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Dungeon Master's Guide II

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Dungeon Master's Guide II

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 06/2005
ISBN: 0-7869-3687-8
Pages: 285
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $39.95

Since this book debuted, I’ve heard many people complain about how a second Dungeon Master’s Guide isn’t needed. It seems that I’ve heard everything from “Why wasn’t this information included in the original?” to “The first one is enough, why do we need another?” to “This is just Wizards of the Coast trying to make more money by forcing us to buy two books.” I couldn’t disagree more. While Dungeon Master’s Guide contained the basic mechanical information needed to run the game, Dungeon Master’s Guide II is a different animal altogether, focusing more on the sorts of things a dungeon master might want to use to boost his game from good to great.

I was highly impressed with the first chapter of this book, which was a 36-page discussion about how to read and deal with many of the various types of players as well as different types of characters, settings and games. While most of it was old hat to an experienced DM like myself, I can see how it would be of immense help to someone just starting out in the DM’s chair. I would actively support a decision to print a short book consisting of just this chapter and marketing it for $10 all by itself.

The second chapter dealt with other issues a DM might run into, such as how to spice up what would otherwise be a fairly bland adventure site, giving several examples, such as a burning building. It also dealt with another issue that many DMs face eventually... what is stopping the player characters from coming into a town and taking whatever and whomever they want, since most towns are comprised mainly of level 1 commoners, which pose no threat to most PCs? The Crowd and Mob templates are extremely well written ways to handle this situation without resorting to spot ruling against the players, which can often cause problems. Lastly, the use of battlemats and miniatures was touched on, though the focus was drawn too tightly towards the Chainmail miniatures game, rather than using minis to improve the quality of the Dungeons and Dragons game itself.

Chapter three was the really crunchy chapter. It opened with a discussion about good and bad ways to run a campaign, which seems like it would be extremely useful to a newer DM looking to cut his teeth on a custom campaign. I was extremely impressed with the simplified breakdown of medieval society and the pecking order of a basic Feudalism. Likewise, the overall message of the chapter seemed to be that when one is working on designing a city, nation, world or even an organization as small as a moose lodge, it pays to think about what the people involved with these things will be doing, thinking and feeling, which impressed me. Towards the end, the chapter touched upon magical events, which are meant as a means to have special things happen without the need to mimic existing spell effects, such as a portal to another plane opening during a solar eclipse. The sample magical events given were nice, but they didn’t really inspire me to go out and create my own magical events.

The fourth chapter was a complete breakdown of an entire city, including locations, NPCs and plot hooks. I was impressed with the scope of this breakdown and I was especially impressed with the sheer number of plot hooks that are offered, many of which tie in with one another extremely well. This chapter could also serve as a sort of template or “how to” for any DM looking to do a breakdown of his own city creation.

Chapter 6 was inappropriately named “characters.” It bounced from topic to topic a bit, focusing a great deal on a few aspects of the game that, honestly, I have never seen come into play. For example, there were rules for how to run a business, but while they were extremely simplified compared to the reality of running a business, they honestly looked like a bunch of added die rolls and math computations that don’t really add to the heroic aspect of D&D. I was, however, pleased with the section about the how and why behind creating custom prestige classes and organizations, which encouraged the DM to think from the perspective of his NPCs as much as his PCs.

The final chapter in this book dealt with magic items. New types of enhancement bonuses were included, as well as a few new specific items. However, I was extremely unimpressed with how the chapter started out, with a chart dedicated to assigning descriptions of magic items. I was also not entirely impressed with the section dealing with magical locations (areas that bestow magical abilities on the PCs) as treasure. Most of the section dealing with new item templates was fairly good, though. The chapter ended with a short discussion about how and why to include (or not include) specific artifacts in your game, which I thought was fairly well done.

At the end of the day, I think this book is a good investment, especially for a newer DM that has many questions about how to create things in his game, including the campaign world itself. Like most other books, the reader is required to take the good and leave the bad, but I think that the good material far outweighs the bad. I don’t, however, think that the material justifies the retail cost of this book, but to anyone that can find it on sale or perhaps at a reduced price online, I highly suggest acquiring a copy.

Frostburn

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Frostburn

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 09/2004
ISBN: 0-7869-2896-4
Pages: 224
Rating: 7 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelf for a year, though I only got around to reading it recently. I don’t normally feature arctic regions in my games, so it was never a priority for me. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. While it was by no means a perfect book, it had a lot of interesting ideas, many of which would require little to no work on the part of a DM to adapt to their own games.

