5.08.2015

Path of Shadows

Path of Shadows





This freshman offering of Ascension Games clocks in at 81 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 75 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?
                                                                  
Disclaimer: This book went up in my review-queue do to me receiving a dead tree copy and not having to print everything out. My review's verdict was in no way influenced by receiving this copy.

Ah, shadow magic - scarcely a concept in 3.X has been so prominent and yet so utterly ill-defined and mechanically sucky. Thankfully, 3pps have a knack for singling out such systems and then developing them  -take a look at Radiance House's Pact Magic, Interjection Games' Truenaming or Dreamscarred Press' Akashic Mysteries, for examples. In the meanwhile, Interjection Games has provided us with two classes, which, in theme, oscillate between light and darkness, the edgewalker and the antipodist, but that's it, to my knowledge. One massive issue of the original shadowmagic was its exceedingly restrictive nature and the balancing just...well. Not working, at all.

So can this pdf remedy this much maligned, but utterly stylish power-source? The pdf kicks off with a massive introduction, including explanations for the reference abbreviations used and then dives into the Nightblade base class - the nightblade receives d8, 6+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons, longsword, scythe, rapier, short sword, shortbow and spiked chain and light armors, but not shields. Shields and armor heavier than light incurs arcane spell failure chances. Nightblades also receive spontaneous spellcasting via Charisma of up to 6th level, drawn from their own spell-list. The class also receives 3/4 BAB-progression and good ref- and will-saves. Evasion is gained at second level and this level also provides access to the so-called shadow surge - this is an expendable resource that can be gained as a standard action that provokes attacks of opportunity. Several nightblade abilities require the expenditure of a shadow surge - think of it as the class's analog of the psionic focus. with the additional caveat that a nightblade may expend shadow surges to reroll Stealth checks - for actually competent sneaking. At 8th and 17th level, the nightblade can store +1 surge, so that's a deviation from psionic focus. Abilities like increasing darkvision (with worthwhile alternate benefits if you already have it!), hide in plain sight at 8th level (where I can stomach it!) and yes, dimension door hopping - with caveats for feat-qualification etc. High level nightblades may see perfectly in the dark and when they cast shadow conjurations etc., they increase the real component of their shadows.

At 3rd level, the nightblade receives a nightblade art, +1 every three levels thereafter - think of these as the nightblade's talents; when applicable, the save scales via the plus half level + cha-mod-formula. Now while you can get combat and metamagic feats via these talents, they actually provide very unique benefits for the discerning gamer  -benefits that significantly deviate from rogue talents etc. and help enforce a unique identity - while effects like full speed stealth plus miss chance upgrade for concealment gained from darkness to total concealment-levels, increases to touch attack AC and higher level options to expend shadow surges to attack against touch AC would pretty much all be options I'd somewhat expect a shadow-themed character to be able to pull off. On paper, attacking versus touch attack by expending shadow surges may look pretty nasty, but the 1/round limit imposed by action economy and the need to regain shadow surges means that this option is powerful, but thanks to the level-prereq and the requirement for set-up, in game actually worked rather well. It should be noted that tank-y creatures, dragons and similar creatures with bad touch ACs should take heed around nightblades, but that is something that is just as true for magi and similar characters, so no balance complaints there.

However, beyond these more conservative ones, there are some talents that can be considered ambitious from a mechanical point of view: Take force teleporting foes or shifting shadow/darkness-related spells from target to target - these are not simply concepts to translate into crunch, much less crunch that is concise enough to withstand my nitpicking of terminology and looking for loop-holes. Kudos where kudos are due - I consider tackling such complex options in a freshman offering, with this level of competence, nonetheless, an impressive feat!

Obviously, now, the defining feature of shadow magic back in the day was the structure of paths, which required some planning, yes, but also provided a feeling of organic development. Nightblades must select a path at 1st level - but within each path techniques loom: One is gained at first level, one at 5th and every 5 levels thereafter -these can be likened to the linear gain of order or bloodline abilities. They are also more than just the addition of techniques - each path comes with a path power, modifies the shadow surge to sport additional options AND modifies the list of available nightblade arts by adding exclusive arts to the list available, providing an element of player agenda that is absent from the linear ability progressions of cavaliers, sorcerors etc.. So yes, the choice of one of the 5 paths is the most important one for the nightblade and radically changes the way in which the given classes play - this extends to the point where the paths offer a more distinct variety in playing experience than most archetypes offer over the base classes they modify. It should also be noted that e.g. path powers scale in their potency and the paths also determine the capstone ability gained.

So what are the paths about? The path of the Bloodied Chain offers the option to conjure forth umbral shackles that entangle creatures, while also adding fear-based effects at higher levels - i.e. you receive some rather powerful and unique terrain-control options. The theme of fear-based debuffs also is represented in the shadow surge ability, which allows you to extend the fear-based conditions on your adversaries. This and the fear-themed techniques gained render this path a good friend to Dreamscarred Press's Dread-class; in my playtests, the two worked together as a nasty double-team that could actually offset the lack of a primary melee class. And no, I do not consider this one to be broken, though combining the dread's immunity-breaker with the nightblade proved to be very efficient. It should also be noted that intimidate can cause full-blown "frightened" as a condition for this path. The exclusive arts here provide for some awesome visuals - beyond detecting fear, adding bleed damage to the umbral chains at 9th level or centering the chains on the nightblade, rendering the effect mobile at 15th level.

