The Sword of Air

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Wed, Sep 30 2015 - 08:18
The Sword of Air

The massive mega-adventure clocks in at 522 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of obituary-slots (this is FGG we're talking about) and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 514 pages of content, so let's dive in...
...but wait, before we do, let me reiterate something: This is not simply a massive module, this is a linchpin, a relic finally realized. For as long as I've been reading Necromancer Games (and later, Frog God Games-modules), I've seen those tantalizing hints, time and again, supplemented by this nasty, trademark "Coming Soon." Anticipation continued to build up - for years. When FGG was created, published Slumbering Tsar, vastly improved Rappan Athuk and then proceeded to release great book after great book - even saving Razor Coast from oblivion - that's when I hoped. when the KS hit, I scrounged together all bucks I could, bought two weeks worth of ramen and pledged. And when the KS' was finished, I sat there - and started honestly dreading the arrival of this book.
Why? Because I have the most insane of expectations for this mega-adventure - years upon years of expectations and improved qualities of previous books - since the days of NG, the world has turned. It is my belief that the average of FGG's oeuvre, quality-wise, significantly exceeds that of NG - NG was the trailblazer, FGG has, at this point, imho surpassed its predecessor. So has Sword of Air changed with it? Is it up to date, or a relic of NG's days in design-aesthetic? All of this does not bode well - usually, when I have high expectations, I tend to end up disappointed. So far for my own mindset going into this.
Genre-wise, Sword of Air is a huge sandbox-adventure that deviates from the player-driven Slumbering Tsar in the key-aspect that it indeed has a metaplot beyond exploration - in fact, this mega-adventure, while providing enough sandboxing, does have a significantly more pronounced plot, is, dare I say, brainier, than most modules of this size. It should also be noted that the modules vast array of maps, all in gorgeous full-color, come with player-friendly versions and my dead-tree copy featured a high-quality, gorgeous hex-map of the areas covered herein.
Indeed, the Gulf of Akados-region as depicted herein, with hex upon hex of things, settlements, dungeons is ridiculously detailed and provides more storylines than I can hope to cover in a review - there is so much material here, you will NOT be wanting for simple material to put your PCs through. Indeed, much like the most detailed settings of old, you can just put this book down as a kind of massive world-guide, push your PCs in and there you go  -even with this type of gameplay, ignoring the plotline, this probably has enough gaming material to last you at least a year. So yes, you can wide-open sandbox this beast...but you don't have to.
All right, enough procrastination - this being an adventure-review, from here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.......If you're a player, jump ahead - or Tsathogga AND Orcus may well descend on you and consume your soul!......All right, only GMs left? Great! First of all: This mega-adventure has one of the most surprising primary antagonists you'll ever see - unless your players are exceedingly paranoid, to the point they even exceed the paranoia of mine, they will NOT see the revelation of the true mastermind coming  -and indeed, a lot hangs in the balance here. This book is an epic quest that spans multiple artifacts, with, obviously, the Sword of Air taking a central role. The PCs are drawn into this epic via the feud of two archwizards Kayden and Sorten, who face an issue of mutually-assured destruction - a theme that has an intriguing resonance in the subtext of the module that sets Sword of Air, intentionally or not, apart - and yes, I used the word "epic" in the truly intended context with all the ramifications of this word: Sword of Air puts A LOT at stake, and all in the player's hands - with a distinct chance that the PCs and players may unwittingly unleash doom upon all of the Lost Lands. The stakes, though it may seem otherwise, are apocalyptic indeed.
While the general notion is that the PCs are recruited by the...let's say, less than nice wizard Kayden to get him the Shagaspondium, a legendary item and the first trail towards the Sword of Air, this mega-adventure very much has more for you to do than you can ever want - strange ruins dot the landscape. Dragon-families with funny names engage in an ancient family feud. Vampire princesses lie entombed in small dungeons. A lycanthropic gnoll-lord rule over their people in a massive mountain-fortress - all of these come fully mapped and yes, certain forests contain dark secrets at their center - and the domains of the two arch-wizards, with their excessive details, also should eb considered intriguing. The production-values have to be mentioned here - this book has A LOT of artwork and cartography - many of which can be considered stunning. The full-color renditions, especially of mechanisms and areas (less so for characters) is absolutely awesome and helps immersion. Speaking of which - the level of detail, should you prefer simulationalist approach, includes handy lists of food-consumption and areas containing a lot of NPCs, you'll enjoy the schedules that depicts when character xyz is here and when not. It should also be noted that the NPC-builds are a tad more creative and versatile than in most FGG-books, with plenty of multiclassing and archetyping.
But, beyond all of this, you should also be aware that, by infiltration or alliance, sooner or later, the PCs will need to actually enter the Plane of Shadow - in this wasteland, titanic shadow giants loom and the exploration of the wasteland is one step beyond the challenge of the basic range and of what one would expect - within the depths of this desolation, umbral dragons loom, deadly woods are home to life-draining monsters and a mad apprentice has the key to the tomb of Aka Bakar - but curious PCs may just as well try to foil the deadly Night Queen. Or what about travelling the shadow sea?  Need something more epic - well, there is a chance that the artifacts of the deadly shadow giant deity Knew Koth is resurrected - his dread stats are provided...
Speaking of Aka Bakar's tomb- the dungeon is deadly, but you knew that much, right? Fact is, it's also, much like the basic plotline, a place where brains are just as required as brawns - the numerous, smart puzzles provided within this massive complex provide a great change of pace from the deadly adversaries, unique foes and lethal traps - and yes, there are some traps herein that will TPK foolish groups - much like Rappan Athuk and similarly challenging modules, this is NOT playing around - though, at least in my opinion, the whole complex adheres to an internal consistency beyond what e.g. RA delivers - the complex not only felt thoroughly unique and alive, it simply is awesome and feels organic, logical.
But what to do with the Sword of Air, should the PCs recover it? One thing is clear - this sword in the stone has brought untold suffering and needs to be taken care of - but how to destryo it? Well, this is where the massive book essentially splits its direction - unless you direct things otehrwise, of course. Researching the means of destruction, unlike with most artifacts, can yield two options - but that may not be apparent for the PCs. The most rewarding option may be to send them in the direction of method A) and then have them realize that something is amiss. If only, because missing out on even a bit of the Wasteland of Tsen would be a crime in my book. Do you recall my incessant gushing about Slumbering Tsar's Desolation back in the day? Well, at this point, the Wasteland of Tsen, horribly irradiated and providing tables upon tables of mutations, constitutes perhaps one of my favorite areas ever depicted in a fantasy roleplaying game - utterly unique and strange, with ample of deadly creatures, this desolate place with its delightfully tentacled squirrel-swarms and unique hazards and creatures hides more than the remnants of a fantastical fallout - essentially, from the temple hidden beneath the dead lake to the massive, ruined city, this gigantic, impressively-detailed exploration takes the former awesome components and one-ups them in imagery and iconic themes - and below do lie the lead mines of Tsen, where maddened clerics of Arden defend the Heart of their dead god - and with it, one of the options to destroy the doom-bringing Sword of Air once and for all.
