Druid Enclave: Adventure Book
The massive Druid Enclave Adventure Book clocks in at 838 pages; if you take away the introduction, the explanation of Infinium Game Studios‘ FlexTale and quadded statblocks etc., you instead arrive at around 820 pages, which renders this massive doorstopper of a tome one of the largest books I have ever covered.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Okay, so first things first: The “Druid Enclave Adventure Book” is imho not an adventure book: It’s a massive, tome-sized setting supplement that depicts a city in intricate, obsessive detail; it can be likened o arriving in e.g. a Skyrim town sans quest-indicators and the like, with nigh endless “interaction points.” If you are familiar with Dark Obelisk I: Berinncorte, Druid Enclave is more akin to that book than to Dark Obelisk II. The Mondarian Elective – by design.
The latter tome, which depicts a ginormous mega-dungeon, did hint time and again at this enclave, for this place owns the site of Dark Obelisk’s second part. As such, the best way to picture this tome, is to consider it an optional companion tome, or to use it as a stand-alone city supplement. If used in conjunction with Dark Obelisk II, the Druid Enclave adds stronger hooks to explore, and breaks up the ever-deeper sojourns into the vast subterranean mines and caverns with some political intrigue, faction roleplay, etc.
Factions? Yep, there are a ton of those in this book – the write-ups that also are featured in the player’s guide are included herein as well. Now, I personally expected to see the prestige award mechanics for Pathfinder to be represented here, alongside perhaps some unique mechanics and rewards, items, traits, the like – but alas, no such thing is provided. The factions remain flavor-only, which is a drawback as far as I’m concerned. They do have one addition in comparison to the player’s guide: Each faction gets AT LEAST one quest-outline. These are not fully-realized adventures per se, but instead rather detailed adventure-sketches, with suggested sequences etc. noted; some of these tie in with overarching plots, while others are small sidequests, like convincing a young man who failed the test to become an elite guard, to give up his position and face his failure. Personally, I am not a big fan of the reward star-mechanic used in these books, but that’s a matter of taste; what’s less a matter of taste, is that some of the rules and how they are suggested to be employed contradicts how PFRPG usually handles the like. Convincing someone of something via Diplomacy is usually not an opposed check in PFRPG, for example, much less one contested by another social skill – the DC depends on starting attitude and Charisma modifier. Bluff, on the other hand, is opposed by Sense Motive. This does not wreck the book, but if you’re picky about rules-aesthetics, or if your social skill-focused character has invested heavily in starting attitude adjusting tricks, this may rub them the wrong way and require some refinement. On the plus side, most of the quests do not have this problem, and there are quite a few sketches for brief skill challenge-lite discussions provided, something I certainly appreciated.
Negotiating between treants and druids, uncovering the culprit of fur-forging going on, and more: What if, for example, one of the factions seeks to permanently separate from the enclave, and also demands a stipend? Much to my pleasant surprise, many of these quests provide a) meaningful tasks that require neutral parties such as the PCs, thus making sense to be outsourced to them, and b), also genuinely allow the PCs to shape the face of the Druid Enclave as they adventure. Some of these quests also directly are in opposition to each other – what one quest giver might sell as quenching the seeds of sedition and rebellion, another may portray as a request for very much necessary aid, essentially posing a fantasy-version of a whistleblower-dilemma. The realm-wide operating factions, alas, do not get their own quests, which is a missed chance here, as it’d have been a great way to provide additional, global entry-points to the Dark Obelisk saga. On another note, it’d have been prudent to cut them in favor of organization benefits, prestige awarded progressions, and the like, but that’s just my opinion.
Now, as you know by now, I am a pretty big fan of the context-bands FlexTale uses for rumors and lore to be unearthed, and as such, the 15+ pages section that contains rumors and lore provided in FlexTale tables (can be run as is), as well as random encounters, can be considered to be helpful indeed. It should be noted that this book does use the FlexTale 1.0-book to randomize the contents of every table and crate: If you have a table, you can simply roll on the tables for Martial 1H and Martial Ranged to determine the weapons on top; rummage through a sack, and you roll on the Rations and prepared food-table. Much like in Dark Obelisk II, I strongly suggest using these tables. To cut my long-winded explanation of why this can be so great short: It lets you zoom in to a treasure content, and makes it hard to determine the “proper”, the “relevant” interaction points, and separate them from what would at best be dressing in most supplements. If you want to know more about that, please consult my reviews for FlexTale and Dark Obelisk II.
