Dark Obelisk I: Berinncorte Dramatis Personae & Bestiary
This massive TOME of a book clocks in at 487 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page mission statement, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page blank, leaving us with 478 pages of material, so let’s take a look!
Well, before we do, let us pause for a second and recap the unique aspects of Infinium Game Studios-releases that we’ve covered so far, all right? In my review of the Player’s Guide and the pregens, I talked briefly about the alternate character progression system via reward stars. (It can be easily ignored in favor of XP, just fyi.) In the pregen-book, I noted the quadded statblocks. Basically, we get 4 iterations of every NPC and creature featured in these tomes, which, in conjunction with quadded challenge blocks generally means that you could run the adventure Berinncorte for higher level groups. I’d strongly advise against that, since not all challenges are quadded and due to the tone of the first half of the module – but more on that in my review of the Berinncorte adventure book.
It should also be noted that this was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review and further moved up due to me receiving a print copy of the book.
So, first of all, what is this? This is basically the crunchy expansion, not *entirely* required, but definitely recommended, for the Berinncorte adventure. Which has redefined “overdelivering” on a KS. 128 pages promised. The end-result is a 1K+ page moloch. If you put adventure and this book back to back, they’re bigger than frickin’ Slumbering Tsar. So yes, there is a LOT of material in this book.
Now this book introduces another innovation for the game, namely FlexTale. FlexTale, alongside catalysts and attitude trackers, represents the means by which this tome tries to simulate a dynamic, vibrant environment and, as far as I’m concerned, these aspects on the GM side of things are resounding successes. Let me digress a bit.
I’m a pretty obsessive GM regarding world building, consistency and lore. My own campaigns have their own private BOARD, where I post updates during downtime, NPC-vignettes (“Meanwhile in…”) for allies and cohorts, summaries and meticulously track creatures and NPCs encountered in a massive compendium. My farmers tend to have names, even if I made them up on the fly or took them from a dressing book – and thereafter, the farmer *will* always be known by that name. He’ll have relatives, etc. I know a couple of GMs who take that approach or at least took it at one point. The downside here is that you have to track all those NPCs…and not even I am obsessive enough to stat all those non-combat relevant folks. This massive tome tries to do exactly that – give a name to pretty much everyone. Seamstress? Named. Butcher? Named. And all have their own agenda, daily lives and the like.
In this vast flood of information, it may seem daunting, borderline impossible to keep track of all those NPCs. The aforementioned aspects, though, help immensely with this and are one of the reasons I consider this companion tome to be pretty non-optional. Let’s take a step back and return to the FlexTable – these tables have multiple columns – sometimes, these columns are based on the attitude to PCs, sometimes on outside circumstances. When escorting an obnoxious, loud drunk through hostile territory, you’ll e.g. roll on the nastier columns for random encounters than when you’re being relatively covert. Makes sense, right? Similarly, NPCs with a good relationship to the PCs are less likely to die off-screen, as the PCs and players have invested in them. This, as a whole, creates a dynamic and slightly random element that sounds capricious at first glance, but actually keeps the playing experience rather interesting for the GM as well.
In case you haven’t deduced that by now: Berinncorte is a massive urban sandbox, so expect no railroading here. In fact, in that way, it’s closest to how I run my main campaign: I have a metric ton of adventures and my players always have the choice to play or ignore a given module, go elsewhere, etc. Similarly, none of the quests in this book *have* to be completed per se.
Now, the true reason I consider this book to be utterly non-optional when running Berinncorte would be the attitude trackers. Think of these as a band of numbers, ranging from 1 – 29. Each NPC herein has his or her own attitude tracker. A value of 1 – 6 denotes a starting attitude of “hostile”, 7 – 12 “unfriendly” etc. – in short: This allows for a surprisingly easy and nuanced depiction of NPC attitudes towards the PCs and provides a more nuanced and rewarding way to reward roleplaying interaction: Engaging in conversation with a grieving person and lifting heir spirits could result in +4 on the attitude tracker; some folks have prejudices and as such, they may react less (or more!) favorable towards certain races or groups that contain certain professions. The system is elegant, easy to grasp and the one I ended up using all the time. I’m a big, big fan of this one.
Now, this tome has two basic chapters, denoted by the color-coded fore-edge: One for the NPCs and one for the creatures. Once again, we have characters using PFU’s Artistry skill in their builds.
All right, let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first.: Much like in the pregens, we have errors in the statblocks – spellcasting DCs, for one. There are hiccups here. Then again, these are NPCs and as such, these are slightly less jarring than in statblocks for PCs. PC and NPC classes are used in the builds.
On the big plus-side, the builds use weapon and armor qualities in the higher level iterations and generally are…better made than the statblocks in the Pregen-book. We even get multi-class characters this time around. While there are a few typos and the like “bullrish”, for example), they show that more care went into them. I may be mistaken, but I have pretty sensitive antennae when it comes to the like and the builds look and feel more like there was personal attention devoted to them to make sure they make at least some sense.
