A Magical Society:
Ecology and Culture
A Magical Society is a dense and fairly scholarly book on designing a realistic world for the D20 system. In fact, the back cover claims that you'll need the Dungeons & Dragons core books to use it. Let's address that bit first, because it isn't true.
This isn't really a D20-specific book. First, almost all of the content deals with things which are applicable to almost any game system. The number of things with actual game stats within the pages is negligible. It does make some assumptions about how the universe works (particularly as far as magic goes) that does include some D&D-isms like there being a difference between "arcane" and "divine" magic.
But even that doesn't really limit its usability for different game systems, because the difference doesn't really affect anything, it's just mentioned. So all-in-all, while the book has the D20 label, it's really a generic world-building book... which honestly, makes it more useful in my opinion. So, just to sum up, A Magical Society, while it uses the trappings of D&D in its examples, is really more of a general purpose supplement. So even if you dislike the D20 system, take a look at this book anyway.
The book itself is a 160 page softcover with just one page used for the open game license.
It's published by Expeditious Retreat Press and sells for $27. You can also pick up the PDF version from their site for just $10, if you'd like to save a few bucks. They've even got a free 37-page "sneak peak" at the contents if you'd prefer to check it out yourself.
The interior art is good and the text is quite readable, although personally I kind of dislike the toned paper they use. Basically, you're reading dark gray text on light gray paper instead of black text on white, so make sure you have good lighting. All of the illustrations are black & white or grayscale; the only color art is on the covers.
The premise of A Magical Society is that it's a sort of thesis produced by Kierian the Bold as part of his application to become the new god of War. Apparently the gods are picky and don't allow just anyone to become a deity. First you have to prove that you can create a self-sustaining world with minimal magical intervention and write a book about how you did it. The "interludes" are generally discussions between Kierian and the gnome Noj, who has been chosen to instruct him.
But the premise is really just an excuse for them to present a lengthy and fairly technical discussion on creating worlds for RPGs, and that's what I really think that the product should be judged upon. So how well did they accomplish that?
World Building 101
Let me first say that this is a dense book. The first section covers food chains, biomes, how mountains form and where, and a host of other details. Let's take a quote; here's a paragraph from the section on forest biomes.
Montane forests are coniferous forests in the mountains. Spruce, fir, mountain hemlock, pine, incense cedar, and the giant sequoia compose the majority of montane forests. As you can tell, montane forests share many characteristics with boreal forests, but permafrost doesn't have its icy grip on montane forests, except perhaps at their very highest elevations. Low-elevation montane forests are dominated by ponderosa pine and include the deciduous quaking aspen before eventually turning into pine forests. Pine forests consist mainly of pine trees, in particular the scots pine. They occupy much of the colder temperate latitudes. In some places, pine forests turn into temperate deciduous forests without disturbance from fire. These pines keep their advantage over the deciduous by being better adapted to the fire regime. Pine forests also contain the valuable pitch (for fuel) and white (lumber) pines, the loblolly, longleaf and slash pines.
Sounds more like something out of a biology textbook than a book on world-building, doesn't it? This depth of detail is, I'd say, probably the book's biggest strength... and its biggest weakness. There's a lot of practical advice on what sort of terrains and lifeforms are found where, but it's scattered amongst detailed discussions of earthly biology and geography. Ecology and Culture is a slow read. That's a strong point if you're looking for a lot of detail and information in one place, but a weakness if you were looking for something quick and easy.
One thing you won't find in any biology textbook, though, is its discussion of how magic fits into all this. The way that it treats magic, it's an energy field that's generally spread over the entire world. In places where there's plenty of sunlight and lots of non-magical food, magiotrophs (microscopic creatures that can survive on magic alone) are rare and generally get out-competed by organisms that use more normal resources, such as photosynthesis. But in places like deep underground caverns, where in the real world there would be little or no life, magiotrophs form the basis of a complex ecology.
This basically lets them justify a lot of D&D-isms like vast underground caverns filled with life and huge monsters living in inhospitable environments like volcanic craters. They either eat magic directly, or they feed upon smaller critters that do. While in most places the book concentrates on what regular earth life is like, the authors do pause periodically to discuss how magic changes things.
