This massive book clocks in at 82 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 78 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Before I dive into this massive book, let me ramble for a second: As quite a few of you know, most people looking for a convenient label for me, would describe me as either a nerd, a metal-head or as a goth – most of the time, any combination of the above is utilized. It should hence come as no surprise that I’m into vampires – like, a lot. Okay, one may speak of an almost unhealthy obsession with the mythologies – from strange real-world myths to literature, I have read more on the feasters of blood than on any other fantastic creature. I also have probably spent too much time properly analyzing Dracula and similar early vampire fiction like Varney, constructing different interpretations and weighing the pros and cons of academia’s diverse readings.
Indeed, vampirism, from the very earliest childhood on, has always exerted its allure in a disproportionate fashion on me. The imagery of Snow-White, the longing for immortality and the blending of Eros and Thanatos, the imagery of blood – it resonates deeply with me. Where many of my friends enjoyed the tales of Raistlin and his fellows or enjoyed the adventures of Elminster, my true (anti-) hero of old, my favorite old-school character, bar none, will always remain Strahd Von Zarovich. No, not the horribly butchered one from 3.5’s Ravenloft-rerelease by WotC, but the classic one that Arthaus kept alive (in a figurative sense) in theme and tone before their license was revoked. And yes, if you have to know – for me, the end of the superb 3pp-Ravenloft-line was a crippling blow of significantly higher proportions than the soon-to-follow sundering of the realms via the spellplague. (If you didn’t care about either and considered the other takes superior- I don’t judge, mind you.)
I have hence played Ravenloft for over 10 years of my life and expanded the mythology of the setting in a huge amount of forms, not the least of which would be a vast array of vampire-strains – beginning with conversions of just about all VtM-bloodlines, I worked my way through mythology to create the super-powerful, highly lethal foes I wanted. Yes, I *am* opinionated regarding vampires. I, for example, believe that PFRPG nerfed them too much. I furthermore believe that playing vampires is awesome, but also an issue, since it poses an essentially unsolvable conundrum when used in any vanilla d20-based game.
The conundrum I’m talking about, is the Buffy-issue. Vampires are awesome because of the cool things they can do – their speed, supernatural powers, etc. – essentially, they constitute an eroticized power-fantasy that resonates with the ID. The issue begins, when, like in the serialization of Buffy, the vampire becomes a common adversary or an anti-hero. We have an issue of narrative cohesion – while playing a troubled character or anti-hero allows us to delve into the notions that exert the fascination of vampires in the first place, ultimately, it necessarily undermines a foundation of the shared experience that is inherent in roleplaying when such a transformation is singular and not a phenomenon provided without distinction to all players. In more direct terms – if only one player gets the cool toys and power, the others will be fed up. If the vampire is hamstrung by being balanced in a traditional notion against the mortal races, the experience will necessarily feel like a bland caricature of what we *truly* want out of playing a vampire. It is due to this conundrum, that VtM, for example, assumes all-vampire groups as a default…and it is this endeavor of enabling the full-blown vamp-experience that makes mastering for a mixed-clan coterie, with all disparate passions and allegiances exacerbated by vampirism’s tropes such a colossal pain in the rectum. Yes. I’ve been there. Good ole’ WoD – R.I.P.
So this is the general issue that is the base underlying problem faced by this book. A second issue would be, akin to VtM, the necessity of establishing the psychology and social structure of the vampiric society – essentially, here, the book takes a good look at Vampire and translates the crucial enablers for vampiric roleplaying, for establishing a believable society, into PFRPG: From the taboo of one’s lair to the importance of the masquerade, here called “occultation” to matters of respect, the vampiric mindset and the rules governing the society of the night are covered -as is the process of siring new vampires (which, as per this book, costs XP) and the impact of vampires in the lightless depths of the underdark.
