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Blackdyrge's Bits & Pieces: Weapons of Synergy
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 06/30/2008 13:03:55
There can be little doubt that the d20 system is one that (normally) requires characters to have magic weapons. Without them, hitting creatures becomes very difficult, if not impossible, due to high ACs and escalating DRs. Indeed, it’s often been said that you literally can’t run a high-level character who uses mundane weaponry. This is almost universally seen as a drawback, because while characters have innate abilities from feats and classes, these tend to be overshadowed by their gear. The debut product in the new Blackdyrge’s Bits & Pieces line, Weapons of Synergy aims to, not correct that, but try and reign it in some.

The book is a comparatively long one, for the content it has. Eight pages in length, it details twelve new magic weapon properties, and has three example weapons. Full bookmarks are given, which is always a nice touch. There’s little artwork to be found throughout the book. Each of the three example weapons has an illustration, but aside from that the cover is the only art here. However, there’s a very light background of a grid on each page, which may slightly irritate some readers (remember the underlines for the text in the PHB?).

Each of the new magic weapon properties normally mimics an existing feat or class ability. So in other words, if you don’t have Improved Disarm, you effectively will if you’re using a disarming weapon. The twist is that each of these properties grants a greater power if you do have the feat/ability they mimic. For example, if you did have Improved Disarm, then when you used a disarming weapon you’d gain an additional +2 to disarm attempts, and could make an immediate attack on someone you’d disarmed. The three example weapons all have more than one synergy properties.

Overall, I found myself liking this product for what it presented. Synergies between a character and his weapon(s) help to make the character feel much more whole, rather than just a stand-in for wielding some phat lewt. This book is a good step towards making the items flesh out the character more, rather than the other way around.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Bits & Pieces: Weapons of Synergy
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Blackdyrge's Bits & Pieces: Weapons of Synergy
by Nathan C. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 06/25/2008 13:04:03
Weapon function is another one of those things you chalk up to the game aspect of D&D. No matter if you are a peasant farmer or an elite guardsman, a weapons damage is pretty much identical.

Hoping to change this, Blackdirge Publishing has decided to put a different take on Synergy weapons in D&D, crafting arsenal that instead of bonding with other objects, as most Synergy Weapon publications do, the weapons bonds with specific characters and abilities.

Once again, Blackdirge manages to do a lot with very little. As with most of their books, this one is short, coming in at 8 pages. Compacted into it, are 12 weapon qualities that improve either a feat or a class ability of a character. Each weapon quality has a primary function that, for the most part, repeats the feat or class ability it enhances if the character does not have it. The enhancements are not overpowering, usually granting in most cases half to twice as much of the numerical bonuses the ability would.

At the end of the book are three weapons using qualities from the book. Each includes a bit of lore and flavor for immediate inclusion in a game.

For the Player
Each ability includes cost and spell necessities for crafting the object. The balanced abilities are not too out of the ordinary, so any reasonable DM should allow it. For those players who really want to center a character’s concept around an ability or skill, having a weapon that insinuates the concept can go a long way in making an impact character. I like the point blank ability when making my fighter based archer classes.

For the Dungeonmaster
Its always nice to Easter-egg a pc specific item on a non-NPC. This allows for the crafting of PC specific items that will not break the game. They are also quite useful for creating the super-smiting paladin NPC or hyping up the speed of a quick NPC with a serpent strike weapon.

The Iron Word
I only wish there were a dozen more of these weapon qualities that filled a niche for every major class. Hopefully we will see more of this series.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Publisher Reply:
Thanks for the review. I'm currently working on Weapons of Synergy II, which will highlight synergy weapon special abilities useful for other classes.
Blackdyrge's Portfolio: Warriors I
by Jeremy S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 06/06/2008 09:30:05
Blackdyrge's Portfolio: Warriors I is the first stock art release from Blackdyrge Publishing, containing 6 black & white illustrations for use by publishers. Blackdirge Publishing has put out some great products for actual game systems, and their first foray into putting out products aimed at publishers keeps to the same level of quality.

The preview for Blackdyrge's Portfolio: Warriors I shows exactly what you get - 1/4 page profile shots, 1 vertical half-page combat shot, 2 horizontal half-page combat shots, and a full page combat shot. The attention to detail in all six illustrations is fantastic and most of the illustrations are generic enough to use in a variety of ways, with some specific enough to really match a concept as if custom-ordered just for your product, although the arms in the female profile illustration end oddly (in my opinion, your taste may vary).

