One of the most disappointing things has to be retiring a character that you’re not done with yet. I don’t mean because they died or were affected by some condition that made them unplayable – those at least have some hope of being rectified. I mean what a letdown it is when the GM announces that the campaign has reached its conclusion, and there’s no more adventuring in your character’s future.
In fact, its quite likely a letdown for the GM too – after all, the odds are good that, if you’ve reached the mid-teens or so, then there just aren’t any adventures of the appropriate level he can run for you anymore. It’s fairly common knowledge, after all, that Pathfinder campaigns rarely go the entire distance, leaving those last few levels untouched just as that sweet capstone power, or those potent 9th-level spells, seem within reach.
I like to think that it was for those disappointed players, and GMs, that Rite Publishing created Coliseum Morpheuon, a mini-campaign and setting designed specifically for taking characters from 16th to 20th level. Let’s look at what’s to be found inside.
The first thing that should be noted is that Coliseum Morpheuon is actually a bundle of seven specific products. Five of these are Rite Publishing’s Fantastic Maps – more specifically, the Clockwork Maze, the Arena of Fire, the Ruined Library, the Glass Ships, and the Stepped Pyramid. There are also two PDFs – the first being a copy of the Paper Minis Coliseum Morpheuon product, and the final one being the actual Coliseum Morpheuon book itself (which will be the primary focus of this review).
For those who aren’t familiar with the Fantastic Maps format, I’ll recap what’s to be found in those. Each map is presented with as many tools as possible to facilitate ease of use. There are two JPEGs, each showing the map at a small enough size to fit onto a single page – one with the grid map and one without. There are also two PDF files; each one shows the entire map, and then has it broken down into a series of pages appropriately sized so that each grid is one square inch; easy printing at its finest. Moreover, these map pages are presented in color and then black and white. The reason there are two is that one is meant for US-letter size, whereas the second is meant for A4 paper (a European standard). The entire thing also has Mac-accessible files as well, plus files to import the maps into Maptools.
And you get five of those with this product – something that should start make clear just how much value this package really offers.
The paper minis PDF is something of a misnomer, because it features a lot more than just paper minis. Specifically, it features the entirety of the first two appendices from the Coliseum Morpheuon PDF; the ones dedicated to the two opposing adventuring parties that your characters face during their challenges, the Dirges and the Grey Feathers. This section is word-for-word the same, so I won’t go over it here – just skip down to where I go over those in more detail if you want to know more about the content found there. It’s after this that we get the actual paper minis. These cover both adventuring teams, as well as presenting a number of minis for the guards of the Coliseum, known as the Hounds of Ill-Prophecy. I wish there’d been a recap of the instructions regarding how you properly construct the paper minis once you print them out, but maybe that’s intuitive for people who’re more used to using paper minis than I am.
Having covered all of that (and to be fair, that was light coverage – I’m not giving Ashton Sperry and James Hazelett (of the Paper Minis) nor Jonathan Roberts (of the Fantastic Maps) enough credit for the level of talent they’re bringing here. Alas, doing so with such a massive series would mean that this review would be significantly longer) let’s move on to the main Coliseum Morpheuon book.
Weighing in at ten chapters and three appendices, Coliseum Morpheuon is well over a hundred pages long. The cover makes it very clear that this book is meant for the big boys of Pathfinder – not only does it boldly announce that it’s for characters of 16th-20th level, but the artwork displays a gargantuan winged woman with clawed digitigrade feet about to spear a similarly-sized fellow in classical gladiator garb as he swings a mace at her head. The rest of the picture sets the scope for these figures, as we can see a broken moon in the background and, in the foreground, a series of tiny figures standing along the top of the Coliseum, cheering at the spectacle.
The book has full, nested bookmarks (which are necessary given its size) and is quite rich in artwork. Indeed, full-color art appears with regularity, showcasing locations, monsters, and people of all sorts. Rite Publishing assembled quite a talented team for this, and I was quite impressed at the visuals they consistently released.
But enough technical materials, what’s Coliseum Morpheuon actually about?
