May 182017
 

Book of Lairs contains a significant array of set-piece locations you can easily drop into your game.

book_of_lairs.jpg

Book of Lairs is a massive book that clocks in at 109 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 3 pages of advertisements, 1 page of SRD, leaving us with a total of 102 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

All right, before we do…what is this? In short, it could be considered to be a massive companion tome to the even more massive Tome of Beasts, but that would be only the tip of the ice-berg. Basically, this massive book contains a significant array of set-piece locations you can easily drop into your game, with the opposition making partially use of the monsters from the Tome of Beasts. While the book does not contain the statblocks of the opposition, it does provide rules for e.g. traps and obstacles, if featured in the respective environment. The respective lairs come with gorgeous full-color maps that feature the keys; every keyed location points towards an area, including a sequence of read-aloud text. The respective lairs are intended for level 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14 and 15 – though several lairs e.g. are provided for 3rd level.

 

All right, this is about as far as I can go without going into SPOILERS. So yeah, potential players should jump to the conclusion, even though I will try hard to not go into the nit and grit of the respective storylines told by the environments.

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All right, only GMs around? Great!

Mike Welham goes first and provides a nasty old dockyard, where ratfolk have set up shop alongside some nasty wharflings and doppelrats; a suitable sidetrek challenge for 1st level PCs. 3rd level PCs may explore the lost halls of everforge, penned by Shawn Merwin – a dwarven hall now abandoned, where they may be just in time to prevent the ascension of a flame drake to its more powerful, probably too strong, iteration!

Also at this level, Mike Shea’s “Den of the Rotten King”, where a dread wererat king lords over the denizens of the underworld, which may be nice, but it pales before Mike Welham’s trip to the Clockwork Tower – with the complex devices and interaction with the environment makes this one of the strongest offerings herein regarding its mechanics. At 4th level, Shawn Merwin provides a lindwurm lair in the titanic ranches of no other place than Yggdrasil! Oh, and add in some ravenfolk for added complication and you have a great lair.

Also at 4th level, Steve Winter invites us to visit the Castle of Sand, situated next to a gorgeous oasis…and yes, not all is here as it seems…but I’m not going to dispel that particular mirage here in the review. Brain England’s Pirate’s Cove for 5th level characters brings us to an almost archetypical pirate hide-out…that houses darkest horrors and a blasphemous cult instead! Mike Welham’s All-seeing eye deals with a cult that has been on the wane…and features some disturbing motifs regarding eyes and the like – it does not have to turn sour…but then again, what would you do if you saw a disturbing cluster of eyes floating towards you? Yeah, thought so.

6th level PCs can look forward to a trip to Shawn Merwin’s alchemists’ guildhall – which may, map-wise, be one of the most conservative lairs herein, but it does feature an interesting component regarding the opposition that astute PCs may well notice….and the true villains here are perhaps not what the PCs expected. The Hive, penned by Mike Welham oncegain, would deal with the complex beholden to the feared spawn of Arbeyach and thus can be pictured best as a complex with a nasty termite/insect-theme.

Brian England takes us to the almost classic Temple of the Deep Ones at 7th level, where the PCs face off versus coral drakes, deep ones and similar critters. Not my favorite one, though the map provided for this one is truly gorgeous and colorful. James J. Haeck’s Monument of the Thunderer, set in and on a gigantic dragon statue, certainly is one of the most amazing maps in concept herein and the lair, as such is high-concept and rewarding, though the opposition faced…well, isn’t. The foes featured per default here are a bit bland. The same can definitely not be said about the 8th level “House of Reeds and Whispers”, a wonderful, dark and horrific little set-piece that almost feels like it was penned by Richard Pett, and not Jon Sawatsky. Yes, this is intended as a compliment, Mr. Sawatsky, for the atmosphere here is neat indeed. If you are looking for a no-frills sword & sorcery-vibe, I’d certainly recommend Shawn Merwin’s Tomb of the Scorpion King.

Marc Radle’s dark forest has a direct tie-in with the umbral tower lair and represents basically a druidic area with a threat of shadow-themes eclipsing it; the location is per se solid, if less than what I expected from the evocative cartography. Shawn Merwin and Wolfgang Baur then proceed to take us to exactly said tower, which not only spotlights my beloved shadow-fey, it also offer advice for adapting it to  temperate forests and features even a brief chase and some nice environmental options – another highlight herein. Marc Radle’s Warlock crypt (9th level) redeems him – once again, we get the evocative themes we have come to enjoy from his writing, with the King in Silver and similar fexts making for unique foes, even though the map isin’t as amazing as that of some other complexes.

Enrique Betran’s Aboleth Grotto is a classic take on the trope and makes for a fun environment to explore, making good use of TOB’s new critters…but it falls behind Robert Aducci’s Bloowood of the Cruor Circle – which makes perhaps the coolest map I have seen for the dark druid theme…pretty much ever. Oh, and the adversaries also are neat. Shawn Merwin’s Imperial Ghoul Outpost is per se nice, though I have an issue with the new material, which deals “1 point of necrotic damage” on a hit – is that +1 or does it convert 1 point to necrotic damage? Not sure there.

Jon Swatsky’s cistern may not look as impressive as some of the other locations featured herein – but it represents one of the more challenging lairs in the book, if handled correctly by the GM, featuring some cool, unique environmental issues to deal with…

Steve Winters brings us back to the sand-choked tropes of sword & sorcery with the fane of serpents…including rival adventurers. As an aside, I combined that one with Legendary Games’ shrine of serpents in my own game…worked rather neatly! Wolfgang Baur does show where his reputation comes from with the “Sky Stairs of Beldestan” – not only is this 14th level lair’s cartography gorgeous to behold, the environment depicted is absolutely fantastic – and with traveler and pilgrims as well as death lurking at the top, this location just oozes pure style. Speaking of which: The kobold-commander-in-chief also presents the citadel of the void dragon, situated at the very edge of space; lack of air and the unique layout are just some of the obstacles to contend with here and yes, this lair is just as fantastic as the stairs. The final lair herein would be from the pen of none other than Jeff Grubb and pit the 15th level PCs against an umbral vampire. Yes, it features a soul organ and the complex is shaped like a star of David, adding some occult notions to the lair and ending the book on a high note.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on both a rules-language and formal level. Layout adheres to a gorgeous two-column full-color standard and the pdf sports numerous, gorgeous full-color artworks, though fans of kobold press may be familiar with some of them. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Cartography is at once amazing and the biggest drawback of the book: If you do want to get player-friendly versions of the maps, you’ll have to purchase them separately on the Kobold Press-store. I kinda get why, considering their quality, but it is still something that would gall me…particularly if got the print and it didn’t have them. I do not have the print version of this book, so unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea if it features the player-friendly iterations of the maps or not.

