Aztecs – Empire of the Dying Sun (2002)
Ree Soesbee (Avalanche Press LTD)
Aztecs fascinate me. A sophisticated alien culture with advanced knowledge of astrology, engineering and statecraft, with no access to iron or horses, yet with an absolutely batshit insane religion of human sacrifice driving them to constant warfare and conquest (or possibly vice versa). Awesome.
Aztecs have great potential since are barely present in the western collective unconsciousness and thus very little people know much about them through cultural osmosis so they have not been ruined by overexposure. In addition, it is almost impossible to be portrayed as racist when talking about them since no one born after 1635 gives a shit.
Nevertheless, delightful shades of the Aztec may be found in various works of fantasy, from R.E Feist’s Tsurani, R.Pinto’s the Chosen or the wonderful elfgame setting of M.A Barker’s Tekumél. I was inspired by the Aztecs when I blogged about Karaash in my Age of Dusk setting. Thus the discovery of an Aztec elfgame setting came as something of a pleasant suprise. Sadly it is by Avalanche Games and it is for d20 which probably means it is not very good. Spoilers: It is not. Damnit.
Aztecs-Empire of the Dying Sun is a
64 60-page campaign setting supplement for the d20 system that desperately tries to convey an utterly alien and unfamiliar culture whilst making neccesary concessions to the fact it is a game and thus meant to be played. A hubristic endaevour that fails most painfully.
60 pages (not counting OGL, a much needed Index, A title page and a credit page) is not enough to give you the tools to create a setting that is so radically different from medieval europe yet so relatively obscure as that of the Aztecs. It fails harder by its boxed-text asides with gigantic empty margins that are horribly out of place in many places. Monster stats should, for example, be in the monster section of the book, not in the primer where you explain something is guarded by a certain thing. You can reference back to that passage in the monster section of the book like a human. Much of the crunch in this book feels like an afterthought, which is a horrific sin that merits death by impalement unless you are writing White Wolf supplements, since those are not actually meant to be played. Nevertheless, as a general rule of thumb; If you are going to charge money for a game product at least make sure people can use it in their games.
As to the historical accuracy of the materiél described within, I’m inclined to handwave that part. It is very likely some concessions were made to make it playable and describable in 60 pages therefore I shall not gnash my teeth overmuch. It has the feel of historical accuracy, far more important when running a historical fantasy game.
But I get ahead of myself. The first part of the book gives an overview on the Aztec culture, and tries, valiantly, to cover everything about the Aztecs from weddings, to proper manners, to fashion, to child rearing, to Aztec writing, to warfare, to funerary rites and very much to ritual sacrifice, needed to placate their dread and at times benevolent gods so they will renew the sun. It does so in 8 pages. Credit where it is due, this is one hell of a primer. Those 8 pages were worth my money, make no mistake. I think 8 pages should be my new benchmark for describing your hypothetical mythical/historical elfgame setting to me without gameable shit. A drawback is that while it gives you an overview, it gives you a very BROAD overview (I did love the detail where an Aztec warrior’s coming of age ritual involves him and 4 others capturing an enemy soldier and then ritually cannibalizing him), and thus to anyone interested in closer emulation you will have to fill in a LOT of detail yourself. The tribes the Aztecs make war upon are left completely undescribed for example. Nevertheless, for its length, this section is excellent in allowing you to convey a certain atmosphere and to portray your NPCs accordingly.
The second session describes the Aztec empire proper, its laws (the punishment for almost everything is death so this section is short), its mythological origins (their mother goddess with an unpronounceable name impregnated herself with an obsidian knife and then yarn and then her son kills his moon-sister and scatters his star-siblings it is a strange story), its social structure (a bizarre hybrid between egalitarian democracy and hereditary aristocracy with a pinch of theocracy thrown in). It’s three major cities (Tenochtitlan, Oaxaca and Cholula) are given descriptions, with major landmarks being covered with the occasional mystical element drawn from Aztec myth thrown in (the pyramid of the moon is guarded by the priestly dead, near Oaxaca is the place where one of Hummingbird’s star-sisters fell to earth and is now spawning hideous demons, only the Migration scrolls offer a way back to mythical Aztlan were the Aztecs originated from etc. etc.). Still just fluff, but somewhat easier to turn into quests and the odd legend here and there adds character to the setting. The monster stat blocks for the Stone serpent and Tecpatl should have been in the monster section and the description of Aztec Quidditch and the role of Quetzal feathers should have been in the first section. 18 pages. Still holds up pretty well.
