Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Augury – The Midgard Campaign Setting (Part I)

Finally, the dark and twisted roads to Open Design’s (now Kobold Press) Midgard Campaign Setting are open! So far we have seen only glimpses of this world, mostly through adventures, mini-supplements and those wonderful one-page articles of Kobold Quarterly. Midgard’s allure (for me) comes from the way Wolfgang Baur mixes Eastern European and Nordic legends with the D&D legendarium – it reads as a classic (or historic game), but also as something fresh. The only other setting that comes to mind with a similar flavor/approach is Birthright.

After a stunning cover, we’re introduced to Midgard’s premises. While I enjoyed its strong “fairy” take on elves and the way dragons intervene on the world, I was especially pleased to see the metagame element of ‘Time Flies, and Status Matters’. Midgard is not your usual ‘Points of Light’ setting – here adventures get old and also get famous, with all its benefits and complications. I really like this approach. The midgardian view of Gods is also intriguing, but let’s leave that for later.

We get a description of Midgard’s creation through the Nordic point of view, followed by more “recent” events like creation of the Dwarves (the firstborn), the ascension and sinking of Ankeshel (that’s Atlantis for you, with all the cool deliriums of Erich von Daniken and Victorian stuff), the coming of the Elves and their dominion over the world of the Humans. Things eventually get messy when those Humans start to abuse magic (especially its dark aspects). The Elves are eventually forced to leave the world, either to fix the Humans’ damage on Midgard borders or just to get as far away as possible of the taint brought to the world. Eventually the various Human magocracies annihilate each other in a classic magic Armageddon. In the power vacuum that follows a circle of dragons make a pact with Humans of the East, creating the Mharoti Sultanate, a vast empire that start conquering surrounding lands with avarice, to properly pay the tithes and tributes of its dragon overlords (imagine the Ottomans, but twice as dangerous and with dragons, that’s the Mharoti). Oh, and I not even mentioned other devious tidbits like, for example, the gnomes of Neimheim.

The next topic is time, planes and the stars. Midgard has one big traditional-looking moon, and seven smaller ones, called Mage’s Stars. Theirs is a description of the five (or six) planets seen on the sky, their names and common (symbolical and mystical) associations.

There aren’t fixed truths on Midgard, thus we get legends and mythological explanations for the Heavens (remember, the world is flat!) – the explanation for what (or “who”) are the stars is my favorite part (and an instant hook for lots of adventures). There’re also mechanics for Ley Lines, which are really simple and easy to use/steal (the fact that they use random tables is a bonus).

One thing that I must point out by now is that all the information above is given through short texts. There aren’t tons of minutiae, historical observations and setting extravaganza to read – the author never forgets that this is a game book, not a novel or world-building exercise. 

OK, now to races.

Humans get the first description and I must say that the Midgardian races of Men are a corruptible, greedy and unpredictable lot (which oddly gives them a nice flavor and charisma). Here we’re also introduced to the idea of Status, a new game trait that reflects your social position. Status can be rolled or bought (with points used to buy Ability Scores). Your race and class modify your Status (interestingly Dwarves and Elves have higher base Status than Humans). In fact, the relation between the various races (particularly older ones as Elves) and Humans is very interesting.

The next race is the Dragonkin, Midgard’s “solution” to the Dragonborn. They’re a younger race, previously unknown to the world and serve – for all senses – as the equivalent of Janissaries (or Mamluks) of the Mharoti Sultanate. It’s hinted that they’re actually a(n) (artificial) half-race.

Midgardian Dwarves are divided in three major cultures: Northern dwarves (our classic mythological fellows), Ironcrag dwarves (a little bit of Tolkien, with more tech and a lot of Swiss Mercenaries attitude) and the fascinating Southern dwarves (think Egyptian Dwarves).

Midgardian Elves are really rare, with most of their race living in the (otherworldly?) western Elflands. Only three small cultures remain, one of them still ruling over their Human subjects at Dornig. Because of their rarity, half-elves get more attention and there’s even the option of playing with one of the so called Elfmarked (humans with elven blood, but not enough to be considered half-elves). 

By now a trait that clearly distinguish Midgard from other settings is its more brutal (or “realistic”) history. Dwarves and Elves are not the advanced, courteous and isolationist Elder Races that we’re used to. Northern dwarves raid humans and take slaves, while Elves practically controlled the entire human western civilization at a certain point of Midgard’s history.

The next race are the Gearforged, Midgard’s take on the Warforged. These clockwork heroes are well-known by Zobeck fans and have a very distinct flavor – all Gearforged were once living creatures whose souls were transferred to mechanical bodies. The mechanics (no pun intended) behind these constructs and the incantation used to create them are also provided. They’re an amazing addition to Midgard and also provide cool roleplay opportunities.

Finally, it’s time for everyone’s favorite race: Kobolds. Midgard holds the eternal merit of making Kobolds cool. Go read the Zobeck Gazetteer, these little fellows are awesome.

The last entry among the major races is the Minotaurs. They’re based on the Minoan civilization and thus are good sailors. Although I have nothing against Minotaurs, they’re the one race that stands a little bit “off” the Midgardian milieu. I’m not sure if we need another race of sailing bull-folk.

Moving ahead we get a short mention on the lesser races: Halflings, Gnolls, Centaurs, Gnomes, Goblins, Tengu (a surprise! and one which a nice flavor) and Tieflings. There aren’t any stats here, just one paragraph for each race.

After a cool list of Midgardian Languages (I loved the mechanical bonus granted by Ankeshelian), we’re presented to new Feats and Character Traits, all tied to some region of the campaign setting.

Next part of this Augury: The Crosswords and other exciting regions of Midgard!