The book begins with a chapter dealing with what defines a frostfell (arctic) area. It discusses various levels of protection against cold environments, different types of cold-based dungeon features, cold-based traps and the like. I was impressed that some of the more dangerous terrain features of the frostfell, such as avalanches and snow-covered crevices, were included as traps with listed CRs. I was, however, less than impressed with some of types of “natural hazards” that were included, such as negation snow and rust snow, as they seemed keyed specifically to defeating adventurers with little thought as to how and why they should exist in the first place.

The second chapter started off very slow. While some of the listings for standard races adapted to frostfell areas was interesting, the two new races, the uldra and the neanderthal, didn’t appeal to me at all and seemed like they were included just because the authors felt the need to include new races in a new book. Surprisingly, the feat section was very focused on the subject of the book and I didn’t see anything particularly unbalanced or poorly conceived, which was quite refreshing.

The next two chapters were as I expected they would be. The prestige classes were on par with most of the other Wizards of the Coast publications, which is to say that while some were alright, most of them were so generic as to be almost unusable. The equipment section had some good items in it, but more than one of the weapons were simply larger versions of some of the standard weapons from the Player’s Handbook that dealt more damage for some small tradeoff, such as slightly decreased range.

Later, the book moved into the chapters detailing new spells and new monsters. While I didn’t see anything inherently broken in the spell list, there wasn’t much that appealed to me, either. Many of the spells just seemed like that’d be exceptionally useful for a game run completely in a frostfell environment, but much less useful if the PCs moved into any warmer climate. The monsters section was alright, containing some interesting baddies to surprise a group of players with. My favorite was the shivhad, a CR21 abberation I’ll probably use as a unique creature.

The book truly shined in chapter 7, though, which detailed two potential adventure sites. The first was an underground frozen cavern that would be an appropriate challenge for low to mid-level parties. The second was a huge devil city on top of a floating iceberg. Normally, I probably wouldn’t use such a location in my own game, but it was detailed so well that I can’t see having the slightest hesitation to drop it in. Afterward, the book moved into page after page of encounter charts, which included monsters from Monster Manual II and Fiend Folio. While useful, some seemed out of place, since the charts were separated out by terrains, many of which have no place in a frostfell environment.

All in all, this would be a useful book to any DM or player planning on spending some time in an arctic environment. There’s a lot that needs work to be truly useful in the average game, but that’s what being a DM is all about.

Sandstorm

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Sandstorm

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 05/2005
ISBN: 0-7869-3655-X
Pages: 224
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

Due mostly to the fact that my homebrewed world contains a vast desert that takes up roughly a third of the main continent, it was a given that I was eventually going to pick up a copy of Sandstorm. I’m glad I did. Not only did the book contain a great amount of useful (and useable!) information, in many ways it outdid the first book in the “terrain series.”

Like its predecessor, Frostburn, this book begins with a chapter that details what a waste (desert) environment is as well as a few potential ways such an inhospitable environment can come to be. The real jewel of this book is located in this chapter: rules for environmental dangers, such as slipsand, sun glare and heatstroke. Using the environmental dangers given in this book, a good DM could easily make the desert such a deadly and inhospitable place as to make an excursion to Baator seem like a vacation in the sun.

The second chapter dealt with the more “crunchy” aspects... races, feats and classes. I was actually very surprised by this chapter. Normally, I dislike almost every new race offered up by a splatbook. This was certainly true of the first race, the Asherati, but the second race, the goblinoid Bhuka actually appealed very much to me. I thought it was extremely well-written and I’ll definitely be using it in my own game. The feats looked fine, with nothing immediately jumping out as being broken. I liked that the Touchstone feat came with a few desert-based locations, which were detailed just enough to make them interesting inspirations for potential adventures.

The book moved on to a chapter about prestige classes. Much like races, I normally detest most new prestige classes offered by splatbooks, as they’re usually poorly-conceived and include little to no relevant flavor text. However, this book showed a definite improvement from the norm. Not only was the mechanical information for each prestige class included, but roughly two pages of relevant information was also attached, which gave ideas for inclusion into a specific game, usual tasks of members of the prestige class and the like. Further, most of the prestige classes seems to be geared towards filling a specific niche in desert life, as opposed to simply having a desert theme. For example, the Lord of Tides operates well as a spiritual leader for a nomadic desert tribe, due to its ability to locate potable water sources. The Sand Shaper seems like it would be extremely useful in designing the quintessential epic desert villain.

The next section, the equipment and gear chapter, is where the book took a bad turn. Most of the weapons were poorly conceived. I could never see myself including giant mechanical scorpions claws as a weapon in my game. The great scimitar and great falchion just seem to be bigger versions of existing weapons. I would certainly have designed the atlatl differently. However, weapons like the khopesh and manople helped to compensate a little for the other poorly-designed items. I was pleased to see so many alchemical items included, as that seems to be a subject that most splatbooks touch on very little, if at all.

