review

Heroes of Horror

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Heroes of Horror

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 10/2005
ISBN: 10-7869-3699-1
Pages: 157
Rating: 5 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

This is a book I’ve been interested in reading for quite a while. A firesale at Amazon.com allowed me to get it on the cheap, and I’ve just finished reading it. The stated purpose of the book is to inspire horror in the D&D game. Not horror in the traditional D&D ‘oh look, there’s a monster with a fear ability' horror, but the kind of horror that films like The Blair Witch Project or Night of the Living Dead tried to inspire, where even as the players realized they’re playing a game, a chill creeps up their spine and they feel as though spiders are crawling across their skin. Sounds like a great idea for a book to me.

The book opens with a chapter about how to create horror in your game. It goes on at length about various storytelling methods and DM tricks that can help set the mood. The problem with this is that the advice it gives applies across the board to games, not just to horror games. Everything it discusses is something a DM should be doing in his game anyway, and doesn’t specifically need to apply to horror. I’ve said it many times before& if you want to develop good storytelling skills for use at the gaming table, don’t buy a d20 book, buy a book about how to be a better storyteller.

I did like a large chart of possible creepy effects that a DM can beef up his descriptions with in a horror game. The idea of describing a PC’s reflection as seeming a split-second behind him, as though waiting to see what he did before mimicking him is a powerful image of startling horror. However, the DM that uses these descriptions in his game will need to have an understanding in advance with his players or they’ll be likely to assume there’s something wrong with the PC and derail the game trying to figure out what it is. The sample encounters were nice, too, though they might have been a better read had they come after the descriptions of the new monsters they’re hinged on.

The second chapter is essentially the same as the first, but it’s meant to apply specifically to the DM. It’s about how to design a campaign with horror in mind. It wasn’t bad, but it talks at length about how one probably shouldn’t run a single horror adventure, that the techniques given by this book lend themselves best to running an entire long-spanning campaign of horror. This makes sense, but it does somewhat limit DMs who might not want to run all horror, all the time. It speaks of “techniques of terror,” which are supposed to be plot tools the DM can use to inspire fear in the players. The problem is that they’re all old-hat DM tricks, like threatening the PCs’ family or splitting the party up. Nothing new there. The small adventure site was a nice way to wrap this chapter up, though.

The third chapter takes what’s in the second chapter and tries to piece it together to form an entire campaign. The bulk of it seemed dedicated to tying in a horror campaign with existing rulesets. This takes the form of explanations about how to transform established settings like Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms into horror settings. It also gives other ideas for using existing rules, such as the use of curses with or without the bestow curse spell or inflicting the PCs with lycanthropy. It also introduces the concept of horror in dreams. This is something that works well in literature, but might not work so well in D&D, as the DM has to decide many, many thing about how adventuring in a dream world works. Of the 19 pages that make up this chapter, 7 were fully dedicated to pointing out just how many things a DM needs to consider and decide upon when adding dreamscapes to his game. That seems overly complicated in my opinion.

The fourth chapter is what I was looking forward to the most. One of my favorite aspects among dark fantasy is the concept of a good person who is exposed to the evil and wickedness that he fights for so long that he himself begins to become evil and wicked in his pursuit of evil and wickedness. This is what I expected that the rules about the new game mechanic, taint, were going to be about. And they are. But I really don’t think they’re implemented very well. The way taint works is that if you’re exposed to taint, be it in the form of a monster that is based on taint, by hanging around in a tainted place or by coming into contact with people that also have taint, you yourself may gain taint. Taint is separated into physical taint (corruption) and mental taint (depravity). If you’re exposed to taint in any form, you have to make either a Fortitude or a Will save, respectively, and if you fail it, you gain taint. Gaining taint does several things, but the most obvious of these things is that it forces you to roll on either a corruption or depravity chart and apply a physical or mental defect that represents the manifestation of your taint. The problem is that it seems way too easy to gain taint, and the symptoms you gain come on very fast. Literally, if you do business with a merchant that has a taint score, it’s possible for you to gain taint, and the effect of this begins immediately. So, because you walked into a tainted guy’s store and bought some rope, you now have painful scabs that fill up your ears and screw around with your Listen checks (for example).

The rest of the chapter dealt with horror environments. This was actually quite nice. It gave rules for graveyards as terrain, which was a nice thing. It also detailed haunting presences, basic poltergeists that aren’t dangerous enough to actually be real undead creatures, which can add quite a bit to the ambience of a haunted location, I think. It also touched on raising the dead in a horror game, and listed a few potential changes, which could make raising a dead comrade turn out like the plot of Pet Sematary.

