Sunday, March 27, 2011

REVIEW: Lesserton and Mor

I continue to hear a lot of grousing in various quarters about how the old school renaissance is a disappointment because its participants are eschewing "innovation" in preference to endlessly rehashing the past. I shake my head at such comments. Only someone who hasn't actually been paying attention to some of the remarkable products that have been published over the last few years could possibly say such a thing. A good example of what I mean is Faster Monkey Games's Lesserton and Mor (hereafter LaM), written by Joel and Jeff Sparks. Subtitled "A Complete Guide to the Ancient Ruins of Mor and the Town of Lesserton, Adventurer's Paradise," LaM is not merely one of the most ambitious old school products released recently but also one of those that puts the lie to the notion that there's no originality to be found in the old school renaissance.

LaM is a unique product. Intended for use with Labyrinth Lord but easily adaptable to any class-and-level fantasy RPG, the closest comparison I can make is to Chaosium's Pavis and Big Rubble boxed sets from 1983, which, like LaM, described an ancient, abandoned city and a nearby inhabited settlement. However, unlike those classic RuneQuest products, LaM is much more compact, consisting a 16-page Player's Guide to Lesserton (available here as a free PDF), a 68-page Referee's Guide to Lesserton, and a 28-page Referee's Guide to Mor, all collected in a sturdy, wrap-around map of the ruins of Mor. It's also more customizable, in part due to the fact that it's what might be best described as a "construction kit" for location-based adventures in and around a proverbial "huge ruined pile."

The basic premise of LaM is that, centuries ago, an army of goblinoids laid waste to the mighty city of Mor, reducing it to rubble. Refugees from the city set up a camp to the southwest that eventually grew into the town of Lesserton, from which forays were launched into the ruins to reclaim some of Mor's buried treasures. The Player's Guide to Lesserton provides an overview of Lesserton and its inhabitants, including the Orkin, who are inhabitants that care "the Taint" of orcish blood to varying degrees (and for which random tables of physical traits are provided). Indeed, what's perhaps most interesting about The Player's Guide is how many little rules and random tables are included -- gambling, carousing, contacts and enemies, and background skills. It's a useful little book and I appreciate the fact that Faster Monkey has made it available as a downloadable PDF to give to players.

The Referee's Guide to Lesserton is a more substantial book, the longest in the whole package. As one might expect, it describes Lesserton and its inhabitants in sufficient detail for the referee to use the town both as a home base for PCs adventuring in the ruins of Mor as well as a location for adventures in its own right. There are thus descriptions of the most important locations and businesses, as well as NPC write-ups, encounter and rumor tables, and more little rules for things like haggling, begging, bribery, and more. It's important to stress that all these new rules are simple yet evocative. That is, they aren't mechanically complex -- usually just a roll or two with modifiers and possibly the use of a single table -- but they do lend a lot of color and flavor to life in Lesserton. Likewise, the descriptions of locations, while not exhaustive, do give the referee useful bits of information, such as what might happen if the PCs (or others) attempt to rob the place and what adventures might be sparked by events within.

The Referee's Guide to Mor is a compact book, shorter than one might expect, given its subject matter. That's because, rather than detail the entirety of this ancient ruin, the authors have instead provided a cartographic framework for it consisting of numbered and lettered "septhexes." A septhex consists of seven 120-foot hexes arranged in a flower-like shape that interlocks with other septhexes on the map. Using a series of random tables, the referee can easily determine what's to be found in a septhex -- ruined buildings, archeological finds, food sources, hauntings, monsters, and more. It's a very elegant and straightforward system for describing Mor bit by bit and one for which The Referee's Guide provides an example so that there's no confusion. In addition, there's a full adventure that offers up yet another illustration of how to employ the septhexes and random tables to create a satisfying whole.

But make no mistake: LaM's treatment of the ruins of Mor is a genuine toolkit. It is not playable "out of the box" and requires either some preparation beforehand or a referee accustomed to running adventures extemporaneously as he rolls on a series of tables to determine what the characters encounter as the explore this vast pile of rubble. Consequently, I'd consider LaM an "advanced" product that I wouldn't recommend to a neophyte referee. At the same time, I think it's a terrific example of old school design that demonstrates how much can be achieved by good organization and a series of well made random tables. I'll go further and say that LaM demonstrates quite clearly that the old school renaissance isn't just rehashing the past and has in fact improved over its antecedents when it comes to clarity of presentation, if nothing else. LaM may be best utilized by experienced referees, but it is not confusing -- quite the opposite! -- and that alone is, I think, a genuine advance.

