What Lies Beyond Reason Campaign Guide (5e)
This massive Campaign Guide/companion tome for the “What Lies Beyond Reason”-AP clocks in at an impressive 138 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page KS-thanks, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 131 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy for the purpose of a far and unbiased review.
Well, first of all, let us define what this book represents: This is basically a GM Guide, a deluxe-expansion edition for the AP that, while not strictly necessary, does greatly enhance the experience, as it elucidates the overall plot, its peculiarities and the themes of the AP. In short: It makes the experience of running and playing the AP more rewarding. It also, formula-wise, goes a significant step beyond what I would have expected from it.
In an aptly-written, massive section of introductory prose, we witness here, directly, the original catastrophe that put the events of the AP in motion…which poses a conundrum for me as a reviewer, for this section alone can SPOIL a significant part of the campaign….but it also ties in with many of the customization options provided herein….hence, let’s remain silent on this topic, at least for now, and look at the spoiler-free sections of this guide.
First of all, this is a helping hand for the GM – it includes the stats of the BBEG and also features basically a mini-bestiary for the creatures in the AP, ranging from the previously-mentioned Psychic Motes to more dangerous and strange adversaries. It should be noted that, while not perfect, the stats generally are solidly build and make NPCs and monsters generally come to life. Fans of Rusted Iron Games and the Deadly Gardens series will certainly appreciate Russ Brown’s handiwork in some of the creatures featured within. The conversion to 5e of these rules-relevant aspects, however, is a bit of a double-edged sword – if one takes, for example, a quick glance at the Ghoran-race featured in one of the optional sidetreks, one will note formatting discrepancies from the standard that, alas, carry over to the monster statblocks. Natural armor for a PC race and its interaction with armors etc. would have warranted more discussion as well – while not bad per se, this can lead to a bit of confusion before precedence cases are consulted.
Beyond this, the pdf also takes a look at the massive cast of characters that may or may not live through the end of the prologue-adventure “Difficult Circumstances” and yields suggestions regarding the way these contacts and their relationship towards the PCs may develop, for good or ill. The attention to detail provided here is pretty interesting and impressive to witness, but speaking of detail: The massive metropolis of Anduria, aka The Eternal City, is depicted in a massive, lavishly-detailed gazetteer that includes maps of the respective districts and a lot of information beyond that allotted to the players. It should be noted that the book also contains a metric ton of rumors, signs and foreshadowing that the GM can employ, adding even more immersion to the proceedings.
Of course, a city is defined not only by its architecture or physical relics, but also by their people and hence, an optional reputation system is provided: This allows for the separate tracking of fame and infamy of the PCs – actions and consequences. Scrupulous grave-robbing can yield a reputation for being greedy, for example. While not required, this generally adds a nice touch to the proceedings and taps into the district structure of the metropolis – or at least, it did so for Pathfinder. It is pretty evident that this section has not been properly translated – typed penalties, a lot of small number-accounting…for 5e, this system seems woefully inadequate. That’s a rather significant downside there…but on the plus-side, we also have some conversion aspects that really work well: When NPCs use cool material from Tribality Publishing (properly acknowledged in the text itself, beyond the SRD!) and when we get an urban spell-.list for circle of the land druids, we can see that there is some serious care to be found here. Similarly, damage types saves etc. generally make sense, so yeah – while not perfect, the conversion can be called good in many regards even very good.
While we’re at the subject of themes – the guide explains the function of the respective antagonists encountered during the AP and how they reflect/interact with the PCs – in short, it notes on how they are not necessarily meant for slaying, and that redemption is an actual possibility for almost everyone. The AP generates, in spite of taking place in a distinctly high-fantasy city, a general aesthetic of shades of gray morality with only few antagonists truly being “evil”. This brings me to another theme that is important: While Anduria is exceedingly high-fantasy in many of its aspects, it is a city very much defined by a curious hesitation when it comes to religions – something that is actually concisely explained for the GM and an aspect that makes the plot work actually better than one would think at first. While a god, Rhion Barakar, patron saint of long shots and lost causes, takes an interest in the proceedings (yeah, does not bode well for those PCs, right?), death in this AP is quite possibly permanent and PCs raising the dead will soon see themselves hounded and beset on all fronts…a process logically defined and explained.
