[New Big Dragon Games Unlimited] EZG reviews The Dragon Horde Volume II, Issue 1: Wherein Evil Lies (PWYW) (OSR)


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An Endzeitgeist.com review

This ‘zine clocks in at 47 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 42 pages, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreon supporters.

Wait, what does the number mean? Isn’t that the third Dragon Horde-installment? Well, yeah, but the “Volume II” denotes the reboot with the new layout and the color cover; the issue is also PWYW, so you can leave a tip for the creator’s hard work.

Rules-wise, this book presents material for B/X, which makes conversion to other OSR-games simple, and which means that if you’re e.g. playing For Gold & Glory or OSRIC, things’ll be a bit easier for the party. Anyhow, we begin with 3 new classes:

The first of these would be the Deathslayer, who has Intelligence and Wisdom as prime requisites and only gets d6 hit points. The class may not wear armor or shields and only use one-handed swords or daggers. They attack and save as clerics, but may use magic-user-restricted magic items, save those that support or create the undead. They need to have a Wisdom score of 9. The class progresses over 14 levels and gains spellcasting as a magic-user of up to 6th spell level, with a custom spell-list provided that focuses, unsurprisingly, on anti-undead, detection, dimensional anchor, etc. XP-progression is that of the regular magic-user, and level-titles are provided. When a deathslayer starts the game, they must choose a specific type of undead – vampires, ghosts, etc. – this is the undead focus, and when fighting such an undead, the deathslayer gains a +2 bonus against attacks and effects attempting to alter their beliefs or actions, +2 to melee and ranged attacks, and the focus takes a -2 penalty to saves versus spells cast by the deathslayer. At 3rd level, the class gets to make glyphs of warding 1/day per 3 class levels, and at 9th level, we have the ability to create magic items. The glyphs allow for the creation of antiundead spell-traps or damaging blast glyphs, including trigger conditions. This class is basically a variant magic-user, with a bit of an anti-undead angle and a fixed spell-list, subject to the GM’s discretion to expand. All in all, a potent class that doesn’t fall into the trap of most nemesis-classes. What’s a nemesis class? It’s a class/archetype/prestige class that nets superb combat capabilities versus one creature type, such as demons. The issue most such classes face is that they become super strong versus the nemesis, bland versus regular targets. So yeah, this one doesn’t do that, and in fact, is an interesting take on the magical scholar fighting the living dead – that being said, I strongly suggest being careful with the spell-list: The class is balanced primarily by depriving the deathslayer of the flexibility of the magic-user, so beware there – otherwise, this becomes a 100% superior caster.

The second class herein is the witch doctor, who also has Intelligence and Wisdom as prime requisites. They use the cleric’s attack and saving throws, use a d6 to determine hit points and may not wear armor. They may use a shield made of natural components (no metal!) and weapon-wise ,are limited to medicine sticks (staves), daggers, darts and blowguns as well as other tribal weaponry, subject to the GM’s discretion. They only may use voodoo-specific magic items or weapons and require at least an Intelligence and Charisma score of 9. Witch doctor spellcasting is somewhat akin to that of the cleric, and features spellcasting of up to 6th level. The class sports a progression to the mighty 24th level (!!) and XP-wise gains second level slightly sooner than the dwarf – at 2,125 XP, with every further level requiring twice as much XP. Their spellcasting actually sports a pretty novel array of little tricks – they require foci to cast: Voodoo dolls, gris-gris bags and medicine sticks, tiki masks and ritual foci are all mentioned and concisely-defined. The class begins with the ability to turn/compel undead and gets an ever increasing range of undead detection that extends to the living dead. AT 5th level, we have animate dead, including the ability to animate ever more of those. Starting at 7th level, we have the ability to possess bodies, and 9th level lets the witch doctor bind spirits in shrunken heads, allowing for consultation of the dead. 14th level nets raise dead, and yes, we do get a custom spell-list that denotes the foci required. I LOVE this class! It reminded me of my very favorite Solomon Kane story! I want to play tehse dudes, and seriously, I want the class to get its own massive, more detailed supplement! The foci and XP-progression also keep the fellow balance-wise in check. Two thumbs up!