The magic chapter was typical for a splatbook. I’m not certain if I like the new Drift Magic feat/ability, which basically lets you increase your caster level if you happen to be in a sandy place or are carrying sand around with you. However, many of the spells seem like they would be extremely useful. Likewise, many of the magic items seemed to be well-designed and I was actually impressed with the one new special material that the book detailed.

The chapter on monsters was nice and offered up several beasts I would consider using as nearly unique opponents to a group of desert-dwelling adventurers. Additionally, the chapter contains a section detailing several desert-based animals and vermin, including the hippopotamus, jackal and (my personal favorite) the giant ant lion. That said, a few glaring errors in the Desert Devil monster entry jumped out at me, which doesn’t say much for the designer.

The last chapter contains a handful of detailed adventure sites. I was highly impressed with what was offered and could easily see myself using these sites with little or no alteration. My only gripe is that the most interesting site of all, Harrax: The Dead Throne, had maps that were extremely confusing. It was difficult to tell what was supposed to be above the sand and what was supposed to be subterranean. Otherwise, it was the perfect chapter to end the book with.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, DM or player, that hopes to spend a good deal of game time in a waste environment. The information is, for the most part, extremely useful and well-designed. I’d buy it for no other reason than the well-designed environmental hazards. For my money, Sandstorm is definitely one of the best that Wizards of the Coast has produced yet.

The Secret College of Necromancy

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The Secret College of Necromancy

Author: David "Zeb" Cook & Wolfgang Baur
Publisher: Green Ronin Publishing
Publish Date: 2001
ISBN: 0-9714380-2-1
Pages: 110
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $19.95

By far, this has to be one of the better d20 books I’ve yet read. While it is not devoid of layout errors, the ones I noticed were small enough to be barely noticeable, but the sheer quality of the book’s fluff more than made up for any small printing errors. Necromancy is often treated like a very dark, twisted and bloody affair, but due to the nature of the D&D game, such details are overlooked in favor of keeping the game suitable for younger players. The Secret College of Necromancy makes no such considerations. The murdering, the evil torture, the twisted psyches of spellcasters willing to roll up their sleeves and get right into the autopsies and dissections... all of this is included, though presented in an extremely tasteful fashion.

The book’s chapters are separated into two basic groups. The first part of the book deals with game mechanics, while the second part of the book is almost all fluff, dealing with the secret college itself. The first chapter opens with two new core classes, the necromancer and the death knight. Both are well-written (a rare thing for new core classes), but I doubt either will make it into my game. I’d happily use the necromancer class as a replacement for the wizard with necromancy as a specialist school if I had a similar class write up for the other schools of magic. The death knight, however, I doubt I would use in most of my games, but just for flavor reasons. The class would fit extremely nicely in a campaign setting that was especially dark or where the world is covered in the undead. Afterwards, the first chapter moves into a section on feats and skills. The feats were fine, but the description of new skills is where the chapter really shined. Profession (graverobber), Knowledge (embalming), Knowledge (anatomy) and the like were discussed and actually made useful within the game.

The second chapter focused on spells and magic items. For the average reader like myself, this chapter will require a tiny amount of work, since most of the spells are designed to work almost exclusively with the necromancer or death knight classes presented in the first chapter. For those of us not using those classes, a small amount of work converting the spells over to their proper wiz/sor or cleric level will be required. Most of the spells were very well-written and there were several that one might expect from a necromancer... spells that are cast, but don’t take effect until after the caster’s death. This chapter was extremely flavorful, in that not only were material components listed, but the reader was given a graphic description of exactly how the item is to be used. This chapter also included a number of spellbooks containing many of the new spells from the book, which would be useful in introducing the new spells to a game where they didn’t exist previously. Each of these books comes with a detailed and interesting history, which was icing on the cake for me.

The next chapter was short, but sweet, and dealt with the necromancer’s need to acquire research material... living and otherwise. The mechanical aspects of graverobbing were discussed, as were other common means for a researcher to get his hands on forbidden materials. Additionally, there was a short discussion about the various types of basic undead, which helped to detail why every necromancer and his brother doesn’t have a massive army of the dead.

The fourth chapter was the last of the really mechanical chapters, and if there was a chapter I was least pleased with, it was this one. The chapter was a small monstrous manual from new creatures of necromancy. A handful of new types of undead were given, along with undead siege engines and a few constructs. On the whole, the chapter was good and full of flavor, though I do believe that a small number of the creatures are a bit overpowered for their CR the way they are presented.

