Publisher: Bastion Press
Review Dated: 14th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 11
Average Score: 3.67
Oathbound is a truly impressive book. Physically the book is impressive; a scary tally of 352 pages, solid hardcover, full colour and plenty of sinewy illustrations. Oathbound: Domains of the Forge is a campaign setting, a high fantasy, high powered campaign setting and done with elements of grit and tangibility that are so often missing from other attempts on the genre. Oathbound makes no attempts to hide the world’s secrets from the players. The reasons why things are as they are tend to be spelt out. I think this forthrightness suits the high fantasy of Oathbound for two reasons; the answers help define the setting, helping the players and the DM get to grips with the original world and also because at high character levels the players often like to know why the heroes they’ve worked so hard to mature no longer have things their own way. The Feathered Fowl are perfectly happy to strip powerful magic weapons from new arrivals to the Forge and that’s just one example of the sort of thing once all conquering heroes might encounter. This telling of secrets will continue into the review with the exception of “Dark Welcomes” the adventure at the end of the book which won’t be spoiled.
The name of the world is Forge but the name of the campaign setting is Oathbound. The seven bound servants of an ancient and powerful god forged the world (hence the name) around the prison of the captive god. These seven supremely powerful (but not divinely so) beings are bound by oaths (hence the name) to guard the prison and keep their master locked inside. Now, if your mind is anything like mine then you’ve probably already imagined a scenario where a powerful PC beats seven shades of crunchy out of one of these beings and thus wrecking the very premise of the setting. But no, this is the whole point; this is the very premise of the setting. The seven (well, some of them) want this to happen because their divine oaths are written so that they may only be freed from their position as jailer by finding a more powerful being to replace them. The members of the Black Flock, the name given to these creatures, actively search the Planes for heroes or villains with the promise of power. As it happens, one of the seven has already been replaced and a once-mortal now reigns in that part of the Forge instead. There are seven parts of the Forge since each of the Foul built their part to their own liking. The seven have access to different parts of the Planes through different star gates and so over the millennia the Forge has existed different races have come to become more dominant in these seven parts. The PCs do not need to play one of these “seeds”, one of these promising individuals, since there’s also plenty of scope to play a local. This set up ensures that Oathbound is a robust campaign setting.
Other huge strengths for Oathbound are the cosmopolitan geography, demographics and even the biology of the Forge. There is just so much to do on the Forge, so many places to visit. If you want to leave the Forge then you need to put together a key of many parts, parts collected from all over the world and the key then vanishes if you use it successfully. There’s an inherent likelihood that even if the players fail to get involved in any local politics or drama that they’ll have the adventure all over the world just to put together the key they need to leave. DMs are likely to get their money’s worth out of Oathbound. The huge colour book doesn’t cost an arm and a leg either, $39.95 isn’t cheap but it is easy to see a much higher price tag on such a large book.
The first chapter sets about the ways and means by which characters can enter or leave the Forge. There’s plenty in the way here of quick summaries as to what the various parts of the Forge are like. Chapter one really is designed so that DMs can quickly get into Oathbound and quickly imagine ways to move their current campaign into Oathbound. You also get an idea of just how complete Oathbound is from these first twenty pages. The Forge as two suns and two moons and the cycles of these four are clearly explained. In a stroke of genius there’s a simple chart that shows the colour of the sky at any time over the most detailed of the seven areas of Forge, the realm of Penance. The sky can be black (i.e. night) or the sunshine might be tinted red, yellow or white. There’s a list of holidays as a part of the section on how the calendar works. If all this flavour is a put off to those more mechanically minded then the trailing section on the gifts the Foul sometimes leave for those they bring into the Forge will cheer you up. These gifts are fairly impressive, clear “power ups” for arriving characters but Oathbound is a high level game and there has to be because there is no room for mediocrity. Gift examples include “Ethereal Sight” which allows the character to look through walls or doors at a range of 30 feet or see creatures that existing solely on the Ethereal Plane.
The following chapter looks at the inhabitants of the Forge. There is a refreshing range of entirely non-human races too. The Ceptu, for example, really do look like giant jellyfish. It is impossible to demand that everything race that appears in quantity in the Forge be detailed in Oathbound but I still grumbled slightly that some of the main races appear in Minions instead. Later on we discover that access to e-Minions, Spells and Magic and Arms and Armour might be a good idea too. After I while I stopped grumbling about it and released that it actually quite a nice idea that my previous Bastion Press purchases and been tied together under the one (optional) auspice of Oathbound. The “Inhabitants” chapter does more than list the required statistics for these new races, it also makes the point of paying attention to the languages they speak, where they might speak differently, the general population distribution and religions too. The chapter also finds space to look at a few interesting animal and plant life too. Space isn’t a problem for Oathbound, none of its 350 pages need to be wasted on core rules and they all go towards the campaign world and the sizeable adventure at the back. You know there are plenty of pages to write the book when you find a full-page casserole (for one of the made up foods) recipe in it.
