Okay, so this massive tome clocks in at 785 pages of content – that is already if you ignore the editorial, the explanations on how to use this book, introduction, SRD, etc. Yep, this is not a typo. 785 pages.
My review is based on the hardcover of this book, which I received in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This is the first type of tome I’m covering after the massive first freshman-offering wave of tomes the studio released, so let’s see how this one fares.
So, if this vast scope was not ample indicator that this book is different from most PFRPG-books, you’ll realize just how different it is upon opening it – provided you are new to Infinium Game Studios, that is. The book first explains how it operates: The massive collection of NPCs uses colored boxed texts with different colors and icons to denote different things: Player descriptive text boxes, for examples, sport a little speech-bubble icon, and are slightly mint-green; GM-text sports a similar speech-bubble and is gray, and where applicable, designer soapboxes are included.
A crucial concept of Infinium Game Studios offerings would be the quadded statblock approach – essentially, we get 4 statblocks per NPC, one for each rough power-level: Low-level statblocks are intended for levels 1 – 4, moderate statblocks for levels 5-8, advanced statblocks for levels 10-15, and elite statblocks are intended for levels 12-20. The respective statblocks still sport CRs that allow you for informed decisions. (And yes, 9th level is kinda absent in the groups, but since CRs are present, that doesn’t negatively influence the functionality of the game.)
This quadded approach also applies to challenges – when e.g. a door, a locked chest or the like is noted, there are 4 iterations with different DCs etc. Interesting here would be that the book does provide an array of quick and dirty ways to adjust statblocks to better represent appropriate challenges for your game – after all, we know that different parties have different power-levels and degrees of system mastery.
The book also introduces reward stars as a variant for XP, but I have always failed to see the benefit of this particular houserule, so I suggest ignoring it. On the other side of the utility coin, the book does indeed sport a couple of exceedingly convenient components that I genuinely adore: One of these would be that you don’t need to engage in a lot of book-flipping – the respective stats list feats, special abilities and the like, meaning you only need to have this massive tome open at the table. Slight concessions to this almost encyclopedic obsession with completion would be that the quadded statblocks don’t list the ability score modifiers, but you probably won’t need those anyways. As a whole, the special abilities denote their types (like Ex, Su and Sp) properly, though e.g. Rage consistently does not sport the (Ex) you’d expect. Since these write-ups include the text of traits, class features and the like, you’ll also notice a switch between e.g. “gnomes get…” and “You can…”, as PFRPG sports different conventions for e.g. traits and class features – this is not a complaint, mind you, but an explanation – these have not been rephrased, and doing so would have been a waste of time, so I’m good with this particular concession here for the sake of the book’s massive bulk. Slightly problematic, at least potentially, would be that the feat-texts do not sport the respective descriptors, which makes ability interaction with e.g. combat-feat sharing et al. slightly less convenient than one would ideally hope for.
As an aside, if you’re looking at this review on my homepage, you can see a direct comparison of this tome with Occult Adventures, a typical PFRPG hardcover, below.
If you’re new to Infinium Game Studios’ offerings, you will also notice something else: Each NPC herein has a surprisingly neat full-color artwork (original pieces!), sports a description of the appearances, the villain’s background, a description of the NPC’s demeanor, combat tactics, modus operandi, notoriety and the like. Furthermore, they come with hooks and seeds – these essentially are suggestions; beyond them, green boxes provide sketches for full-blown quests and sidetreks or even longer engagements with the respective adversary. Really cool: Each of these individuals features their own rumors and lore tables, which are quadded as well: One column representing the default, one representing gather information from a key NPC, one for gathering information from random townsfolk, and one for blindly trying to get information. It’s a small thing per se, but these tables add immensely to the engagement when actually introducing the villain in question – they represent one of my favorite innovations in these books.
