“Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of the trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
A Deeper Look at Tales of the Old Margreve
“The Old Margreve Forest is an ancient place, already old when most of the gods were young.” So begins Tales of the Old Margreve, these words (and an apropos quote from H.P. Lovecraft) kicking off two hundred pages of combination campaign setting and adventure collection. The Margreve is, of course, the great and sentient forest of the world of Midgard, a vast, slumbering intelligence home to all manner of magical flora and fauna, which exists to the west of the city of Zobeck. Drawing equal parts from Germany’s Black Forest (the setting for the tales of the Brothers Grimm) and the Mirkwood of Middle Earth, the Margreve is the ur–magical woods, a place of bright enchantments and dark shadows where one might encounter an alseid or bearfolk, spot a treant, or cross paths with the Iron Teeth of Baba Yaga. Even Grandmother herself or one of her daughters might show up beneath the forest’s boughs.
The world’s most popular role-playing game has never seen anything like this. An aura of ancient myth permeates the setting portion of the tome while the adventures contained within draw to mind not so much 20th- and 21st-century fantasy epics as they do older works of folk and fairy tale. A literal “anything can happen” vibe permeates these woods and makes for a tabletop experiences unlike that found elsewhere.
The book itself contains 56 pages of campaign setting information and 135 pages of adventure. It opens with a mesmerizing “Gazateer” that sets the tone for the GM before going on to discuss optional rules for determining character status in the Margreve—yes, the forest has an attitude toward every character, and its attitude matters—then notes on the life and powers of the forest, thoughts on customizing the experience to your table, and the most amazing random encounter tables. The encounters are broken into separate charts for the Great Northern Road that bisects the woods, fey encounters, and day and night encounters on the outskirts verses the interior of the forest versus the forest’s “heart.” Many of these encounters are fabulous story hooks as well. Just take this one example: “The Moonlit King (see Tome of Beasts) strolls into camp with a satyr. He produces empty cups for each member of the party and invites you all to share a drink and tell tales.”
Next up is “Sites, Inhabitants, Adventure Hooks,” which covers history and geography, details all the Coaching Inns along the Great Northern Road, and features places like the Meadow of Fey Revels (actually in the Margreve’s sister forest, the Arbonesse), the Dancing Stones, and the Bluebell Coaching Inn. The Bluebell is a treant-owned establishment where mortals can mingle freely with fey alongside the magical denizens of the Margreve. It occupies over 5 pages of the book and includes a beautiful map of the inn.
“Magic in the Margreve” is exactly what it sounds like. New spells tailored for leafy-green environs: Porevit’s mantle and snap the leash are particularly interesting.
And then we come to “Hollow” by Richard Pett, the first of 12 adventures that can be played on their own or as an entire campaign, 1st to 10th level. Following “Hollow,” we have “The Honey Queen” by Jonathan McAnulty, “The Vengeful Heart” by lead designer Matt Corley, “Challenge of the Fang” by Dan Voyce, “The Griffon Hatchling Heist” by Michael Furlanetto, “Gall of the Spider Crone” by Tim Connor, “Blood and Thorns” by Dan Voyce, “Grandmother’s Fire” by Ben McFarland, “The Vengeful Dragon” by Steve Robert with Wolfgang Baur, and the tryptic “The Fingers of Derende,” “The Tongue of Derende,” and “The Heart of Derende” by Jon Sawatsky. Of these, my own table has playtested “The Honey Queen” and “The Vengeful Heart,” and we’ve used the status rules, encounter tables, and other bits from the setting as well as the related “The Bramble King” adventure from Warlock Lair 23. And none of them disappointed in the slightest.
Finally, the book ends with 14 pages of new forest monsters and creatures (though others as well as a host of NPCs are found in the pages of the adventures).
Obviously, anything here could be pulled out and happily dropped into another campaign setting, either official or homebrew. But this amazing work by so many talented designers and artists combines to make a place that feels as real as the world outside, as resonant as any traditional folklore, and as alive as the woods beyond your door. I for one to plan to spend a long time inside the leaves of this tome and to explore it thoroughly. I’m sure you’ll want to do the same.
Lou Anders is the author of Frostborn, Nightborn, and Skyborn, the three books of the Thrones & Bones series of middle grade fantasy adventures, as well as the novel Star Wars: Pirate’s Price. You can find out more about him and his works at www.louanders.com and visit him on Facebook and on Twitter @LouAnders.