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Book of Hallowed Might II: Portents & Visions

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Book of Hallowed Might II: Portents and Visions (.pdf)

Author: Monte Cook & Mike Mearls
Publisher: Malhavoc Press
Publish Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-58846-967-0
Pages: 64
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $13.99
($6.00 .pdf)

This 2004 Malhavoc Press publication, authored by Monte Cook and Mike Mearls, is a 64-page e-book (5.1 MB file size), which provides a series of religiously-orientated sites, spells, prestige classes, magic items, and feats. Readers familiar with a previous Malhavoc publication, The Book of Eldritch Might III: The Nexus, will recognize the format of this new sourcebook; it is divided into chapters, each dealing with one major religious site dedicated to members of a pantheon of six deities.

In this review, I will first offer my commentary on the individual chapters, and then comment on the volume as a whole. The book begins with a brief introduction which suggests ways to integrate it into an existing campaign with its own pantheon of deities, and explains the internal politics and relationships within the members of the Celestial River pantheon which it presents. I have no criticism, positive or negative, to offer regarding this material; it is not useful to me, personally, as I will explain in greater detail later in the review. But it may be quite useful to other people using the book, especially to Dungeon Masters.

"Chapter One: The Oracle of Jezer-At" details a temple (an "oracle complex" is the book's term, but it's a temple) dedicated to a pair of deities, Enaul and Essoch. These two deities are brothers; both of them share an interest in divination of various sorts, and in prophecy, portents, visions, dreams, and other methods of foretelling the future. Enaul is a lawful neutral god of civilization, invention, divination, and knowledge. His brother Essoch is a chaotic neutral god of the wild, and focuses on intuition, tradition, and instinct. The text of this chapter indicates that they and their respective priesthoods do not get along well or respect one another. In this light, the existence of a shared temple to the two of them stretches my ability to suspend disbelief.

Each god is listed with a title, a brief statement of ethos, an alignment designation, a favored weapon, and a domain list. A pair of devout NPCs, one a cleric and the other a diviner, is listed for Enaul and Essoch, respectively. After the NPCs, the chapter moves on into a discussion of divination, starting with a discussion of how to handle PC-originated divination as a DM. This brief segment may be the most valuable piece of the chapter, on balance; the temptation for a DM to try to shortchange a PC who uses divination magic is very strong, and often leads to frustration and anger for the PC in question if the DM routinely avoids giving useful answers in response to inquiries made via magical means in order to avoid disruption to a planned storyline. The segment acknowledges the power of this temptation for the DM, but urges the DM to play fair with divination, and to avoid such behavior.

With this advice to open the discussion, what follows is a progression of new ways of dealing with divination. "Omens and Portents" is, flatly, a waste of space. It advises the DM that omens can be either specific or general, and gives an example of each, and distinguishes them from superstitions -if a hen lays a rotten egg, that's an omen because it is not controlled by the character. If someone breaks a mirror and expects bad luck, that's a superstition, to borrow an example from the product. Then the section notes that omens may or may not be thematically linked to their significance -that is, something beautiful might signify a coming disaster, whereas something dangerous, frightening, or ugly may foretell good. I think this is likely to lead to a lot of confused players if Dungeon Masters rely on this advice in an uncritical manner.

"Visions and Dreams" heads the next section. This section discusses the various methods a DM may wish to employ in introducing prophetic dreams or visions into the campaign. This section, unlike the advice tendered in "Dreams and Portents" is quite useful. I particularly like the tables associated with this section, which gives exemplary "phantasmagoria" -symbolic images to be included in dreams, and possible meanings to be assigned to them. Also associated with this section is a new skill: "Profession (Speaker of Portents)." This is extremely useful because it introduces a concrete, mechanical system for the use of dreams, omens, visions, and other cryptic forms of prognostication.

Following this, more mechanical information is tendered, in the form of a pair of new cleric domains associated with Enaul and Essoch: Civilization and Future. I like both of them, and the Future domain in particular would be extremely easy to import into other campaign settings, given that it fits nicely with any deity whose interests involve prophecy or divination of the future. A trio of new feats is also presented; one of them, Vatic Sight, allows a character to select a topic and then enter a trance or go to sleep and receive a prophetic dream or vision. Another feat, Seer, allows a character to subject divination spells to the effects of a variety of different metamagic spells at no additional level increase. I have mixed feelings about the feat; on the one hand, it is very powerful. On the other hand, divination as a school of magic in core D&D rules is rather on the weak side, and this feat helps fix that problem. Finally, there's a new item creation feat, which allows the production of a new class of item -a "charm." Charms provide a benefit to the wearer when they are charged by having a 0-level spell cast into them, and are single-use items. I like them especially as something that a low-level witch or shaman can sell to willing buyers, and the flavor of them seems very appropriate to this use, as well. Finally, there is a pair of artifacts associated with Enaul and Essoch. My favorite magic item in the chapter, hands down, has to be the Incense of Visions, which allows a group of characters to inhale its fumes during meditation in order to receive a personalized vision of the future. It's modestly priced at 800 gp, so it makes sense as a reward to the PCs for a job well done, and provides the DM with a remarkably convenient means of inserting a plot hook into his or her campaign.

This leaves me to discuss the spell selection for the chapter. My favorite is Commune with the City, a spell for high-level bards and for mid-level clerics who access the Civilization domain. This spell is very similar to the commune and commune with nature spells from the Player's Handbook, and allows the caster to ask a number of yes-or-no questions that draw upon the pooled knowledge of the community amongst which the caster is located. But the entire spells section of this chapter is good, and offers a useful addition to the range of divination spells available to PCs and NPCs alike.

"Chapter Two: Underwave" offers an underwater temple/refuge dedicated to Dorana, chaotic neutral a goddess of the ocean, of chaos, and of vengeance. The site itself is far better detailed than the Oracle of Jezer-at, and includes a map, as well as guidelines on the number and nature of NPCs who might be found there at any given time, as well as a discussion of how the PCs might travel there, and why, and what sort of behavior is acceptable while they're present. Detailed descriptions of all of the major areas of this temple complex are also provided, and the authors thoughtfully make the refuge both difficult to reach without Dorana's permission, and make this difficulty seem to be the logical reflection of the deity's nature.

As with the previous chapter, the descriptions of the deity and temple site are followed by an exemplary NPC associated with the deity; in this case it's a fighter/rogue who uses Underwave as a refuge in between episodes in his career as a revolutionary and malicious troublemaker.

A new exotic weapon, Dorana's favored weapon, is then introduced; this "lightning blade" is essentially a two-bladed sword with lightning-shaped blades. It seems a bit on the powerful side, offering the same damage as a two-bladed sword with the addition of the ability to perform trip attacks.

New feats follow; there are eleven in all. Most of them seem balanced and interesting, both from a mechanical standpoint and in terms of flavor. Of particular interest is the Channel Divine Vengeance feat, which allows a character with the ability to turn or rebuke undead to spend a turning attempt in order to a bolt of holy or unholy energy at his or her foes as a ranged touch attack. Honorable mention also goes to the Attune Vengeful Magic feat, which allows a character to produce what is functionally a voodoo doll which can be used to increase the efficacy of his or her spells against the target in whose likeness it is fashioned.

Following feats, the authors offer another new cleric domain: Vengeance. The spell selections associated with this domain are all core material; the granted power is really very nice -the cleric with access to this domain can perform a ritual in order to designate a single foe as the object of special vengeance. In the aftermath of the ritual, the cleric enjoys a damage bonus to attacks versus the victim, and the victim suffers a penalty to saving throws versus the cleric's spells.

The new spell selection associated with this chapter is unexceptional; they are balanced, and reasonably useful, but I found nothing here that made me sit up and take notice. The magical items section is likewise unexceptional, though one of the two items here, Dorana's pendant, deserves mention because it would be eminently easy to import it into any campaign that features a chaotic deity of the ocean.

The chapter ends with a new prestige class: the Lightning Bearer. Like the pendant mentioned above, this prestige class would be relatively easy to import into an existing campaign, particularly if it includes a deity associated with vengeance in combination with lightning or thunder. I am aware of at least one published setting which includes such a deity.

