Game: Plains of Penance
Publisher: Bastion Press
Series: Oathbound: d20
Review Dated: 25th, February 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
The Plains of Penance is a worthy follow up and addition to Bastion Press’ spectacular Oathbound: Domains of the Forge. Oathbound gave us a vibrant world; chock full of races, cultures and magic. The name “Oathbound” comes from the powerful oaths that bind Seven Feathered Foul to the Forge. It’s these Seven who have created the Forge from a divine prison, forging the land to their will and forming seven domains. Penance is the domain of Queen Israfel and the city in the middle of Penance, known as Penance, gets a whole wad of pages in the core Oathbound book. The chances are very high that if you’re playing Oathbound or want to play Oathbound then you’re interested in Penance. The Plains of Penance is a comprehensive tour of everywhere else in Penance: the plains, the forests, the rivers and even the ocean shelf. There’s more than just new monsters and new player races here, there’s a new type of magic, spotlights onto the ecology, prestige races, the history and diplomatic relations between the cities on the Plains.
The Plains of Penance is a full colour, 160-paged book. US$29.95 isn’t an expensive price for it if you consider Bastion Press’ own Allies & Adversaries is about US$15 for 32 pages. The illustration styles are unmistakably Oathbound. This is both a boon and a bane. Some of the artwork is worthy of poster status, it’s no surprise that Bastion Press has a whole collection of art previews up on their Plains of Penance page. There are just a few illustrations that don’t work with the styles used. In particular some of the city scenes drawn in lines and blobby colour simply fail and failures stand out terribly so amongst so many strong successes.
The opening chapter is a walkthrough of the various parts of the Domain of Penance. Straight out of the box one of the meaty interests is tackled well. The dominant Queen Israfel, Penance’s Feathered Foul, enforces strict rules about how can claim leadership of an area and what sort of areas, known as Cantons, can be ruled. There needs to be enough people living in the area to begin with and out in the wilderness there are very few people. The book comes up with a believable enough system where the Bloodlords, those who do rule Cantons, are able to sell their protection (as a personal deal rather than a law) and their badge of support to the farms and homesteads in the wild. We’re first introduced to the politics and role of the Druids in the many forests in the domain here.
The second chapter increases the already teaming variety of races, prestige races and prestige classes in Oathbound. I think this is one to watch. Too many high fantasy campaign settings get ruined, become smothered in cheese, because the original feel and atmosphere becomes weighed down by successions of new races, monsters and magic that are brought in by supplements produced by companies trying to keep the cash flowing. Oathbound will not have this problem; the theme and feel can handle as many races, monsters, magics and classes that you can throw at it. The watch point seems to be on how many important different races and roles the GM can juggle at once and on that critical balance between tying supplements together and requiring would-be gaming groups to buy a library before they can play. The new magic system is called Channelling and works quite well in theory. The Forge is a prison of a trapped deity but this powerful god isn’t entirely stuck and so vast amounts of divine magic spill from the Forge itself. Channelling is the art of taking this raw divine magic and using it for something. This isn’t the same as cleric magic where the spell casters are granted spells by a deity, this type of magic as people using the deity’s own power. Channelling can be as creative or as destructive as you want and it only works on the Forge. I think it would be easy to arch eyebrows over the sort of power that Channelling puts in the hands of the players. I’m not so concerned with that, Oathbound is the sort of campaign setting where that really isn’t the problem. I’m more concerned that once the players begin to feel happy with their spell casting characters that this new and better system comes along just to taunt them. Channelling may upset your “mundane spellcasters”.
Oathbound is likely to appeal to people taken by the prestige race system and by all the exotic player races. Chapter two will please them. There are five more (albeit short) prestige race ranges. New player races include dolphins, yes, dolphins, magically created and colourful Aurads, plant Thorns and others. These aren’t token offerings either; many of these new races are major movers and shakers in the Plains. The flying Hovara have a city all to their own, the dolphins are key allies to the Ceptu and the Thorns a significant force among the Druids and forest people.
The third chapter is one of the strong points in the book. I’m all for creating weird and wonderful plants and animals as well as new monsters and magics. I’m all against yet another fantasy campaign world where there seems to be plenty of leather armour but no cows. Oathbound does me proud. In the core rules there are new animals and plants and The Plains of Penance carries this torch well. Chapter three puts the spotlight on parts of the ecology in the domain. And so it should; Queen Israfel keeps people busy by pulling in new, interesting and possibly terribly destructive flora and fauna into her domain as well as monsters, heroes and villains. These ecological spotlights really do cover some ground; not only are their the native plants and animals but microorganisms and weather too. For example, a microorganism of note in the ocean region is the gillworm, a type of zooplankton which if used correctly can allow gilled creatures to breath out of the water for a while or if used incorrectly can damage the gills and cause permanent damage both Con and Cha.
