Friday, May 26, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Demon Cults and Secret Socieites (5e OGL)

I have been a fan of the Midgard campaign setting since I first started reading about the city of Zobeck in Kobold Quarterly, when I was still mourning the demise of the physical form of Dragon Magazine. One of the highlights of my one trip to Gen Con in 2008 was getting to actually talk to Wolfgang Baur and buy a copy of Kobold Quarterly directly from the man himself.

But, in all of this time since 2008, I have never, ever, gotten to run a game set in Midgard. I have Midgard products for the AGE system, Pathfinder, 13th Age, and now 5th edition D&D. It’s like the more systems I could support, the better the chance that I could work in a game. Alas, it has not yet come to pass.

However, those 5th edition products are coming on a much more regular basis, and the PDF version of one of the Kickstarter projects I backed has arrived at my virtual door, so today I’m going to turn my attention to Demon Cults and Secret Societies, a Kobold Press product that, while drawing on Midgard campaign material, also has support for use in other campaign settings.

Speaking the Unspeakable About this Volume

The book clocks in at 176 pages, including a couple of ad pages for other Kobold Press products, the OGL, and an index. The book has light background images that consist of various symbols, with detailed borders at the top of the page. It has full color art throughout. The artwork has several recycled pieces from books like the Tome of Beasts or the various Deep Magic supplements, but where images are repeated, it makes sense (such as when a monster from that supplement is referenced).

It may just be me, but it seems like a lot of publishers are finding a much better balance between the background images and readability of text, and this book is certainly an example of that. While visually interesting, the symbols behind the page text are light enough that they don’t distract the eye too much, but this will likely vary based on your preferences. Overall, this is a very nice looking book, and while it is all thematically appropriate, for a book on dark cults and secret societies, the colors can be very striking and bright in places.


The introduction is brief, and mentions a few minor differences that a standard D&D campaign might have versus Midgard, and that there will be notes on Midgard specific aspects of the various chapters. It also lays out the structure, which is largely one chapter per cult or secret society. Each chapter has stat blocks for cult members, a few important NPCs, and possibly spells, monsters, and magic items particular to that cult or secret society.

The chapters do not have fully fleshed out adventures, but they do have campaign arcs, with notes on the types of adventures that PCs might run into at different character levels, and how a confrontation with the cult or society might culminate and at what level.

I’ll say right here, this is the kind of thing that hooks me. I have a hard time running an adventure “straight” for too long, but I like having the guard rails of what an adventure provides, so that I can reign myself in when I get too crazy plotting out too much material for the campaign. This provides a similar structure, without fully fleshing out the adventure. As described, these are very similar to Plot Points in Savage Worlds products. There is also some similarity to the “meta-plot” episodes of a show like Flash or Supernatural, where the heroes go and do other things for a few episodes, then come back to the looming threat on a regular basis.

Black Goat’s Flock

Right off the bat, we start with a cult of Shub-Niggurath from Lovecraft's work. Since Midgard includes Lovecraftian elements, this fits both the campaign setting, and other campaign settings where those influences wouldn’t be out of place.

One of the goals of the cult is to tell the oppressed to throw off their chains and promote anarchy, but more specifically, they are trying to piece together the Viridian Codex, an ancient tome of magical knowledge granted by the Black Goat to the cultists.

The cult leaders presented are a human wizard, a sort-of insectile satyr that might be more aberration than fey, and a wandering goblin prophet that keeps getting kicked out of cities. I already love this combination of NPCs, especially when the goblins are used more as “look at the downtrodden that may rise up” than just cannon fodder for more powerful humanoid creatures.

The sketched out campaign has suggestions going all the way to 15th level, and the only real issue I’d have with the culmination of the cult’s ambitions is that there is a sky hole to deal with. I get that gates to other worlds are a staple for cults, but the sky hole is briefly described as a super black cloud, and I actually like that imagery better than accidentally invoking the third act of every sci-fi and fantasy movie for the last decade.

