11.11.2020

Black Void: Core Rules (Black Void RPG)

 

Black Void: Core Book (Black Void RPG)



The Black Void’s core book is a massive tome of 404 pages if you take away editorial, front cover, ToC, backer lists, character sheet, (brief) glossary, index, etc., so quite a lot to digest.

 

I have received a print copy of this tome for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review; this has been simmering on my backburner for quite a while.

 

You can think of this book as pretty much two in one: Approximately the first half of the book is devoted to the rules, while the second half, the GM-chapter, is essentially the setting, including NPCs, bestiary, etc.; *Personally*, I’d have preferred them to be split in the middle, as I enjoy handing books to my players, but that just as an aside.

 

Before we dive into the analysis, how would I describe it? Well, picture this: Babylon’s in full swing, seen through a lens of Clark Ashton Smith. Suddenly, tendrils of black grasp everyone, and humanity ends up stranded in a strange, uncaring and far-off cosmos, and pretty much at the bottom of the social hierarchies. The cosmology knows three primary components: The cosmos is the vast expanse of space we know; the void lies beyond it, and is the home of the truly esoteric and strange creatures, but not *necessarily* in a Lovecraftian vein; instead, it also is the origin of beings we associate with real world mythology like the Lammasu, the asura, deva, etc. The interesting twist here, ultimately, is that the creatures from the esoteric realms might be more familiar than anything else, inverting the premise of fantasy as we know it in pretty much every game. Cosmos and void are separated by the Veil, which reminded me in its function of games like Esoterrorists and Bloodlines & Black Magic.

 

The assumed story-hub would be Llyhn, the eternal city, situated at a crossroads of sorts where the veil is thin, and where the trade-routes converge; the city is rules from vast towers by unseen rulers who generally do not directly interfere, and as such, the core playing tenet might remind you of a twist on Planescape’s Sigil, or the fantastic City of 7 Seraphs by Lost Spheres Publishing; that’s a good thing. We add a sprinkling of spelljamming, for the Void allows for planetary travel…but all of these decidedly high-fantasy concepts are presented in a way I have not seen before: Black Void has a distinct focus on dark fantasy, some might say horror – the in-character/flavor pieces throughout the book illustrate rather well how the world can be considered to be dark…but I probably wouldn’t use the word “grimdark” for it.

 

You see, in many ways, the core tenet of the game is that of a humanist fable: What would happen if humanity had been thrust into a thoroughly alien and indifferent environment where we are not the apex predators and dominant species? The world presented by Black Void assumes that there are quite a few massive civilizations out there, but for those Mesopotamian stragglers stranded in Llyhn, survival within a social hierarchy that is rigged against them is actually a struggle. Instead of the cosmicism of a vast pantheon of ancient gods trampling us like gnats, the horror in this setting stems more from the experience of living in a society that is at once alien and indifferent. It is effective because it is NOT simply an array of horrors and inevitable madness. As such, I do think that the dark fantasy label, with a definite weird fiction angle best encompasses what this is about. However, my first association when I put down this book for the first time was a different one: I thought: “Okay, so this is a Babylonian Tékumel with a dark fantasy/horror-focus!”

 

In case you wondered with the whole Babylon angle: Yes, sexuality, slavery and similar mature themes are included, but in a rather tasteful, mature manner, and the presentation is not explicit. For European sensibilities, this is pretty much PG-13, though some people from the US might situate this differently. That being said, like in every horror/dark fantasy game worth the moniker, I wouldn’t recommend it to the professionally offended, so if anything darker than Equestria Girls triggers you (no jab vs. Bronies intended! I think the series can rock hard!), I’d suggest going for a different game.

 

Okay, this basic premise out of the way, what about the game-engine aspects? How can one situate Black Void regarding its mechanics? Well, here things become more difficult to answer. In how the mechanics *feel*, I’d suggest probably likening this to WFRP or Storyteller – the Black Void has a pretty simple basic resolution mechanic, wherein you roll a d12 and various modifiers against a target value, with a natural 1 a failure, and a 12 “exploding” in certain instances, i.e. you get to roll again and add it to the result.

 

Character creation is based on point-buy, with 3 suggested point-ranges for different power-levels provided. The game knows 8 so-called “traits”, which are essentially the game’s ability scores: Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Persuasion, Presence, Willpower. These range from a rating of 0 to 12, with modifiers ranging from -3 to +9, though it should be noted that humans have at least 1 in each score. For every 3 you have in a trait, you can select a talent, which are listed by trait.

 

Which brings me to a huge pet-peeve of mine: Like most roleplaying games, this begins with character creation, and throws you in on the deep end. While the book does explain the basics of a roleplaying game, it does not explain the basics of its mechanics in an adequate manner before prompting you to create a character. I HATE this tendency with a fiery passion. Why do I have to skip ahead to the “Playing the Game”-chapter (Chapter 3 in this book) and read that first? I can’t make an informed choice in character creation if I don’t understand how the game works.

 

To illustrate this: The talent Ambidexterity notes that it reduces the penalties for dual-wielding to 0/-3. Okay, at this point, we have no ideas how fighting, let alone regular dual-wielding, works. (You get essentially an extra attack per turn – main hand -3, off hand -6, and the penalties are applied to the action AND the initiative!) You can’t make an informed choice when you don’t know how to play the game. And this is all the more galling when you realize that the action-based gameplay actually has some neat depth and breadth to offer and is explained in a tight manner. Why not start with that, and instead erect this arbitrary difficulty/confusion wall at the start?

On another note, since we’re talking about initiative: If you roll a 12 on initiative, you get an additional action during the first round at -6; I assume that this happens regardless of modifiers, and stacks with e.g. dual-wielding, but couldn’t find clarification on that particular scenario.

 

But I digress. Actions are defined in a clear and concise manner: Some might require sequential successes; some might be contested, and cooperative. The game differentiates between resisted (passive) vs. opposed (active) actions, and an easy chart helps Arbiters (the term used for the GM) and player alike gain a good idea of positive and negative modifiers applied to actions.

 

The character creation includes a whole lot of means to tweak your character, offering wide and diverse choices that are meaningful: You are human, but you may be a half-blood, or a voidmarked; if you are a pureblood, you are human as we know it; otherwise, you might have attributes; voidmarked can have esoteric attributes, like being ageless…they can be considered to be the somewhat unearthly planetouched of the setting. All of these, however, draw upon the point budget. Beyond traits and homeworld, you can spend points on safe places to stay, connections, loyal allies, etc. – in that manner, the game reminded me of Shadowrun. Magic is generally used via Willpower (Furor – emotional casters) and Intellect (Gnostics – studied spellcasting) and organized in spheres. There also are blood rituals, but more on magic later.

 

Skills range from 0 (untrained, -3) to 12 (+9), and are associated with one of more traits: Acrobatics might be associated with Agility, Stamina or Strength, for example, depending on what you do. Your point budget also is used to determine your caste, for Llyhn has a rigid caste society, and humans are at the bottom of the barrel…and thus, even if you spend some serious points, you won’t start at the highest echelons…but everything’s better than being casteless...or a Kalbi (which literally translates to “dog”). Anyhow, there are two things that you can’t start investing in – Enlightenment and Wastah. Enlightenment is your cosmic understanding and can only be attained in play via interaction with entities from the void or the void itself; Wastah is the social clout/charisma/bearing of the individual.