The designers Robert Aducci, Wolfgang baur, Enrique bertran, Brian Engard, Jeff Grubb, James J. Haeck, Shawn Merwin, Marc Radle, Jon Sawatsky, Mike Shea, Mike Welham and Steve Winter have done a per se great job in this book – there is not a single bad lair herein; all of the locations are evocative, fun and feature something that would qualify them as worth being used. In the quality of the writing, there is not much to complain about.

I have seen a couple of posts floating around the internet that claim this is almost system-neutral…but I’d vehemently disagree there. This is very much a 5e-supplement through and through that intends to maximize its potential audience by appealing beyond the confines of its rules-system. And the evocative locations succeed in just that; this is a nice purchase for other systems as well…but this flexibility also somewhat hurts the direct usefulness of the book. You see, the creatures featured herein do not sport stats. This is intentional to maintain a broader appeal, and due to this book’s status as a companion tome to the massive “Tome of Beasts.”

However, this also means that you really *NEED* Tome of Beasts to make the most use out of the lairs presented herein…unless you’re as versed as yours truly is and know what a “fext” or an “alseid” is, what powerlevel you’d use there, etc. So nope, I would not consider this book as such a good supplement for other systems….the maps, though…heck yes!

When used as intended for 5e with the Tome of Beasts, the consequence of the lack of stats herein is that the book demands a lot of page-flipping, as you have to look up the respective critters in the ToB, which represents a comfort detriment I considered somewhat annoying; similarly, I get why official D&D-supplements can’t be quoted by page. Why this can’t be done for the book this is a companion to, though, baffles me. I found myself searching quite a bit in the ToB-pdf while using this.

As a whole, I really, really loved most aspects of this massive books; the writing is excellent, the maps for the most part stellar…but the book does feel a bit inconsiderate, with its externalized player-maps, with its book-flipping sans page-numbers for stats that should imho be inside these pages. If you’re willing to put up with these admittedly minor hassles when using this, you’ll get a superb collection of material, but personally…I never quite managed to shake off that little sense of annoyance. So yeah – quality-wise, most definitely a true gem and, if that was all to judge, this would get my highest accolades. But having no player-friendly maps included is a huge deal for me and, combined with the slightly “more-difficult-than-need-be”-handling of the book, I can’t go higher than 4 stars as my official verdict.

Endzeitgeist out.

Book of Lairs for 5th Edition D&D is available from DriveThruRPG.

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May 042017
 

Edgewaters_Folly

By Endzeitgeist

This massive module clocks in at 76 pages (if you take cover/editorial/etc. away) and my review is based on the print version I received at Gencon in exchange for a fair an unbiased review, which is also why you’re seeing this review so soon after the module was made available to the public. The review is thus based on the physical copy of the module.

Now, first things first – this module was made to support Gaming Paper’s useful and pretty amazing mega-dungeon gaming paper-collection – i.e. the massive map of this module is made up of the respective sheets, allowing for an easy, battle-mat-style exploration of the module and doubling as a gigantic, player-friendly map. If you’re not interested in using the accessory (Why?), you’re covered, though – the pdf does sport the overview map of the dungeon and can be run without using the mega-dungeon sheets with minimum hassle. I honestly wished all support/tie-in products had this level of service.

Anyway, this does mean that encounter-number/room-numbering is a bit different, with the respective encounters pointing towards the identifying numbers/letters of the gaming paper sheets. If that sounds confusing, rest assured that it’s not when you look at the book.

One more thing: While the adventure takes place in the town of edgewater, it remains very much a backdrop and can easily be replaced with any coastal town with a sufficiently developed sewer system and access to a trade-route.

And this is pretty much as far as I can go without going into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

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All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the fortunes of edgewater have turned for a while now: The town, currently led by former adventurers, has managed to use subterfuge and intrigue to generate an economic upswing and hamper their competition…not with the most ethical means, but yeah. Their competition, Deep Salt Bay, has seen a sharp decline, fueled by greed and clever maneuvering…but not everyone in the town was willing to just accept edgewater triumphing…and thus a scheme most dastardly was hatched.

The PCs, while in edgewater (or any town you choose to substitute for it), are confronted via one of MANY, extremely detailed hooks, with the basic premise: Plague has come to town. Not just any plague either – one that makes both bubonic and septicemic plagues look like child’s toys…and worse, one that seems to mysteriously resist regular attempts at curing it via magic, going only into remission to resurface later. Yeah, you can go pretty apocalyptic there, if you’re going dark fantasy. The plague is called civilization’s downfall (theatrical – the pdf acknowledges that!) and was engineered by a cabal of plague druids hired by Deep Salt Bay to wreck edgewater. The druids are spreading the plague with the help of a cadre of wererats through town. WAIT. Wait a second.

I know, I know. The plot as such is pretty old and not too remarkable. In fact, I’d be yawning pretty hard if I heard this set-up. But wait. The module does not feel like any other plague or sewer module and exemplifies that, in adventure crafting, the devil is often in the details…but so is beauty. I mentioned extensive hooks, right? Well, the first act sports a massive array of different vignettes, from the plague victim stumbling into the bar, to muckrakers drawing carts on which the dead are put to being directly hired. All of these hooks feature EXTENSIVE rules and even read-aloud text…and they can be combined at your leisure, with commentary providing guidance regarding the respective tones evoked. Preventing a mob/riot goes so far as to provide guidance for non-violent conflict resolution.