All in all, for just over $1 per illustration, with the quality you'd expect from seeing Jesse Mohn's other works in Blackdirge Publishing, and with the different options presented, including full-page illustrations, it's hard to pass up this product.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Portfolio: Warriors I
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Blackdyrge's Templates: Deep Spawn
by Peter I. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/30/2008 11:54:24
I'll freely admit that I'm a big fan of templates. And monsters in general too. But templates are great as they allow you to take something familiar and turn it into something that your players won't expect. Templates are by far one of the best things about the revised d20 core rules. In fact, many of the best books published for the d20 system are books about templates. Templates allow you to take something generic, and turn it into something specific. Blackdyrge's Templates is a great series of products from Blackdirge Publishing, featuring a brand new template and some sample creatures using the template from the mind of author Aeryn Rundel. This offering, the Deep Spawn template, features a horror of the depths of the oceans, an aquatic creature of nightmares.

The product comes as a single, high quality pdf file. The presentation is excellent, with some fantastic art from Hunter McFalls, and some very good descriptive writing from the author. Like other products from Blackdirge Publishing, this product includes the campaign construction system, which is a system that allows one to utilize the material in the pdf to create a campaign binder or folder. Information such as author, type of material, etc. is printed clearly on each page so that when placed in a binder it can be easily found and identified. Blackdyrge's Templates: Deep Spawn is a very professionally presented product that ticks all the boxes as far as presentation goes.

The Deep Spawn is an aquatic horror from the depths of the ocean. As such it's a template that can be applied to any creature with the aquatic subtype, although Deep Spawn are also amphibious and hence can go on land. The Deep Spawn's signature abilities include its great maw that can swallow creatures whole, and the bioluminescent patches on its skin that can duplicate various spell effects. As such it ties in with the concept of the 'lure of the deep' or the general concept of 'enchanted by the oceans'. The template is solid from a mechanical point of view, as are the sample creatures, a Deep Spawn hag and a Deep Spawn sea cat. The flavor and descriptive text is very good, both the introduction from Blackdirge on the Deep Spawn, and the descriptive text of the sample creatures and the template.

Despite resting on solid mechanical ground and having good descriptive flavor, I felt that the template was disappointing in that there was nothing unique or new about it. The mechanics was really just a bunch of stuff from other creatures mixed together to create the template and I'd hoped that something new would come out that would be more closely related to the flavor text. The mechanics just lacked imagination - there's the familiar improved grab, the familiar swallow whole, the familiar fast healing, etc. and even the new bioluminescence ability just used familiar spell effects. Where's the novelty in the mechanics? Has this version of the d20 game depleted everything that makes creatures unique? It's great to come up with good concepts, even if they are somewhat familiar, but then to not support it by great new and novel mechanics just makes the template provided uninteresting.

Like all of Blackdirge Publishing's products, this is very well presented, with solid mechanics and great descriptive text. But there's nothing that's really new. It feels like old mechanics jumbled together to make a new template, rather than designing new mechanics to create a novel and interesting template or new creature. I think the pdf lacked a little uniqueness in the mechanics and could've done something a little more interesting. That aside, it's still a useful and solid product, although not something that inspired me to use it immediatly.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Templates: Deep Spawn
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Blackdyrge's Templates: Deep Spawn
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/26/2008 14:16:39
There’s something about sea monsters that evokes a sort of primal terror in us. Maybe it’s that they can potentially grow to such huge sizes, making us fear gigantic predators that have long since died out on land. Maybe it’s because the sea is so dark and murky, hiding its terrors in a blackness much deeper than the night. Or maybe it’s simply because things from under the waves are structured so differently, with bodies reminiscent of lovecraftian nightmares. Whatever it is, just the thought of what horrific things could be lurking down there tends to give us shivers. It’s this fear that Blackdirge attempts to capitalize on with his newest fearsome template, the deep spawn. Let’s see how it fares.