How does this book, then, depict vampires? Well, first of all, it treats vampirism as an acquired template – the only imho feasible way to handle the transformation – at least from my experience as I’ve used this particular set-up in my game, offsetting the benefits of the template versus other story-based rewards I handed out to the non-vampires in the group. Vampires as depicted herein gain darkvision 60 ft or extend it by 30 ft., get primary natural vampire fangs and, when used to damage foes that contain blood, provide 1/2 the damage-value as temporary hit points that stack with themselves, up to 1/2 of the maximum of the vampires hit points, lasting for 1 hour. Yes, this essentially provides a means to add 1/2 your hit points temporarily. Vampires also receive channel resistance +4 and may choose from several SPs – disguise self, charm animal and person (later also monster), an animal companion at class level – 3 or two claws – which, I assume, are primary weapons as per the claw standard – still, would have been nice to note, since there are different claw/claw/bite-combo-precedence cases. These claws can also enhance the temporary hit points, which renders them extremely strong when compared to the SPs with their limited daily caps. I encourage GMs using this book to eliminate the temporary hit point gain via claws for PCs to maintain balance. Vampires as depicted here cast no shadow or reflection and suffer from the Thirst – this can only be slaked via blood ingested via the bite, with a paltry 10 hit points per night being enough to slake the thirst for another night – nasty at low levels, but pretty soon inconsequential. Vampires exposed to sunlight do not perish as per these rules, instead being exhausted and taking a -4 penalty to all level-based variables. Furthermore, vampires have to choose one of several weaknesses – vulnerability to holy symbols, a weakened physiology, +15% fire damage (odd – PFRPG usually does not use +1/4 regarding damage factors…)…or Arithmomania, in a homage of our Sesame Street’s good ole’ count. Vampires get Str, Int, Wis or Cha +2 as well as Bluff and Diplomacy +2 and clock in at a total CR +1. It should be noted that, thankfully, optional restrictions to sapient life have been included as rules-alternatives.
Yes, the vampire is strong as presented here – but the pdf acknowledges this and suggests a whole-vampire campaign as the default modus operandi – and concisely presented modifications regarding playing characters sans Con-score are provided.
Death’s Kiss, the mark of transformation, also is properly represented. Obviously, sooner or later, one will be tempted to streamline the process of feeding in such a campaign – this is handled with a skill-check of Bluff, Stealth or Survival-check versus DC 15 + the Alert level. (Though personally, I would disallow e.g. Survival in a Metropolis and Bluff in a wasteland…) Success provides 5 hp worth of feeding, + 5 per point the DC was exceeded. Failure increases a settlement’s Alert Level by +2. The alert-system, one of the coolest mechanics introduced here, ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 representing peace and 10 meaning full-blown manhunt. Alert Level is increased when provocations are witnessed – these would be sightings, strange occurrences, etc. – a total of Alert Level occurrences raise the level by +1 – an Alert level of 4 is raised to 5 after 4 provocations. Now the intriguing thing here is that settlements with e.g. dark secrets, superstitious places etc. react differently and that this system actually interacts with the settlement statblock rules utilized in PFRPG – and yes, alert levels and infractions of vampiric occultation are all covered, including concise definitions of the alert level-groups with proper rules-ramifications -if you’re a vampire, you better learn your spycraft and cover-ups… Settlement size also features into this general notion – so yeah, this system should be considered a prime addition to this book and from what I have gleaned, the modifications of the respective levels are sufficient enough to make vampires want to avoid mobs…
Further observations for vampire campaigns go into a level of detail I did not expect, including “coming out” as a vampire – and yes, I used this analogue consciously as a note towards the homoeroticism that is just as much part of the vampiric subtext as that of hetero-normative erotica.
At this point, let me comment on a peculiar tidbit – I actually have seen the pre-alpha of this book, the very first iteration of it and thus have a in-depth insight into what has changed. A couple of times so far, I have mentioned explicitly “in PFRPG” or “changed” – this was no lapse on my part. Indeed, this book began as the PFRPG-conversion of Green Ronin’s nice 3.X-resource “Fang & Fury” – though, quite frankly, this book does not have much in common with it any more. Where the pre-alpha I provided basic feedback (essentially: “Get this back to the drawing board.”) pretty much was defined by a point-by-point-conversion that missed the more subtle changes in design philosophy (and average quality), the authors have since then gone and utterly changed this whole beast – this has just about nothing to do with its predecessor and the book is infinitely better off for it!
For once, would you like to play a vampire’s equivalent of a paladin? The Nightguard archetype would be just what you’re looking for – essentially, this is a great representation of the fallen knight that clings to a rigid code of conduct, yet still sees his abilities changed, with more and more nemeses replacing mercies. The Frenzied Slayer Barbarian archetype is interesting in that the frenzy they exhibit is Dex-based.
