Friday, June 21, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Book of the Righteous (5e OGL)


I had a ton of Green Ronin 3rd edition products. There was something about the topics they explored and the imagination they conveyed that kept me coming back for more supplements, even when I didn’t immediately integrate the material into my games. One of those products was The Book of the Righteous, a supplement dedicated to presenting a specific pantheon and rules that supported the information presented in the product.

In 2017, an updated 5th edition version of The Book of the Righteous came out. I wasn’t in the full swing of picking up 3rd party 5th edition products at the time, but I eventually picked up the PDF, and today I’m going to take a look at the book.

The Holy Book

This review is based on the PDF of the book, which is a 257-page document. There is a two-page index, an OGL statement, and a single advertisement for the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting.

If you ever had a chance to look through the old version of The Book of the Righteous, it had quality artwork and formatting, but the interior was entirely black and white. This time around, the backgrounds look like weathered marble, with blue headers and footers, and gold frames for the various chapter headings.

There is a lot of full-color art, including maps of the cosmology, genealogy charts, symbols, and examples of what the various priesthoods wear. It's very attractive and extensively illustrated.

Mythology and Cosmology

The first section of the book jumps into the history of the pantheon of gods being presented in the book. The timeline is divided between four epochs, moving from the creation of the world, the creation of the first generation of gods after The Nameless One--the first war of the gods, which heralded another generation of gods and the birth and transformation of many of the modern species—and a second conflict of the gods, which resulted in their removal from daily affairs and the creation of the Compact.

This section explains where the material plane, the elemental planes, the Astral, Heaven, Hell, the Abyss, Elysium, and Gehenna all fit into the grand scheme of things. There is a clear mythic difference between demons and devils, with demons being the literal embodiment of corruption, and devils being fallen celestials. Heaven is essentially the home of all of the gods, with Elysium and Gehenna having a specific purpose that relates to the mirrored light and dark aspects of a mortal soul. There are enough familiar points that it’s not too hard to merge this cosmology with more common D&Disms, while still deviating in some interesting ways that add depth to the implied setting.

The Great Church

An interesting twist in this pantheon is that almost all of the gods except the fallen deity that became Asmodeus, and a few other exceptions introduced later, are good or neutral in alignment, and are part of the same family. While they have had their conflicts, as they learned to work together, they also allowed for the creation of The Great Church, a polytheistic church that reveres all of the “legitimate” gods.
While most of the gods are alright with the existence of The Great Church, almost all of them maintain their own separate churches, and some gods are less amenable to the amalgamated form of worship than others.

This chapter establishes a pattern that appears in the other chapters that detail religions associated with this pantheon, spelling out the precepts of faith, common prayers, saints, and the orders of priests and holy warriors.

While this may be less relevant to those that never saw the previous version of the book, the structure is very similar, but varies at the end of each chapter. The 3rd edition version ended the chapters with prestige classes for the individual faiths, and the book itself introduced the Holy Warrior, a class that could serve as a paladin for non-Lawful good faiths. Most of the customized faiths are now handled with divine domains, consolidated in the rules chapter, and since paladins no longer have alignment restrictions, there are guidelines for what oaths the various paladins of different religions tend to take.

The Old Gods

This chapter introduces the first generation of gods that came about after The Nameless One created existence, with the exception of Asmodeus, who appears later in the book. The following deities appear here:
  • Urian (God of the Sky)
  • Rontra (Goddess of the Earth)
  • Shalimyr (God of the Waters)
  • Eliwyn (The Tree of Life)
  • The Nameless One (Creator God)


If you detected an elemental theme among the first-generation gods, but wonder, “hey, where is fire,” well, ask Asmodeus about that one. Asmodeus was corrupted by the Corpus Infernus, the primordial fire that helped shape the universe, and can bring out the worst in those using it.

The Nameless One is a deity that withdrew from the universe after creating it, and isn’t scheduled to return until the end times. There aren’t clerics or priests of The Nameless One, but the oldest monastic orders were founded by contemplating what lies beyond even the gods, while meditating on the mysteries of the Nameless One.

Urian looks the part of the traditional Sky Father/Head of the Pantheon very much, but he’s not. He’s got giant beasts that represent the four winds all locked up, trying to keep them from wrecking things for mortals. Eliwyn is a literal tree, and the fruits from which the mortal races sprang came from Eliwyn. Eliwyn’s faith is very closely associated with nature priests like druids. Shalimyr is a wild and unpredictable god, but also one that really doesn’t appreciate pride, so it’s not uncommon for his priests to travel around putting people in their place.

Rontra is a lawful good goddess, but her entry is one place where some old school D&D notions come to the forefront, and feel a bit uncomfortable. One theme reinforced by this pantheon is that the mortal races that came from the Tree are the “good” and “natural” races. One of Rontra’s tenants is that her followers shouldn’t “lie with those not of the tree,” meaning that anyone that isn’t a human, elf, dwarf, halfling, or gnome is “unnatural.” This feels especially uncomfortable, and this isn’t the last time this division of what counts as a proper or good sentient species comes into play.

The Gods of the Tree

The Gods of the Tree are the second generation of gods, those originally born from the tree goddess Eliwyn before the fruits that would spawn the mortal races came about. These gods move beyond the wider elements and start to represent concepts. These gods are:

  • Morwyn (Goddess of Healing, Queen of Heaven)
  • Terak (God of War and Valor)
  • Zheenkeef (Goddess of Madness and Inspiration)
  • Tinel (God of Magic and Knowledge)
  • Mormekar (God of Death)


Morwyn is in charge of the pantheon, but doesn’t rule as an absolute monarch. She has two husbands, Terak and Mormekar, which is portrayed as a stable, but unharmonious, arrangement. Zheenkeef is married to Tinel, but has dalliances with Shalimyr. I know the book pulls a lot of themes from antiquity, but at the same time, the way the relationships between the gods appear, it feels very much like an endorsement of much more traditional relationships. Additionally, while Morwyn acting as the Queen of Heaven is a nice subversion of the Sky Father tradition, with Morwyn as a goddess of healing and Zheenkeef as the ultimate muse, a lot of deities have very traditional gender roles.

As with the previous entries, the individual gods have details on myths, prayers, practices, and orders of their churches. There is a story in Zheenkeef’s entry about the creation of the titans that feels very much like a real-world myth, but definitely not the kind of myth that often gets emulated in fantasy stories, which makes it more interesting.

The Gods of the Womb

The Gods of the Womb are the third generation of gods, those born from the unions of the older gods. These gods include:

  • Maal (God of Justice and Law)
  • Darmon (God of Travel and Messages)
  • Aymara (Goddes of Love and Art)
  • Korak (God of Crafts)
  • Anwyn (God of Hearth and Home)


Maal is both the god of justice, and the god that judges the souls of the dead, determining if they will be reincarnated or sent to another plane of existence for their afterlife. Darmon is the god that helped establish trade and commerce. Aymara and Korak are examples of how the pantheon is designed to be more universal, as Aymara is often the patron of elves, and Korak of dwarves, but both are worshipped by many species.

Anwyn’s church has a secret, which the book mentions that you might want to keep secret as a plot point for later in campaigns. Anwyn is the goddess that taught the mortal races how to survive the winter, but her church has been subverted with worshippers of Asmodeus, who have wiped out some of the older orders of her faith and convert the newer members of the faith to evil.

