15 January 2022

Review: Calidar: In Stranger Skies

tl:dr; an evocative setting for swashbuckling sky adventures in this first Calidar book.

I came across the Calidar supplements come from Bruce Heard, creator of the magnificent Voyages of the Princess Ark from Dragon Magazine back in the day as a vehicle for him to continue with flying fantasy ships. Given that Princess Ark is one of the original D&D Flying Ships (*the* original?) I grabbed the Calidar books because I love me my flying ships. Reading the intro this is "a story, and background information for any system" - though probably the best overview and high level pitch for the setting is "What is Calidar?" on the authors blog.

Cover art by Ben Wootten

Overall I liked what I got - in particular I think they nailed the tone of the game this setting is for - high kinetic swashbuckling with lots of potential for dramatic scene changes. This all sets up for a certain style of gaming, one where adventurers bestride the world and treat with gods on a fairly regular basis. Throughout the book are great maps and graphics and lovely evocative artwork that pulls together to create Calidar as a setting for high-skies privateering. There is no system for sky-ship combat in the book but you can pull a complete set of mechanics down off the authors blog.

So what is all this stuff you get in the book?
48 page fiction "In Stranger Skies"
16 pages detailing The Calidar Universe - the planets of the Calidar system and its Gods
14 pages on The World of Calidar with gorgeous maps, a historical timeline and the major nations
24 pages on Kingdom of Meryath - a realm of adventurers and ideal launch point for new parties
4 pages with some Creatures of Calidar
8 pages of System Conversion mostly statting NPCs
13 pages on Skyships of Calidar with movement rules and ship schematics
A single Index page

Going through this chunk by chunk we open with a big piece of fiction "In Stranger Skies" - 1/3 of the book - that calls back to "Voyages of the Princess Ark" where the world was revealed in issues of Dragon as the ship and its crew travelled about having adventures. I would say those pieces then were equivalent to todays 'actual play' streams in giving a sense of how to run the game and setting the tone. Opening with recovery from disaster, moving through ship battles and encounters with the local powers that be, we follow the captain and crew as they find their feet on this world and then set out once more on their own quests. It gives a nice look at how the 'ships to sites' format for this type of game - with raids on jungle mines and the like should work - I had a good 'ah-ha' of inspiration once they got the ship back underway after refit.

It would have been nice to have a gallery page - with a substantial crew, many of whom addressed each other by name, surname or nickname at different points I had a hard time keeping track of some folk at points. None of that was critical to the tale but nice-to-have. As a personal preference chunks of the story before a chapter of setting content could also have worked.

After the fiction wraps we get The Calidar Universe with the planetary system, critical for this setting, and the races and gods. There are some strong stylistic callbacks to the Gazetteer series with four column text, in-line illustrations and a 'information in the text' style. The system-neutral set up means that the stat blocks and tables you might typically expect are omitted at this point and it is all flavourful fluff. Again the art is doing great work here of setting the consistent style and tone of the setting. The Gods seem to be set up for an era where adventurers were divinely guided cats paws, in particular when we have a straight up goddess of adventurers.

Next, we zoom in from the cosmic down to The World of Calidar. Here we get the background for the world, again a set-up tuned to drive the type of play we want. There are the far-away old empires on the moons, their now-independent colonies on Calidar itself and the vast planetary hinterlands beyond the small patch of colonies where nature has overrun the ancient empires that once were. Home bases, rivals, reasons for there to be treasure to get after - all of the setup needed in something that is genuinely different to other settings out there. We get a giant timeline of historical events and some great maps. The maps are meaty, really well done with climate/biome maps and a prevailing winds map that I think has huge potential for a 'follow the winds' puzzle or treasure map.

Beyond the treasure of the lost empires or dragons dwelling in the wilderness, one driver for action is 'Seitha' the crystallised souls of the damned that is effectively the fuel for interplanetary travel. This is interesting - in place of the more typical 'enchanted space drive' of some sort which is either push button or requires a mage to drive, here we have inter-planetary flight where clerics drop you into the realm of the dead to cross distances faster. Some nice potential to steal all the fun horrors from Warhammer 40K with its space hulks and the like. As it is, fuelled interplanetary travel adds a nice 'can we get home' tingle to just pointing at a distant light and going. Recovering 'seitha' from where it might lie is another driver for getting out into the wilderness and facing whatever might be out there.

The focus realm of the Kingdom of Meryath is fun - a kingdom of adventurers with an economy built around them - somewhat like piracy in Elizabethan England or perhaps whaling in Nantucket. Flying ships set out into the wilderness hunting dragons or ruins and return laden with treasure. There is a mechanic of 'eternal glory' where famed heroes cease to age (throughout all of Calidar) giving another thing driving adventurers to seek gold and glory. To remain un-aging adventurers need to gain Notoriety points which fade over time, so new great deeds must be pursued. Again, a nice set up for the tone we want here - both setting and mechanics pointing to a particular kind of play. Notoriety points in particular are a good answer to 'why not just rest on your laurels' and to drive ever more epic adventures.

