Digging through old podcasts, blog posts, and reviews is (for me) a bit like prospecting for precious metals: most of what I find is frustrating (either empty or excruciating tantalization), but on some rare occasions I strike a vein of especially pure gold.
As I type, I'm looking at two products, recently purchased. Both came from "prospecting;" both deal with similar themes, both were "recommended," both were of interest to me. Only one, however, is true gold. The products are Mike's World: The Forsaken Wilderness Beyond and Renegade Crowns: Adventures Among the Border Princes.
I'll spare my readers the suspense: Renegade Crowns is the golden goose.
Mike's World is a cool product/project...an expansion and development of the Borderlands' wilderness from B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. You can read good (positive) reviews of it here and here. It does have some interesting ideas in it, but even so I find it...um...boring? Yeah, kind of boring.
And the scale is far too small. The area that its 14 maps cover amount to about 100 square miles (11.35 by 8.85). A single adult, male grizzly needs a home range of 200 to 500 square miles...and this thing is stuffed full of dragons and monsters and humanoid tribes and whatnot? And you can walk from the Keep to the farthest reach of the wilderness in half a day? No, sorry...doesn't compute for me.
[just as a comparison of scale, the distance from Richland, WA to Kennewick, WA is 11.2 miles by means of the Riverfront Trail, a distance which can be easily hiked in three and a half hours. Imagine that trail supporting a tribes of kobolds, troglodytes, gnomes, half a dozen displacer beasts, a pair of land-bound green dragons, and a couple storm giants with their score of pet giant crabs. Even in a world where weirdness can be explained as "magic," things still need to eat]
But Mike's World is cheap and its readily available. Renegade Crowns is not. Written for 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy in 2006, it's been out-of-print for a while, and print copies on-line are selling for more than $150+ (I saw one copy priced at $405). I was fortunate enough to stumble across a shrinkwrapped copy in my local game shop for $70 last week...the day after hearing about the thing on an old Wandering DMs video. I had them hold it behind the counter for me a couple days before pulling the trigger, and I've spent the last week reading it. It doesn't disappoint.
[Renegade Crowns IS available in PDF form from DriveThru for $15, but I prefer hard copy for reading and reference. The thing also has tiny, eye-straining type, which I can't imagine is especially easy on the oculars when backlit. Maybe I'm wrong]
Now: a few words about Warhammer, before I begin my gushing.
Also, while I really like many of the system mechanics one finds in WFRP (different schools of magic! critical hit tables! a neat skill system!) the systems in D&D just work better for me. Or for my style of play. Or for the style in which I run my games. Something...I don't know.
[yes, I've seen Chris Hogan's Small But Vicious Dog. I love it; it's wonderful. But I want PCs to have more potential in my games than what they have in SBVD. D&D is already plenty deadly...let them have the possibility of rising above their God-given station in life!]
The main thing, though, that prevents me from running WFRP is its setting. The Old World...decidedly pseudo-European modeled over maps of Middle Earth...is too densely populated for my campaigns. It's Europe of the Hundred Years' War (plus orcs and chaos mutants) whereas I prefer a wilderness that is far more wilderness. Where PCs are worried about encountering bullywugs and lizard men at river crossings, not money-grubbing ferrymen and toll bridges. I don't want a 15th century version of Tolkien.
Of course, that's a fairly superficial view of the Warhammer's setting (in my defense, having a bunch of adventures and scenarios set in the heart of the Empire doesn't help). If you dig beyond Bretonnia and Kislev and the Reik you'll find it does have its wilderness full of adventure and monsters. Enter the Border Princes.
From WFRP (p. 271):
Unlike the Empire, Bretonnia, or even the Wasteland, the area known as the Border Princes does not form a nation or state, but is rather a loose confederacy of various petty Princedoms. Most Old Worlders think of and refer to the Border Princes in much the same way as they would the Badlands - an amorphous and largely lawless area, cut off from civilization by the Black-Vaults-Apuccini mountain chain. The fight that certain eastern Princes are waging against the Goblin hordes who pour across the Blood River and out from Mad Dog Pass goes virtually unnoticed.
