This massive book clocks in at 269 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a colossal 262 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review.
All right, so we have been to the Sundered Kingdoms and taken in all the sights and cults…but this is something different. While situated in the adjacent region to aforementioned adventure-collection, we actually have a massive setting sourcebook. As such, the tome begins with a breakdown of the history of the region as well as massive timelines denoting the respective years in the different means of counting the timeline. The general overview provides a myth-infused and concise take on the ethnicities and races found within this region; from the savage vanigoths to the supposedly river-born Gaeleen and the Foerdewaith, the notes provided here already exhibit a level of detail and care that makes more than sense: The book talks about how the respective ethnicities see themselves or depict themselves in these tumultuous times, for they indeed are.
Even a cursory glance provides some rather intriguing notes of cataclysms past: Beyond the obvious collapse of the Army of Light, the end of an empire in a magical conflagration that consumed vast stretches of land, 10-year-lasting rains that resulted in famine and failed crops – these lands have indeed seen their fair share of evocative and inspiring catastrophes, but still the lands stand. Fans of the Lost Lands will consider the timeline to be a truly inspiring and chockfull with notes: From the founding of the metropolis of Bard’s Gate to Endhome’s history (the city of “The Lost City of Barakus“-fame), notes that acknowledge some lesser known modules (like “Mires of Mourning“) or the influence of Razor Coast – for veterans of Frog god Games/Necromancer Games, this book pretty much can be considered to be the very glue that pulls everything together; or the skeleton of the body of the region, if you will.
Wait, that does not evoke the proper connotation, since it implies being somewhat basic – and nothing could be further from the truth here. Different technology levels for the respective ethnicities and people add a feasible and evocative tone to the subject matter. But how to give you a proper insight into the leitmotifs of these borderlands? Well, for one, let me talk a bit about nomenclature: In case the names of ethnicities were not ample clue, the provinces and stretches of land, from a linguistic point of view, do something smart: With names like Aachen, Exeter and the like, they employ our dormant knowledge of medieval ages and a palpable Old Europe-style aesthetic. With crests and everything, the presentation of the respective countries further enforces this. So flavor-wise, we’d be looking at a place that feels distinctly more like the end of the Middle Ages than most settings.
On a formal criteria, within the details of the powerful individuals noted, the book sports a sufficient array of powerful people mentioned…but never becomes bogged down in them. You do not have the Oerth/Faerûn issue of an archmage/demigod in every second town – capable folks exist, but ultimately there are barely enough to maintain a sense of cohesion. The general scarcity of truly mega-powerful individuals mean that there is ample potential for PCs to act and shine without thinking that the “big players can’t be bothered”. On the other hand, some setting have fallen prey to the inverse issue: You know, where the super-powerful forces of darkness only don’t seem to win because they are damn stupid. The Borderland Provinces do not fall prey to this trap either – instead, a general level of threats suffuse everything here, providing ample need for adventurers without threatening an apocalypse at every corner. This balancing act emphasizes further as sense of the believable: We can imagine the darkness lurking, but we do crave people and places worth saving, and making the PCs the only capable (or not ignorant) characters is generally an approach that undermines this. Hence, while there are capable NPCs, at least in my mind the chief achievement for this component lies in painting a picture that is believable.
The aforementioned history, nay historicity, evoked by the book is further underlined by the political leitmotif: You see, the nomenclature and catastrophes echo some real life disasters for a reason: The political landscape of the Borderland Provinces is not unlike that of the trials and tribulations and collapse of the Carolingian Empire, which ultimately gave rise to the Holy Roman Empire. Much like these historic empires, the once powerful empire of Foere is within the process of dissolution and decadence; nobles think of secession, provinces are not properly defended and when even the loss of tax revenue is deemed acceptable, you will note that something is going wrong big time…meanwhile, the kingdom of Suilley has won its independence and is going through the growing pains of the rapid expanding empire – growing pains which may cause it to collapse yet under the issues inherited from years of mismanagement…if external forces don’t do the job for the young kingdom. Similarly, the discrepancy between these two major players feel like bookends of the cycle to me – but that may well be due to my Nietzschean leanings when it comes to the structure of the history of mankind. On a less pretentious note, one could construe the political landscape as one that provides pretty much the maximum of adventuring potential: With the threat of war looming, political infighting and shifting allegiances all provide a rich panorama of inspiring metanarratives to develop…and that is before free cities and city states on the rise and the pseudo-colonial angle Razor Coast provides are entered into the fray.