The second path, the path of the darkened fortress, can be likened to shadow magic's kind-of-but-not-really magus, blended with duelist-tricks: For example, weapons can be conjured forth and enhanced with special abilities, but they remain shadowy. The shadow surge can be used as an immediate action for a significant self-buff that starts as being applied only to a single attack (GOOD!) and then scales up to lasting a turn at 10th level. The path abilities net you arcane bond, but with a variant - both object and familiar-choices can be blended with your form - which can be rather significant in the context of infiltrations. The path also helps with the crafting of magic items, allowing the nightblade to ignore progressing amounts of spell prerequisites. Fortification-style effects are also part of the deal and high level nightblades with this path receive their own pocket dimension in the plane of shadows. The arts available allow for the extension of weapon qualities and also sport e.g. the option to enhance the bonded object/familiar with unique benefits. Extending the ability to create shadow armament to ranged and dual weapons should also be considered pretty interesting, especially since the latter (one playtest candidate, btw.) sport a balancing mechanic that is simple, yet efficient.

The path of eternal night provides you with a means of creating a short-range energy vortex of negative energy that may not heal, but frighten undead. The shadow surge use here requires a standard action to enforce a reroll of a d20, but can only target a creature once per 24 hours. The path abilities of this rather sinister path allows the nightblade to destroy creatures that are dying and use them to power himself - think of it as a powerful, death knell like effect. This ability would be very strong, especially since the action economy scales and goes down from standard action to swift action - however, the smart choice of a daily limite rendered this a viable ability in game. Interesting would be an immunity not gained by most classes - the path renders immune to negative energy damage, which renders these folks exceedingly effective at killing hostile clerics - interesting! The path also sports an option to make a foe's shadow rise up against the adversary. The arts allow for additional means of enhancing corruption, with e.g. damage upon leaving the aura etc. All in all, an interesting path as well.

The path of the ravaging void gets a very interesting path power, which allows you to change the energy type of energy spells - which is pretty much an awesome trick and though it extends to supernatural abilities, the wording covers those. So far, this has been pretty much a homerun, but alas, the shadow surge herein imho can require a more distinct scaling mechanism - the shadow surge is a ranged touch attack with a range of 30 ft. that deals 1d6 cold damage, +1d6 per 2 levels +cha-mod. While the damage itself is not impressive when thinking about the fact how shadow surges etc. eat actions, the scaling feels a bit off still - perhaps I'm spoiled by Interjection Games' ethermagic, but as far as warlock-y blasts go, this, while not bad or broken due to the limited range, could have imho used some more versatility. The path techniques provide elemental resistances and allow you to suffuse your elemental spells with shadow energy, adding debuff effect insults to the elemental injury - I really like this idea-wise! Now where things become very interesting would be the option to expend spell-slots to duplicate elemental energy damage dealing spells, which, however, only remain partially real. A handy table spares you making calculations or the like, so kudos. All in all, this can be considered the battle mage among the paths, with severe distortion effects that play well with damage-casters and psionics.

The final path would be the path of the twilight veil and I LOVE the path power - based on HD of the target, the spatial distortions caused by the shadows can provide devastating debuffs to the target creatures and 2nd level nightblades of this path can additionally turn invisible via shadow surges. Where the ravaging void is the sledgehammer, the twilight veil would be the scalpel - several illusion-themed techniques and arts allow for serious customization of illusion tricks. Furthermore, the power-enhancing arts are pretty cool here, allowing you to affect creatures usually immune to your distortions. This is kind of the oddball, the one among the paths that imho requires the most investment, but in the hands of a capable player, it may very well be the most rewarding - the exceedingly nasty distortion power can cover somewhat the terrain control and the almost unlimited invisibility are powerful indeed when handled correctly. Why am I not shrieking for the nerfbat? Easy - the invisibility can't be stacked/prolonged, keeping the character from staying out of sight ALL the time. Still, this enables a nasty guerilla style gameplay that has found its fans at my table. The class also sports FCOs for aasimar, dhampir, drow, fetchling, tiefling, wayang and core races.

The next chapter is devoted to a plethora of archetypes and new class options with shadow magic, obviously, as a unifying theme. Alchemists can e.g. modify their body to benefit from the nightblade's enhanced concealment efficiency or craft bombs that duplicate effects of darkness and better sight etc. are part of the deal. There is also an antipaladin who receives a potent, scaling aura of darkness that allows himself and his allies to see through the, later damaging blackness. Barbarians can choose from two totem power trees (and an unaligned one), wherein an already existing bite is enhanced or add str-damage to her attacks while also receiving defenses versus certain conditions. Both have in common that they require certain build types and enhance them and both, to me, feel a bit on the strong end - dice increase + crit x3 for a bite via one rage power is a tad bit too nasty in my book, especially seeing how this also nets full Str-bonus when using bites in conjunction with other natural attacks...And yes, I do have such a claw/bite-barbarian in my game and if they do not need one thing, then it's a way to deal even more damage...

