May 21, 2024

Classic Reviews ~ Empires of the Shining Sea by TSR

Brant Guillory, 9 September 2021

First Impressions: This is a meaty book… for some that’s good, others not so good. Thumbing through the book you find everything but a currency converter. Just out of curiosity, I went to the index to see if there was one I just missed, and, well, darn if the damn book didn’t have an index either.

On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue

The maps are standard Forgotten Realms maps. Some people like the style, some people loathe the style. On the plus side, anyone who’s ever looked over a Forgotten Realms map before knows what they’re looking at on the map.

My first impression is basically that of a social studies book from 9th grade: full of information that the teacher tells you “don’t worry, we’ll get to it” and you hope you don’t get assigned to read it all in one night. I personally prefer several smaller books, each with their own internal tables of contents, as well as “toys” – pamphlets, maps, etc. that can be handed out to the players during the game. This box has none. In fact, it doesn’t really need a box – the maps could’ve been attached to the inside back cover and sold that way.


Digging In: The book starts with a table of contents that looks more like the missing index should. It’s small type, densely packed, and includes lots of itty-bitty headers. In my mind, this should have been cut at least in half, if not more; it shouldn’t have taken up more than one page. The remainder of the info should’ve then been indexed alphabetically by topic instead of in page-number order. There is no grand overview of the Empires, either. This book digs right into cosmology and the religious underpinnings of the Empires. The Legends and Tales are interesting, and those of you that don’t get near FRealms might want to pirate these into your own games, but is this really the first thing we need to know about the Empires?

It is remarkably well thought-out, and the authors have obviously sunk time and attention into it, but to what end? To have a reviewer suggest you can skip the entire first section of their book?

The history chapters are broken down into chronological eras. This is a two-edged sword: they’re broken up into readable bites, but the entire time you’re reading them you feel like you should be highlighting notes for the term paper due at the end of it all. It is remarkably well thought-out, and the authors have obviously sunk time and attention into it, but to what end? To have a reviewer suggest you can skip the entire first section of their book?

Parts 2 and 3 are the bulk of the book and they detail Calimshan (first introduced waaaaaaaaaaay back in the Icewind Dale trilogy) and The Arnaden Region (which I can’t ever recall reading about before). Again, the level of detail is remarkable: political boundaries, climate, population (types & dispersion), attire and armaments, languages, names, and religion. Then it launches into “society & customs.” Just for comparison, let’s flip over to CIA World Factbook and grab a random county ~ Djibouti. What do we find in the introduction: political boundaries and geography, population makeup and dispersion (including languages and religion), government, military forces, et al. You can probably see where this is heading. There is remarkably little “adventurable” information. The entire thing reads up to my first impression: 9th grade social studies book that keeps you looking a page ahead to see if there are “discussion questions” between the chapters.

ESS-coverThe level of detail is immense, but I’d rather have a sketch of the “Magis Tor” (page 82) and an adventure hook, than having to read “covered archways arc from each of its corner towers to a central tower whose base rests 30 feet above the ground, connecting all the towers as one. This doorless, windowless set of towers was home to the members of Tethyr’s adventuring wizards, the Magis Mir, who were secretly sworn foes of undead beings and would have become a threat to the Twisted Rune had they remained active.”

Gee, y’know a sketch of that would’ve been darn nifty… especially since it would’ve saved me trying to draw one for my players. And you, like me, probably can find 4 different hooks in those two lines, which are about half of the entire paragraph dedicated to the Magis Tor. However, the authors either didn’t see it, or they were too busy worrying about the typical diet of a Calimshan peasant to share.


Wrapping Up: This is a full book, but it’s not a very useable book. When I say “meaty” substance, I’m not kidding: there’s a ton of information here. The problem is translating it into something that adds value to your game. If you take this book in small bites and only flip to the pages you need, you might not come to hate it. 90% of what’s here is background that’s great for immersing a player/DM in the Empires, but it’s all reference/background… As I said above, there’ very little “gameable” material here.


(this review originally appeared about 20 years ago on an RPG website)

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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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