Aberrant Codex: Aberrant Allies
The freshman offering of Cobalt Sages Creations clocks in at 34 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 5 pages of SRD, leaving us with 26 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
This review was move up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreons as a prioritized review.
We begin this supplement with a brief categorization of types of aberration – not in the mechanical context, mind you, but in the context of what constitutes a classification as “aberration” – alien biology, reality-warping and artificially (or oddly- created) creatures are identified as leitmotifs present here.
Now, aberrations are much-beloved as antagonists for obvious reasons, but this book is thoroughly devoted to aberrations as allies, a venue only rarely explored beyond the realms of evil or insane PCs, and as such, represents an interesting deviation from the expectations and preconceptions inherent in the type.
The most obvious forms of aberrations as companions would, of course, be animal companions and familiars – and a quick glance at the aberration type should yield the fact that these creatures usually are intelligent, and that they have darkvision. Other than that, the type itself does not necessarily provide any game-breaking components to be weary of. However, intelligent companions do change the game in a rather distinct way. The pdf, cleverly, I might add, notes that just because an aberration could theoretically wield a dagger, does not mean that it is actually biologically capable of doing so. Similarly, intelligence also means that a creature can choose to not learn a feat, wear armor, etc. The pdf discusses the ramifications of this level of intelligence in a commendable manner:
Aberrant companions with Intelligence greater than 2 receive +3 tricks per point of Intelligence above 2, but thankfully still require training. Sentient companions can generally, as noted, execute more complex tasks, and they learn to understand a language, but not speak it. Recommendations for armor and feats, and for Use Magic Item as a trick, which allows for the activation of one specific magic item, provided anatomy and activation allow for it, are discussed. Familiars are an easier choice, and have the Improved Familiar feat (not properly capitalized) as a prerequisite. Speaking of which – the feat is obviously reproduced here, noting the prerequisite levels for the respective aberrations.
Speaking of which: Aberrant Animal Companions end up as balanced, thanks to the Aberrant Animal Companion feat introduced within, which serves as a feat tax, while also noting minimum level requirements for the respective aberrations. The feat also nets you unnatural aura, which, particularly at low levels, can be both boon and bane. As a whole, the decision to take an aberrant companion ultimately means that you get a more unique and versatile companion that is, particularly in the ROLEplaying context, rather cool. Beyond these basic gate-way feats, there is a new feat type introduced within this pdf – (Deep Bonding) feats. These feats are associated with specific aberrant companions, and as such, I will discuss them alongside the respective companion creatures. One note regarding the deep bonding feats: When the companion falls, you replace one deep bonding feat with Broken Bond, which nets you +1 to Will saves, +2 to Sense Motive versus creatures of the same type as the companion or familiar, and +2 on Charisma checks made versus creatures of the same type as your familiar/companion…and you count as that creature type for the purpose of prerequisites and effects. This can be rather interesting, as it is NOT limited to aberrations, and basically overrides RAW your creature type, which does allow a degree of fortification versus humanoids-targeting spells, but also potentially can be a bane due to specialized effects. This can have pretty serious implications, but it also can represent a nice roleplaying angle – thus, while I do advise caution regarding the intricate interaction options this can unlock, I also consider it to be rather rewarding.
Now, as for the creatures: We get a total of 8 of these critters, plus two variations of sorts. In an impressive manner I did not expect to see in this pdf, we actually do get really impressive full-color artworks for all critters featured herein – and no, I haven’t seen them before! Aesthetically, this is pretty damn impressive. The first of these would also be the highest CR creature featured within – the Argoschwere – a floating mollusk that looks a bit like a beetle with tentacles dangling from it. If your German is up to snuff, you might have guessed the leitmotif here: the creature’s “Schwere” (=heaviness) translates to some control over gravity: In a cool twist, their strikes can force foes to levitate, which can make for an interesting debuff. For a more straightforward attack option, reversal of gravity for the target is possible, and the third option allows for a perfect fly speed. Beyond these gravity-based tricks, the argoschwere is a lightning rod – they are healed by electricity damage, and, in fact, gain an additional move action for 1 minute after being hit by electricity…but they also do not gain any saves versus electricity effects, which is a cool Achilles’ heel to exploit…for the monster.
