In Wintertop's Shadow
The amount of material needed to get everything out of this should relegate it to "completists only" status: the sheer playability of the setting, and quality of the material, makes completism a pleasure.
In Wintertop's Shadow is the Unspoken Word supplement for Hero Wars covering the Tarsh Exiles. It's 64pp of black & white illustrated text (including 1 title page and 1 page of advertising), bound in full colour cover. Front cover portrays a band of exiles exiting Skull Pass, while the back shows a map of the exiles lands, the Dragonspine mountains between Sartar & Tarsh.
"Listen to the Drums!" sets the tone for the supplement; more so than any other group in the Dragon Pass area, the Tarsh Exiles are the oppressed rebels of the Orlanthi. Their homeland has been overtaken by the Lunar Empire through force and trickery (in their eyes, diplomacy and goodwill according to the Lunars), and they are the last remnants. Romantically, you could compare them to the Scots of Braveheart, or (if you're upwind of them and the light's bad) the Rebels of Star Wars. Of course, if you're playing a campaign against them, they look a lot more like Gloranthan Taliban...
"In Exile" - Broad background
"The Drum History" is a timeline of Tarsh over the last 500 years, focusing in the latter part on the exiles expulsion from lowland Tarsh. Very detailed for the 30-40 years that covers, this should be ample to answer any players' questions ?Have our clan fought with them recently? When did they get exiled? Have they double crossed us before?,? and to flesh out character background.
"Life by the axe" once again drives home the harsh nature of life in the hills around Wintertop: farming is very poor, often only sustainable with blood sacrifice. Violence is not only always an option, but very often the only one considered.
"Wintertop" - geography and sociology
"The wintertop region" and gazetteer give a roundup of the area, emphasising the rugged, unfarmable nature of the land, and also highlighting it's strategic importance, containing a most of the passes from the homelands of the Empire to the frontiers of Sartar, Kethaela and Prax. Again, more plot seeds are dropped here, especially given that the central Mountains of the region, Kero Fin and Wintertop, are the most sacred sites of the Orlanthi religion. And in a setting where mythology holds the keys to magical power, you've got a powerful set of story elements hanging around there.
"The Exiles" gives a breakdown of the groups in the Exiles; yup, you've guessed, there are a number of factions, all of whom are just barely united in their opposition to the Empire and dreams of liberating the homeland. Going back to an earlier analogy, students of history should be aware of the true history of the Scottish rebellions, and the part the Bruce played in them. "We've raided enough from the neighbours to last a couple of years: let's see if we can kick them English bastards out as well now!"
"We Are the Exiles" - Character Creation, rules and personal history
?Keywords? - the sections on keywords for character creation shows up how reliant the enterprise is on previously published material. Without Thunder Rebels, Issaries' book for Sartarite Orlanthi characters, this part is practically unusable. That being a given, the new material is good, and the new cultural keywords, and occupations, make sense in their context. Just a quick note to how they support the atmosphere of the area: the default personality trait for an Exile Man is Fierce, and for an Exile Woman, it is Cruel. There is no equivalent cultural default for Thunder Rebels characters. Furthermore, one of the new occupational keywords is Thrall, an occupation not previously open to PC's, who can now be aspirant to the station of Stickpicker...
"Hunting & Fishing", though only given a page, give enough details to allow GM's to run hunting themed sessions.
"Gods & Heroes of the Exiles" again refers often back to Thunder Rebels and Storm Tribe for most cult details. What is more important is the cult details for Maran Gor, the cruel earth goddess. The Exiles have little truck with the balancing voice of the earth mother calling for peace that the Heortlings appeal to; if anything, the male warrior gods are less belligerent than the voice of the angry earth. In game terms, the secrets seem very powerful, but the demands the cults make on their members balance these a great deal; fanatics only need apply.
In order to give a more "exile" flavour to the cults from "thunder rebels", etc, a wide selection of hero cults / subcults from the Tarshite tradition are given. All seem well balanced, and add into Orlanthi heroes the earthquakes, drums and axes that make them truly Tarshite.
"Words from Exile" - it's that old Gloranthan favourite, What My Father Told Me, though in far greater depth and detail than normal. To me, this is the heart of the book: no game terms, no timelines, just pure in game voice background. All players and prospective GM's should really start here.
"What My Sister Whispers" is a very brief "tease" of the secrets of the Maran cult, okay, but I felt it was just reiterating what had been said in the cult write up, and what isn't repeated is covered more fully in the following page, Maran's Rites.
Adventures in Exile - adventures
The introduction to the adventures & campaigning section states baldly what has been implied: the Tarsh Exiles have become the bloodthirsty barbarians that the Empire typify all Orlanthi as. They are, perhaps by choice, perhaps by necessity, Not Nice People. They are living proof that the simple fact of being oppressed does not bring with it nobility.
"The Yearly Cycle" gives a framework for the general round of Exile campaigns, with plenty of adventure seeds. Very brief (half a page per season), but not a word wasted. A session of play in each sentence, if you want, or enough information to deal with a season or two in as many sentences.
"The Tars Gor", a relatively straight forward raid scenario, with enough complications to keep it interesting, though it didn't shout out "Exile scenario" to me. I suppose that come through execution, and I have to say that detail drops towards the end of the scenario: okay, by then most runs of the scenario will be going on material already raised, but 5 pages are dedicated to the build up, and only 1 to the climax and aftermath... this is followed by a hero band write up for the NPC protagonists of "The Tars Gor," and seems okay, but Hero Bands haven't really interested me...
"King for a Day" is much more Tarshite in it's themes, and especially in its conclusion(s); the possibilities are given more detail here as well. It also allows GM's to be a lot more cruel to players, which I always like to see... If while running this, you don't get the local equivalent of ?oh crap? muttered at least once by one of your players, you're not doing it right.
How can you tell it's an exile scenario? You can't get to the end of it without wading knee deep in blood. And not in the usual role playing "stack up the enemies' corpses" way.
"Exile Clan Generation" - an appendix covering changes to the "Orlanth is Dead" clan generation system to make it more Tarsh Exile-y. Anything which gives more personality to characters & their supporting cast is good, and this is done really well, given that many of the changes focus on "Old Tarsh Loyalty" as a trait of the Exile clans.
Given that this book relies on the basics of Orlanthi culture being available elsewhere, the concentration on the differences between the Exiles and the Sartarites means that character of the group comes out very strongly: every section, every page, nearly every sentence contains the word ?harsh?, whether describing their land, their history or their character. And, as your creative writing teacher told you, conflict builds character. Well, it builds plot devices anyway. Exiles are never lost for short term (raid enough food to get through winter) and long term (liberate the lowlands!) goals. There's certainly enough quality material here to run a purely exile campaign for a good couple of years, and more than enough to set them up as enemies, rivals or allies for any PC group in the Dragon Pass area.
The not so good.
The cover. I really don't like singling it out, but it doesn't look good to my eye.
I may have sounded like I harped on about how much other material is needed to get the best out of this book, but in all honesty, all you really need is the basic rulebook and Thunder Rebels. Besides, as I said in the good points, the fact that the other stuff is already published means we get 62 pages of distilled exiles. And anyway, there's been little enough published for Hero Wars (7 books in a couple of years?), and that's been of such high quality, that completism's no problem for most players.
If I see the word "harsh" again, I may weep. This means I can't proofread the review, but life's har... hard. Life's hard.
Not essential, but well worth it, even for non completists. Whoever they are. Lightweights.