 

The book contains a massive array of items, services and goods, and here, we get additional options, for there are different quality levels (illustrated lavishly), but here is a good place to note once more how the sequence of rules-presentation is needlessly obtuse. I consider myself to be an experienced roleplayer, but when I read the following in the drug section, I was puzzled:

“Refined varieties may induce stupor. Stamina Roll [7]: Delirium effect <7.” Note that, at this point, Delirium had not yet been defined; once you’ve read the book, this makes sense, but the like is not always the case. Terrible quality weapons, for example, note that they have a -1 to attack, damage and speed rolls. I am pretty sure that should be initiative or Agility. That sort of thing is jarring, since the game, as a whole, does a surprisingly great job at delivering the degree of customization I enjoy, so if you’re coming from PFRPG or 5e, you will have enough meaningful choices to fiddle with from the get-go. The breadth and depth is here, and in some aspects transcends those games. Want poison grooves, wave pattern blades? Not only can you have such weapons, these modifications actually have RELEVANT effects in-game. For a tinkerer like yours truly, this is frickin’ amazing. This amount of differentiation also extends to armors, fyi: They offer a variety of options to customize them, and act as essentially damage reduction. Weapons have a size, armor a bulk – these denote the minimum Strength required to sue them sans penalty – otherwise, you suffer a penalty for every point by which you fail to meet the prerequisite.

 

Surprising for a game with tables for exceptional hits and yes, health levels, the Black Void’s combats run in a relatively smooth and quick manner. The game has derived statistics like Health and Sanity, which pretty much do what you’d expect them to, the latter being harder to replenish…but you can essentially spend Experience Points to regain Stamina, so this is no game of uncontrolled escalation down the insanity rabbit hole. (And before you ask: Yep, fear, madness and delirium are presented in the sanity chapter…once more much later than where the concepts are first mentioned. Some internal cross-referencing “For delirium, see pg XX” or better sequence of presentation would have been prudent.)

 

While we’re talking about combat: I genuinely LOVE the action engine presented: There is differentiation between regular movement, running and sprinting, and a whole array of options: Parrying, blocking, aiming, called shots, grapples, and so much more – all available. A handy table lists the base combat actions with a handy shorthand table for your convenience, and with essentially attacks of opportunity (here called “attack opportunity”), the game runs surprisingly tactical combats….to a degree. You see, my main gripe with Black Void as a system comes from it feeling somewhat indecisive of what it actually wants to be. We have all these cool, tactical combat actions and concrete ranges for ranged weapons (yes, with increments), and guess what? The game tells you that it assumes “theater of the mind” for combat. Yeah, I have almost 20 years of in-depth experience with such games, and rest assured, that playstyle is great for more rules-lite games, but as soon as you add attack opportunities and components based on concrete tactical placement of individuals, things get messy in theater of the mind. FAST.

 

And this strange inconsistence can also be found in other aspects, most notably those associated with the voidmarked and magic: The esoteric attribute Daimonic Discord, for example, has this text:

 

“The character is able to twist other people’s spoken communication so that listeners will hear something different than what is actually being said. The player nominates a target within hearing distance. The character must be able to understand the conversation to twist the words. The conversation can be twisted as much as the player wishes, but the more the message is distorted, the less believable it becomes. A minor tweak, such as replacing a few names or details in a conversation would go unnoticed while making someone appear to say the opposite of what they actually are is conspicuous and would likely be noticed.”

 

That is the entire text provided regarding rules. Now, don’t get me wrong: I can really appreciate the ability; I picked it out since it’d be one I’d definitely take for my own PC. But notice something? We don’t get information on whether this can easily be done in combat; it doesn’t seem to be a resisted or opposed action. It just WORKS. And it has no limits. All details are left up to the arbiter. And there are quite a few instances in the book where these very narrative components suddenly pop up in a game that is otherwise rather meticulous regarding the precision of concrete rules to resolve its gameplay. For a while, I figured that this was intentional, mirroring cosmos vs. void: You know, concrete rules for the cosmos parts, while void-related stuff gets the more abstract, narrative tricks. And I think this actually is the rationale. But I maintain it doesn’t work well. In direct comparison, abilities like Daimonic Discord are ridiculously powerful in the hands of a half-way smart character (or NPC) – no limit, no concrete boundaries. It also creates this disjoint and underlines the fact that the game’s system is slightly confused regarding what it wants to be – a complex, tactical game, or a more narrative experience?

 

So yeah, as far as I’m concerned, the rules get a TON of things right; the core engine presented is GREAT. But in the details, this could most assuredly have used a capable and strict rules-editor to put the wishy-washy outliers in a proper, hard-coded context. Particularly since the (rather subdued) magical options actually tend to be codified in a precise manner, with ranges, etc. The system as a whole is presented in a concise manner that is rewarding to play, flawed in some details though it may be.

 

Anyhow, regardless of whether you want to actually use the game as presented or not, I do maintain that this tome has got something seriously amazing going on for it: The setting. From the bird-like Ka’alum to the shirr, who move on muscular-contractions, gliding over the ground, to the fauna presented, the second half of this book breathes wonder and excitement: Mysteries abound, the cosmopolis’ politics are diverse, and I have rarely read a setting that felt so fresh to me; indeed, not since I first read “Empire of the Petal Throne” have I had a similar experience of a fantasy not indebted to Lovecraft or Tolkien; and apart from City of 7 Seraphs, I would be hard-pressed to name a setting that is so fantastic.

 

But this? It’s also horrific and decadent, and if you know me, then you pretty much realize by now that this makes the campaign setting a homerun for me. This fantasy manages to feel both ancient and novel. Additionally, the underdog situation humanity finds itself in adds a great angle: In many ways, the whole system is constructed to make it very easy to ask questions of what it actually means to be human, of what one would do to thrive or survive. This reminded me of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020/RED in quite a few of its underlying themes, save that is presents these notions in a holistic, fantastic vision. In its themes and how the game is set up, the Black Void has more in common with those games, than with the D&D-based reference settings like Planescape or Spelljammer. And yes, this is dark fantasy.

However, there is a reason for my Tékumel-comparison. This may be a dark setting, one that may seem nihilistic at first glance – but I’d argue that it really, really is not actually nihilistic or grimdark. Why? For every horrifying and disturbing concept presented, for every hopeless struggle, the book also provides something downright stunning and taps into that same wondrous feeling of jamias-vu Tékumel does. Heck, even the Void and the things, planes and creatures related to it are actually not (all) tentacled, sanity-blasting monstrosities. In what might eb the best meta-twist I’ve seen in a setting for quite a while, these aspects may well be the ones you consider to be more familiar, less weird, than those encountered within the “regular” confines of the setting. You might not notice consciously, but your brain will.

 

It’s been quite a while since I couldn’t put down a campaign setting’s information, since it captivated me to this degree. As far as the setting is concerned, this is a resounding success and amazing vision.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level; in some instances, the rules language felt more verbose than it needed to be, and I have encountered a couple of instances where the verbiage is less precise than it should be; on a formal level, I e.g. noticed minor glitches like a whole paragraph in italics, when only the play-example should have been in italics. I can’t help but feel that the book would have benefited from establishing some formatting conventions with italics, bold text etc. to make parsing of rules-language more effective. Layout adheres toa  3-column standard, and is per se gorgeous; the backgrounds etc. make this book beautiful to look at; however, from an information-design perspective, the book is rather inconvenient in its organization and lack of cross-referencing. The artworks of the book are DECADENT. The tome is littered with top-tier, stunning artworks ranging from glorious full-color to some b/w-pieces; most weapons and armors get their own artworks, for example; the majority of the artworks are full-color. The hardcover is a massive, really neat offset-printed book with sturdy binding; it’s beautiful. That being said, I think that some artworks are a tad bit too dark on the matte paper; I can’t help but feel that the book was intended to be printed on glossy paper at one point; the artworks are stunning, but their details sometimes become slightly indistinct on the matte paper. That is me nitpicking at the highest level, though—this book has one of the best art-directions I have seen.