Here, the pdf is clever: The fully and properly presented companion stats extract the abilities that would be OP, namely the gravity reversal and the lightning-based healing cheese. Even the flight speed, considering its perfect maneuverability, is properly balanced in the advancement provided. And they do retain the abilities that made them unique, namely the forced levitation – so yeah, these fellows will be pretty good controllers. The decision to omit the electricity healing, but also the no-save caveat means that the companions ultimately are player-friendly, more fun to play, and fun. They also get a couple of notes on how their shells may be treated their behavior in the wild, etc.
The deep bonding feats associated with the Argoschwere would be Gravity Assist, which allows the argoschwere to use the master as a kind of point of gravity for pounce-like charges with increased speed – and a massive penalty to AC. The feat, in spite of its complexity, is actually crafted in a rather impressive manner. There are a few typos here, though: “You suffers[sic!]..”, “the you gain” etc. These do not compromise rules-integrity, but proved slightly irritating. The second feat for the argoschwere represents the resurfacing of a concept from the end of the 3.X days of old, namely the (Tactical) feat, which provides a series of situational, but interesting tricks. In the context of this pdf, we have the ability to float trinkets in the air (scaling maximum weight and duration), the option to enhance withdraws slightly and to reverse the gravity on small objects.
Fauchmaws, at CR 4, ostensibly originate from the dream realms, and are predators of dreamers that can breathe 30 ft- cones of mist. (Minor complaint: Gust of wind reference not italicized in the ability’s verbiage), and these guys can dimension door within a vast range, but only step out of the mist. It’s also self-only, so no riding cheeses. Cool: We get an in-character prose excerpt adding a bit of color to the critter, and the fog breath instead functions as a radius centered on the fauchmaw at low levels; similarly, range for the mist-jump is limited appropriately until the 7th level advancement: You get the signature abilities from the get-go, but their full utility is expanded later – love this design paradigm. Coincidentally, you can explain this rather neatly by explaining advancement bestowing more control. Like it! The deep bonding feats are pretty cool as well: Bloody Mist adds 1d4 bleed damage to the mist, (only 1/round damage), and magical healing has a harder time stopping the bleeding. Minor complaint: To differentiate the low-level mistbreath and the 7th level+ breath version, the latter is called fog breath by the creature entry. Alas, the feat only references mistbreath, which means that it RAW would cease functioning at 7th level. This is obviously not intended and should not yield issues at the table, but it bears mentioning. Mistsight does pretty much what it says on the tin, and is much more useful when you have a Fauchmaw companion…
Next up would be the CR ½ Ferrovore: A Fine rust monster-like critter that can attach to targets stealthily, thanks to numbing agents, and slowly drains the blood of those it latches on to. They can also “filter” impurities from liquefied metals and make, obviously, for familiar choices. They come with a CR 3 ferrovore nymph swarm as a bonus critter of sorts – this one, though, is a more straightforward bleed-inflicting swarm. Casters with a ferrovore familiar and the Acid Armor deep bonding feat can, up to 2/day as an immediate action when casting an acid spell or taking 5+ acid damage, generate a sheet of alchemical metal that nets +2 to AC, stacks with itself, and lasts 4 hours. Really cool representation of the ferrovore’s unique metabolism! The Mercury-Fed deep bonding feat is taken by the familiar, and allows the critter to purify food and drink (spell reference not italicized), and the antennae can help willing or helpless creatures stave off diseases. (This feat may be swapped with a familiar’s existing feats.) Another winner here!
The CR ¼ Inkblood is another familiar-candidate, which clocks in at CR ¼. Artificially-created, these Tiny fellows can, as a full-round action, assimilate 2 pages of writing or images, reproducing the content of the folded membranes of the critter. Magical writing is automatically consumed (excluding items and illusory script et al.), but, to nitpick, the spell-references here are once more not concisely italicized. The inkblood can also fire quills (of course – kudos for the pun!) once per round. As for visuals: Think of something between a centipede or necrophidius, save that the ribs/legs are stretched out, holding membranes – my association was that it looks like a moth/ray/snake hybrid. This creature also comes with a CR 5 version, the Large, ancient inkblood, who can flash confusing pulses and constrict targets. The potential adventuring potential of these creatures and their narrative impact can be vast, and it is great to see that the pdf acknowledges this and notes some ideas for combining spell pages to create/collect spells. As a personal advice for GMs: if you have a slightly more potent or oddball spell, these creatures make for a great reason why not every caster has said spell – it just, you know, kinda came together! As far as deep bonding is concerned, we have the option to take Aberrant Symbol, which is a familiar feat that lets the inkblood fascinate adjacent targets. Page Eater enhances your Linguistics and language-dependent spells by eating pages. Love the visuals here!
