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Mysteries of the Dead Side: Sacred Necromancer
Publisher: Zombie Sky Press
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/24/2012 14:42:09

Necromancy is one of those areas where a lot of people want to play one, but it’s always something of an awkward fit. Under the basic Pathfinder rules, the basic aspects of necromancy tend towards undead- and evil-focused material enough that you’re either not evil and doing it wrong, or doing it right but are evil as a consequence. It is, quite simply, hard to reconcile those two extremes.

No more! Zombie Sky Press’s Mysteries of the Dead Side: Sacred Necromancer threads the difficult strands between offering necromantic powers without (necessarily) being a servant of darkness. Let’s take a closer look and see how it pulls it off.

The book conforms to the minimum material necessary for a quality PDF product: copy-and-paste is enabled, and full nested bookmarks are present. No printer-friendly version is presented, but that’s not really a concern because (save for the front cover) there’s very little artwork here; just three color pieces.

The book opens with its new base class, the sacred necromancer. On its face, this class looks a lot like an oracle – same BAB and Hit Dice, same skill points per level – but the differences quickly become clear. While the sacred necromancer is a spontaneous spellcaster, each day it gets to change what spells are on its Spells Known list, but with a catch – they can only choose necromancy spells, off of any list (with a necessary exception for 0-level spells). Further, their spells are considered both divine and arcane at the same time; the sacred necromancer’s study of death crosses conventional limitations. Being able to channel energy is also a valuable ability, but in this case it’s limited by the sacred necromancer’s calling.

A calling is similar to an oracle’s mystery, in that it’s a theme that grants some basic powers, and then presents a suite of abilities, of which you choose one every so many levels. In this case, a calling decides what sort of channel energy you can use and how you use it (e.g. channel negative energy, only for harming the living), has a “connection” (a signature ability that is automatically gained), and a set of whispers to choose from.

There are six callings presented (counting the Journeyman as two). The chirurgeon is obsessed with the physical aspects of death. Like Doctor Frankenstein, he can construct a golem-like “monster” that’s somewhere between an animal companion and an eidolon. More interesting, at least to me, was his whisper that lets him remove the “evil” descriptor from spells that raise the undead – I know so many players who will want this just for that.

The Exorcist is focused around trapping, dispelling, and otherwise countering the effects of outsiders and undead. There are a lot of abilities here that are defensive in nature, as well as some battlefield-control ones (e.g. seal an outsider in a protected area for a short time). The Journeyman of the Pale Path, by contrast, is simply an expert at manipulating negative energy, to the tune of things like taking an immediate action to reduce healing with a tightly-focused channel energy, or create undead that share teamwork feats. Nicely, there’s a sidebar that talks about reversing this class to be positive-energy focused instead, and each ability has a short section saying how it would work in reverse.

The Psychopomp is concerned with the state of the soul. It struck me as the weakest of the themes here, but it still had several interesting abilities, such as summoning a spirit to be able to be the focus point of channeling energy, or being able to summon ancient spirits of great heroes into your allies to boost their abilities. The final calling, the Revenant, is much more fun – you get to play an undead creature! Limited only in that you’re not flatly immune to mind-affecting effects, this calling has some fairly tightly-focused powers relating to your former life, such as focusing your hatred against certain kinds of creatures (presumably the same sort that killed you) or even against specific individuals.

Beyond these callings, sacred necromancers also gain “fields.” Fields are like mini-callings, adding additional thematic flavor to what your sacred necromancer can do. Most don’t inherently grant any powers, but rather expand what whispers you can take. For example, the self-experimentation field allows access to four whispers based around augmenting your body to gain.

There’s also a brief sidebar which says it lists “all necromancy spells for the Pathfinder role-playing game.” That’s great, particularly since most (though it seems like it should be all) of them are linked to the d20 PF SRD, but I do wish that those spells not from the Core Rulebook were tagged with an indicator to show what book they are from.

Nearing its end, the book presents a sample sacred necromancer named Ren. Ren, who is a shout-out to a previous ZSP book, has a full stat block, but has no flavor or expository text of any kind, which is a shame considering her background. She’s also fox-blooded, which is a new +0 CR simple template, which denotes that you have kitsune ancestry – I liked this, even if it was slightly out of place in the book, because it lets you delve into taking kitsune-specific abilities. Speaking of which, the book has three new feats, one of which allows you to have an extra fox tail. The other two are more necromantic in focus, granting an extra whisper or allowing you to turn the living (a la turn undead).

One thing I haven’t mentioned up until now are the book’s weaknesses. Remember how I noted that the spell list was linked to d20pfsrd.com? So are lots of other parts in the book…but there’s no visual indicator of what words are links and which aren’t. While this does make for a more consistent (and prettier) visual display, it can be surprising when you click to scroll the PDF and find that you’ve clicked on a link to open something on d20pfsrd.

There’s also the occasionally-unclear ability. A high-level exorcist, for example, is protected from bodily contact with outsiders and the undead as a supernatural ability…unless they have spell resistance. So he has to make a caster level check with a supernatural ability against their SR? What bonus does he have for that? Presumably it’s equal to his character level, but it’s unclear. There are a few instances of that kind of uncertainty throughout the book, though only a few (e.g. is Extra Whisper limited to just whispers you can take, or any whisper in any calling or field?).

Overall though, I think the book was not only mechanically sound in what it prevented, but highly evocative as well. This is the sort of book where, as you read it, you can’t help but think about how much fun it would be to play this class. To me, that’s really the best mark of quality an RPG supplement can have. Delving into death was never so much fun as the sacred necromancer makes it.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Mysteries of the Dead Side: Sacred Necromancer
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100% Crunch: Liches
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/17/2012 15:31:17

It’s hard to deny that the intense mathematical aspect of Pathfinder is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for a great deal of customization and mechanical creativity; endless combinations are possible to help define the sort of character you want. On the other hand, it can also be a lot to handle, particularly if you’re a GM trying to generate NPCs of a higher level (and if they can cast spells).

Raging Swan Press’s new book, 100% Crunch: Liches, looks to take some of the work out of this process, at least insofar as liches, those pinnacles of undeath, are concerned.

100% Crunch: Liches comes with a print version and a screen-reading version. Usually I’m a fan of printer-friendly versions of products, but in this case I honestly had a hard time determining any practical difference between the two; the only one that I saw was that the print version was set to display two pages at a time, something which you can easily toggle with the “View” setting on your PDF reader. Both versions have full nested bookmarks, and have copy-and-paste enabled, to their credit.

The book has a minimalist presentation on design. The illustrations here are extremely few, and there’s some white space on the pages – the author actually speaks to this latter point, noting (wisely, in my opinion) that it’s better to have each NPC on its own page for easy printing, rather than having the stat blocks sprawling across multiple pages in a jumbled mess.

The book features an expanded table of contents, which is a nice addition to its bookmarks, as the TOC shows the alignment/race/class breakdown for each entry, sorted by Challenge Ratings. It also reproduces the templates for not only the basic lich, but also the forsaken lich and the demilich, which is a nice touch.

The book further introduces three new archetypes for sentient undead bards, druids, and rangers. This was something of a disappointment because, while I like the idea of introducing undead-specific archetypes for these classes, what’s here didn’t go far enough. The archetypes are mostly concerned with deleting and replacing spells on the listed classes’ spell lists, though the undead bard also gets an ability to use its spells and abilities to bolster undead creatures, rather than living ones. There should be more here – what about the animal companions or druids and rangers, for example (should they have them)? More could have been done with these.

It’s following these that we come to the NPC stat blocks themselves. These NPCs are, as the book’s title says, 100% crunch – other than the brief visual description, these are all statistics shorn of any flavor or descriptive text. The stat blocks are, for the most part, fairly well done, but errors and poor designs do creep in every now and then. For example, the CR 12 halfling clerical lich has its domain powers and domain spells in its stat block, but the domains themselves (Charm and Trickery, by the way) aren’t listed. Likewise, the CR 20 succubus lich has, as one of its highest-level spells, teleport without error. Leaving aside that this should be called “greater teleport,” why would she have this as a spell when she can use it as a spell-like ability at will? Little things like these pepper the book, though somewhat infrequently.

Beyond that, I do have to give credit to the book’s author for really mixing it up with his choices. While it’s obvious in theory that there are so many combinations of races, classes, and lich templates to apply, it’s something to see some of them here. A human ranger forsaken lich, an ancient green dragon lich, a dwarf oracle lich, and others are here – though for you purists, there are plenty of more down-to-earth liches here as well, including the basic human wizard lich.

Overall, the book is a good one if you’re worried about sitting down and making a lich character from scratch. It also doesn’t range too far afield; none of the spells here go beyond what’s in the Core Rules. While some small blemishes are present, virtually all of them are easily spotted and fixed if you look over your stat block of choice with a critical eye. Otherwise, your only problem is which lich to pitch at your PCs.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
100% Crunch: Liches
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The Nightmare of Abul Khared
Publisher: Dakkar Unlimited
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/10/2012 14:57:25

The worst villains are those that are unintentionally self-created. While villains who are simply evil because they enjoy it are easily hated, those who became something terrible without realizing that they were walking the path to damnation are tragic figures, albeit no less monstrous for their tragedy. After all, if they didn’t realize the dire consequences of what they were doing, how do any of us know we’re not on the same path?

Such is the case with the Nightmare of Abul Khared, a new villain for the Hot Chicks RPG from Dakkar Unlimited.

Before we look at the Nightmare further, let’s quickly examine the book itself. The technical specifics follow in the usual fare for Dakkar. The three-dozen-page book is broken up into various sections by headers, eschewing any sort of chapter format. These headers are the basis for the bookmarks that are also present. Copy-and-paste is likewise enabled.

The artwork is Dakkar’s signature full-color CGI style. The pictures are as gorgeous, and as ghoulish in the subject matter, as you’d expect. Full frontal nudity for both women and men are to be found here, typically in the grip of Abul himself or his servitors. There is no printer-friendly option, so beware if you want to print this out.

The vast majority of the book, just over 75% of it, are narrative in nature; that is, it’s not so much about game mechanics as it is about story and background. This is something I suspect that some gamers may feel divided over – if you’re a gifted storyteller, you may not appreciate that there’s roughly eight pages of game statistics, with the rest being a story that you could have made yourself. On the other hand, if you prefer villains with a highly fleshed-out background, villains with complex motivations and detailed origin stories, you might find this invaluable. I tend towards the latter stance, but your mileage may vary.

The story of Abul Khared himself is an exploration of the descent into madness. A scientist who lost his family in the Depravity War, his search for the ones responsible came to a bitter end when he realized that he could find them but lacked the power or resources to harm them. Unfortunately, things became far worse for Abul from there.