 

Christoffer S. Sevaldsen, with contributions from Yadin Flammer, Cameron Day, Killian DeVriendt, Bryan j. McLean, Luke Maton, Gabriel Norwood, Predrag Filipovic, Dan Cross and Jon Creffield, has crafted a singular, distinct vision. The game system here manages to present a complex, rewarding engine that is not just a derivative of a d20-engine or similar game, and that shows off VERY well what kind of tactical depth you can achieve without increasing the complexity of the rules unduly. The system is very close to being a stunning, resounding success. However, its sequence of presentation is obtuse, its lack of cross-referencing annoying, and the instances where the book labors under the delusion of being a primarily narrative-driven game, when its complex engine makes pretty clear that it works much better with a battle-map, is jarring. All of these could have been easily caught and fixed. So yeah, as a system, it is one that has a ton of potential, but also plenty of stumbling stones, and here, “esoteric”, one of the buzzwords associated with this game, is not a positive descriptor. And yes, I am hard on this game – not out of spite, but because this gets everything I look for in a game ALMOST perfectly right.

 

The setting, in one word, is

STUNNING.

 

I love it. I love its complexity, its daring, its distinct vision. I love how it flips familiar and unknown, I love its obvious humanist concepts; it love how it plays with feelings of estrangement and wonder, with the horrors of the conditio humana in an inhumane world. I seriously think that this book is worth its asking price even if you’re just looking for ideas or a genuinely fresh and exciting setting. And frankly, the setting is actually good enough to deal with the minor hiccups of the system.

 

But I can’t rate the two components divorced from each other. I have to rate this book as a whole. (Yep, that’s another reason I bemoaned it not being two books…) And that’s hard. You see, for the rules-section, with its inconvenient presentation-sequence, I’d probably settle on something in the 3.5 star vicinity; for the setting, I’d give this 5 stars and slap my seal of approval faster on this than you can say “blood ritual table.”

 

This book is not perfect, but oh boy is it exciting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, and while I’d love to, I can’t round up. This, however, does get my seal of approval and a heartfelt recommendation for anyone looking for something novel, both in setting and mechanics.

 

There currently is a kickstarter for the first big expansion tome running! As per the writing of this review, Under Nebulous Skies is VERY close to being funded, so if you want to support the game, this is your chance! Black Void deserves to have more books to develop the amazing world, so if you can, please support the book!

 

The kickstarter has only about 60 hours or so left, so back now if you want this book to happen! Also: While the KS is running, the pdf and book are both available at a discounted rate!

 

You can get the pdf here on OBS!

 

The print version can be found here on Modiphius' store!

 

If you enjoy my reviews, please consider leaving a direct donation via paypal, or joining my patreon. Thank you.



Endzeitgeist out.

11.02.2020

 

Advanced Occult Guide (SFRPG)



This massive tome clocks in at 435 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial/ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 2 pages of KS-backer thanks, leaving us with 427 pages of content.

…okay, 3 are an index, which is a very much required feature for a book of this length.

 

This review was requested to be moved up in my reviewing queue as a priority review by my patreon supporters. Oh, and I’ve had various iterations of this book available throughout its genesis, just in case you’re wondering how I can have a review of a book of this size done at release. It’s because I’ve been able to test this as it became more and more refined for quite a while.

 

The first thing you need to know about this is this: This is one densely-packed colossus of RULES. While there is flavortext, while there are artworks galore, this massive tome is essentially ALL FRICKIN' RULES. That is more page-count than e.g. two Alien Archive tomes back to back. And approximately half of it is player-facing stuff, which might make this one of the meatiest tomes of player options for SFRPG out there, perhaps even the meatiest.

 

As you can glean from its sheer size, the volume of the book makes an analysis of every single piece of content prohibitive – while possible, it would take weeks of dedicated work to talk about everything, and bloat the review to a wordcount that would all but ensure that nobody will read it in its entirety, so I’ll be giving you a general overview of what to expect within this tome, highlighting what particularly stood out.

 

As for the scope of this tome, it behooves me to state that this delivers several components of gameplay that I consider all but mandatory for my enjoyment of SFRPG: This book unites rules for age categories (mechanically-relevant), rules for ritual magic, rules for corruptions, rules for curses and diseases that include level-scaling, and size-change rules, including the tools for grid adjustments. Oh, and pact magic.

 

If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll note that all of these are things I love…but this also means that this has very big shoes to fill, and usually safe bet books that I think I’ll love end up disappointing my, but I digress. The avid reader will have noticed at this point that some of these components have been released before, and indeed, in many ways, this is a best-of compilation of previous Starfinder-material released by Everybody Games, save that it’s, well, not just a simple compilation. Much to my pleasant surprise, I went through my previous reviews of individual files and realized how damn often the minor niggles I had were addressed, how often the designs had been adjusted, improved, smoothened.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself once more. We begin with an assortment of various new themes, which includes the options to play old characters, young prodigies, chosen heroes, isekai adventurers (people from our world), and those who have fallen through time; and yes, the concept of the chimeraborn is also represented via mutations – these have been streamlined into a superior context, namely by making them functional according to the COM-rules, but also in accordance with the PF2-inspired, highly modular and rather cool species reforged series of Star Log.DELUXE-pdfs. Want proper emotional awareness, a draconic bloodlines, or limited ability for regeneration due to levialogos limbs? You can have that. And no, this can’t be cheesed.

 

(In case you’re new to the latter: The levialogoi are super-deadly and EXTREMELY hard to kill outsiders inspired by Supernatural’s Leviathan story-arc. They are awesome and have transcended this basic concept to being essentially all-consuming, nigh-unkillable super body-snatchers...and yes, they are in the bestiary.)

 

The book also presents no less than three base classes, with only the zoomer, the dedicated speedster class being something that SFRPG-fans may have seen before, though, suffice to say, the fellow’s been expanded and streamlined. The two new classes fill important niches in SFRPG that will have some fans jump in the air: For one, we have a dedicated shapeshifter class, which begins with a limited number of dedicated forms and expands these over the levels; adaptations allow you to customize your shapeshifting, aspects provide scaling benefits (4 per aspect); beyond these, we also have instinct, which are the talent-like further options available…oh boy can you tweak this fellow. Yes, you can make hybrids. And the class has its own massive forms-engine to easily and quickly tailor your forms. Want to crush enemies? Have a breath weapon?  Yeah, possible. Want species traits? Yup. Oh, and in case you don’t want to wait, guess what – premade forms available. This is a class with an incredible depth, and considering how modular it is, it is astonishing how well its results come out. So far, I haven’t managed to use it to break the game – it delivers potent builds, but none that would render the game askew.

 

Secondly, we have the elementian. What’s that? Well, it’s essentially a kineticist-like class, save that its engine hasn’t been copy-pasted from PFRPG; instead, it has been rebuild from the ground up with SFRPG in mind, with the Burns-equivalent being Strain. It should be noted that the class offers multiple choices regarding key ability modifiers, and the option chosen also influences how Strain affects you. You can gather power to gain Energy, you get the idea. However, the way in which the elements have been modified is impressive – while thematically clearly the heir of kineticists, the elementian’s chassis is completely different, with each element noting its associated ability score, skills, weapons, the elemental strike damage and weapon properties that can be applied to them, etc. Of course, these also provide a linear array of abilities, and a serious number of techniques allow for customizing this fellow. It’s also notable that building an elementian for the first time is a much quicker process than making your first kineticist.

 

Now, the book also features a serious number of archetypes, some of which are old acquaintances – the legacy ones like shadow dancer, eldritch knight etc. are here; but personally, I was most excited by the pact maker (who does what it says on the tin)…and the soulmark user. What’s the latter? Okay, brace yourselves, fellow otakus: Fate/STAY – the archetype! You know, drawing soulmarked weapons from your body! Seriously, in another book, this’d have been a class of its own – here, it has been condensed to a surprisingly tight and varied archetype that spans two whole pages of delicious goodness. Oh, and there is a terminator archetype that essentially replaces/refines the previous assassin concept. I have one serious issue with this one: It lacks an ability that is called “I’ll be back.” ;) Kidding aside, the concept of the vessel has also been included in this section: Whether protean, demon, angel, archon, etc. – you can play a character housing such a passenger.

