Tuesday 12 February 2013

Irrisen, Land of Eternal Winter

As I mentioned in my recent review of People of the North, my favourite campaign supplements tend to be the regional sourcebooks. As great as race books, monster books, organization books, etc. can be, in the end, they’re of little use without a setting to put them all in. The regional sourcebooks provide that setting, allowing a glimpse at what it’s like to actually live in this world, rather than just what you can kill in it. These are the books that let a GM breathe life into the game—a game where the PCs can feel that they are truly part of a much larger world.

When it comes to regional sourcebooks, the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line has a couple of advantages over the Pathfinder Player Companion line. First, by being longer books (64 pages instead of 32), there is room for more detail. Second, since the Player Companion books have the purpose of helping players create characters for the game, by necessity they need to have a certain amount of “crunch” in the form of feats, archetypes, and so on. The Campaign Setting books, on the other hand, can focus almost entirely on the “fluff” of the setting—and I’m always a sucker for fluff. As such, as good a book as People of the North is, Irrisen, Land of Eternal Winter is even better. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best regional books published so far, up there with the likes of City of Strangers and Distant Worlds. It’s full of material that I just really want to use, and it fills me with regret that my campaign set in the region just recently ended. So if I have any complaint about this book, it’s the terrible timing of its release! (Which is not, in any way, Paizo’s fault.)

For people not familiar with Irrisen, here’s a brief overview: Fourteen hundred years ago, Baba Yaga led an army of trolls, giants, and fey and, in a matter of days, conquered the eastern Linnorm Kingdoms (the Viking-style area of Golarion). She set up a new country called Irrisen where it remained supernaturally winter all year round. She then left Golarion, leaving one of her daughters as queen of Irrisen. Since then, Baba Yaga has returned every one hundred years to replace the current queen (and all that queen’s children) with another one of her daughters. At the time of the setting, the current queen, Elvanna, is in her final year of rule and Baba Yaga’s return is imminent.

That imminent return of Baba Yaga is perhaps the only problematic aspect of the setting. It means that many of the characters and their personal plots detailed in Irrisen, Land of Eternal Winter will very soon be gone, to be replaced by completely different characters and plots. It only allows for less than a year of game time before the gamemaster needs to almost completely re-invent the setting (as the book gives no information on who the next queen will be). At the same time, however, the nearness of Baba Yaga’s return creates amazing opportunities for adventure and roleplaying. There may be less than a year of game time available, but the GM can fill that time with some extremely memorable events and adventures (and there’s also nothing stopping GMs from starting their campaigns a few years earlier than the official year given in the book). Overall, I’d say that the positives here well outweigh the negatives.

The book opens with a history of Irrisen, including a detailed timeline and a list of all fourteen queens of Irrisen. It’s rare to see a complete list of all the historical rulers of a fantasy setting, but given the unusual nature of succession in Irrisen, it was important that such a list be available here and I was very glad to see it.

After the history section, there is a detailed look at each of the six provinces that make up Irrisen. These sections are what take up the bulk of the book. Each province gets six pages. And I am very impressed with how much detail is crammed into those six pages—not just text description (although there’s lots of that), but also maps of the provinces and their capital cities, portraits of each provincial ruler as well as a few other key personalities. There are also occasional sidebars covering things like holidays or the organization called the Cold Sisters (kind of like the secret police of Irrisen). About the only thing missing are a few landscape illustrations to help get a visual feel for the setting, but this is a general problem in all the Campaign Setting books. I came away from this chapter feeling like I know more about Irrisen than I do about virtually anywhere else on Golarion. And I have no doubt that I could go back and read it again and discover things that I’ve already forgotten. There’s just so much information packed into these thirty-six pages that I can’t possibly retain it all.

The next chapter is on “Plots and Perils”. It gives details on several adventure sites and plot seeds that GMs can use in their games. Most of these are old areas of strange magic and monsters that are independent of the politics of the setting. As such, they can continue to provide adventure opportunity even after Baba Yaga replaces Elvanna with her next daughter. This chapter also has information on some of the typical diseases and hazards one can encounter in the wilderness of Irrisen

The final chapter is the most “crunch-heavy” as it is the Bestiary of the book, containing stats for creatures unique to Irrisen. Of greatest interest are the stats for Baba Yaga’s riders. Baba Yaga’s return is always heralded by the appearance of three riders across Irrisen. The White Rider appears only in the morning, the Red Rider in the afternoon, and the Black Rider at night. All three are unique fey chosen by Baba Yaga. As she chooses new riders every time, the ones presented here are specifically the ones who will appear for her upcoming arrival. The Bestiary also contains stats for the sentinel huts of Irrisen (constructs that look like Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut and guard the borders of Irrisen) and the guardian dolls that can be found in them. There are also generic stats for baronesses and Cold Sisters. However, the stats for baronesses are for a fifth-level witch with the winter witch archetype, yet almost all of the named baronesses mentioned earlier in the book are specified at different levels, most also having levels in the winter witch prestige class (for example, Baroness Frederyka on page 10 is specified as a witch 5/winter witch 3 and Baroness Wilimina on page 27 is specified as a witch 6/winter witch 1). As such, these stats are only really useful for unnamed baronesses in other towns not detailed in the book. GMs wishing to have their PCs encounter one or more of the named baronesses (such as Frederyka or Wilimina) will either have to build their own stats, advance the stats given in the Bestiary, or simply change the stated levels of those NPCs. Nonetheless, the baroness stats provide GMs with useful stats for any fifth-level witch the PCs encounter, not just baronesses. Alas, this chapter does not have stats for Baba Yaga herself. No doubt those are being held back for the Reign of Winter Adventure Path as they will need the rules from Mythic Adventures, a book that won’t be available until August.

Overall, Irrisen, Land of Eternal Winter is a fabulous book, jam-packed with information that will bring alive any campaign set in the region. Even campaigns set near Irrisen will benefit heavily from the information in this book as the White Witches provide great villains for games set in the Linnorm Kingdoms or the Realm of the Mammoth Lords. It’s full of endless fascinating characters, plots, and locations that I’m dying to use in some future campaign set in and around Irrisen. I highly recommend it.

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