#1 of my Top Ten of 2015 – Best Product of 2015!
The massive mega-adventure clocks in at 522 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of obituary-slots (this is FGG we’re talking about) and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 514 pages of content, so let’s dive in…
…but wait, before we do, let me reiterate something: This is not simply a massive module, this is a linchpin, a relic finally realized. For as long as I’ve been reading Necromancer Games (and later, Frog God Games-modules), I’ve seen those tantalizing hints, time and again, supplemented by this nasty, trademark “Coming Soon.” Anticipation continued to build up – for years. When FGG was created, published Slumbering Tsar, vastly improved Rappan Athuk and then proceeded to release great book after great book – even saving Razor Coast from oblivion – that’s when I hoped. when the KS hit, I scrounged together all bucks I could, bought two weeks worth of ramen and pledged. And when the KS’ was finished, I sat there – and started honestly dreading the arrival of this book.
Why? Because I have the most insane of expectations for this mega-adventure – years upon years of expectations and improved qualities of previous books – since the days of NG, the world has turned. It is my belief that the average of FGG’s oeuvre, quality-wise, significantly exceeds that of NG – NG was the trailblazer, FGG has, at this point, imho surpassed its predecessor. So has Sword of Air changed with it? Is it up to date, or a relic of NG’s days in design-aesthetic? All of this does not bode well – usually, when I have high expectations, I tend to end up disappointed. So far for my own mindset going into this.
Genre-wise, Sword of Air is a huge sandbox-adventure that deviates from the player-driven Slumbering Tsar in the key-aspect that it indeed has a metaplot beyond exploration – in fact, this mega-adventure, while providing enough sandboxing, does have a significantly more pronounced plot, is, dare I say, brainier, than most modules of this size. It should also be noted that the modules vast array of maps, all in gorgeous full-color, come with player-friendly versions and my dead-tree copy featured a high-quality, gorgeous hex-map of the areas covered herein.
Indeed, the Gulf of Akados-region as depicted herein, with hex upon hex of things, settlements, dungeons is ridiculously detailed and provides more storylines than I can hope to cover in a review – there is so much material here, you will NOT be wanting for simple material to put your PCs through. Indeed, much like the most detailed settings of old, you can just put this book down as a kind of massive world-guide, push your PCs in and there you go -even with this type of gameplay, ignoring the plotline, this probably has enough gaming material to last you at least a year. So yes, you can wide-open sandbox this beast…but you don’t have to.
All right, enough procrastination – this being an adventure-review, from here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
If you’re a player, jump ahead – or Tsathogga AND Orcus may well descend on you and consume your soul!
All right, only GMs left? Great! First of all: This mega-adventure has one of the most surprising primary antagonists you’ll ever see – unless your players are exceedingly paranoid, to the point they even exceed the paranoia of mine, they will NOT see the revelation of the true mastermind coming -and indeed, a lot hangs in the balance here. This book is an epic quest that spans multiple artifacts, with, obviously, the Sword of Air taking a central role. The PCs are drawn into this epic via the feud of two archwizards Kayden and Sorten, who face an issue of mutually-assured destruction – a theme that has an intriguing resonance in the subtext of the module that sets Sword of Air, intentionally or not, apart – and yes, I used the word “epic” in the truly intended context with all the ramifications of this word: Sword of Air puts A LOT at stake, and all in the player’s hands – with a distinct chance that the PCs and players may unwittingly unleash doom upon all of the Lost Lands. The stakes, though it may seem otherwise, are apocalyptic indeed.
While the general notion is that the PCs are recruited by the…let’s say, less than nice wizard Kayden to get him the Shagaspondium, a legendary item and the first trail towards the Sword of Air, this mega-adventure very much has more for you to do than you can ever want – strange ruins dot the landscape. Dragon-families with funny names engage in an ancient family feud. Vampire princesses lie entombed in small dungeons. A lycanthropic gnoll-lord rules over their people in a massive mountain-fortress – all of these come fully mapped and yes, certain forests contain dark secrets at their center – and the domains of the two arch-wizards, with their excessive details, also should be considered intriguing. The production-values have to be mentioned here – this book has A LOT of artwork and cartography – many of which can be considered stunning. The full-color renditions, especially of mechanisms and areas (less so for characters) are absolutely awesome and help immersion immensely. Speaking of which – the level of detail, should you prefer simulationalist approach, includes handy lists of food-consumption and areas containing a lot of NPCs, you’ll enjoy the schedules that depicts when character xyz is here and when not. It should also be noted that the NPC-builds are a tad more creative and versatile than in most FGG-books, with plenty of multiclassing and archetyping.
