Saturday, 25 July 2015
RPGPundit Reviews: Calidar: In Stranger Skies
This is a review of the setting book Calidar: In Stranger Skies, by Bruce Heard. It is a review of the print edition, published by "Calidar Publishing", featuring a softcover with a full-color cover of a flying galleon leaving a city port.
The book is 130 pages long. My review copy was accompanied by a pair of stunning full color maps (the kind that used to come in D&D-setting Boxed Sets), one featuring the larger setting and done in a style reminiscent of Forgotten-Realms maps, and the other of a more localized region of the big map, this one done in the hexmap format of all the great Mystara products of the old days.
The interior is mostly black and white with a few color illustrations. The style and layout of the book is to me very reminiscent of later-era TSR products, specifically the Mystara Gazzetters and Forgotten Realms books, right down to the art style and coloration of paper. The nostalgia is strong in this one.
And of course, there's good reason for that. Bruce Heard was one of several guiding lights of the old TSR Mystara setting. Specifically, he was the guy who did the spectacular "Voyage of the Princess Ark" series that appeared for years and years in Dragon magazine, and who detailed some of the more peripheral and most fascinating places of the Mystara setting, the really weird locales that didn't make it into the main area of the GAZ series or boxed sets (at least until Heard's material was finally gathered together in a couple of boxed sets that proved to be the swan-song of the Mystara setting). So I'm obviously pretty inclined to think well of his work; he was one of the best writers of my favorite D&D setting of all time, the one I spent more time running campaigns in than all the other D&D settings put together. At a time when I never seriously imagined I'd ever get to do something as cool as write RPGs or have my own worlds published, he was like a celebrity superstar to me.
From what I understand (and the author may feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken about how this played out) the Calidar setting came to exist mainly because Heard spent some time trying to obtain permission from WoTC to write new material for the Mystara setting, but was ultimately denied that chance. And Calidar is very obviously a setting heavily inspired by Mystara, and specifically by the part of Mystara he was best known for.
But does it stand on its own two feet, or it is just a pale imitation? And does the product itself prove to be worthwhile? Let's find out.
OK, so taking it from the start: I get that Mr. Heard is a storyteller, and I surmise that this is something important to him. I also get that a big part of the popularity of the Princess Ark series was the way that it told the tales of the Princess Ark's voyages (those of you who were around when it was being published in Dragon will recall that each entry took the form of an story accounting some adventure the Princess Ark crew went through on their travels, and then a section of setting material of the area they were travelling through).
But an RPG book is different from a serial in an RPG magazine, and I have to say I think it was something of a mistake to spend the first 51 pages of the Calidar book on a novellete. In this case, it's his Princess-Ark-Substitute (the Star Phoenix) and its captain (Isledemer Drak Hieronymus d'Alberran).
Frankly, the story, while not bad, and providing a front-loaded set of literary details of the setting, does not really capture my imagination in the same way that it did all those years ago when it was the Princess Ark. And it reduces a 130 page RPG-book into an 80-page RPG book with a 50-page block of game fiction at the very front. I don't think it was the right call for the format he's working in now. If he really had to include fiction, it would have been better to have made it shorter, interspersed it with setting material, and probably to start with an introduction to the overall setting and then get into the story-time.
So, as to the game material itself: what we get first is an overview of the entire solar system of the setting. Yes, you are not only apt to have adventures on the titular Calidar, but also various other worlds, like Lao-Kwei, Canis Major, Draconia, or Ghule. Most civilizations in the system have the ability to travel between worlds, by various methods (one example being the Calidarian Skyships).
Each of the major races of the setting have their own 'homeworld' of sorts. Curiously, Calidar is originally the homeworld of the "fellfolk" (which are the halflings of the setting, which, much like the halflings of my DCC setting, are feral sharp-toothed barbarians); however Calidar has also long since had a region settled by offworlders. The settled area is called the Caldera, and in a fit of cheekiness, Heard says that people describe this region as "Calidar's 'known world'". Get it?
Calidar has three moons, and these were the actual original homeworlds of the humans, elves and dwarves. The elves are kind of fascists, and "most skilled at deceiving others", so we're dealing with the "Asshole Elves" archetype here. The Dwarves are a warrior culture that are now desperately looking for other races to fight, having unified their own world. Humans have apparently wrecked the environment of their moon (*yawn* for stupid 1990s cliche), and are skilled at both diplomacy and warfare but are traders above all else.
As for the other worlds: Draconia is, you guessed it, homeworld to dragons. Lao-Kwei is a mars-like world that was once prosperous but now has become a water-starved desert with some radioactive wastelands. There's a native race ("Kahuulkin", who once had super-science but are now reduced to primitives), but it also has a longstanding population of races from the other worlds here. I guess it's meant to be a cross between Barsoom and Dark Sun with a trace of Gamma World.
