Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why You Should Read the Sword of Air (But Think Before You Run It)

Game: Sword of Air
System: Pathfinder/Swords & Wizardry
Publisher: Frog God Games
Author: Bill Webb
Initial Release: 2014

Sword of Air is unfinished. This is partly by design. The back cover will tell you that this hefty Pathfinder/Swords & Wizardry module is a “sandbox campaign in the old-school style that take [sic] your characters from level 1 through level 20.” (Yes, there are a lot of typos and errata - best get that out of the way now.) “Within these pages you will find: the secret of the Sword of Air artifact; a vast and detailed wilderness; a feud between two powerful wizards Kayden and Sorten; both Kayden and Sorten’s domains described in detail; the tomb of famous wizard and court adviser Aka Bakar; the Plane of Shadow; the City of Tsen and its surrounding wastelands; Steve the Cat; and more! Sword of Air,” you see, “is part of the home campaign world of Frog God Game’s Bill Webb and it has been running since 1977.” That last boast should tell you quite a bit.

Most of this is, strictly speaking, true. And it’s exciting stuff, albeit a little misleading. Sword of Air is not, in itself, a campaign. It would barely even qualify as a campaign setting by most standards. It provides virtually nothing in the way of gazetteer or background content, with a few partial exceptions like the historical notes before the chapter on the Tomb of Aka Bakar. It assumes that the DM is either intimately familiar with the Lost Lands setting - the home of the Necromancer and Frog God Games line of products, described piecemeal in other works - or willing to create a world of her own wholesale. Sword of Air is also not a collection of modules republished with a unifying plot hook in the guise of a campaign, like so many other Frog God products tend to be (no shade thrown on these; I tend to love them).

No, Sword of Air will provide you with next to nothing in the way of campaign materials. It won’t even provide you with descriptions for many of its major locales. A detailed map will give you vital locations like the City of Freegate directly next to where it intends some major action to take place, but it will tell you nothing about Freegate, leaving it to the DM to provide the local care and color. It will haphazardly throw out references to fantastical locations like the Wizard’s Wall and hint cryptically at their wondrous back-stories (in the form of what are often rather tone-deaf allusions to Bill Webb’s own home campaign anecdotes and in-jokes), but it will tell the DM little else of use about those places beyond their names - often not even so much as a location on the otherwise richly detailed map. Sword of Air is honest about this within its introductory chapter, at least, if not its back cover and sales description. Webb goes on at length about his “monkey and the engineer” theory of design without ever quite making sense of the metaphor, but he does at least admit there - albeit to folks that have already purchased the book - that he has no intention of providing a campaign module but rather a loose collection of tools from which a DM might build a grand campaign.

And finally we hit on the truth of what Sword of Air is: not a sandbox (or, if it is, a grossly incomplete one  with misleading maps), not a campaign module, not even a campaign setting. Sword of Air is, in fact, a loose box of badly organized tools from which a dedicated DM and group of players might one day build something great. But my god, what a beautiful set of tools of those are.

The finest among these tools are Sword of Air’s set pieces, and golly are they masterful set pieces. The book offers in its first chapter and scattered throughout some snippets of character and plot hooks to use to tie these set pieces into your campaign’s larger story, and if you can be arsed to put in the effort you will be richly rewarded for having included them. Foremost among these are the two enormous towers owned by the archwizards Kayden and Sorten respectively, filled with all the wonders and weirdness your inner 12-year-old would want to find in the lairs of a master necromancer and conjurer. These, depending on the players’ allegiances and inclinations, may serve either as fantastical “towns” and bases of operation or as extraordinarily complex and coherent dungeons. Webb provides detail not only as to the stats of the denizens of these towers but as to their daily schedules, likely locations, relationships, and strokes of their broader lives. There are endless goodies to play with here, and a party visiting either of these towers, should they survive entry, will likely find themselves with days’ worth of things to do.

Sword of Air also includes no fewer than two massive megadungeons - each with a deceptively devious “introductory” dungeon hiding the much deadlier and more expansive structures below. I won’t say much about these for the sake of brevity beyond that, like most of Frog God’s megadungeons, they are top-notch old-school dives filled with tricks, traps, and secrets elaborate enough to put most “classic” D&D dungeons to shame. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better balance of tough but fair environmental puzzles (more Zelda than Zork), fascinating enemies, and coherent monster ecology filled with more interesting denizens, though a few of the overused favorites do make appearances.

The rest of the module is a collection of hex crawls and mostly exotic locales. The hex crawls set in the “normal” parts of Akados, the continent of the material plane on which Sword of Air mostly takes place, are fairly tepid. Most of the encounters here are overly familiar, the sort of goofy Gygaxian fare already overrepresented in hundreds of modules from the 70s and 80s. NPCs with jokey meta names, former real-world player characters with trollish personalities - the presence of a feuding family of hick dragons literally called the Hatfields and McCoys is at such a tonal dissonance with the more coherent locations of the game as to be baffling, though it does speak to the organic history of the campaign as Webb’s own evolving homebrew from childhood on over the years. But if you find the notion of meeting up with a line of Joe Platemails the Third and Fourth - a whack-whack-whacky paladin from Webb’s original player group with a penchant for stupidity and indestructibility (“Intelligence and Wisdom were his dump stats,” you see) - to be an enticing proposition, maybe you’ll get more out of these zany “random” encounters than I did.

The aforementioned exotic locales, however, are much stronger hex crawl material. Sword of Air’s chapter on the Plane of Shadow aka the Shadowfell is the stuff of nightmares, a terrifyingly alien place into which I cannot wait to throw a woefully unprepared player party. Filled with light-devouring monsters, doomed and half-crazed wanderers, twisted human revenants right out of Silent Hill (or more recently Stranger Things), and a literal river to Hell, this is the vision of a journey to the planar embodiment of darkness with the imagination and horror that were so sorely lacking in TSR and WotC’s takes on the subject. The Wasteland of Tsen, too - a fantasy Fallout zone with mutation-inducing radioactive air and lethal lead mines - is a consistently surprising and harrowing sojourn away from the ordinary, and an excellent taste of that desolate Slumbering Tsar flavor for those without the stomach to play a whole campaign in that kind of setting.

I mentioned Sword of Air has organization issues. Holy hell does it. There’s little consistency to any of the chapters’ layouts. Maps are scattered piecemeal everywhere; the hexes are particularly egregious. Critical character details and hooks are similarly offered in bites and chunks at near random for the DM to scrounge together, sometimes hundreds and hundreds of pages apart (and unbolded) for the same character. There are frequent contradictions. Being a Frog God product, this lengthy and disorganized volume has, of course, no index of names or terms (though it does thankfully have an appendix that includes player maps).

It’s worth mentioning that the Sword of Air has a weird obsession with males. As in, 90% or more of its named inhabitants are men (nearly all, if you believe the art, are white), all the non-deific characters of note are men, and it’s hard to say why that is in a game system that mechanically represents the sexes as equal and usually strives to make its fantasy world a varied and interesting place to be. This is easily fixed - my Sorten, for instance, is a woman, because who the hell needs another white bearded wizard anyway - but it’s strange, is all. The average gaming group is enough of a homogenous sausagefest without the fantasy denizens being this one-note as well. The less said about the one female plot-critical character having been horrifically raped to death by a demon to set the events of the book in motion, the better.

The art, all in full color, is occasionally solid but frequently iffy. At the risk of being brutal, much of the coloration looks like some aspiring Deviantartist’s first foray into Adobe Illustrator. 90s-esque Photoshop filters and presets (lens flare! bevel and emboss!) are rampant. The character illustrations of both wizard towers in particular are a little embarrassing and would likely kill the mood if shown to players. Simple black-and-white cartoons in the style of old-school module sketches would’ve been preferable here to attempting to ape the more elaborate Wizards of the Coast productions. The monsters are for the most part much better, and at least the cover is evocative. I don’t mean to sound too harsh here, because the vast majority of published RPG material is seriously lacking in the artistic department, and at least Sword of Air makes an effort to include a lot of it.

So yes, the module has its problems, chief of all that it’s not what it claims to be, and conversely that it could have been so much more. As a campaign setting, collection of characters, or coherent world, Sword of Air leaves much to be desired. Bill Webb’s “magnum opus” it is not, nor should it be as his work ever continues to improve with the years - the best of which, I think, are yet to come.
 But as a loosely bound, occasionally brilliant set of tools and materials to spark a DM’s imagination and from which to build something greater, Sword of Air has worth in spades. My initial frustrations with the product never disappeared completely, but at this point I have no regrets about picking up this flawed gem of a sourcebook, and would recommend others with the patience to look past its faults to do the same.

Liked it.

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