The thematic elements added in to this chapter include a tree-like aberration, a spellbook that grants access to the Void magic spells detailed in one of the Deep Magic supplements (with a bit of a drawback to that granted knowledge), some spells that involve shape changing, as well as a modified wish spell that always has some negative consequences.

Note: Since it comes up in each entry, the way the adventures suggestions are structured are as follows—there is a level range listed (i.e. Levels 1-3), then there are usually about three ideas in that level range, fleshed out in a paragraph or two each, describing the kinds of adventures that the PCs might have that intersect with the organization, and how those adventures might build on previous encounters. Depending on the organization, there may be suggestions for levels 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12, and 13-15, although some have a suggested arc that doesn’t make it through all of the tiers detailed here.

The Burning Rune

This cult has a nice twist to it, because as written, they are a heretical branch of an existing dragon god’s church that is now obsessed with the power of runes, revealed to the cult leader when he was wandering in the north. The cult's goals are fairly straightforward and less insane than the previous entry—they want to be THE version of the dragon god’s church, and they want temporal power.

The NPCs associated with the leadership are the aforementioned rune obsessed leader, and a phlogiston faerie, a fey creature of elemental fire. This sets up an interesting dynamic, because while the faerie is going along for the ride at the moment, she’s actually less malevolent than her partner, and might be leveraged against him.

The suggested campaign arc culminates at about 12th level, and the detailed NPCs to support the cult include dwarf runecasters and dragonkin bodyguards. While the goals are straightforward, the local politics, tactics of the cult, and the potential tension between cult leaders gives the campaign arc more texture.

There is also a new magic item, which is essentially a bomb disguised as a normal object, and a golem, which is actually an altar that houses a flame, which transforms into a guardian of the cult’s holy places. There is also a new rune, presented in a manner similar to the runes in the Deep Magic Rune Magic supplement. At this point in the book, I was starting to wonder if the cults were all themed to tie into some Deep Magic supplement (there are a few more, but it’s not a theme of every cult or secret society in the book).

The Chosen of the Demon Bat

What do you get when your cult is made up of an exiled demon lord’s servant, derro, a vampire derro, and some Mi-Go? A cult that is trying to create a moon made of total darkness to cause a perpetual eclipse is what you get.

While the story arc described is a legitimate threat, it is amusing that this section details some of the less viable plans that the derro had for blotting out the sun, such as creating a whole lot of swarms of creatures that eat fire and hoping they would fly to the sun and eat it.

Tension in the cult comes from the fact that becoming a vampire made the derro cult leader more sane than she was before, the titular demon bat doesn’t really care about the cult’s goals and just wants to get back home, and the Mi-Go advisors don’t care about any of it, but like to suggest new experiments for the derro to try out and take notes.

The suggested arc has adventure ideas going up to 15th level, since the PCs may be taking on a demon lord’s old friend and a big, fake moon. There is support material in the form of inhaled concoctions, vehicles made out of creatures plus fungus, and the stats for the aforementioned fire eating bat swarms. My favorite is probably the most low key of the supporting materials, just because of its utility--there is a spell that uses creatures like ravens or bats as spies that I think could be very thematic either for PC use or for villains in a variety of campaigns.

The Creed of All Flesh

Like the Burning Rune above, this cult is a heretical sect of an existing religion. In this case, the god worshipped by the ghouls of the established ghoul empire in Midgard. They are tolerated, but as soon as they cause too much trouble, the ghouls are waiting to drop the hammer, or allow it to be dropped.
The Creed caters not just to ghouls, but to living beings that might be interesting in eating sentient beings. While there are ghouls in the cult, there are also a lot of living mortals that just like the idea of eating people that they could have some dinner conversation with beforehand.

Of special note with this cult is that one of the branches is that of the Performance Eaters—performers that keep sentient beings alive while eating them, for an audience. This is so twisted and wrong, and for some reason I love this idea so much for a villainous cult.

The suggested campaign has the PCs running into the growing influence of the cult, and various societies being infiltrated by them, including isolated tribes and decadent nobles. I really like the culmination of the suggested arc, because essentially the cult has drawn a bit too much attention to itself, and the ghouls allow the PCs to come into their empire to deal with them before they upset existing power structures. I like the tension this could potentially create. The suggested adventures top out around 15th level, as the group gets to corner the cult in its home base and deal with its leaders.

