EZG reviews Dwellers in Dreams
This pdf is 83 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages ToC, 3 pages of advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 75 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
After a two-page introduction by TPK Games mastermind Brian Berg and an aptly-written piece of short fiction, we are introduced to the first of the 5 new fey-themed races herein, but before I get into its details, here are some assumptions of the pdf: Instead of bogging everything down with a vast and massive cosmology, we get a concept that ties fey to the realms of dreaming, essentially a first world/plane of dreams-style demiplane that serves as a thematic link and to explain the weirdness associated with fey. Mentality-wise, the introduction shows a comprehensive grasp on what makes fey work and fascinating, showing TPK Games’ aptitude with the creepier concepts of fantasy off quite well.
Now let’s take a look at the first race, the so-called Briarborn. Before I get into the mechanical details, I want to mention that starting age, height and weight tables, favored class options, racial relations etc. are provided for each race in these pages. Briarborn get +2 Con adn Wis, are plants (with all immunities), get +2 to AC in forested areas, +2 natural armor, +4 to stealth in forests, Knowledge (Nature) and Stealth as class skills or +1, speak with plants at will, 1/day tree shape and low-light vision. They get +50% damage from fire and are potentially staggered by cold damage.
They may replace their barkskin with +2 caster levels for enchantment, get rid of their cold vulnerability by trading in some of their bonuses or lose tree shape and get -2 to Wis for +2 to Cha and +1 to fort-saves. In case you haven’t noticed – this build is a 20 RP race-build and thus stronger than even the imho OP Aasimars. The whole book uses the ARG-rules for the race-builds and as much as I’m loathe to say it – it HURTS this pdf. Yes, the race feature a entry called “Effective Level: +1, but one of the things I enjoyed about PFRPG was that it got rid of those annoying ECL+X-races.
Now I maintain that even with the weaknesses and acknowledging the RP-build, the Briarborn are too strong – not necessarily due to the aptly-crafted Dreaming Tree Shepherd (insert Phantasmagoria 2 joke here)-archetype for the druid, but due to the 12 new racial feats included in here. Boy, are they broken. Grow an EXTRA LIMB for a feat, up to 2? There are feats for that. Make ANY weapon potentially stick to the briarborn? There’s a feat for that! Permanently increase your size to large? Feat for that. 25% immunity to sneak attack and crits that doesn’t stack with fortification, but from the imprecise wording I assume works as a SECOND chance to ignore the hit? There. It breaks my heart, really, for the feats represent cool concepts – take Ashen Bark: After having taken a total of 100 points of fire damage, the character can take this feat to get rid of the fire vulnerability and gain fire resistance 5. Apart from Briarborn scorching themselves over campfires and with one of the alternate racial traits, this race could get rid of BOTH vulnerabilities VERY fast. Concept-wise, these feats are nice and have good ideas indeed – balance-wise, though, they are quite broken. Have I mentioned the option of growing, sans costs, armor with up to +9 armor bonus?
Now the thing is – the race acknowledges its relative power and honestly, were it not for the options to get rid of the vulnerabilities, I’d still consider it a powerful take on plant races, but a viable one that has something going for it. The thing is, with the broken feats included in the deal, it just falls flat – especially since there are the Seedlings by Jon Brazer Enterprises, the Mandragorans by Rite Publishing, the Dalreans by LPJr Design, the Arborlings of Clockwork Gnomes, the Xhesa of Purple Duck Games out there – and all of them manage to be better balanced than the briarborn.
Their concept is great, 6 traits, racial lore, a new magical item and even a settlement statblock and a sample CR 2 NPC make for good supplemental material, but honestly – I don’t see any justification beyond the fluff for this race to exist.
