Friday, November 13, 2009

REVIEW: Locales, Volume One

I've mentioned before that I'm terrible at drawing maps and even dislike the process of doing so much of the time. I am nevertheless a cartophile and often seek out well-done maps of imaginary places, like the Arduin map I reviewed last Spring. Mind you, my preferred types of maps are those that I can use in my gaming. If I can easily find ways to drop them into my campaign or rework them into an existing dungeon or locale, I'm usually very happy.

The Fantasy Cartographic's Locales, Volume One is a good example of a well-done map product. This 46-page PDF (which sells for $3.00) describes nine different locations in varying detail, each with one or maps. Each location includes a physical overview, a brief referee's guide, and one or more "possibilities," which are other ways to use the site and associated maps. None of these locations can simply be used "as-is." Rather, the referee must use them as springboards for his own imagination, filling in details, providing game stats, and generally making them his own. They're thus intended as "raw materials," albeit fairly refined ones, from which the referee can construct his own adventuring sites. Speaking for myself, this is exactly what I want out of products like this: a solid foundation on which I can build.

A couple of highlights of Locales are:
  • The Column Fortress at Deep Rushing: Consisting of eighteen different levels, this is probably the most impressive and evocative locale in the product. The fortress is carved from a gigantic column of rock within a mammoth cavern. The un-keyed maps, with their many winding stairs, are absolutely terrific, and I'm planning on swiping some of them for use in Dwimmermount.
  • The Temple Tomb of Bgixilidynon: Unpronounceable name aside, this resting place for a demonic artifact has become warped and twisted, seemingly defying the lays of reality, as it warps around and through itself. Not as complex as a tesseract, the temple tomb is nonetheless a place where normal physical laws don't apply and mapping might prove mind-bending.
Not all of the locales described in Locales are as imaginative -- or as well-mapped -- as these two, but all of them are useful, even those that are little more than a one-page collection of caverns or ruins. What sets them apart is that they're more than just maps. Designer Nicholas Kristof has provided both descriptions and context for all these maps and these small bits of detail make all the difference. Knowing which direction the waters flow in The Cavern at S'siyerteresk Falls is useful information, the kind of thing that can inspire a referee when he grabs one of these locations and decides to insert it into an upcoming adventure. The same goes for the suggestive information about the cult of the Temple of Elemental Law -- just enough to spark ideas without doing all the referee's work for him.

If I have a criticism of Locales, Volume One, it's the unevenness of the nine entries. While even the shortest and most straightforward locations are useful, they suffer greatly in comparison to their more inspired fellows. I would have preferred more locations of the caliber of, say, the Column Fortress, even if it meant fewer locations overall. I suspect that some might also find the overviews a bit sparse, but that's a criticism I don't share. I like the austerity of the presentation, as it's the maps that are most important to me, as they should be to anyone purchasing a product like this.

There does not appear to be a successor volume to this one and that's a shame. I'd love to see more products in this line and hope, if they should ever appear, that they provide more unusual and exotic locations. For guys like me who have trouble mapping even a simple dungeon, a collection of really bizarre location maps would be a godsend.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If:
You just need some well-done maps and are prepared to fill in the details on your own.
Don't Buy This If: You're expecting fully fleshed out adventuring sites.


  1. As of this writing, it appears to be on sale for $2.75.

    To be honest, looking at the preview and seeing the thumbnail sample maps for the Column Fortress makes it worth every penny.

  2. definitely worth a look-- just hearing about them, I didn't really see the point. ("How good does a map need to be? The palyers don't see it anyway.") But having looked at them, I'm almost ready to buy. the photographs of the locations added a lot for me, too-- I don't know whether it's the strong suggestion that these fantasy locales are part of a complex larger environment or the equally strong suggestion that the notable geographic features of my own world might hide similarly fantastic caverns, temples, and fortresses.

  3. That's a wonderful looking column of dungeon!---thanks for reviewing this product, James, as I wouldn't have found out about it otherwise, I fear.

    I have a similar level concept that I did within my Underground Lake Level for S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and I had some conceptual issues with how best to map it. I think the preview may have solved them, either by using some/all of their levels, or by allowing me to better frame how I could render what I've been imagining.

    Thanks again! :D


  4. A very interesting coincidence...I have a cery similar idea to the "column fortress" in my own megadungeon. And, to add to the irony, I based it on a mish-mash of A. Merritt stories after I got the itch re-read them after reading reviews on this website.

    Keep writing your columns and reviews, James! They are really giving me tons of ideas for my campaign!

  5. A cool idea with a source material like this is to use one of the detailed locations as some sort of central point of the game setting. For example an underground based campaign (like Underdark underground) where the column fortress is the big safe place where the players start out - like the Keep in B1 or more so in the Hackmaster version.

    Are there any sci-fi maps from this group or that someone would suggest? I may be running either 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars or Mechwarrior: A Time of War campaign in the new year.

  6. James,

    Thanks for the favorable review! There is a Volume 2 in the works--hopefully it will be out soon.

    Nick Kristof

  7. I bought it and will probably find it useful in one of my campaigns.

    However, the maps are more linear than I would ideally like. There are a *few* places where multiple paths are offered, but not very many, and many of them are concealed behind secret doors.

  8. Guy,

    You're right that the maps are (mostly) very linear in nature, but I'm OK with that. I don't see these as potential megadungeons (where multiple paths are important) but more as "lairs," which is to say, more limited dungeons you use once or twice and then fully clear out. They're perfect for that role.

  9. You're great James. I'm gonna buy it.