Jul 312015
 

path_of_shadowsBy Endzeitgeist

This freshman offering of Ascension Games clocks in at 81 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 75 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

Disclaimer: This book went up in my review-queue do to me receiving a dead tree copy and not having to print everything out. My review’s verdict was in no way influenced by receiving this copy.

Ah, shadow magic – scarcely a concept in 3.X has been so prominent and yet so utterly ill-defined and mechanically sucky. Thankfully, 3pps have a knack for singling out such systems and then developing them -take a look at Radiance House’s Pact Magic, Interjection Games’ Truenaming or Dreamscarred Press’ Akashic Mysteries, for examples. In the meanwhile, Interjection Games has provided us with two classes, which, in theme, oscillate between light and darkness, the edgewalker and the antipodist, but that’s it, to my knowledge. One massive issue of the original shadowmagic was its exceedingly restrictive nature and the balancing just…well. Not working, at all.

So can this pdf remedy this much maligned, but utterly stylish power-source? The pdf kicks off with a massive introduction, including explanations for the reference abbreviations used and then dives into the Nightblade base class – the nightblade receives d8, 6+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons, longsword, scythe, rapier, short sword, shortbow and spiked chain and light armors, but not shields. Shields and armor heavier than light incurs arcane spell failure chances. Nightblades also receive spontaneous spellcasting via Charisma of up to 6th level, drawn from their own spell-list. The class also receives 3/4 BAB-progression and good ref- and will-saves. Evasion is gained at second level and this level also provides access to the so-called shadow surge – this is an expendable resource that can be gained as a standard action that provokes attacks of opportunity. Several nightblade abilities require the expenditure of a shadow surge – think of it as the class’s analog of the psionic focus. with the additional caveat that a nightblade may expend shadow surges to reroll Stealth checks – for actually competent sneaking. At 8th and 17th level, the nightblade can store +1 surge, so that’s a deviation from psionic focus. Abilities like increasing darkvision (with worthwhile alternate benefits if you already have it!), hide in plain sight at 8th level (where I can stomach it!) and yes, dimension door hopping – with caveats for feat-qualification etc. High level nightblades may see perfectly in the dark and when they cast shadow conjurations etc., they increase the real component of their shadows.

At 3rd level, the nightblade receives a nightblade art, +1 every three levels thereafter – think of these as the nightblade’s talents; when applicable, the save scales via the plus half level + cha-mod-formula. Now while you can get combat and metamagic feats via these talents, they actually provide very unique benefits for the discerning gamer -benefits that significantly deviate from rogue talents etc. and help enforce a unique identity – while effects like full speed stealth plus miss chance upgrade for concealment gained from darkness to total concealment-levels, increases to touch attack AC and higher level options to expend shadow surges to attack against touch AC would pretty much all be options I’d somewhat expect a shadow-themed character to be able to pull off. On paper, attacking versus touch attack by expending shadow surges may look pretty nasty, but the 1/round limit imposed by action economy and the need to regain shadow surges means that this option is powerful, but thanks to the level-prereq and the requirement for set-up, in game actually worked rather well. It should be noted that tank-y creatures, dragons and similar creatures with bad touch ACs should take heed around nightblades, but that is something that is just as true for magi and similar characters, so no balance complaints there.

However, beyond these more conservative ones, there are some talents that can be considered ambitious from a mechanical point of view: Take force teleporting foes or shifting shadow/darkness-related spells from target to target – these are not simply concepts to translate into crunch, much less crunch that is concise enough to withstand my nitpicking of terminology and looking for loop-holes. Kudos where kudos are due – I consider tackling such complex options in a freshman offering, with this level of competence, nonetheless, an impressive feat!

Obviously, now, the defining feature of shadow magic back in the day was the structure of paths, which required some planning, yes, but also provided a feeling of organic development. Nightblades must select a path at 1st level – but within each path techniques loom: One is gained at first level, one at 5th and every 5 levels thereafter -these can be likened to the linear gain of order or bloodline abilities. They are also more than just the addition of techniques – each path comes with a path power, modifies the shadow surge to sport additional options AND modifies the list of available nightblade arts by adding exclusive arts to the list available, providing an element of player agenda that is absent from the linear ability progressions of cavaliers, sorcerors etc.. So yes, the choice of one of the 5 paths is the most important one for the nightblade and radically changes the way in which the given classes play – this extends to the point where the paths offer a more distinct variety in playing experience than most archetypes offer over the base classes they modify. It should also be noted that e.g. path powers scale in their potency and the paths also determine the capstone ability gained.

So what are the paths about? The path of the Bloodied Chain offers the option to conjure forth umbral shackles that entangle creatures, while also adding fear-based effects at higher levels – i.e. you receive some rather powerful and unique terrain-control options. The theme of fear-based debuffs also is represented in the shadow surge ability, which allows you to extend the fear-based conditions on your adversaries. This and the fear-themed techniques gained render this path a good friend to Dreamscarred Press’s Dread-class; in my playtests, the two worked together as a nasty double-team that could actually offset the lack of a primary melee class. And no, I do not consider this one to be broken, though combining the dread’s immunity-breaker with the nightblade proved to be very efficient. It should also be noted that intimidate can cause full-blown “frightened” as a condition for this path. The exclusive arts here provide for some awesome visuals – beyond detecting fear, adding bleed damage to the umbral chains at 9th level or centering the chains on the nightblade, rendering the effect mobile at 15th level.

The second path, the path of the darkened fortress, can be likened to shadow magic’s kind-of-but-not-really magus, blended with duelist-tricks: For example, weapons can be conjured forth and enhanced with special abilities, but they remain shadowy. The shadow surge can be used as an immediate action for a significant self-buff that starts as being applied only to a single attack (GOOD!) and then scales up to lasting a turn at 10th level. The path abilities net you arcane bond, but with a variant – both object and familiar-choices can be blended with your form – which can be rather significant in the context of infiltrations. The path also helps with the crafting of magic items, allowing the nightblade to ignore progressing amounts of spell prerequisites. Fortification-style effects are also part of the deal and high level nightblades with this path receive their own pocket dimension in the plane of shadows. The arts available allow for the extension of weapon qualities and also sport e.g. the option to enhance the bonded object/familiar with unique benefits. Extending the ability to create shadow armament to ranged and dual weapons should also be considered pretty interesting, especially since the latter (one playtest candidate, btw.) sport a balancing mechanic that is simple, yet efficient.

