Marshes of Malice
This massive hardcover clocks in at 190 pages once you take away SRD, editorial, etc. My review is based on the hardcover book. It should also be noted that I have backed the kickstarter that gave rise to this massive book. As Frog God Games books have a very high level of quality, are built to last, I do recommend getting the physical copy if you can.
All right, as you all know, my funds aren’t exactly plentiful these days, but when I can, I do back KS that I wholeheartedly believe in. Now, this book, in structure and spirit, is a sequel to the “Dunes of Desolation” and “Fields of Blood” books; retroactively, alongside “Dead Man’s Chest” and “Glades of Death” (originally released for 3.X), branded as part of the Perilous Vistas series of books.
Why should you care about this sequence/series? Well, “Dunes of Desolation” and “Fields of Blood” stand as singularly powerful examples of books that will go on to become underappreciated, sought-after classics. You see, when we think of 3.X Necromancer Games-modules, we probably think first of Rappan Athuk and Tomb of Abysthor, both of which have since been updated to more contemporary systems. At the same time, Necromancer Games’s library sports a ton of gems that are less widely-known, but still cherished, perhaps even more so, books that have gone on to define their respective niches.
In a way, this series, then, represents a hearkening back to books from an age long gone, to timeless supplements. When grognards talk, full of nostalgia, about old-school GM-supplements, they often refer to books that work, for a significant part, much akin to how Perilous Vistas books work. The difference is one that is based in both substance and ambition. While the progressively ever more fantastic settings grew more and more suffused with magic, more and more influenced by narrative demands imported from video-game aesthetics, a nigh-intangible virtue was lost, one that provides an impossible to replace assumption that precious few books dare to still operate under.
This assumption is, to me, of tantamount importance, particularly for sourcebooks dealing with environments, with special geographies. This assumption is the one of the mind that’s wide awake; an inherent assumption of inquisitiveness and a thirst for knowledge. The reader, the roleplayer, is assumed to be willing to actually realize and care about making a world plausible. Magic is an extension of, not the be-all, end-all component that defines the world. As such, the book begins as it should – with a detailed discussion of marshes. And bogs. And swamps. And fens. And what sets them apart from one another, what other names mean, etc. This distinction, not exclusively linguistic, teaches the reader something about real life…and the book proceeds to make these distinctions MATTER.
Now, fret not – this is no dry, scientific book. The tome is wholly in service to the use at the table, providing advice on campaigns in these environments and how they diverge from those in other wetlands environments. But while you’re reading this well-written information that will enhance your game, you automatically learn something. There is an assumption of intelligence and, in an age of dumbed down, compartmentalized information, makes the inquisitiveness, the reading of the material, actually rewarding and enlightening. As most of you will know, I am German; English is not my native tongue, and while I was cognizant and capable of differentiating between the different types of wetlands covered here, I’d have had a hard time differentiating between fens and marshes, for example. I can picture the environments well enough, but having these aspects explained in a succinct manner proved to be rather enlightening.
This general assumption of broadening one’s horizon, while also providing a definite guide to making the terrain matter also extends to the second chapter, wherein wetlands travel is covered. Here, the game-supplement component of this book becomes ever more important, as bodies of water are categorized, with probability of settlements along the respective bodies provided, which is a timeless aid for designing your own wetlands, regardless of system. This level of detail also extends to the placement and determination of terrain elements – with distinctions made between dry and rainy season. Modes of travel, with sample vehicles and cost to purchase wetlands mounds (which, yes, encompass alligators and hippopotami) and the importance of guides – all covered. This chapter is something I haven’t seen in a while – a truly timeless toolkit that makes world-building tighter.
Now, this is not where the book stops – Not even close. We all know that terrain ought to matter to adventuring, but frankly, there are precious few books that provide much in the way of actually extending your GM-toolkit regarding this crucial, often overlooked way of making an adventure more distinct. I am talking, of course, about hazards, and the book delivers in this aspect in spades. Beyond quicksand and the often overlooked issue of rust, we get concise rules for peat fires (which beg for a mid to high-level module centered around them!), sinkholes and marsh gasses…and even trees start mattering, from the cypress to the mangrove. As befitting of one of the most voracious environments inhabited by humans, we also get a metric ton of diseases and poisons…and notes on the hazards posed by ticks, mosquitoes, leeches, snakes and microorganisms. If you ever whip out filth fever for swamps after this chapter, you obviously forgot this book while prepping your game. Weather, ranging from hurricanes to flashfloods, visibility above and below water, means to determine daily temperature (alas, only in °F) – the book attempts to be truly encompassing, and it even takes temperate and boreal wetlands into account, including massive tables for wind speed, precipitation chance tables, etc. This chapter, even if you leave PFRPG behind or have done so, remains an inspiring read that sports rules-content that remains exceedingly easy to translate.
The same can be said about the skill-section that is up next. Want to construct canals, for example? The book has you covered. The equipment-section reflects this attention to detail and the obvious care that went into this book as well – where mosquitos become an issue, the nets to keep them at bay become important, and equipment to avoid immersion foot syndrome makes similarly sense – the book does not simply present dangers, it also accounts for the consequences of such dangers in a fantastic context. Speaking of which: Beyond peat bombs and similar alchemical items, the book takes the fantastic factor in a direction I considered to be interesting: Where most fantasy derives its notions from an old-world aesthetic, we have an issue here, namely that most swamplands in Europe have been transformed into dry land during the Middle Ages and after that. Nowadays, wetlands are rare around here, with moors and peat, where available, or remoteness usually associated with said environments. At the same time, the new world does offer a ton of material in the way of swamp/marsh-based cultural mythology that evolves to this day. From magical alligator boots, we move on to include multiple items that hearken closer to myths of the swamplands of the southern United States, including gris-gris; from the victory cigar to the devil’s fiddle, a subtle current of Americana suffuses this book in a way that renders the total, which includes sensible items like goggles of underwater vision or mangrove stilts more real by providing a cultural context that manages to bridge diverse cultural aesthetics.
While we’re on the subject of things that PCs will be interested in: Frog God Games’ Lost lands-books have always been interesting regarding the world they depict, but have only rarely managed to translate this to the aspect of rules, and this book does a better job than most at this task. While several feats herein are, ultimately, representations of flavorful options that contextualize, region-wise, a character, there are also some feats that are mechanically-relevant and interesting. For example, there is a feat that lets you substitute Will-save for Ref-save when you see an assault combing, but which balances the otherwise too potent benefit by the aforementioned limitation and a scaling, daily cap of maximum uses. A means to use channel energy to cure diseases via successful caster level checks also makes for an interesting option that frees up spell slots – you get the idea.
The feat chapter is better than we usually get in these book, and this design-paradigm also extends to the archetypes and class options presented. While these may not rank among the most legendary of character options, they are not intended as such – instead, the obvious goal here is to flavorful options that come with feasible benefits. In contrast to some such examples from other books, the benefits can be rather interesting, with bards getting, for example, Conga-based tricks for allies based on Step Up and subsequent feats. What about deprogrammer paladins that focus on wresting the lost from vile cults (including the means to infiltrate these cults and extract brainwashed folks with nonlethal means from them!)? Yes, these matter, more than I would have expected them to. Their craftsmanship has improved significantly. It should be noted that only core-classes are covered thus, though.
On a slightly nitpicky downside, the book also offers a ton of swamp-associated deities, which include gods from Dagon to Samedi, but it should be noted that no subdomains are noted, number of domains is inconsistent and there are no expanded components like inquisitions or the material from the Inner Sea Guide notes – this retains their viability for more games, but I still found myself slightly disappointed here. Slightly odd: The spell-section does note witches and alchemists, with spell-lists noted etc., but as noted, that does not extend to the archetypes. On the plus-side, you can almost see the poison creosotes, hear the banjos (btw. included among the magic items etc.) twang, when reading a spell like ball-and-chain. I know that I will make use of the xenophobia spell as a nasty escalation sooner, rather than later. The book also contains 11 new monsters, most of which come with unique and evocative tricks like melanin drain. The critters are creepy and feature some nasty plants – and they get amazing b/w-artworks.
Speaking about the visual side of things: This book sports amazing b/w-artworks and the 3 modules contained within not only come with neat b/w-maps – the back of the book actually contains player-friendly b/w-maps, allowing you to cut up and hand them out as the PCs progress, or use them in VTT sans breaking immersion. Better yet: These are not token-PC-maps: Secret doors, for example, have been redacted for your convenience. I’ve said it time and again – this should be industry standard.
