And now for something *completely* different – this book clocks in at 92 pages. While I do own the electronic versions, I’d suggest getting the print version if you can – mainly since I’m old-school and have based this review on the print copy.
This book was moved up in my review queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book in exchange for a critical, unbiased review.
Okay, so what is this? It is, at least to me as a German, a piece of gaming arcana: Back in the 3.X days of old, there was a Living campaign of organized play called Living Greyhawk, shaping the classic world, with different regions sporting different adventures. During the impressive 8-year run of Living Greyhawk, the region Bandit Kingdoms produced more than 130 unique modules. These modules, to my knowledge, have never been published in a concise form, which renders a part of this region’s turbulent history…opaque.
Well, no longer. The bandit kingdoms in their diversity are laid open in this book’s summaries and depictions. Okay, but why should you care? Well, let me elaborate for a second my own personal stance towards Greyhawk. I know this is tantamount to blasphemy, but here goes: I was never the biggest fan of the setting. Sure, I was pretty excited to get to know the place Mordenkainen called home, where Vecna and Kas feuded…but ultimately, the 3 settings I truly loved from the classic TSR/WotC-IPs will always be Ravenloft, Planescape and Dark Sun. Perhaps it’s my own predilection for darker fantasy and horror and the weird fiction in general, perhaps it’s just a resonance of the disillusion that accompanied many a book and gaming-supplement for 3.X’s FRs and the mounting feeling that this world needed no heroes. I’m not sure. But at the end of the 3.X era, I had the feeling that the realms had devolved into a mess, where every hamlet had a level 16 blacksmith. It’s subjective. I still like the realms…but from afar. It should hence come as no surprise that I never went truly deep inside the Greyhawk’s canon’s evolution during these times.
Turns out that that was a colossal mistake. The flair and old-school vibe of a world close to the brink, with mature shades of grey mentalities and ideologies, the sense of threats I enjoy in offerings by Raging Swan Press, Frog God Games or TPK Games can be found within these pages – as the introduction aptly puts it “I had to save the bad guys from the other PCs.” In the Iuz-dominated and war-torn bandit kingdoms, royals are forged by tourneys of madness, taking the crown may spell your doom and heroism has still its place, although it’s tinted with a healthy dose of survivalism and realpolitik. From 591 – 598, this book chronicles the adventures that were undertaken by countless players, shaping the destiny of the bandit kingdoms in struggles that deviate from the tired challenge-rating-appropriate-formula in quite a few instances, breathing a sense of old-school danger that has been absent in far too many publications. A handy index sums up the respective scenarios by year for your convenience and we also get a glimpse behind the screen, wherein author Casey Brown, one of the meta-organization coordinators, discusses the respective issues with scenario designs and encounter design problems that resulted from some…well, let’s say less than well-conceived design decisions that were imposed on the respective authors.
Now here is the interesting component – this massive book provides a comprehensive list of extensive summaries for all those aforementioned modules. The respective modules come with their own designation, the name of the author and list the AP they are associated with – with AP here denoting the sequence of modules that form a cohesive story, not the “whole campaign”-meaning the term has lately taken as its primary meaning. Each of the respective modules comes with a synopsis of the plot as well as a commentary.
Here would be as good a place as any to talk about Casey Brown’s obvious experience in academia: From informative and properly placed footnotes to an easy to read, compelling style, what should by all accounts have been a pretty dry read actually became rather engrossing and kept me awake at night while digesting all the information contained herein – also from a mechanical standpoint, for e.g. calling out the Spell compendium (still hurts to type that book’s very name). And yes, these tangents are brief, but their very existence is something I truly appreciate. Additionally, if that sound tiring or bland to you, the respective entries often feature extensive commentary that satisfy another craving of the conditio humana we experience: The human element. When e.g. a knight has won a crown as part of his retirement and steps down in favor of his competitor, only to have said competitor be soultrapped by the vile opposition, you can practically see the tables upon tables of players staring in utter disbelief. When an arrogant player’s letter results in him becoming part of the metaplot, when a dwarf’s famous last stand becomes a symbol for heroism in a region known for cut-throat politics, betrayal and dishonor – then the knowing roleplaying veteran nods and realizes that there are some stories that are only written in our medium, at least in the extent and impact they have on lives and collective ideologies shifting.
The compelling and intelligently-crafted political landscape of the bandit kingdoms, slowly unraveling before my eyes, complete with a powerful (almost) undefeated dragon, a kind of elder evil and Iuz’ nigh-unstoppable forces ultimately provides a truly compelling insight into a whole campaign’s worth of material, with a massive list of adventures by associated AP and a timeline that chronicles the events by year from CY 576 onward, this book offers a fascinating insight into the rich landscape of this region.
Beyond that, the pdf also offers intriguing miscellanea: Including favorite quotes…and they are hilarious: “You say medusa, I say artist.” DM: “You hear a bloodcurdling scream from down the hallway.” Player of a rogue: ” I Take 10 searching the square in front of me.” “We have two kinds of heroes: dead ones and…we have one kind of hero, actually.” This book ends with a list of those who served as triad and Iuz circle members.
Editing and formatting are excellent, I noticed no glitches of hiccups. The book’s layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard with thematically-fitting stock art. One thing that may annoy you is the tendency to have a blank page at the end of a chapter, but that’s about it regarding complaints in formal criteria. The electronic version comes in three formats: Pdf, EPUB and MOBI and the print and the classic cover style, with the book sporting the 8 x 02 x 10 inch-dimensions. The pdf, in a minor complaint, is not bookmarked, which is a bit jarring. The paper used in the print does its job regarding its thickness and consistency.
Okay, so why should you care about a by now non-existent, discontinued living campaign? The obvious reason would be nostalgia on part of the participants…but that alone does not do the job. More important, for me as a reviewer is that this book made me actually want to participate in organized play. Pretty much for the first time. I’m not a fan of formulaic or necessarily “Balanced” or “fair” modules – I want a compelling, evolving world and this is a truly astounding glimpse right into such a world. I am neither a big fan of Arcanis, nor of the Pathfinder Society or Greyhawk, as a setting for that matter. But damn, I want to play this. Had I lived in Texas and Oklahoma during this campaign’s run, I probably wouldn’t have missed a single adventure. The picture painted vividly in this chronicle is that of a campaign that is mature, compelling and dynamic. Beyond the knowledge on the formal aspects conveyed herein, this can be considered to be one of the most compelling takes on roleplaying history I have ever read – and it is an inspiring book. I put this book down and started scribbling scenario-ideas and campaign seeds right of the bat – so even if you are not at all interested in Greyhawk, bandit kingdoms or anything like that, you still get a lot of mileage out of this book.
Casey Brown, Britt Frey and Austin “Theo” Judd have crafted a thoroughly unique document that has its special place of honor on my bookshelf – whether for the Lost Lands, the anarchic regions of Golarion or any other campaign setting, really – this book has a ton to offer for people who don’t care about Greyhawk at all. An inspired chronicle that got me excited, a book that is testament to the fact that major story-changes by players can and should happen in living campaigns, a book that does show that there is fun to be had in darker settings and dangerous challenges – what more can you want? This is an inexpensive, awesome book and well worth a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this great piece of RPG-history/idea-scavenging-ground here on OBS!
Since OBS does not have the print, here’s the link to that version on amazon.com, should you prefer it!