A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture

He killed the God of War. He ascended into his divinity. No one told him that was the easy part. Look into the inner workings of gods and how they build worlds. From a divine perch, map your world and experience tectonics, magical geography, predation, ecological conflict, and cultural development. Following in the foodsteps of A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe (Gen Con ENnies 2003 Best Setting Supplement), A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture provides real-world phenomenon for a fantasy game.

Build Your World. Better.
 

Crothian

Visitor
Wow!

It’s been a while since I was wowed by a book. For people who just want the bottom line of this review here it is: A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture is a brilliant book that challenges the reader to think while improving the world they play their campaign in. The important word there is “challenges”. This book is not for someone who does not think and reason. I pulled out my college text books to compare them, and this book stood right by it the whole time. I’m truly impressed with the research and the intelligent writing. I’m impressed with the way it is all brought together and made interesting (unlike my college textbooks). Joseph Browning and Suzi Yee prove once again they can write a role playing book covering something no else really has. They do it with style, with smarts, and bring it all together in an easy to read and follow package.

A Magical Culture: Ecology and Culture (MCEC) is a pdf produced by Expeditious Retreat Press. It is a follow to A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe (MMSWE). The pdf comes in three files. The first is the color picture of the cover of the book. The other two are a print version and a screen version of the pdf. All together they are a little over nine megs in size. The screen version has a layout background to make it appear as if it is written on parchment. It is a dark background and at timers was a little tough to read. The print version does not have that and printed out well. Both versions include the same art. Each pdf is 160 pages in length. The book is well bookmarked for easy reference. With the sheer amount of information in the book, this makes it really easy and is a great timesaver.

The cover and interior art are by Ravindra Rana. All the art is well done used to both illustrate the text and break up the text for easy reading. It is important to note that many of the pictures are used to help with the concepts of the book. For instance the pictures used for the subduction of continental plates and how it helps create mountain ranges really allows the concept to come across visually and makes a lot easier to understand.

The content of the book is unusual for any role playing supplement. It contains no rules. One will not fine pages of feats and prestige classes, nor will one fine a catalog of magical items. This book is written for the Game Masters who want to design their own worlds or to make the worlds they play in a little more realistic. As such, it is not for everyone. But I feel that the people who do find use for will be amazed and have their world enhanced greatly with the information found in this book.

The book starts with mapping out a world. It uses the earth as a baseline for simplicity. It discusses the axel tilt of the planet and the seasons. It talks of the continents and how they interact through continental drift. It goes into how mountains are formed from collisions and volcanism. It goes into islands and archipelagoes are formed and how might place them. The level of detail is very complete and should allow for the construction of a well built world. It does not ignore magic, but suggests that creating a realistic world will make the magical places that much more magnificent by comparison.

Next the book discusses the inhabitants of the world. It goes into detail on the animals and plants and how they form food chains and food webs. Again the detail is impressive. It also includes magical ecologies of creatures that exist solely off of eating magic. This includes how magic exists in ley lines and how creatures have a magical metabolism to use this magical energy to survive. The book also takes us through the different types of locations and gives expected temperature, rainfalls, types of plants, and other information on these different areas. The sheer amount of information in here is mind boggling.

Weather can be a complicated subject especially tracking it over a full globe. The book breaks it down into some simple constants to help a person understand and use it. The book goes into what causes weather and how weather reacts to different terrains. It also goes into ocean currents and temperatures of them.

One of the most complex and difficult parts of a world is the design of the intelligent species and their cultures. There are many variables that can be placed into them and just using the different cultures on Earth one has hundreds of different ones to draw inspiration from. The book does not discuss specific cultures but does go about describing some with relationship to climate and some philosophy. The book goes into taboos, myths, migration, technology, and interaction of the cultures.

