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Thursday, 27 February 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Chronicles of Amherth

RPGPundit Reviews: The Chronicles of Amherth
This is a review of the RPG setting book “Chronicles of Amherth”, published by SNG games, written by Peter C. Spahn.  The book is a softcover, about 70 pages long, with black and white interior art, original art in a fantasy style from what I can tell.

There are a great many setting books available for D&D-style games (officially speaking, this setting is made for the Labyrinth Lord system, though of course that makes it basically compatible with most OSR games or any D&D edition prior to 3.0, and it would be easily adaptable to later editions of D&D or other fantasy games). So the question is whether Chronicles of Amherth is just one more in the pile or if it has certain qualities to make it truly stand out?

I would say that my very first impressions of the book were not particularly hopeful; the physical book itself isn’t tremendously impressive: the cover is nothing special (its black and white, and shows a blown-up portion of the setting map), the pagecount isn’t particularly high, the art is nice without being astounding, and the whole feel of a very first glance is of yet another project that amounts to someone publishing their personal medieval fantasy campaign system, probably similar to most everyone else’s homebrew world.

However, as I read through the book I will admit that Amherth grew on me, and that there are a few details to this world that would set it apart somewhat, and give it a particular flavor. So the consideration then becomes whether those particularities are enough to make the setting worthy of investigation.  Another important consideration in a book like this is whether there’s material to be found therein that would be useful to someone who already has their own world to play in (be it a homebrew or one or more preferred published settings) and would really have no interest in playing in Amherth but might have an interest in raiding the book for material to bring into their world.  These are the things we’ll be looking at in this review.

Fortunately, the author himself (who I was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to because of previous good works, particularly the really excellent old-school adventure Blood Moon Rising) seems to recognize the necessity of being able to point out where his setting stands out from the crowd.  He makes the following arguments for its uniqueness: first, that the world is ancient. Well, most fantasy settings use that, no points there. 

Second, that the history of the setting is based on legend, which is to say that very often what people think is the history of places and things are not actually true, and there can often be multiple accounts of a certain history, maybe even all of them being wrong.  This I like; its something Spahn already used before in Blood Moon Rising (as a central part of the adventure’s background, which I won’t give away here) and its something that lends an air of authenticity to the setting.  Too often, medieval settings seem to behave as if every last peasant knows every detail about the ancient empires and artifacts that litter the land, and there’s none of the blurriness and confusion about history that actually affected all levels of medieval society.

Third, that humanity is central; nonhumans are rare and don’t generally interact with human kingdoms (other than humanoid raiders at the frontiers). This is hardly unique, but I do know that many GMs have come to prefer this over the “elves and dwarves all over the place” style of many fantasy worlds.
Fourth, magic is feared and mistrusted.  That is somewhat different than many campaign worlds where being a wizard is more likely to give you a social leg-up, and it can act as a useful counterbalance to wizardly power at higher levels.

Fifth, that “science is magic”. People fear more complex science and think of it as magic (plus, the “ancients” might have been messing around with superscience before destroying themselves); this establishes that first of all, the setting is one where there can be ancient technology, and second, it explains why neither science nor magic have led to advances in the society over long periods of time.
Sixth, that the gods are a living and very present force in society, religion is everywhere and a feature of common life.  This again is not exactly new, but its also something that tends to be glossed over in many settings, where it seems the gods are only around to have temples and give clerics their spells.
Finally, that the world is scaled for low- to mid-level play. Again, not unique by far, but it also establishes a certain feeling to the world for a certain taste; it means that the PCs will “rarely encounter and NPC of 9th level or higher”, and that even by mid-level the PCs will likely be important people in the world. 

The very first thing that gets covered after the intro is religion; and in it we learn that the author deals with metaphysics by stating that there are only a dozen actual gods in this universe (11 really, because the 12th is “The One”, the amorphous creator-of-all-things, that seems to be mostly inhuman and passive); but these deities are archetypal and worshiped with different names, appearances, symbols and even aspects in different parts of the world, to the point that (I surmise) mortals might not even realize that in some cases they’re talking about the same gods.  Its also stated in this section that the Gods really don’t care what alignment their followers have; though of course there are individual churches/religions that do.  Its also mentioned that there are animal and nature spirits, as well as demons, who are sometimes worshiped as if they were gods, by small localized cults.

