Heroes, it’s said, are made, not born. What’s left unsaid is what it is that makes them: villains. Heroes are only as great as the villains they overcome, and so the darker, more powerful, more iconic the villain, the greater the hero. As such, it’s almost surprising that we don’t see more products devoted specifically to villains. One such book, however, is Urizen the Bleak Lord, part of the Infamous Adversaries line from Total Party Kill Games.
Before we examine this new paragon of evil, let’s look at the book itself. The product comes as two PDF files, and a set of Hero Lab files. Unfortunately, not using Hero Lab myself I can’t review that aspect of the product, other than to commend TPK Games for using Hero Lab in the first place; I’ve heard enough to know that there are probably a lot of gamers who’ll appreciate it.
The two PDFs are the main file and a printer-friendly version thereof. The printer-friendly version is notably shorter, in terms of pages, than the main file, eliminating the cover and several pages of ads in the back. More dramatic is that it completely eschews the gray page backgrounds and dark borders. I did frown a bit at it keeping the interior illustrations – this is clearly to keep the layout from needing to be redone, and it’s not a major issue since the three interior illustrations are in black and white, but it’s still not quite as printer-friendly as it could be.
Of course, there is more to the book’s illustrations than those three pictures. Dustan Kostic’s cover is reproduced inside the book, along with another picture, and the full-page pictures are visually arresting. Having no artistic background, it’s hard for me to describe, but there’s a sense of a slight blurriness there that contrasts sharply with the amount of detail in the pictures – those two aspects of the pictures sound like they should clash, but they don’t; instead, there’s a blend of details even as there’s an overall sense that you’re still not seeing the character clearly, making them even more menacing. It’s truly impressive.
Similarly impressive is the character of Urizen himself. The book, after the intro by Owen K. C. Stephens, opens with the narrative of Urizen’s genesis. The story itself is captivating, but seems to end prematurely, stopping as Urizen hits his zenith of power, but not going on to lay out his current state.
It’s after this that we’re given the first of three stat blocks for Urizen, and it’s also here that my first critique of the book comes – the layout needs to be tweaked. To be clear, I don’t mean that the book’s text layout is flawed (it keeps to the familiar two-column style), but rather the various sections of the book should have been placed in a different order. For example, the first stat block for Urizen is at his weakest, and is given far earlier than his later, more powerful incarnations.
That, to my mind, was a mistake. Rather, his stat blocks should have been either placed altogether, or had one (ideally the most powerful) up front and the others in an appendix, or (in what I think would have been the most poetic option) to have his narrative broken up by showing his stat block as it displays him at various points in the story. Now that would have been impressive.
I should also take some time to talk about his stat blocks as well. Other than the occasional problem (e.g. no XP listings, a fly spell-like ability saying it’s for “0 minutes/day,” etc., these are quite well constructed. Hyperlinks to various parts of the d20 PF SRD are used liberally, which is not only nice but absolutely necessary, since Urizen’s stats range from beyond what the Core Rulebook offers. Indeed, his base class is a death knight, from a third-party supplement (have no fear though, for his special powers are described in full).
Several pages are devoted to Urizen as a character, by which I mean describing him as a person – his goals, his personality, his lair, etc. These are fairly good, but are painted in fairly broad strokes; Urizen is a larger-than-life figure, and so there doesn’t seem to be any real degree of specificity or notable quirks that make him an individual, as opposed to a manifest archetype. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Urizen is a BBEG in every sense of the word, but it’s more about what he is, rather than who.
There are several additional stat blocks devoted to his servitors; one is his terrestrial mount, another is his aerial mount, and the third is his lieutenant. This last one is the only one to have two stat blocks, which makes sense given her importance in Urizen’s back-story (though it makes me wish she’d been illustrated). These are helpful, but I’m of two minds about them being the sole degree of mechanical support which Urizen receives – on the one hand, adding too much else can be seen as restrictive in regards to GMs who want to really customize Urizen’s set up…but on the other hand, most GMs won’t feel bound by what’s here anyway, so why not give us some more specifics?
These don’t need to be full stat blocks, of course, but there’s a lot more that could have been done here. What’s a rough approximation of the forces loyal to Urizen, in terms of what creatures follow him and their numbers? Who are the power players in his court, and what’s their motivations in doing so? Does he take advantage of the cold environment to the point where living characters are likely to suffer environmental penalties? Maybe some of these could even take utilize of some of the expanded Pathfinder rules – does Urizen’s horde constitute having faction rules? Is his kingdom large enough to use the kingdom-building rules?
Ultimately, the major problem with presenting Urizen as a bad guy of campaign-ending proportions is that such characters aren’t enough by themselves; they exist at the top of a power structure of villainy that challenges the PCs – showing us only the ruler themselves is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; there’s still a lot more below that that’s quite important, and we’re only seeing a little of it here. Imagine if Star Wars had focused solely on Emperor Palpatine, and shoved Darth Vader, the storm troopers, the Death Star, etc. into the far background…that’s the major problem here.
Overall, what’s here about Urizen himself is very well done; it’s just not enough. Sometimes a product is defined as much by what it doesn’t do as what it does, and this is an example of that. Hence, I wouldn’t really call this an error on the book’s part, so much as it’s a case of its vision being too narrow. There’s a lot to like about Urizen, and I have no doubt that you’ll be able to get a lot of use out of pitting him against your PCs. But be prepared to flesh out a lot of the forces sitting between him and the PCs; that’s the bleakest aspect of the Bleak Lord.