The path of eternal night provides you with a means of creating a short-range energy vortex of negative energy that may not heal, but frighten undead. The shadow surge use here requires a standard action to enforce a reroll of a d20, but can only target a creature once per 24 hours. The path abilities of this rather sinister path allows the nightblade to destroy creatures that are dying and use them to power himself – think of it as a powerful, death knell like effect. This ability would be very strong, especially since the action economy scales and goes down from standard action to swift action – however, the smart choice of a daily limite rendered this a viable ability in game. Interesting would be an immunity not gained by most classes – the path renders immune to negative energy damage, which renders these folks exceedingly effective at killing hostile clerics – interesting! The path also sports an option to make a foe’s shadow rise up against the adversary. The arts allow for additional means of enhancing corruption, with e.g. damage upon leaving the aura etc. All in all, an interesting path as well.

The path of the ravaging void gets a very interesting path power, which allows you to change the energy type of energy spells – which is pretty much an awesome trick and though it extends to supernatural abilities, the wording covers those. So far, this has been pretty much a homerun, but alas, the shadow surge herein imho can require a more distinct scaling mechanism – the shadow surge is a ranged touch attack with a range of 30 ft. that deals 1d6 cold damage, +1d6 per 2 levels +cha-mod. While the damage itself is not impressive when thinking about the fact how shadow surges etc. eat actions, the scaling feels a bit off still – perhaps I’m spoiled by Interjection Games’ ethermagic, but as far as warlock-y blasts go, this, while not bad or broken due to the limited range, could have imho used some more versatility. The path techniques provide elemental resistances and allow you to suffuse your elemental spells with shadow energy, adding debuff effect insults to the elemental injury – I really like this idea-wise! Now where things become very interesting would be the option to expend spell-slots to duplicate elemental energy damage dealing spells, which, however, only remain partially real. A handy table spares you making calculations or the like, so kudos. All in all, this can be considered the battle mage among the paths, with severe distortion effects that play well with damage-casters and psionics.

The final path would be the path of the twilight veil and I LOVE the path power – based on HD of the target, the spatial distortions caused by the shadows can provide devastating debuffs to the target creatures and 2nd level nightblades of this path can additionally turn invisible via shadow surges. Where the ravaging void is the sledgehammer, the twilight veil would be the scalpel – several illusion-themed techniques and arts allow for serious customization of illusion tricks. Furthermore, the power-enhancing arts are pretty cool here, allowing you to affect creatures usually immune to your distortions. This is kind of the oddball, the one among the paths that imho requires the most investment, but in the hands of a capable player, it may very well be the most rewarding – the exceedingly nasty distortion power can cover somewhat the terrain control and the almost unlimited invisibility are powerful indeed when handled correctly. Why am I not shrieking for the nerfbat? Easy – the invisibility can’t be stacked/prolonged, keeping the character from staying out of sight ALL the time. Still, this enables a nasty guerilla style gameplay that has found its fans at my table. The class also sports FCOs for aasimar, dhampir, drow, fetchling, tiefling, wayang and core races.

The next chapter is devoted to a plethora of archetypes and new class options with shadow magic, obviously, as a unifying theme. Alchemists can e.g. modify their body to benefit from the nightblade’s enhanced concealment efficiency or craft bombs that duplicate effects of darkness and better sight etc. are part of the deal. There is also an antipaladin who receives a potent, scaling aura of darkness that allows himself and his allies to see through the, later damaging blackness. Barbarians can choose from two totem power trees (and an unaligned one), wherein an already existing bite is enhanced or add str-damage to her attacks while also receiving defenses versus certain conditions. Both have in common that they require certain build types and enhance them and both, to me, feel a bit on the strong end – dice increase + crit x3 for a bite via one rage power is a tad bit too nasty in my book, especially seeing how this also nets full Str-bonus when using bites in conjunction with other natural attacks…And yes, I do have such a claw/bite-barbarian in my game and if they do not need one thing, then it’s a way to deal even more damage…

Shadow priests channeling darkness instead of regular energy, bloodragers with a new custom bloodline, anti-disease lunar guardian druids – all pretty solid. The stygian striker magus can be envisioned as the nightblade crossover – less frontlines, for skirmishing (with evasion etc. and modified saves to back this up) and the monk archetype provided is also one that should be considered relatively solid, with ki allowing for more flurry attacks. Oracles can suffer from a curse that makes people forget them and choose a new mystery, while paladins can opt to channel light to dispel and suppress all those nasty effects. Rogues may wilder in nightblade arts and shamans may choose the new darkness spirit.

Nightblades, thankfully, also can join the archetype-fun: Caster/summon-themed Dark Conjurors, a more martially-inclined one (thankfully with path restriction to avoid warlock-y abuse),a rogue-crossover with sneak attack et. al and an infiltration-specialist can also be found. Finally, there is an archetype that pays for the access to two paths at once with a crippled progression of the shadow surges, paying for an increased array of options with less on-the-fly-flexibility and spells.

Fans of shadow-themed races like fetchlings and wayangs may enjoy the feat-section particularly – there are quite a few racial feats for them to set them apart, with generally a fitting theme of shadows, darkness-enhancing, etc. – modifying a summon-list’s half-celestial/fiendish creatures to instead be shadow creatures would be an example here. Overall, these feats felt solid, but didn’t blow me away per se. Good craftsmanship.

The spell-chapter does provide a cool rules-clarification for spells utilizing the shadow of the caster and provide, obviously, a significant means of providing shadow/light-control. Interesting for other classes – there are spells herein which interact with e.g. shadow surges, making the latter not just an isolated class feature. Interesting would be terrain control spells to confine targets in e.g. areas of darkness, while shadowy wings that can also be used to attack foes and furthermore, allows for channeling 1/cast – nasty and versatile, but I like it. From the ageing capstone, there are other interesting effects – for example, a complex spell which alters an illusion to allow for the execution of quasi-real attacks via the infusion of shadow stuff – as such area attacks, attacks, energy etc. are covered with unique benefits. There are also lunar prophecies or the option to conjure forth the all-consuming maw of the nightwave. Ways to suppress extraordinary senses would also be an interesting move for spells. However, there also are minor modifications/improved versions, like e.g. a darkness/cold-based variant of flaming sphere. Shadow-based necromancy spell-duplication is also covered, as are chaotic overlaps between planes. I also like the concise definition of shadow length for attacks on a shadow, which reflects its damage to the origin of the caster. A new spell-class to summon evil, horrific creatures also can be found herein. There is also a highly complex class of spells that allows for the conjuration of umbral servants for the nightblades, which essentially act on their own after a nightblade’s turn -these are fun, allowing e.g. a called magician to freely apply metamagic to certain spells cast close to it, etc.