The next chapter, "Chapter Three: The Fallen City of Enderfel," is one of the best in the book from a DM's standpoint. The city in question is the site, of course, and it is ruled by the lawful evil god Mallock, who corrupted it by staging the rise of a horde of monsters and leading an invasion of a neighboring kingdom by devils, so that he could appear to "save" Enderfel from his own army.

The site, then, is open to a variety of uses, depending on the DM's and PC's motives and the nature of the campaign; it's a fine place for good PCs to infiltrate, go to war with, or otherwise fight against, but they might also find themselves frequenting the city as a place to buy black market weaponry unavailable elsewhere, or even as a hideout against the forces of good if they themselves are evil. As before, an NPC follows the discussion of the site and the deity. In this case it's a bard.

New applications of the Bluff skill are detailed next. I found them very flavorful, and I think it likely that they're balanced. The "Play Dead" option is especially interesting, and allows the character, if hit and damaged with a weapon, to fall prone and pretend to have died with a Bluff check. Success leads anyone duped to be flat-footed against an attack made subsequent to this ploy.

Master of Words and Worm Tongued are the only two feats in this chapter, but they are both quite nice, and are readily importable into any campaign which includes the Bluff skill. Rogues and bards will particularly like them, and DMs with a hankering for a more behind-the-scenes type of archvillain will find them enormously tempting as well.

"Temptation" is the watchword for this whole chapter, in fact; the new domain associated with Mallock bears the name, and features a very tasty granted power - I am inclined to say that it verges on being too powerful, since it both grants a Spell Focus feat in Enchantment and adds a more standard domain power to boot, and the domain itself grants a selection of core spells which are not normally available to clerics. If this were a publication by Wizards of the Coast, the probable term for this domain would be "prestige domain."

The new spells of the chapter are, in a word, fantastic. I can't heap enough praise on this section. My particular favorite from the selection is a nifty spell called binding pact, which produces a magically-enforced contract between two willing parties, but all of the spells listed for the chapter are interesting, balanced, and useful. Congratulations to Monte Cook and Mike Mearls for their outstanding work here.

Likewise, congratulations to the authors are in order for the magical items in the next section. The cloak of vipers is enormously cool, and the mask of Mallock will make players weep and DMs cackle with malevolent pleasure. And both of them are balanced, too. I will also note, rhapsodically, that to insert either of these enormously flavorful items into an existing campaign would be sheer child's play.

This outstanding chapter ends with a presentation of no less than three new devils, all of them servants of Mallock. My favorite of the three, the Avrolar, is literally the lawyer from Hell, and gets its jollies by tempting mortals into letting it use its binding pact spell-like ability to contract an exchange of favors which ends up to be more than they bargained for. Like everything else in this chapter, it would be delightfully easy to introduce this material into any campaign that features a silver-tongued, deceptive god of evil and corruption.

Moving on to "Chapter Four: The World Forge," I was again dazzled by a wealth of interesting, readily-adaptable material. The site featured in this chapter is the home of Urgan, the neutral good patron of smiths and metalworkers of all sorts. The World Forge itself is well and vividly constructed. The site is decidedly unfriendly to evil-aligned creatures and PCs, given that it is swarming with powerful good-aligned clerics, paladins, druids, rangers, and is, in fact, the home of a god to boot. Thieves and attackers can expect to have their advances met with the ire of Urgan himself.

The NPC associated with the site is Urgan's unofficial spokesman, a dwarven paladin and king in exile who is on the verge of losing his status as a paladin because he has been thrown into doubt by the loss of his hammer and the apparent slaughter of his subjects at the claws of a red dragon. He can be adapted with relative ease to existing campaigns, and his hammer, a major artifact, is similarly adaptable to suit the DM's whim. The new feats detailed in the chapter are also adaptable, and get points from me for that; of the five feats presented, two of them, Master Armorsmith and Master Weaponsmith, deserve a more detailed discussion because they introduce a new kind of item: masterpiece arms and armor. Essentially, masterpiece items are "similar to masterwork versions in that they enjoy special abilities and enhancements derived from expert craftsmanship. They can gain bonuses to attacks and damage, improved Armor Class modifiers, damage reduction, and other special abilities."

Taken individually, masterpiece arms and armor enhancements seem very reasonable from a balance perspective. A mere 4000 gp is sufficient to improve the +1 enhancement bonus to attack rolls granted by a masterwork weapon to +2, for example. A 2000 gp charge adds a +1 enhancement to damage, and the price increases to 4000 gp for a +2 bonus. So for 8000 gold pieces, one can buy a weapon which is functionally a +2 weapon that is not affected by an antimagic field. A +3 equivalent raises the price

to a mere 16000 gp. It should also be noted that the addition of magical properties to a masterpiece weapon demands that it be enhanced by use of the Craft Magical Arms and Armor feat as normal, so that a mastercraft weapon of +3 to attack and +3 to damage must be enhanced as a +1 magical weapon in order to have special abilities like the flaming property added to it. This raises the overall expense associated with the weapon

to 18000 gp total, and allows it to pierce DR/magic, in addition to the aforementioned benefit of having a +3 weapon that works in places where magic doesn't. A +1 flaming balanced (+3 attack) sharpened (+3 damage) longsword, then, costs a mere 24000 gp as opposed to 32000 gp, and is, functionally speaking, better than the more expensive version.

My feeling, therefore, is that masterpiece arms and armor should be used, if they are used, with caution. If there's anything in this book that makes me nervous in a balance sense, this belongs on the list. I wouldn't let it stop me from buying the product, but I personally doubt that I will use this material. That's all I'll say about that.

Moving on, I am pleased with the new Forge domain; it's reminiscent of the Metal domain from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, both in its granted powers and the spells included in it. The general spell selections are also of uniformly high quality. My pick is a sexy little level 5 spell for druids, sorcerers, and wizards called molten blast. This line effect deals a nice chunk of fire damage, with a reflex save for half damage, and it covers its victims in a coat of molten rock which subsequently hardens on them and inflicts a Dexterity penalty -which does not offer a save.

The magical item selections for the chapter are really both artifacts; the true clay item is essentially a lump of earth that shapes, at your whim, into any sort of non-magical tool, weapon, or shield you like. The other artifact is associated with the chapter's NPC, and positively oozes dwarven goodness. Nice entries, both of them.

Finally, there's a prestige class called the Hammer of Urgan. This prestige class is open to divine spellcasters of level 3 and up, with aptitude in metalworking. There's also a very significant roleplaying prerequisite for entry. It offers half-caster progression in spellcasting, proficiency with a couple of martial weapons relevant to Urgan, and some nice spell-like abilities like detect magic with respect to magical weapons and armor made of metal. There's a Flesh of Steel ability that adds a bit of natural armor, and the candidate eventually gains up to fire resistance 10. The only thing about the class that might be cause for concern is the Hammerhand ability, which allows the Hammer of Urgan to shape metal with his bare hands. This offers him a vastly improved speed on Craft checks -making a weapon of the same size as him or her self takes only one hour. This could prove a problem if a PC takes levels in the class, and then spends his or her downtime crafting some of the more expensive martial and exotic weapons, for example.

The final chapter, "Chapter Five: Mountain of the Voice," is dedicated to a desert monastery dedicated to Kulaj, the mother of the pantheon detailed in this book. This lawful neutral goddess of nature and magic is served by the NPC Reddine Par, a lawful neutral sorcerer/cleric/speaker of the divine of about 20 levels total. There is a good map of the Priory of the Divine Voice which sits atop the mountain, but the actual written material describing the site is very sparse, and certainly doesn't reach the same level of excellence that I noted with respect to the previous two chapters.

The single new feat in the chapter is Manipulate Magical Charge, which allows a spellcaster to coax a more powerful effect out of a wand or staff at the cost of increased charge expenditures. As a feat choice for a PC, it's probably slightly underpowered because it mostly means that a character will burn through a charged item a lot faster. For an NPC, especially at high levels, it is a nice feat because it helps the DM control the amount of treasure handed out, and it makes the NPC more versatile in and out of combat.

The spells in this chapter are decent, but nothing earthshaking. I'd have little difficulty in allowing any of them in my campaign, but dry rain, a level 2 spell for clerics and druids, is confusingly worded and badly needs clarification or errata from the authors.

