[Review] Chronicles of Ahmerth (OSR LL); Down familiar paths

[Campaign Setting] Chronicles of Ahmerth (2011)
Peter C. Spahn (Small Niche Games)

Last post I spoke about Burden of Proof or if you will Elfgame Market Value. Let’s examine that further in the context of a campaign setting. Taking into account a prior campaign setting exists, I pose that campaign settings must of necessity fall into two (admittedly arbitrary and blurry) categories; A campaign setting can either attempt to take the framework of the old game and recast it into a new light (i.e Planescape vs Greyhawk), or it can attempt to draw upon the same themes, imagery and elements of a previous setting but present them in a way that is either clearer or more efficient (arguably the implied setting of AD&D vs the implied setting of Dungeon Crawl Classics). I like Chronicles of Ahmerth by Peter C. Spahn of Small Niche Games not because it attempts the former, but because it does the latter without being a ripoff or trite and boring, a rare success.

Chronicles of Ahmerth is a 66-page campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord that has many delightful shades of Mystara (the old nine bazillion gazetteer campaign setting for DnD Basic for ignorati) and is thus ALMOST FULLY COMPATIBLE with any adventures or setting material from that line. Without being a derivative piece of shit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you retroclone. It is meant to be compatible with not only its own line of products but also that of other OSR publishers like Faster Monkey Games and Brave Halfling Publishing. Decent idea.

Chronicles of Ahmerth takes place on the world of Ahmerth, and concerns the suspiciously earth-like continents of Amalor (North America) and Herth (Asia with a hefty chunk of the South-East missing). It embraces several tropes that both distinguish it yet enable it to function like DnD. Ahmerth is old, but almost none of its history remains. Seven Great Cataclysms, barely known, have shaped the world as it is today. Mankind is (of course) the dominant species, there are vast tracts of wilderness still haunted by monsters (though most are rare if not almost extinct), magic (and consequently innovation) is feared and the Gods are very real. The world as described is suitable for character levels 1-9 which sounds about the range of 90% of all campaigns, if not more.

Religion

The first thing Chronicles of Ahmerth gets right is religion. Instead of boring us all with a 40 page section on what particular tribe worships what regional variant of Zeus, CoA handles religion fairly sensibly. There are five major religions that all worship slight variations on the same twelve pagan gods. The legends are different, the names vary from place to place, the relations between the gods might vary from place to place and even the practice of worship can vary tremendously but they are essentially the same. CoA then makes the eminently sensible decision of tying major deities to astrological bodies, constellations, the earth and the four seasons. For pagan deities, that makes A LOT of sense.

Anyway, you’ve got yourself a Wise Father God, a Nurturing Mother Godess, a Conniving Temptress Goddess, a Powerful but Stupid War God, a Smart but Distant War/Civilisation/Truth God, A sort of Prideful One-eyed Unrequited Love God and an unhappy Godess of Independence (and the sea) who is, of course, unhappily married. Both married pairs had two god kids, each representing the four seasons but the interesting part comes from the inter-relations between deities. It’s the little things, like Pannas (the unhappy broad) turning herself into a Baracuda and biting out Viltae’s (that’s the beta-faggot god) eye. Good fictional mythology, close enough to the real world analogues to make the whole seem credible.
Of these deities, the Church of Rangeth (smart Law/Civilisation/War god) is the most popular, an almost monotheistic religion of absolute morality, claiming magic/science corrupts the Soul and serving as a bulwark against the forces of Chaos throughout the world. For some reason Peter seems to think they might not be entirely the good guys but he does point out they bring “justice to those who have none,” and their enemy is the Church of Chaos and Destruction which worships his evil sister Jesil so they cannot be all that bad. As an additional eye-roller, the desert religion of the Baladi (under Xannen occupation) concerns the worship of the singular god Il’Re, a peaceful faith that “has been perverted by a host of self-serving prophets and cult leaders.”

