Saturday, January 02, 2010

Review: Supplement VI, The Majestic Wilderlands...

Good Morning, All:

In hopes of starting off 2010 in style, here is a review of the popular product by Bat In The Attic Games, Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands, by Robert S. Conley. Created with permission of Judge's Guild, the Majestic Wilderlands is a supplement that present Mr. Conley's version of the traditional Wilderlands campaign setting, and the new form that it has evolved into after thirty years of campaigning. The book is compatible with Mythmere Game's Swords & Wizardry, and presents both new rules for consideration as well as an overview of the Majestic Wilderlands campaign setting.

This digest-sized book weighs in with 140 pages. With a title page, three pages for the table of contents and one page for the legal text of the Open Game License, that leaves 135 pages for pure gaming content. There are two versions of the cover available, one a nostalgic monochrome cover reminiscent of the Original D&D supplements of yesteryear, and one in a more contemporary version with three pieces of evocative public domain artwork in connected hexes reminiscent of the mapping style of the original Wilderlands maps. I picked up the original contemporary release, mainly because one of the images used is the same one I used for the cover of Fantasy Concepts. As is typical for Lulu publications, the cover and binding are of excellent quality, and the effort put into the cover image is fantastic. I really like the promise of adventure that it inspires when looking at it.

Throughout the book, the text is laid out in a single column format. The font is easy for me to read, and the tables are generally laid out pretty well. (A few tables have layout issues, such as the Ritual Cost table on pg 71, but the tables are simple enough to intuit their meaning.) Clip art, map snippets, line art and black & white images are used with frequent regularity throughout the text, breaking up the text wonderfully without being a nuisance. While you won't find any hex-based maps in this product, the cartography is nice and shows up well. I think the level of detail on the larger maps of the Wilderlands and the Main Campaign Area could have used a little more detail, but perhaps the next level of details would have made the image too cramped for a digest-sized product. All in all, though, I think the appearance of the book is very professional.

There's a lot of content in this supplement. In general, I found the text easy to read, although I was somewhat astonished at the number of skipped or misused words throughout the text. Most of the time, I was able to discern the intended meaning of the text from the context of the paragraph or the use of common sense. However, sometimes it did take me a little bit to wrestle an appropriate understanding out of the wording, such that the flow of reading the text was broken. Many of these elements could have been caught by using MS Word's grammar check, so I was definitely surprised when I noted that there were three editors that were credited with reviewing this document beforehand, given the number of skipped words I saw throughout the text. Although it was frequent enough to be noticeable (and I even made a small game of spotting them as I went along), this was really a minor distraction, and did not detract from the quality of the content found in this supplement.

The supplement is broken down into four sections, three of which were inspired by the original presentation of the Original Edition of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying System. These sections are: Foreword (1 page), Men & Magic (70 pages), Monsters & Treasure (10 pages), and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (54 Pages).

The Foreword contains Mr. Conley's introduction to the setting itself. Here, he discusses the evolution of his campaign setting over the last thirty years, taking the original Judges Guild campaign setting of the Wilderlands and making it his own. His version of this campaign world has survived translation through at least five different rules systems, and picked up a significant amount of culture, history and setting flavor over the years as his campaigns continued to evolve the setting. Ultimately, he felt that his version of the setting had diverged enough from the original that he had something unique and interesting to share with the gaming community.

The section entitled Men & Magic contains significant notes on new game mechanics to add to the core rules of Swords & Wizardry, adding many new options designed to enhance the players' gaming experience within the Majestic Wilderlands setting. First, Mr. Conley introduces a number of new subclasses and classes to the core rules, including: Berserkers, Knights, Soldiers, Paladins of Mitra, Myrmidons of Set, Mages, Artificers, Wizards, Rune-casters, Theurgists, Rogues, Burglars, Thugs, Mountebanks, Claws of Kalis, Merchant Adventurers, and Non-Adventurers (commoners such as Craftsmen, Hedge Mages, Priests and Scholars). Each class or subclass is well defined with a handful of special abilities designed to work within the context of Swords & Wizardry, adding definition to the core concept of the class without overly restricting characters to a narrow, defined concept that hinders character development and roleplay. I had a few issues with the implementation of the implementation of the saving throw values (some of them went down to 1, instead of stopping at eleventh level and continuing from that point when the same value thereafter) and the non-mathematical progress of skill-like ability bonuses for some classes, but these can be changed with some simple modifications to the tables of these classes. I don't have any problems with the special abilities of any of the classes, though.

The next part of Men & Magic defined the races of the setting. Mr. Conley, like myself and many others, does not use the race-as-class conceit found in the core rules of Swords & Wizardry, and so provides a separate list of character races for the Majestic Wilderlands setting. His races include Man, Elves, Halflings, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Orcs, Goblins, Reptile Men, Lizard Men, Serpent Men, Viridians and Half-Viridians. Aside from the Viridians and Half-Virdians, I felt that the races were very well presented and easily understood. The implementation of the bonus spellcasting abilities of the Viridians and Half-Viridians was confusing and lacked adequate explanation, in my opinion, and was the only flaw to this subsection that I could find.

Mr. Conley then provides a subsection that defines a series of skill-like abilities called simply "Abilities". Any ability can be attempted by any class, but some classes gain bonuses to certain abilities. This provides better definitions for certain actions, without restricting those actions to only certain individuals. I personally prefer such an approach, as it empowers players to attempt more with their character instead of feeling restricted.

