Spheres of Power

Spheres of Power

Spheres of Power is one massive book - 230 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of KS-backer-thanks, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with no less than 220 (!!!) pages of content, so let's dive in!

As you can glean from the sheer length of this book, my usual in-depth analysis would bloat this review to extents unprecedented, so instead, I will paint in somewhat broader strokes than usual - also, since, apart from the well-written chapter-introduction fluff-texts, the vast majority of content herein is CRUNCH.

So, the basic principle is pretty simple: Spheres of Power represents an alternate magic system that can work as a substitution for the default vancian casting and alongside it. Personally, I'd suggest using it as a replacement, mainly for a couple of reasons. For one, there is the factor of terminology. Spheres of Power utilizes the term "Caster Level" to mean something different - basically, it could be likened to the base attack bonus and, similarly, there are full, 3/4 and 1/2 progressions for classes and the like you'd convert to the system: Paladins, for example, would adhere to 1/2 CL-progression as "low casters." Saving throws are no longer based on spell levels, and instead adhere to the classic 10 + 1/2 caster level +casting ability modifier, if appropriate. Casting ability modifiers (CAM) are dependent on the respective class used. Casting time ranges from 1 hour to 1 swift action and distances adhere to pretty much the concise close, medium, long distinction we already know from spells.

Characters utilizing the Spheres of Power-system also utilize spell points equal to class level + casting ability modifier. It should be noted that the multiclass rulings for these basic components are VERY smooth and easy to grasp. Spheres of Power also introduces  the MSB and MSD - Magic Skill Bonus and Magic Skill Defense. MSB is equal to total levels in casting classes; MSD is equal to 11 + total levels in casting classes. This becomes relevant in instances of pure concentration or when pitting your magical force against another caster becomes the relevant thing you're trying to do. Concentration is d20+MSB+ability modifier - for spell-level interactions, an effect's spell level is equal to 1/2 caster level, with the option of manifesting a magical effect voluntarily at a lower caster level to render concentration easier. Penetrating SR is done via d20+MSB - simple, elegant and the same ease also works for any call for CL-checks: You instead roll MSB.
And that's about the basics. The system's core rules fit comfortably on two pages. That's a GOOD thing. Even better, the presentation is so simple and concise, it renders grasping the system hilariously easy. There also is no divine/arcane divide anymore, just fyi - so yes, false gods and the like...suddenly a much more likely narrative option. It gets better: Magic is divided not into traditional schools and subschools, but into spheres. Each time your caster level increases, you get magic talents - these can be used to unlock new spheres OR to learn special tricks within your available spheres.

You see, each sphere has basic abilities that work at-will (byebye, 5-minute adventuring day/nova issue...)...and others, that require the expenditure of spell points. Hence, you can actually remain relevant as a caster sans burning through your resources and still shine in your core competences - though, obviously, burning through your resources will yield its own benefits. This basic system also allows for exceedingly simple customization of existing classes into the frame-work of spheres of power, meaning you will not be missing out on your favorite 3pp-class or archetype, just because your group opted to go for Spheres of Power.

From the very get-go, this radically changes how magic and particularly, magic specialists, work - you no longer have a specialization represented in things you can't do, but rather by the things you CAN do AND, at the same time, you get magic that is less prone to resulting in nigh-godlike omnipotence casters at high levels - basically, sphere casters will excel at their given fields, with literally your choices each level mattering more than your class or its access to ridiculous amounts of resources, but at the same time, they will be at the same time more restricted. Magic at once becomes more manageable, but also more reliable and less bursty than in the vancian default. A total of 20 spheres are provided and each covers a significant array of utterly awesome options.

Let's take the Alteration-sphere as the first example, shall we? If you're like me and have been delving into the gritty details of shapechanging and its mechanics, you'll have noticed a serious array of pretty complicated details hiding in the proverbial shadows of polymorph-y effects - granted, the issues have been mitigated a bit by Pathfinder, but there still are ample instances wherein a particular modification of one's body becomes problematic and requires some dedicated close-reading. Alteration's basic ability, Shapeshift, requires a standard action to activate and shifts either you or a touched creature, with a duration of concentration. Unwilling creatures receive a save and necessitate the expenditure of 1 spell point to shift.

