Heroes of the Middle Kingdoms
The third gazetteer/player’s guide for the unique setting of Porphyra clocks in at 65 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page blank, leaving us with a massive 59 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
So, we begin this player’s guide with a page of fluffy introduction, sporting a significant sample day in the middle kingdoms – which is a smart choice: Perry Fehr’s capability to craft believable vistas is by now well-documented and the customs he describes could have been taken straight out of “The Golden Bough”, spliced with some fantastical elements. Moreover, this short paragraph actually makes it possible for you to properly portray the land in a unique manner – with common sayings and customs, this section reminded me of a less gritty homage to the witcher-novels. Indeed, that is not only a minor theme – the humans inhabiting these lands have come from a world somewhat akin to hours (plus magic), wherein non-human races are a matter of myths. This humans have so far enjoyed the new place they have been stranded in and are currently known as athelings – who receive a slight power boost over regular humans: They get +2 to a chosen attribute and +1 Wisdom (and should specify that this can’t be stacked – otherwise, we get a bit of a lopsided take; personally, I would have preferred a second +2 and a -2 for streamlining with other races…), +2 to Sense Motive, grant animal companions, familiars etc. +2 to an attribute of their choice, +1/2 level to a chosen Craft or Profession check, +1 skill rank per level and 3 interesting racial traits -one of which nets you +1 to initiative and Stealth checks as long as you don’t wear medium/heavy armor or too expensive clothing. Btw.: That one is the only of the atheling traits that misses the “trait bonus” specification – but consider that a minor nitpick here.
The cool Avoodim race, which I’ve reviewed in the Fehr’s Ethnology-series, also is featured here, though weirdly, some bonuses granted by the race no longer are racial bonuses and now are untyped. On the plus-side, some of the traits had their wording slightly streamlined and expanded in their usefulness. A new ethnicity provided herein would be the Geralites, archon-blooded aasimar that count as both humans and outsiders – which is cool, granted. Alas, there is the issue of reviving them – can they revived as easily as humans or do they require the increased resources that reviving outsiders usually takes? They receive +2 to Con and Wis, darkvision, +2 to Sense Motive and Intimidate and may cast continual flame 1/day. Apart from the resurrection hiccup, a neat variant! The traits are nice, with none of them sporting an issue beyond some not specifying the “trait” bonus type.
Now the second main species of the middle kingdoms would be the psionic catfolk called Qi’tar, also first presented in the Fehr’s Ethnology-series – and nice aga6in, we have slight improvements – the unique, unarmed slash-n-grab attack now provides proper clarification regarding the interaction with monk attacks – were I to nitpick it, I’d say that it should specify that the attack counts as an armed attack and thus does not provoke AoOs, but that much and the fact that it behaves like a natural attack make that pretty much clear. Now if you’re like me and liked the concept of the Qi’tar, you might enjoy the new variant provided herein, the Qi’tar known as “The Silent Ones” – these receive +2 to Dex, -1 to saves vs. illusions and enchantments, +2 to saves vs. transmutation and necromancy (spells and effects, I presume), may reroll a save once per day, get +2 to Bluff, Diplomacy and Sense Motive, proficiency in a weapon of choice and the aforementioned savage attack, which, alas, oddly is lacking the monk-interaction caveat. So far for the races – now let’s dive into the place for good, shall we?
The Middle Kingdoms, fully mapped in awesome full-color, are depicted in full detail -and form plenty of massive options for just about any type of gameplay; times are a-changin’ and as corruption and dissent spread, revolution is in the air and rigid old world clashes with a desire for change to reflect the new world – but what if the status quo, at least when compared to quite a few fantasy worlds out there, actually isn’t that bad? well, then we have interesting topics of change versus stagnation – with the codionic knights and their taboos being also detailed in interesting ways. The settlements, fully depicted, make use of more than the basic statblocks – indeed, they are quoting Skortched Urf’ Studios’ settlement types and provide more means of making settlements distinct and unique. Now not only do we receive a cool plethora of settlements with full settlement statblocks, no, they ALSO sport, once again, copious amounts of in-game prose that is just as inspired as the one that introduced us to the middle kingdoms in the first place. Want to know how great this prose is? What about an epic poem/song that introduces us to Nachtburg (btw. a correct name! For once, not a butchered German settlement name! YEAH!)? Last Sunday, I sang that song by proxy as a bard, so yes – it does work out – kudos! Another settlement sports excerpts from the Fourth Code and know what – there are modifications and changes of the respective settlement statblocks, modified for specific uses, herein, rendering the settlements even more unique. Even within this whole series, wherein the write-ups have been pretty much inspired, this whole chapter blew me away – from a massive necropolis to the unique settlements, these places just feel alive and provide more fodder adventuring potential than you probably require -take e.g. the circle of wit-puzzlers, where people use magic and minds to challenge another with riddles, of which no less than 12 sample ones are provided – yes, glorious.
