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Up From Darkness

5/5

Friendly warning: this is an adventure which relies on surprising a player. If you intend to play, ask your GM to read it. If you are wondering if you should play it, the short answer is affirmative. For details, keep reading...
Disclaimer: I'm a supporter of Kaidan Kickstarter.

THE NUMBERS AND THE PREMISE

This is 35 page adventure for four 7th level characters, with 13-pages-long adventure, 14 pages of GM stuff like monster blocks, player handouts, pregenerated characters, single-page license and intro thingies like cover, table of contents, adventure background and synopsis. There is enough material to enjoy a long session, there is also a lot of interesting tasty bits to borrow and steal for your own campaigns.

The characters are going to play their part in a horror adventure set in Kaidan, a quasi-oriental ghosts-and-samurai setting by Rite Publishing crew, Michael Tumey, Jonathan McAnulty, Will McCardell, T. H. Gulliver and one Steve Russell. Of these five, Jonathan penned the adventure, Mark Hyzer did the illustrations (including cover), Michael lent his cartography and layouting skills and Steven has published it.
While more on the setting to be found on their Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/937759598/kaidan-campaign-setting-pfrpg ) - and you're strongly recommended to expand your horizons there before running this scenario - there are several key points I would like to mention.

First of all, this a ghost story setting. The players find themselves burdened by heavy chains almost inescapable and tragic destiny. In the course of their adventures, they are to become witness to casual graphic violence, disturbing depravity and unforgiven unredeemed innocent souls who succumb to evil to escape agony. The horror and bleakness are not meant to assault PCs constantly though - they are the vehicles and endings for stories, while the PCs are intended to be bastions of heroism (note: this is my interpretation, not necessarily the view of the authors).

Secondly, this is neither Ravenloft nor Kara-Tur. The characters are given free will and they are not necessarily fighting Chinese dragons, Shaolin Monks and Samurai at the same time. While ultimately their fate is sealed, and there is not much to improve the hopeless state of the world, the players are encouraged to struggle, to defend their honor and quite possibly to achieve something positive on a limited scale.

Thirdly, the heavens are closed. The upper aristrocrats are dead and holding the reins. The sheer lack of perspectives slowly drives everyone insane and even the best guys are Othellos ready to unleash terminal violence at slight provocation.

Welcome to Kaidan, the world without hope and where neither sins nor good deeds are going to change the fate of your soul.

THE LOOKS

Very nicely laid out booklet with bookmarks (props for very clean design). Stellar organization of content. Somewhat boring fonts (Georgia and Times New Roman). Rather bleak unappealing colors. All of these form a somewhat unappealing, yet exquisitely formed whole. The vivid red with black and greys is very atmospheric, but the overall impression is that of sadness and melancholy - there should be brighter more eye-catching colors inside, to draw the readers in.
When compared to Pathways, a periodical also published by Rite Publishing, with their very evocative covers, it is my strong opinion that book would really benefit from looking more alive.

THE ADVENTURE

In the interest of keeping the book content a secret, please allow me to elaborate on the nature of the scenario in a roundabout way.

The horror experience here is derived of the following elements: sensory deprivation, lack of starting information, loss of D20 adventuring staple - equipment and finally harsh challenges and multiple deaths. The players are intended to be exploring their surroundings, then they are meant to be hurt and make progress fighting. The reward for overcoming obstacles are memories - confusing initially, illuminating eventually. Discovering the whole truth is the final reward, setting straight the story and possibly opening avenue to further campaign.
Also, the scenario makes heavy use of symbolism and very unique monsters and haunts. Your players are in for a lot of surprises.

Though I haven't playtested or ran it yet, my opinion would be that the non-spontaneous casters are likely to be penalized due to severe resource constraints. Self-sufficient well rounded builds capable of not relying on weapons and armors are quite possibly best suited to complete the adventure. The pregenerated characters reinforce this impression - a samurai, a rogue (scout archetype), a necrotic warrior (bone) - whatever this is, it feels like a Wolverine in Monk's clothing, and a sorcerer/fighter. The characters can be further customized by application of ability cards (I did mention multiple deaths, didn't I?).

Will the players like playing this? Quite likely so, as long as the GM resolves two potential threats. In some cases the players may split. If so, unless they are quickly brought together, a GM would be advised to call upon another GM or, alternatively, devise means for quicker re-assembly of characters. The other issue may take place in groups which enjoy puzzles and social interactions - there may be not enough of these to provide sufficient entertainment - if you GM for such a group, you want to add a little content.

TIPS FOR RUNNING THE STORY

Based on my reading of the book, here are a few tips for those running the adventure:
- do not overplay the darkness element. And keep Perception rolls to minimum. Let the players describe their actions and reward them with success for detailed and ingenious descriptions of their actions.
- heed GM advice in red-framed boxes. It's simply golden.
- stress the role of calligraphic symbols. Do some research and add a few letter based puzzles.
- at least one of the enemies can be converted into an NPC. Do so.
- the memories are rewards. Hand them to those who deserve it.
- if you feel like there were too many saves or haunts, remove them.

