Tuesday, April 20, 2010

XP 1: The Spider-God’s Bride Review

XP1: The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery
Copyright ©2008 (Standard Copyright License)
200 pages

"Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and in the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars -- Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."
-- The Nemedian Chronicles 

Very recently I purchased my PDF of XP1: The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery.  I had read a review on Grognardia as well as having read their free preview pdf, and I was practically drooling.  So, I've had my nose in it for a bit, and this is what I've found.

A caveat: The product is for d20.  I intensely dislike the d20 glut, as well as the too-many-rules syndrome that has taken over D&D.  Basic D&D was okay, Advanced took things and UNstreamlined them, then 2E came out and layered more and more confusion on things, then came 3E and 4E and while their ideas were okay, the execution was extremely poor (min-maxing characters to compete is not my idea of fun).  There are a few d20 products that are worth the money, and I felt at the time of my purchase that this was one of them.

One of the little mysteries of my life was where D&D took a left turn from its source material.  In the Red Rulebook the author, Tom Moldvay, mentions Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft in the Inspirational Source Material section.  Yet, these influences seem strangely absent from the games that I've played, and the system as presented.  You don't see names like Haon-Dor, Azédarc, Vulthoom, Dylath Leen, or Hyboria in the campaigns I'm familar with.  And the various flavors of D&D don't seem to lend themselves readily to the wild heroics and the brutal combats.  All the pluses, feats, and battlemats don't do it for me.  The magic system is sorely lacking, all the danger and mystery taken out of it with spell slots and predetermined ranges and such.  The low magic setting seems in short supply, and those supplements that were out didn't seem to do much for the Swords & Sorcery genre.  Weird fiction just seemed to be the redheaded stepchild, fun to read but no one seemed to want to game it.  Case in point: this product is 2 years old, and I just recently found out about it.

Enter The Spider God's Bride.  The author set out deliberately to emulate a weird fiction setting in this book, as opposed to the Tolkien-inspired settings that usually make it to publication.  This product describes the setting clinically, but is still very readable.  The art that accompanies the text is not too bad.  Where it stands out is in the section on religion, unsettling you with some statues that look as if they were ripped from prehistory.  It is sprinkled with snippets of tales by Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, and others.

The document starts out with an overview of the book, and then explains the key differences between the Sword & Sorcery genre, as opposed to the standard settings usually found in D&D (for the most part, "high fantasy").  He lists the main elements here briefly, the bloody combats, the absence of nonhuman races, sorcery is evil and mysterious, monsters are scary, etc.  He also lays out sets of rules following the those sections to set the game more in line with the genre.

The next section covers characters.  The Nomad (wanderers of the desert) is one of the two core classes, and an appropriate take on the sorcerer -- the immortal, corrupt, power-mad type usually found in S&S.  After this we come to the races of man, everything from giant-kings, to pygmies, to cannibals.  The races section details various Racial Traits (in rules form) and cultural information.  i don't know if this was due to the author's style or my enthusiasm, but I found them to be an interesting read.  Despite my interest in archaeology and social anthropology, I find the cultural sections in most settings serious yawn-fests.  

After that the author details the Feats specific to this campaign.  They range from the mundane (like a specific weapon proficiency) to the bizarre (cannibalism to gain a buff), to the truly twisted (such as human sacrifice to gain bonuses to various things). I don't find human sacrifice, as he presents it, to be particularly heinous, though I'm not sure I like the idea of my players doing it...

An eighth of the way through, we come to the chapter on Sorcery.  Here he shakes up some of the elements of D&D magic, and presents his own take.  In the author's words: "The sword and sorcery feel can be achieved in a campaign by restricting or changing a few key elements of the core rules which interfere with the low-magic paradigm, without totally abandoning the fantasy that players expect and enjoy."  Entirely logical, and gives us more options that fit, while taking away the ones that don't.  One thing this product introduces is Taint, which is caused by casting spells that summon evil beings or do harm to others.  Acquiring taint means the mage is afflicted with a variety of insanities, from mild paranoia to cannibalistic urges.  New spells are also discussed; spells that break limbs and drain life force, animate bones and create enchanted heads to learn secrets.

