What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:

What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:
After Winter Dark Campaign Setting

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review: Tainted Lands

In the summer of 2008, Troll Lord Games began branching out from the fantasy genre to other games and genres while utilizing the same underlying mechanic called the 'SIEGE Engine.'  Star Siege was the first of this line of 'Siege Engine Box Sets' and was met with mixed reactions.  It was a very different game if one considered the design but provided everything needed to play.  However, it didn't provide the gaming experience that some were looking for and some people began to view it as more of a toolbox than a game itself.  With the Tainted Lands box set, Troll Lord Games decided to concentrate on proven design and provide a game that could be played and enjoyed straight out of the box.

When looking through this box set, one will quickly realize how Tainted Lands was designed.  The material is set up to use Castles & Crusades as a base.  Amongst the contents of the box, a manual entitled the Castles & Crusades: Rules of Play is included.  There are three other books in the box and these are titled, The Keeper's Tome, The Lollygag Inn, and the Player's Compendium.  Also included are a set of dice and 4 character sheets. The overall presentation of the material is nice enough and all the softcover books are perfect bound which was a bit surprising considering that three of the four books were under 30 pages.  Each of the books share the same cover art that the box does but the interior sport a variety of pieces throughout its pages.

Castles & Crusades: Rules of Play

The Rules of Play provides the framework and is the lynchpin for the rest of the Tainted Lands material. Since one of the principal aims is to provide an all-inclusive game, this books needs to be both complete and yet concise enough to provide all that is strictly needed.  Can someone who doesn't have the Castles & Crusades books pick up and enjoy Tainted Lands?  The book is only 26 pages and judging by the material, it is mostly derived from the C&C Quick Start.  Most of the book is devoted to the creation of the character and it presents four basic character classes (the Fighter, Rogue, Wizard and Cleric).  Unlike the Quick Start, it expands the list of playable races to match the compliment found in the C&C Player's Handbook and provides 7 playable races.   The book will guide a player through this process to the end of character creation. Explanations are also given with regards to how the game is run.  The primer seems to present the basics of the game in a straightforward manner and anyone who has played a FRPG game before should have little problems with any of the material.

The book is not quite perfect and certainly isn't meant as a substitute to owning the Castles & Crusades books.  Though complete in itself, there are several references to the Player's Handbook for C&C and some, such as the Turning reference, are unnecessary.  In at least one of these circumstances, the page reference given wasn't even correct.  I thought the inclusion of the 7 playable races an excellent choice but I was a bit disappointed to see the progression of the 4 classes stopped at 4th  level.  By that logic, there is no reason to have even included the 10th level Fighter ability of 'Extra Attack'.  Even the included adventure, The Lollygag Inn, is designed for characters of at least 4th level.  Illustrating a few more levels for the purposes of the primer would have made a significant difference in terms of value when comparing it to the C&C Quick Start.

Player's Compendium

The Player's Compendium is 28 pages in length and really is meant to serve as the first glimpse into the Tainted Lands. The book opens up with some notes from the Publisher, written by Stephen Chenault and an introduction by the author, James Ward.  Both are great to read and help place the intent and mindset behind this project. The book introduces 2 new attributes to help bring about a flavor to the game as well as 4 new classes. While reading through this material, I found much of it inspiring and giving me plenty of ideas.  Both the new attributes are somewhat linked – one is 'Supernatural' and the other is 'Psychic'.  Each present a variety of powers and abilities as the character possessing them increases in level.  These, like the regular character attributes, function as the others would for the purposes of the Siege mechanic.  There are a couple of differences as a result of the new additions but the way the system works is generally the exact same. Of the four new classes, two are associated with each of the new attributes.  These four new classes are the witch hunter, the metals master, the portal keeper, and the vampire.  Each of these new classes are more powerful if compared to the base classes but offer interesting alternatives and twists to the archetypes we are already familiar with.

The text for some of this new material could stand a bit of clarification in a couple of instances but nothing presented causes a general problem save for a couple of instances.  One thing which was a bit peculiar was with the Vampire class.  The book states that a character may become a Vampire if they lie 'dead under the night sky'. Aside from a couple of indications and guidelines, there is little to guide a player or castle keeper on how to go about and 'changing' the character's class.  We are simply informed that they retain former abilities but no longer advance in them and instead start advancing as a vampire.  Another issue may be with the Portal Keeper.  This class has all the abilities of a Wizard, far superior Hit Dice and Base to Hit progression, a few of the abilities of a Rogue with some bonus daily spells.  Despite this, the class actually has an Experience Point Progression which is lower than a regular Wizard.  Either the new class is worded in such a way that requires further clarification or the EPP might need to be adjusted.