The fifth chapter was the meat of the book. Two new base classes, the archivist and the dread necromancer are presented. The archivist is essentially a cleric who cast spells from a spellbook. The dread necromancer was like a wizard who becomes a lich as part of his class progression. Neither will be seeing any use in my games. A handful of new prestige classes were also presented. Some of them rely on the use of the taint rules, which I don’t much like. One class stood out, though, the dread witch. This a five-level progression class that allows a spellcaster access to new heights of inspiring fear, which is an underutilized mechanic, in my opinion. The majority of the feats won’t see much use in my games either, since many are based on taint or on adventuring in dreams. I did like that the deformity feats from Book of Vile Darkness made an appearance, though. It seems appropriate.

Finally, there was a chapter that contained a few new monsters. The chapter begins with a discussion about using monster types as a basis for adventures, and suggests a basic adventure concept for many monster types. For example, with dragons, it suggests a ‘rescue the kidnapped princess’ adventure, while the fey suggestion is a ‘pranks gone too far’ adventure. Some of the monsters were actually quite good. The dusk giant is an interesting concept, as it’s a giant that grows larger if it has a steady diet of sentient creatures, but grows smaller if its diet wanes, which means they’re useful challenges to a wide range of PC levels. The cadaver golem is an intelligent golem designed to mimic Frankenstein’s monster. The phantasmal slayer is a high-CR creature that can kill you outright just by appearing as your worst possible fear. Of course, the chapter was spoiled by yet another elemental that’s not really an elemental at all, the taint elemental.

If you happen to like the rules for taint, this book will likely be of great use to you. If, like me, you’re not overly fond of these rules, this book is of somewhat limited use. Read the section about taint in the store before you buy. If you like what you read, pick buy this book, it’s got a lot for you. If you don’t like what you read, buy something else. As for me, I think my money would have been better spent on a new zombie novel.

Heroes of Battle

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Heroes of Battle

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 05/2005
ISBN: 0-7869-3686-X
Pages: 157
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

I recently picked this up with a load of other books during a firesale at amazon.com. Included in these books was Heroes of Horror, which I read first. I was quite disappointed with that book, almost to the point of not bothering to take this book off the shelf and read it. I’m glad I fought that urge.

The first chapter of this book takes a look at a military-themed campaign. Unlike a more traditional dungeon crawl campaign, a military campaign of the type described in this book is something that is practically required to be planned at least somewhat in advance, since the PCs will be under the command of NPCs with higher ranks than them. They might not get to keep all the loot they find or decide how or when they do certain things, since the military hierarchy commands them. This chapter basically contains information about how to run such a game without your players revolting because they feel like you’re pushing them around or railroading them into doing things they don’t want to do. It also gives a small amount of information about military ranks and organization.

The second chapter talks about how to build adventures for the military-themed campaign. In the dungeon, the PCs are usually confined by the physical size of the area, but on the battlefield, they might have to run all over hell and back just to get their day’s work done. What I like the most about this chapter is that it takes a very clinical, technical approach to designing an adventure. It provides sample flowcharts and teaches the reader how to create his own flowcharts and how to use them in conceptualizing an adventure. This could easily apply to any kind of adventure, not just a military campaign. Additionally, it also takes the same technical approach to map-making, giving the reader several icons for various types of terrain features, walls and topography.

At the end of the chapter, the book discusses victory points, which is a new mechanic unique to a military campaign. In a standard dungeon campaign, the goals are clear and the end is apparent. The adventure is over when you hack your way through all the goblins and kill their leader who’s been harassing the local town. In a military campaign, you can’t usually just walk through the enemy’s lines and lop off their commander’s head. It’s more like a series of battles that result in a victory or failure overall. In addition to experience points, the PCs can accrue victory points when they successfully complete certain challenges (such as taking a fortified hill or defending their bunker against an attack). At the end of the overall battle, if the PCs have more than half the victory points the DM has assigned to the battle, their side wins.

The third chapter details the kinds of encounters that the PCs might face in a military campaign. They might be assigned to stop an enemy supply shipment, destroy enemy artillery or act as reinforcements for harried allies. Several potential tasks with ELs from 4-10 are given, including information about to how scale back the challenge or ramp it up. Additionally, this chapter includes information about specific military units the PCs might have to face off against during their careers. Some of these go all the way up to EL 17, and would be useful even in a non-military campaign.

