Game: The Penumbra Pentagon
Publisher: Sword and Sorcery Studio
Series: Scarred Lands: d20
Review Dated: 16th, May 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 3/10 [ Not good enough ]
Total Score: 3
Average Score: 3.00
It just doesn’t work.
Sword & Sorcery’s Scarred Lands campaign setting is one of very few campaign settings that I actively watch and wait for the next new release. I couldn’t help be horribly disappointed by The Penumbra Pentagon isn’t crunchy when it needs to be and it entirely messes up the flavour attraction of the Scarred Lands.
The Penumbra Pentagon is a 96-paged paperback. The book is about the rise of the Penumbra Lords; the Penumbra Lord is a prestige class that isn’t re-printed anywhere in the 96 pages. You need to buy the expensive, hardback, Relics and Rituals if you want to really use the Penumbra Pentagon. I really think one of the selling points about the Scarred Land setting is that you can use each book individually and that each book is normally good enough to inspire you to chase up those tie ins and buy the companion books. This tie in factor isn’t entirely forgotten in The Penumbra Pentagon; the Penumbra Lords have a long-standing enmity with the city of Mithril but you don’t need to have Mithril: City of the Golem to make use of that. If The Penumbra Pentagon had been any good the chances are you might have been enthused enough to go buy Mithril anyway.
The Scarred Land campaign setting is a great one for putting the bits and pieces together. The world background is steeped in mythology and so sometimes accounts differ and sometimes there are no hard and fast answers. For example, Ghelspad asks whether the relationship between Druids and the Titan of Nature is indicative of a relationship between Sorcerers and the Titan of Magic, it doesn’t answer the question, it just sets the possibilities going. Similarly, different races or cultures might have different ideas and understanding of exactly how historic events happened or even why they happened. There’s just a bit of that in the Penumbra Pentagon, no one’s entirely sure why one god helped rescue a goddess, but there is also a clumsy derailing of whole principle. We’re told a legend a tribe of orcs have of the god Thulkas increased the temperature of their desert valley to reward them. Their myth contradicts other beliefs and myths of what actually happened in that valley – and that’s fine, in fact, that’s just the touch I like from the Scarred Lands. In this case, though, the author chips in with an annoying note that the orcs should know exactly what happened because they were there. Pheh. You could just as easily note how orcs aren’t normally known for their accurate interpretation of events. Fine. Okay. It’s a small crime, I suppose. By this stage in the book, with the lack of any successes, the only thing that stands out are the failures.
There’s a whole balance of power issue going on in the book that doesn’t make sense to me. The titans and the gods didn’t just simply pause their heated and terrible war to deal with the strange and powerful Slarecians – they teamed up to work together. Since the Slarecians were that powerful it’s not too hard to accept that they managed to capture a fairly minor Goddess – Drendari. If the Slarecians decided to teach a bunch of mortals (humans, drow, dwarfs, etc) some of the shadow magic secrets they took from the goddess then so be it. That’s exactly what they did. There’s an illustration found early in the book of five Slarecians beaming squiggly lines from their heads in order to capture or question one trapped goddess. It’s far from the most inspirational drawing I’ve seen. Squiggly lines, I ask you. A few gods get their act together and rescue Drendari. We can debate which side is stronger, the Gods, Titans or the Slarecian; you could base an entire Scarred Lands campaign on that. You wouldn’t expect a group of mortals to play the Gods for fools, secretly betray the Slarecians, avoid the Titans and get away with it. This is exactly what the Slarecian’s shadow magic students do. This story might have worked if we’d kept with the typical Scarred Lands style and presented it all as fuzzy history, the details lost and forgotten. That doesn’t happen. Instead we’re given an attempt to explain why and how these shadow mages succeeded and its about as convincing as a fish on a bicycle. If we accept that the shadow mages are all hugely intelligent then it’s jolly hard to explain why they failed to keep their fortress cool enough for their tastes (no air conditioning spells, huh?) and were then outsmarted by the tribe of orcs. Peh. I don’t know, perhaps every case of out manoeuvring and outsmarting is due to one group severely underestimating the other. I do know that there’s nothing in the book that inspires me to try and sort out the mess out or provide answers of my own.
The Penumbral Pentagon is the organisation that comes to rule the shadow mages. The history, complete with the faff above, runs from page four to page nineteen. I think it would have been better to spend a few pages on a rough history and the rest on the current machinations of the group.
The key members of the Penumbral Pentagon come next in a chapter of their own. We’ve got their stats and illustrations. This the norm for the Scarred Lands, typically key NPCs appear in specialised supplements, but we are usually given their stats, backgrounds and current plans. The problem here is that there’s no particularly inspiring character. Dar’Tan, the leader, is especially weak wristed. It’s hard to imagine plotting his way out of a paper bag let alone menacing player characters and fledging kingdoms from afar with subtle yet deadly plans.
Sly cunning. That’s what the Penumbral Pentagon is about; subtle plans to steer power and manipulate politics. The Penumbral Lords want to block out the light and shroud the world in shadow. They’ve a network of agents, spies and loyal supporters. They blackmail, bride and intimidate – and do so by proxy, where ever possible, to ensure that they stay safely behind the scenes. It’s rather remarkable then that the third chapter is all about their magically constructed fortress. Chapter three is about the layout of the Penumbral Fortress, about the guard schedule and how to get into the place. Can you smell the dungeon crawl? I can. I’d be happy to see this entire chapter whipped out and the Penumbral Lord prestige class put in. Perhaps the player characters are supposed to infiltrate the Pentagon and secretly operate from among their ranks. There’s the suggestion that this might be a good plot idea from a weird sidebar note: Sex in the Shadows. Real Penumbral Lords are more interested in learning their magic than fooling around; too much sex in the Penumbral Fortress might result in people questioning your devotion to the cause.
The supplement isn’t entirely without merit. There is a chapter for shadow magic, that arcane knowledge the Slarecians took from Drendari and which the Penumbral Pentagon study. There are about five pages of three-columned spells. The three column approach is a good one for spells and is an example of the normally on-the-ball work from Sword and Sorcery.
If, like me, you thought a dungeon crawl inviting description of the Penumbral Fortress was a poor choice for the supplement then you’re likely to be as disappointed with the inclusion of a bunch of pre-written adventures as I was. They’re those sorts of pre-written adventures where key NPCs must not be allowed to die and so the GM is instructed to fudge the rolls where needs be.
The book ends with a Shadow Creature template. The template is used to, as you’d expect, work out the stats for shadow creatures. It’s noted that the Penumbral Lords “hold truck with things that dwell in darkness” and that some beings from the realms of Shadow have escaped the fortress into the canyon below. Whereas shadow planes and the like are common in canon D&D the involvement of one tied to Scarn is an interested twist to throw in at the last minute.
Unfortunately nothing inspired me in The Penumbral Pentagon; nothing is worth using or introducing to my Scarred Lands game. It’s worse than that, I think it’s actively worth keeping the Penumbral Pentagon and the related mess out of Scarred Land games. You can’t use the book as a quick adventure unless you happen to have a few of the hardback Scarred Land supplements. There are tiny glimmers of hope in the book, it’s not so bad if you’re interested in more action orientated, here and now, Scarred Land games and don’t care so much about a coherent background. The Penumbral Lords are fairly contained too. The players can defeat them without (as it stands currently) influencing other plots.
Despite my disappointed with this book my enthusiasm for the setting remains strong. I suppose it could have been worse then.