Mar 292019
 

Imperiums Campaign Guide: Plight of the Tuatha (5e)

Okay, so this massive supplement clocks in at 292 pages of content, not taking the editorial, etc. into account. I’ve had this book for a while, and it is, to make that clear from the get-go, an incredibly dense book – I have rewritten this review twice now, because I never was totally happy with how the review turned out; it either bloated or remained too superficial, so here goes – hope this iteration does provide the guidance you require.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving this book in print in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

So, first thing first – this book’s title isn’t exactly precise, so how would one define it? Well, while it is intended for use with the inspiring, but rather late “Plight of the Tuatha” adventure arc (still excited to see the final module!), but it is NOT a player’s guide for the arc, nor is it a GM Guide in the traditional sense. If I were to define this, it’d be to call this a mostly spoiler-free campaign setting book, with a monster appendix for GMs. This does have an array of different player options, but it also sports a ton of what I’d call successful myth-weaving, and that is how the book starts. What follows is a MASSIVE tangent, but please bear with me – this is going somewhere.

To elaborate on the term “myth-weaving”: Know how some myths of mankind tend to resonate with us in real life? Some of you may be touched upon first reading about the Aztec or Norse myths, others upon first reading the Diné Banahe; some may experience this deep resonance of concepts and ethics when confronted with the details of the traditional Abrahamic religions – it’s the language and tales that convey a model of the world that may not be scientific, but which rings nonetheless “true”. Not because it describes what we can see and perceive (I am very much a subscriber to a thoroughly scientific worldview), but because it provides a metaphoric context for components of our shared conditio humana. Whether it’s rules for culture and ethics, whether it’s an explanation of the central experiences – Isaak, Jobe, Loki and Baldr, Mahadeva Shiva – different mythologies form baselines that resonate on an emotional value, and that make life bearable, that fortify the social glue that defines our experiences. If you have a less positive outlook on life, the words uttered to Seven Flower to “suffer and endure” may ring true to you. This function of myths, while prevalent among religions, also extends to fiction. There is a reason why Lovecraft’s outlook of a bleak and uncaring, indifferent universe struck a chord with me, and one could argue that anything, form Star Trek to Star Wars, does engage in mythweaving, in perpetuating a model of varying complexity by which we make sense of the world.

It is, then, actually pretty interesting to note that few campaign settings manage to evoke a sense of cohesion; let’s take the Star Wars example, shall we? Like the universe or not, it is very much informed by a dichotomous world-view that differentiates clearly between good and evil, and as such, underscores the method by which most adherents of Abrahamic religions perceive the world. This makes it easily digestible for many folks, easy to accept and get into, but it’s also why none of the new movies will ever live up to the classic trilogy, why there was such a big backlash against midi-chlorians etc.. The myth of Star Wars needed to expand to account for an increased diversification in our perceptions, to account for the rise in complexity that digitization and the rise of the internet brought. (As an aside: The “good” Jedi always struck me as “evil” and inimical to life in a more subtle way than the Sith, but that’s a whole other topic.) Roleplaying settings tend to suffer from a similar issue, which is, all too often, founded in the adherence to the simplification that is represented by alignments, whether you subscribe to the two-axis or one-axis paradigm. When something is measurably “good” or “chaotic”, it’s hard to argue nuances when the hard rules state just that one action is good, the other evil. This also informs cosmology in most settings, and while I love my Planescape and Great Wheel cosmology based on alignments as much as the next guy, it is due to the lore, and NOT due to the planes being founded upon the basis of alignments. It’s a game. It’s simple to grasp the implications of alignment and the interaction with creatures and characters.

Here’s the thing: While most roleplaying games assume a quasi Early-modern period that actually represents the values we have in the present in many ways (zealotry is evil, slavery is evil, etc.), those concepts wouldn’t have held up back in the periods that the games we play usually mirror. On a superficial level, most settings “look” medieval, but actually aren’t in the values they eschew. For a reason – many folks would consider the like shocking and simply less fun. To give you an example that most folks will get nowadays: The persecution, racism towards nonhumans and darkness in “Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”, the depiction of that world’s social mores? They’d probably be considered decadent and liberal in a late medieval context. (Early medieval context and the life of burgher’s is another matter… for example, racism wasn’t as important as faith, but I digress.)

