Tales from the Fallen Empire (DCC) (Priority Review)
This massive campaign setting clocks in at 216 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 3 pages editorial/KS-backer thanks, 2 pages of ToC, 3 pages of advertisements, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 204 pages of content.
These do include two pages devoted to a character sheet, and 4 pages of helpful index. Interesting choice: The book doesn’t begin with editorial/ToC, instead front-loading the legend of the setting, by providing an excerpt from the scrolls of Tian of Zhou. This prologue really manages to set up a great basic premise that managed to resound with the tone one associated with the excerpts from the Nemedian Scrolls.
It should be noted that my review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review by one of my readers, who also sent me the softcover copy of this book. My review is primarily based on that version, and I have also consulted the pdf.
Anyway, the expectations set by the prologue are promising indeed: We learn that the world is essentially the remains of Leviathan, the grand dragon, slain by his rebellious offspring, with connections to other worlds/planes remaining; this simple planar geography lets you add different tones with relative ease, as the dragon’s portals lead to other places. So yeah, you can add a neat array of hodgepodge races here, though the world generally is assumed to be human-centric. Since back then, we had a sorcerer-king era, and said era ended around 100 years ago with the fall of the city-state of Uruk, initiating the Third Age. This premise is pretty much awesome – if you go with the classic heroes, it’d be situated somewhere between the age of Kull and that of Conan. This is a good premise. Alas, much to my chagrin, the book doesn’t really do much with the cool dragon-corpse angle. Sure, sun = heart, sea = blood, etc. may be nice – but the sea isn’t *really* blood (unlike in the Scarred Lands, for example), and apart from a great little line about things below keeping the corpse-world alive, there isn’t much going on here.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the Philipp Mainländer-ish take on living on the corpse of a deity; but the premise doesn’t really have consequences regarding weather, regarding seasons, regarding anything – as written, this could be any old planetoid world, and that frankly bugs me to no end. Okay. Maybe, I am overinterpreting things. If the creation myth is supposed to be allegorical, the world a regular planetoid, that’d be an explanation…but it’d be one that underwhelms me slightly. Why am I bringing it up, then? Well, because there are two more instances wherein you get to learn about the world, and there are discrepancies in these sections. These may or may not be intentional, since the book does drop a TON of lore upon the judge, and the information does seem to come from both authoritative and in-game sources.
The problematic aspect with the per-se solid lore, is that the book takes a few odd stances: On one hand, we learn that there are no proper gods, and hence no clerics in the setting. On the other, we get a massive pantheon of deities, some being the great dragons, some deities from other worlds. It should be noted that I am one of the judges who enjoy reading a lot of lore, but this book did make things a bit hard for me, as said discrepancies also apply to the general tone of the setting.
What do I mean by this? Essentially, this setting assumes a higher power-level than default DCC games – the variant character creation rules presented for playing in the world of Urd seem to champion significantly higher power-levels than DCC’s default. If there was no magical healing, this’d make sense to a degree, but turns out there is – the witch-class, one of the new classes herein, essentially takes the cleric’s role. The classes presented are barbarian, marauder, sentinel, sorcerer (wizard variant) and witch; beyond these, we have the man-ape and drake race-classes.
Since in-depth analysis of these classes would bloat the review, in all brevity; Barbarians gain a scaling Savage Ferocity Die, and in combat, can roll it, taking the rolled result, or any result below that. This is per se an interesting idea, but the effects are pretty diverse: As a result, it sometimes makes sense to roll the die and hope for a high result – and then not getting it. To give you an example: Entry 2 nets you an addition 30 ft. running jump movement for -2 to the AC. Okay, cool. But why can the barbarian execute that only in combat? Since you can always roll a 1, you can end up not getting this result…and e.g. fall to your death, when you could have escaped with this ability. The problem here is focus: The abilities should be attack-based, with the utility-based tricks relegated to another suite array. I like the idea here, but the execution can be potentially annoying. Man-apes are essentially brutes with deed die and a berserk rage. Marauders are pirates with black market connections, sentinels are sacred guardians in the Dol Minor wastes, somewhere between paladin, rangers and rogue. Yes, I meant rogue, not thief. More on that later. Draki are repitile people who are particularly good at using magic items. Sorcerers use ritual magic, and have been stolen from Dark Sun, in that their magics have defiler-like effects, drawing upon the life energies of those nearby. Witches get a custom spell list, are better at casting divination-like spells, and can Make Potions at first level and, as noted before, heal.