The fourth chapter is titled “The Rules of War.” The largest part of it is dedicated to providing examples of situations the DM can use to create most battlefield situations and the number of victory points the PCs get for performing these tasks. Additionally, the rules for unit morale checks are given, which allow the PCs to potentially scare their opponents off or rally their own fleeing allies. What I like most about this chapter, though, is that it expands heavily on the Player’s Handbook’s list of siege engines, giving rules for their use that are actually useful.

The fifth chapter was the most mechanical, I think, and gives a bunch of new feats. I was particularly impressed by the Ready Shot feat, which allows ranged combatants to ready an action against a charging opponent and then deal more damage if they hit that opponent. New uses for skills were given, which is great in any book. In this case, three whole pages of new uses were given, which is probably more than I’ve seen in any other book. A few new prestige classes were given, and while I don’t think any of them were bad, there wasn’t much that was surprising or fresh. For those who use teamwork benefits (first introduced in Player’s Handbook II), there are also several pages of teamwork benefits in this chapter as well.

The sixth chapter dealt with how magic can be used to influence the battlefield. Several new spells are given. Additionally, new magic items, including standards, rods and other non-armor, non-weapon items were detailed as well. Even magical siege engines were detailed. A few pages were dedicated to the actual use of magic on the battlefield, and how spells and effects might mimic conveniences we see in modern warfare, such as reconnaissance or instantaneous communication.

Finally, a few appendices were given that given stat blocks for generic soldiers and units of soldiers, including basic tactics. Additionally, several new types of mounts were given that commanders or cavalry might use. This is a gold mine for DMs, as it provides on-the-fly stat blocks that can be used when the DM has nothing else.

I can see how this book could be very useful. I think that the way it presents a military-style campaign is something the DM would have to discuss with his players to determine if that’s what they wanted to do, since it’s so different than the traditional method of play. However, I can see how a military-themed game could be very fun. If nothing else, this book was much, much better than Heroes of Horror, by leaps and bounds.

Elder Evils

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Elder Evils

Author: Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 12/2007
ISBN: 978-0-7869-4733-1
Pages: 159
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

I didn’t notice Elder Evils on the shelf at my local bookstore until the release of 4th edition D&D had been announced. I suspect that it was the last book that Wizards of the Coast published using the v3.5 ruleset. So far as physical quality goes, they couldn’t have ended better. The binding is superb and the paper is top-notch. The book’s cover has a picture that just reaches out and grabs for attention. I wish other WotC publications could have had the same level of shelf character that this book has.

The premise of this book is fitting, given that the v3.5 ruleset was about to be retired. It concerns using powerful evil forces as a means of ending a campaign, for better or worse. These elder evils are so world-shaking that either the campaign ends on a good note when the PCs defeat the threat or it ends on a bad note when the entire world ceases to exist anymore. The first chapter is a primer that is used to introduce this idea. It has a few new feats and the like to help the DM build worshippers and collaborators of these ancient evil beings, but it primarily lays down the law on how to handle such evils. Each of the elder evils in this book are prophesied in some way, and the lion’s share of this chapter describes how the world changes as the threat of these evils increases. For example, healing magic might increase in power until the dead even begin to walk out of their graves or the sun might get more and more dim until in eventually winks out completely. Events like these herald the coming of the elder evils.

Each of the subsequent nine chapters details an individual elder evil. A general timeline is suggested that begins with mere rumors heard whispered when the PCs are low-level and progresses to an actual head-to-head confrontation at the highest levels. Each elder evil has no shortage of beings that work towards its arrival, whether it’s a fanatic worshipper or a helpless thrall. In many cases, the challenge rating of these beings may only be a little bit lower than the elder evil itself. Each contains a series of encounter maps dealing with the final encounter, and even includes stat blocks on the elder evils themselves.

It’s obvious that the rules found in Epic Level Handbook were not used in the creation of the elder evils. In a way this makes sense, since those rules allow the PCs to continue their level progression to infinity and 81st-level characters ought to have very little trouble taking out an elder evil or two before breakfast. However, it’s also strange in a way because so many of WotC’s other books were directly referenced by this one. While all of the relevant stat blocks for the important monsters were included, knowledge of some of WotC’s other books is a virtual necessity due to the use of some feats, classes and monsters.

I’d be willing to say than anyone that plans on using only a 1-20 level progression and not including material from Epic Level Handbook could easily find this book useful, not only for ending a campaign, but for planning it from beginning to end. It’s an interesting read, and I think it’s well worth the cost, since it could potentially be used to create nine different campaign stories.

