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Part II of my review:
The book also contains a wide variety of feats – from the aforementioned, customizable Ancestral Weapon – really interesting execution there. There is an investigation-based Deductive Mind feat for PCs that want to want to fail forward (an alternate investigation that always proceeds the plot somehow). Transforming into a Soburin-clan’s creature, good reputations, staring down foes with your killer’s glare, supernatural, mist-based abilities – in these, the Haitoku/Dignity thresholds become important. It should be noted, that although Haitoku and Dignity are pretty fluid, the score at the time of gaining the feat counts: You can thus gain some serious abilities for roleplaying characters that oscillate between redemption and damnation.
Now, I have already mentioned Martial Art Stances: These feats can be taken up to 3 times; In their basic form, they e.g. add fire damage to your attacks ; taking the respective feat multiple times adds usually resistance and immunity to the respective damage type, with some of the more common damage types gaining additional benefits…which does bring me to a slight problem: The damage-scaling for them is identical, making e.g. force damage a significantly better choice than e.g. the often-resisted fire damage option – and the additional benefits don’t really manage to catch these discrepancies. More unique benefits that transcend numerical escalation would have probably made these more interesting. Stances work only with unarmed strikes, shortswords or simple weapons and unarmored characters increase their AC by the stance feats known. Proficiency bonus (not modifier, as the pdf calls it – minor hiccup) acts as a cap for the maximum number of stance feats known. Problematic: The Martial Artist monk mentions a maximum number of stances that the character can be in at any given time –a limit curiously absent from the write-up of the feat-section. It should also be noted that taking multiple stances can provide a lot of simultaneous damage types, which is a pretty strong option in 5e’s rock-paper-scissors-based gameplay regarding vulnerabilities and immunities.
Okay, so what about the equipment-section? Well, here we have some interesting bits indeed: Variants of gunpowder, locking garrotes, 5 different armors – some intriguing options here. Firearms include an anti-scavenging caveat (good!) and otherwise behave pretty much like loading weapons. There are, however, a couple of questionable components here: The hand hwacha, for example, can fire 13 bullets at once, hitting each target in a 30 ft.-line (how wide? I assume 5 ft., but it could be just as well 10 ft., analogue to e.g. gust of wind) with a separate attack roll for each. This deals a whopping 4d6 piercing damage to targets. Okay, the weapon is costly and reloading it to 13 takes a lot of time, but still – why not simply employ a capacity-engine? RAW, it’s either all 13 or single shot. On the plus-side, I liked the grappling hook launcher – I would have liked it even more, if it specified how much it could carry (the PHB is annoyingly opaque there), but oh well. The book also contains some interesting vehicles.
Now, I mentioned the augmetics – the steampunk-prosthetics and augmentations. Installing these requires a Wisdom (Medicine) check versus “5 + Dignity modifier” – I *assume*, the modifier of the patient is meant, not that of the one installing the augmetic. The installation is grueling and makes the target take 1/2 maximum hit points in damage. Augmetics may be directly targeted at wearer’s AC +6. The augmetics follow a formula of magic items in presentation, with scarcity ratings etc. However, they also cause the person with the augmetic to gain varying amounts of Haitoku – in that way, not like Shadowrun’s essence attribute. These range from +1 to +1d4 per augmetic. Somewhat problematic: The book remains curiously silent on how these permanent body-modifications interact with magic items – I assume they do not count towards the maximum of attuned magic items and that they just work, but some note on that interaction would have been nice. Also weird: A couple of backgrounds and class options grant Tool Proficiency: Augmetics – but the book never introduces the toolkit, and the implanting of them is done with Medicine. Augmetics can be destroyed, as many come with hit points. Weird: Some note that they can’t be targeted…while others simply remain silent on the matter, leaving me guessing there. If you btw. expected a big chapter here – that is probably a component, where the book could have used more content. A lot more content. The augmetic-section spans barely 3.5 pages, which isn’t much, considering that it’s a central selling point and pillar of the setting’s vibe.
The book also sports a brief chapter on spells…which would be as well a place as any to note that, while for the most part, the rules-language is tight, there are a few Pathfinderisms to be found – references to subtype instead of subrace, a few references to PFRPG action types (thankfully few and far in between) – but yeah. Why do I mention that? Well, we have a remnant “Personal” here in the ranges, a reference to “target” that should reference “you” – mostly aesthetic hiccups. Strike within and without, however, is somewhat problematic: You choose a creature you can see within 30 ft.. Wait…is it 30 ft. or 60 ft.? The book contradicts itself here. Anyways, the creature takes damage as if critically hit by your melee attack, and you take half the damage dealt as damage. This damage ignores all resistances and immunities. 2nd-level spell for rangers and palas. As a whole, I wished the space allotted to the spellcasting section had mostly been used for more augmetics – though there are a couple of interesting components here: E.g. there would be a spell that influences the season-based options of e.g. the Wu-jen – that is creative and interesting.
Okay, so this would sum up the rules-centric section of the book. Approximately 30 pages of the book are devoted to Kyōfū, Sanbaoshi and Nagabuki – three absolutely glorious cities. The writing here is inspiring and interesting – and frankly, I wished, we got more. Thankfully, the book proceeds to blend flavor-information with another type of crunch: Namely 60+ pages of information on the clans and powerful factions of Soburin – each comes with at least 2 statblocks and yes, we do get an entry of oni overlords on yai sovereigns – and yes, there are locally forbidden technologies. In the stats, there are a few instances of dual damage-types – which makes it hard to discern if the damage is supposed to be half each or once the full damage in damage type I and once in damage type II. This can be particularly wonky considering 5e’s approach to damage types and the resistance mechanics. This can btw. be also observed among the otherwise pretty amazing dragons that get their very own chapter. The oni/monster chapter once more is massive and sports some serious gems beyond traditional Japanese monsters – however, these beasts receive a context, mostly courtesy of the setting’s unique set-up: Qirin, Tikbalang, Jiang-shi, Yuki-onna…and some classics and gems: Longhair ghosts, rokurokubi, gaki…neat monsters with unique abilities. The stars, though, would be the tsukumogami: Objects that turn 100 may well gain sentience – and represent one of my favorite monster class in ages, including basically a demon-tank. Yeah. Amazing!
