Mountains of Madness
This massive installment of the Perilous Vistas-series of books clocks in at 288 pages of pure content, not counting editorial, etc. This review is based on the hardcover version of the book, which is, quality-wise, on par with the high production values of Frog God Games hardcovers.
I backed the kickstarter that created this book, mainly because the previous two installments of this series of terrain-centric hardcovers have made my Top Ten-lists.
All right, I rambled on, in detail, about the origins of this series: the idea is simple, yet concise and fun: Highlight a given environment and really polish it and make it shine, make it feasible and unique for the purpose of adventuring. In that way, the series is a continuation of the aesthetics of the Survival Guides of old, yet the books are so much more. For one, they draw upon real world in an unobtrusive manner, enlightening the reader with carefully researched facts.
On the other hand, these books are gaming supplements through and through – don’t expect a dry assortment of scientific facts; while the book draws heavily on reality, these facts are coupled with gaming information, blending the real and the fantastic. This grounds the series of books in a manner that is only rarely seen and makes them, ultimately, feel more alive, more real than many supplements.
The books have another focus, and that is to make the biomes matter for both locals AND throughout the levels. In many a case, low level adventuring means that terrain matters, whereas high-level adventuring often starts ignoring these components. In a way, these books provide the means for making said aspects still matter – system-immanently less so, sure, but they retain an identity and a challenge that I very much cherish.
Anyways, as has become the tradition in the series, we begin with an introduction to the environment-type at hand – and yes, I used this term consciously, for, unlike previous books, we can’t well talk about a singular biome here. Mountains encompass more than one biome, and mountain does not equal mountain. We begin the book with a basically system-neutral series of considerations when creating a mountain, distinguishing between different types. Oddly and somewhat out of place, we get a new dwarven subrace here, the mountain dwarves, which obviously represent a callback to the race of old, with both ability score bonuses applied to physical scores. The race is not broken or problematic, but neither is it particularly unique.
What, however, is particularly unique and represents a core of the soul that sets this book (and the whole series) apart, is the attention to detail that transcends the system. It is my heartfelt conviction that the material herein can be useful for games beyond PFRPG. The charts to determine the presence of settlements in a given region, for example, represent an easy tool for the GM to craft sensible regions. Categorizing passes and their keep and maintenance, determining whether a structure is sound, travelling passes or moving around mountains – the attention to detail provided here is inspiring. It is a testament to the utility-driven writing that these sections, in contrast to what you’d expect, never grow bland or boring – at least not for me.
Altitudes and modes of travel are discussed, with llamas (heck yeah!) and yaks (double heck yeah!) included and costs to purchase suitable creatures noted. Handy charts also note travel distances per day by mount or means of traveling. The focus on blending sensible information with gaming utility can, among other things,m be perfectly observed in the hazards-section, which not only features concise and nice rules for falling rocks employed as weaponry, it also discusses anything from crevasess to avalanches, rockfalls, icefalls…and there is something I absolutely adore in here. Know how altitude sickness is often, erroneously handled as a disease or ignored altogether? Well, High-altitude cerebral and pulmonary edema are presented, and they get this component right – finally. The effects of these phenomena brought upon by oxygen deprivation mean that even high-level characters can be challenges by ascending to the highest peaks; the concise rules create a hierarchy that makes sure that the PCs, much like mountaineers, have to slowly build their way up to being able to really scale the highest peaks – beyond investing in the climb skill.
I love this. I also enjoy the other hazards – from poison ivy/oak to a contact variant of wolf’s bane, to ticks (with a variety of diseases) and notes on men and monsters there, the section is inspired. As before, this is not even remotely to where we stop: We receive detailed notes on wind speed, temperatures etc. – with heights in feet, temperatures in °F, so some folks outside of the US will need to do some calculations, but still – the presence of these tables adds some serious value here and makes the mountains feel more alive, more plausible, And yes, sunlight in these regions may well be a hazard in and of itself!
The first truly player-facing chapter encompasses new skill uses, including Profession (mountaineer) and ice-skating, as well as notes on, for example, the creation of ice igloos, climbing aids, etc. The new feats presented deal mostly with the terrain and its issues, and while some are geared towards a very specific flavor, there are also some mechanically interesting ones here. My personal favorite would be, oddly, one that is mechanically rather bland: If you take Yodeler, you can have your yodeling skills enhance your sonic spells. I shouldn’t like this, but I do – the image it conjures is just cool. I personally prefer, as far as player-facing material is concerned, the spell section over the feats: Beyond the utility spells you’d expect to find, we have wall of snow, mountains out of molehills, spells to inflict gangrene or hypoxia. Two places at once can be utterly OP, depending on your build, though: It nets you two initiative counts – on each count, you can either perform a standard or move action, but not both, and no full-round action. While this can be severely limiting for some classes, for others, it can be ridiculously potent – certainly stronger than the 2nd level assigned to it.
