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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 3 (Pathfinder)
by J H. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 04/24/2020 15:18:45

There are many Kickstarters I don't back. There are only a few I wish that I did back. This one is almost one of them. When this Kickstarter launched there were red flags. Inexperienced designer, ambitious project, large stretch goals. Unfulfilled other projects. I mean I wanted in, but the risk was too great. So I passed. I checked in on the project intermittently, and found it was marred with delays. But to his credit the author produced the Pathfinder books. And I hemmed, and I hawed, and I watched, and eventually I purchased them.

So for $80 what did I get? A really big print volume. 670 pages is a fair chunk, but the print on demand style really bulks it up. Is it worth it? Especially as you are going to be after a multi volume set. I'm not sure, and for this reason I started with volume 3. In my experience after the novelty wears off and the grind sets in it is really the measure of a creator. I'm going to try not to be too harsh as this is clearly a labour of love, but there are some things that I'm less than happy with.

The first one is in the backer credits (which here are before the table of contents) where it is listed "Please do not put my name in the credits" Well okay then.

The purpose of this set is to give 4 CR levels for every monster in the Pathfinder Bestiaries. The idea is to make a GM's life easier. No more working with templates, adding HD, or the like, just use this. Which definately sounds appealing.

And in many ways this is what the product is. Each monster has 4 stat blocks, in collumns in alphabetical order. This formating is good. Each CR level is on a different collumn, and there is good use of colour to keep them apart.

The other thing I really like is that almost every feat, and special ability, has the full text repeated in the monster stat block. As someone who really struggles to look up monster feats in prep work this is a large boon. Honestly this is probably more useful than having the range of stat blocks.

The different stat blocks are built using monster HD rules. So Drow are expanded by way of humanoid hit dice, rather than class levels. Despite being a monster that you want to use class levels for. I would have thought it better to leave monster out that advance by class level. (God, that is such a 3.0 term )

As a result of this reliance on hit dice, some of the monsters are a little off. Save DCs don't always scale as you would expect. But this is relatively minor.

The other 'waste of space' is that there are a variety of CR monsters in this volume for elementals. In bestiaries elementals already come in a range of CRs. But here there are four different CRs for ever type. 4 different small fire elementals. 4 different medium. 4 different elder. Repeat for every type of elemental. This is a lot of pages, and honestly for me brings this volume down.

The range of CRs is usually good and sensible. It looks like the CRs are trying to go up/down in CR levels of 3-5, which is ideal. For an increase/decrease of 1-2 you are usually able to use a template. But stacking templates is a pain, So this is an ideal range.

In addition to the monsters we have a long introduction. I'm pretty sure this is copy and pasted from another product as it contains information not relevant to the volume, such as quadded stat blocks for traps. One thing it does do is to talk about FlexAI which looks to be a cool nested table system for generating a monsters actions. Which could be useful as often I'm not quite sure how to play monsters in combat, and tables to help are a good thing. However this plus the copy pasted content runs for 31 pages which is a bit excessive for a monster book.

One thing the monsters don't have is a description of them. I don't mind that there is no art, but I want to know a little about the monster. I'm not sure what a Fellsig is, so whilst I could find out a short description of it would help immensely.

As a weird point - I'm confident that the OGL is incorrect. It does not reference the monsters that entered the OGL through The Tome of Horrors Complete (Pathfinder Version). This book is referenced by Paizo in a number of bestiaries, and when these monsters are used they absolutely need to be referenced seperately. I know one of these monsters is the Dust Digger, which is included but not referenced. Despite this Villain Codex is referenced but I don't think it is refered to in this volume.

It is little things like this and the backer name, and some sloppy editing (one of the monsters gets the full set of dwarf racial traits listed beneath it despite it not being relevant to the monster) makes me wonder how correct the monsters and their building were. It definately makes me consider buying the full set.

Which is a shame as it is labour of love. The idea to have a range of CRs for monsters is a good one. The idea to have the feat text listed with the monster is amazing. But I'm left wondering how much these monsters will map to their new CR, and if the published stat blocks will hold up as appropriate at the table.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 3 (Pathfinder)
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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Fifth Edition / 5E)
by Aaron C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 04/21/2020 19:09:12

The content of these books may be what you're looking for. In fact, it probably was what I wanted too ... but I could not get past the formatting of the monster stat blocks and pages.

The worst offender for my eyes is the micro-font Special abilities & qualities text. It was important enough to provide as content, but not important enough to be readable.

Stat blocks have lots of different font sizes, colors, weights ... it just takes longer to find the information than I'd want. A little more layout/graphic design would have gone a long ways to making it more usable and friendly.

The crinkled paper background is very distracting as are the drop shadows on the icons it uses.

Many monsters have no phyiscal description or illustration. So, unless you take the time to look them up elsewhere, this book isn't sufficient. As the book proclaims to make it easy to prep as a GM, the book comes up short. "Zero preparation" it claims, as long as you can successfully describe each monster without other reference.

If the book:

  1. Had a better more approachable graphic design and layout that was readable and had a thoughtful use of colors
  2. Increased the size of the micro-fonts to be reasonable for many age groups and did not require a magnifying glass to read
  3. Included a brief description (or longer) for each monster
  4. Had a consistent and minimal use of typefaces and font sizes.
  5. Had fewer problems in Adobe Reader ... (it causes lots of errors for some reason when other large PDFs are not)

I would have rated it a 5 if the above were addressed. I've got more than a couple of other "monster" books from indie publishers, and this is the most disappointing. (My Favorite is probably Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press).

Addendum I appreciate the fast response of the author to my review. I've got a few comments to add.

  1. I understand I could zoom around with a PDF viewer -- but that's a terrible experience. Since text doesn't reflow, I don't want to do that. And as I'd thought I might print a page out ... zooming there doesn't help either.
  2. I wasn't asking for fluff. The book says this is zero prep. It's not. I don't want others to feel like they won't need to do prep still for many of the monsters contained within. I was asking for only a sentance or two describing each monster. I'm not looking for anything beyond that. I wouldn't want to read it except for truly noteworthy monsters that deserve the extra treatment.
  3. There is only one download available associated with this product. The filename: IGS-AQ-ABRE1F_PDF_2020_03_09v01.pdf.
  4. Adobe Reader throws out of memory errors, rendering errors, and more. It's very rare that it happens with other PDFs (and I've used it with a LOT of PDFs as my DTRPG collection alone is > 500 pdfs).
  5. On page 54 and 55, the monster (an Adlet?) for example is split across two pages, and there's ample space on the second page to accomodate a larger font size. :)
  6. I skimmed the extensive preview you've provided and thought I knew what I was getting into.
  7. For future volumes, you might want to consider hiring a graphic designer/layout specialist to help at least create a more accessible layout and design.


