The bell tolls for thee, 4E. A lot of people have wondered what kind of D&D books will be released in 2013 if the D&D Next playtest is going to take two years. Menzoberranzan answers that question — edition-neutral books packed with fluffy lore and epic (p)ages of fictional history. That gives D&D fans a lot to look forward to.
This book is tied into the big, cross-platform Rise of the Underdark project that Wizards has going on through the end of 2012. It shows up in novels, D&D Online, the first two faction packs for Dungeon Command, and in the current season of D&D Encounters. When I talked to Laura Tommervik at Gen Con, she wouldn’t spill what the next big event for 2013 will be, but there is one planned (I suspect it will involve The Sundering in some way). That means we can hope to see some more of these cool books that have zero crunchy rules content and tons of flavor that can be used in any campaign with any edition.
This book is even era-neutral. It doesn’t depict any big event propelling the story of the major drow families. Instead, it goes through the complete history (as known) of Menzoberranzan, divided into large chunks. From the Founding, the Time of Troubles, War of the Spider Queen and the Spellplague, it shows which houses ascended or were destroyed and how the city changed in relation to the other races and places near it. It offers campaign tips for ways to play in any of the eras, plus ways to alter history to suit your own purposes (mainly by proposing a bunch of interesting “What if?” scenarios).
There follows a fairly detailed look at Lolth and the drow themselves, and the troubled relationship they’ve shared. It’s not as detailed as the 2nd or 3rd edition Drow of the Underdark books, and obviously doesn’t include stats for Lolth’s avatars, but a lot of information about them is woven (like a web, yeah?) throughout the rest of the book.
Faction vs. Faction
The largest section explains the various factions that eternally compete within the city. Roughly a dozen of the major houses and a bunch of non-house factions (like Sorcere and Bregan D’Aerth) get thorough treatment. There’s a handy icon system used to denote each faction’s relative military strength, financial clout and favor with Lolth. Charts quickly show how the houses have risen and fallen through Menzoberranzan’s ranks through the ages. There’s a even a cool system for creating your own house, and a list of canonical house names that have been mentioned, but thus far never detailed, in novels and older sourcebooks.
There’s a solid section on the city itself, one of the best I’ve seen, actually. It explains how the city developed and the weird drowish cultural factors that lead to it being the way it is, like the West Wall settled by refugees from another city, the rich houses living on a plateau, and the island/farm thing they use to feed the citizens. You get a good look at the city in the included poster map. Poster maps are awesome. This one is two-sided and shows the entire city on one side in a sort of duotone, artistic treatment. The other side is fully colored with numbered icons pointing out specific locations. I think I’d rather have had a different map on the other side (maybe a zoomed out shot of that region of the Underdark, showing where the city is) instead of the exact same map twice, but it’s still a really cool poster map.
The intent here is that you’ll want to run a campaign in Menzoberranzan, which suggests a party of evil drow. The last section goes over some ways you can handle this.
My criticisms of Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue are few, but pointed. I still don’t quite get drow. I love them, but their weird monoculture breaks my suspension of disbelief. Living in a giant cavern with a mushroom farm, sure. An entire race of evil, conniving back-stabbers…that’s crazy talk. The art in the book is a little uneven. They spent a lot of page space on little family portraits of the major houses, but they all amount to picture after picture of somewhat indistinguishable drow. Then the gazetteer section will describe some really cool, exotic locale, but no image to show it off.
And finally, I swore I’d never mention this again: my pet peeve of the the stupid, overly literal, imagination-robbing captions on all of the images in 4E books. But this book hits rock bottom. The absolute worst thing I have ever seen in any D&D book. A picture of the bazaar is captioned thusly:
“A typical day in the Bazaar: How much for that dagger in the window?”
Yes, someone thought the best way to capture the dire Machiavellian nature of life in a city ruled by spider-worshipping dark elves was to get the song “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” stuck in your head. That’s just inexcusably terrible. I know it’s just one caption, but…it’s so bad.
Ah, whatever. I love these editionless books. They’ll never be obsoleted by a new edition. More stories, fewer rules. Praise Lolth.