As in previous installments of these books, we do get a variety of archetypes for the core classes only, and as before, these are focused on contextualizing the respective class options in a culture: Highlander barbarians learn to see through fog, for example, while summit druids and alpine guards do pretty much what you’d expect them to do. These are flavorful and nice ways to contextualize the character, but in comparison to the marshes installment, represent a slightly less complex array of concepts.
The equipment section provides concise definitions for mundane mountaineering equipment, which include mukluks (high-topped fur boots), eyeglasses and the like –from caged canaries to carabiners, ice saws, etc., you can find the tools of the trade here. From liquid courage and oxygen to de-icer flasks, the book also provides a selection of different alchemical substances, and on the magical side of things, we can find yeti hide armor, a crystal to transfer consciousnesses, a stein that can blend potions (with caveats to prevent abuse)…the section is pretty neat. The bestiary section includes alpbocks and contains 20 critters that range from the mundane to the fantastical, including the volcano-based calderaborne, gin trees that can pepper you with cones, rag golems or yeti spiders. We get pretty astonishing, neat b/w-artworks for the creatures, and they do have unique abilities to set them apart.
As far as the extensive deities-chapter is concerned, here I’d actually argue that it’s better when mined for lore: We get basic information pertaining the deities, but no sub-domains noted. The number of domains available also fluctuates from god to god, hearkening back to the times when gods had a hierarchy regarding their potency. As far as myth-weaving goes, this is a neat chapter, though. Among the appendices, we can find a dressing table for evocative events, and a massive 4+ page random encounter table that encapsulates monsters of up to Bestiary 4 and the Tome of Horrors Complete.
Now, as always, this book also contains a variety of adventures set in the Lost lands. As in other installments of the series, we have some of these, namely “God of Ore,” ”A Little Knowledge,” “Between a Rock and a Charred Place” and “War of Shadows.” These adventures, should you absolutely only want the adventures, have been released as stand-alone versions as well, which is relevant for OSR and 5e-groups, for the stand-alone modules come for PFRPG as well as these three rules-sets. I still highly recommend picking up this book over the stand-alone modules, though, since the material of the “crunchy” section is a treasure trove for mining and sports a timeless quality.
There are two differences that set the adventures apart here: First would be a prologue chapter that depicts the town of Miner’s refuge in high detail, including a mini-.dungeon of sorts. Secondly, the adventures herein, while perfectly capable of being run as stand-alone adventures, transition into another, allowing you to run the adventures as a mini-AP of sorts. “God of Ore” is intended for 3rd level characters, while the highest level adventure, “War of Shadows”, is intended for 8th level characters. Depending on your progression speed, this may mean that you have the room to fit in supplemental modules. Now, one thing I absolutely adore, would be the maps: The book sports neat b/w-maps and provides player-friendly, key-less maps for EVERYTHING. This means that folks that suck at drawing maps like yours truly, or those of you that prefer VTTs are covered. The player-friendly maps go the extra mile and e.g. redact secret doors properly – this level of service and detail should imho be standard for the industry. Huge kudos.
But what are the adventures about? Well I will attempt to be relatively SPOILER-free, but that is nigh impossible when trying to talk about modules in a meaningful way, so, as always, potential players are urged to skip ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great, so “God of Ore” has the PCs set out from the prologue area of Miner’s Refuge to the heart of the Stoneheart Mountains, known from the classics of FGG/NG’s library. It has been two weeks since the dwarven, self-proclaimed prophet, has set out with an expedition to conquer Mithral Mountain. However, the fears of the families of the followers of this dwarf are concerned, and when the PCs follow in the wake of the expedition, they realize that raiders have killed pilgrims. Rumors of corruption regarding the dwarves of the mountain abound, and capturing the prophet Bagrus Farmud. Following the trail further, the PCs will witness that the prophet has unleashed dread Dwer-Bokham – a new creature introduced herein, an aberration that can, when fused with rock, making it seem like mithril. The dread entity has corrupted the thanehold, the legend being just a horrid lure – and it’ll be up to the PCs to defeat it. The module includes several nice dungeon-sections, etc.