The other option, of course, involves researching the existence of a legendary beast of Tarrasque-like proportions (and a CR of 27) that happens to be immortal. No, this is not the highest level CR the PCs can stumble into - one endgame-scenario can be summed as literally "The world is doomed." Now matter how you play this gigantic beast - no matter, how things turn out - getting through this in any way is a feat - a true achievement.
I am waging a gamble: This will surpass Rappan Athuk at one point in its legend. Why? Because its storyline is compelling and because it does engage the brains and all problem-solving skills of a group beyond what most modules dare to do - from opposite-battles to research and schemes within schemes to the ridiculously awesome locations, this book is stunning. And since I can't really properly convey that - this book contains almost 100 pages of maps. No, I am NOT kidding. Each and every little halfway feasible locale is mapped. This is beyond. And yes, as always, we get copious monsters and magic items and, and , and - but ultimately, everything pales before this module.
And yes, I will remain this opaque here - you should get this and read it yourself. I can't properly convey this book's impact.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are top-notch - for a book of this size to have this level of cohesion is more than just remarkable - it's a feat in itself. Layout...oh boy - this book is gorgeous full color, glossy paper and sports absolutely stunning, video-game artbook-level beautiful illustrations...a lot of them. Contrasted with this level of realism and beauty are callbacks to old-school artworks, mainly represented in the character-artworks that depict those guys - personally, I didn't like the comic- style employed in some of them, but that is a matter of taste. I just wished they had adhered to the style depicted in the landscape-shots - why? Because both the book and the artwork conspire to evoke a unique atmosphere. More on that below. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and my hardcover is gorgeously stitch-bound with the level of quality I've come to expect from FGG.
All right. When I first began this review, I used an approach similar to that of Quests of Doom - short run-downs of the story-lines, then moving on. This does not work here. There is simply too much potential contained within these pages. In fact, my previous review of this was bloated beyond recognition, at a point where no one would have read it. Why? A line from Antimatter comes to mind "If you look at me from your own century, I must seem like strange archeology."
This is, in my opinion, all that is great about old-school gaming. Much like games like Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, this plunges you into a world, where wonder, death and danger lurk at every corner - where strange things abound. Much like Slumbering Tsar, this evokes a sense of an ancient world that has moved on, a massive, storied place that has always existed - where each hill may hide new questions, new answers. Indeed, for the first time since Tsar, I felt reminded of why I truly adored this gritty style - the comparison that comes to mind, is the honorable Judge's Guild, the Wilderness of High Fantasy.
This is, what frankly only a book of this size could conceivably offer - a simulation. A massive simulation of a huge region that is organic, filled to the brim with awesome adventure, weirdness, Easter-eggs...all without delving into the ridiculous. Yes, you may find a purple demon-cow...but you may also unearth some strange ruins, find truly unique creatures or even test your mettle against a god long-thought dead.
Sword of Air is hard - but not because of it being unfair. Yes, you will need to run and yes, sometimes, the characters will die...but the true accomplishment of this book is that it sports a central narrative for the GM to use to get things on track. Essentially, this could be considered a synthesis of the massive strengths of Slumbering Tsar, coupled with a central plot-line that is more consistent than its brethren. What brethren am I talking about? Well, obviously the classic sagas that revolved around a certain axe that lords of the stout folk used to wield and, more fittingly, perhaps - the Rod of the 7 Parts. Sword of Air mops the floor with them and takes their lunch-money, while beating Rappan Athuk up with its free hand.
This gigantic masterpiece is more evocative than all of those, challenging and smart - it dares to demand smart and attentive players. It dabbles in the weird and uncommon. It has an utterly unique adversary, sports some of the most iconic locales available in this generation of modules and does all of that while maintaining its focus, its leitmotif and putting literally all choice within the hands of the experienced GM - where, ultimately, that belongs.
Don't get me wrong - I love APs and their tight stories, but this is something different - this is a way of forging your own story, with options galore to insert whatever modules you're itching to run. Unlike a regular AP, this is pretty much a world-immersion-experience in a sense one only rarely sees - because it is extremely hard to pull off. In the hands of even only a good writer, cohesion is lost and the settlement of amazons feels out of place, everything dissolves. Well, Bill Webb is anything but "only good" - this Magnum Opus is perhaps the ultimate proof of his vast imaginative potential.
Sword of Air is an absolute masterpiece and even among Bill Webb's extensive canon of superb modules, it stands out at one step beyond, further enhanced by the FGG crew going the extra mile regarding the sheer number of foes and the increased optimization of builds of foes. Add to that the vast amount of art and cartography and we have, quite frankly, a book for the ages.
There is something very wrong with the world if this does not become a truly legendary book, a milestone - Sword of Air is quite frankly a book that only happens every couple of years, one that is so good, so fun, so unique, I'm running out of superlatives - fast. If a new generation of gamers wants to know why those grognard's eyes glaze over when the classics are mentioned, when you never really got what is supposed to be great about something like Rappan Athuk - then this book is for you. Because more so than RA, it represents what is best about this type of gaming. It challenges the mind, it inspires, it is unbound and wild and free and epic beyond what a lesser tome could hope to achieve.
In case my gushing diatribes were not ample clue - the only book in the current generation of modules that comes close to this in scope and quality of atmosphere would be Slumbering Tsar - and, personally, I actually like Sword of Air a bit more, if only because it is a tad bit more focused and has the benefit of the narrative being there to guide the PCs back on trek if they get lost in the sandboxing. I firmly believe that this book is a must-own book that belongs into the library of any DM looking for a challenge, looking to understand what a truly free, and yet intelligent and focused sandbox can be.
Sword of Air is a masterpiece, gets 5 stars + seal of approval and is, obviously, a candidate for the number 1-slot of my Top Ten of 2015. This mega-adventure does everything right. Get it and never let go - this will be a classic in the generations to come; to me, it already is one.

