Deep Magic – Rune Magic (5e)
The second installment of Kobold Press’ Deep Magic-series clocks in at 24 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 20 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Rune magic works differently from other magic types in its PFRPG-version – and so it makes sense to use a different system in 5e as well: There is a feat called Rune Knowledge, which nets knowledge of 2 runes of the player’s choice, granting the respective rune bonuses. Additionally, once per day, you can invoke a rune’s rune power, provided you meet the prerequisite, for several runes have several rune powers, with progressively better ones being unlocked later. The feat may be taken additional times, with each additional time granting access to more runes and their powers. As a nitpick, I think rune powers should not be tied to days, but long rest intervals, but that is a mostly cosmetic gripe.
There is a follow-up feat, analogue to PFRPG: Rune Mastery. This feat requires the previous feat and grants you access to one rune mastery effect. As a minor complaint: While rune mastery abilities have prerequisite levels, the feat, unlike its brother, does not mention the requirement of meeting that prerequisite, which is relevant since some rune mastery powers don’t unlock at 8th level, but rather at 13th or as late as 15th level, for example. Again, I think tying them to rest intervals instead of enforcing a hard daily cap would have made sense for rune mastery powers as well.
A rune’s save throw DC is dependent on the rune employed – if it forces a Cha-save, for example, it employs Cha as governing attribute for the save, which follows the default 8 + rune maker’s ability bonus + rune maker’s proficiency bonus. In another cosmetic hiccup that will not influence the final verdict, usually you list the proficiency bonus first. Anyways, the runes are based on the FuÞark and basic meanings are noted.
Yes, meanings. Plural. The runes were not necessarily used as classic letters, but also have a very significant symbolic meaning…which is btw. the reason I almost get an aneurysm whenever someone wears some piece of gaudy jewelry that uses runes as a letter-substitution. Ahem. Anyways, their benefits run a pretty wide array of different benefits – the goal, from a design perspective, is obviously based on establishing breadth, rather than depth: While many runes provide minor bonuses to a certain skill (rune bonuses), the runes are more remarkable for the breadth they provide: Take the very first one, Algiz: It allows you to create elk horn wands, which represent a new magic item that allows the wielder to generate saving throw bonuses for a brief time and enhances dispelling. As a rune power, the user may scratch it on a wall or structure, granting bonuses to saves and effects versus sleep or unconsciousness that last for 8 hours.
Many of these runes are not only balanced by the steep cost of two feats, but also by their cultural context, hard-wired into the very design of the respective runes, with several explicitly stating that they unleash their power only versus foes of the Aesir, who have wrung their control from the well of Mimir. (Insert long-winded and at this time redundant digression about Norse mythology you have by now hear x times from me here…)
This contextualizes them well and makes them feel infused with the culture…and also provides a rationale for their design-philosophy deviating slightly from what you usually receive in 5e. In short: They behave like their own engine, which is something I applaud, considering that, at least as far as my experiences are concerned, it is said sub-engines that make certain class choices more popular than others in 5e. It is also why I am not complaining about colons instead of full stops in the formatting of the rune abilities.
I digress. I should also mention that several runes have multiple rune mastery powers, though only one can be invoked for each rune, with the benefits ranging from local plant growth to communing with the dead, making an item teleport out of a creature’s hand once it dies…there is some serious narrative potential here, as several runes practically beg both players and GMs to embark on a collective narrative experience. Only one rune got a bit lost: Poor Raido does not have a rune mastery power, though its brief water walking and forced march enhancing capabilities make for a nice basic rune. One more thing that will make this pdf instantly more compelling to quite a few of my readers out there, a fact that very much makes this a viable purchase even if you’re not interested in the concept of runes:
This installment of deep magic introduces the snowblindness condition and the 4-stage frostbite/hypothermia-engine, which ties into the amazing exhaustion mechanics of 5e (seriously, I love them!). These alone may be enough to justify getting this book, I kid you not. I am a big fan of environmental/wilderness gaming and 5e’s base engine does a nice job at portraying a rigorous adventuring life in regular climates, but in the more extreme zones, it needed this expansion. Seriously: Massive kudos!
These conditions, btw., do not exist in their own little universe – instead, the runes and new spells make nice use of them and their effects. Speaking of spells: perhaps my favorite blending of runes and spells is that there are rune rituals that follow pretty much the format of rituals, but which can only be learned by the rune associated with them: Whether you wish to call forth the vaettir (whose stats are reprinted from the ToB) to transforming creatures into lycanthropes…the applications are fun. Now *personally*, I do believe that Tyr’s Peace should rather be Forseti’s Peace, considering that Tyr’s area or expertise was primarily judgment/justice in regards to warfare, while the ritual penalizes bloodshed in general, not just among previous combatants…but one could argue for Tyr just as well…so yeah, I’m good with these.
I am NOT good with all of the new and updated spells herein.While not all spells have been streamlined (fire under the tongue is still pitiful for a 1st level spell…which hurts, considering the cool visuals!), the revised version has been improved in that regard. Still, not as cool as the rune section, which is a pity, for concept-wise, quite a few of these are amazing.
Beyond aforementioned wand, we get the nithing pole wondrous item, which promises a curse to the named person that dares approach it. Two thumbs up! Now, I already mentioned the Vaettir, but one of my favorites from Northlands, the tupilak golem at challenge 4 can also be found within this supplement…and its 5e-iteration is surprisingly brutal for its challenge. I mean it. Love this guy…but if you encounter it…run and do your legwork, otherwise you’ll be in for pain!!
Editing and formatting are very good, I did not notice too grievous hiccups. Layout adheres to Kobold Press’ beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf sports several truly gorgeous full-color artworks, some of which are original, while the vaettir, for example, will be familiar to owners of the ToB. The pdf comes with bookmarks, but not to individual runes or spells.
Chris Harris delivers regarding rune magic: I really, really like how he has converted the engine; the magic is suffused by a sense of the primal and fantastic, it breathes mythology and its generally conservative, but narrative-wise relevant bonuses and tricks are a boon and just make for great story-telling. I really like them. I ADORE the hypothermia-engine and snowblindness as well and the critters would similarly receive two thumbs up from me. While I have nitpicked quite a bit in the beginning, if that was all, I’d frankly slap, gladly, my seal on this. I like how this behaves as an engine, I like the wealth of options it provides and how it can be used to run gritty campaigns – I could see myself running a game sans regular magic, with only the runes in a really gritty setting.
The spells, while improved, are still not perfect examples of their craft, though they are theme-wise strong. Hence, my final verdict can “only” clock in at EDIT: 4.5 stars, and I feel I can’t round up for this one, though I still HIGHLY recommend getting this if you plan on playing any adventure in the frigid landscapes of the North.
You can (and should) get this cool pdf here on OBS!