You gets lots of little details in this section, stuff like why omnivores don't dominate the landscape, the fact that burrowing herbivores consume a vastly greater proportion of the greenery in a savanna than the grazers on the surface, why potatoes grow such a large root (it evolved to survive the conditions on the sides of steep mountains, where it has to survive for many, many months of harsh conditions and a really short growing cycle), etc..
Part II of the book covers mapping it and some general cultural info. One of the first things discussed is whether or not your world rotates and the effect that this has on wind patterns and ocean currents. It talks about all of the different climate zones and using the "supercontinent" idea, where all of your continents were originally one but broke apart. We get a summary of what sort of cultures are most likely to be found in what environments, down to the level of detail of what sort of clothes are most suitable for the area. For example, desert dwellers tend to prefer loose-fitting, loosely woven garments with narrow openings for the hands and feet, layered to protect against the harsh environment.
Magical effects are generally covered in sidebars. There's one on page 78 discussing how well elves are suited for living in rainforests. Underground ecologies (sadly rare and sparse in the real world) often depend heavily on magiotrophes to support their ecosystems.
This is pretty darn thorough. I mean, it covers various crafts that primitive cultures can develop, from weaving to pottery to building homes and vehicles. I mean, it discusses how glazes are added to pottery, as well as the general progression from the very simplest of open pits to highly advanced kilns.
I can't really summarize all of the topics here. It's long, sometimes slow to read, and very detailed. We get what sort of customs different cultures tend to create, what sort of things they usually celebrate or honor with a ritual, etc..
Part III gets down to the nitty-gritty of what intelligent races you want (the authors use elves, dwarves, humans, gnomes, halflings, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins and kobolds for their example), where they'll start, and how they're likely to expand. He puts them all on various continents in his example world and discusses how they spread from there.
The book "ends" at page 112. I put it in quotes, because after that it has a whopping 45 page appendix and a 2 page bibliography. The appendix has a lot of info to absorb. It's sort of a glossary of important terms.
For example, the section on geological formations starts with...
Aragonite: A calcium carbonate crystal that decorates caves. These long, needle-like crystals form when the water reaches [a] high magnesium to calcium ratio, which intensifies in evaporation. It is not uncommon to find calcite formations tipped with aragonite spikes and tinsels.
And there are, I'd guess, more than a hundred entries here, broken up into sections like famous Places (in the real world, a great starting point for further research), Valuables (like adamantine, bronze, cacao, jade or saffron), Plants, Animals, and various types of Magiovores (original magical creatures). The magiovores includes such things as Bone Renders, False Grass, and Assassin Caterpillars. There are about 8 pages of these, each getting a paragraph description. Since none of them are "monsters" in the traditional D&D meaning, most don't have any actual stats, just description. But you could readily add them to any fantasy campaign.
As an example, Bountiful Deer are magical wildlife that can promote rapid plant-growth by their mere presence. They're not actually magically dependent (meaning that they won't die in an anti-magic zone) but their ability to aid nearby plants does depend on there being magic available. It takes a DC 20 knowledge (nature) check to correctly identify one, but no one has ever managed to keep one alive in captivity for long.
But there's too much material here for me to do more than give a handful of examples. Let's look at the overall book again. It does have a number of typos, but at least they spell-checked it. The typos are all in the form of missing words or using the wrong word, not bad spelling. The art is good and usually appropriate to the material being covered (and it does have diagrams to show stuff like continental drift), although the appendix just has the same sidebar pics repeated over and over again. The info seemed generally good, although I did see one or two things that looked like mistakes to me, so I'd try to get independent confirmation of anything that looks really iffy.
To sum up: this book is dense and very detailed. In fact, it may be too detailed for folks looking for a "light-weight" guide to world-making. I have to give it a 5 for substance, though. The style isn't that impressive but definitely acceptable, so I'd put that at 3. It's definitely a content-over-style book, though. I'd say that no matter how much you know about world design already, you're bound to learn something new while reading through A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture.
Their website can be found at http://www.exp.citymax.com. And don't forget to check out the 37-page PDF preview!