After another aptly-written short story, we are introduced to the Crimbli, storywise goblinoids/fey-crossbreeds that kidnap children for the fey lords – complete with disturbing nursery rhyme and once again a plethora of favored class options. Ability-wise, they get -2 to Str and Con, +2 to Dex, Wis and Cha, are small fey with a 30 ft base speed, increase their miss chance due to dim light to 50%, get resistance 5 to cold and electricity, can HD rounds per day turn invisible as a swift action (though only in shadow or darkness), get darkvision and low-light vision, skill training for bluff and stealth, +4 to bluff when lying and as weaknesses light sensitivity and a -4 penalty when dealing with animals.
As alternate racial abilities, they may replace invisibility with +2 rounds duration when summoning fey creatures or replace their increased miss chance with 1/day dancing lights, ghost sound and prestidigitation as spell-like abilities.
As a built, the race takes only 9 RP from the ARG-guidelines, which would make it weaker than dwarves – still, I consider it on par with them and even beyond them due to the superior senses, resistances and increased miss chance. As a racial archetype, they get a rogue archetype that is exceedingly fast. The archetype is supposed to be a child snatcher, but honestly, it doesn’t get any abilities that would truly help abduct children, rather only ones that focus on getting away. The race gets 6 new feats, which include a useless scent-ability to track children (flavorful, but much like the witch hex – who’ll waste a feat on that? Also: Oddly the only one with the [Racial]-descriptor…). Otherwise, they are solid. The same can unfortunately not be said about a spell that renders the whole archetype obsolete – Quickling legerity nets you the legendary speed of the evil fey alongside concealment, evasion and uncanny dodge – as a 4th level spell. Sorry, but the speed alone would be a tough pill to swallow – with the added benefits, I consider it broken. The withering stone, Cr sample character and settlement statblock are solid again.
The third race, this time not introduced by a short story, is the Glimmerkin – essentially a race of alien elves that have spent too much time in the dreaming, taking on slightly insectoid habits and creepy, off behavior. Concept-wise, I REALLY love this race, so what do we get mechanically? Glimmerkin get -2 to Str, Cha and Con, +2 to Dex, Int and Wis, +1 natural armor, electricity resistance 5, +2 to bluff and +2 to the DC when using sense motive against them, +2 to Perception, Blind Fight, can shed soft radiance (though the pdf does not specify in what intensity – torch? lantern?), may 3/day use blur as a spell-like ability that also work versus blind fight and tremorsense, low light vision, may make perception checks in place of will saves versus sound-based attacks (!!!!) and take +50% sonic damage.
The Dreamweaver archetype for the wizard is solid, though message-spells and premonitions are not particularly exciting. Among the 10 new feats, gaining spell resistance 11+ HD/levels, growing fully functional wings (Potentially at 1st level!!!) and fast healing while resting are contrasted with weak +1 to natural armor and fort saves or +2 to effective caster level for enchantment spells. Power-level wise, this race is a monstrous 23 RP-build – before the unbalanced feats are applied. Their light-based language, premonition-spell and supplemental settlement and NPC again are solid – but what good does it do? Why not scale the race down, keep the signature blur and actually make it balanced? At least the race is imho, even with the op feats, less broken than the brianborn.
Next up is the True Changeling – replacement creatures for kidnapped children/victims of teh fey and consummate spies/assassins. They get +2 to an attribute of their choice, are of the fey (shapechanger)-type, get skill training with bluff and stealth, +4 to diplomacy to gather information, +1 language per linguistics-rank and to bluff and diplomacy, Knowledge (History and local) as class skills (or +2 if they already are class skills), low-light vision, cold iron vulnerability and their trademark ability, mimicry:As a standard action, they may change appearance and get +10 to the disguise check, but always retain one tell-tale sign like an off-colored streak of hair, a birthmark etc.
