wotc

Compete Adventurer

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Complete Adventurer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compelete Arcane

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Complete Arcane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Psionic

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Complete Psionic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libris Mortis

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Libris Mortis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dungeonscape

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Dungeonscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hordes of the Abyss

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Hordes of the Abyss

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 06/2006
ISBN: 10-7869-3919-2
Pages: 157
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

I’ve been quite impressed with the few books Wizards of the Coast has released that detail specific monstrous races exhaustively. Books like Draconomicon and Lords of Madness were very much a cut above the standard cloth of mediocrity I’ve come to expect from most Wizards of the Coast publications. I was very excited when Wizards of the Coast began releasing their Fiendish Codex series, as I expected good things from a race book about evil outsiders. Hordes of the Abyss didn’t let me down.

The first chapter is a potpourri of topics relating to demons. One popular theory for the origins of demonkind is presented, as is a basic rundown of known demon physiology. Rules for demonic possession are given as well. The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to detailing a few standard demonic roles within a campaign, such as the manipulator demon, who uses others for its amusement or the brute demon, who simply smashes anything it dislikes. This chapter also introduces the black scrolls of Ahm, a series of powerful artifacts that originated as a guide to demons and the Abyss. Most of the information in Hordes of the Abyss is supposed to originate from these works, and they constantly pop up throughout the book, with a separate work, the Demonomicon of Iggwilv, being cited occasionally to provide alternate theories. It bares mentioning that Dragon Magazine has been running a series of articles that are supposed to be excerpts from the Demonomicon of Iggwilv and build upon the information in Hordes of the Abyss.

The second chapter introduces sixteen new demons. Unlike many creatures appearing in monster sourcebooks, it appears that a great deal of thought went into the creatures in this chapter. The entire spectrum of challenge ratings is covered, from the CR1 mane, a pitiful creature that is even more pathetic than the lowly dretch to the CR19 molydeus, a demonic enforcer that could hold its own against a balor. Even more importantly, demonic subtypes are also spelled out. The tanar’ri that are presented in the Monster Manual are only one of three subtypes of demonic life. Included among demonkind are ancient obyrith that ruled the Abyss for eons before the tanar’ri even existed and the incorporeal loumara that enter existence as the tortured dreams of dead gods. These subclasses and the history attached to each gives demons a new depth that raises them above being simple monsters to fight and helps establish a sort of hierarchy for the politics of the Abyss.

The third chapter is the one I was looking forward to the most, as it details many of the demon lords that reside in the Abyss. I was impressed by the fact that the book details more than the small handful of popular, well known demon lords like Demogorgon and Orcus. Stats, history and motivations for other powerful lords of all three demonic subtypes are given, such as Fraz-urb’luu and Kostchtchie. I was particularly impressed with an obyrith lord named Obox-ob, and actually shuddered a bit at the thought of pitting him against a group of high-level adventurers. Each of the demon lords that were originally found in the Book of Vile Darkness are also here, though their power has been reduced significantly so as to make them attainable goals for high-level adventurers. The one gripe I have about this chapter is that one of the first things it mentions is aspects, which are physical manifestations of powerful beings (such as demon lords) that can manifest separate of the beings themselves. After mentioning this, it points the reader to the Wizards of the Coast website for examples and says nothing more about it. Bad form.

Moving on, the next chapter contained the majority of the “crunchy” stuff. Surprisingly, no new prestige classes were given, though the book did point to other d20 sources for demon-related classes. New spells were included, as well as a few new domains. Additionally, new feats were included. Many of these feats were reproductions of earlier versions found in the Book of Vile Darkness, including a few vile feats, which only the most evil can gain. A new idea introduced by this chapter is the abyssal heritor line of feats, which allow one to gain a watered-down semblance of the chaotic power of demonkind without having to resort to the half-fiend template. The black scrolls of Ahm are also detailed here, with some being minor artifacts and some being major. What sets them apart from other artifacts is that they have a built-in mechanism for removing them from play if it becomes obvious that they’re throwing off the balance of your game, since using them often has the side effect of summoning demons, and the scrolls immediately teleport away when demons are near.

