Tuesday, May 24, 2011

REVIEW: Red Tide

I've come to realize that I take PDFs far less seriously than I take printed books. That's probably why I'm far more quick to read and review printed products sent to me than those in electronic form. That's not necessarily a comment on the quality of the products in question by any means, since I only own the product I'm about to review, Sine Nomine's Red Tide, in PDF form, but it is a comment on my own idiosyncrasies.

Until last weekend, when one of the players in my Thousand Suns playtest group brought a printed copy of Red Tide over my house, I'd barely looked at the PDF author Kevin Crawford so kindly sent to me some weeks ago. When I did, I soon realized that I'd been foolish not to do so, for Red Tide is, in many ways, to fantasy what Stars Without Number is to science fiction. The analogy isn't perfect, since, to start, Red Tide isn't a complete game but rather a setting supplement to Labyrinth Lord, but it's nevertheless a good one, since, like Crawford's earlier effort, Red Tide is, ultimately, a toolkit for running a sandbox campaign.

Red Tide takes its name from a magical catastrophe that overtook the world, a wall of crimson mist issuing forth from the sea and consuming all in its wake. Its arrival was foreseen years before by a wizard named Lammach, who prepared to save a portion of the Ninefold Celestial Empire by taking it in a vast fleet to safety somewhere. That somewhere proved to be an archipelago in the far-off Western Sea known as the Sunset Isles. There, Lammach and the survivors of the Empire and other nation destroyed by the Tide began the process of rebuilding their shattered civilizations.

Of course, things aren't that simple. Though the Sunset Isles are largely protected from the Red Tide because of the presence of veins of a mysterious stone called "godbone," that doesn't prevent it from occasionally extending its tendrils and leaving behind Tidespawn monstrosities to wreak havoc. Likewise, when the refugees arrived, the Isles were already inhabited by tribes of intelligent beings that, were it not for their strange skin colors and fearsome manner of dress, might easily pass for human beings. Calling themselves the Shou, one human culture calls them by various names -- bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs. The Shou hate humans and see them as invaders and, under the leadership of their witch-priestesses, they've waged many wars against them.

Red Tide is 171 pages, divided into 11 chapters and an index. The first two chapters provide an overview of the setting and its history in just enough detail to understand the setting but not so much as to be tedious. The third chapter described the various peoples of the Sunset Isles, both the refugees and the native Shou. What I find particularly interesting is that the Ninefold Celestial Empire is a fantastic China analog ruled by mages. But the Empire was vast and had subjects of many cultures and they, too, are represented among the survivors of the Red Tide. Likewise, other cultures, such as the Viking-like Skandr and the demihuman dwarves and elves, also escaped the world's end and can be found living cheek by jowl with the Imperials. This provides a good in-game excuse for an adventuring party consisting of both European and Asian character types, with fantasy non-humans thrown in for good measure. It also lends the Isles a cosmopolitan flavor without either being patronizing or inaccessible.

The fourth and fifth chapters provide overviews of the Sunset Isles -- maps, wilderness encounter tables, places of interest, societies, cultures, governments, and religions. Though more detailed than the history sections earlier by necessity, Crawford continues to maintain a good balance between providing too much and too little information. When purchasing a campaign setting, one expects some of the "hard work" to already be done for you, but there can be too much of a good thing and Red Tide never comes close to that particular vice.

The sixth chapter is a useful one on the role of adventurers on the Sunset Isles. It's a valuable look at all the standard Labyrinth Lord classes to help players and referees alike integrate them into the setting. In some cases, there are mild tweaks to the standard rules, such as granting halflings a +4 bonus to saving throws against fear, as well as a handful of new classes, like Shou witches and the Vowed, which is a nicely done version of the monk for Labyrinth Lord. There are also elven scions, which are elven souls reborn in human bodies. Unlike normal elves, they don't cast spells but instead possess "wyrds," which are a new type of magic power, described in the seventh chapter, along with new spells for all classes and magic items. The eighth chapter gives us a bestiary of original monsters.