Other things of note in this chapter are some innovations in magic item creation which use existing core feats in new ways. Namely, these are keyed spell items and admixtures. An admixture is a potion with two or three spell effects contained in it instead of only one. Anyone with the Brew Potion feat can make one, and they function exactly as a normal potion except that all the effects are activated with one quaff from the vial. In exchange for this time-saving feature, there's a premium on the price of the admixture. I like it very much; this is a very useful thing for a character to be able to do, and the premium on an admixture's price is very reasonable -- you get something extra, but you pay for it.

Keyed spell items are produced through the use of the Craft Rod feat, which is a welcome addition to the functionality of an oft-neglected item creation choice. They usually take up an equipment slot on a PC or NPC's body, or else they're held in the hand, and they allow the PC to spontaneously "burn" a prepared spell (or a spell slot in the cases of sorcerers and bards, though they have to spend a slot one level higher than the keyed spell) in order to cast the spell keyed to the item. Special keyed items can be made which also modify the functionality of the keyed spell in some fashion. For example, at a hefty premium you can have an item which lets you spontaneously cast a fireball with a 50% damage bonus (effectively, this is equivalent to an empowered fireball). It still uses a prepared spell of level 3. A keyed item like this one costs 3900 gp, and can be used as many times a day as you have spell slots to power it. I have serious reservations about the balance of these items as they are priced, but the idea behind them is really quite elegant. I would feel fine about them if they were subjected to a price adjustment in order to make them more expensive, and less of a no-brainer for a wizard or cleric who wants to prepare utility and defensive spells without having to sacrifice offensive capacity to do it. As it is, they're one more nail in the coffin of the sorcerer, since their most visible effect is to take a wizard and give him (or her) the same spontaneity as a sorcerer enjoys. For a look at keyed spell items, CLICK HERE for a free sample posted by one of the authors.

There's also an artifact in the chapter, called a staff of retribution. It's a nice artifact, and quite powerful, but frankly I think that it should have been associated with Dorana from Chapter Two, since she's the goddess of vengeance.

Finally, there is the last of the prestige classes in this book, called the Speaker of the Divine. This prestige class is enormously skill-intensive in its prerequisites, and no character will gain access to it before level 10 because it calls for 13 ranks of Concentration, 6 ranks each of a pair of Knowledge skills and in Perform, and a good 5 ranks in Listen. My feeling is that it's most appropriate as a prestige class for a bard, since almost no other single class can easily qualify for entry; Wizards will tend to do well, since their high ability score is likely to be Intelligence, and they will have the skill points to burn on the Knowledge requirements, but anyone except a bard is likely to find it necessary to multiclass in order to conveniently fill all the prerequisites.

Once you're into the prestige class, it offers a high degree of specialization in harnessing the power of the spoken word; there are some highly customizable spell-like abilities that the character can pick off of a menu, and a few real gems. My favorite ability from this prestige class is the obscurely named "Knowledge Voice" spell-like ability, usable several times a day, which allows the character to question any inanimate object and receive a truthful, seven-word answer as if the object were a human of standard intelligence with normal sensory perception of events around it. On the whole, however, the class leaves me uneasy. Its capstone ability (which is admittedly granted at character level 20) allows the character to duplicate the effect of a wish spell once per day, without an XP cost. This ability deals 2d6 temporary Con damage, stuns the character for 1d6+2 rounds, and leaves all of his or her spellcasting and prestige class-granted abilities unavailable for 24 hours, but I consider these measures insufficient to make the class balanced.

This concludes my discussion of the individual sections of the book. It also includes an appendix for those who want to use the source in an Arcana Unearthed campaign, and need to convert the material to work in that setting's magic system. I will not discuss this material, because I know nothing of Arcana Unearthed.

Taken as a whole, I think this is a fine product that is worth the money I paid for it. The majority of the book contains material that's likely to be useful to most DMs and many players regardless of the campaign setting they're playing in. The .pdf file, as is the custom for Malhavoc products, is very well edited by Sue Cook, Monte Cook's wife and easily the best editor working in the gaming industry today. It is also bookmarked, making it reasonably convenient to find material within the book.

Having said this, I don't like the locale-based format used for the volume, and did not like it when it was used in past Malhavoc products. My personal preference, as a DM and a player, is to use select bits and pieces of the mechanics and roleplaying hooks provided by a gaming book, and I find that the locale-based format, while it's eminently practical for a DM who likes to run a site-based adventure or campaign, is irritating and inconvenient for someone who is transplanting bits and pieces of material into an existing campaign. The index included in the back of the volume helps to alleviate this gripe, but it only makes it bearable.

My criticism of this structure is largely a result of my experience as an academic; in my own mind, a gaming book is really a reference book, and there are only a certain number of ways in which a reference book can be set up and remain convenient as a tool of reference. As a reference book, this product is utterly annoying, and leaves me tearing out my hair in frustration. I want to flip to the spell section, and find an alphabetized collection of spells (boy, do I miss the ultra-convenient spell lists that preceded the full spell descriptions in the first two Books of Eldrich Might and in the Book of Hallowed Might). If I want feats, I want to flip to that section and find a selection of feats. I like tables, and all that. Some readers might like the way the volume is arranged, but I really hate it. The content is good, but it's a real chore to use it unless you use it in the context in which Monte Cook and Mike Mearls have decided to offer it.

Finally, there is the matter of the DRM issue -as some of you know, Monte Cook has decided to begin transacting his electronic book business through drivethruRPG.com, a new online vendor. One of the consequences of this change of vendor from RPGNow.com is that all Malhavoc electronic products now incorporate Adobe Software's Digital Rights Management technology as a security measure against software piracy. A lot of customers have become angry over this change, as many of readers of this review may already be aware. I will not enter into the debate over the efficacy or ethics of DRM technology. I will say that I bought the Book of Hallowed Might II through drivethruRPG.com, and that my experience of the site was fine. It took me about 15 minutes to enable the DRM feature of Adobe Acrobat 6.0 (and this included updating to the very latest version, which required a download -I have a cable modem, so it was no big thing). I only read gaming supplements at home on one of two computers, so licensing is not particularly an issue for me, and the DRM technology doesn't interfere with any attempt for me to burn a copy onto a compact disc as a backup. The copy opened just fine. There is a limit on the number of copy/paste operations you can perform from a given file in a given 10 day period (for this product, it's 10 in 10 days). If anything is likely to be inconvenient about the DRM technology, this is it. But personally I don't mind typing something out for myself, so it's not the end of the world so far as I’m concerned.

Sorcery and Steam

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Sorcery and Steam (.pdf)

Author: Various
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Publish Date: 08/2003
ISBN: 1-58994-115-2
Pages: 178
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $24.95
($4.99 .pdf)

This 178-page supplement from Fantasy Flight Games is the work of writers Mark Chance, Gareth Hanrahan, Lizard, Brian Patterson, and Ross Watson, edited by Greg Benage. A 2003 publication, it is subtitled "A Resource for Steampunk Fantasy Adventure" and appears, visually speaking, as if it has been scanned into .pdf format from a paper product, judging by the segment of the lower half of the front cover that has been "snipped" off at the bottom of the on-screen page, and belongs to FFG's Legends and Lairs line. A quick browse of its catalogue entry at www.drivethrurpg.com shows that this impression is absolutely correct. It should also be noted that this e-book was published before the release of the 3.5 System Reference Document, and that it is therefore a 3.0 product.

Because of the initially questionable aesthetics of the product, it was with some trepidation that I continued on to read and consider the contents of the volume. Since I have already discussed the aesthetics of the book, I'll finish that discussion before I go on to write about the gaming content itself. Sorcery and Steam is a black and white product, and this includes its interior illustrations, which are greyscale images with a gritty or hazy feel to them which I think is nicely evocative of the ambiance of a Dickens novel. So they do a good job of reinforcing the "steampunk" flavor of this sourcebook. My favorite illustration is the one associated with the Brawler prestige class in Chapter Two; it reminds me of The Quiet Man, a film that featured John Wayne as a retired American boxer in rural Ireland of the early 20th century.

