Thursday, December 17, 2009

REVIEW: The Majestic Wilderlands

(In the interests of full disclosure, I've worked with Rob Conley on a couple of old school projects, including The Cursed Chateau, so bear this in mind when reading this review. I make no claims to any absolute objectivity in my reviews, including this one, but it's not unreasonable to expect me to admit when I'm reviewing a product by someone with whom I've had a past business relationship.)

Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands
is cartographer extraordinaire Rob Conley's first foray into self-publishing and he doesn't fail to impress. Conley had already penned (along with collaborator Dwayne Gillingham) two superb installments of the Points of Light series, published by Goodman Games, along with articles in Fight On! and a D20 revisions to classic Judges Guild adventures, so I expected good things from The Majestic Wilderlands and I was not disappointed. It's a 140-page digest-sized supplement to Swords & Wizardry, although it's easily usable with "all editions based on the original 1974 roleplaying game." The book is available in three formats, two print (one with the cover pictured to the right and another with an "original style" cover), and one in PDF. Both print editions sell for $12, while the PDF carries a $7 price tag. Given the density of the text and small font size, there's quite a lot of material packed in its pages, so the prices are more than reasonable for what you get, especially when compared with many other old school products these days.

As its title implies, The Majestic Wilderlands is a licensed product, presenting Conley's vision of the venerable Judges Guild Wilderlands setting. This vision is based on his having used the setting over the course of three decades, adding to it and expanding it as the demands of his players and campaign demanded. The result is a setting that's at once familiar and new, a version of the Wilderlands that's a bit more "realistic" than the standard one, which is to say, one that's more concerned with sociological and political concerns than you'd expect. That's not to say The Majestic Wilderlands is a dry read -- it's not -- but it definitely has a different feel than the original Judges Guild material on which it's based. That said, fans whose visions of the Wilderlands are more "traditional" will still find a lot to like here, as Conley's included lots of little details that could be imported into campaigns based there (or indeed most fantasy campaign settings). Conley's vision of the Wilderlands doesn't completely mesh with my own, but it's difficult not to admire his craftsmanship in world building. The Majestic Wilderlands, as presented here, is clearly a work of love and imagination in the best old school tradition.

The Majestic Wilderlands bills itself as "Supplement VI," a nomenclature that might strike some as odd. It's obviously a reference both to the original OD&D supplements and to Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, which claimed the title of "Supplement V." I don't want to rehash the controversies surrounding Carcosa here; I think everyone who has an opinion on the subject has already expressed them. That said, I was critical of McKinney's decision in my own review of Carcosa and I haven't changed my mind on this score. Much as I admire OD&D and its supplement -- indeed, because I admire them -- I don't think it appropriate to add one's own work to the canon, so to speak. That's a judgment for others to make. Doing otherwise could be misconstrued as arrogance, or at least cheek, and might turn off people who would otherwise enjoy the content of one's book.

Fortunately, with only a couple of exceptions, the content of The Majestic Wilderlands is top-notch. Conley boldly divided the book into three sections modeled on the three volumes of OD&D. The first, "Men & Magic," provides new character options. Among these are several new sub-classes, such as Berserkers, Knights, Soldiers, Paladins of Mitra, Myrmidons of Set for Fighting Men, and Mages, Artificers, Wizards, Rune-Casters, and Theurgists for Magic-Users. The classes are all well-done, both mechanically and stylistically. I have some issues with a few of them (the Soldier seems unnecessary, for example), but I like many a great deal, particularly the Myrmidons of Set, which would work nicely in my Dwimmermount campaign as elite warriors of Typhon. Conley provides new options for Clerics too by describing each faith of the Majestic Wilderlands, often imposing new restrictions on the class while at the same time opening up new possibilities. It's a nice approach, one that takes the kernel of a good idea in 2e's specialty priests while avoiding its pitfalls.

Section I also introduced a new class and its attendant sub-classes: the Rogue. Rogues are characters who are neither good at fighting or magic but instead excel at certain abilities, which is to say, skills. All Rogues (Burglars, Thugs, Mountebanks, Claws of Kalis, and Merchant Adventurers) depend heavily on the skill system introduced in The Majestic Wilderlands. As you'd expect, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I like the idea behind several of these classes, particularly the Mountebank, but skills make me very uneasy in a class-based game. The skill system Conley presents is simple enough: roll 1D20, modified by appropriate class and ability bonuses (if any), and score 15 or higher to achieve a success. As such systems go, it's pretty inoffensive. I'm simply not convinced that it's needed, but I realize I may be eccentric about this point. I'm probably also eccentric in disliking the idea of NPC classes, particularly for "non-adventurers." The Majestic Wilderlands gives us several of these: Craftsman, Hedge Mage, Priest, and Scholars. All remind me of the "cut-down" NPC classes we saw in D&D III and, again, I don't really see the necessity for them, particularly in an old school game.

The section continues with an overview of playable races, with a few new options, including some specific to the Wilderlands. There are also some nice new rules for combat that are simple yet flavorful and should do a lot to making OD&D-style combat more tactically rich. Following that is a section of magic that, among other details, introduces "rituals," which enable a spellcaster to cast a spell straight out of his spellbook without having to memorize it beforehand, but the spell is slower than normal and carries a material component cost dependent on its level. As Conley admits outright, "The intent of this system is that most utility spells are cast via rituals in
the Majestic Wilderlands." As you'd expect, I don't much care for the concept of rituals, precisely because it changes the complexion of spellcasting character classes in a profound way. Without the so-called "utility spells" taking up spell slots, spellcasters no longer have to weigh combat effectiveness against the unpredictable needs of adventuring. Should I memorize find traps or hold person is a significant decision for the player of a 4th-level Cleric, who only gets a single 2nd-level spell. Rituals obviate the need for such a decision, thereby changing the way the class -- and the game -- is played. Again, I'm sure many will find rituals a welcome addition to the game, but, for my part, I think it does serious violence to the class structure of D&D and would never allow the rules to be used in my campaign.