If I were to run Up from Darkness, I would do so in the course of a single night, Halloween or New Year's, with the following special rules in play:
- all monsters inflict special bleed and disease damage - everyone taking damage in combat takes one point of bleed every hour unless resting for 8 hours or more. Everyone taking damage in combat has a chance of running high fever after 24 hours. Healing of any kind prevents and removes these effects as long as you have clean bandages, make a high DC roll or use a healing spell and succeed at high DC caster level check.
- all players have d4+1 Hero points - you may spent a point before a difficult roll to succeed by a skin of your teeth, or you may spent a point to escape death or great wounds at some personal cost (instead of life, you lose or damage something else).
- those who die, instead of returning as PCs, would be allowed to play monsters during encounters.

THE VERDICT

This horror dungeon crawl with lots of symbolism is worth 5 out of 5 points as long as you are willing to do some work to add a little more fun for your players. Otherwise it's a solid 4.5.


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The Godfather, the Rite way.

5/5

(cue the music theme)

* warning: spoilers follow *

THE ADVICE

Upon introducing this book's content to your players, you are recommended to do just this - discreetly allow the track to play in the background. Award bonus points to players who take the hint and start treading carefully. For those who don't, if you feel like you need to offer a stronger hint, consider using this fashionable sea shanty.

THE STUFF

"101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban" takes on a relatively new concept of layered encounters and develops it a bit further. In case you don't know, a layered encounter table looks like a standard random encounter table, however the creatures listed on the table belong to the same faction (or share a trait which allows them to work together). An example of such listing would look like this: minions (grunts), minions (elite), minions (lieutenants), the boss. Initially, the party would be more likely to encounter lower echelons, with subsequent encounter bringing more to the table (either in terms of higher CR creatures or by providing groups with different skills).
Obviously, the key principle here is to make a list of potential encounters and come up with a suitably important relationship among NPCs for belonging to a given encounter cast.

Note: A little more on the layered encounters concept is to be found within the thread by Pax Veritas.

Following this premise, "101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban" presents an organized crime "family" of the most terrifying sort - a band of monsters with a sense of community, sprinkled with class levels and with resources assembled over the course of four hundred years of existence.

The encounter write-ups are simple - you have 101 personages with Challenge Rating values provided. Each encounter comes with creature (referred to by its name), creature background, suggestions on how to scale the encounter, and sometimes a stablock.

For example, Nightblood, the very last item on the list, is a stirge (CR 1/2), who sometimes hunts with a friend (CR 2), but on worse days it is not much of a menace (CR 1/8). Meanwhile Chatelaine Laboni, number 39th, boasts a title of elder sister and is quite renowned for her administrative skills. She's also (quoting) believes deeply in the rituals of host and guest; as such, if the PCs are guests in property owned by The Pride, she will not allow any harm to come to them.
Ruleswise, she's a Chaotic Evil Pit Hag, with encounter CR ranging from 11 (after a bad scuffle with competitors), through 13 (default) to 15 (with body guards). Her entry ends with a statblock.

Note: the book strives to provide everything you need to run each encounter - by statblock where possible or by a reference to a freely available resource.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

The book is an instant classic. You've been handed a bunch (101!) of colorful NPCs with means to drop them into any urban campaign. The CR spread covers spectrum from 1/8 to 23, so all parties should be eligible for a generous helping of nastiness.
As the creatures form a crime family... the players are much more likely to interact with them first. Maybe even the PCs can do business instead of violence.

The PDF comes with bookmarks (one per each 10 encounters), encounter tables (five tables for five character level ranges), with a potential CR difference between the party and the opposition reaching 7 (with the PCs finding themselves in a role of bug meeting the sole of a big boot). Fortunately for the players, most presented monsters want to do business, and so are unlikely to just kill the characters... admittedly, the alignments of the featured creatures are making charity fund questing unlikely, so the PCs may feel somewhat trampled over.

There are minor editing issues - for example, page 47, "charst" - which are not really noticeable.

The illustrations are very varied, both in theme and in presentation. I feel that it may have been a good idea to skip a few to make the book more of a whole (compare pages 31 and 35 - the first comes with a portrait of a seedy individual, a blac and white sketch, the second shows an attack dog in color).

The statblocks are nice and legible, though section headers (Offense and Defense) take a little too much space. I would also consider changing default font for the publication, as I am a little tired of this Times New Roman-lookalike. I would propose having a look at Best Practices of Combining Typefaces by Douglas Bonneville for starters.

THE VERDICT

5/5
This resource is good enough to build a whole campaign around it.

Regards,
Ruemere


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Surprisingly Complex, Highly Compressed

5/5

NOTE: This review is intended for GMs. Spoilers galore.

