Thursday, November 5, 2009

REVIEW: World of Arkara

World of Arkara: Gazetteer of the Known World is a 25-page PDF written by Charles Rice, which outlines an original fantasy setting for use with OSRIC, along with setting-specific rules variants. Its brevity recalls Gary Gygax's original The World of Greyhawk folio, but its presentation is frustratingly different. The product is divided into three sections, of which the shortest is the actual gazetteer. The other two sections detail the gods of the setting and character options and each is lengthier than the four and a half pages devoted to the physical and socio-cultural aspects of the world.

World of Arkara's layout is simple and readable, which I find a virtue in a hobby whose products frequently have unnecessarily "busy" layouts. There are only a handful of illustrations -- four, to be precise -- and all are quite serviceable, if not particularly interesting. There is a single map of the setting included, which is unfortunately lacking a scale, making it hard to tell just how far apart its continents and islands are from one another. Similarly, nothing on the map is labeled except for various kingdoms and regions, not even the mountains, forests, and occasional river that are detailed. This makes the map next to useless except in giving a very vague sense of things: "The Battlegrounds are north of the Shadow Realm" and so on. The text itself is reasonably clear and I noticed no significant editorial issues that affected my ability to read the product.

The first section of the book runs seven pages and details the three pantheons of Arkara: the Pantheon of Light, the Pantheon of Darkness, and the Gray Pantheon, each associated with a particular ethical alignment grouping, namely good, evil, and neutrality respectively. Each deity write-up includes useful details, such as sacred animals, holy days, clerical vestments, and so on. In addition, clerics of each god have access to certain additional spells normally usable only by another spellcasting class, such as charm person in the case of clerics of Asteria, the goddess of love, beauty, and marriage. The Pantheon of Light is the largest of the three, but none of its deities are described beyond the little details I noted earlier. Meanwhile, the gods of the Pantheon of Darkness are fewer in number and each gets a paragraph or more discussing their religion and role in the world. The Gray Pantheon is the smallest of the three and is treated similarly to the Pantheon of Light in terms of detail.

The second section of the book runs four and a half pages and presents an overview of the realms and regions of Arkara. Each realm or region is given a description that runs for at least one paragraph, but most get several more. This presents the most basic information about each locale, along with some snippets of history, and who (if anyone) rules the area in question. This section is something of a mixed bag. Some areas struck me as too thinly detailed about which to gain any impression, while others inspired ideas in me. Most of them suffer, in my opinion, from having fairly banal names -- Chariot Highlands, Fire Island, Realm of the Sun King -- which made it hard to get a feel for Arkara. Creating good names is difficult and there's no consensus on what constitutes a good name, but I found myself wishing there was a bit more "punch" to Arkara's naming conventions, which came across to me as rather bland.

The third section of the book is devoted to characters and includes one new character class, the Crusader, and options for "tweaking" existing classes. The Crusader is a bit like a weaker paladin without alignment restrictions. The class lacks spells but can heal, turn undead, and gains bonus damage against Crusaders of opposing orders. While I see nothing wrong with the class, it seemed somewhat superfluous to me, at least without more setting-based context. Class variants include the Anti-Paladin (Paladin), Bounty Hunter (Ranger), Hunter (Ranger), and Poacher (Ranger). Each of these drops or alters existing abilities so as to offer a slightly different take on the original archetype. There's also a section on "Character Class Flavor" that provides some setting-based context for the standard classes. This was welcomed, although, again, it's a mixed bag, with some classes, like the magic-user, getting many paragraphs of detail, and others, like assassins or druids, receiving very little. Concluding the section is a social class and advancement system and a discussion of crime and punishment. An appendix provides some details for players wishing to use OSRIC Unearthed in Arkara.

In the end, I'm left with very mixed feelings about World of Arkara. There's definitely potential here, but that potential hasn't yet been fulfilled. For a product calling itself a gazetteer, there was too little information on the world itself. I know that Rice plans to do a series of follow-up products that focus on each of the realms/regions -- one is already available and will be reviewed here soon -- but I nevertheless think the initial product should provide more information than it does on this score. As it is, there's not enough to grab me and make me want to use this setting, particularly given the weakness of the map, which is simply too undetailed to be usable.

Similarly, I think there are too many new rules and rules tweaks presented here. While I do like the clerical spell options, which reminds me of The World of Greyhawk, the additional character class and variant classes are unnecessary and took up space better spent on fleshing out the setting. It's here, I think, where Rice's background as a D20 writer shows most clearly. The D20 market was very "crunch-heavy" and its fans demanded new rules and rules variants. That's not (generally) the old school approach, where new rules and rules variants are introduced sparingly and as needed rather than according to some a priori plan.

World of Arkara sells at $3.00, which is a fair price for what you get. For an additional dollar, you can purchase a bundle that includes this product, a regional description of the Canterbury Isles, and an adventure. That's a very good deal, even considering my qualms about the initial release. For my part, I'll reiterate that I think the Arkara setting has potential and it will be interesting to see if Rice can fulfill it. I nevertheless do think this product could have been stronger than it is and hope there will be a revised and expanded edition in the future.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a sketch of a setting you can loot for ideas.
Don't Buy This If: You're looking for a latter day World of Greyhawk-style folio product.


  1. Good, evil and neutral pantheons? Each with its own custom cleric variant? Sounds more like Dragonlance than Greyhawk...

  2. They aren't variant clerics as in classes. Each has a few additional spells added to their spell lists.

  3. One thing I'd like to point out... the initial book was left sparse on purpose.

    I really wanted the campaign to be as much the GM's as anyone's, and wanted a generic enough world to accommodate almost any module.

    This isn't to disagree with James' review. Maybe I went to the other extreme from the Forgotten Realms model.

    But my goal with the gazetteer was a very, very high-level view, followed by more information on various regions if the game master was interested.

    As its name implies, I view the "starter kit" (the bundle) as an almost ideal place to jump into the world for the DM who needs or wants more, and I tried to price the bundle attractively.

    James also raised some points that I will address, like not thinking to put a scale on the map.

  4. Regarding the map Charles, would you like me to draw you a better one?

    This is a serious, no money involved offer, it would take me around 3 weeks to come up with a good map (not because it takes that long but i got to do other stuff too :-p).

    drop me a line if you are interested at: fbudinichd (at) gmail (dot) com