Support material includes huge, bloated, but still living cult members that draw power from mounds of dead bodies, and weirdly mutated lesser ghouls that are ridden like mounts by the cult. There is also special jerky.

The Doomspeakers

The Doomspeakers were the first cult or secret society that didn’t immediately have me conjuring images of all the campaign angles I could use to introduce them. They aren’t bad, but they lack a bit of the personality that the previous cults have. Essentially, they are a knightly order of anti-paladins that want to crush society to prove how bad ass demon lords are. The feeling is that this is a group disciplined enough to train and form a knightly order, but they exist to cause ruin and chaos.

I think some of the impact of the group is lost when you realize that this product also has a Pathfinder version. Some of the emphasis of this group is that they are EVIL paladins, but that impact isn’t quite as strong in 5th edition D&D, where classes don’t have alignment restrictions, and NPCs might not even be built using the rules for PC classes.

They are still interesting, but I don’t know that they would be my first choice for the A list campaign villain. There is also the odd alignment issue of the characters being very disciplined, but wanting to spread chaos, which to me screams neutral evil on average. But to keep with the traditional “anti-paladin” vibe, they are all chaotic evil, because "evil opposite of lawful good."

Mechanically, there is an NPC that has a temporary hit point mechanic that I don’t think works the way it is suppose to work for 5th edition, and there is a magic item that does the same thing. Both mention that they provide temporary hit points, but there is a cap to how many temporary hit points you can get with the detailed ability. In 5th edition, temporary hit points never stack. Exceptions trump core rules, but as presented, it doesn’t sound like an exception so much as a mistake when it comes to temporary hit point rules.

Now, thematically, if you wanted to say--especially for a group that is called the Doomspeakers--that the first time you hit a given character you get 5 temporary hit points, and then if you hit them again, you get 10, and finally 15 if you hit them three or more times, that may be a scary ability, but just stacking the temporary hit points runs counter to how the rule works in 5th edition.

The Emerald Order

While this one is technically a heretical offshoot of an existing religion as well, I really like how this particular secret society feels. These are alchemists that have found some ancient tablets, and are manipulating society according to the plans laid out in the tablets they have found. There is a nice subtlety to this order compared to some of the more over the top cults.

The suggested campaign arc culminates at 12th level, with the order manipulating events so that they become the preeminent advisors to the rulers of their region. Eventually, the PCs can find the tombs where the tablets are kept, fight guardians carved out of the same crystal as the tablets, and potentially have to resist the influence of the tablets themselves.

The supporting material details a magic item made from a shard of the same material as the tablets, as well as golems also made of that material. It also details the tablets themselves. This is an instance where the structure and path of the cult are a bit stronger than the actual NPCs, but the atmosphere created by the tablets and the intrigue make this society stand out from some of the others in the book.

The Hand of Nakresh

I don’t dislike any of the cults or secret societies in this book, but there are some that I really like more than others. The Hand of Nakresh is one of the break out groups. Because of their goals and how they play out, I don’t think they would be the main antagonists of a campaign I was running, but I think they would be a strong “B” plot that was running alongside the main arc.

This is sort of a cult, but it’s also a crime syndicate. There are roachling, kobold, ravenfolk, derro, and gnoll leaders, and while they all work together, for the most part, from time to time they have a huge competition to see who gets to be the big boss, by seeing who can rake in the biggest score.
The various adventure arcs have PCs running into the strange thieving minions of this group, getting caught up in power struggles between them, and ultimately being called on to bust up the whole gang because this year’s competition has just gone too far to be tolerated by the authorities.

This section is worth the price of admission just to see the derro wizard in tie-dyed robes, and for the albino ravenfolk with a “larcenous aura” that automatically teleports valuables to an extra-dimensional space when she damages her opponents.