Having disposed of the matter of the product's appearance, we can now move on to a detailed review of the contents. The book consists of five chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of running a D&D game with an Industrial Age or "steampunk" flavor. The first chapter, in fact, is devoted entirely to a detailed discussion of what steampunk is, where the term came from, and what might be the consequences of including steampunk elements in a D&D campaign. There is only minimal "crunchy" material in this chapter, but it is nevertheless my favorite part of the book because it urges the reader to consider the premises on which he or she will be running or participating in "steampunk." On the one hand, as the chapter points out, steampunk can equate to a fantasy setting with the addition of Victorian mores, technology, and social class as motifs for the campaign. On the other hand, it can also encompass a more Wild West or pulp action feel, in the same vein as the motion pictures League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Wild Wild West.

Similarly, steampunk can include wryly humorous but depressing social commentary like a Dickens novel, filled with criminals, beggars, and the working poor, or it can be boisterous high adventure, or anywhere in between. The chapter acknowledges these possibilities, and then proceeds into a discussion of the real difficulties associated with steampunk -unlike more traditional sub-genres of fantasy, it invites the players not to suspend disbelief with regard to details about daily life. Whereas the activities of peasants in traditional sword and sorcery gaming are of minimal importance to most players, in a game setting in which mass production can account for floods of black-market weapons the players are actively encouraged to question the effects of the possible intersection between magic and technology. The reason why I like the chapter is that it leaves it up to the individual reader to determine which flavor is desired, and merely provides a discussion of the likely consequences of an attempt to include such elements in a campaign—It encourages the DM or player to ask important questions about these concerns before they crop up as actual problems.

Chapter Two focuses on character classes, whether they are core classes from the classic D&D game as presented in the 3.0 SRD, or the new core classes presented in the book, or prestige classes. The discussion of core classes is really quite interesting, given that the book offers suggestions for interesting variants like an urban druid who receives modified class abilities to reflect their association with "the urban jungle." Even where there is no variant offered, there is a largely useful discussion of how a given class is likely to fit into a steampunk setting with growing industry, urban centers, and the social structures that rise from these innovations. The barbarian, for example, is subject to difficulties in a steampunk campaign because they represent a distinctly "uncivilized" approach to life, and may even live in tribal societies which fall prey to unprincipled members of industrial cultures. A goodly number of the core classes also receive additions to their class skill lists in order to bring them into line with a selection of mechanics delineated later in the book.

The section detailing new core classes is, in my opinion, distinctly less interesting and useful. Three core classes are presented in all; they the Animal Lord, the Artificer, and the Musketeer. Of the three, I am least impressed with the Animal Lord, which is a sort of totemic/nature character and fills a niche, which I think is better and more interestingly filled by the barbarian and/or the druid. I can only speculate that this class was meant to recall the old Tarzan pulp novels. The remaining two core classes are fine, though I also harbor doubts as to their necessity and flavor. The Artificer focuses on producing steam technology via the Craft skill, and gains rogue-like abilities to sabotage mechanical traps and the like. On the whole, I think a rogue can do the Artificer's job, and do it better and with greater versatility. The Musketeer is, predictably enough, a class focused on the use of gunpowder weapons. It has a few interesting class features, but on the whole I think that a fighter or ranger can easily do the same job. It would have made a good prestige class.

Finally, we come to the prestige classes. There are about a dozen of these, and my favorite is definitely the Gun Glyph, a nice option for wizards or fighter/wizards who like firearms. The keynote ability for the class is a reduction to arcane spell failure chances, coupled with the power to charge a specially-constructed firearm with the energy of a spell, ultimately of up to fourth level, which then affects a target struck by the bullet fired from the weapon. Along with each of the prestige classes in the section, there is a detailed description of an organization which includes a high proportion of members of the prestige class. This struck me as a nice touch, and could be useful as a source for adventure hooks and homebrewed organizations. Not all of the prestige classes fired my imagination; the Physician in particular seemed unsuited as a class for a PC, since it is lacking in combat skills and relegated to the role of a non-magical healer. Members of this class might be more interesting and useful in a low-magic campaign.

"Chapter Three: Skills, Feats, and Spells" introduces new uses for several existing skills, including creation DCs for two new kinds of alchemical item via the Alchemy skill, and other interesting new mechanics, like the use of the Appraise skill to determine an individual's social rank by his or her clothing. The chapter also offers a handful of new skills -- Drive (for steering mechanical vehicles), Munitions (for dealing with explosives and the like), and Use Steamcraft Device (for using mechanical items that don't fall under the Drive skill). Following new skills, the chapter puts forth new feats. Most of them are interesting, at the least. There is a chain of parry/riposte feats for duelists, which I don't care for because they bog down the conduct of the game, and I don't think that they improve the game sufficiently to be worth the extra dice rolls they call for.

On the other hand, there are some very nice feats here, too. My favorite is the Brew Injection feat, which functions similarly to the core books' Brew Potion feat. The nifty thing is that an injection is delivered via a hypodermic syringe, and can be administered to a hostile creature. It can also be used on an unconscious ally as a standard action instead of a full-round action. There is also a new feat descriptor - [Heritage]. Heritage feats are basically feat chains which must be started at 1st level, and build on each other to offer a series of unusually high skill bonuses to a selection of important skills. Most of these chains also grant some sort of special ability, as well, if they are pursued to their capstone feat. For example, the Industrial Upbringing chain starts with bonuses to Appraise and Craft skill checks. It proceeds up to the Industrial Master feat, which cuts crafting times in half for the Craft skill. The balance of the Heritage feat chains is haphazard. I probably would not use them in my own games.

Finally, there's s lengthy spells section to end the chapter. It's not very good; most of the spells are decidedly on the weak side, and a lot of them are mechanically awkward. A handful of them are basically revisions of core spells, like wall of lightning instead of wall of fire. This spell would actually be very nice, if it were sor/wiz 4 instead of sor/wiz 5. I am not sure why the authors of this section decided to give it a level hike, either -they offer a level 1 spell that is basically the same as magic missile, except that it deals 1d6+1 electrical damage and does not scale up with level. I was distinctly disappointed in the section as a whole. Not much of what you'll find here is likely to be worth using without some intervention by the DM.

"Chapter Four: Steamcraft and Black Powder" is notably more useful for someone who's interested in steampunk gaming. There is a plethora of new items here, divided into classifications like, "Scholars' Tools" and “Rogues' Tools." My favorite scholar's tool is the arcane flux detector, which basically acts like a Geiger counter for the detection of magical auras, and which also proves very helpful to rogues who're searching for magical traps and the like. It’s very nice. Also worth mention is the super-cool "steam portal." Essentially this is a very heavy solid iron gate, raised and lowered by a powerful steam engine that can only be activated by pressing a complicated series of buttons, or flipping an array of switches. It offers the solidity of a heavy fortress gate with the subtlety of the best dwarf-made locksmithing. Again, it’s very nice.

The purely mechanical devices of the chapter are followed by a decent selection of explosive devices -grenades, bombs, and the like. My biggest complaint is that none of these items offers a Reflex save to avoid or reduce their effects -if you're hit with one or end up in its splash radius, you simply take damage. This needs to be addressed if you use this gear. I suggest simply applying the save DCs associated with alchemist's fire, tanglefoot bags, and acid flasks.

The next section is very interesting indeed -it offers "steamcraft" armor. This is essentially the next step up from full plate. It's so heavy that a steam engine is incorporated into its structure to help make it possible to move in the stuff. For an additional price, this armor can then be fitted with assorted gizmos and gadgets -my favorite is the “firesprayer,” which is a very large flamethrower fed by an on-board fuel tank that holds enough juice for five blasts of alchemist's fire in a 30ft. cone. Owing to the delivery method, the fire deals more initial damage to affected creatures, which then run the risk of catching fire. If the fuel tank is ruptured, the entire contents ignite, however, and the wearer of the armor is likely to be roasted alive. I thought it was very cool.

There's also a rule set for handling malfunctions in clockwork, firearms, and steam technology. It's very complicated, though, and I think I would prefer to strip it down to something simpler -the malfunction system detailed in this source relies on d100 tables, and is therefore extensive and clunky, requiring consultation of a chart whenever a malfunction occurs.

The chapter closes out with a lengthy section on firearms. There are plenty of rules here, covering everything from reload times on muskets, to artillery, to bayonets. I'll pass over that in silence except to say that it's there, and that I might even use some of it. The coolest thing in the chapter is a nifty alchemical/magical fusion called alchemical gunpowder. It's expensive stuff, starting at 3 gp/musket or pistol shot, and working up to 80 gp per shot for powder that allows a bullet to pierce through a 3.0 outsider's damage reduction, up to DR/+5. Other effects include powder that fires even underwater or when damp, powder that adds fire or electrical damage, and powder that strikes incorporeal undead as if with a ghost touch property.