The book is a standard-sized entry into the series, being eight megabytes in size, and eleven pages in length. Despite its brevity, it has full bookmarks, which is a nice touch. The illustrations are once again handled by Hunter McFalls, who continues his domination of the black and white spectrum of art with his evocative drawings. There continues to be a lack of printer-friendly options, but I can’t hold it against a book this short.

The deep spawn template is meant to be added to existing aquatic creatures, requiring the base monster to have a swim speed. The template adds several powers such as swallowing hole, fast healing, and the big one is that, like an angler, is has several luminescent mind-affecting powers to lure in prey. Two example monsters show concepts of existing creatures changed to be deep spawn versions.

While the template was quite well done, I found myself less than enamored of this as a creature concept. What got to me was the limited nature of the deep spawn; simply put, they’re supposed to be aquatic creatures from the darker, deeper parts of the seas. In other words, this template just makes an aquatic creature even more aquatic. That’s such a small change to the base creature’s concept that it doesn’t seem to count for much. Likewise, a lot of the new abilities added felt too generic. Deep spawn have to deal with the cold damage from the depths, and the crushing damage of the hydraulic pressure. The template’s answer to both of these just seems to be its fast healing, rather than any sort of more specialized resistances. Moreover, the creature’s powers seem slightly contradictory, since it has bioluminescence and light blindness at once.

Ultimately, this template wasn’t bad, but it seemed to be both too limited in scope and too generic in execution. This is little more than a themed power-up for aquatic monsters, and doesn’t seem truly indicative of the terrors that the lightless depths of the oceans are supposed to be capable of conjuring up. The work here isn’t poor by any stretch of the imagination, but for a monster called the deep spawn, it’s ultimately a fairly shallow entry.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Templates: Greater Half-Dragon
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/26/2008 13:56:47
The ubiquitous nature of half-dragons has become something of a moniker regarding 3.5. One could almost call the game “Dungeons & Half-Dragons” now, it seems. Even Blackdirge isn’t able to avoid this, as he brings us a second product dedicated to the progeny of draconic xenophilia. Whereas the last book on the subject dealt with the spawn of Dragon-type creatures that were not true dragons, this one deals with creatures spawned by exceptionally powerful true dragons.

The book is one of the larger ones in the Blackdyrge’s Templates series, weighing in at over eleven megabytes. It’s eighteen pages long, a length accounted for by having twice the number of example creatures. Full bookmarks are present, which is always a plus. As always, the cover is the only full color artwork, with the interior having black and white illustrations by Hunter McFalls (who continues to astound with what he can do in black and white). Between that and the ever-present page borders, this isn’t the most printer-friendly of books. However, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem given its brevity.

The nature of greater half-dragons is that their draconic parent is a true dragon in one of the last three age categories – apparently dragons get even more promiscuous when they become elderly. Spawn of such encounters have more power than children of younger dragons. They gain all of the benefits of standard half-dragons, as well as additional powers such as new movement modes, spell-like abilities, spell resistance, etc. In other words, creatures with the greater half-dragon template have inherited more of their draconic parent’s genes. Four example creatures are then given. Two are more monstrous creatures that are certain two be antagonists, while two others are NPCs (class levels and all) who are more likely to have peaceful encounters with the party (though this is by no means guaranteed).

While I enjoyed this new template, and the mechanics and writing are all of Blackdirge’s usual high quality, I found myself not as impressed with the greater half-dragon as I had been with its lesser counterpart. While this template was certainly different enough from the standard half-dragon, its core concept was basically just tweaking the existing template to offer more, whereas the lesser half-dragon was a different series of templates altogether. In my estimation, this template is a flawless execution of an idea that was really just for a bigger, badder version of the half-dragon we already know so well. I’d rank it as being 4.5 stars, but since I can’t call it that, I rounded it up to 5; this is done too well for me to hold its comparative unoriginality against it. After all, if you’re going to have yet another half-dragon in your campaign, it might as well be one that’s better, stronger, faster than the others are.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Templates: Greater Half-Dragon
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Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals III
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/08/2008 13:47:26
Prehistoric Animals III continues to present us with d20 game stats for real creatures from prehistoric Earth that nature, in its infinite wisdom, killed off. It’s a good thing too because many of these freaks are creatures that I for one would not want to share the planet with. I’m sorry, but my respect for life ends when there are eight foot-long, eight hundred-pound millipedes living on the same plane of existence as me. Can you imagine what it’d be like if one of those things crawled out from under your bathroom sink while you were taking a shower?