There is definitely a continuation of the traditional gender roles of deities in this section of the book, with Aymara as the goddess of love, and Anwyn of home and hearth. I like the secret maneuverings in Anwyn’s church, and it foreshadows some interesting aspects of the pantheon highlighted later on in the book.

I like the idea of the Compact, the agreement that keeps the gods from directly meddling in the mortal realm, but there are a few instances where the degree to which a god interprets the Compact as letting some truly heinous things slide makes one wonder exactly HOW the Compact was originally envisioned by the deities.

The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters are goddesses that awoke after the other gods, with no connection to the other events that shaped the pantheon. These goddesses are:
  • Naryne (Goddess of Nobility)
  • Canelle (Goddess of Athletics and Competition)
  • Thellyne (Goddess of the Woods and Hunting)


There is some discussion in this section about how the three sisters defeated their “darker sides,” which is expounded upon in the next section, literally alluding to the Three Brothers, which are often viewed by the faiths of the Three Sisters as metaphorical rather than literal beings.

Naryne is the wife of Maal, the result of Maal and his brothers deciding to search the world for a wife for the god. Korak is continually trying to woo Thellyne.

Naryne is portrayed as having dark skin. This is a good variation so that not every god looks like a white European. Unfortunately, she is also given the title “The Dark Goddess,” which may refer to her living in the Land of the Dead with her husband, but is also really unfortunate since she is one of the only gods called out as having dark skin.

As with the other gods in the book, there are myths, traditions, prayers, and priestly orders detailed for each of the sisters.

Faith in Evil

This chapter details the evil gods of the setting, which include Asmodeus, from the first generation of gods, and the Three Brothers, the opposite gods that awakened at the same time as the Three Sisters, but were not adopted by the established pantheon.

The evil gods are generally united in attempting to corrupt the Elemental Pillars, as the Pillars of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water hold up the world. Each of the gods of evil is associated with an element, and most of them are plotting how they will turn on the others once they secure the pillars and take over the world.

Asmodeus rules over the fallen celestials in Hell, having driven the demons into the Abyss and claimed Hell for himself. He also warped several of the Div (the proto-cosmic race that eventually split into genies, celestials, faeries, and other immortal otherworldly species) to be his archdukes and rule the various layers of Hell.

Carnak is the god of violence and rage, and is generally associated with the orcs. Thellos is the god of gluttony and selfishness. Naran is the god of tyranny, pride, and slavery. In time-honored D&D tradition, that means there is a Chaotic evil, Neutral evil, and Lawful evil brother.

My favorite part of this chapter is the next part, which details heretical cults of the “legitimate gods.” There are zealots of Maal, Terak, Zeenkeef, Mormekar, and Darmon that pervert the worship of their gods from within. While it appears in the chapter on evil faiths, the Cult of Everlasting Night, heretics of Urian, are some of my favorites, and not actually evil—they just need to destroy the Sun and Moon to save all of the mortal races.

I enjoy this version of Asmodeus’ annexation of Hell and the mythology around the Div and the creation of the immortal races. I love the heretical cults, both on their faces, but also as plot threads that can be used to subvert assumptions about followers of those gods. I’m a little less thrilled with the overtones of the Three Brothers and their original sin of deciding to “take” the Three Sisters as wives. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen, and there aren’t many details other than the discussion of intent.

Divine Campaigns

Divine Campaigns is a chapter about using all of this information in a campaign. There is a lot of talk about alignment, which feels a little strange, given how much D&D 5e has backed away from alignment being more than flavor. Some of the information discusses how far from a deity a character’s alignment can deviate, which was a rule in older editions, but isn’t really found in 5e.

There are several plot hooks introduced that are tied to the mythology and various churches. There is a discussion on how best to use the heresies presented in the book, as well as some information on how to introduce this pantheon into existing campaigns that may already have existing gods and myths.

The chapter has a section that spells out campaign repercussions, such as “if you take these myths as accurate, this must be true of the cosmology,” and “if these myths exist in the campaign, you may want to determine locations for these famous sites.” I do like how these are specifically called out in their own section.

There is a section on deciding “cosmic truths” and universal morals in the campaign, with examples like whether goblin babies are born evil. I have to say, in this modern era, the idea that it may be perfectly valid to say orcs and goblins are born evil and don’t have souls, so it's okay to kill without thinking about it, feels very regressive and potentially damaging to the game as a whole. It’s not presented as a default, but it’s not called out as something to avoid, either.

The final section is about changing aspects of the pantheon and cosmology for different campaigns, including ideas like changing the gender of various gods, or presenting some of them as agender. This is a good discussion to have, but the majority of the rest of the book has gods with traditional gender roles, with traditional hetero relationships, with gods that have multiple spouses or lovers outside of their marriage being presented as unusual and not ideal. It would have been nice for some of the “baseline” ideas to be a little more progressive, rather than getting a section later in the book about changing the assumed elements.

Classes

Here we get into the mechanical options of the book. Many of these mechanical options are tied to characters tied to gods or religious organizations, but tend to be broad enough that they don’t need to be specifically tied to the gods in this book.

The Barbarian Path of the Harrier is a barbarian that focuses their rage so that it is partially controlled. They get abilities that let them get their rage bonus on ranged attacks, and let them disengage when raging. At higher levels, they can inflict horrible wounds, and rip off an opponents head to intimidate their opponents. I kind of feel like the last few abilities undermine the “controlled rage” aspect of the class, and I’m not sure why a focused barbarian is associated with the gods.

The Bard College of Virtue learn medium armor and shields and pick up an extra attack at 6th, much like the College of Valor, but they get the ability to expend an inspiration die to help an ally, and if their opponent is undead or fiendish, they get to do extra damage as well—they also eventually get the ability to convert bardic inspiration into temporary hit points.

The Cleric domains introduced include a greatest hits of domains that didn’t appear in the core D&D 5e books:
  • Air
  • Balance
  • Beauty
  • Creation
  • Corruption
  • Earth
  • Fire
  • Madness
  • Repose
  • Travel
  • Tyranny
  • Water
If you remember some of the old options from 3rd edition, there is a lot more variety here to choose from, to represent some useful, but specialized, aspects of various gods.

The Druid Tree of Life Circle presents the additional spells for the Circle, but doesn’t present any other abilities—I’m assuming this is an editorial slip up.

Fighters gain the Hospitaler archetype, which is the divine version of the Eldritch Knight option from the Player’s Handbook. What separates this from the role of a paladin? The Hospitaler is literally set up as a combat medic. They gain special dice that they can expend when they cast healing magic, and eventually gain the ability to regain their faith dice when they roll initiative and don’t currently have one available.

Monks gain access to the Way of Iron, a tradition that allows them to wear armor, and focuses on martial arts that utilize traditional weapons. These monks can use anything that isn’t a heavy weapon as a monk weapon, can challenge opponents to duels that lock them down, and eventually use weapons instead of unarmed attacks for their Martial Arts attacks, and can spend Ki to add damage to any monk weapon attacks. I think I like this option as a way to expand the expected concept of martial arts in the game, but other than just being monks, none of this is really thematically tied to aspects of any faith or mythological elements.

