At least for a historian. Seriously, those guys will raid your garbage bin and steal your receipts. And the humanity will be grateful. After a while. I’ve just put my hands on the last (well, fourth out of five, they weren’t delivered in the right order) volume of History of Private Life. It’s probably one of the best series about history ever written, especially if you’re interested in social changes, not the fates of battles and wars. And if there’s some study area I’d love more than social and cultural history, I haven’t found it yet.
Mordekainen’s back! Everybody’s favourite wizard brings us world lore, racial lore, and a nice selection of monsters to charm and slaughter (or die of, to be honest).
The book looks pretty much standard for the fifth edition: hardcover, gloss varnish, pretty artwork. I actually like the cover art of the standard edition (by Jason Rainville) more than the special edition by Vance Kelly.
So, what’s inside the book that promises that we’ll discover the truth about the great conflicts of the universe?
There are six chapters full of goodies, and the review will discuss them all, because that’s more fun:
- The Blood War: description of the eternal war between devils and demons;
- Elves: sub-races, gods, day-to-day living;
- Dwarves and Duergar: the war, dwarven and duergar ways of living, duergar characters;
- Gith and Their Endless War: long-awaited lore and rules for Githyanki and Githzerai;
- Halflings and Gnomes: lots of lore about the small races;
- Bestiary: 140 monster stat blocks, with the emphasis on demonic and devilish creatures.
TL;DR: A quality supplement. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the racial lore, as I’m a bit sentimental about the amount of write-up that used to accompany bestiary entries in AD&D. I like the new monsters, especially those above CR10 – it’s always nice to have something that will challenge players who got too cocky.
Chapter 1: The Blood War
The war between Lawful Evil Nine Hells and the Chaotic Evil Abyss is eternal – at least when looked at from a humanoid perspective. It’s ranging everywhere from Lower Planes, to Material Plane, to anywhere possible, really. Put a demon and a devil in one room, and the hilarity (also known as bitter struggle for dominance) will ensue. The book gives rather short description of the history of The Blood War itself – and I’m glad it kind of skips over it; I’ve read way too many pages on the lives and wars of Phoenix Kings to ever enjoy the dry, over-detailed chronicles of any world, including the one I’m living in.
So, as I much prefer the social history (especially in combination with military), I was happy to see the different points of view on the war, and its consequences on mortals. The books lists and describes each of the archdevils ruling the Nine Hells (Asmodeus, Zariel, Dispater, Mammon, Fierna and Belial, Levistus, Glasya, Baalzebul, and Mephistopheles), as well as their diabolical cults (no more generic cultists! Give them new abilities and signature spells!). There’s also an interesting snippet on the gender of devils, and how they’re used to taking any form that gives them an edge in an encounter.
Rules-wise, there are new options for tieflings – they can now be connected to any of the Lords of the Nine Hells, which brings their own perks, although they’re just variants for ability score increases and known spells. Anyway, more options for character creation are just something I love, so I’m not complaining. Also, tables for devil customisation: honorifics (‘the Perciever’, ‘Chainer of Demons’, ‘the Shatterer’ etc.), personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws.
Next section covers demons and their spread over the planes. Again, we get to meet demon lords (Baphomet, Demogorgon, Fraz-Urb’luu, Graz’zt, Juiblex, Orcus, Yeenoghu, Zuggtmoy) and their cultists, and the boons they can impart on their followers (+8 to Constitution, anyone? Just pledge your undying loyalty to Juiblex and kiss your mental ability scores goodbye). The chapter closes in the demon customisation tables: personality traits, ideals, bonds (just one! I am a perfect product of creation, destined to one day shape the cosmos to my whims. Everything I do verifies my destiny), flaws and unusual demon features, like belching flies, snake hair, bleeding wasps (yeah, really?). Also, fiendish cult random generation tables.
Overall, a solid 30 pages. Incredibly useful if you want to incorporate the Capital ‘E’ Evil to your campaign.
Chapter 2: Elves
Elves! The race I could never get behind (I have a list of issues with long-lived races, or rather their progression/development speed). However, reading the lore on the sub-races and the childhood/adolescence of the elves in society, I was actually fascinated with the whole idea of souls going away and returning. I don’t know if I missed it previously, but the reincarnation actually explains a lot about the elves (and my issues with them). I think there’s quite a good couple of pages of lore there. Even better is the following thorough description of the elven philosophy, especially its long-term part, as well as discussion on the elven adventurers.
A short piece on elven magic (including rather unique mythals – like the one in Myth Drannon – and bladesongs) is quickly followed by the elven pantheon, The Seldarine, which is a nice addition. In true D&D style, there’s a table with deities, their alignments, provinces, domains and symbols. The more known deities are also described in more detail: Corellon Larethian (really, it’s hard to find a more iconic elven deity), Hanali Celanic (god of beauty and love), Labelas Enoreth (god of time, history and memory – a rare nod towards the ‘ancient’ aspect of the elves), Rillifane Rallathil (god of nature and beasts), Sehanine Moonbow (god of mysteries, travel and death), and Deep Sashelas (god of sea and knowledge). A couple of paragraphs on elven ‘paradises’, Arvandor and more achievable Evermeet, conclude the god-oriented part.
Let’s carry on: there are goodies ahead of us. A piece on Eladrin and the Feywild (yes, there are stats for the season-aligned eladrin, and they’re more or less playable), followed by way longer description of Drows, complete with societal descriptions and the drow pantheon (of course that includes Eilistraee, the only good diety of drows). More interestingly, the next section covers the Raven Queen and the Shadar-kai, her elven followers from Shadowfell.
The tables at the end of chapter cover new character creation options: rules and traits of the eladrin (separate for each season), the sea elves (water-breathing!), and the shadar-kai (come with necrotic damage resistance and built-in short-ranges teleport). Couple extra tables cover elf-specific trinkets and adventure hooks (separate for drow and non-drow adventurers). Pretty good options in those!
Chapter 3: Dwarves and Duergar
Yes, there are more dynamic, action-filled artworks in this section of the book. But this one has a dog, so…
We start the chapter on dwarves and duergar with the description of their conflict, as promised by Mordekainen. It’s not too long – more of an overview, really, just enough to give you an understanding of the reasons behind the still simmering (blazing?) hatred.
Afterwards we’re faced with the main tenets of the dwarven life: path to perfection, the legacy of the clans, the stability of the stronghold. They make up the pillars of the dwarven society and psychology, and I have to admit, they’re rather well-written as well. I really appreciate that the book creators decided to discuss the different variants of the dwarves in more than one setting: there are dwarves of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. We’re introduced to dwarven deities (yes, there’s more than just Moradin – I can make this joke, as I only even bothered to know Moradin, and I’m not happy with my own ignorance). Next sections cover the standard dwarven enemies (dragons, giants, orcs and duergar), clans and dwarven adventurers.
Duergar, the evil dwarves, get their own section of the book. It’s more of an dark mirror image than the opposite: there are still the main tenets (Our pockets are never full, Our fight is never done, Our resolve is never shaken), but it all lacks the feeling of society, happiness or satisfaction. With just two deities (Deep Duerra and Laduguer), duergar feel the least developed in this matter, but it’s rather fitting. There’a a section on psionic talents of duergar, as well as duergar adventurers, which includes some tips on roleplaying such characters. Also, rules for creating duergar characters (120ft darkvision, some magic and resistances + sunlight sensitivity).
