This pdf is 31 pages long, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover/full-color artwork, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1.5 pages ToC/foreword, leaving us with 25.5 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
John Wick’s Wicked Fantasy-series has provided us with some rather interesting takes on classic fantasy races and this pdf takes the elves and gives them the wicked fantasy treatment. Based thematically on the Tolkien-elves, the elves introduced to us in this tome are quintessentially tragic. Elves in this tome are immortal and essentially bored – uninterested in most material things, the decadent elves pass their immortality by engaging in politics and petty squabbles. Or at least they used to, for the elves herein are inextricably linked to two concepts: Their rigid class-system and the Aelenderon, the Great Trees. When an elf is born, the priest caste ties the newborn’s lifeforce to either the soil or one of the ancient Aelenderon-trees, determining whether the elf in question is a mortal servitor (in case of the soil-born) or one of the immortal guardians of the trees. Unbound elves wither and die, so abstinence from the ceremony is no solution. If the tree is cut down, then the respective elf also is doomed to perish. Worse, there is something mankind figured out in the war for the forest: Cwth, the wretched thing – Iron. Put an iron ring, an iron shackle on an elf and you sever his connection with his tree. Permanently. Not only does this break the elf’s spirit, it also means that a lifespan measure in millennia is cut down to a scale that is not measured in years anymore, but rather in days, usually resulting in a spiraling depression or a manic thrill-seeking to burn out the painfully short remainder of their days. Now guess what mankind is doing to the elves. It’s only a matter of time before the armies return…with a lot of iron bands.
Rules-wise, Wicked Fantasy Elves get +2 to Dex and Cha, low-light vision and can nourish themselves via photosynthesis, which enables the elf to work sans food and water if they spend 6 hours per day in daylight. At 1st level and on 5th and all 5 levels after that, they can mix their saliva with soil or sap to create a salve that heals 1d6 points. Unfortunately, the saliva-salve does not specify what action it is to apply the salve. Depending on your heritage, you also get additional abilities. Cyffathelean, the tree-bound, get abilities depending on the tree they bond with and may take a feat that grants them a weapon from a great tree that is treated as masterwork and can be enchanted. Still, for a feat, this is a bad reward for the investment of a feat.
Oak-Bound gain the two-weapon fighting feat and when in melee combat in a one-on-one situation, you treat your Dex-score as 4 higher. Birch-bound elves can render opponents unconscious with a kiss that is delivered via a-5 attack roll. This ability is usable 1/day and an additional time at 4th level and every 3 levels afterwards. They can also force enemies to keep on looking at them on a failed save. Unfortunately, the kiss-ability, while providing a scaling DC, lacks a duration – as does the fascination that forces individuals to look at the elf. Does this preclude the person in question attacking the elf? Penalize attacks on foes that are not the elf? I don’t know for the pdf omits this crucial information. Elm Bound elves can speak via trees with people holding a branch of one of the tree’s branches. They can also withhold their actions against a declared target for a +1 bonus to attack against the target up to the maximum of their character levels. The pdf fails to clarify how long these bonuses are retained and on how many attacks the bonus is granted. Ash-bound elves gain precise shot as a feat and always get at least 1 action in any surprise round – but it is not specified WHAT kind of action – Full-Round? Move? Standard? Swift? I don’t friggin know! Blackthorn-bound elves can make a coup-de-grace as a standard action (or a full-round action against a target with total concealment) and at 1st level, again at 5th and all 5 levels after that, the Blackthorn Bound can automatically succeed a bluff check 1/day. Read that again. Automatically. Succeed. A. Bluff. Check. “Bluff, bluff, bluff the stupid deity?” F*** this ability!
The soil-bound treat their tr-score as 4 higher in non-combat situations, age as humans and gain a DR 1/bludgeoning (+1 at 5th and +1 further every 5 levels) and may later take a feat that further increases the power of their thick skin. The Iron-bound cannot be magically aged, but measure their lives in days, advancing age categories in the span of years. They also don’t gain the dying condition until they reach their will-save modifier in negative hit points. Again, cool idea, but does this include the wis-modifier or not? Again, the pdf fails to specify crucial information. They can also literally sacrifice parts of their life, up to their level in days, to add a likewise bonus to any of their rolls. Cool idea! Fool’s Luck and Lucky Fool are two feats that reward death-defying actions by iron-bound elves, Fool’s Luck granting them a +2 luck bonus to e.g. jump in the way of a brabarian’s axe to save an ally. The second feat, available at 10th level, scales an attack you got hit by via the usage of Fool’s Luck down to rendering you stable and unconscious at 1 HP instead of killing you. Per se a cool idea. I can see players abusing the hell out of it though: Elf jumps in front of wizard: Would die. Goes down. One healing spell and smelling salts by the cleric later and the elf does it again – ad infinitum. An elf with this feat and an enterprising party could soak ALL damage with this feat. Broken. Why isn’t this tied to the iron bound’s days, with each usage draining away his/her life? That would have been a cool and easily implemented way of balancing the ability.
