Journals of Dread Vol. II – Secrets of the Skeleton
This installment of the Journals of Dread-series clocks in at 67 pages, 1page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 60 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
All right, so the first thing you’ll notice, is that this book, more so many others I’ve reviewed, is one that is set apart by the layout. It is impossible to discuss this product without stating clearly how crucial the layout is to the whole experience: This pdf’s baseline is one of a monster hunter’s journal, a black book handed down through the hands of grizzled veterans of the fight against the dark, and I’ve never seen a book embrace this concept so thoroughly. While the 1-column standard for booklet size means, ultimately, that sometimes statblocks take up more than one page, I found myself not caring about this slight inconvenience. Why? Because this is a perfect example of why layout artists rank among the all-too-often unsung heroes of the RPG-industry. You see, the pseudo-grimoire style conceit of rummaging through an old tome is nothing new per se; neither would be the use of heavily modified public domain art in conjunction with original pieces to create a quasi realistic aesthetic conceit. What is special, though, is the sheer lengths that this pdf goes to: Of course, this grimoires features ink-splotches and blood-spatters on some pages, but instead of alternating between them and fixed patterns, the book instead opts for new patterns on each page, some of which adding and further emphasizing the artwork within. Beyond that, ink bottles, quills, bones and other tools of the adventuring trade serve as knick-knacks that provide further variation.
Strange, seemingly indecipherable glyph-letters are annotations, probably in blood. I have never seen a supplement that manages to evoke this concise sense of being a book you can find in the depths of a necromancer’s lair, hidden beneath the body of a fallen paladin. Want to know how deep this level of commitment runs? A close glance at the glyphs, some applied brainpower, and you’ll realize that these are actual words – not just doodles. The red-lettered block of foreboding symbols on the editorial page indeed constitutes a warning to only use the content of this book for good. This utterly blew my mind. What I’m trying to say is simple: Layout and artist David Clingerman went far above and beyond to make this book shine, and his work deserves universal accolades. This is the level of thought and commitment that should have gone into the Van Richten’s Guides of old. His aesthetic work also provides the baseline for why this book works. He is so good, he managed to make an artwork that I am pretty sure I was familiar with, of a skeleton reaching, one that I know I hated, work, courtesy of adjusting it and making it fit into the universal theme of the book.
You see, in a nutshell, this could be summarized as an ecology of the skeleton – after a handwritten introduction, we have explanations on their behavior patterns, ecological impact (or lack thereof) and motivations before beginning with collating and expanding the options and variations known. We begin with a handy HD by CR table and associated XP and the explanation of the metrics of the base skeleton as an acquired template, before moving on into the 11 different variants of skeletal creatures presented within. This section does contain a familiar skull – there would be the Dread skeleton (CR +1) included for completion’s sake. The classic skeleton champion as a straight upgrade template to be added on top a skeleton can also be found – for old-school gamers: This does not refer to the classic circlet-bound creature. Burning skeletons that explode upon death, those that incessantly cackle, generating a fear aura, and elemental skeletons that can 1/day blast forth an elemental whip, can be found. The latter one has a verbiage that, while it deviates slightly from how energy affinity is usually worded, still remains unambiguous and fully functional, so not complaints on that front. The nigh-unstoppable and constantly reviving bloody skeleton is another classic that is discussed and reproduced within, and blood-draining, vampiric skeletons may similarly be found. Crystalline skeletons can be dangerous to strike and burst in shrapnel upon being destroyed, while mechanical skeletons have been enhanced with steel – a minor complaint here would be that this obviously, at one point, was a more complex offering, as the template refers to winged skeletons at one point, something not supported by the rest of the pdf. I personally enjoyed the inclusion of exoskeletons, basically undead vermin that contain a staggering (quite literally) amount of dust inside. Twice-transcended skeletons become more powerful: After having been vanquished as a skeleton, they return with an aura of unearthly whispers, with a nasty touch that gets its complex damage components right: It opens wounds, but does so NOT via negative energy.
The variant skeletal monsters section also includes an old acquaintance with the CR 5 black skeleton, superior two-weapon fighters that cause Strength damage with their attacks. At one CR higher, we have skeletal drakes that can breathe bone-shard cones that can potentially leave bleeding wounds. At CR 5, skeletal masters have a sickening touch and the ability to cast spells they know with spontaneously-applied metamagic feats known – which would be more impressive if the critter actually had metamagic feats. It does not. I am pretty sure, that it should have some kind of wildcard ability that allows for temporary metamagic feat gains. The CR 3 skeletal tutor has na aura that makes mindless undead self-aware and nets a bonus to undead nearby – minor complaint: There is no unholy bonus tin PFRPG. That’s supposed to be profane. Skeletal nobles clock in at CR 10 and represent a hideous amalgamation of knight and mount, with lead blades as a SP, deadly lance attacks – and yep, being somewhat centauric, it gets undersized weapons right.
The pdf also includes two mundane items – the bonecrusher hammer, a two-handed exotic hammer made to crush skeletons, and ribcage breastplates – both are properly codified and come with visual representations. Two magic items are included: Fanged skulls are helmets that net a bleed-inducing bite attack (size taken into account!) and 1/day vampiric touch (not italicized properly) on a target that’s bleeding. Graveyard dust can be used to bolster undead, granting them a bonus to atk and hit points per HD (should be temporary). Both items come with nice read-aloud text describing them. The pdf closes with the reinforce bone spell, available for sorc/wiz at spell level 3 – it’s a DR-granting buff that is more efficient for already mostly skeletal critters.
Editing and formatting on a formal and level can still be considered to be very good. While I noticed a few minor hiccups, none were bad. On a rules-language level, the pdf is slightly less refined, with a few components influencing rules integrity, though these remain few and few in between. Layout adheres to a 1-column full-color standard with plenty of b/w-artworks, and, as noted in the beginning, this pdf is truly gorgeous. David Clingerman did a fantastic job. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Kim Frandsen’s book of skeletal undead should, for all intents of purposes, not excite me as much as it does. Don’t get me wrong – the writing is good, and having all these skeletons in a book? Nice! Similarly, I think that the fact that this is so consistent in its aesthetics makes the book a valid handout (provided you don’t mind players having stats) is a pretty big plus. The main draw, though, is the sheer level of immersion that this ecology manages with its details, with the clear and obvious passion that went into this. I really love this, and the only reason this misses my seal would be the minor complaints regarding rules-relevant components. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this gorgeous ecology here on OBS!