Regarding ethnicities, the book presents a whole array, including idiosyncrasies – when negative aspects are roleplayed, the player gets a coin that can be sued for rerolls, having the proper item on hand, etc. – the idea here is cool. The book also presents an interesting mechanic that ties a die of forbidden lore to lucidity – essentially a madness system applied to DCC, in aesthetics based on Call of Cthulhu. The system is relatively simple and easy to adapt, making use of DCC’s die-chain mechanics, and is rules-wise perhaps one of my favorite aspect herein. The book also presents an engine for ritual magic and magic item crafting. The ritual engine is per se mechanically-solid, but leaves one thing up to the judge that I really look for in ritual engines: An actual description of the actions performed. You know, some sequence, perhaps even a quick “ritual-step generator” so one can actually roleplay the ritual, instead of just having a spell with a long casting time and cost.
The crafting magic items sections deserves special mention, as it assumes that magic items are (usually!) the result of demons being bound in the item! As such, a variant rule is provided for obedience of the respective item. I like these. However, I might note that these are pretty. The book also provides a massive chapter of new spells and patrons, though the latter only have Invoke Patron and Spellburn tables, no individual corruptions – bummer. The spells include calling e.g. waste tigers to serve, a spell to kill off plant life, a spell to make a target a servant for a limited duration, a spell that causes harm by striking the shadow of the target, fire beams, insect infestation, making a massive tower of sand – these are classic visuals here. I generally like this, though the entire chapter also failed to introduce me to anything I haven’t seen before. It is very much a selection of magics as expected for the genre.
The book also features a total of 4 pages that provide basic naval combat rules. These are per se serviceable, but its presentation is really confused. I’m familiar with plenty of complex systems, and it took me a few rereads to get how the system works. It’s also very much contingent on having a marauder. If you are a marauder, you’ll be better at naval combat than anyone else, and to my significant chagrin, now much in the way of magic/ship interaction, or unique abilities based on class, are provided. My impression was that the system would be very boring and uneven to actually play, and said impression proved to be correct. I strongly suggest steering clear of the naval combat rules.
On the plus-side, the actual description of the world and its regions once more manages to capture the spirit of the prologue, and the cartography (by Alyssa Faden, I think) provided for the cities is AWESOME. B/w city shaped as a scarab? Heck yeah! Downside: All maps consistently lack a scale, which makes the world feel somewhat opaque regarding its scale. Still, the part of the book that depicts the world has some neat parts.
This cannot be said about the bestiary. The bestiary section of this book is easily one of the worst I have seen in a setting for quite a while. For one, the respective creatures are not that interesting mechanically. And there’s this other, nagging feeling. When we get that list of golem traits, and it doesn’t line up with any of the golems herein, when a will-o’-wisp-like creature is described as harmless, but have a frickin’ +14 attack for 2d8 electricity damage. We have instances where the Act die line isn’t properly bullet pointed (the raptor has the die and MV listed in the HD-line) – or the value missing. This is a weak, boring section. And it is here, finally, that I realized what irked me about this book.
This reads like a D&D 3.X campaign setting. It claims, time and again, that it’s gritty, but it really…isn’t. You see, it has all the dressing of a sword & sorcery setting; it has this notion of being a high-powered one, yeah, but the trappings are here. Ape-men? Check. A few b/w-drawings with exposed breasts? Check. Ritual magic etc.? Check. But it never feels like all of that is an integral part of the setting. It tries to accommodate for so much, it loses its footing. Magic’s supposed to be rare, yet we have magic creation rules. We have essentially Dark Sun’s defiler-magic, but no individual corruptions. We don’t have magical drugs or the like, no strange savage alchemy, but we do get a whole system of new coins to convert to (starting wealth table is btw. missing which coins it uses); we have golems galore, extraplanar guys, plant-zombies – you know, the usual D&D-ish array. Heck, same goes for the wraiths. We have no deities and clerics, but witches. In many ways, this feels cobbled together, and as though it had been originally written for D&D 3.X before being changed to DCC. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, the rules are solid and do a decent job at what they want to achieve. But they never come together in a concise manner. The individual systems just float around, and quite a bit of the content feels like it’s there simply for filling page-count. Neither drake nor ape-man are interesting, and the other classes are also very cookie-cutter…or somewhat problematic in how they play.
Speaking of “problematic in how they play”: The book has two sample adventures, one 0-level funnel, and a module for levels 3-5. The former is missing any read-aloud text, while the latter has some.
Spoilers for the modules below. Potential players beware and jump to the conclusion.
Okay, module #1, the funnel, is an “escape the slave pens scenario”; it opens, among other things, with this set-up:
“[…]These chains limit base speed to 20’ (DC 25 Reflex to either pick the lock or otherwise remove them). […]The gate on the bars of the pen is a DC 25 Strength check to break, or a DC 20 Reflex check to pick the lock.[…]”
…nobody can tell me that this was playtested properly. Later, we have a bear, skeletons and a water spirit. This is literally the most boring, uninspired jailbreak module I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot.
