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Classic Reviews: Enchanted Locations

Brant Guillory, 26 August 2015

Flip through it, and compare your needs to the price tag. But don’t just drop $30 on a book full of maps, because the B&W maps aren’t as useful as you might think, and the supporting information is sparse.

Yeah, it’s several years old, but I got it one summer at Origins. And there’s no review of it in the archives (ed note: “the archives” of the original site), so for a lot of you, Enchanted Locations may be new to you, too.

This book is from Fast Forward Entertainment, and was put together by James Ward, one of the “grandfathers” of the game. It is d20 compatible.

First Impressions

This book looks good. It chock full of maps, which gamers love. In truth, that’s one of the main reasons I grabbed it. I’m a map geek – a seriously cartography-addicted gamester. These maps are black and white, but detailed. There’s no index, but it really isn’t needed, since the table of contents covers all the big entries. However, an index might have been helpful to find specific treasures and/or encounters.

Digging In

Reading through the table of contents, you notice an imbalance of maps and encounters. Although there are about 75 maps spread across levels 2-21, there are very few low-level maps. I happen to like lower-level games; the balance of survival and heroism to me is more entertaining than power-blasting your way through every encounter.

Ward’s preface states that the goals were to “design maps with interesting features” and “create creatures that could be used by all of the d20 players” and “theming … treasures … designed to be helpful to gamemasters.” We’ll revisit these goals at the end.

EL-SPLASH

The First “Treasure”

The introduction of the book includes an extensive explanation from Ward on gamemastering, particularly “Monty Haul” gaming. Ward is the original “Monty Haul” GM. To some (mostly White Wolf/ WoD fans) this will like read as an extended apology for power-gaming. Ward illuminates his philosophy with a story from 1974 about gaming with the Gygaxes and Gary chuckling at his gamemastering skills in an encounter with Ernie. For historians of the game, this is the equivalent of reading about the Ides of March as written by Brutus. Whether you agree with his arguments or not, it’s nice to get them straight from the source.

The Map Pages

Ward wants players to photocopy the maps and scribble all over them. However, while the maps were clearly created in color, they are printed in black and white, and have a very dark contrast, which makes them hard to copy clearly – and I tried on three different machines, just to see how well I could adjust it (I spent 4 years as a trainer, computer guy, and ass’t manager for Kinko’s – copy machines I can do…).

The text describing each map is easy to read. Too easy, in fact, because it’s so doggone big. It’s 16-point type, with big bold headings. It almost looks like they’re just filling space, which is too bad, because some areas are screaming for more detail. Each numbered item on the map (there are 20/map) is given a title, but no detail. On the Lava Point map (p11) there is a “ruined clerical village.” Is it wooden or stone? Burned out or demolished or simply old? I accept that Ward doesn’t want to box in the GM, but at some point, if I have to fill in that much detail, why should I buy a $30 book to do it? The areas could certainly have used more detail.

Along similar lines, there’s only one encounter/map. Again, I understand that Ward wants to focus on the maps and doesn’t want to box in the GMs. But again, if you’re giving me 16-point type, you clearly have space to fill. It’s not going to hurt my feelings to give me another encounter on each page that I can ignore if I choose, or use if I need it. While one encounter may be appropriate for a smallish physical area like the Cemetery of the Damned (p18), what about the Elf Empire (p116) that covers hundreds of leagues?

The Maps Themselves

EL-backThe maps are heavy on Photoshop textures and effects. They are clearly built from a similar template, because the textures are consistent from map to map. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough contrast in the maps to translate them effectively to black and white. I would love to see these maps in color, because the textures would really stand out better that way.

Lava, mountains, and hills are visually differentiated in the key below the maps, but when simply looking over the maps, it’s not immediately intuitive which is which without closely examining the key. I’m OK looking at the key to distinguish between stone and wooden buildings, but I should be able to tell lava from mountains without doing so. For a perfect example of a no-contrast map, flip to p151 and check out the Green Old Dragon Forest Mound map, where even the numbers are hard to pick out in black-on-black. If this map had been in color, with, say, red numbers popping out on a predominantly green background, it wouldn’t just look better – it would be many times more useful.

