Friday, 26 June 2009

Jakandor: the Last Sandbox

[non-Vaults material. ckutalik at the Hill Cantons blog suggested I should talk a little about Jakandor in terms of exploring city ruins. I wish I'd never leapt with alacrity to oblige his whim; it reminded me how badly rose-tinted glasses can actually affect your memory of something]

The three-book Odyssey series setting could have been one of the last great TSR settings. Published in 1998, when the creditors were already circling and while veritable drifts of unsold Dragon Dice were piled high in the TSR warehouses, the Jakandor setting should - in theory - have been a great success. A self-contained lost world setting where superstitious tribesmen and atheistic necromancers fend off mysterious monsters and fight over the ruins of lost civilisations: this could have been a rethink that revolutionised and revitalised AD&D, as had Planescape or Dark Sun a few years earlier. Just a glance at the Isle of Destiny cover above shows you the potential the setting had. (Are those tiger-headed zombies the Thoth-Amon looking dude is setting on that cowering tribesman?)

Unforunately, Jakandor as released was cataclysmic fail: a textbook example of how not to do it. I can only hope the name Mike Botula is an Allen Smithee pseudonym, because this is some of the laziest hackwork ever committed to paper and spewed onto the market to meet a release deadline.

Isle of Destiny
Format: 96 page book + 32 page DM's booklet, 22"x17" full colour map.
Produced by: TSR
In: 1998, the Dark Age

The volume exploring the Charonti necromancers native to Jakandor, is ok, but no more. Only ok? How do you even manage that?! You have an institutionally atheist magocratic culture who live in the haunted ruins of ancient cities using their own ancestors as advisers, warriors and labourers. How can you possibly make a culture like that boring?

Unfortunately they managed it. The writers appear to have bottled it by actively fleeing from every interesting idea the material might suggest. The Charonti have a caste system; only not really. They are hidebound by tradition, ritual and cultural manifest destiny; except when being wholly rational and pragmatic. They're a culture of atheist necromancers; except all the ones who aren't (i.e.: the vast majority). Priests and Outcasts are reviled and hunted; except the ones who decide to fit in. The Charonti are a dying race fighting for survival in the ruins of their former greatness; but what they're besieged by is never made clear. Ultimately the Charonti culture comes across as little more than a lazy Tekumel pastiche for people who found the original "just soooo tl;dr."

This cultural coping out is entirely supported by the mechanics on offer. The fearsome thaumaturgical plague that destroyed Charonti civilisation is anything but fearsome and can, in fact, be cured by a cheap alchemical mixture. The mighty and terrible necromantic servitors are just bog-standard 1HD skeletons and zombie with silly names. Even the unique magical constructs are yawnsome. Zeppelins made of whale bones, mummified ancestor head libraries, or giant necromantic digging machines made boring? An achievement in itself. And the class kits (you remember these, front-loaded modifications to the existing AD&D classes...) are dull beyond the dreams of accountants. There's a scribe kit for Gygax' sake! Kits take up more than a score of pages in the book, and they could have been dispatched in two.

The DM's Guide, a short 32 page coverless volume containing information on the Knorr, the lost ruins of Jakandor, and a short adventure with a suitably Lovecraftian grue is denser with plot hook and ideas than the 96 page main volume. Lost cities under the sea? Menageries frozen in time? Gates to other worlds? Intelligent undead and their agendas? Rebel priests of the sleeping god? Why was all this goodness not explored before?! Oh? Is that my 32 pages up?

Isle of War
Format: 96 page book + 32 page DM's booklet, 22"x17" full colour map.
Produced by: TSR
In: 1998, the Dark Age

This book introduces the Knorr barbarians (yep, insert your own soup joke). If you just read their brief blurb in the Isle of Destiny DM's guide these guys initially seem pretty cool. Proud Warrior Race dudes with magical mecha totems, spirit brother animals and shamanic magic. Fear arcane magic and the undead. Circle of Life/Earth Mother religion. Despise missile weapons. Loot tombs for sacrificial goods and bragging rights? Yeah, they could be fun.

Unfortunately when you crack open Isle of War you'll see that that's *all* there is to the Knorr. Their culture is no more than a generic Celto-Maori-Amerindian viking animist cliché storm. They're so cliché they actually wear buckskin chaps, count coup on one another, and decorate their weapons with feathers. In 1998! This wouldn't be so bad if TSR hadn't already explored similar cultures in a much more interesting fashion (the Vikings and Celts historical sourcebooks, and Birthright's "Rjurik Highlands" are a couple that spring to mind). The Knorr's motivation to adventure isn't even explained in their book. You learn a lot about them as tribesmen, but their reasons for leaving the tribe and rummaging around in taboo ruins are only to be found in throwaway passages about Knorr tomb-robbers in the Charonti book.

