Part II of my review:
Next up would be the Emerald Order, a cabal of wizards that serve Thoth-Hermes and deciphered the secrets within the Emerald Tablets, the members have managed to attain increased magical prowess - alas, as per the truism, power corrupts and the Emerald Order, in the time-honored tradition of secret societies, is exerting significant influence of the bodies politic in the realms wherein they have established themselves. Guided in that endeavor are they by their fully statted leader Dromdal-Re, who is one badass challenge 13 caster. The section includes the emerald shard ioun stone that can absorb 5 damage from all incoming attacks, burning out at 120 points. The cult also sports the rules for the potent artifact Emerald Tablets of Thoth-Hermes, which are presented in a rather cool manner. The chapter also provides the stats for the challenge 12 smaragdine golems. In PFRPG, this cult came with a prestige class, and personally, I think that an arcane tradition to reflect the specific tradition would have been nice to see.
The Hand of Nakresh is named for forty-fingered simian demon-god of thieves, with his lower left hand reserved for his most daring of thefts - it is this hand that gives this cult its name. The leadership of the cult is firmly in the hands of the Five Exalted, which receive full-blown statblocks herein - a kobold bomber (challenge 11), a gnoll warrior with a hyenado companion (challenge 8), a derro arcanist (challenge 12), an albino tengu cleric-like caster (challenge 9) and a roach-like (challenge 10) killer make up this illustrious party, which could pretty much be run as an opposing adventurer party, a rival group, should you choose to. There is a new spell herein, a 4th-level variant of mirror image, wherein the duplicates run in random directions if you move - I do like the concept and the spell is functional, but I would have liked to see interaction with damaging terrain - do the images running over such terrain ignore it? I assume so, but this conversely makes finding the true culprit easier. The spell also allows for the changing of positions once per casting. The magic items included feature a monkey’s paw that can provide charge-based rerolls at +10 (feels a bit odd in 5e) and a clockwork siege crab-vehicle, which is pretty damn cool.
The Servants of the White Ape would be a cult that breathes the spirit of sword and sorcery: A disenfranchised aristocrat had to escape into the jungles and stumbled upon a hidden, ruined city, Josef Kranz would have not dreamed that the carnivorous white apes haunting the ruins would one day bow to him - and bow they do, for he is the summoner that commands the Great White Ape, what in PFRPG was his eidolon. In 5e, we get a relatively smooth transition of the entity being akin to their tribal deity. Over years of study and careful planning, the mad master, now known as the New Father, has commanded the white apes in combat, subjugating all that dare oppose him and his simian slaves. Kranz and his powerful avatar of the White Ape receive statblocks (though annoyingly, you have to puzzle together the stats of the standard giant ape and that of the avatar). His simian warriors also receive stats, but that's not all - the awakened apes spread a dreaded condition, the spellscourge, which not only renders those infected into primal, degenerate and evil undead savages, but also allows them to devour magic. Yes, this pretty much could have been drawn from the pen of Rider Haggard or similar authors. The father’s staff wielded by Kranz, makes for a potent staff and we get magic item stats for white ape hide, which is potent armor that has several abilities that can be activated sans action.
There are quite a few new cults beyond these, which had so far not been released for another system: There are those, for example the Chosen of the Demon Bat, who represent, at least at first glance, the servants of Camazotz.
Led by a derro variant vampire (you’ll have to puzzle together the stats here with the MM) with explosive concoctions and a darkness-themed, with a fungus-armored giant, the cult’s elite is interesting and we even get a unique challenge 16 demon bat, Vespertilo – once a high-ranking servant of Camazotz, the mighty demon has been exiled to the material plane and an unholy alliance with the mi-go! This makes the overall feeling of the cult rather distinct. The mi-go stats are in the Tome of Beasts. The cult gets a new feat, Paincaster, which nets advantage on concentration-related Constitution checks, immunity to charmed and frightened conditions while maintaining concentration and, and when a creature ends your concentration, it suffers from disadvantage to saves versus your spells on your next turn. We also get a new hazard with fungal pods and a variant form of strange spellbook with the ebon shards, which require attunement. The cult also gets a thematically-fitting staff as well as magical lenses and there is a new swarm, a poison that renders you unconscious and a spell that calls forth bats or birds to act as spies. Two vehicles are included, the fungal flyer, which is a horribly mutated, fungified dire bat, and the skittering skiff,w hich may once have been a carrion crawler. I liked this bait and switch approach to a cult that starts as straightforward and adds a complicating twist.
