This is the latest version of the background document for the world of Arthad, produced by 0one Games to introduce their campaign setting. It's good that they have continued the practice of releasing this as a free download, so that all players can be brought up to speed on the world in which their characters live without great expense. Unfortunately both the cover and internal design is somewhat more pedestrian than the original, beautiful and understated layout of the 2nd Edition of this work.
Contents-wise, this is an expanded version of the previous work, with a few changes - such as the 'Cavalier' character class is now the 'Knight' (at least, as far as some of the text is concerned, a bit of proof-reading would have caught the appearance of 'cavalier' in some tables). There are a few extra skills and stuff, and a short adventure. Still, as it's free, updating to the new version is not a problem!
It begins by examining the different races of Arthad. Unlike many fantasy worlds, you only have humans to play with, but there are a wide variety of sub-races to choose from. Each kingdom is populated with the descendants of a single legendary hero, and there are differences between them - a bonus here, a preferred or prohibited character class there - as well as differing appearances and styles. Reach this in conjunction with the information on the different kingdoms later on in the book to get a good idea of the background any given character might have. In the same style as the Dungeon Master's Guide, there is a 'behind the curtain' note whenever there is a variance from conventional D&D rules, which is a nice insight as to why things are as they are, and allows the DM to decide whether to use that rule modification or not.
Next come a couple of prestige classes: the Living Legend and the Shadow Master. The first is your real hero - to qualify a character must have done something heroic that is commemorated in at least two books or songs (is bribing the party bard to sing about you permissible?) while the Shadow Master is a supremely skilled spy. Example characters in each class are given, nicely moulded into the Arthad background so you could use them as powerful NPCs if desired.
The next section describes the rather unusual way in which magic works on Arthad, a system of Symmetry (arcane) and Harmony (divine) spellcasting. To start with, it's pretty rare stuff. Arcane spellcasters are viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility; while they themselves have to struggle with a land where magical 'background power' clumps around ancient ruins and invisible lines of force - if you are in the right place your spells work better... a Spellcraft check is necessary to find the best place to stand. Divine spellcasters don't have an easy time of it either: to start with the gods left the world several thousand years ago and so aren't around to call upon any more. Certain esoteric Brotherhoods have discovered that the 'essence' of various gods can be tapped into by the veneration of, for example, red roses or moonlight, however; and these people have kept the traditions of divine magic alive.
Next come a collection of spells, feats and skills that may be learned by Arthad characters. Many of the spells and feats relate to the use of Symmetry and Harmony magic, although some of the feats are of more general application and could be used in any campaign whether or not it is set in Arthad.
This is followed by details of the world of Arthad, and of the kingdoms therein. Each is described in terms of geography, history and notable individuals to be found there, with sidebars covering such as important institutions and other things typical of the kingdom under discussion. Reading this should give a player sufficient knowledge of what is going on to be able to play a character in Arthad with confidence.
One organisation is gone into in considerable detail - the Shadow Academy of the Kingdom of Nath. This is where the race most talented at spying trains their very best. There's a beautiful full-page map and an outline of the training programme. Unlike most of the book, this is possibly best left unread except by the DM and players whose characters have attended the Academy. Let the rest speculate about what goes on behind those grey walls!
Three monsters follow, all unique to Arthad. The Mist Spirit is, rather confusingly, a giant humanoid and not a spirit at all although their grey fur and the fact that they are surrounded by swirling freezing mists does serve to make the strange name understandable. Frost Dogs are small canines with a talent for tracking. Finally, there is the Blazing Tiger - a single Outsider brought to an ancient temple by Symmetry magic. Wreathed in magical pale blue flames, she is the focal point of the adventure... called "The Burning Tiger."
This adventure takes the characters to a long-lost ancient temple dedicated to one of the gods that has deserted Arthad, being tempted in by rumours of a powerful magical sword. Like spellcasters, magical items are very rare on Arthad, so a powerful one is well worth the having. A couple of sample PCs are provided, but of course it can equally well be run with your own characters. While it draws heavily on the unique nature of Arthad magic, the adventure could be run in another setting with a little modification (and notes are provided to guide you in this should you so wish.). It's a straightforward quest to retrieve the weapon, but with the added twist of Symmetry magic which riddles the ancient temple.
Finally, there is a map of Arthad. It's spread over 2 pages, which means that you either need to be very adept in a graphics package or will have to print it out and stick the paper together. It's quite good-looking, and has a mediaeval feel that means that it could make a good hand-out once you have got around the 2-page problem.
Overall, it's a good introduction to the world of Arthad, but due to the presence of the Shadow Academy and the adventure one best kept by the DM with selected portions being printed out for the players rather than them being allowed free access to it.Rating: [4 of 5 Stars!]