 

Of course, there is also a whole cornucopia of class options waiting for you: We occult method as a replacement for the biohacker’s scientific method and fields of study like aberrantology or necrology. Mechanics can have an infernal apparatus or a biomech drone chassis; solarians can be attuned to the music of the spheres; vanguards can choose the zero point aspect – and that is not even coming close to the depth of the material herein. For example, what about a witchwarper who replaces infinite worlds with a more planar-themed ability? The feats, in case you were wondering, follow similar high-concept/utility design-paradigms. What about one, for example, that lets you summon fictional characters from the zeitgeist instead of plain old critters? And yes, this has mechanical benefits.

 

The armory section of the book includes positron weapons that combine electricity with positive energy, and, as hinted at before…SHRINK WEAPONS! :D Black boxes for armors, a powered armor designed for fighting ghosts…or what about the option to store your vehicle in your armor? This might be a good place to note that, like all books of this size, this cannot be perfect – in this one, we have for example one instance where “vehicular” should read “vehicle”, but one still grasps the functionality of the material presented. Augmentations and cybernetics, from extending arms to golemgrafts and necrografts complete a pretty massive chapter, and yes, technological and magic items are included in the deal as well, and we do get artifacts…yes, including the infamous time-traveling hot tub. The new drugs presented are provided in the excellent format introduced in Pop Culture Catalog: Vice Dens, which renders them scaling and relevant for all levels.

 

The chapter on magic presents new spells that allow, among other things, to alter ages and sizes, call forth temporal duplicates…and yes, limited time manipulation. Several pages of new formwarps are included alongside a selection of rituals, which do include means to lock out targets (one of the best “create a barrier vs. critter xyz” takes I’ve seen for a d20-based game, and pretty crucial for my future horror-y designs), using your blood to banish foes (Heeellooo Supernatural once more…), and much to my joy, there is also the call the end-times, your friendly custom-tailored apocalypse ritual for all your insane cultist needs! (Endzeitgeist not included.) Binding agreements, clone creation, dividing targets into multiple creatures…or what about fantastic voyage, which projects your consciousness into nanomachine effigies, unlocking a whole new sphere of potential adventuring in creatures and on the microscopic level! The classic “use map to narrow down on target as it burns/otherwise designates the goal” is also provided. Rites to break potent spells, imprison targets, robotize them, etc. are also part of the deal. And no, I haven’t even mentioned all of them – suffice to say, they do come with adventure hooks. Not that you’d need them after reading them. The “design your own ritual”-section is super-appreciated as well, and rather smooth.

 

The pact magic section of the book is absolutely great; there is but one thing I dislike about it – namely that I’d have loved to see an entire tome devoted to it…one might dream. At this point, it’s also no secret that I adore Alexander Agunuas’ corruption rules, and have blood space, botanification, cannibal cravings etc. all in a handy book? Great. Ever greater, though: What about a corruption that ties in with the size-changing rules and makes you slowly become a titan, as “Attack on Titan”-titan? Yeah…*shudder* The cognitive fixation that can be used to roleplay intrusive thoughts is also one damn fine (and very tactfully-handled) piece of writing that gets two thumbs up. Levialogos subsumption, in which you slowly are absorbed into one of these monstrosities, also is one damn great corruption. You may want to get rid of it…but its benefits are so enticing…Going Akira, aging backward, going soulless…also part of the deal. (And yes, the classic like turning into a blob, therianthropy and vampirism are here as well…)

 

Curses include eternal sleep, wendigo psychosis, lost identity, amnesia and more, and from cures to affixes to modify them, the engine is concise and solid, and for diseases, a similar frame is employed.

 

One of the highlights in utility would be the handy grid adjustment section I mentioned before – that’ll be printed out and tacked to my screen. And in case you were wondering: The book does provide rules for ultrafine creatures…and supercolossal ones, the latter including rules for use in starship combat. Speaking of which: Let us talk about how cool the bestiary section is, because not one of the critters in it is lame or boring. NOT ONE. What about an earth elemental creature consuming emotions, aptly named apathyst, which also is presented in planetoid size as a nasty alternative? A best-of from the Star Log.EM-series is provided here, including Deisauryu, the Godzilla of the Xa-Osoro system; new critters include shrink devils, and one of my all-time favorurite critetrs every published, the Great old One Allakhadae, the Arsonist Against Reality. Speaking of Great old Ones? Good ole’ Cthulhu and Hastur are included, and our friend Slenderman also gets the Great old One treatment – The Tall One. Yes, these fellows are all beyond CR 20, obviously. Unlike many critters at such high CRs, they are, however, actually suitably hard (read VERY) to stop. Yes, I did not use the word “eliminate” for a reason…

Beyond these, we have aforementioned levialogoi, soulless, killer clowns…and hateflesh creatures. They are what you’d expect: Super-icky flesh/bone things that reminded me of Tomb raider 1’s Atlantean monstrosities, save they are even more grotesque… ”sinewed screamer” indeed. What about wererenkroda? One of my favorites would be the “thing-That-Walks”-template graft. Remember Kyuss and the worm-that-walks? Now picture you could make such a collective entity out of everything. The artwork illustrates this by providing a nightmare fuel kitsune thing-that-walks: Humanoid, consisting of thousands of the shapechangers…and boy it is disturbing. Want something more biblical? What about the beast with 7 heads and ten horns, the Woe of the Dead (CR 25)? Yep good luck stopping this harbinger of the end of days… The tome concludes with proper class grafts, template grafts, and a whole arsenal of critter abilities.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are honestly better on both a formal and rules-language levels than a book of this size crafted by a small team (and I mean size category superfine) has any right to be, particularly considering the density and complexity of the rules-operations and subject-matter featured within. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard and features a huge amount of artworks penned by Jacob Blackmon in his signature style. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. I don’t yet have the print version, but I’ll get it as soon as possible.

 

Alexander Augunas, with additional design by Liane Merciel, Matt Morris, Michael Sayre, Chris S. Sims and Owen K.C. Stephens, has done it. Seriously.

 

Let me make that abundantly clear:

 

For me, this is the most important Starfinder rules book I currently own. This is a superior achievement regarding not only scope, but also of quality of the content herein, and a love letter to STARfinder.

You see, it’d have been pretty easy to take PFRPG1ed’s concepts like pact magic, kineticist, size rules, etc. and just jam them on top of Starfinder’s chassis. The systems look so incredibly similar. This may be new to some readers, but probably not to most designers: That doesn’t work. Starfinder operates under wholly different paradigms in many ways, and the way in which its math is constructed is a long shot from PFRPG’s 1st edition.

 

This book shows that the author REALLY knows SFRPG…and LOVES the system. All the systems that a lesser designer would have half-heartedly grafted onto the engine? They have been designed with panache aplomb, from the ground up, expanded, tweaked, changed, improved – until this is what we got. This beautiful, wonderful tome that breathes SFRPG from every page.

 

The main achievement of this book, however, does not lie in the quality of its new class options and monsters, well-designed though they may be.

 

It lies in the fact that this book unlocks a whole plethora of inspiring storylines and scenarios, whole types of adventures and playstyles, that the system previously did not support. With this, you could theoretically play Supernatural in Space, a whole campaign in the body of a dying person, duke it out with the Great Old Ones, unleash apocalypses, play a  full-blown space-horror game , duplicate a ton of my favorite anime scenarios…and so much more.