As with the Charonti, the Knorr cultural cop-out is entirely supported by page after page of guff about kits (a dozen animal lodge warrior kits? One would be fine thanks. Three types of semi-ok picarro rogues, and three or four variations on the theme of shaman? Spread those ideas thinner!). The Runequest-style minor magic rituals which anyone - caster class or no - can supposedly utilise cost more than they're worth (4 proficiency slots for a luck re-roll in a setting that tops out at ~10th level? *pfffft*). The rules for totem guardians (30' high remote-controlled wickermen and statues) are fun, but will probably only see use once in a campaign. Full page maps of Knorr longhouses, villages and farms? Waste of paper.

The Isle of War DM's Guide is weaker than the Isle of Destiny version. Larger typeface means less content, and what there is... let's just say it could be better. The included 'adventure' (and I really do use the words advisedly) is certainly no B4: The Lost City, or Hidden Caverns of Tsojcanth. In fact it's more "everyday life in tribal times" than rip-roaring tale of 'barbarian heroes vs. ancient buried evil'. Again, so much promise; failed so badly.

The Isle of Dread points and laughs. Lost cities and dungeons scattered all over a generic island wilderness full of unintelligent creatures (is the isle temperate, sub-tropical or tropical btw? We're never told as far as I recall). The only intelligent creatures on the island: the two (inimical) cultures, and some random roving undead. Monsters and animals only. Final Destination.

Pretty, decorative, but lazy in that the landforms are obviously based on continental America (forested tribal lands to the east; big river valley down the middle; semi-arid and mountainous lands to the west) even though Jakandor is only about the size of Britain. The only good thing about it - apart from the pretty colours - is the deliberate omission of information. Charonti lands are little more than blank terra incognita landforms on the Isle of War map, Knorr tribelands on the Isle of Destiny are based on what horribly out-dated Charonti maps say.

General Conclusion
There are some (few) good ideas in the Jakandor setting, and a lot of things that act as a creative spur by the degree by which they fail of their promise (the "I can write better than this!" factor). The intent was doubtless there. But oh! the execution. Three books to cover a mini-setting with only two cultures and no major new rules content. With an editor who knew his job, and freelancers who weren't being paid by the word, the content could have been cut into one - potentially really good - 96 page book:

  • one chapter on characters
  • one on the two cultures (and ramp the weirdness up)
  • one on lost cities
  • one on the perils of the wilderness
  • one on monster stats
  • one on lost artefacts (magic and otherwise).
Pop the Isle of Legend image on the cover. Add some evocative interior art and colour page backdrops (the Jakandor books have unrelieved monochrone pictures and plain backgrounds - bear in mind that this series was created after the proverbially pretty Planescape and Birthright lines). Job done.

Sad to say, but if this was typical of their late-period stuff then TSR deserved to go to the wall.

note: I haven't included the third Jakandor book "Land of Legend" in this review as I don't believe in throwing good money after bad.


  1. The first one sounds cool. Been looking for a "lost/declined" empire to sprinkle around my sandbox. Reminds of "Red Nails" Conan yarn.

    I like culture bashing. Do it often myself. But the Knorr sound really bad.

    3rd book has "rules" for knorr Titans vs Chanti Constructs. Looks like poor BattleTech or ORGE rip off.

  2. Yeah, this was typical of late TSR stuff. Hell, it is not untypical of the post 1989 environment. When I compare the TSR boxed sets to Wilderlands of High Fantasy it makes me very sad. And yet, City of Greyhawk is actually pretty good and there are many other bright patches in the TSR catalogue. Far too much "padding out", though.

  3. @Norman: Cheers for the pointer/caution on book 3. I had hoped against hope that it would be the well-kept secret that, via some bizarre gaming alchemy, turned Jakandor into something with a higher HSQ.

    @Matthew: Agreed. Late period TSR had a lot of wordcount padding going on. Good mechanics are hard, and good art is expensive; verbiage is cheap and easy.

  4. Interesting review. A little harsh IMO, but I found it useful. :)

  5. Michael K. BotulaSunday, October 17, 2010

    Mike Botula is not an Allen Smithee pseudonym. It's a real person who finds his name amidst the mists of some crypto babble quite baffling.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...