I sat down last night to read the Avalon and Montaigne sections of the "Nations of Theah" preview in detail.
I came away feeling a bit...depressed?
I like details such as the city descriptions, dueling customs and legendary creatures. But the description of the political situation of both nations comes across as a lot gloomier and less, well...fun...than in 1e.
For example, Avalon. While I understand the desire to make changes from the 1st edition version of the nation (as it seemed like the "Doom of Elaine" metaplot in 1e tended to crowd out any other story ideas GMs tried to set in Avalon)...I didn't feel like the description of 2e Avalon was very swashbuckling or even very fun. Elaine as described in the book is very lacking in character traits or leadership apart having affairs with two different members of her court at the same time. And the Graal Pact with the Sidhe seems to have been changed from "Humans and Sidhe coexist in relative peace while the ruler holds the Graal" to "The Sidhe show up, drive people out of their homes or tyrannize them, and set up nightmarish zones of wild magic, and Elaine does nothing about it."
Not a very heroic setting. My takeaway was, "Elaine comes back with the Graal and becomes Queen. The Sidhe follow and start opressing the peasantry."
And Montaigne...the 1e Montaigne sourcebook was one of my favorites in the line. While Montaigne was set up as having conflict between peasantry and a corrupt, decadent nobility, the 1e Montaigne book really gave GMs and players a lot of ideas how to BE Montaigne. Tips on how to role-play a unique Montaigne style in duels and banter, guides to courtly intrigue and social repartee, awesome artifacts like the Puzzle Swords, weird locations like the Syrneth sewers under Charouse and organizations like the Musketeers. I loved it!
But 2e Montaigne? Again, it comes across as "The Emperor, his wife and the nobility are all jerks who opress the peasantry." No nifty artifacts, no ideas for different ways to launch swashbuckling adventures, just a miserable populace ruled by an unpleasant aristocracy.
It's not that I object to a setting that's suitable for a Rilisciare/revolutionary campaign. But it felt like the authors of these sections didn't imagine any other concepts OTHER than Rilisciare "overthrow the corrupt nobility" campaigns for Avalon and Montaigne. I'm baffled by the lack of ideas for playing Musketeers. Or Avalon Highwaymen or Sea Dogs. Or light-hearted campaigns as opposed to grim and depressing ones.
Another confusing issue for me was the way the text kept referring to 1e characters and subplots that aren't detailed elsewhere. Dominique Du Montaigne, Leon's youngest daughter, is mentioned as being married to Montegue...but there's no explanation of who Montegue is in 2e, where he came from, or why he is missing. A reader of 1e might have some idea, but someone new to the setting is likely to be horribly confused.
Similarly, mention is made that Queen Elaine is having affairs simultaneously with the knight Lawrence Lugh and the wife of one of the Highland nobles. But this is also confusing, because there's no clear explanation who Lugh is or the role of the Queen's Knights. It's almost like the author of that section said "I want Elaine to be polyamorous" and just shoe-horned it in without exploring the details or possible consequences. Do Elaine's two paramours know about each other? Is there jealousy that Elaine's enemies could exploit?
In fact, speaking of those enemies, we hear a lot about the Highland Separatist faction, but there are no descriptions of their leaders or how they are planning to achieve their goals. (Except that one of Elaine's paramours is kind-of on their side, but not anymore because she's in love with Elaine now...)
Castille doesn't bother me so far, as the whole Inquisition conflict is similar to 1e and there are a lot more interesting non-El Vago NPCs now to oppose them (Inquisitio Aquilo, the new version of Sandoval, etc.). And I haven't read the Vesten section in detail yet. But when I read "Pirate Nations", I got a great feel of "Here is an awesome sandbox of rules, locations, characters and story hooks that all fits together to give you great material to play pirate campaigns!" "Nations of Theah, Vol.1" hasn't had that feeling of awesomeness or completeness for me so far, and I think that's too bad. Though again, I really like the crunch for the new Advantages and Backgrounds.
As a GM, I'm kind of unhappy with this approach. While I had issues with 1e's mechanics, I really enjoyed the background, story hooks and NPCs in the 1e Nation books. I'm having the opposite reaction to Nations of Theah, Vol. 1 so far. I like the mechanical advantages, dueling schools and so forth, but the story, fluff and characters for Avalon and Montaigne just don't do it for me. I do understand I'm not required to use the official NPCs or political situation from the books, but still...Pirate Nations left me going "Ooh, I want to use this! And this! And THIS!" Avalon and Montainge in NoT just left me going..."Why?" :(