Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Supplement VI - The Majestic Wilderlands

Disclaimer: I've never read any of the famed Judges Guild wilderness setting. The awesome name of The City State of the Invincible Overlord aside, I know nothing about the setting. That may show in my review.

I also know Robert S. Conley as an online acquaintance from the SJG Forums, and he's one of a few people who posted a review of one of my books. So there is a friend-of-the-author bias possibility here, too.

Supplement VI - The Majestic Wilderlands
By Robert S. Conley
Published in 2009 by Bat in the Attic Games
140 pages

Supplement VI - The Majestic Wilderlands is "A supplement compatible with the Swords & Wizardy rules and all editions based on the original 1974 roleplaying game." Because you can't use the trademark "D&D" or "Dungeons and Dragons" in these kind of books. But everyone will know what you mean. Swords & Wizardry is a retro-clone that replicates white box D&D from 1974 plus a couple supplements.

The supplement is a set of character rules, expansions to the magic system, and races for S&W, as well as details on the setting of the Majestic Wilderlands. This is the game world of The City-State of the Invincible Overlord, as seen through author Robert S. Conley's eyes and those of his players. From the forward, it's clear that it's been a well-used setting, evolving through multiple editions of D&D, GURPS, and Fantasy Hero. Whew!

The book contains a number of new classes, all aimed at adventures outside the dungeon. Knights (mounted fighters), Paladins of Mitra (holy knights), Myrmidons of Set (unpleasant but Lawful holy fighters), Mountebanks (con men), Burglars (thieves), Thugs (heavies for the Thieves' Guild), and a plethora of sub-classes of magic users and clerics. Even a cloistered cleric type, the priest, for those holy men who don't whack monsters on the head with maces for some reason (NPCs for obvious reasons). Each of the classes is well detailed, and its relative balance and utility is obvious in each case. New races are here as well, from Reptile Men and Lizard Men and Serpent Men to more prosaic (but uniquely interesting) Orcs and Goblins. There are also new magic items, new rules, and new monsters (albeit only two with stats).

I especially liked the punchy racial descriptions. Goblins? Goblins are obsessed. The rest of the color text reflects this and details it, but I read "Goblins are obsessed; it is the defining characteristic of their race" and I have a handle and a hook. Orcs? Aggressive. And the setting details? Enough to run a game, with clear notes by the author so you know what something is there to do. No guesswork, it's clearly stated what sections of the setting are meant for what types of characters and adventures.

There is also a skill system, er abilities system, complete with a simple but consistent resolution system, broad skills (er, abilities), and details on what your margin of success means. There seems to be a fair amount of hate for skills systems in the OSR world, at least from my cursory glances. As someone who used to play a class-and-level-and-skill system (Rolemaster) and now plays a skill-based system (GURPS), I don't see a problem with having something to roll against besides saving throws and to hit tables. The author makes a case for it, which might have seemed oddly defensive if I didn't know about this dislike for skills in some quarters. The abilities system presented here looks quite workable, and if I played a class-and-level system again I'd really like to have this system in it.

There are bits "missing" though. Oddly, some races don't get a description in the color text section - no Reptile Men entry, for example, or Lizard Men. Are they too rare or culturally backward? It's not clear. And other things feel like they need more exposition - werewolves and vampires were created to kill demons, and are servants of the goddess Kalis. Okay, so are they natural enemies of humanity, or natural allies? Will the goddess get mad if I whack the local vampire or am I helping things along? This may be a clever conflict (vampires suck people's blood, but also fight the demons who'd happily trash the world - moral dilemma!) but it didn't spring out as clearly answered in the text. Some contradictions seem to occur, too - like secret Mitra worshipers in a place where they're building a cathedral to Mitra. Er, a secret cathedral?

One layout concern I had was that the descriptions of the gods - such as Set or Mitra - and the races - like dwarves, snake men, and orcs - come at the end. Yet class/race stats come earlier. While I found out a lot from the race descriptions, it sucked to read about what goblins are like after I spent a bit of time puzzling out their nature from their stats. It felt like it would have been easier had I gotten the overview and then thought, okay, how does that work out in stats? Same with priesthoods and gods. I understand the approach, though, because when you write a book sometimes the division feels better as "color after rules" and other times as "rules after color." I just felt like I missing something.

The book is really attractive, though. Enough white space to make it easy to read, but not so much you feel like you're staring at empty pages. A minimum of spelling errors and typos and page reference errors; although they do occur they don't impede understanding. Some of the art is really good, some is so-so, but it doesn't detract when it's so-so and it adds were it is good. The maps are clear and it's well printed. The cover is also cool. The book doesn't feel like it's an amateur production, but rather a small-publisher professional production.

How is it for GURPS? Robert S. Conley used to run GURPS in the Majestic Wilderlands, and it shows. Conversion should be pretty simple. Some concepts practically scream "GURPS" - magic immunity, for example (Magic Resistance, Improved, with Switchable is a good start), or Reptile Men, which you could just use straight-up out of GURPS. You can see direct influences in spells , too - like Scryguard, one of the new spells, or Magic Staff. Or you could look here, too, where Robert has a lot of notes on the subject. They seem to be for 3rd edition, but it'll be close enough to convert quickly. Even the rules had me nodding and thinking, yeah, I can see why a GURPS player would want that in his D&D games if he switched back.

Content: 5
out of 5. It's complete, it's got all the stuff you need to run the setting, and it's put together well.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. This how professionally published books should look, nevermind self-published. The maps are excellent, the typeface is easy to read, the layout makes the text flow well. Spelling errors exist but don't detract from the product.

Overall: If you need a whole-cloth setting for your old-school D&D clone, this is a great one to start with. If you need an ability system, this isn't a bad place to go find one to lift. It's also a useful source of examples of world-specific example classes, magic items, races, and monsters. It's not a bad GURPS setting, either, since so much of the GURPS influence shows through. Good stuff - recommended.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I appreciate the comments both critical and laudatory.

    I will add that the "missing" parts of the color sections are because it focuses on the Main Campaign Area. Lizardmen and Serpent Men don't play a big part. Although in retropect I should have an entry on the Reptile Men as they have a small but interesting presence in the Main Campaign Area. Perhaps in the next revision.

    As for the secret worshipers of Mitra building a cathedral I see where the confusion lies.

    The situation is that Viridistan has collapsed into Civil War, Smyrsis is one of the provinces that has broken away. The rulers of Smyrsis, the Aenekosii, have openly declared for Mitra and has destroyed the Imperial Temple.

    The fact that the information split between two pages makes this confusion. Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. @Rob - not a problem. It was a pleasure to read it, and it kind of gave me the feeling I get when I look at my older gaming material. You know, "If I ran this, this is how I'd do it . . ." Good stuff.

    By the way if sending you the page ref oddities and spelling errors would help, I'll do so.

  3. It sure will, the nice thing about PoD is that a new revision isn't hard to get up.

  4. I'll message them to you on the SJG boards or email them, whichever is more convenient. I'll try to get them jotted down in the next couple days.

  5. Hi Rob - fun looking product. And useful.

    I asked this over on Google + but just in case you don't check your page there: is there any content difference between the two cover versions? I want to get the "old school" cover but I just wanted to make sure it's the same content, binding, etc, as the other cover. Thanks.

    Peter - nice review!


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