A section on Religion discusses the various gods, cults, and demons that may be found in the World of Xoth.  Worshipping a particular god will give the priest a package of spells, "cult secrets" that the can use.  The campaign assumes that gods are just extradimensional entities in some cases or lies by the priests in other ones.  Which is fitting -- in Howard's Hyborea divine intervention was nonexistent except for "The Frost Giant's Daughter."

Since characters are wont to shop, there follows a chapter on Equipment.  This details weapons, armor, what-have-you that are appropriate to the setting.

148 pages are devoted to 10 adventures in the World of Xoth.  This, IMHO, is where the product really becomes useful.  I've owned various incarnations of weird fantasy supplements in the past, and what has made them fall down is the lack of supplementary material.  I had usually contracted a case of "this-is-cool-what-now" syndrome.  To review too much about the adventures might spoil the plot twists, but I'll list the adventure titles, and if you're a fan of this genre the titles should seem fresh but familiar: "The Necromancer’s Knife;"  "The Spider-God’s Bride;" "The Jewel of Khadim Bey;" "The Eidolon of the Ape;" "The Crypt-Thing of Khorsul;" "The Vault of Yigthrahotep;" "The Swords of Zimballah;" "The Slaves of the Moon;" "The Daughters of Rahma;" and "The Call from the Abyss."  Fantastic, evocative names, that draw me in and make me want to know more.  From the cover blurb: "Sunken Temples and Serpent-Haunted Vaults: Enter the City of Stone and slay the high priest of Jul-Juggah! Plunder the ancient gold of Namthu! Seek the fabled jewel of Khadim Bey, but beware the nameless horrors of the Al-Khazi desert! Fight the dread adepts of the ape-god, or succumb to the pleasures of the Moon-Juice of Yaatana! Or perhaps you will perish by the curses of Ur-Kharra, the long-dead sorcerer-king of Elder Kuth?"  That should give you quite enough to whet your appetite.

At last we come to Part 3, the Appendices.  The Appendices have to do with New Monsters, References and Bibliography, Miscellanea, and the OGL.  The new monsters are appropriately horrific, everything from undead to "things that should not be."  The References and Bibliography even includes games, most of which I own.  The Miscellanea section is a random table of genre elements, which you can use to springboard your own adventures.  

The Final Word
I find this to be a very solid piece of work.  I say this in part because it is long overdue, but it also presents a fantasy milieu very much to my liking.  Old, but new.  The adventures are fantastic and well done.  If any of you remember your first time playing D&D, when you didn't know what was coming, and you felt the tingle of danger, the excitement of the unknown; when you saw Erol Otus' art and realized this was something truly different, the feeling I got reading this was similar.  

One quibble I have is the maps.  It helps to have a map to flip to while you're reading, and all of these, including the World Map, must be downloaded from their website.

The only other quibble, and this is truly nitpicking, is that the author didn't revise d20 enough for my tastes, but that was not the point of the book.  He did enough to give it a swords & sorcery flavor without changing the rules overmuch.  He kept it D&D, which should have players & DMs breathing a sigh of relief.

This is a top-notch product, and I would recommend it to anyone who has read the tales that inspired it, and has wished, albeit briefly, that they could play a character in those worlds.

Crunch 4/5 (While this product has a bit more crunch than I like, I realize it's the nature of the beast and it's not overwhelming)
Flavor  5/5 (A fantastic and weird setting, complete with many adventures to complement)
Ease of Play 4/5 (Since I don't find d20 flows all that nicely, I'd have to downgrade it.  Otherwise everything is well-presented and I didn't have to read a sentence twice to understand it)

Overall: 4/5 (This is great!  It makes for interesting reading at the very least, and a very playable product as it was intended.  My money was well-spent, I think)

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