Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Low Fantasy Gaming in the Midlands

The Midlands at LFG
Can I just say Stephen Grodzicki has outdone himself? What an awesome piece of work we have in this, his newest release. For any gamers looking for an original, gritty, low magic, swords & sorcery setting, you need look no further than the Midlands. There are several things to love and admire about this setting supplement, but perhaps the design element I love the most is the ability to pick it up and play a game within the Midlands with this book alone. There is no need to create your adventure before you give your players a chance to explore this mysterious and dangerous realm, or to buy one of Stephen's other great adventure releases. What you get in the Midlands is a well done sandbox setting with numerous useful GMing tools and a series of ready to play sandbox adventures as well! But, I get ahead of myself. Allow me to proceed in a more orderly fashion to give you an idea of what's under the the covers here and why I am so excited about this supplement.

First off, as you can tell by the front cover, the artwork is gorgeous. Stephen has several talented artists contributing to his work, and all of them do a fabulous job of bringing to mind some sort of a blend of adventure, intrigue and danger that might just have stepped off the pages of Lankhmar, Hyboria, Dying Earth, or out of the Dreamlands. And yet together creating something original and unique. The artwork inside follows the basic style of the first release, in black & white, which I personally love. It give the game a feel reminiscent of the original brown books (only more artistically fine), yet one can easily tell the updated mechanics have produced something new and compelling.

Which brings me to my next general observation: Mr. Grodzicki's writing style. Writing in a manner that is easy to read, direct and still powerfully evocative is not something easy to achieve. I, for instance, do not seem able to achieve such an effect without lots of work and exercise of my poetic muscles. Thus my writing often comes across as a bout of stream-of-thought logorrhea. Stephen though, writes with a beautiful, crips, powerful style; incredibly visionary in its ability to communicate the essence of his game and his setting in the fewest words possible. And for most of us with shelves crammed full of gaming supplements, and hard drives overly fragmented with digital gaming files, a fun yet easy to read supplement is a godsend.

Several examples from his LFG work include,

"Magic is not only rare, it is dark and inherently dangerous. Sorcery is a power not meant for mortals, and adventurers engage with it at their peril." p. 4

"Luck is a flexible and ephemeral quality however, and it has some additional uses (eg: party wide retreats from combat)." p. 11

"Demons are darkness and corruption incarnate, utterly depraved and malicious." p. 94

And from the Midlands,

"A sandbox setting is ripe for exploration and discovery, daring players to explore the unknown and unearth lost secrets. In the Midlands, most of the region is unmapped and unknown; full of locations no human has set foot in for centuries, if not millennia." p. 9

"The last of the dwarves, known as servitors, languish in Dol-Karok; shackled and enslaved by the Circle and their own racial goldlust." p. 18

"Juro Venosteri, a master thief and assassin, is lurking in one of the three rooms. He intends to take over the Red Hooks, and winning the tourney is another step in his grand plan, earning him the fame he needs. He wears an eyepatch, having lost an eye to a Nydissian warrior years ago. He has cultivated an unhealthy hatred for all southerners since, and will target them first." p. 171

The Midlands is not only designed to be a sandbox setting, but as Stephen puts it, the kind of campaign he played in growing up. And this is exactly the kind of play I was used to as well. The Midlands is open enough to allow rotating GMs, and self contained play sessions. By self contained, I mean that each "adventure" can be played as a unit isolated from other adventures, thus allowing GMs to develop the world collaboratively by choosing to focus on different areas within the overall setting. I would love to implement this in my current campaign.

Which brings me to a brief mention of another reason I love this setting. Though, ostensibly, the Midlands was created as a follow up supplement to the LFG game, it can be played in any reasonably D&D-esque system. In fact, when LFG first came out I was so excited because I was looking for something that played more like old school D&D in a hard core S&S milieu; but my players were somewhat loathe to leave 5e. In the Midlands I have the perfect opportunity to play in a setting designed for such a milieu, but that could very easily be played in 5e. Whether we make it a transition to LFG itself, or simply continue play with 5e in the Midlands, I think I would be much happier than I am now with the campaign we are playing in 5e.

