Twilight of Atlantis (2001)
Jim Lai, Jason Donovan & John R. Phythyon Jr.
There is something about Atlantis or the idea of a Hyborean Age that really appeals to me. A vast stretch of history both familiar yet utterly strange, in which high adventure may be had and creatures from bygone myth may be confronted. So alluring is this apocryphal era that it has even spawned some roleplaying games of its own. Atlantis the Second Age by Khephera Publishing is sort of quasi-famous and, given it’s 2nd stand alone edition after a brief Omni System edition, probably very good. It is therefore somewhat unfortunate we will not in fact be looking at Atlantis the Second Age, but Twilight of Atlantis, a 50-page campaign supplement for the d20 system by AVALANCHE PRESS.
We have covered Avalanche supplements before and this one confirms to the general format, albeit it with less pronounced drawbacks and more useful content. Twilight of Atlantis is a supplement for playing games in antediluvian times, when Atlantis rules over the Mediterranean and beyond by virtue of its sorceries and sciences.
We begin with an overview of the Atlantean creation myth (seems mythically accurate to me), followed by a tale of its rise as a world power and finally of its fall. While it confirms pretty closely to actual mythology, some additions have been made to render the whole more game-able and to add some spice here and there. Atlantis subduing the fearsome sorcerers of Egypt with a race of magically created Cat-men for example. Anyway, like many empires, it eventually turns its focus inward and as it grows lax, decadent, arrogant and corrupt, it is overrun by its enemies: Sparta, Athens, Egypt, and the machinations of the reptilian Lemurians. Your campaign takes place somewhere in the decline period, presumably.
The overview of Atlantis itself is sparse but comprehensive. It covers all the generalities but there are few specifics. It feels…static? I should write a post about why this bugs me in campaign settings but I will outline it here in brief:
A good (or suitable) campaign setting is generally a place WHERE THINGS HAPPEN OR CAN HAPPEN. Just by absorbing it you get a sense of the different forces held in dynamic equilibrium. The most suitable configuration is usually one of a society perched on the edge of calamity. Uncertainty and disaster may strike at any time. In Twilight of Atlantis we get a very general history and descriptions of Atlantis as a civilization but there is never a sense of this dynamic equilibrium. Its enemies go from subjugated states to revolt in a descriptive eye-blink, though this switch seems to take place on a historical timescale. The GM must do all the heavy lifting by himself.
This is not to say this wondrous society is not nicely described, with its three moats and its oricalchum walls and its odd caste-like system of Atlanteans, who carry the blood of Poseidon himself! Over a million people are governed by the firm and long-lived hand of the Ten Kings of Atlantis. But its rivals are quiescent, its gates guarded by Scylla and Charybdis and its enemies far off and too vaguely motivated. The Lemurian lizardmen surpass them in stonework and the cannibalistic metal-workers of Mue in metalwork (gee!) but the threat seems distant and to make it work the GM will have to flesh everything out. That is not a problem per se, but we want our campaign setting to inspire, otherwise we can make a better one ourselves.
Anyway, the section of Atlantean culture, worldview, art and family is nice and descriptive, and after about 23 pages (i.e half the book) we get to the gameables. I was surprised since this section holds up pretty well, better then most Avalanche supplements. We are offered several new races, the Atlantean, the Noble Atlantean, the Bastai (or cat person) and even the Half-Atlantean, which is the half-elf to the Atlantean’s elf and is similarly useless. Humans are, of course, always available. Always pick Atlantean because +2 Int for -2 Con and Use Magic as a class skill is worth the loss of an extra feat and skillpoint. The Bastai are nicely done, going beyond a simple palette-swap of one of the classic races and becoming their own thing. If you have always wanted to play a catperson monk in 15.000 B.C, now is your chance.
Since this is a d20 supplement, it would not be complete without prestige classes. Surprisingly, the prestige classes are A) not useless and B) mostly thematically appropriate. The Artificer is a wizard that specializes in the creation of magical items and helps sink home the high-magical nature of Atlantis. Nice. The Orphean is an alchemically resurrected warrior, whose spirit is bound in his body using a fine orichalcum mesh that gradually gains deathless abilities as he increases in strength. Again, both useful and thematically appropriate (and fucking awesome). There is a bit of a breakdown with the Resonant, a fucking wizard prestige class that specializes in METAMAGIC. DO YOU LIEK METAMAGIKZ? DO YOU WANT TO CAST MOAR METAMAGIC. HERE YOU GO. I HAVE BECOME DETH DESROYER OF WURLD.