The Ancients

Like virtually any fantasy setting worth its salt Chronicles of Ahmerth takes place in a much diminished age, littered with the remnants of greater civilisations now long dead. The Ancients are the CoA equivalent of Netheril, Blackmoor or the Suel/Baklunish.
The Ancients, the ancestors of all mankind, ruled a techno/magical empire in distant antiquity and eventually disappeared or perished, for reasons unknown. The ruins of their civilization litter the world and therefore dungeons with magical shit. They are responsible for creating Lailons, places of magical power that have all sorts of purposes from summoning, healing to the creation of magical items. The Tekla are magical items of ancient origin with powers somewhere between an artifact and a normal magical item. As a last fuck you to humanity, they are also responsible for the creation of the Warmachten, living warmachines that turned on their creators and still haunt the world today.

The Ancients still affect the world today not merely by their tools but two organizations. The Hestrons are a secret (thought fictional) organization that watches over and protects Lailons and recovers relics, keeping them safe and the Outriders were the first descendants of the Ancients, who rose up after they fell, well trained in the ways of war and magic, who served as a sort of Jedi Knights to the world of Ahmerth for a very long time. The Outriders disappeared long ago and many prophecies surround their return (many organizations claiming to be the Outriders have used the name to their own purposes, and all of them met with hideous ends). Total length of the Ancients section? Two pages. Well done.

Magic

Magic, both clerical and wizardly, is genetic in CoA. Since only about 1 in 10.000 is born with the right genes, that means wizardly orders and temples alike generally scramble to find and recruit any Latents they come across. Spellcasting orders are very much the norm in CoA, in fact, the game does have its fair share of city-wide or even world-spanning organizations, a decision I do not necessarily like.
The game points out that the rules for casting and memorizing spells do not change and this is mostly flavor text, though there is the possibility of discovering you are a ‘latent’ and thus granting you a single, very unpredictable spell-like ability per day. Because of the offences of wizards in the past, the ratio of wizards to clerics is very skewed.

The section on magic further discusses a sample means of detecting Latents (the method is quite invasive and rather then a simple detect magic spell, a fairly expensive elixir is needed) and Arcane Bleed, an entirely fluff-description of the process by which items wielded by latents for a very long time can become permanently enchanted. It adds no new mechanics but it does give the GM inspiration and the way the personality of the Latent and the manner of his death/life affects the item is interesting.

Adventurers

CoA notes that adventuring on Ahmerth is a time-honoured profession and Adventurers are generally welcomed and regarded as heroes by the common folk. I like that, an attempt to incorporate adventurers into the setting, that’s good. What I am less enthusiastic about is the existence of four Adventuring Guilds spread across the land, that all adventurers are expected to join and donate 10% of their shit too. FUCK YOU! DIE NAMELESS. ONE OF THE CHARMS OF PLAYING AN ADVENTURER IS THE INDEPENDENCE, YOU ARE A RENEGADE, AN ENTREPENEUR WITH A SWORD FUCK THIS CORPORATE INDENTURE GUILD BULLSHIT. In exchange for your membership you can generally count on clean inns, free access to libraries, barracks food for the poorest of adventurers and so on. Arguably the worst element of the setting.

That being said, the execution is not terrible. The game makes it a point to mention the high lethality among adventurers as well as the somewhat dodgy nature of their recruiting practices. The Tomb Raiders Brotherhood, who direct all their efforts towards the raiding of the ancient ruins in the dark jungles of Munjabi are quick to lure in new recruits with tales of vast riches and exotic delights whilst omitting the cannibal tribesmen, monsters and diseases that plague the jungles. The Slayers brotherhood focuses on killing Ruks (orcs) but are known for banditry and general thuggishness.

History

As I mentioned before Chronicles of Ahmerth has many elements in common with Mystara, without being derivative. CoA takes place in the year 495 of the Imperator Zaen from Xanne’s reign. Before the Calendar was set mankind was divided into warring tribes as a result of yet another Cataclysm. They are, however, in luck!  The Immortal Zaer, essentially a cross between Genghis Khan and Julius Ceasar, unites the fractious Hagyar tribes then proceeds to conquer the entire world, ridding it of most of its demi-humans in the process (The Great Purge). He gains his nickname from his unfortunate tendency to show up alive a day after he is assassinated, which has happened three times thus far. Since he decided that his Empire could still max out its dread score, he teams up with a coven of Black Wizards.

