I did a post a while back about Bruce Heard’s Kickstarter for his fantasy world project Calidar: In Stranger Skies, and the book arrived a while back. It was everything I hoped it to be, and something everyone who loved the good old days of D&D should check out. This is a book that conjures up the same old excitement I had when I plunged into worlds such as Mystara, Faerûn (Forgotten Realms) or Krynn (Dragonlance) for the first time.
Bruce Heard was a developer for TSR in the days of Old Dungeons & Dragons, and among other things was in charge of the development of the legendary Gazetteer series that fleshed out the original D&D world of Mystara. He also wrote the series Voyages of the Princess Ark, about the adventures of the skyship Princess Ark in Dragon Magazine, that ran for about 3 years and was published as the boxed set Champions of Mystara. Today everything from Old D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, which is in turn owned by Hasbro. They’ve been unwilling to develop, sell or release any of their old properties, including Bruce’s work on the Princess Ark, a great shame for fans like me.
Not owning the rights to his old works, and failing in all his offers and appeals to WotC, Bruce Heard is now trying to create some of that magic again, developing a new setting for roleplaying and for writing a new series about the adventures of a skyship and its crew. Enter Calidar: In Stranger Skies and the skyship The Star Phoenix. This is both a fantasy novelette and the first sourcebook for the new RPG setting Calidar. The book is now available through DrivethruRPG both as a PDF and print-on-demand copies in hard and soft covers.
I have this book in the premium hardcover edition, obtained as a Kickstarter reward. A 132-page full colour book consisting of seven main chapters The first of these is a 47 page fiction novelette about the journeys of the skyship The Star Phoenix. The following chapters cover the Calidar universe, the world of Calidar itself, the Kingdom of Meryath and Creatures of Calidar, Pathfinder system stats for creatures and characters and finally a section on skyships. The book is logically and usefully laid out, looking incredibly good while still preserving excellent readability. Beautiful original illustrations and full-colour maps adorn most page spreads. This is clearly not some amateur pet project slapped together in a gamer’s den, but a thoroughly professional work. Every page spread screams of professional quality on par with anything the big game companies put out, with an artistic flair surpassing most of what they accomplish. The Kickstarter for the project collected just short of 20,000 dollars, and they’ve clearly been well spent. The beautiful cartography of Thorfinn Tait and artwork of Ben Wootten, John Dollar and Savage Mojo deserves special praise.
In Stranger Skies
As I mentioned, the first part of the book is a work of fiction, describing the first part of the journey of The Star Phoenix and its crew. It introduces us to a band of heroes that are suddenly transported to a new universe with no memory of where they came from. From there on they are drawn into a series of adventures in the world of Calidar and its inhabited moons. The story is well written, introduces us to an eclectic cast of characters, and reads as the first few chapters of a novel that introduces us to this world. It has some clear similarities to Bruce’s stories about the Princess Ark – also a skyship with mysterious qualities partially forced to go on a quest of adventure and exploration by a strong female monarch.
This first story sets the stage more than it answers a whole lot of questions, and leaves me thirsting for more. A series of introductory shorts posted by Bruce as part of the Kickstarter promotion gives some more insight into what is really going on. It is a very successful introduction to a setting, and a brilliant way of conveying the mood and feel of the setting that Bruce is aiming for much more compellingly than a mere description could. A lengthier text than the snippets most other RPG books give you also emphasizes that this is a setting focused on the storytelling, not just a way to cater to the gaming mechanics.
My only complaint about the story is that the the final climactic scene seemed to come a bit out of the blue and without a clear logic to it. Reading the additional stories published during the Kickstarter campaign explains a bit more, but it still seems like the main character was acting on information the story doesn’t really explain how he could possess. Whether this just dumbness on my part, a mistake by the author or just a puzzle to be explained later, I don’t know. It left me a little unfulfilled at the end, but not enough to put me off. The “To be continued” line on page 51 was an expected disappointment. I want the rest, dammit, not just these chapters. Can’t wait to see the story continued in the next book, which I have no doubt will be just as compelling.
In addition to the story in the book itself, Bruce wrote a number of shorts that give a bit more of the background for the main story, which I consider vital to get the whole picture. These were published in a PDF ebook named Under the Great Vault for Kickstarter backers only, but will probably be available as a reward in future Kickstarters as well.
The campaign setting
The main bulk of the book is an outline of the Calidar setting, zooming in from an overview of the solar system called the Soltan Ephemeris, to a closer look at the World of Calidar, an even closer look at the area called The Great Caldera, then to a description of the nation of Meryath in the style of the Gazetteers we know and love from Mystara and going into even more detail on its capital city of Glorathon. Also included are descriptions of gods, people and monsters in the universe as well as descriptions with deck plans of different types of skyships present in the setting.