The Border Princes region covers roughly 750 miles by 300 miles (at its widest point). That's damn near twice as big as my campaign map (a slightly enlarged Washington State)...in other words, nearly an ideal setting size for a campaign. Full of petty kingdoms, small settlements, ancient ruins, and hostile monsters it is an area ripe for adventure. The various "princes" are generally adventurers and bandit chiefs...outlaws, exiles, and opportunists...and their reigns are (usually) short-lived. PCs will find ample opportunity to carve out their own niche realms in such a place...provided they can survive the monsters, politics, and strife. It is the Borderlands...a real "Borderlands" of a kind that might easily find B2's Keep.
Renegade Crowns is a true tool kit for creating a setting. It offers no maps, no NPCs, no monster lairs. Instead, it offers you a step-by-step process for generating all of these things, including population centers, relationships, and histories. It is extremely well-done and (perhaps because it was written for 2nd edition WFRP) treats its subject rather seriously with a minimal amount of snark. Despite being written for Warhammer, it is easily adaptable to D&D because most of it is "system agnostic." It is just about perfect for creating a Borderlands wilderness from scratch and it can help fill in the blank details of an existing wilderness map as well.
The book can be divided into two sections. The first part is the six-step system for creating your particular section of the region. Using random tables (coupled with common sense) you generate the landscape/geography, the various ruins, the princes of that particular region, the princes relationships with each other, the settlements in the area (including their resources), and the monsters/threats that exist. With nice details and ideas, its elegant system of tables fits into 64 pages(!) followed by a detailed example of generating such a region from the ground up using its system.
While some may scoff at the idea of a randomly generated campaign setting, I find the system as laid out to be eminently sensible. The systematic approach helps organize your world building, and nothing prevents you from stepping in and superseding the roll of the dice with your own ideas...to the contrary, the instructions tell you to do just that. But the book provides you with a systemic approach and appropriate steps with plenty of good ideas. It's the most refreshing resource I've ever seen in this regard.
The second section of the book deals with actually running a campaign in the Border Princes territory, paying specific example to ways and means by which PCs may become princes themselves and what particular problems (internal and external) they'll face if and when running their own principality. This part does not possess various random tables but, rather, scenario ideas, along with the steps and events that have to occur for one to seize (and retain) power.
Again, it is refreshing stuff: here is a version of the famous D&D "end game" scenario that has players being awarded a barony upon reaching 9th level with some off-the-cuff text about "clearing a wilderness hex." Just what type of wilderness do you intend to "clear?" A swamp? A barren desert? The good land for settlement is almost certainly claimed already...if not by some warlord, then by a semi-organized group of individuals uninterested in being "ruled." Are you going to "clear" them off the land, too? Not exactly an inviting kingdom you're setting up for potential settlers that way!
Raids (from neighbors and monsters), diplomacy, open warfare, and resource development is all discussed in the book, as well as an easy system mechanic for generating "trouble" via adventures. It's provides a simple foundation to build upon (for folks who'd like a bit more complexity), but it's definitely more advanced play than what one usually finds in a fantasy RPG supplement. Extremely thought-provoking, if not outright useful, I'd call it.
The sample Border Princes region given in the book covers an area 132 miles by 100 miles...about the same amount of area as the region the PCs in my campaign are currently exploring (from Banks Lake, i.e. Xak Tsaroth, in the northeast down to Yakima in the southwest). Working with the "real world" as I am, I already have a map sketching out much of the geography (as well as the major settlements)...but that doesn't mean Renegade Crowns is useless to me. Quite the opposite: I can use it to generate areas of control and rulers of these various "city-states" (Wenatchee, Ellensburg, Moses Lake), their relationships to each other, and the available resources and features that make them places of interest to adventurers. My world has an "empire," too (the Red Empire, about 80-100 miles east of the PCs' current location) and the wild west of this region east of the Cascades certainly counts as "Borderlands" in my world. Knowing where the mutant hordes winter and what ancient ruins exist for delving (as well as some of the local "fantasy" history) is incredibly useful stuff. Renegade Crowns makes a nice little content/idea generator in this regard.
Anyway...in case anyone was wondering the reason for my lack of blogging this week, I've been rather engrossed with my new toy. Cheers, folks!