There are a number of battlefield maps in the book as well. As a history buff, I dig battlefield maps, because of the stories they tell. The Battle of Cowpens, for instance, makes a great map when studying the Revolutionary War, because the story that is told with that map. These maps, however, have no story. There’s plenty of room for the story, since the facing page is in 16-point type, but again, these details are shirked. The Evil Wizard’s Battle Field Map on p33, for instance, locates the Necromancer’s Final Resting Place and the Final Resting Place of the Dwarven Army. Which came first? Who went down first? How? These are the stories that bring maps to life. As a GM, if I have to invent the story, I might as well draw my map to go with it.

After a while, a sameness about the maps starts to set it. I liken it to listening to a Soundgarden CD. Soundgarden wrote great songs. Their music always played well on the right radio station. But after about 5 straight Soundgarden songs, you started to wear out. You need a change of pace. Soundgarden wasn’t that good at changing pace, and neither is this book.

Encounters and Treasures

Each page includes 1-2 encounters and 1-2 treasures. The encounters feature some original critters, but are simply an extended stat block. I don’t like d20 stat blocks. Compare them to Castles & Crusades stat blocks sometime to see the difference. These stat blocks are exactly that – just blocks. There’s no background, context, or relevance to the encounter being on the map, other than a superficial connection. Again, it’s Ward undercutting his own purpose.

The treasures, even more than the maps, start to get mind-numbingly similar after a while. Everything is “masterwork” and high-powered. I understand the principal of Monty-Haul gaming, but I would like some distinction among the items. Don’t just give me a “Masterwork Dwarven War Hammer” (p46). Give me the “Dwarven Hammer of Thonus-Gy” and tell me why it’s important to the Dwarf Empire mapped on p47.

Wrapping Up

There are good maps and there are bad maps.

The good: Vault of the Dragon Teeth, Enchanter’s Prison, Gladiator’s Circle, Orc Outpost, Ebony Fortress, and Swordmaster’s Guild.

The bad: Pixie Rill, Drow Undercity, Orc Empire, Elf Empire, Witches Chalk Cliffs, Pirate Island, Celestial Valley, Gone Holes, and the “spires,” of which there are several.

Gamers dig maps. There’s a reason TSR released the Trail Maps in the late 1980s and sold a ton of them (they cost too much to fold, though, so they were discontinued). This book could be a phenomenal product for gamers. But there are a lot of problems.

  • The maps are black and white and as such, don’t offer sufficient detail.
  • The descriptors lack sufficient content to really assist the GM in developing the encounter.
  • There is a lack of useful lower-level encounters and maps.
  • There is a sameness of maps, encounters, and treasures that set in after about 10 maps.

The stated goals?

Design maps with interesting features: There certainly are some, but hard to distinguish in black and white.

Create creatures for all d20 players: Check. Some illustrations would be nice, but not a major loss. Unfortunately, the critters suffer some lack of context relative to the maps on which they are placed.

Themed treasures that are helpful to GMs: Hit and miss. Some are clearly well-connected to their enounters. Others start to border on parodying the Monty Haul campaigns that Ward so lovingly justifies in the opener.

Evaluation

Overall, this book is middle-of-the-road on style. It could’ve looked a lot better, if the maps had been in color. I realize that cost considerations contributed to that decision, but if I’m spending $30 on a book, I want pages I can use.

For substance, however, it’s below-average. The key components are the maps: their style is their substance. Unfortunately, the supporting information on the maps leaves too much work to the GM. If you have to do that much work, you might as well draw your own maps, too. I would’ve given this product lower evaluation of its substance, but I really enjoyed the introduction wherein Ward gives some history and background. That introduction would’ve made a great magazine article; it isn’t enough to rescue this book.

All of that said, though, I picked this up at Origins, from a dealer where I’d traded a lot of older, out-of-use closet clutter for a few books I wanted to check out. I don’t feel cheated, but I didn’t spend MSRP on it, either. If you can find it on sale, or second-hand, for about $7-12, it might be worth picking up.


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The Classic Reviews series is dedicated to republishing reviews from our staff that have appeared elsewhere, so that we can preserve them in the event those ‘other’ sites go dark or lose their archives.

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