The final chapter provides ample new magical weapon/armor qualities and specific items – with artworks depicting them that are downright inspired and rank among the best such I have ever seen in any given supplement – WOW. The twilight reaver scythe looks so badass, I just NEED to show this picture to my players, even without knowing that it’s a +2 cold iron keen greater umbral scythe that allows for surge storage on crits…

The pdf also sports a handy two-page index and artist-credits.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are excellent – I noticed no significant issues while reading this – none. The 2-column full-color layout used in this book is GORGEOUS. I mean it. This is one of the most beautiful roleplaying book I’ve seen any 3pp produce, an impression also underlined by the GLORIOUS original full-color artwork by Jasmine Mackey, Bryon Oshihiro, Danielle Sands, Al Savell, Nicoleta Stavarache and Trevor Verges – the artworks, from vistas to spells to characters adhere to a glorious style that is uniform and concise. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I’m saying that this book, in visual, aesthetic quality, could have been a Paizo-book. It’s that beautiful. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, but I’d sincerely advise you to get this in print – unlike quite a few PODs, there is no big chance of an errata invalidating this book. This book looks better than quite a few kickstarted books I could name. Yes, THAT beautiful.

What a furious first offering! This is quite frankly the best first offering of crunch I’ve seen a novice designer produce in ages. Last year saw plenty of adventures of newcomers providing an extremely high quality, but new crunch tends to require most designers some time to get right. Well, this is Ascension Games’ first product and it does NOT require any leniency on my part. Author (and layout/editor!) Christopher Moore seems to not only be able to edit his own texts, quite a feat, imho, he also provides a level of professionalism with regards to rules-language one sees scarcely, almost never among novices. The language is so precise, it can be considered on par with the errata’d, good Paizo-books. Beyond that, this pdf offered a level of system-mastery and a level of awareness of obscurer rules I quite frankly almost never get to see. While I have some personal gripes against one component or another herein, none really hold up on a professional level and boil down to personal preferences; number-wise, including extensive playtests, this book held up admiringly well. Few books can claim to withstand this level of deep scrutiny to such an extent, especially considering the level of interaction with obscure and complex elements among the design elements. I was positively surprised to see all of this – but where the book shines most is with the material that takes chances and provides things to do that no other spell or system can achieve – it is the unique effects, which stand out and while I absolutely adore the coverage of just about anything one could ask for in sucha context, I still would have loved to see even more of the inspired, unique effects that can be found herein.

Remember, this is just me being an utterly spoiled bastard of a reviewer – this book is, without engaging in hyperbole, up to the level of crunch-mastery exhibited usually only by established, experienced crunch-masters and blends this with production-values out of this world, visually more on par with Paizo than what you’d expect from a 3pp, much less a new one sans a KS providing the funds. This is a hugely impressive book that catapulted Ascension Games to the landscape of my table and to my radar; I can’t help but be excited about the things to come and more such supplements and I certainly hope we’ll see more material for the Nightblade – the class is inspired and fun and clearly, its potential is not yet tapped. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, given without the slightest hesitation, falling short of becoming a candidate for my top ten of 2015 only by a tiny margin. Still, this is thoroughly, exceedingly, impressive. Congratulations to the Ascension Games-team – you have impressed a jaded reviewer.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jul 272015
 

Machinesmith_Destruction By Endzeitgeist

This expansion for LPJr Design’s neat Machinesmith-class clocks in at 14 pages, 2 pages advertisement, 1 page editorial/SRD, leaving us with 11 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

We begin with a new greatwork, the constructor – this greatwork occupies the head-slot and can be used to create items instantaneously from thin air. And yes, if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll realize that the very concept is a hornet’s nest – weight-limits, masterwork items, material restrictions, etc. – there is a lot to take into account. Now here’s the cincher – the items are fleeting and come with material and weight-restrictions that, believe it or not, prevent abuse. The necessity to know what you want to make prevents the manifestation of fitting keys from thin air (unless the DM is lenient) and the restrictions even manage to maintain the balancing scarcity/price-level of firearms, clockworks etc. – Which renders the greatwork’s basic capabilities one impressive feat of design. Kudos!

Now where a basic nod from me becomes a full-blown grin would be with the progression of the upgrades of the greatwork – here, steel and yes, even progressive magic item creation on a temporary basis become possible. If you even remotely think about the very notion, you’ll realize the sheer amount of issues this necessarily creates – and will realize what an impressive feat the avoidance of just all of these problems is. The rules presented are so concise, they even take destructible items à la staves of the magi into account – oh, and the upgrades come at times, when the creation of firearms etc. from thin air become more than valid and not unbalancing. The permanent item creation at capstone levels, feat-interaction – this greatwork is a mechanical beauty and should be considered the reference work for crunch like this. Yes, charges etc. are covered. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed this greatwork and want to stress that yes, this makes non-magic crazy-prepared characters very much within the realm of possibility.

We also receive new machinesmith tricks – analyzers allow for the rerolls of natural 1s, faster motion analysis and a pretty cool idea: Scanning spells from scrolls to cast them on the fly via the analyzer – once again a hornet’s nest of design to cover that manages to get expensive components, etc. – all RIGHT! Mechanus augmentations have a different formatting for their header than the other tricks. The tricks here include additional charges, storing and launching drones from the mechanus, adding poison-biting capacity and even providing a rudimentary intelligence – yes, complete with a limited skill- and feat-list. Moebius suits can have crossbows/firearms installed, can provide monk-style improved unarmored strikes and higher level suit-wearers may even dimension door or spell turn.

If you have a moebius weapon, a crit-stunning impact hammer, additional, charge-costing attacks and progressive replacement of str/dex with into for attacks/damage (with multiple taking of the trick providing progressively better replacements) as well as bleed damage and maneuver-enhancers provide for neat tricks. The aforementioned new constructor can create more items, recall them or produce on greater scales – and at high levels , execute mage’s disjunction. The augmentations provided for the converter include environmental attunement, short-range fire-novas and high-level time stops.

Of course, we also receive an array of new gadgets – from alchemical sprayer (including improvements and concise mechanics), crank-powered third arms these are just as awesome – and I’m saying that before the more unique options, like deploying melee-turret-style fighting bots, instant-minimoat-creating brass worms, folding horses, flamethrowers, pneumatic launchers and portable cannons enter the fray. What about circular saws? One-man rampage armors? Dune-style water-purification devices? Sound-based stunners? Yeah. Awesome!

