Now that we are past COVID, I have the opportunity to establish a weekly game night at a local bar/restaurant. Hopefully, this will be in conjunction with a local game store and focus on community and group gaming for TTRPG’s and regular games like Cards against Humanity, Settlers of Cataan or even Secret Hitler.
I first saw a packed game night in Seattle up on Capitol Hill and since then have discovered other public game nights taking off in Atlanta and other major cities. For young professionals that crave social interaction (beyond left and right swipes) and the peak of D&D in pop culture, this seems like a great time to bring group gaming to the forefront.
Where are you and does your community have public gaming nights at a local bar, restaurant, coffee shop or similar?
Back in 2021 I started listing out certain topics and content in Canon Shadow World that I thought should be re-examined and possible modified in any future work. One item I find particularly problematic is the introduction of the “Anti-Essaence”.
There are many threads to untangle in this subject and there are many threads on the RMForums and the Discord channels that touch upon it. Certainly everyone’s approach will be driven by their own campaign, ethos and background, but one of the first things I found appealing about Shadow World was it’s moral relativism. The inclusion of the “Anti-Essaence” feels very much like an attempt to square some circles created by the Unlife in general.
Many fantasy games have clear dualities, with opposing forces of absolute good and evil and graduations in between (alignment system of AD&D). The need for absolute evil is clear justification of any player actions within the game system, and simplified the narrative and direction of player action.
So before we get to the Anti-Essaence let’s review Terry’s thoughts on evil per the Master Atlas 4th Ed.
“Good” and “Evil” fall at the two extreme ends of a spectrum; most thinking beings exist somewhere in the middle ground.…. True Evil, the evil that is fostered by the Unlife, is the drive to destroy— and to feed on that destruction.… Without attempting to make a judgment on what is “evil” and what is not, the concept of pure, true, universal evil in the context of Shadow World applies only to the Unlife and its willing servants….
So obviously this leads to a number of problems discussed ad nauseum:
Are there inherently evil races?
2. Are Demons of the Unlife?
3. What’s the deal with the Dragonlords?
4. How do you tap into the power of the Unlife?
5. How does Unlife corruption work?
6. Are there 2 sets of power points?
7. Are Spell Law Evil Spells of the Unlife?
7. If “Evil Spell Lists” are channeled from the Unlife, how does an Essence Magic User actually be a Channeler?
There seems to be clear demising wall established by Terry, if they aren’t of the Unlife, they aren’t “True Evil”–whatever that might mean for you. But then we bring in the Anti-Essaence.
The Anti-Essaence concept seems more of “rule for rules” to try and patch up or systemized a muddy system. But the problem is that the Essaence isn’t actually the opposite of the Anti-Essaence: the Essaence is just power, neutral in nature. It’s application can be either beneficial or hurtful; but is it really “True Evil”? Are Sorceror spells any less or more evil than the Evil Magician spell list solid destruction? What isn’t evil about a fireball painfully incinerating an opposing force? Is subjugating a person against their will with a Charm spell, good and just?
Let’s examine this through the lense of the Dark Gods. Is Andaras absolutely evil and a user of the Unlife? (I know a few cat owners who would think so!!). Many of the Dark Gods have easily found, public temples in all the major cities. Does it make sense that a incomprehensible entity of undying malevolence, that seeks the destruction of all life would manage and maintain the administration of a such a temple? Would that God even be tolerated in a city? It’s clear that Terry doesn’t treat the Dark Gods as “Gods of the Unlife”. (In my SW, the Dark Gods are outcasts from Orhan which makes far more sense)
How did the Anti-Essaence get inserted into Shadow World? The source of power of the Unlife needed to fit into the Realm and magical system. There needed to be a game mechanism to model “power corruption” and thus the concept of the “Anti-Essaence” was included into the Master Atlas.
I don’t believe it was necessary and I see no issues with Essence or Mentalism users being corrupted and essentially becoming “Channelers” of the Unlife. Don’t you already allow the logically inconsistent “hybrid” spellusers in Rolemaster?