But, beyond all of this, you should also be aware that, by infiltration or alliance, sooner or later, the PCs will need to actually enter the Plane of Shadow – in this wasteland, titanic shadow giants loom and the exploration of the wasteland is one step above the challenge of the basic range and of what one would expect – within the depths of this desolation, umbral dragons loom, deadly woods are home to life-draining monsters and a mad apprentice has the key to the tomb of Aka Bakar – but curious PCs may just as well try to foil the deadly Night Queen. Or what about traveling the shadow sea? Need something more epic – well, there is a chance that the artifacts of the deadly shadow giant deity Knew Koth is resurrected – his dread stats are provided…
Speaking of Aka Bakar’s tomb- the dungeon is deadly, but you knew that much, right? Fact is, it’s also, much like the basic plotline, a place where brains are just as required as brawns – the numerous, smart puzzles provided within this massive complex provide a great change of pace from the deadly adversaries, unique foes and lethal traps – and yes, there are some traps herein that will TPK foolish groups – much like Rappan Athuk and similarly challenging modules, this is NOT playing around…though, at least in my opinion, the whole complex adheres to an internal consistency beyond what e.g. RA delivers – the complex not only felt thoroughly unique and alive, it simply is awesome and feels organic, logical.
But what to do with the Sword of Air, should the PCs recover it? One thing is clear – this sword in the stone has brought untold suffering and needs to be taken care of – but how to destroy it? Well, this is where the massive book essentially splits its direction – unless you direct things otherwise, of course. Researching the means of destruction, unlike with most artifacts, can yield two options – but that may not be apparent for the PCs. The most rewarding option may be to send them in the direction of method A) and then have them realize that something is amiss. If only, because missing out on even a bit of the Wasteland of Tsen would be a crime in my book. Do you recall my incessant gushing about Slumbering Tsar’s Desolation back in the day? Well, at this point, the Wasteland of Tsen, horribly irradiated and providing tables upon tables of mutations, constitutes perhaps one of my favorite areas ever depicted in a fantasy roleplaying game. Utterly unique and strange, with ample of deadly creatures, this desolate place with its delightfully tentacled squirrel-swarms and unique hazards and creatures hides more than the remnants of a fantastical fallout – essentially, from the temple hidden beneath the dead lake to the massive, ruined city, this gigantic, impressively-detailed exploration takes the former awesome components and one-ups them in imagery and iconic themes – and below do lie the lead mines of Tsen, where maddened clerics of Arden defend the Heart of their dead god – and with it, one of the options to destroy the doom-bringing Sword of Air once and for all.
The other option, of course, involves researching the existence of a legendary beast of Tarrasque-like proportions (and a CR of 27) that happens to be immortal. No, this is not the highest level CR the PCs can stumble into – one endgame-scenario can be summed as literally “The world is doomed.” Now matter how you play this gigantic beast – no matter, how things turn out – getting through this in any way is a feat – a true achievement.
I am waging a gamble: This will surpass Rappan Athuk at one point in its legend. Why? Because its storyline is compelling and because it does engage the brains and all problem-solving skills of a group beyond what most modules dare to do – from opposite-battles to research and schemes within schemes to the ridiculously awesome locations, this book is stunning. And since I can’t really properly convey that – this book contains almost 100 pages of maps. No, I am NOT kidding. Each and every little halfway feasible locale is mapped. This is beyond concise and extensive. And yes, as always, we get copious monsters and magic items and, and , and – but ultimately, everything pales before this module.
And yes, I will remain this opaque here – you should get this and read it yourself. I can’t properly convey this book’s impact.
Editing and formatting are top-notch – for a book of this size to have this level of cohesion is more than just remarkable – it’s a feat in itself. Layout…oh boy – this book is gorgeous full color, glossy paper and sports absolutely stunning, video-game artbook-level beautiful illustrations…a lot of them. Contrasted with this level of realism and beauty are callbacks to old-school artworks, mainly represented in the character-artworks that depict those guys – personally, I didn’t like the comic- style employed in some of them, but that is a matter of taste. I just wished they had adhered to the style depicted in the landscape-shots – why? Because both the book and the artwork conspire to evoke a unique atmosphere. More on that below. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and my hardcover is gorgeously stitch-bound with the level of quality I’ve come to expect from FGG.
