Oct 302015
 

The Reign of Terror

154724

 

#3 of my Top Ten of 2015!

 

The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let’s take a look!

 

But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons – that means you’ll get A LOT of supplemental material herein – spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.

 

Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre – the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound – and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this – also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.

 

All right, so let’s see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don’t spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module – you’d regret it.

..

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All right…only GMs here? Great!

So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I’ll let the module answer:

“Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions […] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock […] and when these tendrils break through to the earth’s crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being.” – and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D’Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident – and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework – and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance “Fleur de Lis” into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it – but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned – after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.

 

The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item – the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur’s former wielder.

 

But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I’ve seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.

 

An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it’s spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb – and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there – you see, the tomb does not hold the lance…or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought…are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn’t even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.

 

It’s when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy – fast. The castle’s vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws – and something I could hug the module for: There’s not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place’s incantations remain…as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.

 

Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case – instead, let’s skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle’s dangers, they will find those odd caverns…and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard – and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast – all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls…and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads…massively.

 

Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf – who also constitutes the boss…but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you’ve handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin…and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper “What have we done?”

 

Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don’t fit your plans, fret not – as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils…

 

As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals – and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order’s vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought…

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons’ printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions – one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography’s quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you’d expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.

 

Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I’ve ever read. That’s a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific – but it’s not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that’s not what this is about, either.

Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism – and such symbolism can be found herein – whether it’s the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like – we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these.

Hence, this module is decidedly smart – it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it – slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading – it’s these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.

 

Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work…and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions – the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of complete alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats – it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings – they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.

 

Horror must grow – and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder – so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn’t have to, mind you – but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules – something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those “bones & blood are creepy”-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests.

This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks – it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less…impactful…but you’d rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.

 

On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I’ve seen A LOT regarding gothic horror – I’ve dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before – the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked…stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible “thwump.” This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games – what more can you ask for?

 

One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I’ll elaborate. And if you don’t care about any part of this, just run it – you’ll understand what I meant once you’ve completed this module…

 

Richard maintains his streak – this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you’re wondering – yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren’t simple adventures – they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won’t find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point…or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term “gothic horror” around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed – this is how it’s done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.

 

You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 302015
 

Ancient Empire of the Troglodytes

151473

The first installment of “Ancient Empires” clocks in at 23 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page advertisement, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 19 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

So, this is a source-book about an ancient empire, and as such, we are introduced to Ssar’targontha – the eponymous empire of troglodytes….only that it kind of isn’t. See, we all know troglodytes as those smelly, degenerate lizardfolk, right? Well, you may not be aware of that fact, but the word actually came into the English language from Middle French, based on Latin – “troglodytae” denoting “cave dwellers,” literally “one who creeps into holes.” It should come as no surprise, then, that this empire is situated in the deepest recesses of the underworld. Bear with me, for a second, for the word took on another meaning, roughly during the 19th century, when its use to denote a person that was considered to be “degenerate” found wide-spread use aside the horrible tenets of social Darwinism – it is, undoubtedly from this context, that the connotation of dilapidation and regression that has influenced the portrayal of the troglodyte race, has been introduced.

 

It should then come as no surprise, that the denizens of this empire have no more in common with general renditions of troglodytes than we do with apes – 7 feet tall, intelligent and advanced, with their own cuneiform script, these beings once performed great rites atop their subterranean ziggurats – but alas, time marches on, and the empire fell to internal squabbles and the war against the elemental planes, incurred by the practice of elemental-sacrifice. Nowadays, only ruins and remnants of the ancient glory remain, and the deity of the empire, Amon-Pyr (with a full, fluff-centric write-up), has largely been forgotten.

 

Lost is the knowledge of the ancient troglodytes’ caste-system (though not so for the GM, who gets proper insight into the subject matter) and several short write-ups of sample ruined cities help visualize the ruins alongside key notes on architecture…and a great b/w-artwork that captures the slightly unsettling glory of such a city -from the canals to the aqueducts, the civilization as depicted here offers a tantalizing glimpse of aeons long gone.

 

However, unlike more rudimentary supplements on such a subject matter, this book frankly goes one step beyond what you’d expect – there are no less than 20 whispers and rumors that double as potential adventure-(or even campaign-) hooks. Better yet, the book also sports some handy advice for the GM to help squeeze the maximum amount of enjoyment out of this book – so yes, this aspect can be considered to be somewhat of a larger, more detailed version of an alternate-dungeon-book… or a dressing-book. No less than 100 entries of dungeon dressing allow for massive customizations of ruins – thematically-fitting and awesome, this aspect of the book is reminiscent of the dressing-series we all know and love. So yes, there is a lot to see and experience in the ruins – if you don’t get killed by the 3 new and awesome traps, detailed in Raging Swan Press’ trademark level of detail – you could e.g. be cut apart by pressurized air (!!!). Yes, this is nasty and awesome!

 

Traps are not the only thing that can kill intrepid explorers, though – the CR 6 tentacled hunter-creature Pyr-tok, the scroll-wrapped CR 9 urshak’xhul troglodyte mummies of the massive CR 11 zworms, all with their own stunning b/w-artworks and unique, inspired signature abilities, constitute some absolutely glorious adversaries. It gets even better – 4 magical items, 4 sample hoards to find and a table of 20 sample trinkets and minor treasures provide sufficient rewards for the brave and/or foolish that explore these ruins.

 

The pdf also sports 5 new spells that let you belch forth writhing masses of tentacles or emulate the stench of troglodytes. 5 solid feats allow for the use of Cleaving Finish with thrown weapons, better defense while fighting defensively, etc. – the feats are okay, but fall greatly behind the rest of the pdf in terms of awesomeness. The book also sports two more extensive class options: The Urshak’entu cleric, whose life steal ability can grant temporary hit points when dealing negative energy (but having no synergy with all those channel energy-effects as a balancing factor) and the new Ssar’targontha-bloodline for sorcerors, which is pretty neat. Finally, there is the CR+1 degenerate creature template.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ two-column b/w-standard with a significant array of unique and awesome original b/w-artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and the pdf comes in two versions – one optimized for screen-use and one to be printed out.

 

This is the first Ancient Empires-book and, let’s get thsi right out of the way – this cements John Bennett’s reputation as an author who gets darker fantasy and horror even further: Were I to describe this book’s flair, it would be a mix of Kenneth Spencer/Mr. Kortes and Nicolas Logue/Richard Pett. Yes, I’m not using these comparisons lightly – this book is awesome in all the right ways: Smart, concise…and it takes essentially the key-components of RSP’s product-lines and combines them into one glorious book. From the rumors to the dressings to the traps and creatures, not one component of this book is anything less than stellar…apart from the player options. Don’t get me wrong – they are not bad. The spells are a bit hit and miss, but both feats and class options left me somewhat less inspired than I anticipated.

 

Now before you judge too soon – at the point when I first read this, I was thinking “OMG, this is so awesome, it needs to feature on my Top Ten-list!” – the content for the GM is that superb. The player options, on the other hand, are solid – they’re not bad in any way and supplement the material well, but compared to the more inspired pieces of crunch out there, they fell slightly flat of the superb quality of the rest of the book, only clocking in at good/very good levels, when the rest of this tome is all about excellence. In the end, though, this only is so apparent because the majority of this book is downright brilliant. While this book thus misses my Top ten-list by a margin, it still constitutes perhaps the most impressive first offering I’ve seen in a product-line for a long time. Any GM looking for a superb toolkit for ancient ruins should get this ASAP – my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.