The race is a 18 RP-build and what can I say – it’s essentially the same as with Glimmerkin – the plethora of additional bonuses beyond the signature ability (which I actually consider balanced and cool!) make an otherwise great build much less accessible than it ought to be. The Fighter-archetype Shadowrazor, which gets access to gain sneak attack in lieu of bonus feats and is rather agile makes for a valid choice, whereas among the 10 feats we once again run the gamut from broken to pitifully weak. When not in natural form, they can get 25% chance to ignore sneak attacks and crits (not stacking with fortification – again, improperly worded – is it a second chance to negate or not) to the utterly INSANE Master of Mimicry, which nets you access to any physical abilities, extraordinary abilities and inherent ability score bonuses of the race into which you change. Combine that with another feat that lets you become large and a completely broken feat gets even worse. There’s also a case of formatting gone wrong:
“When you are the target of a
Transmutation spell, you are able to gain
either a +1 competence bonus or caster
level per five levels. You may not choose
both. Additionally, when subject to harmful
transmutation spells, you may reduce
the amounts by a like amount and gain the
competence bonus as a bonus to saves.” (pg. 53, italics added)
I wager the italicized sentence should be in the end of the feat’s text or does it refer to the bonuses exclusively? If yes, it’s a weak benefit, Compare that with +4 to demoralize attempts and we once again have a very wide span of powers between the feats. Two racial traits, a settlement and a sample NPC are also provided.
The final new race are the Sylfaen – marked from birth with swirling tattoo-like birthmarks, these elf-like fey with catlike ears and alien eyes were bred as a kind of warrior-caste by the fey and get +2 to Dex and Cha, -2 to Int, are fey, get +2 to AC in forests, +1 to all saves, +4 to stealth while in forests, reduce stealth-penalties when moving by 5 and may stealth at -20 while running, get skill focus (perception) as a bonus feat and may cast Alter Self, Blindness/Deafness, Blur, Dancing Lights, Ghost Sound, Prestidigitation and Speak with Animals 1/day AND 1/day Aspect of the Falcon, Aspect of the Stag and Chameleon Stride – mentioned in a separate entry that fails to mention whether the abilities also work via cha as the first set of spell-like abilities. They also gain elven weapon familiarity as well as low-light vision and may replace chameleon stride with barkskin or wood shape and Aspect of the Falcon with Tree Shape. Their ranger archetype, the Wylde Hunter, is actually rather cool and may designate whole groups as foes of the forest and later summon fey hounds to help him hunt. 7 new feats allow you to sing a masterwork bow from a tree, get DR 3/cold iron, 1/day dimension door, use cha in place of con when determining HP and intimidate foes via your barkskin spell – the feats this time around are not as broken as I’ve by this point come to expect. The race gets an additional racial trait, a poisonous whip and a sample NPC and settlement. This RP 20-race is yet another example of what I wouldn’t consider good design – why? Because it tries to take a class/character role, namely the protector of the forest/wylde hunter and make it a race. A race with cool fluff, yes, but all those spell-like abilities bloat it and make it, again, overpowered when compared to the standard races. They also don’t serve a racial ability’s purpose of enriching a race, rather shoehorning the Sylfaen into a specific class direction, something I generally dislike.
And finally, there are the general additional pieces of information in the guise of 9 additional feats, which let you for example ignore any difficult terrain in a forest, let you add cha-mod to ref-saves or 1/day cast vanish. Nothing to complain about them, neither about the two traits – or at least I presume they are traits that got mixed into the feat-section. Formatting is inconsistent, offering flavor-text in italics in half the feats and non-italicized fluff in the other half, leading me to assume that the very weak “Favor of the Seelie/Unseelie Court”-entries actually are the feats in question – though, again, I’ not sure.
The spells again, though, have some issues: Harrowing Dance, for example, removes the ability of the target to move – replacing the regular movement with a forced movement of 10 ft. directed by the target. If the save is failed, the poor saps (1 per 3 caster levels!) also get -2 to AC and -5 to ref-saves and lose AC-bonuses granted by shields. To add insult to injury, the spell leaves the target exhausted for 1 hour per level of the caster, on a successful save 1 minute per level of the caster. Give me a pool of acid, magma, a cliff and any moderately capable foe and this spell, with no means to counteract the movement, even upon making the save, is a guaranteed TPK waiting to happen – and not in the good sense I usually associate with TPK Games. There are relatively bland protection/magic circle versus fey-spells and two heals-spells for plants and twilight spells that essentially give you an armor and sword that can be diminished and expended to produce magic missiles.
