Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review: Drow War I: The Gathering Storm

The Drow War: The Gathering Storm
Ten Questions about The Drow War: The Gathering Storm

Title: The Drow War: The Gathering Storm
Author: Adrian Bott
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 1-904854-39-7

In the tangled wilderness of d20 publishers, Mongoose has had a long and distinguished track record of quality supplements, offering enhancements to the core rules, alternative campaign settings, and reference materials. With The Drow War: The Gathering Storm, Mongoose makes a departure from the areas with which they have had success in the past. DW: TGS is the first in their “complete Campaign” series, a series of linked adventures designed to take characters from first to (I kid you not) thirtieth level. In this first of a three volume series, characters should advance to tenth level and defeat a conspiracy led by a malevolent foe. Each subsequent book will see the characters through another ten levels of advancement.

1) What’s inside?

Inside the hardbound covers are 265 dense pages of material. The introduction and designer’s notes take up one page each. There are nineteen pages of background material, most of them detailing the (optional) campaign world. Only five pages of this section are absolutely essential to running the campaign, demonstrating the author’s commitment to flexibility. Almost all of the rest of the book comprises a series of ten adventures. There are three appendices at the end, detailing signature items (magic items that develop with the characters), a mass battle system (emphasizing roleplaying rather than tactical simulation) and new monsters (fourteen of them).

Some of the adventures are more liner than others. Two are really urban settings with a wide variety of options and locations for player characters to explore. There are six traditional yet creative dungeon settings. Players will have to negotiate three pitched battles. Their actions and decisions are critical to the outcome of the campaign. While this book is a lead-in to the next volume in the series, it would not feel incomplete if the campaign wrapped up after the last installment in this game.

2) Is it pretty?

Mongoose has a fairly good stable of artists at their disposal. In many past products, however, the divergent styles of these artists resulted in a chaotic look. Here, there is a more uniform look throughout the book. Almost every pen-and-ink drawing relates to something in the text and provides yet another resource for the GM. Mongoose clearly resisted the urge to recycle generic Drow art from previous products. The color cover is based on one of the few full-page ink illustrations in the interior. The black and white version is far more crisp and effective than the somewhat muddy color version (I must note that I find my suspension of disbelief challenged by the Drow woman’s footwear. A Wonderbra breastplate I can accept, but five inch stilettos in a fantasy setting? Sheesh.).

3) Is it easy to use?

This book is hardback for a reason. There is a lot here, almost all of it in an itty bitty font. Any GM who runs all ten adventures will doubtlessly put a lot of wear and tear on this baby. Since characters progress through the adventures in order, and each adventure averages about twenty pages, most pertinent information will be contained in a fairly concise section. Given the open-ended nature of some of the adventures, though, finding the precise bit of information you need at a moment’s notice might be challenging. At times, it seems scrambled together in the order that a group of adventures might need it, but if a party takes off in an unexpected direction, the GM will have to scramble. Case in point: the fifth chapter, which details the first urban setting the PCs encounter, has sub-headings that run as follows: Event, Location, Event, Information, Event, Location, Location, Location, NPCs, four more Locations, four NPC groups, Event, Six Locations, four short adventures, five plots, an Event, and an NPC group. As you can see, this book does not want for content. A full index would have been helpful, failing that, short tables of contents at the start of each adventure would have made the material more readily accessible to the GM.

4) How good is the content?

Really good. I was on chapter two when I decided to run this game. With two separate groups. The adventures are fast paced, varied in challenges and themes, and meaningful. A simple mechanic of Victory points allows players to influence the course of battles by the choices they make earlier in the game. Villains are varied and range from misunderstood tragic figures to really vile and despicable scoundrels. A sense of urgency informs the entire campaign. Once the players are under way, they will want to see the game through to the end. Gamers either love or hate the Drow. If you are one of the latter group, and you still buy this product, well, read the cover next time.

5) Is it challenging?

Given the stakes of the campaign—victory or suffer the corruption of everything you hold dear—there is little chance of the players not taking the game seriously. With that in mind, there is a wide range of challenge levels through the course of the campaign. The first adventure should present few serious difficulties to an experienced group of players. In some of the more free-form areas, though, high-level enemies lurk, and characters who behave rashly may find themselves in over their heads.

6) How flexible is the material?

The author has gone to pains to avoid including too much setting-specific material. Adapting the game to another campaign, though, would probably require no small amount of work. Bits and pieces of some scenarios could be used as adventures without the over-arching campaign quest, but the connective tissue gives most of the scenarios their meaning. Gods and religions present another problem. One region has recently converted to a monotheistic cult, which might involve themes unfamiliar in many campaign worlds. The culture of the nations the PCs visit in this stage of the game is distinctly European. Games with a non-European focus might have to make severe changes. With that in mind, remember that this supplement comprises a complete campaign. If the players remain focused on their quest, there seems little cause to use a setting other than the one provided. When I run the game, I will forgo my beloved homebrew world, forged over two decades, and just use the setting provided. I hope Adrian Bott or Mongoose provides more material and maps for the campaign world as a web supplement in the future.

Another review has pointed out that, while characters are expected to advance at least a level in each adventure, they might come up short in some of the scenarios, particularly if there are more than four player characters. This is an opportunity for the GM to graft an original encounter or scenario into the campaign. GM’s who want to focus exclusively on the main quest will have to fiddle with experience awards as the game progresses. When I run the game, I will probably just grant a level for each scenario completed, rather than hash out individual experience points.

7) Is it professional?

In my first read-through, I noticed only two typos, which, for Mongoose, is pretty good. DW: TGS looks good and it is nearly a self-contained product. One needs only the core books to play, which suggests a lot of restraint on the part of the publisher. Mongoose has at least two Drow sourcebooks out already, with another, The Tome of Drow Lore, in the pipes. It would have been easy, and profitable, to require the purchase of at least one of these books to use the Complete Campaign. Thank goodness they didn’t.

8) What’s the best thing about this product?

There is a lot here. While DW: TGS does not free a GM from all preparatory work, as the D+D introductory modules do, the Complete Campaign series does provide an excellent resource for running a big game with a truly epic feel to it. There is enough variety here to keep the players entertained for many, many hours.

9) What’s the worst thing about this product?

There is a lot here. The author’s notes at the end of the book describe the difficulty of balancing the players’ sense of free will with a continuous narrative thread as being the main problem to overcome. To that I would add the choices of what to omit and what to include. Even with a high page count and tiny print, I was left wanting more. A selection of maps added as an appendix would save a lot of page flipping. Many important NPCs are left with no physical description. Some potential foes are left unstated (case in point: the PCs encounter three bandits, of whom one is described as a non-combatant and left unstated. What if she is captured and interrogated by the PCs? What if she tries to escape?). It is easy to understand and forgive such omissions in a work of this size and magnitude. Still, I am hoping that some of the holes will be filled by future web supplements.

10) Overall, is it worth the price?

If you are a GM who values your creative license and likes widely free-flowing games, stay away. This supplement is exactly what it claims to be: a soup-to-nuts campaign, ready to run. Within that scope, players have a lot of important decisions to make, but the basic assumption is that the characters will want to see the campaign through to the end. More independent players will probably feel like they are being railroaded through some of the scenarios, despite the author’s efforts to allow for independence of action. When I run this game, I will explain to the players that they will be representing heroes expected to thwart an invasion.

That said, there is excellent value for one’s money here. Ten full-length adventures for thirty dollars is a bargain in my book. Add to that the innovation of a complete epic quest and you have a steal.
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