 

You can get this awesome book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 302015
 

Warrior Prestige Archetypes: Stalwart Defender

150930

This pdf of the Warrior Prestige Archetype-series clocks in at 9 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/introduction (explaining the base concept of the series), 1 page SRD, leaving us with a 6 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

What are Prestige Archetypes? Well, I reviewed the whole first series, so here’s the tl;dr-version: They are prestige classes blended with one (or more) base-class(es) to result in a new, 20-level-class – much like you had modified the base class with an archetype. Get it? Yeah, not a hard concept to grasp, is it? Now personally, I use Prestige Classes with an emphasis on the PRESTIGE-component, archetypes more like a career path, but this differs wildly from how PrCs are handled in most cases. Hence, for all who are dissatisfied with how Prestige Classes work in PFRPG – this series is for you.

 

So, here we go – the stalwart defender: Full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves, 2+Int skills, d12, full proficiencies, DR 1/- scaling up to 7/-, with +1 every 3 levels. Third level nets a dodge bonus that scales up every 3 levels….yeah, these guys are all about the defense, with 2nd and 5th level netting uncanny dodge and its improved variant.

 

Thankfully, we get the class’s signature ability, defensive stance, at first level, with 4+Con-mod rounds per day, +2 per class level. This nets a +2 AC bonus, +4 Str and Con and +2 Will-saves…and before you see the abuse potential – yes, this has an anti-rage-stack caveat – kudos! “But this is better than Rage!!” – -Yup, the numbers are…and they’d better be, for this lacks the component of free mobility.

Starting at 2nd level, the stalwart defender as presented here may choose from a broad array of defensive powers – from rerolling failed Will-saves to better defense versus feints and being bypassed via Acrobatics to halting foes, the power here are valid and diverse, with the more powerful ones sporting a sensible level-cap. And yes, there are some cool, new complementary powers to be found here that are not part of the base PrC – and they make sense – like retaliating when an ally is hit.

 

Mobile Defense is gained at 8th level, whereas the PrC’s Last Word-capstone is moved to 17th level, to make way for the Mighty version of the defensive stance.

 

This pdf also provides FCOs for the core-races and sample NPCs at 1st,5th,10th and 15th level, this time using a dragonblooded as a the base race. The pdf also provides an interesting elixir that enhances defensive qualities, but at the cost of the ability to move…Nice one!

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to Purple Duck Games’ printer-friendly two-column standard and has seen some streamlining – from font use to markers, the layout has been improved, so kudos! The pdf comes fully bookmarked and sans art apart from the cover.

 

Carl Cramér’s Stalwart defender makes sense – at the first glance, the slight power-discrepancy compared to the barbarian may seem upsetting, but the class works out surprisingly well. It also makes the stalwart defender more beautiful from a design-aesthetic point of view – it’s just tighter, more streamlined and feels less like something tacked on, instead providing essentially a cool variant class. The new abilities and item just add icing to the cake. A great installment, vastly superior to the base PrC in aesthetics and execution, this is well worth 5 stars + seal of approval.

 

You can get this nice class here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!

Want the whole subscription? You can get that here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!
Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 292015
 

Dear readers!

 

Due to real life kicking me in the face, the reviews planned for tomorrow are *slightly* delayed and will not hit site tomorrow, as originally planned. All require one more pass and I don’t have the time for that today – I’m aware that I have commented in one form or another that they’d hit site, but I don’t have the time to search for the comments and tell the people who asked individually -sorry!

Fret not, though: I have finished reviews and they’ll hit site tomorrow!

 

The books affected are:

Rite Publishing – 101 Shadow and Darkness Spells

Kort’thalis Publishing – Liberation of the Demon Slayer

Pelgrane Press/Ocean Game – Fear Itself

 

All of these will hit site next week. I’ll be off for now, directing the second set of movies for the refugee-language-acquisition project I’m involved in. Have a great day, everyone!

 

Thanks for your attention!

Oct 292015
 

Thunderscape: The World of Aden Campaign Setting

123976

This massive campaign book clocks in at 227 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 221 pages of content, so let’s take a look, all right?

 

Now, if I utilize my usual level of detail and analyze everything down to the feat-level, we’ll be here next Christmas, so please bear with me while I present this book’s content in slightly broader strokes.

 

After introductory prose and well-drawn maps as well as a general introduction, we begin this book with the section on races, discussing the core-races and their roles within the setting of Aden first – though it should be noted that there are no default gnomes, halflings or half-orcs here – instead, there are A LOT of new races. The Faerkin would be basically the replacement for gnomes – flavorwise, they have ties with the fey, which translates to various alternate racial traits that represent this – Quickling blood increases base speed to 40 ft., for example – generally, I like this race – it’s pretty well-balanced, though the aforementioned racial trait lacks the “ft.” after the 40. Ferrans would be a race that all fans of werewolves and anthropomorphic animals will love – they are an artificially created race, intended for servitude, though by now they have claimed freedom via a massive insurrection – this war did leave its mark on the race, though – the avian and reptilian ferrans are extinct and now, only the mammalian ones remain – which is, balance-wise, probably a good thing. With either claws or bites, movement speed customization. Here’ I’d like to thank the authors – not only have they concisely defined natural attacks, less experienced players also have the rules explained to them – nice one! Btw.: Ferrans come with two complete, alternate racial suites for brutes and sneaks – oh, and the race can select from a list of 3 different bestial abilities to account for the race’s diversity. While the ferrans are a powerful race, it’s not one that suffers from feature bloat or the like – my playtest did show them to be most appropriate from standard to high fantasy and less so in gritty low-fantasy scenarios, but admittedly, they can function in such contexts as well. Well-crafted one. Here would be, btw., as good a place as any to mention that alternate racial traits etc. tend to favor untyped bonuses, not racial bonuses – so if you’re a consistency stickler like yours truly, you might be somewhat annoyed by that. And before you pull out the pitchforks – yes, I am aware that not all published races adhere to this convention either – it just would be nice if they did.

 

The Goreaux would be Aden’s goblin-ish race…and they are extremely smart – with a focus on mechamagic and a focus on brilliant minds, they are an interesting race. That being said, they do gain +4 Int, which is something I am not a fan of, since it makes the race lopsided and ultimately makes them predisposed towards certain pursuits…and such increased bonuses tend to result in higher powered builds. The Jurak, highly adaptable survivalists, would be the stand-in for the half-orc -and once again constitute a great race – diverse, adaptable, interesting. Nice one! Rapacians would be the lizard-folk-ish race of Aden, though they are not primitive. Personally, I’m not a big fan of them getting bonuses to 2 physical attributes, but this is somewhat balanced by them being more straightforward regarding other racial traits – so yes, these guys get a pass from me. Then, there would be the echoes -blank slates of black in humanoid form, they are relatively recent creations…and these creepy-looking individuals may alter self – but only the form of a deceased humanoid, and only if they can secure a component of the humanoid to be integrated into their jewelry/vials/etc. This race is balanced, creepy and all awesome…however, I think the Transient Echo-abilities ought to specify that is Su in the ability-header, not just in the text – and yes, this is the nitpick-level that will not influence my final verdict. The Ilthix Exile, insectoid exiles of their alien insectoid race, get +4 Dex, -4 Cha, making them pretty lopsided. Worse, the race gets unassisted flight at first level, hive sense and non-verbal communication. This is the very picture-book example of a lopsided race and the unassisted flight before 6th level can be quite problematic. That being said, at least the fluff makes these guys suffer for their powerful abilities. This chapter btw. also contains favored class options for the new classes herein – there are a lot of them and chapter 2 is devoted to them. The race-chapter also sports age, height and weight-tables, common names, information on languages, etc.

