Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Augury – Nyambe, African Adventures

I mentioned before that Nyambe is to me the perfect example of what every D&D/Pathfinder supplement should be and I must stress it again here – yeah, it’s that good (even considering it that it was written for the 3.0 rules). Grab a copy if you can.

Nyambe – African Adventures is a 255 pages hardcover from Atlas Games for D&D 3rd (pre-3.5). It’s a B&W book, with good illustrations, although I do wished the author had provided more “tutorial” pictures – things like typical houses, cities, common items etc. (although it’s relatively easy to track the equivalent African cultural through Google/Wikipedia and thus to find some good visual examples).

The first 16 pages are full color. Besides been beautiful and very evocative, these pages are a terrific primer and include all kind of cool and interesting information (game-relevant information I mean). For example, the family is really important to the cultures of Nyambe so people are considered “full adults” only after marriage – as a consequence most adventurers are seen as perpetual adolescents. It’s a small detail, but one that provides color to the setting. (Oh, and we also get a full color 1-page map.)

The first chapter details the history of the continent-setting of Nyambe. It’s a short chapter (only 6 pages) that instead of filling us with bizarre named fallen empires and NPCs, gives us a simple and engaging history, aimed directly at common D&D themes and elements. For example, there’s a justification for the divine/arcane magic separation – the latter is the result of “black magic” because it steals power from the Overpower (Nyambe’s Creator deity); there’s also a cool myth regarding the secret of resurrection and how it was lost (a hint for adventures); and the origins of the – now extinct – orc race and how their evil empire once ruled over all Nyambe (an excellent reskinning of the orcs before they degenerated to the common brute humanoid loved by us all). Again, the author’s interest here is foremost in making Nyambe a useful D&D sourcebook and not in teaching true African mythology and religion.

The next chapter describes the Nyambe races. They’re divided in human, demihuman and savage races. The human “races” are actually twelve different cultures, some clearly derived from true African civilizations, while others are original creations, like the witch-hunting Zamara who’re influenced by contact with Far Eastern cultures. This is another really awesome aspect of Nyambe – its toolkit approach. The author gives reference to previous contacts between Nyambe and “Northerners” (European-like people), “Near Easterners” (Middle-east stuff) and “Far Easterners” (Asian) cultures; and there’re also the so called Water People (that’s the Egyptians). However, these foreigner civilizations are left open to be used (or ignored) by the Gamemaster. Nyambe thus just cries to be integrated in another setting.

The demihuman races are the African-equivalents of the common D&D races. Instead of halflings, you have a fierce race of burrowing “weasel-men”. The somber and shadow-aligned kitunusi replace the cheerfully gnomes; while the Nyambe dwarves are the obsidian-skinned and cannibal utuchekulu. A sinister legacy from mythical Kosan (orc) Empire, the savage and proud ngoloko are a half-orc race that breed true; while the unthlatu are a race descended from the half-dragon sorcerers responsible for the orcs’ demise (and ironically now the target of prejudice from the other races). Instead of elves, we get the wakyambi, a peaceful and graceful race of brown-skinned and white-haired tree-dwellers. Many of these names (and a few traits) are derived from African legends, adapted to D&D.

Nyambe consider the traditional classes to be from foreigner classes from other cultures. In their place, we have their native versions: 
  • Instead of Fighters, we get the Gamba, resilient village warriors (d12) adapted to fight without armor through Sanguar (the art of dodging).  
  • Since arcane magic is seen as something forbidden, there’re no Wizards in Nyambe, only Mchawi – necromancers that steal power from God and if killed can reincarnate in the form of vile animals.  
  • Rogues are replaced by the Nanala – stealthy stalkers and ambushers (a more common role for these characters as locks and traps are rare on Nyambe).  
  • The local cultures recognize only one god, the Overpower, a very distant deity, so there’re no Clerics. The N’anga are local priests that commune with the orisha – spirits that can grant powers to those that let themselves be possessed by them. There’re animal, celestial, ancestor, plant, geographic, elemental and fiendish orishas, each granting a different subset of abilities to their N’anga priests 
  • In Nyambe sorcery is exclusively the province of dragons, so the Sei Sorcerers are mortal born with draconic blood. Each sorcerer must choose a specific a particular dragon bloodline (in Pathfinder the idea of “sorcerer bloodlines” are the official rule, but remember that Nyambe was released in 2002).
Chapter Five is about prestige classes. Before that, the book provides a few advices on how to integrate the classic prestige classes from the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master Guide in an African setting. There’re 11 new prestige classes:
  • The Dembe are monster hunters that replace the Ranger class (besides Favored Enemy, they gain Favored Terrain, which at the time was still a fresh idea).
  • The Engolo are unarmed martial artists, who’re trained to fight with musical accompaniment (a style called Sandai and which reminds me of Capoeira).
  • Inyanga Yensimbi are the masters of the element iron, considered sacred in Nyambe. This is my favorite prestige class, which a nice mix of mechanics blended with excellent flavor – these guys are mystical blacksmith-warriors.
  • The Leopard Cultist started as a protectionist organization opposed to trade with foreigners, but the society was later tainted with lycanthropy. Another original prestige class, aimed for NPCs.
  • Magic eaters are the quintessential which-hunters created by the Zamara culture.
  • Mask Makers are magical crafters and members of Nyambe male secret societies.
  • Mganga are witch doctors, arcane/divine spellcasters trained to fight black magic.
  • The Ngoma (or “drummers”) are a great reskinning of the Bard class, adapted to African settings.
  • The Nibomay Amazon are fierce female warriors, famous for their tactical prowess.
  • The Soroka is another unique prestige class. The “poison oracles” that divine the future by analyzing the death-throes of poisoned animals.
  • Zombi Cultist are servants of the orisha of undead and serpents (a very pleasant fellow).
Chapter Six is about skills, feats and combats. Because Nyambe was released for D&D 3.0, we get new skills, an aspect that practically vanished with the 3.5 Revision. Among the new skills are Natural Medicine, practiced by the omugaanga (medicine men). It’s sort of “natural” alchemy, with rules for getting components directly from the wilds or from monster parts. The Scry skill (remember that?) can be used in Nyambe for omens.