Speaking of themes: In a general absence of clearly defined lines of good and evil and within a city that comes with guards, potential punishments for crimes, etc., the mature themes used within the AP get EXTENSIVE consideration – and the AP is so much better off for it: There is e.g. a place that is a combination of a sage’s library and an intellectual bordello/high-class escort service…but how explicit you make this is all up to you. Writing-wise, this is PG 13, and the same can be said about the themes of addiction, violence and insanity that all are leitmotifs to a certain degree, but never devolve into a truly explicit manner. The guidance regarding player-sensibilities help immensely here and do a great job helping the GM to customize the campaign.
Speaking of which: One of the crucial leitmotifs of the campaign is one that is a bit of a matter of taste…and it can be completely excluded from the campaign…or emphasized with specific signs and portents. The book also contains several set-piece encounters/sidetrek modules. Since 5e does not have the variant XP-progressions, that section is a bit condensed here.
…and it is here, ultimately, that I have not recourse but to go into SPOILERS, if I want to continue discussing this book. PLAYERS BEWARE. The following contains SPOILERS for the WHOLE CAMPAIGN. Do not read ahead unless you want to GM this AP!!
All right, still here? Don’t say I did not warn you! So, the skepticism towards the divine in the city? It has a very good reason. You see, a couple of incarnations of the eternal city before, the demi-god Aether almost brought doom upon the world. He was taking the city by storm, courtesy of him being a god you could touch, but unbeknown to his faithful, he was insane, as the megalomaniacal introductory chapter so perfectly illustrates: In his travels, he has been touched by the Outer Dark, namely R’lyeh, and while it broke his mind, he recovered, obsessed with bringing the city back…and in conjunction with the regular world. Under Anduria, there lies a chthonic Machine of titanic proportions, leaking vileness and power…and Aether succeeded in activating the titanic device, courtesy of a deal with none other than Asmodeus…as he was ripping the souls from his betrayed faithful, the lord of Hell struck with guile. Having sown seeds of doubt, Aether’s high priestess, stunned by his madness and betrayal, assassinated her divine lord…and thus, the tragedy began, for her spirit, doomed and confined to the city’s bloodlines, has been guiding the fortunes of the city ever since, as she, in her divine punishment and insanity, seeks to make amends. Meanwhile, Aether’s soul slipped away, escaping Asmodeus’ grasp – which is why the Seekers, Asmodean loan-sharks and hunters have been created…and it explains how they could become basically a kind of second city watch…and it explains the resentment towards the gods that still exists in the enlightened metropolis, even though this horrid event lies buried in the past.
As you may have noted, this all implies, to a degree, an existence of the mythos and cthulhiana – and if you’re like me and a bit oversaturated in that regard or just unsure whether you want to use this angle, rest assure that the guide provides all the information required to get rid of it…or enforce it further, all depending on your tastes.
While the book does contain a summary of the campaign’s plot and advice on handling the NPCs, I am not going to dive deeper into spoilers there…instead, let us talk about the sidetreks, all right? The first would be a pretty generic sidetrek, in case the PCs incur a debt to an NPC at one point. The second and third one are basically mini-dungeons – expansions, to be more precise: During adventure #1 and #2 of the AP (reviews forthcoming!), enterprising GMs may very well face the option of PCs astute PCs exploring the tunnels below the city, leading towards the machine…if they realize their presence. Where another AP would just leave that to the GM with a shrug, we get two really challenging and potentially lethal sidetreks into this strange environment, foreshadowing the shape of things to come and engaging in some seriously impressive indirect storytelling there. Chances are that most groups won’t find these, sure…but their inclusion bespeaks the passion and vision that went into this.