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.

Elemental Lore

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Elemental Lore

Author: Various
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Publish Date: 2003
ISBN: 1-58994-169-1
Pages: 62
Rating: 7 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.95

As monster books go, this one was not bad. It focuses almost entirely on elementals and creatures with an elemental subtype...and does a fairly good job of it. The monsters contained within all seem to be nicely balanced with their CR and I don't recall seeing any obvious blunders concerning over or underpowered creatures.

Several unique ideas were utilized in this text, such as the Gate Snake, a rare magical beats that can be captured and turned into living portals to the elemental planes. Or the Plague Wind, a malicious air elemental that breezes by, carrying disease and death in its winds.

While I creatinly won't claim that I'd use every monster in this book in my own game, I'd definately consider using a good deal of them. I think many, such as the Mercure or Earthen Maw will eventually end up as unique baddies or possibly guardians of powerful places or artifacts in my game. Some, such as the Telkhine, an elemental race of displaced spirits, might even make up the basis for an entire incursion campaign. I'd definately recommend this book to anyone who is considering a storyline concerning elemental creatures.

Complete Divine

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Complete Divine

Author: David Noonan
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 05/2004
ISBN: 0-7869-3272-4
Pages: 191
Rating: 7 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

Originally, I thought that this book might be helpful to me in creating a pantheon of deities for my homebrew world. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of help there, though it was far from useless. The book is obviously geared towards divine characters and has quite a bit of new material concerning deities (though nothing much on creating new ones), new clerical domains and the like.

The book begins with the introduction of three new core classes. Personally, I wasn't impressed with them at all, though I suppose others playing in campaigns different from my own might have different opinions. This is followed up by the introduction of fifteen new prestige classes. While some of these were actually pretty good, others seemed to me to be nothing more than filler. For example, the Black Flame Zelot looked like it was included for not apparent reason other than to have a prestige class that focused on the kukri as a weapon. Further in the book we find a great number of feats, including two new types of feats, the divine feat (which requires the use of turn undead attempts) and the wild feat (which requires the use of wildshaping) as well as a new variant, faith feats (which require a great deal of trust between player and DM). Afterwards, there is a chapter on magic items, which introduces a new idea...the relic, a powerful magic item tied to a particular deity that requires the expenditure of spell slots to use (which I think is a pretty good system). This is followed by a chapter dealing with the expanded core deities (including new domains and potential church quests) as well as some of the lesser deities of the Greyhawk campaign. Later comes a chapter that deals with philosophical concepts of the D&D game...what happens when a PC dies, how does the world view religion, how are nations swayed by deities, etc. Last comes the requisite chapter containing spells.

I was very impressed by the floor plan maps included for sample shrines for every deity covered by the book. I was also pleased with the idea of relics. I was also impressed by the amount of material that might be of use to a non-divine character. Like most books from Wizards of the Coast, Complete Divine could easily be used by a player or a DM.

While some of the book smacked heavily of filler material, it was fairly good for the most part. A DM using the core D&D pantheon would probably gain a great deal from this book. Likewise, anyone designing a divine character would surely benefit from reading it.

Expanded Psionics Handbook

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Expanded Psionics Handbook

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 2004
ISBN: 0-7869-3301-1
Pages: 223
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

This book is another in the line of 3.5 books in that it updates its predecessor, the Psionics Handbook. However, this proved to be far more than a revision; it ended up being a much-needed overhaul. Gone are the days of clunky psionic feats. A new mechanic, that of becoming psionically focused, was introduced and works flawlessly. Gone is the overly-complicated psionic combat system, which was rarely used in practice. Another bonus thrown in is the inclusion of a plethora of psionic material released between the printing of the Psionics Handbook and the Expanded Psionics Handbook, including articles in the Dragon and Dungeon magazines, various third party resources, and most notably items from the beloved Dungeons and Dragons web article The Mind’s Eye. This book includes a new set of mechanics, six psionic races, psionic versions of three core races, four classes, tons of feats (nine of which are usable in a non-psionic campaign), nine psionic prestige classes, nineteen psionic monsters, psionic versions of four core monsters, and even spells for magic-users!