The second innovation would be the attitude tracker, which codifies how a villain behaves with regards to the party on a range of 1 – 29; these allow for finer differentiation of starting attitudes than the standard hostile- unfriendly-indifferent- friendly-helpful categories, which still are noted for orientation on this meter. I am particularly fond of these tables, as they allow for pretty fine distinctions between adversaries, and add a surprising amount of depth to them. Each such section covers a WHOLE PAGE, and lists actions, conversations, etc. – if e.g. a PC has been incarcerated as a result of the villain retaliating for an offense, the attitude tracker might move +2 in their favor, as the adversary considers the offense paid for; investigating or attacking the adversary might move the tracker by a massive -10 or -15. In a nutshell, one could think of this as a NPC-AI table that differentiates in the behavior from villain to villain. Or at least, in theory that’s what they offer – if anything, this is one aspect of the book that could have used a finer grading between NPCs. While there are some unique entries representing the respective villain’s peculiarities, the lion’s share of the trackers tends to be the same for them. Attack without provocation? Minus 15. With provocation? Minus 10. Anyway, this should not be construed to be an indication of disapproval – there are simply core behavior patterns and reactions shared by most intelligent beings; I’m just saying that slightly more unique entries here would have been appreciated. Plus: The villains have some sample read-aloud dialog choices presented for the GM to paraphrase – kudos for those.
As a whole, there are 38 villain chapters herein, though these do not correlate to villains featured per se; several include more than one villain – as an aside: If you look at the book’s open pages, purple color-codes allow you to swiftly find the respective villain chapters with a glance at the closed tome and a cursory knowledge of where they are in the book – that’s awesome. And yes, I can see your questions hovering: How can 36 villains take up a book of this size? Well, simple: For one, we have the quadded statblocks; we have the rumors and attitude tracker – and no villain is an island. At least, most of them are not. One of these “villains”, for example, is a full-blown crime family, with individual quadded statblocks for each family member – and before you ask, yes, these quadded statblocks are also provided for mounts and similar creatures if present. That’s not all. The vast majority of villains featured herein sport at the very least one supporting henchman statblock – with e.g. gang leaders and the like offering multiple stats for such individuals, often supplemented with neat, original b/w-artworks. And yes, these nameless goons and henchmen ALSO get quadded statblocks…which translates in practice to fully statted micro-organizations. Heck, one entry is devoted to e.g. a blood cult, foregoing a traditional figurehead.
There is serious appeal in this convenience offered, so let us take a look at the mechanics, shall we? Considering the sheer amount of statblocks contained herein, it is pretty admirable that they retain a pretty high degree of feasibility for games that don’t powergame too hard; the individual builds tend to fall on the simpler side of things, though it should be noted that there are quite a few two-class multiclass characters. If you’re hoping for some of the newer classes, I have to disappoint you, though: There are no classes from the latter PFRPG-releases featured herein, and while personally, I did not exactly need most of the ACG-classes or the shifter, vigilantes and occult classes would have been nice to see. So yeah, the builds are using older PFRPG1-material – no kineticists or occultists included.
What *IS* included herein would be three items I particularly liked seeing – the tome actually features three different item-villains: The Treason-Scepter of Ul-Gummyth, for example; or the fanaticism-inducing Zealot’s Censor battle-aspergillum…or what about the positively-Lovecraftian-looking necromantic Sepulchre Staff? And yes, these artifacts doe come with different effects for different levels, their own personalities – and sample wielder stats. Obviously. I found myself enjoying these pretty much, as they all are interesting in one way or another, considering that they slowly reveal their full array of abilities.
Speaking of interesting – while the mechanic aspects of the book have not always blown me away, there is one aspect of the book that is its most significant strength, and at the same time, its most glaring weakness. The stories of the NPCs. Infinium Game Studios has this ambition of using crunch to establish stories, to extract narratives from the choices made on a mechanical level, and indeed, this does work much better than anticipated in this book; if anything, this book is a huge step forward in that regard when contrasted with the previous creature stat/NPC-books I’ve covered.