Probably the most difficult challenge for module author is how to pack content into just over twenty pages. Tim Hitchcock proves again that he can excel under severe constraints.

Note to my esteemed colleagues who posted astonishingly short reviews: Use of Ultimate Combat content is optional. While I agree that UC gladiatorial rules rate very low for introducing yet another standalone and incompatible subsystem (just like the firearms cost or firearms point blank shooting or Jade Regent caravan fiascos), they can be safely ignored.
You're also free not to use weapons, spells or classes... or just read online version of UC.
Finally, all oriental elements are easy to replace with standard fantasy stuff.

SPOILERS BELOW. You were warned!

MODULE BREAKDOWN

So what your players can hope to experience by participating in the tournament? Well, there is the standard plot of "win several fights and get fabulous items". In between fights, the PCs are sent forth to overcome complex challenges devised by tournament supervisors. Meanwhile, in shadows, a sinister plot is slowly building momentum toward the blazing secondary finale.

The great move on author's part is to make PCs' decisions or accomplishments matter. For example:
- facing a dragon at earlier stage allows to avoid potential TPK during intense showdown,
- rescuing a hostage means that severely hurt PCs gain powerful ally in the finale.

THE BAD & THE UGLY

The module is highly compressed. That means that you, as a GM, are expected to think for your NPCs, come up with tactics and research statblocks. Additionally, some story parts are handed down using rather crude methods (a body of kidnapper with a note pointing toward secret meeting point... seriously), however, since Tim had to work in clues for PCs and fit it into really tight space, this is both acceptable and easily amenable.

You are also required to make several leaps of faith and creativity (one would expect other contestants to be able intervene when all hell breaks loose, the fight against dragon - the one where the PCs get to attack - is not set properly... that is to say, it is not included in module text at all).

Probably the most irritating part for me would be juggling statblock of all extras - all these "use default statblock for X, just change it here and there" get tiresome after a while. I do not mind missing encounter descriptions though - I like to add my own content.

THE GOOD

This module occurs largely in open spaces. The action moments occur frequently, easily exceeding standard default CR and encounter ratios. At the same time, risk of dying is limited through several safety nets, like paladin patron, presence of clerics (played down, but still there) or by the fact, that the PCs may try to make a few friends to get them to help later (saving bacon of other contestants may, and should, in my opinion, result in NPC boons or returned favors).
Of course, the blazing finale is no-holds-barred fight, but again, falling while doing a huge favor for a dominant church may yield a free resurrection or two.

Most of the challenges, especially the side shows, add lots of fun. The fight on cliff walls is going to be interesting, but the fight in the port, with dragon picking strays from above and opponents jumping from one boat to another is going to take the spotlight, probably even overshadowing the final finale.

Verdict: 5/5, Heartily recommended, Requires GM's work.
GMs should monitor developments in order to avoid TPK.

Regards,
Ruemere


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Highlights to EZG's Review

4/5

The following is a short list of highlights I would like to add to EndZeitGeist's review below. Please consider reading his review first.

  • This is a version 2.0 of the original products. Changes include, but are not limited to: layout issues, typos, a new section was added (Concluding the Adventure). Generally, the product looks much better and contains quite a few improvements. Therefore, if for some reason you were hesitant to give it a try, I would say this is something you really want to give a shot.

  • This is not an adventure, at least not in a conventional sense. The product is a list of five very challenging encounters, which require very creative thinking to get through them. By themselves, Challenge Ratings are beyond capability of your recommended party. However under Coliseum Morpheuon setting rules, everyone, including lowly fighters, can use powerful creation magic - all you need to do is to gamble with character's aspirations, dreams and hopes. The rules for Dream Burning are not included however (not in full, but sufficiently complete to extrapolate), so GMs are strongly recommended to either adapt the adventure a bit or brief the players (and train them in the use of) on how to escape seemingly impossible odds.

  • Statblocks are very elaborate, easily on the par with Faces... series. The product is heartily recommended to anyone who needs 18+ CRs in their game. That said, one really needs to read thoroughly to grasp creature's strong sides.

  • The adventure, thanks to encounters being separate, can be dissasembled and plugged into larger framework. It works best with Planescape, Coliseum Morpheuon or any Dream plane related setting. Personally, I would say that these encounters should be used as end-story devices. They are pretty hermetic, and most of them are going to cost lives.

  • My verdict: Initially I went with 2.5 stars for version 1.0.
    Version 2.0 easily nets 4 stars. The fifth star should be awarded only if the tea-party sits well with you in otherwise conventional if twisted fantasy genre.
    So, 4 stars (from me), 5 if you don't mind Mad Hatter paying a visit to your party.

    (I have all but respect for Lewis Carrol and Jabberwocks, I do feel that lifting stuff from his books, especially the encounters, is a tad overused)

    Regards,
    Ruemere


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    10 Facts about Tome of Horrors, Complete, and Frog God Games

    5/5

    #10 This is CR 20 book. It's a small Chaotic Evil construct with ability to bring forth horrors from its pages. It can also swallow human-sized readers. See page 9 for more details.

