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Valkyrie Magazine and RPGnet are happy to provide this review.


Barsaive
Campaign Set
Earthdawn
FASA Corp.
Boxed Set - [sterling]16.99
Product supplied by Chart Hobby

Barsaive is the crucial, first large-scale Earthdawn supplement. After a very strong Gamemaster pack and a bog standard adventure, Mists of Betrayal, FASA needed to get this one right. At seventeen quid, you need them to have got it right.

First impressions are good. The poster map of Barsaive (South Eastern Ukraine) is beautiful, uncluttered and dominated by deep blue tints. It looks terrific. There are 36 colour art cards for monsters and magical items and, since Deckmaster is this year's fad, no doubt most people will like them too. But the pack obviously stands or falls on the two books (Explorer's Guide; 128 pages and GM Book; 64 pages) inside it.

The Explorer's Guide begins with history and moves on to daily life, languages and trade, customs and peoples, travel, magic, towns and cities, and outlying civilisations (dwarf lands of Throal, elven Blood Wood, tyrannical Theran Empire). Unfortunately, it does not read so well. This is partly because the book is printed with one column of drab font on each page, and in very light print too. Headers are plain, and subheads so un-emphasised that they are sometimes wholly missable. There are good reasons why few other products are printed this way; it makes reading effortful. And, sadly, the writing is often pedestrian too. Since the book is formatted as the product of a number of sages, collated by a master-archivist, the comments of individual scholars are often given in side-bars; not unlike chipped-in shadowtalk in Shadowrun. Here's an example: "Ironhand quaffed ale throughout this interview. He insisted that I drink some, against my better judgement. It was delicious, but later made me quite sick at my stomach." Boy, what a dwarven drinking story, huh? The side chat is too often as lame as this. Likewise, the section on races, in which they give a brief discussion of themselves and their societies, is dull when compared to the D&D® Gazetteer format in which each race got a few paragraphs on how others saw them, which was much more pithy and to-the-point than what you get here. Humour is in short supply, and it tries too hard to be sincere and meaningful.

Not only this, but there is a lack of nitty-gritty. For example, with the map you get a measuring-rule device to translate distances into walking and riding times. Neat, huh? Unfortunately, the books don't give any modifiers for terrain. Thus, so far as I can see, you can walk/ride through jungle or across mountains as fast as you can across plains. This doesn't seem terribly plausible. And, what's more, what little you get in the way of numbers is prone to being glitched. "In the course of 16 hours, an airship can travel a distance of 60 days ride on a mount," it says in Barsaive. But the rulebook says that airships do 300 miles in 16 hours. That means that mounts must travel at less than one third of a mile per hour!!! This wrong; the rulebook says mounts travel 40 miles per day. The writer just wasn't paying attention here.

There is too much descriptive writing, too much waffle and not enough precise detail of the kind a GM needs. There are only six tables and one (second-hand) schematic layout in 192 pages of books and, honestly, even for people who prefer rules-light games, this is simply nowhere near enough. The same lack of precision and detail makes the writings on towns and cities very frustrating. There are no city plans, for example, no graphic layouts, just more descriptive writing. Reading this stuff is like having hands full of blancmange. There's just no substance, no spine to the body of writing here.

The 64 page book is virtually a footnote. Eighteen pages are taken up with NPC profiles which are too short to be anything other than mere thumbnail sketches, lacking any real depth, and lacking any statistics at all so they have little usefulness. The 18 pages of new monsters and treasures are fines as these things go, but a campaign set just isn't the place for them, frankly. Which leaves you with a few rudimentary pages on some fairly predictable secret cults, some OK plot outlines, a bit on How To Create Legends, and that's it.

Overall: This is not a strong product. Although elements of the structure have clearly been derived from TSR's boxed sets (e.g. the section, "Regarding the Land and its Places" is a straight lift from the format first used in 1983's World of Greyhawk and developed in most TSR products since), Barsaive doesn't come close to, say Forgotten Realms 2 and it's only [sterling]1.00 cheaper (and about half the size). I've been over this set several times, making notes and re-reading sections, and each time I come to it, I get more disappointed. Chris Kubasik has written some very fine fiction indeed - his story in Virtual Realities is wonderful - but this project has simply defeated him. Not only is the writing imprecise and humourless, as noted, but it even lacks creativity. On page 101 of the larger book, the "Place of Mystery" named the Poison Forest was a good idea, something that made me note - "want to do something with this!" Looking back over my notes, it was the first time in over 40 pages anything had illicited that response. There just aren't enough good ideas in here. At [sterling]17.00, I can't really recommend it, but Earthdawn GMs are going to need it, I guess. Let's hope that the forthcoming Companion (which sounds excellent) and later sourcebooks do Earthdawn the justice which this product simply fails to do.

Carl Sargent

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