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Reviews: Village of Briarton
 
by Cedric Chin


Village of Briarton coverVillage of Briarton
Written by Patrick Sweeney & Christina Stiles, with additional material by Spike Y Jones
Preview version; artwork not added yet
Published by Gold Rush Games
48 b&w pages
$14.95

Pity the poor village.

Second to cities, the village is perhaps the most difficult part of an adventure to design. While players suspend belief in adventures (especially dungeons), a missing tavern, town guard, or blacksmith is immediately noticed. Some GMs reduce the village to the "you all meet in a tavern" cliché and cut to the adventure. Others will attempt to run the town from a module, only to find lifeless stat blocks.

Enter Gold Rush Game's The Village of Briarton, which is a notch above your average module village. While both contain buildings you expect in a village, VoB provides expanded information, and its Interaction Seeds allow the GM to add color. In addition, about a third of the book are NPCs and locations beyond the usual shopkeepers and town rulers. GMs just looking for a village can skip to the Walking Tour section to see what the book has to offer. For GMs looking for developed NPCs, let's discuss VoB's NPC design first.

NPC Design: The Inhabitants
The standard practice for village and city supplements is to provide a location and NPC description. The NPC description will be a stat block, personality description, physical description, and history. However, in my opinion, this treats the NPC as if he were, to quote NPC Essentials, in "freeze-frame mode, ready to be activated by the PCs appearance". (This quote is from NPC Essentials, by Johnn Four, editor of RoleplayingTips.com.) To breathe life into the stat block, NPC Essentials recommends that "The PCs have entered the NPC's life, not vice-versa." In other words, in addition to the conventional NPC description, I would have liked to see a suggestion of what each NPC is actually doing when the PCs meet him, showing that his life is proceeding whether the characters drop by or not.

This book almost falls into this particular trap of convention. The NPC information is in greater detail than most other village books I've read, but most are still freeze-frame NPCs -- well described NPCs, but still awaiting activation. It's the Interaction Seeds which add color.

Throughout the book, the authors have included Interaction Seeds to add sub-plots to your adventures. The Interaction Seeds provide various ideas for introducing complications into the NPCs lives; whether or not the PCs get involved is up to them. These are great tools. My only wish is that the book had more of them (perhaps Gold Rush Games should have a "Seed a week" feature on their website).

Another convention of village and city supplements are non-scalable NPC stat blocks. Thus, the 3rd level town guards engaged in a dispute with the 1st level PCs are expected to be just as capable in handling a party of 5th level PCs. Ambient Press' Everyone Else introduces the idea of scalable NPCs, a separation of the NPC stat block from NPC roleplaying. Specifically, an NPC can have one set of roleplaying notes (physical description, background, history), and more than one set of stat blocks. The GM picks the one that is most suited for the player party.

A GM running Village of Briarton may find himself "winging it" if faced with belligerent PCs, particularly those of higher levels. VoB's highest level protectors are Lord Arundel (9th level Fighter) and his friend Gellir (8th level Dwarf Fighter). Other village characters are no higher than 6th level. (Those outside are 7th-13th level.) To be fair though, higher level characters wouldn't be as likely in a small village. Probably the only protection the village has against troublesome characters is that the town is poor and not worth attacking. Only Cormac's House of Wonderous Goods and Services has gold or items of value. If a GM knows his players may decide to cause trouble in the town, he should generate some high level good-aligned NPCs who happen to be in the local inn.

Walking Tour of Briarton
Briarton is your standard fantasy roleplaying village of about 450 inhabitants, 50 detailed in the book. The village has an inn, a healing temple, and a number of shops. The book provides an Overview (History, Economics, Daily Life); a description of Arundel Manor and its inhabitants; the Village (Crafts and Shops, Greenbriar Inn, Shrine of Erilys, Other Inhabitants, Travellers); and Outlying Regions (People of Note, Places of Note). Most NPCs and locations from the village can individually be dropped into another village, used as NPCs in adventures, or even as pregenenerated PCs.

As I mentioned, NPC descriptions use the familiar format of first describing a location, then the NPCs residing there. An NPC description consists of a stat block, personality description, physical description, and history. VoB provides more detail than your average village found in a module.

Overview
The Overview consists of a History, a section on Economics, and a description of Daily Life. Part of the History of Briarton is an orc invasion, fifteen years ago. Fantasy Flight Games' Dragonstar: Guide to the Galaxy gives this piece of GM advice: Give every NPC and location one unique memorable trait. For Briarton, it is this orc invasion. This town remembers it well. Some NPCs have been crippled by it. Most have lost family. One woman has even borne a bastard half-orc child. I found this a nice touch compared to the throwaway history of your typical generic fantasy village.

The Economics of Briarton is barter, as with many small villages. Most villagers are poor relative to larger towns, although this is more like self-sufficiency. Travelling peddlers make up for any needs the resident craftsmen do not fulfill. Unfortunately, the supplement does not address the effect of wealthy PCs on a poor town: Certainly an influx of gold from a looted dungeon should dramatically affect the economy.

Daily Life provides an overview of rural life, including reminders of the common histories of the villagers, and the "unspoken loves, old grudges, dark secrets" and so on of these people. However, such private information is not included in the NPC descriptions. A notable exception is a half-orc child. The PCs may notice him being treated as an outcast in his own town, and his dark secret leads to an adventure seed in which a local orc chieftan reclaims him as his heir (!).