Each level of the Druid Enclave notes its connection areas and levels in the beginning, and tables to randomly determine NPC presence etc. can also be found. As in the Mondarian Elective, the details are what makes this unique: When you have a thoroughly-mapped, massive city, where every weapon, chair and the like may be seen on the map, you can do things that other books just can’t do. Take a simple guardroom. In most gaming supplements, that’d be a brief one-paragraph summary, perhaps with a similarly brief read-aloud text, right? Well, in Dark Obelisk II, and in this book as well, we instead have a fully-depicted map of the room in detail, with 6 keyed encounter areas IN THIS ROOM ALONE. And yes, they do have read-aloud text – while not every keyed area has the like, A LOT of them do, including e.g. just stacks of crates. That is insane in the best of ways, particularly considering that FlexTale would allow you to “zoom in” even further. It’s hard to convey what this does to the playing experience without actually trying it; I tried to convey it in the Dark Obelisk II-review, but in short: It makes everything feel incredibly persistent and tangible, and it conceals things like secret doors and “adventure-relevant content” in a truly astounding manner. This also extends to gaming-related content, mind you: If there’s a counter, it’ll let you know about the bonus to Stealth that crouching behind it may yield; if you need to pass a checkpoint, the book’s tell you how many checks it’ll take to pass it. On the downside, the production for both PFRPG and 5e means that there are instances where a “Reflex/Dexterity check” are noted…and this is the PFRPG-version. That sort of stuff should not be inside. Moreover, in 5e, that should be a Dexterity SAVING THROW, not a check – those are two different things regarding proficiency, but that as an aside. In short: For every instance, where the book takes the time to tell you that a secret door’s easier to find on one side, including proper modifiers, we also have one of aforementioned snafus.
A massive 369 pages of the tome are devoted to the dramatis personae and common NPCs; the named NPCs come with their own (mostly) b/w-artworks, and structurally, we usually get around 2 pages of flavor information, and 4-5 pages of statblocks, as the NPCs come in Infinium Game Studios’ usual quadded format. The stats make use of Pathfinder Unchained’s variant skills, though these are easy enough to ignore, should you choose to. As always, we get the respective abilities and less common feat-texts required to run these copy-pasted to the end of the respective statblock section, and also as always, don’t expect to see classes featured beyond the more common: If you expected to see vigilantes, shifters, occult classes, etc., you won’t find those here, with the cut-off date seeming to be pre-ACG. As far as statblock integrity is concerned, it’s pretty decent considering the sheer amount, but stats are more than just their math, and it is here that the quadded statblock format continues to fall short.
On one hand, Aquilae has this notion of making characters have higher ability scores to make up for less items, but on the other, it doesn’t fully implement automatic progression for them. It also comes apart at the higher two difficulty tiers at the latest, partially because the gen-based approach is contingent on a flawed metric; challenge, particularly at higher levels, needs to be carefully crafted, and does not follow a linear progression. As an example that perfectly illustrates this issue, let us take a look at the Farmer statblock for the members of the Rake & Sickle faction, which is essentially the peasant’s guild. (Guild membership is denoted quickly in text and with guild icons.) It should be noted that this is the most unfair example I could find in the entire book; the statblocks generally are better than that, but the farmer illustrates my point best, and in the most drastic fashion. That being said, the following should be considered to be the most exacerbated iteration of the issues discussed, and it is not representative of the average statblock quality.
