Wednesday, August 20, 2008

REVIEW: Points of Light

Points of Light, written by Robert Conley and Dwayne Gillingham, packs more old school goodness in its 48 pages than any product published in 2008 has any right to. Don't believe me? Take a look at the 11-page PDF preview and then come back here. Even a quick skim of that preview will make it clear what I'm talking about. Quite simply: Points of Light is the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for the 21st century -- and in some ways it's better. Hyperbole comes easily to me, doesn't it? Perhaps. Let's take a closer look at the book before continue with my effusive praise.

Points of Light describes four different settings, each one broadly consonant with the notion of a dangerous wilderness punctuated by small outposts of civilization. As everyone knows, this is the default setting assumption of 4e and the book's title is an allusion to it. I'll grant you that, when I first heard the title, I wasn't enthused. Like most things about 4e, "Points of Light," as a phrase, reminds me too much of my college philosophy classes, where 18 year-olds, confronted with Plato's dialogs for the first time, suddenly think thoughts they believe no one has ever thought before, failing to realize of course that Plato has been read and analyzed for 2500 years and that there are very likely no new thoughts about the great thinker. By the same token, "points of light" isn't new at all; it's been a setting assumption of D&D from the start. The formalization of the concept -- and the creation of jargon to describe it -- is a good indicator to me of how rootless 4e is, but that's a topic for another time. I don't blame the authors of Goodman Games for adopting the title in an effort to sell the product to players of the new edition, who could certainly learn a few things about the old school from its tightly-written pages.

Despite its title, Points of Light is not, in fact, a 4e product; indeed it's not a product for any system, since it contains almost no game stats at all. What stats it does include, such as references to classes and levels, for example, suggests that it's intended for D&D, but I have no doubt it'd be easily adaptable to any fantasy roleplaying game built on the same concepts as D&D. I was mostly quite pleased with this approach, as it increased the utility of the book a great deal and makes adaptation a snap. My only quibble -- and it's a tiny one -- is that some "high-level" NPCs are in fact given specific levels (Clr12, for instance). I'd have preferred that such things remain vague, so each referee could decide for himself what constitutes high-level. Now, such things are supremely easy to change, so I cannot complain too vociferously. I know from experience, though, that, if something is written in the book, at least some referees or players will expect it to be so and, in a toolkit product like this, the fewer expectations that are introduced, the better.

The meat of the book are the four settings it describes, each with an accompanying one-page hex map (each hex representing 5 miles). Each setting is given a capsule history of three or four paragraphs to "set the scene" and Adaptation Notes that give some ideas about how to customize it to suit the needs and interests of each referee. There is also a table of random encounters and random rumors to give the referee something from which to work in making the settings his own. The descriptions of the settings are divided into sections: Geography, describing terrain features and Locales, describing fixed "encounters," whether they be settlements, monster lairs, ruins, etc. Each hex is numbered and there is an entry in the appropriate section if the hex contains anything noteworthy. These entries are typically no more than a single paragraph, with a few (generally settlements) containing a little more detail (and possibly a thumbnail map). There's just enough detail here to spur the referee's own imagination and give a sense of a greater whole, but not so much that it's hard to change the details if so desired.

The four settings included in Points of Light are as follows:
  • Wildland: An area analogous to an outlying province of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. -- after the legions have gone. As its name suggests, it's a "wild" region, overrun with humanoid and barbarian tribes and only a few small outposts of civilization that cling to the old ways.
  • Southland: An homage to the Outdoor Survival map of which OD&D often speaks, this setting is an untamed area "to the south" of civilized kingdoms and where the PCs are expected to go and establish themselves as local lords.
  • Borderland: This is a war-torn area where several different factions seek the upper hand. It's a good locale for referees and players who like moral ambiguity and intrigue.
  • Swamps of Acheron: The most unusual of the four settings, this one is located in an extraplanar realm dedicated to a Lawful Evil god, meaning that it's also the most limited of the settings. It's also the shortest of the four settings (and the one with the smallest map), which can be seen as either good or bad, depending on one's proclivities
Of the four settings, I found that both Wildland and Southland fired my imagination powerfully and I am already torn between using one or the other as the basis for a new campaign. Borderland is also excellent, but it's a bit less "primal" than the other two. The Swamps of Acheron is a puzzle. There are lots of good ideas within its description, but it's also very esoteric, being extraplanar in nature and the realm of an evil god. Its utility is much less than that of the other three, but the other three are so well-done that I scarcely minded. And of course, the Swamps of Acheron is good; it's just not as good in my opinion as the others, but tastes differ on such things.