As for the specifics in this supplement, after setting the groundwork for what the Midlands is, Stephen writes a short history of the world which I felt drew on just enough Swords & Sorcery tropes to define itself clearly, but also novel enough to seem fresh and exciting. And here's something about myself you may not have known: I absolutely love serpent-men! And the fact that serpent-men are present in Grodzicki's campaign setting is not the only great thing, most self respecting S&S settings have them somewhere, but that he offers a bit of a new spin, at least one I had not heard before.

"In other periods, monstrous dynasties prevailed. Cruel serpentmen enslaved the warmbloods until the world suddenly cooled, forcing a southern retreat to more humid climates." p. 14 The Midlands.

Here again, in that powerful but brief style we are given a seed line that a dynasty of Serpent-men ruled as slave lords over the the "warm-bloods". And that they did so during a period of a warm, possibly very humid, earth. And that when the earth cooled and the climate changed these serpent folk retreated to the jungles further south. I love such little seeds that spark and fuel my imagination on which I can riff, creating my own unique expression of what is possible within the Midlands.

However, the go-to foe in the Midlands is not Serpent-Men but, appropriately for the genre, men. From dark cultists, to brigands on the roads, men and the evil in their hearts or their domineering, self righteous zeal pose the most common threat in the Midlands. Though the cannibalistic Skorn, a rough half orc type, is inhuman enough in its culture to make it seem certainly monstrous. Which is a classic example of Grodzicki's Midland design. Taking a familiar trope --the orc/half orc type--deepening and changing it just enough to make in new and interesting. But men alone are not the only danger in the Midlands. In a nice but brief bestiary Stephen highlights some of the native monstrosities that lurk in the further corners of the world of the Midlands. Stephen doesn't waste time covering every monster that has been covered a million times in other supplements. You'll find no goblins or gnolls here. The Midlands book presents about 27 unusual, unearthly, demonic and dangerous examples of the types of wicked critters that crawl the face of the planet with the races of men (with three more "normal" exceptions). Each one is, as mentioned above, a seed of weird, Lovecraftian goodness that clearly highlight one of the basic principles of LFG and the Midlands--true monsters are rare, and beyond frightening. Midland monsters are true monsters--mutated horrors of madness that none would want to encounter, let alone hunt down, kill and take the stuff of. In fact any "stuff" such beasts might guard or use would be so demoniacally horrid and cursed that sane men would aught but seek their utter destruction by hammer and fire, salting the earth with its ashes afterwards. No, the mad delusions of a world gone wrong presented in the Midlands is perfectly suited to its purpose and tone.

I love the short section on Laws of the land, giving GMs a good idea of how to handle the inevitable situation when cutpurse, rogues of adventurers run afoul of the ruling powers. And speaking of ruling powers, the Gods and "divinities" of the Midlands are a delightful blend of earthly fantasy and Lovecraftian twistedness which are developed into one well designed whole. Again, reminiscent of R.E. Howard and his kin with their use of the earthly and the unusual in a tantalizingly real version of fantasy.

I love the magic design in LFG, and the Midlands gives us more cool spell names that gives the hum drum spell types we are all too familiar with a new twist. Such names can again can be used as seeds for how to describe and understand the nature of certain spells in a more sinister and dangerous way. For instance I can cast Hold Monster in just about any version of D&D I play, and a lot of games that aren't too D&D at all. However, in the Midlands I cast Crush of the Warp! What the holy hell?! Crush of the Warp? How frickin cool is that?! But doesn't it just make your mind teem with incredible possibilities? What in Gehenna is the Warp? Am I warping space time to hold, nay crush, a monster in some sort of dimensional grip until he can break it? And could I perhaps research to make such a spell that can use this force to literally crush something into dimensional dust if I was powerful enough? And what if the spell fails or goes wrong, as is very possibly in a Midlands game? Have I unleashed  small rip in space time? Or, have I inadvertently crushed myself, or my unwitting comrades, into subcellular goo? I just love this stuff!