The third section is about religion specifically and covers the unnecessarily complex calender of the Aztecs as well as the importance of divination (while missing a great opportunity to provide feats or spells based around this importance later on in the crunch part of the book) . It also provides an overview of the major gods of the Aztecs (taking a moment to specify that there are of course hundreds of minor deities). The game almost grudgingly gives out domains, alignments and favored weapons in the most bog-standard of ways with each description but on the plus side all the gods are terrifying and strange and even the most benevolent ones require human sacrifices and the odd flaying. Example:
“During the Aztec festival in the honor of Xochiquetzal, a beautiful young woman is chosen by craftsmen and artisans to represent the goddess. This young woman is then sacrificed by the priests and flayed. Her skin is worn by a man who sits at a loom and pretends to weave while the craftsmen dance around her in animal costumes.”
And that is the appropriate way to venerate a CG love goddess.
This is followed up by a short description of the three different kinds of spellcasters in the game. All of the priests of the gods are represented by the cleric class, unaltered, which strikes me as horribly lazy. At least alter the Turn undead ability or something. Lots of time is spent on examining the role of the priest in Aztec society (extremely important). For some unfathomable reason we spend a third of a page discussing the Shaman, an utterly peripheral and generic sounding druid-esque class present in tiny villages and hamlets that seeks to preserve universal harmony and then back to the very badass/S&S Sorcerer replacement; the Nagual. The Nagual believe the current world is but a dream and seek to teach others the lie of ‘reality.’ Nagual are hated and feared by the authorities, as is only just and proper.
All of that was pretty sweet primer but it takes up half the book and I have not seen much that is gameable. The 4th part seeks to provide and is delivers a massive disappointment. For some inconceivable reason the game details the Shaman Class, a druid with less class features and a smaller spell list and some bonus metamagic feats that is tied to a particular location and thus only good as a PC if the campaign takes place in that one location. In a 60-page supplement?!? ARE YOU FUCKING HIGH? Slap an adept NPC class on them and call it a day. Terrible.
The game states that fighters, rogues (fighters and rogues are always allowed in every game ever), paladins (?!?), clerics and rangers (?!?) are allowed but does not explain what the Aztec equivalent of a paladin or a ranger is even supposed to be. In addition, the game adds two prestige classes in the form of the Jaguar Knight and the Eagle Knight, both of which may be likened to a ranger or a paladin (except paladins cannot turn into giant eagles at level 10, or rangers into jaguars, otherwise there are some strong similarities, especially with the eagle knight). One big difference between the two is that if a paladin wants to atone he does not first have to capture 100 men and sacrifice them to Huizilipoctli, making the Eagle Knight infinitely superior in my opinion. Minor gripe, the key requisite ability score for spells cast by Jaguar or Eagle Knights are not mentioned anywhere, sloppy.
The Nahuatl is a d8 HD, 3/4AB per Level, 4+int skill point per level sexy sorcerer class with some cool powers along the way, superior to the sorcerer in almost every way. As you progress you gain increasing power over reality, allowing you to ignore illusions, make people reroll their dice, get a +20 to a single check or, at 20th level (THAT YOU WILL NEVER REACH BECAUSE THIS GAME HAS INSUFFICIENT CONTENT FOR EVEN 7 LEVELS) determine the outcomes of all dicerolls and also the weather within a (??? Line of sight? Did anyone playtest or even read the original game?!?) radius. Usable 1/day provided you make a DC 35 Will Save. You take 1 Con damage per 10 minutes and get slapped with a DC 30 Will save to maintain the state. Er…I don’t want to math too much but with your average 20th level save, the iron will feat and a 16 in Wis, that means you have about…a 5% chance of this ability working at all (+15 to your save). Ridiculous, subtract 10 from both DCs and you have something that is workeable.