The layout of the book is simple and usable. The illustrations are nice black and white pieces, definitely contemporary in their appearance but not of the Elmore strike-a-pose school. The writing is generally very clear and concise, with only a few infelicities here and there. The hex maps are simply gorgeous, a beautiful melding of old school sensibilities with modern technology. Indeed, that's how I could characterize Points of Light in general. It's an old school product with new school production values. The book even includes an extensive index, making it easy to find things, which is a nice if somewhat unnecessary touch in a book of this size. All in all, the presentation of Points of Light should serve as a model for how old school publishers present their own products. I'd have liked different interior art, for the most part, but it's not a huge issue and, given that the book is intended to appeal to a broad spectrum of fantasy gamers, I can't fault Goodman Games for not going with something more strongly connected to older forms of illustration.

If Points of Light has a significant flaw, it's the intimation of a larger setting when you look at all four regions it describes. Certain names, historical events, and concepts reappear throughout the book. Now, none of these things gets much -- or any -- explication in the text, so it's not a huge concern. My worry, I suppose, is that there will be a temptation to use these names and so forth as the basis for creating a larger setting that encompasses them all, as was done with the Dungeon Crawl Classics line. The desire to find coherence and unity where there is no need for either is a powerful force in the RPG hobby today. As it stands, Points of Light gives us the thinnest of details, a pencil outline on a broad canvas that we can then color to our own liking. However, I am sure there will be gamers out there who'd like to know more about the history of the Bright Empire or the teachings of the goddess Delaquain and game publishers have a tendency to cater to such obsessives. I'd hate to see that happen, but I can hardly fault this book for what might or might not happen in possible sequels to it.

Leaving aside my concerns for a future that might not be, Points of Light is nearly perfect -- so perfect in fact that I can reasonably call it the Wilderlands of High Fantasy for the next generation. Like its illustrious predecessor, this is a product that's meant to be used rather than pored over for trivial details. One cannot (yet) talk about the intricacies of any of its settings, because they simply don't exist. In that respect, I think it has more utility than the Wilderlands, but then the Wilderlands has had almost three decades of support products. Given that much time, I fear the "world" of Points of Light would be just as detailed. I hope that does not occur; I hope that the toolkit approach of this volume is kept pristine.

The animating philosophy behind this great book is "imagine the hell out of it," a do-it-yourself perspective that is positively refreshing in a hobby filled with brand building and canned settings. Points of Light is gaming at its best -- a call to each referee to use these raw materials to create their own worlds of the imagination rather than relying on the pabulum spoon fed by game companies looking to develop an IP. I have no idea if Points of Light will appeal to today's gamers; I'd love to find out that it sold like gangbusters. That'd be proof that the old ways aren't quite dead, that the kind of gaming I enjoy is still cherished. Regardless, this is a terrific book and I can't speak highly enough about it. Go out and buy a copy and see for yourself.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms


  1. I have no idea if Points of Light will appeal to today's gamers; I'd love to find out that it sold like gangbusters.

    Well, when I got to my FLGS on Saturday, there was only one copy left. Naturally, I bought it.

    I don't know how many they got in the first place, though.

    Great review! I agree 100%. I think instead of trying to top this, I'm just going to link to it on my blog.

  2. Your review is great. Not just because it praises the work that Dwayne, Tim, Goodman Games, and I have done but also the criticism is exactly the type of feedback I am looking for.

    Points of Light is an experiment. I stated in my introduction that little work have been done in this area so unlike adventure modules we don't have a lot of examples of this type of stuff.

    A couple of comments on specific points. Consider them design notes.

    Yes I share concepts between the four settings. Yes it will allow us to do a traditional setting book if PoL sells as series. However that is actually a minor design goal. There were two main reasons for this. 1) Keeping within 48 pages, 2) Making reading that other three setting useful even if you only like one.

    Think of Points of Light as like being like DC Comics old Showcase Comic. Each issue had a different Superhero some appearing in multiple issues, some not really related to the DC Universe. If one is really liked by the fans that hero got his or her own series.

    The next one, Beyond the Sunrise Sea, the Four settings are still separate but because of the "New World" theme, they are more easily tied together. But in the third Points of Light I don't see many connections between the four settings.

    For this Points of Light; The lands are not just in different locations but are in different times of the "shared setting". The order is Borderlands, Wildland, and Southland. This makes the situation of the prisoners/slaves in Acheron very weird. I didn't put this in any of the introductions because frankly it wasn't as important as the other details I wanted in.

    I agree Swamps of Acheron is both different and esoteric. I deliberately combined a adventure setting with a mini sourcebook on Sarrath's Religion. Of the four setting this is taken nearly directly out of my Majestic Wilderlands. Dwayne was instrumental in writing the details I forgotten about in addition with adding new details like the dark dwarves, the lectuca plantation, etc. However the pillars and religion material are my addition.

    Mazatl, the outer plane setting in Beyond the Sunrise Sea, is very different in feel than Acheron.I think you will find that one more useful. At some point I will try another variation of what I tried to do in Acheron. Hopefully executing it better. Note that I am saying this not just because of your criticism.

    Note: Dwayne also did most of Wildlands as well as brutally (to a good end) picked apart the other lands.