The pdf closes with dew that makes you faster and more graceful as well as a short 3-page mini-gazetteer of the Demiplane “The Dreaming”.
Editing and formatting are worse than I’ve come to expect from TPK Games. There are a LOT of minor issues that start with anal-retentive nitpicks like Knowledge (Nature) being written as “Knowledge: Nature” and continues to whole sentences that are out of order. Not good and quite a bit short of the usual attention to editing and formatting details I’ve come to expect from TPK Games. Layout adheres to a nice b/w-2-column standard and the b/w-artworks are nice indeed, though the blank spaces between lines are rather pronounced, especially when compared to e.g. FGG-layouts, which means that much less information fits on a page than the page-count would lead you to believe. A minor additional nitpick you might want to know about is the fact that there are 2 advertisements in the middle of the book as opposed to the back – if you’re like me and print out all pdfs, something to be aware of and while I’m not a fan of it, at least that won’t fracture into my verdict. The pdf is excessively bookmarked and hyperlinked unobtrusively and efficiently to d20pfsrd.com – kudos in that discipline.
Let’s start with the more pleasant things I have to say about this book. TPK Games GET fey. They understand them and manage to capture the flair and panache, the danger and alien nature of the fey that resonates strongly with us and makes this pdf, fluff-wise, a huge joy to read. Fluff-wise.
I’ve said so multiple times, every time someone has asked me about it and I stand by it: The Advanced Race Guide is in my personal opinion CRAP. Not Savage Species-level crap, but crap nonetheless. Providing guidelines to create races is fine and all, but they need to be balanced on the respective point levels and, well, the ARG spectacularly fails at that. Not only that, the ARG also fails to provide cohesive means of balancing races of different racial point values, indirectly necessitating the thrice-cursed effective character levels that the system got rid of. I bought the book expecting the worst and only to keep up my reviewing and was not disappointed by its complete failure at the race-creation guidelines.
Now the races in this pdf use the ARG guidelines to create races and make it very clear how they were crafted and utilize the guidelines – the thing is, if the foundation of the rules-building you construct on is flawed, then the resulting construct will necessarily be flawed as well. And this is exactly what we have on a basic level here – the races, not even the 9 RP-race, can be considered perfectly balanced in context with the base-races or those generally found among 3pps out there. And there’s the issue – the other races are even stronger, and not necessarily because they need to be – they all have at least one genius idea/concept going for them, but are bloated by unnecessary spell-like abilities and minor skill bonuses that bloat their RP-builds farther than they’d need to in order to drive home their uniqueness.
Another issue would be that, essentially, they are slightly geared a bit too much towards specific rules for my tastes, but that pales in comparison with another issue – the races are not only not balanced with regards to the core-races, they also are not balanced among themselves, featuring quite a discrepancy in power-levels between each other, thus making an all-fey campaign also problematic. And that is when only taking the imho broken ARG Race-builds into account.
And then there are the feats. The feats are completely and totally all over the place. Apart from glitches here and there, we can encounter a STAGGERING discrepancy in power-levels here that range from minor skill bonuses in specific circumstances to absolutely SICK feats that are so broken, I won’t even start venting. Where a talented DM can salvage the races and tone them down to work in a context with regular races, upon introduction of the feats into the equation, any semblance of balance is completely and utterly shattered.
This is a completely and utterly depressing book for me to review – since even the broken feats carry a part of a concept in each and every instance that makes these races stand out and feel unique – but honestly, I feel like they would have been better off as racial paragon-classes to better balance the races. They are high-concept and per se glorious ideas – only terribly flawed in their execution.
So…is this a bad pdf? If you’re looking for player-races that are not utterly broken? Yes, then this is a 1 star-pdf for you. I maintain, though, that a capable DM who can judge their power and fracture that into the equation of CR-calculation might still get something out of this pdf – for this explicit purpose, this might be considered a 3-star file. My final verdict will fall in between the two, at 2 stars.