At chapter five, the book takes a new turn and begins dealing with the secret college, an underground society of like-minded practitioners of necromancy that operate clandestinely in a city that is left unnamed for the reader’s benefit. A long and detailed history of the origins of the society is given, which includes plenty of alternate suggestions to help the reader better fit the secret college into his own game world. The book moves seamlessly into the next chapter, which details how the secret college operates and stays hidden. A number of hidden locations are gruesomely detailed and even mapped. The best part of the chapter, however, is the inclusion of several projects the secret college is currently working on, which operate much like pre-made plot hooks. The last chapter is just a listing of the stat blocks of some of the most notable members of the secret college, complete with detailed histories and motivations. The only issue I have with this chapter is that the book was published before the 3.5 update, so a little bit of updating may be required on the reader’s part.

On the whole, I think this book might be one of the best in my collection. It’s very well-written and flavorful. I was personally drawn to the graphicness of the material within, as I imagine most people reading a book about necromancy would be. However, I imagine there’s the potential for some people to be turned off by that. The fluff was not overly gross, but very graphic with a lot of thought put into the “behind the curtains” aspect of necromancy. In short, this book was written like the Book of Vile Darkness probably should have been written. I highly recommend this book to any Dungeon Master looking to make necromancy a focus in his game, or perhaps looking for a villainous society to add as a plot point. Players planning on playing a necromancer would certainly benefit from reading the first few chapters of this book as well.

Player's Handbook II

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Player's Handbook II

Author: David Noonan
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 05/2006
ISBN: 13: 978-0-7869-3918-3
Pages: 221
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

Player’s Handbook II opens, as so many books from Wizards of the Coast do these days, with the presentation of new classes. Contrary to some of WotC’s other splat books, this class list was somewhat balanced. Two of the classes didn’t interest me much, but weren’t broken or badly written, being mostly a combination of existing core classes. The third class, the dragon shaman, completely turned me off. The entire basis behind this class seems to be the worship of dragonkind, which somehow grants them abilities like a breath weapon and dragon-like auras. The final class, the knight, was actually extremely well-written and is something I wouldn’t mind adding to my own game.

The next chapter presents a discussion about how to alter existing classes (including those presented in the various “Complete” and “Races of” books) to fit different concepts. For example, using the changes suggested in this chapter, a cleric build could be made that doesn’t get spontaneous cure spells, but can drop a domain spell to cast any known spell of that level instead. There were some ideas that I thought were shoehorned into the chapter, but there wasn’t much that looked broken. Frankly, this chapter pretty much bored me to tears and it was a struggle to read through it.

Next, the book moved into the obligatory chapter about feats. Normally, most WotC books I’ve read have about 5% decent feats to 95% garbage. This book, however, had a much better ratio of good feats to poor ones. I was actually extremely impressed with the number of social-based feats. Many of these opened up new options for using old mechanics to do things like talking your way into or out of a situation, catching someone in a lie, communicating on a basic level with someone that doesn’t share your language, etc. For these feats alone, the book is probably worth the (reduced) cost I paid over the internet.

The following chapter deals with spells... over 30 pages of them! Before presenting the spells, though, a new sub-school was presented, the polymorph sub-school, which did a fair job of laying out a rules foundation for any spell that changes your shape. The most obvious thing about this chapter is that the author was trying to make up for the original Player’s Handbook’s lack of spells that require swift or immediate actions (as those mechanics didn’t exist when it was published). I have no problem with this, though someone that was dead-set against swift and immediate actions would probably get very little from this chapter. I had no problem with most of the spells presented in this chapter, save for one or two that had effects that just stuck in my craw a bit. For example, the Luminous Assassin spell summons a creature with rogue levels to fight an opponent for you. The problem is that it summons said creature in mid-air above the opponent, who is considered flat-footed against the attack, making him eligible for the assassin’s sneak attacks.

The next chapter is what I expected from the book from the start... thoughts and ideas on how to build a character’s personality. There were some very good ideas for backgrounds, personality traits and the like in this chapter. The best thing is that the author didn’t use them as an excuse to pile more useless mechanics into the game. The best thing about this chapter, however, was the section that dealt with being a good player at the table. I thought it was a bit short, but I was happy to see it included nonetheless. It dealt with ideas like determining table rules, not hogging the spotlight all the time and the like. Short, but nice.

Chapter 6 was titled “The Adventuring Group.” It had a small amount of information about how to build a group with a story behind it near the beginning, but it quickly moved on to teamwork benefits. Teamwork benefits is a system introduced in Dungeon Master’s Guide II that allows the party to act in a coordinated manner, much like a SWAT team. Door opening procedures, phalanx fighting styles and the like are common. I have no problem with the benefits, and most of the ones given in this chapter were fine... but I wish that there had been less of them and more discussion about the group itself.

