Friday, 18 December 2015

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom

Of all the countries in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Andoran has, perhaps, the greatest reputation for being uninteresting. It is a land that is seen as being somewhat idyllic, a country that has worked out most of its problems. Rather unusually for a fantasy setting, it is a democracy, where everyone is theoretically treated equally and everyone has a chance to live the American dream (I use that terminology deliberately, for Andoran's real-world influence is quite obviously the United States of America; Andoran was formed by people who rebelled against the oppressive power that formerly ruled over them). While a country with few problems may be a great place to live in, it is perhaps not the greatest place to adventure in. It can seem dull, even boring.

But that's just the surface of Andoran. The country certainly isn't perfect, and there are many things going on under the surface in this land that keep it from truly reaching its vaunted ideals. While it may appear quiet and dull, there are opportunities for adventurers to make their mark—particularly in politics. That said, it can still come across as somewhat “standard” with little other than its democracy making it stand out from other fantasy settings.

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom is not the first book published on this country. A few years ago, there was Andoran, Spirit of Liberty, part of the Pathfinder Player Companion line (then just Pathfinder Companion). Before that, there was Guide to Darkmoon Vale. That book showed just how much opportunity for adventure there is within that particular region of Andoran, and presented a setting that rose beyond its somewhat standard surface appearance. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap between the three books, but not nearly as much as one might expect, particularly between Birthplace of Freedom and Spirit of Liberty, which both nominally cover the entire country. Birthplace is twice the length of Spirit of Liberty for a start, but even so, Birthplace repeats very little from Spirit. Indeed, the two books compliment each other in a way very few Pathfinder Campaign Setting/Player Companion books do, with the earlier Spirit of Liberty offering many of the things I would otherwise criticise Birthplace for not containing.

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom is laid out similarly to most regional sourcebooks in the Campaign Setting line from the past few years. It opens with a gazetteer that is, itself, split into further sections based on the regions within Andoran. However, the first section offers an overview of the history and government of Andoran, including a timeline. This section is fairly brief (only a couple pages long) and doesn't go into a lot of detail, but it's enough to introduce the country to people unfamiliar with it.

The regional sections of the gazetteer begin with Almas, Andoran's capital city, and then cover the larger regions of Arthfell, the Carpenden Plains, Darkmoon Vale, and the Verduran Forest. Each of these sections opens with an overview of the region. With the exception of the section on Almas, each section then looks at a key city or settlement in the region and then looks briefly at other settlements and sites of interest. The section on Almas looks at sites of interest in each of the districts of the city.

Following the gazetteer, the second chapter of the book focuses on the major factions existing in Andoran—the organizations that vie for influence and control in the country. The Eagle Knights are, of course, the most significant of these, and so the Eagle Knights receive the most coverage of the organizations in this chapter, with extensive detail on all three of the main divisions (the Golden Legion, Steel Falcons, and Twilight Talons), as well as the Gray Corsairs, which are a sub-branch of the Steel Falcons. Three other significant factions also receive coverage in this chapter (the Lumber Consortium, Primordial Ones, and the Seven Houses), although with only a single page devoted to each (as opposed to the five pages on the Eagle Knights).

I do wish the book provided a bit more detail on the last three factions, as they are the factions most likely to be antagonists to PCs (although the Lumber Consortium has received quite a bit of detail in other sources, particularly, the Guide to Darkmoon Vale, so more detail on the other two would probably be sufficient). They do successfully provide a starting point for gamemasters to generate ideas from, but nonetheless lack key information. Take the Seven Houses, for example. This group's name is quite literal. It is an alliance of seven former noble houses that wish to abolish Andoran's democracy and bring back the old aristocracy. The text provides some information on how the group operates as a whole, but none at all on the seven houses making up the organization or what roles these houses used to play in pre-democracy Andoran. We don't even learn their names (although the names of three notable members possibly provide the names of three of the houses).

The third chapter covers adventure sites in Andoran. These locations are mentioned briefly in the gazetteer, but are covered in more detail in this chapter. In addition to the adventure sites, however, this chapter also includes a how-to on including political intrigue in games. Andoran is particularly well-suited to political adventure, so I'm glad to see this topic covered here. Indeed, it would have been nice if this chapter had included a few political-based adventure ideas along with the adventure sites. Along with expanded detail on the factions in the previous chapter, it could provide an interesting focus for Andoren adventures, giving Andoran something to make it stand out more and seem a little less dull. As it is, while there is a fair bit of variety among the adventure sites with opposition ranging from fey to lycanthropes to undead, there's not really a lot that makes them unique to Andoran, rather than monsters and sites that PCs might run into anywhere else in the world.

The final chapter of the book is a bestiary. As well as containing several new creatures native to Andoran, the bestiary also contains stats for typical NPCs that might be encountered in the country, including Eagle Knights and corrupt politicians.

On the whole, Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom is a decent book, but much like the country it describes, there's not a lot that really makes it stand out. There is a lot going on in Andoran that can make it a great place to set adventures, but the book doesn't do a particularly good job drawing attention to them, partly because it needs to cover everything about Andoran, which includes all the less interesting stuff going on as well. Like many of the more recent regional sourcebooks, Birthplace of Freedom also doesn't do a very good job conveying what it's like to live in the country, focusing instead on being a guide to locations within the country. This is less of a problem than it is for a book like Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars, since Andoran is a country that players and GMs can more easily relate their real-world experiences to. Birthplace also has the added advantage I mentioned above of having a companion volume in Andoran, Spirit of Liberty. That book was published at a time when the Companion books weren't as focused on character options as they are nowadays, and as such contains a lot of details on lifestyle that are absent from more recent books. Both Birthplace and Spirit can work together to make an excellent resource on the whole country.

By itself, I think Birthplace of Freedom will be a very useful tool for people who have already decided to set an adventure or campaign in Andoran. However, I don't think it's likely to attract new people to the setting. It lacks the “Cool!” factor it needs to overcome the fact that, on the surface, Andoran doesn't look all that different to countless other generic fantasy settings out there. Guide to Darkmoon Vale showed that such a factor exists for that region of Andoran, so there's no reason one shouldn't exist for the rest of the country. Political intrigue could easily be that factor, but the book doesn't spend enough time on the politics, focusing instead on generic adventure locations. Birthplace is a competent book, but it's not an exciting book, and Andoran really needs something exciting.

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