Finally, there's the fifth chapter, which deals with steam-powered vehicles and the application of the Drive skill. The rules for this are complicated, but I have yet to see a rule set for piloting or steering vehicles which was not. So it's serviceable, and I'd probably use it once I've had a chance to really pick it apart and see how it works in detail. It does require lots of dice rolls, though. I can tell that just from reading through it. There is also a listing of different sorts of vehicle, which is a fine thing if you want to drop vehicles into your game. If you're looking for rules on creating new vehicles, or modifying the examples provided, though, you're out of luck. I was disappointed about that.

Finally, I'll give my comments on the book as a whole. It ran for 24 dollars through DriveThruRPG when I bought it. To be very blunt, it was grossly overpriced, and not worth what I paid for it. It now sells for $4.99 in US funds, but on the whole I think that I wouldn't buy it, if I had it to do over. There are no bookmarks in this .pdf; there's an index, but you have to scroll all the way down to it, find what you want, and then scroll back up. It's really annoying, and there's no reasonable excuse for a professional publication in .pdf format to be without bookmarks. I'd rather pay 40 dollars for a print publication by Wizards of the Coast, even with their remarkably shoddy editing and playtesting on Player's Guide to Faerûn and Complete Divine, or pay 7 dollars a pop for Malhavoc Press's more recent publications.

There's some usable mechanical content, and there's a lot of commentary on the how of running a steampunk campaign, from a DM's perspective. But the majority of the mechanical stuff is confusing, badly edited, or haphazardly balanced, and it makes up the majority of the book. Someone might be able to use it, but I'm not interested in rewriting half the book. I'd rather buy something that I can use almost straight out of the box. Overall, the book it worth having because of the ideas in it, but the publication values are so lackluster that I think poorly of those who published it -it’s not of professional quality.

School of Evocation

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School of Evocation

Author: Various
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Publish Date: 2003
ISBN: 1-58994-113-6
Pages: 61
Rating: 5 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.95

On a whim, I picked up a copy of School of Evocation while at a gaming convention. The title and cover didn’t really grab me, but the book was basically free with the purchase of another book that did grab me. After a few months, I noticed it on the shelf and decided to read it.

The book begins with a new class, the dedicated evoker. My guess is that this class is supposed to replace the evoker specialist wizard with something a bit less similar to other wizards. I think this is a noble goal, though I’m not sure I like the direction this particular class took with it. For starters, the class has an alignment restriction of “any non-good,” with the justification being that because evocation spells tend to cause a lot of damage, a good alignment doesn’t fit... a view I roll my eyes at. The class is basically a mobile artillery platform. They trade the ability to cast spells from any school except for evocation and universal for a few custom abilities, such as being able to lose a prepared spell for another like the cleric does and the ability to power through spell resistance. The idea for this class wasn’t bad, but the way it was written was, simply put, blasé.

Next the book moved on to eight prestige classes, one for each of the sub-schools of evocation. None of these classes was especially bad, but they were extremely predictable. The prestige class that focuses on cold gets cold resistance, the one that focuses on acid gets an acid-based attack, etc. It just didn’t seem like there was a lot of thought put into these classes aside from making sure there was one for each sub-school.

Interestingly, there were only five new feats in this book, as opposed to the usual trend where as many feats as the printers can handle are tossed in. None of these feats appealed to me personally, but didn’t appear to be over or underpowered. After the feats came and spells. As I expected, the vast majority of the spells (17 of the book’s 61 pages) were just new variations on energy damage. A few, however, were actually very well-conceived and fit the image of a “magical destroyer” type of caster very well.

The last section of the book dealt with new items, magical, mundane and alchemical. A new and interesting concept was introduced in this section. By using certain alchemical items as expendable focuses from spells, one can increase some aspect of certain spells. For example, if using chill crystals (a new alchemical item) when casting a spell with the [Cold] descriptor, one’s caster level is treat as though it were 1 higher than it is. Not a bad idea, I think, though it might be deserving of a whole chapter of its own, since there were very few such alchemical items given. The magical items listed were actually fairly nice as well. Instead of a bunch of high-damage spell effects like I expected, there were many items that took some creative thought by the designer, such as an acid-based key that melts and fuses a lock once inserted.

I didn’t see a lot of obvious errors in this book, as I do with so many others. Errors were not this book’s problem. The problem was that a large part of the material from this book just didn’t seem overly creative. Still, someone looking for alternatives to the spells and magic items in the Player’s Handbook should be able to find something worth the effort in this book.

The Slayer's Guide to Hobgoblins

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The Slayer's Guide to Hobgoblins

Author: Matthew Sprange
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 08/2001
ISBN: 1-903980-00-3
Pages: 32
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $7.99

This book was the first in a long line to be published by Mongoose Publishing. Not only is it the first Slayer’s Guide, it’s the first book released by Mongoose, and they obviously tried very hard to create a product that was extremely useful, yet fundamentally different from the other d20 books of the day.

This book takes an exhaustive look at hobgoblins as a race. It begins by pointing out to the reader that despite the fact that DMs have been using hobgoblins as cannon fodder for years, hobgoblins are not simply stupid creatures that exist for no other reason than to be slaughtered by adventurers. Had I found nothing else likable in the book at all, this message would have completely made up for it.

The bulk (if such a term can be used for a 32 page book) of the book begins with a look at hobgoblin physiology, touching on the possible origin of the race, the differences between hobgoblins and other goblinoids and the psychology of the race. Habitat and society are detailed and special attention is given to how individual hobgoblins function within the tribe. Afterwards, the book moves into a discussion on hobgoblin methods of warfare before shifting focus and launching into a discussion about using hobgoblins as PCs or NPCs. The book closes with a fleshed-out adventure location, a captured fortress currently being held by hobgoblins. Impressively, a three-dimensional map image is included.

There’s not a lot one can say about so small of a book. It could be very useful for a DM looking to flesh out a normally monstrous race or for a player wishing to create a hobgoblin PC. It’s very well-written for the most part, and the running storyline that progresses with the book is entertaining. With a price tag of less than $10, I’d say this book is well worth the money.

The Slayer's Guide to Elementals

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The Slayer's Guide to Elementals

Author: Ian Sturrock
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2003
ISBN: 1-904577-79-2
Pages: 96
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $19.95

I’m a big fan of elementals. I don’t take elementals to the degree of seriousness that I would with undead, but I’ve had a massive 1st-20th level adventure series centering around elementals in my head for years now. I’m also a big fan of Mongoose Publishing’s Slayer's Guide series, since the majority of them that I have read have been fairly well-written. Thus, it was with no small amount of glee that I picked up a copy of The Slayer’s Guide to Elementals, on of the three or four large books in the series.

The book begins with a look at elements and elemental creatures from the perspective of several different real-world cultures and religions. The standard elemental lineup of earth, wind, fire and water comes from the Greeks, but the Chinese had other, different elemental beliefs. The Aztecs believed that elementals had destroyed the world before, and would do so again. Medieval alchemists and philosophers actually went so far as to propose human-like creatures that are entirely made up for one of the four elements. This was an especially welcome opening to the book.

Afterwards, the book moves on to a look at the life and lifecycle of the typical elemental. While the book lays this out with the assumption that a society and culture exists among these creatures, it conspicuously left out any mention of home and hearth. A few new types of elemental creature were detailed, such as the earth jaguar, the Chinese metal elemental and the higher elemental.

Next, the book moved into elementals of tiny, diminutive and fine size, as well as quasi-elementals (what other books sometimes call paraelementals). This is where the book choked up for me. The next forty of this books ninety-six total pages were filled with charts of statistics for these creatures for each possible size, including the aforementioned tiny, diminutive and fine sizes. I can certainly see a desire for statistics of tiny-sized elementals, but in all honesty, who really needs statistics on a single fine-sized elemental of any type? The most odd thing was that despite their miniscule sizes, diminutive and even fine elementals of almost every type could drop the average human commoner in two attacks (forgetting for a moment the fire elemental’s Burn ability). It seems strange to me that a non-poisonous creature the size of a gnat could incapacitate or even kill a healthy human at all, much less in the span of a few seconds. Forgetting this for a moment, this was an exceptionally dry and repetitious area of the book, much akin to reading a telephone book.