Additionally, you can expend 1 spell point to maintain shapeshift for 1 round/caster level sans concentration for 1 spell point. The ability is codified properly as a polymorph effect, and yes, we get rules for interactions between shapeshift effects, allowing you to MSB-check to see which shift prevails. Targets affected lose extraordinary and supernatural abilities and instead gain those noted...and yes, equipment and magic item activation is also properly covered. Disguise-interaction can be found and intriguingly, targets can also be partially changed via blank form, granting them e.g. low-light or darkvision, natural attacks (all sporting the proper primary/secondary classification) or cosmetic appearances.

Now this is the extent of things you can do with just access to the sphere - sans talents. Add talents into the fray and things become really interesting: Want to transform into animals or makes other creatures into humanoids? Check. Just affect the mind of the target, for a lycanthrope-like berserk, animalistic state? Check. Add lunging to natural attacks? Check. Poach amid nice monster abilities à la trip or tremorsense? Yup. Size changes? Bingo. You won't be able to do them all unless you specialize, but if you wanted a shapechanger with a focus on the undead and vermin...well, here you go, 2 talents and you're covered. And btw.: I am only lightly touching on the options one single sphere allows you to have...now contemplate what you can build with 20 of them!

Obviously, the material provided herein not only shows some extreme care regarding its rules-language and set-up, it also needs, by virtue of its "alternate system"-ambition, be able to cover the most divisive aspects of magic, the ones with the most potential for issues...and beyond complexity beasts like aforementioned alteration, there are two spheres that pretty much exemplify the basic tenets of combat-centric magic: Destruction and Life. Destruction's base ability is somewhat notorious, since it originally provided force-damage blasts at-will...which is a pretty nasty, since it is the best damage-type you can conceivably have and makes incorporeal foes too easy to eliminate. It is my happy duty to report that the damage-type has since been changed to bludgeoning, rendering the warlock-y blasting the sphere grants as a base ability less problematic.

The scaling of +1d6 every odd level and the limited range still maintain reasons for non-magical ranged weapons to exist, though you can use talents to extend the range - again, a matter of player agenda. Each blast can be further customized by one blast shape and one blast type talent, which allows for some form of control. Now, yes, this is a pretty simple means of adding warlock-y blasting capacity to your caster, but at the same time, this is the one sphere I'm not completely blown away by - mainly, since I'm a huge fan of the highly customizable ethermagic introduced in Interjection Games' Strange Magic-book: The variety there and the unique options as well as the damage-scaling are a tad bit more precise and refined and personally, I consider the resource-management there a bit more compelling...but know what? If you're mathematically up to the task, you can fuse the two/recodify ethermagic as its own sphere - the easy basic structure of spheres of power allows for such blending and ultimate, that is perhaps the biggest strength of the system.

The Life sphere, then, would be the other means by which a system could be broken: After all, this one is all about healing and by now you know how much I loathe any system that provides infinite healing. The Life sphere does just that...and at the same time, it doesn't. The base, at-will ability, allows you to provide temporary hit points to a touched target, but only up to your CL and only when the target is injured - basically, you can band-aid minor injuries, while major ones require the expenditure of spell points for proper healing, which the sphere also provides. While quite a few minor negative conditions and even ability damage can thus be alleviated via the expenditure of spell points, the tying to the resources of the respective character (remember: One pool of points for ALL spheres...), suddenly, we have an interesting resource-management game here that emphasizes the severity of different injuries by virtue of whether they can be covered by invigorate or not. My one gripe here is that invigorate's scaling could have been a tad bit less linear at higher levels, when damage far eclipses its usefulness, but then again, I can modify that to properly fit my own tenets with just a modicum of preparation and basic math. The impressive component with this sphere, at least in my book, is that it manages to provide an infinite source of HP-replenishment without breaking the game in play - even in relatively gritty contexts. Flavor-wise, it also does not suffer from in-game logic issues that haunt similar solutions or healing surges...so yes, consider me thoroughly impressed.

These three spheres, highlighting some of the most problematic potential aspects, should provide enough insight on why this system as a base set-up, has merit...but we're not just left with it. Instead, we get no less than 11 (!!!) base classes.