For one, there is no mustache-twirling cliché herein; not a single one. Aquilae, the setting of the company’s supplements, is a somewhat gritty place that stops just short of dark fantasy territory; while alignment is a thing on a mechanical level, this book does subvert many expectations with its villains, and indeed, in spite of the vast workload that digesting this colossus was, I couldn’t help but find myself, time and again, being excited by several of the adversaries featured herein. The NPCs all have a reason for behaving the way they do; they feel organic, plausible, and multi-faceted – something obviously enhanced by the attitude trackers, rumors, etc. We e.g. have insane hunters, gone mute due to an unspeakable trauma; we have charismatic cult leaders trying to prop themselves up as (literally!) bloody saints; we have con artists and “honorable” craftsmen and defense engineers – established and upstanding citizens of society…until you cross them. We have faithful and honorable priests suffering from a particularly self-destructive bipolar disorder that is coupled with a need to maintain a proper reputation – better eliminate the witnesses of debaucheries engaged in… We have a lot of villains that are not your classic villains – they are not the insane wizards, the bloodthirsty barbarians – they are the starved and traumatized people turned cannibals, first as a necessity, then, out of ever-increasing depravity.
There are also literary tropes herein, employed in an interesting manner: There are two sisters, Iskadelle, the Innocent, and Treskadelle the Mistress – one sold into slavery, the other becoming a true slaver. The basic setup of the fair and foul maiden may sound at first like a nod to DeSade’s Juliette and Justine, but the tome goes another way and instead focuses on how both, in their fanaticism, have become antipaladins. Iskadelle may be called “The Innocent”, and her cause may be just – her methods, though, are not. What about a daughter of luxury, who left behind family and fortune, all in favor of holding on to a grudge of epic proportions? In short: The narratives themselves tend to be better than many comparable ones I’ve read over the years, and they honestly manage to achieve to feat of delivering consistently interesting characters. On the downside, no less than 7 characters are missing their proper appearance text: Instead, there only is a sad “<>” in those sections – it is here that one of the weaknesses of being a one-man operation is pretty evident – a second set of eyes would have caught this obvious glitch.
This notwithstanding, I can’t recall when I saw a villain in an RPG who is villainous courtesy of first being all but smitten by those he encounters, only to be inevitably disappointed due to a obsessive desire for inhuman perfection. That’s an amazing concept that is bound to make an ally or even mentor turn foe. Unfortunately, the self-imposed mission statement of the book not always manages to marry rules and story in a satisfying manner: One of my favorite characters herein would be a tiefling paladin, a healer and good man. His order forbade him using his powers to heal himself, and the mundane recuperation, all the pain and lingering long-term injuries, took a toll. Beset by horribly headaches, he developed a new ability – by healing people, he takes on their mental anguish and psychological trauma…and extreme kind of trauma-sponge, if you will. His slide to antipaladin-dom was inevitable, and the anguished crusader turns literally more insane by the day, all while being compelled to heal, and obsessed by so-called divine missions – which ultimately bear no interference. Sounds amazing, right? Basically an involuntary empathy-angle, with compulsive healing and antipaladin-dom? Heck yeah!
Here’s the thing: The rules have NO CORRELATION WHATSOEVER to the story. It’s one of my favorite stories herein, a genuinely awesome villain-concept – and the stats don’t reflect the unique abilities and the like at all. This, in short, is the weakness of the book – it is very much possible to build a character with HP-transfer, healing that demands a toll on the healer, involuntary psychic abilities. It’s per se not that hard. But it’d require a degree of customization that the “quantity over everything”-value proposition does not allow for. We get solid antipaladin stats for the fellow, don’t get me wrong. They just don’t have anything to do with his story. Don’t get me wrong: From a book of this size, with this focus, I certainly don’t expect builds of the complexity of those featured in e.g. Faced of the Tarnished Souk or similar series; I get that stacked templates, archetypes and the like are beyond the scope of this tome. This is about quantity. I get it. The paradox here is evident – the character writing is more inspired than the rules. It’s not the only instance where story and rules do not match up perfectly.
A favorite trope for villains in my game would be exemplified of Kryssenthe, the Immortal veneer. This particular individual was “granted godlike powers by a raiment of artifacts” and can even grant spells. Awesome. I’m all for Giffith-esque dark savior-figures. Guess who has no artifacts and just an above-average item loadout? Bingo. Guess who, RAW, has no ability to grant divine spells, even though there are plenty of ways to grant/lend spellcasting? Guess who has not a single mythic rank or tier, even though that’s exactly what you’d expect from someone with godlike powers? Guess who RAW can actually be slain rather easily? I mean, sure, pretty high AC at low levels (AC 23 and CR 7 for that iteration), but compared to what’s easily possible if you strain the system? Heck, I had a tank with AC well above 30 at those levels in my games once! My current campaign has a character with AC 24, and the fellow’s 2nd level and had to contend with a 15 pt.-buy! Depending on the degree of system mastery of you and your group, this may be a pretty quick battle.
