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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.

The Slayer's Guide to Bugbears

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The Slayer's Guide to Bugbears

Author: Matthew Sprange
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2001
ISBN: 1-903980-20-8
Pages: 32
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $9.95

Bugbears. They’re bigger and stronger than the other goblinoid races, yet in adventure after adventure, they’re constantly found acting as little more than muscle for their cousins. In the average 1st-level adventure about goblins, there will one bugbear in the mix, meant to be encountered on its own by the party to present a challenge without being a guaranteed party killer. However, what are bugbears beyond this stereotype? What are they like when encountered in a tribe of their own race? That’s what this book is for.

Like other Slayer’s Guides, this book opens with a discussion about the physiology of bugbears. Aside from being larger, how do they differ from other goblinoids? What do they eat? How long do the females remain pregnant and how long until the young reach maturity? These questions and others are answered nicely. Afterwards, bugbear habitat is touched on, including the basics of why bugbear tribes lair in one place over another.

The largest section of this book dealt with bugbear society, proving that bugbears are much more than lone muscle for the other goblinoid races. A new bugbear prestige class, the dark ranger, is introduced. Additionally, information about bugbear religion, which is surprisingly more complex than one might think, is given. What struck me as the most useful information in this chapter, though, was a discussion about how the different seasons of the year affect bugbears, and how this in turn affects how active they are in hunting or raiding as well as how well-defended their lairs are.

Methods of warfare is an important chapter in this book, given that bugbears, while not as militant or organized as their hobgoblin cousins, are an extremely violent race. Information about various tactics and ambushes is given. It bears mentioning that the random bits of story that are found throughout the book synch up exceptionally well with the information in this chapter, most of it dealing with adventurers being surprised by bugbears fleeing a battle, only to lead pursuing enemies into cleverly-laid ambushes. After this, a handful of plot hooks is given to bring bugbears into a game, one of which revolves around the collection of various pieces of a bugbear artifact that might unite the entire race under a single banner, which should be a scary thought for any civilized nation.

As in other Slayer’s Guides, the last section is a fully-detailed lair. A map is given and information and stat blocks on each of the various bugbears in the lair is also given. Impressively, this section also incorporates the information about differing seasons from an earlier chapter, giving the DM changes to the number and tactics of the bugbears included within. The most impressive thing about this lair is that it could be a challenge for PCs of just about any level and requires some serious tactical thinking to clear out. If the PCs just go charging in, they’re likely to find their task much more difficult, especially since if the lair’s occupants are alerted, some areas of the lair can become EL15 challenges.

All in all, this is a very solid book, despite its small size. It does much to dispel the lone bugbear enforcer stereotype and makes bugbears a challenge that can be presented at all levels of play. It requires a bit of work to update to v3.5 standard, but little more than that should be needed to make this book a very useful resource. As it stands, this is probably my favorite Slayer’s Guide, and considering that I own and have read over 2 dozen of them, I think that’s saying a lot.

The Slayer's Guide to Trolls

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The Slayer's Guide to Trolls

Author: Matthew Sprange
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2001
ISBN: 1-903980-24-0
Pages: 32
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $9.95

The eighth in Mongoose Publishing’s line of Slayer’s Guide books, The Slayer’s Guide to Trolls was surprisingly good. Trolls are one of those beasties from the Monster Manual that almost every DM uses at one time or another, but without giving them character levels, trolls are relegated to being difficult opponents at 5th level and easy opponents at 8th level. This book attempts to change that.

Beginning with the physiology of trolls, this book really goes into a great deal of detail about how trolls are put together. Being that trolls have what is probably the most unique physical makeup of any creature in the Monster Manual, I found this chapter quite the interesting read. This was followed up with a few handfuls of troll subspecies, which did a good job of replacing the overdone concept of race-only prestige classes found in most books. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of the bicephalous troll, which is a crossbreed between a troll and an ettin and shares slightly dulled-down benefits of both races.

Troll habitat and society were covered next. New ideas for making trolls into memorable encounters are presented. For example, females are the leaders of most troll groups, and arcane spellcasting is almost unheard of in troll society (any troll able to cast burning hands or fireball has an obvious advantage over his fellows). Along with this was detailed troll methods of warfare, which did much to explain why most trolls forego the use of armor and weapons (excepting if they happen across a flaming weapon).