The format of this book mimics the others in its series. Five historical creatures are presented, three of which also have fantasy versions given through the use of templates and advanced Hit Dice. Each creature has an illustration of what it might have looked like, with an outline of a human for size comparison purposes. There are also descriptive sections given about how these creatures behaved in the real world, and what use player characters might have for some of these things.

The twenty-five page book is very neatly laid out. Appendices provide celestial and fiendish stat blocks for all of the creatures that can be summoned via summon monster spells, as well as briefly listing what creatures can be summoned with summon nature’s ally. Also, all of the templates uses are presented in full at the end of the product. Full bookmarks are presented, and the product’s information is given in the page borders along the top and bottom of each page. There is, however, no printer-friendly version, which is something of a shame. Luckily, the illustrations are fairly sparse, so that shouldn’t present too much trouble.

Most of the creatures are fairly low-level in terms of Challenge Ratings. Luckily, the monsters of prehistoric Earth apparently only rarely reached into the double-digits. With one exception, even the templated versions of these creatures top out at CR 9. That exception, however, goes far beyond that level, being a low-epic level monstrosity that has the classic Blackdirge touch that this series has been missing so far. It’s a nice nod to the power-gamers who knew him back before he started charging us money for his fiendish inspirations.

Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals III stands on its own, not requiring any of the other books in the series to use. I found it to live up to the high standards of previous entries, presenting interesting new creatures mixed in with great options for PCs and good artwork. Having an epic beastie just makes it even sweeter, particularly since I can sleep comfortably knowing that all of these hideous things are all long since dead and gone…right?

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals III
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Publisher Reply:
Thanks for the review, Shane. I'm glad you liked the epic beastie. I hadn't done one in a while, and the Toadspawn template from Goodman Games seemed a perfect fit for the megalania.
Blackdyrge's Templates: Brute
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/28/2008 16:11:42
I started playing D&D back in the “halcyon days” of second edition. Though it’s been a while, I have vague memories of goblin chieftans who were twice the size of their subjects, presenting the “boss” of the dungeon as being physically bigger and badder than their minions. This is the feeling that Blackdyrge’s Templates: Brute seeks to recapture.

The book is eleven pages long, including a page for the cover, one for the credits, and one for the OGL. Full bookmarks are present for easy navigation. The cover is the only instance of color in the book, with there also being two black and white illustrations (one for each of the example monsters). Grey borders are along the top and bottom of each page.

After Blackdirge’s introduction, we’re presented with the Brute template itself. Curiously, while the template says that creatures with this template are larger, it doesn’t actually increase a creature’s size category. Rather, it gives it several functions that make it functionally larger and stronger, as well as being quite a bit tougher. This actually works quite well, since it makes the resulting monster notably more deadly than the base creature. Two example creatures, a kobold and an ogre, are given to showcase what the template can do. Curiously, neither of these creatures hit the double-digit Challenge Ratings, which is a bit odd for Blackdirge.

The Brute template lives up to its name, presenting a creature that is notably more deadly, not through any particular martial prowess, but simply because it’s just that much tougher than normal creatures of its type. It does a great job of harkening back to those boss monsters that awaited foolish adventurers at the end of an adventure. I know that the next time my players have their characters go dungeon-diving, there’s going to be a goblin chieftan waiting for them…

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Templates: Brute
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Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals II
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/28/2008 14:24:32
Following in the fossilized footsteps of its predecessor product, Prehistoric Animals II presents another select group of ancient animals for the d20 system. As in the previous book, the creatures here are all (templated versions notwithstanding) real-world animals that naturally went extinct millions of years ago. A quick caveat is that none of these creatures are dinosaurs; there’s another Animal Archives product line that covers them.

The book is twenty-one pages long, including a page for the cover, one for the credits, and one for the OGL. Beyond the cover, there’s no color artwork here. Each new creature has an illustration showcasing what they might have looked like. Helpfully, the artist has placed a silhouette of a human by each picture, giving a sense of scale. There’s no introduction nor table of contents, but the product is fully bookmarked.