After this, the book moved on to a discussion about the actual elemental planes themselves, including the paraelemental planes (the areas where elemental planes intersect one another) and quasielemental planes (the areas where elemental planes intersect the positive and negative energy planes). This part of the book was fairly interesting, though it left something to be desired, since each plane was given so few pages to detail the hazards it contains for unwary visitors. Still, there was enough to give even the most unimaginative of dungeon masters a few unexpected surprises for his players.

The next section of the book dealt with elemental society. This section might as well have been left out entirely. For eighteen different groups of elementals having been contained in this book, only three pages was taken up here. Frankly, that’s sad. Afterwards, the section moved on to discuss the various methods in which the specific elemental creatures mentioned in the book conduct warfare. Each creature was given a single paragraph to detail how it fights. Afterwards, a tiny handful of feats was included, most of which did nothing more than give a slight increase to an elemental’s special attack form (such as increasing a fire elemental’s Burn damage by 1 HD). Lastly, a few hooks for introducing an elemental theme to the game were included.

Given the quality of Mongoose Publishing’s earliest Slayer’s Guide books, I had some pretty high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, these hopes were not realized. The first section or two of this book was a good read, but after that, the book took an extremely dry, clinical turn before ending with a few token sections that could (and should) have been left out to make room for more useful material. It’s a real shame.

Compete Adventurer

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Complete Adventurer

Author: Jesse Decker
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 01/2005
ISBN: 0-7869-3651-7
Pages: 192
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

I’ve been hearing good things about Complete Adventurer since it first came out well over a year ago, but I never got around to buying a copy of my own. When I found it (along with several other wanted books) at a severe discount at a gaming convention a couple of months back, I couldn’t resist picking up a copy for myself. I’m glad I did. Like the other books in the “Complete” series, this book has a focus&skillful characters. For the most part, this means the bard and rogue, but just about any type of character could make use of the majority of this book.

As with most of Wizards of the Coast’s books, Complete Adventurer kicks off with new base classes. Given all I’d heard, I thought I was going to like the scout (a skirmish-type combatant) very much. Suprisingly, I found the scout to be so-so, and I really ended up liking the ninja, which truly surprised me. Though I don’t personally run the sort of game where a character could be a ninja right off the bat, I can see how it could be useful, even in a non-oriental game. The last new class was the spellthief, which is exactly what it sounds like... someone that can leech magical energy off of others and use it for themselves. There were eight full pages dedicated to what this class can do. At the end of the day, I think the spellthief is one number-crunching nightmare I’m simply going to step around and walk past without ever looking back.

The second chapter dealt with prestige classes. At 73 pages, this chapter was huge! Almost every PrC granted a high number of skill points and many of them focused a single skill or set of skills, improving them in new ways. Some PrCs didn’t fit well. The Animal Lord, for example, seemed like it would have been better suited to a book focusing on druids. I was impressed, though, that a psionic PrC was included, since books that don’t deal directly with psionics don’t often have such information.

The next chapter dealt with skills and feats. It has been rare for Wizards of the Coast to include new uses for old skills in their books, but Complete Adventurer did so, and did it well. The feat selection, on the other hand, left a little bit to be desired. There wasn’t a lot that interested me personally, and a handful of the feats were almost identical to each other, allowing multiclass-restricted classes, such as the monk or paladin, to be able to multiclass freely with specific class types.

Afterwards came a chapter on new gear and magic items. There were some nifty things in this chapter. An entire section was set aside to deal with new musical instruments, giving them small bonuses and penalties, which makes them more than simple roleplaying choices that don’t otherwise affect the character. I wasn’t too fond of the new weapons, though, as for the most part, they seemed like mechanics with very little to justify themselves.

Next was the obligatory chapter about spells. There were a few spells here I would consider using for an assassin-type character. What I disliked the most about this chapter was that it included spells that allow you to sneak attack constructs and the undead. I’ve seen this before in third-party books, and I’ve always thought it was a mistake to allow spells or feats to get around one of the most powerful abilities that these monsters possess.

The final chapter dealt with organizations, and this is where the book really shined from a fluff perspective. I’ve seen organizations in other Wizards of the Coast books before, but the authors made a very good effort to tie the organizations in the book to the prestige classes in the book, which made the entire book feel more dynamic somehow. I’d consider using several of the organizations presented with little or no change.

All in all, I’m glad I picked up Complete Adventurer. I’ve liked and disliked other books in the “Complete” series, and this one definitely does into the “like” category. It’s not without issue, but for a Wizards of the Coast book, it was very well-written and had an attention to cleaning up potential loose ends, which I appreciated.

Compelete Arcane

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Complete Arcane

Author: Richard Baker
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 11/2004
ISBN: 0-7869-3435-2
Pages: 192
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

After reading through Complete Psionic, I was a little hesitant to read Complete Arcane. While I liked the other books in the Complete series, I was worried I would be in for another disappointment. Fortunately, my fears weren’t realized.

As is always the case with Complete books, this book begins with a chapter on new classes. In this case, the classes were the warlock, war mage and wu-jen. I’ve heard a lot about the warlock since this book came out, so I was eager to see what all the hype was about. As it turns out, the warlock is basically a caster that doesn’t learn spells as we know them, but instead has the ability to fire off magical attacks at will. I didn’t see a lot wrong with the class, and I think that it might replace the wizard and sorcerer in games where arcane magic has a different flavor, but I’m not overly eager to add the warlock to my own game. It seems somewhat overcomplicated and to be honest, given that its magic comes from spell-like abilities rather than spells, the write-up seemed a little like an exercise in semantics. The war mage was basically a cross between a sorcerer and a fighter, which is exactly what I expected. The benefit of this class rather than a multiclass build is that the war mage learns how to cast spells while wearing armor, much like a bard does. Finally, there was the wu-jen, a wizard-like oriental arcane caster that utilizes the Chinese elements of earth, fire, metal, water and wood. This class reminds me a little bit of the psion class, due to the fact that a wu-jen chooses one element to specialize in and he gains a bonus on spells with that element descriptor. I have nothing against the wu-jen, but given the nature of many of the class’s spells, I think it might have been more interesting had it been written to replace the druid rather than the wizard.

Next was a chapter full of prestige classes. On the whole, this chapter was average. There were a few good prestige classes (I was quite pleased to see that the alienist was included), a few bad (such as the green star adept, which seemed to have little to do with arcane magic and more to do with turning oneself into an intelligent construct) but most were straddling the fence of mediocrity.

The next chapter dealt with feats. There was a short blurb at the beginning about how to deal with feats that require a specific caster level and the warlock, which seems to back up my theory that the class is more effort than I’d be willing to put into it. The larger part of the feats in this chapter were actually pretty good, which is a definite deviation from most of the books Wizards of the Coast produces. A handful of them grant the use of specific spell-like abilities. I was pleased to see so many new metamagic feats, including the “sudden” metamagic feats, which allow you to apply metamagic to a spell once per day without changing the casting time or spell level. I was disappointed, though, to see only one new item creation feat.

As is to be expected, the new spells chapter in Complete Arcane was very large... fifty one full pages! I was actually quite impressed with several of the spells included in this chapter. Even though I don’t intend to use the wu-jen in my own game, I will definitely consider porting more than a few of the wu-jen’s spells over to be used by wizards and sorcerers (and a few could be ported over to the druid as well). The list of warlock invocations was also found in this chapter, none of which seemed to be overpowered or out of place.

Next was the requisite chapter about magic items that anyone should expect to find in a book about arcane magic. The actual items listed weren’t bad, but where the chapter really shined was the description about alternate types of magic item. Some examples given were potions in the form of tiles that can be broken instead of ingested and scrolls that are actually a series of macramé knots instead of ink on paper. Another point of interest in this chapter was a three-page description about spellbooks, what they’re made from and how they can be protected.

The sixth chapter was rather short, and dealt with new monsters. Except for the effigy, a creature that is basically a robotic version of an existing creature (a dire lion is used as the example), I thought the monsters were very well-designed. I was extremely pleased to see an updated version of the pseudonatural creature template.