The techniques provided include losing prepared prototypes for greater dispel magic or even share their tricks – the techniques herein may be less flashy than the aforementioned options, but they nevertheless are powerful, nifty options. Finally, we also receive numerous new prototypes, some of which utilize the new and concisely-defined construct-subschool – here, we get animated swordsmen and shieldbearers, concussive bombs, emergency stabilizing constructs, electroshock coils for weapons, explosive tips for ammunition, prototypes tailor-made to blow locks apart and even vibro-blade enhancements.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good, but the one component I could complain about – the formatting of the titles and subtitles is not consistent. Layout adheres to LPJr Design’s beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes with gorgeous full-color art – all original and as beautiful as you’d expect. The pdf’s printer-friendly second version is also in full-color – and less than 1 mb! I thought at first something went wrong with my download, but no – fully functional. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

This pdf can be summed up in “Stepping up your game.” After the evocative, but rushed and flawed first two machinesmith expansions, I was not looking forward to this one – and oh boy was I wrong! LPJr Design’s high-concept books have a surprisingly pervasive way of sneaking into my games, even when I complained to no end regarding a flawed piece of crunch or another – there is usually this sense of pure joy, of high-concept awesomeness in the books. Know what? This one marries this unmitigated joy with crunch mastery of some of the most difficult-to-execute, complex systems for one simply inspired expansion. I am not kidding when I’m saying that this utterly blew me away and that it should be considered a must-own pdf for any user of the machinesmith. Even if you don’t use the class, any steampunk/magepunk/whatever-system can benefit from the wealth of riches and precisely-executed crunch. Unless I’m sorely mistaken, this was the first such pdf by Jonathan Palmer I’ve read – and I definitely want more – Sir, my hat’s off to you for this glorious expansion. Same goes for LPJr Design – this level of quality definitely deserves accolades! My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval – and yes, I am very glad I am able to dish out this verdict – the machinesmith deserves tools of this quality.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jul 262015
 

30_magic_toolsBy Endzeitgeist

30 Magic Tools clocks in at 13 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 2 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 8 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

So, know what pretty much I don’t get? In all those high magic magocracies and settings, why are there no actual tools, you know, everyday-useful magic items to make life more convenient? I mean, literature is full of wizards using convenient items to render life more comfortable for themselves and in a setting where the crafting of deadly, costly magical weapons, it is only sensible that some of the funds circulated would be used to actually improve the tools used to generate the respective tools, right?

Right – so here we are, new magic tools. All of them are masterwork per default, as the pdf notices and framed by an aptly-written, short piece of IC-prose, we dive right in: The Arcane Anthology, for example, opens itself on the correct page and politely positions itself in front of the reader, levitating and leaving his or her hands free. If that is not inspiring to you in and of itself, then the short piece of history provided for each item should exactly help in that regard. Now this is pretty much awesome, though, alas, not all items herein reach this level of coolness – take the Brass of Binding: It prevents the rider from being dismounted “no matter what happens.” No matter how good the CMB, no matter the circumstance – unless the points of the maple-leaf brass are tapped. Alas, this does not specify what type of action tapping the maple leaf’s points is. Oh, and cost: 1000 GP. For never being dismounted, ever. WUT? This sounds like it needs a hard whack with the nerf-bat or rather, a tighter wording: It is clear this should only prevent dismounting due to the rider’s own failed checks – and yes, I am very much aware that this is supposed to be a tool for the Ride-skill only, but as written, it does look like it can be used otherwise AND it still fails to mention the action required for (de-)activation, alas a glitch I noticed a couple of times when the item’s text (à la mental command) etc. provides no clear means of determining the activation action, though I do assume the standard action default for wondrous items. But I’m rambling about a nitpick, so onwards!

A spoon that can purify any poison from food 3/day and detect it 3/day as well is a cool item, though personally, I think I’d prefer the detecting and purification to be based on poison DCs, but I am aware that this is just a personal preference and won’t hold it against the pdf. There also would be an enchanted chisel that can carve into wood on its own. A compass that can lead you to food, animals or locations pictured in your mind is nice, as are gloves that turn held items invisible. The Flawpicker item needs a scaling mechanism – picking out flaws from gems is fine with me – eliminating curses from cursed items, on the other hand, imho should have a scaling rate of success chances. I do like the sight-enhancing magical kohl. Mantles that help you avoid detection are nice, but what about shoons that 1/day create a platform mid-flight to push off, adding +10 ft. height and length to a jump? Yeah, awesome. Pins to improvise opening locks and helping with escaping manacles et al. also are a-ok with me. What about a patch that allows for quicker application of liquids?

There also would be slippers that allow caught thieves to generate an illusion of an animal darting away, providing an excuse for any noises created? Using a needle to animate cloths and the like to entangle foes? Cool! What about a babelfish-like translating butterfly? Nice!

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect -I noticed a couple of typos, italicization glitches and the like. Layout adheres to Rite Publishing’s two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Artworks consist of thematically-fitting stock art.

Liz Smith’s items are glorious on the one hand – they make sense and in many, many cases, they can be considered awesome in their flair – breathing the spirit of fairy-tales and feeling like actual MAGIC instead of an accumulation of numerical bonuses, the tools herein may not be 100% perfect, but they have more soul than many magic item books I’ve read. Yes, there are some minor ambiguities and yes, I pretty much prefer Scaling options over those that work as a default – but in the end, most of the gripes I could field apply mainly to my personal preference, which has never been a sufficient reason for me to rate a pdf down, leaving as valid gripes only the glitches and non-preference hiccups, which ultimately are offset by the sheer imaginative potential herein. It should be noted that the items herein fit perfectly as rare items in a low magic game, so yeah, versatility is accounted for.

Hence, 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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Jul 132015
 

Deep_magicBy Endzeitgeist

This massive, huge tome clocks in at 378 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 3 pages backer-list, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 367 pages of content, so let’s…

…wait. I can’t really convey the illusion of spontaneity here. Why? Because I have written and deleted this review 3 times as I’m writing these lines. This is quite literally one of the hardest reviews I have ever written, mainly because conveying my stance on Deep Magic is pretty ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation.

But let’s start at the beginning. This book is beautiful. Thanks to one particularly helpful gentleman, I managed to pledge by proxy over him (didn’t have the bucks when the KS ran…) and when this book’s physical copy arrived in the mail, I was utterly blown away. Not only did I receive a massive, gorgeous stitch-bound hardcover, it was in gorgeous full color and sported some of the very best pieces of artwork I’ve EVER SEEN. The matte paper helps create an illusion of an “old” tome and the superb, copious artworks render this book so beautiful, it even mops the floor with quite a few Paizo-books. Yes, that gorgeous. The layout, with its parchment-look, its subdued, unobtrusive glyphs further enhances this. Deep Magic is one of the most mind-staggeringly gorgeous books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read and both artists and layout-artists have been up to their A+++-game. Kudos!