Long story short, eventually many of Xanne’s conquered city-states and kingdoms rebel and declare independence and proceed to drive back Xanne until it is a shadow of its former glory (though still formidable and by no means defeated). Enter the current year, the Age of Hope!

The World.

The description of the world of Ahmerth is terse but contains enough detail to make everything useful. Major bodies of water are given about a paragraph, with information varying from flavour text (i.e the mineral content in the soil of the Black River makes it appear black and drinking it is considered ill-favoured, though harmless) to some world-critical information that might actually help you to generate an adventure (i.e the Endos Cut is the hunting ground of the Zhama’huur, an ancient and powerful warmachten).

Let’s talk nations. In addition to Xanne which is essentially fantasy Rome with mongolians thrown in, there are some major kingdoms and influential city states, all of them clearly based on historical or at times mythical analogues. The Gazetteer even goes so far as to spell out the inspiration for each regional power, meaning it is very easy to get a feel for each entry after a comparatively short description. Another point in the favor of CoA is that each entry has around five 2-3 sentence adventure seeds. While the seeds are pretty generic, they provide enough inspiration to create an adventure from, and that adventure will probably not suck. For example:

Sellswords! The characters are hired to assassinate an opposing guild master,
set fire to a warehouse, or waylay a rival’s shipment. Do the characters accept the job, or do they inform the victim of their employer’s intentions?

It’s not going to win a Pulitzer prize but it gets you there if you need some quick inspiration.

So about the nations themselves. The mishmash of different cultures based on various periods of medieval history reminds me of Mystara. Guildeland is a island nation of city-states ruled by merchant houses (i.e Reinassance Italy/Darokin), Westport is your typical medieval fantasy city complete with rumours of a temple to an evil entity underneath the city’s sewer system, the Kingdom of Tyr is a vaguely German/British semi-feudal kingdom with a king, dukes, barons, knights and commoners (they mention intrigue is kept to a minimum because it lacks a ‘true aristocracy’ but the meaning of this is vague and unclear), Skjold is one of the few powers that has never fallen under Xannen rule and is (unsuprisingly) the Norse and the occupied territory of Corrland is essentially Ireland/Scotland under roman occupation (if not for a race of shapeshifting sea-serpents that used to rule the Corroughs with a just hand).

In addition to historical western european influences, CoA also draws inspiration from ancient Araby, India and fucking Dragonlance. That’s right bitch! Ahmerth has a bunch of floating islands with knights riding lobotomized dragons (no one can fucking tame true dragons) fighting a band of wizards. Ships getting close to these islands can expect to get fucked.

Besides habitable areas, there are the obligatory PLACES ONE SHOULD NOT GO. Karthax is a cursed island, home to the terrible Fiends of Karthax, who are said to have caused at least one of the Great Cataclysms. In other news, the ancient Seawall of the Duchy of Valnwall is said to be riddled with passageways, dungeons, tombs and undersea caverns. CoA seems fond of BIG AWE-INSPIRING LOCATIONS and uses them often in this small gazzeteer, providing a contrast with the fairly mundane and low fantasy regional powers (Sky Islands and Xanne exempted).

CoA as a whole reads something like Mystara, while the plethora of ancient magical locations and monuments can’t help but remind me of Lord of the Rings. The take on demi-humans is so Tolkien (and therefore entirely DnD) you can practically taste the Lammas Bread. Overall, the setting is good for what it needs to be, a backdrop against which to have fun fantasy adventures against nominally compatible with any other form of DnD. Detail is kept to a minimum, giving the GM plenty to work WITH, instead of AGAINST (as is the case with many hyper-detailed settings).

A gripe is that as a result of its small page-count and efficient presentation Ahmerth can sometimes feel a bit too simple. An area the size of North America only has a single Duchy (and mostly surrounding wilderness). A different continent of comparable size has essentially four kingdoms, an island nation and a city-state. All guilds have their capitals in Guildeland.

Bestiary.