Chapter 7 was very interesting. It dealt with affiliations, groups that a character or party can associate themselves with and even join. Knightly organizations and thieves guilds are one example, but less formal groups such as Robin Hood’s merry men are also viable associations. The draw to joining an association, obviously, is gaining related benefits. For example, joining a thieves guild is a good idea because you can fence off illegal loot through them. The problem I have with the associations as they’re presented is that while you can join as many affiliations as you want, you can only gain the benefits of one affiliation per day. This becomes a clunky mechanic when you are a member of an affiliation that grants you a bonus to a skill check. So, for example, let’s assume that someone is a member of a craftsman’s guild that grants a bonus to craft checks and a merchant’s guild that lets him sell his crafted items at a higher than average price. If he chooses the merchant’s guild as his affiliation today because he needs to sell his inventory, once he gets home from the store and starts work on a craft project, he finds he’s simply not as good at his trade as he was the day before. As I said&it becomes a clunky mechanic and should probably be re-designed.

WotC broke precedent with this book... they saved the worst for last. The final chapter deals with the rebuilding of a character. The idea is that a character can retrain himself to be something completely different than what he is. So, for example, player could decide he doesn’t want to be a fighter anymore, he’d rather be a wizard. Rather than rolling up a new PC and working with the DM to phase the old PC out and the new PC in, he can simply tweak the existing PC so that he forgets how to be a fighter and suddenly learns how to be a wizard. I was exceptionally bored (and somewhat disgusted) with this chapter and I’d advise most readers to simply not read it.

Having read Dungeon Master’s Guide II, I looked forward to the arrival of Player’s Handbook II. I assumed that since the first was fairly good, the new book would be as well. I won’t say I’m disappointed, because the book was not bad, but Player’s Handbook II was missing something that Dungeon Master’s Guide II had. Perhaps I was wrong in assuming that the two would be comparable, given that comparing a DM to a player is like comparing apples to oranges. Still, Player’s Handbook II is not a bad book and contains things that could be used in just about any game, both by players and DMs.

Book of Hell

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Book of Hell

Author: Adrian Bott
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-904854-05-2
Pages: 256
Rating: 5 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

As an adventurer, you will be used to hardship. You can wade up to the neck through leech-infested swamps; you can shiver on an arctic plain with nothing to eat but the stiff body of your companion, who was lucky enough to die first; you can struggle through seemingly endless desert, blinded by the sun and dried crisp as a mummy by the heat, while scorpions and venomous reptiles lurk in wait and vultures circle overhead. In all of these terrible straits, one thought may serve to comfort you: no matter how bad this is, it could be worse.

This introductory paragraph is what first attracted me to this book (well, after the image of a particularly gruesome cenobite-like creature on the cover, that is). The extremely gritty and horrifying content promised by such an opening seems much closer to what I would expect from the lower planes than the core view, which seems to be little more than “demons live here.” While the book couldn’t exactly live up to my hopes due to the limits of good taste, it did a much better job than most sources of putting the horror into Hell.

One of the larger topics in Book of Hell is the blood war between demons and devils. Instead of expending energy into describing how the armies of demons and devils get from one plane to another, the book simply created a new plane, which it refers to as “The Infernum” or simply, “Hell,” which is the plane the book actually focuses on. This plane connects to both the Abyss and the Nine Hells and acts as a sort of battleground for the blood war. While this isn’t exactly in line with the core listings for the outer planes, it does simplify matters quite a bit and I imagine this would be a great boon to any DM that wanted to run a singular Heaven and Hell in his own game.

Where the book really shines, though, is in its explanation of why demons and devils torment the souls of evil mortals. In short, it’s done to increase their corruption, which may eventually allow them to mutate into higher forms of fiendish life. Corruption is measured in a new system, which applies to anything evil, including mortals. While a new system may seem like more work to add to a DM’s already-overloaded palette, this system mirrors that used by the core rules to measure experience points, so it’s a system that every DM is already familiar with.

Another great feature the book brings to light is infernal transfiguration. This is the process by which fiends shed their previous state and (hopefully) become more powerful fiends that are higher on the fiendish food chain. This is where the new corruption system really comes into play, since the higher one’s corruption level, the better chance one has of achieving the desired state, as opposed to becoming a dretch or lemure. This is apparently how the demonic and diabolic armies keep themselves in cannon fodder... by forcing thousands of damned souls into the process and arranging it so they only become these lowly forms of fiendish life. The existence of infernal transfiguration gives a plausible reason for demonologists and their devil-worshiping counterparts to exist, since those with a high enough corruption rating might successfully petition to become fiends themselves.