The Creed of All Flesh is tied to the concept of the intelligent darakhul ghouls in Midgard and their subterranean empire…and those mortals that crave the flesh of their brethren. Considering how cool the notion of darakhul is in the first place, it should come as no surprise that I consider the darakhul-themed cult as depicted here to be rather interesting. The leadership of the cult clocks in at challenge 10, 13 and 5, respectively, and the respective features of the NPCs are smart. The execution of the respective campaign-sketch is also pretty damn creepy, so yeah, theme-wise, a resounding success as far as cannibal cults are concerned. With magical broths and jerky, a mace-like rod that can attempt to bite creatures and heal the wielder and a nasty tome, these are nice. I am particularly partial to the lavishly-illustrated ghoulsteed mount-undead. One of my favorites herein.
Speaking of the living dead: As you all probably know by now, the Red Goddess Marena would be one of my favorite deities in Midgard; in the vampire-rules principalities of Morgau and Doresh, her worship is open and serves to justify the vampiric rulers; in essence, they are a sort of anti-Catholic-church, one based on a doctrine of tainted life and suffering as a promise for an elevated existence beyond the shroud of death, though here, it is not in some afterlife, but as a reborn vampire. Combine that with elitism and the notion that the deity has elevated the worthy and we arrive at a nice blend of the, by today’s standards, somewhat disquieting concept of divine providence for rulers and vampiric themes, which have resonated through class discourse throughout the ages. Marena also has covert agents, the blood sisters, who act beyond the confines of the vampire-ruled home-bases of the cult. (As an aside: Evil blood-magic nuns are just badass…and this provides the stats of Sister Alkava, probably known from her own little adventure. We also get a variant vampire whose stats you have to puzzle together once more, the stats for the church’s Grand Inquisitor…and yes, before you ask: Marena is also a goddess of lust. Her servants thus control brothels…The cult also includes two new blood magic spells to add to the arsenal presented by the Deep Magic-series, the sanguine spear, a spear of frozen blood drawn from the dead, and the stigmata of the red goddess, which causes the caster to take damage, but also buffs – the lack of concentration required here makes the spell mechanically interesting. The incantation bloodline strike is amazing…and much to my chagrin, completely absent from the 5e-version, which is puzzling, as it represented perhaps the coolest signature move of the cult. A dagger to exsanguinate and a magic scourge complement the supplemental section. The dagger in 5e regains charges on crits, which may be spent for bonus damage or to heal. Unfortunately, the latter lacks limitations. So while you’ll be going through a ton of rats and kittens to heal yourself with it, you can – a simple type or daily limit caveat would have made this work properly. The monsters associated with the cult include the blood hound and a variant blood zombie.