The bestiary opens, uncharacteristically, with a list of flora. These are actually really well done and help flesh out the world. Rare crimson moss that grants an extra saving throw against poisons and diseases, thorns that can be worn on the head to increase turning attempts at the cost of damage (neat!), the near mythical dragonsbane herb that is utterly lethal to dragons and so on. Some of the herbs have entries relating to ancient history, which is a pleasant way of giving hints of the time before the Xannen Empire without making a long and exhaustive list. Anyway, the entries are A) useful and B) give one a reason to get one’s wilderness lore on so these are all neat. Often forgotten, magical flora makes one appreciat

The monster section is appealingly strange, almost reminiscent of Creature Catalogue, I like it.  There is a good balance between mundane animals, fantastic (but ultimately non-magical) creatures, magic beasts, humanoids, shapechangers, extraplanar creatures (i.e demons that are not technically demons but are more reminiscent of H.P Lovecraft’s Nightgaunts), the unstoppable Warmachten and even 2 undead creatures. The creatures are fantastical and pretty solid but not too out there, more dark/high fantasy then Lovecraftian horror or the colorful madness of Planescape. The creatures as described make far more sense as wilderness encounters or even the topics of adventure seeds (see the Warmachten) then they do as inhabitants of a dungeon, draw whatever conclusion from that that you wish. Many entries in the bestiary have notes on their origins or significant historical contributions, tying them into the setting, which I appreciate.

Reviewing bestiaries is tricky if you don’t want to go through every entry, so without further adieu I have made several arbitrary categories, selecting a promising candidate for each one and hoping it will give the kind and gentle reader a good idea of the general quality and content of the Bestiary section without going into encyclopedic detail. Experimental Format Incoming.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them: The Three Eyed Feline Churl can turn invisible so as to better stalk and kill its prey. The Donkrini looks like an 8-legged eyeless crocodile that is indistinguishable from a fallen tree until it attacks.
Palette Swap: All orcs, goblins and hobgoblins in Ahmerth have been replaced with the Ruhk, a single humanoid creature that is essentially identical to the Orc (light sensitivity, likes raiding, evil, tribes like “blood hand” etc.). Ogres have been replaced with the Ogruk, essentially a nine-foot tall Ruhk.
Our Orcs Are Different: The Gelatinous Men are a race of intelligent shapechanging Gelatinous Cubes that can assume human form. Like many of the monstrous races in Ahmerth, they have almost been hunted to extinction. The Kroyt Krizzard is a disease-carrying vulture-analogue of the Griffon.
And I Must Scream:  The Matroni is a leprous hag-creature that preys on ungrateful children and unfaithful husbands by appearing as a doting mother or lovely young woman. It then proceeds to use illusions to make people EAT THE EGG SAC IT HAS VOMITED UP BY MAKING IT APPEAR AS FOOD and if that doesn’t work it ATTACKS WITH ITS IRON CLAWS AND IT WILL RESTRAIN YOU AND VOMIT ITS EGG SAC IN YOUR MOUTH and after 2d4 rounds YOU WILL BURST OPEN AND A MATRONI GRUB WILL CRAWL FORTH. MATRONI CAN ONLY BE TRULY DESTROYED BY BEING TURNED BY A 9TH LEVEL CLERIC. They are said to be associated with the God Weiren, as a manifestation of her impotent rage at her unhappy marriage.
Blot out the Sun: The Zhama’uur is a unique gigantic Metal Lobster that can travel both above and under water. Its gigantic iron claws shatter ships and crush men alike. It has already killed thousands of sailors. Another Warmachten is essentially a magical tank.
Harmless little fella: The Q’Foz are magically bred slave creatures from the Sky Lands, appearing as 4-foot tall furry humanoids that can inflate themselves to create a levitation effect.
Gygaxian Naturalism: The Larwhek is literally a Crocodile with two flipper forelegs. That’s it. It’s 10-12 feet long at its oldest though it continues growing throughout its life. If not for a tendency to occasionally sneak aboard ships, it would just be another water predator. Almost extinct.
Another entry is just a bear. With tusks.
Most Evil: The Fiends of Karthax are deformed, poisonous mutants that caused one of the Great Cataclysms. Once the most beautiful men on Ahmerth, the cataclysm left them malformed and twisted. The actual entries are disappointing since the game stats out a Blood Spider and a Karthax Hound as general inhabitants of Karthax but only stats out a single fiend, Vrmikon, who also happens to be the newest associate of Emperor Xanne, much to the dismay of Xanne’s evil wizardly allies. His stats are surprisingly tame and if you don’t attempt to eat him he functions pretty much exactly like a monstrously deformed 9th level magic user that will die if he leaves his home island for more then a month.