Five new prehistoric creatures are presented in the book, two of which have fantasy variants presented also, made from existing templates. None of the creatures in here are massively powerful, as only one gets over CR 5 (templated creatured notwithstanding). Each entry is quite robust in the information it offers, however, including sections on how each animal can be used by the PCs, and what the animal was like when it lived in the real world. Following this, there’s a listing of celestial/fiendish stat blocks for the monsters that can be summoned via spells, and a brief listing of what monsters appear on the summon nature’s ally lists. Likewise, the templates used to make the advanced monsters are also reprinted at the end of the book, which is a nice touch.

Prehistoric Animals II is a worthy entry into the series (though you don’t need the previous book to use this one) presenting creatures that are as interesting as they are alien. Anyone running an ancient-setting game would be very well served by the collection of freakish, but entirely natural, animals here.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals II
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Blackdyrge's Templates: Lesser Half-Dragon
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/25/2008 12:04:16
While I wouldn’t call myself a truly “olde-school” D&D player, I remember back in the days of Second Edition how half-dragons were truly rare creatures. There were maybe two products that had rules for them, and even then they carried an impressive amount of restrictions on what sort of half-dragons you could have, what they could do, etc. (though I admit some of that was starting to loosen towards the end of the edition).

Fast forward to 3(.5)E, and half-dragons are everywhere, right from the get-go. Any living creature can be the spawn of any sort of chromatic or metallic dragon. And yet…what about other draconic creatures? Thinking about it now, I suppose there was always a sort of implicit assumption that only true dragons had the ability (and the desire) to breed with almost everything to the point that a template was needed to deal with their spawn. In this volume of Blackdyrge’s Templates, though, the master of monsters says “nuh-uh!” to that idea, presenting us with these lesser half-dragons.

Blackdyrge’s Templates: Lesser Half-Dragon is slightly larger than similar works in this series, with the zipped file coming in at over nine megabytes. The single PDF enclosed therein is fourteen pages long, including a page for the cover, a page for the credits, and a page for the OGL. Full bookmarks are also present.

As per usual for a Blackdirge book, the cover is the only truly full-color part of the product, with a beautiful white-veined green cover surrounding a close-up of one of the interior black-and-white illustrations. Speaking of which, each example creature is illustrated by the eminently talented Hunter McFalls; black and white never looked so good. Grey borders are found at the top and bottom of every page.

After Blackdyrge’s in-character opening, we immediately move on to the templates. It’s worth noting that, rather than this being a single template that’s customized based on the kind of draconic parent (the way the standard half-dragon template is), this book presents three completely separate templates. The chelonian is a half-dragon turtle (though how that happens, since they’re Huge creatures with no shapeshifting or spellcasting abilities, is left unsaid), the drakeling is a half-pseudodragon, and the wyvern spawn is (you guessed it) a half-wyvern. The true dragons notwithstanding, this very nicely covers all of the remaining creatures in the SRD with the dragon creature type (and to the five of you who are wondering, the dragonne isn’t here; it’s a magical beast).

The templates themselves are well-designed, offering only a CR +1 (and LA +2), with a wide variety of minor powers, rather than having just one or two overwhelming abilities. Each has a sample NPC showcasing them, though each has a CR of just below 10. This strikes me as a bit odd, since Blackdirge usually seems to enjoy presenting monsters of the same book at widely varying CRs. Still, this probably falls closer to the “sweet spot” of d20 that so many people seem to like.

As with a lot of products in this series, the idea presented here is one simple and elegant enough that it makes me wonder why nobody did it before, since it seems so obvious now. Even if you’re tired of half-dragons, these half-lesser dragons are a breath of fresh air, since they’re functionally completely different creatures altogether. They may not be the spawn of true dragons, but they’re of greater, not lesser, quality.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Templates: Lesser Half-Dragon
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Animal Archives: DinoFiles II - Theropods
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 02/21/2008 13:50:27
It might be hard to remember now (or, if you’re one of the younger gamers, you might not be able to remember at all), but back before Jurassic Park made raptors into the most fearsome dinosaurs, the T-Rex was the image that everyone had when the terrible thunder lizards were discussed. The second entry into the DinoFiles series brings these deposed kings of the dinosaurs back into the spotlight. Strictly speaking, theropods comprise a wide variety of dinosaurs that were bipedal carnivores, including raptors. As they were covered before, however, this product covers similar non-raptor dinosaurs; the T-Rex itself isn’t here (as it’s in the SRD) but its cousins are the main thrust of this book.

