Saturday, August 29, 2009

REVIEW: People of Pembrooktonshire

People of Pembrooktonshire is the companion supplement to the previously-reviewed No Dignity in Death: Three Brides, also written by James Raggi. Its format and presentation are, as one might expect, remarkably similar to that of Three Brides, although it is shorter (36 as opposed to 40 pages) and more text heavy. Other than the cover depicted to the left, there's only one piece of art to break up the text. Normally, I don't much mind text-heavy products and I think most modern RPG products are over-illustrated. Nevertheless, I think People of Pembrooktonshire probably could have benefited from a few more pieces of art, both because I very much like Laura Jalo's work and because, in a book dedicated to describing a large number of NPCs, visual cues are every bit as important as written ones.

People of Pembrooktonshire describes 137 of the eponymous town's 2000 inhabitants. These descriptions are almost entirely free of game mechanics and those that are included are sufficiently generic that they could easily be ignored or adapted to one's favorite game system. In some respects, that's definitely a boon, but I will admit that I was mildly disappointed that Raggi made no effort to place these NPCs within the game context of D&D and its clones/simulacra, especially since the supplement is supposed to be written for them. D&D has long been notorious for its difficulty in describing "ordinary people" and how such people might interact with a world in which leveled adventurers possessed of great power also exist. A number of approaches and "solutions" have been offered over the years, but none of them are completely satisfactory. It would thus have been nice to see Raggi's take on the question.

The NPCs described in People of Pembrooktonshire are a varied lot. Each is given a name and an occupation, along with a description whose length ranges from one to six (or more) paragraphs, depending on their importance. Raggi did a very good job in distinguishing each NPC from the others -- perhaps too good a job. Of the 137 people described, very few of them could truly be called "ordinary," as most have some secret, personality quirk, or oddity associated with them. While this makes them memorable, it also gives the impression that Pembrooktonshire is a very strange place. My reference to Twin Peaks in the review of Three Brides is not too far off the mark. Granted, as described in that module, Pembrooktonshire is a very strange place, so perhaps it's not surprising that three local cows are actually polymorphed doppelgangers or that one of its residents is building a large ship, Noah style, in anticipation of a flood he believes will destroy the landlocked town. For myself, a handful of such NPCs would have been appreciated, a much needed leaven when detailing a staid, out-of-the-way little settlement, but over a hundred such eccentrics and weirdos? I found it a bit much.

And that's the true frustration I have with People of Pembrooktonshire: taken in small pieces, it's excellent, but, as a whole, I found it difficult to take. Nearly all of the NPCs, in and of themselves, are interesting and quite a number of them are sheer genius. Taken in aggregate, though, they make Pembrooktonshire seem like a madhouse run by its inmates. Now, that may well be the point, but, if so, I think it limits the utility of this supplement. Played as written, I'm not sure Pembrooktonshire "works" for me, even given the peculiar backstory detailed in Three Brides. It's rather more surreal than I appreciate, which may say more about my own psychology than about the supplement's defects, but there it is.

Ironically, I think People of Pembrooktonshire is generally better written than Three Brides. Raggi's authorial voice is more consistent throughout and his mordant humor and wit come through much more clearly here. I appreciated the many in-jokes, puns, and allusions hidden in the NPC descriptions. There are very few typographical or grammatical issues in the book, although I noticed two NPCs with identical names and nearly identical backgrounds that nevertheless seem to be two different people entirely. I also found the implied social structure and culture of Pembrooktonshire much more "modern" than I expect many gamers like for their fantasy, but that's more a matter of taste than anything.

People of Pembrooktonshire is thus a good, if narrowly focused, product whose idiosyncrasies might justifiably limit its appeal. It feel somewhat like an experiment -- is it possible to create 137 distinct NPCs for a single locale? -- and I think, on that level, it's a success, albeit one that shows the dangers inherent in seeking such variety. As a gaming supplement, I am less convinced of its success. Its contents are certainly eccentric and its general tone doesn't really match any of the most common styles of fantasy roleplaying in vogue either within the old school community or without it. Again, that may be taken as a positive for many and I don't mean to suggest it's a bad thing. I mean only to say that People of Pembrooktonshire is a bold and original product but both its boldness and originality are sufficiently off-kilter as to be off-putting.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You prefer your sleepy, isolated towns to be populated by eccentrics and people with something to hide.
Don't Buy This If: You think the inhabitants of The Village of Hommlet are exactly what you want in fantasy townsfolk.