Rating:
[2 of 5 Stars!]
Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Fifth Edition / 5E)
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Creator Reply:
Hi Aaron--Thanks for your feedback! I recognize that the fonts may be a bit small; however that's hardly an issue with the PDF version as you can zoom around etc. I'd welcome more details as to issues you had in Adobe as I've not received that feedback or experienced issues myself. Part of the objective with the layout was to ensure an even two-page spread for each monster; in most cases that's easy, but in some, font size had to be sacrificed in order to get everything in there. Also, please refer to the product description and the intro to the book itself regarding the intentional approach for fluff vs. crunch and illustrations. I recognize that's not the approach that many bestiaries take, but it is at least an intentional, eyes-open decision. There should also be a "printer-friendly" version of the PDF available under your downloads that omits the parchment background for ease of viewing and performance while on mobile devices. In any case, thanks again for your feedback, and I do hope that you check out our other products as well... regarding fluff & crunch & layout readability, I will underscore that the Bestiary books are, out of necessity and choice, the exception rather than the rule in what we produce!
Druid Enclave (Pathfinder)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/30/2020 14:01:33

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The massive Druid Enclave Adventure Book clocks in at 838 pages; if you take away the introduction, the explanation of Infinium Game Studios‘ FlexTale and quadded statblocks etc., you instead arrive at around 820 pages, which renders this massive doorstopper of a tome one of the largest books I have ever covered.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Okay, so first things first: The “Druid Enclave Adventure Book” is imho not an adventure book: It’s a massive, tome-sized setting supplement that depicts a city in intricate, obsessive detail; it can be likened o arriving in e.g. a Skyrim town sans quest-indicators and the like, with nigh endless “interaction points.” If you are familiar with Dark Obelisk I: Berinncorte, Druid Enclave is more akin to that book than to Dark Obelisk II. The Mondarian Elective – by design.

The latter tome, which depicts a ginormous mega-dungeon, did hint time and again at this enclave, for this place owns the site of Dark Obelisk’s second part. As such, the best way to picture this tome, is to consider it an optional companion tome, or to use it as a stand-alone city supplement.  If used in conjunction with Dark Obelisk II, the Druid Enclave adds stronger hooks to explore, and breaks up the ever-deeper sojourns into the vast subterranean mines and caverns with some political intrigue, faction roleplay, etc.

Factions? Yep, there are a ton of those in this book – the write-ups that also are featured in the player’s guide are included herein as well. Now, I personally expected to see the prestige award mechanics for Pathfinder to be represented here, alongside perhaps some unique mechanics and rewards, items, traits, the like – but alas, no such thing is provided. The factions remain flavor-only, which is a drawback as far as I’m concerned. They do have one addition in comparison to the player’s guide: Each faction gets AT LEAST one quest-outline. These are not fully-realized adventures per se, but instead rather detailed adventure-sketches, with suggested sequences etc. noted; some of these tie in with overarching plots, while others are small sidequests, like convincing a young man who failed the test to become an elite guard, to give up his position and face his failure. Personally, I am not a big fan of the reward star-mechanic used in these books, but that’s a matter of taste; what’s less a matter of taste, is that some of the rules and how they are suggested to be employed contradicts how PFRPG usually handles the like. Convincing someone of something via Diplomacy is usually not an opposed check in PFRPG, for example, much less one contested by another social skill – the DC depends on starting attitude and Charisma modifier. Bluff, on the other hand, is opposed by Sense Motive. This does not wreck the book, but if you’re picky about rules-aesthetics, or if your social skill-focused character has invested heavily in starting attitude adjusting tricks, this may rub them the wrong way and require some refinement. On the plus side, most of the quests do not have this problem, and there are quite a few sketches for brief skill challenge-lite discussions provided, something I certainly appreciated.

Negotiating between treants and druids, uncovering the culprit of fur-forging going on, and more: What if, for example, one of the factions seeks to permanently separate from the enclave, and also demands a stipend? Much to my pleasant surprise, many of these quests provide a) meaningful tasks that require neutral parties such as the PCs, thus making sense to be outsourced to them, and b), also genuinely allow the PCs to shape the face of the Druid Enclave as they adventure. Some of these quests also directly are in opposition to each other – what one quest giver might sell as quenching the seeds of sedition and rebellion, another may portray as a request for very much necessary aid, essentially posing a fantasy-version of a whistleblower-dilemma. The realm-wide operating factions, alas, do not get their own quests, which is a missed chance here, as it’d have been a great way to provide additional, global entry-points to the Dark Obelisk saga. On another note, it’d have been prudent to cut them in favor of organization benefits, prestige awarded progressions, and the like, but that’s just my opinion.

Now, as you know by now, I am a pretty big fan of the context-bands FlexTale uses for rumors and lore to be unearthed, and as such, the 15+ pages section that contains rumors and lore provided in FlexTale tables (can be run as is), as well as random encounters, can be considered to be helpful indeed. It should be noted that this book does use the FlexTale 1.0-book to randomize the contents of every table and crate: If you have a table, you can simply roll on the tables for Martial 1H and Martial Ranged to determine the weapons on top; rummage through a sack, and you roll on the Rations and prepared food-table. Much like in Dark Obelisk II, I strongly suggest using these tables. To cut my long-winded explanation of why this can be so great short: It lets you zoom in to a treasure content, and makes it hard to determine the “proper”, the “relevant” interaction points, and separate them from what would at best be dressing in most supplements. If you want to know more about that, please consult my reviews for FlexTale and Dark Obelisk II.

Each level of the Druid Enclave notes its connection areas and levels in the beginning, and tables to randomly determine NPC presence etc. can also be found. As in the Mondarian Elective, the details are what makes this unique: When you have a thoroughly-mapped, massive city, where every weapon, chair and the like may be seen on the map, you can do things that other books just can’t do. Take a simple guardroom. In most gaming supplements, that’d be a brief one-paragraph summary, perhaps with a  similarly brief read-aloud text, right? Well, in Dark Obelisk II, and in this book as well, we instead have a fully-depicted map of the room in detail, with 6 keyed encounter areas IN THIS ROOM ALONE. And yes, they do have read-aloud text – while not every keyed area has the like, A LOT of them do, including e.g. just stacks of crates. That is insane in the best of ways, particularly considering that FlexTale would allow you to “zoom in” even further. It’s hard to convey what this does to the playing experience without actually trying it; I tried to convey it in the Dark Obelisk II-review, but in short: It makes everything feel incredibly persistent and tangible, and it conceals things like secret doors and “adventure-relevant content” in a truly astounding manner. This also extends to gaming-related content, mind you: If there’s a counter, it’ll let you know about the bonus to Stealth that crouching behind it may yield; if you need to pass a checkpoint, the book’s tell you how many checks it’ll take to pass it. On the downside, the production for both PFRPG and 5e means that there are instances where a “Reflex/Dexterity check” are noted…and this is the PFRPG-version. That sort of stuff should not be inside. Moreover, in 5e, that should be a Dexterity SAVING THROW, not a check – those are two different things regarding proficiency, but that as an aside. In short: For every instance, where the book takes the time to tell you that a secret door’s easier to find on one side, including proper modifiers, we also have one of aforementioned snafus.

A massive 369 pages of the tome are devoted to the dramatis personae and common NPCs; the named NPCs come with their own (mostly) b/w-artworks, and structurally, we usually get around 2 pages of flavor information, and 4-5 pages of statblocks, as the NPCs come in Infinium Game Studios’ usual quadded format. The stats make use of Pathfinder Unchained’s variant skills, though these are easy enough to ignore, should you choose to. As always, we get the respective abilities and less common feat-texts required to run these copy-pasted to the end of the respective statblock section, and also as always, don’t expect to see classes featured beyond the more common: If you expected to see vigilantes, shifters, occult classes, etc., you won’t find those here, with the cut-off date seeming to be pre-ACG. As far as statblock integrity is concerned, it’s pretty decent considering the sheer amount, but stats are more than just their math, and it is here that the quadded statblock format continues to fall short.

