Wicked Fantasy: Gnolls: For the Pack
By Thilo Graf
This pdf from John Wicks Presentsis 29 pages long, 1 page editorial, ~1.5 pages ToC/introduction, 1 page cover-artwork, 1 page SRD and 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 23.5 pages of content for the very first very uncommon race covered by the Wicked Fantasy-line, the Gnolls, or how they call themselves, the Dach’youn.
Dach’youn translates to “we the trodden”, an apt self-definition of the gnolls. In the origin-myths of the gnolls, the world was created by the sun, which turned vicious and even left the earth for a time, resulting in an ice-age that saw the gnolls starting to worship a trickster-style hero that returned the sun to the world as well as 7 moons known to gnolls as their guides and as seven sisters, serving as their guides. Thus, apart from a complex description of mating habits, old age (joining the “pack that cannot run” that is helped by younger packs) etc., we also are introduced to the central role of astrology for the Dach’youn:
With the reproduction cycle of the female dach’youn only taking 90 days and the orbit of their slowest moons also taking 90 days, the effects and associated characteristics and the moons result in essentially a variant of the superstitions of astrological signs, assigning characteristics to those born in the sign of the moons, with the new moon being considered cursed and sinister and there being a special festival every 3.5 years during which those of exceptional potential and destiny are born. Dach’youn of course are also scavengers and value scavenging skills rather massively and thereafter, the central social and mechanical element is introduced: The titular pack and its constituents.
A pack’s leader (or alpha) is called Bach, the Beta being called Kech – both being usually gendered, with alpha being usually considered male and Beta being considered female and thus sex between both being encouraged as a concept of Duch’Khu, literally a union of heart and mind of the pack. Eechas, literally the noses of the pack are the scouts, Owouns being the mystics, Shu’shas the hunters, the Oosheh that question the decisions of the pack and finally, the Grr’khun, a pack’s weapon. The three cardinal crimes in a pack, i.e. harming a pack member, murder and cowardice are detailed and their interaction with the reign of men and their habit of mud bathing is described as well. Hierarchy within the pack can be changed via ritualized duels between pack members
Crunch-wise, Gnolls get +2 to Con and Cha, can move at 40 ft when running on all 4s, scent, gain 3 pack feats and at 2nd level and every 2 levels after that, another pack bonus feat, grant every member of their pack access to their teamwork feats, +1 to Knowledge (nature), survival and, if available, Wild Empathy. They always treat survival as a class skill. Beyond that, they get +4 to profession (cooking) and can change their base attribute modifiers when born under a specific moon’s sign and get a corresponding curse and blessing. Notice anything? This race is overpowered as written, with the cha-bonus feeling weird to me to say the least – the additional feats alone are enough to utterly break this race and we don’t know whether the 3 starting gnoll-feats are in addition to regular starting feats or replace them.
Cha’ppa grants +2 to Dex and Cha. Beyond that, the moons always provide a bonus when full and a penalty when new, in Cha’ppa’s case DOUBLING your bonus to sense motive and perception, while taking away morale and rally bonuses when the moon’s new. And here the pdf starts to come utterly apart. “The Bonus” is doubled. Which bonus? the attribute-modifier? The overall skill ranks? In the end, this ambiguity does not matter since the ability is utterly overpowered in any way.
Gu’rgha grants +3 to Con instead of +2 – a non-standard design-choice that violates PFRPG-conventions and allow the gnoll to reroll failed fortitude saves once. Once per full moon? Once per save? The pdf does not say. When new, the moon prohibits the gnoll from making any knowledge check. Ähhhmmmm…ok? Weird? The moon Gu’sha grants +2 to Wis instead of Cha and get an ally to reroll a saving throw – here it does specify the ability can only be used once per full moon. When the moon’s new, you either can’t be magically healed, are deaf, mute, blind, lose scent or can’t run on 4-legs. Why? Any explanation? This mechanic is utterly disjointed from the fluff, arbitrarily (literally – you roll the penalty) a detrimental condition. Can said condition be cured via magic? We don’t know.