Speaking of extensive guidance: The module deals with a hidden agenda BBEG, obviously. At level 7. I have never in my line of work seen this extensive an array of well-written guidelines for the GM to handle scrying, divination and similar aspects of the game. The pdf discusses *A LOT* of potential issues and shows an intricate care regarding suspension of disbelief. It is quite evident that the majority of the module is an exploration of edgewater’s sewer system. I know, sewer-level. No one like those, right? Well, the details provided are AMAZING and if your players are as smart as mine and pick up on inconsistencies with the fervor of a starved bloodhound, then this module has your back: You see, from discussions of bronze, copper, etc. to the science of sewer gas explosions and their likelihood, the module manages to be incredibly consistent and evoke a sense of realism I have never seen before in a sewer-dungeon.

More importantly, the whole dungeon manages to be incredibly ALIVE. Not sterile at all. It makes sense, from the big dynamics to the small: The sewer system features tides (if you need a tide tracker – 4 Dollar Dungeons’ superb Horn of Geryon has one); at night, the bats swarm to hunt. Otyughs leave those wearing muckraker uniforms alone. The two antagonist factions behave in a concise and believable manner. How deep do the details go? Well, a wererat alchemist dreams of taking control of her gang – PCs with detect thoughts or similar means could glean that and use it to their advantage. The patrols provided for the enemy factions come with advice on how to make one statblock feel different when used.

The sewer system sports notes on methane-explosions for areas (include real world chemistry explanation!), rules for storm surges, the horrid psychological effects of being drenched by overwhelming humidity and stench – in short, the dungeon uses hazards PERFECTLY. It also uses the adversaries in a similarly concise and evocative manner: The foes behave smart and the living, “realistic” dungeon is very much one of the things that make this stand out. When you find several chests, they all have different traps. When you come to a junction you can’t cross, the pdf notes several means, both mundane and magical, to solve the problem. When you come to a combat dealing with multiple foes, the sidebars provide ideas and guidance how to simulate the chaos of such an encounter. When an area would work well as an ambush location, the pdf draws your attention to it.

Oh, and the adversaries: Beyond the aforementioned main factions, hydras and several creatures from the excellent Sewer Bestiary (statblocks included here) provide ample versatility in that account. Speaking of which: The NPC-builds for the foes are versatile and in the end, after exploring the sewer, the PCs may still need to take on the command vessel of the plague druids, anchored in the sewer dock…which makes for a truly furious experience that requires brains as well as brawns for the PCs to survive. Oh, and in the aftermath, there is still the problem of the true culprit being none other than Deep Salt Bay’s burgomaster’s wife, a powerful bard in her own right…and putting her to justice, in any way, will be a challenge indeed. Have I mentioned that GMs even receive some notes on the limitations of certain spells, where applicable/potentially problematic? This is the most considerate module regarding the vagaries of adventuring I have seen in ages.

Have I mentioned the magical sparring dummy, the giant catfish or the dire raccoon?

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good. I noticed some very minor cosmetic hiccups here and there. Layout adheres to Gaming Paper’s elegant two-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports several nice b/w-pieces of original art. The dead tree version is saddle-stitched and paper-quality-wise, nice.

Damn, this was hard for me – and I’m pretty sure I failed, but here it goes: This module is AMAZING. It frankly has no right to be this good. The plot-line, the environment, the primary adversary faction choices – none of these excite me on paper. If I had them summed up for me, I’d shrug and move on. I implore you to not do that here. This module manages to provide a level of consideration, detail and internal consistency only VERY rarely seen in any system, much less one as rules-intense as PFRPG. It clicks. It comes together. It feels alive.

Usually, sewers are a designer’s lazy way out to generate a dungeon with a certain theme right under a village. They are set-pieces, window-dressing at best. This sewer feels alive. It is a fantastic eco-system that embraces all the things that I always wanted to see in such an environment. In fact, for the very first time in my roleplaying career, I have found a module that is a sewer-crawl where the very dungeon explored has more character, more unique peculiarities, than most non-sewer dungeons. In short, this module represents the rebuttal, delivered with panache aplomb, to all the negative clichés associated with the dungeon type. It also represents a huge step up for author John Ling, who so far provided good, even very good, modules – but this goes a step beyond and reaches the lofty realms of excellence.

The author acknowledges with meticulous care non-dice-roll-dependent problem-solving, magical means and manages to evoke a sense of internal consistency that is very hard to convey in a review, but that should nonetheless be made very explicit: I have rarely seen any module feel this internally consistent, this alive; this is an excellent example of a living dungeon set-up: Considerate, intelligent, well-written, versatile and yes, evocative even, with hazards galore, SCIENCE! and diverse challenges, this is now my reference module for any adventure that features a sewer. This is the best adventure John Ling has penned so far and the best module released by Gaming Paper since the legendary Citadel of Pain. In short: GET THIS. I mean, one of the lead-in hooks has a chase…and w get chase card obstacles! It’s a perfect example how diligence, cohesion and consistency can conspire to make a module play in an absolutely amazing manner. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars, + seal of approval…and this also receives a nomination for my Top Ten of 2016, even though its pdf went live only recently. This is the new reference module for sewers and all excuses for making these areas lame are hereby null and void. Turns out sewer-levels can be fun, after all!

Endzeitgeist out.

Edgewater’s Folly is available from DriveThruRPG.

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May 022017
 

Vikmordere_Bestiary

By Endzeitgeist

This bestiary, spawned as a stretch-goal to the “Into the Wintery Gale” mega-adventure, clocks in 62 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 57 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Sooo, I’ve seen A LOT of bestiaries in my years of roleplaying. If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll by now know that the one thing I bemoan most about the current editions of the game would be that the respective creatures don’t have as much room to shine and be developped as they once had. Well, this bestiary does something interesting in that regard – each creature contained herein is depicted in a two-page spread – this means that, if you get the print copy, you can fold the stats to your side and show the artwork, contained on a hand-out-friendly second page to the players. That is a HUGE deal. Particularly when you consider that Mates Laurentiu’s art for this book is frankly AMAZING. See that front cover? All those critters? Every artwork within these pages is of that quality. Yes, this is a beautiful book.