Then, I went on and started reading beyond the forewords and the introductory short story by Ed Greenwood and after them, yes, I was utterly blown away and totally in the mind-set for the things to come:

The first we see would be the respective magical traditions. Old time fans of Kobold Quarterly and Kobold Press will see quite an array of old favorites herein again – from blood magic to fool’s summonings, quite a bunch of conceptual goldies can be found herein. At their very best, these new traditions are ridiculously inspired – new ioun stones and ley lines would be two such examples. The latter, for examples, can be tapped by casters with concise rules to tap into their powers – while very powerful, these ley-lines can not only make for interesting tools that can turn the tide of battle and e.g. prevent a TPK or provide unique, cool ways to execute narratives. The transient nature of ley lines and the option to burn them out/change their course places control firmly within the hands of the DM, preventing abuse. That being said, as a DM, I have to decidedly advise against making the numerous ley line feats available for PCs – their balancing is odd/non-existent, with no-save, no-SR 1-round blinding effects and the like not necessarily constituting good resources to place in player hands.

The fool’s summoning tricks go a different way – beyond interesting, more risky, but also more powerful summoning tricks, a copious amount of spells receive flavorful modifications and reskins – which brings me to another point. These traditions sport unique effects, and the same holds true for chaos/wonder magic, with distinct, odd effects and abilities rendering the experience of playing the respective schools pretty interesting. Alas, not all of the traditions herein receive such interesting rules – in fact, quite a few of the traditions adhere to the following presentation: We receive a short fluff-text, spell-lists by caster/level and then, a sample spellbook, including preparation ritual. (And yes, rules for intelligent, living spellbooks can be found herein as well – they are pretty sinister and narrative gold.)Now don’t get me wrong, I *love* the inclusion of these books, but all in all, the respective “schools”/traditions, at least partially, feel too rudimentary – there is not enough to set the spells themselves apart, no guidance to develop additional spells for such a school and some classes receive e.g. one exclusive spell for such a tradition – not much reason to pick a tradition. By providing a tighter focus, the traditions could have been infinitely more compelling, more specific…but…on the other hand, we for example receive a complete, new full-blown mythic path with the living saint.

What are living saints? Well, for one, they are chosen of god(s) – what I mean by this is that, like many a mythological leader of religious prowess, these guys experience a highly interesting phase of tribulations, wherein they are severed from their gods and besieged by the whole pantheon – essentially, all gods can tempt the saint towards their ideology and sphere of influence, proposing different spells etc. for obeisance and quests. This can also be used for interesting foreshadowing and over all, the mythic path, intended for divine casters, is pretty much a cool choice with plenty of narrative potential ingrained into the very fabric of the thing, especially due to the numerous spells sporting names of the saints, adding a cool narrative dimension and unobtrusive fluff to these miraculous powers. This mythic path is the first that actually feels like it could have originated in fiction, like it not only provides a rules-escalation, but an actually defining, narrative tool. I adore this path and the resonance of our own world’s myths, with obvious references to Christian (sans the ideology, mind you – you can’t be offended by this guy) narrative structures that are very ingrained into how we perceive certain myths, this path is a thing of beauty.

Vril, the unique pseudo-atlantean power-source introduced in Sunken Empires (inspired by Bulwer-Lytton’s writing) also receives new specialists, both archetype, feat and spell-wise. Converting spells into vril-blasts, for example, is pretty interesting. That being said, careful looks into this system also shows us a couple of somewhat odd choices – the archetypes, for example, are separated and relegated to their own chapter – so instead of looking up e.g. vril magic, you have to know where what can be found. Yes, organization is neatly organized by crunch-type, but in a book this focused on awesome concepts, I think another solution would have been appropriate. Also odd – Ink Magic, in depiction pretty much a tradition, can be found in the chapter on rune-magic. Strange.

But this line of reasoning brings me to the first issue of this book, though it is admittedly one of preference. The traditions as such, as has always been the strong forte of Kobold Press, just BRIM with imagination. They provide iconic, well–crafted concepts that set the imagination ablaze. I know a couple of them from their original books and the fluff, usually, did in some way limit the respective traditions – whether it’s the lost magic of vril, the blood magic of some limited tribes/traditions or the lost magic used to slow the progress of the Wasted West’s Old Ones…there always was this implied scarcity, this alignment of crunch with philosophies, ethnicities and accomplishments. So the PCs have this powerful spell xyz, BECAUSE they have taken on caster zxy, because they have braved the ruins of Gru’tharkrr…

This book collects all of these traditions and breaks their spells into a massive, huge chapter, dissolving the lines between them and implying by its very organization a general availability not implied in singular presentations – essentially, we have a disjunction of fluff from crunch to a certain extent. Now this means that you have to search the spells in the lists if you want to make a specialist, but have an easier time when just browsing through the book, looking for spells generally available – hence, the implication is that these spells are available freely, akin to how spell presentation works in Paizo’s big books. Now don’t get me wrong, one could argue that THIS is exactly what this book tries to do, analogue to the big Paizo-books, where you essentially slap down the book and have a general extension of the arsenal. My contention, ultimately, is that this is balance-wise one of the decisions that shoot the book in its metaphorical foot.

In my first iteration of this review, I went through all of the crunch here in these traditions step-by-step – alas, this bloated the review to the point where it wasn’t helpful anymore. (And if I’m saying that, with my tendency towards verbose reviews, you’ll have an inkling of what a monstrosity this would have become – my guess was 20+ pages – and let’s be honest, no one would read that…)

So, Deep Magic does sport, a HUGE chapter of spells, both new and old – all collated and organized by handy spell-levels. This chapter is where my first and second review-attempts broke apart. The first one due to my so far pretty jubilant review receiving a harsh dose of reality, the second because I realized that step-by-step analysis makes no sense, bloating the review. If that was not ample clue – not all is well here. It is only understandable that a vast array of authors will have diverging voices and different mastery of the system and yes, this does show herein. Now before you get the pitchforks, let me state one thing explicitly and clearly – the *concepts* of these spells are WONDROUS. Gorgeous. Superb. They are iconic. They *feel* like magic, not like some energy-colored damage-dealing vehicles. They manage to capture the elusive spirit of what magic ought to be and bring the “magic” back into a game often lost and sorely missed. I’d take the concepts of this book over those in Ultimate Magic and Combat combined any day.

The concepts.

For there is no way around the following statement, no way to sugar-coat it without outright lying. There are a lot of cool, functional spells herein. However, there also is a vast array of spells that would have desperately required the hands of an editor who truly knows rules-language and/or a capable developer. Name the issue and you have a very good chance of finding a representative of the issue herein, quite possibly in a spell that you absolutely love concept-wise.