15 comments:

  1. I'm not a big fan of modern-society-dressed-as-medieval, but People of Pembrooktonshire sounds like an interesting product nonetheless. I'd probably mine it for memorable NPCs to sprinkle across an entire campaign tho. An entire town full o' kooks sounds like hard going for players.

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  2. Keep in mind that Pembrooktonshire has a population of 2,000 people. That means for every one of the 137 kooks in this book, there are 14 or 15 other people in town. (In percentage terms, fewer than 7% of the Pembrooktonshiretonians are described in this book.) Consider your own high school, or workplace, or family. Isn't AT LEAST 1 out of 15 people a kook?

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  3. It might be just me, but I find the name of Pembrooktonshire jarring. Mostly because of how close it is to Pembrokeshire and also because a 'shire' is usually an area rather than a village or town.

    Just 'Pembrookton' would seem a lot better to me. Bah humbug.

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  4. >>I find the name of Pembrooktonshire jarring.

    It's supposed to be. I intentionally made the most over-the-top English name I could think of without being too silly.

    This blog post was originally to be in the introduction of NDiD.

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  5. Aha! Well, if that was the intention, then it has succeeded admirably.

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  6. In his review, James wrote: "There are very few typographical or grammatical issues in the book, although I noticed two NPCs with identical names and nearly identical backgrounds that nevertheless seem to be two different people entirely."


    James, I think you misunderstood that one. Re-read those two entries while keeping split personality disorder in mind. :)

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  7. Well, if it existed in the same universe as the orgininal City State of the Invincible Overlord, the town would seem pretty normal. It the City State you can't talk to a shoppy who isn't secretly a 16th level necromancer, or take a bath in a large tub without a dolphin or a mermaid showing up.

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  8. >>Re-read those two entries while keeping split personality disorder in mind. :)

    Close, but not quite. ;)

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  9. Hello James,

    i just wanted to drop a line in sign of appreciation about your blogspot site.

    It's very interesting among those dedicated to old-school gaming, i regard your posts as very informative and detailed, and - as a lover of old-school rpg's myself - fascinating.

    It's clear that you put passion and efforts when you write them!(this is the most important thing, IMHO).

    I hope this site can just grow better and better.

    all the best from Italy

    cheers

    Matteo

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  10. Doppelganger cows - hah! Golden age comics reference!

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  11. Isn't AT LEAST 1 out of 15 people a kook?

    Almost certainly -- and the percentage is even greater when one spends a lot of time on the Net. But I do think there's a difference between random kooks and the kind of weirdos that inhabit Pembrooktonshire, most of whom seem considerably more kooky and bizarre than anyone I met in high school or to whom I'm related.

    I realize this probably seems like nitpick, considering all the other things I accept in RPGs, but what can I say? The NPCs of Pembrooktonshire are just a bit too off-kilter for my tastes and I think they in fact undermine some of the terrific weirdness found in Three Brides, where the implication is that the town is in fact filled with perfectly "normal" people, most of whom accept without question a very odd ritual. That's why I liked the module so much.

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  12. James, I think you misunderstood that one. Re-read those two entries while keeping split personality disorder in mind. :)

    That I did, as Jim has already explained to me. In my defense, the text isn't at all clear on this point, as evidenced by your own mistaken reading of it.

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  13. 3 Polymorphed Dopplegangers that are cows?

    I love that!

    It's the best Fantastic Four homage in the history of gaming!

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  14. I actually like that the entry for those two guys is a little ambiguous. I read it as two separate people in a hilariously tragic circumstance, but the split personality thing works just as well. You could even read into it that they are twins, separated at a young age, which explains why they apparently look similar, too.

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  15. Well, the good thing about the town weirdoes having secrets is that you don't have to use them; you can just ignore them and the players will never know.

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