Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review: Chronicles of Amherth

Chronicles of Amherth is an original campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord written by Peter C. Spahn* and published by Small Niche Games. I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical when I first laid eyes on it. The book is pretty unassuming. The cover is black and white. The layout is simple. The interior art is black and white and there's not a whole lot of it. Still, there weren't many original campaign settings for Labyrinth Lord, so I grabbed the PDF on a whim and let it sit on the digital back shelf.



When I finally got around to Chronicles of Amherth I damn near sent Pete Spahn an apology e-mail. Unassuming does not mean this product lacks quality or content. In 70 pages Chronicles of Amherth remembers things that other campaign settings often forget: the player characters. This setting paints its world in broad strokes, with a rich history that isn't filled with an infinite number of details. There's enough here to get a sense of the gritty fantasy that sets the world's tone - but the information presented is given in a general fashion so that game masters can customize the ideas presented to fit their own group. In many campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, I'm looking at you), there's often so much detail and so many NPCs running around that the players aren't really heroes. Instead hey're reduced to simple participants. Chronicles specifically states that the player characters are the heroes, and that very, very few heroes rise to 9th or higher level. This means that there's a whole lot of world to explore, a whole lot of danger to face, and the future will be forged by the player characters. In short, Spahn may have written it, but its really your world to play with.

The book begins with a brief overview of the tones and themes of the setting. As previously mentioned, Amherth is a gritty, dangerous world. Folks don't become adventurers because it gets them killed. The pre-history of the world is one that has seen the rise and fall of several advanced civilizations. Ruins, ancient magic (and technology, if the game master is so inclined) dot the landscape and few places are safe.  The world itself is dotted with signs of what are collectively known as "the Ancients," though in truth this is more a collected remnant of several civilizations that have risen and fallen over the history of this world. Again, Spahn offers hints and ideas instead of stating specifics about these lost societies. The glories of the ancient civilizations could be used to drop in elements of steampunk or sci-fi - as it is stated that these societies had highly, highly advanced technology. Personally, while the text didn't say it, I think it would be cool to give this a kind of Lovecraftian twist. The great thing is that while the text itself allows for this kind of referee creativity to be easily slotted into the setting. The big theme is that the power and technology of "the ancients" is dangerous with a captial Do Not Touch It.

Amherth handles magic in the same way it handles the rest of gaming within the world: it's all about giving the referee tools, not rules. The ability to use magic in the world of Amhreth is inherent. You're either born that way, or you're not. Those who have this gift are called Latents. In this section you find no details on exactly determining if a character is a latent or not, which seems to be to be a storytelling choice. It doesn't necessarily matter what any dice would say - what fits your campaign and gaming style?

The second aspect of magic unique to Amherth is Arcane Bleed, which is just too freakin' cool. I'm going to be using this in every D&D game in the future, regardless of edition. Basically, latents who have not tapped into their magical energy but go out and adventure will sometimes have some of that latent magical energy bleed into objects associated with their deeds. A heroic warrior might find his sword has become magical over time, or a sneaky thief might find his cloak granting him a small bonus to Hide in Shadows. This, to me, evokes Tolkien and Middle-earth. Not because Tolkien has any kind of Arcane Bleed, but because the deeds of an object have an impact on how its perceived by both those who wield it and those who encounter it. I love, love love this idea. It's a great way to create something that's more than just a Sword+1, or even have an item grow in power as the character levels - which helps keep with the low-magic feel of Amherth, but not neglect players of the necessary magic items that allow for high-level survival.

Continuing to facilitate broad ideas that facilitating classic gaming, we move into the section on "The Adventurer's Guild." Now let me begin by saying when I saw this, I thought it was hokey. But in the context of the setting it works. The world is dotted with ancient ruins and different groups of adventurers would certainly benefit from sharing information and having an organization that help them maintain the resources necessary to explore these places. The guild charges a nominal fee and in return they have access to resources of the guild. These are less often magical, but usually academic. This can give characters hints of what a dungeon may hold, so they're not going in blind. In addition, the guild has postings where patrons are looking to hire adventurers. Instant adventure seeds. Finally, and arguably the best part, is the fact that when groups register with the guild they are expected to keep record of their deeds and give their group a name. This kind of touch is perfect fodder for character investment and great role-playing.

Next we get to the world of Amhreth itself. It's got your classic (cliche?) lost history of the great and ancient civilization followed by the rise of a power hungry and genocidal Emperor Xanne. Its implied that he's got exceptional necromatic power and his campaigns of bloody murder are a large reason that demihumans are much less common than humans in the present world. Xanne is murdered on at least three specific occassions, but always rises to new life and vengence the next day. His conquest is pretty much what forges the world into what you have in the present day after almost 500 years of Xanne storming across the world and leaving blood and terror in his wake.