The anemic character section is revealed in its full horror like a pox-ridden ballet dancer suddenly deprived of her tutu when we get to the new feats (This is a d20 supplement and therefore it has feats you see). 1 page. All of them suck. A feat that gives enemies a -3 to track you?!? Are you fucking kidding me? Eiditic memory gives you a massive bonus on knowledge skill checks (and they should have specified it is only available at 1st level) but everything else is lame as shit. The jack of all trades feat allows rogues to use skills untrained even if they would normally not be able to do so. Poison resistance. A feat that makes you slightly harder to track. Woooooh!
Of the top of my head, I can come up with better and more thematic feats. A feat that gives you a berserker-esque bonus if you mutilate yourself before battle (historically accurate AND cool). A feat relating to some divination said at your birth, giving you a saving throw but a single achilles heel. A feat that allows you to gain a bonus to your caster level if you sacrifice something. And so on. The current batch is lame.
The equipment section is a disgrace. A list of banned equipment (iron, metal armor, crossbows, horse-stuff etc.) with two sidebars about the atatl (used to throw your spears farther and harder) and obsidian weaponry (brittle but everything made from it deals 4 extra points of damage). No stats for the macuahuitl described earlier. How hard is it to put an extra line in that gigant text bock that says something like; Medium martial 1d6/19-20×2 Piercing or Bludgeoning, melee, may be thrown 10 ft range, no penalty for subdual damage. No listed prices (which would, the game does point out, be listed in cocoa beans or hollow reeds filled with gold dust). What is this horseshit?
The magic item section is somewhat okay; one ring gives you a sort of berserker rage at the cost of permanent hit point loss (it stinks), and the coatl feather cloak is basically just a really fancy and thematic form of magic armor. The other two items are nice though, a good combination of nice mythical fluff with useful crunch (Edit: . A page of new spells that are so pedestrian they could have been in any generic supplement save you’d have less trouble spelling the spell names.
This is where we start to bump into the limits of the 64 page format. I am hard pressed to find space that was actually wasted, therefore the logical conclusion is that there is simply not enough room. Had they wanted to do justice to an Aztec campaign setting, they would have needed at least 80 pages, if not more, worth of items, spells, classes, feats, monsters and equipment. As it is, the fluff is nice but the crunch is sorely lacking and not even worth cannibalizing for your own custom game (with the possible exception of the Nahuatl as NPC baddies).
The last section consists of monsters drawn from meso-american myth. A giant lizard that serves as the steed for mighty heroes. A chihuahua (useless), a lama (you had 12 pages and you statted up a Lama?), a lycanthrope-esque creature created from a man by unfortunate astrological circumstances and its hideous coyote-were spawn. Quetzal serpents (too obscure for regular use). The invisible Tzimitzl (fucking awesome). The star-demon Xolotl (this is what I am talking about). That is it. If you count the two monsters in the introduction, that is 10 monsters, of which about 7 are good. Pretty decent, and about the only part of the book that can easily be stripped for parts.
The book ends with two pages of plot hooks, most of them more like regular dnd with a Nahuatl-coat of paint on it (I got a strong Pundit vibe for some reason). One that did stand out was a plot by Tezcatlipoca, disguised as an old woman, to convince the Aztecs to move back to Aztlan. The rest is all A FIRE HAS BROKEN OUT IN
NEVERWINTER CHOLCULCA. A FIRE ELEMENTAL IS TO BLAME YOU MUST DO SOMETHING.
I am dissapoint.
Pros: Unique culture & setting. Some nice weird monsters. Good primer on Aztec culture.
Cons: Not enough gameable content. Sloppy editing. Sloppy layout. Sloppy playtesting. Incomplete covereage of such a rich and alien culture. Lacks equipment section.
Bottom line: While it is not without its laudable parts, Aztec – Empire of the Dying Sun is far too short to give adventuring in the mytho-historical world of ancient meso-america the coverage it deserves. The gameable content is too sparse to strip it for parts, with the exception of the monster section and the Nagual class. This really needed to be twice its length with a whole host of prestige classes and unique items and spells and so on. Now it evokes little more but disappointment at the setting that could have been. I am judging this harshly not because it is badly written but because it is useless and very hard to turn into a good campaign. You are making a game, not a novel.
Final Verdict: So much bread, so little butter. 3 out of 10 Nahuatl-stars.