The pdf also provides PrCs and I’m not talking about updates of the exceedingly lame ones from Fang and Fury – greater vampires get d8, 4+Int skills, 2 levels of class feature progression 3/4 BAB-progression and good Fort- and Will-saves – the 5-level PrC is essentially a vampiric paragon class that allows for more vampiric powers, attribute upgrades, mist form – what you’d expect. I like it! The Lethe Adept, at 4+Int skills, d8, !1/2 BAB, Fort- and Will-progression and 7/10th manifesting progression, would be the psionic PrC contained herein. Lethe Adepts may feed via the causing of mental ability-scores and are superb puppeteers and mind-control specialists – at high levels, they may literally will their “hollow puppets” to die as a capstone. No save, just a HD-cap. Ouch. Awesome!
Sussuratori would be, flavor-wise, the secret-keepers and police of the vampires – essentially the enforcers and information control guys and gals – at full BAB-progression, 1/2 Fort- and Will-save progression, 5 maneuvers known and 3 maneuvers-readied as progression – yes, this would be a Path of War-PrC. At d8 and 4+Int skills per level, Sussuratori are masters of bringing their prey in alive and striking silently. Rather annoyingly, the alignment-based bonuses “axiomatic” as a lawful version of “holy” can be found here – considered them clunky and superfluous in Path of War, still consider them bad design here. But that is just me being cranky. This general level of crankiness is quite frankly offset by some of the coolest abilities ever – like preparing a special coffin, into which your subdued prey is then teleported. Awesome for extractions! Just as the increased nonlethal damage output that may silence its victims. At the same time, I can nitpick this ability- it is not codified to act as a conjuration [teleportation]-ability, which hence makes it RAW impossible to counter or prevent. Oh well, the capstone allows them to pronounce encounters anathema – accounts shrivel, people can’t talk about it – talk about a conspiracy of silence. Obviously, the power-level here is geared towards Path of War, so the usual disclaimer applies due to the system – theme-wise, the PrC is just ridiculously awesome – to the point where I’m going to scavenge the friggin’ hell out of it for my home-campaign…
The 5-level Black Templar has 3/4 BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-save progression, d8, 2+Int skills per level and full veilweaving progression – yes, this also has new fodder for the extremely promising akashic mystery-system. The class allows for a touch attack of 1d8 per class level +Con-modifier. Yes, Con, for they are per default assumed to be the living who steal essence from their foes alongside the temporary hit points gained. The class may expend these hit points to generate debuff zones and transform foes defeated via essence burn into zombies under his control.
This ability is as problematic as you’d expect it to be – for one, this fails the kitten-test HARD. Secondly, the stolen temporary essence allows for the continuous maintenance of an unlimited essence-burning option of up to twice the character’s level – level, mind you, not class level. Granted, they only last for class level + Con-mod minutes, but the ability still pretty much allows any PC with a bag o’ kittens a massive advantage. Yes, this PrC is evil-only, but in the hands of an evil PC…ouch. Take a look at the essence available, the ONE limiting factor of Akashic classes.
EDIT: I’m only human and I firmly believe in OPENLY standing up for my mistakes, so there you go: My original review got one thing wrong – the Black Templar’s temporary essence caps at 2 times the class level, which renders my original statement of escalation hyperbole. So let me state this loud and clear – I made a mistake and profusely apologize for this. Thankfully, my players did not make this mistake when we played -they never drained more than two kittens in the sample adventure I ran this in. Once again: Mea Maxima Culpa!
No, you do not only get essence for touching akashic creatures or characters. One touch, at fifth level, nets you 5 essence, which means that 2 kittens net you the 10 temporary essence you require. That would be 12 seconds for this charging, which, provided a halfway decent Con-score, leaves enough room to annihilate your foe. So, the only other class features and options that provides temporary essence would be Bloody Shroud’s body-bind and the guru’s capstone ability Immortal Essence – but that one’s temporary essence only lasts for Wis-mod rounds and requires the expenditure of stunning fist via the sever the flow-ability, making it limited. So, where’s the issue? Essentially, the set-up for akashic classes is one of resource-management: They are balanced by making the player’s choice matter – essence burn is nasty and is a choice that decreases the otherwise pretty flexible and awesome resources of the system: Essentially, you can go with passive benefits or get the more awesome, burn-powered effects – but for that, your resources for the day slightly decrease, meaning you can’t perform it all the time. Even a one-level dip into this class allows a Black Templar to bypass this via a readily available array of essence to be expended sans repercussions. Michael Sayre has pointed out that the PrC does not gain essence per se and this is indeed a limiting factor, though it’s one that merits specific mentioning once the Akashic supplemental material hits sites, since e.g. psioncis and spellcasting treat this kind of interaction with a PrC differently. I maintain, though, that this is less of a problem that one should assume – since burn can be completely relegated to the temporary essence and since temporary essence can easily, quickly and more reliably regained in combat than with the guru’s capstone and lasts longer to boot, this PrC still gets rid of this limiting factor, making it possible to maintain the existing veils more persistently.
