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Netherell

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in January 2012, and is reprinted here and in the November 2013 issue with permission.

Netherell. Hal Maclean and Phillip Larwood
Terra/Sol Games http://www.terrasolgames.com
150pp., PDF
US$14.99/UK16.99

Every once and a while there comes a product that surprises you and Netherell is one such product. Essentially, it is science fantasy supplement for Traveller. Traveller has long played with notions of Clarke’s law (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) and in this case the science even confounds the Galactic civilization that surrounds this world of magic.

Of course, psionics lies at the root of the explanation, just not the run-of-the-mill psionics found in most Traveller games—this is psionics taken to a much higher magnitude, for the inhabitants of this world are pawns in a much larger power structure/struggle, which is what makes this supplement so interesting. For it does allow for two distinct levels of play: a traditional fantasy game, albeit powered by Traveller rules, or nefarious galactic factions hell-bent on discovering the secrets of “magic” in the struggle for galactic supremacy. The world itself is richly detailed and while it does contain a standard set of fantasy tropes they are nicely woven together in a tapestry that you could hardly call generic.

The narrative for galactics (those people from the stars) reads very much like those Star Trek episodes where the crew encounters a “primitive” world only to be overwhelmed by some sort antediluvian artifact that the natives have worshiped/pacified. The fact the world lies in the hands of the Terra/Sol baddies (the APR) makes it all the more interesting, lots of room for classic space opera in the vein of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to take place on this world. Naturally, here the artifact is “magic”. At the same time as one can play Sword, Spaceship and Sorcery games – the flora and fauna of this world also makes an interesting destination for many galactics. There is also whole genre of literature of spacemen landing on planet of “magic” to happily exploit/plagiarize for your adventures. And, then there is the other size, the Expedition to Barrier Peaks or Blackmoor, the interaction of essentially fantasy characters interacting with a high tech world. Both work equally well and are seamless and smoothly handled in Netherell.

Now onto the meat and potatoes of the product itself…it largely parallels and makes good use of the main Mongoose rulebook (so to answer your question – yes, you do need the Mongoose rules) for the essence of the chargen. It makes significant alternations; rather than home world, you have a home nation bequeathing advantages and disadvantages. There is a little aside to Ogres (not who you think they are). Then following Traveller there is a set of Careers which range from Aristocrat to Scum; first time readers will be advised that the Magical Careers are handled in the section on Magic. Then there is a brief discussion on Skills and how the native-born or galactic gone native would have their skills modified, including a useful trick that gives you the penalties for Netherell natives using high tech.

Naturally, you need to be equipped and if the Traveller rules for Sword cannot really distinguish between a long sword and two-handed sword, there is a nice equipment list. Also the rules on how to shoot a crossbow and hit the rope… So this expanded equipment section also has the effects of galactic weapons on Netherell armour. Along with gear and “vehicles” appropriate for the TL and fantastical nature of the milieu.

The next chapter deals with one of the great mysteries of Netherell – Magic – from the player’s perspective. Which as stated earlier deals with the career path of magician and vessel (something akin to system found in In Flames which has its origins in Voudoun or so I have been told), followed next with a discussion of the different Houses. Before concluding with a discussion on Knacks – a collection of magical abilities. With the next section delving into how Magical Items work, I found this section the most amusing and indeed well thought through.

Then we move to Book 2 – the Referee’s section which answers most of the question left standing from the player’s section – so Referees beware…unless TSG plans to release these as two separate digest books… Essentially, here we have a gazetteer of the known and world that lies beyond. As noted each of the nations are immensely bona fide fantasy tropes albeit with a nice twist. Added in the Referee’s section are the factions that make up Netherell, for those who want to metagame and concluding with perils of Netherell (including a mini Monster Manual). As I don’t want to give away too many Referee secrets, needless to say, this section is juicy with detail and intrigue with the element of danger and adventure in every section. Even if one takes away the Traveller overlay, this world would make an excellent fantasy world (speaking as a veteran of AD&D’s (1e) Greyhawk) and could easy substitute should I want to go the route of FRPGs again.

What was nice when there are expectations or just what you think, this supplement turns it around and gives you something new to think about. For instance, too many Traveller games have tried to map out the physiology of the Dragon – but what if these only existed inside people’s heads and were products of deep rooted pathologies – not saying that is what Dragons are in Netherell – but certainly puts a twist on things traditionally not covered in Traveller.

All throughout an appreciation of sandbox play is conveyed. In no way did I feel this hemmed in my horizons for Traveller, it was all about broadening them. This product opened up Mongoose Traveller to magic much in the same way that Thieves’ World (Chaosium) opened up Classic Traveller. And MegaTraveller had that nice Challenge article one Halloween or something (or was it TNE?)…anyhow magic in Traveller must follow Clarke’s Law – and Terra/Sol Games has done an excellent job in presenting it in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

Littered throughout is truly excellent artwork that is starting to be the hallmark of Terra/Sol Games, as whoever illustrated this work has done a truly magnificent and fabulous job. The writing is clear and to the point and whomever made the decision to split the book into two – Players & Referees section was brilliantly thinking ahead when the most common way of getting this book will be PDF, allowing a Referee to doll out multiple Player’s Handbooks unless TSG plans to split them and add more content on DTRPG for a fraction of the original cost. Editing and style errors were few and far between, great care was put into thinking of the presentation of this volume. Some things were hard to read on the printout but clear on the screen. So, if you can have a device that reads PDFs, you should have no problems but I cannot wait until this appears in dead tree/hard copy.

So in conclusion, I wholeheartedly recommend this product for anyone who needs to inject some Science Fantasy into their Traveller game. It is not recommended for those who wish to inject realistic (i.e. historical sword & scandal) games in the Ancient or Medieval world – this is all about injecting Fantasy into Traveller. I used to believe that Fantasy and Science Fiction shared a common lineage in the folly days of my youth. Then I grew up believing that one was oil and the other water – they can be mixed but will by laws of chemistry separate. Now, in my old age, I find myself once again dreaming of dragons and spaceships without going the route of D&D in Space – which this product is not. It is rather about Traveller in a fantasy setting. And, if that is your cup of tea (not sure, if it is mine), then you can do no better than to pick up this book. However, if you are of the Hard SF bent, then you will still find things in this book to appreciate and I think that is why I liked it so much, it treats both genres with respect and does not side too far in either direction. Sure, you are going to object that psionics is not Hard SF, but, many things that are Hard SF are only Hard for the moment that they have been written in…many things viewed as Hard become soft over time. Furthermore, the Terra/Sol milieu is a Space Opera universe… if you have mixed feelings about Space Opera then this product is not likely to persuade you anyhow… but if you are like many of us who joined this hobby because of that big elephant in the room, well, this helps you play with that elephant whilst still playing Traveller la Terra/Sol.