As befitting of such a fellow, the lowest level band statblock makes him a commoner 1/fighter 1, with a low Intelligence, but damn high Constitution. At 18 HP and with a good Fort save, this fellow works well as the “tough farmer who can also wield a weapon.” Let’s move to the final band. Here, the farmer is a commoner 7/fighter 4; his AC has improved a whopping 3 points since the lowest level iteration, to 16, but he now has a +2 returning shortspear and 111 HP, which is certainly respectable. And he’s supposed to be CR 10. Now, the CR-mechanic has always been flawed, but this is a great way to illustrates this. The fellow attacks at +11/+6, and deals a whopping 1d6+4 damage per attack. The feat choice, with Defensive Combat Training and Desperate Battler make sense, but don’t help make this a valid CR 10 build. Feat-choices like Animal Affinity, Athletic, or Endurance fit the farmer-angle – but not that of a CR 10 obstacle. If one takes the stance that the build is supposed to be a hardy farmer, I can’t help but marvel at the fellow having two +2 items in the first place, which RAW would suffice to feed his family for YEARS. And yes, I am aware that I am picky here, but this…it takes me straight out of the world that the excessive details generate. In many ways, the Infinium Game Studios supplements are soothing to my OCD regarding details, the need to flesh out everything…it’s all done for me. Such instances take me back out of it. In many ways, I think that all of these books would be better if they focused on providing statblocks for one or two bands, but making sure that they are valid and make sense in-game.
For fairness’s sake, the book shows that it can deliver good statblocks at higher levels, which it particularly highlights with the named NPCs, where we get proper AC and attack values for multiclass characters, level-appropriate ACs that mean that the NPCs won’t be curbstomped immediately, etc. AC 29, two +5 weapons and proper armor at CR 15? Yep, that should do it. On the downside, e.g. feats like the entire TWF-tree still have not been included in the attack sections, which might require that you do some adjustment on the fly, which is usually hard-coded in the statblock of NPCs. I see the value of quantity regarding the statblocks as a reviewer, but I do believe that the quadded statblocks also result in quite a few drawbacks, which, for me as a person, remain more pronounced that the benefits.
Why am I harping on this for so long? Well, because the supplement otherwise does a rather impressive job regarding the NPCs: As in the player’s guide, we get an overview, appearance & demeanor, but we also learn about the background, combat tactics, faction membership is noted, and habits and logistics are also provided. Speaking of evolution: Know how I loved the nuanced attitude tracker in Berinncorte, for example? Well, the book provides the explanation of that sub-system, and nets general modifications, but each named NPC also features their own personal attitude modifiers. Some do respond favorably to rumors being shared, while others do not. If anything, these personalized modifications are neat, but there are a bit more general ones here than I’d have liked to see. Pretty much every non-criminal NPC does not take kindly to direct action against the enclave, but at least the values by which they take offense differ, so this does get a pass – partially. There are a couple of instances where I wished a more nuanced approach had been taken. There is, for example, a working-class lady who considers herself to be a socialite, but who constantly slips regarding her sociolect. Okay, so how does she respond to being made aware of that? What if a PC does so publicly? How does she respond to offers of being coached properly? This is particularly evident, since the lady’s questline is about a tailor, who modifies her dresses to look more posh – and she wants the PCs as intermediaries. That is a cool Pygmalion-style sidequest, but one that would have worked better with a more nuanced individual attitude tracker.
Nice for GMs who have a hard time improvising dialogue: Each named NPC comes with conversation pieces and answers to likely questions posed. Almost everyone of the named NPCs gets their own questline attached (Gaeryn being a sample exception for a NPC sans questline), though not all of them are exciting: Surviving an attempt by one NPC to assassinate them is an encounter, not exactly a quest that needs to be spelled out for anyone. In many ways, that is the crucial flaw of Druid Enclave – it relies, as far as grand narratives are concerned, too much on pointing to Dark Obelisk II, and doesn’t have as much going on regarding grand narratives of its own. In a way, I believe this to be intended, as the faction set-up, council and council-members with their questlines generate emergent gameplay when you throw the group of players inside. Add to that the plethora of short slice-of-life-style side-quests, and we get an environment that feels alive and generates adventuring almost on its own.