These guys may also infuse devastating poisonous essence into their adversaries and finally, make their undead permanent. A nasty PrC indeed and one I’m a bit weary off – the touch attack’s significant damage, when combined with e.g. the guru’s damage-output, can result in levels of damage that are rather nasty. In short – I consider this PrC pretty broken in a variety of ways and won’t allow this for mortal PCs unless in a vampire campaign to even the odds and I hereby warn GMs of the combo-potential of this one – it’s not bad or broken in every context, mind you, but it can pretty easily be made VERY, very nasty and highly problematic.
The pdf also provides a significant array of feats to customize your vampire – from closer semblance to the living to enablers – i.e. influencing undead with bardic performances, adding bites to initiated strikes, ignore the mind-affecting immunity of undead – the feats generally provide nice ways of evening the playing field for the undead. Essentially, the feats here are enablers, i.e. feats that render abilities valid in a context where they otherwise wouldn’t be. I like that.
However, personally, I am not a fan of the “ignore immunity”-type of design; it also brings me back to my first campaign, where multiple ignore/don’t ignore-effects stacked and stockpiled – a solution that utilizes scaling via HD, e.g. HD+4, would have rendered these imho better balanced and made them feasible for regular campaigns -as written, the content herein fits within the framework of Lords of the Night, but beyond it, I’d be weary of quite a few of them, for example From faking death to undead companions – the concepts are solid, so please do not get the wrong impression here.
Next up would be a new martial disciplines for the Path of War-system practiced by the organization Scales of Mourning – the Unquiet Grave. The Scales of Mourning is interesting in that it actually provides an oath of initiation – you trade one of your disciplines for Unquiet Grave as a consequence of initiation into the order. Oh, and you become immortal (ceasing to age etc.) when joining this order…but only for as long as you maintain your oath. And this one is intriguing – essentially, they perceive the duality of life and death, positive and negative energy, as a necessity and thus try to keep the two forces in balance, which may pit them versus necromancers…or use them to counter the balance of rampant growth via positive energy. Harbingers, mystics, stalkers and warlords may learn this discipline and the associated weapon groups would be axes, natural, polearms and scythes, with the relevant skill being Knowledge (religion). I *love* this fluffy introduction and the themes evoked here.
The discipline is different in a selection of unique ways. For one, strikes are supernatural abilities and may be expended to utilize negative energy to heal the undead for 1d8 points per expended strike. Quite a few maneuvers have second effects that are only executed if the initiator is undead – these would be marked with “Grace Call,” though the initiator has control on whether or not to have this additional effect work. Several of the maneuvers grant temporary hit points that stack with themselves (urgh) and other maneuvers, up to a total of +1/2 the initiator’s maximum hit points, for up to one hour. Stacking with itself is a pretty straight and imho unnecessary deviation from how default sources of temporary hit points work, so yeah, not sold here. It should also be noted that the expenditure of strikes, with them being an unlimited resource, allows for the infinite healing of the undead – which is NOT something I’d allow – even in a high-powered vampire-campaign.
Let me go on a slight tangent here – one of the crucial flaws of Path of War and, to me, the most jarring one, worse even than failed kitten-tests, was never the damage-output. Yes, the system offers a low optimization threshold,. Yes, the damage is massive. But for *certain* campaigns, this system, as mentioned in my reviews of its files time and again, is just what the doctor ordered. And its basic system is FUN. While I’m no fan of the utterly easily exploitable skill-roll versus X-mechanics, this is still something that may not feature as problematic in certain campaigns, while in others, it can wreck all kinds of havoc. However, more so than the design sin that failed kitten-tests will ALWAYS remain, the infinite healing exploits are just horrible, and I will fight anyone on that. Healing is a limited resource in PFRPG – and in every game I participated in, for that matter. Killing the limitation on it radically changes the game and invalidates the assumptions regarding encounters per day, adventure structure, etc. In regular Path of War, the exploits at least require some levels and skill to pull off – not much, granted, but still. Here, it’s the basic feature of the discipline. first level infinite healing. For groups, if you’re playing all vampire/undead.