 

Crunch can be good when it lets you do cool new stuff, when it helps you realize that one cool idea you had; crunch is outstanding when it sets your mind ablaze with so many ideas for new characters, plotlines, and campaigns, that stare, starry-eyed (haha) at the pages and can’t wait to use…everything.

How do I put this best? If I was an isekai stranded in the Xa-Osoro system, and you put a proton-rifle to my head and forced me to choose only one Starfinder book apart from the core rules, only book, and told me that’d be all I’d get forevermore to run Starfinder….i’d choose this one, without a second of hesitation.

 

It's not perfect, but it’s damn close, and it is more inspired than several hardcovers I could mention. And in contrast to most tomes of this size, it never lets up. It doesn’t have this one section where it feels like the author ran out of ideas or steam. This is a resplendent masterpiece that is a must-own for every self-respecting Starfinder-GM out there.

Right now, this is the best Starfinder book in my library. This is the tome to beat.

 

5 stars. Seal of Approval. Best of. Hot contender for the Top Ten of 2020 (and a true ray of light in this horrible year). And this is an EZG Essential. I wouldn’t ever want to run a SFRPG-campaign without it.

 

Do yourself a favor. If you even remotely are interested in SFRPG, if you are playing/running it…get this. If you’re a player, buy this for your GM. This is a truly outstanding gamechanger.

 

You can get this legendary tome here on OBS!

 

You can directly support Alexander Augunas here on patreon!

 

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Endzeitgeist out.

7.24.2020

Future's Past V: Tomorrow's End (SFRPG)

Future's Past V: Tomorrow's End (SFRPG)

The finale of the Future‘s Past AP clocks in at 30 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 26 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This module was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of m patreon supporters.

…to be frank, not that moving this one up would have really needed coaxing. The module is for 5th level characters, and concludes the Future’s Past AP. This is not a module you can run as a stand-alone offering without losing its impact, which is also why I’ll deviate somewhat from my usual format for reviews, and instead note something important:

The Future’s Past AP, in many ways, is one I’d recommend for experienced GMs, but it is one that also has an intrinsic teaching angle integrated into its structure: The initial two adventures started off in a way that was more conventional and should be easy to run for less experienced GMs; part III and IV progressively built on that, slowly taking away the training wheels and going more and more into freer-form structures that emphasize player agenda above linear presentation of a projected plot. This module, then, is the final exam, the graduation of the GM into a scenario so epic in scope and versatile in its possibilities, anything short of an open presentation would be doomed to failure.

You see, while the structure of the module is very much one of a linear sequence of events, the scale or scales on which these events happen and their precise nature are very much open to the preferences of the respective group playing this adventure. The module does come with read-aloud text. That being said, this module does require preparation; like the remainder of the AP, you cannot run this spontaneously. Frankly, though? I’ve rarely had as much as joy preparing a module as I did with this one.
Why? Well, know how the previous modules in the AP sent shivers down my spine?

Guess what? This one genuinely managed to outdo them. The prose is fantastic, and even the non-read-aloud text, in many instances, is quality-wise on a level that outperforms the vast majority of readaloud texts. I am not kidding. And before you ask: This is not a victim of failed-novelist-syndrome; it may sport phenomenal prose, but it’s also very concise, precise. It doesn’t waste words or pages.

Okay, in order to go into more detail, I will need to dive into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion. No seriously. If you spoil this series for yourself, you’ll be missing out on what might be the best adventure saga for SFRPG to date.

You’ve been warned.

..
.

Okay, only GMs around? Take in this introductory text:
“Déjà vu implies some uncertainty. This is more like a recurring
nightmare coming true.
The distant stars twinkle, as if obscured by a thickening sphere of
dust, the size of a solar system.
Then, the galaxy disappears entirely.
Illuminated by the light of dimensional rifts, ships gradually take
shape within the cloud. Some seem miles long, dwarfing even Edge
Station’s asteroid. While most are smaller… there are so many.
Hundreds or thousands of crafts moving in perfect tandem. Each is
all sleek, aggressive lines. Like a sword or spear sized to stab a god.
You have never seen these ships, and yet you have. They are an old
foe, and you have fought them many times.
But… they always win, and you always die.“

Central AI is coming with an entire fleet; the PCs have fought and lost this battle an infinite number of times, and thus, the characters benefit from practiced perfection throughout, which is mechanically represented in a variety of ways. The PCs start off with a frickin’ functional time machine (problem solving advice included); it can transfer matter; it can tinker in the past – and yet, there is no chance to win. There simply are not enough people on Edge Station to beat Central. Ever. Only, you know, the PCs can take themselves out of alternate timelines/realities, evening the odds – and it only costs a few hundred-trillion lives as those doomed realities are now reliably lost. Of course, seeing variants of yourself die and die and die over and over again isn’t particularly good for the psyche…

And there are limits: Timetech Gamble pays a hefty, horrible price for the use of the time machine; Butterfly effect tables, and Vincent’s mighty Node as an ace in the whole also are included – but ultimately, the module requires winning against a vast fleet combat, which comes with concise rules for starship fleets and (rules more abstract and simpler than starships, but otherwise capable of making fleets pretty much on the fly, based on starships), but starship-level rules for Edge Station are provided as well; indeed, it is possible to run this potentially sans the fleet combat, but the beauty here is that you can switch from fleet combat to ship combat to personal combat, if you want to – you know, PCs on board a ship fighting nano warrior invaders, representing hundreds of battles like this, taking place all over the fleet, as infinite PC duplicates live and die…

Ultimately, the PCs need to face the Nanochine avatar of Central AI itself; it has killed them 127 times; it can’t fathom how they can still surprise it; it can’t fathom that here, at this one junction in time and space, at this one instant, the all-mighty AI can LOSE. It’s up to the PCs – or their future might well end up a thing of the past…


Conclusion:
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are good – it’s the one thing about this book that I don’t love; it’s good, mind you, but I noticed a few instances of spell-references missing their italics and similar cosmetic glitches. Layout adheres to the series neat two-column full-color standard, and the module comes with great full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and we get a pretty awesome galaxy map, but no player-friendly version of said map.

I should probably penalize this for its minor hiccups.

I refuse.

Srsly.
This conclusion to Future’s Past not only manages to end the AP in a satisfying manner, it actually succeeds in surpassing the previous installments. Yep, you read that right.
If you’re an experienced GM, you will read this and balk at the ambition, at the scale. At how smart it is. At how well it covers all those “OMG, I can’t handle that” aspects; this book not only makes a functional time machine work, it expects the party to properly use it. To beat impossible odds that would even be beyond the power of deities. At level 5/6. And IT WORKS.

The streamlined, quick fleet combat suffused with the option for individual encounters of starship combat requires prep-work. This holds true for the entire module. This adventure assumes competence on part of the GM. If you pull it off, your players will laud you forever.

I genuinely can’t believe that this series exists and is complete. Why? Because it is so smart, clever and concise it almost hurts me; each module in this series can outclass adventures of thrice or more pages; the entire campaign is perhaps one of the best scifi/science-fantasy campaigns ever put to paper. At least I’d be hard-pressed to mention anything that comes close. Additionally, it’s a saga that exceeds in ambition and scope what most authors and publishers would even dare to attempt, much less pull off. I still can’t believe that this masterful AP was pulled off not only with a singularly clear vision, but even without using a kickstarter or the like. Within the seemingly few pages of the saga, the extremely concise writing allows GMs to easily spread the content if desired. You could make this module, for example, last one session – or up to 5-6.

Stephen Rowe once more shows why he’s one of the few authors I buy sight unseen. I have the entire AP in softcover, and I’d rather sell some limited edition hardcovers than these modules.