Shadow priests channeling darkness instead of regular energy, bloodragers with a new custom bloodline, anti-disease lunar guardian druids - all pretty solid. The stygian striker magus can be envisioned as the nightblade crossover - less frontlines, for skirmishing (with evasion etc. and modified saves to back this up) and the monk archetype provided is also one that should be considered relatively solid, with ki allowing for more flurry attacks. Oracles can suffer from a curse that makes people forget them and choose a new mystery, while paladins can opt to channel light to dispel and suppress all those nasty effects. Rogues may wilder in nightblade arts and shamans may choose the new darkness spirit.

Nightblades, thankfully, also can join the archetype-fun: Caster/summon-themed Dark Conjurors, a more martially-inclined one (thankfully with path restriction to avoid warlock-y abuse),a  rogue-crossover with sneak attack et. al and an infiltration-specialist can also be found. Finally, there is an archetype that pays for the access to two paths at once with a crippled progression of the shadow surges, paying for an increased array of options with less on-the-fly-flexibility and spells.

Fans of shadow-themed races like fetchlings and wayangs may enjoy the feat-section particularly - there are quite a few racial feats for them to set them apart, with generally a fitting theme of shadows, darkness-enhancing, etc. - modifying a summon-list's half-celestial/fiendish creatures to instead be shadow creatures would be an example here. Overall, these feats felt solid, but didn't blow me away per se. Good craftsmanship.

The spell-chapter does provide a cool rules-clarification for spells utilizing the shadow of the caster and provide, obviously, a significant means of providing shadow/light-control. Interesting for other classes - there are spells herein which interact with e.g. shadow surges, making the latter not just an isolated class feature. Interesting would be terrain control spells to confine targets in e.g. areas of darkness, while shadowy wings that can also be used to attack foes and furthermore, allows for channeling 1/cast - nasty and versatile, but I like it. From the ageing capstone, there are other interesting effects - for example, a complex spell which alters an illusion to allow for the execution of quasi-real attacks via the infusion of shadow stuff - as such area attacks, attacks, energy etc. are covered with unique benefits. There are also lunar prophecies or the option to conjure forth the all-consuming maw of the nightwave. Ways to suppress extraordinary senses would also be an interesting move for spells. However, there also are minor modifications/improved versions, like e.g. a darkness/cold-based variant of flaming sphere. Shadow-based necromancy spell-duplication is also covered, as are chaotic overlaps between planes. I also like the concise definition of shadow length for attacks on a shadow, which reflects its damage to the origin of the caster. A new spell-class to summon evil, horrific creatures also can be found herein. There is also a highly complex class of spells that allows for the conjuration of umbral servants for the nightblades, which essentially act on their own after a nightblade's turn  -these are fun, allowing e.g. a called magician to freely apply metamagic to certain spells cast close to it, etc.

The final chapter provides ample new magical weapon/armor qualities and specific items - with artworks depicting them that are downright inspired and rank among the best such I have ever seen in any given supplement - WOW. The twilight reaver scythe looks so badass, I just NEED to show this picture to my players, even without knowing that it's a +2 cold iron keen greater umbral scythe that allows for surge storage on crits...

The pdf also sports a handy two-page index and artist-credits.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are excellent - I noticed no significant issues while reading this - none. The 2-column full-color layout used in this book is GORGEOUS. I mean it. This is one of the most beautiful roleplaying book I've seen any 3pp produce, an impression also underlined by the GLORIOUS original full-color artwork by Jasmine Mackey, Bryon Oshihiro, Danielle Sands, Al Savell, Nicoleta Stavarache and Trevor Verges - the artworks, from vistas to spells to characters adhere to a glorious style that is uniform and concise. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that this book, in visual, aesthetic quality, could have been a Paizo-book. It's that beautiful. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, but I'd sincerely advise you to get this in print - unlike quite a few PODs, there is no big chance of an errata invalidating this book. This book looks better than quite a few kickstarted books I could name. Yes, THAT beautiful.

What a furious first offering! This is quite frankly the best first offering of crunch I've seen a novice designer produce in ages. Last year saw plenty of adventures of newcomers providing an extremely high quality, but new crunch tends to require most designers some time to get right. Well, this is Ascension Games' first product and it does NOT require any leniency on my part. Author (and layout/editor!) Christopher Moore seems to not only be able to edit his own texts, quite a feat, imho, he also provides a level of professionalism with regards to rules-language one sees scarcely, almost never among novices. The language is so precise, it can be considered on par with the errata'd, good Paizo-books. Beyond that, this pdf offered a level of system-mastery and a level of awareness of obscurer rules I quite frankly almost never get to see. While I have some personal gripes against one component or another herein, none really hold up on a professional level and boil down to personal preferences; number-wise, including extensive playtests, this book held up admiringly well. Few books can claim to withstand this level of deep scrutiny to such an extent, especially considering the level of interaction with obscure and complex elements among the design elements. I was positively surprised to see all of this - but where the book shines most is with the material that takes chances and provides things to do that no other spell or system can achieve - it is the unique effects, which stand out and while I absolutely adore the coverage of just about anything one could ask for in sucha  context, I still would have loved to see even more of the inspired, unique effects that can be found herein.

