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Part II of my review:
Now, the next section is one of my favorites in the whole book: We get 20 fully realized backgrounds, with two variants added on top. The backgrounds come with all rules-relevant material, as well as the personality traits, ideals, flaws, and bond-tables we expect, and they are actually INTERESTING. The titles say it all: Amazons of Perunalia, Arbonesse Exiles, Benmean Scholars, Blood Sisters (you know you want to play an evil nun!), Dancing Bear Guides, Dhampirs of Morgau, Exiles of the Black City, Ghost knights, Gnoll Caravan Raiders, Haunted Villagers, Krakovan Rebels, Mharoti Emmisaries, Miners, Mountain’s Witnesses, Mystics of Baba Yaga, Neimhein Gnomes, Northlands Reavers, Nurian Theurges, Seers and Prophets – the backgrounds provide some seriously awesome flavor, ooze the great Midgardian lore in many cases…and still offer some options that are applicable sans any reskinning. With the exception of Seer, Prophet and the 2 variant backgrounds (previously released in Unlikely Heroes), all of these, at least to my knowledge, are new – and they’re not reskins either: The gnoll caravan raider, for example, is different from the generic raider background previously introduced. A ton of flavorful, fun new material in this chapter. Huge kudos!
Now, obviously, with such a focus on magic, the final “big” chapter (I already touched upon the appendix) contains a ton of spells. The chapter begins with a spell list by character class, with the spells organized within by spell level. Huge plus here: The respective spell-lists, and the individual spells in the alphabetical presentation that follows the lists, sport tags that denote the magical tradition to which they belong. This is CRUCIAL in navigating this book, at least in my opinion. You see, it allows the GM to allow, for example, character x access to clockwork magic, while his buddy gets ring labyrinth magic. This is very, very important. However, at the same time, the organization of this chapter makes it ultimately slightly less comfortable to use than it probably should be – you see, this adheres to 5e’s, pardon my French, idiotic idea that it’d be smart to no longer note in a spell’s block what kind of classes can cast it. It’s one of the most inconvenient formatting decisions of 5e and one I intensely dislike – I also find it odd, since some Deep Magic-installments did note the classes for each spell in an improvement regarding that component. Oh well. That being said, since the book does adhere to the formatting convention established by the PHB, I will not penalize it for this decision. At the same time, the lack of an index does constitute a comfort detriment of sorts as far as I’m concerned.
Anyways, let us take a look at the spells shall we? The chapter encompasses, sans the aforementioned spell lists, a total of 55 pages of spells. Here, I can complement the Kobold crew: Previously not codified reactions now specify their precise conditions; verbiage that erroneously refer to “charm and fear effects” and the like was cleaned up, so the rules are definitely more precise than in their debut. There are still nitpicks to be found here and there, though – while in the context of walking wall, it’s evident that we’re talking about melee attacks, the text per se does not say so. Chaotic vitality refers to caster level, a concept that does not exist in 5e – on the plus-side, though, it now has its potential haste effect properly codified. To me, that is more important, since the CL-snafu, frankly, can be handled by a half-way competent GM…and it’s the only instance of this reference in the whole book.
Much to my pleasant surprise, some of the spells that previously were too potent have been adjusted to present more sensible effects. Shadow trove, for example, can no longer be used to get rid of artifacts, spilling its contents on the floor instead of vanishing them. Slither, the second level spell that turns you into a shadow not still nets you a potent defense and RP-options, but does so without being broken. Starfall has similarly been balanced in a better way to account for its increased flexibility when compared to other spells. Now, the book contains, spell-wise, three Deep Magic-traditions previously not codified as such: Labyrinth, Rothenian and hieroglyphs. The latter sports, for example, a potent 8th-level combined true seeing and detect magic that automatically identifies each spell witnessed, as well as the much-beloved beguiling gift, translated to 5e to the rejoicing of tricksters everywhere. Bless the dead prevents rising from death as an undead – and must be cast when touching the corpse. Boreas’ breath freezes water. Broken charge lets labyrinth specialists divert the path of an incoming adversary and inflicts minor psychic damage. Its low range and reaction (properly codified) casting time keep it in check. Confused senses, revelations via moonlight, calling forth scarab swarms, cursing targets to not be sated by food… there are some nice ones here.
