7.09.2011

EZG reviews Kaidan, Advanced Feats and NNW's Traps

Hey everybody!


First of all: Sorry for the silence on my part - due to a provider-change, my place is currently not connected and I only today had the opportunity to initiate the process of remedying this unfortunate circumstance. Why, you ask? Well, I had an unfortunate martial arts accident that resulted in a prolonged stay in a hospital. I hope I won't have to get surgery, so if no new reviews pop up next week, don't be alarmed. But enough from yours truly,


Without further ado,


Kaidan I - The Gift

This adventure/setting-introduction is 61 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 2 pages back cover, leaving 55 pages for the first part of the Kaidan-trilogy, so let's check it out!

Disclaimer: I'm a gold patron for Kaidan, but I didn't participate that much in the design process due to real life.

First of all, one cannot help but notice the beautiful full-color layout featuring bamboo at the page-borders (similar to In the Company of Kappa) and the stunning cover artwork - rest assured that the rest of the book is just as visually pleasing.

This being an adventure, I will have to go into some mayor SPOILERS later. I'll start off with what Kaidan is in the beginning, which one could consider minor spoilers, so beware. I'll explicitly add another warning prior to going into the adventure details.

There are a LOT of Asian settings out there, and good ones at that, so what exactly makes Kaidan unique? First of all: Its focus. Kaidan is a horror-themed setting inspired by Japan and Japanese mythology. Not L5R-style, not Chinese WuXia (like in the quite cool HotJO-setting), but by Japanese horror-stories. Being a bit of a fan of Japanese horror-games like Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero in Europe) or Forbidden Siren, I can attest to there being a plethora of almost unknown tropes of awesome and disturbing narratives that have largely been untapped by western pop culture and even rpgs. Kaidan seeks to at least partially remedy that, but does it deliver?

SPOILERS abound now, players please don't continue reading, you have been warned!

The adventure kicks off with a beautiful, full-color map of the land of Kaidan and an introduction to the basic concept of Kaidan: Shrouded and isolated in a perpetual cloud that only recently has been partially lifted, the place immediately evokes positive reminiscences of the best of Ravenloft's concepts, but goes further: Kaidan is essentially the idea of reincarnation going horribly wrong - the dead don't go to the afterlife and rather roam the land, become haunts and creatures or even trying to force others from their bodies, essentially killing living people and being reborn in the cruelest, most twisted take on reincarnation I've ever seen. Even worse for the poor people of this beautiful, yet haunted land, even this endless circle provides no true escape from the rigid and merciless caste-system.

So, what's the story? Marl Tyro, a merchant plans to kill an undead daimyo, who has taken the merchant's daughter hostage to force Marl to bring him a loyalty-enforcing, cursed golden spear. Marl, plotting vengeance, has condensed jewels of positive energy set to provide a nasty surprise for the daimyo and the PCs accompany him to the dread lands of Kaidan as Gaijin (longnoses), thus facilitating the introduction to the customs of this rather xenophobic land. The welcome the PCs will receive is a rather frosty one - the first ambush has already been prepared for them as soon as they get off the ship in Gaijinoshima, the gateway to Kaidan- Yakuza-thugs stand ready to confront and kill the PCs in the name of a mysterious woman. A full-color map is provided for the dock and the encounter, which is always a plus. Assuming the PCs survive, they'll encounter the rather uncooperative officials, who'll refuse them landing on mainland Kaidan until the proper papers have been obtained. The PCs are thus stranded in the town and can explore - as long as they carry the heavy chest containing marl's gift around, that is. The harbor-town also gets its own full-color map. After encountering a damsel in distress and rescuing her from an ogre-assault, she tries to recruit the PCs to accompany her to the cemetery, to ostensibly find gold her late husband has stolen from the oni-lords. This, of course, is a ruse, but more on that later. After all, the Yakuza seek restitution for the defeat of the welcoming commando and the PCs might be forced into a duel with one of their more powerful members or another full-blown fight. After being introduced to mind fever ( a sickness that precedes a replacement of souls), the PCs have an opportunity to dine with a Yakuza-lord, wrestle for his enjoyment (once again, the lair has its own beautiful map) and thus might secure the necessary friends in the right places to get the paperwork for their journey finally done. What about the damsel, though? She tries to lead the PCs into the clutches of a jikininki, a terrible, shapechanging, ghoulish creature the PCs will have to defeat. Once they PCs have survived this trap, they are free to finally set foot on mainland Kaidan. Well, relatively free, that is.

After all, they're still Gaijin and subsequently will be accompanied by 17 Kaidanese, there to make sure that the longnoses don't stray too far from their allowed trail. The first station along the way is a cursed way station inhabited by both a plethora of deadly haunts, flesh-eating ghouls, a ghost and featuring both tainted food and terrible nightmares for your PCs and, once again, a beautiful full-color map. This encounters alone might be worth the price if you're looking for some genuinely creepy encounter.

Once the PCs reach the highlands, the PCs will encounter bandits, a tamashinaki as well as an encounter at a bridge (again with a map) and another mapped, very creepy encounter with a well full of undead children and subsequently their dread killer. Further on their journey, the PCs can help defend the town Agoya against a coordinated bandit rush/siege, having consequences in the sequel as well as during their brief stay in the village. On the road to the next settlement, Tsuje-Te, the PCs will have another encounter (again, with a grided, full color map) with some mischievous Kappa and some additional random encounters before being assaulted by the damsel in distress from Gaijinoshima and her minion - an ogre-brute like the one they fought, only this time, the damsel drops her cover and, as a hebi-no-onna, attacks as well, serving as a nice and challenging climax to the adventure that ends with the PCs reaching the town of Tsue-Jo.

There are some appendices to take a look at, though: The first deals with PC reincarnation, as resurrection etc. don't work in Kaidan and reformation as a malevolent spirit (yurei), a tamashinaki or even inflict a Kaidanese with mind fever, supplanting him/her. This process also may entail foreign memories and the appendix also features a great mechanic for tracking karma and rebirth. We also get 2 new monsters and of course, full stats for the two featured tamashinaki, 4 pre-gens and a two page glossary/pronunciation guide to help a GM properly display the culture of Kaidan.

Conclusion:

Layout adheres to the beautiful full-color, bamboo-lined standard we already know from "In the Company of Kappa" and goes a long way to convey the unique atmosphere of Kaidan. Editing and formatting are very good - I only noticed one minor editing glitch and one minor formatting relic. When I started reading the sections on Gaijinoshima, I was rather underwhelmed with regards to the horror-aspect of the setting, but don't be fooled - this part of the adventure serves to accustom the PCs with Kaidan and the subsequent horror-encounters are demented, dark and deadly and rank among the finest I've read in quite a while - Kaidan manages to walk the tight rope between horror and fantasy with a deceptive ease and furthermore accomplishes the feat of being unique and captivating as both a setting and an adventure.

Fans of Ravenloft HAVE to check this out. Fans of Gothic Horror should check this out. Fans of the darker aspects of Japanese folklore and mythology have to check this out. Have I mentioned that I love the extensive map support and the stunning, awesome b/w-artworks that rank among the best I've seen in 3pp books? Can you guess my final verdict? Yup, I award full 5 Rudii and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval - Jonathan McAnulty, Michael K. Tumey and the crew at RiP has done an awesome job of going out of their way to provide a premium quality horror-adventure of the highest caliber. I can't wait for part II and will now get back to reading the bonus convention 29 and 30-page scenarios patrons of Kaidan got for free.





Oh, wait. I've got more! I finally got around to finishing my series of reviews of Advanced Feats, thus:


Advanced Feats: The Inquisitor's Edge


This installment of the advanced feats series is 16 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page advertisement, leaving 12 pages for the inquisitor, so let's check it out!

This installment of the advanced series begins, as is tradition by now, with a comprehensive discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the class to be examined before delving into the new feats. This discussion, while not strictly necessary, makes for a compelling read nevertheless - both for novices and experienced gamers.