Granted, this might be a feature for you; for me, it is a bug; and granted, I can easily Gm-handwave that she just can’t be slain, that she can grant spells – but why do that when PFRPG has perfectly feasible rules for all of these concepts? Unlike PCs, NPCs can make use of mythic tiers, templates, and the whole arsenal of tools, such as enhanced ability score suites, unique custom rules and the like. And don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect those to be present in each and every villain. In fact, I like the angle of the book, the oftentimes very humane evil featured. But when I take a look at a build like this, something inside me screams that the awesome concept deserved better, that, with just a few custom abilities (or just employing the entirety of the rules), this could have been pure amazing.
Now, don’t get me wrong – this disjunction between narrative and rules is by no means the rule herein – it is the exception. It just happened to be the exception that applied for two of my favorite characters herein. There is a good chance you won’t mind; there is a good chance that your players aren’t as experienced and not as cutthroat regarding optimization. When all is said and done, the instances where these complaints apply don’t significantly change the validity of the core value proposition of the book.
Editing and formatting are genuinely better than one can expect from a frickin’ one-man operation; considering there was but one proofreader and that the author did everything else (excluding the artworks, obviously), is impressive indeed. The rules-language is much better than one would expect from such a bulky tome, and while, on a formal level, the book fares slightly worse, it only does so slightly. This book is still much better in its formal criteria than many books released for old-school games, which often can’t get even the comparatively simple formatting of those games right. This is impressive. Layout adheres to a functional two-column standard, which uses color-coded boxes to help the GM parse information. Rumor table: Ah, “X”? Denotes false rumor. Icons and color-coding make parsing information comfortable, quick and painless – and the color codes when looking at the side of the book let you precisely flip open the book for a given villain. The end and start of villain sections tend to be blank pages, creating distinct subchapters. The hardcover is a doorstopper of a massive book, and so far, it has weathered its use at my table with grace, in spite of its massive size. The artworks deserve special mention: The full-color artworks for each villain are STUNNING original pieces – they seriously rock, and look much better than you’d garner from a book of this size. The b/w-henchmen drawings also are neat – and once more, I noticed no stock artwork here. Kudos.
Infinium Game Studios poses an interesting conundrum not only to the player and GM, but also to the reviewer of the books. See, on the one hand, I salute the author J. Evans Payne not only for his work-ethics, but for the sheer ambition these massive tomes represent. For people like yours truly, who tend to favor obsessively-detailed campaign settings, the sheer amount of material to scavenge and implement is a boon in and of itself. The core value proposition is that this book provides a ridiculous amount of villains.
Indeed, when coupled with the concepts behind the villains herein, that aspect can elevate the book to an excellent purchase for plenty of people. It’s a massive one-stop-shop book that’ll net you villains for years to come, particularly if your group tends to gravitate towards grittier Greyhawk-esque playstyles. The villains herein, as far as their concepts and writing are concerned, are above average – even for classics such as the traumatized hermit-hunter or the sociopathic “good girl”, there are some unique angles herein. The stories were, in short, much better than I expected them to be in a book of this size. I certainly have read plenty of less interesting characters over the years.
Characters. That’s a good description. I expected to find stats, and I found characters instead – plausible, interesting, and at times even brilliant. Individuals that make sense. That, for the most part, wouldn’t think of themselves as villains. That’s a huge plus for me.
When taking the aspect of the value of quantity into account, one can also not help but be stunned by the sheer amount of material provided. And for that and a one-man outfit? Well, let’s just say that the quality of the material herein is honestly better than most people would think it has any right to be. I certainly point out plenty of NPC-books that do not provide this level of integrity, in spite of the quadded statblock approach. (Which, as an aside, also allows you to “grow” these villains as recurring antagonists over the course of a campaign, though the validity of the higher-level versions does slightly fluctuate.)