Remember, this is just me being an utterly spoiled bastard of a reviewer - this book is, without engaging in hyperbole, up to the level of crunch-mastery exhibited usually only by established, experienced crunch-masters and blends this with production-values out of this world, visually more on par with Paizo than what you'd expect from a 3pp, much less a new one sans a KS providing the funds. This is a hugely impressive book that catapulted Ascension Games to the landscape of my table and to my radar; I can't help but be excited about the things to come and more such supplements and I certainly hope we'll see more material for the Nightblade - the class is inspired and fun and clearly, its potential is not yet tapped. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, given without the slightest hesitation, falling short of becoming a  candidate for my top ten of 2015 only by a tiny margin. Still, this is thoroughly, exceedingly, impressive. Congratulations to the Ascension Games-team - you have impressed a jaded reviewer.

You can get this impressive book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.

4.24.2015

Cyclopen Deeps Vol. I

Cyclopean Deeps Vol. I





The first book of the two-part Cyclopean Deeps-Saga clocks in at 198 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 192 pages of content, so let's check this out, shall we?

So, let's, for now, process as spoiler-free as possible: Do you remember the Dungeoneer'sSurvival Guide released for 2nd edition (1e AD&D, if you count that way...)? It's a timeless classic indeed and showcases a significant component of what I consider flawed with most modern underdark/underworld modules. Let me describe it from this venue - have you ever been spelunking? There is an appeal to the hobby that is hard to describe, but I'll try - at the same time, you feel like you have entered a new world, a place where your civilization and all of its comforts do not stretch to. You enter a place wondrous that differs significantly, via all of your senses, from the tactile to the olfactory, from what we are used to - reaching the surface once again can feel a bit like a shock after some time - loud, bright...all those smells. However, accompanying this general sensation, one is (or at least I am!) constantly and keenly aware of insane amounts of solid rock, balancing precariously above one's head - whether as a sense of foreboding or respect, caves and caverns elicit a different perspective. Now, recently AAW Games has captured the proper sense of wonder rather perfectly with their Rise of theDrow saga.

In Rise of the Drow, we saw an unprecedented sense of realism applied to the section of the underdark that is kind of akin to the surface world, if not in environment, then in its social structures - we have dangerous animals, humanoid cultures (most evil) vying for dominance - it's the surface world on crack and the RotD-saga can be counted among the few that managed to instill this sense of wonder in the vivid pictures painted. However, there is another underdark - a place where neither light, nor surface-dwellers usually tread. If you're familiar with the Dark Souls games, think of this as the place that would have come below the lowest, blackest gulch. A place, where even the underworld-denizens fear to tread, a place forlorn and forsaken by the light. Below even Rappan Athuk, thus extends this place, one that can easily be transplanted to any setting - courtesy of there simply being no comparable supplement or module that goes quite that deep - usually, places like this are hinted at in the equivalent of telling the PCs "Don't go there!" So there the fools go - here dwell the things no man has ever laid eyes on, here is the Deep Horizon, here are the Cyclopean Deeps.

If the hex-sporting map is not ample clue - this constitutes a sandbox in the truest sense - that is, this a player-driven, old-school module with ample sample random encounters. Also: Know how old-school sometimes is used as a buzzword? Well, not so here. Indeed, this place is defiantly old-school and LETHAL. Even when compared to Rappan Athuk, the Cyclopean Deeps are deadly - very deadly. So yeah, if your group is looking for a challenge, a module worth winning - this is what you want. How nasty can this place be? Brutal enough to actually require no work on my part to make the module more challenging. 

Want an example? All right, but to provide you with one, I'll have to go into SPOILERS. Players should jump to the conclusion.
...
..
.
Still here? All right! If you were one of the lucky ones, Rappan Athuk's KS back in the day provided two teasers of this massive module - and one detailed Ques Querax, gateway to the Cyclopean Deeps, wherein strange minotaur golems guard the premises. The local temple sports 3 priests, always in the same position, unmoving, catering to the whims of a strange head - only if you resist the unearthly fear of this place do you receive healing - but you never actually see it cast - upon leaving the temple, the effects suddenly...happen. Curiosity, alas, much like in CoC, may kill the cat, though - and like in the old truism, turn it into a multidimensional horror with puckered tentacles that is coming right for YOU! (Yes, actually trying to find out *how* these guys cast spells may shatter your sanity and provide a neat new career choice as a terrible servant of the mythos. A tavern owned by a denizen of Leng, an intelligent giant slug slaver, a dog-headed perfume-creating alchemist - not only are plenty of these folk EVIL, they also are WEIRD in a rather uncanny, horrific way. And the interesting thing is - this is civilization in these parts. It literally does not become better than this, so the PCs better figure out means of making this place work for them - a dangerous, but moderately secure base is better than none! Have I btw. mentioned the living eye of Gaaros-Uaazath, arguably one of the most powerful and odd entities herein, secretly creating a mind-bending, centipede-like war-machine?

