An Endzeitgeist.com review
This ginormous book clocks in at no less than 393pages, vastly overdelivering regarding the page-count promised by the KS; 1 page is front cover, 1 page KS-backer thanks, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 7 pages of advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 379 pages of raw content, so let's dive in, shall we?
Before we do: I was a backer of this kickstarter and based my review on the print-version of this book. I did not contribute anything to this book.
What is Veranthea Codex? The question's answer is surprisingly complex and will guide us through this review: For one, in-game, it is actually an exceedingly powerful (as in: world's most powerful) artifact in the hands of legendary wizard Yawvil - who can be pictured as basically an Elminster-like figure that takes care to know everything around and make sure the excrement doesn't hit the proverbial fan - unfortunately, as we dive into this book, we note that the gods, imperfect and squabbling though they may be, finally seem to have out-smarted him - the world is in a state of flux and in need of adventurers.
Speaking of gods, we begin with a brief summary of the gods of Veranthea, and for a reason - imperfect and less than omniscient, they share the squabbling and grudges of classic mythologies with their earthly brethren...though some of them make Zeus and his posse of douches look downright friendly and relatable: It should e.g. be noted that Wealbrens, the god associated with water had the oceans basically destroy everything trying to cross them for quite some time, thus explaining the divergent flavors of the respective continents spotlighted herein. I could go on to depict the whole pantheon, but will refrain from a tedious enumeration that fails to capture their essence.
Basically, the set-up is this: There is an IO-like overgod, Verahnus, who is asleep and deigns to grant spells still; there are the primal gods, the people's gods and the shadow gods...and there would be the nightmare gods, basically your source of world-ending chthonic cataclysmic evil and cthulhiana. While the themes of the gods are classic, the spins taken on them at times are brilliant, interspersed with sprinklings of full-blown satire: The "benevolent" god of trade and capitalism, for example, hides a true face marred by greed and hatred; the god of goblins, ever the trickster, has been punished and turned orange, ruining goblin capacity to hide properly in the wild and setting the species on a path at odds with nature - you read these entries and only later realize that the actions and natures of the gods present leitmotifs that shaped and formed all of Veranthea and yes, they meet in regular intervals at so-called Conexcrons, epochal deity-summits, if you will - it is these summits that ended the war of the gods, the Jabberwar...etc.
Speaking of leitmotifs, there is an interesting linguistic trick employed here: Traditional player-races are referred in Veranthea as Kind Folk (with a sense of irony, no doubt), while those belonging to the goblin, orc, etc. races are known as the Unwanted Folk, basically generating a linguistic construct of shared identity between races. This becomes pretty important in some contexts, particularly on the third continent.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. If you take a look at the sheer, colossal page-count of this book, you will no doubt realize that I can't well discuss everything contained within these pages and maintain any semblance of cohesion regarding the information value of this review, so let me instead focus on giving you the basic picture: This massive campaign world encompasses basically 3 continents, all of which sport significantly diverging flairs and playing experiences.
The first of these would be Grethadnis - this place, you can probably picture as the most conservative of the continents: Grethadnis, home of the Kind Folk, is as close to a traditional fantasy setting as you'll get, though that still means it sports unique components galore - the graveyard of the Trekth's visuals reminded me, for example of a certain, more frozen region in Dark Souls II, while dinosaur-studded jungles exist alongside a region that gave basically rise to Attack-on-Titan, the (actually functioning) PrC, which is in and of itself 5 kinds of awesome. There are soulwells, randomly appearing throughout the continent, trying to lure people to be sucked into the horrid underworld of Veranthea, the Forever Dark, where the Nightmare Gods reign. Additionally, black powder and tech is seeping its way slowly through the continent, as quite recently the first intercontinental flights have succeeded...but more on that later. Oh, and you'll notice something: This was Mike Myler's homegame world for quite a lot of years and hence, certain characters will no doubt elicit a smile from veteran players and GMs alike - there would be this one nation, for example, where Boris the Green Avenger, a powerful giant half-orc sorceror/dragon disciple/barbarian lich rules with an iron fist as a living god. Have I mentioned the CR 14 killer-bunny? And yes, there is a steampunk-element to the continent, albeit a subdued one. And yes, there is wild magic...oh boy, is there wild magic...
