Monday, 23 December 2013

Towns of the Inner Sea

Perhaps one of the most important things when starting a new campaign is establishing where the player characters are from. Sometimes, they’ll all come from the same place; other times, they’ll be from various different locations. These places may be major cities, smaller towns or villages, or possibly even just a country or general area of origin. Whatever the case, characters’ homes form an important part of their background. Campaigns will often start in the PCs’ home town. While many campaigns will see the characters move around and visit other locations, the characters will generally find themselves returning to their home towns or cities at some point or other. Some campaigns may never (or rarely) even leave the home town, instead keeping all of the action and intrigue centralized to one location.

A few years ago, Paizo published Cities of Golarion, a book which looked in detail at six of the major cities of the Inner Sea Region. This was a great resource for campaigns that were either set in one of these cities or simply passing through. Each city received a wealth of detail on its history, people, and sites. But while information on cities is important and useful, many campaigns spend more time in smaller towns and villages. Indeed, towns and villages often are the homes of the PCs and thus the starting points for campaigns. So last month saw the release of Towns of the Inner Sea, a book very similar in style to Cities of Golarion, except focusing on six towns from across the Inner Sea Region.

Several of the towns in Towns of the Inner Sea have featured as the settings of Pathfinder Modules and thus have seen some detail on them before. The others have simply been prominent places on the map with only a brief write-up in the Inner Sea World Guide. In all cases, however, these towns are brought to life to a much greater extent than they have seen before, and all six locations would make fascinating home bases and/or starting points for full campaigns. Also, much more so than with the cities in Cities of Golarion, it would be very easy for GMs to relocate these towns to other parts of the world. Simply change a few names, and—violà!—a whole new town (although I’d advise GMs not to do this too frequently or players might start to recognize that several of the towns they pass through are strangely similar).

Towns of the Inner Sea opens with a brief two-page chapter listing some of the other prominent towns in Avistan and Garund, as well as a few less-well-known locations that GMs might want to develop. After this, it moves into the towns that are its subject matter. The first town is Diobel, located a short distance from Absalom and known as the “Doorway to Absalom”. Then comes Falcon’s Hollow, which was the setting for several of the earliest Pathfinder modules (for 3.5, back when they were still called Gamemastery Modules), including Crown of the Kobold King and Hungry are the Dead. The next town is Ilsurian in Varisia. Ilsurian is the setting of Murder’s Mark. Next is Pezzack, a Chelish town in open rebellion against the House of Thrune. Then there’s Solku in Katapesh. Finally, Towns of the Inner Sea looks at Trunau, the independent city of humans and demihumans located inside the orc-run country of Belkzen.

Each of the six towns receives the same basic treatment: 10 pages containing a picture of the town (seen from a short distance), a map, several pictures of prominent NPCs, descriptions of the town’s history and what life is like there, and a gazetteer of prominent sites. Each town’s chapter ends with the complete stats and background for one of the town’s major NPCs. There are also sidebars in each chapter covering rumours and adventure suggestions.

I find that one of the best signs of a good setting book is if, while reading it, I start to get ideas for adventures and campaigns located there. If I can imagine things happening in the location, then the book has definitely done its job. This was very much the case for me while reading Towns of the Inner Sea. All six towns filled me with ideas for future games—sometimes to the point of distracting me from the reading! In fact, before reading Towns, I had a pretty good idea what my next campaign would be after my current one wraps up. Now that I’ve read the book, I’m back to considering several different options. I consider this high praise indeed!

There is a lot of rich detail on the characters and plots in the town, plus lots of wiggle room for GMs to expand the details into their own story and adventure ideas. Not surprisingly, the towns that have featured in previous adventures get considerably more detail here than they do in those adventures, but for the most part, this added detail does not contradict or invalidate any of the previous information. The chapter on Ilsurian, for example, is heavily informed by Murder’s Mark, and expands on the details in that adventure. As is standard with Pathfinder products, Towns of the Inner Sea does not assume that any of the adventures set in these towns have happened. However, the town descriptions (particularly that of Ilsurian) do contain hints at the seeds to these adventures in the plots and actions of their inhabitants.

That said, the description of Falcon’s Hollow does seem to have changed a few small details from before. I will admit, it’s a long time since I read those early adventures (and the Guide to Darkmoon Vale, which also contains a write-up on Falcon’s Hollow) and so my memory is a bit hazy, but it looks like some of the events of the town’s history have been moved forward. However, these are events that set up the adventures and since those adventures are assumed not to have happened yet, it makes a bit of sense to do so. However, it could lead to some confusion if future products keep moving events forward in time so that the adventures can happen soon, but not quite yet.

As much as I like Towns of the Inner Sea, I do have a couple criticisms and they come down to criticisms I tend to have for all regional sourcebooks in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line. I would really like to see a bit more description on what it’s like for the average person living there. While each town does receive a short description of life in the town, I’d really like to see more—everything from typical daily routines to local cuisine and art styles to popular games and festivals. Some of these kinds of things come across in the descriptions of local sites, but I’d happily give up some of site locations or the characters stats to have a more in-depth section on the culture.

I also wish there was a bit more physical description of what the towns look like, from the landscape to architectural styles. Indeed, if it weren’t for the picture of Diobel at the start of that town’s chapter, I would have no idea from the text just how high the cliffs are and how sloped the city is. The map certainly does not make it clear and the text contains only a couple brief mentions of cliffs and that the Snout District “lies on a sloping ridge”, but there is no mention of heights or the grade of the slope in the Snout District. Some of the towns (such as Trunau) do fare better in this regard, but even so, a bit more physical description would be welcome—or perhaps more pictures of locations rather than just pictures of the locals (or maybe pictures of the locals in the locations instead of portraits).

Overall though, Towns of the Inner Sea is an excellent book, and it brings to life six very different, but equally fascinating locations. All six can be the basis of entire campaigns or just interesting places to pass through on the way to someplace else. Whatever the case, these towns will provide GMs with the means to create hours of fun for their campaigns.

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