How good is Future’s Past? If you play any non-SFRPG scifi/space opera game, I genuinely believe that this saga is worth converting. Yes, even if you’re not familiar with SFRPG’s complex rules, this series is imho good enough to translate it to Stars Without Number, Traveller, etc.

This right here, this AP? It’s the benchmark for SFRPG-modules, the level that needs to be beaten. In fact, I consider Future’s Past to be so far beyond most modules, it almost feels unfair to put them in the same category.

5 stars. Seal of approval. Top Ten Candidate. EZG Essential. If you even remotely like the concept, please buy this series.

Future’s Past is one of these outstanding sagas that should grace the shelves of any GM. This should be considered to be a rite of passage level adventure for the genre.



You can get this masterpiece here on OBS!

Missed part 4, the Infinity Incursion? You can find it here.
Missed part 3, First Contact? You can find it here.
Missed part 2, Paying Forward? You can find it here.
Missed part 1, Edge Station? You can find it here.

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Endzeitgeist out.







Endzeitgeist out.

4.28.2020

The House of Red Doors (DCC)

The House of Red Doors (DCC)


This module clocks in at 34 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page back cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page backer/playtester-thanks, 1 page SRD, 4 pages of advertisement, 1 page blank, leaving us with 24 pages of content, so let’s take a look! The print-version sports only one page advertisement, in case you were wondering.

This module was moved up in my reviewing-queue due to me receiving a print copy of the adventure. My review is mostly-based on the perfectbound softcover, but I also consulted the pdf-version.

So, first of all, what is this? Well, it’s a 1-on-1 0-level funnel for one player, 2-4 characters. It is, this, a pretty good fit for the current times to get your gaming fix. ;) Structurally, it should be noted that the module can actually be used rather well to bring a 0-level character up to 1st level, should this be what you need. As always, the module comes with read-aloud text. This deserves special mentioning, for unlike many an adventure, the module’s rewards are somewhat unique and make sure that the freshly-leveled 1st-level character will have something unique to make them feel more distinct. I really liked seeing that, since many games get that wrong and don’t account for the addition of unique abilities, tricks, etc. while adventuring, making new characters often feel a bit sterile.

Additionally, it should be noted that the module can be run as a tournament adventure, with a full and proper scoresheet; unlike many tournament modules, this is NOT a meat-grinder; it’s still a DCC-adventure and as such, it’s bound to be dangerous, but this is not about killing off characters per se. It requires player-skill to solve, more than it does require rolling high. That’s a good thing as well. Unlike many comparable adventures designed for tournament-play, this adventure has a pretty smart angle for non-tournament use: You see, the scoring of points determines the rewards: The more points you score, the higher the die-size will be that you get to roll on one of the 7 (!!) reward tables. These can include a change of the Birth Augur, the ability to beg for a boon from the fates once per adventure…or, well, if you sucked, you might “just” end up with a C-Cell from MCC, or a pamphlet promising bigger muscles and whiter teeth from this mysterious place in New Jersey. (Though you really have to be unlucky to get a low result.) Why do I like this so much? Because it makes what otherwise would be dead space for non-tournament play MATTER. Smart.

The module also offers a quick character background story generator focused on three guiding principles that impact the adventure – Cause, Theme and Goal – there is one 6-entry table for Causes and Themes, and there are 6 1d3-tables for Goals. All of these note an aspect, and a symbol, and they also feature on the big player-handout, which deserves special mention: It’s a two-page handout featuring space for notes on the background story of the character and the entire set-up of the module, with these tables on the back. Why do the Causes, Themes and Goals matter, beyond rewards? We’ll get to that below.

But first, I have to explicitly call out something as thoroughly refreshing. If someone asks me what I *don’t* like about DCC, my response is always the same:
“DCC modules tend to have these GORGEOUS maps and artworks – and yet, the maps are often littered with SPOILERS. You usually can’t show the players the amazing isometric maps without giving away things due to annoying secret door S-indicators, without map labels spoiling things. Player-friendly maps should be industry standard – right now, the map-budget of most DCC-modules is wasted on entertaining only the GM.”

It’s a matter of proper priorities, and guess what? This module *has* them right. 6 isometric maps (!!) and 4 artworks are presented in the back, in a mini-handout page, which includes printing and folding instructions. Yep, these are player-friendly. You can actually hand them out to your player(s). Upon seeing this, I raised the good ole’ metal salute to the air and audibly exclaimed a “Hell yeah!” Further evidence of priorities done right would be the center spread: 2 pages of artwork depicting Lotteria cards – I’ll explain their function below.

Now, regarding themes, the module is not one of the goofier DCC-modules; instead, it has a very distinctly occult atmosphere, and one that can be likened to a metal-version of a shamanistic journey, with a nice dose of the weird and frightening thrown in. I’d run this in pretty much any setting that focuses on dark fantasy or horror-themes, or in sufficiently gritty regular fantasy. The occult angle deserves special commendation, as it’s much harder to get right and consistently done than regular weird fantasy or science-fantasy.

Okay, and this is pretty much as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.


..
.

All right, only judges around? Great! So, a rickety, ornately-decorated house with diamond-paned windows, dormers and turrets, black-enameled terra cotta roof sweeps and cupolas in gold is drawn by elephants in the blood-orange dusk – Jassafae’s House of Red Doors bids those welcome seeking their fortune, and not all shall emerge from its crimson doors. Jassafae, mistress of fate, draws cards, and the Lotterria is begun – the background of the PC will determine the interpretation of what happens in the module. The generator mentioned before allows for the swift interpretation in a tournament context, but both takes on the Lotteria are explained well and in a stringent manner – as mentioned before, two pages provide symbols on a vast variety of cards, with different notes per symbol – depending on the context, a lantern could be likened to destiny, for example. The symbology behind the Lotterria is clearly defined and explained for the judge. From a roleplaying side of things, the interpretation of this cool angle sets the tone and internal logic of the supplement rather well.

Once the reading is complete, the PC will receive a pouch from Jassafae, with the note not to open it – and venture through the red door, where three tasks await: The first is a darkened village, where a strange ghoul with radiant eyes makes for a deadly guard in the lichyard – on this place, the gravestones feature symbols corresponding to the Causes, and open graves beckon – choosing the correct one corresponding to their Cause as explained by Jassafae is the best course here.

After this, the PC will arrive at a crossroads, where roads of straight granite, silver gravel and sinuous gold meet, and where three strange individuals await; one of these people will hold a pillow, atop which a mirror rests – each of the humanoids corresponds to alignments, and as such, the task here is to properly judge the Theme ad interpret this: The mirror of Jassafae is a sort of wildcard, but careless PCs may have their pouches stolen…

And then, the module branches. Big time. 6 different trials, each with their own map and challenges, await the PC, each corresponding to one of the Goals determined in Lotteria: If power was chosen, the PC will find themselves in an arena and face a metallic, winged bull, with hopefully the proper weapon; if reciprocity was chosen, the PC will have to retrieve the correct item from a spinning sphere that holds three balance pans. The trial of wealth is all about the PCs retrieving strange fruits, with poisonous aphids awaiting…and did I mention, for example, the living city of fungus? Each of these trials does something rather clever: The mirror of Jassafae can be employed to help in these tasks, and each task can be solved in multiple ways: If the PC properly understood the rules that govern this strange journey, they will emerge in Jassafae’s sanctum – but if they fail, a possibility throughout this module, there is always the chance of ending up in a charnel pit, where the only exit is a potential trap door – and if finding this fails, well, then the PC will join the corpses.

