It’s not often that I bother to look at new fantasy settings – I have a well-defined comfort zone and like to stay there. And then ‘Spellbound Kingdoms’ crosses my reading list. Sometimes it is good to look outside of your comfort zone and see if something else sings to you.
This is the first iteration of SK I’m familiar with, and it does note that there has been some streamlining and community consultation in the rewrite process – with some material added from the fans. This is the type of collaborative approach that meshes well with my sensibilities and so I read on.
SK offers a brilliant, and quite innovative approach to the genre, by using emotional attachments, known as Inspirations to drive characters, give them depth and purpose, and in great circumstances – even stave off death. In SK, the kingdoms are shaped by their rulers, and each has a Doom, a basic reflection of the character and well-being of the nation. Knowing that dreams are powerful, most rulers enforce the idea of accepting one’s lot in life and never striving above one’s rank. Commoners who dream are dangerous, and so the average person is not aware of the marvellous power of their Inspirations. Character creation is also ruled by Histories, descriptive phrases that tell other players something about the history of the character, but also provide a skill. For example, if I have ‘Pickpocket of the Wharf Rats guild’, this tells other characters something about my past, but also gives scope for the types of encounters where this would come in handy. It’s pure efficiency – elegant and simple, but with a big payoff.
The combat styles are likewise playful, evocative and narrative. Basically, you can choose a fighting style and this unlocks certain manoeuvres with varying results. It isn’t complicated and adds to the story. Want to sip a cup of tea whilst fighting an opponent one-handed? It’s not only possible, but your opponent is very likely to not only suffer a wound or two, but also a wounded ego as his Reputation takes a battering. In SK, a well-placed word, or particularly spectacular defeat can cut much deeper than a blade, so social combat is a facet of any encounter.
Even though there are only two races – Humans and Trolls – in the world, the author has done a splendid job of making all of the different specieis/ethnicities unique. From the sinister Wights, to the feral Princes of Wolves, all have strong potential as PCs. I saw no wasted material here. Likewise, the Classes are all rife with opportunity.
The other two standout features are the Mass Combat rules and the Organisation Rules. For the former, it allows you to quickly resolve battles on land, sea and air, and at any scale imaginable, but also retain the narrative of the battle. The rules for Organisations allow you to set wide-reaching agendas for power groups in the setting, and creating your own Covens, Churches, Armed Legions, Noble Houses or even Savage Tribes and Trading Companies. The rules then show how these groups can interact with each other, lending support, launching shadow wars, manipulating each other or even growing child organisations under their banner.
The only drawback to the book is that the author does comment a few times on his poor writing style. I’ll address this with a couple of points – but firstly, let me say I saw no evidence to support his claim of poor writing. It is conversational in style, and feels like a gaming buddy explaining a really cool idea that they have enthusiasm for. Secondly, his choice of examples is excellent and the names used in the book took me back to my first Conan, or Grey Mouser books. His grasp of evoking a ‘sword and sorcery’ feel is solid, and made the book even more enjoyable. Likewise, the use of classical pieces of artwork added to this ‘old school’ feel, and the marriage of word and art is almost flawless. The feature art pieces at the beginning of each chapter gave me pause to reflect on what I’d be learning next.
My recommendation would be to remove any mention of poor writing style (which I found very jarring) and simply let the reader make up their own mind.
If you are looking for something more sophisticated than ‘go to dungeon, slay goblins’, this is for you. If you are a GM wanting to challenge your PCs to be more creative, this is for you. If you are a fan of sword and sorcery and just want something new for your gaming table – then this is for you. Enjoy.