Then we get to the appendixes. They are formations of water, rocks, lands, etc; real world places of natural wonders and brief descriptions of them; Valuables and approximate price of them; list and description of many plants; list and description of many animals; list and descriptions of magical animals, fungi, gems, insects and plants; and a table of common dyes.

The whole book is brought together as the research of a new god, Keirian the Bold. As a new god he has to prove that he can create a world and throughout the book his journey is written about. It is very interesting, well written, and has some cool ideas and plot devices in it. It brings together this book and gives it purpose and direction. Near the back of the book are little comments left by the other gods. It is a brilliant touch.

When I first read MMSWE I could not imagine another book having so much information in it. Leave it to the people of Expeditious Retreat Press to have even more information in the follow up. The bibliography alone takes up two pages. It is intelligent, well researched, and covers an area most people ignore. This is a must have for home brewers and people who want their worlds of fantasy to seem real. There is nothing here that limits it to d20 either. There book should have equal value to people who play other systems and create their own world in them.
 

wocky

Masterwork Jabberwock
Last year Suzi Yee and Joseph Browning of Expeditious Retreat Press published "A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe", a book that answered the need for data on medieval society. The second book in the "Magical Society" series was recently released, and it also deals with topics usually left aside in D&D supplements: ecology and culture.

"A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture" presents the information as a paper in world building. Chapters are framed by short fiction passages that tell the story of a soon-to-be god given the task of creating a world to prove his aptitude at divinity. The assignment will force him to learn about subjects as varied as tectonics, geology, weather, climate and culture, which he then presents to us in the book. In parallel to the theory the book suggests how to use this knowledge in drawing the map of our own world. No information is given on cartography (which would have been most welcome), but rather on how geographical factors determine the shape of continents, weather, and population distribution. The chapters on mapping are available in their entirety as a 37-page supplement that can be downloaded free from RPGNow ("A Magical Society: Guide To Mapping").

The first chapter of the book deals with the shape of the world, rotation around the sun, the seasons, the formation of mountains and archipelagos, among other subjects. The authors explicitly decided to take the earth as reference; though the existence of magic is assumed, it's supposed to have little or no influence on geography. Ring worlds, flat worlds floating on top of giant turtles and other fantastic creations are probably incompatible with earth-like physics, so they’re well outside the scope of this book. This chapter is mostly focused on providing facts to support our decisions when drawing a map of our world and yet I found the amount of detail given excessive. Many of the decisions that may be inspired by this chapter (regarding the tectonic plates, axial tilt and such) won’t be relevant during our game, and the book doesn’t suggest they should be.

The chapter on ecology explains the function of every living being in the energy cycle according to its place in food chains and webs. Other subjects touched upon include depredation and succession (the way in which, along time, a community of species replaces another). I found this chapter interesting, but hard to apply in the game, in part due to the lack of concrete examples. It doesn’t make the task of creating an ecology any easier, and it will still require intensive use of external reference (particularly to find the right place in the food web for each living being). No special considerations are made on ecologies with traditional D&D monsters (dragons, aberrations, giants, etc), which I expected, since they’re usually much harder to rationalize. The only fantastic creatures mentioned are the “magiovores”, various living beings that feed on magic. A subchapter titled "The Inner Workings of Magic" gives pseudo-scientific justification to magical forces (which is not completely generic, since it contradicts justifications given in some campaign settings).

The subject of the following chapter is biomes: the associated units of climate, plants and animals. Nine types of biome are extensively described, through observations and interesting bits of information. Most of the material could give some character to wilderness adventures, but it should be used together with a reference book since it’s not exhaustive. I strongly feel this chapter is lacking correspondences between the biomes presented and those used in D&D books, which would make placing monsters and environmental dangers easier.

The final chapter is about culture, and how the environment determines it. It includes explanations on subsistence patterns, ideology, technology development and other cultural productions (writing, myths, taboos, etc.). It’s possibly the one that will prove to be the richest source of ideas for adventures, but it has a big shortcoming: no geographical region or historical age is established, so most descriptions are too general.