The Horrors of Hod, unfortunately, doesn’t fare much better: It feels like on of the really bad Lovecraft sword & sorcery pastiches that jam something ostensibly frightening into the context of the setting. It features spore zombies, but also a hell hound, darkmantles and similar D&D-ish critters. It feels like a regular fantasy dungeon with a few tangentially creepy critters thrown in. This module’s hook also has some tribal warfare angle that makes it seem like the world’s really small, but I’m not sure in that regard, since the book never specifies, you know, a scale. On the plus-side, saving a damsel from supernatural enemies is as classic as it gets, but the execution is so laughable. Since the dungeon itself lacks any real distinguishing features on a dressing or rules-level, the whole “turned into spore zombie” threat is lost. Even if you manage to evoke a sense of horror, that’ll be gone when you run into a bog-standard (haha) gray ooze. Oh, also always fun: Invisible line of death traps. You know, the “you walk there, take damage”-type. Also: Guess what? The lucidity rules the book introduces? Not used here. -.- Oh, and the boss? Same stats as standard critter, can only be killed by mcguffin. Why? No clue. This is super-sucky railroading and has logic bugs. I hated this adventure.
Editing is, formally, decent. On a rules-language level, and regarding lore consistency, it is rather uneven. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, with a blend of original and stock b/w-artworks. Aesthetically, the cartography of the cities is the undisputed highlight of this book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The softcover is a solid book, with title etc. on the spine, though the front cover of my copy seems slightly blurred. I can’t comment on the virtues or lack thereof of the hardcover.
James Carpio, with contributions from Michael Curtis, Chris Lites, Colin Chapman, Mary Lindholm, Michael R. Smith, Walter Andrew Rinehart and Matthew Millman, has written a massive setting that has so much potential.
Potential that never came together. I *never* felt like this world came together. Goodman Games’ Punjar-modules do Lankhmar-ish sword & sorcery on the upper weirdness/power-levels better. (Lankhmar as well, obviously.) And if I want to play in a low-powered sword & sorcery world, ironically the World of Xoth by Morten Braten does an infinitely better job for DCC, even though it was written originally for D&D 3.X. What sets this campaign setting apart, its unique world, is unfortunately just a backdrop that might as well not exist. The entire unfocused presentation breaks this setting for me. The book introduces a ton of stuff that is not crucial to the setting, but leaves us without things that truly distinguish it from comparable settings.
This setting feels like it’s suffering from a constant identity crisis: Does it want to be a dark, gritty tale in a savage world of gray moralities? Or does it want to be a goofy D&D hodgepodge of genres and planar themes? If you want to be gritty, then you also have to be somewhat outré, somewhat grimy. And ironically, the core modules released for DCC actually do a better job at conveying the vibe of sword and sorcery than this setting, much less the horrible modules included in this book. This setting lacks all grit and grime, and may be the most PG-13, playing-it-safe take on Sword & Sorcery I’ve seen. Unless you’re offended by (very few) artworks of female characters with exposed breasts (none exploitative, mind you), it’ll be hard to find anything to be offended by.
…yep. I actually think that quite a few default fantasy settings are grimier and grittier than this sword & sorcery setting.
Suffice to say, this is easily the most pronounced example of squandered potential I have ever seen. The lore started off so well, but at once point, it all started to blur together, with the discrepancies between sources managing to erode all of my desire to truly grasp all the nuances of the setting’s history. If I wasn’t a reviewer, I’d have shelved this book right then and there.
I wish I did. At that point, I was still rather ambivalent about the book, but as I progressed to the atrociously-bad adventures and the lackluster bestiary, this remainder of goodwill also started to evaporate.
I dove into this book wanting to love it; I took a look at the Appendix N provided herein, and started smiling. And it started so well. But…well. At this point, you probably guess that I can’t recommend this setting. In many ways, this feels like it’s either 100 pages too short, or 100 pages too long. The respective subsystems needed full integration or proper space to shine, and the world really needed some rules for things that set it apart, to develop its dragon-angle.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a super-bad book; but in many ways, it’s painfully vanilla and boring, and it has issues with its consistence and focus. I definitely hope that the module “A Faceless Enemy”, set in this world, fares better than the modules herein. Anyhow, rating.
I don’t enjoy bashing this work, but frankly, I’d recommend every sword & sorcery setting in my library over this one. For some idea-scavenging, this may be worth checking out. If you’re relatively inexperienced when it comes to the genre, that is. My final verdict can’t exceed 2 stars.
You can get this campaign setting here on OBS.
Instead of this setting, I’d suggest checking out the world of Xoth here.
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