The Night Cauldron of Chernobog

This is another heretical sect of an established religion. In this case, the group is firmly focused on Chernobog’s portfolio of darkness, to the point of creating an eternal night. Taken by itself, this is a strong section, and would be worth using as campaign villains. From a product standpoint, I was a little disappointed at the thematic crossover with the overall goal of the Chosen of the Demon Bat.
The way the actual suggested stories play out are much different, as there is less of an emphasis on various crazy factions almost accidentally achieving their goals, and there is more of a focus on the cult leader trying to get his hands on what he needs to achieve his goals.

One of the things that I really like in this chapter is the hag coven that aids the cult leader. They function with one pool of hit points, and none of them die until all of them do. They each have their own set of actions, and each member of the coven has an unique actions that only they can perform. This is a really fun expression of the concepts of a hag coven, and I’d love to get a chance to see it at the table.

Red Sisters

I’m a little torn on this chapter. I like the organization, and would love to include it in a campaign I was running, but because of how it is presented, I’m not sure that it would make for a strong main villain, so much as a support structure for other villains in the campaign.

The Red Sisters worship the same goddess that the vampires of the established vampire kingdom in the Midgard Campaign setting worship, and they are both support staff and essentially a check on the power of the vampires, as they are allowed to punish vampires that don’t properly follow the rules of the faith.

Outside of their native lands, however, they spread the good word of their goddess, help allied forces abroad, and recruit from retreats that help women having trouble in childbirth, and from brothels. While the setting material makes all of this work, I’m not sure the described arc helps to make them the main focus of a campaign.

Unlike other cults, the suggested adventures sometimes include “if this is inside the vampire’s home country,” or “if this is outside of those territories,” and even, “if you are using this group outside the assumed campaign setting.” Most of the cult write ups assume that all of those adventures, if you want to use them, can describe an ongoing campaign arc. These don’t assume, or even make it easy, for all of the suggested adventures to exist in the same campaign.

So while this chapter provides an interesting power group for a campaign, I’m not sure it provides as many tools to use them in a focused campaign, as the other chapters do.

Before I move on, however, I have to note that I love the Blood Hound. It’s a normal guard animal that has been feed vampire blood until it’s bonded to a given vampire and gets a boost to its natural abilities, and I want to give these pets to almost every vampire I use from this point on.

The Sanguine Path

It’s unfortunate that two blood-related cults come up in the book right next to each other. I would have liked a stronger thematic difference between them, since the Blood Sisters touch upon working as midwives as well as using sex as a draw, and the Sanguine Path promotes itself as helping people with their health and has sex rituals. The Blood Sisters may have vampires as members, and so might the Sanguine Path. As you get further into the chapter, there are very clear differences between the organizations, but in a book that already has similar overlap in a lot of themes, it feels like there could have been a stronger delineation right out of the gate.

The Sanguine Path gets people hooked on blood based potions that make them better, faster, and stronger, and then those people cannot survive without an influx of the potion. This gives the path power over people that can’t easily leave the cult.

The focus of the chapter takes a hit when the differences between the city version of the cult is explored versus the country version of the cult. I like the idea of entire villages of cultists that can’t get away because of their addiction, but the described, suggested story arc bounces between city and country versions of the cult, and I’m not sure if the PCs would tie them together without a lot of strong clues. I’m also not sure they would be dividing their time between rural adventuring and city adventuring without a stronger hook between adventures. The suggested story arc culminates at 9th level, with the cult trying to blackmail their way into power.

I’m interested in this as an existing element of a campaign, but like the Red Sisters, the described story arc may not be how I would be using them.

Selket’s Sting

Another splinter group of potential heretics, this group revolves around a goddess of both healing and poison whose cultists are attempting to get her some respect in a region that is no longer worshiping her as they once did. This leads to some tactical assassinations and power plays in the region, and culminates in a campaign ending suggested for 12th level, where local leaders recruit the PCs to wipe out the cult once and for all, after a series of damaging assassinations.

This is solid stuff, but the part of this chapter I really liked was the examination of how the cult may not be 100% wrong about the corruption in the region. While it discusses characters potentially being members of the cult instead of using them as antagonists, this presentation of the cult’s point of view is also useful if you want to introduce some complexity to the campaign in the form of sympathetic, but ultimately misguided, cultists.

Servants of the White Ape

An explorer from the north manages to awaken a violent nature spirit. That spirit bonds to him, and brings along with it a cult of actual apes and locals, and there are some relic hunter friends of the northern explorer along for the ride. Now that the explorer has the avatar of the white ape and it’s follows on his side, he’s going to carve out a new kingdom, with the eventual goal of showing his noble parents back home how awesome he is now.

The additional wrinkle in this story being that now there is a disease spreading in the wake of the return of the White Ape that denies spellcasters the use of their magic, making the northern explorer he prime mover in the area, until any PCs might stumble upon his plans.

While it’s a fairly straight forward cult with fairly straight forward plans (conquer this region, then use those resources to conquer even more), elements like the magic hindering disease are a fun twist, and who doesn't want to see an army of angry apes?

Weavers of Truth

This particular organization is tied to a demon lord, but Pazuzu is subtle, and just wants his followers to lie, maneuver, and manipulate. The organization is very much driven by it’s leader, a woman that married into money and was then scorned by the nobility, and falls back on her criminal past to form a new cult to aid her.

Many of the suggested adventures have the PCs running into the cult, but not automatically as adversaries. They get maneuvered to take out other bad actors that are also foes of the cult, or to take out elements of the cult that have gone rogue.

The big goal of the organization isn’t opening sky holes or summoning nasty things, but rather pulling off a spell that literally lets them rewrite what is true on a grand scale, which is a really nice change of pace. Closing portals and destroyed summoned creatures is a staple of the genre, but clever twists are always appreciated.

There is also a great magic item associated with this organization, which is a coach that can literally sow dissent in a city as it travels through the streets.

Appendix: Antipaladins and Doomspeakers

This section eventually presents two new paladin oaths, one that details infernally bound paladins and another that presents Lovecraftian-horror aligned paladins. The explanation leading two these new oaths, however, feels a little out of place. The assumption of the appendix is that paladins are paragons of order and good, and that antipaladins must be paragons of chaos and evil.

Since this product was developed for both 5th edition and Pathfinder simultaneously, this feels like a heavy nod towards the Pathfinder side of things. Paladins aren’t assumed to be lawful good in 5th edition D&D, so leaning so heavily on the old assumption of all paladins as the ultimate good guys feels like a little bit of wasted space.

The oaths themselves are interesting, but might not get much play at the table. Since NPCs can be built without referencing PC class abilities, these aren’t as necessary for villains as they might be, and while it’s possible to use them in a campaign for PCs, there will be some issues with keeping them on the same page as a team that doesn’t want to bring about the ruin of civilization.

Fighting the Good Fight

There is a lot of worthwhile material in this book. If you want campaign ideas with some flexibility to create the details of your own adventures, you have a ton of great material to work with in this book. There are great NPC ideas in this book, and great mechanical twists on 5th edition rules in this book as well. The spells, magic items, and monsters all add a level of utility to the book beyond just the campaign structures or new organizations.

Succumbing to the Darkness

If you aren’t interested in buying more Midgard products beyond this book, you may lose out on the flavor of some of the cults that rely on the Deep Magic supplements. They are still usable, just less flavorful. There are a lot of repeated themes, meaning that you may not want to use this material in back to back campaigns, especially if you already have cultist fatigue from the earlier D&D 5th edition adventures. There are a few artifacts of the book being dual-developed with Pathfinder, like references to the witch class or monsters like the Taiga giant that don’t have a direct D&D equivalent.

The Light at the End of the Campaign

Regardless of any minor quibbles I might have over the content, this book is a gold mine of campaign ideas, new monsters, spells, and magic items. While there are sidebars that provide some extra hooks for the Midgard campaign setting, many of the cults (especially the Lovecraftian ones, or those with a broader theme) should work really well even if inserted into other campaign settings.

Fans of D&D 5th edition, and fans of the Midgard Campaign setting, should be very happy with this purchase, and the only hesitation I would even entertain is the repetition of some elements, and possibly early 5e cult fatigue.

**** (out of five)

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