EZG reviews Laying Waste: The Guide to Critical Combat
This massive tome clocks in at 168 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of backer-list, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 160 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
But before we do, full disclosure: After receiving the Beta-version of these rules and thoroughly enjoying them, I was asked to be a stretch-goal for this book and thus have contributed some content to this book. I do not consider my verdict in any way compromised by this, but felt obliged to mention it anyways. The archetypes I contributed are clearly discernible (since the book properly credits its guest authors – which is awesome!), so judge for yourself.
Got that? All right. So the basic question this book poses is one that has haunted me for multiple iterations and roleplaying systems – why are critical hits so boring? Yeah, bonus damage may be nice, but let’s face it – the additional numbers just aren’t that cool. In older systems I essentially scavenged and homebrewed components from e.g. rollmaster, but those brought their own issues. When the critical hit and fumble decks hit shelves, I went for them. They didn’t do the trick for me, being not extensive enough and a tad bit too random for my tastes. Just taking and modifying systems from other rule-sets also proved to be not the best option.
Enter Laying Waste. The base system is ridiculously easy to grasp – all crits deal max base damage. There are no more critical confirmation rolls – these have been replaced by so-called severity checks: These are essentially a d20-roll + the the excess amount the attack beat the target’s AC and also fractures in the critical modifier of the weapon and the size of the weapon. Even bonus damage, different size categories etc. are taken into account. What sounds moderately complex in a review’s text is actually exceedingly simple on paper and thanks to the concise examples given. Now additionally, severity checks then result in no additional effect, a light wound effect, a moderate wound effect or a severe wound effect. Some of these wound effects have saves to mitigate – so yes, while you make chop off nose, puncture eyes or even behead foes, they will have to have failed a save to suffer such debilitating effects. Once you have determined the severity of the wound, you roll a d% to check the effect, with each table offering a massive 50 entries of different wounds that makes 150 for piercing, bludgeoning and slashing EACH. While there are some overlaps of wounds between the respective damage types, these are the exception rather than the rule, resulting in the diversity and uniqueness of the remarkable occasions of criting being significantly increased – it’s no longer: “Remember how I dealt 47 damage to the ogre in one stroke!”, but rather “Remember how it took that ogre’s arm clean off?” Yeah. You probably get why prefer systems like this.
Now in case you haven’t noticed – this results in a significantly increased gritty-factor and a kind of increased realism that gets rid of an, at least for me, unpleasant abstraction in the rules. Now another part of the effect would be the prevalence of bleed-effects – it never made sense to me that bleed doesn’t stack and for the purposes of this system, it does. Means of recovery and the heal skill also are properly implemented – no longer is the latter a waste of skill points, but rather a nice option to help keep your battered allies together. Now this base system can be further modified rather easily via a couple of optional rules that worked well in my tests.
Now, of course one would assume that synergy with e.g. already published feats would become wonky, but since severity replaces the critical confirmation roll, the bonus added can be simply carried over – elegant. Now this book does sport a vast array of new feats to support the system – the table alone covers over 5 pages, just to give you an idea of the scope. If I don’t want to bloat the review worse than Kaer Maga’s bloodmagic practitioners, I’ll have to resort to giving you a general overview, all right?
The feats generally interact and expand with the new system – take the very first feat, acrobatic reflexes: Instead of a ref-save, this allows wounds that prompted a ref-save to avoid the wound’s effects via acrobatics. Other feats allow you to treat the base damage (e.g. piericing) as another damage type. Of course, just about all common class/race features can be expanded as well – racial foe/hatred? There’s a feat for it. Better threat range against foes unaware of you? Yep. Increased bleed damage whenever you cause it? Bingo. On a plus-side – shields receive more relevance: With the right shields, you receive a chance to negate the critical hit. Yes. The whole hit. Why do I consider this a good thing? Well, at first, I didn’t. In actual game-play, it did add a level of dynamics, a roller coaster of emotions to the combat: When my Death Knight scored a decapitation against the paladin, who then proceeded to negate the attack, the player was sitting on the edge of his chair. Now some of the feats admittedly are “only” a good idea that could use proper expansion into a full-blown system: Take critical channel – Roll a d20 every time you channel: On a 20, double the effects. While this one won’t break any game and gives the channeling player some of the criting satisfaction, I still maintain that a full-blown system would work better here. I’m also not a fan of adding a second attribute (like e.g. cha) as a modifier to damage, even if it’s only on critical hits, but that’s a personal preference and won’t influence the final verdict. Now Deflect Blow is also an interesting feat – as an immediate action, you may opt to be hit by an attack, but receive DR /- equal to you BAB against the attack. No way to exploit, tax of one feat, action-economy-restriction – this is an example for a damn fine feat. Why? Because it makes combat more dynamic, adds some tactics and can’t be cheesed via items, buffs etc. Opting to increase the threat range at the chance of an increased fumble-rate.
