Filling the Expanse

When working with an African coded setting, there’s a lot of biases and temptations that come into play. And from Rifts World Book 4: Africa in 1993 to Tomb of Annihilation in 2017, we see them at work in different ways but with similar results. So how did the creative team behind Lost Omens: The Mwangi Expanse approach the task?

Initial Comparison

When I’m talking about similar results, I’m talking about “Empty Africa”. It’s the result of decades of documentaries that focus on African wildlife and indigenous peoples living their traditional lifeways, and of more than a bit of colonial era propaganda. The latter having set the stage for the former. One way that colonialism was and continues to be sold as a “net good” for Africa is the idea that there were no “real” civilizations there. There were “primitive” villages, the ruins of older civilizations, and resources being wasted by not being used in Europe or the Americas. These ideas continue to influence designers today.

Rifts World Book 4: Africa was so terrible it functionally forgot Africans were in Africa and that there was industry, modern cities, and all that other stuff on the continent. It portrayed an Africa where the African people weren’t even really part of the background. Tomb of Annihilation (ToA) remembered that African coded people existed but presented them as a background population and as limited facilitators to the adventure. Ironically, ToA also expanded Chult past its 2nd Edition AD&D conceptualization, adding Orolunga, Omu and Mbala, only to reduce them to ruins immediately, offering little of their history and inadvertently rationalizing why European coded colonies and adventurers were “needed” in the region. It was a mess.

However, despite dealing with a substantively larger area than Chult and without direct realities to draw on, like Rifts Africa could have, Lost Omens: The Mwangi Expanse (LOME) delivers a vibrant and living space. Human and non-human populations and cultures have vital details, and it goes above and beyond to put options in the end user’s hands.

Peopling the Expanse

A not insignificant issue I had with ToA was that it abandoned its historic and unique player race ecosystem, both by omission and amalgamation in the book itself and by the ongoing systemic failure of Wizards to reference its other works. Coming into LOME, I was braced for impact, and it turned out I didn’t need to be!

LOME leverages Pathfinder 2nd Edition’s ancestry system to its maximum. First off, it uses the common, uncommon, and rare ancestries beautifully; the Expanse not only has African coded variants of the classic ancestries (humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings), but also offers new ancestries unique to the region, takes on ancestries that aren’t local but are there now, and then gives a wonderful laundry list of other ancestries that are local to the region and what books their information is in. This is how it should be done. This catapults a place from a location to visit to being a place you can be from.

To look at that point harder, the direction the book took is that they differentiated by name, not just as a mechanical variant. It isn’t “Mwangi Elves” or “Elf (Mwangi)”, it’s the Alijae, Ekujae, and Kallijae; all with their own cultures, interactions with shorter lived peoples, and cultural approaches to Half-Elves. The latter is well handled, not perfectly, but well, by remembering that elves in Pathfinder aren’t palette-swapped humans with long lives, but rather a more alien species that legitimately has trouble as a larger whole with a world working on a time scale dramatically shorter than what they operate in. And they used this differentiation process for Dwarves (hugely different direction from the traditional!), Halflings, Orcs and Half-Orcs (again, using a local cultural lens to break away from the traditional expectations). Even Gnolls, Grippli, and other rare ancestries got something to help fit them into the local scene that wasn’t reliant on convention.

Balancing the Expanse

A not infrequent complaint about any established setting is that they’re “full”, with no space for the Gm at home to add anything. This is not the case in LOME. I mentioned in the Overview Review that as a sub-setting, the Mwangi Expanse walks the line for lore saturation, and this is where that comes in. As a sub-setting, the Mwangi Expanse offers developed civilizations, a broad history that’s selectively specific and non-specific, and ruins. It gives a creative GMs and players space to add their own touches and inclusions while supporting GMs and players who like to draw on lore for inspiration and ideas.

On religion, Paizo carefully avoided making the European coded pantheon the dominant one or a universal one in Pathfinder; so there’s a regional pantheon that very nicely updates and replaces the problematic “Juju Pantheon” from Pathfinder 1st Edition. In a game setting where religion plays an important part of things, this is a big part of how to make a region stand out.

In its approach to geography, the book makes great use of art and descriptive text to establish the different climates, conditions, and vibes of the place. Monsters, ruins, wildlife… It’s all there and all helping build the place up. Then there’s the cities and civilizations. Jaha, Kibwe, Vidrian and more. Fleshed out enough in the book to get you going, not enough that you feel smothered. And none have a “same-y” feel either.

Monstering the Expanse

I’m deep into a rut where if I see an African coded location, I just expect some Lost World dinosaur nonsense in the monster section and get ready to roll my eyes so far into the back I’ll see my brain. So only seeing two(!) dinosaurs on a list of 126 monsters local to the region (and what book to find them in), before seeing ZERO in the included bestiary? THANK YOU! Thank you for making LOME an African coded sub-setting one where it’s not just dinosaur mayhem and call it day.

The monsters of the Mwangi Expanse are a smooth mix of climate appropriate monsters from the Pathfinder 2nd Edition Bestiaries 1, 2, and 3, and of unique and African folklore inspired creatures included in the LOME book itself. It’s a solid approach and it fills out the region nicely by giving it its own flavour mix.

Final Thoughts

This book really nails it. It’s not perfect, no book is, but it walks the walk and makes the effort more than most games or supplements ever do. The sub-setting is a living one. It feels like it’s alive, and it doesn’t feel like a reskin of a European coded region. It’s also integrated into the larger world, which is something I’ll be getting into with Lore Diver!