Now, that would, as a whole, still leave the massive NPC-section as a mixed bag, but this is also where the attitude tracker aspect once again comes in: You see, each NPC comes with a MASSIVE (and I mean ~1 page per NPC-massive!) summary of how you can improve attitudes via actions, conversations, etc. Arrested PCs, failed bribes, racial familiarity, certain confrontational aspects, purchases made at vendors – all of that can influence the attitude. (And yes, if that’s too much tracking for your liking, you can always ignore some – though simple marking the current attitude on the respective tracker with a pencil worked well for me.) The big plus here is that this, much like conversations in video games etc., simulates an organic growth of relationships in a rather impressive and organic manner.
“But endy”, you’re saying, “I don’t care about that!” Well, there is another aspect to these NPCs that is a reason I consider this book to be highly recommended for Berinncorte. And that would be the fluff. Each NPC herein comes with a rather long section describing them and their personality; after that, a similarly long one depicting the appearance of the character in question. Combat tactics are also covered and finally, faction-allegiance, if any, is elaborated upon. However, this is not where the obsessive attention to detail stops – in fact, we’ve just started. Beyond these, lists of known spells for spellcasters and the like, we get notes on logistics – when and where the character can usually be found. Further background notes are also part of the deal.
Now, at one point, a calamity will befall Berinncorte – each NPC gets information on how that calamity is experienced, how it affects the character, etc. Oh, and beyond even that, we get read-aloud text for conversations with the respective NPC on likely topics like the strife between two churches, the rule, the profession…etc. These also include skill check notes to determine lies, further information or to engage, for example, in an informed discussion. The amount of detail provided for each NPC allows the GM to easily, on the fly even, bring the respective characters to life, further emphasizing the intention of creating a plausible and dynamic environment for the PCs to explore.
While the basics of these NPCs are included in the adventure book, these detailed notes and attitude modifications add significant value to the experience of running/playing Berinncorte. Beyond a vast array of named NPCs, unnamed ones gain the same treatment – clerical staff, militia, common thieves, hired goons…etc. The militia receives its own attitude tracker, as does clergy staff and the mayor’s guards or common townsfolk, though other unnamed ones don’t get that. While the named NPCs get a handy indexing table, the unnamed PCs and bestiary seems to be missing its index – where it should be, there’s only […] on an otherwise mostly blank page.
The bestiary section once again features the quadded statblocks, but alas, the statblocks suffer from the same issues the others suffered from – we oddly get a line for “class” of a critter, reading e.g. “Undead 10” – which is NOT how creatures are formatted. There is no “undead” class. We have typos (sometimes hilarious ones – like “Neuter” instead of “neutral”) and, once again, while the base statblocks tend to generally be more functional, in the upgrades to higher levels, we have serious, serious glitches – like AC not checking out and the like. The particularly powerful boss monsters get their own sub-chapter, once again missing the index. On the plus-side, the monsters herein often diverge from their standard PFRPG iterations – the lowest CR babau herein, for example, has better initiative, different feats, etc. – so no, this book did not take the easy way out there.
We end this book with a final section that covers animals…and, oddly, base skeletons, which should probably be in the regular bestiary section.
Editing and formatting are at the same time impressively good…and seriously flawed. On a formal level, it is impressive to note how precise this book was crafted; there are significantly fewer formal glitches in this tome than I expected. This does not change, however, that the missing sub-indices and glitches hamper the overall usefulness of the book. It’s an impressive feat for a one-man outfit, sure – but I wished this had a dedicated second set of eyes for the stats. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard for text, with a parchment-like background. Quadded statblocks and attitude trackers are all color-coded, making their use rather intuitive. The pdf comes with a second, backgroundless and thus, more printer-friendly version. The book sports a couple of nice, well-made b/w-artworks for some of the key-NPCs. The hardcover is massive and icons + text on the spine make it easily stand out on the shelf. I’d strongly suggest getting the hardcover over the electronic version. Why? Because the pdf has no bookmarks, which is a SERIOUS comfort detriment when using such a tome. Additionally, the option to scribble on the attitude trackers is surprisingly helpful, so the physical version is definitely the way to go.
J. Evans Payne’s Berinncorte is extremely ambitious. This book and its companion are pretty much inseparable as far as I’m concerned and what we have here is an attempt to reach for the stars, something I wholeheartedly applaud. We have enough boring “kill gobbos, ogre boss at the end”-scenarios. We need books like this. The fact that this, apart from the artwork, is the work of one man, is stunning and truly impressive to me. In fact, all my complaints nonewithstanding, the book is significantly better than I expected it to be, some may say, than it has any right to be.