Hav’ha grants +2 to Str instead of Con, +5 to CMB when full and prohibits using the wis-bonus to any associated rolls. Okay, I guess. Or’gha grants +2 to Int instead of Cha and allows you to double your int-modifier in non-combat situations. Does this extend to bonus spells/preparation? What if combat erupts while using an int-based skill-check that takes time? The curse locks the CMD at 10. Which is ridiculous, since the int-based characters probably will be wizards etc. Sh’va grants +3 instead of +2 to Cha (again, non-standard odd attribute bonus…) and is perhaps the most broken of the moons. Yes. You heard me. Creatures with Int 8+ increase their starting attitude by 2 steps. By 2 STEPS! AHRGHH! When the moon’s new, you gain a 10 ft. aura of untrust that automatically lets creatures notice you. We don’t know whether e.g. invisibility can counter that, though. Finally, Vax grants +1 to any ability score. We don’t get to know whether that’s in addition to the standard modifiers or not. Worse, when making eye-contact for the first time with foes, you can enforce a fear-save (10+1/2 level + Cha-modifier) to make them flee. No limits. Usable unlimited times. *shakes head* Worse, the curse decreases starting attitudes by 2 steps, making this the other side of the unbalanced coin. Now how do both interact, the +2 -2 starting attitudes? Are multiple improvements of starting attitudes cumulative? The mechanics are unclear. Oh boy. I haven’t even touched on the Pack rules.
A pack can consist of a maximum of beings equal to an alpha’s charisma score (not modifier, SCORE). NPC gnolls only add +1 bonuses to the PC gnoll damages. While a way of abstracting their influence, it’s also utterly, terribly lazy design: Why can’t these gnolls attack? Can they be targeted as usual by spells and attacks? It makes no sense and is a prime example of bad design decisions. The roles in the pack are represented via archetypes and feats: Rouges can become Eechas, becoming faster (60 ft. 4-legged movement), +1/2 level to perception to track by scent and a scaling bonus to AC against surprise attacks or AoOs. Grr’khun-fighters replace bravery with +3 to intimidate checks to demoralize foes, add +5 to the DC of surviving their coup-de-graces. Kech-rangers gain the powers to issue commands as swift actions. Commands last for one round and at 5th level and every 3 levels afterwards, they gain another command. Members of the pack may follow the respective commands and gain bonuses depending on the command given – including cross-fire, distracting etc. They may also grant their allies half their favoured class bonuses and command increasing amounts of allies at once.
It’s sad, really. The command-mechanics are actually rather interesting! I just wished they were a bit more polished, as they e.g. fail to specify types of bonuses (I assume morale, but I’m not sure). Oosheh-bards can expend bardic performances to add their cha-mod to ally’s non-combat skill-checks, cha-based checks and even switch around initiatives of her allies. Nice archetype! Owoun-sorcerers must be of 3 bloodlines, but gain a bonus to all knowledge-skills when under the moon equal to half their level. They also get an ability to howl a yes/no question at the moon that the DM has to answer truthfully on a successful diplomacy-check. This ability is unbalanced as well, as there’s no limit to the knowledge provided and a starting attitude of indifferent is ridiculous when combined with the sorcerer moon, which essentially renders rolling this skill a farce. The Shu’sha-ranger is the scavenger and gains improved navigation-skills as well as the ability to jury-rig (not Jerry-Rigg, as spelt in the pdf) mundane items and navigate swiftly through mazes. Per se a nice archetype, though I feel it should grant help vs. e.g. maze-spells and the like.
The second component of the pack-rules is handled via feats: Non-dach’youn can take a feat to gain membership in a pack or a gnoll can lose a feat to give a non-gnoll this membership. There’s also a feat to gain more NPC-gnolls (see my rant above for their uselessness and the disjunction between existing as entities and working as static +1 to damage bonuses…) and a feat that allows you to make your pack larger – see my gripe with the last feat. Each of the roles in the pack also gets a mini-tree of 3 feats and they actually have a rather cool idea: They actually grant bonuses when adjacent to respective gnolls, allowing you to benefit from your allied gnoll’s prowess
The pdf closes with the annoying restrictive allowed-class-list I’ve come to expect from Wicked Fantasy-products that disqualifies almost all PFRPG-classes as well as a graphical representation of the gnoll’s complex moon calendars.
Editing and formatting are beyond sloppy, they’re amateurish: From typos to punctuation errors etc., we encounter quite a bunch of bad glitches that wouldn’t be as bad as they are, would they not extend to the register of pathfinder: The language is often ambiguous, making identification of stacking bonuses or the intention behind rules obtuse at best and sometimes even impossible. Layout adheres to a parchment-style background and a two-column layout with nice full-color artworks, but no printer-friendly version. The pdf comes fully bookmarked.