But beyond the gates of Ques Querax, beautiful and precious wonders await - finding e.g. gems worth thousands of gold may be a reason for joy - until you read the entry of said random treasure - it reads "kidney stone." I am not kidding. The book *brims* with these little tidbits - and each and every one is tailor-made to come together in a vista exceedingly tantalizing and disturbing. From chain-bound jack-in-irons giants to mists of concealing, detection-blocking darkmist and the dark stalker/creeper enclave of Izanne, there are politics to be found, and yes, civilization - however, each veneer is distorted and odd, a threat underlying just about every step, every interaction - while never losing the evoked, profound sense of wonder that oozes from each and every encounter - and yes, some purists may scoff at decisions to smack down truly wondrous effects that lie beyond the capacity of spells here and there - but as for me, I love this decision - it drives home the need for care, the sense of magic...well, being truly magical. What level of detail am I referring to? well, what about a whole array of options, should the PCs elect to run across the rooftops of the fully-mapped Izanne? Or perhaps the PC's friendly nigh-ghoul guide wants to sell them some slaves and palanquins from his third cousin - the resounding themes of civilization can be found herein, though they are twisted in a grotesque way - a fact that also is reflected by the copious missions provided - and in the messages, that partially are traps, partially are odd - but ultimately, are different. Unique aberrations and strange folk abound, demons trod the streets and even here, a sense of decrepitude, of civilizations most vile, fallen to magics even worse, suffuses the paragraphs, with details upon details drawing a picture of a world that could be another, a place so wildly different, yet familiar, that it could be considered an escalation of the concept of the uncanny.

What about spellbooks that have been folded into the fourth dimension, pods that may transmit memories, odd, singing crystals - there is a lot of wonderful, enigmatic stuff to be found; and if your players prefer making an impact, the nasty and inscrutable people, from serpentfolk to aboleths, are all actually playing their own games, with subquests, goals and the like handily organized for your convenience. Now if you're not familiar with some old-school rules, you might be surprised to see e.g. a reference to percentile rolls and chances to decipher a lost language - this is a remnant of old-school gaming and should have been updated to PFRPG using the Linguistics-skill. And yes, some remnants like this can be found herein. However, in which other supplement are the players tasked (on an optional basis, of course!) to awaken a death god? Eat energy-bars of strange fungus or find out that the nice magic items they found are powered by energy infusions generated by constant sacrifice of sentient beings? It should also be noted that the NPC-builds, while sporting some straightforward ones, also feature some more complex ones.

But honestly, I don't love this book for its mechanics - but where else can you find human-faced, giant ants, unearthly flowers and air, spatial distortions and ways of thinking (properly explained for the DM) that may seem starkly in contrast to our logic...and have I mentioned the importance of the Leng rubies?

Now if the nomenclature and overall array of options seemed confusing to you, a massive glossary should help. The new monsters herein are copious and weird, as are the short, fluff-only write-ups of the elder things. The appendices also contain the numerous unique items - though, much like in the crunch, there are some examples of old-school mechanics to be found herein - e.g. an artifact that requires you to roll multiple d6s and score below your attribute score. The pdf contains various, cool maps, all of which receive player-friendly versions - and there are hand-outs.


Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to FGG's printer-friendly, two-column b/w-standard and the module comes with A LOT of awesome, unique original b/w-art. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and the cartography in b/w is neat.

Author Matthew J. Finch delivers quite frankly one of the most imaginative, awesome books in the whole Frog God/Necromancer Games-canon; much like the stellar Dunes of Desolation, this book constitutes a prime example of why I want to see as many new FGG modules as possible. I own all Necromancer Games modules, even the boxed sets, and yes, even the rarities. That being said, I do think that FGG's modules surpass those of NG. Cyclopean Deeps Volume I is such a monument - this book reached a level of imaginative detail, of sheer creativity, that one only finds perhaps once in a blue moon. The literally only comparisons I could draw in that regard would be to the best of FGG-modules or to the 4 Dollar Dungeons-modules by Richard Develyn - and you probably by now realize how much I adore them. That being said, this book is far from perfect; the remnants of the conversion not being carried out properly in all cases do stick out like sore thumbs to me and formally, constitute a blemish that you should be aware of.

Then again, this massive book is intended for experienced DMs and experienced groups - beyond the lethality of the module, the sheer amount of sandboxing, of entwined things going on, means that A DM has to have some experience under the belt to run this. But know what? The complexity doesn't faze me and neither do the conversion relics matter to me - for one, in some cases, one could chalk them up to mechanics simply working differently here as well. On the other, capable DMs can easily fix these minor problems. And none of those minor hiccups matter to me in this case - what would singularly break the neck of lesser books just falls under the rag here - the writing is THIS good. Beyond a level of detail that can only be described as excruciating, there simply is no other module, no other environmental supplement tackling anything like this; the only other underworld sandboxes that approach this in terms of complexity would be the second Act of RotD or the classic Open Design "Empire of Ghouls" and both have a wildly different focus, completely different themes.