But we're not done yet! As I kept reading the Midlands I realized that no matter how much I was enthralled with the first 42 pages, it got better! Next comes the descriptions of the major areas of the Midlands. And though we are not talking about hundreds of nations here, but rather a handful of well described locations, each one a cornucopia of adventurous possibilities. Warning, for some players reading past this point might contain spoilers so advance forewarned. For instance, there is Crow's Keep where the serpent sorceress Rinwolde controls the destiny of the city from the shadows cast by dying Uldred. The well-ordered streets of Dal Karok ruled by the Circle of Five and their feuding houses. The distant Nydissian city of Melek, "her vast slave pens ... the magic hunting Ordo Malefactos," and "the Orogien fighting pits." Here the Skorn horde is faced most directly on the furthest populated outpost of the Midlands. Other such mysterious, shadowy, and dangerous places as Northgate, Port Brax and Vorngard all await the exploration of brave reavers under the creative powers of their GM.

I simply loved the coverage of the locations here, just as I do the geographic wonders such as the Argos Plateau, the Drelnor Forest the Sunstone Ranges and the Suurat Jungle. With his just enough to whet your appetite for adventure style, Stephen has laid out for us a classic and original Swords and Sorcery setting in which we can risk our lives for gold and possibly glory, though such things are as fleeting in the Midlands as the winds that blow across the Trackless Moors.

Numerous other inspired goodies lie hidden within the Midlands campaign setting, such as the GM tools of NPC ideas, Party Bonds, rival adventurers, street names, new classes, and random encounters by region. However, I want to end with my favorite part of the whole work: The last 210 pages of the book! That's right, 210 pages! the Midlands weighs in at 366 total pages including the front and back cover. And more than half the book is my favorite part. If you buy the Midlands for no other reason than this part alone, your money would be well spent. For Stephen in this last section provides material usable by any GM in any campaign with very little adjustment. What you have here are essentially 6 City adventures, 8 Forest adventures, 3 adventures set in the Ice and Snow, 6 in the Jungles and 8 set in or around lakes and rivers! That is a total of 31 adventures! So you are not just getting a setting in The Midlands supplement you are getting a library of adventures to keep you and your group busy for potentially years to come. Now, don't get me wrong. Each adventure is about 6 or so pages long equivalent to the adventures you might have found in Dragon or Dungeon magazine of old. But they are, as the rest of the Midlands is, well written and detailed enough to run right out of the box, while still retaining lots of sandboxiness for GMs and players to romp within. I simply can't say how much I appreciate this part of the book in a setting supplement. I am not sure I have seen such an effort in other similar works. Bravo Mr. Grodzicki!

Of course, there could be a slight conflict of interests if you do run Midlands with rotating GMs if everyone has the supplement. These last adventures would have to be guarded from each other somehow so as to not spoil the fun. So if you are going to run it this way, be sure to take a look at page 147 & 148 at the Rumor Table, and decide who would like to run what and avoid reading other GMs picks--player's honor here! The same doesn't necessarily apply to the setting material in the first of the book. In principle it would be more exciting as a player if you didn't know all the setting and monster stuff ahead of time. But the book is written with enough open flexibility that with a creative GM there will still be tons to surprise and explore as you go. And reading the setting guide for players does give a great feel for what you are getting into, and developing the spirit of the game, so I say just go for it.

And that, my friends, is some of what I think makes the Midlands such a great product, and why I am going to build my next campaigns around this adventurous new world. I'll be sure and fill you in when we get there. We are about midway through our current campaign with several months yet to go, but I can't wait to get into the Midlands both as a player and a GM!

The Midlands at DriveThruRPG


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review. Just came across your blog, nice work!

Chris Jones said...

Thank you! I've been a little scarce lately as work has kept me super busy--but stay tuned!

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