RPGPundit Reviews: The Chronicles of Amherth
This is a
review of the RPG setting book “Chronicles of Amherth”, published by SNG
games, written by Peter C. Spahn. The book is a softcover, about 70
pages long, with black and white interior art, original art in a fantasy
style from what I can tell.
There are a great many setting books available for D&D-style
games (officially speaking, this setting is made for the Labyrinth Lord
system, though of course that makes it basically compatible with most
OSR games or any D&D edition prior to 3.0, and it would be easily
adaptable to later editions of D&D or other fantasy games). So the
question is whether Chronicles of Amherth is just one more in the pile
or if it has certain qualities to make it truly stand out?
I would say that my very first impressions of the book were not
particularly hopeful; the physical book itself isn’t tremendously
impressive: the cover is nothing special (its black and white, and shows
a blown-up portion of the setting map), the pagecount isn’t
particularly high, the art is nice without being astounding, and the
whole feel of a very first glance is of yet another project that amounts
to someone publishing their personal medieval fantasy campaign system,
probably similar to most everyone else’s homebrew world.
However, as I read through the book I will admit that Amherth grew on
me, and that there are a few details to this world that would set it
apart somewhat, and give it a particular flavor. So the consideration
then becomes whether those particularities are enough to make the
setting worthy of investigation. Another important consideration in a
book like this is whether there’s material to be found therein that
would be useful to someone who already has their own world to play in
(be it a homebrew or one or more preferred published settings) and would
really have no interest in playing in Amherth but might have an
interest in raiding the book for material to bring into their world.
These are the things we’ll be looking at in this review.
Fortunately, the author himself (who I was inclined to give the
benefit of the doubt to because of previous good works, particularly the
really excellent old-school adventure Blood Moon Rising) seems to
recognize the necessity of being able to point out where his setting
stands out from the crowd. He makes the following arguments for its
uniqueness: first, that the world is ancient. Well, most fantasy
settings use that, no points there.
Second, that the history of the setting is based on legend, which is
to say that very often what people think is the history of places and
things are not actually true, and there can often be multiple accounts
of a certain history, maybe even all of them being wrong. This I like;
its something Spahn already used before in Blood Moon Rising (as a
central part of the adventure’s background, which I won’t give away
here) and its something that lends an air of authenticity to the
setting. Too often, medieval settings seem to behave as if every last
peasant knows every detail about the ancient empires and artifacts that
litter the land, and there’s none of the blurriness and confusion about
history that actually affected all levels of medieval society.
Third, that humanity is central; nonhumans are rare and don’t
generally interact with human kingdoms (other than humanoid raiders at
the frontiers). This is hardly unique, but I do know that many GMs have
come to prefer this over the “elves and dwarves all over the place”
style of many fantasy worlds.
Fourth, magic is feared and mistrusted. That is somewhat different
than many campaign worlds where being a wizard is more likely to give
you a social leg-up, and it can act as a useful counterbalance to
wizardly power at higher levels.
Fifth, that “science is magic”. People fear more complex science and
think of it as magic (plus, the “ancients” might have been messing
around with superscience before destroying themselves); this establishes
that first of all, the setting is one where there can be ancient
technology, and second, it explains why neither science nor magic have
led to advances in the society over long periods of time.
Sixth, that the gods are a living and very present force in society,
religion is everywhere and a feature of common life. This again is not
exactly new, but its also something that tends to be glossed over in
many settings, where it seems the gods are only around to have temples
and give clerics their spells.
Finally, that the world is scaled for low- to mid-level play. Again,
not unique by far, but it also establishes a certain feeling to the
world for a certain taste; it means that the PCs will “rarely encounter
and NPC of 9th level or higher”, and that even by mid-level the PCs will
likely be important people in the world.