Comparing these, you’ll notice that it’s hard to identify with alignment-based cosmologies and myths; chances are you never thought: “Heck yeah, I can totally get behind the ideology/world-view of, say, of one of the Forgotten Realms’ pantheons, of a pantheon of Golarion, etc.” And yet, all the myths we tell in real life tend to have at least some resonance, right? If you’ve read the Gilgamesh myth, for example, it’s hard to not read themes like loyalty, friendship, etc. from its stanzas; if you’ve read about Egill Skallagrímsson, you’d be hard-pressed to not at least feel a semblance of empathy during your first reading of Sonatorrek. The latter is not even a traditional first-degree myth, but a hero’s saga, but yeah. Perhaps, you’ve read Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” and had to put down the book to compose yourself when Jude read Little Father Time’s missive. I know I had to. Those are elaborations on the myths underlying all – and they resonate because they expand, because they update and annotate the implicit ideology formed by the grand myths; In the context of RPGs, these are the stories we might be telling with our characters, within a world that is informed by myths different from our own. It’s easier to tell such stories when the myths of a setting align with ours, when they quote and put a spin on classics. Norse, Greek and Arthurian myths are particularly popular baselines.

In a way, Imperiums does something interesting in its myth-weaving: First of all, the campaign setting knows no alignments, which already strips it of one of the biggest hamstrings it could have; The cosmology then takes a general notion akin to that of Norse mythology, establishing an array of worlds, with the world of Æliode acting as the equivalent of Midgard, as the realm of mortal men. However, the setting does borrow generously from various mythologies across the globe, and infuses them with magical concepts, accounting for the presence of dragons and similar entities, and thus moving somewhat away from a solely humanocentric point of view. Some concepts would be, for example, the sky being the carcass of a deity, the stars glimmering scales. Beyond the worlds, there is the Expanse – if you are familiar with Lacanian psychosemiotics, think of it as the Real beyond our Symbolic order; if you’ve seen Matrix, think of it as reality. Building upon that comparison, belief is more than a kind of currency for outsiders, fiends, etc. – it is literally the code that maintains the structure of the world. Placing a pilgrimage site somewhere, a saint’s bones at the right place, may literally benefit the fabric of the order in which the PCs operate. This in and of itself opens up a complex tapestry of narrative possibilities, one thoroughly supplemented by the language employed.

If the above seemed complex, fret not – Imperiums is smart in that it takes just enough from established lore and mythology to make it functional. It does not offer a simplistic good-evil story, sure – in its place are virtues and vices as sets of diametrically opposed notions that are easy to grasp, though their values per se interact in interesting ways with the development of characters, and said values tend to be informed by the eponymous Imperiums of the setting; “Mercy” may be a virtue for some, but not for others. Similarly, the strategy of using components of mythologies from our world and infusing them with the realities of a magical world has several intriguing repercussions – it makes grasping the concepts familiar and generates a basic resonance, for we, as players, are informed by them.

This is important, for, try to picture e.g. the world of the Witcher without the real-world analogues from fairy tales and myths. It’d be an abstract, hard to grasp place, right? Well, Imperiums engages in a similar strategy, but provides an actual annotated creation myth in the beginning. The author’s academic background also shows in another strategy that really helps maintain this illusion of a world that is somewhat alien, yet familiar, in spite of its complexities – and that would be language. Scandinavians will smile when reading about a curse of a dwelling designated as “Uhygg”, and if you’re familiar with Norse and Gaelic myths and nomenclature, the concise and consistent use of languages to underline the plausibility of the setting may be subtle. Most folks won’t even notice it. But it is incredible efficient. This notion also extends to the details of the cultures and lineages presented – Yōkai, for example, come with a ton of artworks depicting different Noh-masks.

In short: The baseline mythology is familiar, yet different and primal; it does a great job at establishing the means to explore more nuanced narratives than most D&D cosmologies can dream of, and thus presents a great foundation for writing you own, second tier mythologies at the table, to write Egill Skallagrímsson, Arthurian, or similar tales.

This establishes a leitmotif, if this book can be construed to have one, for the whole of the writing and design paradigm – and that would be choice, informed by cultural context. Not all classes are suitable for all empires, a notion that may be disregarded by individual groups, obviously, but it does lend further identity to the nations of Æliode; same goes for the discussions on how those classes are received. While this, at first glance, may seem restrictive (and it certainly is to a degree), it informs the cultural context of the lands presented within, and it is offset by a vast increase in choice pertaining another aspect that usually represents a fire and forget component of the character design process: This would be the notion of lineage.

You see, the races of Æliode, and there are quite a few of them, do have unique twists – the small folk equivalent, (dwarves et al), the weorg and weorg-kin, for example get a twist on darkvision that is stone-centric, changing a basic and interesting dynamic. 9 such lineages (with a ton of sub-lineages) are provided, and this is, alas, where I need to address a component of this book that left me less than impressed: Formatting. There are PLENTY of instances, where an ability header is not properly bolded and italicized, and ended by a colon instead of a full stop. There are A LOT of missed spell reference italicizations among the rules, and names of actions, for example, are consistently not italicized, when usually, only legendary actions and the like lack the italicization of the ability headers. So yeah, if you’re like me and peculiar about those things, this WILL annoy you.