The second continent Urethiel is different in that it is the WuXia high-fantasy equivalent to Grethadnis' western high fantasy. Here, three immortals have guided the fates of warring clans from the throne and behind the scenes, clashing time and again - and yes, we get full stats for them as well as information on the respective clans...and the soul mælstrom that catches the ephemeral souls to bring them to their respective destination - the great beyond in Urethiel, the place where the souls go, is quite literally a place you can visit. Have I mentioned the artifact that turns you colossal and makes you capable of fighting Kaiju and the like in direct combat? It should also be noted that folk in Urethiel are sometimes born with spell-like or supernatural abilities, a resilience to hem...or even a downright immunity to magic, surprisingly resulting in an overall working equilibrium...but more on that later when I'm diving into the global rules.
The third continent is easily the most interesting in that I haven't seen one quite like it before: On Trectoyri, the monsters won. The Kind races have been all but exterminated, driven to one last free bastion, a place held only by means of brilliant strategies, powerful magic and e.g. a Nautillus-esque submarine...while on the mainland of Trectoyri, goblins and similar races rule by virtue of their massive ingenuity - from bikes to tanks and aircrafts, the industrial revolution, unfettered by paltry concerns for safety and lives, has resulted in a dystopian set-up that sports the world's largest metropolis, Goblinvania, where dangerous smog is ever present, as biker gangs roam the lands and a lone silver dragon ninja fights the creatures and artifacts allow the last bastions of the rebels to fight the Kaiju-sized battles against the warmachines of Goblinvania...but, and here things become interesting: Trectoyri is pretty much bled dry. Intercontinental flight has been mastered in the nick of time by the Unwanted Folk - the resources of the haunted, much abused continent are running low and in order to prevent collapse, the empire will need to expand...one way or another.
While it should be noted that the wild-west-meets-cthulhiana-style Forever Dark also receives an evocative, if brief chapter, it is less a focus than the three continents. It does sport an interesting psionic PrC that can generate an autonomous incorporeal duplicate I loved fluff-wise and features also some nice creatures. What I glanced over in nary a page is, just fyi, a gross oversimplification of what's going on in each continent: From a lawful good stone giant nation to cabals and gangs in Trectyori to multiple sample characters, items and vehicles, there is A LOT going on here....and I pretty much get why this book blew the targeted page-count so stylishly out of the water. Each of the continents, per se, could have made one campaign setting - basically, they each ARE a campaign setting...just one linked by coincidence on the same planet, with tenuous ties between them and a sensible story as to how that could happen in the first place.
Which brings me to the next component of my reply to what Veranthea Codex is: This is a campaign setting. But what type of campaign setting? There are, in my experience, two basic approaches to campaign settings that can work and generate a believable world: The first is the one exhibited by e.g. Kobold Press - we have a campaign setting that grows out of the small to the eventual release of the campaign setting, a world that grows from the bottom to the top. Then, there is the setting that begins by growing from the top to the bottom, filling out the details in smaller publications that follow the main book. There also is a dichotomy between focuses in scope of the narratives supported one can examine: Some campaign settings lend themselves to adventuring on the small scale, providing details like industry, produce, realities of daily life; struggles etc. - the small scope, the psychological scope where you narrate personal tragedies, fiefdom-struggles, political gambits.
Veranthea is not really intended for that approach. This setting is very much a high-light reel and more cinematic - Veranthea Codex is a campaign setting that very much is interested in the big picture - it's a setting, wherein you change the nations, turn Kaiju-sized, fight dinosaurs and stem the tide of an invasion of a nation with vastly superior technology, a setting wherein you fight alongside immortals, witness them clashing and then travel to the underworld to save a soul literally from the hell of its own doing. Veranthea captures perfectly the high-concept approach to campaign setting design and truly excels at these sweeping narratives - thanks to its size. Were this book any smaller, it would collapse under the ambition of needing to cover three vastly different continents. Thus, the book, as presented, manages to actually work in the context of high-fantasy, sweeping narratives, though the book does leave those of you yearning for the small growing into the large, fans of the more subdued fantasy, wanting - Veranthea is pretty much in your face fantasy and has very little in common with traditional, semi-realistic settings. This sets it both apart...and made me wish, frankly, I had received three books instead- one for each continent, but with more details, mainly since I prefer a lot o details...but I won't hold that against this book.