Animal Archives: DinoFiles II – Theropods comes in a zipped file that’s just under six megabytes in size. The PDF is a full twenty-four pages long, including the front cover and the OGL. Full bookmarks make for convenient zooming through the book. The artwork here is what you’d expect from a Blackdirge product; the cover has color pieces around a central black and white piece of art, with the rest of the art being black and white interior pieces. Of course, borders with information of the book line the top and bottom of each page.

I just want to take a moment to talk about the book’s art here. Usually I mention the art only in passing before moving on to the contents, but I have to say more this time. Anyone familiar with Blackdirge’s products will be familiar with illustrations by Hunter McFalls, who’s black and white illustrations are very clean and crisp in their design. Here, however, McFalls has truly outdone himself, presenting several pictures of each of the dinosaurs detailed herein that are spectacular. From a cloud giant riding a gigantosaurus (and chasing some very, very unlucky human) to a piece of two knights jousting (one on a horse, and one on a ceratosaurus, and holy crap that guy on the horse is either really brave or really stupid to be jousting a guy on a dinosaur!), this is incredibly evocative art, and really lends itself to what kind of niches dinosaurs would occupy in a magical fantasy world. Bravo Hunter!

The book itself presents five new dinosaurs. Cousins of the T-Rex, most of them are smaller than the so-called king of the dinosaurs, one is the same size, and one in particular (the gigantosaurus) is actually larger. The introduction details special attacks that most of these dinosaurs have, and in addition to that, each has a section detailing how player characters can use them (whether as animal companions, or as summoned monsters), and what ecological niche these dinosaurs occupied when they lived in the real world.

Two of these dinosaurs also have fantasy variants presented by adding templates to them; in one case (the crested spitter), this rather amusingly recreates the base dinosaur as it was misrepresented in the Jurassic Park movie. Both templates are reprinted in their entirely at the end of the book, right after listings for celestial and fiendish versions of each new dinosaur, and a table listing what dinosaurs are summoned by what spells.

That this product presents a wealth of great new ideas for the dinosaurs it covers should be self-evident if you’ve read this far. While there were no individual advanced dinosaurs the way there are creatures in most other Blackdirge products, the templated creatures largely fill that niche. The new options for all of the dinosaurs here make this product almost a necessity if dinosaurs are at all a large part of your game.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Animal Archives: DinoFiles II - Theropods
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Blackdyrge's Templates: Devout
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 02/21/2008 12:58:45
The latest in Blackdirge’s line of synergy templates, the Devout is for adding clerical abilities to your monster, without necessarily making them a cleric (though it helps).

The zipped file is just over four megabytes in size, and has the singular PDF in with it. The product itself is nine pages long, including a full-page cover and a page for the OGL. Full bookmarks are given, despite the book’s brevity, which is always a nice touch (though, rather embarrassingly, the bookmark for the template itself calls it the “roguish” template, rather then “devout”). The book’s cover is quite colorful, with the outer portions being a vibrant yellow, with black veins running through it, around the central image of an azer. That same image, along with one of a devout gnoll, can be found inside; the only examples of the interior black and white artwork. There are page borders along the top and bottom of every page, having basic information about the book. There’s no printer-friendly recourse, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you neglect to print the cover.

After the opening statement from Blackdyrge himself, the book dives right into the new template. The Devout template grants a creature some cleric-like abilities. On the surface, this seems like a tricky prospect, since clerics are known for several things (divine spellcasting, healing support, and turning/rebuking undead). The template manages to adequately give thematic powers regarding all of these to the base creature. If the creature has five or more levels in the cleric class, then not only are these powers still useful, but it gains additional powers as well. In true Blackdyrge style, two example monsters are then given. The first one is a low-level devout gnoll that can’t take advantage of the template’s synergy powers, whereas the second one is a high-level azer with more than enough clerical levels to use this template to full effect.