On the plus side, the choice in nomenclature regarding the “races”, the designation of lineages, heralds another concept of the book, and that is the “emergence.” If you’ve been following the Pathfinder iterations of Imperiums, you’ll know what these are: Emergences are basically special abilities that you can earn in game via your actions. Completed a ritual to seal a portal? That may have rules-relevant consequences. Manages to roll a lucky critical hit, preventing a TPK? That may have rules-repercussions. By GM vote and party consensus, actions will have consequences, and this allows for the rewarding of PCs with abilities that are not contingent on carrying around a treasure trove of magic items. Emergences, in short, are awesome. You can have 1 at first level, and every even level thereafter, the maximum number of emergences your character can have increases by one. The consequence is that your Imperiums character will be much more mutable, more personal. Emergences also have loss conditions that may strip you of them – if you draw strength from an oath of fealty to a fey lord and break the oath, there goes your emergence. If a curse slowly corrupts you, but also lets you breathe underwater, breaking the curse may replace the emergence with another.

This is the classic concept. The 5e-oteration and expansion of Æliode’s lore takes this concept and goes all out with it. Emergences may be tied to your lineage – for example, if you’re aligned with the dragons, you may see yourself become more draconic, gaining basically that emergent lineage, at the cost of emergence slots. A similar angle is btw. illustrated via an emergent class – think of those as a combination of archetypes and prestige classes of sorts, save that they are also tied to emergences, using this concept as a resource. The result is amazing and something many a 5e-group will cherish: You suddenly have dynamic choices and consequences, far beyond what 5e’s relatively rigid progression system usually allows for, particularly at lower levels increasing your differentiation options significantly. You see, you could well start transforming into another race like the Magos, mystic power coalesced into humanoid form; a weorg-kin may well slowly change, etc. The concept is simplicity itself, but the ramifications are vast, and I really love this aspect of Imperiums. A ton of sample emergences are provided, btw.: The list for them alone covers two whole pages! This concept is also mirrored in “Evolutionary” feats – said feats change as you adventure. Battle Bound starts with “Mate” and may evolve to “Married” or “Widowed”, for example, all with unique benefits. (Odd: No “Divorced” option… This would also be the time to note that the rules aren’t always clear: It’s “death saving throw”, not “death check.” In quite a few instances, this book does show that multiple authors with different degrees in rules language proficiency have taken the reigns.

Now, the book does offer plenty of cleric domains (7, to be precise) and differentiates between types of divinity gods may have; it mentions the vast, kaiju-sized offspring of deities, not meant to be slain by mortal hands, mainly affecting mortals through unique effects that accompany their wake, etc. – in aesthetics, Æliode seemed closer to e.g. surviving an almost awakening of Jörmundgandr than fighting it; this also cements the playstyle that seems to be informed more by mythology, and less by super-human antics.

So, that would be one of the benefits of the Imperiums-book. The pdf introduces two new, Wisdom-based skills: Commune, which allows for the communion with daemons (basically spirits, minus the undead-previously-mortal-angle), and Practical magic, which is easily one of my least favorite aspects here: It is an ill-defined catch-all term for mundane magics that, puzzlingly, can’t be affected by dispel magic. It is not nearly precise enough to make sense of GM properly, and to me, looks like a bad “anything goes” bullshit-angle that is just a total, nonfunctional MESS. I hate it. With a fiery passion. Also, since its effects arguably poach in the territory of cantrips, and the book fails to address how it works, what its limits are – anything you’d want, nay, require, is absent. This is capital letters BAD. On a more positive side, we do get 16 well-wrought and interesting backgrounds – kudos for those.

As far as items are concerned, almost 2 pages of weapons are provided, and the book does contain notes on different armor qualities, which is something I enjoy seeing: Having a really well-wrought armor can increase your AC by up to +3, all sans magic – kudos there. Oddly, having poor armor…has no repercussions whatsoever. No penalties to AC. That seems…odd, and like something has fallen by the wayside here. The book also features solid rules for using an offhand weapon, which, while potent, made sense to me and doesn’t break the math.

The second aspect that deserves mentioning, indubitably, would be the “Wielding Influence” chapter: This codifies social “combat”, like discussion, court cases and temptations. This system is explained pretty concisely: First, the contestants declare their intent; then you tally up Resolve Points: A character has Resolve equal to all three mental ability scores, halved. Both sides also have Wit points equal to twice their proficiency bonus. Wit points may be spent to add +1d4 to an attack or defense roll per point spent. In phase three, contestants choose tactics, and then unveil and roleplay these tactics. Each tactic has a skill used associated with it; in order to successfully use the tactic, you add the opponent’s indicated ability modifier to a base of 8 and the defense bonus. Each tactic gives roleplaying pointers and notes how much damage to Resolve the tactic causes. This engine is employed to resolve discourse, iaijutsu, duels and possession, with individual tactics (a page each) being provided. I really enjoyed these, but couldn’t help but feel like e.g. possession and discourse could have used more tactics. Still, once you’ve grasped how it works, it is a cool system!