    #9 The lowest CR creature is a bookworm at 1/8, while the highest, at CR 39, is Lucifer. Oh, and in between you have 749 other creatures.

    #8 The creatures, and their art, were drawn from Tomes of Horrors published over the years by Necromancer Games. That means that creature art was reused and some creatures do not follow Pathfinder guidelines as to their CR or abilities ("some" as in "found only two wonky specimens"). The former is a non-issue for me (I do not own previous editions), the latter is rare to the point of non-existent, and, as a GM, I tend to read statblocks so I can deal with any potential issues on the fly.

    As an anecdote - what was the second monster book of d20, the third edition of our favorite game? According to Amazon, Monster Manual was released on 1st of October, 2000, and Creature Collection came out on the Oct 3rd, 2000.
    The authors of CC: Clark Peterson and Bill Webb. Sounds familiar? Yep, founders of Necromancer Games and producers of Tome of Horror series.
    For more on their current endeavors: Frog God Games (Bill Webb), Legendary Games (Clark Peterson).

    Digression: Bill, and Clark, if I ever meet you in person, I'll make you sign this Creature Collection of mine. Or at least strongly entreat you to do so.

    #7 The book has been built to last. Cover and binding appear to be extremely durable. The pages themselves are delicate.

    #6 The majority of creatures presented are horrors. That is, they are quite impossible to reason with. Unfortunately, for the players, those capable of business interactions, are most likely to be demons, devils or fey. Exceptions are rare.

    #5 The PDF you get along with the book allows for very user friendly experience. The bookmarks are organized as follows:
    - Cover
    - Credits
    - Table of Contents
    - Introduction by Greg A. Vaughan
    - Forward by James Jacobs
    - The Tome of Horrors Complete
    - - (alphabetical listing of, well, letters)
    - - - (noun, adjective noun)
    - Appendix A: Animals
    - Appendix B: Templates
    - Appendix C: Hazards
    - Appendix D: Variant Snake Venoms
    - Appendix E: N'gathau
    - Appendix F: Planes of Existence
    - Appendix G: New Feats and Subtypes
    - Appendix H: Monster by Type and CR
    - Legal Appendix
    - Back Cover

    #4 N'gathau? Have you heard about Hellraiser? And since we're talking about movie inspirations - watch Ravenous, by Antonia Bird. The template is to be found in Appendix B, page 732.

    #3 Free stuff to complement the book:
    - Lairs: PDF, 127 pages of sample lairs and encounters. System independent.
    - Monsters by terrain: PDF, pretty self-explanatory and very useful.

    #2 Think that the Tome of Horrors is going to be the biggest book of the d20 market? Slumbering Tsar hardcover is likely to be even bigger. Also by Frog God Games:
    - The Slumbering Tsar Saga, a sandbox adventure set in killing fields.

    Since we're talking about Frog God Games essentials, you may want to preorder
    - TOAD, The Tome of Adventure Design (PDF available now, the book later) - 308 pages of tables for random stuff, like these: Ship Reputations (d100), Ship Cargo (d100) and Unusual Pirates (d100). The selling point? My players hit 14th level. They like to travel a lot... this book is going to be my adventure-in-a-bottle answer to their Wind-Walk escapades.

    #1 The limited version book came with an autograph of Bill Webb. Thank you for such a personal touch. For more personal touches:
    - Tsathogga, The Frog God, CR 30, page 190
    - Gargax the Mighty, Master of the Dungeon Dragons, Great Wyrm Dungeon Dragon (Draco Carcer Dominus), CR 17, page 228

    From Gargax entry:
    "Watching adventurers explore its catacomb is the only real treasure a dungeon dragon desires."

    Verdict: It's over nine thousaaaaand... ahem, 5 stars.

    Regards,
    Ruemere

    Edit note: cleaned review a bit.


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    Evocative City Sites, a Review

    4/5

    FACTS

    This is 88-pages-long book containing 9 places to visit, 32 statblocks (a little more, if one were to count familiars) of NPCs and monsters living there, unique related magic items and feats, simple plot hooks, quite lengthy story-like accounts by nameless narrator, floor plans with obligatory grid and several tables for random effects.
    Credits go to Rob Manning, Richard Biggs Jr, T. H. Gulliver, Miranda N. Russel, Jonathan McAnulty, Steven D. Russell, Mark Gedak, Shane O'Conner and Benjamin Bruck.

    My bias: I needed a few good NPCs and weird places quickly to fill empty spaces in somewhat derailed campaign. The formula of the book fit it perfectly - bare data, skimpy outline and complete write-ups of colorful antagonists.

