Sunday, 7 October 2012

Dragon Empires Primer and Dragon Empires Gazetteer


Since the earliest days of roleplaying games, gamers have been fascinated by Asian settings, particularly Japanese settings with ninja and samurai. Even though its default setting was based on mediaeval Europe, that didn’t stop first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons from including monks as one of the classes—not European-style cloistered monks, but rather “kung fu monks”, capable of amazing feats of martial arts. It wasn’t long before the publication of Oriental Adventures, a sourcebook which introduced samurai, ninja, and several other Asian-inspired classes to the game, along with the setting of Kara Tur (later added to the Forgotten Realms setting). Since then, Asian settings have continued to be popular and debates have raged about whether the samurai should have its own class or if it’s just another form of fighter. Numerous games and settings from various companies have appeared (and disappeared) in the market. Even the original Oriental Adventures eventually reappeared, revised and updated to 3rd edition D&D.

When Paizo released the first Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes,they began developing their new campaign setting, the world of Golarion. Even though those earliest volumes were set in Varisia, they already contained hints of a far-off land called Tian-Xia. One of the major NPCs in Sandpoint, the home town of the very first volume, was Ameiko Kaijitsu, whose family originated in that distant land. As the campaign setting developed, Tian-Xia received occasional brief mentions, including a brief description in Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting (and its later revision as the Inner Sea World Guide). Last year, however, Paizo returned to the seeds planted in the earliest Adventure Path volumes with the release of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, which took PCs across the Crown of the World to Tian-Xia and Ameiko’s homeland of Minkai. Shortly after, they also released Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Dragon Empires Gazetteer, and then Pathfinder Player Companion: Dragon Empires Primer, both books providing the first extensive detail on Tian-Xia.

Dragon Empires Primer presents a broad overview of the setting from a player perspective. As it serves the same basic purpose as the Inner Sea Primer (which provides an overview of the Inner Sea region), it shares the same style of layout and structure as that book, with half-page entries on each of the nations and main regions, along with new races, archetypes and feats, brief descriptions of the setting’s gods, and a system for keeping track of characters’ honour. Each nation’s entry also includes a pair of regional traits for characters from that land. It’s important to point out, however, that people expecting in-depth detail won’t find it here. Half a page is not a lot of space to describe an entire nation with anything more than the broadest strokes. What the book does do is provide an introduction to the setting, one to whet the appetites of players, and it does this very well. It provides just enough information to get players thinking about the types of characters they might like to play in the setting, and sets the stage for later, more in-depth development, provided by either the GM or future supplements.

While Dragon Empires Primer is a good book, it’s not a perfect book. As it was published before the recent revamped format of the Pathfinder Player Companion books, it’s still stuck with the old format, which requires two-page spreads on “Combat”, “Faith”, “Magic”, and “Social”. Unfortunately, the two-page “Faith” section is not enough space to give even a cursory introduction to the gods and religions of the continent. While each god gets a paragraph of description (usually no more than two, maybe three sentences), there is no information on domains or favoured weapons, significantly important information for players of clerics of these gods. Strangely, there is a sidebar detailing the Moon subdomain, even though there is no mention of which gods grant this domain. It seems clear that domain information was planned for this book, but presumably had to be cut for space reasons, even though the Moon subdomain sidebar remained. If the book hadn’t needed to fit a specific format, perhaps some of the feats in the “Combat” section (arguably not as critical to describing the setting) could have been cut to allow another page for describing the gods. Domain information is in the Dragon Empires Gazetteer; however, players really shouldn’t need to get a second book just for this small amount of information, especially when that other book is primarily a GM sourcebook. Gamemasters can always provide this information for their players, but it nonetheless unfortunate that it’s not available in the Primer.

The archetypes in the book are flavourful and provide interesting new options for player characters. People will likely wish there were more, but they are a good starting point for character ideas. The “Magic” section contains a new sorcerer bloodline, as well as a new wizard school specialization, both of which add further flavour to the setting.

The “Social” section contains a system for tracking characters’ honour. This system is virtually identical to the reputation system in Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Land of the Linnorm Kings, in which PCs gain or lose points based on their public actions. It’s good that the honour and reputation systems overlap so easily, as it allows characters from one setting to travel to the other easily. Although using this system does mean appending a new mechanic to characters that are already quite complicated, honour is important to the setting, and the system is straight-forward and simple. Keeping track of honour points won’t make much more work for either players or gamemasters.