Of everything in this book, I looked forward to chapter five the most. This chapter details the Abyss itself, including a history of the Blood War. I was disappointed that more reason for the war’s beginnings weren’t made apparent, but I had expected as much. A history of the overthrow of the obyrith by the tanar’ri was detailed and a hierarchy for each inhabitant of the Abyss, from petitioner (the soul of a deceased chaotic evil mortal) to deity, was also given. A few pages were dedicated to travel through the Abyss, with special attention paid to the river Styx. Most of the example encounters on or near the river consisted of yugoloths, but unless you own a copy of Fiend Folio, you’re probably not going to be able to use any of them. I sincerely hope that there is a Fiendish Codex III that concerns yugoloths. Some of the more interesting and powerful areas of the Abyss were also detailed in their own right, including the Lolth’s Demonweb Pits (layer 66), Grazzt’s Azzagrat (layers 45-47), Demogorgon’s Gaping Maw (layer 88) and Orcus’s Thanatos (layer 113), as well as several others. Each included a fairly complete history and a guide to the locations and dangers of each layer, putting to rest any sane person’s ideas of simply teleporting in, wiping the floor with a demon lord and making good on an escape. The gripe I have with this chapter is that Orcus’s history includes him knowing a dark and hidden incantation known as the Last Word, which is so powerful that it can be used to kill gods (in fact, four gods he has killed with the Last Word are mentioned by name). However, Orcus’s stat block in chapter 3 makes no mention of this, and I would think that if you can kill gods with an utterance, getting rid of rivals like Grazzt and Demogorgon should be little problem.

Any one of the 663 known layers of the Abyss would be worth its own book. Each one is almost a completely separate entity from the rest, and would therefore easily fill up dozens of pages without intruding upon other such books. However, there’s only so much an author can do, and I think that the authors have done justice to demons and the Abyss with this work. There’s a minor reliance on other books (most notably Fiend Folio and the Book of Vile Darkness), but Hordes of the Abyss otherwise stands on its own very firmly.

Tyrants of the Nine Hells



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Tyrants of the Nine Hells

Author: Robin D. Laws & Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 12/2006
ISBN: 978-0-7869-3940-4
Pages: 158
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

 

As much as I liked Wizards of the Coast’s first book in the Fiendish Codex series, Hordes of the Abyss, I figured it was a pretty safe bet that I would like the second book, Tyrants of the Nine Hells, as well. I was reassured by the book’s preface, which is a telling of a creation myth in which the gods voluntarily give Asmodeus and his dark angels power in Hell so that they wouldn’t have to concern themselves with the more violent and shameful acts of punishment for evil deeds, only to find out that Asmodeus has tricked them into signing over the power to potentially rule the universe. This story goes a long way towards illustrating just how devious and cunning devils, and Asmodeus in particular, really are.

The first chapter gives reason for Hell to exist beyond simply being a breeding ground for monsters. As part of the Pact Primeval (mentioned above - the contract signed by the gods that allows devils to draw power from the souls of the damned), devils don’t draw their power from the gods, as angels would. Instead, they take power from the souls of mortals that end up in Baator after their death. A devil that corrupts a mortal essentially owns that mortal’s soul after it dies. This has resulted in mortal souls being used as a form of currency among devilkind, since the more souls one owns, the more power one has. With this in mind, the first chapter details how much souls are worth, how devils that collect souls for their masters are rewarded and how devils that fail to collect souls are punished. Different pacts devils use to get mortals to sign away their immortal souls are detailed and potential benefits to the seller are listed. The worship of devils and even a system for corruption (which eventually changes a person’s alignment to lawful evil so they end up in Baator after death) is presented. While the Blood War is briefly touched on, the rest of the chapter is definitely geared towards the acquisition and use of mortal souls.

The second chapter takes the lion’s share of the book and details each of the nine layers of Baator. Each layer is individually described and information about the layer’s archduke, the dukes under him or her and any other unique devils is provided, though actual stat blocks are contained in chapter five (in my opinion, it would have been better to have each archduke’s stat block accompanying the description of his or her layer). Information about the types of devils one is likely to find on the layer is given and any important locations are detailed, some with an accompanying map. Some of the locations are actually magical locations that allow a character willing to undergo a daunting or painful experience to gain a magical benefit, albeit, usually accompanied by an alignment change towards lawful evil. If a deity resides on the layer, his or her realm is touched on. Finally, a handful of encounter ideas are presented to give the DM ideas for random (or not so random) encounters.