The Perdentate Sarcoid clocks in at CR 5, and is something for all players that love to creep out NPCs: An undifferentiated mass of raw flesh studded with teeth on pseudopods, these guys made me flash back to Dalvehr-Nahr. Indeed, the signature ability of this fellow makes integration of that piece of obscure in-game lore easy: When they strike a foe, they absorb teeth, which is represented by Constitution damage that caps at 5. Creatures suffering from teeth extraction has a harder time enunciating the precise syllables required for verbal spellcasting, and the creatures can combine this ability with coup de graces for visuals that are nightmare fodder. The companion stats scale the critter in two steps, providing 4th and 7th level advancement notes, and also provide scaling for this ability. Reactive Denticles as a deep bonding feat may require a bit of clarification: It states: “Whenever you take damage, you can make an attack of opportunity against the source of the damage if it’s within reach.“ This could be read as either applying on all attacks (delimiting AoOs per round) or to mean that the the perdentate sarcoid can use the AoO (or array thereof via e.g. Combat Reflexes, if available) when attacked – it depends on how you read the sentence, and where you put your emphasis. I think the latter reading is intended here. Tooth Eater lets you swallow up to 4 specially prepared teeth, which correlate to types and subtypes, which net you a bonus to Knowledge checks. More interesting: Bones of that creature type/subtype glow, which opens venues for interesting investigations – and yes, the pdf properly codifies the rules of said glow.
Ruin drakes look like Medium drakes, sporting crystalline growths They are not actually dragons, though – instead, they are basically a dragon’s remains, a husk, controlled by the pox aberrantia (which are properly codified) – think of these as an intelligent, non-suicidal form of cordyceps – and as such, they are infectious, carrying this lethal parasite! The companion advancement is more linear here. With Aggressive Parasites, companions with Con 13+ can exhibit this as a short-range aura that inflicts damage. The master, on the other hand, may opt to become a Pox Aberrantia Carrier, which makes you immune against it and allows you to lace the parasites into your natural attack. Minor complaint: Unarmed strikes should probably also qualify as means to deliver the disease. Parasite-spreading mystic monks, perhaps with an agenda to purge dragonkind from the face of the planet? Come on, that’s cool!
The skyscourge, at CR 6, represents a flying arachnid with membranous wings…and tentacles. These tentacles can grasp targets and lift the grappled sods…and combine that with Flyby trickery. Oh, and not just one tentacle, mind you – all of them. If the critter maintains a grapple, its feasting causes Dex damage! The base companion advancement does not get these unique tricks, instead providing just the standard grab. The deep bonding feats provided are Assist Grapple, which lets the master assist by expending an AoO. Deranged Feeding nets the skyscourge frightful presence when feeding.
At CR 1, the diminutive sonophage, at CR 1, eats sound. It dampens sound in an area around it (and the master is immune to this ability). In melee, these winged, mottled blots can cause sonic damage and mute targets temporarily on a failed save. They also are healed by sonic damage (again, at the cost of not getting saves). This critter is easily one of the most outré and cool ones within this book. Delayed Auditory Feedback can affect a target within 90 feet and hamper their ability to cast verbal spells; The deep-bonding feat for the master also doubles as a metamagic feat: Muting Spells use a spell slot two levels higher and, bingo, mute targets affected by the spell. The verbiage gets AoE interaction etc. done right. There is a second artwork beyond the creature artwork –a classic piece, with them inserted – it made me smile. It’s a use of stock art that is creative and shows this extra commitment to making the book more fun, also on a visual level.