Reviewing this, alas, is HARD. You see, this book is the companion to the adventure and hard to analyze on its own. If you take away that connection, you’re not doing the book justice. At the same time, even in conjunction with the adventure, it left me torn.
One side of me is gleefully taking stock of all those details, of the lovingly-crafted dressing, of the trackers and the like. At the same time, this book leaves a part of me disgruntled. Why? The justification of this book’s existence lies in two factors: 1) The incredibly detailed attitude tracking system, read-aloud text etc. – the attention to detail for the respective NPCs. 2) The quadded statblocks, providing a wealth of crunch for GMs to pursue, far beyond what the adventure book could offer.
And herein lies the crux: You see, in the adventure book, we get only rudimentary stats. Heck, they don’t even adhere to proper PFRPG-statblock formatting conventions. They make me cringe whenever I look at them. So, if we want the proper stats, we need to get this book. I’d usually say that the quadded statblocks provide a significantly increased value for the GM regarding the sheer material this offers, but, while better than the pregen-book, but therein lies the problem: If they’d be precise, creative and to the point, I’d praise this book to the high heavens. And there are some builds in this tome that certainly show some care. But, as a whole, I also noticed a lot of the higher level statblocks with issues. And we’re not talking about “one skill too much”, but about wrong AC and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect super-duper stats with x templates – we have series for such NPCs out there. But I expect the base functionality to be there and that cannot be claimed for all of them, particularly for those beyond the levels in which you’d usually play the adventure.
This, thus, leaves the quadded statblock concept, amazing as it is (big fan – seriously!), requiring some serious refinement in future offerings. And it generates this disjoint. Because, you know, we want the base stats and the lavish detail for each NPC…but we also get 3 iterations of stats we won’t be using – not even for reskinned characters and critters. This makes quadded statblocks, as presented here, as much a feature as a bug. Personally, I couldn’t help but wish that attitude tracker and awesome, detailed fluff for the NPCs has been included in the adventure book, alongside the proper, low-level stats.
Thing is, I only found myself contemplating this due to the rough edges of the quadded statblock implementation. If this concept worked as intended, it would add a TREMENDOUS amount of value to this book and totally justify the adventure book’s rudimentary stats. But…it kinda does not.
Which eliminates at least a significant part of one of the big arguments for this book. It doesn’t help me much regarding a verdict, though. Why? As flawed as the execution may be, this book still features a ton of material and a lot of detail. I adore the attitude tracker system and the hand-crafted prose for the NPCs, their interactions and information VASTLY enhances the adventure. In fact, you could well pull that out of the context of the adventure entirely. Still, as a stand-alone book, I’d consider this a mixed bag. Whether you find value in this tome depends on two aspects: Do you want the obsessive, amazing detail for the NPCs, the simulationalist, highly nuanced tapestry of NPCs? Or are you in primarily for the crunch? If your group is focused primarily on combat, considers interaction with NPCs boring, then this may not be for you. If, however, you’re looking to run Berinncorte and your players love talking with NPCs, getting immersed in the environments, if they enjoy lavish details and the feeling of having fallen into a world that is as detailed as can be, then the NPC fluff and read-aloud text, the attitude trackers and peculiarities of the folks will make this very much worthwhile.
In short, I can see people really loving this as well as people considering it a waste of time. I could find reasons to smash this down to 2 stars for its flaws, and I could argue in favor of its virtues and arrive at 4 stars and both would be viable; in fact, depending on the priorities I set for myself, on what I look for, I can understand both. If I were to rate this one its own, as separate from the adventure book, I’d probably arrive closer to the former; in conjunction with the adventure book, I’d arrive closer to the latter verdict.
There is a ton of neat content in this book and it *is* intended as the companion to the adventure book, though – which is how I will rate it. As a stand-alone, it does seriously lose some of its appeal, so beware in that regard.
In the end, I can’t rate this as high as some of its aspects deserve, but neither can I bash it as thoroughly for its flaws as a part of me would like to. Because, in the end, in such tough cases, I revert to my own rule zero for reviewing: Did this provide fun and joy for me and my table? Yes, it did. In spite of the pronounced flaws, the wealth of roleplaying information within made this worthwhile for me.
It is also part of the author’s freshman offering, so it does get a bit of a leeway there. Still, I can’t go higher than 3.5 stars for this book, rounded up by the tiniest of margins – because it does significantly enhance its companion adventure and holds within its pages one of the most rewarding aspects of the Berinncorte adventure. It should be noted that this verdict ONLY is viable in conjunction with the adventure.
Those looking for immersion, roleplaying information for the adventure and the like should definitely round up, provided you can stomach the imperfections. If you want precise stats, a pure crunch book, however, look elsewhere – in that discipline, the book would barely make 3 stars.
You can get this massive tome here on OBS!