The third chapter contained most of the new mechanical information. First was a new race, the hellbred. This race is not born, but is instead created from the soul of a truly repentant mortal upon his death as a means to give the mortal one last chance for redemption. Personally, I didn’t like the race. The favored class is paladin, but a hellbred is free to multiclass as he wishes and still return to the paladin class. Further, he can use items keyed to evil alignments (such as demon armor or the sword of Kas) with no penalties and he starts with and can gain devil-touched feats (basically the opposite of exalted feats) as his hit dice progress. Frankly, this just seemed like a cheap way to create a paladin that doesn’t have a strict code of laws to follow.

The selection of new feats was actually pretty good. The majority of them are only available to devils and require that they pay homage to a single archduke of Baator. Replacing some of the creature’s Monster Manual feats with these might be an interesting way to spice up what would otherwise be one more generic encounter. There were a handful of divine feats, which let a user sacrifice a turn undead attempt for some other ability, but the real focus was on devil-touched feats. The first in this feat tree requires that one sell his soul to a devil, but as he progresses, he gains more and more power, as most of the abilities of devil-touched feats get better the more devil-touched feats one has.

As usual, I was not impressed with the selection of new prestige classes. While they were devil-themed, they didn’t seem inspired at all. The hellbreaker is a thief that specializes in stealing from devils. The hellfire warlock uses the warlock class from Complete Arcane as a basis and gains an insane amount of extra damage while still gaining invocations as though progressing as a warlock. The hellreaver is a sort of divine warrior that gains a point reserve equal to his class level that allows him to activate any of several abilities and could quickly become an unpredictable mathematical nightmare for a DM. The soulguard is a divine crusader that specializes in freeing unjusty-captured souls from devils and offering redemption to those that have started down a path of corruption. There wasn’t anything overly bad about the soulguard class, but it wasn’t obviously great, either.

Finally, the chapter also offered a new domain (in addition to another domain that was sidebarred in an earlier chapter) and a handful of new spells. Most of the spells were “investiture of...” spells, which were all basically the same spell at different levels that allow the caster to almost transmogrify himself temporarily as a devil and gain various benefits according to the type of devil. Frankly, I’ve seen better spell selections.

The fourth chapter detailed new types of devils. This chapter was very hit or miss, though it hit much more often than it missed. One of the misses were the abashi, devils that are sort of dragon-like and work for Tiamat, who lives in Avernus, the topmost layer of Baator. The dogai (assassin devil) seemed like a great opponent to throw a a cocky group of higher-level PCs. I was pretty impressed with the hellfire engine, a huge construct used in the Blood War that belches forth hellfire, a flame so hot it burns right through fire immunity (dealing normal, un-typed damage). Combined with a few handler devils, I could see a real challenge, even for a group of 20th level PCs.

The final chapter detailed each of the Lords of the Nine, providing a basic history, goals and motivations and a stat block for each. Like the demon prices from Hordes of the Abyss, the power of the archdukes has been reduced a great deal to make them more of an attainable challenge for high-level PCs&at least in theory. Unlike the demon lords presented in the previous book, the archdukes of Hell have stat blocks presented as aspects, which are splinters of power from the real being. As a result, even the weakest archduke, whose aspect is a CR20, is probably more than a match for even the most powerful of the demon lords. A trend I noticed as well is that each of the archdukes’ stats includes at least one feat from a separate sourcebook. Alternate selections are suggested for those that don’t have the books, but this still seems a bit like bad form.

This book is not without its problems. Yugoloths are mentioned briefly a few times, but as this is a book about devils, no information beyond the name “yugoloth” is given. I sincerely hope that there is a Fiendish Codex III that concerns yugoloths. The layout of the chapters also makes the book a bit of a confusing read in places. I understand the desire to save the stats on the universe’s most powerful villains until the end of the book, but if the layout had followed Hordes of the Abyss’s and had the new devil types and the archdukes closer to the front of the book, some of the passages would likely have made much more sense. All in all, I liked Tyrants of the Nine Hells and I think it’s well worth the money if you’re planning on making fiends a central part of your game.

Complete Scoundrel

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Complete Scoundrel

Author: Mike McArtor & F. Wesley Schneider
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 01/2007
ISBN: 978-0-7869-4152-0
Pages: 157
Rating: 7 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

I picked this book up recently during a fire sale at Amazon.com. I’ve seen some pretty good things from most of the other books in the Complete series that I’ve read, so I figured it would be a good purchase. On the whole, it was worth the money I paid for it, though that’s not saying much, since it cost me less than $3.