 

So now, we’ll take a look at the new classes – 9 of them. Seeing how one in-depth class analysis usually tends to cover 4+ pages, I’m going to instead focus on a broader strokes picture. The first class would be the Arbiter – at d12 and Full BAB, these guys are the agents of law and order, gaining e.g. class level as bonus to 3 skills, the class can be considered a more martial inquisitor in theme, with the talents granted at 3rd level and every two levels thereafter providing some customization. Theme-wise, arbiters would be tanks – with a focus on using shields, they can attack and AoO even in total defense and increase the power of these tricks. A solid blocker class – no complaints here…apart from the 10th level ability missing from table and write-up. Like all classes herein, we get information on how the class may be played via the example of numerous sample fluffy character backgrounds.

The Entomancer at d8 would be an alternate class of the druid (nicely done – quite a few authors fail in pointing the like out, resulting in multiclass issues…) and are all themed around “insects” – not vermin, mind you, insects – the definition of this term is pretty concise. Player agenda is emphasized by providing multiple insect mastery-groups – these can be pictured as collections of talents: Unlike bloodlines or orders, entomancers are not restricted to one, but may freely choose between them…however, the respective categories have prerequisites within, thus rewarding specialization in a given way. Once again, on the nitpicky side, I can complain about the prereqs e.g. once depicting the required masteries known as “two” and then as “2” – but once again, this is a cosmetic issue and will not influence my final verdict. From cricket to hawk moths, the companion-steeds provided are pretty cool and options for verminous scouts and swarms add quite a bunch of interesting narrative options – espionage in Aden can be pretty compelling. Oh, and yes, this would be horribly broken, but the loss of 3 schools means that the class needs the golems and actually proved to be a valid trade-off.

 

The single most defining event of Aden is 10 years past – the Darkfall. The very sun itself was extinguished for a short period and the whole world saw a sudden genesis of creatures from the very nightmares, the subconscious of the populace, suddenly springing to life. The offspring of this cataclysmic event’s dread unions would be the Corrupted. However, some do not serve – these beings would be the Fallen, people born from the Darkfall, yet striving to resist its call. 2 good saves, d8 and 4+Int skills point towards a skirmisher -and indeed, they are – with an addition: They bear stigma, which they can use to channel debuff effects, so-called torments, which scale, btw., on nearby foes – think of a mechanic somewhat akin to an antipaladin’s cruelties, but at range. Additionally, the fallen can choose a type of stigma, which can be likened to an order or bloodline in that it provides a scaling array of abilities and determines the bonus feats available. I generally like this class and enjoy the fluff immensely, but it does suffer a bit from sharing the same niche as Forest Guardian Press’s excellent direlock, though surprisingly, the two classes gel very well with one another.

 

The manite implants of mechamagic have an unfortunate side-effect -the Wasting. At the same time, extremely modified creatures with a strong sense of dedication and loyalty seem to resist this effect -enter the Golemoids. At d10 and full BAB-progression, Golemoids gain a reserve of steam points with which they can activate their implants and, beyond interchangeable parts and combat specializations, these guys can be pretty much considered to be the robot-class of Aden, with 4 classes of manite implants offering a rather diverse array of options to choose from -e.g. rocket-powered fists. Yes, this class is pretty awesome! The Mechamage alternate wizard-class would be an int-based full caster, with no access to enchantment, illusion and evocation. The interesting component here would be that the class gets a golem minion he can call to himself – or rather, as many as he can afford. You see, while only one such minion can be active at a given time, the mechamage can have multiple ones with different customizations – doll golems, for example. Basic golems are pretty dumb and thus, the commands they understand are carefully noted…oh, and want to do something different? There are writs and they make an otherwise been there, done that pet-class interesting: Essentially, you have pieces of writing, cogs, etc. you prepare (at cost), which you feed to your golem, programming it. And yes, love how this reflects the legend of Rabbi Loew’s golem. New writs are unlocked at 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter for an integrated scaling mechanism.

 

 

The seer, who gets all good saves, 3/4 BAB-progression and d8, looks somewhat like a monk, but also gets Wis-based spellcasting from the class’s own list. These rare beings, gifted with the power of prophecy, rank first among the Darkfall’s hitlist – and as such, these beings are RARE. The class is interesting in that it utilizes its fatebending prowess via a significant array of customizable auras, some of which are powered (or can be enhanced) by a growing pool of second sight tricks. This class ranks among my favorites herein – unique in niche and presentation, the seer can provide narrative gold and remains an awesome addition to other settings and systems as well. The steamwright, at d8 and good will-saves + 3/4 BAB and can be considered a super-science-tinker-class, with the closest analogue probably being Alexander Augunas’ Technician from the awesome “Age of Electrotech“-book. The interesting component here would be the variable pool of firepower-bonus damage that can be added with quite some flexibility to the damage-dealing components of the steamwright’s arsenal. The inventions featured, from various guns/cannons to audiographs that can record what is heard, furthermore come with options to modify them – both invention-specific and general modifications. This class proved to be pretty powerful in playtest, though not to a point where I’d start complaining, especially since it does offer a neat array of awesome narrative options and non-combat utility. The Thaumaturge has a full caster’s chassis and all bad saves and they may draw upon legends – the manifestations of how people are remembered (as opposed to how they were) – these legends are called forth and bound – and they modify BAB, feats, skills, etc., while also granting abilities – this class is essentially a dilettante-like class with a truly unique and compelling fluff. Interesting, btw. – the legends have aspects which provide a passive benefit and one more powerful consume ability, which renders the aspect inert until it’s reactivated. This class is very interesting – it is extremely weak when caught on the wrong foot, but makes for a great class for solo-adventures or small groups that need multiple roles filled. Beyond that, an interesting conglomerate of narrative tricks can render this class in game pretty awesome – what if a legend’s perception changes and a thaumaturge is invested in the legend’s ideal? A good GM can craft some inspiring yarns from this class.
Did you always want to play the badass pilot on a rumbling micro-steamtank or a jetbike? With full BAB, two good saves, minor spellcasting and a customizable signature vehicle, the thunder scout class is THE class for you – with numerous talents and customization options (and spells pertaining the vehicle), we get an awesome class with one annoying oversight – the vehicle’s dimensions and weight are not explicitly stated – while one can take the vehicles later as orientation, I still considered this annoying.