This manages to elicit a sense of cultural wonder akin to the writings of the classic titans like Gygax, a breath of the magical and uncanny, while also breathing the spirit of the mythos and classic pulp fiction akin to Howard or Haggard. Cyclopean Deeps managed to evoke something I almost never feel anymore these days - a sense of jamais-vu. This is not yet another rendition of some tired old, much rehearsed tropes - this is the antithesis of exceedingly tired level 1 module with goblins and an ogre or shadow as the final boss. This massive tome breathes more unique ideas in a chapter than some whole series of books. Even when compared to Rappan Athuk et al., this tome dabbles in themes and topics far beyond the focus on demonic entities, creates a sense of wonder and, paradoxically, realism. As odd and alien the vistas portrayed herein are, they still feel uncannily organic, realistic and alive - which drives further home the point of this book being not only unique, but inspired in the very best way.

The formal hiccups here and there might annoy you, but if you are missing out on this monumentally inspired world/setting-building due to them, you are depriving yourself of perhaps one of the most captivating reads I've had in any iteration of a d20-based system. And if you don't mind some old-school remnants or perhaps even enjoy them, then this should be considered a true milestone. I've been struggling with myself for quite a long time on how to rate this book, but as far as I'm concerned, the vast imaginative potential this book offers trumps just about any minor blemish or criticism you could field against it; to the point, where complaining would seem disingenuous and downright petty-minded. There are few books of this size that have managed to captivate me to this extent during the whole lecture of them and this massive sandbox should be considered a must-have addition to any DM looking for the deep below - even as disparate encounters and for the purposes of scavenging elements, this book is well worth the asking price. I thus remain with a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval, a nomination for the Top Ten of 2014, a longing for Vol. 2 and the regret that I am too poor to get this glorious tome in print.


You can get this awesome book here on OBS or here on d20pfsrd-com's shop!

Prefer the S&W-old-school version? That one can be found here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Want to get this and its sequel for a reduced price? The current KS by FGG offers just that - I know I'd buy them and Dunes in a heartbeat as add-ons if I could afford it! Here's the link!

Endzeitgeist out.

4.17.2015

Dance Macabre

Dance Macabre





This module clocks in at 90 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 86 pages of content, so let's take a look!

Now the first thing, before anything else, you should know that this literally is the only book you need to run the module - no switching to thousands of different books, not a full bag of supplemental material - this module provides more supplemental material than you can shake a stick at: First, we get all spells used in the book; then, there would be the rules-reference section, which includes  all those handy special abilities, from ability drain to breath weapons, handily explained for your convenience. The same goes for magical items, btw. And yes, there even is a nice array of animal tricks explained for your convenience, rendering this module exceedingly comfortable to run. Beyond even that, though, we get something you can use even when not running the module - the bestiary-section does provide ample Knowledge DC-checks to deduce information on the respective creatures featured in the module. Oh, and the module does sport all artwork handily collated at the back of the book in the form of a collated appendix, allowing you to print it out as a kind of look-see-artwork-booklet. 

Think that takes up too much space? Let me assure you, it doesn't - the module, even after that, clocks in at a massive 52 pages - there is *A LOT* of content to be covered. It should also be noted that this module, like all 4$D-modules, does provide handy lists of CR, adversary, XP and treasure for each relevant encounter, including options for extra treasure, depending on your playstyle (and extra PCs - up to +2 PCs are thus supported without you having to do ANYTHING). You should also be aware of the vast amounts of maps - while not necessarily beauties, I've seen worse and EVERY relevant location is covered - the sheer amount of maps provided deserves applause, especially since they also come with high-res jpegs and player-friendly iterations.

It should also be noted that the unique town herein does sport an extra mini-gazetteer for the players and that a clue-flow-chart helps running the module.

So far for the formal criteria, now let's take a look at the module itself, shall we?

Now before we dive in, this is the SPOILER-WARNING. Potential players should immediately jump to the conclusion. Seriously, you will be so sorry if you spoil this one for yourself.
...
..
.
All right, so this module begins common enough - a drunk father and ratcatcher, bereft of his daughters (who have chosen the adventurer-lifestyle) have recently taken off and the grief-stricken father immediately tries to pick a fight with the PCs. However that works, in the end, the PCs will have been tasked by the man to track down his daughters and ensure their safety - and the trail leads into the aptly-named twisted moorland. Now if you have played the supreme "Journey to Cathreay", you'll immediately realize the sheer massive amount of detail you can expect from 4$D wilderness trips - and this module does feature just that - random weather-tables (with all relevant rules), random encounter chances by time - the level of detail is staggering and from lone guest-houses to the farm where the two adventurers hang out (sans the daughters, mind you, and very much hostile...), the level of detail provided is interesting indeed - take e.g. a druidic stone circle, where the devout PC may acquire a temporary elemental servant - not required by the story in any way, but it does add the sense of cohesiveness and realism to the magical world depicted herein.

Now whether on friendly or hostile terms with aforementioned adventurers, the PCs sooner of later will make the acquaintance of a dryad of a forest most dilapidated and desolate, who ahs struck a deal to ensure her survival - and in case you haven't noticed, yes, there is a subtle theme at work here, but more on that later. Her combat tactics come with a level of detail scarcely seen and from TPKing to less lethal failure scenarios and the like, the encounter with the pragmatic, corrupt dryad offers quite an array of different options. Now, alternatively, the PCs may have found among the adventurer's belongings a call for help in clearing out an evil temple or have been bluffed by them - in either way, the temple is just another elaborate anti-adventurer trap, much like the dryad's gambit. If this does not look to exciting so far, rest assured that the way in which this is handled is superb - and the level of detail provided here is staggering as well - take a skeleton with a foreign pterodactyl bone rattling in its rip cage - and yes, this is a curious and intriguing foreshadowing of the things to come.

