Tuesday, September 8, 2009
from Pueblo, CO USA
Review: Letís get the physical specifics out of the way:
1. The book has approximately the same dimensions as the little brown D&D books from the 1970s. God bless James for that. All his publications are this convenient size, rather than unwieldy coffee-table monstrosities.
2. 36 pages long
3. Each page has 2 columns of rather small 8-point? font which is very crisp and sharp. Any smaller and it would be a problem. As it is, itís big enough for me. I appreciate the fact that the 36 pages are packed with content rather than inflated with big font like certain other game products.
4. Virtually no typos. It amuses me that James and his girlfriend/editor Maria Kyytinen can do a more professional editing job than can some RPG companies with paid employees.
5. 99.9999% systemless. You can use this in any FRPG.
6. Almost no art. The cover is a wrap-around piece, plus one more small piece within both by the talented Laura Jalo. Iím personally glad there isnít much art in this book. I really donít need to see drawing after drawing of townsfolk and their houses.
Iíve played D&D since 1980, and Iíve always loved wilderness adventures, liked dungeon adventures, and hated town-based adventures. Both as a referee and as a player, my goal has always been to ďGet out of town!Ē The closest Iíd come to liking a FRPG city/town product was Judges Guildís City State of the Invincible Overlord. But even that left me cold for reasons thatíll become apparent later in the review.
Enter James Raggi IVís People of Pembrooktonshire. It details 137 of the eccentric and bizarre inhabitants of the town of Pembrooktonshire population 2,000. Typically that would be a big turn-off for me. Iíve seen other products try to do something like this, and I yawn. But the Pembrooktonshiretonians are so off-the-wall and yet not over-the-top with only a handful of exceptions, that Pembrooktonshire begs to be explored.
This book has broken open a new D&D vista for me. How many D&D books do that? For the very first time in 29 years, I want to DM a campaign with a lot of adventures set in a town.
Pembrooktonshire feels ďrealĒ within the parameters of a fantasy world, of course. One of the things that just kills for me most all? other published D&D towns/cities is that they include an elven quarter, and/or a guild of dwarven architects, and/or orcish or ogre ruffians in the rough part of town, etc. Think about it. How much harmony would your neighborhood have if some African tribesmen moved in next store, and some Siberian tribesmen moved in across the street, and two doors down some tribesmen from the Brazilian jungle? Well, ALL of those people including you have a lot more in common than humans do with dwarves, or with elves, or with etc. At least Africans, Siberians, Indians, Europeans, etc. are all the same species. We have that basic commonality, yet still merely cultural differences kick us in the rear, leading to war, internment camps, genocide, lynchings, and all the other lovely things in our purely human! history.
With that in mind, how do you think weíd relate to a race of beings with a nonhuman biology, a nonhuman psychology, a nonhuman culture, and a lifespan of 1,000+ years ensuring that they look at us like we look at pet hamsters: here today, gone tomorrow? Thereís just no way that outside of rare individual friendships humans and elves or whomever would be living in the same town. It would have led to genocide long before that.
So yes: Pembrooktonshire is 100% human. No dwarves. No elves. None of that sort of thing. The Pembrooktonshiretonians have enough conflicts as it is without adding nuclear-level strife with non-humans.
And not only are the Pembrooktonshiretonians human, they are HUMAN.
Virtually all the Pembrooktonshiretonians are 0-level. Iíve always liked Garyís dictum from the DMG that 99% of humans are 0-level. The handful six, maybe? of the Pembrooktonshiretonians who are not 0-level are 1st-level. The town doesnít have mid- or high-level clerics keeping everyone healthy and alive with medical care better than that of contemporary rich nations. There arenít magic-users running around making magic lampposts. If the town were attacked, Pembrooktonshire doesnít have de facto artillery in the form of fireball and lightning bolt spells with which to shell invaders. The townsfolk have no super-powers or Conantics. If you stab one with a sword, he will die.
And that makes sense. If you were a 7th-level fighter with 50,000 g.p., what would you do? Live in a shabby hovel in town? Sell apples in the farmerís market? Retire and sell adventuring equipment to shmucks? No? Then why expect anyone else to? Real adventurers are busy acquiring experience points and/or constructing a stronghold and/or amassing a small army. Any 1st-level character who devotes his time to making and selling clay pots in his little town stall will forever stay 1st-level.
So Pembrooktonshire is a town I can believe in, rather like something from a fantasy version of 17th-century Earth. But isnít a town full of 0-level humans necessarily boring?
Not on your life. The biographical details James gives us of the 137 Pembrooktonshiretonians in this booklet are amazing. His creativity, humor, irony, sense of the fantastic and of the horrific, and astute observations of human nature shine through. These characters are a lot more interesting than yet another 7th-level fighter with +2 chainmail and a +3 sword.
Let me quote three of the shorter entries:
Benedict Wroxley, Sly Pimp
Wroxley is a revolutionary. He believes that Pembrooktonshireís overall moral stance is unhealthy for its people and wants the citizens to just relax and have more fun.
His solution to the problem is to charm some young women into entering the glamorous life of prostitution, where everyone likes them, they get paid for doing something they enjoy, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Heís such a personable young man that he has actually got a few lasses believing this. Heís just saving up for a storefront.
He has no clue.
Felix Quaif, Farmer
Pembrooktonshire is in the ideal location. It is nestled in a mountain valley but there is enough space in that valley to support many farms. Quaifís corn farm is one of the more productive agricultural enterprises in the area.
Several months ago, after a meteor shower, Quaif found an odd plant growing in his fields. It refused to be pulled out of the ground, and Quaif was trying to figure out how to get it out of his field when he saw it capture and devour two passing rabbits. Quaif decided there might be money in this thing and decided to see how big it would grow. It is now ten feet tall when standing fully erect, and Felix is feeding it whole lambs.
And now it has started talking to himÖ
Matilda Bainbridge, Slovenly Trull
Matilda has always been a scandal, deciding to live the life of pleasure and sin instead of being a proper young lady. Ostracized in public and rarely alone in private, life has caught up to Bainbridge: She is now in her forties with five children from five different fathers with the sagging body to show for it, and the ďgentlemenĒ are no longer calling.
Now it is even worse: She feels she is going insane. Two of the more cruel members of the great families of Pembrooktonshire have made a bet on whether they can make Bainbridge do insane, and so they have hired ventriloquists to follow her and talk to her while they stay out of sight.
The voices are telling Matilda to do horrible and humiliating things. And her will to resist is running out.
And yes, youíll also find within these pages a wanton wench, a brazen strumpet, a saucy tart, etc. And also let me note that I appreciate the real names the Pembrooktonshiretonians have, instead of names like Kaltorak Giants-Bane III, Thilithindriel the Enchantress, and Quistorbad the Lame.
As you can see from the quotes above, there are plot hooks galore in this product. Itís almost hard to know where to start. Fortunately, James has also published concurrently a module for low-level adventurers set in Pembrooktonshire, entitled No Dignity in Death: The Three Brides.
If there has ever been anything quite like it published for D&D, Iím not aware of it. Thank goodness itís not just more of the same stuff weíve had since the 1970s. I donít need second-rate carbon-copies of Hommlet or of the Keep or of the City-State. We already have the originals, and I donít see how anyone could out-Gary Gary, or out-Bob Bob. With People of Pembrooktonshire we have something fresh and new, a true opening of new possibilities for playing old-school D&D.