This chapter almost broke my heart.

Any closer analysis shows ample problems, often to the point of rendering a spell highly ambiguous, unbalanced or downright inoperable – there are examples of authors obviously mixing up flat-footed and touch attack AC. Mechanics more closely related to 3.X-design. Spells that do not allow for saves which should. SR that is ignored when comparable spells allow for it. Contradictions between spell-block and its text. Faulty AoEs/ranges/targets. False spell-block formatting. Wrong save. Damage-escalation. You name it. Damage + no-save stagger at a level where it’s ridiculous. Non-sense descriptor-placement. Balance is not even crying in the corner anymore, it is utterly GONE, evaporated into some nebulous dimension. Some author(s) seem to not get the distinction between material components, foci and divine foci. Unspecified bleed damage à la inflict ” receives bleed 3″ – bleed 3 WHAT? Hp? Attribute? What about a spell generating an AoE geyser-like effect that gets just about everything wrong you can possibly get wrong regarding AoEs? Racial spells that could have simply used focus as a limiting component instead of wonky wording-crutches that try (badly) to cut out other races? Sentences that peter off. Wording so convoluted I can’t tell you how exactly a spell works. You name the glitch, it’s here – and right next to it, you may see one of the coolest spells ever.

This massive chapter was one of the most heart-rending experiences of my reviewer-career. My first skip through it saw me exhilarated. Closer scrutiny brought disappointment, actual in-depth analysis…well, there’s no way around it…pain. Now beyond the glitches, the balance-concerns herein may partially stem from bad design-choices and lack of rules-language development…but at least partially, they also have their origin in the simple fact that the book took the “soft” restrictions that served as a balancing factor before and took them away by smashing all spells into one big chapter. Where before, spells may have been “broken”, but rare, the implication here is that they are freely available, exacerbating what might before have been a reward into power-escalation. Now yes, in face of the vast army of issues that plague this chapter, even a change in presentation in the proposed way would be a drop of water in a vast desert of issues and would do nothing to render the formal issues void…but yeah, that would be one exacerbating factor.

And one that extends, alas, to the next chapter. I am a huge fan of runic/glyph magic. Allowing non-casters to learn the powers of rues is one of the most-beloved tropes for me – whether clad in a pseudo-Scandinavian guise or via lovecraftian alignment with aboleths et al.; The very concepts of the runes are powerful, and intentionally so. But once again, stripping these of their fluff, of their direct place within the world, of the achievements required to learn them, renders them problematic. When you have to mimic the deeds of the gods to learn the rune Uruz and then, finally have it, it becomes okay if you can paint it on your shield for a 1/day +20 bonus to overrun/bull rush – chances are, your DM knew what was coming and planned accordingly. If the fluff context is taken away, a ridiculously powerful rune, accessible for 1 feat, remains – and suddenly, we see the system stumble under the weight of one of its foundations being eroded.

I’m not going to analyze the word of power-subchapter, mainly because I consider the base-system introduced in Ultimate Magic just not well-designed. On the plus-side, the awesome incantations pioneered by Zombie Sky Press back in the day receive a significant array of new ones and these tend to be pretty awesome narrative devices.

Alas, the sloppy rules-language of the spells also partially (but thankfully, only partially!) extends to the following chapter, detailing bloodlines and mysteries. What about tentacle-attacks that do not specify as what they are treated? Check. Flawed target/reach-nomenclature…check. Sp, Su and Ex, in some cases, seem to have been determined at random, rendering some abilities utterly opaque. You get the idea. Now yes, the problems are much less pronounced than among the spells, but they are still here. As an additional note – the options among these class options do not feel as though they were balanced among themselves, with power-levels ranging from weak to VERY strong. Still, overall, these options feel relatively operable and easily fixed and the concepts provided are often utterly unique and cool. On a footnote, wizards, oddly, have their arcane discoveries/focused schools etc. in the tradition-section in the beginning, ripping the class options associated with the traditions in half. The problems outlined here also extend, alas and much to my chagrin, to the chapter on archetypes. That being said, the archetype’s main flaw remains the focus on the spells/traditions – you can’t build a house on sand and these, as compelling as they often are, sometimes do just that – which is a pity, for here, much like with aforementioned class options, the imaginative potential is rather impressive..

The following chapters, thankfully, at least for me, redeemed the book, at least partially – a concise and utterly awesome chapter on the creation of homunculi/leastlings and simple rules for undead crafting as well as nice clockwork templates for familiars et al. make provide significant fun, engagement and narrative potential. Speaking of which – portrayed in glorious artworks, a significant array of iconic, cool NPCs – those that are here, are great and flavorful, but I can’t help but feel that one per tradition would have been nice to see.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are good. On a rules-level, they are BAD and ironically, deeply flawed. Layout, as mentioned, adheres to a 2-column full-color standard and the artworks range among the most stunning I’ve ever seen in an RPG-book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and the dead-tree copy ranks among the most beautiful books in my shelves.

Read this list: Wolfgang Baur, Creighton Broadhurst, Jason Bulmahn, Tim Connors, Adam Daigle, Mike Franke, Ed Greenwood, Frank Gori, Jim Groves, Amanda Hamon Kunz, Brandon Hodge, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Neil Spicer, Mike Welham, Margaret Weis. With this amount of creative potential assembled, does it surprise you that I consider this book the most inspiring spellbook I’ve ever read? Alas, even these titans can stumble. And they did.

This book could have been the ultimate spellcasting-milestone, a legend, a book that defines the very game we play, a whole new dimension of spellcasting. And it is – on a concept-level.

Instead, at least on a crunch-level, it is pretty much, as much as I’m loathe to say it, a wreck -not one that has sunk, but one that leaks. The lack of a rules-savvy editor/developer is readily apparent – there are plenty of glitches herein that could have been caught by even a cursory inspection.

And no, that’s not just me being overly picky. I put this book before one of my less rules-savvy players, opened it on a random page in the spell-section and had him read spells. Inadvertently, he stumbled over an ambiguity, an issue.

Were I to rate this one the crunch alone, I’d smash it to smithereens – the very skeleton of the book is flawed and that radiates outward to almost all chapters, poisoning them as well. Allowing this book flat and without scrutiny at a table is an invitation for rules-discussions and balance-issues – at least if the players are halfway capable at making efficient characters.

Why am I not bashing this further? Because, while deeply flawed, Deep Magic is also deeply inspired – the concepts herein are staggering, setting the mind ablaze with possibilities, conjuring forth ideas for adventures, campaigns even. Quite a bunch of the flaws can be ironed out by a capable DM…and flawed though it may be, Deep Magic has A LOT of passion, heart’s blood and soul oozing from its pages. The concepts of this tome, in the end, made it worthwhile, at least for me.