The real meat of Red Tide and what will likely make it of interest even to gamers disinterested in its setting comes in the ninth chapter. Here, Crawford offers up a wide variety of tables for use in sandbox play. Everything from courts to borderland sites to city sites to ruins are given careful treatment, each with unique tables that not give the referee the ability to describe a locale with a handful of dice rolls but also to create adventure hooks and NPCs associated with it. Readers familiar with Star Without Number will see a number of similarities in this chapter, but I should make it clear that this is no simple port from one game to another. What appears in this chapter is almost entirely new and tailored both to fantasy and to the Sunset Isles setting. There are also special sections on NPC groups, like "outlaws" or "tide cultists," with quick stats for ease of use and a table of "twists" that give each encounter with them the potential to be memorable. All in all, it's a great chapter and probably worth the $7.99 price of the PDF alone.

The tenth chapter lays bare the "secrets of the mist," which is to say, all the hidden aspects of the game setting. I really appreciate this, because Crawford holds nothing back, explaining, for example, what the Red Tide is and why it has come. This gives the referee a leg up in evaluating what details of the published setting he might wish to change and what the effects of doing so might be. Likewise, it ensures that future supplements (should there be any) won't contain any setting-shattering surprises that might catch him off-guard.

The eleventh and final chapter is a collection of "resources" that, again, should be familiar to readers of Stars Without Number. There are random tables of names for each culture (both personal and place names), quick NPC creation, room dressing, and generic maps that can be used either as-is or as part of a clever-presented geomorphic system. Armed with these resources, it'd be very easy to create entire locations on the fly, which is exactly what's needed in a sandbox campaign.

If Red Tide has a flaw, it's that it's a bit more specific than was Stars Without Number. That is, it presents a detailed setting for sandbox play and, while its tables and resources can most assuredly be used in other contexts without too much trouble, they probably work best if used in conjunction with the Sunset Isles. I don't personally think that's a big deal, since the Isles are very well done and interesting. I think they'll be of particular interest to gamers who like to mix and match between the myths and legends of East and West in their fantasy campaigns. Likewise, Crawford's takes on staples of D&D-style fantasy, such as elves or goblinoid races, are different enough without being wholly alien that I think they could be inspirational even to those who don't want to use the whole Red Tide setting.

Ultimately, though, Red Tide's specificity is a small quibble. With this product, Kevin Crawford has once again demonstrated that he's a man to watch in old school gaming these days. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're in the market for a well done East-meets-West post-apocalyptic fantasy setting with traditional elements or if you're looking for a variety of useful tools for sandbox play.
Don't Buy This If: You don't want a new fantasy setting or if you're not interested in sandbox-style play.


  1. Thanks for the review, James--I've seen this cover posted a couple of times but never felt inclined to pop a peek at it. This has definitely changed my mind and I'll grab a copy as soon as I get the chance!

  2. I've been thinking about springing for the HC. Thanks for the review!

  3. The PDF preview intrigues me. I might go for it now.

  4. "You're in the market for a well done East-meets-West post-apocalyptic fantasy setting..."

    This sounds like a very narrow nitch in the RPG market place to me.

  5. Perhaps, more if you're in the market for 'an original fantasy setting'.

  6. "This sounds like a very narrow nitch in the RPG market place to me."

    I agree with Wulfgar22, it's the unique factor that makes it stand out.

    So much fantasy is vanilla that it's hard to tell one from another.

  7. It's not exactly a vanilla setting, but if you like non-eurocentric fantasy it's pretty good. I think it strikes a good balance between useful tidbits and just crap.

    And chapters 9 and 11 are useful tools for just about any sandbox campaign - I've started using them for my own campaign, and I believe that they alone are worth the asking price of the PDF.

    (Of course, if you don't have the time or inclination to create your own sandbox, it's an even better value.)

  8. On a separate but related note, I find PDF publishing to be where a lot of the most exciting things are happening in RPGs. Even better, I can grab many of those exciting new ideas for only a few bucks, and they don't contribute to bloat on my already overcrowded shelves. These days, I'm much more likely to buy a PDF than a printed book, even if both are available.