You can get this legendary tome here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Do you prefer S&W's old-school rules? You can get this version here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

I post this review in the last hours of FGG's latest massive super-book: The Northlands Saga. Take a look here, if you haven't already!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Quests of Doom - Adventures Worth Winning

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Mon, Sep 28 2015 - 07:29
Quests of Doom - Adventures Worth Winning

This massive book clocks in at 312 pages, not including the covers. Of these pages, 1 is reserved for notes, 1 for the editorial, 1 for the ToC and two for the SRD, leaving us with o less than 307 pages of content, so let's take a look!
But before we dive into the matter at hand, let us first define what this book actually is - a kind of celebration of a series that was nicked in its bloom due to various reasons - I'm, of course, talking about "Demons & Devils" and "Vampires & Liches", the two module compilations released  back in the day by Necromancer Games for 3:X. In case you haven't been around back then to check them out, the premise was simple: Provide old-school modules that are HARD. Not regular FGG-level hard, but...well, nasty. Diabolical. Obviously, I was all for this and coincidentally, "Demons & Devils" was one of the first three books by NG I purchased back in the day at my local FLGS.
The others were "Tomb of Abysthor" and "Crucible of Freya", but I've reminisced long enough about them in my review of their re-release/expansion, Stoneheart Valley. The series never was as popular as the more prominent NG-offerings and thus, only those two installments were made - much to my chagrin. Why? Because they were eye-openers for me. While the other books I purchased were great and have become legends in my group, there are few modules my players talk about more than those contained in these humble pages - which is due to a variety of factors. For one, they are pretty logical, as far as old-school gaming is concerned. Beyond that, they are challenging and dare to ask for brains - whether it's puzzles or simply traps that cannot be easily disarmed by a roll of the bones, their philosophy was different and simply FUN. (Well, I may have made them even more deadly for my main campaign, yes, but that's another story...)
I was at the same time exhilarated and dreaded the arrival of this book - I knew that there were more modules planned that never saw the light of day, but would they live up to the legend of their predecessors? Would the new versions work?
Before I present the modules, let me share some observations with you: For one, fans of FGG's Lost Lands will cherish suggestions of where to place the modules in the context of the campaign world. Beyond that, the modules sport copious new artworks of rather neat quality, so there's that. At the same time, I think one can pretty easily discern the modules that hearken back to the Necromancer Games-era. I may, obviously, be mistaken and only goaded on by some minor relics that refer to NG instead of FGG, but I believe that a certain sense of growth can be seen by quite some authors herein.  The conversion-work, generally, is pretty good - when e.g. vehicles are included and ACG-rules are used here and there, one can see that not only the bare minimum was done. At the same time, I do believe that the conversion could have done a slightly better job in some instances, but let's talk about this when it does rear its head. The modules are grouped by 3s, with each segment having a certain creature-theme. It should also be noted that the modules do sport less hand-holding than many contemporary modules - experienced GMs are definitely going to have an easier time here, with so modules being more challenging (but also more rewarding) than others.
Well, let's not dilly-dally any longer and take a look!
This being a review of a massive adventure compilation, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.......All right, still here? Great! The first module herein would be J. Collura's "Noble Rot", intended for levels 5 -8. In this module, the PCs explore the dilapidated, decayed wine-making operation of the erstwhile prolific Gluant family, hoping to loot some of their exquisite wines. From a significant array of rumors, one can already piece together some intriguing notes about the family - and indeed, the exploration of their dread grounds proves to be a most exciting task - with the undead roaming and a sense of decay pervading the grounds, one can quickly glean that not all is well: Indeed, the family has fallen to the power-struggle of two dread demon lords associated with fungi and slime and thus, the exploration proves to be somewhat icky. Highlights of this module include definitely the author's obviously well-done research that makes the place feel organic and realistic, the new wine slime, wine-making-themed hazards (which benefit quite a bit from the GM doing a quick research for them - I found depicting them easier thereafter) and two particularly challenging encounters - the final battle and the penultimate one both are nasty and reward smart players for drawing the right conclusions in a way more often seen in CoC-pulp-modules than in fantasy - nice! It should also be noted that the titular Noble Rot, based on the real world fungus Boytris Cinerea, can be contracted as a symbiotic fungus that actually acts as a bonus and which allows the GM to help in case of abysmal PC luck. While I believe this is better suited at 5th level than 8th, this module is a strong opener that definitely deserves accolades for the consistent and tight atmosphere evoked.
"Of Ants and Men", for PCs level 4 - 8, is written by Bill Webb. Do I really need to say more? All right, the short version is that the master of Frog God Games delivers by the spades in one of the most simple, yet unique and challenging crawls I've read in quite some time. The premise is simple: Get Giant Ant eggs out of the hive. Easy, right? WRONG. For one, as the dead adventurers attest, there are more issues looming - and the hive is interesting. Instead of devising a convoluted mechanic to depict the hive, we instead get different alarm-statuses for the hive and an easy means of determining initiated aggression upon intruders - essentially, PCs can be sprayed with pheromones by engaging in combat - this results in "aggroing" the hive. Conversely, smart groups that infiltrate the place, steer clear of the warriors etc. may actually make their way to the intelligent queen of the hive - where they may conduct negotiations via pantomime with the mistress of the place. Following the notion of  a Gygaxian simulationist world, incursions into the hive by other creatures provide opportunities for the PCs to be sprayed with "friendly" pheromones, facilitating their infiltration. Oh, and AoE-effect can crumble the tunnels. Cave-ins are NOT fun, so your PCs better be smart. As a nice twist a GM may include or leave out, the hive has burrowed into an antediluvian complex, where extremely deadly traps await alongside a mundane blade made from magic-nulling material - obviously, escaping with this nasty, priceless weapon can be rather tough...and may lead to very intriguing further capers. I LOVED this module - it's unconventional, fun, rewards clever players and could be played as a war of attrition, an infiltration of just a hack-n-slay-type of module. Glorious!
Speaking of which - what's better than a module by Bill Webb? What about one where Matt Finch co-authors the thing? "Hidden Oasis - Temple of Thoth", intended for levels 7 - 9 is ridiculously awesome: When a mysterious stranger, a djinn in disguise, offers knowledge in exchange for a task and produces a strange papyrus scroll with symbols, we kick things into high gear - for the PCs leave their bodies for the plane of shadows, where the equivalent of a Star Gate can be activated with the runes handed to them, bringing them to a kind of odd demi-plane-ish Oasis. Here, an exploration of the ruins and surroundings does show that something has befallen the mysterious planar nexus that is the temple of Thoth. Clever research may also help here, for indeed, the sealed temple that can be accessed via another gate here has been infected with the Waxen plague, a dread affliction that either kills those subjected or turns them into gelatinous cubes - but thankfully, the high-priest is still around, holding the fort. Surely, the PCs can help him...oh wait. The spitefully djinn may have forgotten to mention that the high-priest is a huge, intelligent transparent slug with a humanoid brain in the torso. Yep, that's the good guy. Oh, and he can control the priests-turned-cubes, in case you're wondering. Exploring the temple can net the PCs access to some teleportals, but that's not the problem - the temple is about to be compromised by a dread force of Planeshoppers. What are these guys? Pretty deadly, locust-like conquerors that seek a waypoint into the PC's world! Worse, they are about to come full force and the synergy effects of their castes render them formidable foes. In fact, their builds are significantly more interesting than I've come to expect from FGG - they are deadly and use some very advanced tricks I really like. With lethal psychic shokwaves predating the invasion, the PCs do not have much time - but there is one ace in the hole: The Scorpion of Sekhmet. If the PCs have been smart, they'll have found some mysterious power-sources - which the can use to power a gigantic SCORPION-MECH, Power Rangers-style. I.e. multiple PCs have to pilot this bad boy, with actions eating at the power source, movement and turning adhering to concise and easily understood rules...oh, and tail-laser. This is absolutely awesome in so many ways - can you remember when you last fought alongside a giant transparent slug-priest and his gelatinous cube henchmen in a giant scorpion-mech against massive, deadly and evil insectoid invaders hell-bent on subjugating your world? Thought so! This is one of the best modules herein and absolutely glorious!
