Jun 072017
 

mythickingdoms.jpgFour Horsemen present: Mythic Kingdoms  clocks in at 16 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page SRD, 1/2 page of editorial, leaving us with 13 1/2 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

By Endzeitgeist

Mythic kingdoms? Do we need the combination of mythic rules and kingdom building rules? My reply here would be a yes: While the kingdom building rules do a great job in simulating the machinations of a regular realm, and while Legendary Games’ superb books expanding upon them add aerial and underwater warfare and the like to the fray, it is a fact that the rules do not really account for wars between truly fantastic nations…or a fantastic nation going to war with more mundane civilizations. The question of what happens if Eldorado or Xin-Shalast went to war with mundane realms? You can answer that. Such fabled realms usually have fabled leaders – at the very heart of a mythic kingdom, thus, sit mythic heroes (or villains). The blending of the individual and the kingdom level is as seamless as possible, via two mythic universal path abilities, the 1st tier mythic leader and the 6th tier mythic kingdom; the former affects a settlement you govern, the latter the whole kingdom.

But what are the advantages? Well, you can grant the settlement/kingdom mythic advantages…but these must be paid for with mythic disadvantages. Each of the entries thus features a line to affect settlement and kingdom. And the mythic advantages are AMAZING. I mean…ouch. I get why you need disadvantages to balance them out. If a place, for example, has the army advantage, it receives an army of undead, golems, guardian spirits…that replenishes every day. The only way to defeat it permanently is to eliminate the source of mythic power – i.e. the characters.”We were impervious to the darkness, guarded by the ancient protectors, for as long as our kind king rules…” Yeah, this quality alone pretty much writes its own adventure….or even campaign.

The mythic advantages retain this exceedingly impressive level of quality and imaginative potential: Do you want a settlement or place that has the option to magically exile the unwanted? That can be found herein. A blessed holy city/realm to represent the fantasy-equivalent of Jerusalem/Mekka or Prester John’s realm? In this pdf. A realm prophesized to become something great? Oh, do you want a city of doors and portals that can be accessed via special keys (mythic magic items also depicted within)? A place that can be returned t via keys? Yeah, if that sounds like this nets you the tools to simulate a war with Sigil…you’d be right. What about a mythic kingdom that seems to move, being hard to find? One with legendary buildings? A repository of vast knowledge? A place with different gravity? Yup. You can making flying kingdoms…or those that bring forth particularly powerful beings by virtue of increased gravity…or a tyrannical realm, where the tyrant’s domination literally crushes those under his dominion. Magical planar traits, morphic fey realms, kingdoms that can actually *move* or those protected from negative influences…yes, this has the means of making a kingdom on…for example the negative energy plane…or making simply the city of brass. Fabulously wealthy or technologically advanced realms similarly lie within the realms (get it? sorry, will punch myself later for that…) possibility.

Now if sword & sorcery, fantasy or pretty much any other literary genre have taught us anything regarding such larger than life nations, then that they also generally tend to have a fatal flaw: Mythic disadvantages are the calamities, the chinks in the resplendent armor of these legendary nations. These, in turn, are no less unique and worthy of storytelling: Some mythic kingdoms may be struck by apathy, a crushing world-weariness; perhaps, the kingdom has been beset by a catastrophe that sent it beneath the surface of the earth…or it suffers from a horrid curse affecting magical objects. Perhaps the very people are cursed…or flow of time or gravity behaves erratically. Dead magic, restless dead stalking the streets, places that are tumbling through the planes…or those simply unnatural – if the advantages are what makes a kingdom presented here awe-inspiring, then these are what makes them grounded, what ultimately makes them an evocative place for adventurers to visit, save or condemn.

