February 10, 2009

Questing in Irrin; A Review of Introduction to Irrin

I was honored to be given the chance to review Zachary Houghton's 'Introduction to Irrin' a few weeks ago and this review is way overdue (Sorry again, Zach). Bear in mind that this review is based solely on personal opinions and expectations that has almost nothing to do with professional standards and measurements. Give and take what you will.

When I first heard about and read Introduction to Irrin, it is not one with entirely big ambitions (and presents itself as such) to be an original published campaign setting but more like a tribute to a well-loved and well-played campaign setting shared by a group of players over the years. If you ever wondered what would happen if you collected the notes of your homebrew setting and gaming notes for the past 6-7 years and published them into one book, Introduction to Irrin is what you get.

In the foreword of the book, it has said what it has set out to do and Zach has written it with that intention well firmed in mind which is to be a 'vanilla fantasy setting, one which would be easily adaptable to a wide range of fantastic styles, and one in which elements could be added or subtracted with minimal disruption to other parts of this setting'. So don't expect to be mislead or surprised either.

Introduction to Irrin is a 48 page campaign primer that should be very familiar to those who have read their DM's own campaign handbook in a homebrew game. The book contains descriptions on races, nations, languages, places of note, religions, organizations and other roleplaying essentials (coinage, calendar and timeline) for playing a character in the setting. The current era of the setting is about late Middle Ages to early Renaissance set in a continent about the size of the United States and the lower half of Canada.

The setting is intended to be systemless but proclaims itself to be used for Castles & Crusaders, Palladium Fantasy, Rolemaster, Dungeons & Dragons, D6 Fantasy, HackMaster, Risus, Epic Role Playing, HARP, Pathfinder and other various simulacrum games or any other system that you prefer (including rock, scissor, paper if you must!). In fact, most of the feel and elements of the setting comes imminently from the systems mentioned above (and also from Greyhawk and Dragonlance).

As a result, my first impression on the setting is best described with one word; diverse.

There is quite a high number of nations (29 in all!) for such a small book, considering also the fact that Zach's love for timelines takes up almost half of the page count so you can be sure that every word on this section counts. Each entry for each nation is a few short paragraphs but a few can run up to half a page at best (like the Elven Court) which relays some important event or cultural quirks that make each nation distinct but connected.

There are also quite a number of politics between certain nations that can get a little hard to keep track of if you're not really paying attention but really brings out the tenious relationship between them and ripe for exploiting into a political adventure or campaign.

This is coupled with the fact that the number of (playable) races is also slightly more than usual due to additional races of the non-common variety. Other than the standard humans, elves (and subraces thereof), dwarves, gnomes, goblins and orcs, Irrin also introduces a few anamorphs like the Spiney; small and 'unrepentant kleptomaniac' hedgehog humanoids and the Wolfen; artistic and scholarly but fearsome wolf-man warriors.

Not as many but still equally diverse is the places of note in Irrin that are well varied between different terrains and climates. Each with their own interesting plot hooks that makes for potential ground to create a wilderness adventure/dungeon crawl with their own set of dangers.

However, here's some of the things that I didn't like or wished could have improved further (the version being reviewed states that it's 1.5 so maybe a 2.0 will come along in the future?). On the nations section, the names of the capital is mentioned but not a single description of the city itself is ever given which is sad since I would have liked to see the capitals of some of the major nations or at least use them as a template for creating my own towns or villages.

Speaking of towns and cities, there's not a single map to be found in this primer. Although there is a free map of the setting that can be downloaded for free, I doubt that after years of gaming in the setting it has not produce a map for some of the major locations.

Lastly just a minor nitpick. I think the book could use a slightly better formatting. Interwining sections together sometimes on the same page can break the flow of reading the primer sometimes because the transistion can be a little abrupt. A few empty spaces to seperate the sections wouldn't hurt and it would have given the book a more organized flow.

Still, I'm not bashing this published product. It's solid in its own foundations and still has many space for going beyond to be a much more interesting setting which is probably where the readers come in. While sufficient to be playable, there are areas that can be lacking or could have benefitted more with a little more detail and flavoring even though it sticks to the fantasy 'vanila' setting.

As for using the setting itself based on primer, there's plenty of room for creativity and DMs to lay their own mark. Introduction to Irrin provides a really large framework to work with and you don't really feel any compelling underlying elements to stick to Zach's version of the setting despite having gone through its own evolution since the current timeline of the setting is a result of his players' tempering (and untempering) over the years.

For a first time product, I would say that Zach is still learning the ropes of self-publishing and also lack some resources to make the product better presented. However make no mistake, it has solid content and has all the foundations of a good setting planted. I would love to see future improvements of the product followed by an increase in content (and perhaps a few more maps or two).

Overall, this is quite an inspirational piece to anyone who is thinking of taking their homebrew world and venture into self-publishing. It even encourages the readers to do the same with theirn own homebrew which is something I really respect.

If you're interested to find out more about Introduction of Irrin or want to get yourself a copy (available in print and pdf), you can visit Zach's Lulu storefront (you can also download a couple of freebies like the aforementioned map and a heraldry set).


Zachary The First said...

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this review! I appreciate your points. Perhaps I will get around to including some additional maps (perhaps just as free downloads), and I’ll agree my format is probably a little dull (though hopefully serviceable!). They’re things to strive at, as a gamer, world-builder, and self-publisher.

One thing’s for sure—the lessons learned from self-publishing a product and having it looked over by gamers and reviewers such as yourself will result in an improved product next time around. Thanks again!

Questing GM said...

Hey Zach,

You're welcome! I hope I didn't sound too harsh in my review but I'm glad that if I made any difference on improving your product!

Your format is most definately servicable, I meant only adding some white space between the sections so that it starts on a new page would be sufficient.

I wish you all the best in your future endeavours, and won't mind reviewing any future products that you might have (any plans for a supplements maybe?).