Paladins pick up several new Oaths:

  • Oath of the Ascetic
  • Oath of Battle
  • Oath of the Eagle
  • Oath of Mercy
  • Oath of Perfection


Like the cleric options, these grant paladins a lot more variety for portraying additional deific or religious tenants.

Rangers get the Hunter subclass, which is a subclass focused on hunting the undead. Their abilities cause their opponents to have disadvantage on saves after they are hit, give advantage on various conditions inflicted by the undead, allow them to move a certain distance and attack any opponents in that line, and eventually, they get the ability to just set the number of their saves versus constitution saves. While I can see these features playing into attacking hordes of undead at the same time, just resisting effects and being a better skirmisher feels a little light on the theme of being specialized to hunt undead to me.

Rogues get the Scout option, which gives them nature proficiencies, advantage on some rolls when more than 30 feet away from others, and increase in speed, benefits when traveling places you have been to before, and advantage on attacks after moving. This one doesn’t really tie into deities, and having an ability that kicks in when you have already been to a place doesn’t feel like scouting as much as “remembering where you were before.”

Sorcerers get the option to have the Divine Inspiration subclass, which gives them spells from a cleric domain, a chance to expend spell slots on intelligence checks, extra metamagic choices, spend sorcery points on counterspelling, and having a permanent mind blank on you.

Warlocks gain a new potential patron in the Oracle, which gives them Foretelling, which can be spent on a variety of effects. This represents something that the warlock has foretold to help an ally. They later get the ability to mitigate surprise or damage to allies, advantage on initiative, and provide additional Foretellings.

Wizards get the Artifice tradition, which lets them make temporary magic items, cast magic weapon more efficiently, and create additional temporary magic items.

Backgrounds include the Emissary and the Reborn. Emissaries are probably self-explanatory, but Reborn are those that have been returned to life to right wrongs that they may have done before they died. They remember aspects of their former life, but just enough to help them undo the damage they did the last time around.

There are also feats, spells, magic items, artifacts, and creatures. I’d go into detail with all of these, but I think the subclasses represent some of the biggest expansions to the rules. Some of the spells are tied to individual gods, but aren’t too narrowly focused that they can’t be reflavored. I do like that you get a nice outline for something not entirely unlike the Arc of the Covenant in the artifacts section, but with some fantasy aspects thrown in to boot.

For those that remember the old Book of the Righteous, some of the feats that played with 3rd edition mechanics, and filled in aspects of spells you don’t usually see, didn’t get translated. For example, there was a feat in the Book of the Righteous that allowed a character to be a heretic, i.e. outside the legal alignment range allowed for a cleric. A version of this eventually made it into Forgotten Realms material, allowing for clerics that are so delusional that they don’t “fall” from grace. Spells that once targeted characters that had been raised from the dead don’t make a return, and neither do the utilitarian fertility-oriented spells.

A Treatise on the Divine

This is written as an in-world document from a religious scholar that summarizes the history of the pantheon. It’s a nice reiteration of the same story elements that are spelled out in the individual deity entries, consolidated, but there is also some reiteration of the prevalent assumptions, like “orcs don’t have souls.”

Gods and Races

There is a glossary in this section that defines proper names and places, as well as events, serving as another summary of the information in the rest of the book in a slightly different way. There is also a Genealogy of the Gods chart, which not only traces the deific families, but also where all of the other sentient species come from.

This is interesting, but all of the “soulless evil” creatures are traced back to Asmodeus and Lilith, and one of the entries on the list is literally “She-Devils,” calling out that the assumption of the mythology is that there are substantial evil female temptresses that are just part of the way of things.

Another interesting aspect of all of this is that all of the arch-devils, as corrupted Div, technically have souls, unlike the poor orcs and giants. I should also probably point out that the Titans are also mentioned as being soulless, but not specifically evil, but even in that case, it almost feels like the implication is that they were created to do a thing, and they do that thing, because they don’t have a soul and were made to do that thing.

Ascension

I like the explanation for a lot of the cosmological elements, the origins of demons and devils, the div as progenitors of various immortal beings, and having so many gods with fully fleshed out myths, prayers, rituals, and religious orders. I really wish we got something closer to this level of detail on “official” gods in D&D products. I really enjoy the majority of the mechanical options included in the book, and many of the best ones feel like story beats that should exist in D&D (especially the expanded domains, oaths, and the Oracle patron for the Warlock). I really enjoy the tension between the heretical sects and the mainline religions, as well as the potential tensions between the Great Church and the individual faiths that are nominally allied with it.

Descent

There is a whole lot of assumed gender roles in the book, that don’t get challenged much except for one section on optional changes to the book’s mythology. The idea that some species either don’t have souls, or even worse, may just be born evil, is really uncomfortable and problematic. Because everything in the book is presented from the point of view of a consolidated pantheon, there isn’t much contention for saying only some people have souls, and adding your own counter faiths into the narrative will mean creating the same narrative weight for your own gods.

Tenuous Recommendation--The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

I enjoy most of the mechanical options presented, and the book is a great example of the level of detail I would love to see when it comes to faiths, cosmology, and myths, but I think it suffers from presenting a little too much as “this is the way it is,” and not having enough contradictory mythology to throw some absolutes into question.

Glancing back and forth between my old copy from 3rd edition and this one, it looks like most of the effort of converting this book went into the mechanical aspects of the book, and that makes sense, but I wish some of the more problematic elements might have been identified, modified, and contextualized with fresher eyes.

It’s a great example of a richly detailed pantheon, but you may need to work a little if you want to apply the template elsewhere, and you may need to do some work to move away from some of the ingrained problematic elements.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Ki Unleashed (OGL 5e)


One of the things that I really like about 5e D&D is that the subclass system has, to this point, been a really strong way for the game to keep core elements of the game (in this case, classes) fresh, while introducing new options. While the subclasses can feel very distinct, unlike the proliferation of classes towards the end of 3.5 or 4e, you are still likely to recognize that the party has fighters, rogues, wizards, clerics, etc.

To me, I have a much easier time accepting new subclasses than I do new classes (I say, after allowing the Warlord and the Warden in my most recent campaign). That said, I am much more likely to enjoy those subclasses if the abilities tell a consistent story.

Today, we’re looking at Ki Unleashed, a 5e supplement from Tribality and Brandes Stoddard.

Proper Form

This particular product is eight pages long, with a cover, table of contents, and OGL statement. That means we’ve got five pages for three monastic traditions. It’s a nice and cleanly formatted PDF that is easy to navigate and read.

Into the Fray

We’ve got five pages, so I’ve got to be careful that I don’t let myself write a review that’s longer than the actual product, so I’m going to try to sum up. The three traditions we have in this book are the following:
  • Way of Lost Souls
  • Way of the Silver Chain
  • Way of the Wild



The Way of Lost Souls is a monastic tradition that is dedicated to helping souls cross over to the other side. They do this, in part, by bonding with a lost soul, which also gives the monk various powers. You can choose a lost soul that gives you access to radiant, psychic, or necrotic damage, and you can spend ki points to cast spells associated with that choice (bless, command, or inflict, in this case). At higher levels, this soul allows you to do extra damage of the type associated with you lost soul (6th), create a damaging field around you (11th), and manifest your lost soul as a ghost (17th).

