Monday, July 17, 2023

REVIEW: The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams

Roleplaying games set in the past of the real world, whether played straight or including an element of the fantastical, have always been hard sells. A big reason for this, I think, is that gamers, even well-read ones with access to the vast store of information that is the Internet, often lack for practical resources to support play in past ages. By "practical resources," I mean the kinds of things that RPGs with wholly imaginary settings include without a second thought, like appropriate equipment lists, details about law and order, information about society and culture – or maps.

Now, maps might seem like a small thing, perhaps even a relatively unimportant one. After all, we all know what a castle or a mansion or a church looks like, right? Even assuming that's true – which experience has taught me it is not – the matter isn't as simple as it might appear, especially when you're dealing with locales within a specific time and place. One might know what a mansion house looks like in, say, England during the 1920s, but what about the 1820s? What about a mansion house in France or Germany or the United States? With enough qualifiers and specificity, the questions become a lot more vexed and the work of the referee much more onerous.

Enter The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams (hereafter simply Works) by Glynn Seal. Written for and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it's a beautifully made – and supremely useful – 126-page hardcover volume consisting of nearly 100 maps of 17th-century buildings and sailing vessels from Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the New World. The book's framing device, as presented in its introduction, is that the maps were all made by the Englishman John Benjamin Williams in 1674. Williams was employed as a cartographer and architect by the Staffortonshire Trading Company, a vocation that took all across the globe, from England to North America to Europe and into the Ottoman Empire and beyond. During his time with the trading company, Williams also acted as a spy for English crown, thereby providing an explanation for some of the more unusual places he visited – and created maps for – during his travels. 

The included maps are quite varied, covering fairly mundane locations (shops, houses, churches), more socially sophisticated ones (mansions, colleges, palaces), highly specialized ones (ships, water mill, lighthouse), and the truly unusual (cockfighting theater, mineshaft, whaling station). Furthermore, a number of singular locations also receive attention, such as Dudley Castle, the Kremlin, the Palais de Tuileries, and the Jamestown settlement of colonial Virginia. As you can see, the locales are remarkably diverse, both in terms of purpose and geography. There's naturally a heavy focus on western Europe, with England and France predominating, but that doesn't in any way detract from the utility of this book to anyone playing or refereeing a game set in the 17th century.

All of the maps include a key and a scale and many of them also include an illustration depicting the building or vessel. These illustrations are as useful as the maps themselves, since they serve as visualization aids – something that's very important in historical RPGs in my experience. After all, it's one thing to know what a generic mansion or church looks like, but what did such things look like in the 1600s? Beyond that, these illustrations include significant additional details, like the materials used in their construction, which adds to the sense of time and place that are vital to the success of historical roleplaying game adventures. 

Of course, this attention to detail should come as no surprise. Glynn Seal, the author and cartographer of Works, has previously produced numerous fantasy RPG products whose maps are similarly detailed and useful. Likewise, Lamentations of the Flame Princess products are always exceptionally well made, with superb paper quality and binding. This one is no exception, featuring as it does thick, parchment like paper that adds to the illusion that this is a book from the 17th century. Merely as an artifact, Works is a joy to hold and peruse. That it's also so useful to players and referees of any RPG set in the 17th century, only increases its value.

The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams is available in both print and PDF formats. If you're interested in seeing what the interior of the book looks like, Glynn Seal has provided lots of photographs and a helpful video here.


  1. The map book might be very good, but the time period does not match my campaign.

    I found the 17th century setting of LotFP to be one of its weaknesses (not the worst one...). How can you have PC elves, dwarves, etc. and have a 17th century setting? More to the point, why have a setting that's "the real world plus magic" when you have written adventures that destroy whole cities (because a PC untied a knot) or depopulate whole continents? The world won't be much like the real 17th century after an adventure like that.

    1. The idea is weird history – Lamentation uses the 17th century as a starting point. Certainly there is a high likelihood events are going to veer off in new directions from established history pretty quick, but as a campaign much like your average Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms campaigns you have towns, major cities, geographic features, unexplored territories, as well as wars, major NPCs and a living history that can barrel along until PC muck about with it. As to elves, dwarves, giants, and such, I expect I am not alone in meeting folks you could reasonably describe as elf-like, dwarf-like, etc. So the LotFP rules just turn this up a notch. Anyhow, my intentions in LotFP weird history is a future heading off in whatever directions just like any regular RPG campaign.

  2. It is a beautiful book. I haven't used it for anything per se but it's very nice to flip through and get ideas

  3. Fascinating. I did not know this existed. Thanks for the review!

  4. I’ve found the book to be a great reference. I’ve liked 17th century europe as a setting since encountering Flashing Blades rpg many years ago. This will help if I ever run FB again, but also with many other games, not just FB or LotfP. Just because the source material is 17th Century doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted to other settings.

  5. I tried to share a link to this article over on RPoL because I thought a lot of gamers would be interested in the material as a possible reference. If you play (or GM, or design) games that are set in medieval or post-medieval Earth, or games that are naval-based, or you just have a general interest in maps or towns or history, then these "Works" might hold great appeal. Unfortunately, my post was deemed to be "commercial advertising" and deleted by the moderators. Which is ironic, since I only discovered RPoL because someone mentioned it on here.

  6. It's one of my favourite Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay supplements.

  7. I haven't bought this product however for anyone interested, the map on the cover is 99% a place nearby where I live: just google "palmanova 33057 UD" on maps and find a nice surprise... that place does exhists! ciaoo

  8. It's an incredible work ! I only have the pdf for now, but it's extremely useful for any TTRPG in a 17th century compatible world (like Warhammer, GURPS Swashbuckler, FGU's Flashing Blades, Pirates and Plunder, or in French Pavillon Noir, Te Deum pour un massacre, Captain Vaudou.
    I wait for the book, but as a map amateur, I think in itself it must be a delight to peruse !