There are prestige classes too. They’re always prestige classes. Oathbound’s prestige classes are all detailed through 10 levels though and that’s not a thoroughness you can take for read in new d20 books. Oathbound has prestige races. That’s something new altogether. Your character can evolve in the Forge. She can evolve quietly deliberately and with carefully pre-selected results. The process isn’t quite so uninspired as levelling up though since this evolution can only happen on certain key locations in Forge. So, as with the exit key, the Oathbound world comes “pre-installed” with reasons why characters have to interact with it if they want to get anything out of it – even if they’re being entirely mercenary about their munchkinning.
The forth chapter, “The Seven Domains”, is introduced with a double page spread map of the world. Unlike typical fantasy campaign maps the Forge is drawn to show that the world’s a globe. The chapter then runs through the different domains of the seven members of the Black Flock. Each domain is described in terms of its people and settlements, how easy it is (or how impossible it is) to travel around inside the domain, the economy and the politics of the area. Each of the domains are very different from one another, each one reflecting the personalities of the Feathered Foul. The Arena is a huge landscape where mighty pitched battles are commonplace because the Foul who calls the area home is known to pull to Forge whole armies at a time in her search for the greatest general. The Vault, on the other hand, looks as if it was once a lush and fertile land that was somehow flash frozen in its entirety and is now inhabited by legions of undead, barbarian tribes and insane Warlocks. The Vault represents the ways and means of the Foul, Nemamiah the Leper, who controls it. The domain of Penance is given the same treatment as any other domain but later on in Oathbound there’s very much more on the great city of Penance in the domain of the same name.
By this point in the book (a mere hundred pages in) I was desperate to no more about the Black Flock, the seven Feathered Foul, the jailers of the realm. Luckily, the editor has the timing spot on and the Black Flock is the very next chapter. As with the domains of Forge, this chapter simply runs through each of the Foul in alphabetical order and looks at their motivation and how they go about doing what they will. Some of the Flock are happy enough running their domains, many actively try and break the oaths that bind them and others just want to die. Each of the Foul has a section on their secrets and these are little gems in a treasure of a book. Actually, all but one of the Foul has a section on their secrets and it’s annoying that the most mysterious of the lot, Bathkol, seems to missing his. You’ll also find rules for the Avatars of the Flock here. It’s nice to see that written into the background of some of these are notes that some have been beating in combat or at their own game. This means that you can have a character group of epic level heroes that do manage to trump the avatars without your game’s storyline suffering the cliché of the party being the first ones ever in history to do this. On the other hand, there are some of the Avatars of who there are no records of ever been beaten at certain things and so you can have the party of players be the first people to do ever do something if that’s what you want. Only one Avatar actually seems to be statted in full and that’s rather strange. Israfel (Queen of Penance) comes in at Challenge Rating 30 and perhaps she’s statted because she’s the most likely to cause the players to bounce dice.
There’s then more than one chapter on the great city of Penance. This place makes for a remarkable setting. A city divided up by warring Lords but a city so great that vast areas of it remain empty save for bandits and beasts. Penance is a book in it’s own right. Penance is a campaign setting in it’s own right. The following chapters describe the rules (and as it happens – cunningly game friendly) by which the Feathered Foul Israfel allow these Bloodlords to compete for territory and then the Bloodlords themselves. The noteworthy and not just the powerful lords are described, often drawn, their politics, strengths and weaknesses discussed. There are some individuals of interest such as famous bards and crime lords and these people get similar treatment. Many of these key figures are statted in full. They’re far more likely to be encountered by characters and far more likely to need dice rolls. The actual geography of the city is examined in similar detail too; each section visited, described and fleshed out. Even then, interested locations within the city sections are described, drawn and detailed individually. There are maps too, plenty of colourful and number maps. It is hard to over state the sheer quantity of text on Penance. It’s important not to understate the quality of the writing, of the flavour or even of the mechanics either. Not counting the overview of Penance as a whole in the Seven Domain chapter there are some 137 pages for Penance and that’s bigger than many individual RPG supplements.
Chapter Nine, “Dark Welcomes”, is the introductory adventure and it’s 65 pages long. I made the count on the hunch that it too would be larger than many of the pre-written adventures out there in the market place too. It is: beating the standard 64-paged book by 1. It’s a good adventure too, surprisingly non-linear for a pre-written high-level scenario. It divided up into a number of episodes and not only is this a good way to present the game to the DM and a well paced set of breathers for the players if the DM pauses the scenario after each one.
The font size used in the appendixes drops down slightly. It is strange but it seems to give the book even more of a professional air about it. Here you’ll find a sizeable list of spells, some feats and a mini beastiary of Oathbound flavoured creatures. I think they’ve got to be one of the heaviest illustrated appendixes that I’ve come across.
The Forge is a fantasy world but the huge amount of detail presented in Oathbound makes the place seem very much more real. This reality means Oathbound does what I thought was next to impossible and creates a high fantasy world with the same sort of richness and tension that is more commonly only found in low fantasy games. Oathbound seems well suited to very many different styles of playing and GMing too. If you want to get involved in detailed politics in Penance, or dangerous journeys through Wildwood or even mass battles in the Arena then there’s plenty in Oathbound for you. This scope actually makes Oathbound a little daunting but it’s the sort of book that wants to be read and then read again and I think most DMs will settle in. Oathbound’s certainly a campaign setting that players will want to visit. Oathbound is both entirely complete and full of promise. It’s a great success.