In the city of Penance itself Druids are certainly at a bit of a loss, however, out in the wilderness and especially the many forests of the Plains they’re in their element. The fourth chapter of the book describes how logging was finally brought under control, how order is maintained in areas of the Domain where the Queen forbids law, how the local druids and thorns try and minimise damage to the environment when something new is pulled into the Domain by Israfel. Much of the chapter is a tour around the different woodland areas, each with their own name, societies and structure. Some forests are more xenophobic than others, other forests have quite strong ties to Bloodlords and some woods, like Winter, are just best left alone. The Watchers’ Guild is responsible for helping keeping an eye on the ecology of the plains and forests. The Watchers use the guild system introduced by Bastion’s Guildcraft where it is possible to pay XP to advance up the ranks and earn game mechanics benefits (such as extra spells) in exchange. Guildcraft was rather shaky at times, mainly because it turned a simple system into a book by throwing in lots of possible guilds. Here, in a specific setting, the guild system has a chance to shine and the Watchers work very well.
I’ve already said that one sure fire tactic to get me into a world setting is to have an engaging ecology, another way, and possibly a more understandable attraction, is to have an engaging set of tension and diplomacy between the nation states. The cities in the plains are all part of Penance but this doesn’t stop them shoving each other around and trying to come out top. The city of Illium, once powerful, is now a set of ruins thanks to a war with the city of Penance. Beacon was once an offshoot of Sentinel. Get this; at thirty thousand years old, Beacon is one of the youngest cities in Penance. Beacon now outshines Sentinel and its armies are restless, there’s trouble brewing between Beacon and the city of Penance itself. That’s a good chunk of what you get for cities: their history and current politics. Beacon, being a key player, gets a few pages all itself and smaller cities get less. In Penance the city’s vital stats are vital. We’re told how many Cantons each city has and who the Bloodlords are. One thing you’ll notice is the sheer number of Bloodlords who act as their own champion. The other thing you’ll notice is that very few of these people are less than twentieth level. Make no bones about it; Oathbound is a high level campaign setting and the powers in the Forge are very powerful. The catch is that is it can be quite hard to believe that these people have very many flaws. I try and tell myself that the level 20 Ranger Bloodlord of Harmony is scared of the Bloodlord who rules Beacon but it is hard to believe. It is also quite hard to believe that these cities have been pretty much the same as they are for tens of thousands of years. As noted, Beacon is thirty thousand years old but the description of the city comes across much more readily as the place being perhaps thirty generations old: 3,000 years perhaps. The status quo must be strongly rooted into the Domain.
Then there is the ocean. The boundaries of Queen Israfel’s Domain include a huge chunk of sea. The Forge is a magically constructed world and the seabed dives off drastically outside Penance and the resulting effect is that of giant underwater shelf in the Domain. There are plenty of aquatic races to play in Oathbound, the core rules introduce the political Ceptu and there is no shortage of ways to enable otherwise land bound races to get into the water. So it’s no surprise to see the ocean area of Penance with a chapter all of its own.
With so many cities, races, cultures, histories, troubles, politics and magic I had almost forgotten that The Plains of Penance are largely vast areas of wilderness. Chapter seven springs up to remind me. I’m going to hold this chapter deal for giving me a summary of travelling times; how far you can expect to cover on foot and how far you can expect to travel on horseback in any given day. The table is more comprehensive than that, throwing in other options such as wagon travel, flight or even magical flight and others. The whole chapter reinforces the hazards and insidious danger of travelling in the Plains. It has room for some interesting locales such as colossal skulls and giant clock faces set into the countryside.
Boo. Hiss. Chapter eight isn’t my friend. It’s a standard pre-written adventure. I just about accepted the pre-written adventure in Oathbound because some people might have appreciated the introduction to the setting. The time for introductions is over. The adventure, Ascension Day, is over 30 pages long. As I said at the start you can pay US$15 for a 30 or so paged colour supplement, how much would The Plains of Penance cost without Ascension Day? Well, fair enough, it certainly wouldn’t half in price. Still, if you’re a fan of pre-written adventures then you’ll not find anything to grumble about in Ascension Day.
The appendices combine to form a mini-book in their own right. It’s here that you’ll pick up stats and illustrations for new monsters, half a dozen pages of them, items, new spells and more.
If you’ve picked up Oathbound but haven’t yet found time to play it then The Plains of Penance will be that book to get you going. There’s so much in the 160 pages that glow with inspiration. It is such a pretty book too, the full colour, high quality illustrations and careful formatting is going to appeal to most people. The attention to detail, veritable plethora of new races, magic, monsters, history and bubbling politics is sure to include something useful to most players as well. I found the whole book (with the exception of Ascension Day) useful.