Now I’m also a big fan of the status-mechanics used in Midgard and this supplement provides something similar – orders and knights with associated fees, minimum level requirements and tangible bonuses associated with them – not only that, but said orders provide tangible, significant rules-benefits. While surely not suitable for every campaign, the very concept is damn intriguing and I certainly hope to see more of the like in the future – it makes sense and mirrors well the medieval sentiment of a god-given right regarding exceptional people and the nobility. Public servants and priests in equal parts, the 10-level Sanctae Credon PrC offers d8, 4+Int skills per level 1/2 BAB and will-save progression and 8/10 spellcasting progression as well as full channel energy progression. The PrC, as shepherds of the people, constantly increase the range of channel energy, which, while powerful, can in practice turn out to be a double-edged sword (and hence can be considered powerful, but still manageable). They also receive leadership bonuses, stipends and options to use the silver keys that are part of their office as slot-less scarabs of golembane – oh, and at the capstone, they become essentially the pope for the chosen deity, who may excommunicate other clerics and strip them of their power. And yes, the PrC has more going for it – but quite frankly, I love it. When Perry Fehr works carefully, he can create awesomeness and this one pretty much feels like a capital P prestige class, one that can perfectly be fitted in within the context of hierarchical beliefs and one that definitely should be considered one of the more flavorful PrC options out there. The capstone alone immediately made me come up with a massive campaign idea focusing on intrigue, subterfuge and the battle for the title. Oh, and yes, sample character included.
The codionic knight archetype for the paladin are slightly more martially-inclined, emphasizing the protection of others and receiving bonus feats in lieu of mercies as well as an aura of menace – a simple, yet flavorful archetype – I like it, though on the nitpicky side, one ability that obviously is SP from the text (even specifically saying “as a spell-like ability”) is declared as Su. On the plus-side, they do receive a cool sample character. The equally simple conscript fighter archetype is solid, but beyond minor skill/feat options, they do not offer that much and have one rules-set that can be exploited – they receive automatic proficiency with all weapons they start the game with – you know what that means – let’s buy all those exotic weapons you can! Granted, this will not break the game, but some limit would probably have been appreciated. The flagellant cleric archetype gets proficiency with whips and spiked chains and do not wear quilting, increasing their armor check penalty (and they have an armor-limitation) – but they change their channel energy progression AND receive DR et al and even a barbarian’s rage – but only the vanilla rage and they pay for this bonus with one domain. The Holy Fool archetype is intended for the BARD, not the cleric, as the pdf, specifies, and can be seen as a pious bard. Solid, though it does have some very minor hiccups in the rules-language. The Psychocenturion is another such simple, yet flavorful modification of the base class and the same could be said about the Rememberer druid, who is tasked with remembering the home world once lost and thus focuses less on an ecosystem, but more on history and the transcendence of magic, with a focus more on the domain chosen. Now fans of dragonlance and e.g. Dragon Age may also enjoy the flavor of the sanctioned wizard, an officially sanctioned caster of magic that pays for the increase in prestige with taboos – nice, especially since the archetype is free-form enough to tailor it to just about any culture. Like it! Speaking of which – there is an archetype that deals with sorcerors by attaching a magical shackle to them, forever condemning them to servitude to their master. Silent Brothers are silent monks that are hard to faze and get a debuff resistance. Turnsleeves are honest people by day, nondetection-using rogues by night.
The reliquary bloodline is all themed around items (fitting, since its theme is the stewardship of a benevolent or malevolent item) – a thematically awesome bloodline, which does sport some issues – the idea of a bonded relic that does not fail or can’t be moved unless you will it, for example, is pretty cool, but the bloodline fails to specify how such a bond can be created. Three solid sample inquisitions are also provided. It should be noted that each of the copious archetypes mentioned above comes with a sample NPC. Over all, this chapter provided flavorful archetypes, which, while not reinventing the wheel, provide interesting, cool options – but also suffer from mostly cosmetic deviations from the default rules-language – while not problematic to the point where it would make RAI ambiguous, I still wished these components had seen a little bit ore polish – not much, mind you – they are all functional.