The psionic races offered are wonderful. They are unique and show a great deal of creativity. However, only a few of them are available without a Level Adjustment, which is a hard pill to swallow. The book details four classes: the psion, the psychic warrior, the soulknife, and the wilder. Each has its own unique style and role. The psion takes the role of the primary offensive manifester (manifest is a psionic term similar to the magical term cast) with his large number of known powers (psionic equivalent of spells) and equally large pool of power points (a uniquely psionic mechanic in determining the number of powers one can manifest each day). The wilder is similar to the psion in that it learns the higher-level powers and has the same amount of power points, but it knows fewer powers in exchange for being tougher than the psion and gaining the ability to Wild Surge, where the wilder increases a power’s potency by risking an ill effect. The psychic warrior combines the roles of the psion and the fighter by using his (albeit limited) array of powers to bolster his ability in combat. The soulknife class offers the amazingly cool ability to manifest a blade of pure mental energy that increases in power and versatility as one progresses through the class.

The list of powers is amazing. There is no other way to describe the huge number of unique, interesting, and useful powers given. Though the psion and wilder share a similar list of powers to choose from, much like the wizard and the sorcerer, the psion also gains access to a single discipline list he chooses at first level. These discipline lists (psychometabolism, psychokinesis, psychoportation, clairsentience, metacreativity, and telepathy) are wonderfully done and help add depth and individuality to every psion. The psychic warrior gets its own list of powers that are very useful in various combat situations as well as powers that are useful in non-combat situations.

The psionic prestige classes are very well done, and each allows a psionic character to attain a distinctive flavor. Whether it is the spatial-bending Elocater or the fiery Pyrokineticist, each prestige class is a wonderfully well-developed class that allows an unprecedented level of customization.

The psionic items, while a novel idea and containing a great amount of flavor, were lacking. Cognizance Crystals were sub par and the lack of useful Universal Items (psionic equivalent of Wondrous Items) disappointed me. Also, aside from Cognizance Crystals, none of the types of items seemed original. They all seemed to suffer from the “Psionic X” syndrome, which is where people tend to slap the word “psionic” on something instead of developing something new. Dorjes are psionic wands, psicrowns psionic staves, power stones psionic scrolls, and tattoos psionic potions.

The monsters, while new and interesting, tend to limit themselves from being used regularly in a campaign. A good number of them are underground or on another plane. What is nice is the adaptation of core monsters that were given magical abilities in the Monster Manual instead of psionic abilities. How to change the aboleth, duergar, githyanki, githzerai, and illithid into psionic-powered versions is nicely detailed.

Though it doesn’t make a good book, the art is wonderful. Usually in each book I own, there is a picture or two that I don’t care for or don’t think fits well with the style. However, every picture in the Expanded Psionics Handbook shows the time and effort that went into their attention-grabbing, colorful and vivid displays.

The final downfall of this book is its adaptability. Though the book actually lists several methods of introducing psionics into a campaign, the fact is that it’s hard to do except from the beginning. It comes with nice tips regarding how magic and psionics interact, and how they might be used to counteract one another. However, psionics is definitely a brand new system and requires a lot of time and reading to understand and implement properly. Most feats, spells, and classes from this book can be taken as is. The DM merely needs to read the description of that element and can then include it. Psionics requires time and learning, similar to the Player’s Handbook. If every rule is not understood, problems will arise. This and the lack of original item types are the only things keeping the Expanded Psionics Handbook from receiving a perfect score, but with the investment of a little time it should prove to be an amazing resource that’s well worth the money.

Toolbox

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Toolbox

Author: Dawn Ibach & Jeff Ibach
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
Publish Date: 2002
ISBN: 1-887953-72-8
Pages: 192
Rating: 10 out of 10
Retail Price: $26.95

Toolbox (or as I call it, "The Big Bitchin' Book of DM Help") is basically a large book of random roll charts. I'll just come right out and say it plainly...this book has a chart for EVERYTHING! Did one of your players surprise you by having his PC pickpocket some random nobody NPC? No problem, just turn to page 127 and choose from not one, but ten full lists of random pickpocket results. Did a PC just get hit by an Insanity spell and you want to make it a memorable event? Simply flip to page 86 to find charts containing random insanities and phobias. What do you do when the PCs start making trouble while trying to get into town? Easy...you open the book to page 113 to find not only a chart for random gate guards, but several charts for guard ranks and titles as well. Do you need to know the name of the king's second cousin Phil's first puppy he had when he was a kid? There's probably a chart for that as well.

This book is a wonderful resource for any DM who is working on a city, dungeon or other location for his game and needs a bit of help getting over a few mundane potholes in the work. It's also a lifesaver in the middle of a game when a player surprises you with an out of the blue question you weren't prepared for. I firmly believe that every DM should have a copy of this book in his collection.

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.

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