Which brings me to the second challenge this faces – I mentioned the lack of space current bestiary-formatting allows for creatures; the sheer size of statblocks means that there is not that much room to develop the flavor of a given adversary, which renders the fluff-writing an exercise in concise writing that is not an easy feat to accomplish. Speaking of statblocks -after more than 5 bestiaries and a vast array of other monster handbooks, it’s hard to make creatures stand out. We all remember the point in 3.X when slapping a loosely-draconic theme on critters was en vogue…that reminded me of the time when comic books had monkey on the cover. I digress.

I know I’m rambling, this is going somewhere. Bear with me. So, from a formal point of view, the creatures herein range from CR 7 to CR 16, spanning the reach of the levels the associated mega-adventure deals with. A crucial difference in comparison to similar Norse-themed bestiaries, however, would be that it is crafted to adhere, in style and theme, to the mythology woven for the people of the Vikmordere (hence the title) – in case you are not familiar with this culture, picture them as a thoroughly amazing cultural blend of Vikings and Norse culture with Native Americans. It may sound odd, but it works really well and puts a fresh thematic spin on the subject matter, one that maintains the feeling of being a clear love-letter to both. This is, in some cases, represented by the very nomenclature employed.

Take e.g. the undead revenant-like critter called Aptrgangr, two variants of which are provided (and YES, each of the them has its own statblock and its own full-color art): Lake aptrgangrs not only curse and befoul the bodies of water they’re in, they may also release a snake from their bodies, constrict foes…but the interesting component here, to me, would be how they establish relevance: Sure, the fluff text talks about their effect and mythology, which is nice and dandy – but the snake provides a visual cue, a plot-device, if you will and a strong visual metaphor; the befouling of water represents a built-in narrative angle for the GM to use and the rest of the build retains combat-relevance. The land-version of the aptrgangr is more straight-forward, though the dark blades, quick coup-de-graces and familiars they gain ultimately mean that they may be fared more in direct combat – but, by virtue of familiar choices, they also retain a sense of foreboding, of omens, if you will. Oh, and rejuvenation.

Woe to any settlement that attracts one of the dread brunnmigi, grotesque fey that lair in wells, who use mimicry to lure their prey in and then drown the unfortunates, spoiling water with sadistic glee. In an age without ready access to running water, one of these predators can easily depopulate a whole thorp if not put in its place! Into these mythological and very real feeling anxieties are realities of the game skillfully woven in – take the elderfey, as an example: This being once was a druid, but one whose unabashed love of life ultimately corrupted him; not ready to accept the cycle of life and death, these beings are tied to a specific tree (which spells doom for them if it is destroyed) – and in order to retain the balance of life and death, they can implant trees in victims, having them grow in a rapid and disturbing pace from those that are unfortunate enough to cross their paths. You know that I like my fey dark and creepy – this one positively qualifies as nightmare fodder as far as I’m concerned…and I mean that as a complement. It feels like it could have been drawn from mythology.

Or let me talk about the Fafnir dragons – hunted as abominations by their kind, these beings are shapechanging beasts, regal and lethal and have elevated greed and paranoia to a form of art. surrounded by an aura of avarice and capable of teleporting held items to their hoard, these beings are rightfully loathed…but there is more to them. Those that drink the blood of a fafnir may undergo the change into one themselves, somewhat akin to a lycanthrope: As such, they do have a hybrid shape, artfully depicted by Mates Laurentiu. Oh, know what’s worse? They don’t breed true. Instead, their unions result in the birth of lindworms, another new creature: Think of these as lethal, serpentine predators with 6 clawed legs that are nigh unerring hunters – not even nondetection will save you from these hunters!

If you’ve been following northern mythology in its various iterations throughout different editions of the game, you may have noticed that, at one point, the lupine threats in the frigid North have become less pronounced; the Fenris (no, not the oomphteenth build of the original Fenris wolf – these are a whole species) should change that. Black as night, Huge and lethal, these supreme predators can smash you to the ground…and woe to any prone before them – with but a twist of their head, they may tear off limbs of such unfortunates! Frost wisps, harsh, but lawful aberrations in service of winter despise flames – beautiful and alien, mortals to them are magma-blooded devils, which adds a unique spin to any encounter with them. What about a snake-like predator that quite literally is the incarnation of frostbite, with an aura that renders items brittle and hypothermia-inducing cold damage? The visual metaphor, once again, is so obvious I don’t think I have to explain it.

The horned glacial bear would be another magical beast of ice and snow – and it is, in spite of what I feared at one point, unique – not simply a variant of a bear-like winter-wolf, it can cause avalanches and emit devastating roars. There would also be the høyonde (translates literally to “high/tall/very” and “bad folks/things”), the spawn of traitorous Vikmordere who consorted with giants, these would be scions of death that not only may channel the forces of entropy (read: negative energy), they also have a nasty death aura that hampers the forces of life. The hidden ones, the huldufólk, also have their representation here – in touch with the very earth and rocks, these fey may animate rocks and sing a bolstering song to the very earth itself…but this connection goes both ways and stone may be used to slay them…

Even what should arguably be lame herein…somehow ends up not being that. Take the icy vigil: A medium construct of a frozen warrior. Stifle your yawns, ladies and gentlemen – they not only generate spawn from the slain, they may employ simulacra, wield equipment of ice and reform after destruction…oh, and put away that staff of fireballs – magic immunity. Disregarding the well-crafted prose, the mechanics of this adversary set it apart as not yet another boring guardian critter. The margygur would be aquatic fey that can sense the currents of destiny and fate like the currents that surround them (cue in Ayreon’s River of Time) and as such, they may share their prophetic visions with others, making for a cool quest-reward/social interaction…or a deadly foe, should they decide that the PCs will bring doom…

Now the aforementioned vigil would be cool; the treasure golem style Nibelung would be a more straight-forward construct (with cost to create etc., just fyi) – and yes, feeding it treasure will make it grow in potency. You know, I think pretty much all capable dragons in may game have just added a new layer of defenses to their lairs….that aside, the nomenclature-choice is smart here as well, evoking obvious mythological connotations. Now, as is wont to happen, not every creature’s statblock in a bestiary of this length is necessarily a stroke of genius. The overseer would be one example where that is the case.

