Kevin Crawford has, through his materials published under the Sine Nomine Publishing label, established himself as being rather excellent at providing toolkits to support sandbox play in his various games and settings. Working mostly in an OSR context, he’s bent, folded, and mutilated TSR-era D&D into all manner of interesting, unexpected shapes – like Scarlet Heroes, a bid to support one-on-one play with a D&D-like engine, or D&D takes on Traveller or Exalted with the serial numbers filed off.
As well as standalone games, Crawford has also produced settings for existing games. Red Tide is just such a setting; it’s statted out for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, which really means that it works perfectly with any variant of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), would probably work with minimal changes with OD&D, can be massaged to fit either edition of AD&D easily enough, and would need a little time but not much brain power to deploy with 3.X or Pathfinder or 5E. 4E you could make work if you put a lot of effort in, but probably enough effort to completely miss the point of this book – which is to provide a robust setting for sandbox play with supportive enough tools that you can just wing a game without doing any prep beyond that which is personally entertaining for you.
The premise of the setting is that 300 years ago, a horrifying supernatural force called the Red Tide brought about the end of the world. Appearing as a mass of red mist which strange horrors would emerge from, it engulfed the world and everyone died.
…well, not quite everyone. A powerful Archmage of the time had discovered the threat, and began planning a mass evacuation to the Sunset Isles, an archipelago off in the west. The Isles were known mostly for being the habitation of the hostile, cannibalistic Shou (orcs and goblinoids, basically), but they also contained deposits of a unique type of stone, out of which the Archmage was able to craft wards that would keep the Red Tide away.
Now, 300 years later, the realms of the Sunset Isles consist of successor states founded by the various groups who made it to the Isles. There’s a reasonable level of diversity in terms of ethnicity, but the settng’s quasi-Chinese culture is dominant here simply because it happened to be one of their wizards who spotted the threat first, so whilst other cultures are represented by the descendants of whoever was lucky enough to get to a boat and sail in the right direction, the Imperials’ evacuation was somewhat more orderly and they were able to preserve more stuff. (You have your quasi-Europeans, but Crawford does the Earthsea thing and has them being one of the less prominent human ethnicities – there’s a fun setting feature about how they used to be slaves of the dwarves.) As such, most of the statelets here derive much of their cultural ethos from the old Empire.
These nations aren’t one big happy family, mind. Some practice slavery, and you have the usual competition between them – and when one of the nations officially worships the Hell Kings, you know that there’s going to be some contentious politics going down. As well as these tensions, there’s also constant conflict with the Shou to contend with.
However, this insular bickering can’t last forever. Cults are springing up around the Isles dedicated to a range of disruptive and dangerous causes, with a disturbing increase in the number of these that worship the Red Tide itself. And the Red Tide has started to move again…
So, as well as being rather badass and establishing a major threat looming over the setting that high-level PCs could tackle as an endgame project if they wish, the backstory also sets up some useful parameters for sandbox play. The Red Tide itself defines the boundaries of the sandbox, and also provides a nice rationale for a bunch of different cultures being hemmed in into this tight space. The internal conflicts of the Isles ensures that there’s plenty of stuff to do at all character levels, and also means that whilst Crawford does provide his usual package of excellent sandbox tools, if you wanted to run an epic story in this campaign in a Participationist way you absolutely could, and the book will probably spark off all sorts of ideas for that, making it a rare RPG supplement where it can still be extremely useful even if you aren’t using it for the style of play it best supports.
Crawford, in addition to defining various human cultures and ethnicities, also provides useful pointers on the cultures of demihuman races, though of course since this is based off Basic D&D it only covers dwarves, elves, and halflings (plus the Shou), so if you are running this in 5E and want to justify dragonborn or something you’ll need to do that legwork yourself. A brace of useful equipment items, spells, and monsters helps give a unique atmosphere to the setting. In an especially nice touch, he also provides a chapter explaining what exactly the deal is with the major mysteries of the setting – the nature of the Red Tide, the origin of the Shou and the mysterious stones of the Sunset Isles, what the Shou intend in the long run, and the activities of the mysterious Azure Ministry. In a more bloated and traditional game line, such answers might have been made the subjects of long-running metaplots, but because this was designed as a one-book-and-done setting Crawford gives you all the keys to the kingdom and lets you have at it.
Due to the distinctiveness of the background and cultures here, this isn’t quite a zero-prep campaign-in-a-book here, but it’s pretty close. I reckon I could run a spontaneous D&D game with this if I had at least half an hour’s warning so I could quickly refamiliarise myself with the setting details, and that’s pretty good going. If you care less about communicating the particular flavour of the setting and just want some robust tools to run zero-prep D&D with, it’s also quite good for that.
This is, I think it’s reasonable to say, one of the best settings ever published for Basic D&D; it’s certainly the most game table-ready (in the sense that you don’t need to do much work ahead of time to deploy it in actual play). The Thunder Rift pocket setting from the black box basic set of the early 1990s was a little simplistic and seemed constructed with the expectation that you would graduate from it quickly. Mystara has its fans, but whilst the Gazeteers and Poor Wizard’s Almanacs that defined the setting gave a lot of handy information, they didn’t set you up to start playing straight away nearly as well as this does. Red Tide is, by comparison, a product which benefits from some 20 years of hindsight since the fading away of the Basic D&D product line, and is a great example of what’s best about the OSR.