EZG reviews Obsidian Apocalypse
This is #9 of my Top Ten of 2014!
Obsidian Apocalypse is a massive 200-page book, 1 page front cover, 1 page donor-list, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 2 pages of ToC,, leaving a massive 194 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
What is Obsidian Apocalypse? Well, first of all, it’s the heir of Obsidian Twilight – a campaign-setting that gloriously failed just about all my expectations. Still, LPJr Design improved so vastly that I joined, with a somewhat hopeful anticipation, the Kickstarter to make Obsidian Apocalypse, the sequel. Kind of. For, while there is a default setting kind of assumed, Obsidian Apocalypse now is less of a campaign setting, but rather an extremely versatile toolbox for to scavenge from. So after the first introduction to the cataclysmic world of Abaddon, we’re introduced to the base-races – minus half-elves/half-orcs, for the world was not kind on these beings. Each of the core-races gets their own apocalyptic vista of what has happened to them – from the forlorn/mushroom-infected elves to the cannibalistic halflings, the takes on the races are disturbing and evocative at the same time. Beyond that, each of the races gets 3 alternate racial qualities – want to for example play shaven, mad dwarves, akin to Warhammer’s Slayers? Yep. Damn cool.
Of course, we also get an array of new races. While I could go into the details regarding each race, I’ll instead try to give you a short run-down. Another note before I start – the races herein you may remember from the previous installments, yes. They are nothing like their previous iterations – they actually by now are mostly rather well-balanced, on par with the stronger PC-races…without using their fluff. How is that accomplished? Well, where before, these races had a slew of special abilities, they retain these, but have to choose them as alternate racial traits. Take the Exalted, essentially the aasimar of the setting, the descendant of legendary half-burned angel Zebadiah, the last angel of Abaddon. Want a blade of deadly light? Angelic Wings? Well, you can now exchange these for the divine spell-like abilities of the race. Where before, they were stronger than even the aasimar, they now are a powerful, but balanced option. Another general improvement that hold true for all races, would be that they’re less geared towards a specific class than before, often allowing for a more free assignment of ability score-modifiers. Where there are spawn of the upper planes, there also ought to be those of the lower, and yes, the Infernals are essentially the take on the Tieflings herein. Where in the previous iteration, they were a bit too strong for my tastes and while that kind of still is true by a margin (and this one’s crunch sports a couple of minor typo-level/bolding glitches – more than in others), the new take on the infernal is vastly improved.
One of the more iconic races herein would be the Genesai – offspring of angels and demons, these unnatural beings once were somewhat of a Mary Sue-race; Now in this iteration, their powers have been more streamlined, their relative strength cut down to a level where they make for a more valid option. More importantly, their shattersoul blade, a blade made from the dichotomies of their very being, got a more varied mechanic that makes more sense – the scaling is also different from the one of the celestial. Now the Lykians, werewolf-like humanoids still are a tad bit too strong for my tastes: Claws, a diseased bite, +4 to Dex, increased miss chances in dim illumination etc. – even with a weakness to silver, this is a tad bit too much for my tastes. Another gripe – personally, I’m never a friend of +4 attribute modifiers like this one and the one of the harrowed, the spawn of the living and undead. Why am I not complaining about these semi-undead? Simple – they aren’t healed by positive energy, but by negative energy, making them much more fragile in your avergae adventuring group. For a race geared towards melee with str+4, that’s enough balancing for me – also due to not getting full-blown undead immunities.
It is here I’d like to mention that each of the races can expand their racial abilities via feats, in the case of harrowed allowing you to play any harrowed from the offspring of zombies to descendants of shadows and even liches. These feats often help drive home the uniqueness of these new races, by e.g. allowing you to expand the tricks of your genesai’s shattersoul blades or truly be exalted: One feat allows you to sacrifice silver to temporarily stem the tide of the taint across the world and make an area fertile…for a time, as mentioned. Another interesting race would be the Osirions (not related to the Golarion-nation) – a black-skinned high-culture of beings with innate affinity towards necromantic arts – both beneficent and deadly. Not all feats are superb – there is for example one that hasn’t been updated and might generate some confusion regarding the final race, the Khymer.
What are the Khymer? Essentially, they are people reduced to puddles of psionic, sentient, toxic blood that can take over corpses and remodel them to look like their lost forms. More importantly, they may burn out these husks (and their bodies) to fuel their psionic powers metapsionics-style. The rules for this race have been massively streamlined and the fact that the race now works better is great – especially since changing bodies can potentially be lethal and a lengthy procedure. The feat I mentioned before still assumes a more short-term duration for host-change than the new one, which takes several hours. Still, they are one of the most unique, iconic races out there and while the enhancements to their psionic abilities are imho too strong at low levels, the race per se is too cool for me to condemn – sometimes, even for me, coolness trumps all.