And yet, it does not utilize what it has, ignores its own crucial strength: Its scope. With this amount of detailed maps and NPCs, this has an unprecedented potential for running investigations, complex plotlines, conspiracies. Picture it: A timeline of clandestine meetings and actions, a conspiracy threatening to unravel the place’s social order. Unlike in pretty much all published modules, you can meticulously track the progress of a NPC and the party through the fully-mapped city; you could do fantastic detective/intrigue scenarios, shadowing targets, murder mysteries, fights in the streets and more – the Druid Enclave has a dream come true of a set up, and with its redacted player-friendly maps, vanished NPCs hinting at secret trapdoors – this could handle all of that, and setting it up would be comparatively simple! “NPC A moves from map A, location 1, to map B, location 3. (10 minutes); there, they lock the door behind them, and enter the secret door, closing it behind them…” Druid Enclave has this intricate faction set-up, with the council elders as powerplayers and the whole settlement subject to the unique flavor and situation; the place practically reeks of intrigue, but all that potential remains relegated to the more or less personal space and faction quests, and does not sport “big” questlines beyond the ever-looming Dark Obelisk II. And I don’t get why, for the set-up is probably the best of any Infinium Game Studios books to date.
Editing and formatting are good considering the vast scope of this tome, and the fact that this is a single man’s exceedingly ambitious vision. Layout adheres to Infinium game Studios’ two-column full-color standard, and the supplement provides quite a lot of original b/w-artworks for the NPCs. The full-color cartography of the supplement is excessive in scope and detail, and brims with small touches that make the city feel alive. The gigantic hardcover comes with its name etc. on the spine. The adventure book does not sport player-friendly maps, since these are included in the player’s guide.
J. Evans Payne’s Druid Enclave is a natural evolution of Berinncorte in themes and scope; a ton of small slice of life quests, a ton of NPCs, an organic settlement that feels alive. In many ways, I’d be more impressed by this book if I had read it prior to Dark Obelisk II. Druid Enclave’s central issue, as noted before, is that it doesn’t fully capitalize on its scope and complex faction set-up; it promises intrigue and politicking, a change of pace from the gigantic mega-dungeon in Dark Obelisk II, but this change of pace remains on the micro-level, not the macro-level; on the individual level, all the small tidbits are great as a change of pace, but if you expected, like I honestly did, to get a complex set-up that would potentially interweave plotlines with Dark Obelisk II, and/or that had its own massive faction-based plotline, you won’t find it here. Another thing that could have elevated this further, would have been a means to influence elders and factions based on things done in Dark Obelisk II, perhaps working towards a specific resolution that all at first oppose? That sort of grand storytelling would have also provided a good reason to dive ever deeper into the mega-dungeon, to retreat – it would have added a dynamic to the whole monster.
In many ways, I have a hard time rating this book fairly, because I can’t help but feel a twang of sadness for what this easily could have been with a tighter focus. I’ll still try. Druid Enclave is partially a fulfillment of the experimental promise of Berinncorte; it is an organic city, it does not feel constructed, and it is rife with detail and potential. It literally BRIMS with it. At the same time, it suffers from the same weaknesses as Berinncorte, namely the lack of big things to do, of genuinely complex storylines. The side quest-sketches are nice, but in Druid Enclave, they feel a bit like getting tasty fast food servings made from a vast table of 5-star diner ingredients. In contrast to Dark Obelisk II, we have less of the regular adventuring fare like exploration to pick up that slack, much less the utterly novel slow-burn build-up of atmosphere that made Dark Obelisk II so utterly novel and captivating to me. This is, in short, an improvement over Berinncorte in execution, but has even less big quest-lines going on regarding the macro-level that that tome.
For me as a person, this is a 3-star book. As a reviewer, however, I can see this work much better for other people who are less interested in complex and nuanced storylines than me and my players. As such, my reviewer’s final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded up.
You can get this huge tome here on OBS!
Want over 8000 pages of gaming material, discounted by 70%? There is currently a massive Quarantine bundle that includes Druid Enclave, as well as Dark Obelisk I and II – you can find the mega-bundle here!
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