Now I already mentioned enhanced structures: Taverns with phantom steeds or ghostly carriages; healing chapels that rid pilgrims of curses – the pdf features a ridiculously simple and concise way of presenting such places. The rules presented comfortably fit on one page, but frankly, are impressive in their elegance. And then, there would be three sample settlements crafted with the rules presented herein: The clockwork fortress of Null, the Dread Necropolis and the planar crossroads that wanted to be the center of ever-changing limbo.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed neitehr formal, nor rules-language hiccups. Layout adheres to the 2-column full-color standard for the series and the pdf sports 2 decent full color artworks and one b/w-piece. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Stephen Rowe’s Mythic Kingdoms are pretty much everything I hoped they’d be. When the horsemen asked what we’d like to see and I posted “Mythic Kingdoms”, I almost immediately regretted it; why? Because I end up disappointed more often than not by the particular execution of a concept near and dear to my heart. It is with some trepidation, but also hope that I opened this pdf; after all, Stephen Rowe is a supremely talented designer.

Well, to cut a long ramble short, he has surpassed himself here. In German, there is the colloquialism of the “eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (literally: Egg-laying Wool-milk-pig) to denote a fantastic tool that does everything at once. Mythic Kingdoms is pretty much the eierlegende Wollmilchsau of the theme, succeeding in phenomenal ways beyond my expectations. It seamlessly stitches the levels of character, settlement and kingdom together, provides a bridge between the mythic character and the kingdom, without losing the importance of the mythic character in question. The advantages and disadvantages both universally resonate with the truly fantastic, taking ample inspiration from mythology. The fact that the respective pieces of content can be applied on both a settlement and kingdom level is similarly amazing. Oh, and, as an aside, the book is exceedingly cool, even if you do not play a mythic game; the advantages and disadvantages, frankly, can be utilized by GMs beyond kingdom-building or mythic game-play to add the sense of the epic to teh respective environment.

In short: This is a little masterpiece, well worth 5 stars + seal of approval as well as nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Whether you want more magical settlements or kingdoms, consider this a must-have purchase.

Endzeitgeist out.

Four Horsemen present: Mythic Kingdoms is available from DriveThruRPG.

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Thank you for your support.

Jun 062017
 

savageabilities.pngAdvantageous Abilities: Savage Abilities clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 3 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This pdf was move up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

So, this pdf begins with a handy and easy to comprehend “How to Use” – basically, these abilities may increase the CR of the respective adversary to which they are added and creatures with CRs of less than 1/2 similarly halve their impact on the respective critter’s modification. If in doubt, a save is based on DC = 8 + proficiency bonus + relevant Ability modifier. The abilities themselves are categorized in 3 groups – passive abilities, active abilities and reactions. Easy, right?

Well, let’s look at the passive abilities, shall we? These range from CR +0 to CR +2 and a total of 10 are included. At CR 0, we have, for example, the temper tantrum, which imposes disadvantage on all Charisma checks made to reason with the creature while it’s under the effects of rage. Gaining temporary hit points equal to the damage dealt with bites would be a CR +1 example. There is also an option to crit in particularly bloody manner; on a failed Con-save, allies of the victim nearby must save or be poisoned and take minor psychic damage. The combo of psychic + poisoned is slightly odd to me, but honestly, I’m nitpicking here. The CR +2 modification allows for vorpal slashes – and actually has two different mechanics: One old-school and unforgiving, one that is kinder on the players. Kudos for featuring both!

A total of 8 active abilities are included; these range in CR modification from CR +1/2 to CR +2, with some having fitting refresh conditions – e.g. the  temporary hit points granting and disadvantage imposing battle cry. Minor complaint here: The battle cry should have a proper range. An ability to ripout and eat the heart of recently deceased foes is similarly nice and is prevented from being cheesed by the opponents (so why didn’t he carry a bag of kittens around?) by actually having a nice caveat to prevent such a logic book. Big kudos!  Somewhat weird due to its nomenclature: The legbreaker-ability allows the creature using it to force a saving throw when hitting foes with a bludgeoning weapon, reducing movement to 0 on a failed save…but this handicap can be overcome on subsequent rounds…which does not sound like breaking to me. Similarly, I think that having flying or swimming speeds should probably still allow for movement. Yes, I am nitpicking here, though these are a bit more serious. Bonus damage in exchange for suffering attacks with advantage on subsequent rounds can be an interesting boss-fight engine tweak.

