An Endzeitgeist.com article
This massive campaign/setting clocks in at 554 (!!) pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial/ToC (which is hyperlinked, so you can jump to the respective place), 1 page SRD, 4 pages creature index, leaving us with 546 pages of content. The PFRPG-version is one page shorter. This page-count is NOT for a sucky dual-system book, mind you: That is per system. You don’t pay for a system you don’t use – separate hardcovers for the systems.
It should be noted that 6 pages of the book are remembrances to fellow reviewer and friend of mine Joshua “KTFish7” Gullion (Requiescat in pace, my friend), and 3 pages are devoted to introductions.
This article was requested by my patreon supporters as a prioritized review, and thus moved up in my queue.
Okay, so before we go into this, I need to clarify a couple of things: Rise of the Drow was originally released as a 3-part-sequence in the A-series of adventures situated in AAW Games’ setting of Aventyr; the modules also represented a significant evolution and step up in the quality of the company’s modules. Later, a compiled and slightly expanded version was released, and said book was bookended by a prologue and epilogue adventure, allowing you to run an entire AP worth of modules. Via Joshua Gullion, I got the chance to contribute my own little article to the massive tome, which was to be the origin of the concept of the Colloid, an entity that has since then haunted Aventyr’s lore and subsequent supplements. While this article was small in the grand scheme of things, the resulting hardcover was an impressive tome.
Fast forward a few years, and this book was announced – a massive Collector’s Edition of the saga; both an expanded version for PFRPG, and for the first time making the entire saga available for 5e. In this, the collector’s edition, I have contributed a lot more than just one paltry article, which means that I can’t, in good conscience, provide a rating for this book; I am utterly incapable of being neutral when it comes to it, as it is a monument to a dear departed friend of mine, as well as a showcase of some of my work.
Instead, I will try to highlight what this book is and what it isn’t.
First of all, this is not simply a cheap repackage with 5e slapped on; quite the opposite. I own the 5e Collector’s Edition tome, and it is massive. When I showed it to my grandma (who is notoriously skeptical about my RPG-work), she was impressed for the first time when it comes to RPG books: Thick covers, sturdy binding, book ribbons (yes, plural), thick, glossy paper…her response was that this was closer akin to a high-class book of art-prints than what she’d have expected from a RPG-supplement. So the physical offset printed 5e-book? If you’re a bibliophile/collector: This deserves its moniker of being a “Collector’s Edition.” It is a gorgeous book.
The 5e rules have also been consistently and concisely-implemented; at no point does this book feel like a conversion, and the narrative has not been negatively impacted in any way; the book is, however, not only littered with really gorgeous full-color art, it also is organized in a way that I very much enjoyed: We have a three-column standard, and where applicable, differently-colored text provides hyperlinks to subsections AND page-numbers. You start on the Embla-chapter-header, and there, you have all the sub-chapter navigation options, plus pages, spelled out for you. These spaces are also used for outsourced little rules tables, traps and similar components, greatly enhancing the ease of navigation and actually running this campaign – Thomas Baumbach did a phenomenal job reorganizing and expanding the content here. To use an annoying buzzword: The information design of this version of the saga is much better than the previous iterations.
You just need to know a few things.
The first thing to note is that this is not an easy campaign, or one for the faint of heart; it never was, in any of its iterations, and it still isn’t; the 5e-version is not harder than the other ones; the PFRPG version is perhaps a bit easier due to the power-creep the system saw over the last couple of years, but the AP is somewhat harder than many Paizo APs. This is also the reason why the saga now concludes at 16th level; the Collector’s Edition simply has a more realistic framework regarding XPs attained, etc.
The collector’s edition does include the previously-released stand-alone prologue and epilogue modules, and particularly the epilogue GREATLY benefits from the increased budget of this version, which renders its relatively complex and challenging dungeon-crawling much easier to grasp. (As an aside: This has maps for EVERYTHING. The amount of maps herein is massive.)
Okay, but all of these things did exist in one way or another before; perhaps not in as beautiful an iteration as before, but why bother getting this if you already have Rise of the Drow? Well, here’s the thing:
The Collector’s Edition is no longer just a linear set of adventures.
