Thursday, June 30, 2011

REVIEW: Blackmarsh

I'm usually down on gaming products that explicitly imitate -- or "ape" in my preferred phrase -- the graphic design of the older products they're meant to recall. That's why, for example, I have little love for the covers of all the adventure modules being produced today that are reminiscent of those produced by TSR in the Golden Age. I've come to accept that my opinion on this score is probably in the minority, but I nevertheless wish that more contemporary old school products broke free of the esthetic choices made by TSR circa 1978-1982 and blazed their own trails. While I don't think "nostalgia" is a dirty word, I do think the old school renaissance would be well served by stepping out of the long shadow cast by TSR, many of whose decisions, even those that bore good fruit, were rooted in a combination of inexperience and expedience far more often than in some coherent "vision." While I think it's great to look at the past for inspiration, the last thing we need is to be forever plowing the same creative fields as our illustrious predecessors.

So, by all rights, I really ought to dislike the cover of Rob Conley's Blackmarsh campaign setting, which obviously reminds one of the cover to the original The World of Greyhawk folio -- but I don't. If anything, the cover makes me even more fond of Blackmarsh than I otherwise would have been (and I already liked it a great deal). That's because Blackmarsh is probably closer in spirit to 1980 The World of Greyhawk gazetteer than any campaign setting product released in the last few years. Yes, there are plenty of differences in content, tone, and presentation, but, like that folio of old, Blackmarsh does a lot with a little, making a surprisingly tasty meal out of nothing but bare bones and leaving one with the impression that many more equally tasty meals could be had with its ingredients.

In that respect, Blackmarsh might more rightly be said to be the child of the original The World of Greyhawk folio and Judges Guild's various Wilderlands products, with some DNA from Blackmoor as well. In the span of 16 pages, Blackmarsh presents an area of 95 by 135 miles in area, called (naturally) Blackmarsh, after the strange swamps that dot the landscape of this region. Those 16 pages provide a basic overview of the setting and its particulars, in addition to maps, rumors, and brief descriptions of noteworthy 5-mile hexes. Those descriptions make up the bulk of Blackmarsh and clearly point to the Judges Guild "hexcrawl" heritage of this product, though there are enough settlements and dungeon locales scattered about the region to support other traditional elements of campaign play.

The region of Blackmarsh is characterized by two things. First is "The Mountain That Fell," an asteroid that struck the area long ago, shattering the landscape and scattering a substance called "viz" that is valuable as a reagent in many magical effects, including spellcasting. The second is its isolation from the centers of civilization, as the region's former rulers, the Bright Empire, retreated to the south several centuries ago, leaving Blackmarsh to fend for itself. If you recognize the name "the Bright Empire," that's because it's from one of Conley's earlier efforts, Points of Light, though there's no necessity that you own that product to use Blackmarsh. Taken together, these two characteristics of the region create a wide-open sandbox environment lacking in a centralized authority and rife with adventuring opportunities -- the perfect place to start a new campaign.

Blackmarsh is largely devoid of game statistics beyond very basic ones (level, class, hit dice, etc.), making it readily usable with almost any fantasy game system, even though it's specifically noted as being compatible with Brave Halfling's soon-to-be-released Delving Deeper. Indeed, a copy of Blackmarsh is included in the boxed set of Delving Deeper as an example of what a campaign setting might look like. I think this is a sound idea and is in many ways worth a great deal more than pages of advice to the referee on how to design a campaign setting, especially in a game geared to beginners. This is doubly true when the advice one is attempting to impart runs counter to so much of what is seen elsewhere in the hobby. A straightforward, unpretentious sandbox setting like Blackmarsh can concretely demonstrate the old school way of campaigning far better than several chapters on the subject.

This isn't to say that Blackmarsh is or should be the last word on the subject. There's still plenty of room for other takes on the old school campaign setting and I sincerely hope we'll see them. Furthermore, Blackmarsh isn't flawless. There are some editorial snafus here and there, like mistaken hex references, that weaken its presentation. Likewise, there seems to be a tension in its hex descriptions between those that present purely factual information -- "The leeward side of this island is choked with groves of thorny bushes and hedges." -- and those that present action in media res -- "A mother black dragon (old, HD 8) and her child (young, HD 7) have slaughtered a herd of deer and are in a meadow consuming the carcasses." I personally prefer the former and find the latter a clumsy way to present an adventure hook.

That said, Blackmarsh is presented as wholly Open Game Content. Anyone who wishes to uses its maps, locations, or background is free to do so for any purpose. In fact, the book includes the following commendable note:
It is the author's intention that the Blackmarsh setting is open content and free to use for commercial and non-commercial projects.
That's frankly the kind of attitude I can't help but applaud. If we see others take up and run with some of what Rob Conley has put on offer here, Blackmarsh will have proven its value above and beyond what you can read in its 16 pages.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a bare bones sandbox setting to use or to loot for ideas for your fantasy roleplaying game campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest whatsoever in using a setting of someone else's creation.

