Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bundle of Holding: Magical Society: Ecology and Culture: Review

Or, "how many colons can I reasonably put in a post title?".

There is a new Bundle of Holding, Worldbuilding III.  I picked up the base bundle, as it contained two of the Magical Society series, of which I have generally heard high praise.  I read the first, Ecology and Culture, this evening.  This is relevant to a project I am considering to automate worldbuilding at a large scale (in the Dwarf Fortress worldgen tradition, starting with plate tectonics and ending with a hexographer map with stocked 6-mile hexes).

This book is not well-proofread.  The most glaring issue is the repeated misspelling of "arctic" to "artic", though the replacement of "band" (as in, "band together") with "ban" is also recurrent.

Their treatment of geology is adequate for fantasy worldbuilding.  I was somewhat disappointed with the ecology section (granted, I totally skipped the substantial treatment of magiotrophic organisms due to differing cosmological assumptions about the nature of magic), and am not sure if placing ecology and biomes between geology and weather was the correct organizational choice.  I'd've probably gone geology, weather, ecology, biomes, in a causal ordering.  Overall this part of the book was decent and I learned some stuff.

The cultures section is strongly reminiscent of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which was an OK book but has attracted substantial criticism.  Several assumptions, including the ever-upward Progress of Civilization from hunter-gatherer to pastoral to agrarian to urban (with each better than the last, minus a brief note on magic forsaking advanced societies) and the assumption that war is the near-inevitable result of contact between civilizations, are very GGS.  Overall a very instrumentalist, geographically-determinist account of culture - every piece of culture is viewed as an adaptation to an environmental or social stressor.  It's not bad advice, but it's also not very interesting.  I would have liked to see a treatment of alternate social value-structures, but so it goes.  I guess it might be accurate to say that this felt like a fairly shallow treatment of culture to me, with cultures generated likely to be "us in funny hats"; details (food sources, clothing types, deities, taboos) altered but ultimately pretty similar in value-system and ways of thinking to oneself and one's players (which does raise the Tekumel/Rokugan Problem - if the natives are too foreign, I'm going to have a hard time running them.  But I have had good fortune with players being interested in strange philosophical groups in my past games).

Anyway, I'm glad I did not pay full price for this book.  A decent overview of earth science for DMs, but hardly the 4.5 stars it has on rpgnow.  You could probably do about as well with a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel and a couple of hours on wikipedia.  The only thing this book does is save you time.


  1. I was really excited by the ideas behind a couple of the Magical Society books, but they've mostly seemed to be "some good ideas, some very specific setting details that wouldn't necessarily work for anybody for the author, and lots of shoddily-edited padding". Silk Road was definitely like that.

    1. Oh boy. Silk Road is next in my review queue; should be fun.

    2. Heh. I have the whole series, pretty sure, in physical form from when they were originally published.

      The promise is a bit higher than the delivery, yes - a good encyclopedia-esque overview of the subjects with some nod given towards game mechanics - and I couldn't really tell you how much of it was immediately gameable.

      A lot of the good press at the time was the sheer novelty of the products.

      Doesn't look like the Medieval Society:Western Europe product is in the mix - it's a very blurry, rough attempt at what ACKS did. I think that, in general, XRP was underserved by tying themselves to the assumptions of d20/3E, which made very token nods towards economics and demographics.

    3. Yeah, I considered picking up Western Europe at one point, but concluded that it was probably going to be impossible for them to build something reasonable on top of 3.x's default demographic assumptions.

      Yeah, I could see novelty being the attraction. One of my thoughts after finishing Ecology and Culture was "Damn, I should get in on this 'nonfiction specifically aimed at lazy DMs' thing", but was forced to wonder why nobody else but XRP had done it, and concluded the market probably wasn't there.