The last third of the book was meant more for DMs than players. Tips on how to roleplay an encounter with trolls were given, along with several scenario hooks from bringing trolls into the game as more than random encounters. This was followed up with a fully-detailed “trollhole” (a troll lair), which includes full stat blocks on each of the trolls included as well as a map.

As a DM that enjoys the use of trolls as tough opponents for the PCs, I really enjoyed this book. Like most Slayer’s Guides, it’s a very quick read, but it was packed with a lot of useful information that a DM such as myself should have no problem using for inspiration. With a little updating to bring the material up to v3.5 standard, this book would probably be one of the best in the entire Slayer’s Guide series.

The Slayer's Guide to Lizardfolk

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The Slayer's Guide to Lizardfolk

Author: Andrew Kenrick
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-904577-83-0
Pages: 32
Rating: 2 out of 10
Retail Price: $9.95

Lizardfolk are most often used solely as a plot hook for low-level adventurers. The situation is almost always that a humanoid village is located near a lizardfolk swamp. The two races have generally had good relations in the past (with the unspoken understanding that they stay out of each other’s territory), but in recent months, the lizardfolk have taken to raiding farms, harassing travelers and generally making life miserable for the villagers, all with no explanation. The PCs are sent to deal with the problem, and they’ll either kill all the lizardfolk or more often, find something the villagers have accidentally done that is making life difficult for the lizardfolk. Yes, I think that pretty much sums up every lizardfolk encounter I’ve ever seen.

The problem I found with The Slayer’s Guide to Lizardfolk is that it doesn’t leave much room for variations on this theme. The Slayer’s Guide series is usually a good source of information for me. Even if a particular Slayer’s Guide isn’t very mechanically sound, it generally has enough background information on a race to get my creative juices flowing. The problem with this particular Slayer’s Guide is that it gives a very obvious definition of what a lizardfolk is and doesn’t deviate from this. This doesn’t leave much room for a DM to do anything with the race except use them as cannon fodder or plot hooks, which is what’s generally done even without That Slayer’s Guide to Lizardfolk.

The first two chapters (Physiology and Habitat) could have been written more efficiently with no real loss of information if the author had just said “Lizardfolk are reptiles that live in swamps and eat humans when they can.” The author attempted to include a system for dealing with cold-blooded creatures to justify the lizardfolks’ life near water. I support this, I think the D&D system could benefit from a system of warm blooded vs. cold blooded creatures. However, the system suggested by the author didn’t have much detail, and looked little more than a slap-on bandage system.

The Society chapter had some worthwhile ideas in it. The best of these ideas, I think, is that the survival of the tribe is more important to a lizardfolk than his own life, which does much to explain why they rarely retreat from a battle on their home turf. Another good idea in this chapter is that while lizardfolk live under a sort of tribal theocracy, clerics aren’t at the top of the food chain. Instead, druids run the show from behind a proverbial curtain, working towards the betterment of the tribe, even if that means staging a coup to overthrow an ineffective chief.

The next chapter, Methods of Warfare, was surprisingly disappointing, and gave no more information than someone reading the Monster Manual could glean. The chapter on roleplaying with lizardfolk was hit-and-miss. I liked the suggestions given for the PCs playing lizardfolk, though I don’t think they’d work out very well as long-term campaigns. I also liked the idea of the Stillguard prestige class, which allows a lizardfolk to camouflage itself by remaining perfectly still. It needs a bit of mechanical cleanup, but is a great idea. The other prestige class offered, the Scaled King, is a mechanical nightmare. It’s supposed to be an extension of the druid class, but as worded, its abilities don’t stack with those of a druid.

The plot hooks offered for including lizardfolk into a game were average, pretty much on par with what a decent DM could come up with on his own. Each Slayer’s Guide finishes with what it calls “a complete lair.” This one was far from complete. It wasn’t bad per se, but parts of it felt like they were tacked on. Worst of all, though, is that there’s no map. At all. None. Needless to say, this so-called complete lair would have read much better with an accompanying map.

Thus far, The Slayer’s Guide to Lizardfolk is one of my least favorite from the series. I can see that the author put some thought into how to write this book, but I feel that overall the book just didn’t deliver. There’s not much in this book that a half-way competent DM couldn’t come up with on his own.