“A Little Knowledge” has the PCs set out towards the Feirgotha Plateau, requiring the traversal of dwarven controlled “high-ways”, narrow paths winding along the mountainous peaks. En route, the PCs find a crumbling fortress besieged by undead maurauders – an assault of dread Thanopsis, a mighty necromancer whose designs are suffused with a rather interesting Khemitian (The Lost Land’s Egypt-analogue) flavor that adds a unique angle to the mountainous environment. The mighty librarian of the fabled Library of Arcady, makes for a grisly enemy, courtesy due to the means by which he extends his life.
“Between a Rock and a Charred Place” is perhaps my favorite of these modules, as it involves the PCs in dwarven politics, including an assassination-attempt grab for power, dark folk allies, traitors, etc. – it has a lot of roleplaying as wella s combat to offer and feels distinctly old-school in a good way. It’s not a complex premise, but it most assuredly is a remarkable module.
“War on Shadows”, finally, directly follows the previous module’s plot: In the aftermath of the assassination attempt in the previous adventure, the PCs are asked to travel to the frontier outpost of Tyr Whin, where a frickin’ army of hobgoblins is taking a toll on the defenders, and the besieged dwarves are sick as well. With not much options left, the PCs are asked to find a fabled, nigh-forgotten pass, infiltrate the hobgoblin camp and eliminate the leaders of the army! Cool premise, well-executed.
Editing and formatting are very good, I did not notice any undue accumulations of rules language or formal glitches. Layout adheres to the classic 2-column b/w-standard Frog God Games uses – the layout allows for a ton of text to fit on a page – this is a massive book. The book sports a ton of great, original b/w-artwork and the b/w-cartography, including player-friendly versions, is extensive and nice. Huge kudos there. There is nothing to be complained about regarding the formal criteria.
Tom Knauss, with development by John Ling and Greg A. Vaughan, succeeds at the very rare phenomenon of 4 consecutive masterpieces of books. Much like “Dunes of Desolation”, the title of this book evokes a classic, much beloved roleplaying game supplement, and thus has a difficult task to live up to. In a way, it succeeds admirably. As we’ve come to expect, the adventures included sport the quality of prose and old-school sentiments that we’ve come to love from FGG’s offerings. The book also succeeds in being the definite mountain-exploration/design tome, with a metric ton of amazing stuff to be done. A GM can use this book as a great expansion for regions or to design concise mountainous regions that feel…real.
The copious amounts of hazards and lore transcend the system for which they were written, making the tome feel very much like a timeless, interesting classic, even now. That being said, in a series that excelled to this amount, that is so exceedingly amazing, I feel that Mountains of Madness comes in slightly short of “Marshes of Malice” or “Fields of Blood”; perhaps it’s the title or the emphasis on dwarves, but this one feels slightly less versatile in the themes evoked – this book is suffused in great fantasy lore and makes sense, but taking the title into account, the book feels somewhat less suffused with diverse cultural themes. E.g. Tibetan mythology or myths from the Alps could have added, via creatures and deities, more angles here – the blending of themes and tropes so artfully executed in other installments of the series is less pronounced here. And perhaps it’s because the Shuma-Gorath-storyline in the classic “Chronicles of Conan”-comics blew my mind as a kid; perhaps it’s because of the “madness”-angle in the title – but I expected some horror, some pulpy components, etc. Now, sure, Greg A. Vaughan has basically written the quintessential lost mountain-city à la El Dorado of this generation, with his by now legendary Xin-Shalast, but I couldn’t help but feel like the book could have used a bit more in the way of how magical lost mountain-cities would work. Instead, we focus on more traditional themes, which is fine and does not diminish the book, but when I saw the increased page-count of this book vs. the marshes book, I hoped for that.
This out of the way, this is still a truly phenomenal book; it’s down-to-earth, fantastic and extremely useful, and my criticism should be taken as voiced in the spirit of critiquing an excellent book. The take on altitude effects alone made me smile from ear to ear, for example. As before, I consider this book to be one of the gems that will grow in its appeal throughout the years. It’s unlikely we’ll get to see a book depicting mountainous exploration in this level of detail anytime soon, ensuring that the value, regardless of system, remains high indeed. As such, this also gets 5 stars + seal of approval and is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.
You can find this massive book here on Frog God Games’ store!
There currently is a deal to get the whole series for a ridiculously low price here!
Finally, the Frog Gods are kickstarting an update of their fabled City of Brass, for 5e and OSR (S&W) only – you can check out the kickstarter here!