The Dwarf Tables include random generators for dwarves on the move (caravans, patrols, travellers etc.), duergar raiding parties, for clans, adventurer story hooks and quirks (my favourite is duergar The outside world is a giant cave, and nothing will convince you otherwise).
Chapter 4: Gith and Their Endless War
If you’re, like me, fans of Planescape: Torment, you’ve probably waited for the appearance of Gith in D&D 5E. I mean – who doesn’t want to see more Dak’kons? By the way, he was brilliantly voiced in Polish edition of the game, and I loved Gith ever since.
It’s comes as no surprise that this chapter starts with the description of conflict between githyanki (lawful evil) and githzerai (lawful neutral). Both are motivated by their intense hatred of mind flayers (centuries of slavery do that to people), but their choices and ways differ considerably. While githyanki are merciless raiders, githzerai are more mind-oriented pacifists.
A section aboyt githyanki covers their goddess-queen Vlaakith, the history of the servitude to illithids, description of their society, the order of knights, skyships, and the city of Tu’narath, githyanki capital on the Astral Plane.
Githzerai, described here as strong-minded philosophers and austere ascetics, revere their great heroes more than they hate everything that’s not them. Their fortresses are located in the Chaos Plane of Limbo, where githzerai learned to manipulate the Chaos to their own uses. They wage the war against githyanki and the mind flayers, although it’s rather through precise attacks instead of full-blown assault.
The chapter covers long-awaited (again, at least by me) rules for creating gith characters, both sub-races having access to some psionics and either extra proficiencies (githyanki) or advantage on saving throws against being charmed or frightened (githzerai). Extra tables cover gith names, personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws, as well as githyanki raiding parties and githzerai groups.
Chapter 5: Halflings and Gnomes
Often overlooked, but thoroughly enjoyable, smaller races have been described here in pretty much the same amount of detail. What makes them stand apart is that they are not enrolled in any great conflict – they’re actively avoiding it by trying to go unnoticed. They live peaceful lives, making desserts and gizmos.
Section of halflings covers their daily living and psychological make-up. A nice addition is the small boxed-out with halfling superstitions – a cool way of adding a bit of extra flavour to you characters or NPCs. They vary from wearing flowers on your hat to ward off evil faeries, to rules regarding planting turnips. All in all, delightful. There are also the deities, all of them described in detail (Yondalla, Arvoreen, Sheela Peryroyl, Charlamaine, Cyrrollalee, Brandobaris and Urogalan). We get some text on the halfling adventurers as well, and the descriptions of halflings in the multiverse. The usual tables cover personality traits, ideals, bonds, flaws and reasons for adventuring.
Gnomes are presented as ingenious toymakers, lovers of life, easily fascinated with various ideas and peoples. There’s a section about each of the sub-races (rock, forest and deep gnomes), as well as about the gnome gods – again, with detailed information on all of them: Garl Glittergold, Baervan Wildwanderer, Baravar Cloakshadow, Callarduran Smoothhands, Flandal Steelskin, Gaerdal Ironhand, Nebelun, Segojan and Urdlen. There are also The Golden Hills, the home of the gnome gods. Usual section on adventurers and their love of travels.
Rules-wise, there are notes on creating svirfneblin (deep gnomes), and the gnome tables (classic choice of personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws).
Chapter 6: Bestiary
After a long trip we’ve arrived to the all-new pile of monsters. There are entries complementing all previous chapters – a lot of fiendish and demonic monsters, drows, shadar-kai, duergar and gith. The challenge rating varies between 1/8 (young kruthik) and 26 (Demogorgon, Orcus and Zariel). With 140 stat blocks, that makes a nice selection of opponents.
As I intend to write a separate article on the monsters in this bestiary (there’s so many cool entries to discover), I’m just going to add that the chapter ends in useful tables, grouping the monsters by creature type, challenge rating and environment.
All of the illustrations are taken from the Mordekainen’s Tome of Foes and/or the promotional images, and are obviously not mine.
I’m a bit behind on the reviews but… Oh my, this comic book is everything I’ve ever wanted (until the animated series comes out, and then the 10-season live action TV series).
Ending the last issue on a high note, with “roll initiative” in the air, Matt Colville decided to throw the characters under the bus. The villain is deadly, intelligent, and doesn’t care at all that the protagonists would very much like to loot her afterwards, thank you very much. I cannot wait to read more about her, and her compatriots.
The story progresses just like it should, seeing as we’re 66% into the story arc – there’s a party to be assembled, and the main characters must go through the hardships and tribulations to achieve their final goals in issue six. And yet, even though it’s classic story composition, it still feels natural and fresh. Vex is incredible and believable (she made such progress during the campaign!), Keyleth has the best facial expressions, and Scanlan is the most genre-savvy character I’ve seen in a long time.
But the story needs more Percy.
I’m going to leave you with my favourite snippet of this issue: Tiberius being awesome.
I got my latest Kickstarter package delivered – a pack of Common (or Garden) Gnomes from Midlam Miniatures. Why did I need them? No reason whatsoever. But I am a big fan of this tiny UK-based company and their metal minis, and I make it a point to support all their Kickstarter campaigns. They keep creating original, less “popular” designs, filling several niches: beastfolk, halflings, civilians, Lovecraftian cultists, female characters in sensible clothing.
The minis are standard 28mm scale, but being gnomes they’re only 28mm when you measure them up to the top of the pointy hat. Here’s the size comparison of the male and female gnomes with a human woman (from Midlam’s Winter Adventurers set):
I got absolutely zero need for those gnomes. Even if I get to play a gnome one day, they won’t be wearing pointy hats (unless they’re a wizard, I guess). But the minis are so sweet, well cast (little to no lines, no flashes, no rips, no miscasts) and detailed that they’re already on my painting short list.
As for gnomes they’re quite diverse – just another nice thing about Midlam’s minis. Out of 14 models in a set, there are four women (a mage, shown above, a flower girl, an unarmoured woman with an axe, and a leather-clad one with a sword), all of them in practical dresses (as far as practical dresses go). The other ten are male – or at least bearded, part of them armoured, part of them unarmoured, some with swords, some with axes, and some with wheelbarrows or angry gestures. The wizard has an owl familiar, so everything is good in the universe.
Anyway, guys from Midlam have just put a new Kickstarter campaign out there, with the Ghosts of Midlam Manor. If you ever need a dwarven or a halfling ghost, check them out.
There’s a lot of plot threads sort of converging in this scene. Usually when that happens not everyone survives.
Why write reviews when you can just quote Scanlan?
So, the third volume came out today, and though I have next to no time whatsoever for writing a blog lately (toy business is kind of hectic before Christmas), I couldn’t skip this one. Writen, as before, by the illustrious Matt Colville, the third issue takes on the incredibly heavy duty of bringing all of the characters together. As might have been expected – with paranoid twins, prone to anger Grog and generally detached Scanlan – this does not go smoothly.
Ab ovo, though. Drawn by Olivia Samson and coloured by Chris Northrop, this is still one of the prettiest things I’m reading these days. But what stood out even more this time for me is the amazing work of Chris Kawagiwa, who was expertly handling the layouts. I do not know who decided to use the grid to show the placement of the character (especially those behind the secret doors), but it’s genius.
The beginning of the story covers the poisoned swamp plot from the third side, as Keyleth and Tiberius (plus their party) are working for the Clasp to uncover the reasons why the mob is losing their profits. Which doesn’t actually go exactly as one might anticipated. Anyway, the Clasp is evil (in case somebody thinks that thieves’ guilds are full of bleeding-heart Robin Hoods), shaking down your employer may not be the best idea, and the race goes to the most motivated. I can’t wait to see how it goes in the next issue.
To not spoil to much, we cut to bickering twins in the sewers, amazing idea of disguising ourselves as ourselves, but poorer, Kiki rolling well on Perception (Keen Senses), Tiberius having the most amazing conversation with a dog, and Scanlan being an incredible bard.
The amount of puns, jokes, and splendid interpretations of usefulness of a bard in a fight (oh, boy. I need more of this), make this comic book worth every minute spent on reading and re-reading. The plot brings together all of the characters (minus Pike and Percy, which is a still a disappointment), playing off various strengths and weaknesses, and finally introducing the villain to the PCs.
In short, I’m seriously impressed. Third issue is great, even if slightly darker than the previous ones (although the series started with an infant sacrifice…). I thought it might be just sentiment for the Critical Role, but then it became apparent it’s just a quality piece of entertainment.
Let me just finish off with this golden piece of Scanlan:
Character options! Improved backgrounds! Magic item creation rules! New spells! Myriad of traps!
If 5E D&D was lacking something, it was definitely more options. Devised as a system with a new player-friendly learning curve, it didn’t overwhelm with choices. For someone like me, who spent their games mostly in Pathfinder or Shadowrun, it was rather underwhelming in this regards. The current edition’s publishing strategy, focusing on campaigns and adventures, has made life of many (mostly first-time) GMs easier, and this is definitely a good thing.
However, not being a first-time GM and loving making choices, I was struggling for a long time with fifth edition. I felt it’s too constricting and too vague at the same time.
And then cue Xanathar.
The greedy, conceited, rich, and powerful beholder (and his goldfish) has collected some of the best lore and items and for whatever reason is happy to share it.
The most important part of the book is the first section with new character subclasses. Most of them we’ve seen already in Unearthed Arcana, but they’ve all seen some rework (major, like the War Mage, or minor, like the Forge Cleric). Included in the book are:
- Barbarian: Path of the Ancestral Guardian, Path of the Storm Herald, Path of the Zealot
- Bard: College of Glamour, College of Swords, College of Whispers
- Cleric: Forge Domain, Grave Domain
- Druid: Circle of Dreams, Circle of the Shepherd
- Fighter: Arcane Archer, Cavalier, Samurai
- Monk: Way of the Drunken Master, Way of the Kensei, Way of the Sun Soul
- Paladin: Oath of Conquest, Oath of Redemption
- Ranger: Gloom Stalker, Horizon Walker, Monster Slayer
- Rogue: Inquisitive, Mastermind, Scout, Swashbuckler
- Sorcerer: Divine Soul, Shadow Magic, Storm Sorcery
- Warlock: The Celestial, The Hexblade
- Wizard: War Magic
My personal favourite is definitely the Forge domain for cleric (which is incidentally the character I’m playing in the current campaign) – combines fun flavour abilities (magically creating mundane equipment from coins or scrap metal) and pretty good boons (nice AC boosts and fire resistance). Ranger’s gloom stalker is maybe not outright broken, but definitely powerful (especially in our campaign, where GM has brought upon us the eternal night – our ranger is virtually invisible at all times).
What’s more, new subclasses are not the only way the standard classes become enriched by this book. The authors added some background detail tables as well: each class can now roll on three class-specific tables, i.e. a druid can now roll for a treasured item, a guiding aspect, and a mentor. Obviously, these will not be of a great help to well-established characters, but they definitely help in creation of new ones. If the first-level fighter knows he’s wearing a heraldic sign of a phoenix, he was taught combat by a street fighter, and his combat style is rather on a cunning side, that’s already a good start for a three-dimensional character.
On a side note, druid’s section includes one of the most useful things I’ve seen in this type of books: a list of beast shapes separated by climate and in ascending order of CR. If you’ve ever wondered which beast shapes your desert-themed druid should know, look no further.
A second section is made of plethora of tables which allow you to randomly (or semi-randomly) generate the origins of your character (or an NPC, for that matter). Again, useful not only for new characters; even an existing one can add some extra details to their story.
The first set of tables covers the parentage (especially for half-elves, half-orcs and tieflings), birthplace, siblings, family status etc., including childhood memories (dependent on character’s Charisma – my Cha 7 cleric definitely did not roll well for childhood friendships!).
Further down you’ll find reasons why your character followed a chosen background (as in: your PC became a charlatan because after a charlatan fleeced their family, they decided to learn the trade so they would never be fooled by such deception again) or a chosen class (i.e. when your warlock was faced with a terrible crisis, they prayed to any being who would listen, and the creature that answered became their patron). There’s six options for each background and class – enough to cover a multitude of campaigns.
Next section covers life events, like useful contacts, rivals, tragedies or magical (or just plainly weird) events your character had experienced before starting the campaign. They may have committed a crime, fought in a battle, spent some time on a fey court, or gotten married – it’s all up to you (or the dice roll). Anyhow, the tables are chock-full of plot hooks and ideas that can be expanded into interesting origin stories.
Supplemental tables allow to roll for races, alignment, classes or causes of death – helpful in creating allies, rivals or family members.
Racial feats make a really nice addition – we’ve seen them in Unearthed Arcana, but they’ve been considerably reworked. Definitely something worth considering!
All in all – dead useful tool. Even experienced players may be inspired by questions asked and answers given; and if something doesn’t fit the established character, just change it or drop it. It’s all optional.
Third part consist extra tools for the Dungeon Master, i.e. rules for falling, sleeping (in armour or without etc.), adamantine weapons, tying knots. There’s also a great section on tool proficiencies: no more wondering why the hell you’d take cook utensils proficiency – it actually can give you an edge now, like spotting poison or helping recover hit points on a short rest. And the DC to cook a decent meal is only 10; not what I’ve found in a real life.
Spellcasters among us will find useful the next couple of pages, devoted to identifying spells and using templates on a grid for AoE spells. There’s a lot of useful diagrams there – no longer need to discuss if 1/3 of a base of the mini covered is enough to get hit by a fireball. The answer is yes, by the way.
Highly detailed (and insightful) rules for encounter building cover a fair amount of pages and include encounter tables for different environments and tiers of play. As usual, not all of the encounters have to end in combat; there’s a fair amount of these which can introduce a quest giver or just some role-play opportunities.
For the dungeon delvers and dungeon builders, there’s a section on traps, and it’s on the longer side. Includes rules and examples for both simple traps (like bear traps) and the complex ones (like a Sphere of Crushing Doom). Delightful to read. And, always useful advice: Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one. Classic quality > quantity.