Ahem. We top it off with a much needed monk prestige class, the Spellbane, a martial artist specially trained to disrupt spellcasters using pressure point techniques. In a normal game, the specialization would probably still be worth it. In Twilight of Atlantis, it is quite possibly the most useful specialization to have as a monk. I also recommend that if you decide to run this game you consult the official 3e Complete Arcane supplement for fighter feats that are designed specifically against spellcasters.
What is next? THE FEAT SECTION. Some nice feats for fighting in phalanxes, which is about as complex as infantry tactics get back in hyborean days, along with a series of ridiculously overpowered feats for wizards. Craft magical items in the form of tattoos that do not take up slots for twice the price and xp cost. Tap into the resonance to gain an extra slot. Convert all your elemental spells to force damage. Suck. it. down.
The equipment section, in the habitual Orwellian twist Avalanche Press is rather fond of, consists for the most part of a list of equipment that can NOT be used, but this time there are a few exceptions. The Great Trident has been added to add that extra bit of Atlantian flavor to your grandfather’s Dnd. It also presents what I feel are by far the sanest rules for bronze weapons I have ever seen in a game. Rather then reduce their damage and hit chance like an idiot, Twilight reasons that bronze weapons are made to sort of compensate for the weakness of the material and thus a Khopesh will do about the same damage to a human being as a longsword. The only drawback of Bronze is its lower hardness and hitpoints (but on the plus side it is easier to work then Steel). In a sane universe, Bronze would also be far more expensive but fuck it, I am already pleased they got this right.
The magic item section is a little sparse. A scale mail that gives freedom of movement and the ability to breathe underwater etched with orichalcum runes telling of the deeds of the veteran soldier it is gifted too. Silver bracelets specifically designed for the Bastai. The overpowered Metaprisms used by the Atlantean Resonants to break the game and murder you. The sorcerous Oricalchum, metal that can be used in lieu of xp.
This is the first time I have seen an Avalanche Press product bungle the fluff but get most of the crunch right. Atlantean spells with awesome names like Chariot of Poseidon, Curse of Helios and Song of Orpheus. Approximately nine thousand times more atmospheric then the spells in Core 3.5. Actually reinforce what the setting is meant to be about: Adventuring in the mythical dawn age of the world. A spell that allows one to unerringly navigate a ship. Conjure forth a watery chariot. Conjure forth winds into your sails or unleash great waves upon your enemies (may be cast in concert with other mages for truly hideous and devastating effects). All who are struck by the Scream of the Furies gain hearing so sensitive they take damage from their very heartbeat. These are 4 pages worth of nice spells for your DnD.
The supplement ends with notes on running an Atlantean campaign and some adventure seeds. The advice is fairly ho-hum; the suggestion to let everyone start at higher levels so the players might not feel outclassed by the powerful sorcerers running around Atlantis should be treated with scorn and contempt, everything else is kind of a no-brainer. I like the idea of using monsters drawn from classical greek mythology but it is little more then a throwaway sentence. The adventure hooks somewhat lack the epic feel of adventuring in an Age Undreamed Of By Man but gain points for specificity. Instead of rescuing a Slave from Atlantian slavery you get to rescue Hippolites, famous Spartan general. Instead of saving a village from an evil wizard you get to save the Atlantean Colony in Rio de Janero from getting caught up in an intergenerational conflict between the Wizard Arcos and his resentful half-breed son Acrimon.
Pros: Nice balance between history and mythology. Some good ideas. Useful prestige classes and feats in an Avalanche Campaign Setting?
Cons: Not enough bang for your buck. Lacklustre execution. Campaign setting feels static and is described in generic terms.
Bottom line: In general, if you can’t or won’t deliver a fully fleshed out setting you should deliver a seed, a kernel from which a campaign can grow. You deliver the initial impetus and the GM’s imagination takes it from there. Twilight of Atlantis is bad not because it is sloppy, or wastes time with trivialities or because it is poorly written but because it fails to deliver that initial spark. It does not give you enough to work with. Leaving open spaces for the GM to do something cool with is great, but too much open space makes one question the entire endeavor. Twilight really needed some oomph; A few solid hooks, some rumors of strange goings on on the continents of Lemuria or Mu, Things slumbering eternally beneath the Polar Ice, wizardly infighting, something. As it is, it is technically a functional supplement with little to recommend it. The worst kind of failure is mediocrity. 4 out of 10.