On one hand, Aquilae has this notion of making characters have higher ability scores to make up for less items, but on the other, it doesn’t fully implement automatic progression for them. It also comes apart at the higher two difficulty tiers at the latest, partially because the gen-based approach is contingent on a flawed metric; challenge, particularly at higher levels, needs to be carefully crafted, and does not follow a linear progression. As an example that perfectly illustrates this issue, let us take a look at the Farmer statblock for the members of the Rake & Sickle faction, which is essentially the peasant’s guild. (Guild membership is denoted quickly in text and with guild icons.) It should be noted that this is the most unfair example I could find in the entire book; the statblocks generally are better than that, but the farmer illustrates my point best, and in the most drastic fashion. That being said, the following should be considered to be the most exacerbated iteration of the issues discussed, and it is not representative of the average statblock quality.

As befitting of such a fellow, the lowest level band statblock makes him a commoner 1/fighter 1, with a low Intelligence, but damn high Constitution. At 18 HP and with a good Fort save, this fellow works well as the “tough farmer who can also wield a weapon.” Let’s move to the final band. Here, the farmer is a commoner 7/fighter 4; his AC has improved a whopping 3 points since the lowest level iteration, to 16, but he now has a +2 returning shortspear and 111 HP, which is certainly respectable. And he’s supposed to be CR 10. Now, the CR-mechanic has always been flawed, but this is a great way to illustrates this. The fellow attacks at +11/+6, and deals a whopping 1d6+4 damage per attack. The feat choice, with Defensive Combat Training and Desperate Battler make sense, but don’t help make this a valid CR 10 build. Feat-choices like Animal Affinity, Athletic, or Endurance fit the farmer-angle – but not that of a CR 10 obstacle. If one takes the stance that the build is supposed to be a hardy farmer, I can’t help but marvel at the fellow having two +2 items in the first place, which RAW would suffice to feed his family for YEARS. And yes, I am aware that I am picky here, but this…it takes me straight out of the world that the excessive details generate. In many ways, the Infinium Game Studios supplements are soothing to my OCD regarding details, the need to flesh out everything…it’s all done for me. Such instances take me back out of it. In many ways, I think that all of these books would be better if they focused on providing statblocks for one or two bands, but making sure that they are valid and make sense in-game.

For fairness’s sake, the book shows that it can deliver good statblocks at higher levels, which it particularly highlights with the named NPCs, where we get proper AC and attack values for multiclass characters, level-appropriate ACs that mean that the NPCs won’t be curbstomped immediately, etc. AC 29, two +5 weapons and proper armor at CR 15? Yep, that should do it. On the downside, e.g. feats like the entire TWF-tree still have not been included in the attack sections, which might require that you do some adjustment on the fly, which is usually hard-coded in the statblock of NPCs. I see the value of quantity regarding the statblocks as a reviewer, but I do believe that the quadded statblocks also result in quite a few drawbacks, which, for me as a person, remain more pronounced that the benefits.

Why am I harping on this for so long? Well, because the supplement otherwise does a rather impressive job regarding the NPCs: As in the player’s guide, we get an overview, appearance & demeanor, but we also learn about the background, combat tactics, faction membership is noted, and habits and logistics are also provided. Speaking of evolution: Know how I loved the nuanced attitude tracker in Berinncorte, for example? Well, the book provides the explanation of that sub-system, and nets general modifications, but each named NPC also features their own personal attitude modifiers. Some do respond favorably to rumors being shared, while others do not. If anything, these personalized modifications are neat, but there are a bit more general ones here than I’d have liked to see. Pretty much every non-criminal NPC does not take kindly to direct action against the enclave, but at least the values by which they take offense differ, so this does get a pass - partially. There are a couple of instances where I wished a more nuanced approach had been taken. There is, for example, a working-class lady who considers herself to be a socialite, but who constantly slips regarding her sociolect. Okay, so how does she respond to being made aware of that? What if a PC does so publicly? How does she respond to offers of being coached properly? This is particularly evident, since the lady’s questline is about a tailor, who modifies her dresses to look more posh – and she wants the PCs as intermediaries. That is a cool Pygmalion-style sidequest, but one that would have worked better with a more nuanced individual attitude tracker.

Nice for GMs who have a hard time improvising dialogue: Each named NPC comes with conversation pieces and answers to likely questions posed. Almost everyone of the named NPCs gets their own questline attached (Gaeryn being a sample exception for a NPC sans questline), though not all of them are exciting: Surviving an attempt by one NPC to assassinate them is an encounter, not exactly a quest that needs to be spelled out for anyone. In many ways, that is the crucial flaw of Druid Enclave – it relies, as far as grand narratives are concerned, too much on pointing to Dark Obelisk II, and doesn’t have as much going on regarding grand narratives of its own. In a way, I believe this to be intended, as the faction set-up, council and council-members with their questlines generate emergent gameplay when you throw the group of players inside. Add to that the plethora of short slice-of-life-style side-quests, and we get an environment that feels alive and generates adventuring almost on its own.

And yet, it does not utilize what it has, ignores its own crucial strength: Its scope. With this amount of detailed maps and NPCs, this has an unprecedented potential for running investigations, complex plotlines, conspiracies. Picture it: A timeline of clandestine meetings and actions, a conspiracy threatening to unravel the place’s social order. Unlike in pretty much all published modules, you can meticulously track the progress of a NPC and the party through the fully-mapped city; you could do fantastic detective/intrigue scenarios, shadowing targets, murder mysteries, fights in the streets and more – the Druid Enclave has a dream come true of a set up, and with its redacted player-friendly maps, vanished NPCs hinting at secret trapdoors – this could handle all of that, and setting it up would be comparatively simple! “NPC A moves from map A, location 1, to map B, location 3. (10 minutes); there, they lock the door behind them, and enter the secret door, closing it behind them…” Druid Enclave has this intricate faction set-up, with the council elders as powerplayers and the whole settlement subject to the unique flavor and situation; the place practically reeks of intrigue, but all that potential remains relegated to the  more or less personal space and faction quests, and does not sport “big” questlines beyond the ever-looming Dark Obelisk II. And I don’t get why, for the set-up is probably the best of any Infinium Game Studios books to date.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good considering the vast scope of this tome, and the fact that this is a single man’s exceedingly ambitious vision. Layout adheres to Infinium game Studios’ two-column full-color standard, and the supplement provides quite a lot of original b/w-artworks for the NPCs. The full-color cartography of the supplement is excessive in scope and detail, and brims with small touches that make the city feel alive. The gigantic hardcover comes with its name etc. on the spine. The adventure book does not sport player-friendly maps, since these are included in the player’s guide.