The pdf also features two reactions at CR +1/2 and CR +1, with a frightened-inducing reactive stare and the option to add proficiency bonus to a non-proficient save if below 1/2 maximum hit points.

Big plus: The pdf is considerate and reproduces the Proficeincy bonus by CR and XP by Cr tables on its last page. Nice one.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level, good, bordering on very good on a rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column standard and is pretty printer-friendly, with a nice stock image in full color thrown in for good measure. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length.

Kelly & Ken Pawlik’s latest collection of advantageous abilities is a welcome, inexpensive little customization toolkit for GMs looking to add some unique tricks to their adversaries. The abilities generally are solid and can make for some nasty surprises. What more can you ask of such a little pdf? Well, there are a few hiccups in the intricate details here, but none are truly glaring. Hence, I feel completely justified in rounding up from my final verdict of 4.5 stars. For the more than fair price, this is definitely worth getting.

Endzeitgeist out.

Advantageous Abilities: Savage Abilities (5e) is available from DriveThruRPG.

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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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Thank you for your support.

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 042017
 

advancing_class_the_witch

By Endzeitgeist

This installment of the Advancing with Class-series clocks in at 27 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 21 pages fo content, so let’s take a look!

All right, after a brief and solid piece of introductory prose, we begin with 5 different patrons, with 3 being tied to fey, one representing a more scholarly bent and one being an antithesis of winter. More interesting than these (though their spell selection is pretty interesting) would be the metric ton of hexes that can be found herein, which are further categorized by theme – Eldritch, Fey, General and Shadow would be the respective leitmotifs. Fey hexes are restricted to fey with a fey patron, shadow hexes are restricted to witches with the shadow patron – simple and makes sense, though, as a minor complaint, last time I checked it was “patron” and not “patron theme” – but that’s just cosmetic and hence will not influence the final verdict.

Now eldritch hexes are basically a means of grafting a warlock-like blasting chassis on the more utility-centric witch; this is primarily done via the hex bolt hex, which causes 1d6 untyped (*sigh*) damage per 4 class levels, with a ranged touch attack to hit, a range increment of 15 ft. and a maximum of 10 range increments, which, while a bit rocky considering its behavior, can be considered to be somewhat of a balancing thing. Now, where the verbiage becomes confusing is when it spells out that the bolt is considered to be magic and thus bypasses DR – the wording can be read as ignoring all DR, not just DR/magic. Only one such bolt may be fired at any given round, regardless of iterative attacks. The bolt is treated as a 2md level spell for casting defensively purposes and is not lost on a failed check, but rather receives a penalty to attack The second major theme to be found among these hexes would be the hex forged hex, which lets you weave untyped bonus damage into melee or natural weapons (not unarmed attacks? Why?). Taking a cue from kineticist wording, there are also infusion hexes, which can be applied to either hex bolt or hex forged, with the exception of energy infusion, which replaces the base energy type of a hex bolt to one of the base energies or “sound” -which does not exist. It’s sonic. Energy infusion hex bolts apply resistance, but ignore SR and the other infusions net deafening, frightening, blinding or sickening properties to the bolt. Higher level hexes add further effects to choose from.

Weird, btw.: Neither major, nor grand hexes sport the distinction by hex type in their respective arrays, with the major hexes building upon hex bolts providing cones, fireball-like long-range exploding bolts as well as a weird Cleave-y modification. These, alas, do also sport some oddities: A maximum range of a non-range-modifying bolt, for example, contradicts the maximum range of hex bolt. Similarly, the shaping modifications do not specify whether infusion-type hexes affecting hex bolts work with these shaping tricks. While, unlike the annoyingly infinite hex bolt, these do have a hard cap, I am frankly not sold on the whole sequence. I’ve seen warlock-y classes done better than this graft, which feels like a basic attempt for some blasting capacity that could have been refined into a mighty engine…but wasn’t. When compared to e.g. Interjection games’ ethermagic or kineticism, it also promotes doing the same each round, namely blasting. Not a fan and the deviations from standard rules-language are fatal in such a chassis.