The book, then goes on to underline yet another widely component that is a crucial glue often neglected in fantasy gaming: Religion. What’s Endy now talking about, you ask? Well, beyond the presence of clerics, palas and the like, the function of religion for societies as a unifying thread is often neglected in gaming supplements – not so here: In the decline of Thyr’s worship due to ever thinner margins and thus, possibilities of making an impact on the daily lives, Mitra’s worship is gaining ground amidst the folk, adding another sense of Zeitenwende, of a radical change of the times to the social and political powder keg that is the Borderland Provinces. Conversely, this does echo similar proceedings in Europe – from Lutherans and Calvinists, a crucial component of their success ultimately can be attributed to the entwinement of the Catholic Church with the political establishment of those days, resulting in a disenfranchisement of a significant part of the body politic.
There is another component I feel obliged to mention, for, by the above, you may fall prey to the erroneous assumption that this book offers basically only a repackage of historical occurrences, when nothing could be further from the truth. After all, we are playing fantasy games and thus, the aspect of magic is deeply entwined with themes like religion: Beyond escalating the aforementioned cataclysms that have haunted these lands, magic also is firmly entwined with the aspect of religion – for, in a world where demon lords ever plot the ultimate collapse of civilization, a heresy suddenly becomes more than something to stamp out in order to maintain control over the doctrine and its narrative. Instead, heresy can range from the harmless to the soul-damning and as such, the task of the ever fewer agents of the organized religions traveling these lands is one of prime importance, as smart and devious cults operate beneath a veneer of respectability.
Which would bring me to the shadowy forces, whose threats are less obvious than warfare, racial conflicts, barbarians and monsters – namely, the leitmotifs of heresies. Whether benevolent or willfully incited by demonic cultists, the organized religions are having a tough time to maintain supremacy over their own teachings, considering the diverse challenges the lands face. In an age of flux, it is in the cracks left behind by the failures of the respective nobility and governments that darkness thrives. Which would bring me to the component that I have not yet mentioned: For up until now, I have mainly talked about the themes of this book and less about its actual use as a gaming supplement. You see, each of the areas introduced herein not only features notes on religion, major players and settlements – instead, the regions also provide monsters to be found within this area and a plethora of partially interconnected quests. Not content to simply depict hooks, the book goes into an almost-adventure-level of detail, with some statblocks and evocative quests there; to retrieve the train of thought associated with heresies, a whole village has fallen prey to false teachings and is thus doomed – unless the PCs can find a way to save their souls.
Beyond the monuments that litter the landscape and the traditional, exceedingly evocative indirect story-telling that comes together here, the book also is defined by a massive array of different random encounter-tables at the beck and call of the GM – and yes, the pdf does make a difference between regions, roads and the wilderness. Indeed, it should be noted that the narrative impulses contained herein blend all concisely; In an age where printing is not yet common, the appearance of potentially madness-inducing pamphlets, for example, would make for a unique angle. Have I mentioned yet the fact that this book also introduces a demon prince who may be one of Azathoth’s Pipers, somehow turned sentient and…different, providing a long overdue thematic and innovative connection for the themes of the creatures of the Outer Dark and the forces of the Abyss.
Of course, there is more to the aspect of the fantastic than just an abundance of monstrosities haunting the wilderness; there would be the occurrence of a kind of truce between an archmage and the most powerful dragon of the region; there would be dangerous locales; neutral ground taverns at the intersection of no less than three territories…and there are places where the chivalric ideal still lives, with jousting and the means to rise in the social hierarchy. Numerous settlements in detail and a plethora of shrines and sacred or profane sites await the exploration by the PCs…and the sense of realism is further enhanced in its logical consequences: There would be, for example, a mighty city that has come to an understanding with a foul-tempered black dragon: The dragon defends the city…and who better to defend versus adventurers…than a whole city loving the creature, worshiping it…including the more powerful small folks? The component of the fantastic, from spells to the presence of creatures like ogres or worse, are not just simply slapdashed on like a thin fantastic coating – the internal consistency bespeaks careful and thoughtful deliberation and is baffling in its panache. Have I mentioned the region that uses giant ox beetles for beasts of burden?
Now the aspect of the fantastic even extends to some extend to the unique nature and economy that can be seen in parts of the borderland provinces; these lands are NOT just Europe-rip-offs. Quite the contrary, for e.g. the opium-studded fields of Pfefferain, originally introduced in the criminally underrated 3.X module “Vindication!” by Necromancer Games and the truce between ferry-operators and river giants – all seems to be connected in a tapestry of myriad colors and tones that nevertheless generate a concise whole. The level of deliberate care and internal consistency extends beyond the basic – MASSIVE name generators by region for both males and females, massive place-names by region (similarly ridiculously detailed and a colossal amount of stats for ready-made 109 encounters can be found to supplement the numerous adventure locales that are interspersed in the write-ups of the respective regions. Exceeding this, the book also features hazard generators and stats for aerial traveling – for example wind whales. Aforementioned heresies are similarly depicted in lavish detail…and the book provides a gigantic index that features pronunciation guidelines for the respective places. The book also features the previously released FREE “Rogues in Remballo“-scenario and an impressive array of b/w-maps alongside player-friendly iterations – the inclusion of these just adding the icing on the cake this is. The physical iteration also has a gorgeous full-color hex-map of the regions.
