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Reviews: Highthrone
by Cedric Chin

Highthrone coverHighthrone
Written by Alejandro Melchor
Published by Mongoose Publishing
64 b&w pages

Okay, who hasn't seen a city or town that doesn't fall into one of these categories:

  • The town needs saving from bad guys.
  • The party only uses the city to rest and stock up on goods.
  • The city offers adventures not seen in wilderness or the dungeon.
Not that any of that is particularly bad. It's just that after a few fantasy films where the heroes are told to find the "wonderous city somewhere in faraway lands", you get tired of yet another "generic town or city you can use in any fantasy campaign".

Enter Mongoose Publishing's Cities of Fantasy III: Highthrone. Highthrone isn't your plug-and-play generic fantasy city. Oh, sure, it can be used as that, but it also serves as that "fantastic city the adventurers have been seeking."

Why? Because that's how it was designed. Most fantasy cities are designed to simulate a medieval fantasy town. Highthrone is designed as not just that, but as a an attraction for adventurers, a place that will go down in legend centuries after the city falls to dust. It's a city that adventurers will want to visit just so they can say they've been there.

A Sightseer's Guide
Highthrone resides high in the mountains, "at heights reserved for the proudest and strongest birds, dragons, and spirits". A GM need only a mountain range and tales of legendary skyships to add it to his campaign. Both arise from Highthrone's unique resource, Windsteel. Strong as steel, light as wood, Windsteel forms the harness of Highthrone's skyships. The skyships form Highthrone's formidable defense, and, more importantly, Highthrone's commercial dominance of the surrounding area.

Highthrone consists of several neighborhoods. Longhaven is the home of the seven competing ruling families. Arms Plaza is the center of Highthrone's defenders. The Condor Trail is the location for the rising bourgeouis class. The Terraces, originally for farming, have branched out into other artisan professions. The Academy of Arcane Lore has created the Floating Islands, for farming, crafts -- and the city prison.

Inakar, the Dayrider, and Veharica, the Lady of the Wind, are the deities behind Highthrone's major religions. Inakar is the sun god, as represented by the magnificent Gold Disc, symbol of Highthrone's wealth, and cared for by Inakar's priests. Veharica, resides in legend as the goddess who brought men to Highthrone, and guides their souls to their destination after death.

It's a Player, Player, Player, Player World
Black and white comedy movies aside, your objective as a GM is to make the players participants, not bystanders. Your roleplaying purchases are meant to help you do that. (Well, in theory, that is. Most roleplaying material never ends up getting played...!) City supplements too often focus on the city itself. They shouldn't. The focus should be on the players.

For example, there's always a city ruler. One supplement provides his stats and a personal description. The other describes his role and influence in city government. A third metions that the ruler himself seeks out brave adventurers. Which is most usable? The last, of course, though the second may be more suitable for a "realistic" campaign.

This review will thus not only look at Highthrone, but will also discuss how you, as a GM, can make a city a part of your adventures, and how Highthrone does particularly well at assisting this process.

Much of the D&D universe happens in something of a Dark Ages setting: Your typical adventure has the party exploring some long-lost ruins. At best, their information gathering consists of a few rolls from the rumor table. Considering that half the rumors are false, and the others don't help the party, background material plays almost no role in an adventure.

It doesn't have to be this way. Call of Cthulhu gamemasters will tell you how a trip to the library creates the atmosphere of the adventure (when the party finds out who lived in that old house), sets the mood of the adventure (when the party finds out it's more of a what than a who), and provides key information for the adventure (when the party finds out how to destroy whatever it is). At the least, in a D&D adventure, the party can do their research, such as following-up on rumors, by talking with knowledgable NPCs and researching at the local guild, or even an occasional city adventure side trek.

So this is where background can come in. As said, Highthrone has been designed as a mystical far-off city the adventurers seek for whatever purpose you've created in your adventure. Instead of just giving your players directions with a rumor or some map (funny how medieval D&D maps are more accurate than internet map sites...), intersperse their fact-finding with various bits of background color.

About 1/3 of the book (22 pages) is devoted to city background. No less than one god and three invasions mark the history of Highthrone. Its natural resource is windsteel, a precious ore, but its fauna and rare flora should not be overlooked. Despite its mountain remoteness, Highthrone is part of an aerial trade route. The introduction continues with a discussion of city government and the armed forces. It ends with Highthrone everyday culture: typical citizen behavior, festival holidays, flight as part of life, law and order, and religion. Highthrone has two major religions, the influencial worship of Inkavar, and the more flighty followers of Veharica. The background has more depth than other city books I've read, although it wasn't too obvious to me where I'd hang an adventure hook.