The fey and general hexes feel more “witchy” in tone to me and ultimately, to me, are the better examples from a design perspective: Here among the general ones we can find hexes to hamper spellcasting, the ability to deliver messages via avian messengers, the option to pass unimpeded through rough terrain or undergrowth sans taking damage or gaining a mildly toxic nettle-skin. Spitting iron nails at short range that may bypass mage armor et al. is a cool visual. That being said, e.g. the traveling itch could have used a bit of a power upgrade – a -1 penalty to atk for class level rounds does not warrant taking. Also: There are no typed penalties in PFRPG. Interesting – there is a touch that nets the witch and allies bonuses versus the recipient, with the major hex providing an AoE-version of deep slumber, thematically codified as a faerie ring around the witch…while only one such ring may be in effect at a given time, it basically exacerbates the sleeping issue that riled up so many GMs, though personally, I consider it valid…but I wished its wording was slightly more refined. Among the fey hexes, there is an AoE-20 ft-gaze that kills standard actions of targets and a nice sequence of hexes that blinds the target selectively to the witch, which is pretty cool.

The shadow hexes…are basically every shadow-themed class ever. Cloak weapons in shadow for damage-bonus? Check. Stealth-bonuses? Check. Minor sneak attack? Check. They’re not that bad or problematic, but neither do they blow me away when compared to the better takes on theme. The feats contained in the pdf mostly concern themselves with witch multiclassing, but also sport better attacks via staves or brooms as well as enhancements of new hexes or archetype abilities.

The new archetypes herein follow a similar trend: The Eldritch Witch, for example, would be, surprise, the archetype for hex bolts/hex forged, with the fey-touched witch the specialist for the fey-themed hexes, one that receives a fey familiar, whose table collates two levels per row, which is slightly problematic from a RAW/convention-perspective. The harrowed harlequin is interesting and receives several social skills as well as a gremlin familiar. Weird: Adding damage to feint attacks at high levels is a bit wonky in its implementation…and does not specify a range, whether only the witch can use it for her own feints, etc. – after all…you don’t want to get into melee with a full caster. The madness matriarch may cause insanities and the mystic astrologer is one of the more interesting ones, sporting some solid fate-based rerolls and similar abilities. The high-level option to negate actions retroactively, gained at 18th level, is pretty cool in theory, but its wording is mega-opaque and needs clarification.

The occult scholar receives more brainy skills and is a expert scroll-user, while the shadow mistress, bingo, would be the shadow hex-themed archetype of the collection. The pdf concludes with 3 sample characters, 2 at CR 4 (elven fey-touched + human madness matriarch) and a CR 8 serpentfolk eldritch witch.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are issues on a formal and rules-level. From apostrophe-hiccups and similar typos, the pdf lacks italicization for pretty much every spell and violates rules-formatting in several instances., rendering the content more opaque than it should be. Frustratingly, not to the point where the pdf is not operational, mind you…but yeah, you’ll have to reread some passages and will stumble over oddness here and there. The pdf adheres to a 2-column, full-color layout-standard with decent stock art. The pdf is internally hyperlinked and fully bookmarked.

John Buckley’s take on the witch is frustrating to me: It takes several cool concepts and proceeds to sport some really ingenious tricks: The nail-spitting, for example, is amazing from a visuals point of view. At the same time, it contains some serious filler and…well…didn’t blow me away. I’ve seen warlock-y blasting done better numerous times; I’ve seen shadow done better numerous times…and the hiccups in formatting and verbiage make some components…well. Weird. The internal balance is also somewhat inconsistent, with some hexes being clearly significantly weaker than others.

I don’t hate this pdf. It does have some gems and if you’re willing to iron out some of the verbiage glitches, you’ll find some seriously fun concepts herein. At the same time, I can’t see the pseudo-warlock graft exciting anyone when there are better options. Same goes for the shadow tricks, rendering a significant portion of the pdf…kinda obsolete and slightly redundant from a thematic point of view. In the end, I can’t go higher than 2.5 stars, rounded down.

Endzeitgeist out.

Advancing with Class: The Witch 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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