Interestingly, the discipline actually works pretty well in non-vampire games that does not sport characters healed via negative energy – in the hands of a non-dhampir etc., this discipline’s broken infinite healing can mainly be used to stitch the minions of your necromancer buddy together – which is okay. The problem is, however, that both the vampires to which this is devoted and a certain number of races do not suffer from this restriction.
Here, we have a discipline that allows a first level vampire initiator infinite healing – as well as ALL non-undead characters in the group. If you combine this with any option (and there are quite a few) that allows you to transfer HP to allies, and you have infinite healing for the whole group, even mortal PCs. You are welcome to differ in your opinion, of course, but as far as I’m concerned, infinite healing is BROKEN in ANY campaign, even in (most) superhero-power-level-style ones. Even for a single character, much less talking about a whole party.
Yes, combat-utility is limited, but this still means you go fresh and fully rested into just about every battle. So, a GM in a less extreme campaign is left with either a gentleman’s agreement or a mechanic that negates some very basic balance-assumptions of the game. Sure, if you’re all about waltzing over your foes, this is fun – but I can wager that, for many groups, this utterly breaks the game, the challenge and thus also, the fun.
“The following section presents a new martial tradition and martial discipline, both of which are suitable for any campaign.” is the intro of the maneuver section – and this is, quite frankly, horribly wrong. Infinite healing is not something “suitable for any campaign.” And seriously, this breaks my heart, because I actually like Unquiet Grave. Yes, didn’t see that coming now, did you?
Okay, so how do the maneuvers of the discipline fare? Extremely well. No, seriously. The imagery is glorious. Temporary hit points via attacks may be nice – but what about the gravekeeper’s hood-boost that temporarily makes you immune to blindness? Yeah, damn cool visuals – though, on a nitpicky side, channel resistance increased as offered by its Grave Call usually have a “+” before the increase – but minor hiccups like this do not impede the functionality of the boost or my final rating.
I also enjoy negative energy resistance (or positive energy resistance for the undead!) – or what about a counter that temporarily shrivels your anatomy, revealing the skeleton beneath, while also granting you DR 5/bludgeoning? I’m a bit weary of a 3rd level strike temporarily preventing ANY healing on a failed save, though. A stance that prevents you from being slowed too much by mimicking the unshakeable determination of revenants would also be awesome. While I love the imagery, the Headsmen’s Descending Strike can be considered problematic – if your foe is below 1/4 maximum hit points, this one means save-less insta-death. Yes, in a fight versus e.g. a dragon, this strike can be terribly anti-climactic. 6th level imho is too soon for this power – I would have expected it at 8th level, the soonest. Still, there is a LOT to like -for one, no skill versus AC attacks. Additionally, the imagery resonates with me and is awesome in many cases. Indeed, were it not for the infinite healing exploit, I’d consider this the best, most balanced and interesting discipline created so far – the additional effects and tactical dimensions offered by the Grave Call are absolutely awesome. So yes, I will use this…and ignore the hell out of the infinite-healing-option.
The book also sports an array of different spells and powers the undead will indeed cherish – positive energy resistance (or healing inhibition), belching forth clouds of negative energy, emitting blazes of sunlight – some pretty nice options. Making it hard to communicate the contents of a text? Now that is interesting, as is temporarily making the undead come to life again – but with their undead personality intact… What about dissipating into a swarm of bats to move stealthily around, Castlevania Lords of Shadows II-style, interestingly, as a transmutation spell? Now the letter is awesome, but it does have some minor issues – as written, the spell allows for the caster to teleport via the bats, when obviously, line of effect would be required – essentially, the spell would allow, RAW, to get past walls of force, when from the fluff, the ability to move to the area should be required as a caveat. Vascular Snare is interesting – as a 3rd level spell, it reduces a creature’s movement to 0 on a failed save, as veins tie it into place. Ripping the target free is possible, but deals 1d6 untyped damage per CL, cap 10d6. The reduced AoE and means to not rip free keep this a balanced and interesting option, though the spell would have benefited from a proper definition whether it can be cast on flying or swimming targets not in contact with the ground – a slightly more precise target-line would have made this perfect, though, admittedly, this would be a nitpick.