Despite these very good things, the book is certainly not without issue. For the most part, the new types of demons and devils listed were very sub-par and uninteresting. I was also extremely unimpressed with the chapter that attempted to blend core D&D with Steampunk to create demonic biker gangs. Additionally, the book favored devils over demons, making the assumption that all demons were likely to do anything at any time, and thus couldn’t be accurately documented (which is probably correct to a point, but seems like a cop out to me). Something else that I figure might bother many readers is that the author decided to use Judeo-Christian sources for some of the notable devils, such as Satan and Lucifer. While I personally have little problem with this, it seems quite unnecessary when he simply could have made up new names without the need to startle or even offend some readers.

Despite these things, the book does manage to introduce some fairly interesting ideas. The organization of Hell is a nice section, as are many of the deadlier terrain features found in the Infernum. I was actually pretty impressed with the book’s take on damned souls, as well as portals to the Prime Material plane.

All in all, this was a pretty average book. There’s enough good in the book to justify wading through the useless, I think. I wouldn’t recommend paying retail price, but if you can find the book at a discount, it would make a fair addition to the collection of any DM looking to focus his campaign almost entirely on the lower planes.

The Complete Guide to Liches

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The Complete Guide To Liches

Author: Michael Ferguson
Publisher: Goodman Games
Publish Date: ?
ISBN: 0-9726241-4-7
Pages: 64
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.99

As many DMs I know would, I quickly cleared the distance across the room at the game store when I saw The Complete Guide to Liches on the shelf. Liches are the penultimate big bad evil guy in just about every D&D game I’ve seen, second only to dragons in the fear the very mention of their name inspires in a group of players. However, there’s not much one can do to customize a basic lich aside from their feat selection, so I’m always open to new ideas for dealing with liches in my own game. A book dedicated to nothing but liches was simply too good to pass up, and I knew before I even picked the book up that I would be walking out of that store with it tucked safely under my arm.

The first chapter, a short five pages, deals with the physiology of the lich, possible origins of the ritual of lichdom and ideas for what happens when a lich’s ritual goes bad. It also includes a short preview of a few lich variants that will be found in a later chapter. What I found especially interesting was a detailed account of the actual ritual of lichdom, which I don’t think I’ve seen in any other book before. Lastly, there were ideas for spending more XP during the creation of the phylactery to beef it up a bit, giving it a higher hardness rating and/or hit points. I wish this chapter had been longer and more detailed. Its short length made it feel almost like an introduction rather than an actual chapter, though the information it contained was definitely above par.

The second chapter detailed the life of the average lich. It discussed how liches view the living, with their skewed perceptions of living though processes. It also dealt with the idea of lich madness, and proposed the idea that almost every lich eventually goes insane, or at least its thought processes are so far removed from anything a living being would think of that it might as well be insane. I especially liked the section that dealt with liches that go loopy because they can’t accept that their bodies are decaying around them. The last part of the chapter dealt with lich artifacts. The idea is that occasionally, a lich gets so powerful that parts of its own body retain some of that power after they are destroyed. This felt a little too “hand of Vecna” for me, but it wasn’t a bad idea, I suppose.

The next chapter was the real meat of the book, as it dealt with a lich’s strategies both to prevent combat and to engage in combat. Ideas for how to design a lich’s lair are given. Additionally, a really good puzzle trap based on a game of chess is presented. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better puzzle trap in a d20 book.

Chapter four was about the abilities a lich has above those of other beings. New spells are detailed, most of which are very good ideas because they are fear or mind-affecting based, meaning that the lich can cast them freely without worrying about whether he or his undead minions will be affected. Additionally, this chapter presented new feats that allow a lich to draw power from his phylactery at the risk of potentially damaging his soul.

The final real chapter is very short, but had extremely good ideas for including liches in just about any game. Ideas for different climates and settings are presented. Additionally, a few ideas for justifying lich-hunters are presented. This chapter makes it very easy to develop plot hooks involving liches, which is a big part of why I wanted the book in the first place.

The rest of the book was listed as a trio of appendixes, though they could easily have been chapters on their own. The first of the three details eight types of variant liches, such as the dracolich, which we all know as a dragon in lich form and the novalich, a revenant-like being that becomes a lich for a short time to complete a task that dealth would have interrupted. The second appendix is full of sample liches, each of which is detailed with a background, personality and combat strategies. There is one lich NPC for each of the eight variant liches presented in the book, as well as one “regular” lich. The third appendix contained seven new prestige classes. Personally, I didn’t like any of them, and one, the patriarch, seemed to have been included almost as a joke.