I’m not going to lie. My players will never get their hands on this book. But I will take the concepts, take the spells, fix them and reap the benefits of the exceedingly awesome concepts provided herein. On the one hand, we thus have a terribly flawed book that fails quite spectacularly and depressingly at becoming what it ALMOST achieved – being the best spellbook for any iteration of a d20-based system ever. On the other, the often flawed crunch does provide more great spell-ideas and concepts (as opposed to their execution…) than the APG, ARG, Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat combined.

Whether this book is for you depends very much on what you expect – if you want solid crunch, a book to just slap on the table and allow…well, then stay the 11 Midgardian hells away from this book. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to work with it, if you’re looking for inspiration and are competent regarding the design/balancing of material, then this is a scavenger’s mithril-mine and a great resource to have – you literally can’t open a single page in this book without stumbling over at least one awesome, iconic concept. The hardcover is also great to show off to non-gamer friends and make them marvel at the glorious artworks, layout and presentation.

How to rate this, then? I hate and love this book. I want to slap my seal of approval on it, in spite of its flaws. But I can’t. Deep Magic has too many issues and I can’t rate potential, as much as I’d love to. I can only rate what is here and its effects – which oscillate between “utterly awesome and inspiring” and “wtf is this supposed to do?”

Without the superb concepts, the lore-steeped ideas, the downright inspired take on magic and its flavor, I would have gone further down on my scale. But, as a reviewer, I also have to take these into account, as well as the people out there who are like me and still can take a lot from this book. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jul 082015
 

Great Pubo HuntBy Endzeitgeist

Varakt’s Halo: The Great Pubo Hunt clocks in at 33 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 28 pages, so let’s take a look!

This pdf does sport a psionic psyllabus-page – essentially a handy cheat-sheet that sums up the basic peculiarities of the psionics-system on a handy page – nice for novices to psionics – who also happen to be the target demographic of this module. 11 pregens are provided for the perusal of the players, with all getting their own artworks – while these may not be beautiful, the pregens do sport roughly the same level of optimization, so that’s nice to see.

Why eleven? Well, because there are two new psionic races native to the island of Varakt: The first would be the athmer, who get +2 Dex and Cha, -2 Wis, wild talent as a bonus feat, darkvision 60 ft., Run as a bonus feat and +2 initiative, are amphibious and can 1/day unleash a breath weapon of either cold or electricity damage that deals 1d6 damage of the chosen type in a 50 ft.-line. They also get energy resistance 5 to the breath weapon’s chosen element, are amphibious and can choose +1 power point as an FCO. Personally, I consider this race to be slightly too strong – either eliminating the Run-feat and initiative or the amphibious racial trait. There is a nice tribal distinction between electricity and cold-based athmer and the fluff of the race is nice.

The second race would be the Hrek, who get +2 Str and Wis, -2 Con, are naturally psionic and gain the FCO-option. They also receive darkvision and can reduce the penalty to Stealth while moving by 5 and can use it while running at -20 penalty. 1/day, hrek can cause iron or steel touched to grow into another object – alas, the ability fails to specify what action this takes. the ability also does not specify the effects on magical equipment, whether this can be used offensively in combat, etc. Hrek are treated as +1 level higher when casting spells with the fire descriptor, for the purposes of the fire domain or the fire elemental bloodline, the flame mystery’s revelations and alchemist fire damage-causing bombs. Odd that this does not extend to psionic powers utilizing fire as the chosen energy. Hrek also get a breath weapon and resistances tied to it akin to the Athmer, only theirs is a cone and either fire or acid-based. Very odd here – why can’t one choose acid and related class abilities for +1 CL? And why have psionics not been included in that + 1 level? The two races come with age., height and weight-tables. I’m honestly not a big fan of the Hrek either.

But this is a module and as such, that’s what I’ll talk about next – so, from here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

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Still here? All right! The PCs begin this module stranded on the odd tropical island (fully mapped, btw.) after an assault of goblin pirates wrecked their ship and awake on the lush beach – only to be attacked by sahuagin and promptly, saved by a group of hrek -while pretty friendly, they pantomime to the players the issues and creatures looming beyond the treaded paths. Overcoming the communication obstacle, hampered by the strange crystals on this island, does make for some awesome roleplaying potential that cannot be solved by just one roll of the dice or magic. It should also be noted that awakening to psionic powers also falls into this chapter, which should be interesting for the pregens, whose strange unfamiliarity is explained via this change. Nice way of tying mechanics with the story! Decoding grat, this language, is a task beyond the immediate scope of this module, though nearby pylons and a skeleton of a translator at least help with communication to a point where it becomes kind of functional.

It seems like the annual Suar rains will soon be upon the island – which requires a sacrifice of a so-called pubo – which would be a fatter, dumber and psionically active local variant of the dodo. Alas, beyond this, the issue of the coastal sahuagin complicating hunting remains. Entering the pubo hunting grounds results in hilarious pain – the birds not only have cognitive crystal kidney stones, they also drop explosive excrement. Finding and capturing one of the dumb birds isn’t that hard – but why are there no other predators in the area? Well, once a huge, mutated mamma pubo comes running, the PCs will know why. And yes, this beast is very lethal! Following the trail of the unnatural mutation, the PCs can find some interesting hints that someone is engineering troubles – as a conch-shell resounds and denotes another attack. On the way back, the PCs can test their mettle further in combat with both blue aegis and soulknives.

Upon their return, the PCs are made to understand that they’ll sacrifice the pubo the next day on the volcano – but at night the blue tribe attacks and steals the pubo they brought – in the case of mama pubo, should the PCs have opted for her, leaving a huge trail they can easily follow and making the hrek look rather incompetent. At the blue’s camp, the showdown with the remaining blues constitutes the finale of this module.

As a nice hand-out, sheets for each player-character allow for a nice help regarding pantomime, representing different words they can decode, providing a great, optional way of simulating the communication in grat-pidgin.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful, colorful 2-column full-color standard. Artworks range from the nice cover to thematically-fitting stock-art and the less than gorgeous pregen-artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Cartography ranges from great to okay and provides a total of 3 maps, all with player-friendly iterations.

