Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 13 August 2011

AGE'd Creature Feature


While we await the publication of Wolfgang Baur’s own campaign of Midgard into a full blown campaign setting, we continue to be fed little morsels of information about the setting, most notably about the Free City of Zobeck, through issues of Kobold Quarterly and other supplements. That changes a little with the publication of the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1, a collection of monsters for the setting that adds lots of little details and plenty of threats. What is significant about the supplement is that it not written for Open Design’s traditional choice of systems, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but for the AGE System or the Adventure Game Engine System. First seen in Green Ronin’s highly regarded Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying – Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the RPG based on the popular Dragon Age: Origins computer game, the AGE System is also the same system that will be used for the Midgard Campaign Setting. In presenting some fifty of the creatures, peoples, and threats to be found in Midgard, the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 has to answer two questions. First how does it hold up as a monster collection for its intended setting; and second, will its contents be of any use for the GM who runs a Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying game?

The book is very cleanly presented. Each entry gets its own page with a paragraph or two of flavour text, two or three paragraphs or so of background, a full illustration, and a full stat box for the AGE System. The latter includes its Abilities and Focuses, Combat Ratings, Attacks, and Powers along with associated Stunts. The range of artwork is generally excellent, some of it in colour, some of it not, the worst of the pieces echoing a style found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons thirty years ago and which feels at odds with the rest of the book.

The Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 reflects the setting’s mid-tech, low fantasy feel with its heavy use of both clockwork and the undead. Clockworks in Midgard are not mere devices, but sentient constructs, each often fused with the soul who gains a certain immortality within the mesh of gears and iron. Most of these, such as the Clockwork Myrmidon, Steam Forged, and Zobeck Legionnaire, are constructed in Zobeck and continue to serve the Free City to this day as its watch and soldiery, while the Clockwork Hound is a holdover from before the rebellion against House Stross. Similarly, many of the undead to be found in Midgard are equally as sentient, including the Ghost Knight of Morgau, Imperial Ghast, and the Bone Collective. All three serve the Ghoul Imperium in one fashion or another, the first two as part of its military, whilst the Bone Collective is actually a created swarm of mini-skeletons that ride ghouls or zombies and serve as the Imperium’s spies and assassins. These two elements come together in the Fellforged, a castoff clockwork automata whose device that normally house the soul of a volunteer has been occupied by a Wraith instead!

Away from the clockwork and the undead, the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 gives a variety of creatures such as the cowardly fire elementals that hide in smoke, the Firegeists; Goblin Sharks, previously described in the Sunken Empires supplement for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game; Kyprion Deckclearers, Minotaur sailors that specialise in boarding actions; and Merrow, cannibalistic river trolls. Nor is the sentience of the creatures in the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 restricted to the clockwork and the undead with several examples of several intelligent species given. Examples include Neiheim Enchanters, the charming Gnome prestidigitators with diabolic secrets; Harem Assassins, courtesans with the ability to entertain and then take a life suddenly and swiftly; and the Kobold Slyblade, thuggish Kobolds who work as hired muscle and prefer to strike from ambush rather than directly and openly.

In keeping with the AGE System, every creature described in the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 includes a list of its preferred Stunts, the special manoeuvres that give it an edge over its opponents. In the case of some entries, they rely entirely upon those given in Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, an example of this being the Kobold Slyblade, with its preferred Stunts of Lightning Attack, Pierce Armour, and Skirmish. Others add new powers to this list of Stunts. A prime example of this is the Harem Assassin, whose preferred Stunts are Lightning Attack, Seize the Initiative, and Skirmish, but in addition can Backstab as per a Rogue, and also perform a Garrotte Strike with her necklace and deliver Poison, either by blade or in food.

If there are any issues with regard to the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1, they are born of the issue that have always plagued the setting. The lack of an overall background to which the reader has easy access without which he cannot place each of the entries in this volume in context, for example, the entry on the Imperial Ghast mentions the Imperium. Yet without access to other supplements the reader is left wondering about the nature of the Imperium, and perhaps a page or so of background would have been useful to that end and also as a taster to anyone coming to the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 with an interest in it as an AGE System supplement rather than as supplement for the Midgard setting. Of course, this will change come the release of the Midgard Campaign Setting, but nevertheless, such a page would have served as a possible enticement.

So how to approach the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1? If coming to it as the GM for a Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, then it will be of limited use. This will be mostly due to the flavour and nature of the monsters it describes, they being more fantastical and traditional in their origins, such as the Goblin (Shark), or have their origins routed in Dungeons & Dragons, such as the book’s various Ghouls and the Derro Fetal Servant and the Kobold Slyblade. Whilst the setting of Ferelden of Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying is dark – well, it is in the title, after all, that darkness is unique to the setting and very different to that found in Midgard, which is drawn from the “Mittel-European traditions” with their heavy focus on the undead. Also, Ferelden lacks the heavy use of clockwork seen in Midgard. Nevertheless, careful poking around the contents of the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 will reveal several singular creatures that can be added to Ferelden without disrupting the feel. Typical of these are the Cave Dragon, the blind, ever-hungry, draconic creatures that sometimes work as mercenaries underground; the Death Butterfly Swarm, fey insects that feed on life energy; and Putrid Haunts, moss and detritus filled corpses of those that came to a sticky end in swamps.

For the Midgard devotee, many of these creatures will not be new, their having appeared before in previous supplements; but nevertheless, it is good to have them all in one place. Whether or not he wants the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 will be purely down to his like or dislike of the AGE System. For anyone running a campaign using the AGE System, but not necessarily in either Midgard or Ferelden, the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 represents an imaginative collection of monsters, each with a dark edge.