Among the feats, many are ex-class abilities (like Evasion and Improved Evasion), changed to feats to represent the fact that they aren’t found among Nyambe’s core classes. Many feats are racial (like the breath-weapon and energy resistance of the unthlatu), while others represent local traditions (like Culinary Ashe, that let you create “magic food”).

After the feats we get rules guidelines for Nyambe’s war traditions – brush fires, ritual warfare, cattle raids, nuba matches and engolo duels.

The next chapter is about equipment and trade goods, listing also new armors and weapons. The most interesting innovation here is that any weapon not listed in this chapter is considered a “foreign weapon” and requires a special feat to be used without penalty by Nyambe natives. The adventuring items help to develop the exotic flavor of the setting, with new mounts like the engargiya, new drinks like banana beer, besides new superiors items (healing salve) and poisons (in Nyambe the use of poison is not considered an evil act).

Chapter eight details the orishas (spirits) of Nyambe, appeased by the various N’anga clerical traditions. We get a list of celestial and fiendish orishas, besides rules for ancestor, elemental and natural spirits. The next chapter details new domains, spells and special rules for the mojuba bags (the closest thing to a grimoire in Nyambe), summoning spells and resurrection magic.

Finally, Chapter Ten is about “Lands, Nations and Societies”. This is another place where, in my opinion, Nyambe shines. First, we get a geographic overview of the continent, its islands, oceans, mountains, forests etc. – each one briefly described followed by a table of Random Encounters. Definitely practical (and totally Old School in approach). After that we get short descriptions of the land’s seven nations and major chiefdoms. Again, all descriptions are short, direct, but flavorful, providing a few campaign/adventuring hooks. The details aren’t exclusively to human and demihuman realms, as there’re also a few monster realms (yuan-ti and sahuagin for example). At the end, the book provides information on typical secret societies.

Chapter Eleven is about adventuring and is aimed at GMs. There’re extensive rules for diseases and secrets regarding the nations described at the previous chapter. I must point out that Nyambe doesn’t have a metaplot – instead of true “setting revelations” we get suggestions about what can be going on around the continent. The chapter also updates treasure tables for African-like campaigns.

The next part is about magic items. Although we have new items, my favorite bit about this chapter is about the new or improved magic items – things like potions that contain high-level spells, advanced rings, magic rod that can be made into intelligent items by using magic rings and the gris-gris (magic bags used by spellcasters the replace scrolls). There’re also new weapons, armors, lots of magic masks, reskinned items from the Dungeon Master Guide, cursed items, artifacts (minor and major) and even a few trinkets (lesser magic items aimed at non-adventurers).

The last chapter is about monsters – lots of them. Readers of Dragon Magazine (specifically Charles R. Saunders’ article on Issue #122) will recognize various creatures. I particularly enjoyed that the author drew from many of the same myths briefly quoted by Saunders. But before delving into this African bestiary, we get excellent advice on how reskinning and adapting creatures from the Monster Manual (like the cockatrice, which here is a crowing crested serpent-like creature). Among the new critters there’re various animals, lycanthropes and wereanimals. The book detail new demons, devils, half-orc monsters and famous African legends, like the unicorn-like chepekwe, the boat-crushing dingonek, the kongamato, the bizarre mangabangabana, the alien nommo, the true zombie and the vampire-like terkow (both templates). There’re also “D&Disms”, like ancestors of the yuan-ti (the samat) and the arcane kosan orcs.

As mentioned previously, Nyambe is a hell of a D&D supplement (easily adapted to Pathfinder or even to previous editions and some retroclones). It’s admirably researched but still accessible. Better yet, it presents us a different take on Fantasy Africa, far from clichés like Tarzan and the “Dark Continent” of pulp tales – this alone made this product worthwhile for me. Nyambe’s second (and perhaps biggest) point is that it’s easy for Gamemaster to either it in their campaigns or just to steal those bits that interest them most. As a bonus, Nyambe easily stands as its own fantasy setting – there’s enough material here for years of campaign.