I think this book might be valuable to anyone wanting to create a powerful lich opponent to act as a recurring bad guy. The book is very well-written for the most part, and world neutral. Given the relative low cost, I’m very glad I bought this book.

Races of Stone

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Races of Stone

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 08/2004
ISBN: 0-7869-3278-3
Pages: 192
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

I received my copy of this book as a gift, though I'm sure I would have bought a copy eventually on my own. It took me a few days to read through. While I could have done without half of the information in the book, I found myself greatly impressed by the sort of details that the authors decided to include. Sample holidays and legends among tribes was a great inclusion that helps add a much greater degree of depth to some of the PC races. Above all, however, I was in awe of the fact that psionic material was included in a book that wasn't written specifically for psionics (my hat is off to the authors).

If the truth be told, I won't be using any of the other races the book sets up as potential PC races. I probably won't be allowing many (or possibly any) of the prestige classes in my game either. Additionally, I thought that the sections dealing with racial deities dragged on and on needlessly. Finally, I have to wonder if the goliath race was included just to make a damage-hungry powergamer's life easier (though, admittedly, any good DM would nip such behavior in the bud early on).

In spite of this, I thought that the good easily outweighed the bad. I'm hopeful that future publications from Wizards of the Coast will contain a similar level of quality and detail. If you're playing the core PC races as they are written (dwarves live in the ground, elves live in trees, etc), then this book would definitely be helpful if you want to add a greater level of detail to the day to day lives of the races.

Epic Level Handbook

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Epic Level Handbook

Author: Andy Collins & Bruce
R. Cordell
Publisher: Wizards
of the Coast
Publish Date: 07/2002
ISBN: 0-7869-2658-9
Pages: 319
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $39.95

I bought my copy of Epic Level Handbook off the shelf when it
first came out. It’s a very big, heavy book, so I figured that I’d get a
lot of use out of it. Unfortunately, my understanding of the core rules wasn’t
very good at the time, so the new rules for epic-level progression confused
me. I ended up putting this book on the shelf and only taking it out when
I needed stats for extremely powerful monsters. I recently picked it back
up and gave it a read through, and I’m happy to say that my knowledge of
the core rules must have gotten infinitely better since my last attempt.

The core rules only give level progressions for characters to 20th level.
Most campaign worlds assume that by the time a character reaches 20th level,
he’s probably one of the most powerful individuals on the planet. But that
isn’t true of all worlds, and it certainly isn’t true of those who give up
adventuring across a world in favor of adventuring across all the various
planes of existence. Enter Epic Level Handbook. By design, this book
gives rules for level progression from level 21st and above, literally
to infinite levels. The first chapter of this book details exactly how to
do that, and it’s simpler than I had originally thought it would be. Patters
for advancement are established so that characters from any class or combination
of classes from Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Psionics
Handbook
can continue advancing in levels once they reach the limit of
the core rules. Additionally, a few new prestige classes designed specifically
for epic levels are presented. The reader must bare in mind while reading
this chapter that this book was written long before the v3.5 revision, so
certain allowances for changes in skills must be made. As well, it proceeded
the release of the updated Expanded Psionics Handbook, so that is
a concern as well. It was nice to read a book from so long ago because it
didn’t try to pimp out any of the classes or races from the various splatbooks
that WotC released (a trend that became extremely popular in later books).
That said, I think the epic prestige classes weren’t very well-defined at
all. There is little justification for the power they get, aside from ‘epic
characters should be powerful.

Chapter 1 continues with an expanded progression for the Leadership
feat into epic levels. This progression also allows characters with the Leadership
feat to continue gaining followers to infinite levels. A nice touch in this
chapter was a large list of expanded skill DCs for epic (read: impossible)
tasks, such as swimming up a raging waterfall or tip-toeing across a cloud.
Afterward, this chapter presents the largest collection of feats I’ve seen
in any book at one time. Well over 150 new feats are presented, including
a great many epic feats, powerful feats that can be taken only upon reaching
21st level. Once again, the reader is cautioned that some changes
may need to be made to bring some of this material in line with the v3.5
revision, but in this instance, those are actually very minor changes.

The second chapter deals exclusively with epic spellcasting. After 20th level,
spellcasters don’t actually continue to gain spell slots. Instead, they gain
the ability to cast epic spells in addition to their existing spell slots.
This is done via Spellcraft checks, and is very, very difficult to actually
pull off. For example, the epic spell epic mage armor requires that
a DC 46 Spellcraft check be made to cast the spell each time it’s cast, and
it’s one of the easier epic spells listed in the book. The book gives plenty
of examples, but best of all, it gives the reader the tools needed to create
his own epic spells, mixing and matching effects. Money and XP are required
in massive quantities to develop epic spells, and even after being developed,
there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to cast them when they’re needed (the
Spellcraft check). This cost and uncertainty of casting is well worth it,
however, for the kind of power that epic spells can produce. Literally any
effect is possible over any distance and affecting any area.