 

All right, next would be the modifications/archetypes/infos on the traditional classes and their roles in Aden – from alchemists gaining golemoid manites to more controlled rages, the options here are solid, if not mind-boggling -essentially, we get means for existing classes to dabble in the new tools provided herein. On the plus-side, the awesome NPC-fluff-write-ups continue herein! Special mention deserve raging monks and the fact that paladins do not need to be good – however, they need to take several vows…and they do not fall. You heard me. Evil paladins can continue to smite evil and do not lose their class features. Personally, I love this. Why? Shades of grey, baby – and it makes the hypocritical erstwhile hero turned fanatic knight a much easier trope to play. Oh, and if you visibly violate your code, you’ll sooner or later be hunted down… Oh, and there are golemoid palas. Samurai get flavorful new order names and an order that takes the smart fox/kitsune as inspiration…and there would be the shark and leviathan orders…

 

The book also sports numerous so-called folk-magic traits – essentially a toolkit that allows you to cast a single 0-level or 1st level spell as an SP, with CL being locked at 1st level – neat idea! As a nice note – traits utilize the often forgotten trait-bonus type. The pdf obviously sports numerous feats for the significant array of new classes herein -from better piloting to more techniques. Beyond these, support for multiclass monk/sorcs that let them use Wis instead of Cha and similar enabler-type-feats are provided alongside feats that extend the powers of a given racial ability. The chapter also details new uses of Knowledge (engineering), Heal and the rules for Craft (Machinery). After all of this, we dive into a concisely-written history of the world of Aden, which thankfully does not manage to get bogged down in the details, though a significant array of intriguing events are touched upon, before notes on languages, cosmology, calendar, wildlife and agriculture and so much more are provided – in spite of the relative brevity of this chapter, it, surprisingly, managed to captivate me. Major and minor religions, organizations (including a handy Pathfinder Lodge-stand-in) provide more than enough potential allegiances to have and share – though you should note that the religion write-ups are not particularly crunchy.

 

After this particular section, we dive into the nit and grit of the history, lands and politics of the massive nations that shaped Aden, noting governmental type, major imports and exports and predominant races – you won’t find a detailed break-down of these components here, nor (thankfully) the rather annoying alignment-based nation-stereotyping. At the same time, military and similar crucial components are touched upon – and the respective nations sport their own full-color flags, which is a more than nice touch.

 

Now something I touched upon before becomes much more important in Aden: Magic works differently: Divine casters are not restricted in domain choice by their deities – instead, they may freely choose domains; their belief shapes the power they command and the absence of gods in the traditional sense opens, obviously, the way for numerous heresies and ambiguous options – which is kind of awesome. At the same time, I consider free domain-choice highly problematic – there is a reason domains are grouped for deities – some are simply better than others and being able to cherry-pick domains is not something I’d advise a GM to let her players do. The chapter also, obviously, contains a significant array of new spells – as mentioned before, these interact (often) in unique and interesting ways with the mechanics introduced in this book and several new, unique spells that e.g. deal with constructs, piloting, etc. Some spells also feature an interesting mechanic that makes repeat casts more likely to succeed. Clothing yourself into your swarm of insects would be one intriguing option, to give you an example.

 

The most intriguing chapter of this book, at least to me, though, would be the one on technology: From the basic concept of manites to the steamreaver mecha-weapons used by golemoids. Firearms in Aden operate btw. via different rules than those presented in Ultimate Combat – the crit multiplier is smaller, they do not ignore armor and suffer no failure-chance. An interesting array of weapons is presented here, with several pretty nice artworks – though their style does not live up to some of the most stunning artworks in the book. Siege and vehicle weapons alongside a significant array of the latter, from thunder cycles to steamwagons and dragon gliders can be found in this chapter with full stats. Alchemical items poisons complement this section with some cool ideas, though e.g. alchemical oil lacks the obvious “fire” damage type it should inflict, at least judging from the item’s fluff.

 

Manite-powered items and implants (along the aforementioned threshold that you should not overstep…) and the process of golmization are intriguing – much like Shadowrun’s Cyberzombies, these beings may gain power, but also lose parts of their humanity – and the slow death sentence of the wasting constantly looms, putting these rules once again in the hands of the GM and the story to be crafted. Especially the rules here are great – e.g. alternate options that make the manite threshold unknown to the player and similar gritty options to evoke questions of humanity make this section top-notch in the inspiration-category. The greatly expanded and streamlined section of vehicle combat and customization also renders this component significantly more pronounced (and interesting) than I would have thought -with vehicle maneuvers, speeding thresholds and the like providing a rather exciting array of tactical options. This pdf’s rules to avoid constant (and pretty meaningless) skill-checks for basic operation definitely are appreciated! I consider the rules herein more suited and closer in line to my own take on the concept, so yeah – kudos!

 

The book also sports a bestiary – on the plus-side, the awesome full-color artworks here should definitely be considered awesome and on par with the best out there. On the downside, most statblocks in PFRPG sport a very *DISTINCT* separation from offense, defense, etc. – while this is maintained, its visual cue is less pronounced – the respective headers for the statblock sub-sections are just as small as the rest of the text, which makes reading the statblocks slightly less comfortable than they should be.

 

We end this book with a brief treatise on the Darkfall, some fluff-only renditions of powerful corrupted and a handy index that facilitates utilizing this book.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-level – while I noticed quite a few small inconsistencies and minor hiccups, they did tend towards the type that does not (overly) impede the book’s usefulness. Especially considering that this is the first book of Kyoudai games, you can color me intrigued for any further Thunderscape material. Layout adheres to a beautiful, yet still relatively printer-friendly two-column full-color standard. The book sports MANY original, beautiful full-color artworks – though the weapons and races fall a bit behind the otherwise Paizo-level artworks. Yes, this is a beautiful book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience.

 

Don’t start with the campaign setting. It’s an old truism and one that mostly holds true – a campaign setting requires great fluff, great crunch, a big budget and it can go wrong in many, many ways. It requires a plethora of skills and is HARD to pull off. More so even when attempted for an established setting – even if that setting has not so far seen too much exposure.

 

Let’s cut this short, shall we? Due to the unique options of Thunderscape, playtesting this took forever -there are many entwined components that require one another. Surprisingly, the rules-language employed is pretty precise even when tackling rather complex concepts. More surprising than that, though, would be the fact that the new classes, more often than not, offer a pretty unique playing experience. Shawn Carman, Rich Wulf and Christopher Koch have definitely excelled beyond my expectations in this book. Aden, as depicted herein, came more to life for me than it ever managed in the games of old – to the point, where I actually consider this a thoroughly compelling campaign setting I will gladly revisit. Granted, there is some sand in the finer components of the otherwise pretty well-oiled machinery that is this book, but seeing that this *is* a freshman offering, not for the authors, but for the company, and I’ll gladly rate this 4.5 stars…and since I really enjoy the majority of choices herein, since the book offers so much coolness to scavenge and/or use, I will round up and slap my seal of approval on this book.

 

On another note – from now on, you’ll also see Thunderscape-supplement-reviews, provided I can get my hands on them – I’m definitely intrigued to see whether they can live up to the excellent quality established in this book.

 

You can get this high-quality, mechanically-inspired setting here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

Oct 292015
 

Monster Menagerie Seasonal Stars: Pumpkin Stalker

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This special installment of the monster menagerie-series clocks in at 11 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page SRD, 1 page editorial, leaving us with 8 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

If the cover and sub-title “seasonal stars” wasn’t ample clue for you: This special installment of the series is all about Halloween-themed pumpkin-ish creatures – blends of nature’s power and seething anger. The creation of such creatures happens via the template sported herein, increasing CR, depending on base creatures size, between +1 and +3. Becoming a surprisingly nimble and resilient creature that is partially plant, the pumpkin stalker receives a pretty nifty array of supplemental defensive qualities that help the creature maintain its threat. The template also nets a fascination-inducing gaze as well as an overwhelming, cowering-inducing touch…oh, and depending on the creature’s HD, it also gets access to up to 7 fixed hexes, one of which is unique – cursed wounds, fitting with the horror theme, renders wounds caused to a target pretty hard to heal.