The book provides an array of feats – which range from “interesting” to “okay” up to “not perfect” -Using Knowledge (religion) in lieu of Intimidate to intimidate evil creatures would be one example, whereas once per day doubling of the number of creatures in your psionic collective feels like very situational, but in said situations, slightly too powerful. It’s a matter of taste and campaign, though – I just wished it had a more conservative scaling mechanism and more uses per day instead to make it more viable in the long run. Once per round immediate action aid another actions also can be considered rather powerful for certain builds, but also interesting. Gaining an extra ring slot is also within the realm of possibility. Where there are Qi’tar, there also are new psionic powers – one power allows you to redirect AoOs to adjacent creatures – which is cool. However, the augment makes me believe it ought to discharge, which the power itself does not specify. On the other hand, powers that provide interaction with mass-combat and armies? Heck yeah, pretty cool! Overall, these powers are pretty neat.
Of course, new spells can be found as well – though e.g. the aspect of the horse has some issues – immunity to fatigue for a second level spell feels excessive. That being said, simpler and faster ceremonies and a brand that makes a target count as evil, at least temporarily, is pretty nasty and offers quite a bunch of roleplaying potential – but can also potentially make paladins et al. even more versatile and powerful. Other mark variants for temporary alignment modification also can be found and further enhance the theme of the marks and the problematic topic if scapegoats. The coolest spell herein, though, would be one that reflexively delays the effect of damage-dealing spells or SPs after saves have been rolled – once the duration elapses, the effect hits you with maximized force and no, you can’t avoid the hit. Yeah, this is pretty awesome, as are the mechanically pretty conservative spells that emulate UMD – here, the details make them interesting – the divine version requires a church warrant, the arcane one consumes a holy symbol. Love that!
Now, we also receive exceedingly immersion-enhancing mundane items and a significant array of magical items, extending from weaponized pitchforks to artifacts, which contain exceedingly lethal tools once used to enslave the qi’tar as well as the digits (or yes, appendix!) of long-gone saint to oliphant’s horns, the artifacts are pretty evocative and fit the themes of the middle kingdoms perfectly. Now I should mention another thing, something most player’s gudies fail to do, but what helps immensely when indirectly characterizing a given region – lists upon lists of available good, all neatly collected for your perusal, with weapons sporting stats, good sporting Craft DCs etc. – beyond atmosphere, these are exceedingly convenient.
Editing and formatting are pretty good, but not perfect – while generally, both the formal criteria and rules-language are functional, especially the rules-language could have used some polishing to get rid of the numerous none-standard wordings herein. While this would usually elicit my usual complaint-tirades, this supplement is pretty much unique in the fact that apart from the very scarce exception, the language still retains full functionality, in spite of its liberal handling of rules-semantics. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column standard and the pdf sports both nice full-color artworks and full-color cartography. the pdf also comes with excessive bookmarks for your convenience.
So, this is pretty much the best player’s guide I’ve read in quite a while. Perry Fehr and Mark Gedak have a storyteller’s gift and his talent of making believable, organic settings and cultures bespeaks a mind basking in possibilities. While this region of Porphyra is relatively “normal”, conservative even, it sports all the tidbits that make such a region come alive and feel distinct – in fact, when compared to just about any quasi-medieval chivalry/religion-themed examples I’ve read in alternate history settings etc., this guide blows its competition out of the water. I’ve read MANY such supplements and none managed to elicit this level of immersion. The crunch, with its high-concept emphasis on supplementing a realistic, believable society also enforces this. At the same time, the crunch, though, does sport an array of deviations from rules-language defaults – almost never to the extent of being problematic, but still – the impression I got was one of a supplement that “sweats the small stuff” – to the point where, would this be only a crunch-centric book, this would have crashed down to 3 stars, perhaps lower.
But within the context of world-building this awesome, I couldn’t bring myself to bashing this book for what is functional, in the end. Still, I really, really would have loved this book to go the extra mile and purge the rules-language deviations.
I *love* this supplement. I was grinning from ear to ear while reading this and even as a scavenging box, this supplement is downright inspired and can be used to make one’s setting come to life, to add this added level of detail and great concepts. The simple, yet very flavorful archetypes, the way in which conflicts between the divine and arcane, between the law and tradition and the changing times – how all of this is set up is just gorgeous, creative and fun. Were it for only the ideas herein, the world-building, I’d be recommending this in the highest tones. Alas, the small glitches, while not bad on their own, simply kept on accumulating – to the point where I can’t recommend this book as highly as I’d like to – if proper rules-language and -syntax is important to you, this book will make you cringe and hence, I can’t rate this 5 stars. If not, though, then you’ll find inspiration galore within these pages. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4 stars – but this is one is good enough to be one of the rare examples, where I will still slap my seal of approval on this book – the ideas and world-building are simply too good.