The Village of Briarton is a PDF supplement from Gold Rush Games. There is apparently a print version of this book, but the e-version is the one I bought. I was in a time crunch and needed a complete village fast, so I thought I'd give this product a chance.
Appearances - The zip file I downloaded from RPGNow.com only had one 62 page pdf file in it. It should be noted that only 45 of those pages are actual d20 product, as the rest of the pages are filled with Action! System crunch which I will not consider relevant to this review. The cover also acts as the credits page, which was moderately annoying since the large white letters that ruin the otherwise attractive black & white cover illustration. Color is used in moderation throughout the book, mostly for the test of section headings and as background for sidebars. What really makes this product hard on the printer, however, is the inch thick border art that runs along the top and outside edge of each page. The interior illustrations, of which there are many, are mostly mediocre. There are a few really nice pieces in the mix, however. The maps are truly hideous color ink eating abominations done with what looks to be Campaign Cartographer. Most of the maps have very blurry key text. The layout of the book is okay, but overall it isn't a very visually appealing product. I would have also appreciated the font size being knocked down a notch to help compensate for the fact that a lot of page space is wasted on those borders.
Introduction - Nothing exciting here. Just some words about how "a village doesn't have to be a backwater to be glossed over in the rush to get to somewhere more exciting." and some notes on how to use the book, how to tweak it for your own campaign, and a bit on religion. The couple of paragraphs on religion are really the only useful information on these two pages, but introductions are rarely worth anything so I won't hold that against the book.
Overview - This brief three page chapter gives us a short history of the thirty years young village, the settlements stat block, some words on economics and the daily routine. Nothing here really jumps out as terribly interesting, falling mostly into the realms of the generic and the obvious. At the end is the worst map in the book, which takes up a full page. It is of the general area surrounding Briarton and could have had 90% of it cropped down without losing more than a few areas of interest. It could have been cropped to half its size without losing any of the keyed locations at all. There is entirely too much dead space on this hideous thing. So not only is it ugly in the extreme, it is also mostly pointless.
Arundel Manor - Here we get an overview of the residence of the local lord, starting with another ugly map that is at least useful, if hard to read. Fortunately, there is a full page version of this map at the end of the PDF which is much more legible. After a few paragraphs about the house itself (including a helpful set of stats for the walls, doors, locks, windows, and wooden shutters), we get to the meat of the chapter which are the NPCs. Here we get Lord Roderick Arundel himself, his daughter Lady Alianora Fitzhugh, her son Robin Fitzhugh, and Gellir, the only dwarven inhabitant of Briarton who just kind of lives with his old adventuring buddy Arundel. Two other residents of the house, the married servants Dunstan and Rosalind Giles, don't get stats and only get three sentences of attention. Also in this chapter are a couple of magic items and a spell (Allure), and the first of the books "Interaction seeds" which are basically ideas for possible adventures or plots related to the npcs. Not all NPCs get interaction seeds, but they do help bring a little life to otherwise terribly generic NPCs.
The Village - Here we are treated to a fuzzy, hard to read map of the village itself which sinfully doesn't get the better, full page map treatment that Arundel Manor, Greenbriar Inn, and the Shrine of Erilys get at the end of the PDF. Maybe it is just me, but it just seems obvious that if you're going to include full page maps in a product about a village that one of those maps should be of the village itself. And the map of the village, whatever size it is, should be legible.
As for the text of the chapter, we get brief summaries of most of the important shops in the village and descriptions of the locals. As far as crunch goes, this chapter gives us 16 statted NPCs (several more are described without stats), a goddess (Erilys, The Protector...goddess of the hearth), a domain (Hearth), two spells, and a monster (the grass cloaker). There are also nine interaction seeds. Combined with all the descriptions of places and people without stats it doesn't seem like this should be a bad use of 22 pages. Unfortunately, I found it all so terribly dull and uninspiring. I could almost swear I've seen most of these characters in fantasy movies ridiculed on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Outlying Regions - More people and places, this time of the folk who don't dwell in Briarton itself, but nearby enough to interact with the village from time to time. For some reason the fact that chapter starts off with a wizard named Angwyn ap-Llewellyn made me cringe. On the other hand, the rest of the NPCs described here seem a little less cardboard than those in the previous chapter. They didn't excite me but they weren't so dull that I could only finish reading their backgrounds by force of will. The locations weren't any improvement, though at least the shrine of Vextra gives us a new deity (Vextra, Lord of Pestilence), a new domain (Pestilence), and three new spells (Malaise, Plant Blight, and Plague).
In Conclusion - I was very disappointed with this product. It has severe blemishes in both appearance and content without really having any significantly redeeming virtues to save it from being a mediocre product. It doesn't completely fail to be useful, but the true test is whether I would rather have the money I spent on it back rather than have the product. In this case, I can honestly say that I'd rather have the cash. Overall this book is truly boring, which is sad because I would really like to see a good, well detailed village product. This book falls well short of the mark of good. It doesn't even quite make average. Decent maps could have made this book a 3. That and more originality could have made it a 4. With all those and better layout and art it might have even made 5. As it is, this book marks a solid rating of 2.