Yuletide Terror

Yuletide Terror

This massive Christmas mega-adventure clocks in at 119 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 6 pages of SRD, 2 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 107 pages of content, making this the single largest Christmas module I have ever read and played.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

Before we dive into the main meat, let us talk about a couple of peculiarities: One: The layout in full-color is gorgeous and sports a ribbon on the right side of the page, which denotes the act/part of the adventure you’re currently in. This makes navigation more convenient, so that would be one plus. Another plus would be that we get a total of 4 pages of player-friendly maps for the battle/exploration-relevant sections, all in full-color – big kudos for their inclusion. It should also be noted that the adventure makes use of the PHENOMENAL skill challenge rules provided in the Skill Challenge Handbook.

You don’t have perhaps the single most important crunch-book I know, the thing that should be CORE? Well…you should get it. But even if you don’t, you won’t need it to run this adventure. Skill Challenges are easy enough to grasp so you won’t be puzzled by their inclusion. The appendix also explains the system, so you can run it easily. It should btw. also be noted that two new, nice occult rituals can be found herein, though I’ll comment on these when they become relevant.

It should also be noted that the adventure is set in the picturesque town of Hollyglen, which not only comes fully mapped and with proper settlement stats, but which features its own little summary in the appendix.

All right, and this is as far as I can go without going DEEP into SPOILER Territory. Only naughty folks would peek now, right? From here on out, only folks intending to GM the module should read on.
All righty, only GMs around? Great! So, the adventure very much is cognizant of various tropes associated with Krampus and Kringle – within the context of this adventure, Krampus is nothing short of a demi-god, one nasty fellow who was eventually vanquished by none other than Nicholas Krindl, fabled mortal herald of Odin. The Yuletide celebration is hence the commemoration of this epic victory. The PCs have arrived in the sleepy and picturesque town of Hollyglen, where they meet Melilion Parinda, local wizard, who, in the tradition of clueless folks in any dimension, is currently doing some hasty last-minute shopping. She invites the PCs to stay at her place, as a blizzard is approaching and all rooms at inns etc. are occupied. There is just one condition: The PCs should chaperone her son and his friends, while the adults attend a fancy gala. Thing is, her son Wesley is 13. (As an aside: The mansion is provided with detailed, nice full-color maps – as noted before, including a player-friendly version.) Beyond room descriptions, the respective events also come with proper read-aloud text, making the adventure, as a whole, really friendly towards GMs that are less confident in improvising captivating prose.

Yeah, he reacts as positive to babysitters as you’d expect. The young man and his friends do as I would have done in that age: He seeks to prank the PCs and make their life miserable. As an apprentice to the sorcerous arts, and with fellow kids that are similarly not ordinary, the PCs will have their hands full in a massive multi-phase skill-challenge. Now here’s the thing: The kids rank among the most well-rounded kid characters I have seen in pretty much any roleplaying game supplement: There are multiple reasons for that: For one, the kids come with full intrigue-style write-ups for social influences – and succeeding in gaining the trust of the kids will provide tangible benefits for the PCs during the adventure. This whole section only works because, well, the kids are proper characters, not annoying cardboard cutouts; the PCs may very well want to befriend them. (As an aside: If the full, social write-ups don’t suffice: The kids come with full-blown NPC-write-ups and detailed stories in the appendix. The adventure really goes above and beyond here.)

Now, know how I mentioned an occult ritual? Wesley tries to cast whisk away on the evening winds, one ritual, to send the PCs to the gala, embarrassing them and gaining a bit of independence. Alas, he makes a crucial mistake: The ritual’s second page is missing, and so he ends up casting a bastardized version of the ritual, using summon the bonded soul as the second half. The results are unexpected. You see, a certain demi-god like entity was *just* in the process of rekindling his divine power. The ritual interrupted that and ended up calling KRAMPUS. Yeah, the CR 21 Krampus. He is NOT amused.

Krampus walks all over the kids and PCs. He doesn’t kill anyone, but he will defeat them. Soundly. Wesley does have a wish that Krampus owes him…and so the entity tricks Wesley – he spares the kids and PCs, but banishes them to the Krampus Night demiplane, ripped from Krindl when he stole his legendary Crook! Oh, and guess what? Not only did Krampus effortlessly best the PCs. He also has the power of regression – he transforms the PCs into kids! (Here, you can make great use of Childhood Adventures – though, once again, the module has all relevant stats and rules for kid-PCs!)

Turned into children, the PCs and their wards find themselves in the nightmare manor, a horrid reflection of the Parinda manor (separate maps provided). In case you’re wondering: Yes, we get full-blown planar traits! Oh, and the challenges within the manor? They are really, REALLY amazing: Toy slags. A woodgolem made from toys…speaking of which: If the PCs have been good to the kids, they will help the kiddyfied PCs. Cool: The “request aid from kids”-component of the manor’s explanation actually sports proper rules! There are haunts that seek to enforce a polymorph via ribbons, clothes, etc. What about pied piping presents that may lead towards the hungry gullets of mimics? There are trompe l’oeils and redcap carolers (including a delightfully twisted variant of Deck the Halls…)…and the PCs may manage to find one of Krindl’s gnomes, who can fill them in on some particulars: The PCs will need to get the crook from Krampus – without it, the entity makes all the rules here…

At one point during the exploration, the PCs will have caused enough ruckus to attract Rethspalton, the mighty rodent king – and he is preparing a siege! The PCs won’t have long, but they will have some time…and this is perhaps one of the definite highlights in the module. Preparing for the siege is amazing: Fortifying doors, making traps – it’s AMAZING and one of the coolest mini-games I’ve seen in a long while: The PCs can, room by room, convert objects into raw materials! The module even comes with icons that you can place on the map, sample traps, etc. The rules here are amazing and the siege actually requires these tricks – the PCs will have to withstand no less than 5 waves of assailants and yes, e.g. the rodent king is a lavishly-crafted and potent foe.

Once the PCs have managed to withstand the hordes (or just before they fall to them), the friendly gnome will manage to activate the yuletide express figurine – all aboard the magical railway! The demiplane is Krampus’ domain, who has completely corrupted the Krindlworks…but there is hope: While the PCs have no real chance against the entity, Saint Nick may! Thus, the train is en route towards what remains of the Krindlworks…but once more, the foes are not sleeping: The (fully mapped) train will be attacked by deadly elementals…and if these fail to derail it (yes, badass fights on a winter train!!), Krampus will intervene and crash the train…which would be a good time to note that, even if PCs die here, they respawn, as they accumulate negative levels and Wisdom damage – there is no true death here, only the looming transformation into an allip at Wisdom 0. This also means that enemies slain by the PCs are not really dead – if they are smart and use nonlethal means of conflict resolution, they will possibly have an advantage. The module notes checkpoints, which are particularly helpful to avoid frustration when running this for a younger audience – but more on my discussion of that in the conclusion below.

You see, in Act III, the PCs make their way from the crashed train through the Krampus wilds, and there are quite a few neat optional encounters to increase the challenge; personally, I’d also advocate sending all foes really slain by the PCs after them once more: If they were just tied up, they probably are far away, but the respawning dynamics for NPCs are open enough to allow for that… (Adds an unobtrusive reward for behaving heroically…)

Making their way through the snow-blasted wilds, the PCs will have to contend with horrid Yuletide treants and a winter hag guarding the remains of the proud Krindlworks. It is also here that the PCs can encounter Chillsy. Chillsy is amazing. He is an awakened ice golem kineticist. He’s singing his own theme-song while fighting! To give you an excerpt: “Chillsy, the ice golem, is an overwhelming soul, with a kinetic blade and infusions bold and my cryokinetic cold..:” Come on, that is amazing! Exploring the Krindlworks, the PCs will have to contend with all manner of potent, animated gingerbread foes (led by a gingerbread witch!), a creepy poppet witch (still one of my favorites from Paranormal Adventures; as always, all relevant rules provided)…and remember Nightmare Before Christmas BBBEG? Well, there is a representation of the Oogie Bogeyman! (worm that walks bogeyman – really cool!) This thing, as well as a potent orang-pedak, constitute a couple of the dangerous unique creatures that the PCs MUST defeat – for they hold parts of Krindl’s power, who, similarly turned into a child, is imprisoned here.

Once the PCs have managed to defeat the horrible lieutenants of Krampus and reassembled the crook, it’ll be time to face off against the entity once more – with a weakened, but still potent Krindl in their corner, they may actually have a chance against the shadowy vestige of the powerful Krampus – the boss fight is amazing: It sports a total of 3 phases, changes terrain and even has a phase, where the PCs fight on their own, caught within their minds – it is glorious and cinematic! Defeating the vestige returns ownership of the demiplane to Krindl and allows the PCs to spend, concealed by the mighty magic of Krindl, one day as kids…or, you know, the change could be permanent, requiring further quests…or, well, if they were defeated and you’re going for a horror-ending, the module even sports a “bad ending” of sorts, which could yield further adventures as well. (Fyi: The fully-powered stats of Krindl are epic: CR22/MR 6; Rudolph has an effective druid level of 20…)

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no undue accumulation of hiccups. Layout deserves special mention: It is GLORIOUS, full-color and really beautiful; the ribbon for chapters on the side is a nice comfort-plus. The module comes with a ton of original full-color artworks. The pdf is fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks.

Yuletide Terror is absolutely amazing. It makes use of all the diverse tools that PFRPG offers: Combat, skills, mini-games, social interaction – this is one of the most versatile modules I have read in a long while. This mega-adventures provides a level of quality you usually only get to see in Kickstarters. Alexander Augunas is a great author of crunch, but if this is any indication, he is similarly gifted when it comes to penning adventures; I frankly can’t believe that this is Alex’ first adventure, at least it’s the first one I got to read. Yuletide Terror is thoroughly impressive, from front to back – even if you do not have all the books used here, the module provides what you need, requiring none of them.

Now, there is bound to be the question regarding compatibility for kids: You see, here things depend WHOLLY on the GM and what the GM chooses to emphasize. I’d compare this to one of the darker 80’s kid’s movies. There are definitely some creepy elements here, so in general, I’d recommend that kids should be at least 8, with 10 being probably a kind of sweet spot. Then again, it’s impossible to make proper blanket statements here; heck, some adults can’t stand anything remotely spooky. A good benchmark would imho be labyrinth, nightmare before Christmas and last unicorn – if these work for your kids, then this adventure should as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong: While this *can* be run as a kid-friendly module, it is one that will challenge and entertain adults just as well; in fact, one could consider this a horror adventure, at least to a point; if you properly emphasize the macabre aspects here and there, then this can become pretty dark pretty fast…but ultimately, how you choose to run this mega-adventure is left up to your own tastes. Both playstyles perfectly work.

Anyway, that’s not the primary achievement of the module: The sheer diversity of challenges encountered, the great pacing and high-concept environments, the lovingly-made NPCS – when the structure, the crunch underlying this module, is analyzed, you’ll realize quickly how good this actually is. We have believable, sympathetic characters, we have an epic threat that requires heroes and a satisfying conclusion-array. The module is interesting from both a narrative, and a structural perspective. Furthermore, and that is a huge plus, at least for me, it is bereft of cynicism. Even if you emphasize the darker aspects when running this, the module very much breathes a sense of wonder and whimsy that is impossible to dislike.

This is not a cynic’s hatred for the holidays made module; instead, this is a lovingly crafted love-letter to all things Christmas-related, as seen through the lens of roleplaying storytelling. Yuletide terror is not only the most massive Christmas adventure I know, it also is, by far, the best. This is a masterpiece that breathes passion, care and is, frankly, fun. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that, even if you hate all things Christmas-related, you may still want to get this. Why? Well, you could still strip off the dressing and have an amazing adventure.

Yeah, at this point you probably won’t be surprised by my final rating: 5 stars + seal of approval. Oh, and yes, this is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017. Even beyond the holiday angle, this is a module that will be hard to beat.

You can get this masterpiece here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

Down in Yon Forest (NGR/OSR)

Down in Yon Forest (NGR/OSR)

This module clocks in at 32 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page blank, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 28 pages, so let’s take a look!

Wait, before we do, a couple of notes: One, this adventure sports stats for both NGR (Neoclassical Geek Revival) and general OSR-stats; if you have the choice, I’d suggest using the NGR-versions.

Secondly, this is a so-called buystarter. This is a term the author uses for an interesting concept: You purchase basically a completed manuscript; each day, the price of the project goes up slightly, as proceeds from the product’s sales are reinvested in artwork, layout, etc. Zzarchov Kowolski has done so twice before. (Yes, reviews of those projects are coming.) So yeah, sufficient interest provided, the adventure’s formal criteria will improve; hence, I will rate this with a WIP-status in mind.

Now, why did I move this ahead in my reviewing queue? Well, it is only seasonally available. You can get this adventure only for a very brief timeframe: At the 25th of December, it will once again vanish into the ether for a whole year. So yeah, if you are interested in this, you need to act fast.

Now, in case you were wondering: This is not a happy-go-lucky Christmas adventure; it sports the rather dark and dry humor of the author, so yeah – not recommended for kids.

This out of the way, let us dive into the details! From here on out, ladies and gentlemen, the SPOILERS will reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So, we all know how Christianity superimposed holidays on pagan traditions, right? Well, The Holy Church did just that (accompanied by copious mockery of pagan traditions) – thing is, they did know that the pagans were on to something: In certain locations, the veil between worlds grows dimmer. While the rhythmic chanting of yuletide congregations held the Krampus at bay just as efficiently as the pagan rites, this year will be a bit problematic. You see, the drunken priest has managed to burn himself alive and, in the process of doing so, he also burned down the church. Joy. (Told you this had a dark humor…)

So, the threat is, basically, that Krampus will take all the children…so what to do? Well, breaking off crosses at the cemetery may be smart (blessed, they can hurt the entity…) and there are a couple of additional complications: A child-eating, horribly deformed witch living in an abandoned mill is one issue; convincing some hussars that the old tale is real may be nigh impossible, but hey, worth a try, right? Islands that house perchten (beast-men), random tables for the ice-covered wilderness.

There are roughly 3 different, completely different ways, in which the module can be tackled: 1) The PCs can attempt to delay Krampus; while the entity is too strong to properly defeat (unless they are really lucky), delaying tactics may well work. A breakdown of individual strategies are provided. There is also a fortress, abandoned due to plague and now infested with powerful gargoyles, which may yet act as holy ground, holding the entity at bay – but convincing the townsfolk to go there, even if the fully mapped place is cleared, may be tough. Thirdly, there is the option of awakening the Winter King, a local pagan deity, currently sealed in his abode, which constitutes another dungeon that is fully mapped and depicted – smart players will not loot everything here and try to be respectful, while not being slaughtered by the undead…and hopefully, also not by the nosferatu interloper…

Cool, btw.: From the bodies of defeated foes, new magics may be unearthed (when using NGR rules), while two grimoires may be found – one is btw. the book of moderate darkness. This dry humor also extends to the magic items – there are several items devoted to the Winter King’s rites, including everlasting cakes.

Editing and formatting are good; since this is not yet the final version, I am more forgiving regarding formatting inconsistencies and the like. Layout adheres to a no-frills 1-column standard of black text on white paper. The version I reviewed does not yet have interior artwork. The cartography in b/w by Dyson logos is great, though I wished we got player-friendly versions. The pdf has no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort detriment in my book.

I ended up enjoying Zzarchov Kowolski’s pagan holiday adventure; it is a dark yarn set in an age of ignorance, but it does have its fun components. Structure-wise, I thoroughly enjoyed the multiple ways in which the module can be tackled and the open-ended problem-solution options taken into account. There is serious fun to be had here – though it should be noted that this is not necessarily a Christmas module in spirit; instead, we have a dark fantasy/horror yarn that makes use of Christmas tropes, but that becomes its own thing. I most certainly consider it to be fun, if not a module I’d play to get into the holiday spirit.

Then again, if you’re like me and have…problems with the holidays, some sort of baggage ad want a module that fits the season without hearkening too close to the things we associate with the holidays nowadays, if you want a dry, dark critique on the season, then this pretty much is perfect.

Now, I really enjoyed this module, due to completely different reasons than most Christmas modules; because it is kind of anti, but without resorting to a full-blown inversion or spitefulness; it is a tale of the holidays in a world, where the meaning behind such a celebration may well spell the difference between life and death.

Now, as mentioned, this is a buystarter; that means it currently does not sport a couple of things I’d usually consider to be crucial – bookmarks, player-friendly maps, formatting – these show definitely that this is a WIP project right now. As such, it wouldn’t be fair to judge it according to the same standards as finished projects – if this was the final version, I’d probably be less lenient. Right now, this is an incredibly inexpensive offering, and it provides some seriously different takes on the themes; as such, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars. It has the potential of becoming a proper 5-star adventure…or to drop to 3. Only time and this project will tell. We’ll see. If the above sounded interesting, then check it out – every day means a slight price-increases…and, as mentioned before, it will vanish on the 25th

 You can get this adventure here on OBS - but only until the 25th!

Endzeitgeist out.


Into the Wintery Gale: Wrath of the Jötunn

Into the Wintery Gale: Wrath of the Jötunn

This massive mega-adventure/sourcebook clocks in at 199 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages panorama/art-showcases of the front cover sans logo etc., 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 2 page KS-thanks, 1 page encounter contributors, 1 page rune-design sheet (more on that later), 1 page back cover, leaving us with 187 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Okay, so this module takes place in the Vikmordere Valley on the planet of Aventyr – in case you’re not familiar with the culture, let me give you a brief run-down: Picture a blending of the cultures of Native Americans and Vikings. Sounds badass? It is! One of the biggest strengths of AAW Games’ early offerings is the establishment of this culture, of depicting it in a way that is plausible, that feels real and yet fantastic and different. It is, at this point, no secret that I adore the Vikmordere as a concept. In this book, we take a look at their home, the majestic Vikmordere valley around serpent lake. In fact, a significant part of this book can be considered to be a sourcebook of life and survival in this region – there are really cool rules for 3-step hypothermia and frostbite that add the survivalist aspect for groups that enjoy a challenge in that vein – they are simple, yet rewarding and make seeking shelter, exposure etc. a significant aspect of the game. Big plus for these tundra survival rules. In these, e.g. Vikmordere winter outfits (completely described and explained), rations, boneskates and frossenpine (a wooden pole used to catapult iceskaters along), bear paws – the basic set-up is great.

Beyond that, we get an amazing table that lists all traveling distances from place to place – really comfortable for the GM and something we only see rarely in modules for the more modern systems. Now, I called this both an adventure and a setting sourcebook – there is a reason for that. You see, there are two magical hazards that render this massive adventure more of a challenge – the ice fog and the wintery gale: Ammo is swept by the winds, teleportation is cursed and snow-blindness due to whiteouts is a deadly threat. On the lake, sentient icebergs (!!) make for a fantastic, yet amazing “trap” – more of a skill challenge than just a simple trap or haunt, but yeah – hunting icebergs? Come on, that is amazing and oozes fantastic North from every pore, right? The book also features MASSIVE random encounter tables, with full stats of the creatures included for your convenience.

And there are special events. 30, to be more precise. These were sourced from the contributing backers and are thoroughly creative and diverse: Stalking yetis, dazzling ice rifts, bridges across chasms, where the gale is funneled into the depths, wells inhabited by Brunnmigi, hobbled hunters, ice trolls in a feud with the Vikmordere who actually want the conflict resolved, strange shrooms that bury into the unconscious to animate them, white wyrm riders – the encounters are GOLD and feel, very much, like the notes that you can read in an old-school hexcrawl – not exactly lavishly detailed, but thoroughly inspiring.

Now, there is an issue that particularly inexperienced GMs running a hexcrawl will be all too familiar with: How many descriptions of a landscape can you create before it gets dull? How many different ways do you know to describe an icy tundra? New school modules tend to deal with the requirement for lavish descriptions via read-aloud text, but that usually only works within the context of a linear structure, not a sandbox. The rebuttal to this problem that this massive sandbox provides is glorious in its simplicity and something I honestly expect to see from comparable modules from this point onwards. The solution is, simply, descriptions. Grouped by area. Open tundra, mountain base, mountain pass, glacier – all types of arctic environments featured herein come with a TON of glorious prose-descriptions for the wilderness. More than 16 pages, to be more precise. These descriptions really help to maintain the atmosphere, are easily scavenged and make sense in a ton of ways.

Which brings me to my central thesis regarding the analysis of this adventure: This is a blending of both old-school and new-school design aesthetics; the wilderness sections behave like an easy to customize point-crawl, driven by plot, but lavish in its freedom within the traveling experience. At the same time, both highly detailed adventure hooks, read-aloud texts etc. provide an engaging plot.

Okay, at this point, I need to start going into the details of the plot, so from here on out, the SPOILERS reign. The wintery gale will take intrepid players that read any further! Skip to the conclusion or incur the icy wrath!

All right, only GMs around? Great! We begin with potent symbolism – the PCs are surprised by a horrible snowstorm, only to be visited by an ash-grey owl that tries to lead the PCs further; as the blizzard seems too potent, the owl suddenly is wreathed in flames and guides the PCs – for they are the ones chosen by the demi-goddess Ningatha. As they make their way through the relentless cold towards Völsfiheimr, she introduces the PCs to the Northern Fury Council of the Vikmordere clans. Honoring the request of the ancestral spirit, the PCs get to participate in the gathering of jarls. You see, the Ohjaslange has approached once more and a vast evil stirs – 400 years have passed since the Vikmordere last managed to defeat, by the skin of their teeth, the dread Jötunn – and now, they and the curse of their gale has returned. In order to stop the dreaded undead, immortal frost giants, the PCs will have to reclaim the ancient artifacts that once provided the tools of the downfall of the giants – the sword Vlfberht and the shield Skojold Rustning – both, however, have fallen into deep obscurity, the bloodline that once guarded them fallen into obscurity. While the PCs are celebrated if they take the richly-rewarded quest (and may certainly engage in Glima!), they will first have to pass the unsafe waters of Serpent lake to find the old witch Arurún – and bypass her giant bear.

The PCs will have a chance to learn a unique spell from the witch and even the runepaining magic of the Vikmordere – the engine is pretty solid, if not too spectacular; as a supplement for an adventure, it is solid enough and adds some serious local flavor to the proceedings. More important would be that the witch provides an amulet that helps the PCs find the resting places of the artifacts long lost – here, I should comment on something thoroughly impressive: We get GORGEOUS top-down AND isometric maps of the dungeons – and yes, player-friendly versions included. The cartography provided for this module is masterclass – Tommi Salama at his best. Beyond the aesthetic component, it is in the dungeons that contain the artifacts that the design-aesthetics become pretty old-school: We have indirect story-telling; understanding the culture and values of the Vikmordere will make the exploration easier; similarly, the dungeons themselves feel like they have been taken straight out of the good examples of the heyday of RPGs – they ooze flavor, reward smart players and the dungeons also sport puzzles – while brute-forcing them is an option, as a person, I suggest trying them out – most groups like, at least once in a while, using their brain.

Returning with legendary Vlfbehrt to the witch, the PCs will witness a grim scene – the Jötunn are on their heels, the witch slain – and now, the deadly, undying Jötunn remain – though, at this point, the PCs may not yet know about the truth behind the undying nature of the Jötunn. Without a guidance, it is a benevolent haunt, a manifestation of the guarding ancestral spirits, that the PCs will be brought to the vault wherein Skjold Rustning lies – the dungeon will once again demand that the players use both brain and brawn to survive…And yes, the Jötunn are still on their trail…

That being said, the PCs have the artifacts – so it’s time to face the Jötunn and end this! This is where the module sports one of its weaker aspects: There is a traitor in the Vikmordere’s ranks and the wielder of the artifacts is slain; in spite of the presence of mass combat rules for PFRPG, we don’t get the like – instead, we get some regular encounters before Ningatha intervenes…as, while the Vikmordere seem to win, the Jötunn’s immortality kicks in – and the vanquished giants rise. The result is a horrible rout, one that the PCs and Vikmordere only survive due to Ningatha expending almost all of her divine powers.

All seems lost, as the evil ice maidens lend their powers to the forces of the Jötunn – and the PCs will have but one final chance to stop them: Within the tomb of the ancestors, there lies the only way to reach the isle of the maidens – the magic ship called Sorrow’s Snekkja. En route, the PCs will be shipwrecked by a mighty sea serpent…and that is not where it ends. However, it takes the sacrifice of both Ningatha and the guiding Vikmordere spirit to open the doors, as the erstwhile lovers are once again united, their love a symbolic sacrifice and hope for the PCs to claim. With the stakes that high, the exploration of the tomb makes the dungeons so far look like child’s play – the PCs will have to activate the well of lost souls in this legendary complex and sail the magic ship out of the complex!

After the deadly dungeon, the PCs will finally be able to arrive at the island – where the mighty ice queen and her wyrms remain – and where the PCs will have to destroy the Wintyrsyrd, breaking the potent magics of the dread lady. If they manage to survive this ordeal, there will be but one final task that remains. Rendezvous with the Vikmordere, then lead one final, desperate assault, wherein the forces of the noble Vikmordere will cleave a path through the Jötunn forces, allowing the PCs to make their way to the dread keep of King Krumma – if they can defeat the mighty lord of the Jötunn, they may yet stop the relentless, seemingly unstoppable horde of undead giants. He’s btw. CR 24. Yeah, good luck…the PCs will damn well need it…

Editing and formatting are good, almost very good – there are a couple of instances where blank spaces etc. are missing, but not unduly many; as a whole, this book is pretty well-made in that regard. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard that is absolutely glorious – BJ Hensley and Daniel Marshall did amazing work here. The book sports a metric TON of glorious, original artwork with a uniform style – Mates Laurentiu really rocked this book; the cover by Jason rainville is similarly amazing. Cartography by Tommi Salama is AMAZING. Even better: We actually get VTT-friendly high-res versions of the maps. Master-class in the cartography department. I mean it. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested, detailed bookmarks. I won the hardcover version of the book – and, frankly – if you have the choice, get the hardcover. It’s worth owning.

Justin Andrew Mason’s “Wrath of the Jötunn” seemed to be cursed; the author, at one point, lost a ton of his notes and had to recreate the saga. It is puzzling, considering this complication, that he managed to not only deliver a good mega-adventure, but a great one.

Let me elaborate: This is, in essence, a massive sandbox with a really strong narrative that resounds with themes of love, loss, glory; this feels like a larger than life tale, straight from a mythology that could have been. This module at once manages to evoke themes of old-school masterpieces, the sense of myth, the sense of plausibility and the new-school focus on a captivating narrative, with tons of read-aloud text, diverse challenges, etc. Now, personally, I was not necessarily too happy about some of the cut-scene-like sequences and how they can feel slightly too linear; at the same time, though, the book handles these in a smart way – it moves quickly in the sequences and provides the next awesome thing; the excellent prose helps the GM to navigate these slightly weaker spots in the otherwise inspired, epic narrative. Now, I would have loved for a few of the foes herein to have a few more unique tricks on their plate, but all of that is me complaining at a high level.

In the end, the exploration of the Vikmordere valley, from the inspired threats to the mythological items, the evocative dungeons – all of that makes this mega-adventure a thoroughly unique and evocative experience. The blending of new- and old-school design paradigms has been executed in a masterful manner that I absolutely loved. This may not be perfect, but it does a lot of innovative, convenient things for the GM; it is easier to run and navigate than comparable offerings; it tells a fantastic story resounding with the classic themes, adding a unique spin to the tropes. It is suffused with glorious cultural tidbits. It is a great read. The massive dressing-entries and sandboxy aspects add a further dimension of longevity to the module. In short: I adore this book. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars (reflecting the minor imperfections), but I will round up (since this is excellent, not just good). I thoroughly LOVED this gem, which is why this gets my seal of approval. And for its blending of adventure-design-schools, for the convenience-aspects, the supplemental material, etc., for going one step beyond in pretty much all aspects, this also is nominated as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.

You can get this inspired mega-adventure here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


Grimoire of Lost Souls

Grimoire of Lost Souls

The massive hardcover Ultimate-style book for Pact magic clocks in at 387 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page KS-thanks, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 376 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

I was a KS-backer for this book and as such, I have received the massive hardcover. My review is mostly based on the print version, though I have also consulted my pdf-iteration for it.

So, what is this book? The short tl;dr-version would be that it is for Pact Magic, what Ultimate Psionics was for psionics. A more detailed response would also note that this book is not simply a compilation of previously-released material; in fact, this massive grimoire does feature a lot of new material, material previously not seen for PFRPG and some massive tweaks to existing options.

So, what is pact magic? Well, the short reply would be that it was the original Pact Magic. First conceived in 3.5’s Tome of Magic, the system had some serious hiccups and balance-issues in its initial iteration, but at the same time, it was a revelation for me: The idea was that named spirits exist; said spirits have fallen past the usual confines implied by D&D cosmology and, from their in-between status, they hunger for the chance to interact with the realms of mortals. From legends to archetypical beings to strange demons, all kinds of weird spirits, some of which were influenced by the key of Solomon, were thus presented.

This system was greatly expanded in two massive hardcovers back in 3.X, “Secrets of Pact magic” and “Villains of Pact Magic”, both of which are undeservedly obscure and have a place of honor on my bookshelf. They tweaked the balance of the system, expanded it and made it more unique – and, more importantly for me, they rank as some of my favorite rule-books of that age – the spirits came with HUGE short stories depicting their legends, adding a vast amount of flavor to each of the options herein. Then, two stand-alone updates/expansions for PFRPG were released, expanding the concept and translating it to PFRPG, though these did cut back on the beloved legends I enjoyed so much. This book once again features a lot of legends, though some have been externalized to a short-story collection.

Fast-forward to this book, which presents basically the latest and most refined iteration of the concept. At the heart of this system lies the pactmaker class, which gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and good Fort- and Will-saves. The class adds +1/2 class level, minimum 1, to Knowledge (arcane), Knowledge (history), Knowledge (religion) and Knowledge (planes) and gains a bonus on these to research a spirit’s knowledge tasks, instead gains a bonus equal to full character level.

So, what are knowledge tasks? Each spirit has a specific, occult seal that is drawn by the binder: This seal and the spirit need to be researched via knowledge tasks – basically, these represent the effort to learn a spirit. This is important, in that there is no limit otherwise on spirits known, if you will: While a pactmaker can only bind spirits of 1st level in the beginning, he may learn all of them. New spirit levels are unlocked at 3rd level and every 2 levels thereafter and spirits are organized by levels, much like spells; the 9th level spirits being obviously the most potent. A pactmaker may bind multiple spirits at higher levels – 2 at 4th level, +1 one spirit every 6 levels thereafter. 7th level and every 6 levels thereafter allow a pact maker to replenish an expended spirit ability 1/day and the capstone makes spirit abilities count as extraordinary and allows for the ignoring of personality influences and also nets the class automatically the capstone empowerment. Bear with me for a second – those are spirit terms. 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter provide a choice of bonuses while bound to a spirit. Saves against abilities, generally, are determined by Charisma as a governing attribute.

And that is already pretty much the basic chassis of the class. Let’s move on to the basics of pact magic, shall we?

The term to denote a character using pact magic is “binder”; a binder level is the equivalent of the caster level, for the purpose of governing the spirit’s abilities. A binding check is a d0 + ½ binder level + Charisma modifier, and it is made upon summoning a spirit to determine the power of the pact. This requires a ceremony and a binder check versus the binding DC of the spirit in question – rushing the ceremony is possible, but results in massive penalties to the check. On a success of the check, the binder gets a good pact. A binder that makes a good pact can freely suppress the physical sign or minor granted abilities of being inhabited by the spirit (like horns, tentacles, weird voices, etc.) and suffers no penalty when acting against the spirit’s influence – basically, the personality of the spirit. If failing the check, he still gets the spirit, but makes a poor pact; the binder must exhibit the physical sign and suffers cumulative penalties when disobeying the spirit’s influence, lasting for 24 hours, even if the spirit if exorcised before that duration has elapsed. Suppressing a spirit eliminates all benefits, but also all penalties that may be incurred by having a spirit inhabit you. The process of making a good pact can be improved by using totems – basically optional material components or terrain components. Additionally, some spirits are more well or ill--disposed towards some races (favored allies and enemies), beings with certain alignments, class features, etc., while others reward those that call them in dark places, while stricken by illness, etc. the possibilities here are endless and tie in very well with the flavor of the spirits in question, rewarding players for caring about the story of their spirits.

Here is the catch: Spirits have three types of abilities: Minor abilities, which are always granted; major abilities, which are expended for 5 rounds after being used unless otherwise noted, and capstone empowerments, which are only gained when the spirit’s DC is beaten by 10 or more, making even low-level spirits retain their usefulness at higher levels.

It is not in the chassis of the pact-maker class or one of the numerous pact magic based class options that the system’s appeal lies; it is within the massive, colossal array of spirits. It should also be noted that most spirits are assigned to a constellation – upon binding them, the binder gains constellation aspects and these general affiliations double as thematic restrictions and schools of spirits if you will; you can focus on binding nature spirits…or fiendish ones…or those that hearken from the dark beyond. Whether you want to focus on slenderman-like entities or strange fey or on any combination of them, the spirits are here and allow for a wide variety of different types of character. And yes, benevolent spirits like cynical detectives that have fallen through the cracks of reality or basically saints can also be found – this is important to note, for pact magic, requiring less study thanb comparable magic and no divine oversight either, does carry with it the flavor of the forbidden, of the occult. And yes, there are starless, more obscure spirits.

As you may have gleaned by now, a strength of spirits lies in the way in which many of their abilities operate on a cool-down mechanic…and frankly, I went through this massive tome with my analysis, and rules-wise, there are precious few hiccups: To note two remarkable ones: The spirit Sevnoir, for example, heals you when inflicting damage to a creature suffering from a fear-effect. If you have a character with a fear-aura on hand, the 1/round caveat doesn’t prevent cheesing this via kitten slaughter.

At the same time, this book does predate the release of Occult Adventure regarding when it was worked on, and as such, unfortunately does not provide synergy with that glorious tome. Prestige classes, magic items, feats, special binder secrets (talents), spells, races, planes and organizations (apocryphal desert…nightmare weald…need I say more?) – the book has a ton to offer in crunch and I could bloat this review to 14, 20 pages even – easily, and still scratch the surface of what the book offers in terms of sheer content. There are some minor formatting inconsistencies to be found, with abilities that should be red showing up in black instead and the like.

There is one more thing you should be aware of: RAW, binders do NOT gain new spirits upon reaching new levels. While *personally*, I require downtime training to gain the benefits of a level up (I really dislike just *pling*, getting level-ups mid-dungeon...), I know that many groups do just that – in such cases, I’d suggest automatically gaining a spirit upon reaching a new level. So yes, this may be, for some groups, a drawback of the RAW engine, though one that can be houseruled away with ease. System-immanently, groups that do not engage in a lot of roleplaying as opposed to rollplaying will have a bit less fun with this, though please do take a look at my conclusion for what I mean by this.

I have to break my usual system of presentation here a bit in order to convey what this book provides, so let me prematurely interject my

Editing and formatting are good, but not perfect – I noticed a couple of hiccups here and there, some formatting glitches and the like; less than in many books of this crunch-density, but enough to notice. Layout adheres to a gorgeous 2-column full-color standard and the book comes with a TON of absolutely phenomenal full-color art; some of which was previously used and colored, but most is new. Each spirit has his/her/its own seal as a visual representation, so yeah, you can actually draw the seal, if that’s how you roll! The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks for your convenience and thankfully, the book has a massive, multi-page index that helps navigating this tome. The hardcover is a beauty to behold and well worth getting.
You know, as a person and as a reviewer, I generally tend to gravitate towards complex options; beautiful mathy constructs and subsystems that provide an interesting playing experience. I can honestly appreciate it when math works out, when some abilities do something utterly unique with complex rules operations. While certainly not simple in these regards, pact magic never reaches the complexity of akashic mysteries, ethermagic or similar systems. And still, it is one of my favorite systems ever.

I am not a sentimental man, so nostalgia is not the culprit here and it took me quite a while to deduce why pact magic works so well for me. There is no simple answer. One, though, would be that much like psionics, I can see it completely replacing the standard spellcasting classes for a completely different campaign experience, one steeped in occult lore, research…and one that makes magic more dangerous, feel more forbidden, medieval. In fact, I’m regularly stealing spirits from this book when playing OSR-games, breaking them down to the simpler rules of such systems. LotFP, LL, S&W – it works and fits thematically perfectly will the often more gritty aesthetics there. This has literally transcended the bounds of its system, at least for me – something only precious few books in my vast library achieve.

At the same time, the strength of the system, its appeal, does not lie wholly in its mechanics; pact magic, to a degree, is the original occult magic, prior to Occult Adventures. In my review of Paizo’s phenomenal hardcover, I commented on the fact that I love how player agenda AND character agenda are emphasized, and how the classes have ROLEplaying potential hardcoded into their respective rules. This is, ultimately, why I adore this massive tome; I adore tactical combat and I’m the first to appreciate a well-made combat-encounter with strategically-interesting hazards etc. – I love these. I love the tactical, complex combat aspects of PFRPG. But I also adore the storytelling aspect of the game; I love good roleplaying between characters, between PCs and NPCs; I use story-rewards a lot. To me, the beauty of roleplaying games with a high rules-density lies in the blending of strategy and story-telling, in the fusion of stories and tactics. Ultimately, for me the best rules let me do either unique things in the strategy department, in the roleplaying department, or both.

Every single spirit is a bit like an unruly character that influences the PC or NPC; they all have personalities, quirks and goals, enemies – and they may grow with your PCs. When a spirit helps vanquish a certain foe after being bested by him, you have your work cut out for you as a good roleplayer; you can tweak your character with spirits and keep them perpetually fresh and interesting; perhaps your character is a teetotaler, so binding some spirits may be something he’d be loathe to do; perhaps bidning one spirit and succumbing to the spirit’s influence nets you some complications…or new allies – it’s small, organically happening constellations (haha! – sorry, I’ll punch myself for that later) that make this shine as brightly for me.

There is another aspect to this book. One that perhaps bears no importance for you…but then again, I think it does.
No other system I have used has made me write this much custom material.
When, for example, Aldern Foxglove was a very popular character in my RotRL-game back in the day and then died (trying to be SPOILER-less), I promptly had him come back as a spirit with peculiar personalities, fluid constellations and abilities depending on the dominant personality; when my PCs liberated the ghost lions from the Ghostlord in Red Hand of Doom, I made the pack return as a spirit to be bound; When Kyuss fell, he became the master of the Worm constellation. The Crimson King is a spirit in my game. So is the Dark Tower.

And yes, you can use the spirits herein as guidance, tweak and reskin them for a lot of purposes. Don’t like a legend or a particular spirit? Chances are that you won’t have to do a lot of writing, just replace an ability and come up with a new legend. Done. When one of my players happened upon notes on a blood-drinking lizardfolk thing from ages long past, I took N’aylia the first vampire, tweaked her abilities a bit more towards the lizardfolk-esque and there we go. I actually improvised that reskin on the fly while GMing and nobody noticed.

Or, you know, you can pretty much write infinite amounts of new ones, based on your campaign. I have psionic spirits, akashic spirits, ethermagic-spirits…you name the subsystem and I pretty much have a spirit for it. Why? Because the engine per se is simple. You can easily complicate it in a vast variety of ways by grafting pretty much anything on top of it, with only your own skills as the limit – and the glue that holds all together is this basic system, one that is defined by choice, yes…but more than that, it is defined by the stories you tell with it.

A haunt put to rest? Potential spirit. An outsider slain? Potential spirit? Anything weird, from mages that fell through space and time to sentient constructs? Potential spirits. Fey kicked out of their courts/dethroned fey queens? Potential spirits. Defeated campaign endbosses? Potential spirits in the next one. Paladin PC that sacrificed his soul to seal the demon-lord in an artifact? Potential spirit. Endzeitgeist, a zeitgeist-like spirit of the end-times? Potential spirit. In fact, the book does an amazing job at showcasing the sheer infinite breadth of themes that you can cover with these spirits.

Pact magic is a nice, well-made system on its own – probably one that deserves, when divorced from all flavor, a verdict of 4.5 to 5 stars, somewhere in that vicinity. But this would not do the system the least bit of justice. Dario Nardi and Alexander Agunuas deliver with pact magic perhaps the most literally inspiring system I have ever encountered for a d20-based game. Its genius does not necessarily lie within its rules, but within how it is an incredibly potent narrative instrument, how it can change the depiction of a fantasy world to make magic feel more magical, how it rewards customization and making the system your own more than any comparable system I know. I guarantee that, when using the system thus, you will have perhaps the most impactful alternate system ever on your hands.

In case you haven’t noticed by now: I absolutely LOVE this system. Even my reviewer-bot-persona can’t really adequately complain about it, mainly because separating the fluff from the crunch divests the system of its core principle – it is, frankly, impossible to rate this fairly as anything but the sum of its parts, and that sum is a thing of absolute, inspiring beauty. This book will grace my shelves for years to come; it has already spawned more ideas than I’m ever likely to put to paper. It is, in short, the streamlined, improved heir of the old system; tighter and more concise, yet without losing any component of its uniqueness.

This is one of the most inspiring books, quite literally, that you can purchase for PFRPG. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This is also, big surprise there, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017. It also receives the EZG Essentials tag as a book I consider a must-own expansion for the system.

Now, can we have an Occult Adventures/Horror Adventures-crossover sequel or do I have to write the spirits myself? Who am I kidding – I’m going to write them either way!

You can get this phenomenal tome here on OBS!

You can get the complementary short-story collection here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.