Conjuration: By Bell, Book and Candle

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Conjuration: By Bell, Book and Candle

Author: August Hahn
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2003
ISBN: 1-904577-09-1
Pages: 64
Rating: 4 out of 10
Retail Price: $19.95

Conjuration is one of my favorite spell schools. Not only can it bring into existence something that wasn’t there before, but it has spells that can rival the damage-dealing ability of the evocation school without being as flashy. Conjuration: By Bell, Book and Candle is the sixteenth book in Mongoose Publishing’s Encyclopedia Arcane series, which I’ve seen good things from in the past.

The first part of this book is a general overview of what conjuration magic is exactly. It doesn’t deal with mechanical aspects of the game, and is somewhat opinionated about conjurers. I don’t hold this against the author, though, since I’ve often wondered if monsters summoned by spellcasters hold their temporary servitude against the caster and seek revenge. Apparently, so does the author.

The next section of the book begins to reach into new game mechanics, and is fairly hit-and-miss. Something I thought was really cool was a good-sized list of diagrams that can be added to a magic circle that will be used for spells like planar binding. As per Player’s Handbook, this mechanic already exists, but the only option offered lets the caster combine magic circle with dimensional anchor. This new list builds on the same mechanic, but offers other options, such as the ability to cause the bound creature severe pain if it displeases you or grant the called creature bonuses to spell-like ability DCs or make it later forget the summoning experience entirely. This section also touches on what should and shouldn’t be possible with spells like major creation with regards to fine work (the example given was the creation of a key to fit a specific lock), and it ties the spellcasting in fairly well with the Craft skill.

This section takes a turn for the worst, however, when it offers up new prestige classes. The first one, the dragonchilde, has very little to do with conjuration at all. It literally turns the spellcaster into a dragon. A loose justification for its inclusion is offered in the idea that dragons somehow exist simultaneously on many planes and can therefore be conjured. I don’t buy it. The second class, the Force Mage was a bit better. It focuses specifically on the conjuration effect of mage armor. While I think this is a good idea, it’s extremely powerful. The Force Mage can use mage armor at will and gains a bonus to the AC it provides equal to class level, which is pretty powerful in and of itself. On top of that, however, the Force Mage can create a force weapon similar to that of the Soulknife, can add the [Force] descriptor to any energy-based spell he casts, can deal up to 10d10 points of force damage with a ranged touch attack and can summon a steed made of pure force. This is obviously a significantly overpowered class. Another new class, the Soulbinder, does what most people probably envision when they think of a conjurer. The Soulbinder is a master of diagram creation and has a good chance of intimidating or convincing the creatures he summons to help him. I actually thought this was a fairly-designed class. The final class, the Spiritcaller, is based somewhat on the idea of a transcendent plane where the spirits of the recently-deceased go before moving on to their final destination. The Spiritcaller essentially conjures creatures from this place, allowing him to call incorporeal versions of summoned creatures (more appropriately, he applies the ghost template to creatures he summons), and eventually allows him to escape true death in the form of a ceremony that ensures that he does not age and that if he dies, his sprit rises as a ghost. This class seems like it might be a lot of extra paperwork, and I’m not too fond of the flavor (seems more like necromancy than conjuration).

The next section dealt with new feats. There wasn’t anything specifically wrong with the feats offered, but nothing leapt out as particularly inspired. There were many pencil drawings of scantly-clad women in this section, perhaps placed there specifically to make an uninteresting section look more interesting. After this came new conjuration spells. This section introduces two new spell descriptors, [Prime] and [Hanging]. The [Prime] descriptor does little more than limit the spell to being successfully cast only on the Prime Material plane by a corporeal caster. I see little reason for its inclusion. The [Hanging] descriptor signifies a spell that is actually cast when the spellcaster prepares his spells. None of the spells offered have any immediate effects of [Hanging], and it mostly seems to be a justification for spells that increase the ability of other spells as they are cast. For example, the book offers a series of spells called echoing call I-III. Basically, if you have one of these spells prepared, then when you cast a summon monster spell, on the second round, the same number and type of creatures appear, then again on the third and forth rounds as well, effectively quadrupling the number of creatures one can summon. My dislike for this particular spell aside, I’m not fond of the [Hanging] descriptor. It seems like a cheap end run around the use of the contingency spell and the Quicken Spell feat. Most of the spells themselves seem uninspired. There’s a whole line of power word spells that do little more than duplicate the effects of other spell schools. The majority of this section is taken up by instances of numbered spells (such as bind guardian I-X).

