Piled higher and deeper, a mind-reeling confusion of collapsed buildings, fading grandeur, opportunist explorers and strange mutated creatures... this is a glimpse at what you'll find if you venture out beyond the established surface Bloodholds of the City of Penance. It appeals to the archaeologist in me, but like Indiana Jones, anyone delving here needs to be prepared for anything including combat.
A word of warning, although possession of Oathbound: Domains of the Forge is but 'highly recommended' you won't really be able to make much use of this book if you do not understand the campaign setting thoroughly. If you do, however, this is a fine addition, someplace to send anyone who longs for a bit of more traditional 'dungeon-bashing' and, while providing plenty of adventure, continues with the wholly-different feel of this setting. Unless your characters have spent a lot of time here, though, it's really one for the DM alone. Players will have far more fun finding out what is down there by going than by reading.
The Introduction deals with how the City of Penance 'works' physically. In the manner of archaeological sites like Catal Huyuk, the present city is built on layer upon layer of former city, fuelled by subsidence and collapse, much of it sudden. Residents, for both political and physical reasons, are liable to up and leave as well, even when an area is relatively stable - the upshot of all this is that only some 30% of the city is in regular occupation at any one time. Below lies a maze, a complexity of three if not more dimensions (you get areas of temporal flux as well!), in which the remains of palaces and even a pyramid are cheek by jowl with ordinary homes and businesses.
One fascinating custom that has grown up over centuries of this flux is that of tempassing. Everyone living in the city knows that eventually their home and all they know will be down there instead of on the surface, and so they have taken to leaving time capsules - hidden caches of memorabilia, books and even treasures for future explorers to find. The most treasured discoveries are those that contain the spirit of their former owner, perhaps a poem or something lovingly hand-crafted, rather than precious stones or magical artefacts (although these too can be found).
Chapter 1 gives an overview of the geography and political operation of the surface city. The patterns, the influences extend below, and thus it is necessary to understand how the place works before attempting to comprehend what's going on in the depths... if you ever do! The spatial geometry and coordinate system is also explained - angle from north clockwise in degrees, distance from the Queen's citadel (the centre of the city) in miles, depth in metres. If you have 12,000gp to spare, treat yourself to a radial compass, a magical GPS unit that figures out your location for you. The rest of us hire experienced explorers, known as rafters, as guides... or just hope for the best. There are a few paragraphs on the major Bloodholds, their leaders and their politics; as well as other leading citizens. Details of the inner workings of the canton system and the durability of the border markings. How a Bloodhold gets established.
Chapter 2 delivers 'People and Powers' - a selection of new sentient races that dwell below, and various other rules bits. Each page you turn is jam-packed with more information: some prestige classes, the 'Lost' template that can be applied to any creature that, well, gets lost below ground, new 'Gifts' and the strange warping that is 'prestige races' where any character can begin to take on characteristics of various subterranean creatures - a spider, chameleon, cockroach, mole: an inspired idea that will create some really weird folks to meet in your travels.
Chapter 3 describes 'Uncivilized Penance: The Lost City' and now we really start delving in earnest. How to get into the 'Wrack' - the lost city, the areas from which organised civilisation has departed - and how to avoid the various patrols and tolls that enterprising Bloodholds levy on those who try to venture forth. There are notes on traps for the unwary - such as collapsing buildings or the ease with which you can get lost - as well as survival tips. There are details of how to rebuild an area and establish a Bloodhold of your own, something that higher-level and more ambitious characters, especially those who foresee a long stay in this reality, may wish to do. This chapter is filled with notable sites and personalities, things you may encounter in your travels, even pockets of civilisation in places you wouldn't expect to find them.
Chapter 4 delves deeper, 'Uncivilized Penance: The Undercity,' and now we go below to the sunken, buried layers. Fantastical architecture of bygone ages, collapses, foul air and bizarre wildlife... not to mention predatory fellow-explorers... await. The plant life is diverse, with attention paid to the ecological constraints of the surroundings; while the animals seem to be mostly rodent in nature although there are also creatures such as the tamarron, which is a slug-like beast about two and a half feet long. Again there's a survey of significant locations and personalities, along with historical notes on the civilisations that now exist merely as remains here below.
Chapter 5 comprises a scenario, 'Black on Black' that is aimed at characters of level 8-12, who will do best if they are already familiar with the City if not the places below. The plot is strong, with NPCs who have laid their plans and are getting on with them regardless of what the PCs or anyone else may wish to do: always good for creating the impression of a true 'alternate reality' with which the characters must interact rather than something set up for their benefit. The scope is sweeping indeed, beginning with an explosion and collapse in one of the most prominent Bloodholds, plus a succession of attacks that threaten to remove a large number of Bloodlords from elsewhere in the city from this life... so, will the characters be able to research the likely location of an artefact or two that will set things right, venture down below to retrieve them, and then pick their way through a minefield of intrigue to ensure that they are used to effect. It's complicated, convoluted, and provides opportunities for roleplaying, problem solving, out and out combat and plenty of political manoeuvring: whatever style of play you and your characters enjoy there is likely to be something to satisfy.
Overall, it contains so much information that it's a surprise to realise there are only 128 pages! It seems like more - but in the good sense of loads of material, it is certainly not a boring read. Much is background, and careful study will provide added substance whatever you are doing within the Oathbound setting, but especially if your characters fancy exploring their new home.
There's very little to be said on the downside, except that it is very focussed on the setting - not much will be of use outside it.
Return to Oathbound: Wrack and Ruin page.
Reviewed: 25 August 2005