When the author moves on to address the specific cultures of the world he again paints in broad strokes, giving a few pages to define each nation. But in these few pages a real flavor is created, along with a paragraph each defining the general history of the culture, its people, military, geography, along with a few adventure seeds. What I love about the seeds is that they're not your typical "here's how to insert a dungeon in this part of the world." They're each based on the specifics of that culture and as driven by role-playing as by game mechanics, if not more so. Finally, each culture is given a historic comparison to give the reader context. I feel like this was a very smart move on the author's part because in a single paragraph you can turn a reader to real world history and give each nation a tangible tone. However, not all the cultures are purely drawn from history. The Sky Realms of Pax, for example, is a nation of dragon-riding knights who live in floating castles - though when one discovers exactly how they draw dragons into their service, the nobility of these cavaliers might be questionable.

In addition to the nations, you get several unique locations. From the hidden paradise of the Gray Lands to the lightning ravaged Seven Spires Beacon, there are all kinds of fun places to explore.

Amherth is a distinctly human-centric world and the location information reflects that. Each of the demihuman races is given a few paragraphs to describe their place in the world, but that place is marginal at best. Dwarves are caught up in an underground war, the elves have isolated themselves from the rest of the world and halflings are a broken and scattered race. Yes, Amherth is a world ruled by the race of men - but there's an internal logic why.

Once the overview of the world is given, more of the unique aspects of Amherth are given in chapters that define some of the unique flora, monsters and magic items of the world. The flora given here are a surprise, and add a nice touch to the world. Most of the herbs, flowers and trees presented give a kind of minor game effect that can assist (or unexpectedly cause trouble for) traveling adventurers. It just helps create an atmosphere of how wild the world of Amherth really is.

The monster listing is surprisingly extensive. Of special note are the Dark Fiends, or Karthax. These creatures are evil and twisted horrors who may have once been humans or at least humanoids. Its implied that they were once rulers or creators of one of the societies of the Ancients before their own power got out of control. Now they live in darkness and are consumed with evil. They're painted in broad strokes and a clear framework for the enterprising game master to insert any kind of evil monster he might like under their heading, yet they're also a reminder that Amherth is a fallen world with a history of tragedy. Another monster of note is the Ruk, which are clearly meant to be orcish in nature. However, to help foster how pervasive and diverse these tropes of fantasy can be, Spahn decided to define goblins, kobolds and orcs all under the heading of urks - at least statistically speaking. This creates a unique diversity among what would otherwise be a cliche monster and allows the game master to surprise his players when they encounter "just another orc," if they find out that even though it looks like a black-skinned orc, it might in fact have the abilities of a bugbear.

The last major section of the book details magic items. Spahn goes out of his way to make sure all these items of evocative of the setting of Amherth. No simple "+1 weapons." Everything here has a history and was created for a purpose. I absolutely love these items because they never feel like "throw away" items. As a player, I would want to hold on to them because they have depth and a place in the world. Not to mention, some of them are just too cool for school because of what they do - like the Godmap. To be frank, I wish I'd thought of these items in my own campaigns, but Spahn beat me to it.

Chronicles of Amherth closes with a 1-page Appendix that details how monks fit in the world if the referee is allowing them in their campaign. This is a nice touch, but feels a lot like an after thought and less like an endorsement of the class. Frankly, if that's the case, then I agree with the author. I've never felt that monks quite fit in most euro-centric fantasy role-playing, but at least the author makes an effort to give them a place in the world.

So, in closing, I say again that Chronicles of Amherth is an easy book to overlook. It's almost unassuming. It's 77 pages. It's black and white. It doesn't have a whole lot of art. But that's because Chronicles of Amherth isn't truly a campaign setting - it's a campaign framework. Author Peter Spahn gives you a history, a tone and a broad overview for this world and then he encourages you to fill in the rest as you need for your campaign. This is the setting's greatest strength. By encouraging the referee to customize the world, it makes it easier to find a home for that referee and encourages players to carve out a piece of it for themselves. Not to mention, by painting in these broad strokes, it makes it very easy to drop in almost any outside sourcebook seemlessly into an existing campaign. I guess the best way I can describe Chronicles of Amherth is a toolbox as much as a setting. Here's a map, some info, a few new monsters and magic items - now make it your own.

I highly, highly recommend Chronicles of Amherth. It's available at RPGNow. The PDF is 4.95, while the softcover is 9.95. Or, you cut to the chase and get the PDF+Softcover Bundle for 9.95, which I would highly recommend. Even if you never use the setting itself, the book is well worth it just for the monsters, magic items, and flora. Chronicles of Amherth is written by Peter C. Spahn and published by Small Niche Games.

*Reviewer's Note: Peter and I share a last name, and it's not a common one. However, he and I have talked and at best if we are related it's five or six generations back. Just an odd coincidence that two guys with an uncommon last name would end up in such a small industry. We've never actually met, and if we had I'd have hired a Mind Flayer to steal the ideas out of his brain and use them for my own products.


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