Pros: Extensive, complex, thorough, inspiring, inexpensive
Cons: The printing job, complexity, mix of trite and fresh material
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 3/16/2001
After Winter Dark is a fantasy campaign setting – not a complete game with rules and all. This means it can present a gaming world in just 24 pages, for merely $5. Wow. The last time I picked up a $5 gaming book I came to the conclusion that they should have charged more and actually put some content in that was worth using. After Winter Dark has just proven that it is indeed possible to create a worthwhile $5 game book.
AWD also does something else that I find a little unusual. Instead of setting its world in a time where the whole world is going to Hell in a handbasket, it sets it after this period in time. The world already got screwed over. It was already taken over by the bad guy. In fact, the bad guy has already been defeated! Now it’s time for the world to rebuild itself, put itself back together, deal with all the pockets of evil still left out there as remnants of the bad times, and so on. What a wonderful departure from a now-standard game-state where every setting is on the brink of or in the thick of disaster.
What I Really Loved
This is an incredibly rich campaign setting, particularly for 24 pages. The author had a very clear idea of how to make a $5 gaming book: instead of presenting a few things in thorough detail, you provide a gazillion things in sparse but inspiring detail. There’s the cosmology of how the world was formed from the mind of the All Father, and the history of how the Dark God Unklar overwhelmed the world. There’s a presentation of the Winter Dark Wars, during which Unklar was overthrown. The various races and countries are roughly sketched, and many pivotal characters are briefly mentioned. There are even maps.
In other words, there’s actually enough material in here for a GM to run a whole lot of campaigns without running out of campaign setting! In addition, there’s just enough material on all of the places and people that the GM should be able to go for some time without completely invalidating subsequent material produced for this gaming world.
Even better, the author is a master of plot hooks. He didn’t just come up with material designed to sound interesting – he came up with material that in single sentences and brief phrases suggests all sorts of plots and campaigns. This is a gaming world that could literally go on forever.
What Wasn’t Quite Perfect
The printing job is so-so. Some pages are lighter or darker than others. Some appear a bit on the smudged side of things, which can be hard on the eyes.
There’s so much information that I find it takes a few readings to start getting all the time periods, people, and details straight. Luckily there’s a chronology on the inside of the back cover to help. There are also other reference-type sections that help as well, like sections on locations, countries, deities, etc. all organized for easy finding and reading. It would have been nice to have such a section for the historical figures too, of course, but as they’re historical, they’re less important than the other material. If something had to be left out to keep this down to $5, that was the right choice.
The mix of completely original material with one or two odd bits from “reality” is a bit confusing. For example, most of the deities are original, but there are a few who will sound familiar. Poseidon is pretty much what you expect: “Lord of the Seas & Oceans.” Demeter is indeed tied to agriculture, but he is male instead of female. There are dwarves and elves and trolls and other standard fantasy fare, but AWD has done some unusual things with them. It’s very odd mix of trite fare that has been skewed into original material; most games are either one or the other, so it’s a little disconcerting at first.
My last minor gripe is particularly minor. I felt like I didn’t really get drawn into the setting. Everything is presented in shallow detail; nothing is truly fleshed out. On the other hand, this is really the only way to handle a $5 campaign setting, and I wouldn’t have them change that! Maybe they could fix that in a later supplement, or by posting a piece of in-game fiction on their web site, or in any number of other ways. Something to make the game come alive to the reader, in addition to being such a rich setting.
An Odd Aside
I couldn’t help wondering whether some of the things I liked (the complexity of detail, the game being set after the usual point of a game) and some of the things I didn’t like (the sometimes-confusing complexity, the odd mix of trite and original material) came from the same origin. In some ways this setting has the feel of someone’s campaign, written up as a setting.
Don’t get the wrong idea from this. I don’t mean this in that negative, dismissive, “oh god, it’s just someone’s campaign” sense in which I meant it when I reviewed Zero. This really is a remarkable world, beautifully complex. If my wild, uneducated guess is right, then this can be held up as an example of everything that can go right when you pull on your own gaming experiences – interesting material that an author might not think of off the top of his head.
Of course, this could be an entirely moot point. It’s just as likely that it’s a completely original game world designed just for this company.
So, as you can see, all of my negatives were small, minor things. All of my positives were pretty big things. This book is certainly worth the paltry $5 it’s going for. And the company gets serious kudos for putting out a worthwhile, inexpensive roleplaying setting!