Seven Strongholds (for d20)
Published by Atlas Games
Written by Robin D. Laws
Illustrated by Chris Pepper, Michael Clark, Mike Dutton, David Interdonato, Jennifer Meyer, Steven Sanders
128 b&w pages; $20.95
Seven Strongholds is another title released under Atlas Games' Penumbra imprint of d20 sourcebooks and adventures. It presents seven different castles, forts, and defensive locales, created by Robin D. Laws -- the author of numerous RPGS and supplements, including Rune and The Dying Earth RPG, and more recently, Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering from Steve Jackson Games. Each of the seven entries is designed with the intent that it is easy for the DM to prepare and slip into their own campaign, whether by immediate need or by planned design.
Behind Chris Pepper's cover, Seven Strongholds is laid out in the Penumbra house style, and thus up to Atlas Games' usual professional standards. The artwork helps capture the feel of each of the seven locations given in the book, but the maps reduce the book's ease of use. Actually, the maps themselves -- by Rob Lee -- are perfectly all right; it is the labeling that is the problem. Where the maps require numbering, an explanation of these numbers is given only alongside the map and not in the heading for each room description. Thus if the referee is reading these descriptions, they are forced to look at the map key before looking at the map itself. It would be easier if the DM were able to refer back and forth between the map and text without having to look at the key. Of course, the book is backed up with a very useful index that organizes all of the Open Gaming License material into categories for ease of use beyond Seven Strongholds itself; if you want a particular trap, wondrous item, or deity, there is no unnecessary thumbing through the pages in the hope of finding it.
All of the entries are arranged in a standard format to make them easy to use. Each chapter opens with a simple description of its stronghold in "At A Glance," before going to examine its Placement, Characters, and The Installation. The final two sections -- Scenes and 'Alternate Versions -- suggests ideas on how a referee can involve their players in that particular location, and how it might be used to fulfill a different purpose in the DM's campaign. All of the characters are unique and interesting . . . even those NPCs that are provided with stats, which is a nice touch.
Seven Strongholds opens with The Barrows. This is a concrete bunker, located in or near a major habitation that caps the entrance to the subterranean world. Hordes of monsters work to break out onto the surface and lay ravage to all around, but a determined troop of Gnomes work hard to prevent this from happening. Although the underworld itself is not detailed beyond the Gnome defenses, The Barrows could sit above a major dungeon within a campaign world. In return for their work, the Gnomes receive a share of the local taxes, but remain on good terms with the locals. Shops have been established at The Barrows entrance, and these serve both adventuring parties on their way into and out of the dungeon below. If a campaign revolves around the exploration of a dungeon in true classic Dungeons & Dragons style, this could be used as the starting base for such a game. Alternatively, of course, the Gnomes could just be hiding the fact that the all of the monsters have been killed and are still keeping this a secret to continue raking in those taxes . . .
Castle Briar is a stronghold of Elven legend; now it could be of merely symbolic significance, or still remain as part of the active defenses against the enemies of the Elves. Its current lord, the taciturn G'wairin Enderan, is a warrior of great repute, but in matters of the heart and diplomacy he has little skill. He is wary of any that might be a rival, but will not act unnecessarily against them. The castle is actually more interesting than the occupants, as it is actually an enormous living briar. Floors, walls, and ceilings are made up of the thorny bush, which can respond to defend itself or follow the orders given by an Elf with correct password.
Particularly miserable -- not only in its location and condition, but also in its occupants -- is Gloom Keep. They would rather not have to welcome visitors, and if they have any, welcoming is the last thing they will be! They are worshippers of the forgotten god, Hustalen the Protector, once known as the Hammer of Law. Though the dreary deity has his adherents, there are only a few that go forth to convert others to his faith and of those that do return to Gloom Keep, few remain. Hustalen's encroaching age and senility completely pervades the castle, from attitude of his faithful to the odor of his micturition. As written, there really is a god withering away upstairs . . . but alternatively, Hustalen might be malign rather than strictly lawful. In which case, the guardians could be protecting the outside world from him, rather than the reverse, or even just nurturing his return . . .
In Old Mound Fort, the author turns the stereotype of the chirpy, friendly Halfling firmly upon its head. A band of Halfling adventurers have restored an old iron-age ditch-and-rampart fort in order to support adventuring parties who have come to delve the ruins of a past civilization that lie all around it. Yet these Halflings are of a mercenary bent and as the fort is only refuge for miles around, can charge what they want for their services. Their desire for gold goes much further in that they also prey upon returning parties, disposing the bodies in a rather gruesome manner.
More traditional is Steelface Point, a Dwarven stronghold that blocks the mouth of a mountain pass. Before it is a wide plain, home to goblinoid hordes that regularly drag their increasingly accurate war machines to smash the fortress, so they can sweep through the pass and into the civilized lands beyond… This imposing defense is not constructed of stone, but of riveted steel and it relies upon magical fire-throwing devices called "Lions of War" to stave off the regular attacks. Though it has stood for many decades, Steelface Point has reached a point of crisis. The hordes have become more accurate, and more importantly, the resident wizard has been killed recently; without him, the "Lions of War" cannot be recharged . . . Perhaps relief from the lands that it protects is on the way to Steelface Point, or perhaps a PC wizard can be persuaded to stay and help -- along with his compatriots, of course.
Probably the most interesting stronghold in this book is The Perch, a domed cliff top lair that is home to a new race of birdmen, known as the Psittae. Jealously status conscious, fervently territorial, and disdainful of those humanoids that simply walk, the Psittae oppress the local population into providing them with food and occasionally labor for those jobs that they are unable to do (or just find too distasteful). All aspects of their society are covered, including religion, reproduction, and their attitude towards their own guano . . . (The fact that they perch in their huts and not on the floor means that should any characters find themselves within The Perch, they will find it rather messy under foot!)
The final stronghold is Uthront's Fort, a rough and ready, recently built motte-and-bailey castle commanded by a Half-Orc looking to be the founder of his own little kingdom. Uthront possesses a magical breastplate that allows him to learn new feats beyond those allowed by his current level . . . and that includes several new ones such as "Killing Strike," which allows the user a greater chance of taking down an opponent to -10 hp and graphically describe their method of despatching them. This location looks at a group of "evil" humanoids that have more than pillage and burn as their motive, but while Uthront might have visions of a glorious kingdom with himself at the reigns, the suggested alternate version actually examines a potential history for the new country. Essentially it is doomed, as the kingdoms of men will not allow such an Orc state to exist, but this does give Uthront's Fort the potential for long-term use.
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Like all Penumbra products, Seven Strongholds gives the referee lots of useful material that they can add to their campaign. This not only includes each of the forts and castles, but new additions to the Open Gaming License in the form of feats, skills, creatures, gods, and traps (including a "Quick & Dirty Trap Generator" to be found in The Barrows). Each of the entries in Seven Strongholds is useful in one way or another, though it is The Barrows and Ulthront's Fort that really spring to mind as being good for kicking off a campaign. Most interesting though, has to be The Perch, with its new race and comprehensive description of their society and how they interact with the surrounding population.
While Seven Strongholds may not be as immediately useful as, say, the Penumbra encounter anthology En Route, there is much to be made of these forts if the referee has the time to sit down and prepare.
Article publication date: May 24, 2002
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