Friday, 13 January 2017

[REVIEW] The Phoenix Barony

The Phoenix Barony
by David Bezio

The Phoenix Barony
Setting books come in all shapes and sizes. Some are grandiose treatises shooting for that “big old tome sitting on a forgotten bookshelf” feel, while on the other side of the scale, we have humble, pamphlet-sized gazetteers like The Phoenix Barony. It is, to quote the introduction of the recently released 2nd edition, “hopelessly traditional vanilla favoured fantasy” that “takes a more lighthearted view”, and “draws its inspiration from cartoons, comic books, some fantasy literature, and the early RPGs that inspired [the author’s] style of play”. This is a worthwhile challenge. Over the years, vanilla fantasy has gained a bad name, bad enough that the introduction includes this apologia at all. Too often, it has been done disingenuously or on the cheap, with an intent to cash in on a sudden market demand (TSR was Suspect #1 in the racket), and the aftertaste lingers. But Phoenix Barony doesn’t need to be apologised for.

Taking a top-down approach and focusing on the macro-level details, the 26-page booklet describes a little 80 by 80 miles corner of the world, ruled by fundamentally well-meaning folks but beset by evil forces on the sides, with some internal conflicts making things difficult. It is a situation where most have the best intentions, but don’t always manage to get along or do the best thing. Compared to your usual game world of avarice, murder and double-dealing, it feels quaint, but also interesting: here are some challenges worthy of a band of adventurers, but in a place where you just can't kill your problems. Of course, it is also a great place for venturing out into the wilds to fight evil and discover precious artefacts – through the booklet, there is a sidebar describing scenes from one such adventure with a typical band of do-gooders. This piece of detail is neat; it lends Phoenix Barony a voice that’s comfy and well-meaning, and it provides a ready illustration and commentary for the gazetteer’s different sections. An understated piece of graphic design in the service of a supplement, and it works like a charm, just like the illustrations peppered throughout – for lack of a better word, these are mostly cute in a good sense.

Pretty pretty!
The different sections give you the background pieces you need to get acquainted with this little piece of land. It has a history of heroism and lingering evil, a dualistic mythology between good god Irnoch and bad god Vulcoo, its politics run by a bunch of high-level characters, and basic organisations like Irnoch’s Templars, the wizard’s guild (the Order of Sunderia), or the Totally Not Thieves. It is an adventurer-centric worldview, what with everything being neatly organised along class divisions (the D&D kind). It mostly works, but sometimes, it goes a bit too far – the six major towns are basically Rangertown, Elftown, Halflingtown, Dwarftown, Human City and Merchant Town (with Totally Not Thieves), and that grates a bit. And yet there are also cool details like the Ale Shepherds of Aleton (halflings who ride ale barrels down the river to Goblin Head Lake, personal friendship between various rulers, a succession problem or two, and of course Geltrod the Vermin Lord, ruler of Geltsberg with its “200 foot tall iron walls covered with bolts, spikes, the webs of giant spiders, and the skeletal remains of victims chained to the exterior” (because that’s just how Geltrod rolls). Then there is a description for Thathor, “a good base town” (the one with the Totally Not Thieves), and a bunch of legends to get you started. That’s really all you need – The Phoenix Barony doesn’t strive to be exhaustive, and has enough space and gaps to fill things out with your own ideas.

To conclude, The Phoenix Barony does a fine job with what it sets out to do. It is earnest and has a genuine old-school charm. I like the names – it is chock full of excellent, expressive yet iconic-feeling names like Frunder’s Rest, Lady Gloral of Deledon, Archbishop Horace, and Goblin Head Lake. If you want a mini-setting with a positive outlook and an “adventurer fantasy” aesthetic, interesting conflicts and just enough detail to provide a framework for your adventures, this is a good bet.

Rating: *** / *****

Geltrod. That guy.

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