Canis Major and Felix Minor are dwarf planets, that have... wait for it... a population of doglike humanoids and catlike humanoids respectively. I don't really have a problem with this, or with Draconia, since it's part of the whole dreamy PG rated simplistic-but-fun late-'80s/early-'90s fantasy style that Calidar is meant to recreate from Mystara; so much so that remember that Princess Ark also had dogmen and catmen.
Finally, Ghule is a giant dungeon-world created by outsiders and populated by goblinoids. A 20000-mile-circumference dungeon, it orbits on an ellipse that brings it near to the other worlds only once every 5 years for about two months, during which time the goblins, ogres and trolls come out to raid and steal slaves and treasure.
Oh, and there's also the "Varangians", who are space-vikings that live on asteroids.
The metaphysics of the worlds themselves is also very interesting (and, I think, not in any way connected to Mystara, at least from what I recall of it): every world in the setting has a "world soul". That is, the worlds themselves are alive and have a personality. The health of a 'world soul' is entangled with the life on the world. So Lao-Kwei, which is dying world, has a very poor world-soul. The world-soul of Calidar is very strong, but feels under threat from those aliens who have been trying to settle and civilize it, and thus its unsettled areas are particularly savage as a protection. Only the area of the caldera is relatively safe.
Souls are linked to the world-soul on which they were born. So if you were born on one of Calidar's moons you'd be linked to that moon and return to that world-soul after death, but if your kids were born on Calidar they'd be linked to Calidar's world-soul. People who were basically good, when they die, get united to the world-soul for a while and later reincarnate (unless you were really connected with one of the Deities, then you might go serve them instead). People who did harm to the world-soul will end up with their souls trapped in a substance called seitha deep underground; this 'seitha' is also the fuel that powers Calidar's sky-ships. Yup, the flying ships in Calidar run on the liquid souls of dead criminals. The undead are usually a result of curses or evil deeds in life, and they crave seitha also, drawing out the material to feed and reproduce (which in turn harms the world soul); but if slain their souls become seitha.
Gods in Calidar were created by the belief of living beings; and gods need believers to keep existing. Also, epic heroes can start on the path to godhood as well, by gaining fame and having people believe in their legend (hmm, very much like being an "Immortal" is the endgame in Mystara). Gods get together in pantheons (which are apparently the divine equivalent of mortal cultures). Pantheons help protect a God in the sense that they're more likely to keep being believed in as part of a Pantheon than off on their own, but the head of a pantheon also gets to claim one-tenth of every other member's power for himself. Some gods have more than one name/visage and belong to more than one pantheon. Nine deities are presented in the book, each with description and titles, divine domain, places worshiped, symbols, pantheon, and what he does for followers and for "priors" (that is, special servants). There's Soltan who is the Sun of the solar system and oldest and mightiest of the Gods, whom many humans (including all those on the human-moon) venerate monotheistically. There's also Istra, goddess of adventurers; The Gate Keeper who is a deity that kidnaps people through cosmic anomalies and then sells them off to deities (who is explicitly described as being here as a method to bring in characters from other campaign settings over to Calidar); Delathien the hunter (head of the Elven pantheon); Khralia the All-mother who heads the dwarven pantheon; Odin - yes, that Odin - who of course is the chief god of the Space-Vikings (who Heard notes is not actually the Odin from earth, but came into existence when a group of Earth-vikings were brought to this reality by the Gate-Keeper); Sayble the dragon queen; and the Great Turtle (who rules the Lao-Kweian pantheon).
The section on the "world of Calidar" details in general terms the larger area of the planet, including a beautiful two-page planetary map spread in full color that covers the major terrain types and the wind currents of the planet, two polar maps also in color, and in more detail the area of the "Great Caldera" (again, with a two-page full-color map), the region that holds the civilized "colonial areas" settled by off-worlders. This includes Alfdein which are the elf-lands that have a variety of different elven states organized into a feudal confederacy; Araldur, which is a mountainous island held by the Dwarves; Belledor which is the last fellfolk holding in the Caldera where the natives are less feral and have taken on some "Calderan" customs; Caldwen whcih is a constitutional magiocracy (with shades of Alphatia and Glantri from the Mystara setting); Ellyrion, which is a theocracy that is considered heretical by the main faith in the human-moon of Calidar; the Emirates of Narwan, which is a dry land with an arab-style culture; Nordheim, which was settled by space-vikings; Osriel, which is a great merchant state; and Phrydias, which is populated by half-elves and is a semocracy (a state ruled by oracles). You can certainly see various parallels toward a number of kingdoms found in the Known World of Mystara here.
There's also a lengthy timeline (5 pages worth) detailing the history of Calidar.
Finally, there's an even more detailed section on the island-kingdom of Meryath, which is the section taken up by the separate hex-style map that came with the product. This is a kingdom of adventurers, ruled by heroes, obsessed with dragon-slaying, and has aspects of Mystara's Karameikos. Because of the dragon-slaying thing, Meryath has an ongoing conflict with the Knights of Draconia (evil human knights from the world of Draconia that serve Sayble the dragon-queen).
