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Erudite Owl

Jim Groves's page

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 4. Goblin Squad Member. Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Card Game, Companion, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber. Pathfinder Society Member. 1,900 posts (5,531 including aliases). 8 reviews. No lists. No wishlists. 2 Pathfinder Society characters. 14 aliases.



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Will we burn in heaven, like we do down here?

*****

Disclaimer: I write for Paizo and I know Wes Schneider, and he’s the Editor-In-Chief. That may completely disqualify this review. If you can get past that, what I have to say may help you decide whether you want to buy this book or post your own review.

“Is misery made beautiful right before our eyes
Will mercy be revealed or blind us where we stand?”

-Sarah McLachlan, Witness

I have owned this book for approximately four years. During that time, I have referred to it, referenced it, but never just sat down and read it from cover to cover. You know? Like prose instead of an encyclopedia. Recently I was given an assignment that required some insight into the matter of Hell and devils and I grabbed this book. Something in me said, “Why don’t you just read the entire thing, with an eye towards enjoyment rather than just select paragraphs. Take it all in.”

I was glad I did. At this risk of being a suck-up, this is a magnificent piece of work. Allow me to articulate why. Mr. Schneider is not only a skilled editor, the man can write. This is not a book of interesting facts, it borders on poetry. Each sentence is lovingly crafted and considered. Every word is rich and evocative and he spares no imagery to communicate his vision of Hell, it’s denizens, his concepts, and plot hooks and adventure seeds. I imagine he paced the floor after writing each paragraph in order to scrutinize how it might be made better, or he wrote this while high and drunk during a raging thunderstorm. It is poetic without being poetry. What exactly do I mean? The imagery is savage, hideous, and monstrous and yet somehow beautiful.

Let me give you an example of the language:

The pristine halls and lavish sanctuaries of Baalzebul’s court are dedicated to his profane glory, perverted visions of a grand cathedral that hide shrines filled with fly-ridden sacrifices and cesspit-like chevets. Within the heights of Betzebbul’s central spire lies the throne room of the archfiend. Here, more than half dead, hangs the suspended and shackled corpse of the forgotten god Azhia, endlessly fed upon by the innumerable flies that make up Baalzebul’s verminous form.

Or…

Within the deepest pits of Hell, profane smiths rip ingenious blasphemies from the minds of the damned and sculpt soulflesh into creations of unparalleled malignancy. Several diabolical masterworks, creations of exceptional depravity, appear through accounts of history’s darkest annals, leaving wakes of ruin and damnation in their heinous paths.

The entire book is that lavish and evocative, save perhaps certain sections of game mechanics which would not be well served by it anyway.

I give this book an easy five stars. I also offer a bucket of tears that Wes’s duties only permit him to write the occasional sourcebook. Would should be so lucky and fortunate if he would, one day, captain a Bastardhall project.

In addition to fantastic prose, there is a generous helping of actual game mechanics (spells, items, artifacts), all of which appear balanced—including a prestige class and 5 new demons. There is something for everyone. Let me stress, it’s cool just to read it.

I would love to see a hellmouth creature someday. It would be weird without a standard movement, but I love the idea of a “living” portal with eyes and other features.

That concludes my review, but I have a few remarks I am going to put behind spoiler tags.

Wes avoids something I have seen in other books and I double down on my praise of him for not following suit. What follows is editorial.

Spoiler:
I am not a fan of a certain sentence structure that goes like this:

“Scholars and sages whisper about this interesting thing but nobody can tell you anything else about it.”

Or..

“Only the Gods know how Groetus was transformed into cheese and on this topic they will neither speak or nor answer.”

I’m somewhat sick of “X” alluding to something cool and but then the author shuts the topic back down. I enjoyed the Great Beyond, but at times I wanted to hurl that book across the room for this reason.

Let me be clear. Wes never does this in this book. I award him a 6th Special Devil Star for that reason. I understand what is happening when authors do that. Bless their hearts they’re trying to add a little bitty plot hook to the setting and let the GM run with it, or see if anybody gets excited by it. That is a laudable goal. My issue is that it gets repetitive, fast, to the degree it has become a pet peeve of mine. Rather I would have authors introduce a little tidbit to the setting and just let the reader draw their own conclusion. Wes does this well in this book with the Ihyssige, in the Hell Realm of Stygia. That is a mystery which Wes does not explain and it works beautifully. When other authors have all these scholars, sages, mad hermits, and gods who introduce topics and then refuse to elaborate, what the author is communicating to me (the reader) is “Hey, I am being intentionally vague here.” Trust me buddy, I figured that out on my own.

In, Princes of Darkness, Wes takes responsibility for writing about Hell, Asmodeus, and the whole infernal gang and does so with authority. When he wants to leave a plot hook open for the GM to explore, he does so without an awkward declaration of that intent. If the Gods want to point something out and refuse to discuss it further—they may do so one single time per 64 page sourcebook. In Princes of Darkness, it never happens. Kudos.

Here is some constructive feedback. It in no way warrants the loss of a star. It is minor stuff (and no not grammar and punctuation).

Spoiler:

There are a couple contradictions within certain sections.

One example is “Escaping an Infernal Contract”. The second paragraph goes to some length to explain that devils are loathe to renegotiate an infernal contract and explains why. The next paragraph goes on to suggest that devils have no issue with renegotiating infernal contracts and explains why. I was left asking, “Well, which is it? They hate it or they’re fine with it?”

I get what Wes is trying to say here. In principal, obtaining a better soul is always good business. Yet, devils are cautious because mortals inevitably try to change the terms in their favor. This happens to the point of being predictable—and it is seldom worth their consideration.

Another example exists in “True Names and Infernal Sigils”. I was left confused by the first section which suggested it was easier to discover a devil’s sigil because it is used in Hell and must appear on infernal contracts. To discover a true name is harder, because you have to actually hear it and the sigil doesn’t automatically translate to the name. That makes sense, though I noted it would be rough to learn a true name in that case. The next section on “Discovering True Names and Infernal Sigils” contradicts that by providing a means of how true name can be discovered through academic research.

This not a big deal. I actually prefer there is a means to learn the true names through research. I’m just pointing out the small contradiction.

I went looking for summon hellmouth. When I googled it I saw that it has been brought to Wes’s attention already. I won’t belabor it. This review was written WITHOUT reading the forums or consolation of previous reviews. I read the whole book so I reviewed it all by myself.

Bottom line, I think this is one of the best sourcebooks I ever read, and these are the only issues that I felt worthy to mention in a 64 page book written by a single author. That’s outstanding. I only mention them because I feel one honors the author/creator by taking the time to offer whatever stuff you can to improve their craft; to offer a meaningful and constructive critique rather than just empty praise. That was the best I had because this book already sets the bar high from the start.

I strongly recommend this book for purchase.


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Solid great content, no-frills production, great price point

*****

Jason Bulmahn's two dollar PDFs are becoming no-brainers. For those who have not purchased any of his other PDFs, what you're buying is content. Not art and high production values, but solid game material—for about the price of two items off the McDonald's Dollar Menu.

But man.. the content is great. It's all stuff I would expect in a Core Book. There is more usable content here than what appeared in many gaming articles when RPG magazines were more common than they are today.

It is well balanced between GM exclusive content (new lich templates, specialized lich feats), and player based content (player feats, and items). And honestly some of the spells fall in a deliciously nebulous gray area where I could see both lichs and players utilizing them.

As always with Jason's PDFs, at a glance all the content passes the sniff test of being balanced. I think absolute balance is an illusion, but everything appears well thought out and considered.

Honestly, this PDF is cheaper than a lot of gas station beef jerky. At that price, it doesn't have to look very pretty, and to review it at anything less than five stars would be unfair.


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Lot of depth in a simple package

*****

First of all, I loved the Knowledge skill breakdown. As a GM I'm fairly firm about metagaming, but I encourage Knowledge checks and my players make them all the time. Now, I probably didn't "need" one for the ghoul (because I have been playing since before Jason was born), I loved that it was in there. I think any 3PP author doing a dedicated monster product should include this feature or something like it.

The feats were solid, and in my opinion, well balanced. Many fall into the category of "Why didn't I ever think of that?" Which is good, because that means they're clear, straight-forward, and fit the theme. There are some which beneficial to those who fight ghouls, adding value to the PDF.

One feat that has been questioned allows one of two consequences—either the ghouls existing ability plays out as described in the Bestiary, or they can apply a condition for 1 round. This stacks and so continues as long as the target is hit by the ghoul and continues to make their saving throw. It does not compound upon the creatures special ability if the target fails their save. A feat that requires you to succeed on an attack, and then allows you to apply a condition for 1 round doesn't seem out of line to the Core Rules to me—specially when that condition is not helpless. Fighting monsters is dangerous, folks!

The alchemical items are imaginative but also quite practical.

(That is a theme throughout the PDF, this is stuff isn't gonzo, these mechanics are practical and yet imaginative.)

The spells are well balanced and what I would expect. One spell could be used to create or augment an entire encounter. Something a group of PCs would never expect. Kudos on that one in particular. There is an item which does something similar and makes a wickedly good addition to the game.

It is as if Jason has seen some issues with certain types of encounter design, and he's developed some solutions for them. Not in a contrived fashion, but with solid new mechanics.

To sum up, for two dollars this is a nice package of ready to use mechanics, creature variants, and items which will definitely add some spice to any campaign where ghouls will make an appearance.


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Delighted!

*****

Disclaimer: I freelance for Paizo, but I had nothing to do with any stage of this product—and I paid for it with real money.

I saw this product demonstrated by Vic Wertz at PaizoCon 2012. When I recently received my copy it met all my expectations and more. Its made a delightful Christmas present to me from my wife. My copy came in excellent condition with no defects—and was obviously packed and shipped with care.

I am very pleased to have this collectible bit of history! Runelords got me playing again in 2007 and eventually entering RPG SuperStar

Thanks Vic and Paizo!


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Another fine sourcebook

*****

Disclaimer: I am a freelancer for Paizo, so you could argue I have a biased opinion. If you think that calls for discounting this review, I'm okay with that. On the other hand, I paid cash money for a physical copy of this book, and I've been working with Magnimar as a GM since 2007 (Skinsaw Murders) and long before I was a freelancer. I've read this book cover to cover and more thoroughly than most recent books—so I feel comfortable reviewing it.

Briefly: this really satisfies any itch I have to know about Magnimar and gives me plenty of tools to devise and run adventures, both short and long, in this truly fascinating city.

The majority of the book is broken down into the various districts, each of which are rich with details, plothooks, and NPCs. There is a "Secrets" section in the back similar to Guide to Korvosa, but the district chapters are by no means dry, and also contain a wealth of neat ideas to be mined.

The maps are different than previous books. They're still overhead top down representations, but they're quite clean and crisp (not to imply that the city itself is). When a pointer indicates a noble family's villa, it looks like a villa, the exclusive fenced in club looks like it should—not just one random building in a congested city section. Its laid out with a nice sense of space and proportion. The text compliments the map nicely, and the two authors have spent some time considering why each district is that way it is.. be it for practical reasons or an actual history that is explained. Oh yeah, there is a map for each section of the city. There are location pointers with the tags off of the surface of the map, so you have as much of an unobstructed look at the map as possible while still having specific location pointers.

Few stones have been left uncovered by this book, from the Golemworks, to cults referenced in previous APs and modules, to the Irespan. James Jacobs can be conservative in revealing spoilers on the messageboards, but if you throw down your money on the table, he and Mr. Daigle lift up the hood and let you in on many (if not all) of the secrets of Magnimar. There is a wealth of lore and history here and it all makes easy kindling and fuel for adventures. Some of it intersects with previous products, but in those cases it enriches that content without repeating it. The 'Secrets' chapter can easily spin-off multiple extended adventure arcs for the GM to develop in their home campaigns.

All of the art is top-notch, there is no lame or shoddy illustration in the book. The layout is clean, and the sidebars are check full of interesting highlights.

I guess if I had to make one observation that doesn't try to address any one aspect of the book and just comes right from the gut: the content is meaty and rich (I almost want to say dense). Not because it's a hard or boring read, but if you just flipped through the pages quickly it might not stand out. If you sit down and read it, there's a lot of interesting detail here that you're not going to pull out from just scanning the pages. And it's not boring at all. They pack a lot of value in this book.

I loved the Guide to Korvosa, and while this book doesn't try to copy it 100% I think it is every bit as good if not better. Definitely worth the investment if you love Varisia.


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