In short: While, there is a chance that the PC fails due to combat, the main deciding factor regarding triumph or loss, ultimately, is the skill of the PLAYER. Big kudos.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard , and the module provides plentiful b/w-artworks drawn by Stefan Poag, Doug Kovacs, Del Teigeler and Robert Cameron – in short, this is, visually, in line with Goodman Games’ modules. The cartography deserves special mention – isometric, cool, and, better yet, player-friendly? Awesome. The abundance of handouts also is an amazing factor. The softcover is a well-crafted module, and personally, I’d recommend that version, if you can get it – also due to one annoying comfort-detriment the pdf-version suffers from: The module has no bookmarks in its pdf-iteration; for this version, you should detract 0.5 – 1 star, depending on your priorities.

James A. Pozenel, Jr. delivers a fantastic solo-adventure that takes place in a mysterious locale; the main achievement of this book is twofold: It manages to retain a very high replay value for judges and players alike. Secondly, it manages to establish its own symbology and dream-like logic, and do so in a way that makes an intrinsic sense to players and judges alike. The latter is actually a VERY difficult thing to pull off, and the author has my sincere thanks for this. The replay value offered also means that you can reuse this as the campaign starter a couple of times when your PCs bite the dust. This internal logic, and the finely-tuned challenges both definitely show that this module was thoroughly and extensively playtested. Oh, and guess what? Once you’ve internalized how the Lotterria works, you can actually run this with pretty much 0 prep work.

In short: This is a fantastic 1-on-1 adventure, a resounding success, and I seriously want to see more! This dream-like, occult tone is right up my alley, and structurally, this is excellent as well. Atmospheric, novel, and with priorities where they should be, I have nothing to complain about, and genuinely look forward to the next time that I get to act as a judge for this module. My final verdict is 5 stars + seal of approval - highly recommended, and frankly, good enough to be worth converting to other games.

The limited edition print copy can be ordered by contacting the author: lectrotext at gmail dot com.

The pdf copy can be found here on OBS!

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Endzeitgeist out.

8.23.2019

The Red Prophet Rises (OSR)

The Red Prophet Rises (OSR)



This module clocks in at 30 pages of content, already disregarding pages devoted to editorial, front cover, etc. The module was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Okay, so “The Red Prophet Rises” is an adventure intended for 3-6 characters of levels 3-5, using the For Gold & Glory ruleset based on 2nd edition. This means that we have THAC0s, descending AC, HD, morale noted, etc. – when all’s said and done, this means that conversion to pretty much any OSR-rules system is pretty simple, as the statblocks etc. note a lot of information. Even an activity cycle, mind you!

The supplement includes 5 new spells that may be encountered/learned, all of which have a strong blood magic type and properly note the classes and spell-levels. They are pretty darn evocative – Spear of Blood, for example, targets a corpse or injured target, crystallizes blood from the source. With an attack roll that employs the Wisdom bonus, the spear is flung into a target, dealing damage. Damage exceeds that of e.g. magic missile, but the requirement of blood source plus attack roll makes this clock out. There also is a delightfully gruesome self-boost/buff that makes the caster bleed from eyes and mouth with a burbling scream, praising the Bull God. Even per se less evocative spells that deal damage have an angle that makes them stand out – such as pronouncing a forbidden word with the curse of sanguine castigation. What about animating blood in serpent form? Or a spell that controls blood of targets for a gruesome puppetry-spell? Yeah, pretty cool. Three new monsters are included as well, all featuring a pretty detailed summary that explains their roles as well as their combat behavior.

The module also features 14 new magic items that follow a similar design paradigm – their names are bolded for convenience, and XP-values for them are provided.  The items also manage to do something that precious few modules get right – they actually feel MAGICAL. They also are smart – there is, for example, an item that can increase weight – basically a magical anchor. Or what about the gourd of the old blood? Imbibing from that one makes you forevermore hear the heartbeats of those nearby. Sure, it can drive you insane, but it’s so helpful to prevent being targeted by those pesky assassins. Oh, and yeah, you can go berserker afterwards. What about a magical gypsum stone that can heat the surrounding area? There is but one item I’m not happy with – Veindrinker, a battle axe +2 that heals the wielder with each hit and animates the slain as bloodless corpses. Clearly an evil item, it is not intended for PC-use, as it requires the weekly death of a humanoid. That being said, the item would be better served if it had the caveat that only non-harmless creatures can be used to heal the wielder. Otherwise, those trusty murderhobos will be carrying a bag of kittens around to massacre and heal up. And infinite healing exploits are not fun, regardless of the game. That being said, a GM can and should limit this one to NPCs or add such a caveat.

Okay, that being said, the module does more: There is an appendix listing the friendly NPCs to be encountered with full stats AS WELL AS descriptions/read-aloud texts. Oh, and guess what? We get the same treatment for the hostile creatures as well! This is some next-level awesomeness. Furthermore, the final page is devoted to a super-handy monster cheat-sheet that lists all the combat-relevant components on one handy page. It should come as no surprise, but the module does feature random encounter tables, as well as a pretty extensive rumor section. It also has a strong angle that hasn’t been done in any other module I’m aware of: The primary hook of the adventure is that a paladin can get their steed here! The hook is supported by a proper vision you can paraphrase. It should be noted, though, that the adventure does not necessarily need this angle to work – it can be run perfectly fine without that. Reaction tables and the like are included as well.

Indeed, if the above was not ample clue, the presentation of the information herein is exceedingly effective: Each keyed locale features first a brief description, and then a bullet point list that makes it very simple and convenient to parse information. The b/w-cartography of the module is pretty detailed and sports grids etc. – while a few of the numbers on the maps are slightly pixilated, I found myself not minding this for once, as the locations themselves are smartly laid out. Unlike many a module, this one has a pretty strong focus on allowing the PCs to engage with it in a variety of ways; indeed, it is rather nonlinear. The module can and will run vastly differently for different groups due to the clever dungeon design. Case in point: The module has a SCHEDULE. Yep, a full table that notes when what happens each day, rewarding PCs for doing their legwork/reconnaissance! Oh, and before you ask – yep, the module does reference this table internally when required, making actual implementation of the schedule easy and seamless for the GM. Not only does this show smart design, it also makes the entire module more dynamic and alive.

Genre-wise, this is a Sword & Sorcery adventure, situated in some borderlands though one could easily argue in favor of it being dark fantasy. What do I mean by this? Well, this is a pretty bloody module, obviously, but it’s not grimdark; neither does it revel in excessive gore. (Unless you want it to…) It also has a very unique angle, in that it does not feel like a system is taken to express preset sword & sorcery tropes with it; instead, all the items and spells and components are used to make the atmosphere emerge from within. The rules are not bent to generate an effect. This is not a D&D-iteration used to express the themes, it is the themes emerging from play. I have seen precious few adventures pull this off. As an aside for all fans of WFRP – if you make the Bull God an aspect of Khorne, this is pretty much an instant WFRP-adventure. As far as environments are concerned, this works imho in any region that can sport a canyon – I could see this work in anything from the frigid north to the blasting heat of the deserts, provided a sufficient amount of uncivilized tribes can be found. Difficulty-wise, it should be noted that this is probably closest in aesthetics to DCC-adventures – it is deadly, yes, but the challenges faced are founded on the principle of player-agenda; this very much focuses on roleplaying over rollplaying, and smart players will have a good chance of survival. Those PCs that think they can murder-hobo through the module by simply charging in? They’ll lose their lives upon bloodsoaked altars.

Okay, and this is as far as I can go without diving into serious SPOILER-territory. Potential players should seriously jump to the conclusion. You’ll hate yourself to bits for spoiling this one.

