The second part of my review of Dark Albion covers the gazetteer of Dark Albion and its environs. Long story short it is functional and can be used to set campaigns of all suggested types in Dark Albion. Once again, the hex map is gorgeous and very useful, nice job on that one. As has been pointed out in the comments section, the choice of setting is an odd one that might not be to everyone’s taste, with the close resemblence to medieval england stretching credibility once formalised colleges of magic, a France taken over by evil chaos-worshipping frog men (the only section of not europe to suffer so if I might add), actual miracle granting clerics that are common enough to populate knightly orders beholden only to the Archbishop (I urge any reader to cite historical antecedents for these types of organizations, like certain knightly orders, I shall gladly concede my ignorance and learn more because this shit is fairly interesting) and relatively common undead plagues are introduced.
The Gazetteer outlines the important overall characteristics of Albion fairly well and then moves on to specifics. If you are familiar with the War of the Roses or (infinitely more likely) Game of Thrones, I need not explain the political situation in great detail. The Mad King Henry Lancaster sits upon the throne, his wife the real power behind the throne, and the Yorks, excluded from the Star Chamber, hold a better claim to the throne and thus civil war is about to go down. As outlined before, Albion is largely under the sway of the Unconquered Sun, with the Archbishop calling the shots and the Pontifex in far off Italy passing off the word of god. Savage Scottsmen live beyond the Wall, alongside giants and John Snow, and some minorities still worship the nature spirits known as the Old Gods (no clerics for those, maybe druids beyond the wall). Magic is rare but not super-duper rare, with some commoners knowing a few spells, the filthy Cymri (the Irish? Celts?) knowing some more and you can actually fucking study magic in cambridge or oxford where it is regarded as a science. A more lovecraftian take on sorcery would have been advisable in a historical setting, but we will run with it. Noted hostility between the church and magic users since all magic is tied to chaos (S&S or warhammer trope take your pick). Different races of men, from the dominant Anglemen to the wandering Cymri, the barbaric Scotts and other, even more european analogues, populate the lands of Albion.
I should point out that though the writing is lukewarm so far I am fond of medieval history (albeit with a layman’s casual fondness), Warhammer Fantasy, Game of Thrones (the first 2 parts at least) and Sword and Sorcery so most of this stuff, while not staggeringly good, is acceptable.
The Gazeteer opens in earnest with fantasy London, called London, invoking fond memories of GAZ 1: The Grand Duchy. A short overview and history are given, no more then half a page, along with a list of prominent features. A keyed map of the Tower is provided, complete with rumours and indications of the defences (and rumours of sorcery or a hideous creature being unleashed to wander the outer ward at night etc.). I was kind of shocked because this is a good design decision. The London Tower is a perfect place to break into (since it doubles as the Queen’s treasury), but it is also used to imprison important nobles (so it can also be used in a jailbreak adventure). Out of all the locations to detail this one makes by far the most sense. Again, it’s not winning any awards for greatest most original thing ever but its a good choice. The rest of the features are mostly inns, with the provided histories adding atmosphere but not many hooks for adventure. Servicable. The description of the political powers within London should likewise provide adequate information, with a few rivalries serving as half-hearted plothooks.
Each region is given a hex map of its own (or a zoomed in hex map at any rate). Staggeringly large and detailed. Of note is the description of settlements. Population, town size, one or two noted features, inn names (I love inn names) and a spending limit in pounds are provided for each settlement. Sparse yet containing all the essentials. Each region is covered broadly, with major settlements, rulers, histories, allegiances to Yorks or Lancesters, personal animosities, pilgrimage or holy sites and several plot or adventure hooks, complete with some magical shit sprinkled here and there (rumours of ghosts of Anglemen raiders, the Beast of Exmoor, a cardinal dying of a magic wasting disease blamed on either Yorks or Lancesters, the kings personal hunting forest with newly awakened horrors by spiteful ousted peasant magicians and so on and so forth).
The choice of historical emulation at least works to good effect here, with each region having plenty of historical locations to tie it all together. Its no 8 or even a 7 but its a well-dressed 5 that knows how to cook is what I am getting at. If I must critisize Dark Albion’s Gazetteer, there is a lack of variety among its supernatural elements, though credit is to be given when they are appropriately blended with historical locations and events, granting them some versimilitude.
The go-too excuse for dungeons becomes ‘there are barrows here,’ which feels kind of lame. Occasionally things will be mixed up with a magic boosting stonehenge, some petrified knights or an old temple to Nodens or something. At times we have an odd mixture of not enough magic and too much magic for the implied setting, even Game of Thrones made its heartland mostly magic free.
No Dark Albion would be complete without a band of bandit’s named after the Merry Men. Again, this is expected to be here, this game is dark fantasy england after all, but just making them a band of bandits feels kind of lame, they need something extra, something defining, one of them believes he is Sir Robin reborn, they blind and castrate prisoners, a signature move where they remove an enemy’s throat with their bare hands, led by ghoulish frankenstein Robin hood, anything! Hadrian’s wall shows up and the border-regions have a nice anecdote impressing us with an atmosphere of sorcery and danger but I liked the one in Westeros better 😦
I must vent, which is in no way to be taken as legitimate criticism, about the lack of a revenant King Arthur trying to get a claim on the throne. If not, then at least some asshole punk minor noble with Excalibur. If references to King Arthur are going to be made they need to be used damn you. Also, if we can have Frog Men we should have Beastmen Scotts or Undead Vikings or strange Ice-sculpture Golem Vikings or whathaveyou. Dark Albion’s shtick is alright but it keeps pulling it over and over and expecting us to be impressed by it time and time again. The existence of entire cities or tribes of goblins in mostly civilised regions rather strains credibility, as one would expect men of the same breed and religion to band together against humanoid monstrosities before turning upon their own.
Overall, the Gazetteer of Albion is functional and comprehensive but it all gets rather dull and samey after a while. Fans of historical or low-fantasy roleplaying will find the blatant magical elements disruptive and useless (though, say, the ghost stories of hadrians wall and unique creatures like the Beast of Exeter are still very useful, and you could make magic so rare as to be considered supersition by all but a chosen few and thus retain your historical versimilitude). Fans of fantasy games with a medieval bent will balk at the lack of fantasy in the fantasy sections and find the long and detailed histories tiresome.
I’m not ready to kick Dark Albion under the bus but i’m not buying it dinner either. C’mon Tarno, you are off to a halfway decent start, let us see what you can do.
Update: I have been informed by my many fan that Cymri are Welsh. Since they hail from Wales, this is something I should probably have caught.