I think this tradition stays on point for the story it is trying to tell with all of its class features, and in addition, unlike some monk traditions, it feels like a monastic tradition, not just a martial artist that learns supernatural attacks. The sidebar also has some nice ideas for who your lost soul is and how you might interact with them.

The Way of the Silver Chain is a monastic tradition that learns how to use their silver cord (the spiritual thread that connects you body and soul and trails out after your spiritual form when you travel the Astral plane) as a weapon. The goals of the tradition are mentioned as being opposed to nightmares, astral horrors, and creatures vulnerable to silver.

The Way of the Silver Chain monk can use their silver cord as a whip that counts as a silvered weapon, and they gain resistances to psychic damage that they can use ki to extend to their nearby allies, are resistant to various mental attacks, and can spend ki to protect their silver cord when it is attacked. When others rest near the Silver Chain Monk, they gain a bonus to their maximum hit points (expressly not temporary hit points). At 11th level, the Silver Chain monk can grapple really big foes with their silver chain, and at 17th level, you can do extra psychic damage and can even do ongoing damage.

I’m a little torn on this one. I like all of the mechanics, but the purposes of the order are a little bit scattered. I’m not sure what history leads you to study your silver cord to use as a weapon against werewolves, but also astral horrors and nightmares. I think just emphasizing that the tradition utilizes lucid dreaming to get in touch with their astral forms in order to master their connection to the spiritual might have been a more coherent origin. Also, grappling big things is one of those things that can be really useful when it’s useful, but might be kind of situational. That said, I really like the boost to maximum hit points that doesn’t nerf the potential temporary hit points you might get from other class abilities or spells.

The Way of the Wild is a monastic tradition that learns abilities by tapping into the primal forces of nature in their style. When choosing this tradition, you pick two of the styles associated with the style. This gives you access to stance which gives you various abilities based on the stance, and costs 1 ki at the beginning of your turn to enter. At 6th level, you get a strike associated with your stance, which you can spend a ki point on to add an extra effect to your attacks. At 11th level you get an ability that changes your maximum ki points, and at 17th level, you get a new stance.

Depending on how you want to flavor “tapping into the wild,” this could be the monk that really gets along with druids and rangers, or a martial artist that has learned a lot of very traditional sounding martial arts abilities that at some point in the past were based on studying nature. I really like the stance + strike setup of the subclass, as it really reinforces the feel of a martial artist, but it seems like it could definitely burn through ki quickly, and the boost to ki points doesn’t kick in until 11th level.

Ascended

I think the Way of Lost Souls monk is a great combination of flavor, mechanics, and story that very clearly communicates what the subclass is about. The Silver Chain monk has some great, imaginative abilities that play with the cosmology and story of the game to produce effects. The Way of the Wild feels very much like a martial arts class by introducing concepts like style, stances, and strikes. The mechanics of the classes are clearly and strongly realized.

Punching Bag

I don’t think its bad design, but The Way of the Wild could cause some ki option paralysis until the amount of ki opens up later on. I think all of the mechanics of the Way of the Silver Chain hangs together, and the “implied” story works great, but the introductory explanation of the order and the sidebar on dreams doesn’t feel as strongly represented in the class itself.

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

If you even remotely like monks or want to see some strong D&D subclass mechanics, you really should pick up this product. Despite my commentary on storyline drift with the Silver Chain monks, the mechanics still tell a more coherent story than many official D&D subclasses, the Way of the Wild is a great example of how to reinforce the feeling of martial arts in the class, and the Way of Lost Souls is one of the best examples of both mechanics and narrative structure realizing a unique story and compelling story for a class.
Really, unless you don’t like 5e at all, pick this up.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Money is no Object--Why I Don't Mention Price in My Reviews

I could be wrong, but I think the only review where I have actively mentioned the price of the product I was reviewing was my review for D&D Beyond on Gnome Stew. In this instance, I felt that it was relevant in that most of the decisions about purchasing D&D Beyond revolve around moving to fully digital format with internet access (at the time of the review) and/or buying the material in addition to physical copies.


For the most part, I factor cost into my reviews. This is for a number of reasons. I want to provide an analysis of what is included in the product, which is where I put most of my effort. I have already modified my original process of assigning starts to using different levels of recommendation, because I felt that was more in keeping with what I was trying to do with my reviews. It can already be difficult to determine the level or recommendation I’m willing to append to the review, and that would be even more difficult if I were attempting any kind of cost analysis.


In addition to the cognitive load that doing a cost analysis imposes, I also think that people can take the information that I give them, see the price of an item, and determine if that price is within the range of what they want to buy. Additionally, years down the road, that same review is going to serve the same purpose for someone evaluating a Bundle of Holding sale or a Deal of the Day as it does for the person that picks up the product on day one, and if a price that I determined was attractive or unattractive were factored into the review, it becomes harder to determine how much weight I gave the cost analysis.


There is a very wide range of opinions on the cost of media when it comes to RPGs. There are people that think it’s perfectly acceptable to charge almost full price for PDFs, but also think that when ordering the hardcover, the PDF should be free. There are others that think incentives like that undercut local game stores, but support programs like Bits and Mortar, where similar arrangements can be made through a participating retailer. There are some consumers that have a hard limit that they will impose on any PDF price, regardless of product size or production value.


More important that all of the above, however, is the fact that the RPG industry sells itself far too cheaply. Consumers have become accustomed to companies that operate on far smaller margins than any other industry would accept, and designers have learned that no matter how much work they put into the industry or how well their material sells, only a very few game designers can do it for a living, and even then, it’s not the most lucrative or stable living.


Including any kind of cost analysis in this instance can be potentially harmful, because people that have become comfortable with current price points may also assume that any aggregate recommendation that includes price is also a commentary on what someone’s labor and creative energies are worth, and that’s not something I’m interested in commenting about at all.


I am more than willing to say that most people that work in the RPG industry do not get anywhere near the amount of money that they should make for their efforts. I will also say that RPG products should cost more, and consumers that have never taken the time to look at the costs that go into the production of RPGs should take some time to do so, and to look at similar items produced for other industries and note those prices in comparison.


I won’t say that I will never again mention the cost of an item in a review, but it would be in the rare circumstance that the price of the item is especially relevant to any potential recommendation. For most RPG products that I am evaluation, that’s not going to be a factor that I want to include.

Friday, June 14, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Godling (5e OGL)


Years ago, a friend of mine decided to try an experiment. He ran a Pathfinder campaign where every character was utilizing one of a few special classes from a third-party supplement. The classes were all thematically linked, as they were all iterations of the Godling class from Rogue Genius games. The old gods had fallen, and our characters were their children, adventuring to become more powerful, set the world right, and ascend in their place.

My particular character was the son of the god of strength, and I was playing a Mighty Godling. I also decided that whenever I spoke in character, I would sound like Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and I routinely wrecked my voice during these sessions. It was almost as bad as the headaches I used to get when I wore an eyepatch after my Space Wolf got half his face blown off with a Tau railgun.

Poor real-life player choices aside, it was the memory of that campaign that prompted me to pick up The Godling, a 5e revision to the Pathfinder Godling classes.