Downtime revisited is a section I was particularly interested in, and it finally introduces some proper rules for magic item creation (I’ve mentioned playing a forge cleric, right? She’s a guild artisan on a quest to create her masterwork and finish the apprenticeship; magic item creation rules are vital for any progression of her personal story). Introduction of rivals is an interesting development as well – it gives the DM a framework for creating NPCs that oppose the PCs while not being the villains; every good story needs some antagonists. In short, there are rules for the following downtime activities:
- buying a magical item
- crafting an item (mundane or magical)
- pit fighting
- religious service
- scribing a spell scroll
- selling a magical item
Next section covers awarding magical items – includes guidelines for the DM as to how often should the magic item become available to keep the balance of the game intact. Of course, like everything in RPGs, if it doesn’t suit your world and your campaign, change it. Anyway, now I know our third-level party should have around 8 magical items total while we’ve got none. I expect to be showered with magic in the next couple of sessions; so maybe that’s why players shouldn’t be allowed to read the DM’s chapters.
After that comes a great part of this book: common magical items. While the main books weren’t too generous with those, Xanathar’s Guide helps a lot. There’s 48 mostly hilarious common magical items; none of them is able to break the balance of the game, but they all will be highly appreciated by industrious players. From the Armour of Gleaming (never gets dirty) through Heward’s Handy Spice Pouch (yes, generates spices) to Wand of Smiles (forces target to smile if they fail a saving throw), these items are just wonderful and I need them all. A handy table of all magical items from this book and DMG will help with keeping track of the magical item allocation and attunement.
As usual, new supplement brings some more spells; in this case they’re mostly low-level spells as shown before in Unearted Arcana. I’m delighted to see them, especially as they allow for more versatility and flavour. A cleric, for example, gets an access to a 1st level spell Ceremony, that allows to perform marriage or funeral rites within the mechanics. And my personal favourite, divine version of Mordekeinen’s Magnificent Mansion: 7th level conjuration spell, Temple of the gods, which creates a real temple with a Protection from Good/Evil built into it (no expensive material components, casting time of 1hr, 24hr duration; can be made permanent with repeated castings). I’m enamoured.
The award for the biggest haul goes to the arcane casters, though. A sorcerer gets 55 new spells (or newly acquired access to existing spells, due to new subclasses), while clerics get 7 and paladins get 3. A bit uneven, but I can see the reasoning behind it.
Appendix A is something that might be definitely useful for a large group of the DMs: rules for Shared Campaigns. For all of those interested in campaigns like the ones in the Adventurers League, this section will be invaluable, as it covers rules for creating adventures, awarding treasures and co-DMing.
Appendix B is a life saviour for all of us who just cannot come up with a character’s name on the spot. Table after table with names for different races and cultures will be probably the most often photocopied part of the book. Super handy and super useful. Just roll a d% in an appropriate table and make a note of how you’ve named that NPC; your players probably will.
Is Xanathar’s Guide to Everything the best of the supplements published so far for 5E D&D? For me, definitely yes. Character options, lots of inspiration in the background section, finally useful tools proficiencies, and the revised downtime rules are enough fro me to call this a great book. Everything else is just icing and cherries – I’m delighted to see it, but I would be happy with just the cake.
This book definitely fills a massive gap in 5E; for me the game has just been given a second life. So many new options to try out!
So, when can I expect even more?
It’s not that I’m forced to write about Critical Role all the time, but it somehow seems like the most enjoyable part of the RPG world these days. And they’ve just announced that the artbook will be available on 9 November, and the campaign’s over, and the comic book is just brilliant.
Second issue of the Origins comic book is available since today on Darkhorse and everywhere else where you can get digital comic books. I got mine this morning od Darkhorse’s website, and then spent several hours at work, not really being able to read it yet. Exercises in patience are a terrible thing, especially when you’re a proud owner of three-second patience window.
The book – again, 27 pages – takes us on a road parallel to the one travelled before. Namely, to the path of Scanlan Shorthalt and Grog Strongjaw (and the rest of their adventuring party), as they’re raiding and looting an ancient temple, somewhere in the swamp. That, quite cleverly, sets the characters on the road that will surely get them to Vax and Vex, as they’re clearly doing the same quest, just from another end. (Tiberius and Keyleth are heading in the same direction!)
Future Grand Poobah and Bard Extraordinaire are a part of an adventuring group, comprising them, a wizard named Vash, a knight and a cleric. A bunch of assholes, according to Scanlan. After clearing the shark-men temple and recovering relics, they get back to Stilben, and visit an alchemist shop (yes, the same as featured in issue one). An assassination attempt later (looks like Vax was right about that), they visit the tavern. The end.
Well, no. Surprisingly – one would expect a lot of action and shenanigans from the main duo – half of the issue is a series of social encounters. Intriguing? Yes. Entertaining? Yes. Tense, surprising and randomly changing directions? Definitely. It requires a talent to write the action scenes, but even greater to write – and draw! – long conversations in comics so they captivate the reader entirely. Here’s the thing: a big round of applause for Olivia Samson for drawing the seemingly static, repetitive panels with talking characters with such intelligent, subtle twist, that I haven’t even noticed them in the first read.
Scanlan’s chat with Tiberius takes up four pages, and almost all of the panels look like this:
Just half of a goliath, a gnome and a dragonborn by the bar, chatting, barely moving. And then you’ve got the bartender, who basically goes through all stages of grief in the background. It’s easy to miss when you concentrate on the dialogue (sparkling!), and the scene has a very cinematographic feel of a one, long take with almost no cuts whatsoever, but the stillness and repetitiveness basically forces your mind to look for the details that make the images different. And boy, they are delightful.
The second issue is great. As the first one was based on action and investigation, this one is calmer; combat encounters are quick and deadly, and character interactions take up much more space. Maybe because the twins were quite in sync, maybe because it’s sort of expected when the main character is a charismatic gnomish minstrel.
In any case,
Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of the show. I’ve joined the bandwagon around episode 30 (or rather: they got to episode 30, when I started watching the first one), and spent many work hours with a small Youtube window pinned in the corner of my screen. Now, after 114 episodes and emotional, heroic finale to the campaign, I’m left awed, amazed, and a bit sad. Would be probably sadder, if not for the sheer amount of Perc’Ahlia fanfictions found and read in the last week.
The internet sensation of Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role has swept the nations and brought thousands of new players to the gaming tables. The incredible talents of Matt Mercer, DM of the group, and his voice-actor players, inspired masses of people to give RPGs a try – even if they don’t feel like doing all the funny voices.
As the game is (was! And will be, when they start a new campaign in the new year) set in the homebrewed world of Exandria, it was only logical that with the success of the show came the call for the proper description of the setting. And so, Green Ronin got to publish a book (cowritten by Matthew Mercer and James Haeck) that became an instant bestseller (technically, I suppose, it will be a fastseller, but let’s not be picky), forcing the publisher to close the pre-order phase ahead of time and prepare for the reprint even before the first run left the printing press.
Thanks to the great pre-order deal, it was possible to place an order for a physical copy and receive the PDF version for a small fee right on the spot. Which is exactly why, even though the physical copy has only been delivered to us last week, we’ve already managed to find a willing DM, play six sessions, and get quite accustomed to Westruun.
It’s pretty. Hardback cover features beautiful artpiece by Aaron Riley:
It’s only fitting that the Vox Machina should fight Raishan there. With no offence to Vecna and Briarwoods, she was by far the most interesting opponent (if not straight up villain) on their path, partially due to the screen time. The only thing that could make this art better is selfie-style Scanlan’s face in one of the corners.
The cover is protected by two types of varnish, with the art being matt and the black and burgundy vignettes made glossy. Unnecessary, possibly, but appreciated. The pages (all 144 of them) seem well bound and properly glued, with no obvious risk of becoming loose.
Internal artwork is exactly what could be expected – slightly uneven, as it’s done by several different artists, but great overall. Sharper, more digital illustrations coexist there with more traditional (or rather, traditional-looking) pieces, and though I personally favour the latter, the former are nothing to scowl at.
Kudos for including a proper fould-out map of the continent – it’s pretty, well drawn, includes scale reference (I’m looking at you, Legend of the Five Rings), and looks great on the wall. As it’s author, Andrew Law, was so kind as to write a great post on the creation process, just go there and read up. It would be slightly better if the poster map was folded with art inside, as the rubber glue used to keep it attached to the book leaves a bit of a dark spot on the artwork. It’s not very visible, but visible nonetheless.
The map (at least the most important part of it) is also featured on the inner cover, which is definitely a nice touch for quick reference.
Using the book is easy; between full-page content list, three-page index and just 144 pages of the book, it’s impossible to get lost.
It’s divided into four main sections: overview of the setting (history, religion, races, and factions), gazeteer (descriptions of geographical areas with corresponding plot hooks), character options (feats, class options, backgrounds, and magical items), and the bestiary.
History of Exandria is not complicated, and it’s fairly short. Though described only by a couple of the most cataclysmic events, it gives enough ideas for relics, legends and rumours, that extrapolating on it should not be a problem. It does, however, play an important role in the world. With the artefacts being literally Vestiges of Divergence, leftovers from the times when the gods were present on the Material Plane, it’s hard not to be interested in the times past. History of Tal’Dorei, one of the kingdoms of Exandria, not only shows off the hero of the land, Zan Tal’Dorei, and her influence on the world, but also delves into description of the events as seen on the show – the exploits of Vox Machina.
Quite clever thing is the section on The Secrets of Tal’Dorei – concise description of the pieces that make this setting unique. It is – I think nobody tried to tell people otherwise – a fairly generic fantasy setting, that will give casual D&D players no troubles to get accustomed to. Putting into one place all the things that define the setting – like the imprisoned gods or the start of the republican system – makes it easy to catch up on the most important deviations from the generic, and run the game without too much preparation.
The pantheon is based mostly on D&D/Pathfinder deities, with different names (licenced) and some tweaks here and there. It’s clearly written and concise, with useful commandments of each god. From my gaming experience, there’s never no god more fun than the Moonweaver (trickery/deception/illusions). She sure made my bard/warlock quite a delight – believing that her Archfey patron is actually a goddess is an easy way to get mixed in some stupid mess.
The chapter on races brings mostly some adjustments in the lore, not mechanics; the only exception being the Ravenites – tailless subrace of the Dragonborn.
The factions and societies bring a whole bunch of ideas, short NPC descriptions, and plot hooks hidden in the descriptions of the goals and relationships. From magical quasi-guild to the cultists of Vecna, there’s enough to keep the players busy.
The longest and most important part of the book, the Gazeteer is a travel guide to Tal’Dorei. Each geographical region is described in more or less detail, and contains plot hooks for the adventures. It’s easy to use that as sandbox – truth is, wherever the players will go, there’s something interesting to see. Plot hooks range from melted cows to cataclysms to rescue parties to ancient cities overrun with ghosts. Again, perfect for the sandbox. However, if the party is travelling by foot and the DM is not a fan of telling them “two weeks of rather uneventful travel later you arrive at your destination”, there are some gaps that need filling. There’s a lot of empty plains and long roads. Obviously, Vox Machina haven’t visited all of Tal’Dorei, and it’s quite easy to see which parts of the kingdom were therefore detailed in author’s notes, and which were just outlined.
Even so, for such short book (and production process), Gazeteer is worth reading. The plot hooks are easily transferable to other settings, if preferred, and they work well enough to create an interesting world. It’s up to DM to pick, choose and adapt them into a proper story – on their own, they’re just sandbox-y ideas for the adventure, not full adventures.
My favourite part of all the D&D supplements is quite decent – definitely better than official D&D 5E Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide which is a huge disappointment and I would thoroughly roast it if I had two weeks to spare.
We’re getting a Blood Domain for clerics, mostly based on enchantments – sadly, there’re no actual blood-themed spells in D&D 5E, but this domain makes sense nonetheless. It reminds me of the bloodbending in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it’s not an unpleasant thought. Think more of “puppeteer” than “blood sacrifices”.
There’s also Path of the Juggernaut for barbarians, Runechild sorcerous origin, and Way of the Cobalt Soul – a monastic tradition for monks. I have a bit of a trouble with the last one: it allows players to learn aspects of their opponent in the fight: AC, vulnerabilities, saving throws etc. While I understand the “fluff” as it’s nothing we haven’t seen in martial arts films, it still have an aftertaste of metagaming, and it’s something I don’t like. It’s one thing to let players know that the lightning bolt doesn’t seem to affect their enemy, and another to tell them straight up: “immune to lightning, fear, poison and prone condition”. But, it’s just my opinion, and I’m sure there will be players and DMs who will embrace this ability.
Tal’Dorei also brings us new backgrounds: Clasp Member (criminal spin-off), Lyceum Student (privileged arcane student), Ashari (really, think Avatar: The Last Airbender), Recovered Cultist (acolyte with a twist), and Fate-Touched (DM’s way of putting a character in the spotlight).
New feats allow for long-awaited potion-drinking in bonus action (because come on, it’s just a small vial of liquid; it shouldn’t take a whole action), improved spellcasting (two spells in one round, yay!), and ability to attune to four items instead of four. I need them all for my brand-new cleric. Apart from those, there’s Cruel, Dual-Focused (two concentration spells at the same time!), Flash Recall, Gambler, Mending Affinity, and Thrown Arms Master. Fun!
What I definitely like the most, are the Vestiges of Divergence. Artifacts that can be handed out early in the campaign, scaling up with the character development, and becoming a true part of the character, not just a random piece of gear in the treasure hoard found when killing seventeenth dragon? Count me in, and give me the Spire of Conflux.
Couple extra pages covers the rules for accelerated downtime and ressurrection rituals (as the show proved, it’s so much better when there’s a chance of permanent death).
Allies and Adversaries
Oh, boy. Two things: descriptions of the different monster (or rather non-player) races place them well in the setting, giving each the context and some twists to better fit the world; stat blocks are pretty cool. I’m happy to see the stats for Ashari tribesfolk, and the Clasp members are definitely useful in this setting and outside of it. But there’s also a rideable celestial goat, and my World of Warcraft-loving heart cannot stress this enough. Next time I’m playing in this setting, I’m going to be a Kraghammer Goat-Knight. Add to that Vecna’s cultists and pumped-up orcs/goblins, and you’ve got a party.
It’s a very nice book. There’s a lot of interesting places to visit in Tal’Dorei, and all the plot hooks can be used as a base for a sandbox play, but – of course – it’s not a campaign. There’s no storyline, and it’s up for DM to create one. It’s also up to them to fill in gaps in this a bit sparsely populated world. I’m not entirely sure if this setting would work without the Critical Role show to support it – while definitely a work of love, it’s not entirely unique. It’s engaging, well written, descriptive and inspiring – but I think there’s more magic in Matt Mercer’s DM-ing than there is in the book itself. It’s a great read for the fans of the show, and could definitely be a stand-alone setting – but with at least twice the amount of pages.
