The Lost Lands: Bard’s Gate (PFRPG/5e/OSR)
#8 of my Top Ten of 2016
This colossal TOME clocks in at 535 pages of content, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial/introduction, 1 page advertisement/product checklist, 3 pages of ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page obituaries, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 524 pages of content.
Yeah, I know. You expected Northlands Saga first. Well, while I was digging through THAT massive tome, I was asked by several people to cover this monster first. So I listened, put Northlands Saga on the back-burner (its review should hit site early 2017) and instead started devouring this massive tome. So consider seeing this first to be basically me listening to the vox populi.
Ahem. Let that page-count sink in. To call this book “enormous” or by any other name than “TOME” in allcaps, does not do it justice.
All right, but frankly, there are enough big city sourcebooks that simply weren’t that good. Is Bard’s Gate different? Well, we begin with one component often ignored in city sourcebooks, namely the fact that they do not end at the city’s wall. Thus, bard’s gate, as presented here, does not exist in a vacuum – the valley of the lyre, situated in Frog God Games’ Lost Lands, is where we first turn our gaze upon opening this vast book: Within this context, we are introduced to Bard’s Gate’s suzerainty before getting a recap of technology levels found in the Lost Lands. Beyond the copious amounts of information pertaining unique places and adventuring potential, the book follows the precedence of the Borderland Provinces and the legendary Sword of Air in that it provides a vast array of random encounter tables by area and goes beyond that.
In stunning full color, we receive the local map, both as part of the over-arcing region and in a more detailed, iteration – from the valley of shrines and the region first featured in the by now legendary Tom of Abysthor (available for PFRPG in the Stoneheart Valley-book) we move towards the mining operations of the vast metropolis, learn about entrances to the underworld, abandoned villages now held by gnolls and barrows containing unique undead barbarians. Forests that are haunted by undead treants, the fully mapped citadel of griffons (and yes, other citadels have different maps) – there is ample of adventure to be found beyond the confines of the city.
It is only natural, then, to assume that the place obviously features more than a few individuals to defend its interests. From the lyreguard (Harpers, anyone?) to more mundane agents of law enforcement, navy, etc. to the various guilds, the book proceeds to acquaint us with the power players of the region: From coopers and shipwrights to solicitors and barristers and wheelwrights, the attention to detail provided is impressive; more impressive than the level of detail, though, at least for me, would be the fact that even these seemingly mundane organizations maintain a density of adventuring potential and story hooks that adds perfectly to the general notion of a world wherein the downfall of society’s structures may be one adventuring group failing away. In the time-honored words: “Evil watches, evil waits. Goodness stumbles, evil takes.”
This is not supposed to mean that this is a grimdark supplement; quite the contrary. It just means that there is enough for adventurers of all level to do. If you, for example, have been intrigued by the underguild, first featured in “Vampires & Liches” and updated to contemporary systems in “Quests of Doom I”, then you’d be in the right place.
It should also be noted that this book, in spite of its copious level of detail, is very much cognizant of recent developments in the game: We can find, for example kinteicists or similar classes among the numerous NPC-builds. Similarly, from masked guilds of assassins to an order of female paladins, plenty of beings with whom to interact.
Now, as you may have noted if you’ve been following my reviews for some time, you’ll notice a certain proclivity for details, for politics and intrigue: Well, rest assured that notes on the latter components indeed are provided and should keep groups busy for pretty much any time-frame you wish. More important in an age wherein kingdom building, downtime rules and the like exist, would be the fact that the pdf actually provides property values and taxes by district – including costs of upkeep! I absolutely adore this often-neglected component that no other city sourcebook, at least none I have recently read, covered in this way.
Speaking of aspects that made the simulationalist GM in me smile from ear to ear and jump up i my chair: Know how I commented on The Lost Lands in the Borderland Provinces books as a region that felt more plausible, more believable than in pretty much any other setting I had encountered in a while? Well, there was one aspect so far only Midgard got right (though it could have been emphasized more) – in earlier ages, social class was significantly more important than even today. Well, this book acknowledges a great catalyst of both adventuring and roleplaying and provides DETAILED rules for determining social class and wealth: Beyond class, race and ethnicity as determinants, rules for gossip, drops for in- and decreases in social status make for an amazing section, also since starting attitudes are determined by class – so yes, in this book and the Lost Lands in general, there may actually be a good reason to send the rogue to deal with the homeless, the paladin to deal with royalty. This may not sound like much, but I’ve been playing with my own homebrew social class rules and they have been a superb catalyst for roleplaying.
