Saturday, June 16, 2012

Aesheba, Greek Africa - a review of a regional sourcebook for roleplaying games

This is a "generic" supplement designed to be used with any fantasy roleplaying game system. In this case, it covers a continent much like Africa, with some important differences.

Let me quote from the back cover:

"Take the largest ocean in your fantasy game campaign, and add one continent. Start with Africa, circa 300 B.C., and shrink it a bit. Remove the Nile, so the Egyptians remain a primitive culture, and redesign the terrain features while leaving the ecology and climate about the same. Now add Greek colonists along the north coast, and let the whole thing brew for three centuries."

The biggest part of this book details the city-states established by the Greek colonists, as well as a native kingdom with a robust civilization. There is a lost civilization feel to the Greek city-states, with a mix of Greek and native cultures. The text suggests that these colonies would make for good entry points for more traditional, Eurocentric adventuring parties. That's certainly one way to use the setting, though certainly not the only one. The main weakness of this book is the relative lack of detail about native cultures. One native kingdom, Gloriosus, is detailed, but I would like to have seen more about the history and cultures of this fantasy Africa. Some years back, a fantasy Africa setting called Nyambe was published, and it was to Africa as baseline D&D was to Europe. I could see Aesheba: Greek Africa being used in conjunction with Nyambe to add depth to both. But this is a review of Aesheba on its own.

There is a section on native magic. It's a decent discussion, but unsurprisingly the section is hampered by having to be generic, system-wise. This is also true of the various creatures discussed throughout the book. Wisely, the bulk of the material is more about the setting and characters, rather than game mechanics.

I was struck by the relative lack of monsters discussed in the book. There were some, but not nearly as many as I was expecting, given how diverse the animal life is in real-world Africa. I have to assume there are as many, or more, legendary monsters in African cultures as in their European (and Asian, and American, etc.) counterparts. This, along with the discussion of magic and lack of mention of magic items, gives the setting a "low magic" feel. That's not necessarily bad, though I would have liked to see a more mythic take on the source material. Still, the effect is something akin to a lot of swords & sorcery, with rare, dangerous magic and warrior-based cultures.

This is a distinct setting, one not often covered by roleplaying games. Though it is necessarily limited due to the nature of the product, it's still worth having as an adventuring site, though I think it would work better as a temporary diversion rather than the home of a long-term campaign. Africa is rich with potential for roleplaying games, but this specific product's design goal wasn't to fully tap that potential - see the aforementioned Nyambe for something more along those lines. Still, this is an interesting book, one that has stuck in my mind for almost 25 years(!) now.

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