Lost Mine of Phandelver
Author: Rich Baker
Released: 15 July 2014
Theme: Fighting goblinoids for the control of an ancient mine and its riches.
Plot summary: Centuries-old mine, previously held by dwarves and gnomes, and destroyed due to orc invasion, has been rediscovered. A trio of dwarves who stumbled across it is not the only party interested in re-opening the mine and seizing it’s riches. Players will be asked to escort some supplies but will quickly find themselves right in the middle of the power struggle. The winner will take the Wave Echo Cave and all the magic it has to offer.
What to expect: Goblins and orcs being used heavily by a mysterious villain known as the Black Spider. First fights are relatively easy but will help new players to understand how the combat mechanics work. Although, it’s worth remembering that first-level characters are squishy, and a well-placed critical hit from a goblin can take them straight to the death’s doors. Storyline is quite straightforward, and might be boring for experienced players. There is enough place for NPC interaction in the town of Phandalin, selling and procuring any mundane equipment should not be a problem. After removing some miscreants from the town, players will spend some time looking for clues and following rumours in search of the Black Spider, and then delve into the final dungeon.
Bosses: bugbear, drow wizard, green young dragon.
Common monsters: adventurer, bandit, bugbear, cultist, doppelganger, flameskull, ghoul, giant spider, goblin, grick, hobgoblin, nothic, ochre jelly, ogre, orc, owlbear, skeleton, spectator, stirge, thug, twig blight, wolf, wraith, zombie.
Notable magical items: Boots of Striding and Springing, Gauntlets of Ogre Power, Spider Staff, Staff of Defense, Hew (+1 battleaxe).
Extras in the book: Info on running the adventures for first-time DMs, adventure hooks, pre-generated characters (included in the starter set), introduction to Forgotten Realms setting, descriptions & stats of all monsters and magical items encountered (no need to buy Monster Manual or Dungeon Master’s Guide to run this module), new monster: Ash Zombie (p. 31).
Hoard of the Dragon Queen
Author: Wolfgang Baur & Steve Winter
Released: 19 August 2014
Theme: Fighting the evil cult to stop them from releasing Tiamat back to the Material Plane.
Plot summary: The Cult of the Dragon seeks the ways to free Tiamat from her hellish prison. As the cultist plunder and collect the hoard of treasure for their queen, players are caught in the dragon fire. Following the trail, they’ll discover the nefarious plot and start the journey which should take them to the end of this campaign and straight into the next one.
What to expect: The plot is rather straightforward, and doesn’t allow much free-roaming. They players will encounter mostly cultists, kobolds, drakes, and other reptilians, while following the clues and tracks leading them ultimately to the castle in the sky.
Bosses: adult blue dragon, adult white dragon, cloud giant, half-dragon, red wizard.
Common monsters: ambush drake, bullywug, cultist, guard drake, kobold, lizardfolk, mage, ogre, stone giant, stone golem.
Notable magical items: Black Dragon Mask, Hazirawn (+1 greatsword), Insignia of Claws, Wand of Winter.
Extras in the book: Map of the Sword Coast, table with bonds allowing to connect the characters to the story, 14 new monsters, 4 magic items. The appendix covering the rules and monster stats is available online, so the campaign (together with The Rise of Tiamat) is playable without DMG and Monster Manual.
The Rise of Tiamat
Author: Alexander Winter and Steve Winter
Released: 4 November 2014
Theme: The race against time (and the Cult of the Dragon) continues.
Plot summary: In an uneasy and fragile alliance with Red Wizards of Thay, Cult of the Dragon prepares the sacrifices necessary to bring Tiamat back to the Material Plane. It’s up to the players to stop the bloodshed, preferably by mercilessly cutting down all of the opponents.
What to expect: Even more drakes and dragons, and a slightly more relaxed design of the story. Players will be encouraged to interact with large organisations (Harpers, Zhentarim), and there’s enough space for side-treks, politics, intrigue and following random rumours.
Bosses: red wizard, Tiamat
Common monsters: cultist, devil, dragon, guard drake, kobold, mage, troll.
Notable magical items: Draakhorn, Dragontooth Dagger, Mask of the Dragon Queen.
Extras in the book: 11 monsters (including stats for Tiamat CR 30), 3 magic items.
Princes of the Apocalypse
Author: Rich Baker, Mike Mearls
Released: 7 April 2015
Theme: A homage to 1E Elemental Evil – a cosmic threat to the world as the four elemental princes grow restless in their realms.
Plot summary: Four elemental cults wreck havoc in the quiet valley, while bickering and fighting for power and more cultists. Players finds themselves opposing four different organisations and collecting some pretty amazing magical items.
What to expect: Dungeon crawls, mostly. There’s 13 of them, and though they’re linked, the story is rather sandbox-y, allowing players to wander around the Dessarin Valley and discover things as they please. Note: if they stray from the path too badly, they might die a painful death. It’s a campaign for levels 1-15, and some of the areas are deadly for low-level characters. Prepare for fighting with elementals and colour-coded cultists.
Bosses: druid, medusa, primordials, sorcerer, wizard.
Common monsters: aarakocra, ankheg, bandit, bugbear, bulette, crocodile, cultist, dragon, duergar, elemental myrmidon, elemental, giant octopus, giant vulture, griffon, hell hound, hippogriff, hobgoblin, hydra, kenku, kuo-toa, lich, lizardfolk, mage, manticore, mephit, monk, piercer, roper, rust monster, thug, umber hulk, water weird, zombie.
Notable magical items: Ring of Swimming, Ring of Fire Resistance, Intelligent Weapon, Dwarven Thrower, Alchemy Jug, Immovable Rod, Tentacle Rod, Pearl of Power, Stone of Luck, Ring of Cold Resistance, Dragon Slayer, Driftglobe, Mariner’s Armor, Figurine of Wondrous Power (Silver Raven).
Extras in the book: extra side quests for different levels of characters, new playable race (the Genasi, in four elemental variants), 45 new elemental spells, new magical items, new monsters: elemental myrmidons and the four Princes of Elemental Evil. Also includes conversion guides for settings other than Forgotten Realms, and several pages with sketches and concept arts.
Out of the Abyss
Author: Christopher Perkins, Adam Lee, Richard Whitters
Released: 15 September 2015
Theme: A bitter struggle to survive while jail-breaking from drows’ slave pens, with demon lords roaming around.
Plot summary: Escaping from the slave pens, the players will have to travel through Underdark, trying to survive or avoid both the random encounters and the drow pursuit. As the story unfolds, they get involved in the intrigue and power struggle between the denizens of Underdark, making and breaking alliances.
What to expect: Everything you could find in books about Drizzt Do’Urden, and then some. All of the demon lords, imagery inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and spiders. For a considerable amount of time, players have to take care of a plethora of NPCs – they’re not escaping alone. This also means that they have to run the NPCs, unless the DM is keen on adding ten NPCs to his/her/their workload. Equipping the players might be hard, as they start the campaign with next to nothing, and have to loot absolutely everything in hope to get some gear.
Bosses: Baphomet, Demogorgon, demon, demon lord, drow, Orcus.
Common monsters: deep gnome, demon lord, demon, derro, dragon, drow, duergar, dwarf, kuo-toa, myconid, ooze, stone giant.
Notable magical items: Boots of Speed, Cloak of Elvenkind, Ring of Protection, Bag of Holding, Ring of Free Action, Gauntlets of Ogre Power, Dawnbringer, Robe of Eyes, Sun Blade, Gem of Seeing, Tentacle Rod, Flame Tongue, Necklace of Adaptation, Necklace of Fireballs, Stonespeaker Crystal, Gem of Brightness, Heward’s Handy Haversack, Wand of Viscous Globs.
Extras in the book: Optional background features and bonds, 6 new magical items, 25 new monsters/important NPCs, maps (including the map of the Underdark), descriptions and stats for Demon Lords, pages with sketches and concept art.
Curse of Strahd
Author: Christopher Perkins
Released: 15 March 2016
Theme: Gothic horror full of vampires, ghouls and zombies.
Plot summary: In the suspiciously quiet village of Barovia, the window shutters are indeed, shut tight. The towering Castle Ravenloft, with its main inhabitant, Count Strahd von Zarovich, is looking closely at everything and everyone in his domain. Players, a group of adventurers just crossing the border, are both awaited and appreciated – but they probably won’t be too happy about it.
What to expect: Stormy clouds, enemies with necrotic damage and crippling vulnerability to radiant damage. Sandbox-y story that allows players to roam free through the lands of Barovia; after all, nowhere is safe. There’s enough time to get to know the NPCs, and with the main villain being several levels of power above the adventurers at all time, the feeling of dread for the lives of PCs and NPCs alike should ever-present.
Bosses: lich, night hag, Strahd Von Zarovich (vampire), tree blight.
Common monsters: bandit, berserker, blight, cultist, druid, ghast, ghost, ghoul, mongrelfolk, phantom warrior, revenant, scarecrow, shadow, skeleton, specter, vampire, wereraven, werewolf, wight, wolf, wraith, zombie.
Notable magical items: Tome of Strahd, Blood Spear, Gulthias Staff, Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, Icon of Ravenloft, Saint Markovia’s Thighbone, Ring of Warmth, Sun Blade, Ring of Regeneration, Tome of Understanding, Staff of Power, Rod of the Pact Keeper, Daern’s Instant Fortress, Helm of Brilliance, Luck Blade, Rifle, Staff of Frost.
Extras in the book: Lots of maps, including a poster map. 18 new monsters, 7 magic items, new background (haunted one), table of gothic trinkets, mini-adventure to level up characters from 1st to 3rd level (Death House), rules for the Tarokka Deck, handouts.
Storm King’s Thunder
Author: Christopher Perkins
Released: 6 September 2016
Theme: The war is brewing as giants brings destruction to the Northern Faerun.
Plot summary: For some reason, giants came down from the hills and mountains and terrorise the smaller folk, raiding the villages, stealing cattle and grain, killing without mercy, and plundering the coastal towns. The players must find a way to stop this war before it wipes out the whole humanoid population of the North.
What to expect: Sandbox-y story in pseudo-viking settings. If your players liked Skyrim, they will like this campaign: full of exploration, non-intrusive main plot (that is: it has to be done, eventually), and “Twelve Thousand Steps” staircases.
Bosses: ancient dragon, cloud giant, fire giant, frost giant, hill giant, stone giant, storm giant.
Common monsters: bandit, berserker, dragon, elemental, giant, goblin, hobgoblin, ogre, orc, yakfolk, yuan-ti.
Notable magical items: Iron Flask, Conch of Teleportation, Gurt’s Greataxe, Korolnor Scepter, Wyrmskull Throne, Dragon Slayer, Apparatus of Kwalish, Giant Slayer, Instrument of the Bards, Robe of Serpents, Staff of the Magi, Magic Runes.
Extras in the book: Handy list of all of the NPCs in alphabetical order, giant runic alphabet, useful adventure flowchart, options to start the campaign at level 1 or 5, lots of maps, detailed description of the regions in the North of Faerun, lots and lots of random encounters, instructions on linking this campaign other already published, 17 magical items, 9 new monsters + new options for giants.
Tales from the Yawning Portal
Author: varies, compiled by Kim Mohan & Mike Mearls
Released: 24 March 2017
Theme: Dungeon crawl by definition.
Plot summary: In the Yawning Portal, an inn in Waterdeep, old adventurers tell the stories of the unique, incredible dungeons. The players can jump into any of them and start exploring. Death is not imminent, but is still a possibility.
What to expect: The book consists seven classic dungeons, taken from the most notable (and well known) adventures. They might be used as side quests, one-shots or even played one by one, as a dungeon-oriented campaign (in the world with magic abound, appearing magically at the entrance to and ancient temple should not crumble the suspension of disbelief). All of these classic adventures has been converted and adjusted to D&D 5E rules.
- The Sunless Citadel, by Bruce R. Cordell, published in 2000, character level 1. The players will enter the citadel full of kobolds, goblins and murderous plants in search of enchanted apples.
- The Forge of Fury, by Richard Baker, published in 2000, character level 3. A dwarven fortress fell into disrepair in the long years after the great battle. Various monsters (mostly orcs, lizardfolk and duergar) guard the passage to riches and magical gear crafted by the genius engineers and blacksmith. Only the players can hack their way through and loot it all.
- The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, by Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason, published in 1980, character level 5. And ancient temple hidden in the jungle is waiting to be rediscovered. Vampires and jaguars (and many, many more – it’s a very diverse environment) guard the massive piles of gold and magical items. Lots of traps, riddles and mini-games.
- White Plume Mountain, by Lawrence Schick, published in 1979, character level 8. An eccentric (read: evil) wizard Keraptis stole three sentient, powerful weapons and put them away in a dungeon underneath an active volcano, then sent a note inviting adventurers to come and get them. If the players are keen on hitting things without thinking, this dungeon might be the end of them (or your campaign, as the riddles might drive them mad).
- Dead in Thay, by Scott Fitzgerald Gray, published in 2014, character level 9-11. Nefarious Red Wizards of Thay have built the Doomvault as their secret training ground turned phylactery depot. The players will try to deal as much damage to the organisation as possible, and destroy the phylacteries keeping the lich “alive” and well. In return, the villains will try to get the players killed, so fair play. It’s a homage to old killer dungeons, and it does its job.
- Against the Giants, by Gary Gygax, published in 1978, character level 11. Giants have been raiding an otherwise peaceful land. Players will be sent to infiltrate and deal with this danger, and without strategic thinking and caution, they will fail and be served as breakfast. This classic adventure, originally released in three parts, mixes stealth, combat and subterfuge.
- Tomb of Horrors, by Gary Gygax, published in 1978, character level unspecified (high). Easily the most recognizable of the adventures, Tomb of Horrors is the ultimate test of players’ resolve, skill, and luck. Should they succeed, they will brag about it for years.
Extras in the book: 15 new magical items, 39 monsters, and 35 maps. Kudos for adding the page references for the specific maps on the Contents page.
Tomb of Annihilation
Author: Christopher Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter, with additional design by Adam Lee
Released: 19 September 2017
Theme: Ancient tomb in uncharted areas of Chult – jungle, dinosaurs and serpents.