 

This being obviously a kind-of-creepy adversary intended as BBEG (or as the mastermind’s enforcer), the template also nets the creature rejuvenation and goes above and beyond what’s required by providing six pretty diverse and unique means of permanent destruction, all of which could easily power a module of their own.

 

Beyond the basic template, sample stalkers based on assassin vines (CR 4), a wyvern (CR 8) and a mohrg (CR 11) are provided for your convenience.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard that makes the pdf look like it’s taken directly from an ancient, open tome – neat! The pdf has no bookmarks, but doesn’t explicitly require them at this length. Artwork, apart from the full-color cover-art (which is replicated inside), is b/w and thematically fits.

 

Owen K.C. Stephens delivers a nice, fun little supplement with some inspiring suggestions. The pumpkin stalker has enough staying power to not be instantly crushed by PCs, features some abilities that both players and PCs will fear and comes with solid mechanics and sample creatures as well as cool hooks for destruction that can kick one’s creativity into high gear. It’s a brief pdf, but it’s a fun one and one that does not leave much for me to complain about – perhaps apart from the fact that I would have loved the template to be even more modular, but that may just be me. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars.

 

Oh, one more thing: If you’re a bastard, you can use this pdf to increase the terror of AAW Games’ “A Frightful Time“-Halloween adventure. While that one was written for younger audiences, it’s a perfect thematic fit and I’ve run it in “creepy mode” – it works pretty well, probably even better with this pdf added!

 

You can get this cool, nasty critter here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

Oct 292015
 

Gossamer Worlds: Poseidon’s Rapture (DICELESS)

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This installment of the evocative Gossamer Worlds-series clocks in at 17 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 13 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

Poseidon’s Rapture was a bountiful world like many others – with ages good and bad…and then, Poseidon left…or died…or was abducted. The world’s god was gone, and soon after he had abandoned the place, the deluge began – or rather, the lack thereof. Mysteriously, the water did start to rise, swallowing most of the land of this world, forcing civilization beneath the waves – into remnants of former places, ships…

 

Poseidon’s Rapture is literally land-under. Above and below the seas, robbers, pirates and the like roam the waves and a sense of decrepitude suffuses the world – somewhere between high civilization, age of sail and water world in a world of technology adrift and houses feuding over the remnants of erstwhile civilizations.

 

Beneath the waves, the Cerulean Choir (with full abilities), the abandoned angels of Poseidon, still roam the waters and leviathans glide through the depths – and in the light-less darkness, creatures from the deep roam, once again, with full qualities listed.

 

From the cities of New Atlantis to the tropic Razor Falls, lavishly rendered and fascinating places to visit, await -and perhaps, you can even take control of the legendary boat Pequod (again, with stats)… As always, this installment ends with a summary of the world’s properties and advice on how to use it.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to Rite Publishing’s beautiful 2-column full-color standard for LoGaS and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Artwork consists of glorious full-color pieces that are absolutely gorgeous to behold.

 

Matt Banach’s Poseidon’s Rapture does fall a bit short of the previous installment on Poetica Mundi – but then again, I expected that. The concept of a water-world is interesting, with the details and depicted houses and their politics providing an intriguing blend. At the same time, i couldn’t help but feel as though this could have gone one step further – unlike many other Gossamer Worlds, this one didn’t jumpstart my imagination to the usual extent – perhaps due to resources or the like not being that pronounced. Perhaps it’s that I would have loved this to go more full-blown bonkers. Then again, this reflects only my personal preferences – perhaps, for you, this does the job. My final verdict, then, will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4.

 

You can get this nice gossamer world here on OBS!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 282015
 

The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

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BEST Non-PFRPG Supplement of 2015!

 

The Esoterrorists clocks in at 161 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving 155 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

I received a print copy of this book for the purpose of providing a critical and unbiased review. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to this fact.

 

The Esoterrorists is the game that originally introduced the GUMSHOE-engine, which has since then been used in quite an intriguing array of systems that provide some overlap and options to combine them.

 

The system you’re probably most likely to know the engine from would be “Trail of Cthulhu,” Pelgrane Press’ investigative Cthulhu-horror game – and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system’s engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects…well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game defined by a focus on the story and roleplaying investigations, as opposed to tactical encounters.

 

Esoterrorist’s 2nd edition can be pretty much considered to be the most easy to learn of the GUMSHOE games – the book can be considered to be the basic-version of the rules, without the more complex additions of other variants. From a didactic point of view, this book does a great job explaining the system – to the point where I tried handing it to someone not familiar at all with GUMSHOE. The lady cooked up a character and understood the system almost immediately. So yes, the presentation here is de facto better regarding its user-friendliness than in comparable GUMSHOE-games.

 

The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term “ability” here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Document Analysis, Flirting – you get the idea. Now here’s the cincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You’re one of the best in the field – auto-success.

I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource – you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the GM has a different task, as do authors – the structure must, by virtue of the game’s design, provide multiple ways towards the end. Expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations: You can’t provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)

The abilities not related to the field of investigation directly would be general abilities: These follow different rules and contain melee (via scuffling), health, stability, etc. – here, failure is a distinct possibility. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest.

 

So that would be the basic system – it is simple, elegant and, as you may note, bereft of e.g. complications like the cherries provided in Night’s Black Agents. While this makes the rules-frame of Esoterrorists less intriguing than that of comparable GUMSHOE-titles, it does provide a crucial advantage – adaptability: Basically, you can graft all specific GUMSHOE-rules you want into esoterrorists: From Night’s Black Agent’s thriller combat to Fear Itself’s (review coming!) psychic rules or any combination thereof, esoterrorists ultimately represents the most effortlessly customizable of the GUMSHOE-games: Whether you’re looking for pulpy action or face to the grindstone horror, the system can be customized for just about anything. Oh, and since it is set in our contemporary times, Trail of Cthulhu + Esoterrorists = Cthulhu Now…or Delta Green -as just some examples.

 

But this is not simply a rule-book – it is also a campaign setting. I do not own the Fact Book (which is a player-handbook, or so I believe), but all you actually need is in here. The basic premise is pretty simple: The investigators work for the OV, the Ordo Veritatis. This organization is an ancient secret-service-type of order that seeks to protect the unwitting mortals from the dread creatures that seek to invade our world from the Outer Dark. No, the OV is not going to inevitably betray the investigators. They’re actually the good guys… Yeah, I know – crazy, right? I’m pretty much as stunned by this as you are! It is pretty interesting to note that the book actually contains specific information on how investigations are handled – for the players!

 

Procedural protocols, if you will, with different levels of staffer-experience for the analysis backdrop of the OV, add a significant level of awesomeness to the campaign setting as presented and provide further options for tight, fun roleplaying – you want your capable support-guys back at home to live, right? After all, if Jefferson hadn’t known about this obscure bullet coated in virgin’s blood and mandragora, you’d all be dead by now… Oh, and there’s this other thing you should know: Veil-outs are crucial…for a reason.

 

You see, the basic premise of esoterrorists is that there’s a struggle going: Basically belief and perception shape our world and what we have achieved with our enlightened society means that the laws of physics are strengthened. If belief in them fades, the veil gets thinner. Horror, breakdowns of how the world works etc. means that the membrane that shelter us from a world of horrors thins. Esoterrorists, the enemies of the OV, seek to let more entities into our world and spread terror and fear simply because the breakdown thins the membrane between our structured world and one of infinite possibilities, of innumerous nightmares – and from power to megalomania, there’s a lot to be gained here. The intriguing component from an academic point of view here would be the fact that this echoes perfectly the idiosyncratic perceptions of reality we all are subject to, the psychology of our weltanschauung. Where in Cthulhu, the default assumption is that ignorance constitutes bliss, here, it is an ideology that keeps us alive. And yes, this means that you actually can blend both in intriguing ways. It also is absolutely tailor-made to evoke themes like that of the Silent hill-franchise, where doom and dread and a world most twisted lurks beneath the surface – when the veils thin and there’s a breach, things start to become odd, horrific…dangerous. Thus, more so than anything else, deniability, the cloaking of what’s truly going on, is justified as a thoroughly noble cause. This simple set-up lends a level of believability and concise motivation to the default campaign setting that is absent in most similar games. It also provides a superb justification for the procedural protocols of dealing with the creatures from the outer dark. The OV’s ethics and code of conduct are impeccable and allow you to actually play the good guys – which is something relatively rarely supported by such games.

 

Another analogue, beyond the Silent Hill-one, would obviously be Hellraiser – and indeed, the creatures from the outer dark sport, at least in part, overlaps with these beings. However, what truly sets them apart would be that they get what horror is all about. The esoterorists sport, in some way, relatable motivations – while twisted and insane, there are some sample cells that resonate with the deepest, darkest parts of our psyche: From violent bikers beaten into submission by an entity of twisted bones and jagged thorns to collectible-card-game-players conjuring twisted images from the cards to those looking for deviant sexual experiences with beings from the outer dark, the cells (and sample adventure-hooks provided) are nasty and diverse. What about a club of serial killers who meet once a year to engage in a particular vile tradition? Or a nasty international financial conspiracy? From the personal to the geopolitical level, there are a lot of intriguing hooks here.

 

But they fall short of the creatures introduced in this book. The beings here are truly horrific in that they play with human fears, are both iconic and innovative and still sport a level of personal connection that is downright genius. Know how in Silent Hill, the monsters are visualizations of anxieties, guilt-complexes and traumas? Well, this one kind of goes one step further. There would be the Discarnate, for example – a shapeless, incorporeal entity, a ghost in the machine in the vilest sense of the word. Not only is the dread potential of these creatures vast, their means of creation (and stopping them) is downright disturbing: To create a discarnate, a cell of cults has to build a tomb r tunnel, then ritualistically slash their wrists and collapse the tunnel upon themselves – the entity then takes some components of the personalities and minds of the targets and begins its assault. How do you stop it? My dear readers, I’m not going to spoil that!

 

What about the Nester? Creeping towards sleeping victims (preferably obese or pregnant people), these creatures jab their hooks into the target, scoop out the abdomen and crawl inside, sealing the belly behind them. Yes, that’s not only nasty, that’s friggin’ nightmare fuel! Or what about a creature that essentially is an outer dark variant of an STD, urging its victim to infect even more targets? Yes, these creatures are disturbing, and delightfully so. However, this fact is further emphasized by the glorious b/w-artworks provided for them – or what about The Host, outer dark entities that thrive on religious mania, subjugating believers and feasting on others? Words clearly fail me here, for however hard I try, I fail to properly evoke how exceedingly well-written these creatures are. But perhaps one example of artwork from within the book helps me make my point:

Host-4small

The prose is even creepier than that. And yes, there is a creature-book on these beings, but alas, I do not own that one.

 

But let’s get back to the task of the GM here, shall we? Basically, the book’s user-friendly nature extends to the task of the GM: Advice on clue-structures and the like help create structures that make the respective scenarios easy to run. Char-sheets are provided alongside an extremely handy investigator matrix that helps the GM keep up to date with agent resources and skills. There is also a handy ability-check-list ( so you don’t accidentally construct your scenario to include an ability the PCs don’t have), a handy scenario-worksheet, adversary-sheets and a sheet to track an esoterrorist cell and even extremely detailed station duty worksheets – 3 of them!! A massive 3-page index also makes using the book very easy on the GM.

 

I mentioned station duty, didn’t I? Well, while the default assumption is one of supernatural agent-gameplay from case to case akin to Millennium or X-Files, the other default game-style is that of station duty: Essentially, there are some places where the membrane threatens to thin – agents of the OV are then sent to the area for long-term operations. In this case, we get a COMPLETE TOWN. No, I’m not exaggerating – there is a massive, completely detailed small town provided here: With copious amounts of NPCs to interact with and hundreds of possibilities: Almost each character has several optional story-threads you can or cannot follow, threads which may turn into pure horror. It’s hard to properly depict the level of excruciating detail, from establishing cover identities to the disturbing concepts provided here. Let me just say that this section is the closest to a proper Twin Peaks/Silent Hill-simulator I’ve ever seen. In case you didn’t know – these two franchises constitute some of my favorite pieces of media…ever. Add to that a significant array of delightfully twisted hand-outs from which clues can be extracted and we have a section that may justify getting the book all on its own – it’s basically a whole sandbox-campaign, all ready for you and your players.

 

Speaking of Sandbox…

Eso2_Playground - Kopie-1

 

The book also sports a short sample scenario with Prophet Operation Bungo, which, contrary to the tradition of sample scenarios in core/campaign-setting-books, actually is fun, delightful and more detailed than I would have expected.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an extremely slick, stylish and atmospheric 2-column-b/w-standard and the pdf provides several downright legendary b/w-artworks. The pdf comes with an EPUB and a MOBI-version and a printer-friendly one…but quite frankly, I’d strongly advise you to get the print. The paper is thick and glossy, high-quality and if you’re anything like me, this will be used A LOT.

 

I’m a cthulhu-fanboy and thus, it should come as no surprise that I got Trail of Cthulhu back in the day. My friend Paco got my Night’s Black Agents, which is a glorious game. I never got Esoterrorists and wouldn’t have bought it – the title and concept didn’t particularly appeal to me, so why bother?

 

My gut-feeling and instinct was never this wrong in my whole reviewer’s-career.

This is the best horror-book I’ve read in years, regardless of setting.

Let me elaborate: After more than 15 years of obsession with vampires and the cthulhu-mythos, both themes have become kind of predictable to me. I *love* both, but at one point, games focusing exclusively on either ultimately become the doom of horror – predictable. We fear what we do not understand. As soon as we get our oomphteenth Mi-Go or Yithian, their horror is lost, they become predictable foes. Similarly, vampires can, in the long run, lose their fascination. This is, ultimately, what made me turn my back on the GUMSHOE-system for a while and the primary reason I did not start reviewing books of the system sooner – I was burned out on the subject matter and so were my players.

 

Esoterrorists changed that.

 

You could argue that I’ve never played a vanilla esoterrorists-game. You’d be right. What I did when this book hit my shelves, was something different: I dusted off Night’s Black Agents and added the whole concept of the membrane to the game, introduced entities from the other dark and recruited the agents into the OV, which, of course, was among the organizations the vampires sought to infiltrate. I added creatures of the outer dark and the station duty town to my trail of cthulhu games. And suddenly, they were new – disturbing, fresh and diverse. Beyond resonating with iconic themes and a fresh perspective, this book is not only innovative – it GETS HORROR. No, really. This understands horror to a point that bespeaks not only the vast talent of Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as writers, it also constitutes an eureka-effect I haven’t had in ages – this humble, little book has inspired me to an extent I have not experienced since I first stumbled over Ravenloft and Planescape back in the day. It is incredibly frustrating to me that I cannot properly put the genius of this book into words, cannot convey the level of impact this book’s ideas have had on my games.