The Good Book

The product is a 25-page PDF, with a page of advertising, and a page for the OGL statement. Everything in the book is clearly formatted, with wide margins and multiple tables, which help to illustrate a single class that has very divergent subclasses and options as it progresses.

The Base Class

The Godling is a d8 class that has multiple choice points as it develops. At level one, players will pick a Divine Lineage, but at 3rd level, they pick a Path to Legend. While it is an imperfect analogy, having multiple “path” choices makes this more like the Warlock, with the choice of patron and then pact boon, than other classes that have a clear subclass choice at 1st or 3rd level.

As far as abilities that are granted that aren’t dependent on Lineage or Path, characters gain Mythic Inspiration, which lets them roll with advantage when a roll deals with their divine lineage. Later, they can use this for other types of rolls, and eventually the character gains a second point of divine inspiration that they can only use for allies—the recharge mechanism is a little confusing, as it is mentioned that it recharges after a short or long rest, but then the 20th level ability also mentions it recharging after a short or long rest.

Characters also gain ascendancies as they gain levels. To continue the Warlock comparison, these are similar to invocations, in that some have prerequisites and only function if you have made specific choices with your character, and that you can switch them out when you gain new ones.

Once characters hit 20th level, their capstone ability is demigod. Once per day, you can cast wish without any ill effects. Take that every other capstone ability out there.
Beyond mythic inspiration, ascendancies, and demigod, all of your advancements will be based on your Divine Lineage or your Path to Legend.

Given the number of options in the class, I’m not surprised it has a similar structure to Warlock, at least initially. The mythic inspiration feature is a bit confusing, or else I’m just getting lost in the description. Either the table is just indicating where there is a change in the ability, and you only ever have two points of mythic inspiration, one you can spend on yourself or an ally, and one you have to spend on an ally, or you have four, plus one you can spend on an ally. Given the reference to points, I would think four makes more sense. If that is the case, it seems like recharging after a long rest until 20th level would make sense, except that you go all the way to 8th level before getting your second point.  I can make a judgment call, but it’s a little tangled to me.

Divine Lineage

Divine Lineage is the first choice that you are going to make, and this is intended to be influenced by the parent or divine power in the character’s background. Adept godlings are supernaturally wise, clever godlings are supernaturally canny and skilled, eldritch godlings are supernaturally gifted with magical ability, and mighty godlings are physically powerful.
 
Adept and Eldritch godlings get spellcasting ability, with adept godlings choosing from either the druid or cleric spell list and using wisdom as their casting stat, and eldritch godlings choosing from either sorcerer or warlock spell lists and using charisma for casting.

While neither lineage gets higher than 5th level spells, they have a slightly different spell progression than paladins and rangers, and get a number of cantrips known. Adept godlings get the ability to cast without material components once per long rest (6th), concentrate on spells twice as long, concentrate on two spells at once (10th), and share a spell with a range of self (14th). Eldritch godlings get to cast spells as bonus actions when they dash (6th), cast two spells at once by using higher level spell slots (10th), and add any spell from any list to your known spells (14th).

Clever and mighty godlings don’t get to cast spells. Clever godlings can challenge an opponent to add their intelligence bonus to damage (1st), learn skills at an accelerated rate utilizing downtime and gold (1st), ignore resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage (6th), redirect an attack to another target (10th), and once per short or long rest choose to succeed an ability check (14th). Mighty godlings get bonus hit points equal to their proficiency bonus, and the ability to use a versatile weapon at it’s two handed stats one handed (1st), reduce two levels of exhaustion at a time (6th), double weapon die damage in exchange for granting advantage to opponents (10th), and do levels of exhaustion to opponents instead of extra damage when using wrathful attack (14th).

The adept and eldritch godlings feel like they are getting the better end of things at this point. Getting a d8, but similar, but not identical, spellcasting to paladins and rangers is a little off, but we’ve got other class features and enhancements to magic.

Before we get to ascendancies and paths, clever and mighty godlings really feel like they are getting the short end of the divinity here. There is nothing that clever godlings can do that outshines a rogue, and the mighty godling gets a damaging version of reckless attack later than the barbarian, and while they get extra hit points per level, they are also stuck with medium armor proficiency and no native progression for multiple attacks.


Ascendancies

There are a lot of these, so in the interest of the previous section, I’m going to focus on anything that helps out the mighty and clever godlings. They can eventually get ascendancies that allow for additional attacks, as well as various abilities that introduce a save when the character attacks to add additional conditions to their damage.

The adept and eldritch get lots of ascendancies that modify their spellcasting, but probably the most notable are the ones that add a spell slot of a level they cannot cast, which can eventually get them to 9th level spells.

What this means is that by spending several ascendancies, you can get the spellcasting godlings up to “full” casters, and you can get the non-spellcasting godlings up to three attacks per round.

There are also a few fun “god flavored” abilities, like spontaneous resurrection, which lets you come back to life, but only twice. The third time, you stay dead. So, it’s a fun ability, but it’s a class ability that can become obsolete once you utilize it.

Paths to Legend

There are four steps to each of these paths, but characters can mix and match paths, so long as they take the steps in order. For example, you could have all four steps in a single path by 20th level, or the 1st step of four paths, or three steps of one path and the 1st step of another path.

The paths include the following:

  • Path of the Battle Lord
  • Path of Ebon Whispers
  • Path of the Passionate Heart
  • Path of the Ocean Master
  • Path of Sagely Lore
  • Path of the Radiant Day
  • Path of the Weapon Master


The paths have different levels of similarly themed abilities. For example, the Path of Sagely Lore lets you cast spells from a spellbook as rituals, and then makes those rituals faster. The Path of the Radiant Day lets you blind opponents or bend light to turn invisible. The Path of the Weapon master lets you name your weapon and “build” it’s magical ability from a list of powers delineated by points.

Multiclassing

The section on multiclassing is noteworthy because it treats each godling type as a different class for purposes of multiclassing. Oddly, despite natively only gaining up to 5th level spells, the multiclassing section instructs you to add godling as a full spellcasting class for determining multiclassing spell slots. I would assume this is only for adept and eldritch godlings, but that’s not spelled out.

Glad Tidings

It is a lot of fun to play around with the options in this class, and the theme of a class that embodies growing into godhood is a strong one. While it is super powerful, the wish capstone feels right, and I really like the idea of the different godling paths and ascendancies.

Pillars of Salt

It feels like you could build characters close to established fighters or spellcasters with these rules, but it also feels like in order to do that, you lose a lot of the flexibility and fun of choosing different paths and ascendancies. There is also a lot going on with this class, so it feels like it would be easy to get lost in your options and not really have an emergent “story” told with your class abilities.

Tenuous Recommendation--The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

With the level of complexity of the classes, and the sheer number of options, I think I would have preferred two separate godling classes instead of one class with four subclasses. I think some of the mechanics have to stretch too far to do something that should be simpler to achieve. Having a casting godling with more of a bard’s progression, and a non-spellcasting d10 class that could natively count on multiple attacks, with subclasses that reinforced clever or straightforward tactics, might have been a stronger option.