J. Evans Payne’s Druid Enclave is a natural evolution of Berinncorte in themes and scope; a ton of small slice of life quests, a ton of NPCs, an organic settlement that feels alive. In many ways, I’d be more impressed by this book if I had read it prior to Dark Obelisk II. Druid Enclave’s central issue, as noted before, is that it doesn’t fully capitalize on its scope and complex faction set-up; it promises intrigue and politicking, a change of pace from the gigantic mega-dungeon in Dark Obelisk II, but this change of pace remains on the micro-level, not the macro-level; on the individual level, all the small tidbits are great as a change of pace, but if you expected, like I honestly did, to get a complex set-up that would potentially interweave plotlines with Dark Obelisk II, and/or that had its own massive faction-based plotline, you won’t find it here. Another thing that could have elevated this further, would have been a means to influence elders and factions based on things done in Dark Obelisk II, perhaps working towards a specific resolution that all at first oppose? That sort of grand storytelling would have also provided a good reason to dive ever deeper into the mega-dungeon, to retreat – it would have added a dynamic to the whole monster.

In many ways, I have a hard time rating this book fairly, because I can’t help but feel a twang of sadness for what this easily could have been with a tighter focus. I’ll still try. Druid Enclave is partially a fulfillment of the experimental promise of Berinncorte; it is an organic city, it does not feel constructed, and it is rife with detail and potential. It literally BRIMS with it. At the same time, it suffers from the same weaknesses as Berinncorte, namely the lack of big things to do, of genuinely complex storylines. The side quest-sketches are nice, but in Druid Enclave, they feel a bit like getting tasty fast food servings made from a vast table of 5-star diner ingredients. In contrast to Dark Obelisk II, we have less of the regular adventuring fare like exploration to pick up that slack, much less the utterly novel slow-burn build-up of atmosphere that made Dark Obelisk II so utterly novel and captivating to me. This is, in short, an improvement over Berinncorte in execution, but has even less big quest-lines going on regarding the macro-level that that tome.

For me as a person, this is a 3-star book. As a reviewer, however, I can see this work much better for other people who are less interested in complex and nuanced storylines than me and my players. As such, my reviewer’s final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Druid Enclave (Pathfinder)
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Druid Enclave: Players' Guide (Unisystem)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/30/2020 14:00:07

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The massive player’s guide for the Druid Enclave supplement clocks in at a ginormous 200 pages; if you take away front/back end matter, you’re left with 193 pages; approximately 10 of these pages are devoted to explaining how to use this book; as Infinium Game Studios has a couple of unique things going on in their supplements, including quadded statblocks, etc., this is appreciated. It should be noted that the introductory section also features a couple of helpful angles: A brief “Game starts in 5 minutes” information briefing (sans SPOILERS) and some general hooks are provided. As brief summary of the setting of Aquilae’s peculiarities is also included here – thankfully, ocne more, this section is properly adjusted to be player-friendly.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving print copy of the hardcover in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The book begins by providing the general information regarding the druid-run eponymous city, including a proper settlement statblock, and some notes on general fines imposed by law enforcement, as well as notes on encountering the watch; the encounter-summary here does reference the page-numbers of the big book. The random guard encounter table thus feels pretty displaced here, but doesn’t per se hurt the book. This out of the way, we are introduced to the council members that run the Druid Enclave, each of whom comes with a nice b/w-artwork, and a summary of races and alignment and classes, but without stating the class levels – a good thing, considering that general class is probably something the PCs can discern, while exact power-levels, well, obviously are not.

The Druid Enclave sports a surprisingly deep level of politics and faction interaction, and as such, the book prints the rules explaining the faction presentation here. Factions are presented with an overview, a brief description, and are classified by type as military, intelligence, trade, etc. Beyond that sigil, alignment, racial restrictions if any, key motivations and day-to-day goals are noted alongside long-term objectives. Notable philosophies, such as phrases or mantras, are provided, and influence levels are classified in 7 steps, ranging from no influence to near total control. Faction reputation is similarly classified in 8 categories, and there are 9 categories to determine how old a faction is. A total of 14 general size categories are provided, running the gamut of regular size categories, but also including Family, Local, etc. 8 stability and resource categories are provided. Common traits, dues and taxes, general demeanor and membership notes are provided as well. The supplement also covers the peculiarities of religious factions, if applicable, noting favored weapons, domains, etc. All those categories come with d%-values, so if you want to randomize faction sizes, powers, etc., this system per se delivers. While I don’t necessarily think that the section needed to be in the player’s guide, it does render reading the faction write-ups simpler. Beyond that, I consider the orientation provided by these components as a valid strategy to think of factions in a structured manner, so yeah, nice.

Speaking of which: We begin with two write-ups of major deities, namely the hardliner Zugul, god of order, and Sheergath, who is probably one of my favorite fantasy deities, concept-wise: The deity is usually depicted somewhat goatlike and is CN – and the portfolio? Resigned fate. The deity teaches acceptance, and is as such popular for the downtrodden and those screwed by life. It is at this point where I should note that names for members depending on their station are included for the factions, which is a nice touch indeed. Beyond tehse religious factions, we have no less than 12 local factions, which include the dwarven miner’s union and administration already noted in Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective, and beyond that includes e.g. guilds for Pelters, farmers, hunters, etc., all properly noted. In many ways, this prominence of factions/guilds does add something subtle to the overall supplement: It makes it feel more lived-in, realistic. You probably know how important guilds among craftspersons were in the medieval age and beyond, so having something like this? It makes the city feel more plausible. 14 additional factions are provided beyond the local ones, which include the secretive information-gatherers of the Scarlet Path, the Order Mechanique, couriers and more – we essentially get a good overview of the movers and shakers of Aquilae here, and I very much enjoyed reading this sub-chapter.

The next massive chapter is devoted to player-friendly maps – the chapter sports an overview of the enclave’s levels in a sideview-ish organization, and then proceeds to present the metric ton of maps herein; as always for Infinium Game Studios, the player-friendly maps really deserve their name: Trapdoors and secret doors on the GM maps have been properly redacted, going that extra mile that I love seeing. Speaking of which: Like the Mondarian Elective, the quality of the maps is higher than in the first Dark Obelisk. The city may look more ordered than a dungeon, but the amount of detail, from weaponry lying on tables to crates etc., is extraordinary. It’s little touches like e.g. a table that doesn’t have one chair cut-copy pasted, with some of them farther under it than others, that your conscious mind may not immediately pick up, but ultimately, your unconscious does. While a few assets are reused, with a carpet being a good example, the maps nonetheless achieve an attention to detail and general sense of being organic that I’d have considered to be nigh impossible to achieve with a map-tool prior to the release of Dark Obelisk II.

While some maps sport a few more of these touches than others, as a whole, the extensive cartography allows you to genuinely see the settlement in all of its details. Infinium Game Studios’ trademark excess regarding details is a rather impressive asset here. Speaking of assets: I am also particularly fond of the fact that there are translucent outlines of buildings depicted over the basement levels. In case you wondered how any GM can keep control over so many maps: Each map has its own letter-code, like DE-GL-EGE, which allows for quick and precise searching and communication between GMs and players. IN case you were wondering: These letters follow their own, simple logic: “DE” stands for “Druid Enclave”; “GL” for “Ground Level”, and “EGE” is the “Entry Gardens East”-map. Simple, easy to grasp, and actually very easy to use at the table. The secret areas of the Druid Enclave do not feature in the player’s guide, thankfully.