 

Don’t get me wrong – Night’s Black Agents is quite frankly the better game regarding pure mechanics – it’s more complex, more diverse and the thriller combat and chase rules are exceedingly smart. But, at least to me, Esoterrorists is a book that’s infinitely more compelling because its prose, the concepts provided, are just so incredibly compelling, because they feature the experience of jamais-vu and because the horror presented here actually really strikes home: This is not blood and guts, this is psychologically disturbing in the way that only great horror is – where the true ramifications are slowly build up. This is the antithesis of the jump-scare-movie – this is smart horror that sticks with you.

 

This is not only a game – Esoterrorists is basically, a gigantic, awesome template that can be applied to just about any horror game you can conceive. It works in a plethora of contexts because its theme resonate with our very basic, human psychology.

 

It is my firm conviction that this book belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM looking for inspiration regarding horror-settings and how to create compelling set-ups. If you’re playing ANY GUMSHOE-game, this book can be considered a vast amplifier: The concepts within this book are so incredibly compelling and fun, they managed to re-ignite my spark for cthulhu-related material by virtue of the means by which you can use the content herein to enhance the world of the mythos.

 

I haven’t been this excited by a book, any book, in a long, long time – even only as an idea-scavenging-ground, this book is superb by any definition of the word. And know what? While my Top ten-list of the year usually is restricted to Pathfinder-supplements, I will grant this one status as a candidate – its contents and ideas are simply too compelling and can be a vast inspiration in ANY context you can conceive. I firmly believe that simply reading this book makes you a better horror-GM, even if you ignore the rules and setting. You won’t be surprised, then, that I’ll add my EZG Essentials-tag to a book that scores 5 stars + seal of approval, a book that blew my mind.

 

If horror interests you even in the slightest, if you even tangentially like smart, psychological horror, if you even remotely enjoy Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, X-Files, Millennium and if you really want some fresh wind in your respective horror of preference, then this book should go right to the top of your to-buy list. It’s that good.

 

You can get this superb book here on OBS!

A Free preview can be found here!

Want a free supplemental recruitment book for OV-agents? You can get that here on OBS!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 282015
 

101 Subterranean Spells

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The third book of Dave Paul’s terrain-centric spell-supplements clocks in at a massive 49 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page advertisement, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 45 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

Okay, so subterranean spells, hmm? The theme itself is something near and dear to my heart – I still consider the lack of support for spells interacting with/requiring faerzress in the Forgotten Realms a criminally-negligent oversight, so let’s take a look at what type of spells we can find within these pages!

 

After the obligatory spell-list by class, we dive right into the new array of spells Dave Paul has crafted -and begin with a theme of aberrant magicks – and they do sport some rather nasty tricks: What about a 2nd level spell that grants you all-around vision via red-eyed tentacles growing from your neck and shoulders, ones that also show you the current emotional state of creatures of your subtype, albeit only within 5 ft.? Yes, this is pretty cool…and powerful. Indeed, it may be too powerful. Granted, the spell’s visuals render it less than subtle – but in the confines of the underdark and its weird creatures, it is powerful. The issue here would be that the spell allows for the detection of shapechangers and the like – you can’t detect the emotions of targets of other types, nor can you share thoughts with creatures you touch via this spell. This would be less of an issue, were the spell not transmutation, the emotion-detector a supernatural ability. There is next to no option to bypass/fool this one. No exchange, reliable detect. Worse, the spell can be expended via a touch attack that save-or-suck renders the recipient unconscious for 1d4+1 rounds. UNCONSCIOUS. Remember, this is a 2nd level spell. For me, this is one step too far.

 

On the plus-side, though, the spells also allow for some unique effects: Take the lvl 9 aberrant mind: Beyond the increase of Int/Cha-based skills and checks, this one allows you to act out that power-fantasy from editions long gone, using kind-of-psionic-y, devastating mental assaults. On the even more awesome side would be a kind of ritual: Know that undead thing you just defeated? Well, if you know a certain spell from this book, you can pulverize the skull of the undead and expend A LOT of gold to acquire a spell of up to 6th level usually unavailable to you. While this sounds pretty much like a textbook broken spell, the narrative ramifications are intriguing and the spell, at lvl 7, costly and limited enough to imho work pretty well.

 

We all know it – the trope of the ageless, ancient man who has sustained his life beyond the limitations of a usual life-span. Well, for only 3 skum tears, casters capable of 8th level sorcery may now prolong their life via ageless…to an extent, for the fragility such magic entails in the tropes is represented by negative levels, which you can’t cheat out of – you may delay the reaper, but you can’t cheat him. Variant summoning of ascomoids, an ability that lets you detect the blood of the living. Speaking of the living – there are rather intriguing spells herein that vary in their effects depending on the target: Casting burning bones on a living creature, for example, nets the target significant pain. Undead or constructs made of bones instead take damage and the spell can also be used to damage unattended bones. I particularly enjoyed options to cripple burrow speed (or breathing while burrowing), providing fixes to petty glaring logic holes that burrow speed to me always represented.

 

Adaptation to the hostile underground terrain is also a theme of this book – including thematically fitting components that prevent the undue spamming of such magics. Perhaps you’d rather assume the form of a cave troll or call a svartalfar assassin to take down your foes in a variant of planar ally? Jup, thematically, pretty cool, though the latter feels a bit like filler to me.

 

The same can thankfully not be said about the curse of claustrophobia or the collapsing tunnel trap… I am very weary of Crypt Sight, a cantrip-version of detect undead, which may not showcase auras, but it does render undead ambushes pretty hard – that spell is not gonna see use in my campaign. That being said, the spells also feature some mechanically innovative aspects – like doubled range when cast in the correct surroundings or the requirement of targeting commanded undead when cast as an arcane spell -it’s small nods and tricks like this that add significantly to the flair of the respective spells provided. The highly complex and well-crafted walls of crystal should be considered a star herein.

 

Balancing options via components are some of my favorites and an upgraded form of mnemonic enhancer could be considered an excellent example why this is great: The power the spell offers is significant, but it does so at the cost of a scroll and a rare component, allowing for sufficient GM-control, even in the case the spell falls into the hands of the players. There also are some intriguing double-edged swords herein – take Derro’s Madness. The spell is a curse that cripples your Wis and enhances your Cha – significantly. To the point, actually, where it may seem more like a buff than a curse. However, it also afflicts the target with a con-damage-causing weakness to sunlight and makes the target incessantly obsess over other creatures not being affected by sunlight thusly. From a mechanics point of view, the significant cha-boost demands to be cheesed by cha-based characters. However, the obsession and weakness are roleplaying potential galore…and should make PCs think thrice before casting this curse on an ally – especially considering the derro’s predilection for rather…unpleasant experimentation…

 

What about a variant of invisibility right between it and its improved brethren, which allows for tactical readied actions versus the adversary before he vanishes again? Indeed – this one is one of those “why has no one done this before???”-moments. Want to really piss off that vain dark elf? What about an otyugh-transformation-curse? Or a truly astounding spell: Ignore Metal. What you get is a highly complex, codified spell that gets a VAST array of corner-cases right. Granted, I would have liked it to explicitly spell out more distinctly the fact that e.g. spears still deal full bludgeoning damage, but the fact that e.g. molten lead, dragons with metal claw-supplements and the like are covered, still render this a spell that feels MAGICAL. Complex, versatile and awesome. And it can lead to hilarious PC-deaths. You’ll see when you read the spell… *cough* fall through the metal fortress…*/cough* Also downright brilliant: Fooling foes with tremorsense by imprinting tremors…absolutely glorious! Less versatile, but also pretty cool – selective silence that allows the dead to speak! Or what about FINALLY a spell-representation of the near-death-experience that is featured in so many initiation-rites of death-cults? Need some guarding spells versus those upper-worlders? Well, there is a means to supplement e.g. shriekers or the like via sonic damage. I also really like the low-level spell that allows you to conjure forth moisture from the walls… And yes, there are a lot of undead-related spells.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a neat two-column full-color standard with beautiful full-color artworks and a dark, stone-like border. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

