Blades & Blasters: Bestiary and Rulebook (5e)
This massive book clocks in at 132 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page SRD, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page backer list, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 124 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
It should be noted that the book’s electronic version comes with extra pdfs: A form-fillable character sheet (Nice) and a nice b/w map of the massive region of North Caliana. The book does come with a page of index not included above, and a handy page of items by rarity, a cheat-sheet for which alien species are part of the Federation, and a list of beasts by challenge.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of this book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
So, first things first: This is NOT a campaign setting in the traditional sense. While it can potentially be run as such, the book doesn’t try to cover the bases that we usually associate with campaign settings. Instead, this tome behaves more like an event book or toolkit. What happens when a galaxy-spanning super-civilization with their tech is inserted into a fantasy context? In short, this is a way to science-fantasy-fy your game. Now, you *can* run this as a setting of sorts, but the clear intent of the book is to allow you to use its materials to modify your favorite setting.
The lore, as such, does a smart thing – it makes no assumptions about your game, nor does it provide a monolithic array of dates of facts about the Federation of these aliens. Instead, the book begins with a massive array of different pieces of prose that work together collectively in a well-executed example of mythweaving, which ranges from ancient songs to various vignettes. These sport different styles and work together to create not a prescriptive framework, but a basis from which you can expand. Did I mention that we even get a symbol-based glyph language? If you’re like me and love throwing deciphering puzzles (I once designed an entire fictitious language, including glyphs, as part of the central plot of one of my campaigns…) at your player, this’ll be awesome. It’s small touches like this, the discussion of the Xin’s linguistic culture, that show when a book goes the extra mile. Love it.
This approach focusing on complimentary material, instead of replacements, also is reflected in the way by which the book presents its rules. These rules never feel like they are grafted on, instead employing the aesthetics defined by 5e, and yes, this extends to the formatting, way in which abilities are phrased, etc. – frankly, it was a boon for my sore reviewer’s eyes.
Indeed, from a perspective regarding sequence of presentation and organization, the book does a lot right; at no point during my perusing of the book did I have to skip ahead or back. This also includes the color of the pages – the lore section has a green tint, the rules section a reddish one, and the bestiary a blue tint, which makes flipping open the proper part of the book swift and painless.
But you’re here, at least in part, for the tech, right? So the book does some really clever things: For one, the basis of all tech introduced herein are power cells, which are categorized in 5 different groups, the tech classes. Class 1 power cells are used for light weapons, grenades and the like (with the grenade cells unable to be reused). Class 5, on the other hand, powers frickin’ shuttles, with the others falling in-between. Which power cell powers what type of device is btw. listed in a table right after they are introduced. No confusion here. For the most part, the Xin federation is reliant on stationary chargers, which take some serious time to replenish power cells, depending on their tech class. In 24 hours, one of these chargers generates 5 charges – and a power cell requires as many charges as its tech class – that is elegant. So, e.g., you could recharge a level 3 and a level 2 powercell completely during a 24 hour period. And before you ask: Yes, the book clarifies what can be recharged during short or long rests as well. While portable chargers ostensibly exist, they are super rare. Tech classes, just fyi, also correspond to item rarity classes in another very elegant decision that seamlessly integrates the content. This also places pricing and availability firmly in the hands of the GM, allowing you to use the content in a manner ranging from playing agents of the federation to resistance of a conquered fantasy planet.
Alien items require proficiency with the alien toolkit to repair, with difficulty left up to the GM to decide – a smart choice here. Much to my pleasant surprise, I realized that characters with the proper proficiency actually are capable of salvaging materials and make scavenged technology from them. So yeah, you could play tinkers that slowly build the materials to fight the Federation. A handy table lists prices, required proficiency…and something that made the OCD-guy in me smile from ear to ear: The table actually LISTS what you need to make a scavenged blaster, heavy armor, etc.! It’s easy enough to handwave if you don’t like that sort of simulationalist angle, but personally? LOVE IT!
Okay, so, how do the weapons fare? Well, first of all, the new weapons are classified generally as light (class 1 power cells) and heavy weapons (class 2 power cells). They generally tend to deal more damage (most radiant, though e.g. antimatter weapons cause necrotic damage), and e.g. concussion grenades and some weapons deal psychic damage. Melee weapons, such as essentially stun batons are included, and there even is a chaos launcher, where you roll a d% and consult a table. Did I mention the nitro needler that can be used to help or hinder targets, or the gravity gun? Of course, there also are augmentations, which are interesting in that they are less invasive as in e.g. Shadowrun; these require class 3 power cell proficiency of Self Care, and from bionic arms to aqua breathers, there are a few examples. The text is phrased in a manner that lets you use them as enhancements of existing bodily components instead of replacements. 9 of these are provided, including rules for implantation, which are swift and easy to grasp. Speaking of which – from microscopes to a massive 100-entry table of science-fantasy trinkets, the mundane item array is also covered.
A total of 6 vehicles are included, including flitters, which are basically two seats mounted atop a jet engine. And shuttles. These vehicles use d10 for HD for Small and scavenged Medium vehicles, d12s for Medium and Large ones, and d20s beyond that. And yes, a shuttle will kick your behind. Instead of providing ship-rules, the book elects to treat the shuttle as a cohesive entity, which is an understandable decision, though it also means that the engine does not let you engage in starship combat in a manner that offers things to do for the PCs. In short, the book does not really cover starship combat. This is no bad thing, but I considered it worth mentioning. Armor adheres to the standard proficiency rules and generally does not require power cells. We get the classic bubble shields (YES!) and force shields…and there is another thing I loved seeing: The book actually features POWER ARMOR.