Mike Myler’s great pubo hunt is something I don’t get to see often – a genuinely funny module. While it may not be apparent when just reading it, actually playing the pantomime/communication-breakdown is just FUN and this is further emphasized by the hilarious pubo-hunting. This is pretty much a very FUN module that can work perfectly when used with kids – it’s not grim or dark or nasty, it’s just FUN and even young audiences can appreciate the tone when handled by a halfway decent GM. The supplemental help also is a nice bonus and as far as the adventure is concerned. The great pubo hunt is a module that is just fun – a change of pace and a solid introduction to psionics, though mama pubo can provide a very challenging opponent. So, all perfect? No. Quite honestly, I wished the hunt itself had more detail and the same holds true for the hrek-settlement and the settling-in-period. This module would definitely have benefited from stretching this component longer and not just boiling it down to a short period of relative inconvenience. The finale could also have used more details, perhaps some more terrain features, traps, a map or something like that – anything to make it slightly more distinct, especially after the cool battle against the deadly mutation…

In short, I found myself often wishing that there were less pregens and more adventure herein, probably also since I’m not a big fan of either new race – they conceptually left me unimpressed.

This divide becomes more apparent when taking the exceedingly cool module that is here into account – the module-part here breathes Mike’s trademark playfulness and imaginative talent. I contemplated quite a while, but ultimately, I’m going to settle on a final verdict of 4 stars. Consider me excited about the sequels!

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jul 082015
 

Cultus SanguineusBy Endzeitgeist

Cultus Sanguineus clocks in at 39 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 34 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

So, what do we get here? Well, essentially, we get a small collection of thematically-linked encounters – think of them as pretty much a kind of sandbox to fill out: You get the key-scenes and fill in the rest. Got that? All right! As such, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

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Still here? All right! Countess Veresovich and Count Krev Ragata have been up to no good: Finding a set of dread scrolls during her travels, the countess plans to conjure forth a powerful entity – alas, and thankfully for the Klavekian metropolis of Mohkba, the players are involved. In the mean and gritty streets of a less savory neighborhood, the PCs witness an obviously incognito noble, said Count Ragata is stabbed and robbed right in front of the PCs – as they navigate the dark and rather gritty (and lavishly-mapped) alleyways of Mohkba, they hopefully manage to track down the assailants and avoid falling to the haunt -in the aftermath, they are invited to nothing less than Veresovich’s masquerade ball – perhaps even keeping a mask as suggested by the count.

The masquerade ball itself can be considered a nice array of read-aloud texts and socializing. In any way, the masquerade will probably feature the items sanguineus, now assembled. A set of 3 magic items that collectively can transform the wielder into a vampire also feature herein…though oddly, the countess seems to vanish from the ball and when suddenly, walls of force supplemented by lethal blood vortex haunts lock down the house, things get ugly fast. The assembled nobles find out, the hard way, that the countess is not to be trifled with, as the floor of the ball room collapses and dumps them below the house…

Seeking of the house – there is a nice miniature map, but I don’t get why we don’t get a properly-sized map – as provided, the map is the one herein you can’t properly use. And yes, the caverns below the house also sport a proper, big map – once again, just as useful as the one for the alleyways. So what is going on down in those nasty caverns – well, the countess’ is currently engaging in the massive slaughter required for her ritual’s success. In order to stop her, the PCs not only have to brave her cultists, they may also have to deal with allies foolish enough to wear the sangineus items and perhaps the vampiric Count Ragata, all while moving past massive blood pools filled with leech swarms – oh, and if you want to – this final encounter does sport mass combat between trapped nobles and cultists – oh, and yes, the daemon the Countess seeks to summon is part of the deal, as are even more, nasty haunts.

Thematically fitting traps further complement this supplement, as do valid pieces of advice regarding mass combat and when to use which rules and the same goes for social encounters.

I should also not fail to mention the presence of multiple magic items, all with significant descriptions, beautiful full-color renditions and lore-sections.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful full-color 2-column standard and the pdf comes with quite a few gorgeous full-color artworks. The cartography is very good and evocative, though I really wished the mansion-map had also been featured in one-page-size to actually be printed out.

Mike Myler, Jonathan Ely, Justin Andrew Mason, Rory Toma and Brian Wiborg Mønster deliver a damn cool vampire-themed set-up of encounters and set-pieces. The encounters themselves are damn cool – every one of them, ultimately, can be considered fun and uncommon with at least one or more neat options/ideas per encounter. That being said, at the same time, this pdf does feel a bit like it has an identity-crisis.

I can get behind the format of roughly, thematically-linked encounters to flesh out – I actually like that. At the same point, this pdf left me feeling somewhat confused regarding the transitions and how the whole master-plan connects – essentially, what we have here is a GLORIOUS adventure, a superb investigation…that was not fleshed out. If you are familiar with The Skinsaw Murders: Think about the Sanitarium Encounter going to the Farmstead going to the Clocktower. You just feel constantly like the sinews that connect an awesome storyline are missing. Now this is partially due to the format, granted, but in this case, it frustrated me to no end.

Why? Because this is a supreme set-up of glorious encounters that get the gorier aspects of horror downright perfect in flavor – the encounters are FUN. The atmosphere is great. The adversaries are cool and the same goes for traps, haunts and items – but in the end, what we get here is a sketch – a sketch of something awesome, but a sketch nonetheless. The encounters do NOT need a fully fleshed out connecting thread – but they imho would benefit immensely from an actual structure being presented to the GM.

A capable GM can make this a full-blown 3-part adventure saga, perhaps even a full-blown AP, and it is inspired in what it delivers – but I wished its components had been connected better. Essentially, we get three set-pieces that are almost required to be run in conjunction, and still, we are left wondering about the transitions and left with a feeling of lack- when a short break-down of the plot, some structure to guide from encounter to encounter and expansions would have made this a legendary 5 star + seal of approval module.

As provided, this is a nice compilation, yes, but one with opaque villain motivations and structure that is held back from true greatness by being too story-driven and unique to work as disparate drop-and-forget-encounters, by being too adventure-like for being a disconnected encounter-collection, and by not providing enough connecting narrative thread for a collection of linked encounters.

Conversely, if judged as an adventure, even as a skeletal sandbox, it feels too unstructured to make the most of its great premises. I figured that running this as written would change my impression – alas, it didn’t, it only made me wish more that this had been a full-blown gothic horror saga.

For scavenging purposes, this is an excellent buy, but as a sourcebook or as a DIY-module-toolbox, it falls behind the potential of its easy 5-star-premise. So, if you’re looking for some bloody material to craft with, take a look, you won’t be disappointed – if you want a full-blown module or drop-and-forget encounters, you may wish to look elsewhere. Still, this remains a solid pdf, one I hope will one day be made into its own, complex, investigation-heavy horror AP. For now, my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars – and since I am a fanboy of all the themes evoked, as a person, I will round out. As a reviewer, though, I think I need to round down.

Endzeitgeist out.

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