From the enslavement of iron and conflict sprang the Dzunkaveth, literally “Abominations” – Half-elves. Half-elves can take home cities from “Wicked Fantasy: The Reign of Men” and can take a feat to trade their +2 to Dex to +2 to Con or Str or their +2 to Cha to +2 to Int or Wis at character creation to represent half-elves born and raised by humans. I don’t like how this is a feat – by all accounts and PFRPG-design standards, this should be an alternate racial trait, not a feat.
There are also so-called mistletoe feats that allow you to get a poisonous touch-attack if you’re a tree-bound. Depending on the type of tree you’re bound to, you can also add acid damage to your touch, add it to your kiss ability, deal damage and regenerate minor damage that you deal or even add the poison to all wooden arrow attacks. I’m not particularly comfortable with a PC-race gaining an unlimited touch attack that deals attribute damage (or any damage at all, for that matter), but the blackthorn’s mistletoe feat takes the unbalanced cake, rendering the target incapable of speech. Yes, that’s instant game-over for just about every spellcaster – without a save! Yeah! No save to retain speech. At least unless I misread the ability. Even if the save’s applied (DC 10 + 1/2 level +Con-mod, btw.), the ability is sickeningly powerful, having no limit on how often it can be used. Worse, none of the mistletoe feats specify that it’s a poison effect, rendering protection against it impossible as written. Classic examples of great idea and horridly flawed execution.
The elven Priest-caste is represented by the Cyllawellan, a new druid archetype.They can take racial abilities on the respective tree-bound types of elves, but unfortunately e.g. neither the birch’s “gaze at me”, nor the elm’s “patience-ability” are clarified, rendering both abilities just as useless in game as for the base-race: We just don’t have a clue on how they are supposed to wwork. They also gain an NPC-cohort with whom they may share an empathic link and even spells – per se a nice idea, but the specifically mentioned option to make another PC the cohort means that this feature is barn-door-wide open for abuse. These guardians can also deliver touch spells held by their masters – again: Abuse. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they also get spell resistance, can cast tree shape at will. Unbalanced to the point of being broken, the archetype is a cool idea that just doesn’t work as intended.
And then there are the Durzhah, the alabaster-skinned, black blooded dark elves who have sold their souls to darkness in order to regain the immortality they lost to iron. And no, there are thankfully no good dark elves. Three of the base-classes are available to Wicked Fantasy elves exclusively via being Durzhah – to be precise, arcane classes. Only Half-elves may be wizards and summoners, sorcerors and witches all are exclusively Durzhah. Thus. dark elves are essentially represented by a common line of abilities of 3 different archetypes: All Durzhah replace low-light vision with darkvision 60 ft., halve their physical attributes when in direct sunlight, cannot be aged by any means and may change hair, nails, skin colour etc. – all but the black colour of their blood. Oghzhan summoners summon their eidolon into intelligent willing (or dead) vessels, enabling their eidolons to keep the vessel’s int-modifier and subsuming most of the vessel’s abilities under the eidolon’s powers. Per se a cool idea, but what about undead? Do they count as dead or as beings that require consent to act as an eidolon’s host? Anyways, a rather cool idea. They also can summon their eidolons faster at higher levels. Szhaszh, the sorceror archetype, must select from a restrictive list of bloodlines, but replaces the first bloodline power with a touch that deals scaling “necrotic” damage, healing half of the damage. Thankfully, the ability has a limit on how often it can be used, but the fact is that there’s no established damage-type called “necrotic” – I assume the authors meant “negative energy”. Why am I so nitpicky? Because there are spells that protect against negative energy, but none that protect against the mumbo-jumbo “necrotic” type of damage. They may also freeze others in place via their eyes, also dealing 1d4 damage to Str, Dex and Con. While the effect ends as soon as the sorcerer does anything, there’s NO LIMIT imposed on a friggin’ gaze attack that deals 1d4 to all physical attributes! No limit! And a DC of 10+Cha-mod+ CASTER level. Not character level, but caster level. You know, the one you can easily enhance via feats etc.? AHHHRGHHHH! This is so terribly broken, I don’t even know where to start. Finally, the Vezhma, the witch is essentially an insult of an archetype. They get a limited patron selection and must choose a viper familiar. The viper can speak and if the witch takes the improved familiar feat, it gets the entropic or fiendish template and some bonus languages. That’s it. Yep. You read it. Bland? Yes. No signature ability? Yes. An utter failure and the worst witch archetype I’ve seen so far.
