Friday, February 24, 2012

Augury – Dragon Empires Gazetteer

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer gives us a first taste of Oriental Golarion – Tian Xia – and act as a support book to the Jade Regent Adventure Path. Oriental fantasy settings are a polemic topic – some people are simply obsessed with them; others hate the intrusion of any non-European element in their fantasy campaigns; while a few find them grotesque caricatures of ancient Asian legends. One of Golarion’s selling points is the “New Old World” – a traditional fantasy setting seen through new eyes. A strong part of Paizo’s setting is its homage to the hobby’s pulp elements (or even to famous old modules, like the country of Numeria, designed in the vein of Temple of the Frog and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks). Doing something “pulpish” with oriental fantasy (if there’s such a thing) is definitely harder. Paizo’s sources are thus reduced to Asian and Pacific literature, myths and history (besides cinema and pop culture). Let’s see how they accomplished this without simply resorting to the old “this is Japan with a new name”, “this is China with a new name” etc.

Dragon Empires Gazetteer starts in the right track with an “oriental” Appendix N. The authors’ sincerity about their inspiration’s sources is appreciated and makes for a nice introduction.

Next are the new races, probably the Gazetteer’s biggest selling point for players. Following Golarion’s pulp style, we’re given the description of the human races/cultures of Tian Xia – Tian-Dans, Tian-Dtangs, Tian-Hwans, Tian-Las, Tian-Mins, Tian-Shus and Tian-Sings. I don’t know Asian’s history and geography so I’m quite lost with the references here. There’re also short texts about the presence of Western races at Tian Xia. Finally, we get the new races: kitsune, nagaji, samsaran, tengu and wayang.

Kitsune are fox humanoids based on the famous Japanese legend and are probably widely known by most players and Gamemasters these days. They can shapechange and summon dancing lights, filling a social and trickster role.

Nagaji are totally new. They’re a warrior servitor race of the naga empire of old. Nagaji are thick reptilian humanoids, besides being tough, orderly and good candidates for sorcerers, making for a unique concept.

Samsarans are humanoids with pale blue skin, solid white eyes with no pupil or iris, and dark hair. Their blood is crystal clear, “like the water of a pure mountain spring”. They’re born from humans but remember flashes from their previous incarnations. They’re a great concept and have probably the best flavor among the new races, however I believe that they’re poorly represented in Tian Xia (although they do get a country) and should have been left for a future Impossible Kingdoms Gazetteer (the India-like realms of Golarion). Their art and themes in a certain way remind me the Deva race, from D&D 4th.

Tengu are old acquaintances of D&D (and Pathfinder) – a race of roguish crow-headed humanoids (wingless). I admit that I never liked Tengu much. They seem to me a poor take on a much cooler legend. However, Kobold Quarterly did an amazing job on the Tengu, on issue 14.

Wayangs are another completely new race occupying the same niche of Gnomes. While Gnomes (in Golarion) come from the bright and mad First World (demesne of the fey), the Wayang came from the Plane of Shadow. They have the most interesting race mechanic (the Light and Dark ability) but, except for their cool looks and origin, wayangs are, unfortunate, just “Shadow Gnomes” (coincidentally a concept already done in the excellent Nyambe).

After these initial 14 pages, we finally get to the Gazetteer’s heart – the one page description of Tian Xian’s nations and regions. Before that there’s a short timeline with the important events of the Orient. In the West, Aroden’s death marked the last age; in the East, this is represented by the collapse of the colossal Lung Wa Empire.

Ok, time to check the new stuff.

We have a “western nation in the east” in the form of Amanandar, created when the Eighth Army of Exploration (from the Taldor Empire) landed on the coast of Tian Xia, at Shenmen, during the chaos of Lung Wa’s fall. The Taldorans reestablished order and founded this small nation. It’s a cool concept and probably the last thing that the players expect.

On the silly side we have a nation of elven samurai – Jinin. Yeah, your heard it right, elven samurai. I’m completely fine with those that like the idea, but personally I just can’t stand it. It’s stupid, it doesn’t’ make sense and smells too much of fan service for me. On the other hand, we have Shokuro, Land of Exiled Samurai, which fulfils the same “bad-ass samurai” concept, but with a vastly better presentation.

Tian Xia has a medieval North Korea (Bachuan), a Hong Kong (Goka) and Mongol steppes (Hongal). There details on the various successor-states of Lung Wa, like the Empire of Minkai (ruled by the Jade Regent) and the oracular-ruled nation of Po Li.  Tian Xia also has a region with lots of potential for PC-ruled dominions – the Wandering Isles of Minata. One of my favorite nations is Quain, Land of a Thousand Heroes – this is the kung-fu/wuxia country.

On the fantasy side we have places like an oni-ruled country, a realm ruled by sorcerer bloodlines (finally!), a very cool hobgoblin kingdom (idem), the forbidden jungle empire of the naga, a cursed land ruled by demon-spiders, a Tengu nation and the best implementation of aasimars that I’ve seen so far (Tianjing, Beloved to the Heavens).

There are certain oriental elements that are too cool to let pass, so, obviously, we have a nation with an army of terra-cota warriors (controlled by the ghost of fallen soldiers).

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer also describes Tian Xia’s Darklands and the local wilds (like the kami-ruled Forest of Spirits, clockwork-controlled caves, the exotic desert of Shaguang, the Valashmai Jungle and the Wall of Heaven).

Talking about names, the championship goes to Wanshou, for its “Post-Apocalyptic Kraken-Ruled Swampland”.  Pure awesome! Only Numeria, “The Land of Superscience”, beats this one.

Ironically, only one nation in the entire of Tian Xia can be called a true “Dragon Empire” – the realm of Xa Hoi, ruled by a dynasty of imperial dragons. It’s a great concept, fully in line with Golarion’s flavor, and I wished it was better explored (perhaps linking it with sorcerer noble houses).

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer also dedicates a few pages to its Lost Empires (my favorites are the pulpish Taumata and Valashai), languages, society, calendar, organizations, philosophies and deities (I wish there’re more new divinities). The book has two beautiful color maps (one showing the political/regional divisions).

Dragon Empires Gazetteer holds a lot of potential. It hearkens back to the Kara-Tur approach (instead of the limited setting of Rokugan, used during D&D 3rd), but with a broader scope. There’re nations that don’t inspire much (like Bachuan and Jinin), but that can be better developed in the future books. For D&D and Pathfinder players, the Gazetteers is undoubtedly the best resource on print for oriental fantasy lands. Unlike Golarion’s western lands, Tian Xia is a more traditional setting (which can be good or bad) – you don’t have strong-themed nations living side by side, like a “Horror-movie country” (Ustalav), a “Demon-tainted land” (Wourldwound) and a “Science Fantasy realm” (my beloved Numeria). Because of this, Tian Xia is a lot more user-friendly for Gamemaster seeking oriental realms to use in their home campaigns.

These critter should've appeared more.