Saturday 25 September 2021

Review: Southlands Worldbook by Kobold Press

Southlands (c) Open Design LLC

While I was on a particularly strong D&D kick over lockdown, I decide to back the Kobold Press Kickstarter for "Southlands 5th Edition". I went for the PDF option, and now it's all arrived, I wanted to share my thoughts on the first of the three books in the set - the Southlands Worldbook.

Kobold Press are a tabletop role-playing game company who produce content related to their game setting of "Midgard". They produce rules for the setting for 5th edition D&D, Pathfinder, 13th Age and AGE System. This lets them re-use an awful lot of the setting material over and over for the different game systems.

The Southlands is part of their Midgard setting, which wasn't hugely clear from the Kickstarter. A casual reader might have just assumed this was its own, stand alone setting. In fact, it's part of the wider Midgard setting. This is mostly fine, but one nation, Nuria Natal, has a long standing conflict with the Dragon Empire, which is simply not covered in this book. You can happily make this up, but generally if you're buying setting books, my assumption is that you're trying to avoid having to do all that hard work!

There's also a lot of mechanical references to other books, which is frustrating if you assumed this was a stand alone product. I'm relaxed about the references to the Player's Guide, as they were advertised together, but I'm also referred to the Midgard Worldbook, Creature Codex, Tome of Beasts, Demon Cults & Secret Societies, City of Cats, Deep Magic and Tome of Beasts 2.

I know I can always make my own monsters, or replace them with equivalent stat blocks from the Monster Manual. I can probably guess what a thief lord is going to be like from the context and stat accordingly. But I'm used to Wizards of the Coast adventure books which include any NPC blocks within the adventure you need so you don't need to pick up additional books. I'm a little put out to buy what I expected to be a self contained experience and get recommended at least $90 - $120 of additional PDFs, maybe even $210 - especially when that's not even counting the Player's Guide I was expecting to need to get.

From a gaming perspective, its broadly fine, but there's an unwritten expectation of buying in to Kobold Press' wider publications. The Player's Guide has a few of it's own faults, but I'll cover that in its own review.

Southlands (c) Open Design LLC


Lets talk about racism.

As a disclaimer: I'm a middle class, middle aged white guy who is still learning about this stuff. I may get some things wrong.

To be clear, this book is not a disaster. There's two prominent Cultural Consultants listed in the credits, and there was nothing in the book that made me feel like I didn't want to ever give Kobold Press any money ever again. But reading it reminded me of late 90s / early 00s gaming supplements, and over the past few years we've seen a lot of progress in handling issues around race, and it feels like this book really hasn't done anything to learn from that.

Its better than Tomb of Annihilation, but that is a low bar. Graeme Barber has done a comprehensive review of that book covering the issues with it, which I won't rehash here. If you have the time, I strongly recommend going and reading his review of Tomb of Annihilation.

My biggest concern is that there is no DM advice on handling cultures inspired by real world cultures, or avoiding racist tropes. At least 95% of this book could be played as written just fine as long as you avoid some land mines, but there's simply no help given. Not every book can be Harlem Unbound (probably the best book on the subject at the moment, buy it even if you're not into Call of Cthulu). But I'm not asking Southlands to be Harlem Unbound, I'm asking it to provide some basic advice.

To start of with, the pulp genre has had a racism problem since it came into being. As so much pulp was "goodie vs baddie" with little nuance, often the baddies fell into racist tropes, or just outright racism. That in turn means that a pulp inspired setting can end up falling into these same tropes.

The setting as a whole is already a bit of a worry for me. While Wizards of the Coast recently did an Egyptian themed / inspired setting as part of the recent Ravenloft book, gods and so on were at least renamed. In the Midgard setting, historic gods are simply presented as fantasy gods, like Deities and Demigods, with all the attendant baggage and problems that brings. Is there cultural appropriation there? Is there offensive material? I don't know enough to tell, and the book hasn't given me any expert advice on handling it or explaining how to avoid being offensive.

Then we move on to harmful tropes. The Southlands are described as being a higher magic setting than Midgard as part of the explanation of the setting. While a common pulp trope, it's playing into Orientalism, portraying cultures as mystical and spiritual rather than modern. It can be a form of othering, setting your own perspective as the norm, and other cultures as the ones who are different.

I'm also deeply suspicious of the way many of the nations are written in the book. The majority are in some way evil or oppressive. Many engage in slavery. This sort of portrayal is common in colonial narratives that seek to justify conquest by claiming that they weren't capable of governing themselves in a "civilised" fashion before the arrival of the colonisers.

The use of evil civilisations in fantasy adventure games can be a useful setting point, because it means that adventurers have antagonists, and reasons why problems haven't been fixed. I've also been told by a friend that the majority of the Midgard civilisations are pretty corrupt and evil for this reason. If that's the case, the problem is that here, presented in isolation, it looks like a harmful trope, and could end up being used as one by a game runner who hasn't shelled out for the sister campaign setting book. Again, the lack of guidance and advice leaves the setting open to problems when running it.

While we're on the subjective of colonial tropes, this book would swiftly swerve into disaster if any campaign ran with the player party being all or majority foreigners to the Southlands. Think for a moment about what it looks like if a bunch of foreigners come to fantasy Africa to solve its problems because its own people have not... Simple to avoid, particularly if using this book in isolation, but there's no guidance or warning to stop someone not thinking about how offensive that might look and running it.

Prayer Mat magic item created by Kobold Press.
Open Game Content under the Open Game License

Then there's the Prayer Mat mis-step. I wince looking at this. In a setting without Islam, they've included a prayer mat magic item. I'm deeply uncomfortable at the idea of including a famous aspect of Islamic culture into a fantasy setting, particularly one where it's then used to pray to polytheistic gods. Its pretty much the worst thing I've seen in the book, and the closest thing to "I'm never giving them any money again" there. If I were to run a Southlands game, its incredibly simple to excise wholesale and pretend it isn't there. But it shouldn't be there.

So, in summary - the Southlands Players Guide is a flawed book which would have been forgiven its failings if it had been published even five years ago. As it is, it's a disappointing mis-step that could have done an awful lot better in avoiding racist tropes and offering advice on running a campaign in a different culture. Its still usable, but will require additional work and research to make sure your game doesn't end up cringeworthy or offensive, and it's work that Kobold Press should have made the effort to provide for you.

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