The setting is written for use in roleplaying games, without referring to a specific game system, although the setting, characters and style are clearly influenced by the D&D family of systems. It would work rather well with any edition of that game line, and included in the book is a chapter with suggested stats for characters and monsters for Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG, which is in turn based on D&D version 3.5. Except for that chapter there are only a couple of places the book goes into game mechanics that would require conversion for use with any other generic fantasy system. This is a rather unique quality for a game setting. In addition to making it easy for you to use it with your favourite system, this twists the entire setting in the direction of storytelling and consistent worldbuilding, leaving the rules-grinding to those that are into that.
The setting is built around the idea of wondrous adventures on skyships, and the descriptive part is built around this. The classic RPG setting, as well as most fantasy fiction, starts with describing the little village in the remote country, moving from there to the lands that can be explored around it. Calidar takes the opposite approach, starting with the solar system, and zooming down in increments to a specific launching point for adventures.
The solar system it describes is centred around the sun Soltan, with four planets, as well as moons and asteroids inhabited by various creatures. The system is described with credibility, if not realism. It is a fantasy setting with several rather outlandish concepts that probably make astronomers cringe, but you do get the sense of a consistent internal logic to it that is the hallmark of good fantasy worldbuilding. The world follows a familiar logic with humans apparently being the most prevalent species, but sharing their space with elves, dwarves, dragons, a curious halfling-like race called fellfolk and goblinoid races with a new and interesting twist. Familiar to Mystara fans are also feline and canine humanoids reminiscent of the Rakasta and Lupins of that setting. The grand unitary concept of the setting is the idea of “world souls” that constitute the living essence of each planet that feeds its gods and inhabitants and waxes or wanes with the health of the planet itself. The primary method for traversing the space between worlds is a hyperspace-like mechanic based on magical travel through the world of the dead.
Calidar is the main world of the setting that is described in more detail. It is a world covered mostly in what is called Dread Lands, wilderness that seems rather hostile to the incursion of the “civilized races”. The strength of these lands vary in intensity, with the primary weak spot being The Great Caldera, a ring of former colonies settled from the world’s three inhabited moons that are home to the primary elf, dwarf and human empires respectively. The main starting point, described in even more detail, is the human-dominated kingdom of Meryath, a kingdom ruled by epic heroes and dragonslayers. The ideas of the greates heroes as rulers is reminiscent of the kingdom of Ierendi in Mystara, although this version seems a lot more logically constructed. The idea of heroes being able to ascend to near-godhood is also something rings familiarly for Mystara fans, and lays the ground for a world catering for roleplaying campaigns stretching from the meagre beginnings of the adventurous villagers to the epic heroes of legend.
For a closer look at the Great Caldera and the beautiful map, check out this video presentation from the cartographer Thorfinn Tait:
A few pages of the book are also dedicated to the descriptions of a handful of D&D-style main gods and some curious and unique creatures. As mentioned, there’s a separate chapter of Pathfinder stats, as well as a chapter dedicated to skyships that describes the styles of air- and spaceborne transport for the major races and nations, with a system for navigation as well as colour deck plans for an assortment of examples as well as a detailed description of the Star Phoenix known from the In Stranger Skies story.’
Together, this all makes for a very interesting, and apparently consistent fantasy setting. The Kingdom of Meryath is a great introduction to the world, and a great point of origin for journeys of adventure. I prefer to know more about the rest of the world before starting a big campaign, especially when I know it will be forthcoming, but one always has to start somewhere. And this is a great place to start.
The Kickstarter rewards for my pledge level included more than just this great book. I got two absolutely beautiful colour poster maps – one terrain and city map of The Great Caldera and one Mystara-style hex map of the Kingdom of Meryath. These were made by the brilliant fantasy cartographer, and long time contributor to the Mystara community, Thorfinn Tait. One or both of these will have to go up on a wall if I ever have a gaming room with room for them. The maps are now available from Calidar Publishing through Ebay.
In addition to the printed book and maps, Bruce is continually posting material for the world on his blog, fleshing out and expanding on some of the things in the book. As of writing, there is a series of posts about death and the Netherworld, a series fleshing out the pantheons of gods as well as an adventure called Black Blood in the Night. Some of that material will probably find its way to future Calidar books, but I do believe Bruce will also be serving his fans by also continuing to provide freebies online.
This review has already gone on long enough, and I am sure I come off as a bit of a fanboy here, but I’m not ashamed of that. The truth of the matter is that I love this book and the rest of the stuff for this setting, and can’t wait to get more of it. I prefer to wait for a bit more material before launching any big Calidar RPG campaigns, but this is already both a playable world and a very good read. This is definitely something you should buy, both because you want it and to support the publishing of new great fantasy worlds for roleplaying games in a world where Wizards and people like them are depriving us of the continued development of some of those we already hold dear. This will surely be the best new setting since Paizo’s Pathfinder world, and quite likely since the beginning of the good old D&D giants like Mystara, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Dark Sun.
[Pictures in the post provided by the courtesy of Bruce Heard. Get Calidar here.]
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