Tuesday, November 11, 2008

REVIEW: 2008 Wilderlands Jam

2008 Wilderlands Jam is a limited edition 48-page supplement for Adventure Games Publishing's "Wilderlands of High Adventure" setting. Originally released at GenCon this past summer, a number of copies are still available for sale for $12.00. Like all previous AGP releases, Jam is written for use with Troll Lord's Castles & Crusades system, but the vast majority of the material in its pages are easily convertible to most D&D-derived games, regardless of edition. Unlike previous AGP releases, however, this one includes no art beyond three hex maps. The book instead consists primarily of three-column pages of dense text. Truth be told, I didn't particularly miss the art, but I did find the print quality of this book noticeably poorer than in other AGP products. Although it doesn't harm legibility overly much for me, I wouldn't be surprised if it make the book less readable to those whose eyesight is worse than my own.

2008 Wilderlands Jam consists of four parts of varying length. Three of them are not new, having appeared in other forms before this product, while the fourth is an excerpt from an upcoming product. The first part, entitled "Warrior-Mages of the Wilderlands," is the shortest (at 6 pages) and is still available as a free PDF from the AGP website. This part introduces a new C&C character class called, as one might expect, the Warrior-Mage. The Warrior-Mage exists for players who wish to create characters that immediately combine fighting prowess with spellcasting without the need to multiclass. The result is a class that's less puissant at arms than a Fighter (a lower Base to Hit and Hit Dice, for example) but just as magically adept as a Wizard. Of course, the class is very slow to advance, needing nearly 5000 XP to reach level 2, so there is a price to be paid for such versitility.

Where the Warrior-Mage stands out, though, is in the various "traditions" Mishler describes. These traditions are different culturally-based "schools" of Warrior-Mage training, each with its little twists on the core abilities of the class. Each tradition includes a focus weapon used for the casting of spells (and the various bonuses associated with it), a list of weapon and armor restrictions, and some special abilities that enable the Warrior-Mage to use his spells in creative ways. Three sample traditions are described and Mishler provides a list of special abilities from which to construct one's own traditions or to use models when creating new special abilities. Rounding out this part, there are also descriptions of fourteen new spells unique to the Warrior-Mage.

I like the idea of the Warrior-Mage. I've often felt that D&D suffered a bit for never including a baseline class that included both fighting and magical abilities, particularly given the way elves are portrayed in a lot of fantasy literature. I've also been of the opinion that multiclassing has often been much too clunky in its implementation to succeed in combining aspects of multiple class archetypes. That said, I'm not completely happy with the Warrior-Mage, which is a fairly complex class once you take into consideration all its special abilities. Some, particularly those more inclined toward the 3e and later approaches to class design, might not have any problems with this, but I found myself wishing the class could have been presented more simply than it was. I am also baffled by the use of seven-sided dice for Hit Dice, which strikes me as needlessly quirky.

The second part, "Sorcerers of the Wilderlands," is 10 pages long. It too was previously released as a free PDF. I very much enjoyed this section of Jam for several reasons. First, its take on "sorcery" -- dark pacts with Demon Lords -- is a good example of how I prefer the handling of such dubious activities in a RPG. This part includes lists of "petty," "lesser," and "greater" evils which a sorcerer must commit in order to enter into and/or maintain a dark pact. However, beyond noting that this or that act constitutes a "greater evil" as opposed to a "lesser evil," very little detail is given, thereby allowing each referee to expand upon it or not as they wish. Second, there's simply no question that anyone entering into a dark pact with a demon lord has committed an objectively evil act. In addition, entering into a dark pact starts a character down the road to damnation, becoming Chaotic Evil in alignment and a thrall to demonic powers from which escape is well nigh impossible. Had Carcosa shown a similar lack of ambiguity, I would have had far fewer problems with it.

The third thing I really appreciated about this part of 2008 Wilderlands Jam was its mechanical open-endedness. Although guidelines are given for the kinds of things a demon lord might grant as a result of a dark pact -- familiars, spell-like abilities, wealth, etc. -- as well as guidelines for what he asks in return, they remain just that: guidelines. The referee is free to mix and match pact requirements and benefits as he wishes, allowing him to tailor them to suit the demon lord and the character involved. This flexibility also gives wide scope for creating NPC sorcerers whose special pact-granted abilities might be quite unexpected, such as a Fighter who can cast certain spells or a Cleric with a demonic familiar.

This part also includes information on sorcerous summonings, curses, and spells. Sorcerous spells are special evil spells learned either through a dark pact or through scrolls/spell books. These spells have a chance to backfire if cast by individuals who haven't entered into a dark pact in order to learn them, with the result typically being the caster becoming the spell's target. These spells all have a wonderfully swords-and-sorcery feel to them; Mishler clearly has a knack for that style of fantasy and it comes through strongly in the text. I'll reiterate that I think he took the right tack in his presentation of the material, staying firmly on the "vague-but-suggestive" side of things. "Sorcerers of the Wilderlands" also includes two new monsters and a single new treasure.

The third part, "Monsters & Treasures of the Wilderlands I," takes up 17 pages of Jam and is identical (so far as I could tell -- if there are differences, I did not notice them) to the previously released PDF product that I reviewed here.

The fourth and final part, "Valley of the Dead Queens Preview," occupies 10 pages and is an excerpt from AGP's upcoming Southern Reaches Gazetteer. The preview describes three hexes in some detail, noting their geographical features, monster lairs, settlements, and other points of interest, tied together with a brief background detailing a fallen kingdom of priestess-queens who once rules the area. If one loves sandbox style campaigning, this part of Jam is for you. Mishler manages to cram a lot of terrific ideas into a comparatively small amount of space; it's not hard to be inspired after reading his entries. Otherwise banal locations are infused with a healthy dose of possibility, which is key to the success of sandbox play. If I have a complaint about this part of the book, it's that some of the entries are longer and more detailed than I think is necessary. The original Judges Guild products were masters of verbal economy and, while Mishler is good on this score, I think he could still stand to take a page or two more from his illustrious predcessors.

2008 Wilderlands Jam is difficult product to review. Only one-quarter of its text is actually new and that distinction won't last once the Southern Reaches Gazetteer is released. Of course, most of the material in the book is excellent. If you haven't read any of its contents already, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend buying it. Likewise, if you're like me and you prefer print products to PDF ones, it's also a worthwhile purchase. I can't deny that it's somewhat pricey, given its length and the fact that 16 of its 48 pages are available for free online already. However, I've come to accept that the market for old school material is limited and thus prices will inevitably be higher per page than on more "mainstream" RPG material. If you understand this as well, 2008 Wilderlands Jam may be just what you're looking for.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms

3 comments:

  1. 7 sided dice actually exist? Well, never let it be said that your blog isn't educational.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yep. Courtesy of GameScience, the Zack-Approved Dice Maker. :) Here's one site:

    http://www.goodman-games.com/store-dice.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. I suspect, naively, that that might not be the most neutral of dice.

    I've been wrong before, though.

    ReplyDelete

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