The final chapter was dedicated to discussions about how to include arcane casters into a campaign. There is a lengthy discussion about each of the types of arcane caster, including each type of specialist wizard. I thought that was very thoughtful. Some discussion was given to how the DM should handle spells that could potentially ruin all of the DM’s hard work, such as charm monster and fly. The chapter also featured a section about how to perform arcane spell duels, though to be honest, that seemed like a lot more work than it was worth. The last major section of the chapter dealt with a few arcane organizations and colleges. Most of these lead back to a prestige class from chapter 2, and would be pretty helpful to a DM that had a PC with levels in such a class.

I was much more impressed with Complete Arcane than I have been with some of Wizards of the Coast’s other work. The book might have benefited a bit from a discussion about elements, since the medieval European and Chinese element structures were both used and the subject has the potential to get a bit confusing. Aside from that, I don’t have any major gripes about the book.

Complete Psionic

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Complete Psionic

Author: Bruce Cordell & Christopher Lindsay
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 04/2006
ISBN: 0-7869-3911-7
Pages: 157
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

When I heard the Wizards of the Coast was going to release Complete Psionic, I could have kissed someone. Unlike many DMs, I love psionics and think it adds another facet of play to the game. I’m of the mind that Expanded Psionics Handbook was one of the best books released since the 3.5 revision. Given that the author of that great book was one of the co-authors of Complete Psionic, I expected to see some extremely good things. Unfortunately, I was in for a let-down.

As in other books from the Complete series, the first chapter begins by introducing new classes. Three new psionic classes are presented, the ardent, the divine mind and the lurk. I’m not a big fan of new core classes, but usually, I can at least see a reason or drive behind new class concepts. The three classes presented in Complete Psionic, on the other hand, were (and this is putting it lightly) nothing more than wasted ink on paper. The ardent seems to be little more than a psionic paladin, the divine mind is obviously supposed to be a psionic cleric and the lurk is not only supposed to be a psionic rogue, but due to the high number of potential augments that the class can choose from almost at will, I can’t see why a min/maxer would ever want to play a rogue again, when the lurk can be a more efficient rogue than an actual rogue!

The second chapter is the token collection of prestige classes. Like most other WotC books, there wasn’t a lot of good material here to choose from. Nothing looked especially overpowered, but the authors really seem to have followed the WotC trend for designing prestige classes that are so extremely focused that one game in twenty might have use for them. The exception to this seems to be the ectopic adept, which specializes in the creation of astral constructs. I can see a use for that in many games. The one really good thing that I can say about this chapter is tat each prestige class came with a short blurb tying it to a psionic organization of some kind. If nothing else, this gives the reader an idea of how the class might possibly be useful.

The third chapter deals with feats, which everyone loves. At first glance, there seem to be an enormous number of feats in this book. However, upon closer inspection, many are basically the same feat that do the same thing in a different way. For example, one feat allows a soulknife to turn his mindblade into a dire flail, while another separate feat allows him to turn it into a dwarven urgrosh. Almost half of the given feats simply allow members of some of the psionic races (duergar, githyanki, etc) to switch out their psi-like abilities so that they duplicate other powers. At the end of the day, probably half of the feats given are actually standalone feats, and a large number of them only apply to one of the three classes given in chapter one.

Upon reaching chapter four, I thought to myself “alright, here, at least, is where I’ll find something useful to me.” The chapter has forty pages packed full of psionic powers, I figured there’d be something worthwhile in there. There was, but I noticed a continuing trend that this book seems to be exhibiting, as well. Psions and wilders get the shaft in this chapter. There are a few powers for psions/wilders, and because there are a number of powers designed for the lurk class, the psychic warrior gets a number, but the overwhelming majority of powers are designed for the divine mind class and wouldn’t translate well to other non-divine classes. Afterwards, the chapter follows up with a few short pages of psionic items and a two-page blurb about psionic locations that can be offered as treasure. Le sigh.

Chapter five was the requisite chapter on monsters. It was actually very useful. The first couple of pages are dedicated to giving stats for the various types of astral constructs that can be created with some of the feats from chapter three. Afterwards, it goes into “normal” psionic monsters. There were very few actual monsters given in this chapter, but I did like the larval flayer and shadow eft.

The final chapter was titled “character options.” It began with a single new psionc race called the synad. This race has three partitions to its mind, each controlling a different aspect of thought. The synad was nothing to write home to mom about, but it wasn’t bad... at least as good as the maenad or xeph. Continuing with the racial theme, six “clans” of naturally-psionic humans were detailed. This was an interesting bit of fluff, and there was nothing unbalanced about it, as these “races” are just humans forced to dedicate their racial feat slot to the Wild Talent feat from Expanded Psionics Handbook. Next, the psionic races with a level advancement were broken down into class progressions, much like the Savage Species style, so that each can be played in a watered-down version at level 1. Aside from a few epic psionic feats (that probably ought to have been included in chapter three instead), the last thing of note from this chapter is the erudite class variant. If a psion is a psionic variant of the sorcerer, the erudite is a variant of the wizard class, with the ability to learn new powers from power stones the way a wizard can from scrolls.

I really hate to say it, but I’m extremely disappointed in Complete Psionic. Psionics is a part of the D&D system that has somewhat of a bad reputation, due to how it was implemented in earlier editions. Because of this, I have maintained a basic assumption that those authors that wrote about psionics needed to be people who liked and would treat psionics with the reverence and attention given by someone who loved the system. Unfortunately, it seems I was very mistaken in my assumption.

Libris Mortis

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Libris Mortis

Author: Andy Collins & Bruce Cordell
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 10/2004
ISBN: 0-7869-3433-6
Pages: 190
Rating: 10 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

Over the past few years, there have been very few D&D books published by Wizards of the Coast that have been a true joy to read. Some I considered “alright,” some were “pretty good” and some were simply a struggle to read through. Libris Mortis was nothing short of wonderful by comparison to its contemporaries.

The book begins with a chapter entitled “All About Undead.” This chapter touches on what it means to be undead, including several possible ways to view negative energy, the force that supports and sustains the undead. The physiology of each type of undead from Monster Manuals I, II, & III, Fiend Folio, and Libris Mortis is detailed, especially the feeding habits, whether this means actually eating as a ghoul does, or simply draining away parts of the living as an allip does when it drains Wisdom from the living. A simple system for determining how badly the undead desires and possibly requires its sustenance is given. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to a vampire if it doesn’t get a regular supply of blood, this should interest you.

The chapter also spares a look at undead psychology and outlook. How does the outlook on existence change when one dies and is “reborn” without the same needs or possibly desires as it had when it was alive? How do undead view each other, or members of other undead “species,” and do they form any sorts of societies? These are some of the questions answered in this chapter. Undead religion is discussed, and as members of a “species” that is identified with the Knowledge (religion) skill, it seems important to understand how the undead view and practice religion.

Lastly, the chapter deals with how to combat the undead. Certainly, some methods, such as turning or rebuking, work against all undead. However, there is a world of difference between fighting a mohrg and fighting a ghost. The most popular methods for fighting and defending against the undead are detailed.

Chapter two begins with a list of new feats. More than a few are divine feats, feats that require the expenditure of a turn/rebuke undead to function. Even more are feats designed to apply to the undead themselves, to make them stronger, more resistant to turning or to enhance their already-potent natural abilities. The lion’s share of the feats, however, are designed for those who either create or combat the undead. Worth mentioning on its own is the Mother Cyst feat, which allows one to grow a tumor of undead flesh within his body. This tumor is the focus for several spells that the caster would be otherwise unable to access.

The second part of this chapter deals with having undead in the adventuring party. At a high enough level, it’s no problem to introduce a powerful undead into the party, but what if a player desperately wants to play an undead PC at a lower level? Enter the monster classes system pioneered in Savage Species. Each of the non-template corporeal undead that aren’t mindless from the Monster Manual (the ghoul, ghast, mohrg, mummy, vampire spawn and wight) is given a level progression that allows someone to play a weaker-than-normal version of the creature and gains levels in that “monster class” until it becomes as powerful as the version given in the Monster Manual.

The third chapter dealt with prestige classes. For a Wizards of the Coast book, this chapter was surprisingly small. Some of the classes were designed to combat the undead, such as the Master of Radiance. Others were designed to make use of the undead, such as the True Necromancer. Lastly, some were designed only to be applied to the undead themselves, such as the Master Vampire. Uncharacteristically, I had very few problems with any of the prestige classes offered in this chapter.