Plot summary: The souls are being stolen – a death curse has befallen everyone raised from dead. Only destruction of the crystal hidden deep within the Tomb of Annihilation will free the souls and bring the resurrections back to the table.
What to expect: Jungles, dinosaurs, yuan-ti and volcanoes. This dungeon has been created as a modern version of Tomb of Horrors. Not an 5E update (that was in Tales from the Yawning Portal), but a brand new story with ambitions of becoming the new ToH. So far, so deadly. An abundance of traps and riddles, and riddles with traps, and Acererak at the end of the story. Players will die. And there’s a zombie-spewing zombie tyrannosaurus.
Bosses: Acererak (archlich), Atropal (undead), yuan-ti.
Common monsters: albino dwarf, dinosaur, flying monkey, grung, lobsterfolk, vegepygmy, yuan-ti, zombie
Notable magical items: Amulet of the Black Skull, Bookmark (+3 dagger), Ghost Lantern, Mask of the Beast, Ring of Winter, Scorpion Armor, Staff of the Forgotten One.
Extras in the book: New character backgrounds (anthropologist and archeologist), lost of random encounter tables, descriptions of flora, fauna and gods of Chult, 59 new monsters/important NPCs, 7 magical items, and some large, beautiful maps. Players’ handouts have been released in a handy PDF file.
The Zweihänder RPG is finally here. After a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (fully funded within 6 hours! Guess people really did miss Warhammer Fantasy RPG) and slightly delayed dispatch (a year or so – but for a good reason), the parcel was delivered and unceremoniously opened by a committee.
PDF, which was provided to the Kickstarter backers some time ago, looked promising – astonishingly detailed, with a clean, easily understood mechanic, and good artwork. Not Degenesis level, but pleasantly befitting the stylistic choices of the grim and perilous RPG. In print, I must admit, it looks even better.
Interior artwork was all made by one person, Dejan Mandic, and if I’m not mistaken, he has made a staggering 500 illustrations for this book, ranging from tiny symbols of the gods to double-paged artworks. And here’s that good reason for a year of delay.
Let’s get started then, shall we?
The cover has a very distinct feel, with matt finishing, muted colours, scarred folks (including, at a first glance, a Landsknecht, Sam Vimes, murderous chick, and Emhyr var Emreis), eyepatch with a skull, and a burning village in the background. Classy, with a touch of “We’ve all been there”. “Grim and Perilous RPG” tagline tells us “Yep, we’ve been there”. And well, I actually did miss that. Good job, Jussi Alarauhio.
The book was also available with an alternative cover, featuring another artwork of Mandic, but I think it’s low on the “grim factor” – I’d say it’s to pulpy and Warhammer-inspired.
The book is heavy. At 688 pages and just a tad bit smaller than A4, it can be safely used as a weight for flower-pressing. Thankfully, it seems reasonably well bound: sewn together in 32-page sections, and then glued. And they even added a ribbon as a bookmark. Paper is of a good quality and with a satin finish – no annoying glares af a gloss varnish, and readable even at an angle.
Thirteen chapters cover everything from the rules, through character creation, professions, skills, talents, equipment, combat, magic rules and spells, game master’s basement, bestiary and a intruductory scenario, “A Bitter Harvest”. It’s a standalone book: there’s no need to buy any expansions. There will be a Game Master screen released later this year, but the book itself should be more than enough to play many campaigns (I’m looking at you, Star Wars Roleplaying Game).
The book is well laid out, with legilible fonts, good font size (important when reading by the candlelight!), and an abundance of appendixes. It features a thorough content list at the begining, well-constructed index at the end, and several useful tables: damage condition tracker, chase scene tracker and a list of complications (where was this thing when I had to describe chase scenes in Wolsung campaign?), wilderness travel tracker and encounters, social intrigue tracker, cheat sheet of actions in combat, and the description of taints of chaos. There’s also the character sheer, 4 pages total, also available for download on the publisher’s website.
Introduction covers the standard disclaimer about using the book to make your own world however you want it to be, and changing the rules if they happen to take away the fun. There’s also a gender neutrality note, which is a nice gesture.
Rules section is plainly written and enriched by lots of examples. Everything seems to be based on D100, with classic Warhammer idea of “the lower roll, the better”. Doubles (11, 22, 33 etc.) generate critical successes or failures. What appears to be changed, is the Fortune Pool – a pool of tokens that can be used by the players to give themselves a bit of a smile from Lady Luck. Any tokens spent that way go to the Game Master who can then use them for his NPCs and monsters. Well, it worked in Deadlands, why shouldn’t it work here?
Character creation seems very enjoyable. It’s highly randomized, including a 50/50 roll for gender. And another disclaimer: Zweihänder makes no basic intellectual, physical or spiritual distinctions between females and males of any race. The same goes for transgender Characters, regardless of their gender identification. Any social inequalities in the campaign world should be adressed directly with your GM. It’s cute that after such a paragraph in chapter 3, they proceed to include a scenario about women abused, sold, enslaved, treated like tools to be used and discarded (p. 632), to provide a memorable playing experience by presenting players with a complex moral situation which cannot be divided into a ‘good versus evil’ or ‘chaos versus order’ (…) (ibid.). But, as I haven’t read the scenario in it’s entirety, I reserve my judgement – just pointing out the discrepancy.
We’ll look closer at the character creation, skills, talents and equipment later, when I actually get to finish the process instead of reading up on the professions.
Combat is quite straightforward – and deadly. I don’t think there’s a point in starting a campaign without a spare character in a tow, just in case. Introduction of Action Points allows for more flexibility in player’s turn, instead of bounding them with “action, bonus action and move”. There are called shots, chokeholds, counterspells and intimidation tactics – plenty to bring out the tactitian to the table.
Diseases, intoxication, sleep deprivation, injuries and infections (whole chapter 9) will make sure your character lives a grim and perilous life. And a short one.
Magic looks familiar, up to the chaos dice. At a first glance, it has the potential to be deadly for both the target and the caster. So, fun. I’ll be happy to share a more informed opinion as soon as I have it.
Game Master’s section offers the wide repertoire of tips and tricks, including the tables with ready descriptions of killing blows made with different types of weapons. Like that, for example: Your missile strikes the area between the shoulder and the chest, burying itself down to the fletching and protruding between the ribs of your foe’s back. Their knees buckle and they fall to the ground. A soft, sucking noise emanates from the wound in conjunction with a few brief, ragged, respirations. Then, all is still. Also, rules for chases, wilderness travel, social interactions, traps, madness and corruption.
The Bestiary is quite impressive: 163 pages of monsters, each of them with a corresponding portrait. I’ve seen whole books smaller than that. Covering everything from bandits, through chaos spawns, to vampires, it makes a good read.
The campaign, “A Bitter Harvest” looks suspiciously full of gender inequalities. However, I’m giving it the benefit of doubt, and will be reading it later, maybe even GMing. After all, rest of the book is so worth of praise, that I’m convinced the campaign will be a good read as well.
A quality piece of RPG rulebook. Not only aesthetically pleasing, but brimming full of grimdark fantasy with a couple of interesting tweaks and twists here and there. I can’t wait to read it properly (well, maybe not cover to cover, because of the page count). I wonder how it will look against 4th edition of Warhammer – but it definitely looks pretty good compared to the previous three.