I’m less blown away by e.g. the variant rules for critical hits and defenses: Critical hits are on a 20, and roll base damage twice, then add modifiers. Okay. How does this interact with bonus damage? Critical defense nets you a defense token for natural 1s on attacks; this lasts until the next round, and lets you spend it to impose disadvantage on an attack. Another section I enjoyed would be the overland travel section – seeing how the Expanse will bleed into the world, straying from civilization becomes progressively more dangerous, and the book offers for a means to streamline that experience: Basically, areas get a safety rating, and failing to make that DC with Wisdom (survival) will cause loss of Hit Points or spell slots – you may pay off the cost (equal to the safety rating) in a combination thereof. This may be combined with expanse failure chances that may hamper long rests. I also really like that Imperiums has a reputation value – this would be renown, and it differentiates between empires. It’s simple, helpful and rewards PCs for spending gold to forge reputations. This rating does influence access to some areas, of which several are provided for your convenience.

On the “okay, but doesn’t contribute much” side of things, there is an option to make rites to temporarily gain a cleric spell from a deity beseeched, and there are a couple of new spells. Apart from these spells (none of which are designated for warlocks) and aforementioned domains, the book doesn’t feature new primal paths or the like, though.

The final section of this tome depicts a variety of different monsters and some key NPCs of the setting, including flycatcher wyrmlings, spider-like dimensional weavers, and the like. The book closes with a step-by-step character creation cheat-sheet, and the book features a massive index.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are sometimes very good, concise and cool – and sometimes, well, less refined or unrefined and less impressive; both on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard with plenty of neat full-color artworks. The cartography of the world is stunning and full color, and the softcover is a pretty mighty tome indeed. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

William Moomaw’s Æliode is a fantastic setting, one that oozes not only passion, but which is actually a fun experience to read. There s a ton to love about this setting; from the influence mechanics to the emergences, these concepts alone will sell the book on quite a few folks out there, and deservedly so. If you’ve been playing 5e for a while, and want more agenda, more choice, then this delivers in spades. This is a mature setting, not in the sense that it features gritty stuff, but in the sense that it treats its audience with respect, refraining from simplifications and catering towards an audience who wants nuanced, complex storytelling. The additional design by Dan Dillon, Rich Howard, Mario Podeschi, Brandes Stoddard and Mike Wilhelm (was that Mike Welham? If so, he is miscredited…) does show the expertise of a couple of these folks: The book contains plenty of rules I absolutely adore, that are genuinely great and that, regardless of setting, I’ll be using in my games. Emergences, for example, have been a staple in my games since the Imperiums supplements for Pathfinder introduced this concept. At the same time, this reminded me, and not in a good way, of Rhûne – another absolutely brilliant campaign setting, which also, more often than not, offers creative and well-wrought rules, but which is similarly hampered by editing and formatting.

In this book the juxtaposition of creative rules and precise material with obvious formatting glitches and inconsistencies that should have been caught is really jarring. This, on one hand, is incredibly refined and showcases the talent of its designers and writers very well; at the same time, the guide does have these sudden dips, these sudden slips crop up. Take the per se brilliant “Wielding Influence”-rules: They work; and work well. I had to read the rules twice to get how they work. I am pretty confident that this means that something, didactically, isn’t exactly perfect there. Answer: The sequence isn’t perfect; explaining the terms first, then going through step by step would have made more sense. If you don’t mind the like, then get this ASAP – this book is inspired and creative in all the right ways, and the emergence-engine? It’s gold.

My criticism and minor frustration with this book needs to be understood in context – with a bit of further polish, this could have managed to attain true greatness. Time and again, I found myself smiling from ear to ear, and frankly, I thought more than once that this is Top Ten of 2018 material. But at the same time, there are components where I could dismantle a couple of components of this book; and when I did a tally of the glitches…well, there are too many to justify 5 stars anymore.  So here I am; a reviewer who wrote a vast, rambling tangent on how amazing this setting can be, who adores many of the innovations herein to bits…and who is beholden to the standards established by his own metrics. To quote ole’ Faust “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust” (Lit.: “Two souls inhabit, alas, my breast”, often rather badly translated as “two hearts are beating, alas, in my breast”) – I genuinely love this book, but it also frustrates me.

Ultimately, this guide is a creative and inspired book; but it also is one that is slightly more clunky, slightly less refined than it could have been. While it doesn’t reach the excellence that it very much deserved to attain, this still is a book that provides a metric ton of awesome concepts, evocative lore and great ideas. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down for the purpose of this platform – but this is one of the instances, where the book still gets my seal of approval. If the concepts I touched upon intrigue you even in the slightest, then check this out. You won’t regret it.

You can get this inspired, massive toolkit/campaign setting for 5e here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

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