Demons and Devils are next, all penned by the legendary duo of Clark Peterson and Bill Webb. The "Sorceror's Citadel"(suggested level: 9) is pretty much a straight-forward dungeon-crawl into the abode of a wizard named Crane, known for his mastery of a sphere of annihilation and subsequently eliminated in battle against foes most vile - and infiltrating the place is challenging - the use of magic in particular, with clever illusions etc., renders this a classic challenge.
"Ra's Evil Grin," so named due to the puzzle required to enter the meat of the module, also provides a quest for an artifact, this time, for the Globe of Arden - but to reach it, the PCs will have to brave a dungeon that has one of the nastiest traps in FGG-history (Yes, on par with the legendary entry to Rappan Athuk) and yes, the maze and foes are intriguing. If you're looking for something different: I ran this as a solo-module back in my old campaign (only suggested if you're *really* sadistic and your players know that death awaits...) and made the whole dungeon times, making the mummy priest and immortal, regenerating badass that hunted the poor PC through the dungeon. And yes, my PC solo'd the demon at the end in an extremely close encounter, but still. That being said, most GROUPS probably will have a VERY hard time surviving this beauty - one of the classics and so sweet indeed... I just wished the web-enhancement of the journey to the island had been included and updated herein.
The third module herein would be my least favorite among the old modules from "Demons & Devils" - it is essentially a two-parter, with the first one centering on a paladin getting a holy avenger. Thereafter the dread deceit of the demons becomes apparent, as the blade corrupts the champion - the true blade still lies hidden and, in the end, one has to be chosen. I'm not a fan of alignment and even les s a fan of forced alignment changes, so while not bad or necessarily problematic, I always considered plots like this to be something of a cheap shot. Rules for lesser versions of the classic demons have btw. been included in the deal here.
Okay, the next triumvirate would be "Giants & Dragons", which kicks off with Michael Curtis' "The Dead from Above," intended for levels 10 - 13. And oh boy, does it kick off! SPLINTER!!! CRASH! FIRE!!! DEATH!!! Undead giants fall on the town and lurch to life, while a dragon skeleton swoops through the air and a gigantic building fashioned from titanic bones hangs in the sky. Defeating the initial onslaught, PCs can actually RIDE the skeletal dragon (!!!) up to the fortress and bring the fight to the nasty giants - who have fused one of their kind with the flying fortress, dooming the pilot to a body-horror-level nasty existence. Taking down the giant's flying fortress and crashing its soul-consuming engines is absolutely AWESOME. This is unrepentant in its glorious ideas, with truly deadly adversaries and a set-up that will leave any metal-head (or boy...or gamer, really...) squeeing. Come on. You ride a skeletal dragon to a fortress in the sky to do battle with necromancer-giants. This does everything right that "Curse of the Riven Sky" did wrong  -it embraces its over-the-top OMG-what-is-happening-premise, has glorious terrain and even means for social manipulation...oh, and, of course a reason why PCs 8probably) shouldn't keep the fortress. AWESOME!
Where the above module was pretty much straight action, James  M. Ward's Dead Dragon temple, for PCs level 6 - 8, instead opts for portraying the majestic - at the side of one of the most difficult to scale mountains I've ever seen represented in a module, lies a dragon-shaped temple, wherein the spirits of dead dragons roam as haunts, while hostile adventurers and lizardfolk cater to their whims - fulfilling the desires of the reptiles can lead to different rewards and sidetreks, should you so choose, and the temple does contain a unique, good white dragon as well as a means to defeating a truly deadly menace - for the PCs venture inside to become dragons to stop an ancient blue dragon from destroying more settlements. The final draconic dogfight is a joy, but only if your GM-prowess is at expert level: Handling a group of dragons in the air is difficult and I'd strongly suggest getting the legendary "Companions of theFirmament"-supplement for the rules on 3d-combats, turning, etc. - with them, this is a huge blast. Without them, you'll have to be pretty adept.
The third module is penned by industry-legend Ed Greenwood and it does show: "Emeralds of Highfang", suggested for 15th - 17th level, is a difficult module, themed, obviously, around giants and dragons. While the hooks are somewhat lame, exploring the complex, where giants mine at the behest of a deadly dragon, who uncharacteristically is more of an underground merchant. On the plus-side, Ed Greenwood's attention to detail is superb and the respective areas do feel aliveand intriguing. At the same time, I do feel that this module does fall a bit flat of its premise, which supposedly is to provide enough for rogues to do and for smart groups to do via stealth - at the suggested levels, the PCs, at least mine, will curb-stomp the hell out of all opposition herein but the final dragon. On a nitpicky note - a rather cool trap unleashes 240 Stirges - which are utterly impotent against PCs of this level. Why not utilize the troop-subtype (or a variant swarm) and make this a challenging encounter, instead of an annoying one? Generally, a solid module, but short of the previous ones.
Lycanthropes and Elementals would be up next, starting with Steve Winter's "Bad Moon Rising" for PCs level 6 - 8. If the title was not ample clue - set in the Barony of Loup-Montagne, the superstitious locals, wolves in the woods and similar set-ups make one thing clear: We're in gothic horror country here  -this module could have been run in Ravenloft with only minor changes. The plotline, which includes sufficient red herrings, a bid for succession and a potentially doomed family, hits all the classic notes - for better and for worse. The module itself is pretty sandboxy and thus requires some GM chops, though admittedly, not too many. The twist itself, the culprit, was something my PCs saw coming in spite of the various red herrings - perhaps due to years of Ravenloft-experience. It's a solid version of a classic story-not more, not less. I got the most mileage out of this by combining it with Raging Swan Press' Wolfsbane Hollow, combining both plotlines into something less obvious, while retaining thematic integrity.
Skip William's "Death in Dyrgalas" is a pretty straightforward dungeon-exploration of a ruined pavilion, which does not specify its intended level - from the CRs, I'd suggest something along the lines of level 5 - 8, depending on your PC's power. The exploration itself pits the PCs versus wererats and weretigers and a highlight definitely is the interaction with a medusa. The module's appeal mostly stems from the interesting surroundings - other than that, this is solid, if somewhat unremarkable.
Michael Curtis' next module would be "The Darkening of Namjan Forest" for PCs level 6 - 8. Said forest is slowly, but surely becoming coterminous with the Plane of Shadows and to stop this, the PCs have to find and disable a dangerous artifact within the depths of this forest. The hexed map of the forest allows for an easy tracking of the progress of the darkening and the continuously draining effects of the darkening provided serves as an intriguing backdrop with rules-relevant repercussions. Via special quartz, the PCs may get themselves an edge versus the predominantly draining creatures herein - there are A LOT of shadows and similar creatures in this module, so depending on your PC's preparation and classes, the difficulty of this module may fluctuate somewhat. I really enjoyed the general premise and set-up of this one, the impending doom and the continuous representation of the ticking of the clock provided by the encroaching darkness. However, alas, there are some issues among the details herein - from sensory-deprivation tanks and similar magical apparatuses, there are quite some unique benefits to be gained here - and their rules-language is horribly opaque, rendering them VERY over-powered. I strongly urge a GM to take care before allowing the PCs to utilize these. In fact, I think they should be nerfed and/or replaced. This, though, constitutes the most negative thing about this module - the new creatures and the adversary are interesting and, in the hands of a GM willing to sand off the rough edges, this definitely is a very fun experience.
The next three modules have the theme of Men & Monstrosities, with James M. Ward's "Deep in the Vale" as a 1st level module being the first. The set-up is interesting in a way - the PCs are plain folks of the Vale, everyday people, and the module begins promising, with the Thor-ordained sporty trek around the vale that inevitably results in trouble. The module, obviously, tries to chronicle the step from everyday-Joe/Jane to hero and the tidbits on culture provided are intriguing. But this, as much as I'm loathe to say it, is one of the worst modules FGG has ever released. If I didn't know any better, I wouldn't expect Mr. Ward's pen at work here. Let me elaborate: The premise, is unique and hasn't been done much recently, but it suffers from this being an adventure - to properly invest the players in the setting a closer gazetteer, nomenclature, suggested roles and origins for casting talent - all of that should have been covered. They're not. Worse, everything here is a) clichéd and b) a non-threat in the great whole of things. 
You see, there are essentially two catchers - a DM-PC, the horribly-named elf Smaragdus and if things get too heated, there's a wizard who can fireball everything to smithereens. I.e., the PCs and all their struggles essentially boil down to those two pricks not getting the job done/being lazy - it's the old issue of the Forgotten Realms, where some areas just had too many high-level NPCs for the PCs to matter. "Elminster is not available, please class later." Worse, the wizard herein does not have Elminster's realms-spanning responsibilities, so he has no reason not to ge his grip together and totter with the PCs to the woods. The adversaries are also horribly trite - wolves, goblins, orcs, giant spiders. And yes, the orcs come with an ogre. Only the shadow is missing from the clichés of boring low-level foes. We have a kidnapped damsel that is so obvious, I only expected the Timmy-character to show up next. Beyond that, the module falls prey to hackneyed logic -  why does prodding the giant spider nets not endanger the folk outside? 
Shouldn't heroes NOT endanger commoners? Why do the responses of the goblins, which look like taken from a choose-your-adventure-novel, make no concise sense from the goblin's perspective? Why does the non-read-aloud text AND the read-aloud text TELL the players what exactly they're doing if they choose A)? This is railroady, inconsistent, mechanically-boring and the only positive thing I can say about it, is that the few cultural tidbits are halfway decent. This looks like a "First module you run, ever, as a DM"-type of module, but for that, it's too opaque and does not do a good enough job challenging all players and making them feel important - only the strongest PC, the Blacksmith, truly has any connection. Fun fact: Strength has, counter-intuitively, NOTHING to do with being a blacksmith in rules - Craft would be the skill, so strong PCs sans the skill make NO SENSE for that. This module is a sore spot in the whole anthology - it does not fit the premise, fails as gazetteer, module AND introduction for novice GMs. It's horrible and drags the whole book down a small notch and I can't fathom how it got included herein.
Thankfully, Casey W. Christofferson and Scott Greene's "Irtep's Dish," for characters level 6 - 8, is a return to full-blown, awesome form - and I mean AWESOME, as in, glorious- situated in a city (Bard's Gate in the Lost Lands), this begins with an investigation of an eccentric wizard gone missing - a wizard who was not only smart, he also had a gambling issue. In an interesting blend of fantasy and noir tropes, investigating his former lover, colleagues and debtors can unearth pretty soon that there are ample people looking for the man - and not all are honest regarding their intentions, with a horrible curse being subtly and cleverly used for the wizard's downfall. Via this investigation, which brings the PCs to the city's largest casino (fully mapped), the PCs can get the pieces together to investigate the out-of-bounds wizard's tower - if they can get past the guards and inside, past the deadly puzzle in the beginning, which is btw. logical and fun. This is only where the fun starts, though - the wizard has retreated via an artifact into a petri-dish like environment and the PCs need to shrink down to microscopic size, battling protozoan orbs, flesh-eating fungi, nematodes and finally release the wizard, convince him to return and get his affairs in order. This section is bizarre, fun and played in an awesome, great way - if I may: If the PCs enjoy their trip into the realms of the microscopic, consider picking up Everyman gaming's superb "Microsized Adventures" and keep the options for size-alterations.Oh, and yes, this module is pure awesomeness!
As if to apologize for the first module in this set, Matt Finch's "Perils of Ghostwood Pass", for PCs level 5 - 7, also hits this absolutely stellar tone in a completely different way: Potentially fitting into any cold pass-region, the Ghostwood Pass is a storied environment - here, legendary twins only recently defeated a powerful and nasty fey of the Winter Court, thus banishing the hyper-cold ghostwind to only a few instances per year. As the PCs begin this module, a timer is running - after that, the ghostwind strikes. The issue is that something is thoroughly amiss - the hastily erected Abbey of Saint Kathelyn may provide shelter, as may the local druid, though both do not deal well with another. The two factions also provide unique benefits for the PCs as they try to defeat the dreaded mountain queen - and unearth the truth behind the mysteries of the Ghostwind Pass. In case the above did not provide ample clue - wilderness survival, hexploration in the hostile pass, random encounters - all provided, alongside a cleverly entrenched mystery astute PCs can unearth. This module is SUPERB and would coincidentally fit really well in the context of Northlands with some minor reskinning. Oh, and the adversary build rank among the more challenging and well-crafted herein, which coincidentally provides a lead-in to the last triumvirate of modules.
This would be the updates of "Vampires and Liches," with Casey W. Christofferson and Bill Webb's "Sewers of the Underguild" for 11th level characters being the first - the premise of which is pretty simple: In a rather deadly sewer under ruins or a metropolis lies the hiding place of a guild of vampires. Exterminate them. This sounds simple, when it is anything but simple - the underguild were formidable foes, with numerous class levels, deadly traps and the like. Alas, here, the conversion somewhat botched - with vampires as a type being rather nerfed in PFRPG, and the increased options available for characters via classes and combinations has not been realized to them same extent as in the original version - essentially, the adversaries are a tad bit squishier, the module has lost some of its threat. Mind you, this still is a challenging module, sure, but it does not live up to its previous iteration's level of lethality. If you don't know the original, you probably won't wind, but this can also be seen in the next module, penned by the same duo.
"The Pyramid of Amra", for 12th level characters, pits the PCs against a monastery in the hands of lethal adversaries and finally, against a vampire-monk. The exploration of the areas herein is thoroughly compelling and lends itself well to the insertion of powerful adversaries and intriguing puzzles. And indeed, the final adversary *is* still deadly; however, I still found myself wishing the builds provided had been changed in a slightly more pronounced manner.
The final adventure, "Isle of Eliphaz", intended for characters of at least 14th level, is still LETHAL - while, when I ran the module, I made the whole place a selectively null magics/psionics zone, thus rendering it even worse, the base module already is brutal - exceedingly brutal. And, in fact, here e.g. the intellect devourer with class levels and the ancient, elemental evil's pathfinder iteration maintain the level of deadly challenge I enjoy from this series.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect - in some of the older modules, references here and there remain and some of the previously unreleased, older modules feel a tad bit less refined than others, with unique benefits particularly not always perfectly syncing up with rules-language. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard with copious, original & glorious b/w-artworks. The maps generally are well-drawn, though I wished the book had a player-friendly appendix of unkeyed maps for particularly the hexcrawl-sections.
Scott Greene, J. Collura, Matt Finch, Clark Peterson, Bill Webb, Michael Curtis, Skip Williams, James M. Ward, Ed Greenwood,, Casey W. Cristofferson, Steven Winter - these names should ring a bell and indeed, Quests of Doom, as a whole, manages to achieve the goal to create challenging, unique modules. While a couple of the modules did fall a bit short of the stellar quality established by the rest and while some do require a bit of GM fiddling, in the end, this book does contain several modules that simply blow me away - the whole "Bugs & Blobs"-chapter is pure gold, and, with the exception of "Deep in the Vale", "Men & Monstrosities" provides two of the most awesome modules herein. "Lycanthropes & Elementals" falls short of the average quality of the book, ranking in as "only" a solid/good chapter. Still, that leaves a total of 6 modules herein, 9 if you include the conversions, that would receive my seal of approval without a single inch of hesitation.
Indeed, I maintain that the stellar modules herein outweigh the minor rough edges AND the modules that do not reach the apex of quality and imagination. "Of Ants & Men", "Hidden Oasis & Temple of Thoth", "The Dead From Above", "Irtep's Dish" and "Perils of Ghostwind Pass" alone are worth the asking price of this module - and these are the exceptional, NEW modules herein. The rest averages at a very good to good, with only "Deep in the Vale" being what I'd consider a bad module. To put that in perspective - that's 13 pages. You still get so many awesome modules herein, that I cannot, in good faith, rate this lower than 5 stars - especially since the exceptional modules listed above absolutely deserve this rating and nothing below.