The idea of synergy templates remains a good one, and while this template had its work cut out for it with simulating clerical abilities, it did so quite well. Like all of the synergy templates, it can be used when you want a clerical-themed monster without having to add the class levels, or you can drop it on a cleric-classed creature to increase its power in new and unexpected ways. Either way, this template is a winner.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Blackdyrge's Templates: Devout
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Master at Arms: Shieldbearer
by Peter I. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 01/14/2008 05:51:22
Master at Arms: Shieldbearer is the 16th instalment in Blackdirge Publishing's Master at Arms series. Each product in the series features an historical overview of a particular weapon or class of weapons, and then presents a short 3 or 5 level prestige class and NPC based on this prestige class. Master at Arms: Shieldbearer focuses on the shield, and in particular the light and heavy shields, with a 3-level prestige class, the Shieldbearer. This 8 page pdf product is compatible with the revised d20 core rules.

The product presentation is of a very high quality, and includes some very good art by Jesse Mohn, who pretty much does the art for most of the Master at Arms series. I like the standardized format to the presentation that's maintained throughout the series, and the consistent quality in a series that already has 16 titles is good to see as well. This product is pretty much error free with some good and concise descriptive writing. The only minor slip up is the use of terminology to refer to light and heavy shields as small and large shields. Other than that, a very good product with some strong writing and well-conceived mechanics.

This product focuses on developing the shield for the d20 game to make it fit the historical usage better. To that end, author Aeryn Rudel presents the Shieldbearer prestige class. As noted in the pdf, the aim is to make the shield competitive against other options such as the two-handed weapon wielder with the Power Attack feat. It does this by turning the shield wearer into both a more offensive character, as well as a more defensive character.

The former is achieved by relying on the shield bash in combat (and hence two-weapon fighting), while the latter is achieved by adding a number of useful new abilities that give the character improved defence, such as a shield parry (although as a slight negative it's fairly easy to get your shield destroyed this way) and a limited damage reduction. In addition, the 3-level prestige class as presented makes it easier to wield shields in general. Those that have watched films and series like 300, Troy, Alexander, Rome and others will note the effective military use of shields in combat.

Historically, the shield was used as an extremely effective defensive weapon, but also as a very effective offensive weapon. While the two-weapon fighting requirements don't necessarily makes this the 'optimum' choice for combat in the d20 system, it suits the historical flavor very well, and that's always where the Master at Arms series shines. The prestige class presented takes the knowledge of history and effectively builds it into a good, realistic prestige class.

Does the prestige class make the shield a viable choice within the high damage Power Attack two-handed weapon d20 arena? I think it does. It certainly improves in an area where the shield is made more effective in combat, as it becomes more than just something you can wield for static defence or just occasionally bash someone with. The prestige class allows you to use the shield to intercept charges, to actively deflect blows and use the deflection to bash opponents with the shield, and to use the shield as a means to hide your weapon, thereby giving you a distinct advantage on your next weapon attack. It adds a versatility to the shield and sword combination by providing more active options to the character.

Naturally all this comes with a good dose of history and some interesting design notes. Add in a flavorful NPC and you have a very good and useful product. Seeing the Shieldbearer prestige class makes me want to play one, and that's always a good sign in any product on the market. If there's something you've seen a shield used for, I think this prestige class caters very well to those ideas and concepts of shield use. A thoroughly enjoyable pdf, and a great, short, and focused prestige class.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Master at Arms: Shieldbearer
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Animal Archives: DinoFiles I - Raptor Pack
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 12/20/2007 23:40:07
Animal Archives: DinoFiles I – Raptor Pack is short book on monsters for the d20 system. As the title suggests, this product in the Animal Archives line focuses on what are quite possibly the most famous of dinosaurs: the raptors.

The zipped file is almost seven megabytes in size, and contains a single PDF of the product. It’s a grand total of nineteen pages long, and includes full bookmarks for easy navigation. Perennial Blackdirge artist Hunter McFalls does all of the art here, illustrating each of the six monsters depicted herein and doing them all great justice. The cover is the only piece of color art, with all of the raptors being scarily detailed in black and white. Grey page borders (with information about the book) line the top and bottom of each page. No printer-friendly version is available, which may be a minor issue for some people.