Think of these guys as huge oak trees, with 5 dryad-shapes bound within the branches – for these beings are created when 5 dryads bond with one tree: All lose their sentience and become subsumed in the overseer’s body, its personality wholly independent from the animated fey. This may sound weird, but in spite of the conservative statblock, this is one of my favorite creatures in quite a while – its very existence poses several unique conundrums to ponder: Were the dryads tricked? What threat caused them to undertake this drastic measure? The more interesting aspect, however, pertains the nature of free will: Unwilling to give up its existence, the overseer is understandably opposed to the freedom of its constituent dryads. Then again, they do have a right to reclaim their freedom, a right towards an individual existence, in spite of the fact of their status as “parents” of the creature.

The very existence of the overseer is inextricably-linked to the question of free will, it represents an escalation of the phenomenon of parentage as an experience that can deprive one of one’s self and thus serves as a creature-made warning to retain one’s sense of self – after all, that does benefit, at least in real life and a case less pronounced, the offspring. Similarly, its existence could be read as a rousing call towards those that continue to leech off their parents to assume an own identity, separate from the parts that constitute it. Of course, you may just shrug and think of it as a “cool creature with an awesome artwork” – but that’s why I adore it. Its straightforward visual metaphor is one that can break abusive and unhealthy relationships by virtue of its impact and puts the creature, at least in my mind, into the rarified regions where gaming can actually leave people as better persons.

Moving on to less intellectualizing adversaries, the pesta, a horrid monstrous hag armed with a rake, is pretty much a living incarnation of disease, plowing the fields for the reaper – once again, the choice of weapon, while seemingly innocuous, ties in with the visual metaphors we all have consumed, time and again and expands them – by virtue of their arms, they are literally the ones preparing the reaping, much like disease precedes death. If all of that sounded to grim, let me introduce the ratatosk – small fey that love riddles and look a bit like extremely fluffy and cute squirrels with two tails, beings of continuous renewal and destruction…and they’re good guys. Their artwork is also so cute that I’d seriously gift one as a plushy to my significant other.

In case you have been disappointed by the potency of sea serpents, the serpent of the depth should change that: At CR 15, these 8-eyed, horned killers not only are majestic – they control the very currents and those caught in their grasp can look forward to being flayed by their lethal, spiky coils. Speaking of disappointment – you know that I’m pretty much enamored with Norse mythology, so take my word for it when I’m saying that this book has the better representation of Sleipnir in it: With fire that burns past immunities and the ability to safeguard souls as well as a whopping 100 ft. movement rate, it is an appropriately powerful steed. Snow screechers may look like somewhat fey yeti at first glance…but only at first glance. Beyond the eponymous screech, they can alternate cold or fire damage and generate unsettling sounds, making them perfect ambush predators stalking the camp grounds.

We return to obvious mythological frames of reference with the stag of the whitewood – an alseid-like (think centaur with deer instead of horse-half) and a stag’s head evoke so many tropes from our real world myths, I do not even know where to start: From the white stag to the alseid-ish angle to the hunter, there is a myriad of connotations and implications to add to these…and that from a guy who usually does not like this type. The tundra troll would be more interesting from a mechanical point of view, with fragile, shoddy shields and armor allowing for some nice tactics against theses beings.

Unique: The vaettir, life-draining undead icy corpses have a draining aura and go into a kind of hibernation sans food – but they also generate haunts! Anotehr undead would be the vereri stalker – who casts his spells via the focus of a severed head! (Yep, you do NOT want to be coup-de-grace’d by these folks…)…oh, and with a hair or similar part, they can and will track you! They, like 3 other critters here, are one of the few creatures whose art does not get the full-page treatment. While we’re on the topic – what about a frost-themed banshee-like undead spirit with access to hexes?

If you’ve noticed an absence of amorphous, strange threats – what about the aquatic vatndökk, a slime whose very touch suppresses magic…and who doubles as a magic-dead zone? Yeah…and they may capsize vessels. Considering the frigid climate, these things will put the fear back into the high-level adventurers…and they represent one of the most delightfully deadly adversaries herein. Then, there would be the winter wyrm and winter wyrmling – both represent basically ice worms. Yeah, I know – there are quite a few of those out there already – but bear with me, their respective builds are actually nice, with pit creation, hibernation and fantastic artworks.

The final creature herein can partially be seen on the cover – the wintertide jabberwock, with its one line- and one cross-shaped pupil that can only be slain be severing both of its heads. With eye-rays, head-regeneration and a fear of vorpal weapons (understandable!), the creature represents a great high note to end the book.

Conclusion:

Editing is top-notch on both a formal and rules-language level – in the instances where I took apart a statblock, I noticed no serious hiccups. Formatting-wise, some very minor aesthetic hiccups can be found – there are instances where the first paragraph of the flavor text is formatted like a statblock ability….hey, come on, I’m trying to find something to complain about, all right? Layout adheres to an absolutely gorgeous two-column full-color standard with borders that employ graphic elements coded as Norse. The artwork by Mates Laurentiu is absolutely stunning and makes this one of the most beautiful bestiaries I have seen any 3pp put out. Each of these critters could, quality-wise, be found in a Paizo/WotC-book – the artwork alone is worth getting this…and yes, I’d advise in favor of the softcover: The fact that you can show the one-page monster-illustrations sans spoiling the statblocks to players means that you’ll spare time and effort printing the art as handouts. The fact that they all have one style adds a great unified visual identity to this book. Oh, and yes, the book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Justin Andrew Mason and developer Stephen Rowe are both names that I associate with quality; in this instance, however, they delivered something that exceeded my expectations. You see, I get to see a metric ton of monsters. I’m spoiled beyond belief by Legendary Games’ mythic monsters and bestiaries and my expectations at this point are VERY hard to meet. This book surpassed tem by the sheer value of consistency. There is something I consider great (not “good”, not “very good”, “great!”) in every single critter within this book.