This is not where the pdf stops, however – after adventure #2, Luther Mendel (nice nomenclature there!), associate of Damian and master of the Academy of Natural Magic seems curiously absent…but not if you’re using this book, for none other than Richard Develyn of 4 Dollar Dungeons, one of the best adventure-writers I know, provides a fully-mapped module here, one that focuses on the humanoid plant-species of Ghorans and the fact that Mendel has found a Gourd that seems to be an aberrations to the Ghorans…and these beings are a bit paranoid, as they are considered to be somewhat of a delicacy for some humanoids…Thus, the PCs in this module will have to prevent a series on attacks on the academy…only to see Luther present a rapidly-growing humanoid who is learning at a vastly accelerated race…and who is basically becoming one of the PCs…only better in every way. This duplicate, “Pat”, is actually the second such seed, as the first has replaced Luther…you see, this being, which also is manipulating the Ghorans, to an extent, ultimately poses a difficult conundrum for the PCs…and even the players: It can replace the PC with a superior double…one that the player gets to play…but the ethics in game should be disturbing, to say the least: It is pretty clear that the germination process will kill the original…so what will it be?
It should be noted that this is the cliff-notes version of the module and does not do it justice…but the weirdness and profound creepiness of the whole set-up gets a resounding thumbs up from me – as far as I’m concerned, this and the customization options alone make this worth the asking price.
Editing and formatting are generally very good, though some parts of the formatting and some of the 5E-conversion bits feel like they do not live up to the PFRPG-version. They are good, mind you, and my complaints are, in many cases, rather esoteric and aesthetic, but as a whole, the formal criteria of the PFRPG-version felt a bit tighter to me. Layout adheres to a really nice and professional 2-column full-color standard and the book features quite a lot of REALLY nice full-color artworks (same quality as the one you see on the cover…). The pdf btw. comes with a second, more printer-friendly version – big kudos there! Cartography is in full-color as well and comes with all relevant maps, in lavish full-color and, better yet, key-less, player-friendly versions, perfect for use with VTTs. Big, big kudos. E.g. a park, with a plethora of different plants and leaf-colors and -structures makes clear that these have been made with surprising attention to detail. The titanic, high-res overview map of the metropolis is similarly appreciated. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, though, frankly, I’d suggest getting the softcover – the campaign guide makes for a nice, unobtrusive book to flip open while running one of the modules and the book is nice enough to warrant getting.
Micah Watt’s “What Lies Beyond Reason” is an extremely ambitious AP; while the prologue did hint at that, it is this book that makes this fact abundantly clear. The impressive aspect here, though, would be that, at least for now, I can say that it looks like it’ll work out! You see, the city and its history, themes, all of that…it makes sense. The customization options are helpful and the culture grown here has its roots deeply secluded away from prying eyes…but the PCs will find them, sooner or later. The prose is excellent as far as I’m concerned – when you can write a book, include monsters by Russ brown and a module by Richard Develyn, and manage to not look like an totally green amateur while doing so, then you obviously have talent.
The customization options for the city also really put a smile on my face: Don’t like airships? No problem, can be cut. Don’t like *leitmotif mentioned in SPOILER-section*? You can reskin that and/or get rid of it. These considerations, the advice given and the way in which this handles the whole NPC-presentation and explanation make this a really compelling book – more than one adventure-writer would certainly benefit from taking a couple of the design-tenets into account: You see, while challenging, the AP is all about consequences…and if the PCs behave stupidly, they may well reap a horrid, horrid comeuppance. This, in short, shares A LOT of my own aesthetics and expectations in design; the roleplaying focus is pronounced and the seemingly clashing themes actually blend together. In short: This is a rather impressive book and certainly one I’d wholeheartedly recommend – also as a possible means of gauging whether the AP will interest you. (And yes, I am pretty sure it will!) – After reading this, I found myself infinitely more excited about the AP than I was after the linear prologue…though even that module gains a lot by contextualizing it…but you’ll see.
What I’m trying to say is this: Get this and support this AP. The complaints I do have regarding 5E are, in many cases cosmetic and the “Gourd”-adventure alone may make this worth getting. The extensive and amazing player-map support also really helps and the AP, at least from what I can discern after having played its first 4 modules and the material herein, is worth supporting. While I can’t rate the per se lovingly-made 5E-version as highly as the PFRPG-iteration, this is still an impressive book – hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this cool campaign guide here on OBS!