Saturday, September 26, 2009

REVIEW: Tharbrian Horse-Lords

Tharbrian Horse-Lords is the first Player's Guide for Adventure Games Publishing's Castles & Crusades-based "Wilderlands of High Adventure" setting. The product is available in two formats: a 22-page PDF costing $5.00 or a 36-page digest-size booklet costing $7.00. This review is based on the PDF, so I cannot comment on any changes made to the print version, if any. Like most previous AGP Wilderlands products, Tharbrian Horse-Lords is text-dense and without any illustrations. The layout is a simple two-column one that's easy to read and the text is both clear and well edited.

Of course, it's the actual content of the product that matters most and Tharbrian Horse-Lords offers plenty of content, most of free of game mechanics. This makes it very easy to use with game systems other than C&C, although some sections of it are written as expansions to the variant barbarian class presented in Barbarians of the Wilderlands 1. The Horse-Lords of the title are a barbarian culture best described as "Celtic Mongols." That is, their culture reminded me of an amalgam between the continental European Celtic peoples (primarily the Gauls) and central Asian horse nomads. While ethnologists among us might balk at this, I found the mixture easy to grasp, which suggests that players would find it equally easy to portray a Tharbrian as a character.

The bulk of the product describes the history, society, and culture of the Tharbrians, sometimes in more detail than I felt necessary. However, since each section only adds to one's overall sense of what Horse-Lord culture is like, it can be argued that additional detail is never a bad thing. This is clearly a taste issue; for myself, I prefer broader strokes in my gaming products, with less specific information and more general ideas that I can use as a springboard. This is particularly true in the case of settings like the Wilderlands, which has always been a "big tent" setting, whose most detailed areas were still very sketchy compared to those of contemporary settings.

I worry somewhat that, given the amount of information provided in this product about one barbarian nation, the Wilderlands of High Adventure will soon find itself weighted down in canon, no matter how well written and interesting. And it is interesting. James Mishler has described the Tharbrians in sufficient detail that I can easily imagine playing an entire campaign within their roaming lands, making this product almost a mini-campaign setting within the larger Wilderlands. In that respect, it's quite remarkable and the level detail it provides is exactly right. Given that, perhaps I should clarify my worry somewhat: taken in itself, I think Tharbrian Horse-Lords strikes a good balance between too much and too little detail; taken as part of a larger whole, I see a trend toward fleshing out every nook and cranny of the Wilderlands and that remains worrisome to me. But, as I said, it's a matter of taste and many gamers will find eight paragraphs of information about the Tharbrian diet exactly the sort of information they need in their campaigns, while I find it a bit too much.

I can say, without hesitation, that Tharbrian Horse-Lords is an excellent product, well written and interesting and a good companion to the other Wilderlands product AGP has published to date. The key here in gauging one's own interest in it is whether you deem the approach Mishler has adopted in those other products as felicitous or not. I personally find them a little information-heavy at times, but I realize not everyone shares my preferences. For me, the glory of the "classical" Wilderlands is its lack of detail, which makes it easy to remake the setting in any way I choose as the situation demands. Mishler's Wilderlands of High Adventure variant presents a particular interpretation of that setting and then fleshes it out in increasing detail. That's not a bad approach and, as I feel compelled to reiterate, Mishler does so excellently; it's just not my preferred approach. Whether it is yours will determine how you feel about Tharbrian Horse-Lords.

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

Buy This If:
You're looking for a fully-fleshed out barbarian culture to use in your game.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in fantasy ethnography

4 comments:

  1. I recently read a book on the history of nomadic people from the asian and european steppes, by a russian archeologist. I was intersted to see that, from physical anthropology point of view, most of them during antiquity and early middle-age were described as blonde 'europoids' people rather than asiatic 'mongoloids', with skeleton evidences. From Hungary to China, these people speaked a wide varity of languages, mostly linked to Iranian (iranian speakers Alans invaded Brittany!). So celtic / mongols is not so much a fantas mixture than a nearly accurate relation of a possible antique scythic people.

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  2. Nicolas: who was the archaeologist? Masson, Pugachenkova and their coterie had a hard time presenting Turkic (or Irano-Turkic) culture to their Russian audience - at least since the Great Game years of the 19th century the Turko-Mongol strand of Central Asian/steppe culture was denigrated in Russian newspapers and literature, so that anyone looking for ancestors for the Rus and Khazars would be strongly inclined to find them to be Aryan/Caucasoid, and to consider the Turks + Mongols "foreign invaders."

    ethnologists among us might balk at this
    ...aside from Mongol- and Turkophobia noted above, I don't see why: it's a fantasy game, and fantasies thrive on hybrids/chimaeras. I think it's actually an under-appreciated tool in roleplaying: if you sit between two archetypes you can play up one or the other as needed... which now I think about it might inform a discussion of demihumans and demihumanophobia going on in other threads here :)

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  3. It's Iaroslav Lebedynsky. I verified exactly who he is : an Ukranian-born french historian. I need to have look on his historiographica background.

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  4. The Irish have a great love of horses, even today. It's very notable, and in my homeland Northern Ireland it's something that distinguishes Catholic-Irish from the partialy Anglo-Saxonised Irish (Ulster) Protestants, who have no particular affinity with horses. You can often identify Catholic suburban areas by the horses grazing on scraggly patches of grass among the rows of houses. This love of horses is most extreme among the gypsy-like semi-nomadic Irish Travellers.

    So, to me, 'Celtic horse nomads' is not a contradiction at all; I rather suspect that's exactly what the earliest Celts were.

    On topic - I set most of my Wilderlands games in Tharbrian territory, this product is very tempting.

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