Either way, the investigation sooner or later will bring the PCs to the aptly-named town of Twisted Bridge, where a special kind of evil flourishes. The town is not a poor place; in fact, it is quite wealthy (and fully statted). However, it is a town rules by egotism and passivity-  we have a macabre blending of gillmen working menial labor and a kind of aristocratic upper class, sneering at the irrelevant, marginalized people that do not belong to the illustrious crowd of the village's people - here, everyone is in only for themselves and their immediate friends and family. Mind you, this is not a depiction of a town that is suppressed or "kill 'em all"-vile - it can be considered almost a subtle satire of a mentality that is all too real in our very world. Sounds too dreary? Players not into subtle, unobtrusive social commentary? No problem, just spring on them the top-hat wearing deinonychus currently running a errand for his master and they'll be right back in the fold. And yes, this is one of the colorful sight &sound-style random encounters form the table. On a mechanical level, the mentality that considers "evil" behavior a matter of discussion and the townsfolk's fun when looking at paladins whirling from all the evil they can detect is not only rationale and concise, it makes surprising sense and adds a whole new spin on the black-white-morality conundrums.

Twisted bridge itself is not only mapped, but also sports what essentially amounts to a lavishly-detailed gazetteer-section that had me reminisce about the weird cities in 3.X's Scarred Lands, though, obviously, in less depth, Twisted Bridge definitely can be considered a town so unique and dripping with flavor and tangible magic, it exudes an allure that is difficult to describe - from undine sorcerors to lizardmen, from chocolatiers to female-only hair-saloons (aptly and humorously named "Rapunzel"), twisted bridge equally breathes a sense of decadence and wonder, of despicable passivity and carelessness and intoxicating wonders - and allows one to easily see how one can be sucked into the moral choices such a lifestyle may engender. The massive investigation-potential and related clues definitely allow for one glorious free-form investigation, set against one of the most compelling backdrops I've seen in quite a while.

The trail of the girl's horses, though, can sooner or later be tracked to a farm - where matrons grow narcotics to allow the people in town to sedate their children, should they act up - have I mentioned, that, much like many a good fantasy or scifi novel, this module can be enjoyed on a consumerist perspective and still has some serious social commentary going for, should you be so inclined as to delve into it, all without shoving an ideology down your throat? Among the narcotics-inducing plants, though, jack-o-lanterns loom, including a moderately intelligent one, with whom the PCs can talk, alternating quickly between settings of potentially psychedelic horror and abject comedy - oh and then there is a level of detail that borders on the ridiculous, the ridiculously awesome, that is - the fields actually note which plants are grown where: From chai to chilies, the handout provides the detailed notes on this. Yes. *That* is a realism that can only be described as staggering  -and whether you use it or not, it does add immensely to the sense of immersion. The trail, then, leads to the cathedral of bone, the macabre abode of the town's de facto dhampir-ruler and aforementioned, top-hat wearing dinosaur companion. There *is* a macabre axe-beak skeleton to be found here, but whether or not hostilities break out depends very much on the PC's actions - and yes, the reason *why* a friggin' axe-beak skeleton is here, is also given - and the pterodactyl bone mentioned before may give the PCs away, so let's hope their investigation skills are on par.

Among the weird places to be found (potentially via the nasty adventurers), an alchemist (vivisectionist) and the way golem he created as an automaton to sate the depraved desires of the townsfolk can also make for interesting encounters, the latter even for a potential cohort of the oddest kind. Tzitzimitle, the main antagonist of the module, currently resides in a clock tower most unusual - in that e.g. it sports a pool that is inhabited by piranha-level voracious, bad-tempered killer-goldfish. No, I'm not kidding. This is a thing - and it is glorious. My players actually started laughing as their PCs started to be chomped by the little buggers. The exploration of the tower, alas, yields no satisfactory results (apart from further leads and the satisfaction of destroying clockwork creatures and braving the traps with which the place has been laden) - and so, a further stop along the way may be the massive Necropolis of the town, where the bored, amoral gargoyle Gabriel, a picturebook sociopath, awaits - alongside Enya, one of the kidnapped girls, who is currently trapped within a mausoleum that is both warded and dangerously unstable - and hence, rescuing her will prove to be difficult.