Reviewing pdfs like this makes me angry as all hell. As with all instalments of Wicked Fantasy, the ideas behind this race are awesome – the fluff and culture in the beginning is, apart from the frequent editing and formatting hick-ups, a joy to behold and obviously where the passion for this product went. And then the gaming material begins. I should have stopped reading after the race’s base abilities, I really should have, for they already constitute a major example for sloppy design with no rhyme, reason or interest for balancing the race with any of the core or even the arguably stronger ARG races. And then we get the moons. Per se, they offer a nice way of customizing the gnolls. In theory, that is.
In practice, just about every moon has one component that does not adhere to PFRPG design-standards, is ambiguous in multiple ways, flat-out broken or mystifying in how the hell it is supposed to work. Add to that the amount of book-keeping necessarily to track NINE FRIGGIN’ MOONS and where they suddenly came from and you’re in for a mess. Newsflash: Most settings have one moon. Moons affect the tides. And usually are represented in the pantheons of all cultures. Tying the abilities not to constellations, but to actual heavenly bodies means that integrating the content, even if it would work as intended, which it sure doesn’t do, would be a colossal amount of work. And think about all those bonus-feats gnolls get as racial traits sans any paying. Ahrgh.
All right: Base-race: Broken and essentially unusable as written. What about the pack-rules? They use an abstraction for non-player gnolls, which is fine. But why not use THE LEADERSHIP MECHANIC THAT ALREADY EXISTS? Non-player gnolls essentially add +1 to damage when adjacent to PCs. Ok. Why? Can they be targeted or are they supposed to be these ephemeral wisps of abstract gnolls that don’t get hit by spells because they don’t feature the blinking PC-sign? And why for Pete’s sake don’t they just use the perfectly fine aid another rules? Better: Why can’t they use them? Why can’t they do tasks like usual followers or cohorts? The idea behind commands and the mini-feat-trees to benefit from the pack’s components is cool and should work in the end to make the pack more the sum of its individual parts. BUT: There already are solo-tactics and teamwork feats. WHY NOT USE THEM? As an afterthought, they’ve been shoehorned into a design that was obviously neither aware, nor interested in the existence of said mechanics, much less grasping the repercussions. When compared to Rite Publishing’s stellar “Secrets of the Inquisitor”, I can only weep and shake my head at the laziness and general disregard for existing rules.
The elven pdf was bad. This is just as bad, perhaps even worse. The pdf forces you to modify your whole cosmology if you want to use it as presented and even if you do, you have to essentially revise the whole content and redesign friggin’ everything. Worse, even if you do, the pdf essentially is not balanced in any way and omits a vast amount of options, prohibiting them e.g. from becoming summoners and witches, among a vast bunch of prohibited options.
For whom was this pdf written? No. Seriously. For the DM? It fails, since it requires the modification of one’s chosen setting and provides no sample statblocks. For players? Well, the race is so broken that you better get your DM drunk as hell to allow it. And even then: You essentially need multiple players to play gnolls and forma pack to get the most out of this supplement and the reimagination and I gather there are not that many groups out there keen on playing gnolls AND spending multiple sessions fixing ambiguous mechanics. Again, fail.
Which is so infuriating since the fluff is imaginative and cool – but completely fails to supplement the ideas it presents with any rules that can be considered balanced or even well-written. In fact, the pdf hinders your creativity by its restrictive egotistic insistence on prohibiting a majority of the content assumed to be standard in PFRPG without providing adequate recompense for the lost options. Worse, the crunch herein shows no signs of effort. There is a distinct lack of knowledge of the more complex pathfinder-mechanics evident that borders on wilful ignorance and just sloppiness. The crunch feels like ripped straight from a home-game – in all the bad ways, exhibiting failures in wording, mechanics, restrictions, etc., making the crunch feel like it was an annoying duty to properly sell what could be considered good fluff, but ends up a complete abject failure at game-design with sloppy editing that bespeaks of an ignorance or even contempt for the system in which this pdf presented. The admittedly cool command idea and ideas behind the pack-fighting feats are completely and utterly ruined by the rest of the pdf and its entwinement with the other mechanics. I remain with a verdict befitting of this utter failure: 1 star. Steer clear, even if you adore gnolls.
Wicked Fantasy: Gnolls: For the Pack is available from: