Friday, March 23, 2012

Judges Guild Retrospective #4: Tarantis

And so, as promised in my earlier post, a retrospective reivew of Tarantis:

This 1983 publication from Judges Guild was the last of its kind, a city-state guidebook for the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  Joining the inimitable City State of the Invincible Overlord and the City State of the World Emperor, Tarantis was the third city state to be detailed.  Written by Bob Bledsaw, it bears many marks of his authorship -- namely, attention to detail and a strong sense of setting.  It's also "Bledsawian" in the sense that, like the rest of the Wilderlands, it's a sandbox too.  There are no dungeons detailed here or plotlines to follow.

Overall, I give Tarantis a "C" grade and can only recommend its purchase for collectors and those running a Wilderlands sandbox campaign.

Setting & Flavor

One of the nice things about a Bledsaw work -- you always have a great sense of location.  On the shores of an Eastern subcontinent in the Wilderlands, Tarantis is a port city and home to a people reminiscent of the Turks, the Sumerians, and a dash of distant India.  Bledsaw captures the maritime flavor of the area with a nice historical overview of the area.  Like the other large cities of the Wilderlands, Tarantis is an orderly place with a relatively brutal government with a Lawful Evil / Neutral flavor.  How much of this is a reflection of Bledsaw's politics or worldview is hard to say, but it is a recurring theme in the Wilderlands.

On the edge of an Asiatic wilderness with its own Mongol analogue, Tarantis, while interesting, lacks much of the fantastic whimsy of the City State of the Invincible Overlord.  Rather like the nations of the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting, Tarantis is very much a human-focused nation; the elements of fantasy are few and far between.  With its mercantile/piratical/barbarian-horde-avoiding tone, the area feels more like a low fantasy swords & sandals locale than one where elves and ogres and mind flayers congregate.  That's a minor quibble, but perhaps it's a strength as well -- perhaps Bledsaw deliberately wanted to give "Judges" a low fantasy city option.

Other bits of flavor are sprinkled throughout.  A particular standout is a huge rumor table (provided in a d100 list that is much easier to use than the rumor in the CSIO (which were one rumor per city locale).  The rumors themselves evoke the setting and provide Judges with a huge repository of adventure ideas.

The artwork, all black and white other than the cover, is of fair quality and overall evokes the setting well.  My overall impression is that it is light on art.

Physical Product

You knew this was coming, but here it comes regardless: Tarantis' overall physical presentation is poor, especially by 1983 standards.  Once you get past the single-page glossy color cover sheet, you are dealing with two 96-page newsprint-paper staple-bound books in the traditional JG mold, along with the campaign map (DM/Judge and Player versions).  I find these production values increasingly hard to justify, but JG at this point in their lifespan was trying to keep costs down by having an arrangement with a newspaper printer that did JG stuff "on the side" on the condition that the material be prepped for printing in a precise way, run once on their paper with no do-overs, and be done.  While this low-cost printing strategy kept JG in business in the short-term, it crippled them in the long-term from a competitive standpoint.  It also led to questionable editorial decisions where full-page artwork of dubious quality was slapped into a product to fatten it up so that the manuscript could get to the required number of pages.

Overall then, we are left with a fairly shocking conclusion: that a 1983 JG publication was of lower quality than TSR's original white box OD&D offerings of 1975.  Let that soak in for a moment.

Content & Organization

The maps, as always, are great.  They are as usable now as they were in '83.

My initial beef with Tarantis' content is that a large portion of it is regurgitated, particularly many of the tables and charts.  I estimate that no less than 10-15% of the content (encounter charts, terrain generation, etc.) was previously-published.  More infuriating is that this is content that likely Tarantis buyers already owned by virtue of having a copy of the CSIO, the Campaign Hexagon System, or some of the Wilderlands releases.

On top of that, there is unnecessary content.  Pages and pages are devoted, for instance, to a listing of settlements in the entire 18-map Wilderlands.  How this information was supposed to be useful to a purchaser of one-map Tarantis is beyond me.

Editorially, Bledsaw also fumbled, allowing his military fetish to shine through as he waxes about every significant military unit within Tarantis' military.  Four to five pages are taken up with descriptions of company commanders and their troops with tangential, if any, interest to player-characters adventuring in a typical exploration/dungeon-based sandbox setting.  Those were five pages that reasonable purchasers in 1983 would have wanted back -- pages that could have been used to supply actual adventure-related content.

By way of comparison, the CSIO contained adventure seeds and some blank dungeon maps.  It was screaming for adventure.  Gimme some encounter charts and let's head off to Thunderhold!  Sadly, Tarantis has no adventuring locales even partially described, requiring the DM to do all of the work.  This is not a fatal flaw, but it certainly renders Tarantis less "ready-to-play."

As I have previously explained in other posts, in 1982 JG lost the license to publish gaming materials using  "approved for use with D&D / AD&D."  Thus, Tarantis was printed with the "Universal Fantasy System" imprint, a thinly-veiled attempt to make the game statistics as generic as possible.  Miscellaneous odd statistics were added, rendering characters as a long statblock of sometimes-comprehensible abbreviations.

Which brings me to my final gripe: the organization of the city locales themselves, being laid out as though each were another room in an above ground dungeon.  A rote name-and-description style works for a dungeon because the DM needs to read it a few times to understand the contents so that he can describe it in-game.  Consider, however, how players actually interact with an urban setting.  Unless a given location plays into a particular adventure, all I as DM want to know is the name and personality of the main NPC at the location (so that I can roleplay his part) and what products and services are available at the location.  The game stats of the NPC and remaining fluff (e.g., that the NPC has a chest with 500 gp and a toy doll, etc.) is simply filler that can be placed elsewhere or eliminated entirely.  While town/shopping adventures can be fun for low-level parties, they rarely devolve into wholesale blood lettings involving the shopkeepers.

I am experimenting presently with a facing-page urban layout with the map and key on the left (the key merely identifying the location) and a chart on the right describing the NPCs, products and services, and random encounter chart.

Conclusion: It's a C, and I'm being rather generous.

While it is a useful and evocative product, in retrospect Tarantis is an uneven and rather sad coda to the Wilderlands offerings of Judges Guild.  Not even my nostalgia and love of the Wilderlands and its cartography can get me past the numerous failings of JG's later offerings.

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