Thursday, March 12, 2009

REVIEW: El Raja Key's Arcane Treasury

Fantasy has always embodied the spirit of impossibilities come to life and the ability to interact within a fictional strangeness, and sometimes, to even understand it. The freshness of mystery and suspense that that brings to the game can be readily manipulated by a competent DM, and so too can it be enhanced by uniqueness, whether self-created or borrowed from books meant to help with that.
I've touched on the topic of my disenchantment with magic items (no pun intended) in this blog before. To summarize: I think one of D&D's biggest flaws, one that's been amplified as the years -- and editions -- have dragged on, is the reduction of magic and magic items to an alternate technology, often of a very base sort. It's one thing to use a spell or item in a way that mimics a mundane technology. Anyone who's run a campaign long enough has seen clever players do such things and I don't (generally) have an issue with that. It's another thing entirely, though, to create spells or magic items whose sole purpose is to mimic mundane technology, which is to say, that have no other use other than to introduce some modern convenience into a fantasy world. Worse still are those spells and magic items whose sole purpose is to provide some mechanical benefit -- +2 to Armor Class or +10 to Stealth checks or whatever -- rather than the mechanical benefit arising out of another in-game purpose.

So it was with great interest that I purchased El Raja Key's Arcane Treasury from Pied Piper Publishing, because I felt pretty certain that one of its authors, Rob Kuntz, felt similarly about the matter. ERKAT is a 96-page perfect-bound volume that sells for $24.95, written by Kuntz and Eric N. Shook, whom Kuntz credits with "the majority of the design work" in his introduction. Its contents consist of an alphabetical listing of nearly 150 magic items. Unlike those described in Daemonic & Arcane, these items appear to be wholly original to this product, without any antecedents in the Greyhawk campaign. If I'm mistaken on this point, I think it's still safe to say that the majority of these items are wholly original and created for publication in ERKAT. In itself, this is no flaw, as I'll explain, but it may be a disappointment to some who assume that every Pied Piper Publishing release is based on material created for or used in the Lake Geneva campaign Rob Kuntz co-DMed with Gary Gygax. The impression I get is that ERKAT describes the kinds of magic items that might have appeared in the Greyhawk campaign, even if they never actually did so.

As I said, this is a departure from previous Pied Piper products, although it's not an entirely unwelcome one. Much as I crave more "historical" products, I actually think there's a great need for new material written in a way that's consonant with the "philosophy" behind the early days of the hobby. Kuntz's introduction makes it apparent that he not only understands that philosophy but believes it has a lot to offer the hobby even today. In that sense, ERKAT is what one might call a "neo-old school" product -- a terrible term, I know -- as it uses old school principles to present original material that's not explicitly an ape or a simulacrum of anything that's gone before. It's a bold approch and one of which I approve, even if the final result doesn't quite fulfill the promise I see in it.

Let me be clear, though: this is a very good product. It's certainly the most polished and "professional" product PPP has published to date. The writing is clear, the editing solid. The artwork, particularly Eric Bergeron's cover, is attractive and even evocative at times. This is a very well put together product and one that I hope is the first of many similarly well made products from PPP. More importantly, the ideas to be found with ERKAT's page are, for the most part, top notch. Most of the magic items described within are singular items. They're not the products of a magical assembly line, endlessly cranking out +1 swords to be deposited in treasure troves throughout the fantasy world. Instead, we're treated to unique items like The Escutcheon of the Gorgeous Maw, a shield with a ravenous mouth, and The Two-Faced Memorial Mace, a weapon whose efficacy reflects the religious standing of its wielder.

There are no "throwaway" items in ERKAT; you can tell from the sometimes lengthy descriptions that each one is the result of a kind of mad genius who understands the virtues of mystery, danger, and whimsy in the crafting of memorable magic items. I personally appreciate this, since my own talents in this area are meager. Reading through ERKAT, I had no trouble finding many items that I'd readily drop into my Dwimmermount campaign. There were also many items I'd never include and it's here, I think, that ERKAT falters at least a little. Items like D'Trampa's Magic Coach, a magically summonable taxi, for example, are a little too obviously "jokey" for my liking, though I readily concede that I tend a bit more toward the serious when it comes to how I run my campaign than do many old schoolers. Given the large number of items included in ERKAT, I don't think its authors can be faulted for including a few misses in with their many hits, however.

My main criticism of the book lies in its sometimes-wordy descriptions of its magic items. On some level, this is understandable. ERKAT has very few explicit mechanics in its descriptions and, even when it does, they're presented in an almost "impressionistic" way. That's not to say they never mention "2d6 damage" or "-3 penalty" or "for six rounds" at all, because they often do. Compared even to AD&D's magic item descriptions, though, those in ERKAT are notably lacking in "crunch," which necessitates being a bit wordier when it comes to elucidating their effects. I won't go so far as to say it was a "mistake" to adopt this approach. I do think, however, that it did a less than ideal job in highlighting the loose, free-wheeling nature of old school design and play. I'd have much preferred slightly more laconic entries, if only for compactness, never mind the implicit invitation to each referee to interpret the effects of these items as he sees fit in his own campaign. I'd say that James Mishler's many magic item descriptions come very close to my ideal, as do the descriptions in PPP's other product, Daemonic & Arcane.

In the end, though, despite my criticisms, this is an excellent book and represents a terrific step forward for Pied Piper Publishing, both in terms of presentation and content. While I hope PPP will continue to provide many more historical gaming products, I also look forward to seeing more original material from them. If it's as good as El Raja Key's Arcane Treasury, it will be very good indeed.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a collection of unique magic items whose use is not always immediately apparent.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer magic items to be straightforward in their use and have lots of game mechanics attached to their functioning.

8 comments:

  1. Presentation: 7 out of 10
    Creativity: 9 out of 10
    Utility: 8 out of 10


    Eh? What's that in old money? About 4 polearms or so? Crazy kids and their decimal grading systems... ;)

    $25 for a magic item compendium (however good) is a bit rich for my thrifty British tastes (there's not much drop from dollar to sterling price once you get goods across the ocean).

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  2. I like the new rating system. Any chance of these reviews being indexed anywhere?

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  3. If it weren't for this blog and Jeff's Gameblog, how would I get to know about new products like this? Or about the coolest old stuff waiting to be rediscovered? The stuff you do for the old-school gaming community must be taking up a fair chunk of your time; I just wanted to say thanks.

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  4. Any chance of these reviews being indexed anywhere?

    Not yet, although I believe someone from the S&W boards was doing so on his own website. I just recall who it was ...

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  5. The stuff you do for the old-school gaming community must be taking up a fair chunk of your time; I just wanted to say thanks.

    It's my pleasure.

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  6. Love the reviews, James. And you do a good job of the buy/don’t summaries.

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  7. Love the reviews, James. And you do a good job of the buy/don’t summaries.

    Thank you for suggesting them.

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  8. D'Trampa's Magic Coach? Huh. Do you suppose that's meant to be an in-joke? :P

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