 

I feel like a colossal hypocrite as I’m writing this – why? Because, quite frankly, the above text does not properly sum up how inspiring and awesome the vast majority of the spells herein are. Dave Paul has a huge talent for the creation of thoroughly unique, glorious spells that feature a level of detail and complexity that hearkens back to a sense of realism often lost in current min-maxy circumstances. Via numerous design-choices, balance and versatility offer a diverse selection of unique tricks that dwarf almost every supplement of spells you can name in quality and ambition. You should be aware that my criticism voiced above must be understood in context with Dave Paul’s almost perfect forest and swamp spells, which single-handedly made me look forward to new spells again, which brought the sense of the magical and awesome back to my reception of spells. The two predecessor books are pretty much the pinnacle of what you can expect from any collection of spells.

 

Against these predecessors, this installment feels like it stumbles a bit – stumble, mind you – it doesn’t fall. This book still contains more excellent and mechanically sound, innovative high-caliber spells than 99.9% of spell books you can get for any iteration of d20-based gaming – but, at the same time, it does have a couple of spells that overshoot their power-level by a margin. Unlike the previous two books, there are some spells herein I’d advise against, some that will not find their way to my table.

 

This fact alone made me think for a while, I’d settle on a final verdict in the higher echelons, but not at the top of my rating scale…but then again, the issues are few and far in-between…and (mostly) are based on my own tastes and my admittedly insane expectations of the Dave Paul’s offerings by now. Quite frankly, it would be unfair to this book to only hold it to its direct predecessors, not to the standard of the collective of spell-books out there. And in the general, broad comparison, this still mops the floor with the vast majority of its competitors. Ultimately, any rating below 5 stars would be a disservice to the book – get this. It’s an awesome book and well worth the asking price. It may not be as flawlessly perfect in its balance as the predecessors, but it still transcends the basics of what one can expect and provides utterly unique, complex, options.

 

You can get this collection of inspired, complex spells here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!

 

Endzeitegist out.

 

Oct 282015
 

Monster Menagerie: Lurkers in the Dark

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This installment of the Monster Menagerie-series clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/Toc, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 22 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

Dark Creepers and Stalkers have always been favorites of mine – mysterious, familiar…and yet alien enough to make them creepy in an uncanny valley-esque way. This installment of the Monster Menagerie-series than goes on to expand the variants of these creatures – but, more so than usual, this book could be considered also a kind of ecology – take the sample suggestions for origins of these creatures and customize the dread truth behind the race to suit your own campaign’s needs – nice!

 

What’s even nice, though, would be the fact that the new variants herein go above and beyond in being complex and unique – the death throes signature ability is maintained, while the subtypes get new tricks: The CR 3 dweomerthief, for example, can absorb magic and even steal the magic of items! (With nice differentiation between permanent/non-permanent items…)

 

The Dark Piper, also at CR 3, can not only act as a kind of amplifier for a bard – the creatures can also go full-blown Hamelin on the unsuspecting populace, making them resonate with the tropes of the classic narrative. Dark Reekers, also at this CR, would be slightly less awesome, being essentially the disgusting plague-carrier – solid, but short of the previous critters. In times of great duress, the creatures may bind an owb to a dark stalker, creating a dark regent – a powerful adversary and champion of his diverse and deadly people – and yes, these regents, at CR 8/MR 2 are mythic adversaries with unique tricks. The CR 4 Dark Tatterdemalion sported on the cover, can be considered a cool blend of the dark stalker and the tatterdemalion creature of 3.X days and, with writhing armors of strangling rags, makes for a great spellcaster-killer. Finally, the CR 1/2 darkhounds are solid, canid creatures – not more, but also nothing less.

 

Going beyond the usual, though, we get new items – from bottled reek to a new poison to an elixir that provides temporary adaptation to the light and to a magical net, the items are solid and supplement well their concepts. The pdf also sports a new trap, the CR 4 whiplash-snare.

 

The pdf also offers racial rules for dark folk characters, granting them a full racial write-up. While representing the race as intended, personally, I would only recommend the option for games that do not mind lopsided characters geared strongly towards certain professions: At Dex+4, sneak attack +1d6, poison use and SPs, etc., they are stronger geared towards certain classes and builds than the core-races and the alternate racial traits allow for even further customization. The write-up does sport favored class options for 5 core classes…and counts death throes as a racial weakness…and while I consider the race a bit too lopsided, I do absolutely concur with this assessment – in spite of scaling damage, body destruction remains a significant cost-factor at higher levels. While not suitable for the classic low-fantasy round, in case you do not mind their lopsided focus, you won’t break most games with this race. The pdf also sports two racial archetypes – the piper bard, which represents the Dark piper-tradition, and the tatterdemalion (usable for Barb, Fighter, Rogue and Ranger), gaining full use of the unique rag-based combat style of these dark folk – including, later, climb speed via tentacly rags. On a nitpicky side – I don’t get why this archetype’s abilities are listed in reverse, with the highest level one first. This does not impede the archetype, mind you, but it is an odd glitch.

 

The pdf also sports 4 solid racial feats – 2 for better spell absorption, one that allows grapplers to prevent grappled foes from speaking and a scaling ability to curse foes. Oh, and then the pdf also sports a fully-mapped (yes, with a player-friendly map) dark folk enclave -I just wished it also had a settlement statblock.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good – while not perfect, the pdf presents its content in an understandable and concise manner. Layout adheres to the ancient-tome-style two-column full-color standard Rogue Genius Games has adapted and the book comes fully bookmarked. Jacob Blackmon delivers nice color artworks for the new foes herein. Cartography of the enclave is solid.

 

Author Jeff Lee is a trooper and something of a wildcard – he’s written a diverse array of supplements on all kinds of topics and this, once again, shows that he’s not only prolific, he’s also capable. This ecology sports numerous inspiriting pieces of content – the supplement sports more than one cool, unique ability and most of the builds provided resonate with me. They also fit organically with the dark folk lore and style established so far, rendering the creatures pretty much seamless fits.

 

In fact, this whole pdf’s range can be considered to lie in the upper echelons – while I consider e.g. darkhounds to be bland filler (oh, yet another dark dog-creature…) and while I prefer my races to be more rounded, as a reviewer, I can’t really complain about the latter too loudly. The lopsided racial set-up is not something I’d ever consider good racial design, but the balancing of the race…not that I can complement! Additionally, the lopsided stat/ability-dispersal isn’t really the author’s fault – it’s the way the race is depicted…so, arguably, he’s done a great job here.

 

The supplemental material is nice as well and, particularly in the hands of GMs who want to use the racial rules to supplement dark folk parties and the like, this pdf pretty much can be considered a great, fun buy. Lacking any grievous complaints and enjoying quite a bit of this book, I will settle on a final verdict of 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform.

 

You can get this nice collection of critters here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop!
Endzeitgeist out.