I should also note that the book comes with a massive appendix that contains a ton of sample wetlands events (if you need some additional tricks, consult Raging Swan Press’ superb GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing-book.) as well as more than 3 pages of wandering monster suggestions that encompass bestiaries I – V as well as the Frog’s own massive Tome of Horrors Complete.
All right, this is as far as I can go without going into SPOILERS, for we now take a look at the adventures contained herein. While I will remain brief, players wishing to experience these for themselves should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Excellent! “The Hunter’s Game” is a 4th level module that takes place in the Dyrgalas swamp, and it basically represents a twist on the “Heart of Darkness” storyline, sans the colonial twist – instead, the module basically presents a diversified picture of the narrative, with the lizardfolk cast in the role of natives as a more alien, yet sympathetic and non-evil role. From hex-ploration to a more diversified and complex cadre of evil beings at the metaphyiscal heart of darkness here, the module provides an experience that is, to nowadays’ audience, more nuanced that Conrad’s classic without losing its punch.
The second adventure, Fishers of Man, is intended for 6th level characters and takes place in the Dragonmarsh Lowlands, and is basically fantastic horror that begins light-hearted enough: The PCs are tasked to look after a remote fishery, and early encounters with gremlins and similar beings create a slightly sinister, but not necessarily brutal environment. That changes once the PCs arrive at the fishery in question, where the horrors of steam-engine less, but still thematically industrial fishery have been switched, using crabmen and associated beings turning the tables upon men, making the locale basically an industrial human-processing plant. Yes. It’s grisly and really effective, and it manages to achieve this without resorting to magical steam-engines, retaining both feet firmly-planted in the quasi-medieval or quasi-early modern sensibilities (depending on your interpretation) of the Lost Lands. This is one of the most striking and difficult modules to have come out of this series.
The third adventure, “Forgive and Regret,” is intended for 8th level characters, and represents an event-driven exploration of a haunted bog, created by genocide most foul. In this accursed master uses his domain to deadly precision – this is, very much, a game of pitting the wits of a truly deadly enemy who knows the territory, against the PCs –a Ravenloft/Black Dogs-ish monster hunt against a potent and deadly vampiric mastermind. Compared to the previous two adventures, this represents more of an interlude, depending on the skills of your players.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. While I noticed a few typo-level glitches and very minor hiccups here and there, the book, as a whole, is as tight as it should be. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard and fits a TON of text on a given page – you *really* get a ton of content here. The b/w-artworks, all original pieces, are stunning. The pdf has bookmarks, and the hardcover has a slightly rounded spine and comes in the quality we expect from frog God Games – built to last.
Tom Knauss, with development by John Ling and Greg A. Vaughan, succeeds at something only precious few authors can claim – his books transcend the limitations of their systems. They are smart, intelligent, evocative, and in spite of being chockfull with carefully-researched facts, they always remain, first and foremost, gaming supplements. They have a timeless quality to them; they also end up being used more than any other book Frog God Games have put out, for, while the modules in them are certainly excellent draws, for me, these books shine due to the spotlight they provide for the actual land, for the all too often neglected challenges that the environment poses, or should pose. Any Gm worth their salt can flick open this book’s hazards and items and be immediately inspired by the material – and while it’s certainly amazing to have this material for PFRPG, it is my firm conviction that GMs of other systems can just as much benefit from reading this book. Sure, the modules have been released as stand-alone files as well, but if you’re asking me, you’re missing the best part of the experience when going for them.
The modules are complete, well-crafted pieces. Sure. But they become infinitely more when used in the context of the book, when you can flip open another chapter and suddenly smirk at just the hazard or trick you needed, at an interesting idea or complication that can make the experience even better. In a way, the modules within this book have all the means for the GM to enhance them further conveniently located inside the same tome. Unless you absolutely loathe anything PFRPG-related with a fiery passion, I’d strongly suggested getting the big book, and, if you don’t want to do conversion work, the modules for your preferred system.
It is my firm conviction that this book will be both interesting and enlightening even if you don’t use PFRPG. If you do, then this should be a no-brainer. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, and this is, surprise, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.
You can get this brilliant book here on Frog God Games’ homepage!
You can get all 4 books currently for a ridiculously low price on Frog God Games’ site!
If you’re playing 5e or OSR – the Frog Gods are currently kickstarting a new version of the legendary City of Brass – you can check it out here!