This town backdrop clocks in at 14 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 8 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
In the Duchy of Ashlar, near the infamous (and superbly-written) Gloamhold, there looms a great salt marsh, and above it, there is the bustling, booming trade town of Dulwich, which is anything but dull.
Sorry. I just couldn’t help myself. Bad puns from reviewers aside, Dulwich exists in interesting times for the duchy: A veritable torrent of lumber from the forest helps keep the coffers of its citizens full, and if the machinations of mayor Wido Gall, one of the major players seeking to establish control over the village of Longbridge (one of the finest villages in the classic Village Backdrop series). It should also be noted that the town is situated rather close to the Shunned Valley, where an excellent beginner’s adventure released by Raging Swan Press takes place – though this module, as per the writing of this review, has not yet been converted to 5e.
But even if you don’t have Longbridge or seek to use the Duchy and its excellent associated pieces of content, rest assured that Dulwich has a lot to offer: This is fully operational as a stand-alone supplement. You see, the town’s merchants have been trying to wrest control from the mayor – so far, without much success. However, all this may change with the recent death of high priest Taistro Rintala. His successor, the young priestess Vuokko Laiten may well be the tip of the tongue that changes the balance of power in the town; this becomes even more peculiar when the adventurers unearth the machinations of the deceased high priest…
Now, the 5e-version does not have settlement stats and thus, also no missing plusses there, but much to my chagrin, the marketplace section of adventuring-relevant goods to be purchased has been eliminated as well – understandable in the system neutral version, but less so in the 5e-iteration. PCs that do their legwork may unearth town lore of Dulwich and the pdf does feature a total of 6 rumors the PCs may unearth when keeping their ears to the street.
Now, this would not be a Raging Swan Press supplement without providing delicious dressing to add local color and flair – from the nomenclature and dressing habits of the townsfolk to the local industry and law enforcement (which is, obviously, also involved in the ongoing power struggle), the pdf offers quite an array of interesting details that practically write adventures themselves. This notion is carried further by the brief, fluff-only write-ups of the townsfolk, which not only include the obvious power-players, but also e.g. the head of a local cat burglar ring or a mysterious street performer. The 5e-version of these folks sports references to the relevant statblocks – no conversion relics.
As befitting of a place with an increased likelihood of having adventurers return (or stay longer!), the town is supplement with a 2d8-table of events, ranging from funeral processions to blacksmiths demonstrating their goods to more outré examples, like the guardsmen passing by with a woman wearing a metallic mask in command, who drag a bedraggled merchant to the keep in chains…well, if that’s not intriguing… 11 sample sites and places of interest in the town are provided in further detail: From the goals of the masked woman in question to the temple/court to the guild hall, the main sites and concentrations of power are covered – but so are the back-dealings that are less obvious: Beautiful femme fatale jewelers who may make a grab for power, a library, various taverns and inns (with costs and notes for food and drinks!) to the marketplace, the locales come with plenty of interesting angles.
Speaking of which: Unlike pretty much every such town I’ve seen in RPGs, this does not shortchange the importance of guilds, which should put a smile on the faces of quite a few scholars out there: The 3 most powerful guilds (blacksmiths, Potters, wool) receive their own page. It should be noted that the lumber guild, the most powerful of them all, has its own entry in the notable sites.
There’s another aspect to this pdf that I really adore. You see, beyond Tommi Salama’s absolutely gorgeous b/w-map of the town, the pdf also comes with explanations of street names and what can be found in the respective streets, painting pictures of the local environments far more precisely than enumerations of multiple house-descriptions could. Globetrotters who have visited many a stories town will probably also agree with me that this represents a very cool way to add a sense of historicity to the place.
Editing and formatting are very good. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ elegant two-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports nice b/w-artwork. The cartography by Tommi Salama is gorgeous and in b/w. The pdf comes in two versions, one optimized for screen-use and one to be printed out – kudos!
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Yes, this town backdrop is shorter than previous installments. It is my contention, though, that courtesy of John Bennett’s expert penmanship, it may actually be better off for it. You see, towns occupy an in-between spot, design-wise: In a village, you can flesh out everything in detail; in a city, you need to be open, but also have the advantage of having more possibilities, design-wise. A town that is too open, though, becomes anonymous and like a bad example for city-design; it can’t offer the same wide-open potential. At the same time, a town that is too lavish in its details runs the risk of becoming stifling, of becoming too much to micro-manage for the GM. This pdf, then, manages to succeed this balancing-act in a rather formidable way.
Dulwich is at once open enough to allow a Gm to easily plug-in material, and specific enough to constitute a detailed home with its own flair for the PCs. The writing also manages to elicit an atmosphere that is pretty unique, as far as fantasy is concerned: This may just be me, but with the power-struggle ongoing, covert machinations and the power of guilds, this inevitably painted the fantasy equivalent of a Roaring 20s boomtown gangster epos for me, with slight touches of noir – all firmly situated in a Greyhawkish fantastic context, mind you. This effect is very subtle, mind you – you won’t have gangsters running around the streets or the like; this is traditional fantasy, after all! But it should be taken as testament for the rather nuanced writing that this notion sprang to mind in the first place.
In short: I actually had FUN reading this supplement and consider Dulwich to be a great place: Its metanarratives can span multiple returns or escalate immediately; there is ample adventuring potential and if you also take the Duchy of Ashlar as a whole into account, you’ll be able to further escalate the potential plots and options this offers.
The 5e-version of this town, as a whole, is just as compelling as the PFRPG and system-neutral iterations, but personally, the lack of a marketplace sans replacement annoyed me a bit. Hence, my final verdict will “only” clock in at 5 stars.
You can get Dulwich here on OBS!
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