Chapter four contained new spells, and was also surprisingly small for a Wizards of the Coast book. A few new domains were offered, but the really interesting part of this chapter dealt with the necrotic cyst line of spells, which is only available to a caster that has the Mother Cyst feat. These spells allow a caster to do some seriously disturbing things to a target once the initial spell, necrotic cyst has been cast and a cyst of undead flesh has been implanted in the victim. Such things include having the cyst grow instantly, harming the victim’s internals as it does so, or explode, also harming the victim and at the highest level, a caster can actually cause the cyst to envelop the victim, destroying him mind, body and soul.

The fifth chapter was a short description of new alchemical and magic items related to the undead. Special armors that protect the undead from their weaknesses or grant undead-like abilities upon their living wearers were introduced. Additionally, undead grafts, which can be applied by someone with the Graft Flesh feat were listed. These are pieces of destroyed undead that can be grafted onto the living or the undead, thus granting the subject a nearly-permanent magic item with very special abilities. For example, if someone has their own eye removed and a mummy’s eye grafted in its place, it can use the new eye to create an eyebite effect once per day. The only problem I had with this chapter was a new alchemical creation called a positoxin, which acts like poison to the undead. This, to me, seems like a cheap way of getting around one of the immunities that the undead all have, which I didn’t appreciate at all.

Chapter six was the largest chapter in the book and dealt with new monsters. Many of these new monsters are especially powerful and would pose a serious threat even to a party that was prepared to fight the undead. Some, such as the blaspheme, seem to have been created to fool experienced players into believing that their PCs are up against weaker undead than is actually the case, much like one could mistake a mohrg for a skeleton. An interesting new template offered in this chapter, the necropolitan, offers a nice method to convert a person into an undead creature without giving it a whole host of new powerful abilities to go along with the change.

The final chapter dealt with the inclusion of undead into the campaign. It gave advice for the DM about how to prepare for the PCs to fight undead with certain abilities, such as incorporealness and level drain. Sample versions of many types of undead were given, being fleshed out like NPCs. Finally, a few sample locations involving the undead are detailed that are pretty much ready to be dropped into any game quickly and easily.

I’d have to say at this point that Libris Mortis is among the best books published by Wizards of the Coast since 3rd edition was released. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone wishing to include more undead in his game or to better flesh out existing undead encounters.

Dungeonscape

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Dungeonscape

Author: Jason Bulmahn & Rich Burlew
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 02/2007
ISBN: 978-0-7869-4118-6
Pages: 157
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

My local game store has a promotion where they stamp your card after a purchase of so many dollars. Once the card is full of stamps, you get anything in the store 50% off. When my card got full, I had to choose between Dungeonscape and Cityscape. Both seemed fairly useful, but I decided that dungeons are probably something my players would pay attention to than cities, as I tend to run few city-based adventures. Additionally, I admit that the fact Rich Burlew, creator of Order of the Stick, was one of the authors helped influence my decision a little. I really love that comic.

The book kicks right off into things with very little in the way of introduction. The first chapter begins with alternate class options for PCs that delve into dungeons more often than facing other hazards. For example, by selecting one of the listed “kits,” you can substitute a ranger’s Track feat and swift tracker ability for the trapfinding ability and Disable Device as a class skill. In short, these alternate class options allow a group the better spread their skills and abilities to compensate for missing class archetypes, especially a rogue. A new core class, the factorium, is presented. The factorium is designed to literally fill in for every missing class type on the spot. It uses a point system to allow the PC to spontaneously perform class abilities or cast arcane spells, essentially allowing him to fill in for a missing or wounded PC of any class. Personally, I didn’t like this class, as I can’t justify its abilities with any degree of realism, but I imagine there are plenty of DMs out there that will like the factorium. Where this chapter really shines, though, is its description of non-standard building materials for dungeons. Floors made of magma, walls made of ooze, doors made from stitched together zombies... this was interesting and useful stuff for any DM.

Chapter two was a short bit about the type of gear to take when venturing into a dungeon. Some basic new equipment, such as the hacksaw, was listed. What I liked is that a good deal of new alchemical equipment was present. While a few new magic items were included, the chapter discussed the benefits of tried and true magic items from the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The third chapter dealt with character options&feats, prestige classes and the like. Surprisingly, the feat selection was small, and what was listed was actually pretty good stuff. A few teamwork benefits and guild benefits (from Player’s Handbook II) for dungeon-going PCs were given. Additionally, two new prestige classes were given. The beast heart adept is basically a dungeon-dwelling druid that gains monstrous companions in lieu of animals. I was particularly impressed with the trapsmith prestige class, which allows a PC to craft simple traps on the fly and more complicated traps given time. It seems like the perfect class to have a few levels in when the party needs to rest in a dungeon.

The next chapter concerned the overall design of a dungeon setting. A great deal of time was spent hashing out the details of why a dungeon should exist as well as themes to keep in mind when creating and populating a dungeon. Various “themes” were given for the DM to mix and match to create his perfect dungeon and help him work out what kind of inhabitants should populate it and what sort of terrain features it should be made up of. Additionally, several basic areas of a dungeon were detailed, with examples given for each. Many of these areas might be forgotten by inexperienced dungeon designers, such as the waste room, kitchen and the like.

Chapter five dealt with the inhabitants of a dungeon much as chapter four dealt with the dungeon itself. Various roles for inhabitants were given for the DM to mix and match when creating dungeon encounters. Several examples of how to fit these roles together were presented. Also given is advice on how to alter the feat selection of basic monsters to achieve a creature that can better perform one of the roles during a combat encounter, some of which were particularly nasty and would likely put the fear of god into a group of players. A few new monsters and templates were given, all of which fit well into a dungeon setting. I was particularly fond of the rot grub swarm, which gives players a reason to be afraid for their PCs’ lives in even the most harmless-looking situation. Finally, a new prestige class designed for non-PCs was presented, the dungeon lord. This is a creature that rules a dungeon or a particular area of a large dungeon and has such an intimate knowledge of the area it rules that it can tell when even the most tiny change or disturbance has occurred. This prestige class seems like it would be a wonderful option for sticking it to a group of cocky PCs that think they can sneak in and kill, loot and rampage as they see fit without fear of reprisal.

Chapter six was, in my opinion, the meat and potatoes of the book. It dealt with traps, both old and new. The chapter begins with a look at why traps exist, why they’re located where they are and who uses them. Afterward, it moves on to present a new way of using traps, the “encounter trap,” which is a trap that once sprung, the PCs can’t simply walk away from and must deal with during an initiative count, as the trap repeatedly has the ability to harm those caught in its area. An example is the razor pendulums trap, a hallway where razor-sharp pendulums swing back and forth, effectively attacking anything in their path. A dozen or so such traps are listed for the reader to use as-is, with challenge ratings from CR1 to CR22. Ideas for combining encounter traps with monster encounters or basic traps are presented, as complex traps where different parts of the trap work in tandem with each other. An example of this is the feeding chute traps, where a PC falls down a pit trap, but instead of there bing a spiked bottom, there’s a chute that deposits the PC in a room with a hungry monster. Lastly, psionic traps are given, which work a lot like magical traps, but are able to use psionic powers as effects, giving the DM a whole new set of tools to play with when designing traps.

The final chapter is title Dungeon Features and deals with the last niggling details of dungeon design. The terrain features given in chapter one are expanded upon. Other features common to dungeons, such as chimneys, altars, elevators and like are touched on. Furnishing and decoration are briefly discussed, as are sensory outputs, such as the smell or a room or the sounds one might hear from across the dungeon.

Dungeonscape seems to be a fairly complete book. Some of the chapters (notably, one and seven) might not be as useful to old-hat DMs that have been designing dungeons successfully for a long time, but newer DMs would certainly benefit from such chapters. Many of the new monsters and templates should appeal to most DMs, and I can’t see too many groups of dungeon-delving PCs that would snub their noses at the trapsmith prestige class. The traps section was wonderfully detailed and might even allow a DM to create a dungeon completely devoid of monsters, but still deadly to PCs. At the end of the day, I think Dungeonscape is a book worth picking up if you’re planning on running any dungeon-based encounter, and who isn’t?

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