Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Dark Albion: The Rose War — Review

Author: RPGPundit/Dominique Crouzet
Price: $9.95/$29.24 (RPGNOW/Lulu)

Format: PDF/Print
Page count: 285
System: DOM Publishing/Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (OSR compatible)
Year: 2015

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review

This review is long. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I suggest you scroll down to the "Final Thoughts" section. Adieu. 

When I was a young boy I loved pirates. On one occasion my mother took me to the public library. The library were getting rid of their old books, stacked on two trolleys in a concrete hallway. Most were falling apart. Some were horribly old, covered in sweat, stains, and the smells of antiquity. The grotesque primeordialism of them offended my youth. But my mum bought me a book about pirates: Pirates of the Spanish Maine, by Hamilton Cochran. The book was teeming with artwork: a mismatched medley of paintings, black & white sketches, illustrations, even some photos of recovered treasure. The book was falling apart, but I loved that thing: it recalled an era forever obfuscated to me, but accessible through a literary veneer. That realisation somehow stuck with me throughout my life, and is probably why I immediately fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons. The power of literature and art, is in its ability to transport a person to another reality. I believe Pirates of the Spanish Maine is still at my parents house, in a box somewhere. Dark Albion: The Rose War reminds me of this book. Dark Albion is a new book, but it feels convincingly old. I feel like I've stepped inside a history book; except a history that is not our own. Or rather, it is our history if we lived in a dark alternate reality. So what is Dark Albion?

Excerpted from the introduction of Dark Albion:

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review
RPGPundit describes the book as being initially inspired by Game of Thrones, with a bit of Lamentations of the Flame Princess thrown into the mix. Dark Albion is an obvious departure from these influences however, depicting its fantasy as "sinister", "dark", and "gritty". These are terms that everyone bandies around in the OSR, and ironically in the attempts to remove the Tolkienesque tropes from our games, I fear these words have become their own fantasy cliche. With that contention out of the way, I wanted to see how Dark Albion holds up; not only in regard to its tonal claim, but as a complete product. 

First Impressions:
Dark Albion is impressive. The digital download was PACKED with content. I actually laughed in amazement at the amount of content. It's ridiculous. Want an example? There are seventeen (17) digital maps, irrespective of the 285 pages in the Dark Albion book! Some I liked more than others (which I'll talk about later), but the amount of work that has gone into this project is nothing to sneer at. Quite the opposite. 

Generally speaking, I do not like public domain artwork in RPG products. I find it detractive, rather than helpful. Dark Albion is the one exception where public domain artwork is not only appropriate, but effective. It is meant to have this type of artwork. As I mentioned in my introduction, it recalls an old reference work, while being completely new. The layout reminds me somewhat of Rules Cyclopedia. If you like RC I imagine you'll find the interior layout to your liking. 

Dark Albion's unswerving commitment to detail truly staggered me. Some RPG supplements are evocative and original, yet are lacking in overall substance. Honestly — and I say this without any sense of hyperbole — Dark Albion may be the most thorough and detailed RPG product I have ever read. The alternate history it presents is so considered and integrated I had trouble working out the subtler differences between history and fiction at times. RPGPundit writes well. He writes in a way that does not talk down to, or coddle his audience, yet delivers the message with clarity and punch. I'm not sure what his academic career entails as an historian, but I found the work to be logical, succinct, and cumulative in its presentation; as a good history source should be. In short, I really enjoyed his style. 

With my initial reactions out of the way, let's look at some specifics.

The Specifics: 
Layout: The interior of Dark Albion is black & white. It's a common choice, making publishing a lot cheaper. Given the content and overall mood of Dark Albion I think this was a perfectly suitable choice. Dominique Crouzet works as a graphic artist, I believe, and has added his talents to Dark Albion's cartography, cover design, border art, and layout. The border art is attractive and fitting for this work.The table of contents and index are clear and relatively comprehensive, making navigating the book a breeze. Page [b] uses an unattractive font, appearing muddy on my computer. It appears to be the only place in the book where this font is present. A simple and legible font is used everywhere else.

Total: 4/5

Maps: I love maps. As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier. The good folks responsible for Dark Albion clearly align with this philosophy too, given the impressive amount of cartography. Naturally, some maps are better than others, though they are all very functional. I immediately gravitated towards the Player Maps. They have an attractive sepia/parchment appearance, providing a thematic complement to the entire work (see below).

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Maps
I found the Albion colour map to be lurid. I wasn't a fan of the colour choices, which are too bright. I felt it diminished the otherwise consistent black & white theme (see below).

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Maps

The hex maps are decent. They're tidy and gameable (see below). 

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Maps
Lastly, the adventure maps are very good — clean and pleasing to the eye. There were some noticeable visual inconsistencies between sets of maps, and a few of the maps looked a little cheap to me. But again, a huge applause for the efforts and attention to detail. I can't even imagine how long they would have taken to create. For any fellow pedants, simply use the maps you like, and ignore the rest. I'm not certain, but I would estimate there are more than 25 maps if you include those within the book! 