Next we deal with the “Ancients”; and its established unequivocally here that the Amherth setting is actually a post-apocalyptic world; the ancients were a high-tech society that destroyed itself in a series of cataclysms.  The point is driven home in this chapter by an illustration that shows a typical fantasy party marching through what is very clearly the ruins of a high-tech city. You are told that there are places of power that still have energy from the ancients (“lailons”, which sounds a lot like “ley lines” and leads to the possibility that actually the ancients had magitech, or that their tech was so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic in some cases), there are ancient artifacts of high technolgy which are still found (and can be recharged at the aforementioned “Lailons”), ancient “warmachten” (killer robots that ultimately turned on their masters) that are still around in deep dark places, and a couple of secret orders dedicated to either preserving, using or destroying ancient secrets and artifacts.
Regarding magic, we are told that all magic on Amherth is genetic.  You are either born with magic potential (as a “latent”) or not, and if not there is no way you can ever gain it.  There are special mechanics for “latents” (0-level NPCs (usually) with some magic potential, who might randomly cast an uncontrolled 1st-level spell); latents can be correctly identified through certain techniques, and are thus brought into the fold of being trained as either wizards or clerics (the setting makes it clear that in terms of the actual source of magic, there’s no difference between magic-users and clerics, its only their training that leads to the differences in these classes).

Being an adventurer in Amherth is considered “a time-honored profession”, and throughout Amherth there are Adventurer Guilds. It is expected that PCs must join this guild (paying a minimal fee plus a tax on all wealth obtained from adventuring), or else they would be excluded from being able to sell their wares gained from adventuring, and may face prosecution.  Guild members often form Adventuring Companies, with fancy names and varying levels of importance and influence depending on their membership and accomplishments.

The world itself consists of two big continents with one medium-sized island (as well as several smaller ones). The first continent is Herth, and its culture is totally shaped by its largest state: the Xanne Empire; ruled for 500 years now (more or less) by its Immortal emperor (immortal, apparently, in the sense that if you kill him he comes back from the dead about a day later). This Empire is extremely powerful but is in decline, as it was beaten back about 50 years ago by a big coalition of border states plus people who have reason to dislike the emperor. 

The Xanne empire, we are told, is like a mix of “Roman and Mongolian cultures” (if you can get your head around that).  It is ultra-xenophobic and has essentially wiped out all nonhumans in its central regions (including elves and dwarves and the other “nice” demihuman races). Its quite autocratic.
Its main rival is the upstart Kingdom of Tyr, which led the aforementioned rebellion against Xanne.  Its more or less the “nicer” kingdom, the non-xenophobic friends-to-elves-and-dwarves counterpart to Xanne, and we’re told its inspired by “British and Germanic cultures”.

Allied with Tyr you also have the Republic of Westport, a large and powerful urban city-state, huge and bustling, which we are told rather than being inspired by any historical culture is “a prototypical melting-pot of different fantasy cultures”.  In other words, Inspired By Waterdeep.

You also have the island of Guildeland (the aforementioned “medium-sized island of the setting), which is an island merchant city-states that runs on commerce, and is inspired by the “Italian city-states”.
In the northern end of the continent proper you also have Skjold, which is a viking-setting, and Corrland, which is a Scottish-setting (or should we say, Braveheart-inspired?).

In the southern end of the continent you also have  “Great Desert” where there’s a nomadic tribal culture called the Baladi, who worship a single god and follow a religion called the True Path, revealed to them by the Prophet Abdullah.  I probably don’t need to tell you who they’re based on.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sea, you have the continent of Amalor. The only civilized human kingdom here is the Duchy of Valnwall (“duchy” because it was formerly an overseas possession of Xanne and since the rebellion has become a vassal state to Westport).

I’m guessing that the Duchy of Valnwall may well be the home setting of Spahn’s campaign (or at least one of his campaigns) in this world, probably the first.  We’re told its “a prototypical western fantasy culture… loosely based on medieval England and France”.  It reminds me quite a bit of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos from the D&D Known World/Mystara setting. Its your standard mostly-peaceful fantasy kingdom surrounded by wilderlands for adventuring. Surrounding terrain includes the evil bog full of undead, the arctic wastelands, and further south some lands with primitive barbarians.

We’re also given detail about some off-the-beaten track places in the setting, including the Shipwreck Islands (your typical pirate haven), and a southern continent not shown on the map of the setting (inspired by pre-colonial India). There are also two nations that live on huge floating islands that fly high above the surface of the world; the kingdom of Pax with its dragonriders and the magocracy known as the Glorrin Alliance.  These islands are found east of Xanne (off the map), near the island of Karthax (also not on the map), which is an evil island ruled by dark fiends (that we are told the emperor of Xanne has recently started negotiating with).

Finally, we get some information about the nonhuman realms, where we find out that mostly they’ve buggered off; the Dwarves to deep mountain steads, the Elves off to some island (again, off the increasingly incomplete setting map), the halflings were mostly massacred by the Xanne Empire, safe only beyond the empire’s reach in isolated places, or in the new kingdoms of the empire’s enemies.
The entire “known lands” section covers about 26 pages, and each of the major countries includes an introduction, the standard (flag), government, military, the people, major cities, a few bullet-point adventure ideas, and the “inspiration” section (which explains the cultures or tropes the area is based off of). 

