It's rare that I review a product not specifically written for either a retro-clone or an out-of-print RPG, never mind one written for the D20 system. I do this not so much because I dislike the D20 system -- though it's true I have many issues with it -- but simply because I don't play it and thus generally have little interest in products for it. I am happy to make an exception in the case of Morton Braten's excellent The Spider-God's Bride and Other Tales of Sword & Sorcery. Braten is the author of the under-appreciated Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia, in which he demonstrates a keen appreciation of both swords-and-sorcery and the weird tale, conjuring a vision of the ancient Near East as seen through the eyes of pulp fantasists such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. This same appreciation is brought to bear in this remarkable 200-page product (available as a PDF for $10 or as a printed book for $23).
The Spider-God's Bride is part rules supplement, part campaign setting, part adventure collection, and, above all, a guidebook to swords-and-sorcery roleplaying. The book begins with an excellent overview of the S&S genre, elucidating its tropes, such as "Monsters are Monstrous" and "Magic is Mysterious," and providing suggestions for ways to modify the standard D20 rules to better model them. There are then rules for character creation, including two new classes, the nomad and the sorcerer, the latter being especially well done. Being a swords-and-sorcery sourcebook, humans are the only race available for PCs and rules are included to differentiate different human cultures. There are also many new feats, as one might expect from a D20 product.
More interesting is the section discussing magic, which is severely limited compared to its usual presentation in all editions of D&D. Many types of spells, such as "artillery" and "curative and life-restoring" ones, do not exist in this setting. Furthermore, the casting of any kind of magic may, at the referee's discretion, come with a cost in the form of mental taint that slowly drives a sorcerer insane and unable to relate to normal human beings. Many new spells, some of which replace standard D20 spells entirely or present them with an appropriate S&S twist, are also detailed. Additional sections describe gods and cults, as well as new equipment.
The bulk of the product is taken up with 10 adventures in the world of Xoth. Each is a separate adventure and can be played on its own. However, the adventures can also be linked together into a picaresque campaign that takes the characters to many of the major cities and locations within the setting, in the process earning them enough experience to advance from 1st to 10th level. The adventures are quite varied and most include wilderness, urban, and dungeon environments, enabling them to serve also as mini-sourcebooks of many of the important locales and cultures of Xoth.
While none of the adventures can be called a railroad in the usual sense in which that term is used, many are very event-driven or expect the PCs to undertake certain actions in order to be utilized without modification. Granted, in many cases, advice and guidelines for alternate approaches are provided and I appreciated that. There is even discussion of the consequences of PC failure, something I also appreciated. Still, these are not primarily locations-based adventures, even if they do include a lot of information about the locations in which they take place (though the maps for them are, inexplicably, not included in the book itself but as downloads on a website). In form, they seem modeled on short stories, with the PCs taking on the role of literary protagonists. That's an understandable model, given the inspiration for this product, and I think Braten manages to pull it off better than most, but there's a much stronger sense of preconceived story here than in adventure modules of the old school.
All that said, Spider-God's Bride is an inspiring product. The world of Xoth it presents is very well-done, recalling the Hyborian Age mixed with Lovecraftian weirdness but still very much its own creation. Each of its cultures, cities, and locations is lovingly presented and offers a lot of ideas to mine, even if you're not interested in using Xoth in toto. The entire product drips with swords-and-sorcery flavor and should easily function as a source of inspiration, if nothing else. The same is true of the rules material, despite its being written with D20 in mind. And while the adventures, as noted already, are more strongly event-driven than I generally like these days, all could fairly easily be reworked into something looser -- an endeavor well worth the effort in my opinion.
Author Morton Braten has already written a conversion guide for Mongoose's Conan Roleplaying Game and has expressed interest in doing a similar guide for 1e AD&D. That'd be a welcome addition, but, truthfully, it's unnecessary to appreciate this terrific product, which shows just what swords-and-sorcery fantasy is all about and why it's so much fun.
Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10
Buy This If: You're looking for an excellent collection of swords-and-sorcery rules and adventures and don't mind doing a little conversion work.
Don't Buy This If: You either have no interest in swords-and-sorcery or are unwilling to convert D20 mechanics to your preferred system.