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Part II of my review:
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are good. On a rules-level, they are BAD and ironically, deeply flawed. Layout, as mentioned, adheres to a 2-column full-color standard and the artworks range among the most stunning I've ever seen in an RPG-book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and the dead-tree copy ranks among the most beautiful books in my shelves.
Read this list: Wolfgang Baur, Creighton Broadhurst, Jason Bulmahn, Tim Connors, Adam Daigle, Mike Franke, Ed Greenwood, Frank Gori, Jim Groves, Amanda Hamon Kunz, Brandon Hodge, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Neil Spicer, Mike Welham, Margaret Weis. With this amount of creative potential assembled, does it surprise you that I consider this book the most inspiring spellbook I've ever read? Alas, even these titans can stumble. And they did.
This book could have been the ultimate spellcasting-milestone, a legend, a book that defines the very game we play, a whole new dimension of spellcasting. And it is - on a concept-level.
Instead, at least on a crunch-level, it is pretty much, as much as I'm loathe to say it, a wreck -not one that has sunk, but one that leaks. The lack of a rules-savvy editor/developer is readily apparent - there are plenty of glitches herein that could have been caught by even a cursory inspection.
And no, that's not just me being overly picky. I put this book before one of my less rules-savvy players, opened it on a random page in the spell-section and had him read spells. Inadvertently, he stumbled over an ambiguity, an issue.
Were I to rate this one the crunch alone, I'd smash it to smithereens - the very skeleton of the book is flawed and that radiates outward to almost all chapters, poisoning them as well. Allowing this book flat and without scrutiny at a table is an invitation for rules-discussions and balance-issues - at least if the players are halfway capable at making efficient characters.
Why am I not bashing this further? Because, while deeply flawed, Deep Magic is also deeply inspired - the concepts herein are staggering, setting the mind ablaze with possibilities, conjuring forth ideas for adventures, campaigns even. Quite a bunch of the flaws can be ironed out by a capable DM...and flawed though it may be, Deep Magic has A LOT of passion, heart's blood and soul oozing from its pages. The concepts of this tome, in the end, made it worthwhile, at least for me.
I'm not going to lie. My players will never get their hands on this book. But I will take the concepts, take the spells, fix them and reap the benefits of the exceedingly awesome concepts provided herein. On the one hand, we thus have a terribly flawed book that fails quite spectacularly and depressingly at becoming what it ALMOST achieved - being the best spellbook for any iteration of a d20-based system ever. On the other, the often flawed crunch does provide more great spell-ideas and concepts (as opposed to their execution...) than the APG, ARG, Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat combined.
Whether this book is for you depends very much on what you expect - if you want solid crunch, a book to just slap on the table and allow...well, then stay the 11 Midgardian hells away from this book. If, on the other hand, you're willing to work with it, if you're looking for inspiration and are competent regarding the design/balancing of material, then this is a scavenger's mithril-mine and a great resource to have - you literally can't open a single page in this book without stumbling over at least one awesome, iconic concept. The hardcover is also great to show off to non-gamer friends and make them marvel at the glorious artworks, layout and presentation.
How to rate this, then? I hate and love this book. I want to slap my seal of approval on it, in spite of its flaws. But I can't. Deep Magic has too many issues and I can't rate potential, as much as I'd love to. I can only rate what is here and its effects - which oscillate between "utterly awesome and inspiring" and "wtf is this supposed to do?"
Without the superb concepts, the lore-steeped ideas, the downright inspired take on magic and its flavor, I would have gone further down on my scale. But, as a reviewer, I also have to take these into account, as well as the people out there who are like me and still can take a lot from this book. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3 stars.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here and on OBS.
This massive mega-adventure clocks in at 220 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us a massive 212 pages of content, so let's take a look at this!
This review was chosen as a prioritized review and moved up my reviewing queue at the request of my patreons. Furthermore, I received a hardcover copy of this book for the expressive purpose of running it and providing a fair, unbiased review.
Wait, there's one more thing - after I ripped Tomb of the Lich Queen, the first part of the trilogy, a new one, why don't I review Part II, Machine of the Lich Queen next and instead jump to the final book? Simple - because Machine and Tomb still receive some polish/revisions and I'd rather review and playtest the best iteration of a given book. All right, so that out of the way, we begin this massive book with a truly extensive and well-written chapter of prose detailing the legends of the 9 fragments the lich queen has stored in her mental palace, providing further and somewhat tragic exposition for the genesis of this being- and after that, the crunch begins.
This being an adventure-review, unsurprisingly, the following will contain massive SPOILERS. Potential players should thus jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! The lich queen's hall of world-spanning mirrors lies shattered by her hand, the machine grinding and stuttering - and to reach the palace of her, the PCs will have to traverse what amounts to a gigantic array of planes-hopping. If you're familiar with Savage Mojo's Suzerain Continuum, that may not come as a surprise; if not, let me give you a run-down - there are *A LOT* of what amounts to campaign settings galore, each with their own, unique takes. Beyond just taking a look at either of them, the respective chapters essentially provide a means for the PCs (and players) to glimpse at the wondrous realms provided - think of them like a selection of Gossamer Worlds for Lords of Gossamer and Shadows or akin to the strange alternate realities provided in Shadowrun's classic Harlequin's Return-saga. So while the cynic in me considers this a kind of advertisement, the fanboy grins and considers this a very smart move - why? Because, let's face it, at the end of a campaign, there is always the discussion on what to play next - here, more than its fair share of interesting options are provided.
Now, by design, this does mean that each world is represented in what amounts to a short vignette (I'm using this term through the review to denote the literary function implied by its meaning, not one of the others) that sums up some peculiarities and pits your PCs against a target adversary, aligns them with a positive figure and provides a bonus for success, a story-hook/future conflict in the case of failure. The first array of these vignettes, happening in day-time, send the PCs off to a true myriad of established settings and new ones: A Greece-inspired scifi-setting with mechanic pegasi would just be the first of these excursions - beyond this strange world, the PCs get a glimpse at a dystopian cyberpunk citystate controlled by a monolithic church, struggling to find a chosen child that can shatter the boundaries of reality, all while being besieged by strange anarchists and probably playing into the very plans of a silver-tongued angel in service of true darkness. In a celtic world, an assault on a ritual site against armies of demons awaits and fans of Greek mythology may actually fight side by side with Jason and pit wits and magic against none other than Circe.
In a steampunk world of highly-spohisticated goblins, a time-travelling tub and an aerial chase through the dangerous skies provides for a change of pace, before, sooner or later, the PCs get a chance to test their mettle against a demonic incursion to free the Dark One from his celestial prison, finally fighting against a tainted solar...and said being may not even want to escape his eternal prison. When none other than the sung-god Ra draws up on his chariot (a hyper-modern sports-car) to take the PCs on a trip through his hyper-technological pyramids and finally, stop agents of Set in a night-club, including zombie-ravers, that's awesome. Stopping agents of chaos from exposing the rigidity in a hyper-lawful realm may sound conventional, but at that point, the PCs enter a realm of pure science, elevated to the realm where it becomes indistinguishable from magic - when you're defending a mad scientist from his elemental Frankenstein's monster and what amounts to a revenant-igor, all while powerful spirits that embody chemistry, physics and biology try to kill them, your players WILL continue to talk about the wealth of ideas here.
What about a planet where hyper-powerful cybertechnology has been blended with wild west stand-offs or one where hyper-technological dinosaurs duke it out in an alternate stone age? There is also a vignette wherein the 3 ages of Relic blend in a kind of temporal disjunctions, a swashbuckling-themed, fast-paced one wherein the PCs get to defend a ship from a massive sea-dragon and yes, a terrible post-apocalypse of nanite and radiation-caused mutations and doom, where an impending nuclear strike might well be within the range of options. Have I mentioned the sojourn to what amounts to the Plane of Fire or the City of Brass, where agents of an unknown entity seek to extinguish the eternal flames of the grand braziers? Now each of these places does have something to offer for the further journey -and after all those short vignettes, finally, night is upon the PCs as they traverse the myriad worlds - and from here on out, the lethality of the vignettes, in which the PCs so far have shaken hands with legends and gods, increases further.
Here would as well a place as any to note several peculiarities I noticed so far - for one, by necessity for a module that spans this many realities, the respective vignettes are somewhat sketchy - do not expect handholding or excessive read-aloud texts - it is very much assumed that, provided the massive array of high-level statblocks, you as a DM can properly portray the respective worlds. While reading this, I was extremely skeptical whether this worked out in practice, but the frenetic pace assumed by world transitions did, in actual playtesting smash so many unique vistas over my PC's heads they didn't mind - whether this whole chapter works depends very much on an experienced DM who can maintain a fast pace that does not allow for too many in-depth analysis on parts of the player - as well as assuming a pretty cinematic transition from key-scene to key-scene. At the same time, though, this actually can work in favor of the module: This high-fantasy realm-stuff, these clockwork-gadgets or high-scifi-stuff you always wanted to use? Well, here you can. I ultimately failed to resist the lure of adding my material and some unique worlds to the fray - after all, how often do you get a chance like that? And at this level, very much all gloves are off - your PCs are called demigods by the module for a reason... Now, this slight opaqueness, which was an exacerbated issue in the first part of the saga, ultimately is here, yes, but at the same time, this book is very much concrete - the key-scenes, like the clockwork aerial chase, provide full vehicle-rules, terrain-hazards and features where applicable, are fully integrated and the book makes smart use of the troop-subtype alongside many items and yes, even the Technology-rules in a minor way. Among the nighttime-worlds, fighting in an alternate Shanghai versus huge mobs of vampires and braving deadly haunts in a realm of gothic horror only constitute two examples of proper rules-usage that supplements the narrative - a significant step forwards, especially considering the fact that the complex builds for the high-level adversaries and allies, while not always being flawless, generally come out on the good side of things.
Not on the good side of things, at least for the players, would be a venture into imperial Rome, where Ceasar has just been slain by demo cultists and only defeating a massive shadow kraken may provide an escape...though this world has a particularly nasty story-game-over for a bad, bad decision on the player's side... From an imperial Rome in the throes of demonic possession, the journey continues onwards into a tale of American noir, where possessed train yard cranes await. The realms of winter, complete with their nasty fey, do something I would have expected from a certain Dresden File book - including a fey lord that encases himself in a gigantic frost-mecha. In an alternate version of Tokyo, the PCs can duke it out against magical girls corrupted by a powerful hero-hunting demon, before they ultimately are deposited in a realm of darkest fantasy, including a blotted-out sun and a showdown in a ruined abbey before entering the Red Realm, a prison plane, and, more importantly, a nasty place where insanity abounds and a silent hill-esque array of perception-tricks, as well as a harrowing escape await. The final two vignettes pit the PCs against the horrors of a full-blown China Miéville-style fantasy...and has them battle Fafnir. Who makes proper use of the kaiju-subtype. NICE!
Then, finally, the chaos of worlds ends and the palace and its 7 halls loom: Here, this book becomes a much more conservative killer-dungeon once again - with each of the massive halls providing ever-escalating danger as well as full-color maps with solid detail, though you should be aware that no blow-up 1-page versions are provided. In the first hall, massive, lavishly-illustrated briar worms, demonic apes and finally, the Great Beast await the PC's prowess - only to have to face down the mashine gun-like efficiency of the deadly archer Tianet - though personally, I used the Deadly Aim-feat when modifying Tianet's build - at her firing rate, the damage piles quicker up that way -oddly, this will not be the last they've seen of the huntress and smart fighting is rewarded here. In the Garden Hall, flytrap hydras and the Lich Queen's foster mother Grandmother Maugh await and the Hall of Grandeur pits the PCs ambitions as well as djinns to finally defeat another mentor of the queen - the erstwhile djinn-binder par excellence, turned into her mayor-domo, Ranalek the terrible. The 4th hall does offer a new challenge - the hall of pleasure, where the lich queen's consort awaits alongside untold pleasures that can destroy one's spirit, memory and thus, identities - in this gilded hell, the lich queen's consort is the gatekeeper and, upon defeating him, the PCs will note he in fact is an automaton - the true fate of the poor sort is cataloged in the adventure "Consort of the Lich Queen", which I do not own. Even if you don't have it, though, you'll notice something - obviously, Ayrawn has purged any thoughts of doubt from her mind to retain her sanity- perhaps the one shot the PCs truly have to defeat her - and defeat her they'll want after the next hall, wherein the PCs are subject to a nasty, never-ending array of tortures - which may permanently cripple them, if they are not smart enough to escape their mistress.
Speaking of smarts - a vast library may see the PCs fight - but only if they behave in a manner unfitting of the place - otherwise, they'll find an agrippa, a man turned into a tome and librarian, master who once told Ayrawn to purge memories from herself, seeking freedom - and offering a further piece with which the PCS may shake the immortal confidence of the legendary lich queen. In case your PC's swords have since then dried of viscera, the hall of bones will end that - while the lich queen's tutor and lich here also provides a further piece of information about a skull with which the PCs can shake the confidence of the legendary adversary, she also follows her commands and unleashes not only her own might, but also that of a vast horde of powerful undead - and yes, the combines stats span multiple pages.
Finally, after much tears, exposition and pain, the PCS can final track down Ayrawn in her Hall of Broken Mirrors - her and all her mayor allies not yet slain, rendering this confrontation potentially very, very nasty - worse, the lich queen's phylactery is the very dungeon itself and only by shaking her confidence, only by understanding, can the PCs cause a realmsquake and breach the phylactery...and only then will the lich queen truly be slain by their efforts. Should they achieve this miraculous feat, they'll bear witness to the collapse of dungeonlands and possibly even ascend beyond the providence of mere mortals - in any case, infinite possibilities await.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect -I noticed a few italicization glitches, minor errors in statblocks and the like, but seeing the size of this tome and the complexity of the statblocks, that is not surprising and well within the level of tolerance. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard that conspires with a mix of gorgeous full-color and b/w artworks to render this book a truly beautiful book to behold -aesthetically, there is nothing to complain about here. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and my hardcover sports nice, thick, matte high-quality paper and a shiny cover - all great in that regard.
Kevin Andrew Murphy, Darren Pearce, George "Loki" Williams, Allan Hoffman, Andrew Hoskins, Brendan LaSalle, Matthew Medeiros, Richard Moore, Monte Reed - this is one epic book and it was a fun ride to embark on. But also one that is terribly hard to rate.
Why? For one, there would be the issue of high-level gameplay requiring a lot of foresight - pre-written modules have a hard time properly predicting PC-capabilities and one massive issue with the first book was the arbitrary stripping of powers from PCs and the issues with rules-interactions. I am more than happy to report that this book sports NONE of these. Neither will you find "Pcs have to solve this EXACTLY like this"-solutions and similar issues - instead, this massive mega-adventure essentially provides vignettes, vistas and general storylines - you can skip through them at your leisure, ignore some, substitute your own or expand them to full-blown module length.
When handled properly, these vignettes can act as epic, never-ending climaxes - if you took the final scenes of a vast array of stories and stitched them together, a kind of cool-moment-collage, if you will. Better yet, where applicable, the places do sport nice rules-tidbits from mutation-tables to steampunk gadgets. While not all such tidbits are perfect, this is a module and the like is simply not the focus of this review. The world/planes-hopping vignettes ultimately can be a vast amount of fun if handled properly, but they could also go horribly wrong - if you are accustomed to handholding, extensive read-aloud texts and not good at making transitions and filling in the blanks of the respective vignettes, that may result in massive issues - essentially, do not expect any guidance beyond a basic plot-summary and the statblocks for the respective adversaries. Yes, this DOES include a lack of maps for the respective vignettes, but not one I'm going to fault the pdf for - why? Because the focus on cinematic transitions ultimately, at least here, does not require them necessarily. In my game, this went off pretty well after my players sopped trying for the analysis-route.
The second part is a more old-school killer-dungeon and it is very much worth the status as a finale - the palace itself is exceedingly deadly, full of iconic adversaries and challenges and provides a great way for the DM to provide some exposition regarding the dread lich queen. The background story, as written, is surprisingly intelligent and beyond what you'd expect from a killer-dungeon, so yeah - kudos here. On the downside, the lack of one-page maps to print out can be considered a comfort detriment.
So, what does that mean? It means that this module, more so than many others, will prove to be a very polarizing book. If you can see the vignette-style planes-hopping working for you, then chances are, you'll love this beast and enjoy it immensely. On the other hand, if you as a DM have problems generating transitions or fleshing out details on the fly, or if your players are all about the small details, then this one may result in some issues - the discrepancy between whether this will be awesome, or, well, not so great - it all very much depends on your group's tastes, capabilities etc..
At the same time, this book, unlike the first one, does not cheat in obtrusive ways - one instance where a sleeping gas may send players to their sleep sans DC or stats comes to mind, but, quite frankly, if DC 40 is too hard for the PCs at this point, they're doing it wrong anyways... So overall, this book can be considered indeed one of the few examples of high-level modules that truly managed to captivate me - the glimpses at realms beyond the regular, whether released or yet unpublished, is interesting indeed and provides some pretty imaginative ideas and a much needed change of pace, while also providing a sense of the epic to the whole experience.
It struggled quite a bit with how to describe this massive module - and the closest analogue was delivered by one of my players - this is pretty much a module-equivalent of an all-star-movie akin to Avengers - it provides components for each world and concept to shine and show what's cool about it - but there is, by virtue of its format, no room to linger on the individuals, to go into depth regarding the individual vignettes and their characters. So do not expect the module equivalent of primer or a TV drama, but rather that of a big-screen all-star action movie. Personally, I tend to prefer more detailed modules, which is also why I'm pretty happy to have been able to test this module in detail -and while I did not have an easy time as a DM and preparation did take a lot of time, the results proved to be very entertaining and my players, surprisingly, enjoyed the continuous barrage the weird of the continuum threw at them. While some minor oversights can be brought to field against this book, the amount of material that works and shows an understanding of the intricacies of Pathfinder does offset this in my book.
Yes, I'm rambling. My final verdict, ultimately, will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform, while less experienced DMs should probably round down due to the significant skill this requires to pull off.
Personally, I loved the massive array of cool ideas spotlighted and hence, I'll add my seal of approval for the vast imaginative potential.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here and on OBS.
Thanks for the kind words - and yes, my group loves the vehicle rules. I did modify the DCs to be less restrictive, though - DC 10+ seems to work reasonably well.
And it all depends regarding vehicles - my group was hesitant until they got a hollowed-out bullette-tank with a cannon in the mouth. Chases on cliff-sides and through the air did wonders to endear the concept to them: Picture the tank running on a steep cliff, while the archer is hanging by a rope outside of the hatch and snipes the opposition below. They were never so angry as when I finally managed to destroy the tank...
Part II of my review
Of course, mythic upgrades of the +x class ability-type feats can be found in this chapter. Nomads fast stepping as a swift or immediate action are interesting - though, alas, the immediate action trick opens up an issue that was not part of the original Fast Step - the teleport can now be used reflexively, though the feat does not specify whether using it as a response to an attack negates said attack, makes it miss or lets the attacker decide in which way to utilize he attack that would have been directed at the psion phasing away. While this is no something a DM can easily fix, it still remains a minor blemish. I am also not a fan of utilizing mythic power to make a skill-check count as if a natural 20, as some feats utilize in their mechanics. Adding a tier-based or scaling bonus would probably have yielded a bit more flexible results.
The next chapter provides us with a massive, huge list of mythic powers - again, we begin the chapter with a rock-solid explanation of functionality and terminology of mythic powers, how to get them and how they work, including nice options to make them spontaneously more potent or more resilient towards being dispelled. This section can be considered a very well-written piece that provides the functionality and examples required to make the blending of psionics and mythic rules work. All in all, one can assert that basic modification via these choices and the aforementioned options as well as the non-mythic augment-options render the powers themselves more flexible than comparable spells, thus making up for the decreased flexibility from power selection itself. Kudos! The power-lists come organized by class and level.
The powers provided do sport some instances of numerical escalation and, of course, augmented-options dependant on tier in some cases, with just about all tiers being featured. Yes, this includes 10th tier: The augmented option for temporal acceleration allows for the use of 3 uses of mythic power to increase the duration of the now multi-target power to 1 hour per level. Yes, this is essentially permanent, mass crush-em-all and broken as all hell, but at tier 10, that's exactly the capstone-level of brutal destructive potential I like to see. Telekinetic force's now longer duration should also be considered to be interesting in that it enhances the move option and provides a more powerful throw option (that also expends it) - a nice example for numerical escalation that in fact is no escalation, but rather an expansion into breadth rather than depth.
I also enjoy the option to selectively exclude some targets from swarms of crystals and while slumber nets a linear increase of hit dice affected by the power, its true benefit imho would be the control exerted over which creatures are affected. Now the 8th tier augmented option is AWESOME: Affect all living creatures with 8 HD or less within a mile of you - for days on end! Yes, 3 uses of mythic power are steep, but this is narrative gold. Love it! Schism's second augmented option also deserves special mention, as it provides a swift action to the second mind you create. If that does not sound like much, then you've never had a psion with this power as a combo-enabler in your game. Personally, love the engine-tweak here! As a nice note, even basic powers that did not provide this much strategy like the energy-based powers do benefit from an extension in breadth - energy push foes straight upwards? Yup, this can be pretty awesome. Over all, this chapter did impress me most among the pieces of content provided so far - it is relatively imaginative, provides a significant array of tactical depth and goes beyond basic formula for the powers - it very much feels like something lovingly handcrafted.
The final chapter of this book provides 9 mythic versions of monsters introduced in the Psionic Bestiary, from the deranged trepanner to the puppeteer and phrenic scourge, they range from CR 16/MR 6 to CR 2/MR 1. They provide some interesting, added signature abilities and enhancements for their respective mythic powers - generally, a solid array...so when do we get the full mythic psionic bestiary? ;)
Editing and formatting generally are very good - I noticed no serious, formal hiccups, though here and there a minor rules-glitch has entered the fray. Layout adheres to Dreamscarred Press' beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf provides an array of nice full-color artworks, some original, some I have seen before. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and with a second, more printer-friendly version - very considerate!
Jeremy Smith, Andreas Rönnqvist, Eric Hindley, Guillermo Daniel Ordoñez - gentlemen, you have my respect. Psionics and mythic are not that easy to blend - I've been experimenting with it myself and there is a LOT to take into account. Psionics has more connected, moving parts than regular spellcasting and as such, the task of upgrading this system to mythic rules is not something I'd consider easy by any means of the word.
That good news is, my nitpicky complaining-tirades none withstanding, this is pretty much the functional, neat upgrade to mythic rules fans of psionics have been clamoring for. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative diversity of options provided herein, many of which go above and beyond what one would expect to see in such a massive supplement. More often than not, the authors have opted to provide unique perspectives and tactical options rather than succumbing to the numerical nuking less inspired mythic design is prone to.
On the other side, it would be remiss to mention that the complex interaction of mythic and psionic rules with all the moving parts inherent in either system does result in some sand grinding in the well-oiled engines of both systems. While some of the gripes boil down to nitpicks, minor inconsistencies and similar issues that can easily be handled by a capable DM, this pdf also does sport some combos that leave me shuddering and which are, ultimately in my book, in need of a nerfing. Even in the context of mythic rules, there quite frankly are some combos herein that are a tad bit too good to be considered okay in my book. Especially the fixed reduction of manifesting time to one standard action is not only a component that deviates from how the spellcasting-analogue works (which is required, as powers adhere to a different manifesting action economy), but also changes in a somewhat wonky way how the systems interact with one another. The new mythic path provided does sport some of these components. However, at the same time, the path does not sport boring or pseudo-feat-abilities, instead opting for utterly unique tricks - kudos for getting that right!
If you've read this massive review, you will have noticed quite a few instances where I picked apart some components and mechanics - however, at the same time, this pdf does provide a staggering amount of content, much of which can be called downright inspired. Finally, and there are no two ways to look at this, this is the all but required supplement for use of psionics with the mythic rules. How do I rate this brute, then? I've been honestly struggling with finding a verdict here. On the one side, this supplement works perfectly (for the most time) in game and has some awesome, inspired components. On the other hand, it does have some rough edges that can be abused and/or grind the game to a halt - essentially, there are also some design-aesthetic deviations from how Paizo and Legendary Games have structured mythic augments etc.
In the end, I could have settled on a review in the middle range of my rating system, but that would have been a disservice to the content provided herein. While obviously, this pdf is not perfect, chances are that you'll find some truly exciting and interesting options within these pages and for mythic campaigns, there are no two ways around this, this book remains a must-buy option. My final verdict, hence, will clock in at 4 stars, with the caveat that DMs using this book should have some serious experience with psionics under their belts to prevent some of the combos this enables from overwhelming them and to be in a position to say no to some of the combinations.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS and d20pfsrd.com's shop.
@Frank: Indeed, it shows - I'll take high-concepts over perfection any day and this one is VERY close to working perfectly, so kudos!
Okay, so the charioteer saw use last session in my main-campaign, when a PC's charioteer cohort took to the field during a massive incursion of over 1000 Undead suffused by necrotic flames sought to burn a northern frontier town (AAW Games' Rybalka) to the ground. The PCs had 2 hours to prepare for the onslaught and made the whole village essentially one gigantic death trap - they had the people erect haphazard barricades, sniper nests on the roofs and created impromptu traps galore - all went pretty well for the PCs until I unleashed 4 massive, unique and templated undead elementals as well as a stamped of blackfire mammoths on the barricades, whereupon they collapsed like cinder and the retreating battle began.
The charioteer was exceedingly awesome in providing PC mobility - beyond trampling the lesser undead and cleaving paths through the horde, hard veering brakes that catapulted the paladin/swordmaster hybrid right into the face of a mammoth, had him, Smite-crit the beast and then, run from the collapsing carcass to jump right at the 18 ft. Gravestone-infused Earth-elemental while the charioteer crashed into its legs would probably constitute the high points of this archetype's use during the combat. :)
Part II of my review:
The second PrC is the Obsidian Knight gets full BAB-progression, medium fort-and will-saves, 7/10th spellcasting progression, d10, 2+Int skills per level and require both 2nd level divine spellcasting and a cavalier's order as prerequisites. They do not gain any weapon or armor proficiencies. Obsidian knights receive elemental channel as a bonus feat, affecting all types of elementals, usable 3+Cha-mod times per day. If you already have channel energy, instead add +3 uses of channel energy instead. The PrC also can use this to generate an aura that increases the weight of metal armor etc. to make the targets suffer heavy encumbrance for Cha-mod rounds. The obsidian knight can also use this to conjure forth thin walls of earth that work as stationary tower shields and his weapons can receive obsidian-based benefits to weapon enhancement as well as the ability to react to being hit by elemental spells by adding the appropriate weapon quality temporarily. Bull rushes in a straight line, very lethal caltropy shard-fields and a potentially ray-deflecting shield complement this PrC further. Guess what - I really, really like this earth-related PrC. Kudos!
The Rime Reaver gets d10, 2+Int skills, no new proficiencies, full BAB-progression, 1/2 fort and will-save progression, 7/10th spellcasting progression. At 2nd level, the rime reaver gets cold resistance 5, which increases by +5 every two levels thereafter, stacking with the bloodline power. Jup, this is intended to work as a conjunction of sorceror and cavalier. The PrC replaces the companion with a polar bear and stacks class levels with sorc levels for purposes of bloodline powers. 3rd level nets a weapon of ice that is treated as adamantine, dealing half damage as cold damage and as a capstone, the companion becomes mythic. Once again, a solid PrC with some cool imagery.
The pdf also provides a new order for cavaliers, the order of the bow. members of this order may apply challenge benefits to ranged attacks when mounted and attacking someone within 30 ft. and obviously, is a ranged specialist. At high levels, they may shoot targets of charges of allies as immediate actions. A nice order.
The pdf also sports a +2 equivalent enchantment that enhances trip and disarm and adds free trip to crits. The pdf also provides stats for jousting lance tips, better tethers and an alchemical goo that frightens mounts. Resting saddles and standing saddle stirrups also provide for nice items.
Editing and formatting are good, though I noticed some instances of minor flaws in punctuation and missing spell-italicization. Layout adheres to Flying Pincushion Games' two-column full-color standard and the pdf provides some solid full-color artworks, ranging from neat to stock. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
The cavalier has a troubled history in my games - while I love the concept of the class, there is no other base-class that has this bad a ratio for player agenda - you choose mount and order and that's about it. Not particularly compelling as a chassis to work from. That being said, this pdf manages to provide some form of flexibility with several of the options provided herein and enhance the base-class with several distinctly fun and high-concept archetypes and class options, widening the limited scope of the base class.
Frank Gori, Jeff Harris, Taylor Hubbler, Jason Linker, Andrew Hoskins, Kiel Howell, Jacob Michaels, Richard Litzkow, Mikko Kallio, Mark Nordheim - congratulations! Why? Because this is one review I very much enjoyed writing. The "Into the Breach"-series took a bad beating from yours truly with some of the installments, but this here is a huge step forward. Where before, even simple rules-language sported issues here and there, this one feels infinitely more refined. Indeed, if there are glitches to be found herein, they often can be mitigated by a capable DM and/or stem from daring to tackle some rather complex options. Now, as you can glean from the above, this pdf is certainly not perfect, but it works much, much better than any book in the series I've read so far. To the point where both charioteer and briar knight (though the letter with nerfed tanglevine strike and some finetuning) will make appearances in my campaign. The majority of the content herein is solid and there are glimmers of brilliance here and there that make me confident in Flying Pincushion Games further improving to become truly awesome. While not perfect, I value the high concepts higher than the problems and consider this pdf a fun addition to one's games and thus will settle on a final verdict of 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS and d20pfsrd.com's shop.
This expansion for the Tinker base-class clocks in at 6 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 4 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?
What do most of the *really* cool Tinker-expansions have in common? Jup, quite a few of them come into play in mid and high levels. So this pdf is geared for 1st-level usefulness, though admittedly, it will retain its usefulness far beyond the low level range. The pdf also handily points out that this and the excellent grafter PrC as well as the Tinkering 301-pdf provide some pretty interesting synergies.
Better than this, this may well be the most concise tinker-supplement to read so far: We get an explanation of the alpha and design-descriptors as well as some of the BP-tricks one could execute with the copious supplements for the class. A short explanation on interaction with the grafter also helps here. Among the basic explanation, one can also find the rationale for the unobtrusive Bob Ross-jokes herein, the new paint-descriptor. Essentially, inventions with this subtype provide a coat of paint for a target automaton and, per default, only one paint-job can be applied to one automaton - still, this is Bradley Crouch we're talking about here, so yes, there are means to break this rule.
A total of 6 innovations are provided to modify and play with this pretty interesting concept: When, for example, an alpha would lose an invention with both design and paint subtypes, the alpha retains the bonuses for class level rounds. Further innovations allow you to apply paint to yourself and relatively spontaneous reassignment of paint jobs to grafted creatures and adjacent automatons can also be executed. This quick, spray-based paint job may also be utilized as a makeshift flamethrower and yes, you can potentially change the coats of more than one target at once via spray nozzles. A greater innovation allows for "happy little accidents" for quicker paint jobs and expand the inventions used in conjunction with soem of your innovations. Where things become VERY tactical is with the means of doubling kamikaze-directives with paint-dispersal. And yes, if you think about this one, you can set up absolutely awesome "See what I did here"-combos! A thing of beauty indeed!
Okay, let's take a look at those inventions, all right? The base one would be the primer coat, which renders an automaton eligible for becoming a target for the painter's station. This invention, usually only applicable to Alphas, allows the automaton to change the paint-coats of deployed automatons 1/day; additionally, automatons deployed with the primer coat invention can have their coats changed after being deployed, thus bringing aforementioned BP-limit-shenanigans into play. Oh, and yes, whirlwind splashing of colors is possible. Need to get rid of primer coats in another way? An automaton with the Homogenization Enforcement Protocols can be deployed to eliminate primer coats and replace them with any paint invention part of its BP. Oh, have I mentioned the invention that allows for two paint coats at once? The combo-potential of this system is VAST! It is utterly beautiful!
Automatons with paint-jobs targeted by fire may elect to burn the paint to burst into flames or lose their paint to get DR 5/- versus an attack...or lose their paint to net additional uses of low level inventions with a limited number of uses. The combo-potential keep stacking up - but you're probably wondering whether the basic paint coats are worth anything. Short answer: YEAH! Long answer: What about a paint coat that nets temporary hit points (with anti-abuse caveat), dazzling added to kamikaze, increased base speed, DR 1/-, save-bonuses, better feinting or a reroll, though at -2? Yes, you may note that some of these benefits look slightly stronger than the others - well, they come balanced via a once per 24 hour-caveat. I also like the paint that nets your automaton + 1 fire damage by day, +1 cold damage by night - cool!
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to Interjection Games' printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes sans bookmarks, but needs none for this length.
Beyond the awesome imagery evoked, Bradley Crouch delivers perhaps the most awesome base-system-expansion I've seen for one of his classes so far. The paint-jobs with their massive combo-potential and versatility exponentially expand the options at your disposal in so cool, diverse ways, I can't wait to see even more of these great tricks. More so than even the previous installments, this expansion does not simply roll with one high-concept image - it gives you a stellar toolkit to play with, one that has changed how tinkers, all tinkers, work in my game.
This is perhaps THE must-have expansion for the class, provided with a superb quality that makes the fair price-point an utter steal. It is also the single best example for the fact that the tinker's concepts are not yet depleted - the combo-system provided herein renders the class more fun and can easily be further expanded. No other tinker-expansion made me this excited, made me want more this much - this humble pdf enhances the class in absolutely stunning ways. Everyone using this great class NEEDS this pdf. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here and on OBS.
This installment of the evocative Gossamer Worlds-series clocks in at 17 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, leaving us with 15 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
So what is dragonhearth? Well, if the name wasn't ample clue for you, let me fill you in: It is a world of DRAGONS...yeah, I'm proud of my astute observation as well. kidding aside, everything on this world is draconic to some extent - from serpentine waves of light to myriad forms of draconic life, there are a lot of supreme serpents inhabiting this place. So attuned to the very notion of dragons is this world, that even plants and most predatory animals share some component of lethal grace with the serpentine masters...oh, and paltry little squishy creatures from other realities, i.e. neither dragons nor the two draconic humanoid races, tend to suffer from a disease as the reality of the very world wastes them away - unless they enter a dragonbond. This can be pictured as an abstract relationship of friendship, love or simple subjugation - various strengths exist, some of which can transcend even the boundaries of gossamer realities. And yes, they have rules-relevant repercussions.
Now so far, so common - at this point, dragonhearth may not seem too impressive -I mean, apart from the continent-sized dracoliches and the system of reincarnation that governs life. Wait, what? Yes, concise rules for dracoliches are provided and hoards etc. are rationalized by a metaphysical reality that acts as a ruthless karmic meritocracy - which is cool on its own - but the whole thing becomes interesting with the existence of the golden wyrm Khemezatron (fully statted, btw.), a dragon awakened to the existence of the Grand Stairs and recently returned. beyond a gorgeous illustration, Khemezatron also introduced a nanite-based psychoactive virus to dragonhearth, courtesy of some highly-developed world she visited. Styling herself as a benevolent messiah, she infects draconic life, severing dragonbonds and rendering those subject to her dread disease thralls to her will, bonded to her technological assault on the very metaphysical powerstructures that govern life on Dragonhearth...for now, unopposed, but sooner or later, the world itself will take out the big, big guns and we have adventure potential galore.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to Rite Publishing’s beautiful 2-column full-color standard for LoGaS and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Artwork consists of glorious full-color pieces that are absolutely gorgeous to behold.
Matt Banach provides a setting that could theoretically be reduced to dragonsploitation - with draconic themes everywhere, I can well imagine a certain fatigue setting in sooner or later, so for my part, I'm not that blown away by the basic premise, no matter how good it is executed. However, the introduction of the alternate bond and the obvious theme of changing times that echoes the central conflict of umbra vs. eidolon makes this a rather unique and awesome set-up: If not for a whole campaign, then at least for a sojourn of one or more adventures - Khemezatron is a damn cool villain that provides a truly unique imagery. My final verdict, hence, will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform.
I've been asking for prioritized reviews over at patreon and provided updates and the like accordingly both there and on my homepage. I apologize if that is not transparent enough and try to do better. I will explain exactly what "prioritized review" means on both my homepage and patreon. So far, contacting me via homepage and patreon seems to have worked rather well for my patreons...at least, I hope so.
The tl;DR-version is: I ask at the beginning of a month for prioritized reviews on patreon. I do my best to get them done in a month. If something takes longer, I tell the patreon.
Regarding stacking: Generally, no. The level of patronage for prioritized reviews is constant; If a patron elects to ask for only "small" files, I'll provide more than one. But as per the writing of this, I do not consider stacking more than one request for prioritizing a valid option - I'm glad if someone wants to contribute more than the amount I asked for, but that's pretty much it. Things get too muddy if I try to scale multiple people. If, for example, two people told me they'd want the same review prioritized, I'd tell one to please choose another book, since it is already covered.
Now as far as a google.docs-list is concerned, I will dig into that - the suggestion is solid and I think it is worthwhile, though admittedly, I'm somewhat weary of it - say I can't decide whether a product in the top spot should get 4 or 5 stars and think I need more playtesting to fairly judge it. Another scenario would be a day, where I have crunch overload and need some fluffy supplements to recharge my batteries because my concentration is tanked on a given day - as soon as there's a concrete list with numbered spots, that flexibility is lost and I'd spend a lot of time justifying my actions, because, let's face it, I'd be annoyed when someone told me I was next up and then had to see another product be released before that. I think time I'd take to justify that would be better invested in writing reviews.
As I'm writing this, I have finished 2 prioritized reviews for June and am in the process of finishing 2 more, which will all hit site in time before July.
These are, in sequential order:
Flying Pincushion Games - Into the Breach: Cavaliers
Regarding certified reviewers: I like the idea, but at the same time, it's a problematic notion since I can't really take responsibility for the actions of other people...will ruminate on that.
Thanks for all the suggestions!
Racial perks! More perks for people who don't want cohorts/followers. (Hey, almost every table has one of those guys, right?) Perks for the air! Perks for the sea! I second the option for perks for dynasties. Technology perks! Pact Magic perks! Psionic perks! Story-perks! (Perks that work like story feats, unlocking their full potential once a given task is accomplished!)
Part II of my review:
A remnant of 4th edition I particularly LOATHED was the bloodied condition – which now also exists as the staggered condition. However, like many other components I do not enjoy that much from the design elements of 4th edition, it has been improved - it is now subservient to the needs of the story. We no longer have a fixed, semi-arbitrarily defined value, but rather a general recommendation on when to consider a creature staggered. There is one particular notion I did really enjoy and feel I should emphasize– the “nastier” specials. These can be considered optional tricks for the monsters to unleash upon the PCs; they are additional, more lethal signature abilities. They are great. First, they let you easily set elites apart. Secondly, they help setting creatures further apart from another by providing signature tricks. And third, much like applying mythic rules to your bosses, they can be considered a kind of “hard(er) mode” for the monsters, one you can tackle on the fly. Nice! While not all creatures receive nastier-tricks, the very notion is something near and dear to me.
I’ve often mentioned the words “4th edition” in this review and for a reason. My intense dislike for 4th edition is no secret. I hate just about all of its design-decisions. However, surprisingly, I found myself almost unanimously less (or not at all!) annoyed by 13th Age’s adaptations of these concepts, mainly due to the changed focus towards a roleplaying game, away from the miniature focus. This is particularly well-represented in what may be one of things I love most about this book. Combat, distances etc. are no longer tier to a particular grid, a particular range, but rather handled in an abstract relation from one another, which still provides concise terminology for what amounts to AoOs, engagement etc. – essentially, you do not need a battlemap for this game and it dauntingly, courageously ignores the tendency for miniature-style tactical movement etc. While, in the long run, this does reduce the amount of options and tactics one can employ, it is also a step towards a focus that is more centered on the narrative potential of a storyline. Even if you do not like the overall of 13th Age-rules, this particular section can easily be pilfered for just about any d20-game. I know I’ll be prone to use it when I don’t have the time to draw complex arenas spanning multiple battlemaps… So yeah, triumphant and damn cool, especially if you do not like the complex AoO/melee/(dis-) engagement rules of similar d20-based systems.
The skill-system, on the other hand, is the ONE component where I absolutely and positively LOATHE 13th Age and can’t bring myself to saying anything positive about it– you receive 8 points upon character generation and more can be gained by certain classes. You assign these points towards backgrounds (like “Imperial Assassin”, “Cat Burglar”, etc.) and roll d20+attribute+ranks versus the environmental DC required, while explaining how your training in xyz helped you with that. URGH. First, there is not much growth potential here. Secondly, this smells of FATE’s issues. Don’t get me wrong, I *like* highly narrative rules that put an emphasis on collective story-telling, where backgrounds and capabilities aren’t carved in stone – I adore Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, for example. However, whenever an RPG-system essentially tells me that a whole, central mechanic is based on BSing the DM in how a particular, phrased (as ambiguous as possible) background/character trait/whatever applies to a given situation, I’m prone to rage-quitting. This already applies in tighter skill systems – this one is BASED on it. And yes, I know the counter-arguments and the samples make it look enticing. In practice, it sooner or later boils down to “Can I BS the DM?” vs. “Should I let the players BS me like this?” – and that is not good game-design in my book. You are, of course, free to have an opposing opinion, but this is pretty much the reason I don't like FATE and I hate its implementation on a smaller scale herein as well. (As a footnote, the further de-emphasis on languages etc., while still represented in the rules, also kind of rubs me the wrong way, but that pales before aforementioned issue.) So yeah, I really, really dislike the skill-"system". To the point where it is the one component of the whole system I just can't get myself to draw any kind of fun from. The one positive thing I can say about the skill system is that its default assumption is that a failure can have negative repercussions, while still yielding results – nowhere near as sophisticated as in the GUMSHOE-system, of course, but still. Here, the design-tenet of forward failure somewhat works.
Feats have also been streamlined in a rather interesting way – you’ll only find a hand full of general feats – the majority is class-specific. Furthermore, there’s a feat every level…and the prerequisites boil down to class + tier and the d’unh-level pereq that you need to have a particular talent/power to modify it with a feat. Champion tier feats require champion level, epic tier feats epic levels. One feat is gained per level. Simple, concise, no dead levels. A handy table lists the feats and class feats can be found in the entry of the class – simple and elegant…though future expansions should be weary of retaining this ordered structure to avoid the feat-look-up-halt. The feats themselves provide a pretty awesome simplicity that is rather elegant – take reach trick. If you wield a weapon with reach, you can make a reach stunt, with a save of 6+. That’s it. Halberd for pole-jumping? Swiping foes off their feat? Impaling foes? One mechanic, easily modified by the DM. Depending on your own preferences, this design may elicit screams of joy or groans, especially if, as a DM, you’re not confident with complex rules-decisions. While this streamlines the rules required, it also places a burden on the DM to remember past judgments regarding stunts for fairness' sake. As much as I hate the skill-system, the feats per se and how they’re gained feels pretty nice and fluid to me – in game, the constant progression ensured that each level felt sufficiently different.
Now speaking of classes – usually, I’d give you a break-down of how each class works. However, in the case of this particular review, that would bloat it even more, so in order to maintain at least a semblance of cohesion, I’ll only be touching upon certain things. First – yes, all the classes you’d expect can be found herein, with the exception of monk and druid, which can be found in the imho required 13 True Ways-expansion. Speaking of which – said expansion also revises/expands the slightly problematic base animal companion rules provided herein, so rangers in particular should definitely check out the druid-entry in said book. I’d encourage DMs to apply the limitations and clarifications introduced therein for the ranger as well. Retraining class components is an option that is generally pretty easy to accomplish via these rules. Base Hp range from 6 – 8, base AC from 10 -16 and base physical and mental defense range from 10 – 12. Recovery dice, as mentioned before, range from d6 –d10 per level. The classes themselves require different levels of player-skill, mainly since they play radically different, but overall, none of them should overexert any veteran of 3.X, PFRPG or similar, complex systems. It should also be noted that classes also entail attribute bonuses and e.g. selecting whether melee is governed by Str or Dex and similar choices all have been streamlined into the classes themselves.
Now where the classes, much like those of 4th edition, succeed admirably, is with the general balancing among themselves – not only do they play differently, they do sport numerous, different mechanics – rogues, for example, require a resource called momentum, which they build up and expend over the course of combat. Said resource rewards movement, tactical, surgical strikes etc. – and just is fun. Alas, there is a downside to this balancing, namely that the classes, on their own, do not sport that many choices – talents and the like are anything but copious and you’ll soon stumble across yet another member of class xyz that has exactly the same tricks up his/her sleeve. I may be spoiled by PFRPG, but that rubs me the wrong way and is another reason I'd wholeheartedly endorse you getting as many expansions as possible. Still, once again, while this is a flaw for me, for you it could be a feature.
There are some class features I’m not a fan of – the sorcerer, for example, can spend actions to gather power for minor buffs, unleashing the full spell slower, but more powerful later. This feels to MMORPG-y to me. The ability acknowledges that, apart from the situations where you need a quick spell, it almost universally means that gathering power (and being bored) for one round is the smarter decision. The book flat out states this, but tries to mitigate it via aforementioned argument – which is not valid in my book. When essentially doing nothing/ damage on a level that can be neglected to staggered foes only constitutes a smart move for a class, the goal of “doing something cool/useful/etc.” is not reached. My players got immensely frustrated with the mechanic. On the other side, the wizard-class has one damn stroke of sheer genius – Vance’s polysyllabic verbalizations. Step 1: Invent unique, verbose names for your spells. Step 2: Slightly prolong casting time and proudly declare your magic’s name. Step 3: The spell happens with a non-defined, circumstantial, unpredictable new effect determined by you and the DM. This is an utterly awesome narrative idea and perhaps the coolest rendition of the concept of Spell Thematics I’ve seen so far (in any system that’s not Ars Magica) – and I’m SO stealing it for my games! The relatively easy to grasp and concise magic item rules that do not succumb to the Christmas tree syndrome and does sport suggestions and rules for magic item-death/destruction should also be considered one of the definite plusses of the system.
That being said, if you expect hundreds of pages of spells and choices upon choices, I’ll have to disappoint you – the classes and spell-lists are just as restrictive as the choices of talents. Personally, I also am not a big fan of magic’s neutering in the name of balance – for short durations and the export of longer powers to the wibbly-wobbly concept of out-of-combat rituals make magic feel NOT like the force of unbridled creativity, but rather like a narrowly codified field – again, much like one can see in MMORPGs - which is odd, considering how stunts and cool martial arts-tricks have been so widely opened.
Which brings me to the example, where the at times slightly schizoid duality of 13th Age’s rules becomes readily apparent. And no, I’m not talking about the opinionated differences between the authors and the constant addressing of the reader via them. On the one hand, 13th Age very much enforces the idea of story-telling, of creativity trumping rules. Of easier and streamlined gameplay. And it succeeds in that regard. At the same time, though, stunts with weapons and acrobatics and the like remain relatively ill-defined and leave you hanging in the air without much clues. Similarly, it neuters magic down to a power-source, which, in the narrative frame, can do just about anything – unless it’s in the hands of any character/actual gameplay, when it suddenly adheres to the restrictive array provided for the respective classes.
In no other component is this duality as pronounced as in the Icons. The Icons represent both a central mechanic and a unique selling point of the implicit setting. Instead of named divinities or movers and shakers like Tar-Baphon, Strahd or Elminster, we have these titles – the icons represent essentially very dualistic demigod-level movers and shakers, which keep the world in a kind of equilibrium. Liked Dancer from the Malazan Book of the Fallen? Well, there’s The Prince of Shadows for you. There is The Lich-King. The Diabolist. The Dwarf-King. The Queen of Elves. The Priestess. You get the idea. These all but archetypical beings govern pretty much the fate of the world and your PCs receive relationship points with them. These points represent a dice each and are rolled at the beginning of a session or its end, influencing what happens in a positive way on a 6 on a d6, in one that has a downside on a 5. This requires some serious improvisation-skills on parts of the DM, but also ties the players to the world and its powerful beings – perhaps via the one unique thing you chose at character creation that sets you apart. (A good idea, imho, though the examples partially had me cringe…)
So what’s my beef with these archetypes (term used in the traditional, non-3.X/PFRPG-way)? Generally, I love their concepts – the Archmage that tries to domesticate the nature of the WORLD with magic and his weather-control-towers, arcano-science par excellence, versus e.g. the High Druid's rise of the wild and savage - that can make for great narrative twists. The way in which they influence the setting can also be considered genius: How cool is the notion of an entire OCEAN being mad at anything remotely resembling civilization? What about the rather nasty Crusader, who seeks to close hellholes and erect strongholds there – everyone is glad he battles the demonic incursions and prays he doesn’t turn his ambition elsewhere. These icons are firmly tied in with the world – which makes transporting them to another setting problematic. Furthermore, they at once want to facilitate story-telling by being opaque, while also having pretty clear agendas – and I get why. But, even when taking the setting-information( with its partially downright inspired world-building) into account, they, as characters, remain bland cardboard cutouts. They are tropes. The empire, whose health reflects the emperor? Warhammer 40K minus grit, anyone?
As much as I loved the small tidbits interspersed through the setting-information, the icons left me terribly bored. They don’t know whether they want to be story-facilitators or actual characters. No names, no history, no tradition. This, to my knowledge, ought to be the rule-book with a short gazetteer on the implied word, but the interconnections between the fluff and crunch here can provide a significant detriment towards the storytelling should choose to not utilize the default setting. What if I wanted to use 13th Age-rules with Dark Sun? Ravenloft? Midgard? Golarion? I’d have to find substitutes, refurbish them and, bafflingly, there is no advice for that here.
The setting, the world, does sport several glorious tidbits – like dwarven coins being stackable and quadratic and similar absolutely awesome ideas that had me grin from ear to ear. At the same time, box upon box tells me that xyz (for example, issues with language interaction) is not fun or can be neglected. And quite often, at least in the fluff-department, I caught myself thinking “NO, that is NOT something that can be neglected!”. You may not mind, I did. This does not make the book bad, but it also points towards one thing I’ll further elaborate in the conclusion.
The book does feature an excellent glossary and index and a starter module – and said module is by far, no matter where you stand on each individual rules-decision, the weakest part of the book.
PCs arrive at Archmage’s control tower (not mapped), interact with people (no read-aloud boxes), go forth, kill a bunch of goblins, find a massacre, realize there’s a traitor in the tower, get back and KILL A WOUNDED DRAGON. At level 1. Urgh. I’m aware that this is a personal gripe, but I hate, hate, hate level 1-dragonkilling. Even if the dragon is wounded. It just feels terribly wrong to me and takes away what should be a climactic moment and waters it down. "Oh yeah, dragon killing? Pf, did that at first level..." Traitor may or may not escape. That’s it. Nigh no meaningful choices to be made, no cool twist, interesting combat-influences or fluxes and it contributes to the disposable dragon syndrome. Boring and bland – apart from the backdrop of the tower, nothing good here. My players were terribly bored with this as well.
Editing and formatting are top-notch. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the book comes on nice, glossy paper with great artworks. Alas, the monsters in the monster-section do not receive fluff or proper visual representations apart from some glyph-like representations and a couple of mugshots for demons. The organization of the rules is pretty concise and the cartography is glorious.
Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet are both talented designers that have created a highly functional game here. 13th Age is imho the game 4th edition tried to be and superior to it. However, at least in my opinion, it is not the end-all super-system it’s hyped up to be. Beyond personal preferences, the system as such suffers from the issues with its adaptability and versatility, at least in direct comparison. In 3.X or PFRPG I can easily rip bits and pieces out of context, scavenge parts. In 13th Age, this is significantly harder and while it generates the impression that it is as customizable, it’s not. The book behaves as if taking away recoveries were a valid choice, when playtest pretty much showed that this is not the case – these is too much highly likely/unavoidable damage to take the component out and the numerous connections make scavenging hard – which becomes problematic with the icons. Yes, they can be extracted, changed, etc., but if you take their impact on the world away, you have to change their agendas and the same goes for the establishment of new icons. And this reflects the rules-aesthetic of a lot of rules herein. Change one part, change a lot.
The icons also have another impact – they, along the shorter level-progression, point you towards a particular playstyle. One with significant consequences from the get-go. While I’m not saying that this is bad, I can’t really picture the rules of 13th Age properly supporting more subdued gameplay, darker and grittier narratives or truly long campaigns or ones that take the PCs from sucker to super-hero. The quicker escalation of character development via relationship rules, fast level-up suggestions etc. all point towards the system being geared primarily for short, intense and distinctly high-magic campaigns. That’s not bad, mind you – the system does its own style of campaign very well. But in other contexts, it is not that smooth.
What do I mean by this? I’m going to say something that contradicts just about every review of 13th Age I’ve read: I think this system is simple.
It is not an “advanced” system – it is very easy to grasp and, had the rule-book included a tighter introduction for new players, more basic explanations for concepts, I’d praise this as a great beginner’s d20-RPG. It is really a pretty simple game, as far as anything d20-based is concerned.
The rules are easy, the math simple, there is not much to be overwhelmed by. The danger the PCs face is subdued as well – I’ve scarcely seen a d20-game with some many failsafes that ensure a precious PC doesn’t bite the dust, in spite of the limit on resurrection. This is a very player-friendly RPG – if CoC is Dark Souls, 13th Age is more like WoW. This is NOT meant as a barb, but rather as an observation. If impending doom, omnipresent threats, old-school level gameplay, harsh, unrelenting difficulty and overcoming the odds is what you’re looking for, then 13th Age may not be for you – this game is pretty much rigged in favor of your PCs. If you want a vast plethora of selections at your disposal, significant variety within each class and rewards for optimization, then there are better systems out there - though that changes with the addition of more supplements.
13th Age excels in its chosen field, though – for short-burst, combat-centric high-fantasy campaigns in the very much captivating setting with its neat ideas, it provided more fun in my playtests than 4th edition ever accomplished. Research et al. is something better left to GUMSHOE, as are most skill-based interactions, so yes, the central issue of the rules is and remains the implied playstyle the book enforces. The step towards a narrative focus is great, but it is kept from reaching its full realization by aforementioned choices of, paradoxically, not emphasizing the rules required for complex non-combat scenarios.
Now, I feel obliged to mention one more bit – this book is interspersed with designer’s comments and suggestions. More often than not, they oscillate between extremes and I do like the option for every DM to choose from a design philosophy/opinion and adhere to it. However, at least partially, I considered these segments (said, often casual, voice(s) also can be found in the rules-text where they do *not* belong) belittling and sometimes, grating. Most of the time, I didn’t mind, but one of my players was extremely annoyed by this tendency to the point where he (usually one of my rules-savvy guys who truly enjoys reading the rules) told the table to give him the quick run-down, since it annoyed him to the extent where he didn’t want to read on. One man’s bug is another man’s feature, I guess. Personally, I would have enjoyed less opinion, more options here - and especially, less judging. What one person may not consider fun, another does and I honestly was annoyed at some boxes stating that some fixtures in my tables were "not fun."
In the end, 13th Age is a very player-friendly roleplaying game with some hints of greatness and cool ideas, but also one that is bound to polarize. Would I exchange PFRPG’s complexity and class-power-asymmetry for 13th Age’s quick and streamlined cruise-control DMing and balance? No. Because I *like* a lot of the things this book changes and dismisses as “not fun”– I like fragile first level PCs and casters. I like extremely complex high-level encounters. I like rolling monster-dice. I prefer my movers and shakers named and well-defined, my skills set in stone. I love optimization-tricks, a nigh-infinite array of options for each character. The bugs this book eliminates, in one sentence, are, alas, often my features, the things I look for in a roleplaying game. Now, before you loyal 13th Age fans out there get the pitchforks ready – I still consider this a good and more importantly, FUN, game and one that does A LOT right -from the quick engagement rules to the balancing of martials and ranged vs. melee, this has a plethora of cool food for thought for any DM of a d20-based system, whether one elects to use 13th Age as a system or not. While, as a person, it hits many of the notes of game-design I do NOT necessarily look for (I love e.g. Dark Souls, dislike just about every “easy” RPG, including MMORPGs), as a reviewer and aesthete, I really could appreciate the streamlined elegance of a lot of the choices that went into this system and for certain types of games, I will use this.
Furthermore, let me make that very explicit, there are quiet a bunch of rules I love and will scavenge and retool for my own games and as a system; for what it tries to do, 13th Age tends to succeed at. Had this been 4th edition, I probably wouldn’t have looked for PFRPG in the first place. Its elegance, streamlined and fast gameplay, the very undemanding, easy, low-preparation DMing, the concise rules – all that are signs of a good game and you may very well consider that fixed HP-values, less fluctuations in power and no-damage-rolling on the DM’s side glorious and I get why. This game system is a good system. It just isn’t as versatile as I prefer it to be and not 100% made for the playstyle I prefer.
Still, I will, once in a while, crank out this system and use it. But I can’t consider this book, as a stand-alone publication, more than good, can’t bring myself to consider it great. There are too many things I can’t do with the basic rules, there is not enough variety within the base classes and magic to keep my interest long-term without significant expansion. Note that all of this pertains to the Core-book as an isolated entity - I do not compare this to an established system with x books, but only to the variety it offers as a stand-alone book when compared to similar systems.
One more thing some reviewers have observed, would be a so-called HP-bloat. This is bogus. Since the damage PCs inflict scales up quite massively (and more reliably than in 3.X and PFRPG), my own playtest experience was that most combats did not pass the 3rd or 4th round. I only reached the 6th round once in the playtests I ran (with a rigged encounter specifically designed to last long) and my math supports this impression. So in that regard, 13th Age is absolved in my book. Indeed, in my experience, monsters tended to fall pretty swiftly to the PC’s onslaught.
How to rate this, then? As mentioned above, grognards and fans of brutally hard roleplaying and hardcore rules-fetishists and complexity-advocates may want to steer clear; conversely, newcomers with a veteran who can help explain the rules, people fed up with extreme optimization, groups that loathe frequent PC-death, people hoping for a streamlined D&D 4.75, people looking for symmetrical class balancing and 4th edition fans who wish for a return to a more character-story-driven gameplay should definitely consider picking up 13th Age. For you all, this game was made and I think, you will not rue getting it and draw a lot of joy from these pages.
Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars – a good roleplaying system for what it tries to do and its target demographic.
P.s.: And yes, the PFRPG Core-rules wouldn’t score higher – invert most of my criticisms of 13th Age and you have what I’d have to say about that book as an isolated entity. ;)
Posted first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS and d20pfsrd.com's shop.
Suffice to say, you achieved this goal! You write analytical, informative reviews, with this one being particularly good. Kudos! And thanks for the props!
Now HotJO - oh boy, that one was WORK; I think the doc was 14 pages long and I reviewed it thrice: Once for AE, once for PFRPG and then again for the revised PFRPG-version. Glad the work paid off for you! :D
This pdf clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover/editorial,1 page SRD, leaving us with 6 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This supplement, obviously, provides fighting styles inspired by fantastic creatures, with each style sporting a nice, short fluff-paragraph that anchors the style in a kind of background you may scavenge. The first of these styles would be the cockatrice style, which increases the DC of both Gorgon Fist and Scorpion Style, while also adding wis-mod to damage versus foes with reduced speed or in the staggered condition. Wait, I hear you say - Scorpion Style? But one can only be in one style at a given time unless one uses archetypes etc. - you would be right, but Paizo botched nomenclature - Scorpion Style is NOT a (style)-feat - just a combat-feat. ;) The follow-up feats allow for added Dex-damage when using Gorgon's Fist and Scorpion Style and the option to add an unarmed Gorgon Strike as a swift action against a target failing to save versus your Scorpion Style. Interesting blend of the two concepts.
The Couatl Style adds wis to damage versus foes denied their dex-bonus to AC versus your attacks and also adds wis to Bluff skill checks - not a fan of dual attributes to a skill. Additionally, feinting dazzles foes for one round. The follow-up feats allow for an immediate action feint that eliminates opponents as counting for flanking or whether you provoke AoOs, whereas the final feat allows for a 10-foot AoO feint when using a standard action to feint foes while in Couatl style. Additionally, foes feinted this way treat foes other than yourself as having concealment. Interesting!
Doppelgänger Style (sorry, can't write it with an "a" sans cringing) nets you a dodge bonus versus foes using style-feats and allows you to use swift actions to emulate a style employed by a foe who missed you for 1 round, while also netting you a minor buff. This one is pretty much brilliant - nuff said. The follow-up feats allow for the emulation of the feat-chain of said style, while the final feat allows for an AoO that allows you to disrupt another style, hence denying the target temporary access to the style's feat-chain. Sick...and awesome.
Manticore Style allows you to draw light thrown weapons as a free action and do no longer treat ammunition or darts as improvised weapons. The follow-up feats allow for a flurry with two additional attacks at -2 atk - but does that stack with flurry of blows/stars? The second one allows you to move full speed and execute a full attack's attacks at any point while doing so, but requires you to use unarmed attacks, light thrown weapons or ammunition to do so. This one feels too strong for my tastes - indeed, this is the first style that imho can benefit from a bit of streamlining - one feat needs ability-stack clarification, the other should be limited to a subpar weapon group - full attack plus movement with unarmed strikes is NASTY.
Peryton Style allows you to deal bludgeoning or piercing damage with your unarmed attacks, with piercing having a crit of x3. Additionally, you can choose to render a foe to cower instead of being frightened or panicked instead, but only for 1 round. Per se cool, but cower as one of the most powerful conditions is nasty - still, average duration shortened to 1 round balances that. The follow-up feat-chain allows for better charges and a scaling save-based selection of additional detrimental effects to impose on foes of your charge. The final feat allows you to coup-de-grâce cowering or stunned foes, and add an AoE-demoralize as a swift action when executing a foe like this. I like this style, but it is very prone to being cheesed: Coup-de-grâces are almost guaranteed kills and the relatively easy set-up for this finisher means that the style in itself is deadly - when combined with another character that deals in fear (Nightblades or Dreads come to mind...), this style can become broken pretty fast. However, at the same time, it is just glorious in the hands of assassin-style NPCs.
Phoenix Style nets you +2 CMD and unarmed strike damage when facing opponents with a higher Str-score or larger size. The bonus is doubled if a foe power attacks you. The follow-up feats allow you to increase your reach when only executing a single melee strike versus foes, alos netting you a dodge bonus to AC versus foes not adjacent to you. Finally, the third feat allows you to add a second attack to a charge and also allows you to use Acrobatics to move past the foe sans AoO. The feat also allows for a reflexive means to avoid grapples at the cost of movement in the next round.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-.color standard and the pdf sports numerous nice full-color artworks. The pdf has no bookmarks, which constitutes a minor comfort detriment.
Wendall Roy delivers an interesting pdf here - I was honestly surprised to see the styles herein not shirk from the most complex of concepts and executing the rules-language required with laudable precision - with minor hiccups here and there, this pdf tackles top-difficulty concepts and executes them rather well - to the point where I will most definitely use this pdf's content in my campaign. So kudos for aiming for the top! Alas, I am not sold on the balancing of a couple of the styles herein -namely the Manticore Style and the Peryton Style imho require some streamlining - the former due to number of attacks stacking, the latter due to its extremely lethality with a pretty basic combo. These blemishes, though, do not drag down what is undoubtedly a cool pdf that should bring a grin to all aficionados of WuXia. While not perfect, I will hence settle on a verdict of 4.5 stars, just short of utter awesomeness. Since the issues mentioned impact balance, I will round down for what can be considered a quintessentially good pdf.
Posted first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS and d20pfsrd.com's shop.