In short, “Anti-Essance” isn’t necessary, it doesn’t clarify any confusion and it complicates an intangible framework of morality. The Unlife is a nihilistic force destruction. It’s easy to oppose, but it doesn’t need to fit into our good/evil framework.
The section on “Artificial Beings” in the Master Atlas is a bit of mixed bag, but also contains some undeniably cool material. There are 7 different types of creatures classified as “Artificial” but I don’t think the category holds up well after a cursory inspection. There seems to be some fungibility between the words “artificial” and “construct” to the point of conflation.
So what are “Artificial Beings”?? In the first few paragraphs of the first entry, “Kaeden” we have this:
Like all constructs, Kæden cannot reproduce.
Further reading implies that many of the artificial beings were created in the First Era, mostly by Kaedena. Out of the seven though, only Kaeden, Gogor, Shards and Neng really meet the general definition of an “Artificial” being and then it confusingly states that:
Neng are able to reproduce, though may not interbreed with other races. In this way they qualify as a ‘race’,
I’ve written about N’eng here, and I think there is a strong argument that they should be moved to the Race section with the explanation that they were originally created, but have since developed through reproduction. They are certainly unlike immortal Shards, Kaeden that can “hibernate” or Gogor that were stored in jars for millennia. If you think about it, it implies that many of the races present on Kulthea were either created by the Althans or perhaps by the Lords of Orhan. Doesn’t that essentially make all races “artificial beings”?
The other three “artificial” creatures are: Sentinels, Golems and Elementals. Sentinels are “guarding statues”, immovable “golems” and I would argue that both should be categorized as true “Constructs”. The last, Elementals, are a curious entry in this category. Certainly they are summoned, and perhaps occur naturally via Essaence effects, but I’m not sure they belong here. A revamp of the Master Atlas could clump these in a “Elemental Creature” category (zephyr hounds, elemental demons etc) or perhaps under an expanded category of “Summoned Creatures”.
All in all this is a awkward category but I still love it. Kaeden, Shards and Gogor are unique, Shadow World specific monsters, that deserve more attention. I think there is room for even more unique creatures to define this setting and there is certainly room to reorganize the creatures presented in the Master Atlas. It’s clear that Terry generally avoided the standard fantasy creatures and leaned heavily into humanoids, Demons and servants of the Unlife. There seems to be few “Monsters of the Week” in Terry’s adventures, and in that spirit, any future works should reflect that ethos.
Certainly Shards are notable, but has anyone used Kaeden or Gogor in their SW adventure? Has anyone come up with a new creature that fits well into Shadow World and want to share?
Today I thought I would throw out some broad questions relating to Shadow World content and the timeline. It’s understandable that after 30 years and a dozen books you can find some discrepancies in Terry’s work, but sometimes there is more of a “Mandela Effect” where broadly held assumptions don’t match the text. Case in point, “Demons” are often depicted as being creatures of the Unlife, but is that accurate?
We no longer have the option of “Ask Andraax”, but most answers can be found with a quick search of the Master Atlas. I’ve explored some of these questions in depth before and I’ve provided my own solutions but I’m seeing increased activity and new participants in SW threads (probably due to RMU) so it might be a fun exercise for readers that haven’t had much exposure to Shadow World!
Can you answer these without referring to the books?
Are Demons of the Unlife? and When were Demons introduced to Kulthea?
When did the Unlife appear?
When did Elves appear and where did they come from?
When did the Essaence split into the three realms?
When did the Lords of Orhan appear?
When did the Dark Gods appear on Charon?
Where did the Dragonlords come from?
What do you think? What’s the right answer or what would be a better answer if Canon isn’t definitive? What other questions do you have about Shadow World?
Have fun and while you ponder these I’m working on my comprehensive Shadow World Trivia Test that I will publish next week!
It’s quite often that I see an online comment from a new Shadow World player about what books to buy. More specifically what Master Atlas might be appropriate putting aside the availability of each edition.
When I’m working on new material and always keep both the 3rd Ed. and 4th Ed. opened up as reference. For the most part, they are identical, barring the inclusion of “Character Creation” and “Bay of Izar” material in the 4th Edition. Generally I prefer the layout, typeset and organization in the 3rd Ed.