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer is a somewhat more extensive overview of Tian-Xia than the Primer. Like the Primer, it’s meant as an introduction to the setting, but is geared more to GMs. Each country gets a full-page write-up instead of just half a page. There is also more detailed information on the races and an entire chapter on “Life in the Dragon Empires”, which covers languages, lifestyles, religions, and more. It’s a wonderfully flavourful setting. All the time while reading it, I was constantly getting ideas for new adventures and campaigns I could run in each area. (Alas, too many ideas and too little time to use any of them.) This is the biggest mark in the book’s favour. Any setting book that generates so many ideas has done its job admirably. Another thing I like about the setting is that it takes its influences from more than just Japan and China, but also from Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Tibet, and numerous other Asian countries. All blend together to make a varied and vibrant setting with endless opportunity for adventure.

It’s inevitable that some people will compare the Dragon Empires Gazetteer to the Inner Sea World Guide, and find the former lacking. It’s a very unfair comparison, however. The latter is a 320-page hardcover, while the former is a mere 64 pages long. The Gazetteer cannot hope to contain as much material and detail as the World Guide, and this shouldn’t be expected of it. While the Inner Sea World Guide has become the introduction to the Inner Sea setting, it’s important to remember that that’s not the way things started. Before the two versions of the hardcover, there was the Pathfinder Chronicles: Gazetteer, which was another 64 page book that provided the first overview of the Inner Sea region. The Inner Sea World Guide didn’t come until later, after several years development on the setting. If Dragon Empires Gazetteer proves as popular, it’s possible that at some point in the future, there may be a “Dragon Empires World Guide”, but until then, people should be patient with what really is the start of a new setting.

If the Gazetteer does suffer in one area, it’s in the artwork. This is not to say that the artwork is bad. There are some very good portraits of the new races, for example. However, it lacks much in the way of pictures of the setting itself: the landscape and the structures. This is a complaint that I’ve had with the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line as a whole. Landscape pictures provide an important visual description of the setting. They can convey a great deal of information that the text cannot come near to conveying without taking up a lot of space. The earliest Adventure Path volumes had some stunning pictures of the Varisian landscape, and it was those pictures that first drew me to the setting. Unfortunately, the Campaign Setting books have generally focused on character portraits (which are also useful) and action scenes (which have far less utility in a setting book). The Dragon Empires Gazetteer doesn’t have a lot of action scenes, thankfully, but it also has very few landscape pictures. There is a picture of a Nagajor temple on page 33, and a picture of a torii gate on page 54, and that’s it. Some regional architecture is visible in the background of the action pictures that open each chapter; however, I personally would prefer if the action weren’t there and we saw only the architecture. This is a matter of personal opinion, I suppose, but in my opinion, the pictures would be far more evocative this way.

There is also an oddness with the maps in the Gazetteer. The inside front cover has a map of the continent that shows only landforms and political borders. The only labels on it are country names and oceans. There is another map of the continent on page 47. This second map contains everything on the first, but also labels major settlements, mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, and other significant locations. Each country is also highlighted in a different colour. All in all, the second map makes the first map somewhat redundant. More unfortunately, page 46 references “the map on the facing page” that covers the lost empires of the continent. When I first read this and saw that the map on the facing page was just the more detailed one I mentioned above, I thought that an error had been made. I thought that perhaps the one on page 47 was actually supposed to be the one on the inside cover and that the Lost Empires map had been accidentally left out (although how the inside cover map had gotten there, I couldn’t explain). However, a search on Paizo’s messageboards revealed that it was a deliberate decision to remove the Lost Empires map. The error was that they forgot to remove the reference to it on page 46. While the loss of the Lost Empires map is not a big deal (it’s not particularly needed), I can’t help but feel the map on the inside cover is unnecessary. While not useless (it could make a useful unmarked player map), it doesn’t add a lot, and in a book that has such limited space, that space could have been used for something that helped further expand the detail of the setting.

Overall, both Dragon Empires Primer and Dragon Empires Gazetteer are good books. I would probably rank the Gazetteer slightly higher than the Primer, but this is partially because I tend to GM more often than play, so the Gazetteer has more immediate use to me. Both books do an excellent job of expanding the world of Golarion by introducing a new, vibrant area that is both familiar and exotic at the same time. They create a living backdrop for a multitude of great adventures. I highly recommend both.

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