Additionally, as said, NPC Essentials recommends portraying the NPCs as if "The PCs have entered the NPC's life, not vice-versa". Though not a common practice, NPC descriptions should suggest what the NPC is doing when the PCs first meet him. The "crazy old hermit" outside of the town is an exception. The PCs will encounter the curmudgeon in his garden, ranting in mock outrage at the rabbits and deer enjoying his garden. Certainly this would help a GM with his impromptu roleplaying, as the PCs discover said hermit is really a powerful wizard.

I should mention that while Village of Briarton NPC descriptions do not include dark secrets or an initial encounter with an NPC, neither do most rpg supplements and modules. The stat blocks and descriptions of VoB are as good or better than those in any d20 module.

Arundel Manor
Another of my peeves about village, city, and campaign settings is the "Important NPCs" section. Typically, they're the rulers, town guard captains, guild masters, or any number of characters the PCs will never even meet. Arguably, such a section should be called "Unimportant NPCs".

I'm glad to say Lord Roderick Arundel and family are no such people. Gold Rush Games has chosen to create a noble who's actively involved in the village, serving as a local judge. His grandson, Robin Fitshugh, is a potential adventurer. Gellir, friend of Arundel, is the only dwarf in the village, and as such will seek out visitors of his race. Lady Alianora Fitzhugh plays a role as the mediator of the village.

The Village
The Crafts and Shops section consists of the following shops: Blacksmith's Shop, Brewery, Carpenter's Shop, Cobbler's Shop, Cormac's House of Wonderous Goods and Services (rare items shop, money-changer, and apocathery), Leurona's Mercantile (various non-magical non-weapon goods), Glassblower's Shop, Mill, Potter's Shop, Tannery, Greenbriar Inn (includes map and price list), and the Shrine of Erilys. The Shrine is Lawful Good, and Erilys has the domains of Good, Healing, Protection, and Hearth. The Hearth domain is a new domain centering around house and shelter. Two spells are introduced: Everlasting Hearth (creates a magical cooking fire) and Refresh (allows a night's rest in but two hours).

Unfortunately, even though Greenbriar Inn is described as the social center of the town, this isn't developed. What major village events happen at the inn? What games are played there? Which NPCs prefer to socialize at the tavern? Are they any different from their workday personalities? Answering these questions would've gone a long way.

Beyond the usual module village, this chapter includes seven Other Inhabitants and two Travellers. Several are quite colorful personalities. Baluin the woodcutter, jealous of the craftsmen in Briarton, has joined the cult of Vextra. Leoric the Old, having seen the horrors beneath Castle Angorn, is reduced to the town drunk. Bard Geneveive the Fair is a travelling bard, desiring to promote the arts in the North Province. They definitely add some variety to the "how may I help you" shopkeeper.

The Outlying Regions
This section consists of People of Note and Places of Note. At 7th through 13th level, the four reclusive People of Note consist of a hermit wizard (and his goat familiar), wandering ranger, crestfallen paladin, and a friendly but strict druid. Like the travellers, these NPCs aren't integral to the village, so the GM can use them when the plot requires, or omit them if they're too strong for the campaign.

Places of Note includes two ruins for your adventuring pleasure: Castle Angorn, and Clayhill Abbey. Castle Angorn is infested by orcs and rumored to be populated by foul creatures created by their now dead master. Their Chieftan Graak is actually the father of the half-orc child in the town, and wants him back. Clayhill Abbey is a ruined monastary. About half a page of information is given for each location. As adventure hooks, both require development by the GM to flesh out the actual contents of their dungeon lairs. However, a GM wishing to use an existing dungeon module should have little trouble altering it to fit either of these ruins.

Places of Note also features the hidden Shrine of Vextra. Vextra himself is a Lawful Evil god of pestilence and trickery. His followers are trying to infiltrate a number of villages, including Briarton. With this deity, the book introduces the Pestilence Domain, including special powers, new spells, and an appropriate Interaction Seed. Beneger, a 9th level cleric, leads the cult. Myself, I've had difficulty running adventures with evil infiltrators, simply because clerics can cast Detect Evil spell and Paladins can Detect Evil at will. I didn't find any mention of how the cult keeps itself hidden from Detection spells. At the least, I'd recommend that Undetectable Alignment and Nondetection be on Beneger's spell list.

The one-page index lists Name, whether each entry is an NPC or location, and page number. I would have liked to see some tables listing major NPCs, their location, their class and levels, and any NPCs they associate with; locations, their associated NPCs; and minor NPCs (eg. children and familiars), their major NPCs they associate with, their location, and their class and levels. A more thorough indexing of the book's contents could've gone a long way here. Perhaps they could be offered as downloadable enhancements.

Conclusion
I've pretty much put Village of Briarton through the wringer in this review. After all, you're paying $15 for a village, typically "free" in a published module. But no published module provides such a well-detailed base of operations, an essential ingredient in an ongoing campaign. Its NPCs may not satisfy the more demanding GM, but for most, they will serve admirably. Village of Briarton goes beyond the majority of town and village resources. There's no better village supplement currently on the market.


 

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