Review: Dragon Empires Gazetteer

So, instead of reading that pile of philosophy and classics I had in reserve to keep me entertained over the holidays, I ended up whiling away the hours by reading Paizo’s new Pathfinder RPG sourcebook Dragon Empires Gazetteer off my laptop screen. Since it’s a rare example of a gaming supplement I’ve actually read cover to cover, I figured I might as well tell people what I thought about it.

Dragon Empires Gazetteer is the inevitable fantasy Asia counterpart to the fantasy Europe and fantasy Africa of Avistan and Garund, covered in the much bigger Inner Sea World Guide. The fantasy Asia continent of Tian Xia is covered in the space of 64 pages between soft covers, and it’s actually pretty good.

Tian Xia is divided into 28 regions. These include states, such as the not-Japan of Minkai, the military dictatorship of Amanandar ruled by an ethnically Taldan warrior aristocracy, and the tengu nation of Kwanlai, as well as wild regions like the Forest of Spirits, the Wall of Heaven mountain range, and the great Valashmai Jungle. Each of these gets a page of description. We also get a few new races. The regular lineup of demihumans can be found in Tian Xia, but only elves and half-elves are found natively.

The kitsune are fox shapeshifters, who are able to switch between a humanoid fox form and a human form that allows them to pass as humans. The racial description hints at racial kitsune feats in Dragon Empires Primer that would enhance their shapeshifting abilities and allow them to turn into a fox. We also get the nagaji, who are a big and burly servitor race bred by the naga who rule Nagajor; the tengu birdmen; the monastic, reincarnated samsarans from the mountains of Zi Ha; and the wayangs, a race of tricksters from the Plane of Shadow.

The races are the beginning and end of rules items in the book, with the exception of the Moon subdomain (of the Darkness domain) dropped into a sidebar in the religion chapter, and the rest of the book is devoted to setting information. The rules items, I suppose, has all been relegated to the Primer. In the religion chapter we also get the list of deities worshiped by the people of Tian Xia. Some of these, like Desna, Pharasma and Abadar, are also found in the Inner Sea region, but most of the lot are local, such as Daikitsu, the goddess of agriculture and patron of kitsune; Shizuru, the Empress of Heaven; Yaezhing, the Minister of Blood; and my absolute favourite, Sun Wukong.

I dunno, I just like the idea of there being a deity of doing stupid crap while drunk. I’m now trying to figure out a way to combine worship of Sun Wukong and Cayden Cailean into the same player character.

In addition, there’s ten pages or so on life in the Dragon Empires. Languages, a few notes on trade, what’s life like for the regular Joe.

Dragon Empires Gazetteer ties in with the Jade Regent Adventure Path, currently in its fourth volume and just entering Tian Xia, and Year Three of the Pathfinder Society campaign, where the year’s metaplot is tied with Tian Xia and the first modules set there have just come out. There’s also an upcoming Pathfinder module Ruby Phoenix Tournament, which I believe will also work as the culmination of the PFS metaplot for the year.

There is one error that I noticed in my PDF. When discussing the lost empires of Tian Xia, the book says that the map on the opposing page should depict the extent of these empires at their height. However, the map depicts the current political makeup of the continent and notes points of interest within regions. Then again, a map of the fallen empires of Tian Xia would mostly consist of three large, overlapping blobs in the middle, forming the Lung Wa, Shu, and Yinxing empires.

The Lay of the Land

Tian Xia is a big continent that, until about a century ago, was dominated by a succession of big empires. The latest of these was the Lung Wa imperium, which dominated most of the landmass until disintegrating around the same time Aroden died. The reasons or circumstances of Lung Wa’s collapse are not elaborated upon, which struck me as a strange and annoying thing to omit. There is a suggestion that it might be connected to Aroden’s death (who was not worshiped in Tian Xia). The three largest splinters are the militaristic Lingshen, the bureaucratic Po Li, and Quain with its thousand heroes and monasteries of martial artists. In addition, there are smaller splinter states that are culturally farther away from the Lung Wa heartland. There’s Amanandar, which is essentially a colony of Taldor. There’s the aasimar nation of Tianjing. There’s Chu Ye, which was overrun by oni, and Kaoling, which was taken over by hobgoblins. There’s the sorcerer-ruled Dtang Ma and the pacifistic Hwanggot, which regained their independence when Lung Wa fell. Also, there’s Bachuan, which is ruled by filthy totalitarian communists.

Not all states in Tian Xia are built on Lung Wa’s ruins, though. There’s Hongal, which is a steppe ruled by nomads, and the feudal state of Minkai. They’ve got samurai. There’s also the elven kingdom of Jinin, whence comes the coolest line in all of Dragon Empires Gazetteer: “Ruler: Shogun Jininsiel Ryuikiatsu of the Bamboo Court of Silver Leaves (LG male elf samurai 15)”. There’s the pirate isles of Minata, the naga kingdom of Nagajor, and Xa Hoi, which is a real empire ruled by dragons.

Overall, we get a good spread of different countries. They’re not all nations of hats, but they’re different enough that I can more or less remember their names and schticks after one readthrough. The regions are interesting, and there’s adventure in the air. They’re not living in vacuums, either, but interact with one another – Po Li, Lingshen and Quain are in a Mexican standoff with one another, the hobgoblins of Kaoling threatening the elves of Jinin and the samsarans of Zi Ha, tensions rising on the border between Bachuan and Hwanggot, the tengus of Kwanlai are being forced to shape up into a real nation state by the threat of the kraken-ruled Wanshou to the north.

That’s What She Saïd

I was glad to note that Dragon Empires Gazetteer does not make baby Edward Saïd cry. Well, as far as I’m qualified to judge such things, which may not be all that far. Tian Xia and its people aren’t played up as something mystical or unknowable or inferior (or superior, for that matter) to Avistan. They’re guys you can understand. Heck, they’re guys you’d want to play. Of course, as far as I can tell, the book makes a terrible hash of any mythological material it touches, but we don’t play D&D for historical or mythological accuracy, and in any case, D&D does this to everything. The brand new Bestiary 3 features the iku-turso, an aquatic monster that has precisely dick to do with Iku-Turso, son of Äijö, as he is depicted in Kalevala, our national epic. It’s D&D, it’s what it does. We deal with it.

Tian Xia also isn’t treated as a monolith. Though the Inner Sea Gazetteer presents a single ethnicity, Tian, and a single language, Tien, for the natives of the continent, the Dragon Empires Gazetteer brushes off such simplicity as ignorance born of distance and lack of contact. There are seven different human ethnicities in Tian Xia (the tian-dan, tian-dtang, tian-hwan, tian-la, tian-min, tian-shu and tian-sing), and a bunch of languages. Tien, the official language of fallen Lung Wa, serves as the Common for the continent. There’s variety.

The book also avoids making the Kara-Tur gaffe. Kara-Tur, the original D&D not-Asia that tied in with the original Oriental Adventures hardcover, was a singularly uninspired work. For examples of how much creative energy it was infused with, there’s a mountain nation of monasteries ruled by a High Lama. It’s called Tabot. There’s another nation located on a peninsula extending from the land of Shou Lung towards the island nation of Kozakura. It’s called Koryo. With Dragon Empires Gazetteer, I am happy to note that I cannot draw equivalencies between nations quite as easily. Sure, Minkai is essentially a fantasy Japan, and Hongal is fantasy Mongolia, and Bachuan is a fantasy Communist China, and Zi Ha is kinda like Tibet, but it’s not 1:1. It’s the fine line between inspiration and just plain lazy. There are, of course, things you must have – if your fantasy Asia doesn’t have a fantasy Japan and fantasy Mongolia and a monastery with a bunch of bald guys breaking bricks with their hands, you should reconsider if you really know what you’re doing. These are essential and identifiable tropes. Just mix it up a bit, make it your own, and for all that is good and holy, come up with some good names. Greyhawk’s not-Japan is called, I kid thee not, “Nippon”. Fortunately, it does not exist outside of a label on a world map most fans are happy to treat as apocryphal, if only so they can ignore Orcreich.

In Closing

But back to Dragon Empires Gazetteer. It’s good, and interesting enough that I read it in full from the screen of my laptop, which is not something that can be said of a whole lot of books. I’ll be putting it to good use once my Jade Regent campaign kicks off, sometime next year (I hope) and in Pathfinder Society.

For full disclosure, I bought my PDF copy normally through the Paizo webstore.

5 thoughts on “Review: Dragon Empires Gazetteer

  1. Given that “Oerth” is intentionally just “Earth” with a Bugs Bunny accent and World of Greyhawk was originally a thinly disguised version of our world, I think it’s taking things too seriously to complain about labels like “Nippon”.

  2. Originally, perhaps, but by the time that the map in question rolled around, it had put some distance between our world and its own, and isn’t much different in that regard from Middle-Earth, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance or most other medieval fantasy settings. They’ve got their cultural analogues, but all of them went to the effort of at least changing the names.

    Effort is the thing. It shows that someone cared. If they didn’t care, why should we? Here’s the map in all of its terrible glory:

  3. Pingback: RPG News from Around the Net: 6-JAN-12 | Game Knight Reviews

  4. Pingback: News from Around the Net: 6-JAN-12 | Gamerati

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