The design of "A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture" shows big improvements compared to the previous book in the series. Even then, the typesetting and the use of grays in page backgrounds make it unattractive [the PDF edition of the book includes a printer-friendly version which uses white backgrounds]. The book also has some editing problems: in many cases concepts are used which haven't been explained, and the lack of a glossary is inexcusable for a book of this sort.

While “A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe” provided some hard facts that could instantly be put in use in the game, this book works more like a research guide. It helps focusing on generally overlooked aspects of world building, but still requires the use of external reference material to make ideas concrete. Probably no more than a fraction of the amount of verisimilitude and rationale this book aims to provide will be noticed during the game, so the amount of hours of work left for the DM is excessive.

If you aim for just a little bit of inspiration on real world science then this book is too much; I couldn’t possibly recommend it to anyone who wouldn’t consider using a regular text book on any of the covered subjects. On the other hand, if you would spend hours researching about foreign cultures or geology to add something extra to your game, then you might consider this book, but just like any other textbook (and probably not the best). “A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture” tries so hard not to be like other role playing game supplements, that it fails in helping us bring all this knowledge into play.
 

Crothian

Visitor
The book is not desinged to be used during game play. It's sole purpose is to help design a world which it does. The book admits that it is better for making earth like worlds. It seems you expected this book to be something it isn't and give it a bad rating becasue of that. The book isn't about D&D and filled with d20 rules foir a reason.
 

wocky

Masterwork Jabberwock
My bad rating is not because it lacks d20 rules, though I feel it should be pointed out in the review (particularly because of the d20 logo in the cover, and the requirement of the PHB in the back, as per the d20 license rules).

I had several expectations before reading the book, and they were not met. OK, it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for, but I don't think it's good enough at what it attempts either, and that's why I gave it a bad rating. The subject matter it covers will hardly be central to most adventures, and yet it requires the use of further books as reference material (the fact that it provides no support rules means extra work for the DM as well). Many subjects that will never enter gameplay (axial tilt, plate tectonics, etc.) are covered in too much detail, while nothing (or not enough) is said about things that might be relevant to game play (natural disasters, the layers of the atmosphere, gravity, sailing, water currents, volcanoes, astronomy, commerce, cities, prehistory).

That left aside, the gnome and guy in full plate in the cover (plus the "Magical" bit on the cover) might suggest that the book is less of a text-book dealing with earth-like planets (i.e. the earth), and more of a text-book for magical worlds. It was a let down to find out that the chapter dealing with ecology gave no clues as how to factor in beholders or giants in the food chain... but the bad part is, even if I wanted to create an earth-like tropical island, the book wouldn't be enough (I'd still need plenty of time, and some extra reading).

I hope this makes my opinions clearer, though I believe all reviews are based on subjective criteria, the reviewer's expectations (and how the book meets them) being an important factor. Readers should be able to understand how my own subjectivity (or any other reviewer's) comes into play, and base the relevance they'll give the review on that.
 

d20books

Rise of the Gamerati
I think the book did a wonderful job of putting together many of the factors needed for creating a realistic world and setting. How the land forms, the ecology of that land, and details of weather (axial tilt) are all factors in creating realistic cultures and settings. It concisely lays out the right information on creating a starter world/setting for a D20 campaign. It superbly does what it intends to do.

I have to agree with Crothian in stating that you were expecting the book to be something else that it wasn't intending to be. Rating a book for what you think it SHOULD have been to what it actually is is an injustice to the authors and EN World readers that come here for high quality reviews. It is like picking up an Ann Rice book and complaining that it had too many vampires in the book.
 

wocky

Masterwork Jabberwock
I already commented on this: The fact that the book was not what I would have liked it to be was not decisive in my appreciation.

I DON'T think the book does what it intends to do well enough. The fact that you think it does doesn't make my review any less faithful to my impresions.

