Tuesday, August 25, 2020

REVIEW: Folk Magic of the Haven Lands

Since 2017, Monkeyblood Design has been detailing the Midderlands, "a twisted version of central England" as viewed "through grime-smeared spectacles." Though ostensibly written for use with Swords & Wizardry, all Midderlands products are easily adapted to your favorite OSR rules system. The latest release for the Midderlands is no different. 

Folk Magic of the Haven Isles (available in hardcover, softcover, and PDF) is a concise 60-page volume offering a collection of new options for magic-users, inspired by the folklore of the actual British Isles (called the Haven Isles in the Midderlands setting). Written by Richard Marpole and with full color illustrations by Glynn Seal, Folk Magic is delightful, filled with not only intriguing takes on magic but the same quirky charm found in all the Midderlands books – a twisted (semi)historical fantasy with bits of absurd, Pythonesque humor.

More importantly, this is a book suffused with a refreshing specificity. Nearly everything in Folk Magic is inspired by real world myths and legends while still being accessible to those unfamiliar with them. In this way, the book avoids being generic and deracinated like so much fantasy these days. There's a groundedness to it all that, for me anyway, is a huge part of its appeal.

The meat of Folk Magic is the eleven new magical sub-classes it introduces. Each one is tied to the traditions of the Haven Isles, providing unique abilities and drawbacks, including spell options and casting styles. Fortunately, each sub-class generally takes up only one or two pages of text, ensuring that any new rules associated with them are straightforward and simple to employ. In most cases, the descriptions focus as much on flavor as on rules, which I think offers a great model to referees looking for ways to customize the magic-users of their own settings. 

The new sub-classes are:

  • Appel Queen or King: Supernaturally inspired brewers (an option for beer making is provided)
  • Bog Chanter: Knowers of the secrets of bogs and marshes.
  • Braag: Magical tricksters who can change into donkeys
  • Demon Slaves: Sorcerers who have aligned themselves with devilry in exchange for great power
  • Faerie Bride or Bridegroom: Individuals who spent time in the realm of the Faeries
  • Green Child: Children raised in the subterranean Middergloom and make their way to the surface
  • Hermetic Magician: Learned scholars of the occult
  • Masked Dancer: Magicians who draw power from the masks and costumes they don
  • Peller: Cunning-folk steeped in the lore of their rural homes
  • Sin Eater: Religious folk who acquire magical abilities by atoning for the sins of magicians
  • Spae Wife: Prophets and weather diviners
  • Stitch Witch: Magicians who demonstrate their powers through magical attire
  • Toadman: Poisoners, gamblers, and con men with batrachian powers
  • Wizard of the Cage: Sorcerers who tend to the sleeping knights fated to help the Haven Isles in its hour of greatest need
As you can see, there is a great deal of variety in the sub-classes. The one thing that unites them is their connection to the folklore of the Midderlands setting. For example, the Braag is more common among the playable goblin race and is reflective of their ways, while the Green Child maintains a connection to the weird green radiation that manifests in physical deformities that can be passed on to others. In every case, there are small tweaks or additions to the basic magic-user class, such as the demon slave's demonic familiar or the spae wife's divinations, that set them apart. It's all so simple and yet evocative, demonstrating that you don't need to deviate too much from the core classes of the D&D tradition in order to create a PC or NPC who is genuinely distinctive.

Folk Magic of the Haven Isles also includes new backgrounds (non-mechanical bits of inspiration), magical tomes (spellbooks with histories of their own), new spells (some limited to specific sub-classes), and oddities, like the mandrake and robin jade-breast. Taken together, it's a neat little package of ideas to inspire referees and players alike, whether they're using the Midderlands setting or not. If nothing else, I hope that we'll see more books like this, not just from Monkeyblood Design, but from other publishers too: charming and idiosyncratic takes on the well worn elements of old school fantasy. There's a surprising amount of life left in these hoary standards. Folk Magic of the Haven Isles brilliantly demonstrates shows this to be the case; others should take note and emulate it.

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