The results of his impotent quest for revenge motivated Abul to begin forcibly evolving himself, and the results are chronicled in a series of in-character diaries throughout the book. These are broken up by out-of-character (that is, meta-game) text wherein the author analyzes and expounds upon what it is that Abul is going through.

Abul’s slow descent is a surprisingly gripping read, and the expository text does a good job of highlighting just what it is that he’s facing as he continues the process. There are some (as the author calls them) “high concept” in this, as Abul’s story is interlaced with science fiction; admittedly, it plays rather fast and loose with quite a bit of the sci-fi, but I don’t see that as a bad thing – what’s important is the character reactions, not the actual means used to provoke them.

Of course, this means that the book is more story than it is game supplement. While there are game statistics for the Nightmare, as well as its servitors, and even some new powers and the creature’s base of operations, that’s the sum total of it, plus a few adventure seeds. Ideas for using Abul Khared in your game are given, but I was rather surprised how the author had very few specifics regarding the “how” of having PCs fight him – I used to think that this was sloppy game design, but lately I’ve been rethinking that stance. The more free-form kind of role-playing, concerned more with creativity at the table than with carefully charted numerical modifiers, is clearly being referenced here; given that, the author’s very general brand of advice makes perfect sense.

Ultimately, the Nightmare of Abul Khared is one that we get to experience along with the eponymous characters, being walked through little-by-little his descent into something more, and less, than human. It’s only when the Nightmare is fully revealed are we presented with it in terms of an RPG, with a set of stats and some nonspecific advice on how to use it. Take from that what you will, but I personally enjoyed it quite a bit – this is a Nightmare that, used properly, your PCs will never forget confronting.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Nightmare of Abul Khared
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Legendary Levels II
Publisher: Little Red Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/04/2012 17:55:58

There’s a particular aspect with post-twentieth-level gaming that doesn’t get discussed very much: that the outliers tend to get screwed. What that means is that, for the usual reasons that level 20+ material doesn’t get supported, what support is given is usually to the baseline classes of the game. If you’re playing some sort of exotic class, you had better hope that you can find some generic options that fit your character, otherwise you’re just out of luck.

It’s that sort of problem that Legendary Levels II, from Little Red Goblin Games, seeks to address.

Before going any further, there’s one thing that should be made absolutely clear regarding this book. You need to have the first Legendary Levels book in order to use this one. While the legendary classes and feats are fairly self-explanatory in what they offer, there are some fairly important aspects of this book, such as legendary damage or divinity scores, that are introduced in the first book that aren’t explained herein; you’ll need the first Legendary Levels book for that.

With that said, let’s move on to the book’s technical presentation. This book was rather awkward in that it included a separate JPG file for each of the book’s interior illustrations (with one being presented twice), and a composite work of all of those illustrations together and in color. Why do I call this awkward? Well, beyond having almost twenty additional files included with the book, these pictures are large. The file size on most of them is around five megabytes, but that composite I mentioned before? That one weighs in at over sixty-five megabytes! The PDF of the book itself is just over a dozen megabytes in size.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that LRGG decided to include separate files for the pictures, but the size of these is somewhat prohibitive; maybe my computer is showing its age, but opening these files seemed to strain my CPU. Moreover, it seemed to me that it called attention to this book not having a printer-friendly version, something I still think all PDF products should offer. The book itself is presented against a light tan “parchment” background. It does what a PDF should in that it allows for copy-and-paste, and has full nested bookmarks.

Moving away from the technical presentation, let’s take a look at what’s in Legendary Levels II. As with its predecessor, this book offers a series of legendary classes designed to take your game from 21st to 30th level. Whereas the first book covered the core classes, this one covers all of the base and alternate classes from the APG, UM, and UC, along with one of Little Red Goblin Games’s own original classes from their book Tome of the Bizarre.

These classes aren’t presented as “extensions” of the original class so much as they are as special prestige classes; I say “special” here because they have no prerequisites – obviously you can take the corresponding legendary class if you’ve hit 20th level in the base class (e.g. if you’re a 20th level witch your next class level would be 1st-level legendary witch), and that these levels stack with the base class’s level for numerical purposes (e.g. most class abilities). The book also notes that you can allow for these classes to be taken by a character that’s thematically near the legendary class (giving an example of a rogue 15/assassin 5 could still take levels in legendary rogue).

The classes themselves are all ten levels in length, and for the most part offer a parcel of original powers and abilities, though a few (such as the oracle) are based around expanding lower-level class abilities; e.g. more mysteries and revelations. It’s worth noting that quite a few of these powers are based around dealing or protecting yourself from legendary damage (e.g. being reduced instantly to 0 hit points), though there are still plenty that do not.

The new mechanics themselves are something of a mixed bag. While I generally liked what was here, minor errors cropped up with disappointing regularity. Some of these were issues of formatting, such as something that should have been indented or emboldened but wasn’t. Still others were small errors that were easily fixed (e.g. an ability that says it works on a 3-in-6 chance, and then says it works if you get a 3, 4, 5, or 6 on a d6 roll).

Still, if you can get past the fact that this book should have been through editorial polishing a bit more, there’s a lot to like here. Many of the class abilities are quite fun; I particularly loved the gunslinger’s Russian Roulette deed – blindly loading your revolver, or other firearm, you point it at yourself or your enemy, and have a 50% chance of firing or not, with a special result each way; or the legendary summoner evolutions, such as being able to get a gargantuan eidolon. There’s a lot to like here if you want to take your character beyond what 20th level can give you.

Two prestige classes are also offered, with the designers flat-out telling you that these are for multiclass characters who can’t otherwise take a legendary class, something which I consider to be a big plus. The first is the artificer, which is a spellcaster that deals primarily with magical technology – in this case, the class is based around having a pool of “spark of life” points, as this is the spark within both living things and magic, and being able to choose discoveries (e.g. class abilities) to spend spark points on. I’ll confess I’m not entirely sure what multiclass mix this is supposed to support, particularly as it offers full spellcasting progression. That said, it is quite cool, particularly since it supports “super heavy armor” which is essentially a suit of mecha.

The other prestige class is the dragonlord, which is meant for characters with some sort of animal companion; you basically give up the animal companion in order to get a dragon instead. It’s pretty badass, and the class is a mixture of set class abilities and getting to pick from a suite of abilities (a la rogue talents).

The book closes out with a section of new legendary feats, which means that they can only be taken by 21st-level and above characters. The feats are, rather interestingly, divided into two groups. The first group is roughly what you’d expect of new feats, offering (again, a very mixed bag) of new abilities. Some of these are what you’d expect at this stage of play, such as being able to make a full attack action during a spring attack, while others (particularly the metamagic feats) don’t seem to quite keep pace – I suspect that in the case of the magic-focused feats, this lack of greater ability is by design (as I recall it being in the first book), since legendary spellcasting is already such an advantage, it’s appropriate that feats should play more towards the martial-oriented characters.

The second set of feats are called scion feats, and these are another love letter to multiclass characters. In this case, the feats are designed to allow access to the less powerful abilities of the base legendary classes for characters that, due to multiclassing, wouldn’t otherwise ever be able to reach them. For example, so long as you’re a 21st-level character, with at least 10 levels in samurai, you can take the Bushi of Susanoo scion feat, which gives you the legendary samurai’s death before dishonor class ability. It’s a very elegant way to make sure that the multiclassed characters aren’t left behind.

Ultimately, this book is the necessary follow-up to the first Legendary Levels, covering those classes that were excluded. In that sense, it’s a very apropos sequel, as it has both the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. The flaws are primarily based around some necessary editing (Legendary Mounted Combat is printed twice, for instance), and some options seem, at least on their face, better than some others, but none of this ever drastically undercuts the value of what’s here. If you desire to return to the realm of gaming beyond 20th level, and you’ve long since left the core classes behind, lok to Legendary Levels II to dial your character all the way up to 30.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Legendary Levels II
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100 Familiars
Publisher: Lee's Lists
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/27/2012 20:23:34

Familiars are one of those niche areas that’s never truly complete, since there’s always another animal, or some sort of creature, that could conceivably become one. It’s almost a competition among PCs to try and find the most bizarre, unique familiar allowable.

With the release of 100 Pathfinder Familiars, from Lee’s Lists, that competition just kicked into overdrive.

100 Pathfinder Familiars is self-explanatory in what it offers. The book is a short one, being four pages long, and interestingly is released under a Creative Commons License, rather than the OGL (though it has the Pathfinder Compatibility Logo, oddly enough).

The one hundred familiars are broken into eight groups, each having anywhere from less than a half-dozen to almost two dozen creatures, each of which covers a broad type; these are Insects, Arthropods, Fey/Elementals, Things That Grow On/In You, Birds, Fish, Reptiles/Amphibians, and Mammals. Each group lists (almost off-handedly) what existing stat block you should use to represent the creatures in that group, neatly avoiding the need to present unique stats for the creatures listed.

The above has one exception, however – each creature listed also mentions its unique familiar bonuses; that is, the mechanical benefit they provide to their master. Each such creature has them, and they help to make each every entry on the list stand out.

Of course, many if not most of these creatures don’t need that much help standing out. Perhaps it’s because most of the common familiars have already been detailed, or perhaps its because the author is insane, but there are some truly wacky familiars here! Yes there are some creatures like ducks and poodles that you can magically bond with, but what about a case of athlete’s foot? Or a winged squid? Or a living bit of music? There are some truly out-there familiars here!

Of course, that’s not always a good thing. Some of the listed entries stretch what the given stat blocks assigned to them could easily accommodate. Saying that the cat stat block should be used for all mammals is awkward when one of the listed creatures is an alpaca (which are about three feet tall and 150 lbs.). Likewise, canny Pathfinder players will know that a few of the creatures on here already have stat blocks (admittedly not in the first Bestiary, but still…), so things like a redcap or boggart familiar might be awkward.

Moreover, a minority of the familiar benefits stretch what the familiar’s master might consider useful. Normally, a familiar is the purview of a wizard, witch, and in some cases a sorcerer. So having a familiar that grants an extra round of barbarian raging (the wolverine, appropriately enough) or that increases damaging when channeling negative energy (the goat, presumably for its real-world devilish symbolism) might be a bit awkward. On the other hand, these might be the sorts of familiars that multiclass spellcasters would love to have; viva las corner cases.