I urge you to write your own review (thus raising the average score of the book, which I left in quite a poor state) instead of attacking my opinions. EN World readers are smart enough to understand whether a particular piece of criticism is relevant to their own tastes.
 

wocky

Masterwork Jabberwock
Since my review wasn't getting my point accross on why I didn't like "MS: EC" and I'll admit it gave the impression that it was due to the lack of crunchy bits and d20 rules, it was heavily edited.

Comments found above correspond to the previous version, so they might no longer be relevant.
 
It seems like in his initial review he made his points pretty well.

The book wasn't what he wnated or expected. The reviewers expectations are a quite legitimate reason to give a product a low score.

Also the fact that the book focused exclusively on an earth-like planet with an exclusively real world ecology makes it less than useful to the majority of fantasy and sci-fi campaigns.

Chuck
 
I found Crothian's comment about this review to be off base as well.

We know what you think of this product, given your review (the one that began with "Wow!") and I don't think its the place of a site moderator to come down on those who write reviews you disagree with.

You didn't tell him he failed to make his point, you disagree with his point. One is fine, the other, in my opinion, is not.

It isnt as though the product was being pig-piled by bad reviews either. The product (and the company that produces it) have been one of the most generously reviewed companies around.

Chuck
 

jgbrowning

Community Supporter
I'm not normally one to comment on reviews, but I think I should for this one.

Firstly, I'm glad wocky did this review as reviews are always appreciated, even when the reviewer doesn't like the product. This is because every review, good or bad, gives a potential customer more information to make a better decision whether or not to purchse. I do think the poor rating is a little harsh, but my opinion on the matter isn't important.

As with MMS:WE the goal is to explain how things work. Unlike MMS:WE the scope is much larger. MS:EC explains how ecology works and how ecology and culture are interrelated.

The book is very much focused on world-level issues as stated. I think wocky was looking for a product that was less a world-builder and more of a campaign builder. A work that would focus on making good maps for your gaming. A work that would focus on placing set numbers of monsters in relation to humanoid populations for your campaign. A work that would provide listings of social taboos for societies based on a random roll method or on earth examples. MS:EC doesn't do that. However, we do discuss how these aspects work from a larger perspective and how to create them in your world. There are many examples imbedded within the book.

The place of monsters in a food web is the book, but we don't have a list of monsters and where in the web they are mostly because this depends on what other monsters are around. For example: a Bugbear may be the top predator of one web in one location, but near the bottom in another. We also don't give territory sizes because these vary so much as to be practically useless information. Lion prides, for example, can have territories between 10-120 square miles depending on terrain. Any advice we could provide a gamemaster on placing monster numbers would probably be more innaccurate than accurate. But this is what he wanted, and he's correct in stating that that is not in the book. I spent around a week trying to figure out how to measure calorie denseness compared with calorie consumption, but gave up once I realized how complex it would be and how difficult it would be to accurately simplify into something a GM would actually use.

MS:EC is a book designed to "pop" ideas in your head that lead you to make up stuff for your campaign. We give guidelines, but we don't have tables to roll on to determine social taboos. We give advice on what makes a good world map with seven example maps, but we don't go down past the macro level. We don't provide information on how you can make your campaign more south-east asian, but we do provide information on typical social aspects of cultures living in rainforests.

I think wocky wants a product with a smaller focus. Because of the size of the subject the book isn't one to tell you how to run a game set in caverns, its one that will give you lots of information about caves, allowing you to pull the cool ideas from the real world into your game. As he says, we don't explain how to implement those ideas in your game: we provide no rules because any rules would be inadequate or worse than no rule.

Lastly, I'll end with firstly. :) Thanks to wocky for the review. Although I disagree with his assesment, they take time, they take effort and they're appreciated.

joe b.
 

Crothian

Visitor
In response to VigilancePress comments, moderators do post comments when we disagree with a review. I'm not stopping him from posting the review, just asking him to clarify the reasons.
 

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