A good chunk of the Kingdom section delves into Glorathon, capital and starter city has lots of nice locations, some factions with their objectives and cool details like giant pilot gulls that take ships in and out from the mooring towers. We get another nice city map to go with all of this.

Creatures of Calidar gives interesting critters with beautiful art to complement them - the Giant Gloranthan Gull and the Zarnese Vultron are cool, the Gron is a great scary throw-back to the dread Witchlight Marauders of the Spelljammer Unhuman wars - giant spacefaring worms that serve as orcish interplanetary transports.

System Conversion - game stats for Pathfinder for the monsters in the previous chapter and characters that appear throughout the book. I did miss an index of who appeared in the illustrations. As best I can tell, on pp14 we have Isledemer, Daggert and Arabesque, pp27 is Yuntai, Pebbleborn and Rugwittle, pp60 are just generic peoples of the world, pp89 is Moffeecot, Queen Shardwen and her brother, pp91 is Phibbs, Azar and Melchia and pp105 is maybe Conway or a generic northerner. Getting the Glorathon based NPCs is handy, to me a sensible on-ramp for a new party could be to replay the Star Phoenix arrival but with the party's own ship and crew.

The crew of the Star Phoenix itself I might have in background at best, given the actions of the captain, our main point of view character. I was not sure what troubled me about it for a while until it came to me - his actions are the actions of a villain, but he is presented to us as a hero. We meet the crew and the captain in the midst of disaster, they wrestle themselves free, all are disoriented with their memories warped and confused. Then, in the first patch of clear space, the captain lines up the crew and murders a guy. Certainly it falls in line with the capricious and domineering wizard archetype, but no-warnings rule-by-lethal-force is not compatible with the usual PC pushing against authority.

Perhaps my standards are too high - having read a bunch of Hornblower and Honor Harrington in the past couple of months I have definite views on how a captain should run their ship. The harsh discipline that Aubrey of Master and Commander or Hornblower impose comes from their crown authority, from the nation they and their crew serve, the articles of war, a source of authority greater than just them. For the captain of the Star Phoenix, he says he's the captain, and he threatens or kills people who disagree with him. In the immortal words of Tywin Lannister "Any man who must say 'I am the king'...". For this reason I don't see how the Star Phoenix itself could be used - any player showing a modicum of initiative or disobedience would get themselves killed. There could be potential for the campaign start to be a mutiny but why wait to get to the good stuff? Just give the players their own ship to command from the get go.

Long-term followers of this blog will recollect I pulled down the skyship combat rules from the blog. I cobbled together a word doc and figured out how it worked then took it to the table. In practice these are fantasy flying ship combat rules where the wind direction matters - surprisingly easy to pick up, lots of fun and some great detailed old-school damage tables that makes ship combat more than just slugging away at hull points.

The one problem is that despite ship combat being core to the setting, as dramatically described in the fiction, we get no rules for ship combat appear in the Skyships of Calidar chapter. There are movement rules with reference tables and some great high-detail ship schematics but nothing on how to fight the ships, which seems a fairly big omission to me. A stripped down combat rule-set with ship hull points and standard weapon stats - no crew adjustments, no damage tables - just enough to get you fighting would have made this book complete to run the game portrayed in the fiction. The old Spelljammer (basic) vs War Captains Companion (detailed) model is roughly what I am thinking of. As it is, you will need to rummage up a ship combat system from somewhere, as there is none in the book.

As evidenced by the quality of the ruleset on the blog, the author knows their stuff for flying ship combat and has a system that really feels different to other sky-combat mechanics out there at the moment. In hindsight, I would have been salty as hell if I had bought this book, found the lack of mechanics and been unable to scrounge them up off the blog. As it is, there is a little legwork in pulling it all down and knocking it into shape (as word doc) but well worth the effort. I hope we see this ruleset with high quality graphics at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Wrap up - all in all we have a really nice set up for 'space privateers' - you can plunder inspiration from all your favourite swashbuckling books and movies, re-paint whatever the factions are to those in the Calidar setting and off you go. I like the mechanical and rules set ups that support this independent operations model of play. Ships and crews are not for everyone, I know some who will strongly advocate portal-hopping over spelljamming, but if you want to sail the skies, Calidar is a good place to do it. There are lots of push (build your notoriety to live forever! Find seitha to fuel space travel!) and pull (what secrets lie in the Dread Lands?) factors to get you out in the world exploring. Grab the combat system off the blog and you have everything you need.

Other reviews - starting with insider Thorfinn Tait who did the cartography - or on The Other Side blog or RPG.net

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