The feats I mentioned before deserve further mention -there for example are necromantic feats, which allow you to enact special necromantic treats – like forming the bones of a corpse or similar source into a superb armor for fragile spellcasters. Where in the predecessor, balancing was rather all over the place in these, the new takes on the feats even could have used a minor power boost here and there – none of the vast array of feats made me yell or get upset, many though made me grin and ponder why/how I’d use them – so all in all, a surprisingly well-crafted chapter – especially since I didn’t really consider it necessary before. The same can be said in a much higher degree about the chapter on spells – with one exception (and that one’s level 6 and requires foes to actually have blood circulation: Death by de-veining!), you’ll no longer find any save-or-die spells. Indeed, instead, the magic chapter has been thoroughly cleaned up, the spells now often doing actually rather interesting things – what about e.g. a wall of spiders that becomes less efficient the more armor its victims wear? Spells that are hampered by wearing the right equipment? The option to create a duplicate, which if you or it dies, may well actually become you? Teleport-blocks? Anti-true-strikes? Yeah – if you’re familiar with some – that’s because the book updates quite a few spells from Monte Cook’s by now legendary Book of Eldritch Might to PFRPG – and, just like the feats taken from the book, these are no lazy cut-copy-paste jobs, but rather true conversions and often, significant improvements.
But all of that crunch is not what this book is about – this book is about the end of the world. Or rather – the ends of the world – for each of the following chapters deals with one of the possible ends of the world.
And they mince no words. They don’t turn tails. They are capital B bad news for all good. The first calamity to end the world depicted is engineered by no one other than the Morning Star, the Prince of Lies. No. Not Asmodeus, this knock-off. Lucifer. Yes. Lucifer. The Prince of Lies has destroyed his opposition, merged his former prison with the prime material and obtain the contract of creation – hence “Hell on Earth” really encapsulates well what has happened here. It should be noted that hence infernal taint comes with feat chains that net significant synergy benefits, allowing the characters to represent the taint and changed dichotomies. It should also be noted that each of the end-of-the-world-scenarios comes with multiple organizations (though no Prestige-mechanics) and fully depicted settlements as well as suggested campaign-outlines/DM-advice. Have I mentioned rules for apocalyptic, hellish weather like rains of frogs, tornados of flame and the like? What about the one ritual that keep the hellish hordes from crushing all resistance?
The next apocalypse would be the result of a meteorite, from which weird life spawned – an illness consuming organic and inorganic material, subjugating everything under its dread swarm-intelligence and potentially non-euclidian-seeming aesthetics. The shaper virus has changed the world by separating it into ever decreasing healthy lands with draconian anti-infection protocols, which proved to be the only way to stem the tide of infection, and the virus-controlled second half of the world, by now a nightmare of infected creatures. PC will have to struggle with the infection, draw strength from it and avoid succumbing to it – this apocalypse is by far the worst in my opinion: In a good way. I love the moral implications, the deadly abilities, the feats that let you draw upon the virus’s strength at a price – this one is glorious indeed. Of course, we also get the contaminated-template here as well as an array of sample contaminated victims of the dread virus…
Want to go more conservative with your weird apocalypse – well, there’s also a chapter detailing the apocalypse due to the return of the cthulhoid elder gods – and as such, the chapter of course requires sanity rules. What can I say – they’re elegant, versatile without being CoC-level punishing, leave enough control for the DM and over all, are the best sanity rules for any d20-based game I’ve seen in quite a while – essentially characters get starting SAN, a can lose SAN, regain it via Heal and encountering the strange may result in gaining new insights into forbidden lore – yes, essentially, that’s the d20-version of COC’s SAN-system and it actually works rather well in play! And yes, it includes the Knowledge (Forbidden Lore)-skill (somewhat akin to cthulhu mythos in CoC), but also takes the options of restorative magic etc. into account. Beyond that, sheer proximity to these beasts changes planar properties in interesting ways – this chapter should also prove to be extremely interesting for Midgard-DMs looking to add some oomph to the wasted west. We also get two nice simple templates to modify creatures. Once again a great apocalypse with awesome supplemental material.
Of course, there also ought to be…yes! The zombie-apocalypse – with a new breed of zombie that decreases your movement automatically and by sheer proximity, easily pinning those immobilized and spreading undead destruction around the world – in this world, the war against the never-ending hordes of mindless dead, necromancer lords etc. all rule, making for a nice, traditional undead apocalypse supplemented by some neat ideas and crunch. On the supplemental side, traits, feats, spells and a table for vast hordes of undead and their CR are provided as well as a rather significant array of shambling sample zombies of various CRs
Now it should be noted that theoretically, you could combine all of these into a truly devastating super-apocalypse… but who would do that? *evil grin*
Now a setting like this can’t work with petty CR 10+ villains – hence we also get the super-movers and shakers in all their glory -if you recall Calix Sabinus, the Vampire-Lich-God-king and his brethren, you’ll know that this chapter provides some truly nasty adversaries – with legendary Mummy-king Asi Magnor getting a resplendent new artwork, just as the newcomer, Reikenjo, the first agent of the shaper virus. CR-wise, these legends range from CR 30 to CR 35 – and thankfully don’t include Lucifer or Elder Gods, i.e. beings that should not be slain by mortal hands. One kind-of-gripe here – the equipment of these legends is rather puny compared to their level. DMs probably should add some items and yes, in my opinion also artifacts to make these unique threats a tad more challenging.
Of course, there also are less epic monsters herein, with each and every one of them coming with a downright glorious artwork – whether its old favorites like the boneshard golems or the necromantically-infused creature template or new critters like the slumber-inducing intelligent eye-consuming insects, the undead-hunting bird-like humanoids called Hargila, face-stealing fey, shadow-consuming undead or ooze-like outsiders that spread and sustain themselves on hatred – the creatures in this chapter are gloriously wicked and powerful -beasts to truly FRIGHTEN players, not just their characters, often with an array of interesting signature abilities. This chapter also includes a damn cool array of environmental hazards and weird diseases to spring upon your players.
The book concludes with campaign ideas and options to help a DM plan/organize such a campaign.
Editing and formatting are generally very good – while some glitches have crept in (which happens in almost all big books), editor Joshua Yearsley generally has done a great job. Layout adheres to a drop-dead-gorgeous 2-column full-color standard and the artworks deserve special mentioning – this ranks among the most beautiful books I’ve seen in that department, with iconic piece upon iconic piece. While some you may know from older Obsidian Twilight-publications, the majority is actually new and drives home the superb art direction. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and in full color, but is *relatively* printer-friendly when printed out in b/w. If you somehow can get your hands on the color exclusive version from the KS, DO SO. Seriously, I got both the full color and b/w print version and the former is just…beautiful. Even for LPJr Design standards – and that means something.
So…this was another review that took forever, mainly due to having to check back to the old material, comparing it etc. First of all – the balance-concerns I had with the races previously have *mostly* been alleviated, in favor of a much more streamlined experience. And while I’m not 100% sold on the balance of some of them, there always is the “rule of cool”-factor – take the Khymer: While the meta-psionic tricks of the race are VERY powerful and something to take into account as a DM, they are a race of sentient, body-invading BLOOD. The main gripe I have here is that the DC to determine con-damage doesn’t scale and that the enhancements, per se, would imho work better as a feat-chain. Now declaring them as such wouldn’t be hard on a DM, so there you go. generally, the races can be now categorized as a medium till strong race-option, but not as overpowered as they once were – the core-races no longer feel like declassified second choices compared to them, with fungoid infections, slayer-dwarves etc. offering a neat array of racial fodder.
On the other hand of the spectrum, there are some feats (like aforementioned bone armor) that can only be used 1/day – some scaling for additional uses based on level etc. would have made some of these more viable – which they deserve to be, for they are exceedingly cool.
More than all of that weighs another point – whereas Obsidian Twilight felt a bit like “What’s cool? All right, let’s mush it together into a setting!”, Obsidian Apocalypse does not pretend to be a setting – it’s a toolbox, a kit of a plethora of options, ready for the picking. Want to combine the sanity-mechanics from the chapter on cthulhoid threats with the shaper virus or Lucifer’s incursion? There you go! You could even reappropriate the mechanics for “humanity” and go for a walking dead-style zombie apocalypse, where the survivors slowly turn into sociopaths. Obsidian Apocalypse KNOWS what it is – it’s not the subtle kind of horror (though especially the shaper virus lends itself to this approach), but rather the in-your-face blare of horror, of Midnight-level despair and valiant last stands.
The crunch in the beginning was good, much nicer and more streamlined than I expected – but in the apocalypses, in the scenarios, their settlements and organizations, in the monsters and threats – this is where the book started to grow its rather evil potential. let me give you a comparison: One of my favorite 3.X books EVER is Elder Evils. I loved the book’s threats to death – but the signs, the repercussions of the impending apocalypse there just…FAILED. One paltry little change and that’s it? All the page-count devoted to lame maps and lamer minion-stats, when all could have been devoted to actually helping a DM make the catastrophes his/her own? Yeah, Elder Evils failed there. Obsidian Apocalypse triumphs in that regard – I guarantee you, that upon reading this book, you WILL be inspired – whether it’s a spell, a feat, a monster, a hazard, a legend (though, as mentioned, give those guys more equipment!), an organization – this book will get your creative juices flowing. Whether it’s the drawback-laden infection-feats, the ideas, the compelling prose that depicts the respective cataclysms – there is so much to take, combine, change and use that the book simply screams to be used.
This campaign toolkit ranks as one of my favorite toolkits for any iteration of d20 – it may not be perfect in EVERY little component, but it manages to be INSPIRING, even for jaded “seen it all”-DMs like yours truly. There aren’t many of these books around. Now don’t expect a full-blown setting , but rather consider this an inspiration to follow, a means of making your very own end-of-the world scenario with all its repercussions and you’ll find ample, copious inspiration herein. All in all, this is, in my opinion, the BEST BOOK LPJr Design has so far made. It oozes heart’s blood, passion and makes for a fantastic book to own. I was honestly skeptical when I backed the Kickstarter back in the day – and am thoroughly glad I did. I’m not kidding when I say that this is a whole new beast that rectifies just about all of the issues of its predecessor and adds vast amounts of awesomeness on top. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval – and, since I didn’t manage to get the review done in time in 2013, this one now is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2014. If you’ll excuse me, I have an endtimes-scenario to plan…
You can get this superb toolbox here on OBS!