It's based around Mongol, or pseudo-Mongol, culture. There is enough blurring of lines to dodge most of the harsher charges of orientalism and inaccuracy and to incorporate the module into a standard fantasy world without it lodging like a raw splinter.
It has a chunk of useful information about living like a Mongol at the beginning and more bits and pieces spread throughout the Module. It also has one big multi-part fetchquest adventure in the titular valley and a whole range of smaller adventures that can be incorporated as you wish. All of these are set in a sandbox which is efficiently and skilfully laid out and described.
This is my favourite part of the module by far. This gives you an efficient breakdown of things you need to know to hang out with, or adventure as, a fantasy Mongol. It does it from the perspective of play, so we have a section on weapons and armour of the steppe, with info about not just their stats but also how they are made and the various practical and cultural considerations behind each item.
We also have an excellent section on how a yurt works*, because you are going to be getting in a lot of yurts, and they all share an interior logic regarding the placement of people and activities in the structure which is clear, explicable and ties into the belief-system and world-view of the culture in question.
Information on how the pseudo-mongol culture views things is also scattered throughout the module in monster and animal descriptions, NPC information, architectural stuff (there is a whole section on Stupas) and the general political situation.
One thing that is missing is HORSES. This is a big plains adventure and the PCs are getting nowhere without a steppe horse, or probably a few, one to ride and the others to follow so they can be ridden in shifts. There is nothing about the price of horses, their varying qualities, how they act or how they are managed, which is a little out of character for a module of such thoroughness. (This is probably the only time in my life when I wish that a module had told me more about horses and pastoral agriculture).
We have a brief lowdown of the political situation, with two main tribes in a slow-burning conflict, one is dominant and more obviously 'good guy', with a greater range of immediate interactions, and the other more militaristic, reserved and at least superficially 'bad guy', though there is enough moral equivilence between the two to allow sane players to make different choices. Each of the two main groupings and courts has an individual list of powerful individuals for PCs to ally with or foil, and they are actually interesting, with particular powers, influenced, intra-relationships and desires.
We also have a range of smaller more distant tribes, not part of the immediate game, but places you can put extra adventures if you need to, where you can put elves and standard fantasy stuff if you want, and where you can have mysterious PCs come from.
The tribes and the land they govern have this neat 'passport' system which means officially mandated visitors can ride around without being immediately killed as invaders or suspicious travellers. This is a neat piece of culture-related game design since it lets you effectively cut off or allow certain areas or interactions without a big invisible computer-game-style wall. PCs can always get official recognition from someone in authority, but they will need to become trustworthy and be seen as competent in order to do that so increasing ability and social embedding in the game world leads organically to greater access and opportunity.
There is no section specifically for character creation but there is enough information to create a mongol character if you want to, and enough names to choose from
The name lists for NPCs include translations of what the names mean, which is a very nice touch. One thing you learn from this is that if parents lose a child when they are very young, they may give their next child a horrible name, presumably to scare off or dissuade whatever poor fortune took the last one, so you can meet people called "I don't know" and "plague child" in their native language. The existence of this information and its careful integration into the text and the adventure is typical of the knowledge and care exhibited in its creation.
The layout is interesting to me because it is the clearly the product of a high level of skill and concentration but with an intriguingly different set of priorities than the ones struggled towards by the DID D&D/OSR culture I am familiar with.
If I had to break it down I would say it is laid out for concentration, density and efficiency of information storage rather than the at-the-table usability that we are groping towards. We might say that it is a well-packed suitcase rather than an open drawer perhaps, or it's more of a suitcase than an open drawer, if we were to put them both on a spectrum.
The things that are familiar or "how I would imagine doing them" are the basic page structures, with, at the top of each page, a section heading towards the centre, a page contents heading towards the page edge, then below that usually a large page title that matches the subsection heading, then we have a two-column format with sub headings and bolded text within those.
The things I would have done differently, or am starting to think differently about are; the stats are in lines where I have come to favour columns, the arrangement of adventure elements is sometimes more separate than I would prefer, no index.
Like Bryce says in his review, it’s a little dry sometimes.
There are a lot of +1 swords and a general +something weapon economy seems to be accepted as a basic standard of play.
There needs to be a new way to think about encountering natural animals in the wild because usually natural animals won't attack. Here, we have a few dangerous animals and some where both the normal sized ones exist with the more-monstered super-sized ones. Its a slightly awkward way of thinking about a fluid natural environment, but they always are in D&D I find. It has giant hedgehogs so that's fun.
The central adventure has some elements to it which I might consider frustrating in play, though its a sandbox, it might be very difficult to find and access a lot of the necessary areas. I think there is a pretty tight location-clue-location sequence and if you break it my missing something or fucking something up, then you may well be lost for what to do next. Not necessarily a bug, but a logic of play which is a little different to my own. Likewise, there are a lot of 'potions of gaseous' form right next to clefts in the rock that you really need that potion to access and that if you don't access - you don't get much further in the meta-quest, same for potions of water breathing and watery passages - what happens if you drop the potion, it gets smashed in the fight or something else?
This won the Three Castles award (which is turning out to be a pretty solid award), and I think it deserved to win it. That award seems like a good place to watch if you are interested in OSR stuff. Really if you have any interest in mongol-style stuff at all, picking this up on Lulu is an incredibly cheap price for the density, fullness and depth of information you get.
New Big Dragon
*Never thought I would type that sentence.