Overall, 100 Pathfinder Familiars is a wacky book that sometimes plays a little fast and loose with what it presents, but never so much that what’s here is unusable – indeed, the combination of sensible and silly makes for a terrific set of possible familiars here (I recommend having your next PC roll randomly on this list for their familiar; everyone will be howling when it turns out to be a hookworm living in their intestines). If you’re in the mood to have your arcane spellcaster have an exotic familiar, you owe it to yourself to look here, where there’s a hundred of them.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
100 Familiars
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Publisher Reply:
We had some licensing hiccups, but that should be taken care of now! Thanks for the review!
Modern Basics: Feats of Seduction and Subterfuge
Publisher: NUELOW Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/20/2012 18:11:49

It’s a truism that d20-based games are built around combat. It is possible to work against this slant and create characters that are focused on peaceful interaction, largely by focusing on skills and feats that lean away from combat potential, but there are comparatively few of those. NUELOW Games’s new book, Modern Basics: Feats of Seduction and Subterfuge, expands that roster ever so slightly.

The book’s presentation is notably minimalist, at least in terms of technical bells and whistles. Copy-and-paste is enabled, but there aren’t any hyperlinks or bookmarks…though for a PDF that’s only five pages long, this isn’t really an issue. The book takes an understated tone with illustrations as well. A few shots of the couple from the cover are all that’s to be found on the interior; this lends the book a nice sense of style in a “just what you see” way.

In terms of evaluating the book, I think it’s important to remember that this is geared primarily towards d20 Modern. The designer does not that these can be used with pretty much any d20 game, and he’s not wrong in that assertion; what’s here will work with pretty much any incarnation of d20, though I’ll say right now that some systems will necessitate some minor adapting. What’s more important to take away from the book’s focus on d20 Modern is the relative scale of what it offers (in terms of power) and the nature of its effects, something I’ll touch on more below.

Feats of Seduction and Subterfuge offers one new skill and eight new feats. Insightfully, the author gives a brief introduction wherein he mentions that the new skill (Seduction) should be a class skill for bards, Charismatic Heroes, and other Charisma-focused classes, and that the feats should be on the bonus feat lists for such classes. I have to give the author props here; mentioning who gets them as class skills is an oversight that most people make when introducing new skills into the game. The issue of bonus feats is somewhat less germane, but still appreciated.

Unfortunately, the Seduction skill itself was nothing to write home about. For me, the major downside was that it didn’t adequately describe what it does, and how it makes itself different from broader skills that have the same theme (such as Bluff). The skill says that it’s used to “sway NPCs into performing actions of your choosing,” but it doesn’t give examples of the degree to which you sway them the way Diplomacy does. Worse, the skill has no mention of the time required to make a seduction attempt, and oddly splits itself between the two sexes (e.g. Seduction (females) is different from Seduction (males)), something I found unnecessary. I also didn’t like the static DC, since I think that skill checks to influence creatures should be opposed checks.

The new feats were more passable in what they offered. If you have the Wardrobe Malfunction feats, for example, you’ve mastered the art of the nip slip (or other sexy reveal) – you can briefly expose yourself, feigning embarrassment at your “accidental” reveal; doing so lets you make a skill check to not only amuse those who see it and are fooled, but it also creates a distraction for your allies. It’s unfortunate that feats like this were the vast minority of the book.

To expound upon that, of the eight feats in the book, six of them were skill boosters, offering a +2 bonus to two (sometimes three) related skills; some also have an additional effect, such as how the No Sense feat grants not only a +2 bonus to Bluff and Intimidate, but also a +4 bonus to saves against feat. This brings us back to what I was saying before about the power scale of these feats being relative depending on the kind of game you’re running. For a d20 Modern game, these are comparable to a lot of the feats available in the Core Rulebook, as these stand alongside a host of other “+2 to two skills” feats, and even a bit above them. For a Pathfinder game, however, these will often be seen as somewhat underpowered compared to the other feats available.

Ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to judge this book too harshly, since as a d20 Modern-based book it stands fairly well on its own; only the Seduction skill needs any major work, but it’s easily overlooked (though for feats that use it, I’d throw it out in favor of Bluff instead). The feats themselves range from about par to being quite innovative; I only wish there were less of the former and more of the latter. Still, Feats of Seduction and Subterfuge isn’t a bad book if you want to increase your Modern Basics.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Modern Basics: Feats of Seduction and Subterfuge
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Way of the Wicked Book Five: The Devil My Only Master
Publisher: Fire Mountain Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/14/2012 19:43:50

Adventurers of any stripe are independent types; that’s a truism that goes back to the beginning of gaming. Few are the adventurers who care to have someone telling them how to take the risks they take, let alone telling them where to go and what to do. This is doubly so for those characters who are evil in nature…and yet that’s exactly what the PCs of the Way of the Wicked adventure path have had to endure. Until now.

Now, in the penultimate adventure, The Devil My Only Master, the PCs finally throw off the shackles of their earthly patron and take control of the plot to conquer the nation of Talingarde. But their master is not willing to go quietly. Let’s take a look and see how the adventure plays out.

The adventure comes with three PDFs. The first is the adventure itself, the second is the printer-friendly version thereof, and the third is a set of player handouts. Let’s look at these in reverse order. The player handouts largely consists of the adventure maps with the various keys and descriptors removed, which is a good thing to have; only one is an actual handout for the players to peruse. I had mixed feelings about these only being available in full color, as you’re most likely going to want to print these out – still, there aren’t that many (a grand total of six single-page items), so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

The critique about color artwork follows us to the printer-friendly version of the adventure. The printer-friendly version of the adventure has the same layout and artwork as the full-color version; what’s changed is that the page backgrounds (a parchment-color tan) and borders (a mixture of black and deep grey) are removed, with the borders being denoted only in grayscale lines. All of the other artwork and maps are present, color included.

I’ve mentioned before that I can understand leaving the artwork and illustrations in a printer-friendly PDF, as removing them requires redoing the layout. However, I’m less sympathetic to not finding a way to set the artwork to black-and-white at the very least. Would that really have been so hard to do?

Of course, the artwork is gorgeous – Michael Clark continues to live up to his high standards from previous works here, with artwork that seems to leap off the page, most in gorgeous full-color. Notwithstanding the maps, the bulk of the artwork goes to various NPCs introduced throughout the adventure, and the pictures do a marvelous job of showcasing just who it is your PCs are electing to go up against.

The PDF itself hits most of the technical marks you’d expect of it, having copy-and-paste enabled, and having bookmarks to each major section, though it’s still worth a frown that there are no nested bookmarks to sub-sections. I’d also like to see things like Mac-compatible files and epublishing versions available, but the lack of these certainly isn’t a deal-breaker. I should also note that there are some points of errata throughout the adventure as well – Cardinal Thorn’s CR, for example, is one point higher than it should be (unless it was bumped up to account for his gear, in which case that should be mentioned). Again, nothing that’s worth taking points off over, but if you have the time you may want to double-check a few things.

The book’s first act begins immediately where the last one ended, with the PCs now ready to turn against their patron, Cardinal Thorn. Indeed, at this point Thorn is already making preemptive strikes against them, whether the PCs have antagonized him or not, as his paranoia (and failure to act in accordance with the strict dogma of Hell) has already pushed him to the edge. The first act is therefore a mixture of dealing with Thorn’s agents as they attempt to kill the PCs and bargaining with his former associates to usurp his position. It’s here that the PCs manage to deal with the contract they signed way back in Book One, and the manner in which a particular loophole is exploited is quite diabolical indeed.

This part of the book features a sidebar wherein the author admits to this act’s repetitive nature – roughly a half-dozen encounters with outsiders teleporting in to either talk or fight. He mentions, wisely in my opinion, that you might want to consider spacing at least some of these out – this is good advice, but may be hard to put into practice; as I read it, only the last section can really bet set later in the adventure. Virtually all of the rest are required for setting things up. Also, the third section struck me as somewhat awkward, as it’s incumbent on a character from the previous Book having escaped alive – this is a bit tenuous for me; something should have been put in there to make this more definitive.

The book’s second act takes a detour, as the PCs now regroup and meet up with the Fifth Knot to gain some new intelligence on another old foe. The paladin Sir Richard has his story detailed here in full (something that takes a surprising three pages, and brings up another small complaint I have – at this point the PCs will only have met Sir Richard in combat once. There are supposed to be other instances where they come near each other, but these are easily downplayed unless the GM takes steps to play up the paladin’s accomplishments. This section, which covers his story in one place, makes it easier to do that; I just wish this had been highlighted earlier).

Of more pressing concern is that the paladin is currently on the Isle of Chargammon, attempting to secure funds for the army Princess Bellinda is trying to raise. The PCs must race there, overcome him and his company of knights, and make a decision as to whether they can try and kill their righteous foe once and for all, or something far more sinister.

This second act is the built-in “downtime” between the first act and the rest of the adventure. While it does have some combat, only the last part (with Richard and his fellows) is truly a threat to the PCs; far more important is what they do with the intelligence they gain, and what they do with Richard after his defeat. This islargely setting the direction for where to go next.

In this case, that’ll likely lead to the book’s third act; now that the PCs know that Cardinal Thorn is a lich, it’s time to go after his phylactery. Of course, this is no easy win – the phylactery is hidden in the lair of a truly terrible linnorm that dwells in a lonely cairn filled with undead. Contrasting to the previous section, there’s little politicking to do here; this is purely a smash-and-grab, and it’s likely to be a tough one. Of course, smart PCs will know better than to go charging in blindly (indeed, there are multiple notes in the book about one particular encounter being a likely TPK if the PCs don’t play it smart). Of course, once the PCs have the phylactery, it isn’t quite over, and then there’s the question of what to do with it.

I didn’t have any major complaints with this areas, as the book’s sole choke-point in terms of difficulty is addressed directly in a sidebar. I do wish that some discussion had been given to groups who try to employ the “fifteen-minute adventuring day” schtick, as this part of the book seems to lend itself to the PCs resting for a day after a difficult encounter, as most of the creatures are location-based.

The book’s final act is the assault on Thorn’s sanctum sanctorum, the Agathium. This two-level temple to Asmodeus is the final showdown with their old master and his few remaining servants. This last act is a mixture of the second and third, as there are multiple opportunities to make deals with some of the NPCs here, but at the same time there are plenty who won’t be willing to negotiate. Ultimately, this makes it something of a straightforward dungeon-crawl.

I quite enjoyed this section for its mixture of bloodlust and diplomacy, as it invites the kind of role-playing that I think Pathfinder does best. I do wish that there had been a larger section on the threats on the journey to the Agathium, but this is a small complaint as it does cover at least one obstacle on the way there, and by this time the PCs are likely using magical travel anyway, so it’s something of a moot point.

Far better is that this last section lends itself much more easily to scaling. The NPCs are largely divided by this point, thanks to Thorn’s paranoia and mismanagement of his resources; this can easily be changed if the PCs seem like they’re having too easy a time of it. I also don’t think this section suffers from the same “fifteen-minute” problem as the previous one, not because it necessarily goes out of its way to work around it, but because it’s somewhat self-evident that the PCs can’t stop halfway through a major assault on Thorn’s base of operations and then just pick up where they left off. Any GM who lets them get away with that is being far too lenient.

