Game: Aten: City of Life – Book I
Publisher: Children of the Grave Press
Review Dated: 12th, September 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 5
Average Score: 5.00
There aren’t many Children of the Grave Press products but their distinctive PDF style is already memorable. Each page is bordered in a thick black line. It reminds me very much of a web page table border. This box divides up into columns and there’s a solid black line between those two. Everything’s tightly framed. I remember a previous Children of the Grave PDF product suffered horribly because when the columns of text weren’t exactly the same width it looked as if these dividing black lines where flying off all in directions. Aten: City of Life – Book 1 does not suffer from this fate. It changes from three columns, to two and even a single block of text but the change over is fairly neat and tidy. That said Aten suffers from not being neat and tidy enough. There are a few pages where it looks as if the last sentence has been cut off. In fact, the sentence continues fully in the next column and the text that has been cut in half by the bottom of the page is purely superficial. The PDF makes heavy use of solid grey shading to mark out the game mechanics. Sometimes this shading fills the entire width of the column – so a two columned page with two columns of shading is entirely grey. Sometimes this shading as a white border of its own – so a two columned page with two columns of shading is framed in white and has a white streak down the middle. There are also occasions when the shading is pinched and indented on the side. You can read the black on grey, even when you print the page out and this is good but the amount of ink you’ll guzzle certainly isn’t good.
I think the best way to sum up the PDF’s presentation is by saying it lacks that professional spit and polish but that it gets the job done. It’s not quintessentially wrong. It could work better but it does work. It just needs some more elbow grease.
Let’s not weight in too heavily against the supplement because of its appearance since that would be too much like judging a book by its cover. Aten: City of Life is, as the title suggests, a city book. It’s designed, as all such products are, to fit in to the Children of the Grave Press campaign setting but it is a simple matter to use it as a plug’n’play for almost another d20 game. The city is 60% human. There are twice as many minotaurs (2%) are there as gnomes (1%) or half-orcs. There’s a strong Greek vibe to the city but that’s not a bad thing. I think the Aten book gets off to a good start. We’re told who rules the city. Then we’re told who really rules the city. Politics. I like that. From the very start we’re given the names and summaries for the powerful magic users who call the city home too. I wish more fantasy products did this. You can’t relegate a 13th level wizard to some appendix. She’s even more important than the city itself in many cases.
Aten is an atypical fantasy city; it has a port, it surrounded by dense forest and divided up into districts; the Mage District, the Noble District and so on. The city has extremely chunky walls, formidable watchtowers and its own dungeon. As we peek inside and tour around we’re taken through a list of taverns, those popular with adventurers marked out, and equipment shops. When a shopkeeper is mentioned we get their name, their alignment, race, class and rank. It’s a format that gamers know well, it’s a format that works well and it is really nothing new. You have to take your pick: old reliable or a daring change.
Crappy city books get this far – the tour of the city – and then pick an inn, dive in and product yet another reel of barmaid stats and an innkeeper who was once a famous dwarf fighter who brooks no nonsense. Aten isn’t a crappy city book, it takes the route I much prefer – and by ‘much prefer’, I mean; keep reading rather than toss it out the window – and spices up some interest with history, lore and politics.
Come on. Where there are people (be they human or otherwise) there is politics. The trick for a roleplaying setting is not to neither gloss over this with a liberal coating of cheese fantasy nor get bogged down in tedious details that’ll appeal only to a small group of political gamers. Aten gets the mix about spot on. It is the nobles who run the city. Noble Houses are extended families and businesses; each has a history of their own. This city book isn’t exclusively backwards looking but there’s little mention of the Noble Houses’s plans for the future and there’s little personality to them. A little personality, not enough, but some. There’s enough for players to decide which political houses are less corrupt and more likely to be worthy sponsors than others.
Aten also dishes up the natural bed partner for politics – religion. There’s a heady mix of Church history and patronage. Several different orders are responsible for various different functions within the city. The Church will be of interest to most readers and characters since the Knights are a significant military force. Overlaps are good.
There are new prestige classes for Aten (which I always want to call Athens) – the Noble Magistrate for one. It’s actually a rather good prestige class. If I had to design a high fantasy Noble Magistrate then I’d do it like this; there are d20 usable fencing styles, something I’d tried to create but haven’t done as well as Children of the Grave Press, and detailed but not overlong observations on the role of alignment. A Chaotic Evil Noble is very different from a Lawful Good one.
Another new prestige class harks back to the Church; Templar of the First Order is one of those rare natural extensions for the Paladin. It’s worth its weight in gold for that alone (how much a PDF weighs is up to you). I dislike “Detect Thoughts” as much as I dislike “Detect Evil” though.
Aten finds room for such things as a Constitution. A Constitution? How American. There’s a calendar too, it’s steeped in the religious beliefs, that’s much more medieval.
The appendices (which break out of the black frames) look at new domains; charm, cold, crafting, curse, darkness, dragon, dream, homestead, illumination, mortality, sound, tempest and undeath. And wow. There’s a surprise hit. These are all five star domain choices, the sort of domain that makes you wonder why they weren’t included in the core rules in the first place. The fact that Aten lists a bunch of deities to go with domains later is just a bonus.
Aten: City of Life – Book 1 is the best thing I’ve seen from Children of the Grave Press. I have a weakness for City books chock full of politics as this one is. I think that despite my tendency to go for noble houses that the US $5 PDF represents good value for money as an easy city to drop into any d20 fantasy city. The PDF industry is rapidly maturing and this product only just manages not to look dated, Children of the Grave Press will have to leap ahead in order to stay on the ball. Check out the bookmarks for Aten; they’re a mess, a random collection of links, dozens of them, many of them empty and most of them non-functional. Aten works because it promises only to offer you a functional and inexpensive city, it manages that task admirably, but don’t ask for any more.