In many ways, the original adventure trilogy was indebted to the AP-formula and the limitations of relatively brief adventures; while this did change somewhat, it has to be noted that the original adventure-series was intended to be run as a pretty linear campaign.
However, in module #2, the vast underworld region hinted at and outlined did provide the options for so much more; and this was expanded. Since the release of the first RotD-hardcover, the massive Underworld races & Classes book, and my own Occult Secrets of the Underworld, have expanded the Underworld of Aventyr greatly…and this is where this book differentiates itself in a colossal and very important manner from the first version of the book.
This collector’s edition is no longer just a series of adventures. Yes, you can run it as such, but you’d be missing out on what makes this special. From the frontier town Rybalka on the surface to massive cities below the surface, this book doubles essentially as a colossal and lavishly fleshed-out local campaign setting/environment. The thing that most sets this apart, is that it hands all the tools to change this campaign into any number of ways right in your hands. In fact, that was a conscious design goal of the things I contributed to this book.
To illustrate this, I will need to go into SPOILER-territory. Potential players should jump ahead to the end of the SPOILER-section.
Okay, only GMs around? Great! So, the basic, super-condensed plot is: Rybalka is attacked by drow, PCs follow drow attackers to below the surface, there go to the wondrous metropolis of Embla, and realize that the nearby drow city has been taken over by a particularly vicious house. Stop the drow. The story of this series was always an afterthought, its focus lying on the sheer wonder of exploration, of how it feels to first venture into fungal jungles, of seeing the vast and strange vistas below. The focus was always the Underworld; and unlike many comparable books, this wouldn’t work on the surface; the series’ strong point was always how its vistas felt organic, plausible, and yet wondrous.
The wonderful city of Embla, and the way to the drow city of Holoth nominally allowed for different approaches before, but one was clearly the main intended course of action. Similarly, once in Holoth, a group will be hard-pressed and would have next to no recourse regarding retreating etc. This book changes that to a degree: For one, the different approaches have been expanded properly. Secondly, however, the GM has much more optional and entirely new things to work with:
There is a pocket-dimension containing a bleak infinity and an Ozymandias-like dvergr; there are hostile forces that may or may not supplement a frontal attack on Holoth. There are such means to help a party recover from what could become a TPK, if the GM desires, that is.
Beyond such aspects, my goal was to add character to everything: Embla and the wilderness of the Underworld now contain a whole host of new factions that you can develop or ignore as you see fit: From the curious scene of haute-cuisine dødelig chefs to svirfneblin expeditions to zwerc cabals who have identified the “disease” of the world and seek to “cure” it, there are a ton of new threads to develop. The way in which the colliatur influence Embla, how an enclave of ahoolings uses voluntary indentured servitude to deal with their blood-lust and give hard workers a second chance, insane hive cities, and yes, a full-blown sunken city are out there; these aspects are all rife for the picking, have enough information to use and develop them, if you so desire. Have I mentioned the Honorable Fraternity of Sacred Beer, masonic dweorg that fight with chained battle-steins? Adventure seeds, fluff-based write-ups of key players in the respective regions and organizations and more are provided.
Beyond new factions and flavor, massive encounter tables further underline this option to use the book – and since Stoneholme, a massive dwarven city is included as well, the collector’s edition has a pretty distinct further option: Instead of starting on the surface, a GM could get the Stoneholme trilogy of adventures (Separately available), play those, and then proceed to part #2 of the saga.
Before, Rise of the Drow was a series of adventures that provided tantalizing hints of a much grander, much more exciting Underworld.
With the Collector’s Edition, this promise takes, at least for me, center stage. I’d be hard-pressed to picture any GM who really reads this book and doesn’t find something they want to elaborate upon, that they want to expand, tweak, change add—in that way, the collector’s edition can be viewed as a bridge between playstyles: Those wanting their fully developed adventures get what they want, it’s all here, but the book constantly teases the GM with some nugget of narrative gold to make the Underworld THEIR Underworld. No matter how badly the party goes off rails, there’s a damn fine chance that the book has a map, an idea, or more for you to latch on. The rails are here, but in many ways, this book is a huge invitation to get off them, and see where the game takes you and yours:
Perhaps a player seeks the powers of the Wind of Wasting after meeting draaki-pilgrims; perhaps you want to explore the jungle more, or perhaps you want to get involved in the savage politics of the profane and brutal crocodile-like Kraidyl clans.
