Thursday, February 8, 2007

Five Fingers: Walking A Fine Line

Five Fingers: Port of Deceit is Privateer Press' latest release in their Iron Kingdoms line of products, and carries on the high standards this line has provided since the early days of d20 publishing, when The Witchfire Trilogy was one of the first d20 adventures to be published. The Iron Kingdoms is Privateer's unique Dungeons and Dragons setting that combines flintlock weapons, steam power, dragons, undead, and vast political machinations in a mix quite unlike any other campaign setting we've seen. This latest release describes in great detail the oddball metropolis of Five Fingers, notorious pirate haunt and key port on the coast of the nation of Ord.

Contributing strongly to the setting's appeal are the gorgeous illustrations by Privateer founders Matt Wilson and Brian Snoddy, which set the tone for this world. Nothing else looks like the Iron Kingdoms (or the companion minatures games, WarMachine and Hordes). But equally critical to the quality of these products, though less easily-presented, is the strong writing throughout, steered mainly by Doug Seacat over the years.

The Iron Kingdom products have a tradition of being "narrated" by characters in the world itself. And so the Iron Kingdoms World Guide features treatises on cosmology by a noted astrologer, and the Monsternomicon includes notes by Professor Pendrake, adventuring scholar of Corvis University. What could become into a stale and cliched device has served the Iron Kingdoms well, as each narrator proves to have a distinctive voice that nonetheless manages to communicate the required information without affectation. Five Fingers takes this welcome trend further, with no less than five narrators, each of whom offers a personal look into their part of this complex setting.

It's a good approach to city description, something I have rarely seen done well, especially with a true urban center like Five Fingers. I remember Judges' Guild's Citystate of the World Emperor, and while immensely detailed, it suffered from an inability to communicate the SENSE of the place -- its identity gets lost in the endless enumerations of shops and streets and so on. The GURPS folks put out a book on Tredroy, a crossroads city, that didn't do too badly, but suffered from a real lack of detail. Up to now, the most successful city supplements I'd seen were those from Flying Buffalo: the Citybooks. Rather than detail a complete city, they offered up a set of more-or-less independent shops, saloons, and other institutions you could drop into your own cities whenever needed. Very handy for the homebrewing DM who doesn't need to know each and every nook and cranny of the city, but does need to have something for those moments when the party decides that finding a candlemaker and asking HIM all about the bad guy's plan is just the thing to do. But they do nothing to provide a sense of place for a city.

Five Fingers walks a very nice line between the extremes of too much detail and not enough. The personalised accounts give a wonderful dose of flavour to the information, and provide useful breakdowns in the TYPES of information presented.

Because the problem of presenting an entire city and its workings is a complex one. Any given component (be it a place, or a person, or a tradition, or whatever) is going to intersect with a variety of other components, and might have variable importance depending on the context in which it's placed.

For example, the old cathedral in town will have significance to the city's history, to its current politics, to its appearance and so on. But just providing an enumerated list of every single component along with all its relevant factoids will fail to communicate how all these things work together to make the city into a cohesive whole. By giving the reader different perspectives on the city, the writers are able to emphasize those personalities and places that matter by having them come up in multiple narrations -- and at the same time to note the complex nature of all these interactions by giving it a different spin each time it's mentioned.

Instead of just insisting that this city is a complex assemblage of personalities, beliefs and cultures, the writers SHOW us through the strong voices of the different narrators, and their very different takes on the same institutions and realities of life in Five Fingers. It's an effective technique.

There's some solid crunch in here as well: rules for gang warfare, well-thought-out stat blocks for organizations and an interesting take on holy places/shrines. There's also a set of chase rules (everyone's got one these days! even Dungeon published a set a few months back!) that, cough, cough, I don't think are very playable, relying as they do on actual measurements of distances to obstacles and so on -- the very problem my humble Hot Pursuit was designed to overcome. But this isn't primarily a book of rules. It's a book that's meant to provide DMs and their players with a great backdrop for their stories. And at that, it succeeds very well.