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Review of Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia by Alea Publishing

‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” ~ Lewis Carol (Jabberwocky, 1871)

There is this great cult film done by Terry Gilliam called Jabberwocky (1977), and undoubtedly many folks have not had an opportunity to view it. It’s not one of his best movies, in my opinion, and it was somewhat overshadowed by an earlier fantasy movie he filmed. But there are some pretty amusing scenes, and it does a great job of riffing on the eccentricities of European feudalistic society as a whole. Of course, many Fantasy Gamers will have seen this earlier film, Monty Python’s Holy Grail (1975), and will probably be able to quote a lot of lines from the flick – usually at inopportune moments in the middle of a D&D session. But Jabberwocky is unique in showing how bizarre feudal culture can be, and how “feudalistic” thinking can be very foreign to modern minds.
Adventurer's Guide to Cthonia
Of course, there are dozens of excellent, if somewhat less comedic, movies written that exemplify the Medieval life, such as A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Lion In Winter (1968), and the more modern Kingdom of Heaven (2005). These movies all demonstrate many concepts that were “commonly understood” to a Medieval Man in a feudal culture, that no longer have a place in our modern world – and often are not even included at our D&D gaming table.

But in Alea Publishing’s Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia, the mystery and drama of Medieval Feudal Europe serves as a backdrop for a dark and intriguing setting to serve your D&D 4e Game.

Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia
  • Designers: Joshua Raynack & Heather Raynack.
  • Illustrators: Keith Thompson, Joshua Raynack, and Sade.
  • Publisher: Alea Publishing
  • Year: 2009
  • Media: PDF (111 pages)
  • Cost: $11.95

The Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia is a guide to the Feudal Lords World Setting by Alea Publishing, and provides information for creating Characters in the vast region of Cthonia, the “heart” of the known world of Terra. This ebook contains three full color and detailed maps, one of Cthonia and surrounding lands, and two maps of the major City of Caldor, as well as a display of Heraldic devices common to the area. The Adventurer’s Guide covers the status of the major D&D Races and Classes in Cthonia, and offers two new Multiclasses, complete with additional Powers. Additional Character Development material includes 11 new Paragon Paths and 2 new Epic Destinies, over 30 Background Professions and Feudal Obligations, more than 50 new Feats, and even rules for gaining Noble Titles and Lineage. Finally, the Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia details common and magical equipment, major religions (with an emphasis on the Eternal Church of Man), and an Almanac of History, Languages, Coins of the realm, and a Calendar.

Now in addition to being a long-time Fantasy Gamer, I am also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) which is an international group dedicated to historical research and reenactment of the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe. As that is the case, I was a bit skeptical, at first, of the premise of the Feudal Lords and its treatment of a strongly feudalistic fantasy society:

CAMPAIGN DESIGN DIARY

When initially designing the attitude and tone that would become Terra, we looked at our own history and posed a simple question. How would the church react if magic truly existed? The medieval mindset truly believed magic a possibility. Even the early church, in order to differentiate magic used by prophets and that of magicians, they used the term miracle. Miracles were divinely inspired acts, while magicians and charlatans used spells empowered by demons and devils. Hence, we have divine magic, inspired through divine worship, and arcane magic, empowered through demon worship or granted by devilish pacts.

You will find many elements outside this product that fit nicely into the setting. Exploring an Egyus ruin or soaking in an ancient Romas bathhouse should invoke strong images as both parallel our own history. It also lays a strong foundation for there are countless resources from books to television channels devoted entirely to history to help spark the imagination.

Reading further into the world setting, I was struck by the similarities of place and cultural names which the Authors use in their history and glossary. But some writers, like R.E. Howard for instance, used similar literary illustrations to create the Hyperborean world of Conan the Barbarian, creating names of places and peoples that were close to those from our mundane world, to draw us into some otherworldly and more ancient place. The Authors of the Feudal Lords Campaign Setting took this lesson to heart when they drew up their parallel fantasy version of a Europe struggling to emerge from the Dark Ages, following the Fall of the Romas Empire

In order to complete the atmosphere, the Authors discuss important issues that will have an effect on how the NPCs of the world of Terra will react to adventurers. Examining the cultural effects of magic, superstition, and religion, these become important considerations in the way that Player-Characters will be viewed in the course of their adventures. And above all, the stratified culture of feudalism is a pervasive element of the world that must be accepted in order to avoid punishment, imprisonment, or even death.

ESTATES OF THE REALM

The “estates of the realm” mechanic is a feudalistic caste system that divides up the human population into three predominantly hereditary social classes: the nobles, the clergy, and the commoners. Beginning at 1st level, an unaligned human character must choose an estate to which they belong. Since half-elves live in the confines of human society with no culture of their own, these unaligned characters must also select one of the above estates.