Finally, there would be the Springroot: At CR 5: It looks a bit puya-plant like, utterly alien, and moves by compressing. Its needles have eye-like organs that it can reveal to grappled targets that flood the victim with alien sensations and impulses, stunning them. These critters can fire their needles sans AoOs…and their needles carry a poison that generates pleasant visions that do not impede the functionality of the target…but that do render the Springroot invisible to the affected creature! I can so see this as the core-aspect of a truly disturbing utopian cult… The companion stats provide a solid progression here. The deep bonding feats allow the master to be part of the poison-induced phantasm (spell reference not italicized), and Twin Gaze lets you coordinate your gaze with that of the springroot, enhancing the psychedelic stunning effect.
Editing is generally very good on a rules-language level. On a formal level, there are a few typos that could have been caught. Formatting did not see the same attention to detail as the rest of the pdf: There are plenty of instances where spells have not been properly italicized. Layout is impressive: A nice and painless pastel-blue, supported by plenty of original full-color artworks make the interior of the book more impressive than the cover. This looks very professional and aesthetically-pleasing. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, though oddly, the Ferrovore and all subsequent critters are nestled in the fauchmaw bookmarks, which is itself nestled in the Argoschwere bookmark. They’re here, though, and that counts!
Jeff “The Green” Collins, Hal Kenette, Jennifer R. Povey, Maria Smolina and Amber Underwood deliver an impressive freshman offering for the company. And I don’t say that lightly. Not a single one of the creatures within this book is boring or mediocre – there is something cool about all of them, and they all attempt to do something conceptually and mechanics-wise interesting. That deserves to be applauded!
Moreover, a sense of fantastic plausibility suffuses these pages – in a way, all of these creatures make sense, feel like they belong, like they’re not simply a collection of stats. As you could glean from the review-text above, pretty much all of them kickstarted my imagination in some form or another. They have implications, they have niches that make you actually want to implement them. Even on the basis of just the merit of the monsters, this book should be applauded.
My ventures into the OSR-circles and into DCC; Legendary Games’ mythic monsters – they showed me something: Namely, that creatures, to be captivating, to be engaging, should be more than their stats. The critters within this book achieve just that.
This is even more important due to the fact that they are intended as player-options. Sure, it’s nice to have a couple of weirdo-creatures that don’t all want to kill off the PCs, but here, the emphasis placed on giving players some truly distinct, unique and fantastic companions is amazing. Playing the master of a fauchmaw will be more rewarding for experienced players than choosing a standard animal. And, in a sneaky manner, the unique quirks and kinks of the creatures will make them matter more – both mechanically, and within the stories you tell. This has both mechanical and narrative impact. Inkbloods could jumpstart whole campaign ideas and present a means to make magic feel more magical; Argoschwere are just delightful in their sheer weirdness, and pox aberrantia is basically an adventure hook/campaign seed waiting to happen…and a great reason for hostile dragons to go into full-blown Dalek-style “EXTERMINATE!”-mode! The critters are potent and the feat tax alleviates that; the deep bonding feats are a cool idea and deserve further expansion.
Now, granted, there are a few instances herein where minor aspects of the rules could be a bit more precise…and the number of formatting snafus, particularly among spell-references, is utterly avoidable. But know what? Reading and reviewing this book was significantly more engaging and compelling, dare I say, inspiring, than I ever expected or dared to hope it’d be. I’d rather take this supplement with its few formal flaws over a book of bland, clinical and soulless stats any day of the week. This oozes passion. It shows that the authors, all of them, genuinely cared about their contributions. You can feel it, see it in the small design-tweaks, in the instances where they could have said “that’ll do” – and didn’t.
The aberrant codex may not be perfect, but it’s an inspiring reading experience, with creatures that manage to encapsulate high-concept designs that you very rarely see in concise rules.
In short, this is one amazing little supplement. Were it not for the editing and formatting snafus, this’d be a clear 5 stars + seal of approval supplement. Considering their presence, I have to detract a star from my final verdict. However, freshman offerings always get a little bonus, and this is one such file. As such, the final verdict will be 4.5 stars, which will be rounded up due to in dubio pro reo. Oh, and since I really adored all of the creatures herein due to one facet or another, this also gets my seal of approval. If you’re bored by standard companions or just want some weird critters, this delivers in spades.
If this level of quality and cool designs is what we can expect from the Cobalt Sages, keep your eyes peeled for more!
You can get this inspired supplement here on OBS – you know you want cooler pets, don’t you?!
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