The third class is a race-class, namely the half-orc (assassin). These fellows have Strength and Dexterity as prime requisites, and they fight and save as thieves. The half-orc uses a d6 to determine hit points, and the class caps at 12th level. The half-orc may only wear leather armor or magical/elven chain and may use a shield, but not while using thieving abilities. They can use any type of weapon; they may use the same magic items as fighters, but don’t get the thief’s read magic ability and may not use scrolls. They must have a Constitution of at least 9, and their Charisma may not exceed 15. Half-orcs get 60 ft. infravsion and gain 2nd level slightly slower than clerics, at 1,550 XP, with every subsequent level requiring twice as many XP. A half-orc gains limited thief abilities – half the starting value of move silently and hide in shadows, as well as find/remove traps. Climb sheer surfaces starts off at 60% and improves by +4%, then by +2%, and after that by +1% per level attained. They also begin with a chance of 2-in-6 to hear noises, which progresses slightly asynchronous to the thief, with 12th level required for a 5-in 6 chance. Open locks starts off at -5% of the thief, with a base 10% chance, and pogresses by +5% up to and including 7th level, thereafter increasing by +10% per level. Half-orcs are trained in poison use and get +1 to saves vs. poison and starting at 7th level, they pass without a trace. While lacking the scroll use ability, they get a sneak attack/backstab - +4 to attack, and on a successful hit, there is a 50% chance of killing the target; this chance is modified by +5%/-5% per level of the target below/above the half-orc. If the instant-kill effect does not kick in, the attack deals double damage instead. This is very potent and potentially very lethal – personally, I think this should have a save or the like, but your mileage may vary in that regard.

The pdf then proceeds to present a couple of new spells for magic-users: Fatigue (1st level) nets -2 to Strength and Constitution and ½ movement rate for 2 turns. This requires a touch. Death rage (2nd level) lets the target make two attacks per round, or a single one at +2, and affected creatures never fail a morale check. Mummy’s touch infests with mummy rot, and ossify temporarily makes targets skeletons – this requires a touch versus the unwilling, and is no illusion. (There is also a greater ossify that can affect larger targets and is a 5th level spell.) Revenance acts as a shield to prevent the turning of undead, and wailing fear is a variant of audible glamer that can affect low-HD targets with fear. All of these are 3rd-leve spells. Necrotic portal (4th level) provides a portal through the negative energy plane, which is essentially a damaging/undead-healing two-way portal. Nice! Finally, aura of fear pretty much does what it says on the tin, instilling panic in low-HD creatures.

6 magic items may be found – while presented under the header “Designed for Evil”, not all of them are – the equinox orb can generate continual light/darkness; the fiendish mantle is obviously evil and provides some resistances/immunities associated with demons. The hammer of salvation has a moon on one face, a sun on the other face – the moon behaves as +1/+3 vs. undead, the sun-side as +1/+3 vs. natives of the lower outer planes, making it a potent weapon for good. Purity rings are no cynical way to sell ignorance and a suppression of healthy sexual development here, instead acting as a ring that nets +3 to saves vs. magical diseases. The plague mace is a +2 mace that can inflict nasty diseases on the target. Finally, there is the stole of radiance, which is only available for lawful (or good) clerics: The stole nets +1 to atk and saves, -1 to AC and enhances turning and acts as a level drain buffer. It also emits some light.

If you own the P/X: Basic Psionics Handbook supplement, you can find some new material herein: For psychometabolism, we have infuse terror as a new minor devotion: This one infuses a weapon so that those hit must save or be paralyzed by fear. While it may be used with ammunition, doing so is risky, providing a high chance of accidentally affecting the wielder – interesting balancing angle. As a major science, we have psychic vampire, which drains PSP from psionic targets, damaging all mental attributes for non-psionic targets instead. For clairsentience, we have the destiny dissonance minor devotion, which sickens the target with unreliable visions of the future, imposing -2 on atk, weapon damage rolls, saves, as well as skill and ability checks. There are two telepathic minor devotions: Aura of fear, which is mechanically different from the spell and has a low range, and psionic daze, which can prevent low-HD targets from taking actions on a failed psionic save. There is a telepathic major science with crisis of breath – in case you’re not familiar with it, this is basically a breathing inhibitor. This is deadly, but in a cool way, allows the affected target to decide on whether to struggle for air or e.g. attack (and risk blacking out). Finally, there is the shadow twin metapsionic major science, which conjures a shadow duplicate that shares hit points with the psionicist. This twin can shadow walk at will and has copies of the gear and access to the manifester’s psionic arsenal. The gear aspect is my main complaint here – the science should specify that the twin expending one-use gear/item uses drains those from the original’s arsenal. Otherwise, this is pretty easy to abuse.