The product is still a lot of fun, but I think the best use of it may be to do what we did with the original Pathfinder versions of the classes, and set aside a special campaign with all godlings. Even then, the player and the GM should probably be very aware of exactly what they want out of the class, as it would be very easy for some godlings to really shine, while others take a lot of random shiny abilities that never come together well.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Tales of the Old Margreve (5e OGL)


I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that my new favorite setting for D&D is Kobold Press’ Midgard setting. I have really been enjoying the fact that the setting is just familiar enough that you can do “most” standard D&D related things in the setting, but just different enough that it doesn’t get watered down by expanding to accept everything D&D, all the time, and sets some boundaries on what feels appropriate.

That said, I’ve really wanted to have some kind of mega-adventure or adventure path for the setting. I’ll be honest, running a published adventure doesn’t keep me from doing a ton of work fleshing out side details and adding NPCs, but it does give me guardrails that occasionally tell me when to stop and veer back onto the path.

There is a more formal mega-adventure/adventure path for Midgard coming in the future, in the form of the Empire of the Ghouls product that was recently on Kickstarter. Until we get there, there is the Tales of the Old Margreve adventure.

Based on an adventure anthology originally created for Pathfinder, Tales of the Old Margreve was translated and expanded for 5e. While it isn’t quite a single unified story, all of the adventures take place in the Old Margreve forest, with some recurring locations and characters across some of the adventures. There are adventures in the book to take characters from 1st to 10th level.

Content Warnings and Clearing the Air

A number of people in danger, as well as the number of mysterious, magical creatures in the forest, are disproportionately women. For the most part, these women are presented as having competency, and in many cases, are actually quite powerful, but the “dangerous enchanted woman” trope is in evidence a lot, especially as this seeks to recall a darker fairy tale vibe.

What is more troubling is the recurring problems with the Kariv, a culture that is portrayed in a manner very consistent with the real-world Roma culture. The Kariv are literally cursed to wander, which changes the narrative of why they travel from racism and religious persecution, and they do perform divinations, which aren’t quite as enigmatic in a world where magic functions.

Unfortunately, despite having a cultural name native to the setting, with the Kariv, the book repeatedly uses the term g*psy, a term that many Roma people see as a slur. It occurs multiple times in the Gazetteer, and in particular in the adventure Gall of the Spider-Crone. 

That adventure not only uses the term g*psy again, but also portrays the Kariv as untrustworthy, greedy, incompetent charlatans. It doesn’t just play with outdated stereotypes, but actively harmful ones.

I understand that Midgard leans heavily on Eastern European legends for its flavor. I just wish that the Kariv could be treated with more care and concern, given their obvious parallels to a real-world marginalized people.

Defining the Borders

This review is based both on the PDF and the physical copy of the adventure. The book is 204-pages long, with three pages of ads and the OGL statement taking up its own page. The pages have a greenish cast with a faded background of vines. The formatting is clear and easy to follow, and the artwork is some of the best fantasy art you are going to see in an RPG product.

The Old Margreve Gazetteer

The gazetteer gives a broad overview of the Margreve as an adventure location, and details some 5e specific rules that work in tandem with the setting. Magic is slightly less effective, as the forest “eats” it, metal rusts away from civilization, and the forest actively decides if it likes you or not.

There are Margreve specific charts for Status, a rules system that can be found in the Midgard Worldbook. In this case, status is gained or lost based on the forest’s concepts of right and wrong, and there are mechanics for random effects that can happen when status rises high with the forest, or is especially low.

In addition to the special effects that might happen with status, there are specific random encounters for the Margreve, divided into encounters on the road that moves through the forest, the outskirts, or the heart of the forest, as well as daytime and nighttime encounters. In addition to listing creatures encountered, the encounters explain what the various creatures are doing, or the extenuating circumstances that might be present in the scene when the creatures are found.

Several of the encounters reference creatures from the Tome of Beasts or the Creature Codex, and while I endorse both of those books (possibly even over some of the official Wizards of the Coast D&D monster tomes), the fact that the encounter charts utilize them may make this section slightly less useful for someone that doesn’t own them.

I am very happy to see the status mechanics get used for a more specific purpose. I like the concept from the Worldbook, but there isn’t much in that book to make it worth the effort to track. For this adventure, it has direct consequences on the game, and I hope to see an adventure specific version of status for use with the Empire of the Ghouls adventure as well.

Margreve Sites, Inhabitants, and Adventure Hooks; Magic in the Margreve

This section details recent history, geography, and several of the inns that follow along the Great Northern Road that bisects the forest. Various NPCs are detailed, and there is a faerie associated site that can act as a transition into the Wrath of the River King adventure. This isn’t just a mysterious site with some faerie in attendance, but a populated area with different events going on during various seasons and numerous detailed NPCs to interact with.

There are several inns mentioned, including the Bluebell Coaching Inn, which is almost the fantasy equivalent of the cantina on Mos Eisley in Star Wars. All kinds of magical creatures associated with the forest stop by the inn from time to time, making it a good staging place for adventurers, especially if your group has less traditional species in it’s makeup. There is both a rumors and adventures table and an NPCs table to add some randomness to the people in attendance, and like the encounters above, most of these detail a starting situation rather than just listing the statistics for a character.

The Dancing Stones are places of power in the Margreve that are tied to the ley line features of the setting. Each site has its own lore and rumored abilities, and over a dozen of them are given a paragraph or so of detail.

There are more details on magical effects in the Margreve, including a few new spells that interact with the rules of the forest. They can do things like allowing your shadow to become a spy for you, or letting you get sustenance from sunlight. There are also suggested side effects to different schools of magic based on the interests of the forest itself.

I enjoy all of this, and think it does a lot to reinforce an alien and self-aware ancient forest as a setting, but given that this modifies some class features, you may want to be up front with your players and get their buy in before telling them that their spells don’t function the way they think they do. In many cases, the forest just adds something “extra,” but there are detrimental effects like lowering the DC or proficiency bonus to hit with spells.

The Adventures

Rather than detail all of the adventures, I wanted to give an overview of the adventures and where some of the connections between them lie. There effectively two types of adventures. The first are the stand-alone adventures that might have some common people and places, and there are the shorter Derende interludes, which are more like specific encounters that get woven between the other adventures.

  • Hollow (The PCs find a village attacked by a monster in service to an evil tree)
  • The Honey Queen (The PCs negotiate with sentient giant bees for magical honey)
  • The Vengeful Heart (PCs investigate a blood mage’s dealings with local villages)
  • Challenge of the Fang (PCs get caught up in a ritualized hunt with wolves)
  • The Griffon Hatchling Heist (One of the powerful griffon’s of the forest needs the PCs to help save her eggs)
  • Gall of the Spider Crone (A forest hag needs help excising something living within her)
  • Blood and Thorns (Plant folk attempt to secure their power over the forest)
  • Grandmother’s Fire (Someone has stolen Baba Yaga’s hearth fire, and she wants it back)
  • The Vengeful Dragon (the PCs return to the first adventure site to deal with a dragon that threatens the village)


Hollow and The Vengeful Dragon bookend on the same village, with the PCs being invited back with the assumption that they are heroes that helped out in the first adventure. There are various spider crones that are sisters that appear in multiple adventures as well.
The adventures all have strong dark fairy tale elements to them. Some of my favorites include the shambling thing helping an evil tree in the forest to evolve into something more powerful, as well as the gravitas that a job for Baba Yaga naturally holds, with the stakes being lifting a curse on the whole forest.

