By Thilo Graf
This pdf Raging Swan Press is 88 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page blank inside the front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC (containing a great rhyme suitable for use by bards), 1 page that explains reading statblocks, 1 page advertisement, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 80 pages of content.
This massive pdf opens by providing lists of the statblocks by CR, Type and encounters by EL as well as a neat introduction by Raging Swan Press mastermind Creighton Broadhurst. The first chapter kicks off by providing excessive information on illumination, DCs to notice bad air effects, travelling times, effects of cave-ins, floors, obstructions and similar environmental obstacles to drive home the fact that adventuring in the subterranean realms feels distinctly different from journeying on the surface world. Stalactites falling down, gour pools and even the stability of different kinds of walls are covered. Not stopping there, we also get a wide array of aquatic hazards – acidic pools, rivers, stepping stones and a whole sidebox recapping rules for fighting under water. We also get rules for sudden flash floods and finally, a sample cavern, fully mapped in grid and b/w. Neat!
After this immensely useful compilation of crunch that can be considered an excellent toolset for any prolonged venture into the Underdark, we come to the second part of this massive pdf and are introduced to encounters. A lot of encounters. Anyone familiar with Raging Swan Press’s TRIBES-line or GM resources essentially knows what to expect. Statblocks, environmental hazards and NPCs with mannerisms, distinguishing features etc. While at first I wasn’t too blown away by e.g. accumulations of drow and duergar statblocks, I can say without any doubt that the encounters herein go far beyond anything you would normally expect from Raging Swan Press in that several of the encounters are so imaginative and, dare I say it, unique that I am pleasantly reminded of some of Rite Publishing’s stellar characters. While they do not reach RiP’s trademark level of sheer complexity, they do manage to walk the fine line between evocative statblocks and keeping up the trademark rather low magic old-school feel I’ve come to expect from Raging Swan Press. Each of the encounters has information to scale them up or down. Indeed, I may laud this pdf, but without examples that would not be informative, thus I present a selection of my favourite encounters from this pdf.
SPOILERS hence abound, potential players might want to jump to the conclusion.
Well, there is an elaborately-crafted little encounter with an intellect devourer that has taken over a Svirfneblin-ally of the PCs. Here, I enjoyed the stats for both creatures as well as the ready-to-drop-in nature of the rather complex scenario. On the negotiation/interaction-side, I absolutely LOVED a Merrow ferryman who disarms and pummels his foes into submission with the anchor of his craft. There also are elemental pilgrims, blind Jann zen-archer monks as well as an Efreeti summoner entombed in an obelisk of glass and guarded by his fierce eidolon. Have I mentioned the medusa with scorpion tails for hair?
And then there are my top 3 encounters: Plummet, in which the PCs fall several thousand feet while rocks potentially smash them through huge amounts of deadly fly-swarms only to plunge into a sea of sludge and flesh-eating maggot swarms. I think I had an evilgasm while reading this, especially due to the cool way in which the whole descent is presented rules-wise. My silver medal goes to Last Nail. Last Nail is a sword. Only, it isn’t. The deadly blade of a once dreaded mass-murderer, constantly lusting for blood is actually a vampire mimic cleric who impersonates a weapon and only grudgingly admits to sentience while providing benefits to sufficiently bloodthirsty wielders. The idea alone is brilliant and the execution is even better – sunlight? Mimic’s adhesiveness keeps the blade in the scabbard! You HAVE to love this. My favorite, though, and by far, is the Tourmaline princess. A noble (yet spoiled) warrior-princess from the elemental planes, known far and wide for her beauty and prowess. Though the former is an acquired taste, for the princess is a Xorn. This concept alone is roleplaying gold, but add her fighting style and we’re in for a treat: She likes to pilot a sphere of quartz via her earthglide that is drawn by two Crysmal steeds into her foes while she strikes from inside and uses the scything blades attached to the sphere to devastating effect. Yep. She is a noble Xorn-princess (!) with a spherical (!!) quartz-chariot (!!!) drawn by Crysmal steeds (!!!!). And yeah, the rules provided match the awesome premise. That being said, while not all encounters are that far out and more general ones (like bounty hunters etc.) also are in this pdf, it is these where the file truly shines.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, which is quite an achievement for a file of this length. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’s classic two-column standard and is printer-friendly. The pdf also comes with a second version optimized for e-readers. The pdf is extensively bookmarked and the artworks are fitting and belong to the upper tier of b/w-illustrations. The toolbox in the beginning of the pdf is awesome and should be consulted by any DM planning an extensive venture of PCs into caves or the underdark – be it the now legendary Empire of Ghouls or a similar venture. The encounters of the second chapter are on par with the stellar quality of most Raging Swan files and even surpasses the most imaginative and iconic NPCs yet presented by them in some regards. That being said, giant-lovers, aficionados of dragons and fans of eldritch horror get a bit of a short stick here, with most of the encounters ranging in the low- and especially mid-level range and centring on humanoids and denizens from the elemental planes. While this is no problem and does not diminish the quality of the pdf, it is something I’d love to see remedied in the sequel. And yeah, I’d love to see more alien elemental plane-encounters like my favourite one, perhaps magical effects in caverns like the faerzress and similar concepts. More environmental hazards would also rock. Keep in mind, though, that I’m currently trying very hard to find any blemishes in this stellar product and that including what I’m suggesting would have made this a 200+ pages supplement – when all is said and done, you get an excellent resource for the Underdark that oozes passion, heart’s blood, quality and feels like a labour of love – all while providing one of the most easily usable books I’ve read in quite a while. Whether you shoot for the cavern-rules, the encounters or both – my final verdict will be 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval. One of the best products Raging Swan press has put out – Congratulations to Creighton Broadhurst and David Posener.
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