The new powers contained herein are similarly themed around the theme of acidic blood and delightfully gory visuals – the 5th level power Kyria’s Vascular Disruption, for example, lets the target erupt in a spray of blood, which then congeals into a disgusting, entangling web. I love this power, though the entangling effects of the blood should allow for a Ref-save to negate for the creatures in the AoE. What about a power that allows you to essentially create a contingency stored power to reflexively strike back at your foe? Yeah, pretty damn neat! Of course, an occultation-enhancing power would also be here. The best thing about this section remains something different: Jade Ripley’s Wilder-supplement went one step too far regarding the power-level of some powers contained within, but was truly distinguished in several design-decisions: First of all, the powers had numerous, interesting augments and the wilder-exclusive surge-augments constituted a design-element that actually made me enjoy a class I considered somewhat weak and bland. Now this book’s powers have inherited the augment-option diversity and great concept of surge augments, but their balance actually feels right for the respective levels – strong, yes, but not OP. This section made me a very happy man, for I seriously hate bashing on awesome concepts due to balance-screws being off – this is not the case here. Kudos and two thumbs up!!
Now obviously, the undead have their own need for magic items – sun-negating parasols for the discerning bloodsucking lady, for example. Or what about a blood vault, which allows for the storage of temporary hit points for a later use…but at a certain risk? What about an artifact that can be attuned to a servant – and, upon being slain, the servant dies and turns into…well, you. Nasty and great for recurring villains! GMs will also appreciate this pdf sporting an array of NPC statblocks for the guardsmen – based on heroic classes and WBL – and that is GOOD. Seriously, putting NPC-classes versus vampire PCs will not yield good results, so personally, I very much welcome this decision. And yes, the builds are pretty solid – nice mini-codex.
The pdf goes beyond that, though – the final chapter herein is devoted to an intriguing array of builds of unique NPCs, as it depicts the Leatherworker’s Guild, a sample society of the undead with its own rules and power-structures – much like a miniature vampire-subculture in VtM, we are introduced to multiple, well-crafted and pretty interesting factions that vie for control within the guild, all sporting different ideologies ranging from predatory, but somewhat benevolent to indifferent and downright vicious supremacism. The society depicted utilizes the Dreamscarred Press subsystems from Psionics to Path of War and Akashic Mysteries and generally delivers some pretty solid builds for the sample characters featured (ignoring my rules-concerns above since these guys and gals are subject to the GM’s control)- but the true star here would be, once again, the fluff: From the mysterious, cloaked reaper that eliminates vampires (or mortals) that compromise the guild to the child-vampire “The Waif” that guards children and brutally destroys any undead daring to touch them, the characters are intriguing. The locations sketched also fall into this category – from the neutral-ground vampire-pub to the friendly mummy-granny, the panorama drawn here can be considered pretty awesome. In fact, if this section managed to make me want to see some modules in this setting. Kudos!
Editing and formatting are good on both formal and rules-levels – while there are minor oversight snd types here and there (e.g. a missing word or a blank space too much), generally, the formal criteria of the book are nice. Layout adheres to a blood-spattered variant of Dreamscarred Press’ two-column full-color standard and the pdf sport quite a nice array of solid b/w-artwork – though you should not expect the level of awesome of the gorgeous cover. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience with nested bookmarks.
When I first read this final version, I was thoroughly surprised – to get that right out of the way: Even if you have “Fang & Fury”, this is worth getting – it has next to nothing in common with its “inspiration” – in fact, it is essentially a whole new book. The only things I really missed from Green Ronin’s book were some of the delightfully twisted vampire deities, but apart from that, the fluff and content provided herein mops the floor with the direct predecessor.
This book also provides one massive issue for me as a reviewer: How should I rate this?