The final chapter deals with a ton of NPCs, sporting notes on an overview of the NPC, as well as general appearance and demeanor – these GENERALLY tend to be helpful, as they do not give away crucial details. Generally. When it comes to less savory individuals, things do become problematic. For example when it comes to the Black Market Leader, who has this very profession listed next to his name! Or take the assassin (in profession, not class), who has “(Assassin) in big, fat letters next to her name. That sort of information should be redacted in a player’s guide! Not cool! That’s the one thing that this Player’s Guide really botches, which is particularly weird, considering how the write-ups generally otherwise do a solid job avoiding spoilers. Also weird: Two of the NPCs have stunning full-color artworks; the individuals are obviously sisters, and one sister’s write-up notes that she styles her hair differently from her sister to look distinct from her. This directly contradicts how the two artworks depict them – with the same style of haircut. It’s a small thing in comparison, but it stood out to me.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are better than one would expect from a one-man enterprise that produces tomes of this size. Layout adheres to Infinium Game Studios’ 2-column full-color standard, and the hardcover sports the handy color bands on the side that let you quickly jump to the correct chapter. Cartography, as noted, is really detailed and goes the extra mile regarding player’s maps. The original pieces of artwork, mostly in b/w, provided for the NPCs is a neat plus, though e.g. seeing a rather evil/grim-looking man described as a happy stoner may at first seem odd. In dubio pro reo, though: I assume that this contrast was chosen intentionally, and it’s the exception, rather than the rule: An artwork of a heavily-tattooed one-eyed dwarven lady, in contrast, really put a smile on my face! The artworks are generally well-chosen. The hardcover sports the name on the spine, as proper.

J. Evans Payne’s player’s guide to the Druid Enclave, while structurally akin to the one presented for Dark Obelisk II, does not run afoul of the same issues: The book, for one, does not spoil mechanics of the supplement. As Druid Enclave is structurally closer to Dark Obelisk I’s Berrincorte-settlement’s depiction, it provides a player-centric overview of the vast settlement and its political structure, and does so well. While the spoiling of secret identities and functions in the NPC-section is a big no-go, it remains the only faux-pas of the supplement, and it’s one that could be explained by making it an “open secret” or by PC-connections. Oh, and then there’s the fact that this is FREE as a pdf, and I’m pretty much certain that $19 for a 200-page hardcover is at-price for printing, making this a super-fair offering. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Druid Enclave: Players' Guide (Unisystem)
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Druid Enclave: Atlas (Unisystem)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/30/2020 13:58:26

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The massive atlas of the Druid Enclave supplement clocks in at 312 pages of maps, already disregarding front/back end matter.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the hardcover in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. My review is based on this hardcover.

The book sports the handy colored bands on the side, which render navigation simple; as always, the maps have their letter-codes noted, which makes finding them rather simple. This massive atlas first features the GM maps, then the player-friendly maps; the latter have been featured in the player’s guide, while the former are in the proper adventure book.

Which brings me to the central note here: This premium atlas only makes sense getting if you do not plan on getting the main Druid Enclave book. Why? Well, the primary selling proposition of the premium atlas, usually, is the massive amount of player-friendly maps, and in this instance, since the Druid Enclave is essentially a town and not an adventure area, those already are featured in the player’s guide.

The book misses a HUGE chance, in that it does not provide player-friendly versions of the secret areas redacted on the player maps. To elaborate: One thing I love about Infinium Game Studios, is that the company  properly redacts secret door “S”-indicators, trapdoors and the like properly; on the player-friendly maps, none of these are present, walls are thick, etc. The downside of this practice, though, is that there are secret areas hidden beyond those doors – and said areas only exist in the GM-map iterations. It’s one of the things that really irked me about Dark Obelisk II as well: Once the players do unearth a secret area, they suddenly don’t have a player’s map any more, and you have to use the GM-map.

The player’s guide to Dark Obelisk II only sported the maps for the initial settlement, not the mega-dungeon, which rendered the premium atlas a super-handy resource for that book, courtesy of all those player-friendly maps for the mega-dungeon; the same can’t be claimed here. If you have the main book and player’s guide, you have all the maps, and there is relatively little reason to get this, with the main draw here being that the atlas sports zoomed-in versions of some of the overview maps that were not included in the PG.

That out of the way, if you are just looking for a metric ton of full color maps, and don’t want the main meat of the supplement, then this certainly delivers. The maps, while made with a tool, are genuinely better than I’d have deemed possible with the like prior to DO II, full of details and small tidbits that make them stand out. They achieve the task of making you feel like you’re exploring  dynamic, lived-in settlement.

Now, as far as ratings are concerned, it really depends: If you plan on running Druid Enclave, SKIP THIS. You do not need this, and it literally offers only little additional value. For you, this is a 2-star-dud.

If, however, you do not plan on running Druid Enclave, then this is certainly is worth the asking price, and if you want to get an idea of the style of maps, you can download the FREE player’s guide and check those out. If you like what you’re seeing, then getting this will be worth the asking price. For you, this’ll probably be a 4-star supplement. For you, only the absence of player friendly maps for the redacted areas remains as a detriment.

There is no fair reconciling of these points of view; hence, my final verdict will be JUST for people not interested in the Druid Enclave book. For you, this is a massive array of maps for a fair price, and as such, a 4-star book.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Druid Enclave: Atlas (Unisystem)
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Artifacts & Artifice, Volume 2 (Pathfinder)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/19/2020 12:34:16

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive hardcover clocks in at 378 pages of content, already disregarding front-end matter and the like – that’s the content.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a hardcover print copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased, critical review. My review is based on the hardcopy – I do not own the pdf-iteration.

This book shares a lot of its basic assumptions with the first volume, but there are also plenty of differences. We’ll begin with recapping the components that are the same. Feel free to skip ahead below, if you’re already familiar with the general set-up of these tomes.

BASICS: The first 11 pages are there to explain the peculiarities of Infinium Game Studios’ unique approach to game design. These include house rules like using reward stars, but extend beyond that: The book explains its color-coded boxes and icons, and, more importantly, the FlexTale concept of scaling: Statblocks are quadded in 4 categories: Low level (level 1 -4), moderate level (5-8), advanced (10-15) and elite (15+). The notion of quadding applies to statblocks, of course, but also to the respective individual items. This section also presents a random treasure table for use with the book.

The massive book contains a total of 47 different magic items – which does not seem like an awful lot; however, essentially, there are 4 versions for each of the items contained within; picture that like lesser, moderate, mighty and greater iterations, for example. These items sometimes adhere to linear progressions, but the respective items do not necessarily just adhere to just being a sequence of straight increases in bonuses. Each of the items also comes with a so-called “wielder” – that would be a NPC Codex-style NPC that comes with a quadded statblock as well. If the NPC sports a mount or the like, quadded statblocks for said entity are also included. As always with Infinium Game Studios, the NPCs come with cut-copy-pasted rules-texts of class features and the like to reduce page-flipping. The consequence of these inclusions is that you have a ready-made NPC to introduce the item, but on average, that’s also 3 pages, more if familiars etc. are present. The builds themselves tend to fall on the valid side of things, but do not expect to get builds that will challenge groups consisting of power-gamers or ones with a high degree of system- and optimization- mastery. Archetypes are used, but no classes from ACG (not too sad there, admittedly), Occult Adventures, Ultimate Intrigue or Wilderness are included – in short, the builds are pre-ACG.