Let me elaborate: When we boil it down, monster-design is both an art and a craft: You can string together numbers and components like feats; no problem. The artistry is when it comes together, when you add those unique abilities and give the mathematical construct its own sense of identity, its own story. In the best of cases, though, it does not end there. Take Kobold Press – the Midgard-setting they made is pretty much defined by the mythological resonance it evokes. I do not use the excellent setting lightly as a frame of reference.

We, as human beings, have a rich tapestry of myths that are, if you believe anthropology, to a significant part extensions of our conditio humana, our shared experiences. It is thus that you can find parallels between different cultures and their animism, religion and myths – they serve to illustrate facts, concepts and experiences – often in an anthropomorphized form. These tales continue to evolve with our lives; much like the changed experience of the industrial revolution gave rise to fresh incarnations of horror, much like Web 2.0.’s slender man and similar creepypastas, we are defined by our mythweaving, by the incarnations of truths and symbols we inherited, by the complex constructs that generate a shared frame of reference to communicate.

One way to excel at monster design lies in mastering mechanics and artfully making the unique; another, less often seen, lies in tapping into this shared frame of reference, into the mythological sphere, and employing the powerful resonance it evokes within us all. There is a reason for that: It’s hard. You see, the very first thing we usually do when running games is to take that frame of reference and apply it. Thus, straight adaptations feel old, stale, been there, done that to us. The genius of this humble bestiary lies in tapping into the shared frame of reference, the cultural resonance shared, and employing it in a creative and new manner that makes it a cohesive, unique entity.

A cynic may accuse me of over-intellectualizing in this review; my response would be that me actually pausing and analyzing to this extent is not something I do lightly or by accident; one creature that manages this feat is a happy accident; two are a tendency – a whole book full of them, however, is intentional, deliberate craftsmanship and artistry. This book represents one of the best bestiaries I have read in quite a while and its creatures will make plenty of appearances in my games. This is a steal, an exercise in excellent, unpretentious (in spite of my analysis – this is very much a bestiary, not a lecture in academia!) design – and oh boy do I love it to bits. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and this is furthermore a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Get this!

Endzeitgeist out.

Winter’s Roar: Vikmordere is available from DriveThruRPG.

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Mar 072017
 

Mayhem is an RPG from Midnight Campaign that was published in 2013. Product of the minds and effort of Rob and Aubrey Hicks, the book contains everything you need to play the game.MAYHEM Volume one, core content

Mayhem comes in a POD book with over 200 pages in full colour and, in the edition I have, softback. Although I don’t know what POD service was used, the quality of the printing is pretty good and the paper is thick enough. The binding has seen a lot of use in the last few weeks and yet all pages have survived without a problem.

Layout of the book is actually very good, with great attention being paid to design and detail. Although it could do without the background pattern in the pages, the frequency of the illustrations is enough and, dare I say, pretty impressive for a book that is the product of just two people.

The indexing system is actually very good. On the left page you will find an icon for each of the ten chapters and on the  right page an icon for each section within chapter. Although the chapters are not long enough for those icons to have any real practical effect, they have been very well designed and look pretty awesome, so I like having them there.

Artwork throughout Mayhem is a mix of good and mediocre. Although usually I would make an issue out of this, the fact that this is a book published by enthusiasts I can’t fault it too much. Yes, it could be much, much better, but what is there does the trick and there is a fair amount of it, so I won’t fault it too much.

The game takes a fair bit of time on the rules and they do sort out, or try to, a number of issues. The core system is simple enough. Depending on the skill level you have, the die will be higher. For a skill of 5 to 6, one rolls a d6, for a skill of 8 or 9, you would roll a d8 and so on.

Although this requires to keep track of a few dice depending on what level skill your character has for each ability, it also provides with a nice progression path that reflect how much better the character gets on a skill by skills basis.

There are two truly interesting things about the rules for me. One is the hit points chart. Hit points are calculated based on the Endurance and the Willpower of the characters. Endurance marks how many total hit points a character has. Willpower, however, determine how many hit points of damage a character can take before falling unconscious. Although this might make it easier for the character to be put out of order, it also means they are likely to be more durable.

The second thing that got my eye was the feedback chart. Every spell and similar in the book has a feedback cost and character with more Willpower can take more feedback than those less. Feedback points are like hit points for the mind. You can use a number of them, but if you overexert, then you are in trouble and get mental damage. What I liked about it is that it provides with a fairly clear method to keep track of the ability of the character to cast spells – perhaps psionics in the future – and at what point they can start to be harmful, as well as decide how many points to use for spells too.

The rules section also cover combat, movement, flight…

Character creation is a relatively simple affair. Although you don’t have to do a lot different from other roleplaying games, the sheer amount of races and curses that can be applied to those races means you have to do a lot of reading.

Mayhem comes with 22 races and 11 talents and curses of which only one is human and there are no elves, dwarves or the more common races typical of fantasy worlds. Races are divided in several sections that include demonic and celestial races and among them you will also find animal races. This is actually something interesting, though it could also lead to some problems if you try to use demonic and celestial, or undead characters in the same party. So a lot of preparation work would be needed.

The curses and talents are another good addition. They are there to add depth to the characters with abilities and conditions to expand their nature. Not all races are compatible with all talents or curses, but they do add a lot of variety.

The sections on equipment, magic, abilities… they all have enough options to enhance your character, but not so many that it becomes overwhelming to actually learn them or manage them. They are divided in small sections and the information is concise enough to be easy to find and remember, but detailed enough that you can actually use the skill at hand.

Mayhem’s setting is rather interesting and very, very rich. Although there is nothing overly original in the setting, the background itself is solid and well described. A world with several continents and an interesting cosmology, the world has enough foundation for many adventures. Also adventure hooks are dotted all over the description of the land to help you come up with some ideas.

The game ends with a short chapter on storytelling with description on how to create adventure, type of plot hooks, managing the rhythm of the game… very handy and full of tips that are always good to learn if you are new, or be reminded of if you are a seasoned player or GM.