Okay, let’s start with the ugly: We have failed kitten-tests here, beyond the option to only draw sustenance from intelligent beings. With a bag of kittens drained by the vampire, quite a few of the options herein can horribly cheesed. In the spirit of civil debate and since, by now I have ranted long and extensively about this topic, I’d like to draw your attention to Jade Ripley’s blog – there, the author provides a well-reasoned justification for ignoring kitten-able abilities. Check it out! This is not intended as an attack, but rather as a rebuttal: It is, of course, a valid interjection to assume that GMs who have an issue with cheesing of abilities like this can easily resolve the issue. My point is, though, that there should not be a need for gentlemen’s agreements like this in good design. I’m not sure whether I am a singular case, but I wager I’m not: I *want* my PCs to succeed, but I also want to challenge them. Now as soon as a player has an ability that can be cheesed via the kitten-test, the temptation of doing just that will always be there – and if it does show up, both the player AND the GM will be inclined to potentially allow it to e.g. prevent a TPK. This psychological pressure put on a group’s social dynamic can create lingering resentment by the player, who might feel that the GM has “unfairly” limited his or her options and puts a strain on the GM – who wants his players to have fun. Good design does not generate situations like this and hence, I consider kitten-failures as rather serious design-issues. Your mileage may vary, of course.
This pdf, while having the Path of War-discipline I like best, the one with the most smooth and streamlined and arguably, balanced options, also offers the most bafflingly broken infinite healing exploit I’ve seen in quite a while. I am quite honestly baffled at the design-decision to mar an otherwise flavorful discipline this way – it imposes a very singular vision of playstyle on a discipline that otherwise would allow for a significantly broader application – essentially, Unquiet Grave unceremoniously shoots itself in the proverbial foot, when it’s an excellent sprinter. Finally, the veilweaving PrC…well, I’ve ranted about this one in the above. There are minor hiccups here and there, but those would be the big issues I see – and they ultimately make this pdf, if one is to read it as a “allow everything” player-supplement, problematic – to the point I’d at the very highest, could go for something along the lines of 3.5 stars – for there are A LOT of downright awesome (and well-balanced!) options herein that make the unnecessary and to me, incomprehensible, issues stand out even more.
So that’s how I’d rate this as a player-supplement.
The problem is – this is and is not a player-supplement. It can be read as such, sure.
But it could also be read as a campaign overlay or template as suggested in the beginning. And the book excels in this category in a triumphant fashion – first of all, the balance-concerns vanish since the GM can simply make them NPC-only. Problem solved. Secondly, this book not only is a valuable resource for vampire games: The alert-system provided is simple, easy to grasp, can be modified by any halfway decent GM and could just as well be used for lycanthrope-games or any gothic horror/dark fantasy campaign. The visuals of the new spells and powers and their effects allow you to create a grittier setting when used properly and the book continues to provide solid adversary-watchmen and an inspired vampire society. The fluff of this book is surprisingly captivating and compelling. While personally, I’ll make the required 10 hp per day versus the thirst multiplied by the character’s level to represent an increasing requirement of food for older vampires, that is just my personal taste and the fact that the system supports this is nice. Personally, I think summoned creatures, the easiest way to cheese the thirst, should be exempt from being valid options to slake one’s thirst, but that is pretty much the only gripe I have against the basic system here. Conversely, one can take a page from Vampire and have certain vampires require noble blood, etc. – all these options are supported by a solid rules-frame.
So how did Jade Ripley and Alex Clatworthy respond to the Buffy-conundrum? Well, by making this a campaign-overlay. The vampires here are VAMPIRES. They are not nerfed losers, they are badass, strong and deadly – and hence, the basic assumption is that of a corresponding campaign. Now mind, you, I playtested this book quite extensively, with the subsystems and my complaints regarding infinite healing and the above issues remained valid in that context. However, at the same time, the alert-system and rest of the content – it’s, in one word, superb. As a GM’s toolbox, this book constitutes the by far best “Play a vampire”-book for any d20-based system I know. In fact, I like this book so much that I *really* would love a proper vampiric AP utilizing these rules.