The entire adventure takes place on the Plane of Dreams. Here, an enigmatic being known only as the Khan of Nightmares has raised a great coliseum (the eponymous Coliseum Morpheoun) and raised a city around it. Matches and contests of all sorts constantly take place at the Coliseum, but the greatest of these is held just once every century: the Damnation Epoch. Only the mightiest of teams (including your high-level characters) are invited to participate in the Epoch, and they compete for a grand prize that even 20th-level characters would salivate over – I won’t spoil the surprise for what this mysterious prize is, but trust me; it’s something your character would want. Badly.
Of course, that just scratches the surface, as there’s much else to do in the City of the Coliseum. In fact, there’s a number of potential sub-plots that can be used to take the adventure in different directions, depending on which one your GM uses.
Let’s go over the book chapter by chapter.
The first chapter covers the Plane of Dreams. Going over its planar traits, it then talks about some of the regions found in this mutable realm, going over them in broad strokes. There’s little specificity given to the areas described, largely giving them as backdrop to the locality where the adventure largely takes place. Hence, there’s no maps here (a commonality throughout the book – the only maps found herein are small reproductions of the smaller maps from the Fantastic Maps).
Initially, I was somewhat skeptical of setting things in the Plane of Dreams, largely because dreams seem too ephemeral for high-level characters, who are forces to be reckoned with on a regional, if not global, scale. However, as the book went on, I realized that setting the adventure here serves a twofold purpose: it allows for the GM to have relative freedom in designing the finer details of the City and the surrounding areas (since dreams are so mutable and ever-changing), and it allows for the adventure to easily pickup where a terrestrial campaign leaves off, since the PCs are unlikely to have had much adventuring in dreams before this arc starts.
The second chapter gets into the finer details of what it means to actually be physically present on the Plane of Dreams. Specifically, this chapter deals with the rules for “dreamburning.”
Dreamburning is based around the ideas that your dreams aren’t just things you see when you’re asleep. They’re also the culmination of your most personal hopes, goals, and aspirations. In fact, each player must write down a hope, a goal, and an aspiration for their PC while on the plane, since these take on physical substance there. A character is able to “burn” these substances for power, but doing so erodes their dreams. Worse, these dreams can be bought or stolen by those who’d rather burn the dreams of others than their own. There are even dreamburning-specific traits and alternate rules to let you customize how to implement this facet of the setting in your game.
Needless to say, after a first chapter that (initially) left me somewhat cold, this chapter really did it for me. The new mechanics here are, I think, an example of rules at their best: helping to role-play who your character actually is. Having a set of mechanics based around things that are intensely personal to your characters is a great opportunity to make things very character-based, something that’s very helpful at the higher levels, where what a character can do often overshadows who they are.
The third chapter is a short monster listing, giving four dream creatures. This section wasn’t bad, but could have done more. For all the art in the book, only one of these creatures has an illustration, something that’s very important for new monsters. Also, the oneirobound, the dreamers who’ve become trapped in the dream realm and are usually taken as slaves, should have been presented as a template rather than a singular type of creature with a short “creating” section that just listed their traits.
The fourth chapter covers the environment of the island where the City of the Coliseum stands. The history of the place is given (the propaganda and the real version) as well as overviews of the surrounding lands, how the society functions (which is largely a town of very few laws, mostly surviving by its trading and entertainment industries, with the Coliseum at the center of it all), and a very large table of rumors, plus potential adventure seeds.
Given that the nature of dream realms is their level of mutability, the lack of a hard map for this area is somewhat excusable – the City can look like whatever the GM wants it to look like. What’s more noteworthy here is that, by this chapter, you start to get a sense of how the entire product is structured. Settings, backgrounds, and descriptions are given in very broad strokes, often without many details – almost like you’re being given a series of outlines.
My natural inclination would be to deduct points for a book formatted that way. I much prefer that things be excessively detailed; after all, it’s far easier to ignore and change existing details that I don’t like than to need to flesh out the specifics of the details that I do. However, that philosophy breaks down at higher levels; there are just too many possibilities with characters that have such great abilities and resources. Far better to present the basics, giving the GM ideas and information that can be tailored to a given group. I was surprised to find myself thinking that way, but it became more and more clear as I read through the book – Coliseum Morpheuon gives you as much as it can for such a high-level setting; filling in the details is up to you.