Have I mentioned, that her statements (or the alchemist's investigation) can lead them to essentially the same goals, namely the sewers, where the whispers of the dead abound and a worm-that-walks, the gaoler of Enya, provide further evidence of the horrible things to come: And it is at the very latest here that the pieces will *click* together - Tzitzimitl, an exceedingly powerful oracle (level 10) who has gleaned the circumstances of his death, but not the particulars, has entered an unholy alliance with a powerful wraith named Yetaxa - with combined efforts, they have not only engineered all those nasty anti-adventurer traps the PCs had to face; they have also introduced a truly decadent festival to the town, wherein the living dance with the wraiths under the control of Yetaxa - at the low price of just one innocent to be wraithified per festival - and who cares about strangers? Hence, the first of the daughters, alas has already been transformed by Yetaxa in the general rehearsal of the last festival  -for today, shall be different. Wraiths cannot endure the sunlight, but a total eclipse renders a festival today possible - and also the only way in which Tzitzimitl's prophecy of his own doom could come to pass - hence, he has engineered this rather elaborate plot to prevent just that.
Alas, the festival, detailed with a concise timeline and hearkening to a carnival, through a glass darkly, proceeds - and provides the PCs with an option to save Enya - provided they have been smart enough to provide her with an amulet they can acquire, which renders her impervious to Yetaxa's cruel attempts of transferring her to undeath - so, in a finale both decadent and epic, the PCs will have to destroy Yetaxa in the catacombs - success frees the wraith and spawn from his control, resulting in a massacre and the prophesized death of Yetaxa, while also putting the PCs in dire peril, as they are shepherded into a dead end by now free, vast amounts of undead - only to be saved alongside Enya by the rays of the sun emerging from beyond the eclipse - and yes, if played right, this *is* one hell of a finale that also sees a town made uninhabitable by the undead - as well as killing the powerful Tzitzimitl and setting him up for potential sequels as a new undead threat to face!

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, though I noticed a couple of minor typos - "intimation" instead of "intimidation" can be found once, as can be "wont" instead of "won't." The language-geek in me also cringed whenever I read "coup-de-gras" instead of "coup-de-grâce" - that has nothing to do with fat, greasy or the like, but refers to the deathblow. Layout adheres to 4$D's printer-friendly two-column standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The pdf comes in two versions, one for the US-paper-format, one in A4 for Europeans like yours truly - love that! The artwork provided is copious and I have seen none of the neat, old-school B/w-art before - really nice! The cover, as always, is also breathing the spirit of old-school awesomeness. The cartography is functional, as are the handouts, and make up for not being the most beautiful being provided for just about EVERYTHING.

Okay, let me get one thing out of the way - my complaint about the typos above? That is the only negative thing I can say about this module. At this point, all of the following things are a given: 1) Whenever Richard Develyn releases a module, my players want to play it asap, even if it means putting the main-campaign on hold. 2) I actually go to these modules when I require a break from reviewing; when I'm frustrated and need a reminder of why I actually do it. 3) Every module has a radically different style.

All of these hold true with Dance Macabre - even though formally, like the Key to Marina, it can be considered an investigation module. Alas, the way in which it works is pretty much radically different - less of a scavenger hunt, more of a detective tale, it reminded me in the best of ways of the first Gabriel Knight game in the atmosphere it evokes - what we have here can be called a blending of far-out fantasy with the underrepresented panache of proper, fantastic Southern Gothic. From the themes provided to the imagery evoked, the glorious sense of decadence oozes from each and every pore of the module - you can play this as pure entertainment...or emphasize the striking themes it evokes: If you want it to, this module can serve as a social commentary and a rallying cry against indifference and cold-heartedness. 

The absurd amount of details provided help running the module immensely, and so does the flow-chart, though novice DMs still should read the whole module before trying to run it - this one is very much free-form in its flow. The true genius here, at least in my onion, would be the blending of the horrific and the absurd, of horror and comedy - and the optional nature of either. A competent DM can easily ramp up the comedy factor and make this module genuinely funny. Or utterly horrific. I ran this module twice prior to writing this review; the first time emphasizing a Ravenloftesque sense of horror for my mature players - and it worked perfectly. The second time around, I mastered this with a mixed group that contained some kids - and emphasized the fun and odd parts. Yes, there are some dark elements here, but nothing kids (talking about the 8 - 12-range) can't handle - make e.g. the courtesan a menial laborer à la Cinderella and we maintain the message, but make the theme child-friendly - cosmetic reskin and that's it. One of them surprised me when she mentioned that she had understood that fear of death can lead one to horrible choices, that one should instead do good and that the town exhibited traits of our own society - and that payback for such a behavior might come in some guise or another. Subtle themes, clearly understood - yes, this can actually be played as a morality play with some educational value.

Southern Gothic horror, absurd, but still exciting comedy or a means of teaching about the world - the module provides a lot of playstyles - and it ran completely differently both times I ran it, so it has replay value to boot! I *ADORE* this module. It is unique in every sense of the word and sports yet another facet of Richard's capacity that sets him apart as one of the few authors who push the boundaries and raise the level in the art of adventure writing. And yes, this module, in my opinion, can be called art...or proper literature. It is excellent and while the odd typo here and there may be slightly annoying; it is mainly due to the exceedingly high level of quality of the whole book this catches one's eye. Still, I implore you to get this awesome piece of adventure-writing. It is unique in all the right ways and acts as one glorious example of what adventures could be beyond rolling dice and slaying monsters. Highly modular, versatile and with replay-vale, oozing with details, this module once again receives my highest honors - 5 stars + seal of approval and since this was released in 2014, candidate for my Top ten of 2014-status.

Do NOT let this one slip by!

You can get this awesome module for just 4 bucks here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.