Some of the adventures have stronger opening hooks than others. If you are planning on basing your whole campaign on the forest, a lot of adventures kind of assume adventurers “stumble across” something, and The Vengeful Heart, as an example, feels more set up for outsiders being sent into the forest, so you may need to plan stronger, more unifying hooks.

The thing about the adventures that makes me the saddest is that I really like some of what is going on in Gall of the Spider Crone. There is a point where the PCs need to get the house of the crone’s sister to where the crone is laid up, and it’s a great and evocative fantasy scene. Unfortunately, this is also the adventure that has the most issues with how the Kariv are treated. My suggestion for this adventure would be to either not make the characters at the inn with Kariv, or go out of your way to portray them as being reverent and competent, but dealing with very difficult supernatural situations, to downplay the negative stereotypes.

The three other adventures in the book are interspersed, and are a bit shorter than the full adventures. They detail some mysterious sites in the Margreve, with a building undercurrent of something sinister happening. These adventures are:

  • The Fingers of Durende (1st to 4th level)
  • The Tongue of Derende (5th to 9th level)
  • The Heart of Durende (10th level or higher)


While other places in the forest have an ancient natural magic feel to them, the Durende sites are all touched by “something else,” and imply that something unnatural and beyond space and time might be slumbering under the forest.

The first two adventure sites hint at some of the weirdness going on, but the final adventure can make an effective capstone, as the PCs have to deal with a creature infused with power as the Avatar of Durende.

Appendix: Forest Monsters

This section includes a few new monsters native to the Margreve, including the following:

  • Bulbous Violet
  • Collais
  • Vine Golem
  • Lunarchidna
  • Piney
  • Piney Rootwalker
  • Stormboar
  • Tree Skinner
  • Tsuchinoko
  • Vallowex
  • Wraith Bear


As you might expect, all of these revolve around plants, animals, or natural phenomenon. In some cases, like the stormboar, its an animal imbued with the power of a storm. I particularly like the wraith bear, which defiles plants to power itself, and can incapacitate people with its roar.

The Forest’s Bounty

The Margreve itself is a very colorful setting, and the rules in the gazetteer make it an attractive location to utilize even without the adventures. Some of the locations, like the Bluebell Coaching Inn, feel like must visit locations in any campaigns in the Crossroads of Midgard. Almost all of the adventures have a nice, creepy fairy tale feeling to them, and the almost cosmic horror aspects of the Durende interludes is a nice counterpoint.

Storm Clouds

Some of the introductory hooks are okay, and others are a little weak, but I would have liked even a few paragraphs on how to create a more cohesive framing mechanism to keep the PCs on the path to playing through all of these adventures. There are also a few rules artifacts of the Pathfinder version of the adventures that slipped through, like references to negative hit points.

The word g*psy shows up a lot, and that’s a boundary to inclusivity that makes it harder to recommend the book. In addition, the way the Kariv are portrayed in one of the adventures is especially problematic, and a GM hoping to avoid those negative tropes is going to have to do some work to excise them from the narrative.

Tenuous Recommendation--The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

I’ll be honest, the Kariv material was making this one hard to recommend, but to compare it to a similar issue in another product, I feel like the tone-deaf issues in The Isle of Dread Reincarnated were incorporated throughout the process of making it, while I think Tales from the Old Margreve is clearly the work of many hands, some of which were less sensitive than others. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the product, overall, managed to get out the door with these issues intact.

The parts of it that work do so very well. It realizes its tone very effectively. The parts that don’t work as well serve to illustrate that even some of the best regarded publishers in the industry still have some work to do when it comes to empathy, sensitivity, and inclusiveness.

Note: I searched the PDF of the Midgard Worldbook, the Zobeck Gazetteer, and the Pathfinder version of Tales of the Old Margreve. Neither the Worldbook nor the Gazetteer use the term g*psy for the Kariv, and the references to the Kariv are largely unchanged in Gall of the Spider Crone from the Pathfinder version. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Masters and Minions (5e OGL)


Before we begin, I want to provide some context. A few months ago, I had this review ready to go, but I became concerned over some of the artwork and the representation in this product. I decided not to do the review, and I even wrote a pretty heartfelt piece that I never published anywhere. I contacted Jetpack 7 to talk to them about it.

I wasn’t wrong in that the book could fewer women showing more skin, and a better range of people in the artwork. But instead of just noting that as part of the review, it struck me hard that I wanted to FIX the issue immediately. It was pointed out to me that one of the limitations of the book is that what went into the book was partially dictated by the Kickstarter backers. In addition to this, two things helped me to put things in perspective.

  • My review of the Isle of Dread Reincarnated highlighted what actual regressive issues look like
  • The number of bad actors and abusers in the industry that have been publicly addressed recently helped to put some of these issues in perspective


That’s not to say the examples in this book aren’t noteworthy. It’s more a matter that they aren’t egregious. They could be better, but they aren’t the height of exploitative RPG artwork that we had in the 80s and 90s, and even in situations where characters have any kind of revealing appearance, the context and composition of the image is often far better than “the good old days.”

Mastering the Dimensions

Masters and Minions is a 100-page supplement. This review is based on both the PDF and the physical copy of the book. The book is filled with glossy pages of full-color art. Stunning full-color artwork. There are two pages of Kickstarter backers to start the book, and a one-page index at the end.

Many of the villains have full-page illustrations, while some have a two-page spread. There are various sidebars to call out special items and rules, and bolded headers for all the main villains in the book. One odd bit of formatting is that all the sections after the chapter on major villains have a band at the bottom of the page to denote sections, so if you aren’t looking at the bottom of the page, you may be surprised when you wander from one chapter to another.

It is also worth noting that the art for Patious, The Dryad is portrayed in an exaggerated, sexualized way that regular 5th edition art has avoided to this point. Grael’s mechanical form, while artificial, is a stylized form that suggests minimal clothing. Grissek’k wears a bare midriff outfit that highlights her abs, and while she still looks intimidating, it’s also a form of battle gear none of the male characters (except, perhaps the goblin kennel master) share. While there are far more exploitative works of RPG or fantasy artwork in the world, Patious, in particular, feels like a throwback to less sensitive artwork.

Masters

The first section of the book presents various master villains that can be plugged into campaigns at various levels, as well as the statistics for various monsters and NPCs that serve that master. The primary villains presented in this section are:

  • Patious, The Dryad (CR 1)
  • Thalin, The Forest Master (CR 2)
  • The Child (CR 2)
  • Yumog, The Cave Master (CR 6)
  • Ettiene, The Ringleader (CR 5)
  • Ishmael, the Slaver (CR 5)
  • Grael, The Tinkerer (CR 7)
  • The Created (CR 7)
  • Grissek’k, The Orc Queen (CR 9)
  • Mauugh, the Troll (CR 7)
  • Lord Sebastian (CR 14)
  • Balleg, the Ravaged Wyrm (CR 17)
  • Kynikk, the Debauched (CR 20)
  • Colossus of Charnax (CR 30)
  • Nezzeroth, the Undying (CR 20)


Most of these villains have specific monsters or NPCs that are designed to go with the theme of the villain. For example, Patious has plant servitors that grow in the corpses of her victims. Lord Sebastian has specialized vampiric undead loyal to him. The Colossus of Charnax has animated fragments of itself. Thalin has the animated aspects of his own personality to keep him company.