As should be apparent, I really enjoyed Lesserton and Mor and consider it a sterling example of the kinds of product I'd love to see more of: a well-presented supplement that leaves plenty of room for customization by individual referees. Likewise, Lesserton and Mor is an attractive package. Each of its three component books is nicely laid out and edited with no obvious typos, misspellings, or layout missteps one has come to expect in old school products. Steve Zieser's artwork and Mark Allen's cartography both nicely complement the books, as does the laminated wrap-around cover/map, which compares favorably with those produced by TSR in the 1980s.

If there is a single potential "problem" with Lesserton and Mor, it's its price -- $16.00 for the PDF and $29.99 for the printed edition. However, renowned cheapskate that I am, even I find it hard to deny that the prices for both the print and PDF versions of Lesserton and Mor are more than fair. This is a remarkable product, professional in its presentation yet still very much informed by and supportive of hobbyist concerns. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're either an experienced referee looking for a home base and adventuring locale or you're a neophyte comfortable with prep and/or improvisation even when using a published campaign supplement.
Don't Buy This If: You're not looking for a new campaign supplement or prefer that such supplements be completely playable "out of the box."

9 comments:

  1. sold!

    Be back with my review after I drop 16 bucks.

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  2. I've already added it to my wish list, after reading another review over at Dreams in the Lich House. Been looking for something like this to add to my next campaign. Good review.

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  3. Sold again.

    This sounds remarkably like Ancient Merv and Bairam Ali in Turkmenistan, once home to poet, astronomer and alchemist Omar Khayyam, sacked by Mongols rather than goblinoids, and recently discovered to have been a centre of what was previously thought much higher tech (crucible steel production) in the 12th century. If it has a corrugated fortress that'll seal the deal.

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  4. I only illustrated the map of Lesserton but thank you for the mention, James.

    This product ranks with "The Dungeon Alphabet", imho. I received a hard copy of it, and was really impressed. It's very useful material and well-presented.

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  5. My friend already got this and ran a few really good enough sessions. (My PC, a magic-user, has kicked a wild honey addiction, tracked down the elf that stole his spell book, and was last seen hunting for centipede eggs to sell to the guys who run the giant centipede races. Haven't done much much in Mor yet.)

    (some have said that my friend *is* a complete neophyte)

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  7. Big part of my enjoyment of being a DM is the task of creating my own world and my sandbox from the scratch. The next biggest part is watching players forced to think out of the box, making them do all the work to find the proverbial base of operations, a functional safe harbor and then having to look for the provberbial tavern.

    What I find lacking is any good writing on how to conceptualize and create playable settings and adventures. Gygax DMG has a lot of excellent tables for the random adventure design, but nothing comparacle to the excellent guidelines in the Red Box Moldway set. WoTC version of D&D obssesses about the types of walls, etc (Ice, bone walls etc) but gives little useful in the way of writing. THAT FIGURES, they want you to suscribe to THEIR adventures. I think that the Dungeoneer's survival guide has the best writing to my taste on adventure design. Pity that Wilderness Survival Guide does not have anything comparable with regards to wilderness design and wilderness adventureing. Actually NOBODY did a good book on wilderness design that I can think of. I got the D20's Wildscape, but it ha snothing on the way of topography, conceptualization and narrative technique. I figured out the flow of land flow of narrative/mood thing, but still it sucks to have no inspirational reading to spur the creative process.

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  8. Sounds neat. For the price difference I think next payday may see an order for the print product. anyone know if they're carried in stores?

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  9. What I find lacking is any good writing on how to conceptualize and create playable settings and adventures. Gygax DMG has a lot of excellent tables for the random adventure design, but nothing comparacle to the excellent guidelines in the Red Box Moldway set[url=http://www.makeawebguide.com/]website design templates[/url]
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