Once the PCs have settled the score, the stage is set for the final conquest, but unfortunately that will have to wait until the final book.

Luckily, this one doesn’t end here. A two-page FAQ is given on various areas where the PCs could go off the rails. In previous books, this was helpful – here, it is an absolute necessity. I’m frankly amazed that this section is only two pages long and yet manages to cover virtually all of the major deviations that the PCs could take; GMs would be well advised to pay close attention to this.

Following this is a section titled “Children of the Night,” a continuation of the same section from the previous book that deals more with vampire and lich PCs; whereas that was focused on the flavor of running an undead PC, this article focuses on the mechanics.

For vampires, the balancing mechanism for a vampire PC is largely handled as a feat tax. Specifically, becoming a vampire is set as a five-feat tree; only three feats are necessary to become a vampire, but gaining the full powers and benefits of the template from the Bestiary takes all five. This works well, I think, to balance the panoply of powers that vampires get (particularly since the vampiric weaknesses are not that difficult to ameliorate for smart PCs).

Liches are treated somewhat differently. Lichdom requires only a single feat, but crafting a phylactery takes months of constant effort. While some may find this lopsided compared to the degree of feats a vampire needs to pay, I think that it’s important to recall that vampires gain much greater utility and offensive powers than liches do, so I found this to be a comparatively equitable price to pay.

Of course, these aren’t the only feats in the book, as over a dozen new feats, and a half-dozen new spells and magic items each, all specific to the undead, follow. With spells such as “restore the destroyed” (a “resurrection” for the undead) and magic items like “the false heart” (so that a vampire may remove their real heart from their body, protecting it), these will definitely enable undead PCs to stretch their rotting wings to the fullest.

The book’s final section is similarly crunchy in what it offers. Titled “Hellbound” and written by Jason Bulmahn, here we’re given four new Asmodeus-specific class archetypes and nine new feats; most of the latter revolve specifically around striking deals with agents of Hell in exchange for power, albeit at the cost of your soul. Most of these were quite good, though I wish the antipaladin archetype had explicitly called out that changes the class alignment to Lawful Evil.

There’s one other aspect of the book that was disappointing in its exclusion; the PCs minions (a la the minion rules from Book Two). There’s simply very little for their minions to do here, as the book focuses almost exclusively on the PCs’ tactical actions against their enemies; while it can’t be helped given the nature of things coming to a head, it’s a shame that there are no opportunities for greater villainy undertaken on a wider scale here. Hopefully the evil followers of the PCs will play a greater role in the final book.

Having said that, the fifth book of the Way of the Wicked is a different beast than its predecessors, but not a lesser one. Here, there are extremely few good-aligned creatures to fight; instead, this is a battle against other villains to crown yourselves as the undisputed master of evil. This adventure is the first part of the dark reward your PCs will have been yearning for since the campaign’s start, and they’ll surely reap it with relish. From now on, each PC will bow exclusively to The Devil My Only Master.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Way of the Wicked Book Five: The Devil My Only Master
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Infamous Adversaries: Urizen the Bleak Lord
Publisher: Total Party Kill Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/23/2012 15:47:54

Heroes, it’s said, are made, not born. What’s left unsaid is what it is that makes them: villains. Heroes are only as great as the villains they overcome, and so the darker, more powerful, more iconic the villain, the greater the hero. As such, it’s almost surprising that we don’t see more products devoted specifically to villains. One such book, however, is Urizen the Bleak Lord, part of the Infamous Adversaries line from Total Party Kill Games.

Before we examine this new paragon of evil, let’s look at the book itself. The product comes as two PDF files, and a set of Hero Lab files. Unfortunately, not using Hero Lab myself I can’t review that aspect of the product, other than to commend TPK Games for using Hero Lab in the first place; I’ve heard enough to know that there are probably a lot of gamers who’ll appreciate it.

The two PDFs are the main file and a printer-friendly version thereof. The printer-friendly version is notably shorter, in terms of pages, than the main file, eliminating the cover and several pages of ads in the back. More dramatic is that it completely eschews the gray page backgrounds and dark borders. I did frown a bit at it keeping the interior illustrations – this is clearly to keep the layout from needing to be redone, and it’s not a major issue since the three interior illustrations are in black and white, but it’s still not quite as printer-friendly as it could be.

Of course, there is more to the book’s illustrations than those three pictures. Dustan Kostic’s cover is reproduced inside the book, along with another picture, and the full-page pictures are visually arresting. Having no artistic background, it’s hard for me to describe, but there’s a sense of a slight blurriness there that contrasts sharply with the amount of detail in the pictures – those two aspects of the pictures sound like they should clash, but they don’t; instead, there’s a blend of details even as there’s an overall sense that you’re still not seeing the character clearly, making them even more menacing. It’s truly impressive.

Similarly impressive is the character of Urizen himself. The book, after the intro by Owen K. C. Stephens, opens with the narrative of Urizen’s genesis. The story itself is captivating, but seems to end prematurely, stopping as Urizen hits his zenith of power, but not going on to lay out his current state.

It’s after this that we’re given the first of three stat blocks for Urizen, and it’s also here that my first critique of the book comes – the layout needs to be tweaked. To be clear, I don’t mean that the book’s text layout is flawed (it keeps to the familiar two-column style), but rather the various sections of the book should have been placed in a different order. For example, the first stat block for Urizen is at his weakest, and is given far earlier than his later, more powerful incarnations.

That, to my mind, was a mistake. Rather, his stat blocks should have been either placed altogether, or had one (ideally the most powerful) up front and the others in an appendix, or (in what I think would have been the most poetic option) to have his narrative broken up by showing his stat block as it displays him at various points in the story. Now that would have been impressive.

I should also take some time to talk about his stat blocks as well. Other than the occasional problem (e.g. no XP listings, a fly spell-like ability saying it’s for “0 minutes/day,” etc., these are quite well constructed. Hyperlinks to various parts of the d20 PF SRD are used liberally, which is not only nice but absolutely necessary, since Urizen’s stats range from beyond what the Core Rulebook offers. Indeed, his base class is a death knight, from a third-party supplement (have no fear though, for his special powers are described in full).

Several pages are devoted to Urizen as a character, by which I mean describing him as a person – his goals, his personality, his lair, etc. These are fairly good, but are painted in fairly broad strokes; Urizen is a larger-than-life figure, and so there doesn’t seem to be any real degree of specificity or notable quirks that make him an individual, as opposed to a manifest archetype. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Urizen is a BBEG in every sense of the word, but it’s more about what he is, rather than who.

There are several additional stat blocks devoted to his servitors; one is his terrestrial mount, another is his aerial mount, and the third is his lieutenant. This last one is the only one to have two stat blocks, which makes sense given her importance in Urizen’s back-story (though it makes me wish she’d been illustrated). These are helpful, but I’m of two minds about them being the sole degree of mechanical support which Urizen receives – on the one hand, adding too much else can be seen as restrictive in regards to GMs who want to really customize Urizen’s set up…but on the other hand, most GMs won’t feel bound by what’s here anyway, so why not give us some more specifics?

These don’t need to be full stat blocks, of course, but there’s a lot more that could have been done here. What’s a rough approximation of the forces loyal to Urizen, in terms of what creatures follow him and their numbers? Who are the power players in his court, and what’s their motivations in doing so? Does he take advantage of the cold environment to the point where living characters are likely to suffer environmental penalties? Maybe some of these could even take utilize of some of the expanded Pathfinder rules – does Urizen’s horde constitute having faction rules? Is his kingdom large enough to use the kingdom-building rules?

Ultimately, the major problem with presenting Urizen as a bad guy of campaign-ending proportions is that such characters aren’t enough by themselves; they exist at the top of a power structure of villainy that challenges the PCs – showing us only the ruler themselves is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; there’s still a lot more below that that’s quite important, and we’re only seeing a little of it here. Imagine if Star Wars had focused solely on Emperor Palpatine, and shoved Darth Vader, the storm troopers, the Death Star, etc. into the far background…that’s the major problem here.

Overall, what’s here about Urizen himself is very well done; it’s just not enough. Sometimes a product is defined as much by what it doesn’t do as what it does, and this is an example of that. Hence, I wouldn’t really call this an error on the book’s part, so much as it’s a case of its vision being too narrow. There’s a lot to like about Urizen, and I have no doubt that you’ll be able to get a lot of use out of pitting him against your PCs. But be prepared to flesh out a lot of the forces sitting between him and the PCs; that’s the bleakest aspect of the Bleak Lord.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Infamous Adversaries: Urizen the Bleak Lord
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Adventure Quarterly #2 (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/22/2012 22:01:40

While it’s common for sourcebooks to get the glory in tabletop role-playing games, it’s adventures that are their lifeblood. After all, while it can be fun to create various characters and tweak builds, all of that effort is just a prelude to really putting your character through his or her paces in an adventure, seeing if they can survive, and thrive, in the adventures that the GM has in store for them, adventures such as those of Rite Publishing’s Adventure Quarterly #2.

A ninety-page adventure, AQ2 has three adventures, wisely split among the low, mid, and high levels. Insightfully, the table of contents tells you this without preamble, giving you a brief description of the adventures and letting you know that they’re for parties of 1st, 9th, and 18th-level characters.

We’ll go over the adventures, but before we do some technical aspects of the book must be addressed. For one thing, AQ2 is not just a PDF file. A half-dozen files, a mixture of PINGs and JPEGs, display the maps for the adventures. Each adventure has one map with the labels, and one without any labels, something that I was particularly pleased by. Made with Dundjinni, the maps aren’t anything to write home about, but at the same time aren’t slap-dash quality either – rather, they look like what they are: a pro-am production made with mapping software.

The PDF which is the bulk of the product hits the technical marks you’d expect it to; copy-and-paste is enabled, and full nested bookmarks are present. The book is set against a white background, and has only a thin border around the pages. Several pieces of full-color art break up the text in various places – including the maps, which are placed into the body of each adventure (something I found helpful, rather than redundant) – but overall the illustrations are sparse enough to strike a nice balance between being relatively printer-friendly while still featuring pictures.

After the editorial for this issue, we’re sent directly to the first adventure, “The Ruins Perilous.” Meant for 1st-level characters, the Ruins Perilous has something of an odd plot, in that it expects the characters to be heading to a dungeon that’s set up strictly as a proving ground for adventurers – those who can overcome the dungeon’s obstacle can join the adventurer’s society that sponsors the dungeon.

I personally found this particular back-story to be a bit thin, partially because it leans on Rite Publishing’s only-vaguely-described Questhaven setting, and partially because having the PCs run through a “training” dungeon feels somehow of less import than if they were going through a “real” one.

