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Saturday 26 September 2015

Retrospective: Starstone

For those that remember it, Starstone begins in October 1982 with White Dwarf #34. The highlight of the magazine was ‘Troubles at Embertrees’, a scenario by Paul Vernon that capped the author’s ‘The Town Planner’ series that had appeared in the previous three issues and served as a showcase for Starstone. Published in the same year, this further explored the setting presented in ‘Troubles at Embertrees’, known as the County of Starstone. Within a compact few pages, ‘Troubles at Embertrees’ described the village of Embertrees, it inhabitants and their motivations, as well as the troubles that best the settlement. The scenario was nicely detailed and for gamers of a certain age, very fondly remembered. Certainly the quality of the scenario was enough to pique the interest of the hobby when adverts—the first in same issue of White Dwarf as ‘Troubles at Embertrees’—and then reviews appeared for Starstone.

Published by Northern Sages, Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign is all but unique. Unlike in the USA, there were just the two independently published scenarios for use with fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, but not specifically Dungeons & Dragons or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons released in the UK. No Honour in Sathporte was one and Starstone was the other. This, of course, to avoid copyright infringement and the lack of license available from a notoriously litigious TSR, Inc., but the stats given in Starstone were simple enough to adapt to almost any fantasy RPG in 1982—and they still are.

Designed for five to eight beginning characters—though not beginning players, Starstone contains two complete scenarios, each comprised of dungeon, wilderness, and urban areas, plus an introductory adventure. The setting is the County of Starstone, a vassal region of the Kingdom of Vedra to its south. It is a hilly, bucolic region, best known for its gold mine and the death of Risten, the paladin who helped free the county from the grip of the evil sorceress, Daretta. The majority of its population consists of humans leavened by gnome villages and various dwarves who work at the gold mine. Notably, elves are rarely seen in Starstone. The county is currently under the rule of an appointed lord lieutenant after the death of Risten, the previous ruler, and the disappearance of Risten’s son. More recently, the Kingdom of Vedra’s war with its western neighbour, Toxandria, has forced the king to withdraw troops from the county, reducing the number of patrols and so leaving it vulnerable to incursions and attacks by forces—both humanoid and monstrous—from the Great Northern Waste.

It is against this background, plus a rash of disappearances—of both people and gold shipments, that the adventurers find themselves travelling north into the County of Starstone, working as caravan guards travelling north to the fishing port of Ristenby. This is the set up for the four-page introductory scenario, ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’, which due to a broken bridge, begins with the caravan being forced them to divert to the village of Longbottom Down and a night’s stay at the Lord Varmok inn. Unfortunately, in the morning, their employer is nowhere to be found. Discovering where he might have gone is relatively easy, but getting him back might be a problem. In some ways, ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ is too straightforward an adventure, possibly even linear. It is in places too easy, but the foes the adventurers will face are tough—ghouls, a weakened vampire, and a comparatively high level ‘necromancer’—for a party of First Level characters. They will need to show caution and perhaps be methodical in their exploration rather than rushing into things if they are to survive.

Unfortunately, the transition from ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ to ‘Sardkirk’ is poorly handled. For starters, the aftermath of ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ is not detailed, but then the introduction to ‘Sardkirk’ reads like a jump cut combined with a punitive flashback, the latter involving very heavy taxes being levied on the adventurers! This has an ‘Old School’ feel, but not in a good way. 

In response, a guild of merchants, frustrated at the lord lieutenant's failure to deal with the issues that threaten the county, step forward and hire the adventurers on a retainer. In return the party is expected to investigate these issues and deal with whatever the cause might turn out to be—and pay a tithe to the guild on all found treasure in the process. So essentially, they go from a big tax to a small one, though there are benefits to having the merchants’ support. Their first task is to investigate a number of disappearances near the village of Sardkirk.

The second scenario itself, ‘Sardkirk’ concerns the Gnome village of Sardkirk and the disappearances in the surrounding countryside. The village is known for three things. First, its mine, a source of sard, a semi-precious carnelian-like stone that is worked into the second, the village’s distinctive pottery, and third,  it being the last resting place of Kelti, the Gnome deity/hero said to have fought his last battle there and thus has become a site of pilgrimage. Outwardly, Sardkirk is a pastoral idyll, but this is a village full of interrelated families, so it is not really a happy place—and not just because of the disappearances. Thus Sardkirk is rife with petty ambitions and jealousies—and this highlights one of the best aspects about Starstone, the effort made to detail the NPCs beyond their mere stats, to give the DM their motivations and reactions in a relatively simple fashion. So there is quite a lot going on in the village and this coupled with the table of events and visitors serves to bring the village and its inhabitants to life.