The book also features a couple of new monsters – atori are undead with a ghastly stench that may render you unconscious, and they have a necrotic touch. Cacklers are per se incorporeal undead that manifest to cackle – this ability is potent, in that it can affect 3d6 HD of creatures of equal to or less than 4HD, preventing them from acting. To prevent abuse-scenarios, this has a cooldown. Still, needs careful handling. The crypt riddler is one of my favorites here – a crypt thing variant that poses riddles that kill you if you fail to answer on a failed save. Cool and imho more rewarding than the annoying random teleportation. Korper (Should probably have an “ö”) come in three variants and represent undead spellcasters who failed at becoming liches. They have a fear gaze, but otherwise are one of the more boring “failed lich”-undead I’ve ever seen. Hill haunts are cool: Enormous specters tethered to outdoors locations. They are great story-monsters, with their fixed location and powerful offense. The final creature is the Spawn of Chuamisi, a psionic naga-like being. Per se not too interesting. But there was this one line of lore that kicked my mind into overdrive: “Chuamisi is the elder evil that heralded the dawn of the Age of Serpents that brought the Great Poisonfall upon the world.” BAM. I want to know more. Awesome. Speaking of which: We also get Anguia Umbra, a new petty god with full stats and servant – this would be the petty god of iophilia, toxicophilia, shadow walkers and assassins. Deadly, and with some cool abilities, this finally managed to make me get the Petty Gods book.

My favorite rules component herein would be the optional rules for killing vampires, which makes the traditional things such as sunlight, stakes, head. burying etc. reduce HD. Cool! The pdf also features a couple of d30-tables – d30 quirks of becoming unhinged, d30 evil adventure hooks, and d30 methods of sacrifice. These are okay, but not exactly spectacular.

The ‘zine also includes an adventure for 5-7 characters of 3rd to 5th level. The module does feature alignment pretty heavily, making use of essentially two alignment axes in themes, while using only the traditional one-axis of B/X; while it acknowledges that the referee can adjust this to single-axis alignment assumptions, it does lose a bit of its flavor. (As an aside: No alignment is still the best option, and I really wished games got finally rid of this roleplaying-stifling blight; I just mentioned the alignment component, since some purists may balk at it.) The module suggests at least one thief and one cleric, a sound proposal. Wandering monster encounters are presented, and the end of the module presents all stats on one page – nice. The complex explored comes with a b/w-map, but no player-friendly version. Annoyingly, the maps has no grid noted, which makes playing with minis or VTTs a bit of a hassle.

Okay, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.


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All right, only GMs around? Great! So, local farmers have gathered a fortune for the PCs to act as trouble-solvers – lemurs have been rampaging through the countryside, and it turns out that the notorious “Black Chapel” is the likely source – and it kinda is. It is basically your average cultist hide-out and not too special – the one thing the dungeon does in a clever fashion, is that the cult’s leaders attempt to parley – a defect altar is responsible for the uncontrolled stream of lemurs, and they require a lawful cleric to perform the ritual to seal the rift – they do attempt to negotiate a nasty contract, which is kinda neat, but as a whole, I wasn’t thrilled by this dungeon. It’s not bad, and its presentation is solid, but it does lack special components to make it shine. Personally, I considered this to be one of the weaker parts of the ‘zine.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting deserve applause – on both a formal and rules-language level, the ‘zine is precise, properly putting spells etc. in italics, using bolding well, etc. Kudos for making this professional and easy to peruse. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard, and the pdf uses excellent b/w-artwork sourced from the public domain. If you enjoy the cover, you’ll like the interior art as well. Great choices throughout. The ‘zine has no bookmarks in its electronic evrsion, which constitutes a comfort detriment. The map of the adventure is a step back in comparison to the last Dragon Horde, and same goes for the adventure. I can’t comment on the physical version of the ‘zine, as I do not own it.

Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. delivers a passion project here – this is a professionally-presented ‘zine that features quite a lot of well-designed rules-material for B/X. While generally in the upper power-echelon, the incisions and balancing tools employed are smart; particularly the witch doctor is pure awesome. While I wasn’t too blown away by all of the supplemental materials or creatures, there also are some serious winners – the new petty god, the crypt riddler and the like? There are some gems herein. Usually, this would be a mixed bag on the positive side, rounded down (3.5 stars) but considering that it’s a PWYW-offering, my final verdict will be 4 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.

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