Each one of the masters presented in this section has a basic scenario spelling out what the villain wants, how their plans might progress, and how the players might get entangled in their plans. Some of these scenarios, especially the lower CR villains, are events that could play out in a session or two of play. The Colossus of Charnax is part of the lore of a lost city that might take several levels of play to track down. The raids from Lord Sebastian’s forces could be a long-term framing device for a campaign.

One of my favorite villains, from a thematic standpoint is Nezzeroth, who is a classic villain that doesn’t even realize they are a villain, as their actions have potentially disastrous ramifications for the way reality functions in the game world.

In addition to having customized minions, several of the villains presented in this chapter have specific mechanics that reinforce the “theme” of that villain. As an example, Ishmael has a special attack that allows him to potentially lock an opponent in chains as one of his actions. Grael can rebuild minions from available scrap. One of my favorite villain mechanics is Lord Sebastian’s Blood Pool, an ability that lets him actively spend a resource to do “super vampire moves.” Additionally, several of the villains in this chapter have unique lairs, that either have their own mechanics, or have special effects that trigger on the villains Lair Action entry.

While it is probably not surprising, this section covers more than 50 pages of the 100-page supplement, and it’s the strongest section of the book. Many of the villains can easily be used in a variety of D&D settings, and the descriptions provide enough information to throw together a night’s adventure with very little work.

If I have any real complaints about this section, it’s that I wish a few more of the higher CR villains had sections on seeding information about the villain earlier in a campaign. As they stand, it is easy to see how the higher CR villains can dominate what PCs are confronting at a particular tier of play, but I would love to have more discussion on how to start casting the villains shadow all the way at level one, for a slow burn.

Open Game Content

The next section of the book is simply called Open Game Content. It’s about five pages of NPC statistics, covering the following characters:

  • Kyrtelmuk the Intelligent (with Mindless Goblins) (CR 5)
  • Jesset Woebringer (with Cultists of the Lady) (CR 5)
  • Ardi’Tik’Chok (CR 10)
  • Isidora, the Night Hag (CR 8)


This section contains “mini masters,” for lack of a better term, contributed by Kickstarter backers. Each section has a description, tactics, and a summary, but because these are shorter entries, there isn’t art (except for Isidora and her labyrinth), and while several of the creatures have recharge abilities, there are the unique mechanics found in some of the more memorable villains from the previous section.

Minion Tactics

The next section takes up about 16 pages and covers various creatures that are likely to be minions of more powerful monsters or NPCs in a campaign. The entries generally follow the format as follows:

[Monster Name]
Creatures the monster is likely to serve
Frequency
Setting
Senses
Size
Speed
Description
Tactics

Additionally, some entries include a “non-combat resolution” entry as well.
I like the concept of this section. I really enjoy reading how monsters behave in the context of working for a more powerful character. Unfortunately, some of the tactics stop short of giving specific details, which might have been more useful, especially for DMs that haven’t used the creature in this capacity before.

As an example, one of the tactics mentioned for duergar is to “leverage their . . . advantage on saves vs poison.” This might have been a great opportunity to introduce a poison that characters with advantage are immune to, but still affects those without advantage normally—while the Duergar and potentially any party dwarves won’t be in any danger, numerically, that weak poison might slow down a few PC party members while not posing any danger to the duergar.

An interesting aspect of this chapter is that tactics are included for some non-OGL creatures, by coming up with alternative names for those creatures. For example, the q’kogoth are furry, clawed creatures that serve the drow in the underdark, and kooatalla are underdark dwelling fish people.

Monsters

The next six pages of the book are filled with new monsters. Those monsters include the following:

  • Unfettered Familiar (CR 7)
  • Living Golem (CR 5)
  • Alkonost (CR 1)
  • Hag Spawn (CR 2)
  • Devil Binder (CR 13)
  • Goblin Kennel Master (CR 3)


It’s a short monster section, but I really like how many of these monsters interact with existing monsters or fill useful niches in the game. The unfettered familiar is a nasty “feral” familiar that has outlived its master. The devil binder is a spellcaster NPC summoner, and I love thematic “caster” NPCs like this whenever they appear in 5th edition product. Not only do they have spells, but they can summon a devil and enhance it with their special actions. The goblin kennel master is a tough goblin that makes those worgs that hang out with goblins even more dangerous.

I enjoy the possibilities of the hag spawn as monsters, but it is worth noting that it plays with the trope of child endangerment, which may not sit well with all players, and you may want to make sure you drop clues that you can save these children, because if your PCs find out after they have . . . dealt with them in other ways, they may be very upset that they could have saved them.

NPCs

This section presents three more NPCs. One of them is an unlikely master assassin, another is an unreliable hireling, and the final one is a retired adventure that is a font of useful information about his adventuring days and potentially serves as a contact between PCs and various important organizations.
Jaella, the unlikely assassin with a retinue of orphans, is my favorite of this group. I wish she had been fleshed out as a full “master” in a previous chapter, because I think she would have made a great morally ambiguous antagonist.

Magic Items

A single page at the end of the book introduces the Canister of the Captive Mind, the Doppelganger’s Cowl, and the Lash of the Master. While all these items would be dangerous in the hands of a villainous character, none of them are especially evil on their own. The canister casts dominate person and allows long-range communication, the cloak is a handy disguise tool, and the whip can turn enemies against one another for a single attack.

All of them see like useful magic items, but I wish they had been tied more directly to other aspects of the book.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

The art in this book is gorgeous. The two-page spread of Lord Sebastian is 100% pure gothic vampire glory, with the vampire lord standing in the mists with his soldiers and a pack of wolves. Just about all the main villains in the book manage to straddle the line between having an interesting backstory and still being vague enough to fit into multiple game settings. I love the special attacks and sub-systems that several of the villains use. It makes them actively fun to utilize in game and sets them apart from similar “generic” NPCs or monsters that already exist in other books.

There are also several good “support” monsters and NPCs presented, that are useful even beyond serving the specific villains in this book.

Curses, Foiled Again

While it’s not bad content, the Open Game Content, NPCs, and Magic Items section feels a little unfocused given the rest of the book. The Minion Tactics section was a great idea, but it feels like it needs a few more specific examples to reach its full potential. I would have been happier without some of the NPCs and the magic items if I could have gotten a few more long-term campaign ideas and a fully formed version of Jaella as a villain. While the art is gorgeous, there are a few female characters that play on older tropes in fantasy art that may not be as forward thinking as they could have been.  There also could have been a better representation of people included in the book.

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

There are some great adventure ideas in this book, and a lot of amazing artwork. The concept of a “monster manual” for villains is a good idea, especially with suggested adventure or story arcs included, but a little more detail added to long term villain arcs might have given them even wider appeal. If you are playing a long-term D&D campaign, and you like playing with custom subsystems, this should be a solid purchase for you, but if you favor fully fleshed out adventures or more straightforward D&D content, there may be less for you to sink your teeth into.