That’s really the major critique for the first adventure, because the rest of the dungeon is fairly well designed. I particularly liked, for example, the bit about who keeps the dungeon in ready shape for adventurers, and it wouldn’t take much to set this up as a “legit” dungeon unto itself.

In terms of the dungeon itself, it’s actually an above-ground set of ruins, in which the PCs need to survive while finding specific methods to get to the end. It includes a fairly diverse set of traps and monsters, and covers the largest amount of territory (at least in terms of tactical maps) of the three adventures. There’s an excellent mixture of opportunities here for different ways to go about “beating” the dungeon – from simply hack ‘n’ slashing everything in sight to trying to sneak through with minimal contact with the locals to trying to get through with diplomacy. None of these will work in every situation of course, but you may be surprised by just how different this dungeon can play out depending on how the PCs approach it.

This is also the adventure with the most support material in the book; by support material I mean that this adventure features multiple new magic items, new monsters, and even a set of pregenerated PCs. There’s a lot to recommend The Ruins Perilous, and it opens AQ2 with a great start.

The second adventure, “Into the Land of Tombs,” doesn’t manage to live up to its preceding adventure, unfortunately. For one thing, it’s fairly heavy on its backstory, to the point where the reasons behind the adventure feel burdensome in what they lay on the PCs. Moreover, there’s a strong overtone of the cultural norms of the desert society in which the adventure takes place (as the adventure revolves around those norms being violated), which means that there’s a large table for the PCs to know what those cultural practices are to begin with. Be prepared to read a lot of text to the characters at the start of the adventure.

The adventure itself is essentially a journey to a tomb and the recovery of a missing item held therein. It’s fairly brief overall, which isn’t a bad thing; it’s fairly intense, however, as there are a number of encounters beyond what you’d expect for the duration of the adventure. This is a good thing, as it ablates my biggest gripe with this adventure – it doesn’t quite live up to its listed level for the characters.

“Into the Land of Tombs” is meant to be for 9th-level characters. However, while a few of the encounters are collectively that threat level, none of the individual creatures (save for the BBEG at the end) have a CR that high. To be fair, a few do almost get there with a Challenge Rating of 8. But for the most part, the adventure’s strategy is to wear the PCs down over time, making it very important that the GM reinforce that the fifteen-minute adventuring day not apply here. The PCs are meant to expend resources fighting waves of weaker monsters so that when they come to the end, the “final boss” can adequately challenge them. With that said, be prepared to scale things up if your party is larger than normal.

The final adventure, meant for 18th-level characters, is “The Dungeon of No Return.” As with the other adventures, it has an odd back-story, but it’s nicely abbreviated; moreover, the adventure hooks are varied, and presented as bullet points that quickly describe reasons why the PCs would get involved at all, something that shouldn’t be too hard to determine when your PCs are this high-level.

One thing that needs to be said about this adventure up-front is that the GM will need to sink some serious time into preparation. It’s common knowledge that running a high-level game takes some work, and that’s on display here. While the eponymous dungeon is only five rooms long, the creatures and traps in those five rooms require a full thirty pages to properly lay out. A GM who tries to run this one off the cuff is asking for a lot of frustration.

That said, a GM who does familiarize himself with this dungeon will find that it can present quite the challenge to his group…though some tweaking may be necessary. Several of the rooms in the dungeon are based around the idea of the PCs taking bait and bringing the resulting consequences down on themselves. I personally find most groups, particularly at high levels, to be highly suspicious in nature, and certainly not prone to repeating behaviors that previously brought them to bad ends. It’s not that big a deal, as the dungeon doesn’t rely solely on this gimmick, but it is in there more than once. Be prepared to rethink a room or two on this premise.

The book closes with a pair of quick articles; the first gives us a table of one hundred random features that can be part of a dungeon room. The second is a brief but interesting take on using a mechanical shorthand to indicate how an NPC’s primary (and secondary) motivation can affect their behavior in the course of game-play – something like a morale score, but for something besides determining if the characters duck and run from combat. Both are interesting articles, but I confess that it was the second one that really captured my imagination; I’m a big fan of using brief mechanics as springboards to determine NPC behaviors, so I quite enjoyed this one.

Overall, Adventure Quarterly #2 presents an imperfect but strong selection of adventures. Each is thoughtfully set around different styles of game-play – a dungeon with a widely-varied cast of monsters and traps, a dungeon that relies on attrition, and a dungeon with a short but highly-complex set of challenges – that cover a wide range of styles. Some of the details weren’t to my liking, but these were never anything game-breaking, and in fact were quite easy to change. The pair of articles at the end helped to round things out, even if they weren’t completely germane to the materials at hand. Still, if you’re looking for some new challenges to run your group through, you’d be well-served by what you’ll find in Adventure Quarterly #2.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Adventure Quarterly #2 (PFRPG)
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Call of Cthentacle: Spankham Asylum
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/09/2012 13:19:41

When the star(let)s are right, it is said that they shall return…and now they have! Spankham Asylum is the newest expansion for Postmortem Studios Cthentacle card game. Spankham Asylum introduces twenty new cards of various types, and two new characters to suffer the perverse attentions of the Great Old Ones.

While the amount of cards is consistent with previous sets, what makes Spankham Asylum fun is the completely shameless fun it has in its theme. Once again, artist Darkzel beautifully illustrates everything from mild titillation to hot girl-on-polyp action; the cards themselves continue to involve terrible puns, such as The Book of Eiboner and The Color in My Face.

My perennial complaint with these expansions is that the seven types of cards – the 1-5 number cards, the ! (exclamation point) cards, and the SP cards – are in an uneven amount, meaning that you can have, for example, more 4 cards than there are 3 cards. One can say that this is the natural result of trying to squeeze seven card types into a twenty-card set, but I have to wonder if it wouldn’t have been easier to just add an additional eight cards to bring things up to four of each type.

Still, I have to give credit where credit is due, and give a nod to the fact that the rules do include a half-page of card clarification. This is an important point, as card games seem to bring out the rules lawyers like nothing else. My only complaint is that there are no explanations for how cards from this set interact with cards from previous ones – does In the Ghoulies (from The Dunbitch Horror expansion) work against The Spiders of Length?

These aren’t new complaints of mine, which makes them somewhat more disappointing that they haven’t been addressed – these are not difficult problems to fix. On the other hand, it’s not like I haven’t been able to enjoy the various expansions despite this; I just wish there was more seriousness given to the rules when it comes to a card game about hideous monsters tentacle-raping hot young women.

In all seriousness though, Spankham Asylum is a great new expansion to Call of Cthentacle, living up to the sexy, politically-incorrect nature of its predecessors. If you want even more ways in which the lovely ladies investigating the Mythos can be violated for their trouble, send them to Spankham.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Call of Cthentacle: Spankham Asylum
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Amethyst: Renaissance
Publisher: Dias Ex Machina Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/02/2012 21:14:42

The goal of a campaign setting is to provide a location that’s not only conducive for running a game, but actively helps to stimulate the creative process involved in doing so. One of the primary ways of doing that is by providing a world with developed verisimilitude; the more “realistic” the world feels – “realistic” here meaning that is has internal logic and consistency – the more alive it seems, and the easier it is to role-play in.

Given that, if we judge campaign settings by how alive they seem, then there are none better than Amethyst: Renaissance. That’s a lofty claim to make, but this massive campaign book backs it up solidly and then some. I reviewed the original 3.5 version of this setting, and said that it was a world brimming with possibilities even as it felt like the surface was barely scratched in the main book, and that’s still true with its Pathfinder incarnation. Let’s take a closer look.

The download consists of several files, five being gorgeous full-color pictures, four being equally pretty wallpapers, and the last one being the PDF of the book itself. I did frown slightly to find that there were no options for a printer-friendly version, nor any special files for things like Macs or e-readers. Of course, the former may be a bit of a pipe dream for a 399-page folio, but still, it would have been nice.

In terms of the book’s technical presentation, it mostly does okay. Copy-and-paste is fully enabled, which is as it should be, and bookmarks are present...but aren’t nested. This means that the bookmarks are all in a single, unbroken column that makes it somewhat hard to distinguish one from the other; if the chapter titles weren’t in lowercase letters where everything else was in capitals, they’d be easily lost amidst the clutter.

Of course, the book itself has many virtues to offset these minor flaws. For one thing, it is resplendent with artwork. I cannot overstate the quality of the interior art in Amethyst: Renaissance – the book has a grand total of three artists and between them, they’ve produced what might possibly the single best-illustrated book ever made for Pathfinder. The fact that almost all of the pictures are in black and white does nothing to detract from the quality of what’s here. Even if you’re not interested in the setting (and you should be) you’ll be captivated by the pictures.

Of course, the setting is pretty captivating itself. In a nutshell, the world of Amethyst is planet Earth set five hundred years in the future, after the cataclysmic return of magic. If that doesn’t sound too original, rest assured that there’s more – the nature of magic, for example, is divided in this setting. Whereas most campaign worlds put arcane magic as being just sort of “there,” magic in Amethyst has definitive sources.

For most creatures, the source of magic is Attricana, the White Gate, faintly visible as a bright star in the sky. This is the original source of magic, that produced dragons and fae races long ago before it was originally sealed away by the titular Amethyst himself; the first dragon. He did so because of the coming of Ixindar, the Black Gate, which is present on the Earth itself. Amethyst’s sacrifice sealed not only Attricana but also Ixindar, along with the mysterious intelligence that resides beyond the Black Gate, Mengus, and ended the age of magic, all long before the rise of humans. Now, with a second meteor strike reopening Ixindar, and for unknown reasons Attricana, five hundred years ago, magic and the creatures born of it are back.

The tone of Attricana and Ixindar cannot be overstated in the setting. Interestingly, while the White Gate is the source of magic that most are familiar with, it’s presented as a source of chaos as well as magical life – life itself is a chaotic thing, and Attricana encourages its growth and mutation without restraint, breaking down technology as a side effect. By contrast, Ixindar is a force of law as well as evil. It corrupts even as it encourages order, sublimating everything to its own design…and it doesn’t corrupt technology, either.

Speaking of which, the technological aspects of the setting are too large to be ignored, and indeed add the most readily-apparent manner in which this setting is different from most fantasy-medieval worlds. While most civilizations now are “echan,” or magic-touched, and many humans live among them, there are plenty of humans who live in mega-city-like bastions. Here technology barricades itself against magic, and life progresses much like it did before the return of magic; indeed, in many the level of technology has improved beyond what was available at the end of the twentieth century.

Ahem…but I’ll stop rambling here, and try to get hold of my enthusiasm long enough to give a more coherent review of the book.