You can get this massive book here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Prefer Old-school? Here's the S&W-version on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Finally, this is also available for 5th edition, in two parts:
Quests of Doom (5th edition) Part I links: D20pfsrd.com's shop.
Quests of Doom (5th edition) Part II links: D20pfsrd.com's shop.    

Finally, Frog God Games is currently running a kickstarter for the Northlands Saga, a massive level 1- 20 Viking AP - check it out here!
If you're a 5th edition fan, you may want to know about their crowdfunding of Quests of Doom 2 here on the FGG-site!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Microsized Adventures

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Aug 14 2015 - 03:28
Microsized Adventures

This supplement clocks in at 30 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 27 pages of content, so let's dive in!
Microsized characters have been a staple in the movies of my childhood, when I learned that perspective is a crucial factor in determining what is creepy or dangerous and what isn't. And indeed, in earlier editions of the game, there have been quite a few modules that utilized this concept to some gain - one of which would be Ravenloft's "The Created" - a great module in the hands of a capable GM and utterly disturbing.
Now if you endeavor to run such a scenario in your own game, you'll quickly run into a brick wall, as you realize that the interconnected rules frameworks of 3.X and its follow-ups like Pathfinder do not lend themselves well to the very concept - of course, one could go the easy way out and hand-wave scaling, but in the end, that does not work well - as anyone who's tried it can attest. So, we necessarily begin with the very basics that need addressing.
5-foot steps are replaced with shifting steps - the range of these steps depends on the size of the creature attempting them and the size of the square used on the grid - essentially, the relation of the two - if that sounds complicated, well, it's not - one glance at the table and you're good to go. The second issue immediately crops up regarding attacks of opportunity and relative size: In an imho more feasible rule, creatures using this book can threaten any creature in its space as long as the creature is no more than four size categories larger or smaller than the threatening creature. Creatures with a reach of 0 feet can provide flanking within a creature's space and 2 or more such creatures can flank if they enter a creature's space. This generally means that tiny and smaller opponents become an increased threat against regularly-sized PCs.
A total and utter cluster-F*** in PFRPG, perhaps one of the worst rules-components of it, in my opinion would be weapon-size rules for over/under-sized weaponry - convoluted and utterly messy. In a supplement that deals with radical changes of sizes and huge discrepancies between them, this could break the neck of the supplement - so how does microsized adventures tackle this? Simple: By making damage increase and decrease based on the size of the opponent in relation to your own. I am aware that this changes radically the dynamics of combat against bigger foes, but that's a significant appeal, at least to me - why? Because I was always bothered by the scenes where adventurers poke giants to death- it just makes more sense to me. This is btw. handled with a simple array of additional hit points that is equal to the special size modifier times the number of creatures sizes smaller than the creature. This math is easy, quick and, supported by the tables, can be done on the fly if your multiplication skills aren't rusty.
On can definitely see Alexander Augunas' teaching experience at work in the way in which the pdf is organized in that it concisely presents the respective steps in an easy to grasp manner. We begin size category alteration and go, step by step, through skills from Fly to Intimidate and Stealth onwards to Strength etc. - all supported by tables that present the necessary information at the blink of an eye. Step 2 would thereafter be the recalculation of special size modifiers that thankfully not only mentions minimum damage, but also the interaction with spells, supernatural and spell-like abilities. The carrying capacity and its modification are also addressed, including an object's respective new weight, including when objects do not alter size - inappropriately sized gear and shields, weapons and shields - all covered via concise AC and weight-multipliers. Oh, and for convenience's sake and didactic reasons, we receive analogues for sample weights to better picture the result and ground it in reality.
Now this would not cover everything, obviously - want to simply make an ordinarily-sized creature a different size? Go for it, step by step - including CR-step-by-step adjustments and advice on handling massive CR-escalation due to size changes. How do swarms work? Well, you will be happy to know that rules for both regular-sized swarms versus diminished characters and diminished swarms are covered - oh and, if you require stats for regular pets, quick and dirty substitution suggestions will spare you the effort of looking them up.
Now as for the scale of the grid in which movement happens, that essentially remains the same - only the scale changes, which is pretty elegant - and the same can be said about the range-calculations for ranged weapons of varying sizes, spells and area effects. Now if you're like me, the first monster subtype you'll run through this would be the kaiju (obviously) due to its non-standard size-rules...and because kaiju are AWESOME. Suffice to say, this book covers even this fringe creature type.
Okay, so far, so good. Want to know where true awesomeness begins? With rules that have been in place in my home-game for ages, once again, seemingly plucked from my mind - with two new combat maneuvers: Crush and Scale. Crush is obviously used to flatten those tiny insects, whereas scale is a requirement in my games to deal damage to anything huge+? Why? Because, as mentioned before, I loathe the idea of PCs poking giants to death by ramming teeny-tiny weapons into their feet. And yes, the latter actually has a downright ingenious rules-interaction with the Climb-skill - once again, one I've been using in my games for this type of maneuver as well. If you're even halfway into good, thoughtful video-games: Yes, these are your basic tools to play Shadow of the Colossus-type boss fights.
If you've played that game, you're probably buying this right now. For the rest of you, my dear readers: Yes, the mobile suit golems and mechas recently pioneered by Rite Publishing and Rogue Genius Games (Kaiju Codex and Construct Companion, if you didn't know) make actually more sense - because puny medium creatures may end up being too small to damage a kaiju or elder dragon... Yes, finally a reason to crank out those siege engines, Berserk-like huge swords and similar fun tricks.
Now if you think this book is a dry read, you'd be sorely mistaken - interspersed throughout the book are the (mis-)adventures of Alexander Augunas' signature Kitsune Kyr'shin - oh, and GMs can actually look forward to a concise advice section that helps planning a microsized adventure properly - from the catalyst to questions of terrain and exploration up to sample hooks that run the gamut from traditional to far-out. I mentioned terrain - yes, even a table on wind effects and their severity and rules for minuscule siege weapons can be found within these pages - oh, and two sample artifacts for the GM or the player's perusal to easily move into the microsized worlds are provided.
Beyond that, the pdf does not leave players in the dark either - with new rage powers that let barbarians feel a bit like berserk ants (or crush foes) and an archetype that make break improvised weapons for additional potency, a gunslinger archetype that is a thrown weapons expert (since gunslingers can't well get the materials for their expensive weaponry in dust mote size...) to investigators that use their eidetic memory to foil monsters and finally, rogues that are scaling specialists or born scrappers, the crunch here is just as solid. But that's not all - with two new combat maneuvers, it should come as no surprise that this book also features a plethora of feats that deal with them - and these go beyond the simple standard-improved-greater-chain and extends to even teamwork feats. The second focus here would be on the necessity of properly using improvised weapons, so yeah - awesome as well.

Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good - apart from minor glitches like a typo "if" that should read "of" and the like, I have found no glaring ones, and none that would compromise the reading experience unduly. Layout adheres to Everyman Gaming's beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience as well as with several pieces of neat original full-color art by Jacob Blackmon.
It is my firm conviction that you have to play this book to truly by able to judge it. When I got this, I though "Looks all nice and shiny, but so did your idea of size-changing scenarios..."  -so I went and playtested this book's material. Size-changes affect a lot of variables and color me surprised when I noted how well this book manages to transport the respective mechanics. In fact, analysis made me appreciate that even more, because the math behind this system is surprisingly beautiful - I know, I know - but believe me when I say that I can definitely appreciate that.
So, the system works - but how well? That is a task I struggled with to properly convey - see, Alexander Augunas is not by accident a regular face among my Top Ten-lists. In the hands of a lesser designer, this system would be a mess of numbers, tiring to read and hard to comprehend. The excessive use of examples, the concise step-by-step guidelines and didactically sound presentation conspire to make a complex rules-operation feel simple. Best of all, if you're a GM not afraid of diving into the grit of numbers, you can easily modify all or even only parts of the system. Why? Because it is surprisingly modular. Crush and Scale can enrich any game; Particularly epic games with a focus on cinematic combat may want to further increase the hit point buffer against smaller weapons and attacks - or even move the spaces around where attacks become ineffective.
An internally closed system, whether mathematically or rhetoric, is an impressive and powerful beast to behold - if you require proof of that, just try to argue against some prevailing psychological theories without hard science to back you up. A system that is modular, that can be modified, scavenged and mutated to fit one's individual needs, though, that is the one that ultimately will receive the broadest traction, the system that has the highest potential for growth. Microsized adventure can act as a closed system and as a modular system - you *can* appreciate and run this as presented, yes - it'll work perfectly. But we're gamers and we have very strong opinions of how things should be, right? We all have pet-peeves and particular likes and dislikes. The genius of this system is its robust framework, which allows for *skilled* GMs to modify it according to their preferences.
A book as beginner-friendly as possible that has a maximum of user-friendly expert-customization options - that's hard to find. Harder and rarer even is the book that blends this with a sincere, total sense of jamais-vu - I have literally never seen a d20-based book that tackles this concept, much less one that actually does it with such a deceptive ease and panache. This book is, for size-change/discrepancy-style stories what Cerulean Seas was for underwater adventuring, what Companions ofthe Firmament is for flying - whether against impossibly large adversaries, shrunken battles versus house cats or anything in between and beyond, this book is an inspired gem that belongs into the library of any GM, a book that needs sequels and or a print-on-demand-version...or a 300+ page AP + hardcover...
If the above was not ample clue for you - this is the type of book I review for. If I can get even one person out there to give this a shot, I'm happy. It's that good. This book is an apex-level, innovative, awesome supplement and receives 5 stars + seal of approval, unsurprising status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 and the EZG Essential-tag. Why the latter? Because in my games, the really big monsters should scare the living hell out of players and because, ultimately, I love the huge cosmos of options this unlocks. Perfect score and synergy with other publications to boot - I couldn't complain about this wonderful pdf for the life of me. Have I mentioned the low 5-buck-price-tag? This is a steal if there ever was one! Do yourself a favor and get this NOW!
You can get this glorious book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Strange Magic

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Thu, Aug 06 2015 - 02:45
Strange Magic

The following text will deviate a bit from my usual reviews. This is a massive 333 page book, 1 page front cover, 2 pages ToC, 1 page editorial/thank you, 1 page SRD, 1 page backer list, leaving this as a massive 327 page monster.
As you may realize upon looking at the cover, I am one of the contributing authors to this massive tome, so yes, in this case I may be considered biased by some of you out there.
It should be noted, though, that this massive book's magic systems have ALL been released (and reviewed!) a LONG time before I had even an inkling I'd be working on this book, much less that I'd be contributing. Coincidentally, I reviewed all the base systems in their original iterations and considered them stellar - if that had not been the case, I quite frankly would not have associated my name with this book and its magic systems.
The excellence was there even before the respective systems were expanded to the n-th degree, with fine-tuning of mechanics, greatly increased amounts of options etc. All 3 systems have in common that they are not simple - they are intended for advanced players that enjoy tinkering with complex classes with moving parts. At the same time, the classes herein very much reward anyone willing to get into their meat with completely unique options.
If you are interested in the respective subsystems in detail, please take a look at my reviews for Ultimate Ethermagic, Ultimate Composition and Ultimate Truenaming.
In case you don't want to read more than 30 pages of my rambling in the respective reviews, here's the tl;dr-gist:
Ethermagiccan be considered auto-refreshing, highly customizable mana-bar casting, warlock-style, with glorious fluff, cool versatility and some seriously beautiful mechanics.
Composition Magic is what the bard should have been from the get-go: Take intros, outros, melodies and refrains and weave them together into your very own symphonies of destruction.
Finally, Truename magic needs no conceptual introduction, but unlike its horribly broken brethren from previous editions, the system presented herein works - and I've seen its barebones, exposed numbers, so yes, a true beauty.
All of these three systems have in common that they provide not only flavorful, but downright inspired, unusual alternatives to vancian casting that play in a completely different way. I had been playing with each of the systems for quite a while prior to the KS for Strange Magic and they had become a staple in my games even prior to my involvement with this massive book - not at my insistence, mind you, but at that of my players, who adore this book.
I also still am convinced that even without the content I provided for this massive tome, this would still rank as one of the best crunch-books I have ever read. No hyperbole.
This is what the 3.X Tome of Magic wanted to be, but failed miserably at - while Pact Magic was saved by Alexander Augunas and Dario Nardi, this book instead provides 3 new systems, with each one providing other, unique options beyond the scope of what regular spellcasting does, all while providing an utterly awesome fluff.
So while I am respecting the wishes of some of my readers and followers and will not rate this per se, I still feel very much obliged to devote this article to the book - the addition of lovingly- handcrafted, illustrated NPCs made with these rules just further extends the awesomeness of this book, with unique fighting styles, combos and inspiring background-stories. They can be considered the delightful icing on top of the awesome-cake.
Keeping silent about this glorious tome would be a disservice of my task of keeping you up to date regarding the best 3pps have to offer - and even without my humble additions, Bradley Crouch and Jason Linker have delivered true awesomeness herein and deserve to be acknowledged for the achievement that is this book.
I absolutely adore Strange Magic and consider it a contender for my Top Ten of 2015 and abundantly worthy of my seal of approval, which btw. all its constituent parts have received. Since by now, this book is a must-have addition to my game, much like Pact Magic and Psionics, it also receives the EZG Essential tag since my players do not want to ever miss it again.
I sincerely hope you'll check it out, use it and review it - I'd love to hear how other people are using the book's systems.
Finally, let me thank you for reading this. I am aware that posting this can be considered foolhardy, but it remains my sincere hope you'll believe in my integrity  -were I anything less than 100% in love with this book, I wouldn't jeopardize my reputation by writing these lines. The matter of the fact is, though, that this *IS* so good, I consider it the antithesis of bland cookie-cutter design - perhaps even a book future editions will pull out to comment on how inspiring it was.
You can get this glorious tome here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Faces of the Tarnished Souk - An NPC Collection