All in all, it’s about 50 creatures, less then a fifth of which have art, unfortunately.

Magic Items

Peter C Spahn, give him credit, figured out what else you need to put in a campaign setting besides a history, countries, adventuring sites and unique monsters. Magical shit!

I pronounce this magical shit to be good magical shit, but in the manner of 2e. Let me count the ways:

> Distinction and uniqueness: CoA does not do generic magic items. Each item has a description, a history and even some notes on where it may be found today. Say…the Axe of the Deep Dark was forged by Cavaldus Gregin of Tradheim and lost to the Ruhk in the Great Ruk War. It resurfaced years later and is now being carried by a caravan guard, oblivious to its true nature. Voila, that’s practically a hook and it gives everything that lived-in field.
> Utility: Nothing annoys me more then pages of pages of magical items that give you more numbers to something. CoA has elven songstones that project a single illusionary scene from history, a magical lure that allows you to catch 1d10 fish a day guaranteed, A limited use Golden Horn that summons a golden dragon that is not under your control in any way. Dwarven clockwork toys that serve as object’s de Art. Peter C Spahn knows his Dnd if nothing else.
> History: One of the neat things about giving history to some items is that some of these objects will have significance to people outside of their powers themselves. The Flask of Imam Jalabi for example just fills with water every day (great in a desert, admittedly), but because it is a creation of the revered Baladic Holy Man, the Baladi will stop at nothing to obtain it.

If I must critique, while each magical weapon has a unique history, their abilities are fine but nothing special. Plus so and so to hit and damage, darkvision, extra bonuses if you are mounted. But I would argue they often don’t NEED interesting abilities because the items in and of themselves are interesting by context. That bow that gives you extra plusses if you are mounted? Belonged to Emperor fucking Xanne. Now let’s see them scramble for it.

The last entries in the magic item section are all Tekla, relics of the Ancients. They function merely as unusually powerful magic items. Besides a Shadow Cloak that provides near-invisibility, a book that is essentially a Libram of Martial Excellence for spellcasters and a spear that damages armor with each hit (though whether or not a hit is needed to lower a target’s AC is unspecified, unusually sloppy), the most interesting item is the Godmap, which offers a complete map of Amalor and Herth with the ability to “zoom in” to 100 * 100 yards resolution. Again, the finesse is not in the power itself, but in how the world reacts to said artifact.

The campaign setting ends with a note on using Monks in Ahmerth, along with three different monastic orders the character could possibly hail from.

Pros: Short, sparse but contains all the essentials. Nice work on the magical items. Some pretty good monster entries. Compatible with dnd adventures of yesteryear without a giant overhaul. Smart take on religion.
Cons: You have almost certainly seen it before, but then again that is the idea. Familiar tropes.

I liked Chronicles of Ahmerth for setting out a dnd campaign setting that is easily digestible and full of gameable material in less then 70 pages. It is neither S&S nor really even Dark Fantasy. It is, quite simply, regular fantasy, comparable to Mystara, Forgotten Realms and arguably Greyhawk.
I liked it for being fully compatible with the style and substance of the old games and campaign settings to the point where it required little more modding. I think I’d even recommend it to any GM in search of some inspiration for vanilla Dnd without having to assimilate entire libraries of canon, provided you play Dnd with lots of travelling, interacting, fighting and doing other shit and only occasional dungeon crawling. What I did not do was love it.
Though it is very efficient and meticulous in its application of sound setting design, it is neither revolutionary nor brilliantly written. It is, to conclude, an okay setting, if an unusually efficiently presented one. 6.5 out of 10.

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