    Overall score is 4/5, with a few brilliant ideas and a few problems to balance it out.
    Game Masters are advised to exercise caution when dealing with creatures of Challenge Rating 12 or more, as most of them are prone to vagaries of chance and circumstance (or, to put it simply: their CR may not be properly reflecting their level of ability).

    Warning! Spoilers below this line!

    IMPRESSIONS

    NPCs. Aside from a few problematic CRs, they are extremely portable and each one of them comes with a great background. They are far from being generic, and most of them pack a mean secret.

    The particular highlights include Chaotic Evil civil and relatively safe to interact with antagonists. Sadly, to many designers CE alignment is tantamount to Jack the Ripper, while these guys (and gals) make for very good dicourse partners. The awards for most amiable personality go to elder fiend with aspiration to godhood and poisoner-bartender-artist of Rogue's Gallery.

    The downsides include Mother Sharlene Murrel and Brother Broomore. While both likable and both with dark secrets, they fall to common disease known as "concept over crunch". In short, in the world where high magic rules supreme, and guys with detect evil can spot you from 60 feet, you do not dare to rise over 5th level without something to hide your nasty side in a civilized environment. And if you do, you make damn sure that random party of adventurers will not spoil your day.
    Sadly, these NPCs are fine, very fine even, but they just don't fit in vanilla D20.

    Introductions and maps. Their role is to provide is with a glimpse of location concept and layout. They are not sufficient to fully flesh the place, but they are great for building gossips or (for PDF versions) printing handouts for combat maps. I wasn't particularly impressed with lack of descriptions, yet the maps are usable. The introductions are a mixed case of good story and mood-killing problems. You don't get any explanations there - and with secrets being few and vague, you are to make up your own explanations as to, for example, how the enormous mimic is so cooperative or why chronological paradox hasn't attracted vultures, pardon, enterprising wizards to examine it.

    Magic items, feats and miscellaneous items. For the most part ingenious (or decent), however recommended for GM use only. For example, implications of delayed super poisons would be severe in any game. Suffice to say it that nasty things can happens to PCs, and GMs should tread lightly here - the game is supposed to allow players to be heroes, and if the heroes are all too easy to kill, the main paradigm of the game breaks.

    Random tables. In some places short narrative and bland maps are enhanced by random tables. Used properly this aid can provide for more interesting game. Of particular note is "Strange Flora", a nifty way to intimidate your players.

    PLACES

    Bedlam Asylum: great ideas marred by maps, heavy handed handling of secrets and susceptibility to divination spells and administrative action. 2/5 if used for d20, probably 4/5 if imported into low-magic system. There is also an NPC with abilty to increase save of a DC by 7 twice per day.

    Burial Vaults of House Blackwood: disjointed. It's hard to get a grip on concept without reading it thorougly. At least one statblock is very controversial (underequipped fighters don't get to use high CR, much less full CR), and another one, a paladin, is completely out of place. However, there is also a great antagonist presented there, good enough to warrant 3/5 despite several weird errors in descriptions (where do these shadow demons are supposed to come from?).

    Clockwork Tower: I'm biased against time-based magic in d20. It's all too easy to produce paradoxes or provide someone with ultimate weapon. Having said this, this location is likely to provide for entertaining exploration of its mysteries, as long as a GM is willing to add to rather skimpy content. Solid 4/5.

    Intimate Shape Festhall: Beautiful concept with several critical items missing. The underlying themes, suffrage, equality and sex, sold the idea immediately to me. I would love to give it full 5/5 if some mysteries were revealed. The mimic thing especially. As it is, 4.5/5 seems appropriate.

    Kavit M Tor's Emporium of Collectible Curiosities: Bad pun does not make for good first impression. Reputation and respectability are easy to lose, and finally, detect magic, identify and so on are at disposal of high level adventurers. Unless greedy merchants knows how to avoid detect thoughts, can bluff his way out of high sense motive checks, he is unlikely to stay in business. Nice items, though. 3.5/5.

    Lorn's Entrepot (Abandoned Warehouse): chaotic in composition, with nice statblocks. Needs quite a lot of development to turn this game of lowly thugs into something more than a ruin with strong antagonist. 3/5.

    The Next Inn: The only location cosisting of introduction and maps. Very short and mysterious, could have been made into the only 'good' location. Not enough to justify more than 3.5.

    The Rogue's Gallery Tavern: The gem. It's something most of GMs is going to be able to use. Great NPCs are not the only strong points - the poisons, my <deity>, the poisons, and drinks, lovely, dangerous and providing wonderful alternative to overused geas spells. 5/5. Oh, and second highest CR creature in the book.

    Voell's Garden: The other gem. It's not just any horror, it's lovecraftian horror. With highest CR and nasty surprise, the CR is entirely justified as long as the PCs are surprised. It's also going to be a TPK unless the players are very careful. The NPCs are nothing special, well, aside from certain unscrupulous entrepreneur, but the secret and the nastiness of the secret is something every GM is going to love. And the shadow grass side-effect is just an icing on the cake. 5/5.

