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Sunday, 19 February 2012

Retrospective: English, Grim, and Obscure

When it comes to obscure adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, then there is perhaps no more obscure a title than No Honour in Sathporte to have made it into print. In the early twenty-first century it is sometimes hard to recollect how few scenarios there really were for Dungeons & Dragons before the advent of the d20 System. Between them the market was dominated by TSR, Judges Guild, and Mayfair Games, but there were other publishers, such as Daystar West Media Productions (which would actually be bought out by TSR) or Phoenix Games, Inc. Yet, switch to TSR’s only other arm to publish in English, TSR (UK), and not surprisingly, there were even fewer publishers than in the USA. Best known was Northern Sages, which published the highly regarded Starstone, but there was another publisher, Chaotic Intellect Products, and just like Northern Sages, it too only produced the one product – No Honour in Sathporte.

Published in the same year as Starstone – 1983 – No Honour in Sathporte describes itself as “A fantasy role-playing scenario for priests, curates, initiates of the 1st and 2nd circles, swordsmen, heroes, protectors, defenders, scouts, courses, conjurers, theurgists, tricksters of all kinds, cutpurses, robbers, waghalters, murderers, initiates, brothers and you!!!” In other words this is a scenario for characters of first and second level in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It does not say this on the cover, but inside it mentions not only Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Deities & Demigods. Perhaps the most interesting fact is that it specifically thanks Don Turnbull, a notable figure in the British gaming scene, not only as the Managing Director of TSR (UK), but also as the editor of the fabulous Fiend Folio and co-author of the most highly regarded of Dungeons & Dragons scenarios, U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It says much for the man reputation that he is particularly thanked for taking a “non-monetary” interest.

Written by Christopher Read with artwork by Stephen Ball, Liz Martin, and Pete Sharpe, No Honour in Sathporte comes as a twenty-eight page adventure in a card folder. The inside of the folder contains maps of two of the scenario’s major locations. In addition to the main booklet, pullouts provide with several pages of blank NPC forms, the stats for all of the scenario’s NPCs, and a set of geomorphs that can be cut out and used with miniatures. Altogether, it is quite a sturdy package, but does it live up to the claim on its front cover – “THIS IS A GREAT BRITISH PRODUCT!!”?

The plot to No Honour in Sathporte is a simple one of double cross. The adventurers are hired by the wife of a wealthy merchant to rescue her son who has run away to join the local Thieves’ Guild. He is hiding deep within their complex under the city which their patron wants the adventurers to penetrate the headquarters of the Thieves' Guild and persuade her son to leave with them. If this is not possible, and she informs them that he is a pathological liar, she provides the party with a poison that will drug him and put in a deep sleep for several hours. Not wanting to reveal her son’s activities to her husband or the world at large, she provides a safe house where he is to be delivered.

Of course, none of this is true. The wayward son is anything but. Rather he is a renegade assassin who has fled his guild and taken up refuge with the Thieves’ Guild in Sathporte. He has taken with him poisons and monies that his Guild Master want returned, but this is not the Guild Master’s only motive, he also wants revenge for the loss of face. For the player characters, the difficulty comes not only in getting into the underground headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild, but also in getting their recalcitrant target back out (of course he has no desire to return to the bosom of his former masters) and collecting their payment afterwards. Whilst their true patrons wants the job done, they have no intention of paying for it nor do they want any loose ends left, and that includes the player characters.

Whilst each of the scenario’s four locations – the shop and warehouse run as a cover by the Thieves’ Guild, the Guild’s underground complex, and the safehouse where the party’s patron wants their package dropped off – are fully detailed, the GM is still left with some work to do beyond the simple process of preparing the scenario to run. None of the NPCs are named for example and the locations of the thieves within the complex itself needs to be determined as it varies according to the time of day.

In terms of background, the setting for the scenario is lightly sketched out. This is because the publisher planned to produce a supplement devoted to the City of Sathporte itself. What is given is that Sathporte is a town located on the south coast of the country it is located in, that it is home to some five thousand souls, that it is a major port importing from far and wide, that it is home to several mysterious sects, and that it is ruled by a City Council of three comprised of one fighter, one druid, and one merchant. The predominant faith is Celtic. This lack of detail allows a GM to drop this scenario into any port in his campaign, but it is not difficult to infer what sort of Southern coastal town that the author had in mind. After all, the publisher was based in the English city of Winchester, and the major ports of Southampton and Portsmouth are only twenty miles away or so. That said, there is a seaside town on Merseyside called Southport and it is not impossible to imagine the name “Sathporte” as corrupted version of the name Southport spoken in less than Queen’s English. Of course, we shall never know any more than this, for the promised supplement detailing the City of Sathporte never appeared. As an aside, it should be noted that Chaotic Intellect Products would publish one other scenario, Takishido's Debt for Fantasy Flight Games' highly regarded Oriental RPG, Bushido, and that the owner of Chaotic Intellect Products, Steve Faragher, would go on to become the editor of Arcane magazine, one of the last few attempts to do a general gaming magazine in the UK.

Actual advice for the GM is light, but running No Honour in Sathporte should be a straight forward affair. Perhaps though, it is too straight forward given the slightly linear nature of the complex below the Thieves’ Guild. In addition, the player characters’ progress in getting to their quarry might be hampered if they fail a roll or two, so the GM might want them ensure that their way is not blocked.

Physically, No Honour in Sathporte feels well put together. It is done in black and white throughout and what art there is, is dark and grim if a little heavy in places. It does echo the look and feel of a Judges Guild scenario, but more attention to detail has been paid to this scenario that has also been better supported. If the layout is a little plain, then in hindsight, the designers of No Honour in Sathporte should be forgiven for its slightly amateurish feel. After all, it was the first release from a new publisher in the years before the ready availability of computers and Desk Top Publishing software that would revolutionise and professionalise the hobby industry.

One reason for the obscurity of No Honour in Sathporte is that it was little discussed at the time of its release, though this was in the pre-Internet age and in 1983, there were fewer avenues for public discourse than we have today. Indeed, No Honour in Sathporte was only accorded the one review that I know of, which fittingly appeared in issue #12 of Imagine, TSR (UK)’s house magazine that ran for thirty-one issues in the early to mid-1980s. The review, for which I am indebted to Owen Cooper (whose own blog, Fighting Fantasist, is worth reading by anyone with an interest in British gaming), summed up No Honour in Sathporte with the following:

Chaotic Intellect have put together a good product in Sathporte. The adventure is interesting and challenging, and the various play aids provided show some originality as well as being useful. I think a little more could have been done to provide the DM with some pre-play advice about running the adventure and the size and strength of a suitable party. Finally, the layout could be a bit slicker, perhaps using the system pioneered by TSR which clearly delineates in the text information that the DM should give the players from that which should not be divulged.

It is hard not to disagree with the assessment of the reviewer. No Honour in Sathporte is certainly well supported and has a grimmer tone than most Dungeons & Dragons scenarios of its period. It does lack polish though, its plot and structure are too simple, and it could have done with more advice for the GM on running the scenario. For that, it is not the “GREAT BRITISH PRODUCT!!” as claimed by the publisher on the front cover, but back in 1983, when it would have cost you £3.95, it was worth your curiosity. Nevertheless, No Honour in Sathporte is a well-appointed curiosity from a bygone age that is easily worked into urban based campaigns with a grimmer tone.