Chapter 1 tries to define what a scoundrel is. It doesn’t do a very good job, in my opinion. The book runs with the definition that a scoundrel is someone that is skillful and/or sneaky, and puts those talents to good use. However, this short chapter seems more inclined to reassure the reader that you can make use of the material from this book, even if your character is a paladin or has a non-chaotic alignment.

The second chapter focuses on prestige classes. I was actually pretty impressed with a few of these classes. The fortune’s friend class was very interesting in that it represents the foppish tramp that always seems to have luck go his way. Surprisingly, I really liked the master of masks class, which allows the character to create special masks to hide his true identity. These masks change the master of masks in special ways, and I can think of several applications for such a talent. There was even a prestige class that focuses on psionics. Admittedly, it could have been better, but the book gets points for trying.

Chapter 3 dealt with feats. Two new types of feats, the ambush feat and the luck feat, were introduced. Ambush feats allow a character to reduce the number of extra dice of damage dealt by his sneak attack, skirmish attack or sudden strike to impose some other hiderance on the target. For example, the Head Shot feat allows you to reduce your sneak attack damage by 5d6, but if you deal damage and your target fails his save, he is confused for 1 round. Luck feats represent a character’s good fortune, and generally allow a reroll, much like the granted power of the Luck domain. Unlike that ability, however, the reroll is much more narrow in scope. For example, the Advantageous Avoidance feat allows you to force an opponent to reroll a critical confirmation roll made against you, but you couldn’t use it to reroll a failed save, for example.

This chapter also introduces a new concept to the game, the skill trick. A skill trick is exactly what it sounds like... it’s a neat trick that a skillful character can pull off. Indiana Jones uses his whip to swing across a chasm and Jackie Chan can bounce between two corners to literally run up a wall. These are examples of skill tricks. Each skill trick has a prerequisite, usually just a minimum number of ranks in a skill. The character can spend two skill points to learn a skill trick instead of spending them on increasing skill ranks. I actually kind of like this idea, though if more skill tricks had feat prerequisites, I could think of dozens of examples of great tricks that didn’t make this book’s list.

Chapter 4 had several new spells. There wasn’t anything particularly bad in this chapter, but nothing stood out, either. Chapter 5 dealt with new equipment. A nice beginning to this chapter was a short section on creating hidden spaces in items, such as a false bottom in a chest or a hidden pocket in a shirt. This seems like useful information. This is followed up by new weapons which, frankly, suck. Bayonets, bow blades, instrument blades... every weapon in this section was essentially a dagger mounted onto something so a character can get around the rule that ranged weapons can’t make attacks of opportunity. After this came alchemical items, poisons and magic items. Sadly, nothing stood out as being overly good. I did enjoy the short section on living items, which are useful items that are either alive or are taken from living creatures and remain useful for a short time afterward. A bottle of gut mites, for example, acts as a sort of bio-weapon against creatures with the Swallow Whole ability, forcing them to regurgitate and keeping it from swallowing anything for a short time.

The final chapter deals with how to run a game with scoundrel PCs. It gives a few idea for how to motivate such characters to an adventure. It also gives general information about fencing stolen goods, smuggling and also gives a list of potential underworld contacts. The bulk of the chapter deals with organizations, however. Most of these were pretty good (The Blind Tower was a downright enjoyable read), and even if they don’t get used as PC organizations, they might make a good basis for adventures.

Complete Scoundrel was a decent book. I doubt I’d pay full price for it, but it was certainly worth the pittance I did end up paying. On the whole, it was fairly average, but not in an overall way. The parts that weren’t any good really weren’t any good, but the parts that were good were very good. I’d recommend it to a DM that is looking for a way to change up his game without changing the basic game system.

Races of Destiny

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Races of Destiny

Author: Various
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 12/2004
ISBN: 0-7869-3653-3
Pages: 192
Rating: 4 out of 10
Retail Price: $29.95

By and large, I’ve somehow managed to keep from having too much contact with the entire ‘Races of’ series. Save for getting a copy of Races of Stone several years ago as a gift, I haven’t even flipped through one of these books until recently. This isn’t because I have anything against the series, it’s just the way things have turned out. I picked up a copy of Races of Destiny recently during an amazon.com firesale. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. From the title, I assumed it was going to be a book about elves or perhaps new races entirely. Instead, it was a book about humans and seemingly-related races. That was a welcome surprise, since humans really don’t get nearly as much attention as many of the other races.