Now I mentioned that the response to what this book is would be complex. I am not done yet. Veranthea also understands itself as a kind of band-aid for several of the rules-components some GMs consider problematic, thus sporting several global rules that interact with the world in different ways to create its intended balance sweet-spot. How does that work? Well, for the most part, rather well. For the most part. To give you an example via the firearm-rules: The book introduces a recoil-mechanic, which is based on Strength-checks - one-handed firearms require a DC 16 Strength-check, two--handed ones a DC 18 Strength-check. Failing these penalizes further attacks this round by -3. The odd thing here is that the ability does not explicitly stat that it stacks with itself, which imho would have made sense. Still, it is a pretty easy mechanic, though personally, I prefer a more simulationalist approach to recoil. Nice idea: Medium and heavy armor convey fixed luck-bonuses to Touch AC versus firearms...though, again, I'd modify that to increase via e.g. armor mastery and/or magical enchantments. On the other hand, firearms, including modern ones, are even less reliable than usual, with the chances to explode increasing for early firearms (upon each misfire, broken and burst damage!) and modern firearms. While balance-wise, I get the latter, the former does seem overly punitive, considering my experiences with gunslingers at low levels - a constant drain on party-resources and painfully vulnerable. Oddly, the high crit multiplier has not been addressed and there are enchantments and feats that can somewhat mitigate some of these issues, basically introducing a feat-tax.
There is one rule, though, that I can see many a group use - a rule that actually helps balance significantly for some classes and eliminates one of the most annoying things out there. In Veranthea, the gods have realized that mortals with too many magic items = bad idea. Hence, there is an attunement value: Magic Arms and Armor, Rings, Rods and Staves, Wondrous Items, Intelligent Items and Spellbooks require an attunement period of CL x 2 days, during which the item may not be removed further than 5 feet from the character. Each character has an attunement value, based on WBL times a modifier that depends on your preferred playstyle - gritty would be x0.75, while high fantasy is x1.75. A given character cannot exceed this value of attuned magic items at a given point, which puts an end to quick magic item switching AND the Christmas Tree Syndrome. Unfortunately, it also penalizes certain classes like the fighter - it's an old truism that naked high-level characters suck, but one that holds particularly true for martials that require the items to make the math work out at higher levels. Don't get me wrong, I adore this system and will use it in my next campaign, but I will modify it to provide different attunement value modifiers for different classes to account for their needs.
The mirrored weapons some of you may know make a return. More importantly, the setting of Veranthea assumes per default that psionics exist - yes, this is Ultimate Psionics-compatible. However, psionic characters in Veranthea receive 1 power point less per level (minimum 1) and only get bonus power points equal to the number of bonus spells they have access to. Aegis have a reduced DR-progression and soul knife psychic strike bonus damage is reduced to d6. Now all of these feel odd to me, if I'm honest. You see, I've been playing with Dreamscarred Press' psionics ever since they released. They are a fixed value in my games and while some of the more recent additions imho overshot the target regarding power, overall, the system plays very solid and never eclipsed regular, vancian spellcasting, with the one potential problem being nova-capacity...though the capacity is significantly less pronounced than some posts make you believe. In my experience, people who complain loudest about it didn't understand the rules...or let their PCs rest whenever they want...but that boils down to being a sucky GM. What I'm trying to say is rather simple - I don't see the necessity here. The soul knife's blade is powerful, but so are similar godblade builds. And low DR is perhaps the most overvalued feature in PFRPG's design. Well...there is one component I generally like: When manifesting powers that have no display, the psionic character risks becoming afflicted by Psickness, basically receiving an insanity if he fails a second concentration check. It may sound harsh, but the subtle potential for psi-powers pretty much is one of the crucial strengths of psionics, so that one, I kinda understand, though it still seems harsh to me.
