Game: Fantastic Fortresses: Castles and Keeps
Review Dated: 19th, October 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
I despise being here. I have nothing but contempt for my master. I loathe serving another being, but it will soon end.
I think that’s cracking start to an RPG supplement. It grabs your attention. It’s perhaps surprising that Fantastic Fortresses: Castles and Keeps keeps your attention. Essentially, this is a book of maps. Darkfuries are one of the industries best cartography publishers. In Castles and Keeps Darkfuries show their other great strength – writing. Whereas good writing not unusual for an RPG supplement (though not as common as I would like!) it’s not something that’s normally associated with cartography. Brian Moseley is as a good writer as he is a cartographer – and as I’ve noted, he’s one of the best cartographers.
But hold on; let’s not get too sycophantic here. There are five contributing authors and a large chunk of the 96 pages are maps (as you might expect) so that’s not all that much text to share around*. There are two interior artists too – important NPCs are illustrated. There’s also the big question: What are you going to do with a book full of castles?
* I just had to caveat the “not all that much text” comment. There is far more text here than any other cartography product out there (Darkfuries other offerings excluded, of course).
So then there’s that pesky “What are you going to do with a book full of castles?” question. A book full of battle level floor plans is easy to use – you move your minis around on them. Fantastic Fortresses isn’t like that though. The maps here are on a smaller scale (a smaller relative fraction) than the “closer up” melee maps. These maps are more architectural in nature than they are “interior design”. These maps are strategic rather than tactical. These maps give the GM perfect clarity; survey the cartography, read the description and you know the fortress. That’s the first answer to “What are you going to do with a book full of castles?” – a strategic challenge. A book like this challenges player characters to either defeat or defend the keep. I suppose it’s like D&D’s infamous god books. Give stats to Thor and groups across the globe will take him down.
This is a review of the Castle and Keeps book. It’s quite rare these days to see a cartography product in paper and, indeed, Darkfuries is established in PDF but fairly new on dead tree. The great advantage of being on paper is that flicking through the maps feels great. You do feel like a master artisan or general with all important blue prints. It’s easy to flick from maps to the text description for each location. The disadvantage is that the book’s a bit precious, don’t scribble on it! It might also be yet another book to shift through. I prefer to have as much of a scenario as part of my own personal notes as possible. There is a PDF version of Castles and Keeps and it’s great to have a choice. It’s not uncommon to find separate reviews, one for PDF and one for paper, one GameWyrd but other than your own personal tastes there’s nothing separating this two incarnations.
Characteristically for Darkfuries, Fantastic Fortresses;Castles and Keeps gets a bit clever. Don’t forget to look for lost treasure! … so taunts the book. Each fortress has a hidden room, it’s not mentioned in the text; you have to find it yourself. How many did I notice? One! I think! Oh dear. I like it when a book moves from my to-review pile to my to-use pile but I’ve never added to a to-defeat pile before!
It’s a bit harsh to talk about the “text” in Fantastic Fortresses too. Each fortress enjoys a lavish introduction from a wonderfully eloquent NPC. For one there’s the castle ghost as the narrator and in another there’s a blinded minion. I really got into these locations as I was “toured” through their history and current use. Its through this text that Castles and Keeps is more than just cartography; its adventure material.
If your worried about spoilers then go read something else.
Let’s take my favourite; Lurfell Tower. The blind “Scale” has a rather sad story but it only comes through as he describes the rise and fall of Lurfell Tower from his point of view as a minion. Lurfell hated mankind and he was dangerously powerful, he rallied goblinoid forces, built the tower, took their land and then turned his terrible attention to the kingdoms of man. His reign lasted three generations as human count them. Eventually an allied army stormed the tower and slaughtered Lurfell and his army. Years later a group of adventurers, led by Jorne Vanagrath, came to the tower and started to rebuild it. Scale, with the senses made acute by his blindness recognizes a voice… Scale is sure that Vanagrath’s elf wizard Malavos is none other than Lurfell returned. Lurfell escaped, he wasn’t slaughtered. There are great game ideas here!
There’s more than the background and atmosphere with the stonking great plot ideas that come with that. Every room (apart from the secret secret ones) is described in appropriate detail. Here lies one advantage of a general introduction before each room. We don’t need to shoehorn in clumsy descriptions of dilapidations in every room’s description. We carry an appropriate ambience into each description with us.
Then there are the NPCs. Inhabitants can make or break (quite literarily at times). This collection of fortress designs carries the d20 logo because the NPCs are statted as so. In truth it seems like a shame to limit it so. The NPCs are as believable as the mighty fortresses they are associated with. They’re another plus point.
The cartography makes the book. It’s the background and atmosphere in each fortress that make Castles and Keeps a great book. Fantastic Fortresses: Castles and Keeps was a 2004 Gen Con ENWorld System Award nominee.