After this, we move on to a section on flora and fauna; ie. the monsters chapter.  You get an interesting list of plants (both helpful and dangerous), and then you get a list (with full Labyrinth Lord statblocks) of some 40-some monsters. Some are kind of pointless, like the alligator. Others are quite novel, like the weird alien Cathla (which, along with a few other monsters here, are reprinted from some of Spahn’s earlier modules), or Gelatinous Men (an evolved humanoid race of gelatinous cubes), or a few sample “warmachten”. Then you have a few who are variants of your standard monsters; we are told, for example, that orks, goblins of all sorts, and ogres do not exist on Amherth.  Instead, you have Ruks and Ogruks, which are “foul-smelling humanoids with black hair, pig-like faces, and reddish eyes”. In other words, orcs.

The magic items section notes that powerful magic items on Amherth should have long histories making them very identifiable, while weak magic items (+1 weapons, for example) should not typically be thought of as “magic” but just “lucky” by average magic-fearing folk.

The chapter describes some racial items, like Dwarf toys and Elven songstones, and then a dozen or so new magic items (mostly specific items, as in “Janil’s Sword”), you get for these items not just their abilities/bonuses but something of their story, which is a good touch.

There’s also some “tekla relics” (i.e. superscience or super-magitech items). Some of these are amusing, like what amounts to a “google earth” mapping device.
 Finally, you have a short appendix where you get information on how to apply the Monk class on Amherth, and then a repeat of the (notably incomplete) setting map.

So what do I conclude about Amherth...  Does it suck? No.
Would I ever run a game on Amherth? Also no.

In answer to the fundamental questions earlier on in the review; Amherth does have a number of particularities that make it interesting; its way less “generic” than a large number of the generic settings I’ve reviewed here.  There’s a number of very clever ideas in the book.  Unfortunately, they’re still ideas tacked onto a very generic world; your evil empire, your generic fantasy good guy kingdom, your pirate lands, vikings, Scotsmen, etc.  There’s already a Mystara, which incidentally has evil empires, pirate lands, generic fantasy good guy kingdoms, vikings, Scotsmen, and even has an ancient ultratech civilization that blew itself to bits.  And frankly, though its an unfair comparison to hold any setting up to, Mystara is way cooler than Amherth.

But then there’s the second question: like I mentioned above, there are a lot of very clever ideas; there’s also about 40 monsters, a couple of dozen magic and magitech items, some concepts about religion, magic, items, adventuring, etc. which are all very good.  In a way, the dullest part of Amherth is the world itself, while all the stuff around it is really very interesting and useful.  The 26 pages of countries and regions is mostly forgettable, while the other 44 pages of stuff is pretty good.

So I wouldn’t call the book as a whole “bad”. I’d call it very slightly above average, and a good place to mine for a few interesting ideas. Its no Mystara, but its better than your average homebrew.


Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja bent apple + Dunhill 965

(originally posted January 12, 2013; on the old blog)


  1. Do you have any criteria for what you'd consider to be a good or even outstanding setting? I'm curious to hear how Amherth could have moved up a notch or two (or could it have at all?).

  2. Keep in mind that this product is geared specifically toward LL and is covered by the OGL. The idea is that LL doesn't have "legal" access to Mystara.

  3. Hmm, good question Joseph. I guess that it would have had to have had something that would strike me as really standing out that was new or exciting to me. The risk there of course is that innovation is often risky and might not be good either. But I think overall too much of Amherth just felt too familiar and thus blase to me.

  4. On the other hand, SNG games produces really excellent modules, and the generic-ness of the setting allows those modules to be easily ported into other fantasy settings. So if the real goal was to have a backdrop for easily setting-adaptable modules that would make it a success.

  5. Wow, I was looking for a review of the Shrine of St. Aleena and saw this reposted! :) A backdrop for adventures was one of several goals with Amherth. As I pointed out in the vanilla settings thread, there are a lot of elements in my home Amherth campaign that didn't make it into the published product because they would take away from the overall marketability and usability of the adventures and supplements.

    I'm in the process of uploading the Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay to RPGNow. It's a free city gazetteer which is about 90% Open Content. My intent was to encourage other authors and publishers to use it as a base for a shared city setting (while still maintaining some of the Amherth IP). I'll be mailing you a copy as soon as I confirm your current address. Thanks for the Amherth repost!

  6. Thanks. the review for St.Aleena is coming, it will be my very next (new) review.