Two pages of Optional Combat Rules enhance the use of crossbows, polearms and shields in the game, and provides additional rules for the prone condition, mounted combat, head shots and face shots.

The final subsection of Men & Magic focuses on Magic, introducing the concept of rituals to the game, as well as fifteen new spells. Some of the new spells are useful in the creation of various magic item types, in some ways reminiscent of 3E's item creation feats converted into spells. Rituals are an interested subsystem for the game, and I feel that Mr. Conley's new magic-user subclasses reflect different magic systems very well, using variants of the usual Vancian spellcasting system and the new ritual system in combination to create different and unique spellcasters within the setting.

Scattered throughout this section are snippets of setting-related details that help immerse the character rules into the Majestic Wilderlands, and provide some nice gaming-related insight into the setting itself. I feel that this was done tastefully, and with good insight into improving the value of these basic rules within the context of the Wilderlands.

Monsters & Treasures is a small section. Two new monsters (dragons and boglings) are detailed, and the setting's view on vampires and werewolves are detailed interestingly. The last few pages of this section detail a number of artifact-level items specific to the setting, with details that suggest a good number of adventures based on their presence. I'm pretty sure these come from Mr. Conley's extensive campaign experience in his setting, and I appreciate the effort taken to avoid dictating how these should appear in the campaign and instead are presented in a manner that encourages the Referee to add them to adventures of his own creation.

The final section, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, provides us with details on the actual setting itself, the Majestic Wilderlands in all their glory. It is in this section that Mr. Conley "breaks the fourth wall," as it were, and speaks to the reader occasionally with his thoughts and experiences on why certain sections evolved as they did. I appreciate these occasional "designer notes" type of intrusions, and would have liked to have seen a few more throughout the book, but I think they are most useful in this section.

The first part of this section focuses on an overview of the world in general. Each of the primary regions of the setting are introduced with a paragraph or two, hinting at a background history that provides some basic, high-level structure to the evolution of the Majestic Wilderlands. Each region appears to be designed for a specific type of campaign, and Mr. Conley thoughtfully provides suggestions, with a few exceptions,in a sentence or two at the end of each region's description. I immediately thought of different campaign ideas I could run as I read through here, none of them focused on the main campaign area, so I know there's definitely room for me to make the setting my own.

The next subsection details the Main Campaign Area. In this section, the major landmarks and locales within this region are further defined, and here Mr. Conley provides more details on the tales of his gamers through this region, as they helped to shape the setting into the form it has become. Certain entries are more detailed than others, perhaps indicating a greater campaign focus in Mr. Conley's experiences, but all of these entries provide the Referee with good information that can be used to create adventures and campaigns based in this area. The one element that this subsection lacked, in my own opinion, as a list of interesting sites, such as dungeons or lairs, around which to build adventures. Perhaps Mr. Conley expected the reader to either provide their own or use those available in the original Judges Guild product line, but I still would have appreciated a page or two providing an overview of such sites in the Main Campaign Area, simply to serve as a start to my adventure planning without having to find out-of-print products.

The last subsection of the book gives us fourteen pages detailing the cultures and religions of the Majestic Wilderlands setting. I think this is perhaps the most evocative section of the book, giving a synopsis of cultural detail designed to enhance roleplaying and adventure potential. Each race, major culture and major religion is addressed here, with a level of detail that once again inspires rather than hinders. Of the so-called "fluffy" bits found throughout this supplement, I was most impressed with this subsection.

My Thoughts
Overall, I really am impressed with the quality of this product. I found the text easy to read, evocative and even inspirational in terms of running adventures and campaigns within this setting. The setting is very cool, with enough variation to fit almost any campaign I would like to run. I don't feel confined by the author's thirty years of experience with the world he's presenting, nor by the weight of the out-of-print products that inspired the Majestic Wilderlands. Rules-wise, I really love the flavor of the new rules presented here. The few issues I have with the game mechanics themselves are all easily changed by updating table values. I think that Mr. Conley has done an incredible job of capturing his campaign world and providing an excellent set of rules that add a lot to the core gaming experience provided by Swords & Wizardry. I'd recommend this product to anyone looking for a new campaign setting (particularly for any retro-clone rules set), to anyone looking for new "crunch" to add to their own retro-clone games, or to anyone who might be fans of the original Judges Guild Wilderlands campaign setting.

All in all, I think I'd rate this product as a 9 out of 10. Stonehell Dungeon rates higher, in my opinion, but I still think that Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands is an excellent addition to any gamer's library, and for $12, you just can't beat it.

With Regards,


Dan said...

I'm still working my way through the book, but I like it. I would have preferred less house rules and more Wilderlands, though.

Tim Shorts said...

Flynn, very good review. You are spot on about the edits. Being the main editor for this project I failed to go over the second half.

Thanks for taking the time to review and next time Bat in the Attics Games puts out a product I will keep it nice a clean of errors.

Rob Conley said...

Appreciate the detailed review. The comments on the campaign section will be useful when it comes to writing up those products.

Your comments (and others) on editing have been already noted. Word is not very good at picking up on the kind of mistakes I make. I do plan on updated the PDF at least.

@Dan - Most of my house rules developed because of the setting (not the other way around) I figure presenting them combined with a general overview for use with later products would be the best way to go at this point. The remaining house rules were created because of the use of Swords and Wizardry especially the Ability section.

With that being said there will be a release with the Main Campaign Area in detail. And plans to do the other regions a year or so down the line.