10 comments:

  1. "Likewise, there seems to be a tension in its hex descriptions between those that present purely factual information -- "The leeward side of this island is choked with groves of thorny bushes and hedges." -- and those that present action in media res -- "A mother black dragon (old, HD 8) and her child (young, HD 7) have slaughtered a herd of deer and are in a meadow consuming the carcasses." I personally prefer the former and find the latter a clumsy way to present an adventure hook."

    So, you'd rather have basic terrain descriptions than adventure hooks? Aren't adventure hooks kind of the point of hexcrawl products?

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  2. So, you'd rather have basic terrain descriptions than adventure hooks? Aren't adventure hooks kind of the point of hexcrawl products?

    I prefer hex description simply to say what can and/or might be found in the hex. So, instead of "a dragon consuming carcasses," I'd rather it say "A dragon lives in this area and sometimes attacks the herds of deer that forage in the grasslands." It's a subtle difference but an important one, I think.

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  3. Sounds like a good thing --- it is almost too bad I like creating my own settings.
    I like direct and honest references back to TSR art --- in a recent drawing I did for one soon-to-be-published book from Goodman, there are three adventurers who look suspiciously similar to three fellows from an old Trampier drawing. I see it as a kind of 'easter egg' for the viewer --- if you notice it, congrats, you just found Waldo. But as far as copying the font, layout, description style, etc., and trying to convince viewers that this is a circa 1980 TSR product, I think that feels stale.

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  4. "So, instead of "a dragon consuming carcasses," I'd rather it say "A dragon lives in this area and sometimes attacks the herds of deer that forage in the grasslands." It's a subtle difference but an important one, I think."

    Yes. The former feels artificial and static. The latter, is more open and does a better job of inspiring ideas, even beyond just the notion of the dragon feeding on deer.

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  5. absolutely agree regarding the dragon description. If presented as it is in Blackmarsh it makes the world feel like its in a state of suspended animation waiting for the players to activate. James' alternative gives more of a "living world" impression that the characters are simply a part of...more of a sense that things happen regardless of the PC involvment...

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  6. A fine review of a fine sandbox setting.

    In case anyone is interested, here is the link to my review:
    http://akraticwizardry.blogspot.com/2011/04/blackmarsh-review.html

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  7. I downloaded this about two weeks ago from RPG Now from their freebies section. I had now idea that there was a print version floating around.

    It is fantastic and I have been adapting it to my upcoming LotFP campaign.

    As far as the hex description issue goes, I like very specific items to be in descriptions rather than general comments. I can have a dragon living in an area without an author writing it out for me. I prefer to see exactly what encounter they believe should occur there, as it is often not a direction that my mind would have gone in and that is exactly the point of these sorts of game products. The DM then has a choice as to following the specific or going with something else.

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  8. @James - Thank you for the clarification! That does make a big difference. I completely agree with you!

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  9. Thanks for taking the time to this review. Your comments were insightful.

    I was vaguely aware of the "frozen moment in time" issue. But your review and the other Blackmarsh reviews helped clarify this for me. It will help me when writing future products like Blackmarsh. Even after doing nearly a dozen of these I am learning things about the form.

    I will point out that it isn't clear cut as it would seem. Three entries in Blackmarsh I wouldn't change due to why I wrote them in the first place.

    The first is the Black Dragon, it was purely a wandering monster encounter written into a hex location. Provided that it isn't used too much (maybe no more than two or three for a map the size of Blackmarsh) I think they add to the living feel of the setting as a whole. Perhaps what I should do in the first is separate them out and make a list of esstentially one time encounters, to work along side a regular wandering monster table.

    Note that the reason that Blackmarsh doesn't have a wandering monster table because it meant to use whatever is in the basic ruleset the referee is using.

    The second is the attack on the hippogriff farm. I wrote that as a humor piece, trying to draw a picture of a poor forlorn farmer watching his farm's stock being eaten up.

    The third is the Myrmidon of set sailing into Blackmarsh. And possibly the bandit attack on Blackoak Castle.

    While tied into locales these are really events that are about to happen. That the referee can pull the trigger on or not. Perhaps in the future I will put them in a section preceding or after the Geographical entries, similar to what I did to the tribal entries in Points of Light Wildland.

    Again your comments both positive and negative helped greatly. Thanks for doing this.

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  10. I just got a copy of Goodman Games' Free RPG Day DCC module - both it and 4 other advertised DCC modules have what I think is an innovative "golden age pulp novel" look to their covers.

    One look at the cover gives you a sense of the atmosphere they're going for, and tells you it's a DCC rather than PF or OSR adventure. Neat

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