The very first thing that gets covered after the intro is religion;
and in it we learn that the author deals with metaphysics by stating
that there are only a dozen actual gods in this universe (11 really,
because the 12th is “The One”, the amorphous creator-of-all-things, that
seems to be mostly inhuman and passive); but these deities are
archetypal and worshiped with different names, appearances, symbols and
even aspects in different parts of the world, to the point that (I
surmise) mortals might not even realize that in some cases they’re
talking about the same gods. Its also stated in this section that the
Gods really don’t care what alignment their followers have; though of
course there are individual churches/religions that do. Its also
mentioned that there are animal and nature spirits, as well as demons,
who are sometimes worshiped as if they were gods, by small localized
Next we deal with the “Ancients”; and its established unequivocally
here that the Amherth setting is actually a post-apocalyptic world; the
ancients were a high-tech society that destroyed itself in a series of
cataclysms. The point is driven home in this chapter by an illustration
that shows a typical fantasy party marching through what is very
clearly the ruins of a high-tech city. You are told that there are
places of power that still have energy from the ancients (“lailons”,
which sounds a lot like “ley lines” and leads to the possibility that
actually the ancients had magitech, or that their tech was so advanced
as to be indistinguishable from magic in some cases), there are ancient
artifacts of high technolgy which are still found (and can be recharged
at the aforementioned “Lailons”), ancient “warmachten” (killer robots
that ultimately turned on their masters) that are still around in deep
dark places, and a couple of secret orders dedicated to either
preserving, using or destroying ancient secrets and artifacts.
Regarding magic, we are told that all magic on Amherth is genetic.
You are either born with magic potential (as a “latent”) or not, and if
not there is no way you can ever gain it. There are special mechanics
for “latents” (0-level NPCs (usually) with some magic potential, who
might randomly cast an uncontrolled 1st-level spell); latents can be
correctly identified through certain techniques, and are thus brought
into the fold of being trained as either wizards or clerics (the setting
makes it clear that in terms of the actual source of magic, there’s no
difference between magic-users and clerics, its only their training that
leads to the differences in these classes).
Being an adventurer in Amherth is considered “a time-honored
profession”, and throughout Amherth there are Adventurer Guilds. It is
expected that PCs must join this guild (paying a minimal fee plus a tax
on all wealth obtained from adventuring), or else they would be excluded
from being able to sell their wares gained from adventuring, and may
face prosecution. Guild members often form Adventuring Companies, with
fancy names and varying levels of importance and influence depending on
their membership and accomplishments.
The world itself consists of two big continents with one medium-sized
island (as well as several smaller ones). The first continent is Herth,
and its culture is totally shaped by its largest state: the Xanne
Empire; ruled for 500 years now (more or less) by its Immortal emperor
(immortal, apparently, in the sense that if you kill him he comes back
from the dead about a day later). This Empire is extremely powerful but
is in decline, as it was beaten back about 50 years ago by a big
coalition of border states plus people who have reason to dislike the
The Xanne empire, we are told, is like a mix of “Roman and
Mongolian cultures” (if you can get your head around that). It is
ultra-xenophobic and has essentially wiped out all nonhumans in its
central regions (including elves and dwarves and the other “nice”
demihuman races). Its quite autocratic.
Its main rival is the upstart Kingdom of Tyr, which led the
aforementioned rebellion against Xanne. Its more or less the “nicer”
kingdom, the non-xenophobic friends-to-elves-and-dwarves counterpart to
Xanne, and we’re told its inspired by “British and Germanic cultures”.
Allied with Tyr you also have the Republic of Westport, a large and
powerful urban city-state, huge and bustling, which we are told rather
than being inspired by any historical culture is “a prototypical
melting-pot of different fantasy cultures”. In other words, Inspired By
You also have the island of Guildeland (the aforementioned
“medium-sized island of the setting), which is an island merchant
city-states that runs on commerce, and is inspired by the “Italian
In the northern end of the continent proper you also have Skjold,
which is a viking-setting, and Corrland, which is a Scottish-setting (or
should we say, Braveheart-inspired?).
In the southern end of the
continent you also have “Great Desert” where there’s a nomadic tribal
culture called the Baladi, who worship a single god and follow a
religion called the True Path, revealed to them by the Prophet
Abdullah. I probably don’t need to tell you who they’re based on.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sea, you have the continent of
Amalor. The only civilized human kingdom here is the Duchy of Valnwall
(“duchy” because it was formerly an overseas possession of Xanne and
since the rebellion has become a vassal state to Westport).
guessing that the Duchy of Valnwall may well be the home setting of
Spahn’s campaign (or at least one of his campaigns) in this world,
probably the first. We’re told its “a prototypical western fantasy
culture… loosely based on medieval England and France”. It reminds me
quite a bit of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos from the D&D Known
World/Mystara setting. Its your standard mostly-peaceful fantasy kingdom
surrounded by wilderlands for adventuring. Surrounding terrain includes
the evil bog full of undead, the arctic wastelands, and further south
some lands with primitive barbarians.
