Four Horsemen Present: Heralds of the Apocalypse
This massive pdf clocks in at 45 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 42 pages of content – quite a lot, so let’s take a look!
So, what exactly is this? In short, this constitutes a massive toolkit that deals with evil campaigns. Everyone who has ran an evil campaign can attest to the special considerations such a campaign demands of the GM, particularly if you do not restrict the chosen options to Lawful Evil only. (And yes, I have ran multiple evil campaigns…though all started as the PCs being good guys…says something. I guess…)
Anyways, there are quite a few things to consider when running a game for an evil party of PCs, so this pdf takes a step back and helps as an orientation guide in the beginning: By discussing the ramifications of various evil alignments in game, for example. The pdf goes beyond alignments, though: As it notes, evil is not a universal catch-all term, and instead encompasses a wide array of diverse notions of moral shortcomings. At least in the part of the world that has morals inspired by Judeo-Christian book-religions, an easy and central focus would be the seven deadly sins and what they actually mean in the contextualization of evil PCs (and NPCs, obviously) – each is discussed alongside angles that can be employed for interesting narrative elements and twists, thankfully with an explicit note to the GM and players that shapes a consciousness for finding a common ground. Speaking of which: The pdf also explicitly tells the group in question to maintain teamwork ethics – without them, a game sooner, rather than later, collapses.
Beyond that, there are several means of properly integrating evil characters and giving them a reason to cooperate: From the manipulation angle to the necessary good to having no choice, the book sports an interesting assortment of angles to pursue, which also features ideas on evil backgrounds and results, as a whole, in a well-written and truly helpful array of considerations that both players and GMs should contemplate when making their evil PC or party. This is, obviously, supported by various bits of crunchy rules, the first of which would be an assortment of various traits. These generally represent some truly amazing ideas, like the ability to compartmentalize evil deeds by having an almost split personality-style second alignment. Similarly cool would be to option to Bluff to keep your aura from being read. At the same time, these do not specify their trait subtype, which is a bit annoying. The leg-breaker trait is also pretty OP, granting you +4 to Intimidate versus an opponent you have successfully damaged (damage must exceed target’s HD) within the last minute: Considering the relatively pronounced bonus and the demoralize-options out there, +4 seems like overkill. On the more humorous side, I am pretty sure that one trait should read “loan-shark”, not “lone-shark”.
The pdf also sports a serious array of diverse feats, 14 unless I have miscounted. It is here that the horsemen-theme comes around the proverbial corner, with Death, Famine, War and Pestilence constituting leitmotifs among the feats. These btw. contains several pretty amazing ideas: Like 1/day evading what otherwise would be certain death, but requiring you to kill another creature, making it basically take your place -and yes, this has a caveat that prevents abuse via kittens. Negating flanking and aid another or several immunities for following pestilence…there are some very powerful and flavorful options here. Unfortunately, there also are some options here that are pretty broken: In spite of requiring BAB +9 and Critical Focus, Acute Critical would be one such candidate: It lets you add any source of precision damage you may have, like e.g. sneak attack etc. to all crits you score. Considering how many options there are for critical enhancing and getting them more often, that can be really nasty. Substituting costly material components with blood sacrifice of killed creatures by HD is for example a cool trick. So, as a whole, this section is nice, but not perfect.
After that, we are introduced to an array of new archetypes for evil characters, with the first being the ascendant lich for the wizard class, who begins play with a special bonded phylactery and replaces Scribe Scroll with a gradual transformation that provides scaling AC-bonuses as well as resistances, though the splintering of the soul the process requires does ultimately decrease the social competences of the archetype. 5th level yields a damaging lich touch with scaling damage output that can also be used to heal the undead, thankfully featuring a daily cap, with 15th level adding the paralysis effect and 10th level providing the fear aura. Oh, and obviously, the capstone would provide the signature rejuvenation trick.
Really unique and twisted would be the choir macabre bard, who, when dealing damage equal to or greater than twice his class level, may play with the pain of the victims, which means they don’t need to expend rounds of bardic performances in such a round. Twisted and cool idea that is balanced by only 2 + Cha-mod rounds of performance, +1 per subsequent level! The archetype also receives several unique bardic performances that include a debuff, short-ranged damage (which should be sonic, not untyped – it is classified as a sonic effect, but RAW deals untyped damage), worsening of ailments and high level dispels of buffs/immunities makes for a compelling archetype.
Next up would be the Daemon Knight, a neutral evil paladin archetype that has a built-in self-atonement option which is pretty amazing and helpful – as is the modified code of conduct that makes the archetype actually playable. The archetype receives immunity to aging penalties, but only gets 1/2 Cha-mod to saves. 5th level provides btw. the boon of a chosen horseman, all of which scale: We have auto-raise from the dead, raging capabilities, scaling diseases or bite attacks that get grab and swallow whole added…flavorful and fun archetype. Fleshsmith alchemists receive a flexible mutagen they can forcefeed to others, warping their bodies and charming them (why hasn’t that done before? Seriously!) – which is seriously cool storytelling material right there. The archetype also offers some new discoveries that include fleshwarped cohorts, tighter control over the creatures affected by his mutagen, extended range of creatures that can be affected, and even learning to lace the mutagen to bombs! Amazing idea, with my only regret being that its concept could have carried a full-blown hybrid class.
The order of the Broken is not, as you may first believe, a new cavalier order: Instead it represents a massive archetype that represents, to a degree, an antipaladin-lite version, as these once proud crusaders were twisted beyond comparison. While the archetype does not get to choose another order, having that hardbaked into the archetype, it offers more flexibility than the regular cavalier class ever did, allowing at several levels for the choice of a corruption from an impressive list of diverse mutations, dark boons and deadly tricks. I love this archetype. It rewires the whole cavalier-chassis and adds some serious player-agenda to the fray, while at the same time providing antipaladin-like gameplay sans the ridiculously restrictive base class codes of conduct.
