Book of Hallowed Might II: Portents and Visions (.pdf)
Author: Monte Cook & Mike Mearls
|Publisher: Malhavoc Press
Publish Date: 2004
Retail Price: $13.99
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.