Moonshae presents me with a difficult problem. It is not, technically speaking, good, but the only thing that's holding it back from being good is the concessions it makes to being a D&D setting.
Like, why are there beholders on the random encounter tables? It's the only place they show up. They don't have any reason to be there, and they have no effect on the setting otherwise, so what the hell? And I like beholders, generally. They're these incomprehensible abominations, floating orbs of flesh, an alien intelligence animated by boundless hate and far too much magic. I'd normally reserve them for cosmic horror and dark fantasy, but they serve well as boss monsters or ancient guardians.
Which makes it weird that they're appearing randomly. A setting element that should have a lot to say for itself, but used with so little context that it's unclear why they've even bothered.
Although I'm being a bit unfair here, picking on random encounter tables. They're only intermittently a world-building tool and more often a pure game mechanic, something that allows the DM to say "if you head out into that swamp, you've got a 5% chance of running into something that will really fuck you up."
A better example of D&D-isms undermining worldbuilding would be the presence of orcs and goblins. There are a couple of locations in Moonshae that mention the threat posed to human settlements by orc or goblin raiding parties, but there's very little space in the setting for these creatures to exist. They don't really have any connection to the culture or history of the Moonshae islands, and almost as little effect on their physical or political geography. There's an Orcskull Mountain, that serves as a base on one of the islands, but aside from lairing in an abandoned mine (abandoned by who, when and how did the orcs gain control - none can say), their way of life gets no detail. They might as well be the North Wind for how much the text cares about their motives.
Which is a problem because, as I said, Moonshae is partially good. The islands have a history that's interwoven with mythology. It tracks the migration of peoples, the wars and the subsequent rapprochements that create ethnic identities. The islands are a place of cultural conflict and tribal politics, a backwater region that must cope with new international trade and the colonizing ideas that come along with it, where new religions add fire to old grudges and where defunct national identities still hold immense cultural power.
And then onto that, you graft a bunch of people who have no culture of their own and exist only to fuck shit up.
Like, the Moonshae islands are a thinly-veiled stand-in for mythic Brittan. You've got Druids and a decaying post-Arthur Camelot and a political dissident/forest outlaw who is basically Robin Hood without the socialist subtext, and plenty of Welsh and Irish-inspired place names, and the whole area is constantly under threat from the Northmen, who raid cities and colonize the coastal areas to better launch their longships filled with berserkers. It's not subtle, but it also means that if you're playing as one of the Ffolk (yes, there are two fs), you don't need a second group of people who are coming out of nowhere to wreck your shit.
So the weird thing about Moonshae is that its specificity always works to its benefit, but it lacks the conviction of its specificity, so sometimes it will just toss in dumb shit for no reason.You've got this non-anthropomorphic earth goddess and her spirit will manifest in the great whale and the Unicorn and the massive wolf-packs that sometimes roam the land, and she is neither entirely good nor entirely evil, but wild and pure, patron to both the hunter and the prey, and her greatest enemy is the Beast, a malevolent shapeshifter born from her own corruption, and all of this is entirely great. There were times I had chills. But then, in addition to that, whenever the locations section would mention a mine or a forge or something of that nature, it would also include, almost as an afterthought, a brief aside that the local lord had invited dwarves to move into the location in order to help out. It never adds anything to the location's character, and these dwarves' homelands are so unimportant that they don't even get a writeup, but they keep happening, presumably so players are reassured that their dwarf PCs are still legal.
I don't want to be a grump about this, though. On some level, I've just got to accept that D&D is going to D&D, but Moonshae is so close. With just a little bit more editorial discipline, it could be a unique and beautiful thing - a decaying post-Arthur Camelot where feuding lords bolster their legitimacy by hearkening back to the glory days of the High King, and where the god-haunted wilderness has an agenda of its own as the old faith clashes with the new and the people are too scattered to respond effectively to an invasion from the north - but in the end it just has to be part of the Forgotten Realms, and so Elminster can come visit from Waterdeep and perv on the young ladies.
(This is a thing that literally happens: "These women were scarce more than girls in appearance . . . and a pair of them danced in such a way that this old heart's rhythm was dangerously accelerated." And I'm not even going to try and decode the sexual politics of 1987. Let's just banish Elminster to sit in the same corner as Porthos and they can both think about what they did.)
Overall, I'd say that Moonshae is the best Forgotten Realms material I've read so far, and I just wish I could honestly say that wasn't damning with faint praise.
Ukss Contribution: Despite containing the worst part of the setting - random and pointless beholders - the random encounter tables also included the best part of the setting - giant animals that the PCs would have no conceivable reason to fight. Giant Otters, Giant Porcupines, Giant Beavers. Maybe they're a threat, maybe they're not, but I'd love a campaign setting that seriously considered the implications these creatures have for the local ecology.
I'm not sure how I can pick this element up without just opening the door for giant animals in general, so maybe I need to narrow it down a bit. Pick just one. . .
Giant porcupines it is. There's just something about them that becomes less threatening when they're huge.