Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: Empires of the Shining Sea (Part I)

A while ago (I honestly don’t remember exactly when) picked up the Empires of the Shining Sea boxed set. Seeing as I have a stack of stuff I've managed to collect, and haven't really read yet, I decided to pull this one from the pile, and have a go, based solely on the cover.

Summoning a genie to fight a dragon? Awesome!

It’s a fairly typical 2nd edition forgotten realms setting boxed set. Here’s the text from the back of the box:

Calimshan and the Lake of Steam Revealed!

The dusty trails from the North have brought you to the warm and welcoming coasts of the Shining Sea and the Lake of Steam. Here is history spanning millennia, not just centuries; passion, profit and danger; dreams of power and conquest; and wonders mysteries centuries older than any hedge realm north of Dalagar's Road and the Snowflake Mountains.

Empires of the Shining Sea goes farther and deeper into the southern reaches of the FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign setting, providing a breadth of scope and a level of detail never before published. This boxed set includes a 192-page book filled with information on these topics:

History The Empires of the Shining Sea hold tales and legends passed down by word of mouth across the years. The myriad mysteries and dramas of more than 300 rulers across four empires - including the infamous Shoon Imperium - reveal themselves in the history and timeline spanning more than 8,000 years.

Calimshan The long-fallen empire of Calimshan rises yet again, as a new ruler and new power groups take control of the former land of the genies. Updated and expanded by more than 100 pages since its first appearance in FR3, Empires of the Sands, Calimshan shows itself to be a land bent on returning to its former greatness - at any and all costs!

The Land of the Lions This rugged land sandwiched between the Deepwash and the Lake of Steam seems empty, but many surprises lurk among its plains and woods - nomads and raiders astride giant lynxes, elder orbs, ruined cities, lost cultures, and more!

The Lake of Steam This steaming bay of the Shining Sea unveils its secrets, proving that it holds more than easy trade routes to the Inner Sea. Scarlet pearls the size of a human fist or the smoking majesty of the volcanic Arnrock tempt those who dare test its deceptively calm waters.

Also inside are two full-color poster maps showing Calimshan and the Lake of Steam region at 30-mile-per-inch scale.

Everything you need to adventure in the conspiracy-laden Empires of the Shining Sea is here!

I’d like to point out that bit right in the middle there, the over 8,000 years of history. You don’t actually get the timeline until you’ve gotten all the way past the 30 pages of history.

Seriously, 30 pages covering 8,000 years?? How much of that is even vaguely relevant to anything 99.9% of players are ever going to deal with? And we’re not looking at nice easy to read 30 pages, we’re talking serious textbook small type. The level of verbosity is just astounding, and the amount of useful info is vanishingly small.

I’ll grant you that I’m spoiled, living in an age of video info graphics and supplemental web pages to expand on material presented elsewhere, but even granting the technological limitations of 1998, this is really user unfriendly, but typical of a Forgotten Realms product from the end of the TSR era.

If you’re going to attempt reading this, I’d strongly suggest keeping a copy of the maps handy, especially if you aren’t all that familiar with the region to begin with.

One thing that doesn’t really stand out, is what’s the point of having this particular area? The predominant themes I’ve noticed are Genies, Dragons, Beholders, Angry Sea Goddess, Volcanoes, Slaves, etc. Now, it seems very like Al Quadim thus far. Flipping ahead I can see it’s a bit more africa themed, rather than arabia, but it isn’t obvious. We’ll see how it goes as I get past the 8,000 years of history.


  1. That reminds me of Shadow World. I started out thinking it was a quite cool setting. Then I realized it was just someone wanting to write a novel. What on earth is it about timelines that so calls to frustrated novelists?

    1. Because they're imitating Tolkien to a certain extent (myself included). Though even Robert E. Howard had rough timeline for his Conan stories, but it only was a few pages long.

      But Tolkien really set the standard with all of the background behind the Lord of the Rings. I also think Dragonlance perpetuated it-- for both campaign settings and novels.

    2. I think the difference between Tolkien, Howard, and EotSS is that Tolkien did it first, and Howard didn't shove it down your throat. It gets a little better further on, but still so little usable gaming material.

      Also, timelines are fine. Multipage timelines are fine. Pages upon pages of dry history, explained in some depth? Not fine, not useful.