Conclusion

Mayhem is very clearly a product that needs a lot of work, but also one that shows a great deal of potential.

The writing is very good but could do with some editing. The artwork is in the right places, they are right illustrations and they are numerous enough, but they need an overall improvement in style. The layout is sound but needs a bit of tightening…

The rules, although not the slickest to get to grips with, truly work. The hit point system gives a great deal of flexibility to allow players to play as they see fit without the fear of instant death.

The feedback system is probably my favourite bit of the game. The idea that you can use your points and force their minds a bit to use more powerful spells or powers, recovering some of those points to recover enough to use the power again… That I enjoyed a lot.

The number of races is pretty amazing and well worth considering. Although not all have the same level of information – or indeed the same information – the are all very intriguing and congruent with the world where they are located and although the sheer diversity makes it complex to create a coherent party, the potential is truly huge.

To have over 600 feats, skills and spells might sound daunting, though the way they have been located in the right place and in the right numbers make them easy to use. Being divided by weapon, skill set, magic area, etc, means they come in chunks small enough to be very easy to use.

In terms of world building, the thing I liked the most is the potential for epic storytelling. In Mayhem, even the Sun, the Moon and Stars are actually sentient beings that can, somehow, be interacted with if you are the right type of adventurer.

It is also massive, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because, although the book only covers one of the continents that create the geography of the planet, it is so rich that it will never be too small for the players.

However the amount of information about locations, empires, landmarks… it feels like it is not enough and needs much more. It is pretty obvious this book needs another 200 pages just for the world where it is played.

The storytelling chapter is very handy. Although it doesn’t give any ground-breaking advice, for a beginner it will go a long way to help get to grips with RPGs.

I am not sure, though, if this is a good game for beginners. Although all the premises, rules and backgrounds are explained with sufficient detailed, the variety in the races, richness in the story and complexity in the rules could make the experience a bit frustrating for those with little experience.

Overall  Mayhem should be praised. It is a solid game even if it feels it’s unfinished. This is all because the authors are just two people and have created the whole thing from scratch, with money from their pockets and doing the best they can.

And the best they can is pretty good.

I am not going to compare this with any other well-established publisher material. That would be unfair.

If you want a game that has a ton of information to offer and a lot of truly excellent ideas but needs a bit of work to bring to the table, this is for you and I thoroughly recommend it.

If you want a fully finished product that will allow you to play with little extra effort, look elsewhere. But you will be missing out on a lot of good things.

 

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Jan 012017
 

Return to Crypt of the Sun LordReturn to Crypt of the Sun Lord clocks in at 41 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 37 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

It feels like yesterday when I first reviewed a module that was flawed, but had promise: A1: Crypt of the Sun Lord. The short level 1-dungeon crawl introduced to PCs to a nice little complex and provided some pretty easy challenges…but it also introduced us to the fascinating frontier’s village Rybalka, saw some improvement, and, more than that, it already exhibited what I consider the most crucial strength of AAW Games’ modules: A mix of action and brain-teasers and, more importantly, an admirable ability to depict cultures that feel “real” – yes, they feel alien and fantastic, but a sense of realism and detail suffuses the best of AAW Games’ works that can’t help but draw one into the diverse world of Aventyr….though, back then, the world had no official name yet. 😉

Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds, so let’s revisit the crypt of the sun lord and see what now can be found in the place where the PCs first hands on the mystical blade of the sun lord. It should btw. be noted that the blade of the sun lord, even when you have not played A01, will be found and gets full stats. This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

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All right, still here? Great! The previously explored upper floor (with a graphically enhanced map) has seen better days – beyond bandits, a sense of dilapidation haunts these halls and thus, the PCs venture forth – and may find that a stair is not what it is supposed to be: The wards that keep a mimic in stair-form suspended in time are about to fall, thus adding a level of danger and eureka-effect to the exploration of groups that have braved A01 back in the day. In Ka’Teek’s final resting place, the PCs can now unearth a secret door that leads from the muck-filled, crumbling tomb to the halls below – and here, you’ll be blown away. No, really. The lower level not only sports one glorious full-color map, it also has a lavishly-detailed isometric version of the already beautiful map. And yes, the isometric map is full color and drop-dead-gorgeous. I’m talking about as detailed as back in Ravenloft, only in color! A key-less version of this one is provided as well, though I’d only hand out the respective rooms after the PCs have explored them – e.g. traps and the like can still be found on the isometric version’s key-less one. Still, this map is gorgeous and greatly enhances the sense of immersion – not that the module required that, mind you.

What do I mean by this? Well, first of all, the exploration of the temple of the sun, hidden here in these depths, does sport bulettes that have dug into the temple…but the temple also has an ingenious intrusion-countermeasure: The very doors of the complex. You see, the exploration itself is an interesting puzzle, with doors preventing the opening of others while open: Some doors can only be opened while others are open and some can only be opened when others are closed. While the puzzle can potentially be brute-forced by capable PCs willing to spend time and resources, exploration with it intact proved to be much more rewarding. I mentioned, in the beginning, the strength, as a company, to create a blending of the fantastic and realistic and indeed: From paralytic flees to spikes of searing light, this oscillation is well-represented in the hazards of this complex. On a cultural note, a fountain of balance that provides boons, but also dishes out pain to those dishonest – and yes, there is a clear and interesting logic to this test of a creature’s honesty, one that can be gleaned from experience and one that constitutes a great example of unobtrusive storytelling.

The temple also houses iron-pyrite clad guardian warriors and indeed, the interest of PCs and players and the understanding of the dynamics of the temple may prove to be helpful – for the challenges faced inside are nothing to scoff at: The respective combat encounters are interesting and dangerous with not a single boring one among them. PCs will thus be motivated to actually unearth the methodology of the temple’s beliefs – if they understand it, they are rewarded.

