Note: I wrote this review of a D&D 4e product in, what, 2015? 2016? Earlier? Anyway, sometime after 4e had died. In general I stand by it and I’m publishing the old draft unchanged here. In retrospect I’d only add that WotC’s 4e-era ‘Points of Light’ (‘PoLand’) setting — a placeless setting-framework — was an interesting idea, not necessarily to say a good one, but predictably executed without wit, style, or imaginative freedom. Hasbro D&D is boring. That’s their house ‘style.’
In terms of D&D history, the most telling feature of 2010’s Vor Rukoth: An Ancient Ruins Adventure Site is its second sentence:
[Vor Rukoth] is not intended to present a cohesive adventure path, but rather, dozens of locations and hooks that you can weave into an existing adventure or campaign setting.
The idea that players/DMs expect their supplements to be ‘adventure paths’ isn’t surprising — D&D’s chief competitor isn’t Pathfinder, it’s the largely linear world of video games, and has been since the days of 1st edition — but it’s bracing to be reminded that the imagined audience for 4e products sees/saw the illusionist hybrid creature known as the ‘adventure path’ as the baseline D&D experience.
Certain tensions inherent in the product seem to arise from this conception.
Vor Rukoth details an adventure site, which — as the name ‘Vor Rukoth’ clearly signals — is eeeeevil: a former human settlement whose rulers made a diabolic pact to repel a dragonborn army and were thereby transformed into tieflings (devil-people, a core species in 4e and 5e along with dragon-people). The city’s ruler opened a gate to hell, devils overran both invaders and citizens, and Bob’s your uncle, now the gate is the lich-ladylord’s phylactery and everything in Vor Rukoth is bad.
Vor Rukoth was ‘lost to civilization’ for centuries, but now a hobbit-but-wait-there’s-a-secret-here named The Coyote has established a tent city on the outskirts to provision would-be explorers. It’s a Deadwood-ish, Mos Eisley-ish place; the bartender at the saloon(!) is a devil-woman named Inferna. There’s none of the imaginative brio of Mos Eisley nor the poetry of Deadwood, but how could there be? Anyhow that’s just the first few pages. Things are bound to pick up.
So what’s inside?
There’s a generic, uninspiring city map. There’s some breathless workmanlike prose. There’re factions, each with a clear agenda and a subversive working against it, usefully cross-referenced to adventure hooks in the gazetteer (thanks, WotC, for nailing this simple bit of textual apparatus). There’s a list of Events which contains this suggestion…
As a locale where opposing forces are constantly at work, Vor Rukoth is active even when the characters are not there. One way to make the city seem more alive is to introduce events that disrupt the balance of power or change the geography of the area.
…which sounds sensible enough, but then the listed events include ‘earthquake floods the streets with lava’ and ‘prophesied alignment of the heavens brings catastrophe’ and ‘new emperor arises with a hell-army.’ The framing text emphasises verisimilitude (not ‘realism’ duh) yet the actual Events list is basically ‘minor apocalypses that change the tactical situation,’ none of them fleshed out — par for the schizo-course in a supplement that advertises itself as a ‘living city’ and spends a sixth of its page count on factions.
Locationwise, Vor Rukoth is sketchy but not evocative, as by now you’ve perhaps come to expect, and is neither detailed enough to run as-is nor compelling enough to improvise with. Each district of the city gets a bunch of backstory which the players will probably never learn, and a handful of standard D&D hooks (mostly of the ‘a patron with a Hidden Agenda wants to send you off treasure hunting’ variety). There’s magical treasure everywhere. The ‘skill challenge’ mechanic is suggested several times; it remains an awkward, blunt instrument. Flavourwise, stylewise, it’s…well: ghostly prostitutes wander the former red light district, half-orc slavers have supernatural help, there’s a cavern full of blood worms. Everything is Dark and Serious and dull.
In keeping with 4e norms, no effort at naturalism has been made. The city’s built for setpieces, not the slow burn of an urban campaign — it’s a treasure-filled dungeon. Instead of ‘mere (un)life,’ the city’s full of extras, the equivalent of stage actors whispering ‘peas and carrots’ to look like they’re conversing.
The biggest surprise in Vor Rukoth is how little 4e this 4e product contains: just twelve statblocks, only five of them for threats (the others are items), and no bestiary as such. It’s practically an edition-neutral product, which is a good thing — beyond a few holdouts, there’s no 4e market left anyway. So how does it stack up against, say, other recent D&D adventure material, official and fanmade? Not too well, I’m afraid: it’s a standard WotC product, all workmanlike writing and generic fighty-fantasy art and Abandoned Streets echoing with the Cries of the Angry Dead. It certainly brings the sketchy 4e setting to life; the trouble is, that setting is utterly undistinguished. Beefy fighers with lots of buckles on their armour fight weedy little spellcasters in colour-coded robes, and the sound of your name advertises your alignment: if you’ve ever looked at a d20 product before, you’ve seen this one. On the open market for imaginative RPG projects without edition buy-in (lock-in), Vor Rukoth is a weak entry.
Summary judgment: I didn’t feel compelled to steal any ideas from this book, and I bet you won’t either.
A note about evocative writing
WotC’s D&D is like a network TV drama: no swearing, no nudity, no eroticism (but the occasional brief scene of soft-focus missionary sex), no consequential violence, no idiosyncrasy, no poetry — and no useless beauty, i.e. no time given over to the ‘vivid continuous dream’ of fiction. Whether for lack of talent, lack of editorial freedom, lack of taste, or lack of will, WotC’s work is never really terrifying or beautiful; it never quite evokes madness or the Weird; its content (for what it’s worth) is adolescent despite the creative team’s pretensions to seriousness. Mostly, it’s boring: WotC’s writers and artists never ever surprise you with ideas or presentation. (Anyone who’s ever been brought up short by a WotC product’s ingenuity just isn’t reading widely enough, sorry.)
It’s not impossible to write beautiful, compelling RPG books that double as highly functional technical writing. Plenty of folks have managed it: S. John Ross writes evocative prose (extraordinary, actually). Ken Hite too. Zak Smith and Patrick Stuart do it. Gareth Hanrahan and Robin Laws at Pelgrane, Stolze and Tynes and Detwiller at Arc Dream: check. Jonathan Tweet gave us Over the Edge and Everway, c’mon. Jenna Moran can’t not write interesting prose. Vincent Baker, Luke Crane, even the ludicrous Ron Edwards: boom. Greg Stafford, Greg Costikyan, Aaron Allston, John Varley. James Wallis — you realize his Munchausen game is an honest-to-God literary classic, right? Benjamin Baugh. Malcolm Craig. The odd damaged people responsible for GURPS Goblins and The Whole Hole. The late John M Ford and Tom Moldvay. Zeb Cook. Bruce Cordell. Bambra, Morris, Davis, and Gallagher (the Night’s Dark Terror and Death on the Reik teams.) Ansell, Brunton, and Forrest (Realms of Chaos.) Schwalb. Wick. Some White Wolf dweebs whom I don’t know because I can’t stand White Wolf’s house style. And a host of amateurs and obsessives who’ll go unnamed today.
Notice anything about that list? (Other than the fact that RPG publishers need more women writers, I mean.) Several of those folks have written for WotC — but with the exception of Planescape’s Zeb Cook, they’ve all found the creative freedom and institutional support to do their best work elsewhere. (Monte Cook made his name at TSR/WotC, but he’s best known for his 3e design work; like Stolze, he can sound a bit tiresome and familiar when he’s off in Imaginationland.)