Rules and setting. Chocolate and peanut butter. Abbott and Costello. Isn’t it wonderful how some good things come in pairs?
You can have the best system in the world, but without a setting – even the modern world – you need, as George Carlin would say, a place for all your stuff. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum, unless the vacuum is in space and there are spaceships or spacesuits involved… But I’m off track. A setting can be as small as a single building or as large as an entire universe, depending on what’s necessary for a particular adventure. However each setting is a collection of people, places, and things that bring it to life. It’s those details that provide hard points for GMs to use to attach plots and stories.
World building has always been one of my favorite parts of running a campaign. Creating towns and cities and populating them with all the various NPCs, shops, and so on offers an opportunity to exercise my imagination in new and unusual ways. And deciding what to set in motion or how to kick off adventures within the context of that setting just continues the process.
And that brings me to the Chronicles of Amherth setting written by Peter C. Spahn and produced by Small Niche Games. If you’re looking for a relatively low-magic fantasy world with a lot of crunch, you’ve found it. Written for use with the Labyrinth Lord core rulebook (and the subsequent Advanced Edition Companion), Amherth manages to offer an amazing number of different kinds of places in a single world. It’s the closest thing to a “kitchen sink” approach that I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for a particular flavor for your fantasy campaign, you’ll probably find it in here.
You don’t have to use Labyrinth Lord of course. The setting could be easily repurposed for any number of fantasy RPGs, from D&D and Pathfinder to Warrior, Rogue and Mage or any of a dozen other systems. That’s the great thing about the book – really everything up to the “New Monsters” section could be used as is with little or no changes at all, and the monsters could be rebuilt using whatever rules you like.
But let’s dive into the content a bit…
It starts with an overview to give you a feel for the world’s backstory. The book doesn’t go into anything in much detail here, but hints at some of the major events in the distant past. And it’s easy to get the high-level flavor with these major points:
- History is Legend – The legends of the past are fluid and sometimes lost, so it’s easy to slip in whatever tales you want as a GM to justify things.
- Humanity is King – The old races (dwarves, elves, etc.) still exist, but they’ve retreated and left the majority of the world to humankind.
- Magic is Feared, Science is Magic, and The Gods Live – These three bits together define a Dark Ages-sort of world where looking too deeply into the mystic arts or technology might be misconstrued by the gods. If that happens, who knows what consequences will come…
After that we dive into a ton of detail… We learn what the many gods are like and a little about the Ancients – magic and technically advanced beings who brought a series of cataclysms down on themselves Atlantis-style and destroyed the world. Humans are descended from the Ancients. But nearly all of of what the ancestors knew is lost. A few things remain, such as a few magic items, special places, and other things that should probably remain lost. But you know how players are – no stone unturned…
One of the most intriguing things about the world is the lack of magic. It’s not entirely gone, but it’s very rare. You may find one “latent” (a person who can learn how to wield magic) among several thousand people. And Latents will identify more strongly with the divine path or the wizardry path, which apparently can’t be changed down the road. So finding Latents before they’ve chosen a path is an important task for some organizations.
But beyond the low-magic idea of Amherth, the concept of “Arcane Bleed” really appeals to me. Imagine if a powerful warrior who is a latent uses the same weapons and armor over several years – some of the magical energy the Latent continually circulates may affect some of those items. Think of it as a different way to create magic items, whether blessed with magical abilities or cursed by an untimely death. I think it’s a very cool idea and an intriguing way to work epic items into the world, each with a history of wielders.
The idea of the Adventurer’s Guild isn’t a new one, but it comes up in the book. Though I’m not a big fan of the concept, I can see it working in Amherth better than in other worlds. On the fringes of civilized areas, such adventurers and heroes could be used to help clear new areas for settlement or to simply clear out unwanted monsters infringing on human lands.
And then there’s the “Known World” section that talks a bit about every single part of the Amherth world map, as well as a calendar, a discussion on coinage, and a timeline of major events. Though some descriptions are brief and others are longer, there’s plenty of information here for a GM to use in constructing all sorts of plots and adventures. From the Empire of Xanne and the Immortal Emperor Zaer von Xanne who has ruled for the last 500 years to more free and flexible locations, pretty much any kind of government and genre you want is represented.
Each of the realms is described with an overview, a description of the country standard you might see on a flag or shield, a bit about the government and the military forces, any major cities, the people, religion, adventure ideas, and a bit about the inspiration behind the area for further exploration. It’s the “Inspiration” bits that were fascinating to me. Xanne is described as a “loose mishmash of ancient Roman and Mongolian cultures. Tyr is described as a “loose mishmash of medieval British and Germanic cultures.” And Skjolding is based on “several Old Norse cultures.”
Really if you can’t find a place to set your kind of campaign on Amherth, you’re not looking very hard. And I know the Chronicles of Amherth is more of an overview than a deep-dive into any one part of the world, but it really does have a “kitchen sink” kind of approach. That’s a minor knock in the grand scheme of things, but I would have liked to perhaps seen each of the major realms described in its own document for more of a patchwork approach than trying to digest the whole thing at once.
After you learn a bit about the nations and unique places of the world, you get a bit of the local flora and fauna. Unique monsters to the world are cool, but I’ve not seen much done with plants before in world documents. The use of Bloodmoss to fight disease and Glow Stalks to light the way in the dark are awesome bits of crunch I’ve not seen done before.
Though there isn’t a table of contents at the beginning of the book, there’s a detailed index a the end so you can look things up quickly. And the layout is a standard two-column approach with clear chapter and section headings and a good use of white space. I would have liked to have seen more art, but what was in the book worked to illustrate various places, people, and things pretty well. And the world maps are clear and easy to read, with a few variations available so you can print out one continent or the other, or the entire world if you want.
I think Chronicles of Amherth offers a wide range of possibilities for a GM looking for a setting. If it has a weakness, it’s the “kitchen sink” approach that gives you a lot to use potentially but without a single unifying theme. That said, I like the concept of a general purpose world and look forward to other products from Small Niche Games. I’d like to learn more about some of the nations and cities before I choose to put a campaign down somewhere.
- Adventure Review: Atarin’s Delve by Peter C. Spahn from Small Niche Games (gameknightreviews.com)
- OSR News from the Underdark Gazette – Sunday, May 22, 2011 from The Underdark Gazette (underdarkgazette.blogspot.com)
- [Adventure] Poor Knight’s Tomb from A Character For Every Game (rpgcharacters.wordpress.com)
- OSR News from the Underdark Gazette – Monday, May 30, 2011 from The Underdark Gazette (underdarkgazette.blogspot.com)
- A Batrachian’s Evening Play from Reviews from R’lyeh (rlyehreviews.blogspot.com)
- [B/X & Labyrinth Lord] Character classes I can’t live without from A Character For Every Game (rpgcharacters.wordpress.com)
- Back to the Island from Dungeonskull Mountain (dungeonskull.blogspot.com)
- [Friday Map] Mini Dungeon 2 from A Character For Every Game (rpgcharacters.wordpress.com)
- [B/X D&D / Labyrinth Lord] More Diablo 2 Necromancies from A Character For Every Game (rpgcharacters.wordpress.com)
- Oubliette #6 is Free through August and Kicks Ass! from The Underdark Gazette (underdarkgazette.blogspot.com)