Highthrone's background, then, serves as color. Instead of saying, "Well, here's the city where you'll find what you're looking for," you can embellish the city's description, perhaps tie in what the party's looking for to Highthrone's background, then send them packing. Not only will they be looking for the McGuffin, but to exploring Highthrone as well.

Everyday NPCs
One of the most interesting features of Highthrone is the NPCs. Nearly all NPCs have something of a "personality hook," a memorable part of their personality (or a secret!) that can lead to some entertaining roleplaying. For example, after a day of insular treatment by the locals, the party finally finds a welcoming tavern at Amber's, located in Inn's Row, in Market Square. After settling comfortably into the evening, the adventurers find themselves approached by locals, perhaps a little more than they expected, and a little more than they would like. The truth is that the owner, Pelkes Bornap, "gets a kick out of parading foreigners to the locals". Nice chap, that Bornap.

NPCs are organized by the traditional location organization, where an entry for a location will discuss its appearance and the NPC who works there. NPCs typically do not have a physical description, and stats are limited to race, gender, class, and level. Highthrone has stats its important NPCs in its "Factions and Players" section, discussed later on.

Resources for Adventurers
Another nice feature of the supplement is the section on locations of interest. This lists several hot spots that will appeal to a variety of classes (druids, rangers, and wizards in particular). Thieves and warriors have a few hooks, while clerics seem to have none.

Cities are notorious for being unfriendly to druids and rangers (dungeons have this problem as well). Highthrone, however, has reserved half of its land for natural resources, including the Forest of Sun and Wind. The The Forest of Sun and Wind is protected, though not patrolled. Further forest, adjacent to the Academy of Arcane Lore and Holy Temple of the Sun, is given the fear and reverence accorded to wizards and clerics.

The Academy of Arcane Lore itself is open to wizards. They're also a powerful faction within the city. Thus, while other cities may treat its members of the Wizard's Guild as unapproachable recluses, Highthrone's powerful wizards not only greet other spellcasters (including ones seeking training), but induct them into city politics.

Thieves and evil types, meanwhile, may find themselves part of the Black Rain faction. Unlike the Thieves' Guild, which often works against foreigner thieves (such as visiting PCs), the Black Rain are actually a criminal organizaton founded by rich merchants, to undermine their rival trading families. By contrast, good characters, protecting the common citizen, may be approached by the Condor Watch, a neighborhood watch in need of guidance (from the PCs, of couse), lest they become "that which they try to fight."

Usually, clerics seem to get the short end of the adventuring stick. Of course, since clerics follow their own deities, it's difficult for a supplement to anticipate and accomodate all the different religions in a D&D world. Most adventures and cities don't even try: the effect of religion on your typical town or city is almost nonexistant.

Not so for Highthrone. The two city religions are The Order of the Sun, devoted towards Inkavar the Dayrider (LG), and The Temple of Wind, following Verharica, the Lady of the Wind (CG). Both permeate daily life. The Order of the Sun plays a part in the city's economic growth, manages most of the city's schools, and wants the authority of city government to make sure citizens worship Inkavar properly. The Temple of the Sun also maintains the city's Gold Disc. (What, is someone going to steal it or something??? Hmm...) The Temple of Wind is losing political power, but is more a part of everyday life, from festivals and celebrations, to air burials in the great ossuary. They're also trying to activate the now-dormant Wind Gates (plot hook alert!).

Unfortunately, this religious depth comes at a cost for clerics. Other religions are, at best, practiced in small shrines in family homes. Certainly Highthrone's treatment of city religions is better than the generic randomly placed temple, but I imagine a GM would have to modify a few things for a determined cleric.

Warriors don't seem to have any warrior-specific locations (no gladiator rings, for example), but all my players did with their fighter-types was carouse in taverns and cause trouble. And there's plenty of that in Highthrone. Adventurers have the choice of either the Market Square's fine inns, or the raucious taverns in the Shipyard. As mentioned, Market Square has its tavern owners with "personality hooks" that invite the GM to improvise tavern encounters. The Shipyard mentions only one location, but has a "personality hook" in 'Stinky' Peret, who seems to be no more than a good-for-nothing drunkard...

Likewise, Market Square lists stores adventurers seek: Tenferr's Spices sells ingredients often found in magical potions. The Missing Page, run by the master sage Partos Kincara, sells information. The Silver Clouds sells gliders the characters have seen on their way to Highthrone. Grynn's, a store of magical items, is run by the locally persecuted clan of -- get this -- kobold sorcerors (more on them later).