One small detail that strikes me the most is the interior title of the book. In the 3rd Ed. we see this:
THE MASTER SHADOW WORLD ATLAS AND ENCYCLOPEDIA KULTHEA THIRD EDITION
I believe this is the first time we see the term “Encylopedia” to describe the volume. I wonder if Terry wanted to differentiate between “Atlas” material that covers maps and places and the broader information that’s best described as “Encyclopedia”. By the 4th Edition, however, it’s back to this inner title:
ShadowWorld: Master Atlas 4th Edition
I’ve always been a proponent of expanding the Atlas substantially, and 3rd Ed. seemed like a start to that. Assuming people have access to multiple editions, what is your preference, 3rd or 4th Ed. and why??
One of the least utilized of Shadow World creatures are those that dwell “Beyond the Pale”. Known as the Agothu, they seem to have appeared in the “Atlas Addendum” found in the Emer box set. I’m going to write more about the addendum in a separate blog, but in my mind, it’s where much of the essence of Shadow World was set down after a number of generic third party SW modules.
The Agothu, or “Older Ones” are very reminiscent of the Cthulhu mythos: indescribable extra-dimensional beings of terrifying appearance and power. They are brought full-fold into the setting by at least the Master Atlas 3rd Ed. (anyone have 2nd edition to check?) with some changes and expansion from the original Addendum material. Generally, these creatures come in two types: Agothu and Agothu Servants (also known as Destroyers) although it’s not given that an Agothu is more powerful or higher level then a servant. In fact, several of the Destroyers are formidable…
Terry expanded the creatures by adding a Agothu (Breathless) and increasing the Destroyers from 5 to 7. Interestingly, one of the Destroyers, the “Nof-Kef” was eliminated in later books. If I recall, the Nof-kef was specific to the third party module “The Orgillion Horror” and it appears that Terry struck that creature out of Canon quite early? My own impression is that the Agothu were added in the Atlas Addendum to incorporate the material in Orgillion, but Terry then embraced it and made the Agothu his own.
Unfortunately, he never really incorporated the Agothu into his later material. There is a mention in the Grand Campaign, but aside from that, the Agothu are only used in reference to Shrek.
That’s unfortunate because the Older Ones are yet another cool element that makes Shadow World a unique setting and not another Orc/Skeleton/Dragon fantasy world. Agothu are between 5th and 30th level so they can be incorporated into any campaign. Agothu are also an example of Terry’s creativity and feature some of his most descriptive writing.
are vaguely humanoid, but their oversized heads are little more than skulls. Their bodies are covered by a skin like grey parchment, dry and peeling. Their large, claw-like hands are skeletal. Their eyes show moisture, however, oozing a bloody liquid as they move in their sockets.
They are covered by tough, toenail-like protrusions, which form a scaly skin. Life Eaters have beaks instead of mouths, surrounded by an array of eight squidlike tentacles, tipped with hollow spines. They have four eyes in the front and four in the rear of their elliptical skull. Four ears crown their heads, each protected by a bony tusk. Their four arms end in four-fingered talons.
Imagine your players encountering this fella:
are vaguely anthropoid, with a certain ‘melted’ look. Closer inspection reveals a tripedal rather than bipedal structure, with skin pulsing with external veins and arteries. Their feet are mere stumps, and their three long arms each end in three strong tentacles, each equipped with a row of powerful suction cups with sharp serrated rims. The head is no more than a neckless ovoid punctured by three nostrils and three unblinking eyes,
This is really the stuff of nightmares and in line with the grim dark feel of the Emer: The Great Continent. At this risk of being redundant I’ll say that it’s this Shadow World specific content that brings the setting to life.
It’s been 5-6 years since I blogged about a new encompassing Shadow World “Master Atlas”. Since Terry’s passing it’s unlikely that we might see it, but most of the material is there, ready to be collated and reorganized, and new material fills in gaps without altering Canon.
I thought it was worth revisiting now that RMU is being rolled out. I don’t think it would difficult to move RM stats and rules to a support supplement and make the setting rule agnostic.