..
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All right, only GMs around? Great! The people of the bull, wiry and beardless, are a harsh people tempered by life on the wind-blasted plains. When the outsider Khazra came and smote the chieftain, pronouncing himself prophet of the Bull God, things changed Driven by blood-shrouded visions of conquest and a crimson paradise, the tribe embarked on a grand pilgrimage across the plains, towards a canyon, where a featureless obsidian looms – here, so the prophet proclaimed, the bull of infidels would flow in streams, opening the gateway to the crimson paradise – and thus, with Khazra’s proclamation, a ritualistic revelry of sacrifice, bloodsport and orgiastic revels commended. Nearby villages were raided by the people of the bull, drugged by the hallucinogenic Crimson Tear, a flower growing solely on battlefields. Thus, the barbarians lair within the canyon, drugged (which btw. does have an impact on the rules and explains some of their bloodthirsty, fanatical behavior!), feeding the Obelisk That Thirsts with precious red.

Meanwhile, the steed touched by the forces of good is forced to act as a beast of burden, opening the lid of the pit of sacrifice. The PCs only have 7 days to stop the slaughter enacted by the people of the Bull, and if they’re smart, they’ll scout the region beforehand – the presence of the aforementioned schedule means that smart players will have a much easier time dealing with the adventure. I mentioned before that the module uses schedule and encounters to generate a sense of authentic, dynamic content, right? Well, guess what, this is even further enhanced by the presence of a multi-stage alarm system and detailed notes on responses to the PC’s intrusion. If the PCs are smart, they can time their assault, for example, so that the hunters are currently outside. Disguising and infiltration – all possible. Indeed, the whole region is subdivided in thematic regions, such as “champion’s quarters”, allowing the GM to quickly and precisely grasp the layout of the caves and canyon.

Even on the micro-level, the sheer attention to detail is astonishing – bookshelves note secret forging techniques (with actual impact on the rules!), tables contain a plethora of detailed items, and an alchemy lab, well-hidden, does come with a 20-entry long, one page spanning table of effects for experimenting with things that the PCs don’t understand. There is, for example, a vial with petrified wood inside – which emits a bloodcurdling scream. This is the result of random experimentation, mind you – and results in a wandering monster check, which is a great point to mention that the module is generally very fair – harsh, but fair. Traps make sense where they’re placed, and risk-reward ratios are tightly balanced in creative ways.

The first part of the module, unsurprisingly, deals with the canyon itself, and covers 27 keyed locales. And OH BOY. What a canyon it is. To quote the module: “A massive rough-hewn bust of a bald man with a lengthy braided ponytail glowers down from the 50 foot high rock outcropping that divides the canyon. Narrow stairs cut through the rock face ascend to rope and wood-planked bridges that connect the canyon walls to the rock outcropping.” This is not designated as read-aloud text, but frankly, it established a better atmosphere than many modules designating such text. You can picture it, right? The massive face, the canyon walls? Somewhere between Ozymandias and Savage Sword of Conan’s mind-boggling vistas, this sets a grand stage – and it’s but the introduction. Freeing prisoners and uneasy allies are just a few of the options available to the PCs as they explore this place, and indeed, smart PCs may find allies even among the People of the Bull – if, and only if they are smart..So yeah, this is decidedly not just a hack and slash module – you can attempt to play it as such, but it’ll probably wipe out the PCs.

Beyond the canyon containing the people of the bull and their orgiastic revelry, the module actually offers more – much like a multi-part Savage Sword of Conan saga, there is more – beneath the canyon lies a dungeon, abandoned cellars of a now ruined wizard’s tower, where true evil looms. Down in the pit of despair, in the dark, may be found – a summoning circle contains a massive, demonic arm rising from the floor, the entity trapped for untold centuries; floodgates and ghosts can be found – and there is the Keeper of Names – a magical construct that will progressively start to name the PCs if they don’t retreat – and names have an inherent power to them. The Keeper can annihilate those it names in detail, progressively unraveling their sense of self in a sort of weaponized nihilism powered by cosmic principles. I love this! I love it even more because it is a puzzle boss fight that rewards clever tactics by the PCs and makes the creature feel like a proper construct. And then, there is the obelisk – an inverted black pyramid at the top funnels, drop by drop, blood to the obelisk, where currently essentially a proto-vampire god lies entombed and trapped – the blood sacrifices of the people of the bull will awaken an obsidian lord in service to this thing…and the obsidian might spread. The boss fight against the obelisk’s creatures, with round by round effects both rules-relevant and cosmetic, represents a great, dare I say, nigh perfect conclusion for the module, with plenty of ideas for further adventuring, for I have touched on only a fraction of the components featured within.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a rules-language level, very good on a formal level. Layout adheres to a nice two-column b/w-standard that evokes, down to the font used, classic adventures. The artworks featured within are b/w, plentiful, and well-chosen. You may know some of them from other publications, but even with my plentiful experience, I’ve seen a couple of them for the first time. The cartography is b/w and quality-wise and regarding its functionality beyond reproach, though I wished we a) got a key-less, player-friendly version, and b) that the maps were a bit higher res. I’d really love to see player-friendly modules – and I’m sure that the many VTT-fans would agree. I can’t comment on the electronic version’s merits, but the print version is perfect-bound, with glossy covers.

The information design of this module, penned by Malrex and PrinceofNothing, is excellent, and so are the details; the way in which…
Who am I kidding? I’ve strained very hard throughout the review to not burst out in jubilation, so let me make this abundantly clear:

This belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM. Period.

I don’t care if you’re playing PFRPG 1e or 2e, D&D 5e, OSR-games, DCC, 13th Age, WFRPG – if you even remotely enjoy dark fantasy or sword & sorcery, then you MUST OWN this module.

This adventure is not only a great reading experience, it actually plays better than it reads (!!) – it is a resounding rebuttal to several notions: It shows that new school type of narratives and old-school emergent gameplay are not at odds; it shows that you can write a module that feels like a lost TSR-classic (one of the good ones!) and improve upon the formula; it shows that you can use mainstream D&D-based rules to weave a sword & sorcery storyline without requiring a ton of tweaking to systems and implicit assumptions.

It also is, in my humble opinion, one of the very few examples where module-writing has been elevated to an art form.
And I don’t mean that in some hipsterish BS type of way; I mean this in the truest sense of the word. It is a very subdued and subtle process – one that is more evident in e.g. Trollback Keep. In that module, the use of leitmotifs and their contrasting was more readily apparent. In this module, EVERYTHING makes sense; the authors obviously share a deep understanding of not only what makes the tropes of sword & sorcery and dark fantasy work, they also know how to IMPLEMENT them within the context of the game, all while retaining an almost obsessive sense of plausibility. They clothe this pitch-perfect implementation of tropes and details within a rules system with panache aplomb, making the module’s plot and scenario slide into the system like a ruler into their regalia. Adding a constant sense of dynamic, lived-in worlds to the whole just puts the icing on the cake – if this module was a character, it’d be Thoth-Amon or Kulan Gath, in regal strides, surveying all below as they kneel. There is a sense of majestic rawness and harshness to this adventure that is hard to describe and even harder to evoke.

This is on par with the best of Harley Stroh’s sword & sorcery work for DCC. This feels like someone read the entirety of Savage Sword of Conan, wrought a distilled essence from it, and by some eldritch alchemy, crafted a module from it.

In short, this is a benchmark-level masterpiece against which all other modules in the genre will hereafter have to be judged. And many will be found wanting. This was released last year, but I only got around to reviewing it due to my health situation this year. As such, this gets what it rightfully deserves – full 5 stars, my seal of approval, the “Best of”-tag as one of the best sword & sorcery modules I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering, and this is a candidate for my top ten of 2019.



You can get this masterpiece here on OBS!

The Merciless Merchants are currently kickstarting a a mega-adventure that is, looking at what I've seen from them so far, a no-brainer - but they are not as well-known as they should be, considering how good their modules are. So if you want to support truly outstanding adventure-writing by criminally-underrated authors, please supportthe kickstarter for the City of Vermilion here!

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Endzeitgeist out.