The crunch of the product, though, are the 30 new feats for the inquisitor, all of which come with designer's commentaries, which serves as illuminating additional pieces of information. While I absolutely love this, on the down-side we don't get fluff-texts for the respective feats like in e.g. RiP's "101 Monster Feats", but I guess you can't have everything, can you?

In contrast to my older reviews, I'm not going to offer a list of the content, but rather will mention when a feat stands out, be it positive or negative. I'll start with the first, "Cautious Trip", which is a trip insurance - if you fail an attempt by 10 or more, you no longer risk being tripped yourself. While a great idea that can be applied to other combat maneuvers, I find it odd that it does not have any prerequisites - while I don't necessarily ask for "Improved Trip", I think that at least Int 13 would have been appropriate - after all "Improved Trip" has "Combat Expertise" as a prerequisite.

"Coordinated Fire" is an awesome feat: A teamwork feat that makes it easier for allies to hit an enemy you yourself hit with a ranged weapon. Can you see the deadly sniper squads? I can!

I didn't care for the mechanics of "Defensive Disarm" and "Defensive/Offensive Insight", as all three feats grant you bonuses (a free disarm after a missed attack of opportunity and Ac-bonus/bonus to attack after a foe's missed attack) after being missed - the first feat can be powerful, but is very, very specific and the second ones have a meta-gaming problem: They grants you the Ac-bonus/attack bonus to all enemies using the same statblock, something the players will remind the DM often enough, each and every time breaking the illusion of individual enemies I seek to perpetuate in my games. Offensive insight, strangely, does not have the "all enemies of statblock xyz-mechanic". And yes, I often add little details, different weapons etc. So yeah, I won't detract a star for them, but personally, I don't care for them.

"Ducking Shot", the little brother of "Point Blank Mastery" is a feat that rocks - +4 Ac against AaOs due to making ranged attacks with easier prerequisites, offering a non-weapon-specialization alternative that does not make the other feat obsolete and avoids power-creep. Two thumbs up!

In some other installments of this series, I grumbled about some feats feeling too non-specific and while with some restrictions this of course is due to the nature of feats, e.g. the Oracle-book oozed flair and fluff. "Eschew Divine Focus" is just such a feat, allowing an inquisitor to infiltrate hostile organizations thanks not having to carry around his focus to cast. I'm not entirely sure how many groups out there make the divine focus a central part of their campaigns, but in my campaigns, it tends to be an integral factor, thus: Kudos for a simple, elegant and cool feat that should see a lot of use. "Fast Track" offers the chance to better cover your tracks and hunt your enemies faster. Elegant, simple, nice.

A teamwork feat that made me chuckle as my players will love it, is "Friend and Foe" - play good cop/bad cop with your enemies! Excellent and fun! "Gotcha" is another candidate for an elegant feat - it lets you catch falling adjacent allies via a DC 10 str- or dex-check if you have a free hand. "Magical Insight" is another such elegant feat - if an opponent fails a save against a spell you cast, he or she suffers a penalty to future saves against your magic in this combat. The restriction to one battle makes this feat not only palpable, but straight-out cool for me.

"Misdirected Strike" is another keeper - a feat that makes a valid rules-definition to making your opponents hit his allies instead of you in battle, while being hard enough to get thanks to strict feat-requirements. "Subdue" is the final feat is really liked, disposing of the penalty for dealing non-lethal damage.

Finally, we get 3 sample character builds, the bloodhound (a bounty hunter), the Wolf-in-sheep's clothing ( no not the stump with the tentacles and the squirrel, but rather an evil, but oh-so-nice inquisitor) and the detective.

Conclusion:

The full--color layout is nice and the one piece of artwork is also cool. Formatting is good, but the file could have used another pass at editing - I noticed 5+ minor typos, from double letters to superfluous punctuation and while they did not impede my enjoyment of the file, at this length they could have been avoided. I did like a lot of the feats, but there were some metagamey ones among them and especially some of the combat-centric feats did not impress me that much. On the other hand, I did not notice any feats that had me explode in nerd-rage or shake my head. When seen in comparison to the other installments of the series, I did prefer the Oracle-installment over this one, but it's still a good buy. Thus, my final verdict is 3.5 Rudii.






Do you like complex traps? Well then, go and check out:


A Necromancer Grimoire: The Art of Traps


This book is 43 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 39 pages for the traps, so let's examine them!

Arts per se are an interesting love/hate concept - after all, they can put a grinding halt to the action and result in the rogue searching every square and rolling the one disable device check that determines whether the trap goes off or not. On the other hand, they make for a fun diversion and, when handled correctly, can provide fun for the whole party. Traps can be very creative, but if you're carried away, you get the more ridiculous examples of the now classic (and mostly awesome) Grimtooth-series. One approach that worked very well was 4th Dimension games' "Skill Challenges: Traps"-book, which will serve a s a kind of benchmark for me in this review.

The first thing you'll notice is that the fellows over at Necromancers of the Northwest finally included printer-friendly versions of their books, making printing out the full-color book easier. While the printer-friendly version is not b/w, it still makes for a nice b/w-print-out. The pdf is also extensively bookmarked, making navigation to the respective traps easy.

The book kicks off with a nice 2-page short story and 1 page of introduction to the matters at hand before jumping right into the traps, though not literally. The traps range from humble CR to devastating CR 20. Better, though, is that each trap gets a nice, quite extensive description to read to your rogue if he/she spots it as well as some advice on implementing the respective traps in your campaign - that's the additional kind of oomph I like in a book.

The traps themselves range from classics like boulders, moving floors etc. up to more devious ones like an exploding pendulum. Mechanically, there is nothing wrong with them and they often take e.g. tending the fire of a furnace and similar maintenance costs into account, which is nice. Even better, some ideas to combine and place the traps are included to make the creative juices flow.

The true stars of this book, though, are the 4 elaborate traps at the end of this book: Each serves as a complete encounter. The first of these traps, the endless hall, is a nice minor puzzle to escape a teleportation loop, complete with extensive details on the surroundings and a schematic map. Oh yeah, schematic maps are provided for all the elaborate maps. The next puzzle is plain awesome: a ring-maze of rotating hexagons set with traps and various configurations - that one is plain awesome! Speaking of plain awesome, the next one is the bone bridge, a complex and potentially deadly bridge that should make for a great necromancer's lair - if you're going for master necromancer, this trap should find a cherished and deadly place in his/her lair. The final trap is rather straight-forward, a room full of fire walls, deadly heat etc. - while not as awesome as the other 3 traps/puzzles, this one is just deadly and fills an iconic niche that may yet offer some things to do for all the players.

The pdf closes with 6 new poisons featured in the traps.

Conclusion:

Editing is top-notch, I didn't notice any glitches on the 43 pages, quite a feat. Formatting could be a bit better: Some of the trap-texts feature 2 words of its final sentence on the next page, making reading sometimes slightly harder than it could be, though not enough to truly impede your enjoyment of the pdf. The maps of the elaborate traps are cgi-style and while I don't particularly care for the artwork, I love the content. The poisons are a nice bonus and while their green headers don't make for the most beautiful layout decision, they are a nice bonus.

Which gets me to the content: While I did like the regular traps, they did not kindle my imagination - there is nothing wrong with them and they go quite a way, but all in all, for this section I'd settle for 3.5 to 4 stars. However, the 4 elaborate traps ROCK hard and surpass even 4th Dimensions deadly traps. They are fun, easy to insert, intelligent - I don't have any gripes with them and would settle for a final verdict of 5 Rudii on this section, resulting in an overall verdict of 4.5 Rudii, due to the VERY low price for the quality we get. If you need or like traps, check this out!






All right, gotta get back to resting! I hope I'll be able to provide some additional reviews for you fine folks soon!


As always, thank you for reading my ramblings,

Endzeitgeist out.