But this is a city sourcebook, in spite of the copious coverage of material beyond the city: As such, it should be noted that each and every district of the city can be found within these pages: From the tent city and stable row to the market district, each of the districts not only provides statblocks for local beings and notes on remarkable places alongside detailed maps of the respective environments, we also receive notes on local characteristics.
Beyond the glorious full-color artworks of the respective chapters depicting the districts, it ultimately would be the people that populate the city of Bard’s Gate that render it evocative: From strange mages to notorious doppelgangers, the city presents a strange amalgam of mythological resonance and the fantastic established within the canon of the world: From the pied piper myth to the shapeshifting Grandfather; numerous fully mapped temples (including bacchae) , vampire hunters on the run…there are so many fully statted NPCs and hooks within this tome that even attempting to list them all would frankly be an exercise in futility. Just rest assured that, no matter your preferred themes, chances are you’ll find their representation within the pages of this book.
The city, though, is something else: It can be read, provided you know where to look, as Frog God Games’ love letter to the amazing community that supports the company, that supports the hobby: If you know where to look, you’ll not only find the names of publishers and authors herein; you’ll also find Tenkar’s Tavern, the amazing old-school site’s representation here. And yes, a humble medium that, coincidentally shares some traits with yours truly, can also be found within these pages. I won’t lie – reading that entry was indeed humbling. To be immortalized in a book of this caliber is indeed amazing. (So yes, if you ever wanted to kill me by proxy in your game – there you go!)
More than 20 pages of NPCs, from the general to the specific, are featured in the first of the appendices, only to be followed by exceedingly detailed random encounter charts (including charts to determine attitudes of drunken folks!). New magic items galore as well as the spider domain and its associated spells add further material for those of us craving crunch. Speaking of which: Beggar NPC-class, baby! Oh, and a killer PrC, the disciple of orcus archetye and two racial variants can be found herein: The street dwarf and the wood elf. Both races are well-crafted, though the absence of age, height and weight tables for them constitutes one of the few gripes I could field against this book.
Even after all of that, we have barely reached page 387 – so what do we get beyond that? Well, adventures, obviously! And I’m not talking about the usual half-assed back-of-a-setting-book modules…after all, this is Frog God Games we’re talking about. We’re also not talking about 1 module…we’re talking about 7.
All right, since to cover these, I need to go into SPOILER-territory, from here on out, I’d ask potential players to jump to the conclusion.
All right, the first one would be Crommlen’s Ghosts, intended for characters level 1 – 3 and is about a mysterious group of raiders harassing the tent city district of the city, doubling basically as a means of introducing the PCs to the region. Via various rumors and interaction and, ultimately, their brawn, the PCs will have to deal with these dread raiders in an old salt mine…and in the course of events unearth the leitmotif of “all evil needs to triumph is ignorance/a lack of empathy.”
A matter of faith, intended for characters level 3 – 6, puts the PCs on a trail of missing kids from the poorer sections of town, and in the process of the investigation, confronts them with the vast evil of a horrid child-slave-ring that needs to be purged…but how to go about said business? The schism between factions of an otherwise good church can potentially lead to a whole campaign worth of follow-up material. Have I mentioned that Dropsy the clown makes one of the most disturbing villains I’ve seen in a while or the cool gondola chase?
“The Over and the Under” would be a change of pace from politics and social issues. Intended for 5th to 7th level PCs, the adventure is basically a heist that is surprisingly well-structured regarding its preparation options; think of this basically as Ocean’s 11 in a fantasy casino. Yes, I liked that…and, if you want to, you can make that also a nice module to send the PCs off to riches beyond belief (read: untimely deaths) in Rappan Athuk.
At the same level-range, we receive a cat-and-mouse themed module that centers around retrieving a magic item and sewer/tunnel-crawling as well as rescuing a captured priest of Bast…which coincidentally means that it would also fit pretty much perfectly within the Southlands-context, but that as an aside.
A fully-depicted black market basement would be up next (it doubles as basically a mini-module, if you choose to run it as such), before the level 8 Gnoll Fortress follows up on the gnoll raiding party featured in “The Stoneheart Valley” and gives them their proper due: And do NOT believe that these threats will be easy to eliminate: A lot of individuals sport class levels and with ettins etc. included in the mix, dealing with this constant threat to the region is most assuredly a task that will not come easy to the PCs.