If you modify this book’s content and file off the few, but jarringly problematic pieces of content, you will quite frankly receive an absolutely awesome source-book to play the lords of the night. In fact, as a person and someone with his own fair share of design-experience, I will simply modify the problematic pieces – a task of ~10 minutes and what I get is an absolutely stellar, inspired resource. For me as a private person, there’s no way around it – this resource blew me away. I really am inspired by it. As a private person, I can definitely recommend this…with one caveat:
For one, the veilweaving rules are still in the process of being tweaked. While promising to be perhaps one of the most awesome resources ever, this pdf’s PrC, at least as written, provides some utterly nasty options that break the system’s limiting factors. I am convinced infinite essence burning provides significant issues with a system that otherwise is on a great way to becoming an awesome, balanced option -essentially, it makes essence burning infinite (Go ahead, look at easily regained temporary essence in Akashic Mysteries – note something?), something that directly contradicts the very notion of the decision to use essence burning in the first place – indeed, this provides more easily regainable essence than a class capstone. In the end, this PrC makes an akashic class behave like a path of war class, sans the system-inherent inhibitors and with the greatly escalated power-level that is NOT inherent in AM. Akashic Mysteries designer Michael Sayre has commented on the Black Templar on my home page, among other things pointing out a crucial glitch in my review, so thanks for that! I still maintain that the PrC undermines the system itself and is pretty problematic, though.
Secondly, as mentioned above, I strongly urge MOST GMs to tweak Unquiet Grave if they include it in their campaign, even within the paradigm of Path of War – unless they don’t mind vampire initiators with infinite healing…and groups with infinite healing. I don’t judge, if that’s how you roll – but quite a few GMs out there will not like this. The discipline’s easy access to significant temporary hit points on its own already is strong enough -I playtested it sans the infinite healing and it played just fine with the other Path of War material.
Both components have one thing in common: They may fit a *certain* style of campaign. But put them into the hands of any halfway decent min-maxer and you’ll suffer. Again, this may very well be within the paradigm of your campaign. If your players smash through most published modules anyway, you’ll want to keep a close eye on this book and make sure these components stay far out of the reach of your players. If, of course, your campaign is pretty high-powered anyways and you have no issues with one-shot BBEG-kills and the like, then this obviously won’t hurt your playing experience. In short, I do not get, at all, why these options restrict themselves by being more specific than they quite frankly deserve to be. I see a book of great content that could have been the ultimate vampire book for any d20-based game and am a bit frustrated.
But wait…in a way, it still is by far the best take on the subject matter. Necromancers of the Northwest’s free vampire rules are okay, but they depict essentially a vampire that is more balanced against the core-races and manage vampirism via racial classes and thus loses some of the badassery of being a vampire. Fire Mountain Games’ feat-based vampire-apotheosis may be functional, but personally, I always hated it. I also am not convinced that, even with the modifications mentioned in “Way of the Wicked #7”, transition to a vampire-themed campaign properly works there. So in view of these two…yes Lords of the Night is by FAR the best, most compelling, most awesome option available for the subject matter- to the point, where, let me reiterate that, I *really* would love to see some vampire modules or even a whole AP using these rules. And, once again, a halfway decent GM can customize this book to suit his or her table’s unique predispositions. I just wish that was not required, that I could unanimously celebrate and praise this.
Indeed, if this book’s few rough edges had been polished off, this would be a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 – it’s that compelling, that well-written, that awesome in its visuals. It gets vampires right. At the same time, as a reviewer, I can’t for the life of me, rate this as a perfect book, as something for every table – an inexperienced GM with this book can potentially have a rather rude awakening. I sincerely hope that you, my readers, could draw enough information from this review to make up your own mind about this book and, furthermore, I sincerely hope that you either take my criticism, shrug it off and leave it or appreciate it and avoid an unnecessary pitfall in an otherwise great resource.
Finally, if you’re looking for a way to make vampire adversaries as awesome as they should be, if you read this as a monster-ecology for the GM, then you’d once again have one damn lethal, awesome 5 star+ seal book.
So, what will be my final verdict as a reviewer, you ask? Well, on a formal level, I can’t rate this as perfect, as much as I’d like to. However, what I *can* do is to add the sign of my personal appreciation to the book – and add my seal of approval. After careful deliberation, I will average the 3 possible ways and respective ratings for different readings and usages of this book.
So, we have:
-3.5, rounded down if read as an allow-all player supplement.
-5 stars + seal if read as a GM’s toolkit/campaign overlay
-5 stars + seal if read as a massive vampire ecology
My final “official” verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars + seal of approval – though I have to round down. Please bear in mind, that in the hands of a capable GM and with oversight, this still can be pretty much THE definite vampire resource as both a campaign toolkit and as an ecology.