Another peculiarity of the feats herein would be that, beyond the weapon damage type finally mattering more, the feats also often require specific weapon qualities to work, lending the respective builds towards a more diverse weapon selection and thus, fighting styles. While by far not all feats herein are winners, the vast majority actually work in rather awesome ways and serve to neatly expand the base system’s impact. Now Laying Waste would not be a massive book on mechanics without new archetypes -a total of 16, each crediting the respective author (and yeah, these include Rachel Venture, John Reyst, James Olchak, Adam Meyers, Clinton J. Boomer (!!!) and yours truly). Now generally, the archetypes are rather high-concept: James Olchak’s Bajquan Imperial Bodyguard, for example, makes for one of the coolest bodyguard archetypes I’ve seen in a while – and while regaining ki by receiving damage can be cheesed with regeneration and fast healing, it is at least slow – still, that particular ability imho requires further restrictions to prevent all-out cheesing. Brian Berg’s sinister Blood Archer, firing arrows clad in virulent poison with bone bows just oozes cool imagery. On the other hand of the spectrum, Rachel Ventura’s woodland snipers bounded to nature spirits, the Dakini, are less sinister, but still damn cool. My Disembowler archetype is all about wielding oversized weapons (and yes, I plainly disregarded the cluster-f*** that is the Titan Mauler FAQ in favor of a simpler solution)…and gaining, at later levels a friggin’ one-man cannon. This barbarian archetype also is all about NASTY severity-effects and may wilder somewhat in the gunslinger’s arsenal.
Now some Otakus may start grinning right now – If you haven’t realized it: I made this one as a personal love letter to the character Guts from Kentaro Miura’s legendary dark fantasy Manga-saga Berserk. Conversely, my master of 1000 cuts, a fighter specialist of bleeding criticals actually came, concept-wise from my 2nd edition-days, before the bleeding rules were nerfed to smithereens – with Laying Waste fixing that, I could finally update the cool concept and modernize it. James Olchaks fighting-style analyzing Mockingbird-rogue is cool and Rachel Ventura’s take on the Amazon actually makes a low armor, agile barbarian based on CHA work. Now if you’ve seen any WuXia-movie ever, I probably won’t have to explain the concept of the pressure point master I wrote – Iless damage, better critical effect control would be what to expect here. (On a personal note: Thanks to all the reviewers that explicitly commented how they liked this one!) Adam Meyers also has something rather cool up his sleeve – the head honcho of Drop Dead Studios provides some cool Sneak Attack Substitutions. Now I don’t have to tell you that Clinton J. Boomer’s contributions are high concept and awesome – heavily armored dwarven barbarian? Ninja? Yeah. Brian Berg also provides a more down-to-earth sword master and a mace specialist. James Olchak’s Spiked Gauntlet/Armor-specialist also makes for a neat take on the trope. John Reyst’s Vandals are barbarians all about stealing and destroying.
Now it’s only fair in a system of cool critical hits to apply the same thoroughness to critical fumbles -a distinction between melee, ranged and natural critical fumbles covers all the bases for the mundane ways to botch. This part of the system is just as optional and modular as the base system, but also damn cool. Now going even beyond that, Laying Waste takes groups that play with Armor as DR and Called Shots as variant rules into account and provides rather extensive advice on using the systems in conjunction, should you choose to. While I liked both base systems (introduced in Ultimate Combat, if my memory serves right) idea-wise, their execution did not work for my group when I introduced them, but since some groups will like them, kudos! Now I already mentioned the increase in significance the poor heal-skill receives and yes, the rules here are concise as well.
Beyond that, magical items and item qualities, a nice piece of short fiction and the fully statted Cr 15 fetchling magus on the cover as an iconic round out the book.
Editing and formatting, not the biggest strength of TPK Games, is better here than in any other book they’ve released so far – while minor glitches can be found, their frequency is low enough to not impede one’s enjoyment of the book. Layout adheres to a relatively printer-friendly 2-column b/w standard (with red highlights) and the b/w-art is original, old-school and nice, apart from the full color cover and single pieces here and there. The pdf comes excessively bookmarked and hyperlinked for your convenience.
This critical system is AWESOME. There’s no way around it. If I had not considered it great, I wouldn’t have agreed to work on it. Now, quite some time has passed and the system has seen some use and I can wholeheartedly say – it has improved the game. Combat is more dynamic, crits are more memorable – and best of all – the system is ridiculously easy to learn and master, elegant in design and modular: Don’t like the fumbles? Ignore them. Don’t like a feat/archetype? Ignore it. Even better, the system does not require other supplements to be specifically designed for it – each new supplement you buy can easily be made to adhere to Laying Waste’s rules – this system will remain relevant. That being said, I wouldn’t be Endzeitgeist if I had no complaints – some feats and archetypes didn’t blow me away, but that’s all right. A more significant catch would be that this book, by intention, is all about martials and martial crits – alchemical, magical or psionic crits will have to wait for Laying Waste II, which will also be made. So yeah, there’s a gap in the system there, but one that is acknowledged. After several months of playtesting this beast, I can say that neither I, nor my players ever wish to return to the boring, bland default rules. This book may not be perfect, but you can cherry-pick it very well and the general system is elegant and downright genius.
If dark fantasy, horror, scars or just a gritty, more realistic fantasy is what you’re looking for, if crits no longer result in excitement at your table – then you MUST get this. Even if you just want an array of wounds or additional effects for your own critical system, this beast is well worth the fair asking price. My final verdict will take all of these into account, but ultimately reflects one fact: There are few books that see this much use at the table, that so effortlessly increased fun – and while I can’t always play with it (since I do a lot playtesting), it has become a permanent fixture in my main campaign. Now when do we finally get book 2? My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval plus a nomination as a candidate for my best-of 2014.