The final 25 pages of the book are taken up by the adventure “Revenge of the Pale Master”, intended for PCs level 8 – 10. The adventure takes place in the city of Kazi, just before the Festival of Falling Hawks. Children have disappeared. An ancient evil rises. The adventure is one of the highlights of the book: It is a flavorful investigation with nice maps, mugshots of the characters, some cool NPCs and advice for running the NPCs. The module is interesting, well-written and provides some nice further adventuring – as far as modules for campaign settings are concerned, this is definitely one of the good examples, particularly for the allotted page-count.
Editing and formatting on a formal level are surprisingly good for a book of this size. The rules-language, on the other side, is not perfect. It’s not bad, mind you: I checked a LOT of the statblocks and the math is surprisingly solid. The book gets a lot of different, complex rules-operations completely right…but, you know, the book also sports several hiccups that do influence the rules-integrity. It’s small things in the finer details…but they do accumulate. Not to the point where they can sink this book, but they do detract a bit from it. I considered the basic Dignity/Haitoku-glitch particularly jarring. Layout adheres to a very dense standard that oscillates between one and two columns. The layout, while dense, is not as cluttered as in Mike Myler’s previous campaign settings, making the book, as a whole, more aesthetically-pleasing. Artwork and cartography-wise, we stick to a b/w-illustrations that range from cool original pieces to stock art and public domain art that has been properly modified – it may sound strange, but the latter tweaks actually represent some of my favorite pieces herein. The book sports a lot of dark pages with white text – to account for that, we actually get a printer-friendly version – huge kudos! Comfort-level-wise, the tome comes with a metric ton of nested, detailed bookmarks, making navigation comfortable.
Mike Myler, with additional design by Savannah Broadway, Luis Loza, Michael McCarthy, Christopher Lee Rippee, Jaye Sonia and Bryant Turnage, has managed to achieve something here, let me make that abundantly clear.
In fact, this is, at least in my opinion, the best campaign setting Mike Myler has crafted. While he tends to focus on the big picture, we get more details this time around, the information gels together better – Soburin feels like a place I want to run; it has the details and style. The campaign setting presented here is inspiring. It is more than the sum of its parts. It is more than just a Ravenloft-clone in a Japanese dressing. Neither is it just a steampunk-infusion. The continent comes alive as something more than the sum of its parts. Mists of Akuma is a thoroughly interesting, intriguing setting.
Let me make that abundantly clear: I adore this book. I really, really do. To the point where this had the potential to make my Top Ten list. Yes, that good. That interesting. At the same time, the aforementioned small hiccups accumulate. And there’s another component that prevents this book from realizing its true greatness to the full extent. Japanese Steampunk Ravenloft would already have been rather hard to get done right – and the book *mostly* gets this very tall order right in an exemplary manner. At the same time, we have these…strange tidbits that contradict the basic premises of the setting. From weirdo races to options to trivialize parts of the basic engine, the book almost feels at times like the authors (or one of them) at one point became frightened that one type of player wouldn’t like the setting, thus opting to try to cater to more folks…but this decision, at least in my mind, compromises, to an extent, the glorious flavor of the setting. There are basically apologetic options here – and they take up real estate that the setting could have used better.
It’s small things that give me this impression…and it thankfully is rare. It makes me feel like the visions of what the setting is supposed to be diverged to some extent among the authors – here’s the thing about anything noir/dark fantasy/horror: If you already are a full-blown monster and/or immune to the one corruption-source, why bother playing in that setting in the first place? It’s like playing CoC with immunity to becoming insane, like playing Vampire: The Masquerade sans bloodthirst or angst. Thankfully, these problems can be cut out of the book.
There is a second aspect of the book that SERIOUSLY underwhelmed me. Augmetics. Don’t get me wrong. I liked what I saw herein. But for a setting that is very much defined by 3 components, namely Japanese-inspired + Ravenloft + Steampunk, 3.5 pages of augmetics…isn’t enough. Not nearly. At least in my book. Mists of Akuma would have needed, desperately in my opinion, more of them. They are cool and an integral part of what makes the book so cool, what makes Soburin this amazing. Compared to that, some of the races, some of the spells and the metric ton of critters herein may be okay…but they all take up real estate. Focusing on the core ideas of the setting, on the thoroughly amazing, unique selling propositions of Soburin and providing more on them would have made this a true masterpiece.
You see, the flavorful entries we do get, the notes on the places, are inspired. So are the cool tales of the clans, many of the monsters – this is an inspired, great setting. One that is worth owning, that has great ideas, that feels unique and distinct. This is a really cool setting. At the same time, it is a book that, more so than Veranthea and Hypercorps 2099, borders on the verge of true greatness – and frustratingly feels like it holds itself back from that final step to true excellence. If you enjoy different, interesting settings, then check this out – it is certainly worth owning! For my final verdict, I will settle on a final score of 4.5 stars, rounded down for the purpose of this platform. However, since I absolutely adore a lot about this book, I will still add my seal of approval to this.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS, etc.