The peerless brawler can use Sense Motive to temporarily learn a number of feats as a swift action, drawing upon the opponent’s tricks. While Sense Motive can be cheesed, the DC required is based on the opponent’s BAB and Wis-modifier and thus, to some extent, manages to be kept in check. Not a big fan, but yeah. Instead of martial flexibility, the peerless brawler learns to deny his foes access to some of their feats by adjusting his fighting style, which can make for some interesting melee control options and foiling of highly specialized builds, with higher levels potentially denying ever more feats. This archetype is interesting: While I’m not a big fan of the skill-based mechanic, the feat-denial makes them actually excel most when pitted against other martial characters, which works well from a dramatic and flavor point of view. So yeah. Nice! Ravenous Soul druids replace wild shape with a bite attack that increases in power based on player choices: At 6th level and every 2 levels thereafter, you can customize the bite with several nice options, making this a pretty nasty famine/cannibalism/predator option. The emphasis of choice is certainly appreciated!
The riven witch takes a cue from the oracle in that she begins play with a torment: Whether controlled by an entity or cultist, damned, terrorized or mad, the archetype receives basically a variant curse that nets bonuses at 5th, 10th and 15th level. She also does not gain a patron, drawing her strength from the trauma she endures, thus gaining spontaneous spellcasting and a bonus spell-list determined by her torment, with the exclusive hexes tapping into the torment as a means to let others feel her pain well as offering some debuffs. The warlord barbarian is adept at intimidation and may select trophies instead of rage powers, potentially gaining items, banners, bones etc. with benefits ranging from AC-bonus to enhanced saves, etc. Solid.
The pdf also contains several magic items, 9 to be more precise: From the potent apocalypse staff to the others, there are some nice, thematic tricks here: What about a ring, which makes you retain functionality when dying and also increases the negative damage threshold, but prevents returning to life…and makes you dread wraithify upon death? There would be various rods, a flail that makes those nearby nauseated on a failed save, a robe that allows you to add insult to the injury of bleeding, dying, energy drained, etc. foes, ushering them further towards death, the AoO miss-chance granting shawl of vermin and the mutable weapon of war. I have no pricing or power-concerns in this section. Kudos!!
Next up would be an assortment of new spells, 10, to be more precise. Blackbolt fires dark rays that can inflict negative levels, balancing the relatively low level with a max cap of negative levels inflicted via the spell. Adding diseases to bite and claw attacks, massive swarms of locusts, a level 9 spell that crushes its victims with pure misery, a spell that can generate the illusion of having violated one’s code, cursing soldiers to rise again after death and shriveling a target’s limbs…the spells are nasty and nice, their respective levels making sense from a balance point of view. No complaints. Speaking of no complaints: The new famine and pestilence domains actually are pretty cool and represent the first domains I’ve read in a while that I consider mechanically interesting, with the latter offering the option to counter attacks with a defensive disease, while famine actually adds crippling hunger pangs to necromancy spells cast…pretty nice – kudos for both!
Now this is called “Heralds of the Apocalypse”, so it is only fitting that the pdf closes with an assortment of apocalyptic plots, supplemented by rules. (If you need more: LPJ Design’s Obsidian Apocalypse is a nice toolkit for the like!) Each of the plots contained herein also have angles for each of the various horsemen regarding their potential thematic involvement. The first of these would be the classic evolved bubonic plague; thereafter, we have parasites that enhance physical scores, but render those affected mindless and raging – interesting angle I have used in my own game when I ran my version of RotRL in conjunction with 3.X’s Elder Evils. Similarly frightening: Soul Rot. It’s a curse and disease…that actually destroys the soul of those affected. Worse, it affects powerful outsiders quicker! The meek shall inherit the earth…this can potentially destroy deities and make for a great reset/radical change for your setting! A highly potent, more flexible variant of ghoul fever that can turn you even into devourers or banshees and the like completes the array of devastating plagues/curses in style. Oh, and know what’s cool here: The higher the HD…the higher the save! Loved this chapter!!
Editing and formatting are very good, though not perfect. I noticed a couple of minor hiccups. Layout adheres to Rogue Genius Games’ two-column full-color standard and while I have seen a few images herein before, the selection of artworks is excellent and cool. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
The four horsemen (Dan Dillon, Steven T. Helt, Tim Hitchcock and Stephen Rowe) are pretty much a guarantee that something doesn’t suck; this is no different: This massive collection of options contains some amazing engine tweaks clad in intriguing archetypes, juggling highly complex rules-operations. There are several archetypes herein that bring much needed player agenda to classes (*cough* cavalier */cough*) and the guide regarding evil campaigns should be considered a must-read for GMs and players alike to ensure a smoothly proceeding gaming experience. There are a couple f instances where I consider some components within this book problematic, but that certainly should not keep you from getting this. The plagues in the back made me wish we got more such cool events/hazards for apocalyptic story-arcs – hopefully we’ll see more of those in the future.
The placement of spells regarding spell-levels is precise and so is the pricing of magic items, which is something that’s pretty hard to get right as well, showing the massive expertise of the team. In short: This is a great pdf, though one that misses my seal of approval by a tiny margin. Still, this very much deserves its final verdict of 5 stars and should be considered a must-read for any group attempting WotW, Hell’s Vengeance or a similar campaign focusing on evil PCs.
You can get this cool toolkit for evil characters here on OBS!