We’re also given detail about some off-the-beaten track places in the
setting, including the Shipwreck Islands (your typical pirate haven),
and a southern continent not shown on the map of the setting (inspired
by pre-colonial India). There are also two nations that live on huge
floating islands that fly high above the surface of the world; the
kingdom of Pax with its dragonriders and the magocracy known as the
Glorrin Alliance. These islands are found east of Xanne (off the map),
near the island of Karthax (also not on the map), which is an evil
island ruled by dark fiends (that we are told the emperor of Xanne has
recently started negotiating with).
Finally, we get some information
about the nonhuman realms, where we find out that mostly they’ve
buggered off; the Dwarves to deep mountain steads, the Elves off to some
island (again, off the increasingly incomplete setting map), the
halflings were mostly massacred by the Xanne Empire, safe only beyond
the empire’s reach in isolated places, or in the new kingdoms of the
The entire “known lands” section covers about 26 pages, and each of
the major countries includes an introduction, the standard (flag),
government, military, the people, major cities, a few bullet-point
adventure ideas, and the “inspiration” section (which explains the
cultures or tropes the area is based off of).
After this, we move on to a section on flora and fauna; ie. the
monsters chapter. You get an interesting list of plants (both helpful
and dangerous), and then you get a list (with full Labyrinth Lord
statblocks) of some 40-some monsters. Some are kind of pointless, like
the alligator. Others are quite novel, like the weird alien Cathla
(which, along with a few other monsters here, are reprinted from some of
Spahn’s earlier modules), or Gelatinous Men (an evolved humanoid race
of gelatinous cubes), or a few sample “warmachten”. Then you have a few
who are variants of your standard monsters; we are told, for example,
that orks, goblins of all sorts, and ogres do not exist on Amherth.
Instead, you have Ruks and Ogruks, which are “foul-smelling humanoids
with black hair, pig-like faces, and reddish eyes”. In other words,
The magic items section notes that powerful magic items on Amherth
should have long histories making them very identifiable, while weak
magic items (+1 weapons, for example) should not typically be thought of
as “magic” but just “lucky” by average magic-fearing folk.
chapter describes some racial items, like Dwarf toys and Elven
songstones, and then a dozen or so new magic items (mostly specific
items, as in “Janil’s Sword”), you get for these items not just their
abilities/bonuses but something of their story, which is a good touch.
There’s also some “tekla relics” (i.e. superscience or super-magitech
items). Some of these are amusing, like what amounts to a “google
earth” mapping device.
Finally, you have a short appendix where you get information on how
to apply the Monk class on Amherth, and then a repeat of the (notably
incomplete) setting map.
So what do I conclude about Amherth... Does it suck? No.
Would I ever run a game on Amherth? Also no.
answer to the fundamental questions earlier on in the review; Amherth
does have a number of particularities that make it interesting; its way
less “generic” than a large number of the generic settings I’ve reviewed
here. There’s a number of very clever ideas in the book.
Unfortunately, they’re still ideas tacked onto a very generic world;
your evil empire, your generic fantasy good guy kingdom, your pirate
lands, vikings, Scotsmen, etc. There’s already a Mystara, which
incidentally has evil empires, pirate lands, generic fantasy good guy
kingdoms, vikings, Scotsmen, and even has an ancient ultratech
civilization that blew itself to bits. And frankly, though its an
unfair comparison to hold any setting up to, Mystara is way cooler than
But then there’s the second question: like I mentioned above, there
are a lot of very clever ideas; there’s also about 40 monsters, a couple
of dozen magic and magitech items, some concepts about religion, magic,
items, adventuring, etc. which are all very good. In a way, the
dullest part of Amherth is the world itself, while all the stuff around
it is really very interesting and useful. The 26 pages of countries and
regions is mostly forgettable, while the other 44 pages of stuff is
So I wouldn’t call the book as a whole “bad”. I’d call it very
slightly above average, and a good place to mine for a few interesting
ideas. Its no Mystara, but its better than your average homebrew.
Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja bent apple + Dunhill 965
(originally posted January 12, 2013; on the old blog)