Section II is "Monsters & Treasure" and introduces several new monsters and magic items. It's the shortest section in the book (only 10 pages), but nevertheless manages to inject some new approaches to some staples of the game. Section III, "Underworld & Wilderness Adventures," takes up close to half the book and presents Conley's vision of the Wilderlands setting, complete with maps and a gazetteer of it all. Nearly the entirety of this vast setting gets at least some discussion, with the area around the famed City-State getting the most. Conley shows a remarkable ability to say a lot in a few words and, while no region gets dozens of paragraphs devoted to it, each one provides enough detail to inspire a referee -- proof positive that campaign setting books need not be huge technical manuals consisting of hundreds of pages to be satisfactory. The various cultures that inhabit the Majestic Wilderlands gets more detail and it's here where Conley's vision comes through most clearly. He cares a great deal about society, culture, and (especially) religion and it's these forces, moreso even than monsters and magic, that drive the Wilderlands in his estimation. This helps give the whole a "serious" quality to it that, while not wholly to my taste, is nevertheless extremely attractive. Conley's love for the setting is palpable and infectious.

In the final analysis, The Majestic Wilderlands is a terrific book and another great example of old school game design. Both in terms of its game mechanics and its setting material, this product proves the old adage that "less is more." It likewise counters the notion that, without reams of precise rules and setting detail, you don't have enough material to run a RPG campaign adequately. The Majestic Wilderlands is a model of compendiousness, providing all that's needed to play without being cryptic. And while I dislike some of the rules included, for both philosophical and practical reasons, they're easily omitted. Moreover, Conley provides so much in these pages that, even eliminating those sections I dislike, there is still plenty to admire and, most importantly, use in one's own campaign. The Majestic Wilderlands is a triumph and a nice capstone to a year that has seen the old school movement prosper and diversify. Here's hoping we see more products of this sort, from Robert Conley and others, in the years to come.

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

Buy This If: You're either a Wilderlands fan (or looking to become one) or interested in some excellent supplemental rules to Swords & Wizardry (or any OD&D-derived game).
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in the Wilderlands or prefer to keep your OD&D-derived game free from supplemental rules.

10 comments:

  1. This was helpful both in listing what you felt I did right and what I did wrong. Which makes this the best kind of review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad you liked the review, although, to be fair, you did very little "wrong." There were some things I wouldn't have done myself, of course, but even those were well written and presented. It's an excellent book and I know at least a few things from it will be making their appearance in my ongoing Dwimmermount campaign.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I want to point out the abilities (i.e skill system) are what ANY character can do. It just some classes are better at doing certain things than other classes.

    The basic technique being I listed how I would generally rule in common situations. Grouped them so I can assign bonuses to them.

    I may be splitting hairs but I feel that the assumption of my ability system are more tune with OD&D way of doing things than the traditional skill system which defines what you can do.

    The Non-adventurers are a framework to allow you to build sages, JG's Beggars, and other non-adventuring NPCs. All of these were present in different edition with varying levels of abilities.

    Of course you can wing it like most do but if you are running a campaigns with dozens if not hundreds of NPCs it helpful to have a shorthand to use. If that not the case with a referee's game I don't expect that person would get much use out of the non-adventurers.

    I not taking offense at any thing you said only explaining in more detail the reasons as to why I did this.

    Again Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I hope I don't sound rude, but could you talk about the physical quality of the book a little? Layout? Illustrations? You don't mention these at all, and I'm one of those infidels who actually cares about that kind of thing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. James, most people who read your blog probably know that you've worked with Rob Conley in the past.

    Nevertheless, I'm a bit surprised you didn't disclose this fact for people who may be looking for objective opinions on this new book.

    Your review has helped keep my interest piqued towards buying Supplement VI. Because I don't play S&W, I'm still holding off.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts.
    Rob

    ReplyDelete
  6. I dug the review enough to buy a pdf of this \Wilderlands product. Would have gone the Lulu route if I wasn't so impatient, damn the adhd.

    This is an excellent addition to my collection of JG stuff and I'll be using it as my new alternate setting when I'm not doing homebrew stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Blizack,

    The book is laid out in a simple one-column format that's reminiscent of of the old OD&D books, without specifically trying to ape them in the way that, say, Carcosa does. There is some artwork, but it's sparse and mostly in the form of clipart derived from 19th century sources. The maps, as you'd expect, are well-done, though small.

    In short, it's a very good "professional amateur" layout and presentation, which is to say, not comparable to anything you'd see out of a big RPG company but certainly a cut above early TSR work and better than a lot of other OSR publications.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Nevertheless, I'm a bit surprised you didn't disclose this fact for people who may be looking for objective opinions on this new book.

    Given the fact that this blog is gleefully subjective in its content, I certainly hope no one expects objective opinions here. Your point is nevertheless taken. I'll add a short note at the beginning indicating my prior business relationships with Rob, in the interests of openness.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sak, at 7 bucks for the PDF I'm sure you find your money's worth to yoke for C&C ;)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for the reply, James. I'll give this a closer look!

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.