The amount of detail featured by the items in the book goes beyond the inclusion of NPCs. We have descriptions, effects explained, and each item notes a line of whether it’s part of a synergy set…and while the book doesn’t do much with this aspect, there are items like the magister runes, which can be chained, so there is a bit more going on here than in volume 1. Quirks of ownership are also noted, though in the absence of intelligent items, these sections are not necessarily universally useful, and are included due to consistence.

On the more useful side of things, there are notes for the discovery of the respective item, a section that comments on the ubiquity of the item in question, and text that contextualizes the item in-game regarding its notoriety. The items also include oftentimes interesting notes on how the item was developed – we get brief background stories about all items. One of the most useful components of the book is the section on rumors and lore, for there are no less than 4 tables: One is the default context, the second is information gained from key NPCs, one for townsfolk with names, and one for blindly trying to obtain information. These tables further help ground and contextualize the items n the context of the game-world. The book goes beyond that: Each item also comes with VERY detailed notes on hooks for the items in relation to classes, with general hooks included as well. Furthermore, the items come with mini-quests, which are essentially quest-structure outlines. These tend to be better than most adventure sketches one can find in comparable publications.

As for the formatting of the items, the book does an above-average job at properly formatting e.g. the construction notes and the like, but in the run-on-text, the book tends to be less consistent with formatting item- or spell-references, particularly if these do not refer to the respective item in question. It should be evident at this point, that the selling proposition, and the focus of this book, is different from the usual magic item books you’d see in PFRPG or 5e.

Instead of a focus on pure rules, the majority of the content herein is devoted to the context of the item within the framework of the game world; it’s not just about the items, it’s also about how they interact with the world. The default here is Infinium’s Aquilae setting, though there are absolutely no issues integrating them into the frame of fantasy settings. In a way, the aesthetics often can apply to the context of slightly grittier settings as well, focusing on a sense of plausibility. This focus on the context and ease of integration of an item into the game changes, thus, the central focus of the book’s appeal and makes it behave differently than most comparable item-supplements regarding where the value of this supplement comes from.

/End of BASICS

Okay, now let’s discuss the content herein! We begin this book with miscellaneous items, and one in particular that I consider to be a genuinely useful and pretty darn awesome one, the concoctarium. This item is essentially a portable alchemist’s lab. Not a kit, mind you, a lab. It also provides increasing decreases of Crafting costs for items, and the higher-level iterations net you the equivalent of Master Alchemist, and, in the highest level iteration, the Instant Alchemy feat. The item is heavy (20 lbs.), but seriously, from the padded suitcase containing it? I can see characters from Van Richten to similar folks carrying these around. As a relatively affordable option, this is a true boon to e.g. alchemists in mega-dungeon campaigns, or far from civilization. This is pure gold, and I love it. The fetish of the Insali that follows, then, would exemplify perhaps the most annoying item in the entire book, bracing you rather well regarding the ups and downs of the tome. This wand is essentially the annoying detect x item. Know how divinations have a bad reputation with many GMs for being annoying, as the PCs constantly detect, like those get in the way of nuanced storytelling? Well, what about a wand that covers them ALL, with between 20 and 100 charges per day, and some of the detect spells having daily caps? The low level iteration starts off as kinda okay: At will detect magic and detect aberrations, +3/day read magic. The high level version can detect magic, aberrations, good, evil, chaos, law, poison, secret doors, undead, demons, scrying, snares and pits, thoughts. And read magic, obviously. I like the concept behind these, as a kind of magical representation of paranoid tendencies, but in actual play, you’d have to be a pretty masochistic GM to throw one of these at your players. Design-wise, it is also less interesting, being essentially an accumulation of a lot of spells in a can. Mind you, there are lots-of-spells-in-a-can items herein that are imho better – hell’s bells, for example, have quite a massive assortment of “evil” options – from inflict wounds to dispel good and mass suggestion, these offer quite a bunch of thematically-consistent tricks. Do I like them from a design perspective? Not exactly, but I can see the value these might have for some games, and the bell weighs 140 frickin’ pounds! That is genuinely interesting. I mean, I can see PCs and adversaries alike thinking about how to carry these around, and I can picture an evil “bell warden” barbarian carrying one around for his overlord. It’s a small touch, but it is an interesting one that elevates the item.

Thankfully, the book has more to offer – what about the harp of infinite melodies, which nets you more bard spells known and more bard spells per day, as well as some properly codified bonuses? As a whole, I enjoy this one, though the additional spells require a Performance check versus DC 15 + spell’s level to access, which is just busywork rolling. I mean, come on, which bard beyond the lowest levels won’t be able to make this check every damn time? I can see this work at low levels, but the higher level iterations make this check busywork. The beautifully-drawn harp of sorrows is another instrument enhancing your bardic prowess, and features scaling sonic-based abilities, as well as a damage-increase for sonic effects. Magister runes are runes captured in crystal, which allow you to duplicate a variety of symbols, and which, as mentioned before, can theoretically be combined with each other.

So, all cool? Not always. Take the razor crystal – this item per se is interesting, in that it is an ingredient for e.g. alchemist bombs and other alchemical processes – a consumable, an additive, though this could be spelled out more explicitly. (Btw.: It should be handled with protective gear – it is sharp!) I like the item per se, with one exception: They note: “+30% radius of area of effect results from all Alchemy creations.” Does this extend to Craft (alchemy)? Rounded up or down to the next 5-foot-increment? No real clue. This does not render the item unusable, mind you – it just feels a bit clunky. On the plus side, an amulet that helps you stabilize and nets you diagnostic spell uses? Yeah, sure, why not. Some of these items also, theme-wise, tie into being kinda akin to components – like the stone/earth/petrification-themed abilities bestowed by gorgon teeth. These might not be necessarily super interesting regarding their abilities, but the context makes them stand out. What do I mean by this? The lore of the item makes their genesis founded in a kind of magical freezing of ailing people, like a strange variant of cryogenic freezing. That’s a genuinely interesting angle right there.

There are also items here that leave me kind of ambivalent: Dreadslime webs are one-use items that duplicate the web spell and add negative energy damage and debuffs to the fray. I like them, though their debuffing can be brutal. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that these would have made sense as weapons, instead of their current iteration. This, however, is admittedly a personal preference. Still, as a whole, this section delivered more consistently and in a more interesting manner than the entirety of the first book.

I fully admit to not exactly looking forward to the weapons covered in this book, as the first volume had many of its more pronounced design issues in the armor section; thankfully, the weapon-section is much better than the armor-section in the previous book. For one, the categorization of items regarding their enhancement bonuses is more consistent. On the other hand, the items also tend to do more interesting things. Not all of them, mind you, but to give you an example: Bludgeondarts not only deal more damage, they also add essentially the good ole’ Bigby hand spells (minus the WotC-iP, obviously – we’re talking Pathfinder here). This makes the dart (!!) actually useful, and there is a chance they may be reused. Nice. The focus on lore an in-game context can also be seen rather well with the bonespike - a cool-looking spear that increases its damage and adds debuffs, particularly on critical hits, versus vertebrate enemies.