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Jun 26 2015 - 08:21

This massive book clocks in at no less than 323 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 314 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This review was moved ahead in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
Well, first of all, I will deviate from my usual take on detailed analysis of the individual pieces of content herein  -why? Because that would take AGES and bloat this review beyond the page-count where this would have any semblance of help for anyone of my readers. Beyond that, there is another factor - I have written detailed reviews for each and every NPC (apart from the new one) sported in this massive compilation - combining them would result in more than 30 pages, so there you go. If you're interested in one particular NPC, you can have a detailed analysis of said build in my individual review of the respective pdfs. If you have read them, here's a general summation of what sets the NPCs apart.
Fluff-wise, the Tarnished Souk can be considered an interplanar nexus situated on the plane of dreams, right outside the legendary Coliseum Morpheuon, where the most powerful mortals and immortals duke it out under the auspice of the khan of nightmares, all hoping to gain the cusp of desires. Oh, and yes, the tarrasque is actually part of the competition's challenges, to give you an inkling of the level of expertise required in this competition. Dreams are a vaulable currency in Coliseum Morpheuon and thus, they actually carry relevance beyond the story's basic requirements for the characters in question. As such, they may actually be found by PCs and provide a level of background information one regularly does not expect. Dreams are more, though - they are power. While dreamburning rules from Coliseum Morpheuon are not required for this book, it does add a nice further dimension and honestly, Coliseum Morpheuon is the best high-level module available for Pathfinder, so you definitely should have that beast anyways.
So what is special about the NPCs herein? Well, regarding crunch they are special to me because they don't suck. There. I said it. Pathfinder's high-level gameplay and the general experience of many a DM that high-level gameplay comes apart, at least partially, is due to just about all published books simply having an impossible job at their hands: The directive is to create adversaries that a casual gaming group can vanquish and the more the levels pile up, the bigger the discrepancy becomes between people that exhibit a high degree of system mastery and those who don't. At high levels, this ultimately leads to whining I've seen on boards about ACs of 36 in high level-ranges where that is not an insurmountable defense. At the same time, posts complain about 1-round curb-stomping BBeGs, a problem exacerbated by the mythic rules, famously being quoted by Alexander Augunas as the Rocket-launcher-standoff.
In my main campaign, I run next to no unmodified published modules - why? Because, if I took Karzoug against half my group, they'd mop the floor with him. Yes, I'm talking about the enhanced Anniversary Edition. Playtesting published modules only VERY rarely results in any PC deaths at my table, even in Frog God Games killer beasts. And I'm not alone in this issue. While my group may be an extreme example, it is a trend that is exacerbated with each new release, with each slight power-creep. In 3.X that resulted in me wearing down my Advanced Bestiary and templating EVERYTHING. In PFRPG, I follow a similar modus operandi, though one supplemented with many, many base classes, archetypes etc. So that would be problem No.1.
Problem number 2 is a more pleasant one to have - ultimately, there are MANY awesome 3pp-products out there -glorious base-classes, exceedingly fun subsystems etc. - and yes, I'm using more 3pp material than Paizo material at this point. Alack and alas, there is no big 3pp NPC Codex and that means making A LOT of NPCs and monsters from scratch. Faces of the Tarnished Souk did something rather unique - it provides a vast array of templates,. both original and from the best of sources and combines them with unique classes - taskshapers and time thieves, malefactors - whatever your heart desires, there is a good chance you'll find some of the unmitigated stars within these pages. Add to that unique, custom-tailored magic items and you get an array of NPCs that is ACTUALLY CHALLENGING.
Now that would be awesome in and of itself, but it becomes even better when you take into account the vast imaginative potential that lies at the roots of the characters provided herein - you won't find "Human Paladin 20" herein - instead, you'll find, for example, Nameless Nil, the Beggar of Self. An imaginary friend turned killer turned beggar, whose wonderful class/template line reads "Bloody Maw Half-construct horrifically overpowered hungry nightmare unfettered eidolon savant 10." This is, as the back cover proudly proclaims, NOT your pappy's NPC book. Nameless Nil's prose and background story ranks among the best pieces of character writing I have seen in ANY roleplaying product, btw. - this guy is my favorite NPC for Pathfinder. Yes, I'm talking about all-out number 1 spot. Oh, and have I mentioned that, for example the legendary bulwark Ahnkar-Kosh has an AC of 64? This should put an end to the smirk on your level 20 min-maxers face...
But wait, before you put away this review - no, not all NPCs in this book exist only in the CR ~20-range - instead, each of the NPCs herein comes with a build for low levels, mid levels and high levels, allowing you to introduce the NPCs at any level you like and depict their progression to greatness- or utilize the statblocks of the lower iterations for servants, creatures or whatever you like. Another issue you may expect to face would lie in the aforementioned presence of a lot of 3pp-content utilized in the truly beautiful builds created herein. Well, approximately the last 100 pages of the book are used to provide all rules used in the builds of this massive cadre of glorious CHARACTERS. For, thanks to the interplay of glorious prose and superb crunch, the NPCs become more than the sum of their respective parts.
If you are not inspired by the glorious write-ups of the respective NPCs, many of which can spawn multiple adventures (or even campaigns!), boxes with pieces of advice further help using the NPCs and integrating them into the mythos of your campaign. Have I btw. mentioned Smiles-Under-teh-Bed, the legendary Cheshire cat that is pretty much a psychotic, playful killer that clocks in at CR 19 in its most powerful iteration? The eidolon that is the summoner that wants to be mortal? The goblin time thief convinced that things between the seconds are gearing up to tear time and reality asunder? If you have ANY joy contemplating high-stakes games, personal tragedies, captivating NPCs and a level of imagination I have not seen since the heyday of Planescape, and there only in its better products, then this compilation should be considered a ridiculously glorious must-buy.
How can this be further enhanced? well, the original pdfs sported some artwork which has since been used by other supplements as well - this has been expanded by new pieces that seamlessly fit with the respective character portrayals, with Juan Diego Dianderas and Kamil Jadczak delivering great pieces in the fitting b/w-standard this book offers and adding to the talents of illustrators that not only include master of the creepy Mark Hyzer, but also Tamás Baranya and Hugo Solis and many, many more. How can this be made better on a content-level, you ask? Well, what about adding a brand new NPC by none other than legendary, Ennie-award-winning design Ben McFarland? This would be Strai Tkossirk, the whispered word of dream. This would be, in his highest CR-iteration, a psychic (telekinetic) vrock oracle (aetherurgist) - and the level of imaginative potential of this NPC in no way falls back behind the ridiculously high standard of the series, utilizing for example a magical drug-addiction in the mid-level version. And yes, as per the tradition with this series, vivid prose, GM-advice and tactics combine to create a creature that is more than the sum of its myriad parts. On a nitpicky side - I think it would have made more sense to include him in the NPC-roster instead of in the appendix, but that is ultimately one design in a huge book....and remains the only true gripe I can muster against this tome.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good, especially for a massive tome of this size. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard with elegant borders and the artworks provided, as mentioned above, are thematically fitting and, in many cases, awesome. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
I have all individual pdfs printed out. I want this book in dead-tree. This is not "an" NPC collection - to me, this is THE NPC collection. Faces of the Tarnished Souk epitomizes what made me a fan of Rite Publishing in the first place: The combination of awesome prose and imaginative fluff that goes one step further. I guarantee that the vast majority of characters herein, once encountered, will remain the talk of your gaming groups for years to come. Beyond the cool mechanics, this series has pretty much defined what I consider apex-level NPC-crafting and remains my point of reference for any such book. It should be noted that exactly ONE pdf can claim to adhere to this level of awesomeness beyond the series - LPJr Design's Cyrix. That's pretty much it. When anyone asks me for challenging or simply evocative NPC builds, this book immediately comes to mind. When someone asks me for the spirit of truly uncommon fantasy, this book is what I think about. Whether as antagonists, allies or both, the characters herein pretty much define my campaigns in subtle ways - by the legends they have crafted, by the guidance they provide, by the growth my PCs can witness. Matt Banach, Justin Sluder, Steven D. Russell and Ben McFarland have quite simply created THE NPC collection for the discerning game-master, the remedy for players bored with standard builds and, via the builds herein, a great toolkit for GMs to use themselves.
Even if you never plan to run any of the characters herein and are not interested in Coliseum Morpheuon, this book provides so many iconic characters that it remains my honest belief that this book can serve as an inspiration for other settings as well. If my gushing diatribe before was not ample clue, I consider this quite frankly the best NPC collection out there, one distinguished by excellence in the beautiful statblocks AND the prose that draws vivid pictures of truly unique characters that deserve the moniker while epitomizing the key strengths of Rite Publishing as a publisher. This book, unsurprisingly, receives a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval as well as being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015.

You can get this legendary compilation here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.
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