Finally, for all the romantics among you, there’s a new PrC, the Heart-bound Elf: The requirements mention “Charisma skills”[sic!] and 4 ranks in each, which does not adhere to standard formatting. Essentially, the elf finds a soul-mate, a love who accepts the elf and shares its soul with the iron-bound, thus providing the option of healing the partner when adjacent by transferring character level HP per day. They also die when their bound non-elven partner dies. They gain d8, full spell-progression, an improved version of Fool’s luck almost identical to the Lucky Fool-feat, though stronger when protecting the partner, a scaling massive DR against iron weapons, an empathic aura that makes it hard to lie to them as well as the option to take negative conditions onto themselves and become immune to fear and even death effects. They also gain 3/4 BAB and unfortunately, the otherwise rather cool PrC suffers from two weird design-choices: First, they get +1 to both fort and will-saves PER LEVEL, meaning these two saving throws scale faster than even the best save-progression. This is simply ignorant design that flaunts the very basics of PFRPG-rules. The ref-save-progression is 1/2. Secondly, the class gets 5+Int skills per level, with odd numbers being non-standard in PFRPG and another design-flaw. Worse, the class only gets 4 class skills. They actually have fewer class skills than skills! Oo
The pdf also provides 2 pages of pronunciation primers on the Gaelic-influenced elven language (and its dissonant secret subscript) and a table of prohibited classes. That’s one thing I hate about Wicked Fantasy races: There are VERY much classes that are simply forbidden for the respective races, which makes no damn sense to me. Why don’t these elves get good nature-sorcerers? Clerics (of nature)? Inquisitors? Cavaliers? Magi? Alchemists? Tables like this make me always feel as if someone else wants to impose their home game’s restrictions on my own game – indirectly.
Editing and formatting are a train-wreck. The pdf is much harder to read than it needs to be: From class abilities that are not bold, spells that are not in italics to a vast array of abilities in dire need of clarification, I can only consider it baffling how this pdf managed to get past even a casual editing pass. Layout adheres to a used-parchment 2-column look, is ok and features some nice artworks. The pdf is bookmarked, but lacks a proper printer-friendly version. Wicked Fantasy pdfs have always had some wonky abilities and uncommon mechanics, but until now, they all had some limitations and felt CLEAR in what the abilities/feats/etc. were supposed to do.
Until now. As always with the series, the reimagination of the race is awesome, interesting well-written and compelling. The fluff is simply stellar. And then I read the crunch. It’s almost universally broken. From non-standard design-choices that are not intentional, but stem from a lack of understanding of the system, its language and register to faulty formatting, missing information etc., the amount of grossly offensive design-blunders is baffling, especially by such an established designer. I wouldn’t harp as much on it, would the glitches not reach a level where the race is essentially impossible to use as written. And then there’s the class/race-restrictions: Half-elves are relegated to an origin and a feat, which is the culmination of faulty, non-standard design, doing what should be an alternate racial trait via a feat, a bad throwback to 3.X-design. Or take the dark elves: I love their fluff. But the whole race obviously consists only of summoners, witches and sorcerers. Since the racial traits are subsumed under the three archetypes, they alongside the prohibited class table e.g. show that there are no dark elves fighters, antipaladins (WHY?), Magi etc. – again, driving home what feels like an amateurish insistence on forcing the author’s vision down the customer’s throat. Why? Because the dark elven racial features obviously are supposed to be balanced within the archetypes. I get restrictiveness. In fact, I encourage it. But a commercial product is supposed to enhance the customer’s creativity and his/her respective vision, not stifle it and this pdf unfortunately does so via bad design-choices that provide you with excellent ideas, but fail to balance them and put them into a solid context of rules while at the same time, via omission and design-choices prohibiting you from making the necessary changes to properly use and modify these rules yourself. From racial traits to feats to archetypes and the PrC, the crunch is universally flawed.
This pdf made me angry. Very, very angry. Since the potential, the good, even genius ideas, are there. But the execution, be it via formatting or crunch, is sloppy beyond compare. This pdf needs a complete revision. Better editing. Better crunch. The stellar fluff deserves so much more than what this pdf provides. If it’s not abundantly clear by now, my final verdict will be 1 star – for the high price of 5 bucks, a sloppy mess of design like this is unacceptable.
Wicked Fantasy: Elves: Guardians of the Wood is available from:
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