You get details on the four islands of Meryath, its size, population, economy, their calendar, military stats, local politics (Meryath has no aristocracy, instead that role is taken by popular local heroes), political circumstances, customs, and festivals. You also learn about the local power of "Eternal Glory": just as belief grants gods power, heroes who gain great notoriety can become "epic heroes" and as a result cease to age. Heard suggests a mechanic of "notoriety points", which would be awarded based on the successes or failures PCs have in their adventures. Since spending a long time without adventuring can start reducing notoriety (and lead to a hero beginning to age again), there's a built-in motivation for even wealthy high-level characters to continue going out in search of new adventure and the fame that comes with it. Heroes that gain a truly great number of Notoriety Points could be on track for becoming demigods.
After this we get a set of descriptions (no stats included here, but added in a later section) of the crew of the Star Phoenix, from the novella at the start of the book. It's about three pages, and then there's 3 pages of villains as well. The former is I guess slightly useful for NPC purposes, but really only if you plan to specifically include the ship in your game. The latter is at least a little bit more useful, if you want to know some potential significant bad guys. There's also descriptive information guilds & brotherhoods, like the Coral Ring (a native secret society), the Dragon Slayers (if you're a 'professional dragon slayer' you need to get a license from the Guild), the Soul-Eaters (which are a kind of Halfling-supremacist terrorist group), the Assassin's Guild (secretly controlled by the Draconic Knights), the Hall of Heroes (which is actually a government organization, as it is here that heroes vote to elect counts and monarchs and other important offices of this hero-cracy), the Ivory Tower (a kind of merchant's guild that wants to subvert the hero-cracy by getting important heroes into serious debt so they can control them), the Red Masque (a 'secret service' that protects the crown from subversive groups), the Royal Conservatory (which licenses actors, bards, printers, circus-folk and monster-handlers), the Seitha Constabulary (which control and regulate the trade in this valuable dead-criminal-soul-juice that powers the flying ships), and a couple of other politically-themed conspiracies.
Then we get an 11-page section on the city of Glorathon, the capital. Most of this section details sections/areas of this bustling port town. We also get a lovely full-page full-color city map. Aside from the Skyport, this city could fit easily into the Forgotten Realms or most standard fantasy settings; the presence of the Skyport and it's general style however, makes it again most similar in my recollection to the cities of Mystara. On the whole, the material on the city is more in the style of descriptive flavor than plot-hook or random-encounter type stuff.
There's also a section on "Creatures of Calidar", which is one area where we get into some serious creativity (not that the rest of the book isn't creative, it is, but it is laregely very similar to what one is already used to). The monsters are not like what you find elsewhere: for example, the Draecan, which is a cross between a red drake and a pitbull. The Gron are these bizzare giant space-worms that the orcs of Ghule use as their interplanetary vessels. Giant Seagulls (I kid you not), which are large enough to cause trouble for skyships. Merelings are hideous short humanoids which are artificially created by the rulers of Draconia from those who betray their rule. Sewer Mouthers are sewer-dwelling giant carnivorous fungi. And the Garnese Vultron is a kind of vulture-headed griffon. The section itself only provides descriptive information on these monsters, but their stats, alongside those of the major NPCs from Heard's novella, are found in the very next section (the stats being provided for the Pathfinder system, the only part where the alleged system Calidar is made for actually rears its head).
This last section ends with the system license information, which gives the impression that the next part is a kind of appendix, but if so it's a pretty important one: SKyships of Calidar. This section provides details about how skyships work, how they navigate, and what the skyships from different worlds look like. Included in this are some spectacular deckplans (again full-page and in color) of some sample ships (Elven, Dwarven, a few human ships including a space-viking ship, and of course the Star Phoenix). There's also rules including speeds and maneuvering. What is not included is any kind of ship-construction rule, detailed stats, or ship-combat rules. I suspect those are for some other Calidar sourcebook.
So, all in all, what can we say about Calidar? I think that if you were a fan of Mystara, or for that matter Spelljammer, there's a lot to like here. However, the material is also stretched quite thin for all that it wants to cover in so few pages. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as there's tons of blank space a GM could creatively fill in if they wanted; and I presume the plan is for there to be more Calidar products in the future.
It's definitely the case that a lot of Calidar is imitative of Mystara and specifically of the Princess Ark stories, but it is not so much that the product would feel pointless. There's plenty here that gives you a Mystara-esque world but with some of its own unique qualities. You could certainly imagine it being part of the same "universe" as Mystara, but a different place at the same time.
The production quality is top-notch.
The writing is solid, but in my opinion having 50 pages of fiction was a bad call. I'd rather have had 10 pages of fiction and 40 more pages of setting material.
As a whole, Calidar is at this time a setting that demands a lot more material; I expect Mr. Heard will produce it shortly. But it's a good start.
Currently Smoking: Mastro De Paja Rhodesian + Image Perique