The drow will still be here when you get back from your excursion; you can always emphasize them; but the collector’s edition realizes the strength of the original and magnifies it. I wished I had had such a book when I started deviating from published modules back in the day, when I started to expand and tweak material; this book provides the hard parts, the meat, the ideas – but which parts you use, the structure you employ? It’s so very easy to alter the campaign in pretty much every way.
That is perhaps the grand change. This is now a colossal sandbox, and even if you’re not interested in running a series of adventures, I guarantee that this colossal tome will feature several components that you’ll love scavenging for your games; from the maps to the locations, factions and more.
To get that straight out of the way: No, this is not perfect. No book of this size ever is. It does, however, not feel like an indie-production. This is one tight monster of a tome. And yes, you can copy text from the book. I’ve heard this rumor that you can’t – it’s not true. Highlight, copy, done.
The PFRPG 1e PoD-version is something I frankly originally did not expect to see, as the market for that system has dwindled seriously, something reflected in backer numbers; as such, seeing a book of this scope for the game is awesome. However, on a mechanical level, it is somewhat apparent that the authors hadn’t kept up with all developments of the system; apart from the references to my own Occult Secrets of the Underworld book, you will not find Occult Adventures support herein; if you expect Ultimate Intrigue support, I’d have to disappoint you as well. The book is focused on a pre-ACG take on the system. So yeah, that’s a mechanical drawback, also due to the long production this gigantic tome had. If you purchase modules for the mechanical challenge of things, for that PF1-gauntlet wherein tactical combats become essentially difficult puzzles to test the builds of your characters, then this will not challenge you too much; much like many Paizo APs, you will probably consider this to be on the easy side of things. If, however, you want a truly fantastic (in both senses of the word) Underworld with a ton of evocative concepts? Then yeah, the PoD-hardcover is most assuredly is worth getting.
The 5e-version, offset printed and ridiculously gorgeous, is a 100% recommendation from yours truly; it is the best iteration of the campaign, hands down, and a perfect book for experienced GMs and those who wish to graduate from running linear modules, as it is entirely focused on getting you to add your creativity to the cornucopia of ideas herein. Seriously, it might be worth getting for the bibliophiles out there even if you don’t play 5e. Heck, I know of a diehard PF1.fan who purchased both, the 5e-version as a prestige object, and the PF1 version to play.
So yeah. Rise of the Drow was worth getting before the first hardcover and its prologue and epilogue expansions. I recommended the series before ever getting involved with Rise of the Drow, the Underworld, etc.
The revised hardcover and its prologue and epilogue adventures were damn awesome (and certainly mopped the floor with Second Darkness).
This collector’s edition? Honestly, even if I had not written a single word for it, I’d buy the book. If you eliminate every single word I’ve written for it, you’d still have a fantastic book; and I may be biased, but I think I brought some seriously cool ideas to the table for this one. ^^ I love how densely-packed the ideas of this sandbox are.
As a physical artifact, the hardcover is stunning; its organization is much smoother, it sports a ton of awesome art, maps and concepts, enough to last you for whole campaigns if you want to explore them all. I have rarely been this proud to have been allowed to add my meager talents to such a wonderful book.
If you *do* want the gorgeous 5e-hardcover, I suggest you act quickly; according to my information, there are precious few copies left.
…and this is pretty much it. Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I sing the praises of this book in a much less subdued way if I hadn’t worked on it? You bet. I think this is an achievement that manages to feel both old school and fresh at the same time. Would I recommend it? Yes, unless your players are mostly into complex, linear plotlines. If you want to recapture the experience of the wonder of exploring the Underworld for the first time once more? Well, then this is the book that’ll do it, by blending the nostalgic with the creative and novel.