Monday, April 5, 2010

REVIEW: The Spider-God's Bride

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.

11 comments:

  1. I used this product with Barbarians of Lemuria ruleset in Hyboria. Pleasant read and great fun to play.

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  2. I've been considering purchasing this since I stumbled across the World of Xoth site. Thanks for the review, I think you've tipped the scales.

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  3. Just glancing through the preview PDF, there's a lot to like here: the author mostly eliminates alignments, and the "monsters are monstrous" section matches my own preference for a horror element to my fantasy campaigns.

    I'm definitely going to buy this and convert it for use, probably to BRP.

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  4. I agree that this is a fantastic read. I'm getting ready to use it in a WhiteBox game!

    I was turned off by the suggestions regarding XP Rewards ("The Tale is It's Own Reward: just hand out a suitable amount of experience points for each completed session" - WTF?), but it's no biggie.

    Two Thumbs Up!

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  5. WTF?

    Well, some people are bored by the whole XP reward system in general.

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  6. Looks like quite an interesting product. I'm contemplating springing for the print version.

    I can see using the setting as inspiration, changing names and tweaking the cultures a little. I'd definitely convert to a different rules system - I think that the recent Mongoose Runequest (2) would do the trick pretty well if I strip out magic.

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  7. I was just thinking about buying this after Blair plugged it on his blog. Good timing.

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  8. Guess what I was thinking of reviewing on my blog?

    I bought this myself in my latest batch from Lulu, and I must say I was less satisfied that I would have guessed.

    Morten did a fabulous work with Mesopotamia, so I know he could deliver. But, when I got this volume I was really unhappy with the lack of maps. If you read the Xoth website it sounds like there's maps in the book. If I could find any way of contacting Morten I would have suggested he re-write that part of the website. The maps are not few, and having just paid good dollars for the book and then having to pay more to get the maps printed wasn't what I wanted.

    That being said, I agree with James that Morten Braten sure knows how to evoke that S&S feeling. I would suggest getting the Mesopotamia book, though. It includes maps.

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  9. I know Morton "Thulsa" Braten from the Conan forums at Mongoose.

    He dose some swell work making fan-made files. His Savant class (basically some simple alteration to the normal sorcery system to cut down on the mechanics, and to add some more role-playing flavor) makes the dreaded Scholar class from Conan a lot more playable. He also made a Tower of the Elephant mini-module (which was converted to AD&D by other people, but did not maintain the S&S feel), and he even converted some old D&D modules into really nice Conan modules (e.g.: The Shrine of the Black Ones is a mix of D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and Robert E. Howard's Pool of the Black Ones).

    What was put in The Spider-God's Bride was the byproduct of a disdain for the trivial High Fantasy elements that was highlighted throughout the silver-age of D&D and beyond, and to promote the Sword & Sorcery gaming genre. Like the Mongoose Conan game, it has far more value for it's ideas and concepts, then it's rules and "game enhancements" - which for D20 books, makes them truly unique!

    Another good name to look up (if you are a major REH enthusiast) is Vincent N. Darlage. I can't think of a better person (other then Howard himself) who can so capture the inner workings of Howard's creations!

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  10. Just ordered a hardcopy from Lulu.

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  11. For those who are interested: "The Spider God's Bride" has been re-released as a LEGEND-compatible product from Mongoose Publishing. I think that this roleplaying system will actually work really well for this. Will have a try-out soon.

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