The book opens with an introduction covering raptors as a whole (including how the velociraptors were misrepresented in Jurassic Park), a few notes on their d20 incarnations, and a quick overview of a few abilities most raptors have. Following this are six raptors, five of which are prehistorical, with the dracoraptor being the sole fictitious monster. As with other monsters in the Animal Archives series, each creature (save for the aforementioned dracoraptor) also has a section about how the PCs might find these creatures useful (animal companion, familiar, etc.), and about them in the real world. An appendix closes out the book, listing celestial and fiendish versions of the raptors that can be summoned via Summon Monster spells, as well as a table listing what can be summoned with Summon Nature’s Ally spells.

Reading Raptor Pack was like getting a fresh reminder about how the deinonychus and megaraptor in the SRD just don’t cut it. The inclusion of little things such as one or two new abilities, along with notes about how it’s slightly easier for these animals to be taught tricks (via Handle Animal) really make these raptors stand out as being the intelligent killing machines that we’ve come to think of them as. This book does for d20 raptors what Jurassic Park did for them on the big screen.

That said, Raptor Pack is not a book that I can honestly call perfect. While its not the fault of the authors, some may think that at least a few of the raptors here are perhaps a bit too similar. There’s very little difference between a pyroraptor and a troodon, for example. While much was obviously done to try and make each raptor sufficiently different, there’s only so much that can be done when the creatures in question are all of the same subspecies.

Another thing that longtime fans of Blackdirge Publishing will miss is the inclusion of advanced monsters. It’s become something of a staple for the company that when they gives us some new monsters, they’ll have at least a couple of examples where some have advanced hit dice and a template, or have class levels, etc and a quick but evocative description. Even considering that this book only had six new monsters, I was still surprised not to see any advanced beasties (the templated ones for the summoning spells notwithstanding). The idea of an awakened raptor, maybe with a few Fighter or Rogue levels, seemed so obvious that its exclusion was noticeable.

That said, while this product may not have quite hit the company’s usual high standards, this is still a great product. The raptors here are varied, which is an accomplishment unto itself, and the player information alongside the new stats guarantees that you’ll have something here that’s useful. I’m already having visions of a war-druid who rides into battle astride his utahraptor animal companion. I highly recommend unleashing Raptor Pack on your campaign immediately.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Animal Archives: DinoFiles I - Raptor Pack
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Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals I
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 12/18/2007 15:23:47
The first product in the Animal Archives line of products, Prehistoric Animals I gives stats to animals that once existed in the real world, but have since gone the way of the dinosaurs. Ironically, there are no dinosaurs to be found here, these are all animals as we think of them, albeit extinct ones.

The zipped file for the product isn’t quite six megabytes in size, and contains a single PDF of the book. Weighing in a twenty-four pages long, there is no table of contents here, but there are full bookmarks. The cover is the only instance of full color, with the rest being black and white. Each monster has an illustration of what they (probably) looked like, and the artist has thoughtfully included a silhouette of an adult male human for size comparison purposes. There are grey borders along the top and bottom of every page with product information.

Nine prehistoric animals are included in this product, with five of them having an advanced version given (for example, after the entry for the hyaenadon is an entry for Old Gnawfang, an advanced elite awakened hyaenadon). Each animal also has a section describing what these animals were like in the real world, as well as a section describing how they can be useful to PCs (as animal companions, familiars, etc).

A few appendices round out the product. The first provides for celestial and fiendish versions of four of the monsters here (those being the only ones that can be summoned with a Summon Monster spell), as well as a list of creatures that can be summoned via Summon Nature’s Ally. Further, two templates that were used for some of the advanced creatures, the Elder Beast and Paleoskeleton, are reprinted in their entirety.

It’s hard to say what makes this product as cool as it is. Maybe it’s knowing that all of these creatures really did once roam the Earth. Maybe it’s how each has information on how a PC can use these animals themselves. Whatever the cause, this is a product that just seems too good to pass up, and that’s an impression that’s borne out after reading it. Prehistoric Animals is a great monster book, and even if you’re game isn’t at all prehistoric, you’ll find something here you can use.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Animal Archives: Prehistoric Animals I
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Publisher Reply:
Shane, thanks for the great review. The lack of dinosaurs in this product and future products in the line is intentional, as I want to showcase the many interesting animlas that lived before, after, or even alongside the dinosaurs. A lot of these critters get very little publicity, and some of them make excellent d20 monsters. However, if you want dinosaurs, check out the companion line to Prehisitoric Animals, DinoFiles; it features nothing but everyone's favorite scaly (or feathered) beasts.
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