The next section focuses on new magic items. There were a few such items that should have been written up as magical enhancements rather than specific items. That aside, there were a handful of items in this chapter I feel are pretty good. There’s eternal balm, which is an expensive oil that makes anything created with minor creation or major creation permanent. Then there’s the slate of remembrance, which records the true name of the most recent outsider to attack you. Finally, there are the vile tokens, which are one-use items that are broken to cause a caster’s summoned creatures to go insane and begin attacking their summoner. Nothing else in this section jumped out at me.

The final section of this book deals with conjuration from the DM’s point of view. The DM has enough on his plate just running NPCs and combat, and conjuration magic can quickly heap more on him than he might be prepared for. This section gives tips and the DM and any players that focus on conjuration for helping to manage things. Mostly, it advises the same things you’d get from any D&D message board, stats on index cards and the like. Economic issues are touched on briefly, since a conjurer eventually becomes capable of summoning valuable items like gems and gold, selling them and then making a hasty retreat before the spell duration ends and the item disappears. Unfortunately, while I think it’s good that this issue is touched on, what’s given by this book pretty much breaks down to “selling conjured items is bad, mkaay?” Last, the issue of planar revenge is touched on again. Not much is said, but a warning is given to the players of conjurers (and at the same time, the seed of an idea is given the DMs) that while the creatures brought into existence by a summon monster I spell probably aren’t going to pose any issues when they’re gone, creatures powerful enough to warrant a planar binding spell may very well have the resources to take revenge for being summoned against their will.

All in all, this book wasn’t terrible, but I expected more. I’d hoped for a great deal more.

The Slayer's Guide to Troglodytes

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The Slayer's Guide to Troglodytes

Author: Mike Major
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2001
ISBN: 1-903980-06-2
Pages: 32
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $9.95

Troglodytes are horrible reptilian creatures that act in the same general capacity as low-level monsters, but are slightly more powerful. While lizardfolk might be on good terms with their humanoid neighbors, troglodytes are as openly evil and vile as they are smelly and disgusting. They represent everything alien that a humanoid-like reptilian race can offer. More often than not, they are used by the DM to replace kobolds as cannon fodder when the PCs increase their levels a bit. Once the PCs gain a few more levels, they leave the troglodytes’ caves and graduate to bigger and badder monsters. But it doesn’t have to be so. A well-designed tribe of troglodytes run by a competent DM that is willing to play trogs as a legitimate threat can challenge even mid-level adventures with alarming ease.

Like other books in the Slayer’s Guide series, this book opens with a discussion about the physiology of the troglodyte. The obvious features of the stench attack and their chameleon-like ability to blend into their surroundings are touched on, but this chapter offers something extra as well. It posits the idea that troglodyte physiology is directly impacted by the amount of food the creature is allowed access to. The average trog is somewhat stunted by a lack of sufficient diet, but every trog has the potential to grow up as a 7 ft. tall paragon of his race, if he’s allowed a generous enough diet. This, I thought, was an interesting theory.

Habitat is briefly touched on, and basically amounts to “the live underground.” A nice feature of this book, however, is that it bases troglodyte society on a built-in racial caste system, a sort of feudal system of dominance within the tribe that dictates a particular troglodyte’s position in the tribe by his physical development, which is, as mentioned before, based on the amount of food he is allowed to ingest. This seems like a fairly good idea for a built-in system the DM can use to design a working troglodyte lair, with the largest and most powerful trog as the chieftain, who limits the amount of food his underlings may have as a means to keep them at a manageable power level.

Methods of warfare is a fairly straight-up chapter in this book. Troglodytes are extremely evil and consider members of their own race that are lower in their caste hierarchy to be little more than tools to be used and thrown away. With that in mind, it’s easy to envision what trogs think of all other races. Aside from the giant lizards they occasionally breed as livestock and dray animals, they consider every other race to be a potential food source.