The book opens up with a chapter about humans. Humans are probably the easiest race to play with and visualize because as humans themselves, the players have a better understanding of the human psyche than they would of elves or gnomes. The chapter focuses first and foremost on humanity’s drive to explore and expand. This really gives humans a place in a world filled with magical races, since it makes them the “wildcard” race that none of the other races can truly predict or nail down. The only problem I have with this is that the book tries to both make humans the blazers of new frontiers and the consummate city-dwellers. It was nice to have a detailed city, though.

The second chapter dealt with half-elves and half-orcs. It was only 2/3 as many pages as the chapter on humans and dealt with two races. I have to wonder why the authors seem to think that half-elves and half-orcs aren’t as interesting as humans. Regardless, the way the chapter is written, the two races are practically mirrors of each other. Half-elves are the half-humans that fit in, while half-orcs are the half-humans that don’t. There really isn’t too much else to this chapter, I’m afraid.

Chapter three introduces a new race, the Illumians. Illumians are essentially a race that was created millennia ago when a group of humans figured out the language of creation, which altered them into a new race. Illumians look like humans, save that they have glowing sigils that constantly orbit their heads. This does given them a magical feel, in a World of Warcraft kind of way, but I honestly think the effect could have been accomplished better. The symbols that float over an illumian’s head give him specific benefits (a +1 bonus to Strength, for example), and the combination of two essentially gives him a spell-like ability as well. This lends a lot of weight to the “humans with magic” feel, but aside from this, there’s really no difference between illumians and humans. They’re humans with glowing magical symbols floating around their heads. Frankly... big whoop.

The fourth chapter dealt with many of the other half-human races that have made it into the various monster supplements over the years. Tieflings, mongrelfolk, sharakim, etc& and just for good measure, doppelgangers as well. There is some worthwhile material here for those who like to describe their cities as teeming with all manner of races, many of which seem unrecognizable.

The next chapter contained prestige classes. Thankfully, unlike many supplements from Wizards of the Coast, there were only seven of them. The chameleon prestige class was, simply put, one of the most easily-abused classes I’ve ever run across, able to act in the capacity of any of the core classes at any time. I also wasn’t overly fond of the premise behind the scar enforcer prestige class. It essentially creates a half-elf assassin, whose class abilities pretty much limit it to working against humans and elves.

The sixth chapter was pretty much everything else you commonly find in a WotC book bundled into one chapter; feats, spells, skills, etc. The new uses for old skills section wasn’t bad, but was very short. The chapter included a new type of feat, called the initiate feat. These feats allow a cleric that worships a specific deity to gain access to a few non-cleric spells that have effects related to that deity’s portfolio, such as scare and dominate person for Hexor. Also included were racial substitution levels. This option allows a member of a specific race to interrupt his class progression at specific points to insert levels of what is essentially a small racial prestige class. I’m not overly fond of what I saw here, but I can see how some DMs might make use of this to break up the monotony of a core-only game. There were four new psionic powers. Not many, but kudos to the authors for the effort. Lastly, there were new spells. Nothing seemed over the top, but the main theme among the majority of the spells seems to be that anyone using them is a city-dweller. Most give bonuses to skills or effects while in a city environment, allow instantaneous travel between two cities or even enable the city itself to turn against your opponents. Not overly useful if your game doesn’t take place mostly in a city environment.

The final chapter detailed a city environment. There wasn’t a lot to this that the average person couldn’t come up with on his own. However, this chapter truly shined in a different area. It included sample NPCs from the four races primarily featured in this book that one would likely encounter in a city environment. This includes blacksmiths, merchants, thugs and the like. It’s a veritable treasure trove of ready-made NPCs a DM can pull out of his hat on the fly.

This book was very ‘eh.’ It was fairly mediocre in most respects and made a lot of assumptions about how things work that might not be true of many (or even the majority of) games. The ready-made NPC list near the back of the book did help to offset this a bit, but overall, I’d say this book doesn’t live up to its full cover price.

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