“The Hidden Huscarl”, for characters level 8 – 10, would be an amazing bridge from the city of Bard’s Gate to the frigid regions of the Northlands Saga. The module focuses on finding a missing Northlander captain, who has crossed a powerful crime lord of the city…promptly dropping the man in his personal oubliette, a dungeon wherein not only ossuary golems, but also a vampire torturer need to be bested to win the freedom of the missing captain. (Which, coincidentally, also puts them on decent terms with a powerful jarl…)
“Slip-Gallows Abbey”, intended for 10th+ level characters, deals with the exploration of the eponymous place: The result, among other things of the hubris of mortals believing they’d be capable of screwing over the dread entities of the city of brass, it is a highly-lethal dungeon-crawl through the cursed and shadow themed place.
Now the maps of this book deserve special mention: Full-color and gorgeous, they come with regular and key-less, player-friendly iterations of both the massive city, its environments, AND the locales featured in the city’s write-up and the modules, providing maximum usefulness to the city and its environments.
Editing and formatting are truly impressive for a book of this size – there is neither an accumulation of typos or the like, not an excess of rules/formatting hiccups to be found here. The book is precisely crafted. Layout adheres to a neat 2column full-color standard that manages to cram a metric ton of text upon each page: This book, in a less efficient layout, could have doubled in size. So yeah, there is A LOT in this book. The artworks provided for the tome are gorgeous and full-color…and yes, they are original pieces. While a few are used more than once herein, I am certainly not going to complain in the aesthetics department, particularly considering the HUGE amount of absolutely stunning full-color maps. Speaking of which: While I couldn’t afford backing this massive beast of a book, I do believe that the colossal map of the city in print out to be something to look forward to. I wouldn’t comment on the print copy since I do not have it in the case of any other publisher. However, Frog God Games have, at this point established that their massive hardcovers stand the test of time by virtue of their quality. So yeah…if in doubt, I’d try to go for that version.
Casey Christofferson, Matthew J. Finch, Skeeter Green and Greg A. Vaughan, with additional material by James M. Spahn, deliver something that exceeded my expectations by a long haul. Let me elaborate:
3.X was, among many unpleasant things, also the golden age of amazing city source-books: With particularly the scarred lands delivering some of my favorite places ever and with the Iron Kingdoms Great City, Ptolus and Freeport adding to the fray, I still count quite a few of the cities from that age among my favorites. Paizo has equally done an amazing job of crafting evocative, unique settlements since. However…as much as I love Necromancer Games, the original 3.X Bard’s Gate will never be a book I fondly remember. It should have been a milestone and featured the worst editing of the NG-era, felt disparate and confused and lacked a cohesive, unique identity. It is a book I buried deep within the confines of my collection and never looked fondly upon.
This obviously meant that I could have been more excited to t review this book. To be quite honest, it is only my faith in Frog God Games that made me give this a go in the first place. After showing with the excellent Borderland Provinces books that the cadre of authors and designers can craft superb sourcebooks, I felt a glimmer of hope for this supposed lynchpin of the Lost Lands, hoped that it would finally bring justice to this massive city. The sheer scope of this book is frankly daunting; the fact that it actually manages to be that lynchpin, however, is what makes it amazing: This is the central puzzle piece around which the other aspects, all the extensive canon, is situated around…and it *FEELS* like it: From the humble small modules to the classics, from the old to the new, Bard’s Gate manages, with almost encyclopedic aplomb, to connect a vast network of narrative threads and weave them into a cohesive whole that doubles as a compelling, meticulously planned city.
More importantly, it is now actually a place the PCs will want to protect: There is everything to be found and gained within bard’s gate, everything to be lost as well. It can be a glorious place and a hell-hole at the same time and ultimately feels like an organic, breathing entity of a city you could wander through, managing to bring an attention to detail and a diversity of scopes from the mundane to the epic to the table that makes it a milestone of a city. Bard’s Gate isn’t a weird city, though it features such themes; it is not a grim city, though it can be. It is both decidedly fantastic and down to earth at the same time and manages to convey a sense of historicity you won’t find in most fantastic metropolises. In short: This book’s existence makes the previous iteration of the book as obsolete as humanly possible and doubles as one of the most compelling city sourcebooks I have read for PFRPG. The only other city sourcebook which has, by virtue of page-count, even the remotest chance of standing up to this juggernaut would be Freeport and I don’t have that book since its first PFRPG-foray back in the day disappointed me.
In short: Bard’s Gate stands very much as a class of its own, with in particular the acknowledgment of social classes being one of my favorite aspects within. Add to that the great prose, the winking love letters to the community and the creative, challenging modules and we have a book that oozes passion and heart’s blood from every page. It should come as no surprise, then, that I consider this to be one fantastic tome, well worth of 5 stars + seal of approval as well as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016.
As per the writing of this review, this book can only be purchased on Frog God Games’ homepage here!
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