What’s particularly noteworthy about this chapter is that it details how a troglodyte tribe is essentially an extension of the chieftain’s will. As such, they can attack in surprisingly sophisticated and coordinated ways, depending on the intelligence of the chieftain. This is wordlessly communicated to each member of the tribe via their scent ability, which I think is just a wonderful idea. It makes the tribe a force to be reckoned with, while at the same time opening them up to different weaknesses that creative PCs might discover. For example, a spell like gust of wind might disrupt the communication between a chieftain and his warriors, making them lose coordination and fight les effectively.

The plot hooks offered for including troglodytes into your game were a bit disappointing. Each essentially boiled down to either “scour the troglodyte lair” or “capture a troglodyte for scientific study.” There wasn’t a lot of variation.

A prestige class, the Crafter, was included in this book. Essentially, these are the troglodytes that have developed enough brainpower to act as craftspeople for their tribe. Unfortunately, it’s extremely poorly designed. At 2nd level, the trog gains a bonus to Profession (miner) checks, which seems all but useless, considering the use of the Profession skill. At 3rd level, the trog suddenly learns how to manufacture and forge steel. Instead of making metal items available for crafting, it just grants a static +4 bonus to all such Craft checks. At the next level, it can craft weapons and armor with a magical enhancement bonus without requiring the requisite feat. No information or rules about how this is done are given. At the final level, the special ability is that the trog gains a level of cleric. It doesn’t specify if this is in place of the final level of this prestige class or if it’s in addition to.

The final section of this book is a sample troglodyte lair. Unlike most of the other Slayer’s Guide books I’ve read, the maps given don’t include any really useful information. They’re not well-labeled by area, nor are the areas numbered. Very little information is given about which areas do and do not contain which types of trogs. The accompanying text is a bit difficult to follow without a better map. Sections of different maps that are supposed to join together aren’t clearly marked as to where they’re supposed to join, which is confusing, to say the least. Lastly, there’s a sidebar that points out what effect the sheer amount of troglodyte stench in an area might have on a PC. It’s cut off by bad print layout, but the gist of what is there insists that a penalty of 1d6 Strength damage be applied due to nausea. Couldn’t the nauseated condition have been applied to make things more simple?

I thought this book had some very worthwhile ideas about how a troglodyte tribe and possibly lair might be organized. There was plenty of good seed information a clever DM could use to create his own opposing trog force. However, I thought the book fell very short of my expectations roughly halfway through. A creative dungeon master that wants a good method for involving troglodytes in his game might get a great deal of worthwhile ideas from this book, but to the average DM, I’d advise spending your money elsewhere.

Necromancy: Beyond the Grave

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Necromancy: Beyond the Grave

Author: Matthew Sprange
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2001
ISBN: 1-903980-04-6
Pages: 64
Rating: 10 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.95

D20 books about necromancy and the undead are a dime a dozen. Most of them aren't very original and quite a few of them aren't any good at all. This book, on the other hand, might quite possibly be the best non-core D20 book I've ever read.

Almost every major reference you'll see in D&D makes a passing mention of necromancy being something most normal spellcasters shun because of its debilitating effects on one's mind, body and soul. Unfortunately, however, this appears to be mere flavor text, since nothing like this is built into the D20 system. This book is different from all the others I've read in that it gives options to achieve great power quickly with necromancy (which is usually thought of as a particuarly weak spell school), but with signifigant risks. This seems to parallel what necromancy is supposed to be, I think.

The book begins with a discussion about what necromancy actually is, touching on negative energy and how it affects the living and the dead, which is more than the average necromantic source book gives the reader. New prestige classes, spells and magic items are presented, but the book really shines with its system to necromantic side effects. The use of powerful necromantic feats (a great many of which are contained in this book) eventually has an effect on the mind, body and soul of the user, applying side effects on a failed save. Another thing about this book that impresses me is that it contains information about the actual process of transforming into a lich. Lastly, there's a section in the book dedicated to helping DMs overcome common problems with necromancers, such as PCs constantly sending mindless undead ahead to set off the traps it took the DM hours to come up with or the problems behind explaining why a necromancer BBEG has an army of undead at his beck and call when the core rulebooks say that only a certain number of creatures can be controlled at a time. All of this is done without getting too gruesome...something many gaming groups simply don't want in their games.