This effort is continued with the true threat to Sardkirk—‘The Broch Caverns’. This extensive dungeon and cave complex is home to three interconnected tribes of goblins that have not long returned to the area. Their activities are detailed over the course of the day, as are those of their guests. So far the tribes have been kept from simply attacking the village by the tribes’ backers, but various factions within the tribes chafe under this restriction, something that the adventurers can take an advantage of. In fact, it is probably best if they do, since this is a large—over a hundred locations, tough dungeon, especially if the party decides to simply assault its inhabitants. This is a dungeon that the party is likely to visit more than once, though if alerted the goblins will be prepared on subsequent visits.

Overall, this is an excellent dungeon with plenty of the campaign’s trademark detail and emphasis on investigation and interaction. In fact, both are crucial if the adventurers are to learn of ‘The Broch Caverns’. Again, much like ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’, the scenario suffers from a lack of discussion about the consequences of the adventurers’ actions.

The second scenario involves the investigation of another village—‘Dolgold’. This is home to Starstone’s Dwarven run gold mine, and although it has also seen its own rash of disappearances, the issue in this community is that it has divided into factions that have been set against each other. The old villagers hate the new villagers because they do not respect their druidic religion and their ways, the quarrymen think that the dwarves are murdering them—and vice versa, and the dwarves hate the castellan of the castle because he collects the taxes levied on the gold by the lord lieutenant. Getting at the causes of these rivalries will take some digging upon the part of the adventurers as this a much more difficult adventure, but if they are successful, they will learn some more about the plots going on behind the scenes of the County of Starstone as well as some of its secret history. 

As a scenario, ‘Dolgold’ feels smaller than ‘Sardkirk’—and it is. Less of Dolgold is detailed, but it is larger and even then, the scenario manages a decent balance between detailing NPCs who are important to the plot and those who are not. Of course, the outcome of ‘Dolgold’ has greater consequences than does that of ‘Sardkirk’—and again, these are not detailed. Yet the scenario does continue the supplement’s practice of doing much to bring the village and its inhabitants to life, and it is only through interaction with, and investigation of them, that the adventurers will prepare themselves for the final foes they might face. Again, they will present the heroes with a tough challenge.

Physically, Starstone is a decently presented black and booklet, one that is a little rough around the edges. The layout is dense, with the occasional indication that the book was not laid out using a computer, but rather via Letraset. The cartography is good, although in places, the connections between rooms and levels could have made much clearer—especially in the text. Whilst any illustrations are infrequent, some of them are really very good—the book’s take upon goblins as more akin to naughty, evil, and sharp-toothed children than other interpretations of them is interesting, if not refreshing—and some of them poor indeed. Fortunately, the latter are vastly outnumbered by the former. One issue with the book is that the maps come as a separate folded A3-sized sheet, which even folded is larger than the book by an inch or so. This makes it slightly more difficult to keep the map sheet in good condition.

One notable feature of the writing is how the author gets around direct references to Dungeons & Dragons. This primarily shows in the character stats, which are limited to actual armour type (from which the Dungeon Master can extract an Armour Class), Class, Level or Hit Dice, Hit Points, and Attacks. No NPC is given any attribute scores, although some are given the effect of high stat bonuses in some case. Two notable inclusions are each NPC’s Wealth stat and his Influence Level or standing with the community. Both are potentially useful when comes to interacting with them. The second area where the effort to avoid references to Dungeons & Dragons occurs in the spell names—Ball of Fire or Curse Removal, for example—and the bonuses for magical weapons. These are given as percentiles rather than single numbers. Of course, these stats do point towards Dungeons & Dragons, and fairly obviously so, but they are not exact. Rather they are just easy to translate.