My only complaint is that, because of the limited space in the book, all of these locations need to be developed by the GM. NPC stats (beyond race, class, level, and alignment) are not provided. None of the locations have maps (the only map is a high-level view of the city in the inside cover). Much like many city supplements, the GM will have to flesh out the details.

Cultural diversity
Most cities are human-centric. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but considering that humans are usually the minority in a party, a supplement that offers some sort of cultural diversity stands out. And Highthrone does this with not one, but two cultures: Dwarves and, of all things, Kobolds.

Kobolds, of course, aren't usually a PC race. But in Highthrone, they've become both the butt of jokes and a notable faction. Unlike the wizards of the academy, kobolds are willing to make magic items for the populace, so are a definite player in the city's power structure. The only magic shop in town is run by a kobold (once janitor for said academy). Clan Dragon's Grin can be anything for your players, from comic relief to a broken stereotype to a power that hides in plain sight.

Dwarves are firmly entrenched in the history of Highthrone due to their aid in the Giants War. The humans are nervous about what, exactly, the Dwarves are doing, but they're reticent per their dwarvish nature! This section is actually a very good overview of dwarvish clan behavior, and GMs can easily use this model (or directly use this material) for a dwarven lair. Likewise, since there are two differing clans, you can find one most suitable to a dwarven PC and make use of the background. And, of course, as the dwarves dig, who knows what sort of underground dangers (aka plot hooks for your dungeons) they may find?

Again, like most of the book, the cultural diversity is laid out, and the GM must flesh out the details.

Factions and Players
Most city supplements don't mention factions. But factions can enhance city adventuring with an "NPC behind the scenes" sort of atmosphere. With a faction, you can easily insert plot hooks: The PCs bully a merchant belonging to a faction, the faction (powerful enough for the government to turn a blind eye) roughens up the PCs a bit, and the PCs are then "offered" an opportunity by the faction. Or the PCs seek training and some men-at-arms. They must find the appropriate contacts (viz. the faction), which first requests them to prove their loyalty or provide services. And we've seen the generic patron who walks up to the party and offers them a mission. Suppose, instead, you used a faction agent, who uses the party in an expendable manner! And then there's always the well-meaning faction who presents the party as the saviors they never wished to be...

Highthrone adds a location hook I haven't thought of: The Plazas, a section of Highthrone ranging from slum to magnificent estates. The Plazas receives its name from the number of smaller plazas in this large neighborhood. No less than four groups dispute security and vigilance in The Plazas. The interesting hook is that the Black Rain, a group of thugs with a protection racket, are actually welcomed by the residents! With the drunken Telcares dock workers, the Ninkala mercenaries, and the corrupt City Watch threatening the residents, the Black Rain have become the unwitting folk heroes of the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, aside what I've already said, compared with the rest of the book, I'm not as impressed with Highthrone's factions and leaders. The factions have a few paragraphs of description, which doesn't include how they would observe, approach, and recruit foreigners. The leaders have the conventional NPC writeup (background, physical description, stat block), which is better treatment than the rest of Highthrone's inhabitants received, but still inadequate. While it's convention to stat out leaders, why? Adventurers are much more likely to seek the tavern owner who knows what's going on in the city, or an alchemist selling magical ingredients. The section does end with stat blocks for various guard and ship captain NPCs, which seems added as an afterthought in case needed for combat scenarios.

Although not titled as such, Highthrone ends with a few appendices:

* Running Highthrone Adventures: This section includes tips on adding Highthrone into a Campaign, Plots and Story Hooks, Altitude Sickness mechanics, rules for Flying Ships (including vehicle statistics) and for Other Flying Machines (such as gliders).

* Creatures of the Peaks: Provides stats for the Peaks Ram, Great Condor, and Wind Raptor. The Wind Raptor is a classic villanous beast for a "mysterious creature killing countryside livestock" adventure.

* Magic and Secrets: Contains Feats for high-altitude adventuring, Divine Forces (deity domain entries for Veharica and Inakar), and Miscellaneous tidbits (including details about Windsteel, the metal mined by Highthrone dwarves).

In this review, I've highlighted various areas of Highthrone I believe stand out as adventure material. As said, the background goes into detail more than most city adventure books I've read. However, its 64-page count doesn't allow a great amount of detail, requiring the GM to flesh out these wonderful ideas. In fact, any plot hook I've mentioned here is about the extent that it's mentioned in the book. My recommendation, thus, is that Highthrone has the potential for quite a bit of enjoyable gaming if the GM is willing to flesh out the book's ideas. Highthrone will serve as that "fantastic city the adventurers have been seeking." But you will have to provide what they will find.


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