    Finally difference between Acheron and the other three lands is an important illustration of what I hope for the future of Points of Light. Because of the format, myself and other authors will be able to take a chance . With four per book, there will always be one setting that is useful to the majority of gamers. So the risk of presenting a unusual setting is minimal. With the first Points of Light, Acheron is where I try be different.

    Again thanks for the excellent review

    Rob Conley

    Rob Conley

  3. > By the same token, "points
    > of light" isn't new at all;
    > it's been a setting
    > assumption of D&D from the
    > start.

    My knowledge only extends back as far as the 1980 Greyhawk setting folio, but Greyhawk definitely wasn't a Points of Light setting. It had mega-cities and empires and huge swathes of lawful land.

    Admittedly, I have no idea how the Greyhawk products reflect the original campaign.

  4. Admittedly, I have no idea how the Greyhawk products reflect the original campaign.

    Not very well. The published World of Greyhawk is in fact quite different than Gygax's original campaign, which used a completely different map and had far fewer cities and countries than what we see now in the setting. Now, to be fair, Gary eventually "updated" his home campaign to the new one he'd created, as I understand it, so you're at least partially correct. However, other older settings, like Blackmoor and the Wilderlands are very "points of light" in presentation, as was the pre-publication Forgotten Realms and, ironically, Krynn.

  5. Good stuff. I am really enthusiastic about the prospect of micro settings, and I am not at all worried about the prospect of their being "strung together" at some stage. That would simply be one variation amongst many possibilities.

    Indeed, existing campaign worlds could be cut up to form micro settings with not much trouble at all. A kind of jig saw puzzle with numerous (perhaps infinite) combinations.

    The Castle Zagyg campaign setting first got me thinking about this. The East Mark doesn't quite map onto Oerth, so instead of trying to shoe horn it in, why not rebuild Oerth around it? An if you do that, then why stick to just Oerth? Break the shackles of the "campaign world".

    Looks to be a great product (though I agree exact levels could have been left out, and I thought Myrimidon was a poor name for an Anti Paladin). I am looking forward to getting hold of the complete thing, and maybe mixing it into my upcoming Castle Zagyg campaign.

  6. The animating philosophy behind this great book is "imagine the hell out of it," a do-it-yourself perspective that is positively refreshing in a hobby filled with brand building and canned settings.

    Totally agree.

    I can tolerate any level of rules vagueness, from the "just roll dice and let the GM make it up" of Over the Edge to the "You have no Eat Breakfast skill so you get hungry and die" of GURPS. But like you, I want my settings to be sketchy and inspirational rather than be a catalog of crappy details and history into which I have to wedge a character concept or story idea.

    I didn't ever run an RPG with a canned setting (except for games like Star Wars or Castle Falkenstein, where the setting was the Big Feature) after I got tired of Greyhawk in the 80s. I didn't understand exactly why back then, but it drove me crazy that the Greyhawk box set came with that big beautiful map. In hindsight, I think I didn't like how it distracted the game from the player characters and their immediate surroundings and replaced it with a big, vague, geopolitical thing that I didn't really understand.

    After all, the map is the biggest, most beautiful thing in the box -- it must be the centerpiece of the game, right?

  7. I'm glad some one has finally released a do-it-yourself setting, akin to the Keep on the Borderlands.

    I have been playing D&D for years, and I rarely ever got into playing in published settings. I like to borrow this and that from different settings, but I hate to restrict myself to the deep academic history, the dogmatic cannons, and the endless flow of meta-plot information of published settings.

    I found out long ago that world spanning empires, and peaceful kingdoms are not as fun as the savage frontiers style settings that made the early settings so much fun! I also find it really funny how Wizards is passing this points of light concept as a new thing or the next big step in gaming evolution! It has alway been around, even in the years of the fatty fluff books craze. Gamers have been carving rich game worlds from nothing, and that I say, is D&D greatest strength, and it gives players some sense of ownership.

  8. However, other older settings, like Blackmoor and the Wilderlands are very "points of light" in presentation, as was the pre-publication Forgotten Realms and, ironically, Krynn.

    Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance were "Points of Light" settings?????

    Please, do tell.

  9. Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance were "Points of Light" settings?????

    Please, do tell.

    If you read Ed Greenwood's original articles, the Realms was a setting where there were few organized kingdoms and vast swaths of unexplored and uninhabited territory, filled with ruins, monsters, and squabbling city-states. You can see echoes of this in the 1e boxed set.

    Krynn, as a setting, is one that's recovering from a divine apocalypse. There are few large settlements and almost no significant centers of power outside of those controlled by the dragon armies. The whole point of those modules was to play out the restoration of order and light to a world cloaked in shadows.

  10. I sang praises for Points of Light yesterday at my LGS, James, borrowing heavily from your review here. Guess the next step for me is buying the book myself!

  11. I had been giving this book a wide birth due to the misconception that it was a 4e product, but thanks to a mention of your review over at the Swords & Wizardry forums, I now discover it is something I should have acquired some time ago and will be making a beeline to a FLGS as soon as possible.

    Thanks for such an excellent review.

    - Neil.