Monday, December 7, 2009

REVIEW: Gazetteer of the Canterbury Isles

The Gazetteer of the Canterbury Isles is the first expansion of the World of Arkara setting, which I reviewed last month. Like its predecessor, it is written by Charles Rice for OSRIC, but is readily convertible to any old school fantasy RPG. The Gazetteer is a 16-page PDF, which sells for the eminently reasonable price of $2. The product uses a simple, two-column layout with a high text density. I found it easy to read and noted no significant typos and editorial issues. Artwork is sparse, consisting of a couple of pieces of black and white line art and two maps, one of which is of the Canterbury Isles themselves (seen on the cover image) and another of the City of Bondaea. Both maps are certainly usable as rough guidelines in play but lack a scale, a problem carried over from the original release.

The Canterbury Isles are located in a frontier area to the northwest of the main continent. While this removes them somewhat from the conflicts on the mainland, that doesn't mean they're idyllic. Originally the home of elves and dwarves, the coming of humans has changed the complexion of the land. Once, there was an accord between all the races, but, two centuries later, it has all but evaporated and humans and elves look set to war upon one another, with the dwarves retreating into the earth to avoid being embroiled in such madness. Though perhaps a little clichéd, the political situation in the Canterbury Isles is nevertheless one ripe with adventuring possibilities, at least if one's tastes tend toward political and/or military adventures. Those looking for more "traditional" adventuring possibilities can certainly find them, of course, but the focus of the product is unambiguously on the tensions between elves and humans.

The gazetteer itself briefly details a few areas on the islands, generally giving each two or three paragraphs of information to each, with a couple receiving lengthier treatments. This is, I think, a good level of detail, especially considering the smaller focus of this product compared to its predecessor. Much more detail is lavished on the city of Bondaea, the largest human settlement. Sixty-one locations are at least named within the city and most of them receive at least a short description, although, again, some receive much more (and others much less). The map does number several buildings without keying them so as to allow referees to add their own sites within the city. I think this is an excellent idea, although many of these undetailed buildings are clustered together rather than evenly spread out the city.

The product provides four pages of NPC descriptions, some of them very lengthy, along game stats for the characters in question. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, good NPCs are worth a great deal to a referee when designing and running adventures and many of the NPCs here are quite well done, intelligently portrayed and suggestive of how they could be used in a game. On the other hand, many of the NPCs are quite important movers and shakers of the Canterbury Isles. That's to be expected, given the emphasis placed on political machinations in this region of the world of Arkara, but I do think the product would have been better served if at least some of its detailed NPCs had been lower level, serving as examples of how to use the political situation "on the ground" to spark interesting adventures. As it stands, the Canterbury Isles strike me as a place where characters might go after they've already been adventuring a while and are looking for a place to establish their strongholds and begin playing politics -- not a bad thing by any means but one that will hold appeal for every referee.

The product concludes with two new character classes, both of which seem to be NPC-oriented. The first is the guardsman, a fighter variant with the chance to see through illusions, detect poisons and traps, and hear noise. He can also become immune to backstab and interpose himself between an opponent and another character, taking the damage on himself. It's an interesting idea for a class, although I'm not certain it'll hold much appeal for player characters. There's also a cloistered cleric class, which is a more scholarly, less martial version of the cleric. I've always been fond of the idea of such a class, ever since I read Len Lakofka's version in Dragon many moons ago. Ironically, despite its medieval inspiration, I think the variant would probably be of interest to referees to make clerics more like swords-and-sorcery-style priests than the "fighter with magic" approach of D&D.

All in all, I'd say that the Gazetteer of the Canterbury Isles is marked improvement over the original World of Arkara in terms of its focus and presentation. It may be a little too focused for some referees, but that's not necessarily a flaw in the product itself. I continue to hope for better maps in future products, ones with scales if nothing else. And while I don't mind new game mechanics where appropriate, I still can't shake the feeling that new game rules are de rigeur in World of Arkara products, even when there's no compelling reason for them. I'll say again that I think there's a lot of potential in Arkara and I hope Rice continues to produce additional expansions for the setting. I fear that the piecemeal way it's being released doesn't play to its strengths, namely its bare bones approach, but that may change as additional regions receive their own gazetteers and we can better see how they fit together into a greater whole.

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

Buy This If: You're keen on political and military style adventures and campaigns.
Don't Buy This If: You're looking for something a place to set a low-level campaign.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review James!

    It's always interesting to see someone else's take on my work.

    One thing that really fascinates me is your perception that the Canterbury Isles is a high-level play area, because the function it has served in my campaign was a low-level place for PCs to escape the mainland turmoil and gain experience.

    Basically, its been the low-level area of my campaign.

    That's really interesting to me.