suddenly think thoughts they believe no one has ever thought before, failing to realize of course that Plato has been read and analyzed for 2500 years and that there are very likely no new thoughts about the great thinker. By the same token, "points of light" isn't new at all; it's been a setting assumption of D&D from the start. The formalization of the concept -- and the creation of jargon to describe it -- is a good indicator to me of how rootless 4e is, but that's a topic for another time. I don't blame the authors of Goodman Games for adopting the title in an effort to sell the product to players of the new edition, who could certainly learn a few things about the old school from its tightly-written pages.
Despite its title, Points of Light is not, in fact, a 4e product; indeed it's not a product for any system, since it contains almost no game stats at all. What stats it does include, such as references to classes and levels, for example, suggests that it's intended for D&D, but I have no doubt it'd be easily adaptable to any fantasy roleplaying game built on the same concepts as D&D. I was mostly quite pleased with this approach, as it increased the utility of the book a great deal and makes adaptation a snap. My only quibble -- and it's a tiny one -- is that some "high-level" NPCs are in fact given specific levels (Clr12, for instance). I'd have preferred that such things remain vague, so each referee could decide for himself what constitutes high-level. Now, such things are supremely easy to change, so I cannot complain too vociferously. I know from experience, though, that, if something is written in the book, at least some referees or players will expect it to be so and, in a toolkit product like this, the fewer expectations that are introduced, the better.
The meat of the book are the four settings it describes, each with an accompanying one-page hex map (each hex representing 5 miles). Each setting is given a capsule history of three or four paragraphs to "set the scene" and Adaptation Notes that give some ideas about how to customize it to suit the needs and interests of each referee. There is also a table of random encounters and random rumors to give the referee something from which to work in making the settings his own. The descriptions of the settings are divided into sections: Geography, describing terrain features and Locales, describing fixed "encounters," whether they be settlements, monster lairs, ruins, etc. Each hex is numbered and there is an entry in the appropriate section if the hex contains anything noteworthy. These entries are typically no more than a single paragraph, with a few (generally settlements) containing a little more detail (and possibly a thumbnail map). There's just enough detail here to spur the referee's own imagination and give a sense of a greater whole, but not so much that it's hard to change the details if so desired.
The four settings included in Points of Light are as follows:
- Wildland: An area analogous to an outlying province of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. -- after the legions have gone. As its name suggests, it's a "wild" region, overrun with humanoid and barbarian tribes and only a few small outposts of civilization that cling to the old ways.
- Southland: An homage to the Outdoor Survival map of which OD&D often speaks, this setting is an untamed area "to the south" of civilized kingdoms and where the PCs are expected to go and establish themselves as local lords.
- Borderland: This is a war-torn area where several different factions seek the upper hand. It's a good locale for referees and players who like moral ambiguity and intrigue.
- Swamps of Acheron: The most unusual of the four settings, this one is located in an extraplanar realm dedicated to a Lawful Evil god, meaning that it's also the most limited of the settings. It's also the shortest of the four settings (and the one with the smallest map), which can be seen as either good or bad, depending on one's proclivities
The layout of the book is simple and usable. The illustrations are nice black and white pieces, definitely contemporary in their appearance but not of the Elmore strike-a-pose school. The writing is generally very clear and concise, with only a few infelicities here and there. The hex maps are simply gorgeous, a beautiful melding of old school sensibilities with modern technology. Indeed, that's how I could characterize Points of Light in general. It's an old school product with new school production values. The book even includes an extensive index, making it easy to find things, which is a nice if somewhat unnecessary touch in a book of this size. All in all, the presentation of Points of Light should serve as a model for how old school publishers present their own products. I'd have liked different interior art, for the most part, but it's not a huge issue and, given that the book is intended to appeal to a broad spectrum of fantasy gamers, I can't fault Goodman Games for not going with something more strongly connected to older forms of illustration.
If Points of Light has a significant flaw, it's the intimation of a larger setting when you look at all four regions it describes. Certain names, historical events, and concepts reappear throughout the book. Now, none of these things gets much -- or any -- explication in the text, so it's not a huge concern. My worry, I suppose, is that there will be a temptation to use these names and so forth as the basis for creating a larger setting that encompasses them all, as was done with the Dungeon Crawl Classics line. The desire to find coherence and unity where there is no need for either is a powerful force in the RPG hobby today. As it stands, Points of Light gives us the thinnest of details, a pencil outline on a broad canvas that we can then color to our own liking. However, I am sure there will be gamers out there who'd like to know more about the history of the Bright Empire or the teachings of the goddess Delaquain and game publishers have a tendency to cater to such obsessives. I'd hate to see that happen, but I can hardly fault this book for what might or might not happen in possible sequels to it.
Leaving aside my concerns for a future that might not be, Points of Light is nearly perfect -- so perfect in fact that I can reasonably call it the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for the next generation. Like its illustrious predecessor, this is a product that's meant to be used rather than pored over for trivial details. One cannot (yet) talk about the intricacies of any of its settings, because they simply don't exist. In that respect, I think it has more utility than the Wilderlands, but then the Wilderlands has had almost three decades of support products. Given that much time, I fear the "world" of Points of Light would be just as detailed. I hope that does not occur; I hope that the toolkit approach of this volume is kept pristine.
The animating philosophy behind this great book is "imagine the hell out of it," a do-it-yourself perspective that is positively refreshing in a hobby filled with brand building and canned settings. Points of Light is gaming at its best -- a call to each referee to use these raw materials to create their own worlds of the imagination rather than relying on the pabulum spoon fed by game companies looking to develop an IP. I have no idea if Points of Light will appeal to today's gamers; I'd love to find out that it sold like gangbusters. That'd be proof that the old ways aren't quite dead, that the kind of gaming I enjoy is still cherished. Regardless, this is a terrific book and I can't speak highly enough about it. Go out and buy a copy and see for yourself.
Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms