Review: Sandstorm

Copyright Robert J Defendi © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

Anyone who's read one of my reviews of a Bruce Cordell product has probably come to expect a certain amount of praise. Sandstorm, the first in a series of D&D supplements to deal with setting as environment as opposed to setting as community, has three authors listed on the cover. Bruce R. Cordell, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes and JD Wiker (look, someone besides me eschews punctuation after an initial). This book is a relatively strong product which is undermined more by the Wizards of the Coast vision of Dungeons and Dragons than its specific content. The details are interesting and relatively well-written. Some of them positively capture the imagination. However they are crammed into a certain framework of design that has plagued all D&D books for a while now. This is the first time I've reviewed a book with this structure, so bear with me if I vent just a bit.

The first chapter of this book is the strongest. It deals with the waste itself, and let's face it, you're buying or not buying the book for this chapter. Here we deal with the realities of the waste. Heat. Dehydration. Survival. First this chapter addresses the real threats of a mundane waste, such as sand and the elements, the effects of glare and wind. Then the chapter veers off into the fantastic, things that could only be found in a magical world. These include everything from planes of fused glass to semi-sentient dunes, to ghost voices, to special poisons and diseases. Finally it ends with a description of the different styles of waste, complete with a list of features and the percentage of the area that would be dominated by those features.

Now the book lives or dies on this chapter, and I think it lived. It's interesting and it stimulates the imagination. It hands the DM practical information as well as a launchpad into the fantastic. Honestly my only real disappointment with this chapter is that they included those percentages for the terrain features of the different types of wastes and didn't take that any farther. Honestly, how hard is it to jump from there to a full-blown mini-table. You could use it that way as is, but you'd have to count down the chart to make it work and only a slight massaging of the data could have made it so much more useful.

So that's it. Now you know whether or not you want to buy the book. "What about the rest?" you ask. "Is the rest of the book just filler?"

A lot of it is, yes.

Let's look at the rest of the book chapter by chapter.

Chapter 2 is races, classes and feats. Now I have to admit. The very title of this first section makes me want to chew out my own tongue. I mean, honestly. When did someone decide that they needed to add a new race or two in every book? I've been gaming for years and some of my worlds have been around from the beginning. Am I just going to pop in a new race with every supplement? It would turn my campaigns into a joke.

The first part of the race section is just so much wasted space. It introduces two new races, just as you'd expect. The first look like gray aliens from UFO abduction stories spray painted a pleasant deep tan. The second are a race of desert goblinoids that have names and culture similar to Native Americans. I mean really.

Evidently the handing over of Dark Sun to a web presence precluded the inclusion of Muls and Half Giants. I can understand that, but as for the rest?

After this, the chapter becomes more useful. It takes the standard D&D races and discusses how to treat them in a waste environment, complete with a few swapped out abilities. The section on classes are much the same. This is how a supplement should handle races and classes. It came as a certain relief.

Next we come to Feats, and this is an interesting section. It has a nice selection of feats but the main feature in the introduction of Touchstone Sites. These are ancient locales with which a character can bind himself. Doing so grants the character certain powers, both basic and advanced, that go hand in hand with his connection to the site.

My only problem with this section is a bit of murkiness about what happens when you take the feat to bond with multiple sites. In one place, it says that you can only have one of the basic abilities at once and must sacrifice it when orienting on a new site (by going there and recharging your vital energies.) A bit lower it says that you never lose these basic abilities. I think they changed a rule during an editing pass and missed one of the references. It's happened to me so I understand it, but that doesn't help you. You'll have to look for errata.

So I've already chewed out my own tongue. Next comes the section that makes me want to swallow it whole. Prestige classes. I thought these were a great idea at first, but now the glut of prestige classes has made them lose almost all meaning. In addition, the lack of any real game balance from one to another has made them an absolute nightmare to include in any game. This is the perfect example of a good idea that someone tried to take out for a ride only to find that they had to run it around and around and around, digging a trench like poor, enslaved Conan.

Sort of like I just did to that simile.

All right. So if I had my way, I'd never see another prestige class outside of a very specific setting situation (such as the various knightly orders of Krynn). That being said, I can grudgingly admit that maybe they aren't that bad in this context. A waste is completely alien to the climate of most fantasy. If they call me tomorrow and tell me they'd already decided against putting any more prestige classes into their main supplements, but they couldn't see a way around it in this book, I'd forgive them. Is my phone ringing? No. I don't think it will, either.

Okay. So I made it past that section of the book without letting my own frustration get the better of me. It speaks well enough for the book.

Next comes equipment. This section has nothing spectacular about it. They ripped off Dune still suits here, but they really probably needed too (they ripped off worm riding in the previous chapter). Let's face it. Dune has done more to shape genre perceptions of the waste than perhaps any other work in history. Don't think of it as theft. Think of it as homage.

Magic is also a fine chapter. Here they treat us with new types of spells, such as those that cause dehydration. They do a fine job of adding new deities and domains to deal with life in the waste. I liked it.

Chapter 6 is all about monsters. They could have snuck Muls and Half Giants in here and satisfied everyone, but alas, I'll have to go online for them. Again, I was fine with this section on waste monsters. If you run a waste campaign, you'll probably spend most of your time in this section, so they gave it just under a third of the book. Considering how tired monster sections are becoming in D&D books, I think they did an admirable job.

The final chapter contains three adventure sites, about twenty pages of what are essentially mini adventures. I was rather pleased with this section, because it speaks to a need in the audience. Whenever a new book comes out, everyone in a gaming group who likes the work becomes excited to add the new content into their games. I remember the old days of 2nd Edition. When the Complete Fighters book came out, we started a new campaign of all fighters. When complete Thieves came out we did the same. We'd learned our lesson by the time Priests came out, if I remember right. We probably went back and started a new campaign of all fighters.

But I digress.

This section is fine. Instead of causing a rash of new campaigns and hundreds of illegal downloads of PDF versions of the old "I" series of modules, here we have the bones of three adventures. Twenty minutes of thought and a DM could easily dress them in the duds of his own campaign. Then the players can get the sand and the dust out of their system and make an informed decision about whether to continue gaming in the waste for the long term.

So, honestly, if you feel like gaming in waste environments (even in the planes), this book is probably worth your money. Does it have problems? Yes, but really, these aren't problems with this one book, but with the design philosophy of Wizards. If these elements don't bother you in other books, they probably won't bother you here. If they do bother you in other D&D supplements, well you've either stopped buying them or you've learned to deal with your frustration.

So in short, considering the structure imposed by Wizards, this is a fine work. Not the greatest achievement in Wizards history, but I'm happy to add it to my library. Now, let's get Cordell back to solo projects. I have games to run.