The book’s first chapter acts as a much-needed overview of the setting. It talks about things like the history, common terms, and the overall feel of the campaign. It’s worth noting that the book is very upfront about what it doesn’t have being just as important as what it does. High-level spellcasting is exceptionally difficult, there are no other planes of existence (ethereal notwithstanding), and many monsters simply aren’t to be found. While you can certainly cherry-pick a lot of what’s here, Amethyst is a setting that is upfront about setting its own style.

The second chapter covers the nature of the fae races, with humans mentioned almost as an afterthought. None of the standard fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, etc. are present here…except they are. Sort of. Each race has its own unique name, such as the damaskans, the laudenians, the gimfen, and many more…but more than a few of them strongly resemble standard fantasy races. That’s not an accusation of unoriginality either – rather, the setting plays up that these creatures resemble the fairy tales that humans told each other for centuries, but at the same time are worlds apart in terms of society and culture.

It’s that culture that’s given a heavy prominence in this chapter, though the racial stats are not glossed over for it. Things like cultural practices, social habits, and traditions are emphasized rather than being ignored, and it’s a big part of the reason why this campaign world feels so holistic. Despite how beautiful damaskans may look, for instance, they have very little sex drive, since they’re being of magic for whom procreation is much less of an issue. Amethyst: Renaissance knows that the little things are what make a setting stand out.

The third chapter covers different organizations in the game world, each receiving roughly a few paragraphs’ worth of description, along with the game stats of their prerequisites and the benefits of belonging to them.

The fourth chapter covers traits, as defined in the Pathfinder APG, and there are quite a lot of them here. Moreover, these aren’t tossed out quickly and with little context – these all receive paragraphs of descriptive text regarding what these traits actually mean for someone who has them. Several are more powerful than normal traits and count for both trait choices (though I wonder if that makes them essentially feats).

The fourth chapter is also where I do have one gripe – the lack of a reference table. If you prefer to have a handy table to quickly reference what traits are available, along with their prerequisites and benefits, you’re going to be disappointed here – and make no mistake, there are enough here that the absence of such a table is keenly felt. The feats chapter got such a table, and the lack of one here is an oversight.

The fourth chapter discusses classes. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s very little attention paid to the basic classes from the Pathfinder Core Rules; the big ones are a few classes being disallowed (mostly so they can be reintroduced later as prestige classes) and some changes to spellcasting classes – clerics, for example, don’t use verbal components for their spells, whereas wizards use no somatic components.

The major thrust of this chapter are the techan classes; those that rely exclusively on technology. This is no minor restriction, these guys can’t even receive the benefits of magic without it having serious consequences, namely in that doing so causes “saturation” which if driven high enough causes technological disruption.

That’s all explained later though, for now we have eight new tech-focused classes. From the heavy grounder (using super-heavy weapons – think rocket launchers and particle beams) to the medic (who has various medical treatments that are written similar to spells, though they’re entirely non-magical) to the sniper, these are the guys who venture out beyond the bastions into a hostile world and utterly demolish it with superior firepower. Interestingly, the classes are all d20 Hit Dice with fill BAB, or d8 Hit Dice with full BAB-minus-one. What does the latter mean? It means they start with a BAB of 0 and end with a BAB of 19. An interesting choice, if an odd one, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the classes.

The fifth chapter is devoted to skills and feats. There are only three completely new skills here (“completely new” discounting things like Knowledge (science)), being Demolitions, Engineer, and Vehicle Operation. Perhaps surprisingly, this last one is by far the most complicated, and doesn’t even cover everything regarding operating a vehicle (there’s more in the equipment chapter when you come to the vehicles themselves). I strongly recommend that everyone who wants to use a vehicle read both sections thoroughly, as they’re fairly rules-intensive.

As for the feats…I know I said the traits were numerous, but the feats are beyond expansive. The reference table takes over seven pages just to list them all. Racial feats, trait feats (feats that have a particular trait as a prerequisite), general feats, techan feats (most of which enhance using high-tech weaponry), vehicle feats, and more are here. I didn’t even try counting the sheer number of feats found here, but it’s far more than you could ever see if you had a full party going from levels one to twenty.

The sixth chapter covers equipment, and as with the chapter on classes, it’s a playground for the techans. Super-heavy guns, powered armor, vehicles that make Batman’s look like they had training wheels in comparison…there’s a plethora of toys here for those who embrace the science-fiction aspect of the setting. It’s not all weapons, armor, and vehicles either. From the currency to particular vehicle modifications to explosives to injections (e.g. drugs, nano-machines, etc.), as well as how magic disrupts these are all covered here.

Chapter seven covers prestige classes, of which there are slightly more than a dozen for the echan and techan each. Surprisingly, there’s little in-character development for what it means to have these classes. While some (such as paladin or ranger) are self-evidence from what we’re bringing to the game, there’s less intuitive understanding regarding the nature of a Selkirk brawler or an Ur-mage.

Chapter eight deals with magic, and I have to say that this is an area where I was grateful for the depth regarding the nature of magic as it exists in-character. All too often books with a magic chapter devote them solely to pumping out new spells, magic items, and similar material, and while you’ll find that here it helps a lot that the chapter opens with a discussion of where magic comes from and why it functions the way it does. For example, the language of magic, Pleroma, is discussed, as is the manner in which magic saturation disrupts technology (for Attricana), the corruption of Ixindar, and how to use high-level magic (otherwise known as “foundation spells”). Chapter nine ostensibly discusses magic items, but spends most of its time talking about the artifacts that are specific to the setting – again, this is far more of a function of what they mean in the world rather than what they do.

It’s on that note that we come to chapter ten, which is all about the setting. This is distinct from chapter eleven, because whereas that chapter acts as a guide to Canam (the new name for North America – the book never expands beyond that continent, though mentions are made of regions beyond it), chapter ten is devoted to aspects of the setting, such as languages and religions. The book’s twelfth and final chapter covers new monsters, including lists of monsters that are in the “canon” setting, those that aren’t but can be used without breaking the feel of the world, and those that are “banned” in the setting.

I also haven’t mentioned that there’s a story that progresses throughout the book, mostly at the ends of various chapters; the last fifteen pages or so of the book are devoted to ending the story, though it ends on a cliffhanger that makes it seem more like the end of a large prologue. Hopefully we’ll get more of it in further supplements.

By this point, my thoughts on Amethyst: Renaissance should be abundantly clear, but it bears repeating – this campaign world is breathtaking in its scope. There’s so much here, so artfully presented and with a tone that’s so holistic that it seems to leap off the page. A full campaign could easily be run from levels one to twenty without using half of what’s here; that’s how much material is found within these pages. It’s almost intimidating how high the bar is set; a sort of implication that says “for real role-players only!” but if that’s the case it backs it up.

The bottom line is that Amethyst sets a standard for campaign settings, one that won’t soon be matched. If you want a true renaissance for your Pathfinder game, look no further: it’s Amethyst.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Amethyst: Renaissance
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Monsters of Sin 4: Lust (Pathfinder RPG)
Publisher: Kobold Press
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/11/2012 19:35:22

Lust is one of those aspects of the Pathfinder RPG that tend to get glossed over. It can’t be helped – in a game whose mechanics reward killing things and taking there stuff, it’s hard for the game rules to incentivize the PCs’ desire to have sex. The next best thing is to make enemies that are physically attractive and have lust-themed powers – the ubiquitous succubus comes to mind. Still, such creatures are comparatively few in number.

The fourth book in Open Design’s Monsters of Sin series, Monsters of Sin: Lust expands the roster of lust-based monsters, albeit only slightly.

The book gets most of the technical aspects of a PDF RPG supplement right. It has no bookmarks, which it really should, but copy-and-paste is enabled. There’s no printer-friendly version, or for that matter any sort of format for other types or easy-reading (e.g. tablets, Macs, etc.), but again its brevity helps to make that be less of an issue.

The artwork, it must be said, is of a high quality. Cory Trego-Erdner’s cover of the succubi stripping a hapless young man is vivid both in terms of its quality and of how expressly it connotes what’s happening. Likewise, Aaron Riley’s black and white interior artwork quite literally paints a start contrast, showcasing the monsters with striking depth.

Eleven pages long, with seven devoted to the eponymous monsters, Monsters of Lust contains a grand total of five monsters. The first isn’t really a monster per se, but rather is the lust slave template. Even calling this a template is hard, as it adds only a single new ability (annoyingly lacking in an ability tag – presumably it’s extraordinary) which has the lust slave creature gaining a bonus if the object of their adoration is in sight, but is confused if not. I personally thought that a confusion effect was the wrong mechanic to use here, but should have been some sort of penalty from their depression at being separated from their beloved. Ah well.

The first fully-fledged monster is the inbred orc, which needs no real introduction as to where these particular variants come from. Racial information is given for these hillbilly orcs, which are perhaps not surprisingly different from their normal counterparts – chief among them being two tables of mutations – one fortunate and one unfortunate. An NPC stat block helps to round things out.

Personally, I thought that this particular monster was good, but would have worked better as a template. Orcs aren’t the only humanoid creature that seems lacking in civilization enough to start inbreeding and suffer the effects thereof. It’s not too hard to take inspiration from this monster and use it as a baseline for varying other creatures in a similar manner, but this would have been easier as a template.

The lovelorn, a CR 11 creature, is a sort of ghost that died after being betrayed by a cruel lover or was simply so unlucky in love that they died heartbroken. Interestingly, there are shades of the banshee here, as they have a moan-based attack (though nowhere near as deadly, thank goodness!), and it’s likewise fitting that they deal Charisma damage. The lovelorn falls into a narrow gap of being different enough from similar incorporeal undead as to be distinct unto itself, but not so unique that your players will easily figure out what to do about it – there’s a lot of fun to be had here by a cruel GM.

For me though, the most interesting monster in the book was hands-down the truffle. A weak (CR 3) fey creature, the truffle looks like a small naked human child…making it clearly obvious that it has no sexual characteristics whatsoever. Not malevolent, truffles understand nothing about sex or gender identity, and so are intensely curious about creatures that have these characteristics when they meet them. This can quickly become awkward and even dangerous, however, when they start exercising their natural abilities to forcibly manipulate other people’s bodies, making people take their clothes off and demonstrate their sexuality to sate the truffle’s curiosity. Normally I frown on monsters with no original powers, but the role-playing potential – demonstrated excellently in the monster’s write-up – is incredibly strong here. This is a monster that should only be used with groups that can handle mature subjects in the game, but it’s likely to be quite worthwhile to do so.