Not all items are suitable for all campaigns: The blackhatch sabre would, for example, be an item that should be kept out of the hands of players with a more pronounced degree of system mastery. The weapon enhances bull rushes greatly, which is still fine and dandy. Up to +8 to critical hit confirmation rolls, though? OUCH. That being said, for each such instance, I can also point to e.g. a dagger made from an outsider’s pseudopod, with acid and poisonous abilities. I like this. A scythe with plenty of death related abilities on crits? Ouch! There are some neat angles here. A formal issue that may or may not be relevant to you: The write-up of the weapons does not classify them as the weapon type, which is relevant for proficiencies. Let’s take the pseudopod item – you’ll have to read the text and check the “additional ingredients” list to deduce the weapon type. The latter is btw. worth mentioning, for these can act in a way as ingredient lists. I really like that, as it grounds the items somewhat. And still “Counts as a +4 weapon” is technically not PFRPG rules-syntax, and is kinda bass-ackwards. This is particularly weird, considering that e.g. fingerblades (you know, those hardcore edgelord goth/black metal finger-rings, with a blade added to the front – and yes, I own a whole array of those, minus blades, obviously) are actually properly classified. I really like these, and there is more than one of these included in the book.

Potent bows and arrows for evil snipers can be found alongside lethal bone garrotes, which provide not only the required feats, but also suffocate you and may animate you from the dead, adding insult to injury for foes vanquished. These are btw. also correctly typified as mundane weaponry. Indeed, GMs and antiheroes will have quite a few potent items herein that tie in strongly with Aquilae’s lore – several items herein are based on the Dark Obelisks – from ioun stone like shards to obelisk mote bolts or obelisk shard swords. The latter force you to take the worse of the Fort- or Will-saves when hit, or be subject to an increasing array of crippling negative conditions. In the highest power-level, that’d be shaken, exhausted, staggered and frightened. Yep, that’s 4 saves, using, quite possibly, your bad save. Ouch. (This also contradicts the item’s text, which notes that the target gets to choose the saving throw used – which is it?) The item’s highest level iteration is also a longsword +4, inflicts an additional +4d8 negative energy damage to lawful targets, and 5/day, you can affect targets struck by chaos hammer, 3/day by bestow curse, and 1/day harm. These should specify their actions. And yes, that’s in addition to the previous save array. Priced at? 102,000 GP. There is no limit to the conditions caused, just for the added spell-like effects. You don’t have to be super familiar with PFRPG to note that this is an insanely strong item. A single hit can seriously neuter a target with bad luck for several rounds, and comparable items and effects usually have a “once you’ve saved, you’re immune to the effects for 24 hours”-caveat. These swords are essentially artifacts and, in Aquilae, they are associated with the devastating Dark Obelisks; the way they’re presented, though, and their pricing? Those are not ideal, to say the least. I challenge you to find a non-artifact weapon that is more powerful for the price. While pricing throughout the book is better than in the first one, these obelisk items tend to be seriously off.

Want another example of pricing being seriously off, one not based on something with serious in-game lore ramifications/context? Let’s take the scytheknife. It is essentially a dagger-like weapon, that starts off as a +1 weapon [sic!] that inflicts +1d6 bleed damage per hit, +2d6 bleed damage on critical hits 1/day, and that is returning. Returning is the equivalent of a +1 enhancement. As for bleed damage, there is a convenient special weapon property that’ll allow for comparison, namely wounding. Wounding is the equivalent of a +2 enhancement, and adds 1 bleed damage, which stacks with itself, and may be quenched with a Heal check. A +1 returning wounding dagger would hence be the equivalent of a +4 weapon, right? That’d clock in at 32,000 gp. Compare the scytheknife: Rules-wise, the item does not specify a DC to end the bleed effect. Its minimum bleed damage is equal to the effect of wounding. Its maximum effect is equal to the effects of 6 (!!) hits with a wounding weapon, not accounting for critical hits. Granted, the bleed caused by the scytheknife does not stack with itself, but it is still vastly superior to a regular item, right? Right. So, guess what the cost to purchase this one is? 9,400 gp.

I am so not kidding you. That is btw. the version for the lowest power-level. In short: The items herein tend to be SIGNIFICANTLY better than their brethren. To the point where the construction costs and values are glaringly off. They are not just subjectively too strong, but objectively, when seen in the context of PFRPG’s well-defined rules for making magic items. The consequence is a serious drawback of the book as a whole, and one that genuinely breaks my heart: It is VERY tough to determine for which groups the items would make for valid rewards. This may be less of an issue for experienced GMs, particularly if they prohibit making these items, but it doesn’t change the fact that the items, in the context of WBL-assumptions, are often simply overpowered as all hell. It also puts a burden of serious system mastery on the shoulders of the GM when determining when and how to award the items herein. Unless you think you’re up to this task, I can’t recommend this book to you.

The book btw. closes with 4 different “artifacts”, all of which are super-powerful (and not particularly interesting) spell-in-can-items, which only behave as high-end versions of other such items. These artifacts do not adhere to Pathfinder’s usual formatting for artifacts, lacking means to destroy them, and also coming with prices and construction notes, which is generally not a notion deemed to be an option. The artifact-wielders do get proper names and full-color artworks.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are significantly better in this book than in the first tome on a rules-language level. On a formal level, the book does a good job, particularly for a one-man outfit. Layout adheres to Infinium Game Studios’ two-column full-color standard with color-coded boxes and icons – the book is easy to peruse. I can’t comment on the electronic version, but the sturdy hardcover is a pretty brutal book. The artworks for the items deserve special mentioning – gorgeous full-color artworks are provided for each and every one of them.

J. Evans Payne’s second Artifacts & Artifice book is better than the first one; there are less issues with items grafted together, weird bonus type stacking, and the like…and plenty of items herein are genuinely evocative and interesting. While I don’t like spell-in-a-can items, the sheer amount of lore and context does enhance some of them beyond their mechanics, and the book sports quite a bunch of items that genuinely made me smile.

And then there’s the elephant in the room, with the consistently botched pricing and associated power-levels. A GM not as profoundly familiar with PFRPG that introduces the items without prior checking will be pretty flabbergasted by how much they exceed the power-levels of comparable options. This, in and of itself, is a dealbreaker for many, and can seriously impact your campaigns.

And yet, I personally got some serious mileage out of the book. And yet, I can see plenty of experienced GMs out there feel the same way. If you are careful about crafting, about how accessible you make these items, you’ll get a genuinely interesting book that benefits greatly from the significant lore aspects and details provided for the items.

Whether or not this is for you thus hinges on where you place your values, your emphasis. This objectively breaks the crafting engine, big time. Like its predecessor, it has a few odd glitches…but it also sports a genuinely interesting and versatile array of items. There are less issues in this one than in the first book regarding the details, and if you disregard the pricing-issue, you won’t find an item herein you can’t use. Whether and how you use them, however, is highly contingent on your campaign and GM-style.

…and, to be perfectly frank, this is my favorite objectively broken book in quite a few years. If this had focused a bit less on spells in cans, got the pricing right, you’d see me singing unmitigated praises here. There is a singularly interesting vision underlying this tome, and even the spell-in-a-can-like items never, not once, feel phoned in or entirely unremarkable – there always is that aspect of lore, that little twist, that makes them feel more interesting than they by all accounts should.

Which puts me as a reviewer in a weird place. Mechanically, I probably should rate this 3 stars, at BEST. But as a person, I do genuinely feel that this deserves better; that, in spite of its glaring flaws, it doesn’t deserve to be called mediocre.