Since my usual in-depth analysis would bloat this horribly, please bear with me as I'm going through them at an enhanced pace:

The Armorist: d10, 2+Int skills, full BAB, good Fort-save 1/2 caster progression via Wis. This guy can create special bonded equipment (weapon, armor, etc.) with preset enchantments and swap between them on the fly in combat. Like it!

The Elementalist: d8, 4+Int skills 3/4 BAB, good Fort- and Ref-save 3/4 caster progression via Cha. Take the Destruction sphere for free with slightly better elemental enhancements as well as some monk-y tricks like evasion. Another Airbender-esque class. Okay when you're looking for it with Spheres, but I've seen cooler takes on the concept.

The Eliciter: d8, 4+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good Will-save, 3/4 caster progression via Cha. This guy is pretty much the instigator/enchantment-type of manipulator who supplements his spellcasting via 3+1/2 class level hypnotism-abilities; If gaslighting, (de-)buffing and generally being a good face is something you enjoy, then that's a great class for the subject matter.

The Fey Adept: d8, 4+Int skills per level, good Will-save, 1/2 BAB, full caster progression via Cha. If the name wasn't ample clue - here we get the illusion sphere as a bonus talent and generally supplement these tricks with shadow/nature-themed tricks. If creative illusions and fooling foes with nasty tricks is your game, then this is the one you want. Also, obviously, if you like the slightly sinister tint of fey-type material. (In Midgard, this would e.g. be interesting...)

The Hedgewitch: d8, 6+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good Will-save, 3/4 caster progression via either Int, Wis or Cha, chosen at first level. This class chooses a tradition that can be considered a thematic "bloodline"-like concept that represents different takes on the concept of the witch, with individual, exclusive customization options.

The Incanter: d6, 2+Int skills per level, 1/2 BAB, good Will-save, full caster progression via Int, Wis or Cha. This essentially can be summed up as the full-caster grab-bag class - basically, you can trade in things like domains and bloodlines (obviously minus spells and the like) for specialization points, which can be gained by losing the bonus feats of the class in ever-increasing amounts. The class also allows for such specializations to modify the spheres. Nice one.

The Mageknight: d10, 2+Int skills per level, Full BAB, good Fort- and Will-saves, 1/2 caster progression via Int, Cha or Wis. This would be the pala, bloodrager, magus-y garb-bag class. With Stalwart (evasion for Fort-and Will-saves), it has one of my pet-peeve abilities at 3rd level and over all, feels a bit like it doesn't really manage the grab-bag aspect that well...nor its own schtick. Among the classes presented herein, it's perhaps one of the conceptually weaker ones.

The Shifter: d8,4+Int skills, 3/4 BAB, good Fort- And Ref-saves, 3/4 caster progression via Wis, would, surprise, be the kind of druidy/alteration-sphere-specialist that lets you (and allies) go full blown wolpertinger via further natural attack/tricks and customization options.

The Soul Weaver: d6, 2+Int skills, 1/2 BAB, good Will-saves, full caster progression via Cha. This would be the healer/cleric/necromancer-type character that is determined by channel energy and the duality of blessings and blights. Nice one!

The Symbiat: d8, 4+Int skills, 3/4 BAB, good Ref- and Will-saves, 3/4 caster progression via Int. perhaps the class with the coolest fluff: Basically, you have a strange psionic aberration from the far realms/outer dark fused with your very souls, granting better tricks of the Mind and Telekinesis spheres and psionic-flavored additional tricks. Anime-Psion, the class, effectively. I like it enough to be thinking about how to blend this with DSP's psionics.

The Thaumaturge: d8, 4+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good Will-save, full caster progression via Int, Wis or Cha. Theme-wise, this one is a bit occult-y, having the ability to enhance his tricks for the chance of backlash and a general sense of the Spheres of Power-class for the grittier games...make no mistake, though: These guys can still go pretty much blast-happy on foes.

All right, so that would be the base-classes...but that's not even close to the end of this massive book. Instead, next, there are archetypes - in fact, one for each core class. Don't want to do the conversion work? Here's what you need. Neat! The 10-level bokor PrC would be particularly feasible for campaigns featuring both spells and sphere-casting, since it can be envisioned as a hybrid vancian/sphere-caster. Nice if you require the like; personally, I think Spheres work better as a substitution.

Okay, where things get interesting, at least for me, is with the advanced magic-chapter: Instead of smashing these components into the design of the vanilla spheres, the advanced magic talents provided can be envisioned as the rather brutal options: 2-mile darkness? Check. Tsunamis and summoning? Check - This section is absolutely, marvelously, brilliant. Why? Because it does right what so many systems like this do not get: There is a lot table-variation out there. From low-fantasy grit to epic high-fantasy, from magic suffused space-opera to horror-esque sci-fantasy, there are infinite ways to play the game - and this chapter collects the high-fantasy, huge AoE, narrative effects and takes that requirement off the GM's shoulders: No skimming through the spheres and disallowing certain options - simply restrict this chapter (or unlock) it at your leisure and there you go. Quite honestly, this is absolutely stunning: Want to play a game where PCs can unleash tsunamis against dragon-fleets? Allow! Want to play gritty survival at low levels? Ban (at least for the PCs...)! Simple, elegant and as tightly phrased and presented as possible. A joy to read and a fistpump-worthy hell yeah moment if there ever was one. 

Secondly, rituals deserve special mention - know how I mentioned that imho, this works best as a substitution? If you're like me, you will have rolled your eyes and thought: "Oh great, so module xyz, which banks on spell zyx, now won't work." Enter rituals. Basically, this allows you to redesign spells into sphere-based rituals that duplicate the spell's effects and aligns them with spheres. While personally, I'm not a big fan of adding the power imbalance of the triple scaling axis of spells back in, particularly when a module requires the like, a limited system-transparency is thus maintained...and you can still tinker with the casting time (which is increased significantly) even further: This allows magic to have a Sword & Sorcery-style flair: Sure, there is the quick sphere-casting...and then, there is the time-consuming, dread, city-leveling rituals...and you can add wonderful lists of exotic components to the fray for further adventuring opportunities and means for the PCs to foil evil ritualists. Optional pricing and tables of strange effects further supplement this use of the rules.

The Spellcrafting system that allows you to make your own magical effects, at least to me, somewhat pales in its actual requirement (seeing how many spells can be converted), but who am I to complain...particularly when my beauties, one of my favorite sub-systems, incantations, are covered as well? This book, at this point on my initial read, had achieved an almost creepy level of "EZG likes it" - something further escalated by the copious player options that not only manage to get counterspelling and circle casting and contingencies right; no, beyond mere feats and the like, it was the accumulation of casting traditions that further elated me to levels of joy seldom obtained: Basically, you choose boons and drawbacks for casting traditions, representing benefits and drawbacks of individual approaches to magic, with general and sphere-specific ones all coming together in one glorious customization fest that should have both players and GMS alike grin from ear to ear.

Okay, but what about the magic items? One whole chapter is devoted to magic items, crafting and modified effects, further underlining the massively-detailed, holistic approach of the book. And yes, you'd be right in a way that this book may sound daunting at first glance - it's really not. Also thanks to a massive chapter guiding you through the implementation of rules, the cherry-picking process and manipulation/creation of more of them - before actually delving into several brief sketches of sample campaign settings sporting the rules- Oh, and, just in case you're like me a grumpy guy and now would begin complaining about "magic not existing in its own vacuum" and things like "world consistency" - what about no less than 6 sample organizations, including traits and TPA/CPA-levels? Heck yes.

But, you know me: I'll still complain over the lack of NPCs. Well, we get those as well. And skeleton/zombie/animated object toolkits. Oh, and char-sheets.


Editing and formatting are top-notch  -while I noticed very minor inconsistencies here and there (one ability reading: (primary...) while another read (Primary...) and the like, at this point, any complaints about those sound hollow. One pet-peeve of mine makes me constantly cringe, though: The books gets cold damage wrong, constantly referring to it as "frost damage" etc. - something that btw. also extends to the expansion..but at least it is consistent in this glitch.

Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard with ample of original full-color artworks. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and provides an interactive version of the char-sheet. Unfortunately, I do not own the physical copy of this book, so no, I can't comment on that version.

Adam Meyers, Owen K.C. Stephens, Thomas Keene, Ryan ricks - gentlemen, you have me utterly flabbergasted. It's time to come clean here: I wasn't excited about this book in the least. Not at all. I saw the KS and literally thought "Meh, don't need it." You see, the pitch of avatar/fiction-like spellcasting simply didn't appeal too much to me. Damn, was I wrong. For one, sphere casting is much (MUCH!) better balanced than vacian spellcasting and the introduction of the material herein should end the martial/caster-strife for most groups. Secondly, this book actually manages something just about unprecedented: It manages to account for table variations in an almost uncanny way: You can use Spheres of Power with Interjection Games-classes, psionics, Akashic Mysteries...and actually get a balanced, cool game. similarly, you could highly restrict it and go full-blown gritty...or utterly anime-style high-fantasy. This system's modularity is a thing of true beauty, its easy means for potential expansion a milestone. Now granted, there are some minor aspects I am not a fan of - stalwart, the destruction-sphere's blasting and similar elements all didn't blow me away - but see, that's the beauty of the system: By means of its elegance and relatively open design, I see no reason why a capable GM couldn't tweak, mesh and blend the living hell out of this system.

Beyond an increased emphasis on meaningful player-agenda, tight rules-language and a holistic claim it actually manages to fulfill, spheres of power also has these cool tidbits: From the advanced customization to relics and incantations, this massive book takes just about anything you could complain about and tells you "Jep, already covered that...here." This may very well be one of the, if not the most refined, yet open casting systems I've seen in a long, long time - one that still can, but doesn't need to, draw on the vast canon of published Pathfinder-material.

If the above, gushing monologue wasn't ample clue for you: Spheres of Power is a phenomenal book, a tome of a quality you only rarely get to see and one that is, quite frankly, significantly better than the limited KS-pitch back in the day ever made me hope it could be. Spheres of Power is a universally, absolutely superb book, one that cannot only inspire characters or the like - it can inspire campaigns. It is my firm conviction that this book belongs into the library of the distinguished Pathfinder-GM: There is an exceedingly high chance that my next campaign will use these rules (alongside non-vancian casting classes by e.g. Dreamscarred Press and Interjection Games) to take a complete break from vancian spellcasting. Not because I don't like spells and the vancian system - quite the contrary, actually. However, because I believe that using this book and using different spellcasting methods lets you tell a whole cosmos of different tales, of different power-levels and dichotomies between casters and non-casters.

I'll say it again - Spheres of Power is one of the most impressive books I've read in a long while; it may not be perfect, but it is a massive inspiration and I staunchly believe that any group can benefit from at least contemplating using this book when starting a new campaign (or initiating a magic-altering event/switching settings, etc.). Spheres of Power is a milestone-level book I will certainly try to get in print. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars, seal of approval, nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 as well as the EZG Essentials-tag, since its facilitation for story-telling and its ridiculously high scavenging/system-fusion potential. A stellar tome, well worth every cent of its fair asking price. 

You can get this superb, massive tome here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

If you want to support Drop Dead Studios making more Spheres of Power-supplements, you can do so here on their patreon!
Endzeitgeist out.


Pixies on Parade

Pixies on Parade

This module clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 22 pages of content, so let's take a look!

This was moved up on my review-queue as a prioritized review at the behest of my patreons.

I playtested this module with my group of kids, which spans the ages 4 - 11 since this is a kid-friendly module and as such needs to be tested regarding its best age-range - the tabs on my homepage contain the suggested range I'd most recommend this for.

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion - you see, no one likes cheaters and you'll just make the module boring for you if you continue reading.
All right, only GMs here? Great! Every year, the town of Glavnost celebrates a festival most peculiar, dressing up with wings and the like to honor the fully statted town's pixie protectors that keep even the most unruly children from being lost in the forest...failing only very rarely. Alas, one particularly stubborn child named Edwin, seeking freedom from his parent's commands and wanting a life of eternal blissful parade with the pixies, slipped through the cracks - and the Nightmare King, a boogeyman got him, halting his aging process and grooming him to become the successor, a son...a new boogeyman.

After a brief introduction of the key-NPCs of Glavnost, the festivities of the town (which comes with a thoroughly gorgeous map that could come straight out of a children's book) are in full-blown preparation - here, the kids have some time to roam, to mingle with the townsfolk and do some research that may hint at the importance of the pixie parade, the nightmare king and the disbelief regarding the existence of gremlins, in spite of the little buggers being made responsible for many a mischief. The prevalence of fey magic allows for a unique gift here: Imagination magic.

With the power of imagination, the kids can subtly alter reality, which also represents e.g. carts coming around in just the right place to catch falling characters and the like - and yes, if the kids are smart, they'll pick up on this and use it to their advantage! Speaking of kid-friendly: A handy little sidebar covers cartoon violence and how to depict it - for while the adults can't see the gremlins sabotaging the town, the kids can - and thus, the first task is basically gremlin extermination, with 3 sample sabotages being provided.

Eventually, the success of the PCs will earn them the attention of fairy godmother Lista, who fills them in on Edwin's fate - which mirrors a playful way to convey stranger danger's importance as well as acknowledging something: That parents don't tell all stories to the children, worrying it might give them bad dreams. This is something that ultimately, instinctively, all children know - and to save Edwin, the fairy bestows 6th level (previously gained XP) on the players, tasking them to redeem Edwin and freeing him from the Nightmare King's influence.

In order to do that, though, they have to brave Edwin's dark dreams - first, defeating his shade in a game of hide and seek and then, braving toy soldier variant wood golems (the battle featuring a GLORIOUS isometric map!) that are moved around via a giant, shadowy hand. Edwin's hound would be the next task - and here, things become interesting: The poor dog, turned hellhound by Edwin's descent into darkness, just wants to play fetch, but the damn sticks keep burning, resulting in angry fire blasts into the woods...which may cause a forest fire! Here, one can teach about being careful with fire...and the encounter rewards kids thinking and providing a stick that doesn't burn...and reduce the dog back to a regular, non-hellhound pup.

On the, again, lavishly mapped isometric map of the path ahead, fairy circle traps and a tooth fairy await and upon vanquishing the fey, the PCs may get a glitterdust-duplicating Baby Tooth of Edwin. There is another encounter next that offers yet another means to educate and slightly shock: Edwin, thinking he can impress the fey with a present, stole his parent's wedding ring - this item became the symbol his remorse, transforming into a now chained golden dragon that needs to be freed, filling in the PCs on Edwin's crime before turning back into the ring, asking them to present it to Edwin.

...and then, the ground shakes...trees start toppling...and a ravaging, massive stuffed bear of colossal proportions breaks through the trees...and yes, this encounter once again is beautifully rendered in isometric maps of stellar quality...and yes, the massive, powerful Terror Bear is a powerful adversary indeed...but vanquishing him provides a return of the creature to Edwin's teddy-bear of old, which may suppress fear effects.

An then, it's time for the final boss fight: Edwin, accompanied by corrupted, color-less pixies, wants to collect all the pixies for his twisted mockery of a parade...but thankfully, the encounters so far have provided all the components the PCs need to save him: Each of his erstwhile fragments of innocence recovered frees a pixie and, together, they may free Edwin, exorcising the influence of the Nightmare King, freeing raw nightmare power - which is a thoroughly awesome climax: The Nightmare Avatar has powerful, unique powers that the kids may know from nightmares: Like being slowed. At the same time, though, they can use their imagination magic to counter his dread powers in an excellent showdown that may end with the PCs reuniting Edwin with his overjoyed parents - happy ends don't happen on their own; one needs to fight for them...and one needs to do the right thing. This morale, unobtrusively conveyed throughout these pages, it what really makes this shine above and beyond.

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard by Daniel Marshall and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The copious full-color artworks by Jacob Blackmon are neat indeed. A special shout-out to cartographer Jocelyn Sarvida - the maps of this books are downright BEAUTIFUL, featuring gorgeous renditions of the adversaries, which makes them btw. also suitable handouts. Speaking of which - as the astute reader may have noticed, I did not explicitly state that there'd be 1-page hand-outs of said maps. Well, never fret - as the final piece of awesome, this module does feature a PWYW-map-folio for handouts purposes. Take a look at it if you need any example on how good the maps are...

Stephen Rowe's Pixies on Parade is, in one word, inspired: Mirroring classic tropes of the power of imagination and fairy tales, it never crams morality down the throats of the players, while still teaching what's right and what's wrong. The idea of imagination magic is brilliant as a tool for GMs. Now, as for the themes of the module and its suitability for kids: It's pretty much perfect, mirroring themes of beloved children's tales and not shirking away from important topics, all presented in a child-friendly manner. I can see some very young kids that are particularly sensitive consider the themes a bit frightening, but in my case, the 4-year old enjoyed the module, surprisingly, more than "A Friend in Need," despite being frightened a bit - that depends on the kid in question, though and requires the discretion of the parents - personally, I would have loved this module as a 4-year old, having always had a penchant for slightly more mature stories, even as a kid...and yes, I learned to read at a very young age to read some fairy-tales my parents considered inappropriate...which became my favorites. It is my firm belief that kids can benefit from topics that are not all sunshine and flowers, particularly if they feature a didactic and moral component.

As a reviewer, I think the target age-range for most kids will span the ages of 6+ - and yes, I did not include a limit for a reason. Why? Because this module not only is great for kids. It's just as awesome for adults: Seriously, just tweak the fluff a bit and make it darker and you have a GLORIOUS fairy-tale themed introductory module that makes for a great starting point of PC careers as a prologue: Just let the level 6-blessing revert after the module and skip to adulthood - where you can also add elements appropriate for the process of growing up and paint a bleaker picture.

Pixies on Parade is a downright awesome: From the gorgeous maps to the blending of sandboxing in the beginning and a more linear heroes' journey, this book's themes are concise...and there is not a single boring encounter in this book, not a single uninspired critter or problematic scene, nothing I could complain about. In one sentence: This is a must-have, perfect module for kids, a great module for adults and a book that should be considered simply inspired in all the right ways. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval..and considering the perfection, the fact that it transcends the intended target demographic and the map-folio, I will also award this the status as a nominee for my top ten of 2015.

You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!  

The PWYW-map-booklet can be found here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror

The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let's take a look!

But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons - that means you'll get A LOT of supplemental material herein - spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.

Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre - the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound - and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this - also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.

All right, so let's see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don't spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module - you'd regret it.
All right...only GMs here? Great! 

So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I'll let the module answer:
"Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions [...] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock [...] and when these tendrils break through to the earth's crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being." - and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D'Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident - and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework - and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance "Fleur de Lis" into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it - but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned - after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.

The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item - the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur's former wielder.

But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I've seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.

An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it's spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb - and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there - you see, the tomb does not hold the lance...or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought...are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn't even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.

It's when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy - fast. The castle's vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares  and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws - and something I could hug the module for: There's not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place's incantations remain...as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.

Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case - instead, let's skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle's dangers, they will find those odd caverns...and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard - and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast - all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls...and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads...massively.

Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf - who also constitutes the boss...but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you've handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin...and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper "What have we done?"

Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don't fit your plans, fret not - as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils...

As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals - and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order's vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought...

Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons' printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions - one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography's quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you'd expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.

Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I've ever read. That's a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific - but it's not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that's not what this is about, either.
Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism - and such symbolism can be found herein - whether it's the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like - we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these.
Hence, this module is decidedly smart - it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it - slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading - it's these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.

Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work...and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions - the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of completely alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats - it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings - they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.

Horror must grow - and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder - so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn't have to, mind you - but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules - something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those "bones & blood are creepy"-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests. 

This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks - it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less...impactful...but you'd rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.

On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I've seen A LOT regarding gothic horror - I've dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before - the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked...stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible "thwump." This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games - what more can you ask for?

One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I'll elaborate. And if you don't care about any part of this, just run it - you'll understand what I meant once you've completed this module...

Richard maintains his streak - this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you're wondering - yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren't simple adventures - they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won't find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point...or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term "gothic horror" around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed - this is how it's done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.

You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.