Of course, for all my talk about a lack of details, chapter five is overflowing with them. Perhaps the most important chapter in the book (notwithstanding the actual adventures), this covers over a dozen influential figures of the City. While some of these are for types of people (such as the aforementioned Hounds of Ill-Prophecy), most are specific characters. All have no only full stats, but artwork as well as a discussion of who they are as characters, complete with a listing of their own dreams, aspirations, and goals (with the potential to be stolen or dreamburned). Plenty of sidebars cover some new crunch that several of these characters have, which is as it should be – a series of high-level characters should bring new powers to the table.
I should stress that this rogues’ gallery is one of the best parts of the book, showcasing NPCs who could easily become major staples of any campaign. From Auberyon the Solstice King, to the Dragon of the Ghostdance, to the Jack of Diamonds, these characters are fully-formed NPCs, with stats that often dip into other d20 materials to lend them a truly alien feel. This chapter is the book at its best.
It’s only at chapter six that the book starts to focus on the actual adventure that your PCs will be running through, a tournament called the Damnation Epoch. An overview of the adventures, this chapter summarizes what the PCs will be facing, who their possible patrons (since competing teams need benefactors) are, possible sub-plots that can be set as a backdrop to the events of the tournament, and a quick overview of the major possible patrons for the PCs and who some of the noteworthy opposing teams are.
And lest I forget, it’s here that the prize of the tournament is discussed in all its glory also. I’m still not going to tell you what it is, though…but trust me, it’s EPIC.
Chapter seven begins the actual adventure itself. It’s here that the PCs receive their actual invitation to the Damnation Epoch, and face several qualifying rounds to actually gain admittance to the tournament. I was quite happy to note that this section had advice for what to do with groups that are larger than just four PCs; having a group of six PCs myself, I was glad for it.
Chapter eight seems like something of an odd duck at first glance. It’s roughly three dozen short descriptions of possible encounters throughout the City. Note that these aren’t combat encounters – rather, they’re various things going on with various people. Much like adventure seeds, these are obviously meant to be fleshed out by the GM, and quite often involve more character-building and role-playing than combat. The presentation, however, seems almost random until you get to chapter ten.
Finally, in the book’s ninth chapter, we come to the ten tests of the Damnation Epoch. Each one increasingly difficult, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in true gladiatorial fashion, not all of the tests are combat-focused. In fact, many of them involve competing by accomplishing a given task before another team does, to earn the most points. Of course, combat is usually an acceptable method for competing as well, but as an auxiliary way to compete – rarely will the singular goal be to simply kill things.
The tests themselves are grand in scope; as appropriate for a planar series of games. From raiding a ruined library on a dying world as it falls toward the sun, to navigating atop positive energy “icebergs” as they float on a sea of negative energy, these are contests appropriate to your high-level characters. Through in opposing teams of comparable power, as well as insidiously deadly traps and ferocious monsters, and the competitions will be something your group will talk about for a long time to come.
The tenth and final chapter is dedicated to the half-dozen possible subplots that can be run against the backdrop of the Damnation Epoch. From trying to free the oneirobound slaves to playing matchmaker for an exotic planar dragon, this section describes how to get each subplot rolling, what specific events from chapter eight it utilizes and when, and how it turns out.
The first two of the book’s three appendices cover two of the opposing teams in specific detail. The first is an evil team known as the Dirges, while the second is a team of former villains-turned-heroes called the Grey Feathers. Each has full stats, a discussion of who they are as people, their battle tactics, and what their dreams are, as well as full-color illustration. The final appendix includes pre-gen characters, all given just a quick description of their looks and personality before we get to their stats – the rest of these characters are up to the GM to decide.
Overall, Coliseum Morpheuon is not only one of the few options for GM’s who want a pre-made adventure for high-level characters, it’s also one of the best. Presenting not only a series of adventures that offer exciting and dangerous challenges for your PCs, it also covers a new setting with interesting new rules, variable backdrops for the adventure, and a diverse cast of characters to interact with. The details are enough to provide you with all of the salient material for running a game set around the Coliseum, while still being hands-off enough that you can make it what you need for your high-level PCs.
If you’re not ready to retire your campaign when your adventure path ends, and want to give them a chance to try and make it all the way to 20th level and claim the power, prestige, and fabulous prize that comes with doing so, then send them to Coliseum Morpheuon.