    CONCLUSIONS

    Were I to use simply a page count, the overall rating would be a little below 4/5, but with three locations just begging to be used, I feel that 4/5 (or a little more) is justified.
    Heartily recommended, as even the weaker parts contain usable bits.


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    Oathound Revisited

    4/5

    Disclaimer: The review is based on my perceived production value for a GM not familiar with Oathbound setting. Otherwise, one is strongly encouraged consider the book to be a collector's item with rating of 4.5 to 5 stars.
    The following review is intended to raise visibility of Oathbound campaign setting. It contains spoilers and should be read with care by prospective players.

    (Spoilers! Final warning!)

    THE PREMISE

    Your character died and instead of going to afterlife, they got sent to inescapable prison with a chance get rich, get weird or, most likely, die again trying. However, before you die, you are going to see epic things, experience vast and wonderfully rich world and partake in one of ultimately futile attempt to change destiny through war, epic quest or millenia-spanning intrigue.
    Oathbound is a vast setting. It spans millions of years of a world much bigger than Earth. It has superpowerful immortals (millions of years...), 1:1 scale diorama realms (i.e. artificially made models made millions of years ago) and civilizations living on a pile of ruins of previous civilizations (at least hundreds of thousands of years). Amidst other things it has a half-a-mile high city built on a pile of rubble (hundreds of thousands of years...) and perpetually dark cavity in the ground of the size of a large continent, into which oceans fall: the Eclipse.

    THE BOOK

    Oathbound is back with style. The full color book is an account of super-epic ex-power-turned-tourist revisiting domain of Eclipse. As per traditional presentation of Oathbound realm, you get an introduction, an overview of general realm layout followed by more specific entries on chief points of interest, followed by cast of characters, pieces of random stories of Eclipse denizens and selection of factual information (items, generic NPCs).
    The word “traditional” is to be taken quite liberally – my experience with Oathbound is limited to 3.x days, with basic Oathbound book and the Wilds.

    While entertaining, the book suffers from two major presentation issues. The first one is that of font choices. Some parts of the book written in character tend to use very small handwritten fonts against vividly colored backgrounds. While the pages look nice, the act of reading become quite a choir, and so I skipped the affected content.
    The latter issue is that the book is very general. There is no adventure, no story seeds nor detailed specific NPCs – picking the book and running a story is not an option.

    THE CRUNCH

    A few monster stablocks and advanced NPCs, several spells and the end boss. New races (some already present in other Oathbound publications). New basic and prestige classes. And new evolutions/adaptations.
    The evolutions and adaptations are still very problematic – while conceptually simple – trade level-up experience for a new ability – they break CR system. Your characters grow horizontally in terms of power while remaining at the same level. Additionally, since some powers are not combat oriented, adjudicating creature's CR is even harder. Just like under 3.x edition of Oathbound.

    GAMEMASTERING IN OATHBOUND

    Let me get the most important issue of my chest first – Oathbound does not play nice with d20 system. The evolutions and adaptations are the most obvious problem here, however it gets more profound once you dive deeper into the setting. For example, many important NPCs are millenia old. Correction: tens of thousands of years old. With immortals in charge running their business for millions of years. That's why I would find their levels to be higher, much, much higher.
    Speaking of millenia, how come that the civilizations of Oathbound are so primitive? And if the gods cannot properly access the world of Oathbound, who grants spells to clerics?
    Personally, as the book is light on mechanics I would recommend using any streamlined and pulpy system like: Savage Worlds, core World of Darkness/Exalted or FATE, or even Castle Falkenstein. We have used Arcana Evolved but, for the reasons listed above, had problems with maintaining our suspension of disbelief.
    All these issues can be worked around with sufficient tweaking or using system allowing for greater amount of scaling.

    The other problem for game masters – the book is too vague, too general to use straight away. Once you read it, you have a grasp of various cultures, entities and sources of large scale conflict. You, as a GM, need to provide NPCs, adventures, stories, maps... basically, you need to create PC level information from the scratch. It's not a great problem – we, game masters, are a creative bunch who enjoy coming up with things. It's just that for such a big book it is something of a let down.

    Oathbound is epic at every level. The wars span continents, the cataclysms rend nations and history goes back hundreds of thousand of years. Always start big, and from there progress to bigger. Remember, that the ultimate goal of any PC in this setting will be tackling tricky issues of ascension to godhood... and then trying to gain freedom.

    POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENTS

    I realize that my vision is unlikely to reflect that of setting authors. However, if I were to develop a book for Oathbound, I would made damn sure that adoption of the setting would be a lot easier. To achieve this, I would:

    - rid of doom and gloom perspective. The PCs should be freely able to leave the world of Oathbound, however the loss of Oathbound powers and possible other persistent penalties (“Joe, your characters is no longer immortal evolved vampire.”) should be sufficient to entice them to come back.

    - provide information at PC levels. Specific NPCs with statblocks, adventure seeds, maybe a few simple adventures, or, using an excellent idea from Savage Worlds – provide a plot point setting. Describe a single default city in details sufficient to run it. Add statblocks for a few villains and potential allies. Add map for a few locales worth adventuring (no data, just a map and short description).
    no handwritten fonts. Adhere to minimum size of 8pts.

    - either publish simplified rules for epic creature advancement or avoid statting epic creatures altogether. As published, the Feathered guys (or ancients, or vampires) are not appropriate.

    - offer evolutions and adaptations at preset levels to everyone for free. Add guidelines on what kind of power should be right and when. My opinion here is that all combat abilities should require standard action to use (thus precluding combining them with spells and attacks), swift action to maintain. Noncombat abilities should follow Wizard utility spells with regard to their power.

    - explain the deal with divine spells.

    - do not offer new classes or prestige classes. Archetypes are more convenient and it is harder to break their balance.

    VERDICT

    My favorite 3.x settings are Scarred Lands, Ptolus and Oathbound. Of these three, I could not run the last one because it does not mesh well with the other two, but friendy GM ran it for us using Arcana Unearthed (and then Evolved) rules, and we had a blast.
    It feels terrific to see it again after all these years, and there is a chance, I'll reacquaint myself again with the world.

    4/5


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    Pathway to Stars

    5/5

    Pathways #1 is a free e-zine by Rite Publishing's Steven D. Russel and David Paul. The mission statement for the publication is to (quoting David Paul) "bring [...] industry interviews, sneak peeks from the writers, designers and developers themselves, previews of material that's just around the corner from its release date, original articles from freelancers and more."

    The e-zine numbers 56 pages, of which 12 are full page ads, 40 contain articles, leaving just 4 for cover, table of contents, obligatory license and short editorial. The PDF comes with 16 bookmarks for easier navigation.

    THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

    Fine articles, great art and news make for good stuff.
    The only bad thing is that the large amount of art results in page flipping. Fortunately, the bookmarks lessen the impact of this issue.
    The ugly aspects... well, I'm not really sold on Black Chancery font used for headers, there are some small inconsistencies in layouts. Minor stuff, and general improvement trend in overall quality continues.

    THE HIGHLIGHTS

    Here is a list of items which really caught my attention:

    1. The cover. The visuals hit like a hammer. And in a good way. The red guy gets reused for your viewing pleasure on page 11.

    2. The ad for Wanted: Makesh. Stylish.

    3. Pages 10 to 13: yet another complicated stablock NPC. Rite Publishing guys should be awarded renown points for tackling such creatures.

    4. Pages 19 to 21: Eyes of Sin. Diminutive construct eye replacements which control their owners.

    5. Pages 30 to 49: Twenty questions to 3rd party publishers. Lovely interview. Features the following folks:
    - Bill Webb, Frog God Games
    - Bret Boyd, Tricky Owlbear Publishing
    - Creighton Broadhurst, Raging Swan Press
    - Dale McCoy, Jon Brazer Enterprises
    - Jeremy Smith, Dreamscarred Press
    - Louis Porter Jr., Louis Porter Jr. Design
    - Mario Barbati, 0one games
    - Mark Gedak, Purple Duck Games
    - Owen K.C. Stephens, Super Genius Games
    - Robert Thomson, 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming
    - Steve Russell, Rite Publishing
    - Wolfgang Baur, Open Design (minor nitpick: Wolfgang was beheaded a bit)

    6. Pages 51 to 54: Top 10 of 2010 by Thilo "Endzeitgeist" Graf and Dark Mistress. Two separate lists by most prolific reviewers of Pathfinder products. While it would inconceivable for me to agree with every choice (Tales of Old Margreve not within top ten? Harrrumph! Come on, Thilo, you can do better than this. And, why so many item catalogs in top ten? Adventuring is not about shopping, Dark Mistress), this made me browse Paizo's shop immediately.

    VERDICT

    Highly recommended. 5 stars.

    Regards,
    Ruemere


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    The PDF to keep your character files in.

    5/5

    The product contains a two-page character sheet with fillable fields. If you put your character information, you can save it under a new name to preserve data thus creating a record folio with all your characters.

    The good things

    There is no data verification. You can built crazy characters without worrying about some obscure rule not being supported.
    The sheet is clean and concise.
    The tabbing order (i.e. the order you go from field to field) is correct (TAB to go forward, SHIFT+TAB to go backward, SPACE to mark a checkbox).
    It works under Adobe Reader and Foxit Reader.
    To create permanent copies, you can print it (to PDF use PDFCreator or DoPDF).

    The areas which could be improved

    Support for characters with extensive list of special abilities or spells (i.e. a separate optional page with such information would be handy) - higher level characters will run out of space.
    There is no data verification. Some less rules savvy GMs would probably appreciate autocalculation of bonuses. As a matter of fact, the autocalculation of bonuses could speed up character creation.
    Large black backgrounds for certain headers make for waste of toner. Large bold print with no black box outline would entirely suffice.

    Ideas for new products of similar type

    Statblock form.
    Party cheat sheet (i.e. short listing of all PCs with most important data: hitpoints, perception, stealth, saves, initiative score, space for GM notes).
    Shared loot sheet (kept by players).
    Chronicle sheet (for GMs to keep track of campaign events).

    Overall, stellar product. I'm going to share it with my party in order to help them do the accounting.
    This is editable PDF sheet many people have been asking for.

    Regards,
    Ruemere


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    This is not d20 one would expect.

    5/5

    The book is 30 centimeters off to my right. The passion contained within its pages burns my fingers as I type these words... still, let the numbers come first:

    111 pages total.
    2 pages dedicated to introductory tale, 14.5 to the setting, 3.5 to magic, 12 to bestiary, 75 pages to adventures, 1 to license plus 3 at the very beginning of the book (detailed table of contents included).

    (I should have mentioned that I still haven't digested the book fully)

    This is not d20 book. This is not a book about a cool place full of ruins to explore, monsters to vanquish and quests to do.
    It's more like a book of Grimm fairy tales (adult version) with stats and some combat conveniently stapled to add a little action.

    (want to get a good feel of atmosphere? get web compilation of familiar creatures wearing Margreve masks)

    The premise is that there is a self-contained ecosystem of fairy tale creatures (and nightmares). The elements of the system interact with each other according to lovely canon of fey beings straight from Grimm's Frog Prince. In other words, while it is pathfinderized d20, it does not look like it.

    Here is a little bit (spoiler factor - almost nil):
    The Spider Crone donned her ivy crown of prophecy, and her face paled. The crown never lied. Today, she would die.

    The endearing part is that while protagonists of tales featured in adventures are quite likely to be antiheroic at best, PCs are quite likely to enjoy social interaction (instead of resorting to violence), and thus become a part of Margreve unique community.

    (non-combat, or rather, interaction with the unknown instead of simple squish-this-deliver-that-loot, is one of key selling points for me)

    There are certain things I would really like to be included in a sequel. Things like content for characters beyond 10th level. Or Margreve-like treatment of a kingdom. Here is a toast to the next book.

    (note to Tim Connors: I don't really know where did you get her name, but "jedza" does not sound too well in Polish, as it literally means "old hag with a wicked tongue", or "offensive and quarrelsome woman", definitely not a name one would like to have)

    The bottom line is that it is worth getting the book. It's a product full of refreshing inspiration, and while not immediately usable due to highly specific concepts [1], it can bring a lot of wonder into your campaign.

    Regards,
    Ruemere

    [1] Just like Ravenloft and Dark Sun are not your typical fantasy worlds, Margreve presents a different genre. Mechanics are the same, but paradigm of the system is quite different. Oh, and it's very, very good.


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    [adventure only] Lots of room and some work for a GM

    5/5

    This is a very loose framework into which a GM may insert quite a lot of additional adventuring.

    Potential issues (heavy spoilers):

    Spoiler:

    - sphinx riddle (can make the sand really blind eyes see? why would you use this riddle in a middle of sandy terrain?)
    - assumption on sentient beings keeping Kakishon together is only so-so (unless one rules all intelligent semi-natives to be non-sentient)
    - breaking Kakishon may not sit well with Good characters (quite a lot of deaths will be involved)
    - main antagonist ambition to just rule over several colleagues in prison is so-so
    - nigh-epic guy unable to squash low level opposition for several centuries is so-so

    GMs are strongly advised to work around these... especially if the players like to ask questions.


    The issues are unlikely to affect the flow of adventure for most parties, so they do not impact the rating. However, if your players are wont to ask questions, do some work on your own before running this scenario.

    Regards,
    Ruemere


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    Uneven (rating for main adventure only)

    4/5

    Interesting concepts, several controversial assumptions.

    Warning! Heavy spoilers ahead!

    Spoiler:
    For example: fire traps in a dungeon located on a plane of fire (why would an efreet assume potential thieves to be vulnerable to fire?), riddle which helps victims escape (do efreets have a sense of fair play? - in theory, since the description is bugged... or maybe the clue to the riddle is a meta-trap for meta-gaming players?), insta-kill trap (too bad, it does not work on creatures immune to fire) and so on.

    In short, GMs should be ready to do some fast talking (or make some changes before running this scenario).

    Regards,
    Ruemere


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    Review of primary adventure

    3/5

    Just read the main adventure and, while some of the ideas are very promising, the adventure itself is full of problems. It would have been a good idea for adventure editor to read it, ask several questions and force adventure's author to ponder them.

    If your players tend to ask questions, GMs should be ready to provide their own explanations, since those found in the adventure are seriously lacking.

    Regards,
    Ruemere