All right. When I first began this review, I used an approach similar to that of Quests of Doom – short run-downs of the story-lines, then moving on. This does not work here. There is simply too much potential contained within these pages. In fact, my previous review of this was bloated beyond recognition, at a point where no one would have read it. Why? A line from Antimatter comes to mind “If you look at me from your own century, I must seem like strange archaeology.”
This is, in my opinion, all that is great about old-school gaming. Much like games like Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, this plunges you into a world, where wonder, death and danger lurk at every corner – where strange things abound. Much like Slumbering Tsar, this evokes a sense of an ancient world that has moved on, a massive, storied place that has always existed – where each hill may hide new questions, new answers. Indeed, for the first time since Tsar, I felt reminded of why I truly adored this gritty style – the comparison that comes to mind, is the honorable Judge’s Guild, the Wilderness of High Fantasy.
This is, what frankly only a book of this size could conceivably offer – a simulation. A massive simulation of a huge region that is organic, filled to the brim with awesome adventure, weirdness, Easter-eggs…all without delving into the ridiculous. Yes, you may find a purple demon-cow…but you may also unearth some strange ruins, find truly unique creatures or even test your mettle against a god long-thought dead.
Sword of Air is hard – but not because of it being unfair. Yes, you will need to run and yes, sometimes, the characters will die…but the true accomplishment of this book is that it sports a central narrative for the GM to use to get things on track. Essentially, this could be considered a synthesis of the massive strengths of Slumbering Tsar, coupled with a central plot-line that is more consistent than its brethren. What brethren am I talking about? Well, obviously the classic sagas that revolved around a certain axe that lords of the stout folk used to wield and, more fittingly, perhaps – the Rod of the 7 Parts. Sword of Air mops the floor with them and takes their lunch-money, while beating Rappan Athuk up with its free hand.
This gigantic masterpiece is more evocative than all of those, is challenging and clever – it dares to demand smart and attentive players. It dabbles in the weird and uncommon. It has an utterly unique adversary, sports some of the most iconic locales available in this generation of modules and does all of that while maintaining its focus, its leitmotif and putting literally all choice within the hands of the experienced GM – where, ultimately, that belongs.
Don’t get me wrong – I love APs and their tight stories, but this is something different – this is a way of forging your own story, with options galore to insert whatever modules you’re itching to run. Unlike a regular AP, this is pretty much a world-immersion-experience in a sense one only rarely sees – because it is extremely hard to pull off. In the hands of even only a good writer, cohesion is lost and the settlement of amazons feels out of place, everything dissolves. Well, Bill Webb is anything but “only good” – this Magnum Opus is perhaps the ultimate proof of his vast imaginative potential.
Sword of Air is an absolute masterpiece and even among Bill Webb’s extensive canon of superb modules, it stands out at one step beyond, further enhanced by the FGG crew going the extra mile regarding the sheer number of foes and the increased optimization of builds of foes. Add to that the vast amount of art and cartography and we have, quite frankly, a book for the ages.
There is something very wrong with the world if this does not become a truly legendary book, a milestone – Sword of Air is quite frankly a book that only happens every couple of years, one that is so good, so fun, so unique, I’m running out of superlatives – fast. If a new generation of gamers wants to know why those grognard’s eyes glaze over when the classics are mentioned, when you never really got what is supposed to be great about something like Rappan Athuk – then this book is for you. Because more so than RA, it represents what is best about this type of gaming. It challenges the mind, it inspires, it is unbound and wild and free and epic beyond what a lesser tome could hope to achieve.
In case my gushing diatribes were not ample clue – the only book in the current generation of modules that comes close to this in scope and quality of atmosphere would be Slumbering Tsar – and, personally, I actually like Sword of Air a bit more, if only because it is a tad bit more focused and has the benefit of the narrative being there to guide the PCs back on trek if they get lost in the sandboxing. I firmly believe that this book is a must-own book that belongs into the library of any DM looking for a challenge, looking to understand what a truly free, and yet intelligent and focused sandbox can be.
Sword of Air is a masterpiece, gets 5 stars + seal of approval and is, obviously, a candidate for the number 1-slot of my Top Ten of 2015. This mega-adventure does everything right. Get it and never let go – this will be a classic in the generations to come; to me, it already is one.
I post this review in the last hours of FGG’s latest massive super-book: The Northlands Saga. Take a look here, if you haven’t already!