The wild magic rules, with 20 different effects, are pretty interesting and well-crafted, though personally, I would have loved more effects. I did mention magic in Urethiel and its interesting balancing, so what did I precisely mean? Well, 45% of the population gains spell-like abilities over the levels, depending on their character and determined by the GM, putting firm control where it belongs. 45% gain scaling Spell Resistance instead...which leaves 10%. 5% can absorb and redirect magic as an immediate action, though only spells targeting them - which probably means that AoE-spells that happen to include the character can't be absorbed...though a bit of clarification would be in order here. The final 5%...are immune to magic. As a golem. And get bonus hit points...but can't benefit from most magic items and enhancements, healing, etc. Now what this does is that it makes magic significantly less reliable - sure, you still can throw those deadly spells around, but there is a decent chance that some guys will resist or downright ignore what you throw at them to then proceed to smash you to smithereens with your own spellbook. I was pretty skeptical about this component, but it works exceedingly well in playtest and adds significant narrative potential to the fray.
There also are spellcasting traditions based on calligraphy brushes and ancestor worship that make sense. The pdf also introduces the Pilot skill and simplified vehicular combat rules, with mecha penguin-robots and dogfighters (aptly named Explodicus...) emphasizing that. The race-chapter is interesting: It fixes broken components like 1st-level Strix-flight, makes goblins less lop-sided (instead of +4 Dex, +2 Dex and Int) and generally make those work better. At the same time, the feylves (small fey-ish elves), half-doppelgangers and disgusting leugho are anything but balanced (the latter even gets crit-immunity...)- and presentation-wise, they deviate completely from the formatting established for races...which is a bit odd, since the playable mongrelmen work just fine and are well-crafted. Similarly, the rock-like Pantako are a unique and fun race I can't complain about, though I do wish we saw more about their culture, race-relations, etc. There also are variants of dragon-men (Uh, novel, didn't see those coming, hmm?), the dragonii.
Gaining a +4 bonus to one attribute, they are per definition lopsided. They also get pretty powerful additional abilities, including a Style-based racial feat-tree, which I liked in concept, if not in conjunction with the race itself. However, there is one race I was more than a bit positively surprised by: Sun Gryphons. Quadruped gryphons you can play. And yes, they are balanced, don't get 1st level flight AND sport a nice 5-level racial paragon class as well as feats for aerial maneuvers, taking a cue from Rite Publishing's excellent "In the Company of"-series. As a complaint regarding balance: 3rd level of the paragon class is pretty OP: You get both Fly AND Pounce - Pounce should be gained later (very strong) and flight is usually considered appropriate at 5th level, so yes, that one I'd modify. The pdf also sports a reprint of the Conduit-base-class first featured in Amora Game's excellent "Liber Influxus Communis." Beyond that, we receive a significant array of archetypes, but covering them all would bloat the review even further. Suffice to say, for the most part, they are intriguing and awesome, with the Attack-On-Titan-PrC I mentioned before being one of my favorites.
There is also a variant PrC for followers of dread Boris, a goblin-biker archetype...and an interesting archetype that basically is a paladin that requires gold for healing and starts off as nice...but has a built-in heel-turn...which is unique and something I haven't seen an archetype do before. And channeling capitalism's magnetic effects are hilarious. The scientific innovator, who can duplicate magic via SCIENCE!! would be another one I rather enjoyed. There is also a summoner who gets a swarm-eidolon and, obviously, there are some feats and class options contained in this chapter as well.
Okay, but even after all of this rambling, I have STILL not covered all this book is. Yeah, I know, right? The final section of this tome is devoted exclusively to characters and statblocks: Basically, you get a metric TON of statblocks for the APG-classes, the Magus and Ultimate Combat classes, spanning the CRs - while we don't get statblocks for each CR, we get a LOT of them...and the pdf does sport sample character backgrounds for the respective builds, which btw. also sometimes feature archetypes. Build-wise, they are nice and make sense - so part of the grand question's answer is that this book also can be considered to be basically a huge expansion of the NPC Codex, a treasure trove of statblocks GMs can throw at players. And yes, this does contain sample eidolons and multiple simple templates as well as sample random encounter tables.
This does still not properly answer the question, though.