Total: 3.5/5

Artwork: The artwork is almost entirely public domain, and all of the curated pieces match the tone of the work. There are usually at least 2 pieces of artwork per page. The book looks good to read through, though if you are skimming through the book, or reading it for elongated periods of time, it becomes somewhat tedious to look at. Artistic highlights were the castle pictures, the absolutely terrifying demon illustrations, and some of the battle scenes. 

Dark Albion/RPGPundit - Corey Ryan Walden Review Art
Again, like the maps, this is all highly subjective, so if you're big on public domain artwork I bet you'll really like the look.

Total 3.5/5

Content: Buy this book for the content. I don't care what anyone says about Dark Albion, the complete commitment to detail, and the immense volume of work is worthy of commendation. Seriously — and I cannot stress this enough — it is absolutely excellent. Whether or not I would use everything in Dark Albion is besides the point. If you've read any of my previous reviews, you'll know I'm a pick-and-choose kind of guy. I'll outline some of my personal highlights. Situated in modern-day France, Frogland  is the home of repugnant worshippers of "dark alien gods". The idea has a sense of primordial fear to it, in some senses reflective of the English/French relationship historically. Besides the obvious analogs between the French and the Frogs, I like the idea of a land in close proximity, where fear of attack from monstrous fiends is every looming. Sure, it's been done before, but it adds some political tension to the game, and is a great adventure hook for further development.  The Eire is another attractive adventure site, filled with "barbarians and dark fae". The land is described as pagan, and provides an interesting point of tension to develop. The Cymri are a race of men, who had ancient dealings with elves. They were possessors of powerful magic, and consequently a new class, the Cymric bard, has been developed as a playable option. 

Speaking of new options, there are plenty within Dark Albion. A range of new classes are presented including the Cymric bard, demonurgist, hedge witch, magister, noble knight, knight-errant, and more. Mechanically there are numerous suggestions for running a game in the Dark Albion universe, both for common retroclones like Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations, but also for Fantastic Heroes and Witchery. Additionally, RPGPundit has included his "Quick and dirty house rule notes", which include some excellent suggestions for beginning an Albion campaign. The treatment of demons is most terrifying. Demon summoning, dark magic, and fearful sorceries are described in detail, living up to claims of "dark and gritty". 

I counted eight adventure sites/mini adventures within Dark Albion. My favourite were the Barrowmound adventures, which had the best of the adventure maps (I thought). Rules for law, punishment, and justice are included within Dark Albion, adding to the punitive feeling of any good medieval/early renaissance work. Dark Albion is packed with detailed setting information, including heraldry, important political figures, quasi-historical timelines, battles, name generators, cosmologies, description of the low magic setting, and much more. I could go on, but you get the idea. This tome is oozing content. 

Not only is Dark Albion extensively detailed, but it is highly useable. Pains have been taken to give the DM/Ref plenty of suggestions for incorporating material into their campaigns. New mechanics are well-covered, and the setting information is purposely broad, allowing the DM to get his/her hands dirty, and make Dark Albion their own. 

Total: 5/5

Final Thoughts:
No one with a firm grasp on their sanity would dispute the staggering amount of work that has gone into this product. That the work is impressive and comprehensive is beyond an understatement. There is no half-assery here. Blood, sweat, and tears have been poured into Dark Albion, making it an 100% effort. It is easy to cut corners when quality, literary consistency, and excellence are concerned, but no such liberties have been taken in Dark Albion. With maps for days, 285 words of useful content, and all the artwork you could possibly want, Dark Albion delivers on its promises, and more.

That said, I have a few gripes here and there. The overall inconsistency of public domain artwork rears its ugly head at times. It was no mistake to use public domain artwork in Dark Albion. It certainly fits the mood. The inevitable and fundamental problem I have with public domain still stands however — it can look great, or it can look somewhat thrown together, as so many varying artists are required to fill out a project. This gives the work a patchy feel at times. I readily admit my biased behaviour to judge a book by its cover, but first impressions stick. The same can be said about the maps. Sometimes an overall theme seemed to be lacking: one was colourful, one set was parchment, one set was greyscale. I think this was to clearly distinguish between player maps, geographical map, and area maps, but the effect was a little jarring or inconsistent. 

My personal predilections aside, Dark Albion is a book rife with possibility. If one has been searching long and hard for a quasi-historical, low-magic setting, filled with all manner of the grim and horrible, look no further. Dark Albion delivers in that department beautifully. It combines standard fantasy tropes, history, and folklore so well, that one begins to question where one ends, and the other begins. It is a truly mythological work, endowed with a sense of otherworldly epic. I have not played a campaign using Dark Albion, so I cannot comment on its pragmatic application. I am left with a sense of possibility, however, as the cogs of inspiration begin to turn. 

Total: 16/20