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.