Things become, at least in my opinion, even more interesting once the PCs manage to bypass the crysmals and breach the sanctuary – for here, the runes of the ancient people are provided as inscriptions that the players can decipher. I really liked this section, particularly since I can fluently read runes and since we have a pretty simple letter-substitution, so no, your players won’t be flustered for a long time, even if they have no idea regarding the meaning of runes. Within the depths of the complex, a secret altar awaits, providing not only a glimpse into ages long past, but also offering perhaps one of the coolest boss fights I’ve read in a while: The blade of the sun lord can be used to conjure forth the spirit of Ka’Teek – when have you last fought an honorable LG spirit of an ancient priest-king with a blinding aura that also may yield you a better blade? Oh, and this is NOT the end – You see, the temple also hides Ka’Teek’s suit, which is the only way to handle the true treasure herein: The Sliver of the Sun. Unprotected exposure to this artifact can lead to many very dangerous effects – and the table of these effects also constitutes a great scavenging ground for more lethal exposure to radiation and the like.

What does the sliver do? Well, it friggin’ CHANGES THE CLIMATE. This may break a particularly nasty winter or make a summer truly devastating…and its weaponized use can carry whole campaigns on its own – the potential outcomes presented certainly suggest different ones and can be used by any GM worth his craft to make plentiful follow-up modules. In fact, this could easily be the story for a whole campaign, should you wish to go that route… And yes, if you don’t want such a game-changer in your campaign, you can easily destroy the item in a cataclysmic blast…which coincidentally, with minor modification, would make for a compelling adventure in the plane of shadows…

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no problematic segments. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The book offers a significant amount of gorgeous artwork and the cartography by Tommi Salama and Justin Andrew Mason deserve special mention: The maps are GORGEOUS. The inclusion of an isometric map (including a key-less version of it) render the map-material of this book, at least in my opinion, absolute top-tier; not only regarding 3pps, mind you.

But, know what? All of that wouldn’t be enough, were it not for the crucial part – the writing. Jonathan G. Nelson & Stephen Yeardley have surpassed themselves here: The core-authors of AAW Games deliver a perfect culmination of the development of the company in this module: With formal quality turned up to eleven, the duo has retained the unique feeling or realism blended with the fantastic, the fascination for these cultures that makes the module feel like exciting, fantastic and strange archeology. The inclusion of material to occupy one’s mind via several unobtrusive puzzles also improves the module’s feeling of diversity beyond the varied encounters and hazards. However, the true accomplishment here is, much like in Stephen Yeardley’s superb C07: The Sussurus Tomb, the fact that the players are rewarded for engaging in the indirect storytelling the complex offers.

If the above was not ample clue: I *LOVE* this module! It feels like a great culmination, at least up until now, of the development process of AAW Games as a company and the authors: While retaining the key-strengths of the captivating cultures depicted, the diverse challenges herein are much more streamlined than in previous modules. Better yet, the rewarding of players engaging the indirect storytelling as well as the inspiring end of the module render this one exceedingly well-rounded dungeon, perhaps one of the best in this size out there. My final verdict with clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and a nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 – a wonderful tribute to Cliff “CJ” Jones, to whom this module is dedicated.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jan 012017
 

13th Age Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes13th Age: Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes of clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/SRD, leaving us with 6 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, what this 13th Age: Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes provides is interesting – we get items that are obviously the result of the craftsmanship of minor sorcerors, here called alchemists and talismancers – basically, everyday items. However, beyond the basic concept provided, each item sports 13 rumors related to it, some of which may be true, some of which may be false…all depending on the GM. This customization option is something I truly cherish here…so what do the items do?

The first item would be Blacklight Candles – mundane candles of black wax…but only the wielder can perceive the light they shed. Sounds boring? Well, what if it’s true that only drow make these things? Or what if the fire started from such candles also is invisible? The latter is a genius hook I’m going to craft a whole adventure around. Clay of Life helps stabilizing the dying and can even be used to help re-attach severed limbs…and it may be fermented dragon droppings…or it may a plot of none other than the Lich King! Obviously, it would be pretty awesome if the extremely expensive clay sold in Horizon works – it returns the dead to life…but it could also transform them into mindless golems…

Dancing Shoes are a great idea: they allow you to dance like a pro…ONCE. As soon as you stop, they’ll burst into flames. Need a variant on the Cinderella-trope? Here’s an interesting one for you! (Oh, and yes, if you’re VERY unlucky, they may burn you – but hey, the show must go on…right?) What about arrows that are particularly lethal versus ethereal foes (and less lethal versus physical targets), allwoing the PCs to better fight the threat of dybbuks and similar adversaries? Featherlight Skirts are also awesome in just about any decadent environment – these skirts puff up like a parachute and feather fall the wearer. The sample stories suggest e.g. a cadre of bored noble women using these skirts for what amounts to illegal base-jumping – and the idea alone is glorious: Think about the narrative potential here for an uncommon murder mystery…or a conspiracy waiting in the wings.

Finally, Grave Dust has a chance to work as a pretty potent sleeping agent…which is okay…but what if it’s true that gelatinous cubes and similar slimes hate the taste and may spew forth immediately anyone covered in the material? Or what if it’s true that the effects of the material end immediately in the vicinity of royalty? What does that say about the tavern-brawl featuring the material you just witnessed?

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, i noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to 13th Age’s neat two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. Artworks are full-color and nice.

ASH LAW delivers some cool low-magic/alchemical items here. Yet, on their own, the fall somewhat flat. It is due to the absolutely inspired amount of narrative potential provided for each of them that they truly come into their own – what, on paper, sounds like a selection of solid, if a bit unremarkable items, becomes pretty awesome pretty fast by virtue of the inspiring 13 hooks provided for each of them, transforming the items into something more than the sum of their mechanical benefits.

Granted, I could nitpick some of these potential options: “Does the invisible fire created by blacklight candles visible burn objects or does it create an illusion of things being in order?” and similar reasoning – but that would be a disservice to the inspired ideas herein…and it would take a bit away from the GM’s options to customize the living hell out of these items to suit his or her need. I consider this to be an inspired installment in the series, one that oozes flair and panache, not only for 13th Age. The one reason (beyond aforementioned nitpickery) this does not reach the highest echelons of my rating system is that the items are story-items, one and all – they don’t really do something mechanically interesting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform.

Endzeitgeist out.

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