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.

4 comments:

  1. I'm not a big fan of OGL products, but your review has been very useful and I'll consider trying some of these titles.

    Nice blog, you got yourself a new follower!

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  2. The author, Aaron Loeb, is from Urbana and is spmeone I gamed with a few times back in the late 80s.

    He's a good dude and highly creative. I like to see when local/regional people get noticed.

    As always, Jared, your review is solid and on point. Folks could do a lot worse than following your recommendations.

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