Editing and formatting are impressive for such a huge book - while there are some minor hiccups, the whole can be seen as an accomplishment of very good editing - kudos! Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard, with each chapter sporting a different color-scheme. Artworks are more than numerous - there is a piece of artwork on almost each two-column spread. The artworks range from gorgeous original art to public domain stock and is for the most part in full-color. The pdf comes fully bookmarked, but unfortunately the book does not sport an index, which is a bit grating when looking for a given component. The print version has, on a nitpicky side, the title etc. not in the center of the spine. I have the premium-paper-based PoD-version and the matte paper and gluing are solid, though I am not 100% sure whether the massive book will stand up to the test of time. If you're not 100% excited, I'd recommend getting the pdf first to see whether you enjoy this massive book.
Michael Allen, Luis Loza, Michael McCarthy, Brian Wiborg Mønster, Julian Neale, Colin Stricklin - these are the talented authors that contributed to Mike Myler's magnum opus and know what? I ended up liking Veranthea Codex, more so than I expected to, so, all of you: Good job!
This review was framed by the question of what this book actually is - and indeed, the focus on basically three wildly different continents as well as the NPC-Codex-like collection of statblocks makes this book extremely ambitious. I expected, quite frankly, to be disappointed by this colossal tome - a focus this diverse surely would dilute the focus of the book, right? Well, THANKFULLY, the page-count blew up. Due to the colossal size of this book, the respective components do have enough space to properly shine - barely so, if you're like me and a stickler for detail that usually grows themes and leitmotifs from the small scale to the global. Veranthea Codex manages to, surprisingly, present just enough on the respective continents to make them working settings for campaigns intrigued in the high-concept approach it takes.
If that sounds negative, rest assured that it should not be taken as such: If anything, the exceedingly high-concept locales, more often than not, could well provide enough material for 60 -90-page gazetteers each - and frankly, I'd love to see books like that. Thankfully, once again, the first expansions for Veranthea have already been released, so I'm positive we'll see more.
So is this book perfect? No, there are quite a few components I do not agree with, some instances of design-philosophy I consider less refined than others and there are components I'd love more details on (just about everything)...and I probably won't do a full-blown default setting switch based on this book alone. But Veranthea Codex is more than that: Due to the rules and ideas herein, in both crunch and evocative prose, the Veranthea Codex can be used pretty much as a perfect scavenging ground for rules, concepts and countries, society and gods - and as such, this book can be a pretty great toolbox.
The most important component of this book is one I haven't even touched upon yet: Veranthea Codex does one thing, in my opinion, the crucial thing, right: It is an honest jamais-vu experience. There is literally no setting like it. From Grethadnis' subdued un-steam-y steampunky elements and emphasis on uncommon themes (Jabberwock-war!) to Urethiel's fantastic WuXia that does not simply duplicate the tropes to the gloriously balls-to-the-wall weird Trectoyri and the unique take on the Forever Dark... Veranthea is unique. In a hobby, where we get x post-apocalyptic setting, countless fantasy worlds with diverging magic-levels, where I can count the dark fantasy/horror-settings and pseudo-vampire/Ravenloft-y settings, Veranthea is a thoroughly UNIQUE vision of the fantastic, one influenced y our current sensibilities. This is basically the current Marvel superheroes-movies' aesthetic applied to fantasy, with booms and blasts and unique, stunning locales, high-concept vehicular combat and nods to nerd culture, Veranthea Codex feels like a fresh wind, one that has left me wanting to know more about this evocative setting. When a book manages to actually provide fresh impulses to my game, when its concepts are evocative enough for me to actually scavenge the hell out of them, it does receive a heartfelt recommendation from me.
Veranthea Codex manages to provide an array of interesting options and paints, in broad strokes, a picture of a unique world as well as sporting a collection of neat statblocks. Granted, I wished each continent, each component had a book of this size, but thanks to its massive size, this book does manage to provide something unique for just about every game I can imagine.
So what exactly is Veranthea Codex? My final reply is this: Veranthea Codex is a massive, huge book that covers disparate elements and forges them into a cohesive collective; it is a thoroughly evocative, creative and refreshingly different campaign setting with a ton of high-concept crunch and even more intriguing ideas to scavenge. It is a book far removed from Tolkien-esque fantasy, a setting suffused by gamer-sensibilities and nerd-culture that plays with the tropes with one eye winking while being dead serious. Veranthea Codex, to me, is post-modern fantasy - and I love it for that and hope there will be more supplements in the future. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars.