Saturday, February 25, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Terrible Beauty (Shadow of the Demon Lord)

Among some gamers, it has become a point of contention whether you are “pro-Tolkien” or “anti-Tolkien.” Some of this comes from remarks that Michael Morecock has made about Tolkien, casting his own work as rejecting many of the notions that Tolkien’s work holds as fundamental. Another aspect of this divide can be found in Gary Gygax’s general disdain for Tolkien’s works.

Some of this really stems, at least in roleplaying circles, from a false premise. One of the emblematic contrasts painted between Tolkien and other fantasy sources are his elves. That said, many people conflate Tolkien’s elves with how D&D elves have traditionally been portrayed. But D&D elves are a copy of a copy (and have conceptually changed as campaign settings evolved for the game—especially as the alignment system moved from only revolving around Law, Chaos, and Neutrality).

While it is true that Tolkien’s works don’t include some of the revelry and debauchery sometimes associated with some stories of the Fair Folk, the earlier ages of elves in Middle-earth certainly show them as being wilder, mercurial, and prone to making huge mistakes based on ego. The elves we see in the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are a race that has accepted they are in decline and are moving away from the world, and this dampens their passions and causes them to act in a much more reserved manner.



While much has been made of the Morecock versus Tolkien positioning, another author wrote some influential work on the faerie and their interactions with the mortal world. Poul Anderson wrote The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, and in those books, it is possible to see a kind of “bridge” between older folk tales about the fairy realm and modern D&D tropes. Anderson’s works were very influential to D&D, but his elves retain a wild, amoral air about them.

So why am I rambling about all of this in a review? Because the elves of Shadow of the Demon Lord hearken much more to Anderson and older folk story roots than to what people have come to expect from fantasy roleplaying elves.



How Beautiful Is It?

Terrible Beauty is one of the older supplements for Shadow of the Demon Lord, which means the formatting, while distinct, isn’t quite the thematic departure that some of the later books are. It looks similar to the core book, except that the pages are all green, with decorative dark green border and yellow sunbursts around the page numbers. There is artwork every two or three pages, and the formatting is similar to other products in the line, and easily readable. The PDF comes in at 57 pages, and it’s an attractive book . . . but . . . the later sourcebooks in the line have spoiled me. This looks good, but doesn’t wow me in the same way that other books in the line do, and much like Exquisite Agony, the constant green washes out some of the impact of the art and formatting.

The artwork and content aren’t quite as “adult” as some of the books in the line, but if traditional naked faerie bodies would not but appropriate for you, they do show up a few places in the book.

Faerie

The first part of the book goes over the nature of faerie, how character creation rules might be altered for characters coming from a faerie background (equipment, backgrounds, interesting things, etc.), introduces some new ancestries, new paths, and new magic.

Many Shadow of the Demon Lord books have a sort of “twist” that takes a standard fantasy trope, and reveals a dark secret about that trope that makes it fit into the setting better. There isn’t really much of a darker twist involved with the faerie in the setting, at least outside of the twists you find out about Diabolus and Hell in Exquisite Agony. That said, for people that are coming from a mindset of “incorruptible chaotic good paragons of what’s right,” this section could still have the same effect. Essentially, if you are accustomed to the standard portrayal of the faerie in any work that portrays them as aloof and amoral, potentially dangerous but not universally malevolent, you get the idea.

The ancestries included are Elf, Hobgoblin, and Pixie. The Elf and Pixie ancestries may not hold too many surprises to characters that “get” the way the supplement portrays the faerie, but Hobgoblins are interesting. In this supplement, they are former goblins that have been modified by the elves to serve as soldiers to the Hidden Kingdoms, and every Hobgoblin is a hermaphroditic copy of every other Hobgoblin, taking a number for a name, and having some unique manifestation of weirdness surrounding them whenever they go berserk in combat. Remember when I said Shadow of the Demon Lord had no problem explaining the difference between demons and devils? If you have ever wondered what separates an orc from a hobgoblin, this game definitely has an answer.

None of the paths listed in this chapter starts at novice, with one expert path, the Avowed, which details a character sworn to one of the Great Fey, and then provides Beguiler, Cat Sith, Eternal Guardian, Harbringer, Keeper of the Flame, Morrigan, Muse, Nightstalker, Spellweaver, and Troll Hunter. Many of these paths can portray either a faerie assuming a role in their kingdoms, or a mortal that has become bound to one of them, so they fit the theme while retaining broad utility.

Fey magic gets its own tradition, which has its own quirks when using it around iron. The spells presented in this section are probably what you would expect from faerie offerings, with spells that beguile, create illusions, cause sleep, and erase memory. That said, it showcases the Shadow of the Demon Lord design structure well by showing similar spells from different traditions with their own particular quirks.

Of special note is the level 6 Fey spell Beget Changeling, which explains why a whole ancestry in the game exists. Normally this spell would be beyond the ability of PCs in the game to cast, but with the expanded rules in Forbidden Rules, this one could actually fall into the hands of the PCs. While it’s not overly powerful compared to other spells in the game, it was just interesting to note where this spell’s power level was set earlier in the game’s history, before there was a way for PCs to obtain the spell.

Lands of the Faerie

This section of the book details Faerie sites, places in the mortal world that have special rules associated with them because of the recurring presence of the faerie, borderlands, hidden kingdoms (pocket dimensions the faerie create for their special homelands), and rewards that might be bestowed by powerful faerie upon mortals that get their attention.

I like that some of the enchantments of the Faerie Sites can be broken with bizarre, but “mundane” actions, very fitting with folk tales. The borderlands also have an interesting twist to them. Some borderlands are literally a geographic location where if you do a thing you can pass into a hidden kingdom. However, some “borderlands” are entirely bound to an item, like a glove, and if you perform a specific action with that item, no matter where you are, it opens up the Hidden Kingdom associated with the item. This is a great adventure hook. Not only does this give the PCs some place to randomly wander into if they do the wrong thing while holding the portable “borderland,” it also means that powerful faerie will be after them to secure that entrance and make sure it’s not casually abused.

The Hidden Kingdoms have some clever quirks to them. There are kingdoms, island nations, and a very familiar realm that might have you singing David Bowie songs to yourself as you read about it. Elysium may be the most interesting of these, however, as it has a very special place in the cosmology—it is a point of contention between the other Great Fey and Diabolus. That said, I was a little disappointed in how Elysium was portrayed in this book. This is because of the slightly different spin it gets from how it is described in Exquisite Agony. It seems like an unlikely prison in both sources, but Exquisite Agony casts this more as an intentional choice, where it seems more like an unfortunate side effect in this book. The intentional prison angle feels more in keeping with some of the dark secrets of the setting.

The rewards are a nice addition. Some are as much a curse as a benefit, and it is a nice set of tools to have to give out to player characters instead of enchanted items, relics, or wealth. That said, there are some interesting faerie related items and relics in this section as well.

Creatures of the Faerie

This section has stats for what you would probably expect in a book about the faerie realms, but one of the interesting aspects of this section is that many of the worst, creepiest of the fey creatures are actually touched by the Void. Not only is it an interesting take on why some fey creatures are “out there” even by fey standards, it’s one of the few places where the Void is really mentioned in the book.

My Father Left Forever

The adventure included in the book has the PCs wandering in a fey haunted forest, and running into various signs of their mischief and malevolence, until they stumble across some humans living in the wood. They can help the humans find someone, and they have a variety of ways to resolve this situation, depending on who they want to ally with, and if they want to take on debts with one faction or another.

On one hand, the adventure retains some of the bleak nature of the game setting by giving rather harsh resolutions to some of the plot points depending on the diligence of the PCs. On the other hand, wandering around the fey haunted lands and getting caught up in fey and troll political struggles points out something that has been nagging at me about this book. More on that in the next section.



Lost in a Fey Realm

The amoral and potentially dangerous, more “folk lore” styled elves and faerie in the book are exactly how a setting like Shadow of the Demon Lord should portray such creatures. It keeps the world dark and dangerous, and doesn’t create some ancient, powerful group of beings that are dedicated to good.

That said, it does its job too well. The faerie realms feel pretty far removed from the ever present threat of the Void and the impending end of the world that the rest of the game brings up.
The fey are removed and unaffected by the corruption of the mortal world, but if you spend too much time exploring their realms, the campaign itself could feel removed from these themes as well. It almost feels like a competing campaign style, rather than a subset of what has been previously established.

Additionally, the “gut punch” of how the faerie relate to the setting, i.e. their role in how reality works, gods, devils, and souls, isn’t explored nearly as much in this supplement as it is in Exquisite Agony. There is a native setting spin on the faerie, but it’s not explored much in their own book.

Rewards of the Great Fey

The book does do a really nice job of presenting the faerie exactly how you would expect from a source that is closer to folk lore or Poul Anderson’s stories. The faerie are dangerous, and some of them do downright horrifying things, but mainly from a detached, dreamlike perspective. Hobgoblins especially are a brilliant spin on a familiar trope, and the plot hooks involved in Hidden Kingdoms and Borderlands is great for a GM looking for ideas.

Escaping Elysium

It’s weird, but this book feels like a victim of its own success. It does such a good job of zooming in on the faerie and portraying them in a specific light, that it isolates them from the wider setting. This book is a good purchase for anyone interested in the setting, and especially if they are looking for a wilder breed of faerie, but it’s not as essential to understanding the core assumptions of the setting as other sourcebooks in the line. While it does a good job of staking out a position on how the faerie will be portrayed, it’s not such a radical departure from folk lore that it’s revolutionary.

A solid product, but not essential, unless you are really a faerie enthusiast, in which case it does its job really well.

*** (out of five)

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