The final creature in the book is the embodiment of lust itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, and was somewhat surprised by the creature’s description – that of a ten-foot tall creature with a vaguely feminine figure, but it entirely translucent, like a statue made out of glass. Of course, just being around the embodiment is exceptionally dangerous, as its Challenge Rating of 21 demonstrates. Just being around it can make you its lust slave, stripping naked as you approach it, and making you willing to do whatever it asks. I do wish there’d been more about the embodiment as an individual – it says that it has its thralls do its bidding, but there’s little explanation about just what that is. Presumably this creature has no particular agenda or goals beyond corrupting mortals into the sin of lust, but even this simple desire isn’t made entirely clear.

A few sidebars are peppered throughout the book. One talks about using sex in your campaign, but can basically be summarized as “don’t make people uncomfortable” – it’s the ubiquitous disclaimer that’s part and parcel of talking about sex in your game. Likewise, the issue of lust in the Midgard campaign is one paragraph about the lust and death goddess Marena, and two about how one man seduced several merchant’s daughters as a means of starting a war, allowing him to pick up power in the aftermath. Interesting to be sure, but so brief as to be little more than anecdotal.

My overall impression of the book is that while it’s probably stronger as part of the entire series (and certainly will be in the inevitable compilation volume), on its own it feels like it’s just starting to ramp things up when it suddenly comes to an end. The five monsters – really four and a very brief template – don’t seem like enough for the theme of the book. This isn’t to say that they’re not well-done, because they are; they’re simply not showcasing everything that could be done here. From the truffle showing us the unexpected ways that monsters can be developed around this theme to the embodiment of lust’s needing further expansion on what it wants to do to the inbred orc needing to be a full-fledged template, there’s more that could have been done here.

It’s primarily due to the book not living up to its potential that I’m giving it less than full marks. What’s here is worth four stars, but what’s not here would have been the fifth. Having said that, this book provides some fun new creatures for your game, dealing directly with the idea of lust without becoming tawdry. Pick up Monsters of Lust, and add a few new ways to scare your PCs with sex.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Monsters of Sin 4: Lust (Pathfinder RPG)
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Lunatic Labyrinth
Publisher: Rising Phoenix Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/05/2012 19:14:26

One of the hardest things about playing a tabletop RPG is simply finding people to gather around the table. Coordinating schedules so everyone has enough free time at the same time can be exceptionally difficult. Given that, it’s surprising that more companies don’t put out adventures that can be used with only GM and a few players…or even one GM and just one player.

One such adventure is Lunatic Labyrinth, from Phoenix Rising Games.

It should be mentioned that Lunatic Labyrinth is billed as a game that can be played not only for one-on-one play, but also for solo play – that is, one person who acts as both player and GM. This claim is technically true, but there’s something of a “but…” in there. Which we’ll talk about more below.

One other thing should be made clear from the outset; at the time of this writing, I haven’t seen the Pathfinder Beginner Box, but from what I hear it’s got some sort of streamlined or specialized rules for easier play; based on what I’ve seen Lunatic Labyrinth doesn’t use anything in particular from the Beginner Box – this is straight Pathfinder.

The file comes as a single twelve-page PDF. I was surprised at the brevity of the adventure, but found that it managed to pack quite a bit into its twelve pages; between the adventure itself, the discussion of supplementary materials, and the labyrinth tiles, the book really feels packed.

From a technical standpoint, the book does fairly well. Full nested bookmarks are present, for which I give the author extra props, as I can imagine plenty of people overlooking those in a product this short, and copy-and-paste is likewise enabled. The artwork exemplifies the phrase “simple is best,” as it consists solely of black and white interior images (notwithstanding the labyrinth tiles, which are in color). This isn’t bad, and actually fits fairly well with the “no-frills” look of the book.

The adventure itself is refreshingly straightforward; you’re an adventurer looking to make a name for him- or herself, and to do this you’ve come to Lunatic Labyrinth, the abandoned lair of a cabal of warlocks, to claim the magic sword that lies within…you know it does, since the opening text says you’ve seen it in a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. I wouldn’t mention that last part, as it’s a fairly small bit of the opening read-aloud text, but it irked me a tiny bit, simply because it’s a throwaway line that just seems like it’s begging to become problematic if the adventure turns into a campaign (“before we go storm the vampire lord’s manor, let’s visit that fortune-teller I saw before I raided Lunatic Labyrinth; her crystal ball worked then, it should work now!”).

The adventure is easily set in any world, but does have a specific setting that it’s set in. This is very loosely described, having only a single half-page map of the region and quick glossary of locales. More is available on the Phoenix Rising Games website…something that the product tells you over and over. I’ll confess that I was slightly off-put at just how often the product hawked visiting the website; maybe it was right to do so, but it felt like it was stressed a little too strongly.

The labyrinth itself is based around a series of tiles, set randomly into a 5x5 grid (the entrance and exit aren’t random, however, always being in opposite corners). Each tile shows a hallway in some configuration, such as straight, a four-way intersection, a corner, etc. A smattering of monsters are also spread throughout the dungeon, looking to put an end to your hero.

Actually advancing through the dungeon is a bit tricky. The text on the tiles says something to the effect of keeping the tiles hidden from the player, but that seems counter-intuitive, so that’s a bit of a mark against it for being unclear. As it is, the text says not to try and make the hallways on each tile match up; rather the PC and the monsters both make a check (which is not the best idea, since it uses a skill most PCs won’t have…certainly the monsters don’t) to rotate a tile. The monsters, of course, are doing this to get at the hero (though how many of them move is random, and they move the same way as the hero), while the hero is presumably trying to get to the exit.

The adventure is written for a single character or 1st or maybe 2nd level. In this regard it’s spot-on, as the few monsters in the dungeon are fairly weak creatures…but then again, you’re an extremely low-level character all on your own. The monsters are represented by tokens for the labyrinth, and determining which is which requires a random roll; each monster has their own bit of flavor text and tactics laid out.

Once you reach the exit, you come to the final room and face the dungeon’s boss monster to claim the treasure and hear the game’s epilogue. Of course, the boss is no easy monster, especially as you may have fought all of the dungeon denizens to get there. Insightfully, the book takes this into account as it says that if you’re not a fighting-based character (e.g. a wizard), you’re also taking a 1st-level human fighter “guide” with you as well (I did like that he’ll abandon you if he’s hurt badly enough unless you can convince him not to, a nice old-school nod to how NPC henchmen aren’t fanatically loyal). Make sure to double-check his stat block though, as it’s missing some information (CMB and CMD for example) while others are incorrect (e.g. his saving throws).

By now, the question of how the game is meant to be “solo-playable” should be obvious; this idea largely rests around the idea that the monster tokens on the labyrinth tiles use a combination of randomized (for how many move) and pre-set sequences (for where they move) to determine whether or not they encounter the hero. This part did seems somewhat entertaining, but only from a simple standpoint – it was more of a quick mini-game than a true solo adventure.

The rest of the adventure is a more traditional set of Pathfinder encounters; you could conceivably run these as a “solo” also, but only in the way that you could play chess as a solo affair, moving one side and then the other. That’s pretty lacking in terms of excitement, since everything short of the die rolls is entirely under your purview, and you can fudge those.

As a one-on-one adventure, I’d recommend removing the mechanics relating to how the monsters move and instead treat them as you would monsters in a normal game. Beyond that, it’s actually a very fun little adventure, offering almost but not quite enough to get a first-level character to second level, if they defeat every monster (on the medium XP progression), and hitting that sweet spot where it’s simple enough not to feel like a burden, but presenting just enough of a wider world to seem tantalizing – while it may need a bit of polishing to make it shine, I’d definitely run this as an introductory adventure for someone new to the hobby. You don’t have to be crazy to see the excitement that Lunatic Labyrinth offers.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Lunatic Labyrinth
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#1 With a Bullet Point: 4 Feats for Spells that Raise the Dead
Publisher: Rogue Genius Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/30/2012 18:04:50

I’ll be blunt: I’m very dubious of the idea of feats that only modify specific spells (or extremely small groups of spells). The idea that you’re ever going to be using that particular spell just that much that you can afford to spend a precious feat slot in it is, to me, a stretch. Having said that, if anyone can pull it off, it’s the Super Geniuses, so let’s take a look.

Part of their #1 With a Bullet Point series, 4 Feats for Spells that Raise the Dead is fairly self-explanatory in what it offers. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous series intro (explaining the idea of buying a short product with no “frills”) and the OGL, what you have here is one page with four feats on it, designed to modify the roughly half-dozen spells that bring the dead back to life.

While I don’t want to go too deeply into what these feats do (why would you buy the product otherwise), there’s one that allows you to “swap out” spells for resurrection-type spells, one that allows the resurrected creature to come back with the answer to a specific question, one that allows the creature to “rewrite” some of its basic information (e.g. stats, age, etc.), and one that allows you to take on the negative level of a resurrected creature.

Overall, I’m not sure if I’m entirely convinced that these feats are worthwhile. The Super Geniuses clearly understand that when the versatility of a feat is so tightly restricted, its power needs to be greater; I’m just not sure that these necessarily live up to that. For example, a feat that lets you “swap out” for resurrection type spells seems like overkill…will you ever really need just THAT many resurrection spells in a single day? If you need one immediately, but don’t want to prepare one, why not just go for a scroll? It doesn’t seem like quite enough. Similarly, coming back to life with the equivalent of a commune spell seems like a flat-out waste of a feat; just cast commune!

Having said that, the other two feats do, to my mind, live up (resurrection pun!) to their potential. Being able to rewrite a resurrected character, at least to some degree, is the best of both worlds between getting to play your old character again and playing a new one. Similarly, being able to avoid a negative level is good, particularly if the other person is willing to take that particular hit for you.

Overall, while none of these feats are anywhere near being bad, to me only two out of four were truly worthwhile. Your mileage may vary, of course, but to me this has two winners and two near-misses. So a solid three out of five stars.

[3 of 5 Stars!]
#1 With a Bullet Point: 4 Feats for Spells that Raise the Dead
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Way of the Wicked Book Four: Of Dragons and Princesses
Publisher: Fire Mountain Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/27/2012 19:00:31

It’s universally understood, though not often said, that evil is simply cooler than good. Evil people are the ones who get to dress in the most arresting outfits, make the grandest speeches, and perform the most memorable actions. Simply put, evil characters make a bigger impression than their righteous counterparts…though oftentimes the good guys can come close.

In Way of the Wicked Book Four: Of Dragons and Princesses, players and GMs get to see this truism up close and personal. Heck, it’s even in the book’s title – this is adventure is all about those most fearsome of beasts, dragons, as well as women of nobility and power. While the PCs have met some truly arresting characters so far, it’s here that they begin to truly begin interacting with the kingdom’s power-players on a regular basis.