All in all, I'm highly impressed with this book. I'd highly recommend this book to any player looking to create a necromancer PC, and even more so to any DM who wants to include powerful necromancers or hoards of the undead in his game. When I'm asked what D20 book I would recommend that a friend purchase, this is always the first one I mention. I almost couldn't run my game without it.

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.

Gladiator: Sands of Death

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Gladiator: Sands of Death

Author: Matthew Sprange
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Publish Date: 2001
ISBN: 1-903980-05-4
Pages: 80
Rating: 7 out of 10
Retail Price: $16.95

Gladiator: Sands of Death is one the books put out by Mongoose Publishing in their early days, when they were really trying to prove that a third-party publisher can produce quality work. As the title suggests, it’s about arena combat, gladiatorial bouts and chariot racing.

The book begins with a chapter that gives a look at what an arena is and how it works. The hierarchy from slave up to arena master is presented and described, as is the mob of spectators and the influence they can have on an arena fight. The book makes an effort to talk about how the various races view and interact with arenas, but I think in this it falls short of the mark and plays to Tolkienesq stereotypes. Near the end of the chapter, there’s a short discussion about using gladiatorial combat as an entire campaign, where the PCs play as slave gladiators throughout all their levels, trying to earn their freedom. I think this a good enough idea in theory, but since the book assumes that only warrior-type PCs will be gladiators and doesn’t make any allowances for magic equipment to be used, this might get a bit stale to the players after a while.

The chapter really makes up for its shortcomings when it details arenas of every size and type, all the way from a pit dug in the basement of a seedy tavern to a grand and fantastic arena that would put the real-life Flavian Amphitheater to shame. What’s better, it gives a detailed example for each category of arena, which can be dropped into the average game at any time.

The second chapter deals with the workings inside the area, specifically the combat. It opens with the presentation of a new NPC class, the slave. This give level progression is supposed to be used to represent the lowest of the low, which I think is a good idea. The problem is that it’s mechanically identical to the commoner NPC class, save that it gets a +1 bonus to all physical ability scores and a -1 penalty to all mental ability scores and gets to choose one skill to always be a class skill, no matter how he may multiclass later. To me, this isn’t lower than a commoner, this is superior to a commoner.

The chapter moves on to a couple of prestige classes, which are fine for a gladiatorial game, but won’t be horribly useful to anyone not playing a game contained entirely in the arena. As well, there are a handful of feats, most of which are likewise most useful in the arena, but not so much elsewhere. A couple of new exotic weapons are discussed, but I found most of them to be redundant at best and outright silly at worst.
Various types of matches are touched upon, which is important for any book that’s going to talk about gladiatorial combat. Any fool can put two guys into an arena and let them beat on each other, but this will get boring to the crowd pretty quickly. Pitting unarmed men against animals or chaining pairs of gladiators together at the ankle makes for a much better spectacle. This is backed up by a system of fame that the book introduces later in the chapter. A gladiator’s fame modifier is a representation of how well-liked he is by the crowd, and it can go up or down depending on how well or poorly he performs. This is translated as a morale bonus to some of the gladiator’s attacks. Finally, chariot racing and chariot combat are touched on. I think the rules presented were fine, but they might get a bit cumbersome at the table, since the gladiator is likely to have to make at least one roll every turn, lest he end up overturning his chariot and possibly killing himself.

The final chapter details a new system of play that uses D&D rules, but can be played in lieu of D&D. In this game, each of the players is a stable master and must buy gladiators, animals, equipment and all the other things that make for a good spectacle in the arena. They are then put through a series of challenges against one another, using the D&D combat system as a basis. After each match, fame and money are awarded based on the type of match it was, how well the gladiators performed, etc. The first player to have his stable reach whatever victory condition was set before the game began wins. I think this could be a very interesting way to spend an evening when some of the players can’t make it to game.

Gladiator: Sands of Death is a decent book for the price, but the DM is going to have to be willing to take what he wants and discard the rest. I think the book could have done much better with regards to including magic-users and there were multiple opportunities for the inclusion of monstrous races that went unused. It’s not likely to be an overly useful book unless arena combat is a big part of the game, though, and characters built solely with this book are likely to take a back seat in any situation that doesn’t take place in the arena.

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