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Reviews - Points of Light II
 
by Gerald Cameron


Points of Light II coverPoints of Light II: The Sunrise Sea
Published by Goodman Games
Written by Robert Conley & Dwayne Gillingham
64 page perfect bound soft cover, Full-color cover, B&W interior
$15.99 MSRP

Points of Light II: The Sunrise Sea is the second installment in Goodman Games' series of generic setting books for D&D-like fantasy games. Where the first installment focused on mainland regions, PoL II looks across the Sunrise Sea at areas that the mainland's major political entities are colonizing. There is also a fourth segment that describes an extraplanar location related to events in the other regions.

The Concept
The Points of Light series sticks to basic tropes of the genre, and does not provide much in the way of game statistics. They are meant to be easily adapted to any appropriate system without much more than the appropriate rulebooks. A DM may have to come up with original monster or NPC stats once in a while, but most monsters can be drawn from the monster section of any dungeon-fantasy RPG.

The regions presented in Points of Light II: The Sunrise Sea are:

  • The Golden Shore - "A land of embattled forces, struggling to establish a home."
  • Amacui - Home of the descendants of a fallen empire, there is both gold and danger waiting here for would-be colonizers.
  • The Misty Islands - A vaguely Caribbean-like chain of islands that hold a variety of secrets, as well as sugar plantations.
  • Mazatl - Volcanic home of an evil, demon-loathing god. Not a sandbox setting like the others so much as a mini-module.
There are clear ties between the segments, showing that they are part of a single setting, but they are loose connections. DMs can take only one part of the book, tying it to their own homebrewed material or another published setting, and leave the other sections alone.

PoL II's introduction invokes B2: Keep on the Borderlands as an inspiration, and each section except Mazatl is presented as a "sandbox" setting; a locale where PCs can wander freely in search of adventure and treasure. Old Judges' Guild books like Wilderlands of High Adventure appear to have been an even larger influence than Keep, though. PoL II uses numbered hexes on the maps - plus major geographical features that are larger than a single hex - to key its descriptions. Those descriptions are also in the ultra-minimalist vein of the Judges' Guild books. Where Gygax only placed lairs as keyed items on Keep's main map, PoL II also has keyed events, such as people cornered by predators, that are a lot like wandering monsters.

Speaking of wandering monsters, each section includes its own Wandering Monsters chart, featuring about a dozen different encounters. There are also charts of a dozen or so rumours that the players can dig up before heading into the wilderness. Each rumor is labeled as True or False (or a mixture of truth and lies) for the DM's benefit. This is pretty typical old school practice, although I think these settings (except Mazatl) are large enough that longer lists would be more practical.

I want to laud the map design in PoL II. A lot of new products feature computer-generated, full-color maps that are hard to read at a glance. Points of Light 2: The Sunrise Sea uses old-fashioned, black and white iconic maps, and they are a relative model of clarity. While it is a little odd that forests are plainly marked in black while hills use grayscale icons, they can otherwise be read quickly. As mentioned, each hex is labeled with a row and column number, so the map can be cross-referenced with the text in a snap. The only flaw in the presentation is that PoL II's layout uses a map-like background texture that creates visual static within the maps. I would be ecstatic if this kind of map, minus the background graphic, became common practice again.

Colonialism
Colonialism is a major theme of Points of Light 2: the Sunrise Sea. While it is never explicitly stated, the assumption seems to be that PCs in these locales will be from the colonizing kingdoms and empires, too. Colonialism is, understandably, a touchy subject for many people, so it is important to point this out to would-be purchasers. You should make sure that this is not a sensitive topic for your players before going ahead with a campaign in these locales.

While there is not much outright oppression of the indigenous nations by the colonizing powers, they do exploit the territories for precious metals. In the Misty Isles they are also starting up sugar plantations. Two of the three colonizing nations are described as despotic to some extent, but there is no hint, at least in this book, of fighting against them. There are a couple of especially nasty individuals associated with the colonizing powers PCs can overthrow, but they are not full-blown symbols of colonial authority. Of course, individual DMs are free to turn their campaign against the colonials, there's just no help for it in the book.

Sandboxing
Until recently, sandbox campaigns had been out of fashion for quite a long time. The "Old School Renaissance" and online writings like Ben Robins' West Marches campaign series have brought sandboxes back into the gaming consciousness, however. PoL II tries to feed into this, at least in the Golden Shore, Amacui and The Misty Isles, but unfortunately two of them are largely devoid of a key element of successful sandboxes.

While the Golden Shore and Amacui offer a wide variety of encounter sites, there are few adventure sites. PCs can easily find isolated fights, but there are few objectives larger than winning a fight. There are virtually no larger lairs or dungeons, either.

Each of these settings instead has a single, dominant conflict for the PCs to discover and investigate. These dominant conflicts feed into some subsidiary conflicts, which is good. It would feel more sandbox-like to me, though, if there were half a dozen or more conflicts, quests and dungeons waiting for the PCs. In my opinion, a sandbox is made up of these sorts of smaller, bite-size adventures, not just a collection of locations. There is nothing wrong with what the PoL II settings offer, but it's not what the book presents itself as. I think there are better ways of presenting settings like Amacui and the Golden Shore, too.

The Misty Isles, however, is much more like a conventional sandbox. There are a handful of interesting adventures scattered throughout the islands. While there are a couple that are intended to be more important than the others, no single thread dominates the setting. If the rest of the book followed the example of this section, I would recommend it virtually without reservation.

One other odd element, especially to DMs that are only familiar with modern D&D (3.0+ editions and D&D contemporaries), is the juxtaposition of encounters of wildly different level. For example, the Golden Shore Wandering Monster chart has encounters with 1d6 level 12 creatures in the midst of a series of encounters with level 1 to 5 opponents. This is in synch with the old notion that fights should not all be tailored to the level of the PCs, but is out of step with current adventure design practices. Mazatl even features set encounters that are practically side-by-side that are almost 20 levels apart in Dungeons & Dragons: Fourth Edition terms.

Conclusions
Points of Light II: The Sunrise Sea is a book that has an interesting idea at its heart, but the results are flawed. While it is a model of clarity and ease of use, it is not as focused on sandbox play as it wants to be. Instead, three of the four locales come across as unconventional adventure modules. In two, players noodle around until they hit upon the overarching conflict, while a third is a straightforward extraplanar adventure site. The Golden Shore and Amacui are also pretty bland and uninspiring, with only a couple of elements that a DM might want to pull out for use elsewhere. The colonial theme could also be problematic for some groups.

The Misty Isles setting tries to redeem the product. It is a genuine sandbox, with a handful of interesting adventure seeds, and colorful (if not completely original) sites. You could use it to good effect in almost any campaign that is not completely landlocked, perhaps mixing it with X1: Isle of Dread (which was clearly an influence on it).

Mazatl is also pretty good, even if it is clearly not a sandbox. It could be retooled as the home of any fire-oriented planar being, and has a couple of interesting touches. At the end of the day, though, it is just a slightly underdeveloped module, and perhaps not an especially easy to use one, due to the disparate power level of the encounters. It would work better as a separate $3 impulse purchase PDF.

I would only recommend picking up a copy of Points of Light II if you expect to make heavy use of The Misty Isles, since $20 is a bit much for a handful of good wilderness maps. The setting material in Amacui and the Golden Shore aren't noticeably different from or better than what any DM could whip up in a couple of weekends, and Mazatl is a highly specialized set piece that still needs home development for a session or two of material. Better yet, just pick up a copy of X1: Isle of Dread or Blackmoor.

 
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