But before we get any further into the meat of the adventure, let’s look at the technical aspects first. The fourth Way of the Wicked book comes as three PDFs. The first is the main adventure itself, while the second is a printer-friendly version thereof. The last one is labeled as being “player handouts,” which is a slight misnomer; rather, it’s a single player handout, and four maps of major areas that have all of the labels removed, making things easier for the GM (though some might grimace at the fact that the name of the place depicted is still featured on each map).

The main file, one hundred-six pages in length, presents itself fairly well on a technical scale. Copy and pasting are enabled, and the text is fully searchable. Bookmarks are present, but again there’s only one bookmark for each major section of the book; if you want to find a more specific sub-section, you’ll need to scroll to it manually. Both of these are also true for the printer-friendly PDF.

Unfortunately, the printer-friendly PDF only lives up to its designation half-heartedly. Its idea of being “printer-friendly” is to remove the background coloration from the pages, and set the page borders to being grayscale lines. All of the interior illustrations and maps are still there in lavish full-color.

Having said that, the main file is notably resplendent. The pages are set on a dark tan background (which, I think, is meant to look like parchment) with ornate black borders on three sides. Full-color maps are present for each major section, and of course the interior illustrations are all in lustrous full color as well. I must once again tip my hat to artist Michael Clarke, as the various pictures of the major characters that the PCs meet are, to be blunt, arresting. Each one of these pictures clearly conveys the thousand words that they’re worth.

My last technical critique is regarding what’s not here, rather than what is. There are no files that are optimized for e-readers or Macs. While this wasn’t a big deal to me personally, I suspect that it’s a bit more of a nuisance for those who want versions of the book optimized for those devices.

Now, let’s get down to the adventure itself. As with previous installments, this one actually begins almost exactly where the previous one ended – I’m of two minds about how the book actually opens with what feels like the epilogue to its predecessor; on the one hand, it feels almost anticlimactic, as instead of moving forward with the plot you’re dealing with the loose ends from your last adventure. On the other hand, this helps to lend a much greater sense of cohesiveness to the campaign as a whole, since the adventures feel much more interconnected…something I suspect was author Gary McBride’s intent.

Regardless, the adventure opens with the PCs in what’s left of the Vale of Valtaerna, having not only snuffed out the holy flames of the state religion’s most holy site, but also slaughtered every living thing in the valley. Or at least, that was the plan. If the PCs succeeded, then they get to march their army out (absorbing the surviving bugbears into their own evil organization, if the rules from Book Two are being used) with no fuss as they continue their evil plans.

Cogently, however, the book spends more time talking about what happens if the PCs failed and some survivors managed to escape. In this case, the winter thaw finds an army of light (FAR outnumbering the PCs’ forces) preparing to retake the Vale. This is another classical “villain moment,” in that it presents the PCs with the question of what they’ll do regarding their minions when it comes time to beat a hasty retreat. While the PCs can likely escape on their own, there are various actions presented, along with their consequences, should they also want to save their minions and greater retinue.

Once the PCs escape, it’s time for them to relax before their next assignment. Rejoining with the humanoid army led by Fire-Axe at the recently-conquered city of Daveryn, the PCs can kick back and accomplish some side-quests for a month. This is largely a chance to catch up on XP and treasure (in the form of some good old-fashioned looting), but does have several opportunities for the PCs to find several clues for their upcoming assignment.

Speaking of being assigned, after a month of squashing what resistance remains in Daveryn, the PCs’ master sends them one last assignment: to kill the king of Talingarde. Of course, this isn’t as simple as just poisoning his food – the king marches at the head of an army, and attacking him there is suicide. Rather, the PCs are to create a huge calamity back at his palace, where his young daughter resides. The king, loving his child so much, will magically transport back to defend her…which is when the PCs will ambush him.

Of course, this requires creating a disaster of sufficient magnitude, and it’s here that the titular dragons begin to come into play. The PCs need to enlist the help of the great black wyrm Chargammon. This is much easier said than done, as the dragon eats anyone who approaches him. So first, they need to find a way to secure an audience.

This part of the adventure seemed, to me, to be a bit rushed – not the issue of the PCs’ master giving them their next assignment (the book is actually very cognizant of the fact that the PCs are by now straining their metaphorical leashes) – but rather, how the PCs are supposed to think of the manner in which they’re to safely meet with Chargammon. Simply put, one of the aforementioned clues in sacking Daveryn is the key here, but the sandbox nature of the conquered city means it’s less than certain that the PCs will even look in the right place, let alone find it. The adventure basically tells the GM to make sure the PCs find this clue somehow, but only offers a few off-the-cuff suggestions for what to do if the PCs don’t go to the right area and look in the right place; it’s a weak point in what’s otherwise an excellent adventure.

Once the PCs discover the clue, it’s off to find the one person who can secure them a meeting with Chargammon. This is largely a sidetrek, as the adventure makes it fairly easy to locate the correct area once the PCs are on the right path, and the fight is relatively brief.

Only after this is done can the PCs meet with the powerful black dragon, being able to journey there in relative safety (I have to interject here that the picture of the black drakes that dwell on Chargammon’s island made me think of a certain dragon named Toothless). The actual meeting itself is anything but safe, however, as Chargammon is as arrogant as he is powerful. It’s very easy for PCs who are stupid or proud to provoke a fight that they likely cannot win. Again, this is an area where the plot moves along very thin rails; a minor disruption can have major repercussions here.

Chargammon, in the true style of RPG NPCs, won’t agree to do anything unless the PCs undertake a quest for him first. In this case, he wants a rival dragon slain – a copper dragon of less power but greater allies named Eiramanthus. This is no small thing, as like Chargammon, Eiramanthus commands his own island.

The island is an otherworldly place. Eiramanthus is a planeswalker extraordinaire, and alters his home to better reflect the nature of his travels. As such, the entire island has an alien feel to it that also gives it certain defensive properties. The major defenses are the creatures who dwell there, however – in addition to visitors and the local servants, Eiramanthus’s home is occupied not only by the dragon himself, but by his three concubines; exotic and powerful women that he wooed on his travels.

I was critical of some of the previous parts of the adventure because they had clear directions that they wanted the PCs to go, but offered only a relatively narrow range of options for how to make that happen. Here, the situation may seem somewhat similar, but I don’t hold this against the book. That is, if the PCs are stupid, they may end up facing Eiramanthus with most of his servants and concubines helping him, which is likely to overwhelm the PCs. It’s far smarter to use some degree of subterfuge to try and take them down one at a time or in small groups.

There’s little advice on what the situation is or how to make sure things don’t go south quickly. I don’t consider this a bug, but rather see it as a feature. This adventure is for high-level PCs, and at this point if they’re not using some degree of strategy, the fault is entirely their own. That the PCs are likely to face disaster if they try to kick in the door is how things are supposed to go. At this point, punishing them for not using their heads is the correct thing to do.

It’s after things are done here that the plot makes a significant leap, as it’s here that the PCs are given not only a great deal more information on their master’s past, but are given the first direct information regarding overthrowing him. The seeds for the next book are sown here…

Once Eiramanthus is slain (and his truly prodigious hoard, which includes some amusing souvenirs from other dimensions, has been claimed), Chargammon is willing to hold up his end of the bargain. Now all that’s left is to head to the capital city and prepare to lure the king into the death-trap. This is an area where the PCs will again have a chance to explore a major city, but that part is left to the gazetteer at the end of the book.

For the final act, the king’s palace is detailed. Sneaking in and overcoming the defenders isn’t what I’d call cakewalk, but it’s by no means a truly difficult affair, which makes sense as most of the martial forces have marched to the front. However, plenty of soldiers remain that even a high-level group should be wary of sounding an alarm before their ready to commit regicide. Once Chargammon attacks, however, the king (who is a paragon of a certain eight Virtues, for fans of a particular old school RPG series) comes running…along with his closest defenders. Remember, they came back because the situation was dire, so even caught unaware they’re still ready for a truly tough fight. To slay a king here will be no small thing for the PCs.

The adventure doesn’t quite end there, as there’s a “cut scene” involving Chargammon and the princess. I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, as this is written as a narrative, and so it’s difficult to know if this is meant to be read to the PCs or is simply an extra for the GM. Ideally the former, but that might not be workable. Far better, at least in terms of practicality, was the FAQ-style section where the book dealt with what to do if things went awry at various points. This was a very bright idea, as this adventure more than others offered places in which various parts of the plot could conceivably be done out of order, ignored, or changed depending on the PCs’ actions. The suggestions for how to get things back on track are most welcome.

Of course, the book doesn’t end here. A gazetteer is given for the capital city of Talingarde, Matharyn. While I was expecting to be tired of city guides, I was once again proven wrong. Matharyn has its own feeling; whereas other cities are populated by people pragmatic in their approach to life and work, Matharyn really is a bastion of order and goodness. This is a city where the people are good and do good, and the author notes that this is quite likely to throw less-selfish evil-doers for a loop; it’s hard to imagine a society more perfect than one where everyone works for the common good and is genuinely happy. Luckily for those characters who want to destroy such virtue, there are ten brief side-quests given as well.

The final section of the book is a discussion regarding how to run the campaign for PCs who become vampires or liches. If this sounds random, it shouldn’t, as the previous book presented the PCs with a golden opportunity to become vampires, and this one presents a similar method for achieving lichdom (I won’t spoil the surprise here). This is the first of a two-part section, with this first one eschewing mechanics (save for one new magic item that allows vampires to survive in sunlight) in favor of advice and suggestions.

It’s worth noting that this section is also fairly lopsided in favor of vampires. While the initial part does talk about some of the issues with playing a lich (e.g. can lich powers be voluntarily deactivated? What to do if someone steals your phylactery?), the majority of it talks about what to do regarding the many weaknesses and restrictions of vampires. This may seem like would-be lich PCs are being snubbed, but it’s understandable given that vampirism is much easier for most PCs to achieve, compared to lichdom. The section closes out with book-by-book advice given for running Way of the Wicked as a campaign about the ascendancy of a vampire kingdom.

Overall, there’s little question that Of Dragons and Princesses stands alongside the previous three adventures as a high-water mark among adventures. However, it never exceeds the standards its predecessors set. Small issues regarding how smoothly the plot continues onward, along with one too many “fetch quests” for my taste (e.g. quest to figure out how to meet Chargammon, quest to secure his aid, etc.) make this an adventure that’s excellent by any other standard, but not quite so much as the others.

Of course, those are small complaints compared to what’s here overall. From the flight from Valtaerna to the first real discussion of overthrowing the PCs master to the assassination of the king and so much more, there’s a huge amount of high-quality adventuring to be had here. Stamp out rebels, murder kings, and bring the world one step closer to damnation as you perform deeds Of Dragons and Princesses.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Way of the Wicked Book Four: Of Dragons and Princesses
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