Back in 1982, Starstone was well received in the press. Writing in White Dwarf #40, Daniel Collerton gave the module nine out of ten and said, “For those who prefer a coherent, highly detailed medieval milieu for their campaigns, Starstone could hardly be bettered. Even for those who don’t like such a background, it still represents excellent value for money merely as an example of meticulous campaign design. Very highly recommended.” The UK’s other RPG magazine of the time, Imagine, was not quite as complimentary. Reviewing it in Imagine #4, Robert Hulston lamented that, “The main plot is not actually solved in Starstone; players must wait for the publication of Ristenby Town to carry the story on.”, but said that, “As it is, though, Starstone will provide entertainment for many evenings, is exceptional value for money (being packed with 3 or 4 times the material of similarly priced modules) and is highly recommended.” Similarly, Eric W. Pass writing in Dragon #97, said, “Starstone is one of the best-detailed modules I have examined. If you have the time and the inclination to sample superior module design, buy it. The few faults I have listed in no way detract from the overall presentation. Hopefully, Mr. Vernon will consider these small points and address them for us before the town of Ristenby appears off the North American coast.” The review ends with the note that Starstone is distributed in the USA by The Armory in Baltimore, indication that it got wider distribution than just the United Kingdom.

In 1982, Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign cost just £2.99—and at that price it was a bargain. Especially in comparison to the slightly costlier scenarios of the time published by TSR, Inc. Considering its original £2.99 price, today it would likely cost £14.99 or more—and again, that would be a bargain. With just a print run of three thousand, in the thirty years since, copies of the module have rarely appeared on the second hand market. Today it would probably fetch at least £30—if not double that or more. As high praise as Starstone received in 1982, it was never reprinted nor did it receive any further support. This was despite a second supplement, Ristenby Town being mentioned at the end of the supplement.

Unlike in 1982, Starstone would have no problems getting published for use with any fantasy RPG today. The terms of Open Game License make it very easy and given the preponderance of Old School Renaissance RPGs, the designer would have plenty of choice, whether that is Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord or Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Yet Starstone would work equally as well with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and arguably, would give any of the scenarios released so far for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons a run for their money in terms of the quality of the adventure and the storytelling. Doubtless any of the Old School Renaissance publishers would leap at the chance to publish Starstone and that even after the author discounted the possibility of funding this on his own via Kickstarter. Indications are that the author has seriously considered bringing it back, but that was several years ago. So if a PDF version exists…?

Yet as good as Starstone was in 1982, it was not perfect and it is definitely not perfect now. As it is, Starstone is a living place with events going on as the adventurers investigate and deal with the issues that threaten the county and many these of events and especially the plots to each scenario and the campaign in general, are buried in the text. Getting to both events and plots is not easy because of this. Another issue is that the transition from ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ to ‘Sardkirk’ is poorly handled, combining the equivalent of a jump cut with a punitive flashback. Similarly the consequences of each scenario are not well handled either, which is disappointment given how Starstone is meant to be a 'living' setting.

In addition, because the follow up supplement, Ristenby Town, was never published, it has left the full scope of the plots going on in the County of Starstone unrealised. Also, in hindsight, it seems odd that the links between Starstone and ‘Troubles at Embertrees’ seem underplayed, especially given the scenario’s favourable reception. That though was in 1982. Today, it seems likely that making such links would be problematic given how possessive of its properties that Games Workshop is—even properties it has owned for decades and has absolutely no interest in doing anything with. In the case of ‘Troubles at Embertrees’—and so many other things—this is simply a shame.

So should Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign be brought back over thirty years since its original publication? Indubitably so… The Old School Renaissance would welcome the reprint of this book, but could it be brought back? In an era of Kickstarter and numerous Old School Renaissance publishers, there are multiple ways in which this could be re-published—and that even before the possibility of self-publishing. Now that leaves the question of whether or not it should be a straight reprint? The answer is no, it should not be straight reprint. Ideally, a second edition would be edited to address the problems in terms of the scenario’s plot and the presentation of said plot. It would ideally also expand upon the port of Ristenby, perhaps even leading to the publication of Ristenby Town.

Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign is a low fantasy campaign, with a certain sense of desperation and an underlying mood of fear that together prefigures the ‘Grim and Perilous Adventure’ of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay five years later… It certainly has that RPG’s same emphasis on investigation and interaction over combat—though there is plenty of scope for the latter—even if the DM will need to work a little harder to extract such an emphasis from the book’s dense text. Whilst its handicaps mean that it is not quite perfect, Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign is a classic mini-campaign, rich in gaming potential, and unfinished as its plots are, rife with possibilities for the Dunegon Master to expand.