Game: Next Age Heroes
Publisher: Black Drink Creations
Review Dated: 19th, November 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Next Age Heroes is a PDF campaign setting for 3.5 d20 from Black Drink Creations. It’s a big project for a small company.
Next Age Heroes comes in three pieces. There’s one PDF to let your players read safely. There’s another PDF for the players that offers up the in-game worldview of different races. The worldview is important in Next Age Heroes. The PCs are different, are the Next Age Heroes, because they’ve travelled further than a few days ride and are interested in what lies beyond. The third document, some 217 pages, is for the GM and it tells the reader what is really going on in the world beyond the starting region.
Yeah. There’s a lot of reading – but there’s a lot of skimming too. Much of Next Age Heroes is taken up with character sheets for NPCs. These are not full page, space consuming character sheets, they’re terse but presentable character records. There is just lots of them. I’m not normally a fan of NPC stats in campaign worlds. The 3rd edition Ravenloft was rocking my world until they started tossing in stats for the atmosphere. It’s still fun to quote Elminster Dance skill of 6. Ooh; 6 ranks of Dance! My gaming experience has been enhanced! I’m not quite so sardonic about NPCs in Next Age Heroes though. Why? I’ve decided that Next Age Heroes isn’t a campaign setting at all.
Next Age Heroes is, in my opinion, more of a campaign than a campaign setting. It’s a framework for adventure. I’ll explain later and warn first. Since Next Age Heroes could be seen as an adventure and certainly since the theme of Next Age Heroes is about discovering things it is possible to spoil the setting by knowing too much. From this point on this review contains spoilers.
The theme in Next Age Heroes is very much about exploration. Characters come from the most “civilised” region and will spend the game exploring outside it. What’s there? The “what” is the question that’ll probably grab the PCs attention to begin with. Next Age Heroes tells you explicitly what’s out there. We have all these stats for NPCs after all. We’re told, for example, how many hydra are in which swamp. We’re told how many heads each hydra has and which more intelligent creature is using them to defend the swamp. It’s not the sort of level of detail I expect from a campaign setting. It’s more detailed than that. It’s more like the sort of information I’d expect to have as an introduction to a swamp encounter – but only the introduction. The GM still needs to lay a plot through the swamp. The same sort of attention to detail is applied throughout the entire PDF. The players get to find out what’s out in the wilds. The GM gets to read about it.
Really, though, the interesting question is “Why?” Why are these creatures out there? As the GM allows the players may (or may not) discover that their home region isn’t quite the forerunner of civilisation and technology that they thought. No. It’s not the case that they’re an isolated backwater surrounded by power powers – but that’s the obvious alternative twist to the Next Age Heroes tale. The truth is that this is mankind’s second attempt to establish a foothold in the world.
In the “first age” mankind slowly developed technology and magic, they explored the world, the planes and they culled the green menace and supernatural horrors. Each advancement led to another and mankind’s progression in power bloomed. In no time at all, as the Great Beings measure it, mankind had gone from insignificant to dangerous. Man could cast magic to reshape reality. Man could, would, and had killed Dragons, Greater Whales, Lammasu and Higher Giants. It’s the Dragons, the psionic Greater Whales, the not-quite-Monster-Manual Lammasu and Higher Giants who were the first beings, the Great Beings, and it was these races who decided that something had to be done about mankind and the similar and allied races. They knocked mankind back to the Stone Age. Mankind was lucky. There was plenty of politics and bloody battles among the Great Beings to decide the fate of mankind; strip them of their greater magic items, eliminate them all or somewhere in between. It’s just a side note in the book but I rather like the fact that the Sphinx, Treants and other “old races” weren’t part of this onslaught and know the truth of what happened.
Okay. So it’s not quite a “wow original” twist but it is still much better than too many default fantasy campaign settings. Next Age Heroes is better than most fantasy settings.
Next Age Heroes struggles against these other fantasy campaign settings. It would all too easy for Next Age Heroes to become one of them. We’re advised not to allow weird and wonderful PC races – it would defeat the theme. Black Drink is right, it would defeat the theme, but did it need to be pointed out? I suppose there were two routes the game could have taken; the setting could have conjured up the theme with atmospheric text and left the reader to decide what sort of fantasy race was appropriate or Next Age Heroes could have taken the more direct route of simply pointing out what was appropriate. Next Age Heroes goes for the latter. We’re told what the best approach is. It’s not annoyingly blunt and we’re encouraged to go with what makes sense for us – but generally basic advice is explicit rather than implicit. It comes down to personal taste here. I think many gamers want advice in black and white – that, after all, is why they’ll buy supplements – but I’d rather have the atmosphere and be left to deduce best practise from that.
There’s more than geography and a twisted history in Next Age Heroes. Your usual campaign setting perks here are. We’ve monsters. We’ve prestige classes. We’ve new items. They all fit the setting nicely. I’m more impressed by the astrological symbols though – I just love that sort of quirky detail. I like the maps too; even though they’re extremely simple.
It’s not the history in Next Age Heroes that compels me to give the setting a go. It’s the politics. I do like a bit/a lot of politics in my game and Next Age Heroes is pre-loaded with complex noble houses and relationships. Then, of course, we’ve the politics of the Great Beings. Oh, don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re used as some Deux Ex Machina and then ignored. They’re still around. There’s a Greater Being, a Patrician, in charge of each realm in the land. In fact, that’s why there are realms; they mark the boundaries of the Greater Being’s influence.
My default reaction to another fantasy campaign setting appearing as a PDF would be to fall asleep at the keyboard. Next Age Heroes is better than that. There’s enough sparkle in Next Age Heroes to make it worthwhile, it finds that incredibly hard to find middle ground between typical D&D and -something-thing-. It’s not quite a grade A product though. I think Next Age Heroes is best suited to new-ish players rather than the more veteran gamer from the PDF market place. It’s a personal taste issue but I’d rather have had more atmosphere and less black and white suggestions and less pre-placed NPCs. I do think Next Age Heroes is an amazing achievement for Black Drink Creations and it might be one of those super-rare times where the line between homebrew and professional really is blurred. Next Age Heroes does well to earn a B grade and I look forward to seeing what support for the setting, if any, the tiny company produces.