Editing and formatting are very good – while I noticed some minor hiccups like a superscript “B” that was not properly formatted, as a whole, this book adheres to FGG’s high quality standards. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read b/w-2-column standard and the book sports numerous gorgeous b/w-artworks. The electronic version sports numerous bookmarks for your convenience…but frankly, if you can somehow afford it, get this in print: With high quality binding and paper, this book’s physical version is just so much more awesome to hold in your hands. The b/w-cartography is nice and the presence of player-friendly maps is amazing.
Matthew J. Finch, with additional content by Greg A. Vaughan and Bill Webb, has created something special here. When I heard about this book for the first time, my reaction, to some extent, was bewilderment. While I could see e.g. Rappan Athuk and Endhome occupy the same general geographic region, while I saw the more conservative aspects working in perfect unison, it is the weirder, the darker and subtle aspects of the modules that stumped me as to how this could ever work as a whole.
You see, setting-books of this size face an almost impossible catch-22-situation. Too much detail and you wreck their adaptability for a given round; not enough and the thing becomes too opaque and some jerk like yours truly starts complaining. If you add the excessive canon this unifies, you have another issue: Bastards like yours truly that have too much fun contemplating and considering the ramifications of the presence of creatures, the political landscape, etc. – i.e., sooner or later, unless you *REALLY* think it through, internal discrepancies will creep into the game and someone will find them and have his/her game ruined by them, as immersion comes crashing down. On the other hand, if you take the reins too tightly, you only generate a free-form adventure with a restrictive metaplot, not a sourcebook. You need to maintain consistency, yes – but if you overemphasize it, the book becomes a dry enumeration of facts and densely entwines facts – and not everyone wants to read such a book.
It is against these challenges that I have read this massive tome…and it holds up. More than this, however, the achievement this represents lies within not only succeeding at maintaining internal consistency and fusing a gigantic array of disparate files into a thematically concise whole – it also maintains its efficiency as a gaming supplement: Much like the Judge’s Guild books of old, certain wildernesses and city states, this very much represents a sourcebook that does not require preplanned adventures or the like – instead, you just throw your PCs inside and watch them do whatever they please…and if you do want a module, well, the region provides a vast array of mega-adventures that gain a lot from the proper contextualization within the region. In fact, I frankly wished I hadn’t played some of them, since their context herein adds significantly to their appeal.
I have not even managed to scratch the surface regarding the number of things to do and experience within the borderland provinces and that is intentional, for I have so far failed to explicitly state the biggest strength of the book: Perhaps it is the internal consistency of the book and its lore…but I experienced something while reading this tome I have only scarcely encountered: A sense of Fernweh (think of that as the opposite of being homesick), of a wanderlust for a realm that does not exist, of a world so steeped in lore, vibrant and alive that this book managed what only a scant few have accomplished – I actually managed to dream lucidly a journey through these fantastic realm in a sequence of dreams of several days. This peculiar experience is usually reserved for books of the highest prose caliber, books that manage to generate a level of cohesion that is so tight my mind can subconsciously visualize it. A prerequisite for this, obviously, would be some desire to do just that, meaning that ultimately, the book in question must have caught not only my attention, but provided a sort of intense joy beyond the confines of most books, let alone gaming supplements.
To cut my long ramblings short, the prose herein is absolutely superb and exhibits the strengths of the exceedingly talented trinity of authors, making the reading experience of the book a more than pleasing endeavor. Moreover, the significant attention to detail regarding the actual use of the book as a gaming supplement ultimately also deprives me of any complaints I could field against it in that regard. While this review is based on the PFRPG-version, it is my firm conviction that even groups employing systems beyond the 3 for which this has been released, will have an absolute blast with this book -even without any of the book’s gaming utility, this is an excellent offering and hence receives the highest accolades I can bestow upon it – 5 stars, seal of approval and nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016 – This makes the Lost lands truly come to life and I can’t wait to see the next massive sourcebook of the world. if the Frogs can maintain this level of quality and consistency, we’ll be looking at my favorite fantasy setting among all I know. Get this – you will NOT regret it!
The D&D 5e-version can be found here on tabletoplibrary.com!
Finally, if you want the print-versions: They can be ordered here on froggodgames.com
Incoming search terms:
- The Lost Lands: Borderland Provinces