Once selected, a character cannot change or disregard their choice. The feudal system is also a strict caste system where everybody within knows their place and reminded of such since the time of their birth. However, special circumstances (such as multiclass characters) may arise where your Game Master might allow you to change your social class. These changes are always at the discretion of the Game Master.

I was actually pleased to see that feudalistic concepts are a fairly major component of the Feudal Lords Campaign Setting, and they cannot be put aside lightly. Many of the various Character Background options, Feats, and Paragon Paths are based upon it, and for some campaigns, this might be considered too strict for some D&D Players to enjoy role-playing. But for those up for the role-playing challenge, using strict feudalism in this way will present all manner of obstacles to confront Players, as well as rewards that are not seen in your typical D&D campaign.

For instance, the concept of gaining Nobility carries a greater importance in the Feudal Lords Campaign Setting and offers Characters a new arsenal of powers called Commands. These are similar to Rituals, but do not require that they be learned in order to be issued. They sometimes require the creation and use of a “Writ” as a material component, with the Commands are carried out over a period of time, the length of which is determined by how successful a Skill Check is made. Commands can range from summoning and sending forth a Loyal Messenger to calling Guards to watch over a place or object.

NOBLE ACCOMMODATIONS

“A lord, upon hearing of your endeavors or looking to make prominent connections, offers lodging at his manor house.”

With a successful Heraldry check, you find hospitality from a gracious lord. You stay in a luxury room. Your allies may also stay at the manor house, sleeping in the servant’s quarters or by the hearth in the kitchen. You receive further generosities based on the result of your check. A week must pass before a character can perform or again benefit from this command.

RUMORS AND GOSSIP

“You send spies to gather information and observe suspicious suspects to ensure you did not overlook anything obvious.”

As soon as your spies return and report, you may make a Streetwise check to reveal an overlooked clue or vital piece of information. You gain a bonus to the check dependant on size of the settlement.

Likewise, several of the Paragon Paths in the Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia are strongly based in culture created by a strict adherence to feudalism, such as the Feudal Lord, Kingmaker, and Knight-Errant. While only the Feudal Lord has the pre-requisite of being part of the nobility, Paragon Paths such as the Guildmaster, Prelate, and Inquisitor General still draw their authority and power from the stratified culture of feudalism, and would not fit well in a world without it.

FEUDAL LORD

“At times I believe to be the cleverest person in existence since with a simple command, I change hundreds of lives.” -Sir Reginald de Cathway

Prerequisite: Noble

WHETHER THEY HOLD POWER by commanding a fief, with its accompanying rights and duties, or a landless second son, feudal lords pay homage to a king or queen. Descendant of fighting men whose duty fell to protecting the enduring power of the monarchy, a feudal lord swears to defend that tradition as well as those beneath their station.

As a landholder, like the peasants under their influence, feudal lords forge an unbreakable bond with the land they control. Early Cthonian and Darcadian law declares, “No lord without land; no land without a lord.” Proud of their vassalage, these noble proprietors defend their lands and those of their sovereign completely. For most, it is their only capital, or means of support.

INQUISITOR GENERAL

“Many tremble by my very presence. Most everyone has a taint of some devilish secret that once crossed their mind or devious act that brought them to the edge, away from salvation. And if they do, I will find it.” —Gareth the Somber

Prerequisite: Cleric

THEY CONSTANTLY SEEK out depraved souls when redemption proves a lost cause. They spearhead official inquisitions with full force and zeal, all the while hunting emerging demons and devils entering into the mortal realm.

They keep a watchful eye on burgeoning cults and often expunge material that borders heresy. They are patient, often keeping those under their charge at bay, waiting for possible heretics to incriminate themselves before striking. For those that prove more difficult, torture remains an option when extracting a confession.

Overall, I really like the Adventurer’s Guide to Cthonia quite a lot, and I think it shows just how far the D&D 4e system can be shaped by talented DMs into a unique gaming experience, very different from the average “high fantasy” campaign. Obviously, this is one product in a series that will offer more information on the world of Terra in the Feudal Lords Campaign Setting, but it is very complete, and DMs should have no problem running many adventures for Players exploring Cthonia and the wild lands around it. Since the ebook contains a great of material at a very decent price, and is less expensive than many settings out on the market, so I would definitely rate this product a Good Buy. And I will certainly be looking forward to seeing future release of other parts of Terra in the future.

As a final note, however, Dungeon Masters may want to consider how their Players will react to a full-blown feudalistic world, one which may present role-playing difficulties as often as it creates great role-playing moments. Important questions such as “Will all Characters be Nobles?” and “How will Commoners and Clergy deal with a Noble in their group?” will need to be addressed before undertaking a campaign of this nature. In my opinion, I would suggest that the Feudal Lords Campaign Setting might be better suited to seasoned Players and DMs looking for a serious role-playing experience.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Blog’s Author received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

I would like to thank the folks at Alea Publishing for providing the opportunity to review this work, and I wish them good luck with their future releases.


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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