The rest of the book gives details on equipment, both magic and mundane, as well as some of the gods that oversee the realm.  Some people may not understand or agree with the organizational choices made and the inclusion of magical items and artifacts could be seen as a problem by a few. While these items were likely intended as being commonly available for barter or sale, there appears to be no mention of this in the player's book. As for the few pages devoted to the deities, I was thrilled to see that the format was in keeping with how the new 'Of Gods & Monsters' book is setup.  Again, I'm not sure if the player's book was the best place for some of this information and the details given.

The Keeper's Tome

A total of 42 pages is given to The Keeper's Tome.  A brief introduction on the nature of the Tainted Lands is given and the section that follows is dedicated to horror in a role playing game.  This part is enjoyable but seems a bit short and I would have preferred a few more pages on the subject given the nature of the set.  The suggestion given for hit points was excellent but more methods to instill some of the feelings and sentiments that the author was talking about would have made a good section even better.  Other examples could have been provided which may, or may not, have included other game mechanics (sanity being one used in other games).  This is followed by an examination of the two new attributes discussed in the previous book. Largely, this is simple repetition and brings some to question the arrangement of the material contained in the books.  Unlike the “Player's Guide” though, the organization is a bit better in this book with the definition of the Supernatural attribute being given before the effects on the undead (the Player's Guide has this information in the reverse order).

The next section of the book deals with the Tainted Lands themselves.  A brief glimpse is given for the various key locations on the map (the land mass looks like a skull). I was very please with this part of the book.  The information is brief and supplies only basic information leaving the castle keeper to flesh it out as they need to. This approach makes it easy to use the Tainted Lands as a springboard.  Brief information is given such as the seven Liches that appear to control the domain as well as they 'gypsy-like' people called the Ruse (whose stats are inexplicably given in the “Player's Guide” but not included here).  Following this part is a section on the undead and various modifications which can be made to them. This in itself is a fantastic little utility and can give some variety to spring upon unsuspecting players as a way to add a bit of spice to certain encounters. You also have a complement of new undead to add to your arsenal.  These are given along with shortened stat blocks of the undead found in the “Monsters & Treasure” for C&C.

The book ends with a selection of magical items which differ from those given in the “Player's Guide” and some new spells.  The inclusion of the spells here is another example of something that might better belong in a different book.  The spells are available to spell-casting characters which are native to the Tainted Lands but they are given in the “Keeper's Tome” instead.  There are new spells for the Wizard, Illusionist, and Cleric.  There are unfortunately none for the Druid but this appears to be in keeping with the setting.

The Lollygag Inn

This adventure is a great little scenario to kick start a campaign in the Tainted Lands.  It puts into practice some of the concepts covered in the “Keeper's Tome” as the module effectively showcases 'horror elements' for various parts of the inn and serves as great examples of the sort of things that can be used elsewhere.  If the “Keeper's Tome” was the 'theoretical' part of the box set, then this is the 'practical'.  The notes at in the first couple of pages of the book will be instrumental to successfully running the scenario.  In many ways, this scenario is the best feature of the set.  It is simple but promises to be a lot of fun if even only a little care is done
to generate the sense of despair and horror that the set demands.

Final Thoughts

Though the Tainted Lands can provide for a fun and different experience from the standard fantasy game, it probably won't be for everyone.  This is not a comment against the set itself, but rather a reminder to consider one's own preferences and tastes.  There is nothing stopping anyone from just running Tainted Lands as another regular 'stock-fantasy' game but you risk losing too much of the flavor by doing so.  Conversely, there is nothing to prevent one from just having a lot of these horrific elements in your regular game to begin with.  If you do, what other appealing factors are there to consider with Tainted Lands?  Thankfully there is enough new game-related material and the inclusion of the module can still make this box set a very nice accessory to own for Castles & Crusades.

[Originally written for Domeday - Vol.5]



  1. I'm not all that enamoured of TL. I bought it because the premise seemed interesting, but I was disappointed with the realization.

    I suppose its just hard to make an interesting and believable horror setting.

  2. I was initially very unhappy with TL for three reasons: (1) It didn't seem worth the price; (2) I felt the material was poorly organized and the editing was not done well; (3) It was not clear to me whether it was supposed to be a separate game that was compatible with C&C or an expansion of C&C, the second option requiring the possession of other C&C publications.

    While I still am not enamored of TL and thought it could have been executive much better, it does have a few things in it that I plan on borrowing for my current C&C campaign.