Chapter 3 is relatively short, but it’s an important chapter. It teaches
the DM how to run an epic game, starting with how to integrate epic-level
PCs and NPCs into the game if there has been no such contact before the PCs
reach 21st level. It addresses several valid concerns, such as
the ready availability of wish spells, or how to mitigate the effects
of timestop. A new table for city demographics updates that found
in Dungeon Master’s Guide and details a new class of city, the planar
metropolis (places such as The City of Brass or Sigil). Advice on how to
best run a game where the PCs are the biggest badasses on the block are given,
as is advice for keeping them from being the biggest badasses on the block
without killing them outright.

Chapter 4 deals with epic magic items. The core rules limit magic items
based on the bonus they grant. A bonus to attack, damage or armor generally
can’t be higher than +5, and a bonus to skills generally can’t be higher
than +20. Epic Level Handbook provides no such limitation, so long
as the appropriate item creation feats are in place. That being said, most
of what is offered in this chapter is just more powerful versions of existing
items. For example, the icy blast weapon enhancement is just a more
powerful version of the icy burst weapon enhancement found in Dungeon
Master’s Guide
. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s pretty
handy to have a pricing guide around for this sort of thing. However, if
you’re looking for something new, you’ll have to flip to the back of the
chapter, where a few new artifacts are presented.

Chapter 5 might be the most useful chapter to DMs that aren’t planning
on running an epic game, as it contains new monsters. For non-epic characters,
many of these new monsters could be used as a unique threat to the entire
world. A single atropal (the undead corpse of a stillborn god) or demi-lich
could quite easily be a force for destruction like the world has never seen.
Worse yet, the threat of a hecatoncheries (a CR 57 creature with 100 attack
per round that was bred to kill deities) being released could frighten even
the gods of a world. As useful as this chapter is, any DM running a v3.5
game is going to have to decide on a system of DR conversion. In v3, DR was
based on the magical enhancement of a weapon, but v3.5 changed that. The
easiest way to overcome this might be to just assign any DR above +5 as DR/epic,
but this might actually weaken a creature, since some creatures in this book
have DR/+6, while others have higher DR, even up to DR/+12.

The final chapter, chapter 6, is dedicated to providing examples of
things that might be found in an epic setting. Several epic organizations
that span the planes are detailed. As well, an entire planar metropolis,
the city of Union, is detailed pretty exhaustively. The most useful part
of this chapter, though, might be the complete adventure that’s included.
This adventure is suitable for PCs of 21st to 23rd-level,
and is designed to advance a group of epic PCs by one level by the end. It
takes the PCs to the Elemental Plane of Fire to search for a missing person
and a major artifact. Afterward, several good seeds for potential epic adventures
are given that the DM can expand upon to create his own epic adventures.

Finally, two appendixes are given that detail popular epic-level characters
from the world of Toril (Forgotten Realms) and Oearth (Greyhawk). I see these
as being less useful for an actual game, but of interest to those who want
to use their favorite characters as a gauge for their own power.

I’m glad I picked Epic Level Handbook back up. The rules aren’t
as complicated as I originally expected they would be. They’re quite easy,
actually. Obviously, some things will require a bit of work on the part of
the DM, especially if he runs a v3.5 game, but that’s just the tip of the
iceberg for the work a DM is going to have to do to provide a good challenge
to epic-level characters. I’d recommend this book to a DM that wants to run
an epic game, but I’d also recommend it to a DM that is running a high-level
(level 17+) core game, as it can provide challenges, NPCs and items that
the core rules just don’t have.

World's Largest City

Before you drop $100 for a book (or maybe less if you find it used), you’d best know what you’re getting yourself into. Beyond the book, a weighty 700+ page tome, there are sixteen poster maps included (17in. x 22in.). Each of the maps details one of the sixteen districts in the city.

The book itself is divided into 16 sections (averaging approximately 35 pages each) which accounts for about 85% of the book’s contents. The remaining 15% comprises the introduction (19 pages), and an NPC appendix (80 pages). The NPC appendix does not provide information on any named NPCs described in the book. Instead, it provides a ‘general stat block’ for each of the PC classes and NPC classes from level 1 through 20. Taking a general stat block, one modifies it on the fly to adjust to a race other than human, perhaps with other general modifications. Within the text are suggestions for level/class combinations for the significant people. While this may be a useful reference for some DMs, those with access to an NPC generator will likely see little reason to use the NPC information in this book.

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