Mechanized armor, or mechs, require class 4 power cells, and two of them are provided. And yes, they are as potent as you’d expect. The rules are very smooth – apart from lightning damage, you are pretty sucure inside the suit, and since the rules are pretty simple and easy to grasp, they practically demand being hacked, so if you wanted to play a Gundam-style campaign in 5e, this is where you’ll want to flex your design muscles. I love these, since the suit can be destroyed, sure, but it can also allow the pilots to alternate between grittier gameplay and using the machines to deal with more dangerous targets than their level would allow for. These suits btw. REQUIRE proficiency with them, which brings me to a really clever aspect of the book, one of the main selling points: The tech comprehension rules.
You see, everyone can theoretically use the tech featured herein – provided they understand it! So no, there is no feat/class/etc.-buy-in required, which is a great decision. Instead, you need to make Intelligence checks to understand items, and e.g. having seen it in action HELPS. The first success yields an understanding how it works, the second lets the PC use that item….but not with proficiency, which does require conscious buy-in on parts of the players. This is yet another seamless continuation of 5e design aesthetics. Love it. 17 feats are provided, and include gaining proficiency with mechanized armors, better scavenging, etc. – and considering the power-levels of the items in question, these buy-ins and benefits are sufficiently pronounced to warrant a feat-expenditure.
So yeah, in case you haven’t noticed: I consider the first 75 or so pages of this book to be a truly resounding success in pretty much every way.
The second part of the book, the 36 pages of bestiary, are ones that *might* leave you slightly more ambivalent, but let me explain. The book introduces the alien creature type, which introduces a sharp dividing line between the humanoids herein, and the ones established in the standard fantasy context. This is easy enough to navigate and make a call on. I have a more pronounced issue. So far, the book has been very much meticulous in its precision. In the bestiary, this precision flounders. Not to the point where the overall functionality of the components would be negatively-impacted, but to the point where discernible errors can be found. A bunch of them.
The very first statblock, the aglothian raider, for example, has both Acrobatics and passive Perception off by 1. – at Dexterity 15, the creature should have +4 Acrobatics, not +3 (+2 proficiency modifier, +2 Dexterity). The brainwashed assassin has a correct Perception value noted, but their passive Perception is, curiously, off by 1. The buewix average damage value is one less than it should be (3.5 x3 +3 = 13, not 12)…and you can find such minor hiccups in quite a lot of the statblocks. This is, alas, not the exception. One of the saving throws off by one here, a skill off there– the majority is intact and correct, but there are consistently hiccups here. And it’s WEIRD. Seriously weird. The Eo demolition trooper is missing their attack values for grenades, and I can continue pointing out such glitches. After the phenomenal, precise, first part of the book, this was a rather unwelcome surprise to me, to be honest.
There is another issue, which is the one instance where the book violates established design tenets of 5e: The bestiary assigns HD according to some principle that eludes my grasp. It’s not governed by species, since two members of the same species use different HD. There is no general rule I could discern regarding the HDs used in the builds featured herein. In case you didn’t know: 5e assigns creature HD based on size, not creature type – all Medium creatures have d8s, all Large ones d10s, etc. That’s the reason why e.g. the archmage default NPC from the Monster Manual has d8 HD, same as assassin, or bandit captain.
Formatting is excellent and impressive throughout. Editing is a bit of a different question: In the first part of the book, it is precise and thoroughly impressive; in the bestiary chapter, the quality of the mechanical integrity takes a dip. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard, and the book sports a lot of full-color artwork, which ranges in quality from cool to solid. Items tend to be depicted in b/w sketch-like, neat artworks. The cartography is b/w and solid. The pdf-version comes with a printer-friendly version (YEAH!) and a form-fillable character sheet. The hardcover, as noted, is easy to use, courtesy of the differently-tinted pages. The pdf-version comes with bookmarks, but only for chapters, so if you need to skip to a table or specific creature, you’ll have to scroll.
This book was, at least according to what I could find, the freshman offering of Seth Tomlinson, with additional material by Zachary Kronisch. The short stories were contributed by Calvin Christopher, Lilwa Dexel, Connor D. Johnson, Carmenn Alexander King Kocznur, Sean Murray, Joshua M. Patton, Leslie Starr O’Hara, Sarah Wagner and David Webb.
And oh boy, for a freshman offering, this is a frickin’ homerun. This is an inspired book that really shows that the authors know and play 5e; they understand the aesthetics, and execute a massive expansion of the core rules that seamlessly slots into the game and allows you the freedom to customize the material in a way befitting your game. The material is precise, elegant, and well-designed. The rules-section of the book, in short, is exemplary and inspired.
I really wished it was a book of its own.
Not because the bestiary is bad, but because it has flaws and is less refined than the rules section, and not by a bit, but by a noticeable part. Where the rules-section is nigh pitch-perfect, the bestiary, while not bad, falls short of this level of precision and awesomeness. Even without the numerous glitches, this section wouldn’t exactly reach the same level of awesomeness as the first part of the book.
Unfortunately, I can’t rate just the rules or just the bestiary. The bestiary makes it impossible for me to rate this 5 stars as a whole, but I still consider this to be an impressive achievement that makes me want more, which makes me super-pumped about what the authors craft next! This is why my final verdict will be 4 stars, and this is one of the rare cases where a book still gets my seal of approval. If you want to have the tools to add science-fantasy to your 5e-game, get this ASAP – this is worth getting for the rules alone!
You can get this impressive science-fantasy toolkit here on OBS!
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