I try to always rate books for what they are and try to be, and not for what I *think* they should be. And indeed, comparing this to most NPC-books is not fair to either of the books compared. This tome will steamroll the competition, always, regarding sheer size and scope. However, similarly, there are several smaller files which, when comparing build-quality and –complexity, will annihilate each and every build in this tome.
The value of quantity this offers btw. remains in effect to a degree, even if you’d take away all those reprinted class features and feat texts included for convenience; even if you disregard the quadded statblocks angle, you still get the individual trackers, the handcrafted rumors, the rather strong character concepts.
At the same time, if you’re running cutting-edge Pathfinder with lots of options, there is a decent chance that you may need to upgrade the adversaries herein. For grittier games, these villains work – if you’re one of the people who has to upgrade most adventure-challenges, who has come to expect complex builds, this has less to offer.
Which makes it exceedingly hard to rate this.
The grand question posed by this book is:
How much value do you put on above-average quantity and immediate usefulness at the table, particularly when contrasted with using all the options PFRPG offers, all the optimization strategies and combos?
If the latter aspects are important for you, if you purchase e.g. Legendary Games’ mythic monster series to make monsters more challenging for your powergaming group, if you enjoy making complex math-puzzle combats and NPCs, then this book, with its plentiful, but comparably simple builds, will not be too impressive for you. This is not a book of foes for theory-crafters and people that are into optimization – such groups will curbstomp anything herein before the compelling character stories had a chance to develop. Yeah, you guessed right – that is pretty much where my group and I fall on a mechanical level. My PCs would chew up and spit out the villains herein. I can see such groups considering this to be a dud.
If, however, quantity, no page flipping, and getting a self-contained package are of tantamount importance, chances are that you and your players don’t have the time to upgrade or stat villains by hand, then this book will deliver, and do so in spades. I may not be the target demographic, but chances are that you might be. Sure, there are a few paragraphs of text missing, but as a whole? You’ll be set for years with one single tome, and chances are you’ll love it to bits. I can see groups considering this to be a massive gem.
These two points of view are equally valid, and reconciliation between them is impossible – it’s a matter of subjective priorities. You’re either one or the other.
And the book clearly seeks to cater to the latter audience. It wouldn’t be fair to rate it by the metrics of Rite Publishing’s Faces of the Tarnished Souk, when it clearly caters more to grittier, more down-to-earth, less high fantasy and rules-centric playstyles, to groups less engrossed in complex character builds, who just want to play a fun game without spending hours of crafting stats. As such, I’m rating this book for what it is, and by its own metrics.
Which leaves me with a lot to love: As noted, the narratives are far beyond what I expected; the artworks are impressive, and presented in a manner that you can use them as handouts. As noted, I consider the instances of missing text to be slightly jarring, but none of them compromise either narrative, or integrity of the respective villain. Attitude tracker, detailed rumors, often with sample chants or poetry and the like? HECK YES. I loved that. I also loved that I found myself contemplating using the majority of villains herein – because they are INTERESTING.
However, on the other hand, the instances where rules and narrative didn’t match? Even though Pathfinder, unlike pretty much any other RPG, actually DOES have the means to make such complex narratives match up with stats? That’s something that seriously soured these parts of the book for me.
These disjunctions are thankfully the exception from the rule. For the most part, the tome succeeds at its intended goal. But they do represent a serious flaw. I couldn’t help but wish that we go some custom rules, or more love devoted to these instances – perhaps instead of providing a high-CR build for a butcher-highway-dwarf (a character I genuinely liked – for low level play) who, conceptually, already ceases to be particularly plausible as an adversary in mid-levels, considering the arsenal of magics etc. available to the party by then? In short, I think the book would have done much better, if it had taken the route of vetting concepts and content and themes for various levels. Some concepts just work better at certain level-ranges, and some concepts require more individual attention than others.
That being said, this is not sufficient to relegate this massive tome to the realms of mediocrity. This may have its flaws, but it also has plenty of merits. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo. I genuinely hope that my review helped you decide whether you’d enjoy this tome.
You can get this massive tome of adversaries here on OBS!
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