Whereas the blood sisters are basically an organized orthodoxy that is, theme-wise, in line with organized religions, the sanguine path, the second blood-themed cult within, takes a wholly different route: While the connotations of sexuality and hedonism as well as blood consumption remain, that is mostly due to our cultural associations with blood and sexuality, which are inextricably linked. Anyways, the cult is focused more on a theme of hedonism and oracular power, with sacred prostitutes generating a mythological resonance with e.g. the cult of Ishtar, though such associations, ultimately, should not be taken as an indication that the cult is benevolent. It’s not. Leaders that contain vampires, red hags and blood hags should make that clear. All of the leaders require that you piece together their stats, modifying the base creatures from MM and Tome of Beasts. The bloodwhisper cauldron has been demoted to very rare item that provides some healing, foresight and miasma, but loses the wish ability from the PFRPG-version, making it a less compelling cornerstone item for the cult, and decreasing the incentives to join it. Blood strike allows for the transfer of a spell or affliction to another member of the bloodline – which is cool. Once more, no suggested class provided for the ritual. The creature-section include the Blood-bound template, which grants power, but at the price of withdrawal from the elixir that bestows these powers…
The final cult within this tome would be the weavers of truth, which may be the last cult herein, but certainly not the least: The cult is devoted to Pazuzu and basically acts as a magical think-tank of firebrands and misinformation, with deception-focused seductresses, charlatans and the batlike echo demons (challenge 6) making them a formidable cabal of adversaries that probably will need to be fought less with blades and more with roleplaying. This is in particular represented by the absolutely glorious Incantation of Lies Made Truth, which THANKFULLY has been reproduced as a proper 5e-ritual. It can make for an absolutely mind-boggling twist as, it can turn whole organizations, kingdoms or cities around, rewriting what is considered to be truth. I also absolutely adore the carriage of whispers, a hybrid magic item/vehicle that allows a passenger to influence those it passes – which can make for an amazing showdown, in which the PCs turn from celebrated heroes to outcasts, as a whole city suddenly becomes ever more hostile, but this has VAST potential in my book. This cult is by far the most inspired in the book and I am glad to report that its transition to 5e has been executed rather well.
Editing and formatting are generally good, though somewhat inconsistent regarding the formatting of creature features. On a rules-level, there are a few questionable components herein, but as a whole, the book can be considered to be solid in that aspect. Layout adheres to Kobold Press’ gorgeous two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The pdf contains a ton of really amazing full-color artworks, though fans of Kobold Press may be familiar with some, but by far not all of the pieces. I cannot comment on the physical version of the book, since I do not own it.
Jeff Lee, with additional design by Jon Swatskyand Mike Welham, delivers one massive book of interesting cults. While I do not consider all of the cults herein winners, particularly the doomspeakers and the Shub-Niggurath cult being somewhat less interesting than they should be, I found myself enjoying this book overall. In particular the Red Sisters and the Weavers of Truth make for some truly evocative and formidable adversaries, with the unique blend of the chosen of the demon bat coming in close behind them.
The 5e-version *probably* has the better bang for buck ratio for you, as the conversions of the respective cults had not been previously released. The cults per se manage to, in more than one case, become rather inspiring, and considering how stat-starved 5e is regarding interesting NPC-statblocks, the pdf may be worth getting for that alone. That being said, I also consider the 5e version to be needlessly inconvenient in quite a few instances. Now, I do not object to variant NPCs per se and I adore templates and think that 5e would benefit from more of them. At the same time, I am somewhat puzzled that quite a few statblocks require that you piece together an NPC’s stat from Monster Manual/Tome of Beasts, when page-count per couldn’t have been the big issue – the 5e-book is briefer than the PFRPG-version. This requires, in short, more prep-time for the GM than what I’d consider to be necessary. All 4 leaders of the Sanguine Path, for example, need to be pieced together thus.
This inconvenience left me with a strange ambivalence regarding the book. On one hand, some of the 5e-conversions are truly inspired; a certain summoner and his white ape come to mind. At the same time, this book feels very much like a conversion in some segments. When we get no background for Selket’s Sting, when the emerald order doesn’t get its own casting tradition…and in the less impressive antipaladin chapter, which, while okay, did not exactly wow me. The supplemental material stood out most when it focused on the story, rather than combat utility or other mechanical aspects.
However, the book, as a whole, makes for a compelling reading experience, with a ton of truly cool storylines to scavenge and modify and something for pretty much all tastes inside. While not perfect, my final verdict will acknowledge the book’s intended focus and cool ideas and thus clock in at 4 stars.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS, etc.