On a purely formal observation, desiccating breath’s average damage value is not required for spells. This spell also refers to animals, which is not correct terminology in 5e – the creature type is “beast”. I am also not the biggest fan of e.g. eidetic memory, which, instead of giving you something unique to derive from its benefits, translates to a somewhat lame and slightly Pathfinder-y +10 to Intelligence checks. On the plus-side, an encrypt/decrypt cantrip makes sense, though more potent versions would be the first that I’d research... Exsanguinate’s damage at 5th level may be somewhat pitiful, but it reduces maximum hit points until a long rest has been completed and may incapacitate targets, which is rather potent. On another note, RAW, it causes bludgeoning damage, which is a slightly odd choice, considering that the blood drain of vampires, for example, is based on necrotic damage. It also can, RAW, affect creatures sans blood, which is even odder to me. Anyways, that is a more or less aesthetic complaint. Assuming a potent form of the gods (avatar stats included) is a neat idea. On the plus-side, having a target dragged away, potentially to death, by spectral ponies? Heck yeah! All in all, this chapter represents a pleasant surprise. The book has refined and steamlined a lot here, and the fact that it has retained the structure of the spell traditions means that A GM can pretty easily allow players access to the material that’s considered to be appropriate for the character.
The appendix, beyond the material already mentioned, includes notes of clockwork scarabs, special features for various breeds of Midgardian horses, notes on kobold mounts, and the ring servant also makes a return here. We also get snow cat stats and rules for alchemist’s smoke and clockwork caltrops.
Editing and formatting are, as a whole, very good. It is evident that care has gone into dealing with quite a few hiccups in previous iterations of material compiled within, both formally and rules-language wise. Layout, as always with kobold Press’ books, is gorgeous and adheres to a two-column full-color standard. The book contains a lot of gorgeous artwork, though fans of Kobold Press will be familiar with quite a few of the pieces. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The hardcover is a beautiful book with thick, matte pages and glossy front and back cover. Its binding is solid as well – so the recommended version of this book, without a doubt, would be print.
Designers Dan Dillon, Greg Marks, Chris Harris, Richard Green and Shawn Merwin, with additional design by Jon Sawatsky, Michael Ohl, Rich Howard, Scott Carter and Wolfgang Baur, have created the best crunch book Kobold Press has released so far. Kobold Press’ strength traditionally did lie more in the phenomenal lore woven, in the adventures and the popular Midgard setting’s amazing flavor. While this book retains some Midgard flavor, it also represents a strong focus on the mechanical aspects of the game, creating basically a second Player’s Handbook in scope and ambition.
This book is a tough nut to rate, for it is at once a compilation, yet still offers a lot of new material. This material, while not always as refined or as mechanically interesting (you won’t see much that can hold a candle to dragon magic, for example), contains some true gems that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you haven’t yet checked out Kobold Press’ 5e-offerings, then this is an absolute no-brainer: There are phenomenal pdfs compiled herein, and quite a few of the options have been improved, redesigned and streamlined. This is definitely better than the constituent pdfs.
At the same time, I confess to having expected slightly more. The fact that e.g. Beyond Damage Dice’s brilliant ideas haven’t been expanded and balanced struck me as odd. Another weakness of the book pertains the distribution of class options. If you’re a barbarian player or have a druid, you’ll be rather underwhelmed, while your cleric and wizard buddies drown in new options. I don’t expect books to offer something for every class, mind you, but the distribution of material herein is uneven to the point where it is somewhat jarring. My final gripe here is with the lack of an index.
That being said, all of these gripes, when looked at in the context of the whole book, with its inspiring backgrounds and flavorful ideas, do pale to an extent. The question remains, whether to get this or not. The response is somewhat tricky.
Fans of Kobold Press who already own the constituent pdfs may well consider the added refinement this offers worth it, may adore having the material collected and in a handy print tome.
On the other hand, if you’re such a fan and expected more rules-components that reach the level of brilliance of some of the more complex and mechanically innovative Deep Magic installments, then you may be disappointed at a high level by the majority of new content being solid, but also pretty conservative in its design-aesthetics.
If you’re new to Midgard and Kobold Press’ 5e-offerings in general, then get this – chances are that you’ll love it! Similarly, if you’re like me and vastly prefer proper print, then this is a no-brainer.
This book, let me make that ABUNDANTLY clear, is a very good, fun and densely packed book of cool stuff.
At the same time, it also, at least to a degree, could have been a tome for the ages. While some of the new martial options are amazing, while the improvements are significant, the book could have been a defining milestone. With evenly distributed material and more stuff for the poor barbarians, sorcerers, warlocks and druids. With a streamlining and expansion of, for example, the weapon options from beyond damage dice….you get the idea. This could have been THE defining crunch-handbook, an unofficial PHB 2…and it still can be seen as such. However, it also represents a book that, while compelling, interesting and well-wrought, feels like it doesn’t 100% reach the heights that it could have.
Ultimately, I have to take all those perspectives into account, and thus, I arrive at a final verdict of 4.5 stars. Whether you round up or down, ultimately depends on what you’re looking for in this book. Personally, I consider this to be closer to 5 stars, and as such, this is what my official verdict will be.
If you’re looking for some seriously huge tome of crunch for your 5e-game, then look no further than this.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek, GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS, amazon, etc.