IF, and ONLY if you can stomach the issue regarding power-levels, if you believe you can judge them, contextualize them properly, price them and finetune their mechanics, or if you’d just disregard the whole construction/pricing-angle, then you should consider this to be a 4 stars book. That’s what this book is for ME as a person.

However, if you want consistence with established PFRPG items, if you are particular about power-levels in your campaign, then tread very carefully – for you, this is, at best, a 2.5 stars tome.

As a reviewer, though? As a reviewer, I can’t well say ”I like the items, screw the rules, love this.” I was seriously tempted to do that, but it’d be unfair towards all the magic item books I’ve reviewed over the years. Which is why my official verdict can’t exceed 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Artifacts & Artifice, Volume 2 (Pathfinder)
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Dark Obelisk 2: The Mondarian Elective (Pathfinder)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/13/2020 06:26:33

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The second part of the Dark Obelisk AP clocks in at a MASSIVE 839 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of colophon, 1 page editorial, 3 pages of ToC/information about the studio,3/4 of a page blank, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 830 and ¼ of a page of content.

No, I am not kidding, that is genuinely the amount of content. This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a physical copy, which is, quite frankly, ridiculous in size. On my homepage, you’ll see a direct comparison of this tome and Occult Adventures. This is a massive doorstopper of a tome.

The basic explanation of the FlexTale system and a brief recap as well as a hook that gets the PCs to the Mondarian Elective, a mining city, is handled pretty quickly. FlexTale deserves special mention: It is essentially a GM-toolkit for quickly determining details on the fly – see my review of the FlexTale 1.0-book for a more detailed breakdown of it; for the purpose of this review, it should be noted that the book assumes you’re using it; while a capable GM does not need it, FlexTale, as a tool, significantly enhances the experience of playing the adventure. It should also be noted that the FlexTale book contains the random encounter tables for this module. The book is provided alongside this adventure in pdf-format, in case you were wondering. The massive Atlas provided for the module also enhances the experience, and I highly recommend that you get it when running this module; the atlas is not included in the regular Dark Obelisk II-module, in case you were wondering.

It should also be noted that this module contains 187 pages of statblocks – NPCs, new monsters, etc. – all come with original artworks, many of which are downright stunning full-color pieces. If you’re familiar with Infinium Game Studios’ modus operandi, you won’t be surprised to hear that these stats are presented in a quadded format, i.e. there are 4 iterations for different power-levels provided. This is in as far relevant, as Dark Obelisk I could go in a variety of ways: It was very much possible to spend months playing it, or to resolve it in one or two sessions. The predecessor spotted a ridiculously detailed settlement, with a huge amount of different side-quests, notes on NPCS, etc., but mostly dealt with a kind of local cataclysm and evacuation scenario when it came down to it, allowing for the like. In short: There was a ton of optional content that you didn’t necessarily had to use, with the core plot being swift and relatively simple. That was, structurally, perhaps the least impressive aspect of the first book.

This tome is different. This is essentially a massive, somewhat investigative mega-dungeon, and it is bereft of filler-quests, fetch-quests or the like. Nobody can complain about missing depth regarding the main meat of the offering here. Why is this relevant? Because, as a result, Dark Obelisk 1 can end with groups with massively diverging levels. While the quadded statblocks are supposed to help there, I don’t think that the higher two iterations of the stats work well for the context of the story told here; that being said, very few groups will enter this module with characters in the upper echelons of mid levels or high levels. Personally, I’d suggest starting this adventure somewhere in the vicinity of level 3 to 5 for the optimal experience in tone, challenges faced, etc..

Okay, that digression out of the way, it becomes relevant to start talking about the NPCs and monsters provided; after all, there are 187 pages of them: As usual for Infinium Game Studios, the statblocks come in quadded version, and each NPC gets a brief write-up that provides a description, an appearance, and combat tactics, though the latter are more akin to general combat guidelines, rather than explicit commentary on how to run the NPCs. The latter would have been more helpful, obvious, but considering that the builds tend to not be as complex, I wager that most GMs won’t be overtaxed by running these fellows. Anyhow, where applicable, the statblocks note faction affiliation as well, and make use of skills like Artistry and Athletics, though these are ignored/modified easily enough, if required. As usual for Infinium Game Studios, the effects of feats, abilities, etc. have been copied in, so you don’t need to flip pages. The stats cover both generic NPCs and named ones, with the latter generally getting the better, or at least more interesting, stats.

This’ll be a good place to note that the pages are coded with bands on the side of the hardcover edition: Said statblock chapter sports a light green band, while the town on the surface gets a blue band; the massive dungeon sections also have their own band, which allows you to quickly open the book at the correct level. It may be a small thing, but it is one that increases the utility of the tome rather significantly. But I digress. So, beyond the NPC-stats, the book also contains a series of monsters that share a certain leitmotif, which I’ll explain in the spoiler-section below. This deserves special mention, since the artworks employed there are extraordinary; while the massive NPC-chapter uses an original artwork for each statblock (a delightfully decadent expense), these tend to be either solid b/w-drawings, or downright gorgeous full-color pieces. I very much loved them, but the monster-artworks? They are outstanding.

On a mechanical level he builds tend to fall somewhat by the wayside in comparison, though: There is e.g. a statblock of a being infected by something. This fellow is undead, has an awesome description…and gets a whopping 1d4+5 damage output and 25 HP at AC 16. That doesn’t sound bad? That’s the CR 6 version for the second power-level bracket of the quadded statblock. The build uses the commoner NPC-class as a baseline (and incorrectly assumes that 1 commoner level equals a PC-class level regarding CR), but does not properly account for its lack of power and versatility in the CR. Granted, it has a couple of proper offensive options like Power Attack and Greater Bull Rush, but compare the fellow to other CR 6 foes, and he’ll look like XP waiting to be picked. Beyond that, know what would have been more helpful that this statblock? Getting a proper template for the affliction. So yeah, there are instances herein wherein the limitations and problems of the quadded statblock approach become very much evident, even in the sections of what I’d consider the “default brackets/tier” of the quadded statblocks for the module, i.e. the first two. An experienced GM is definitely recommended, and I’d furthermore recommend the adventure RAW for groups that are not that into the build-aspect of PFRPG, at least when running this as written. Analogue to previous character/NPC books by Infinium Game Studios, I can’t help but think that the quadded statblock in theory is a good idea; its implementation, however, does not live up to the demands of the system, to PFRPG’s rather complex and nonlinear scaling. If you’re like me and prefer your new monsters to feature an array of new signature abilities to set them apart, you won’t find the like herein, which is rather jarring, as the aforementioned leitmotif as a connection practically demands being employed in a unique, cool template.

The good news, however, is that this is, by far, the weakest aspect of the book. Take the notion of the catalyst tracker, which tracks the behavior of PCs according to law, chaos, balance and love (the latter being about compassion over the ideology of the traditional ones) worked in Dark Obelisk I mainly as a means to have the micro-level interactions with NPCs influence the macro-level of the story; in Dark Obelisk II’s different focus, there are much less catalyst things to take care of, and these aspects pertain to the quests herein in a meta-level and generally feel more like solutions/behavior in line with general party ideology, which makes integration easier for GMs who don’t want to go all in on tracking. This is a plus here, as I feared to see a rehash of the gimmick in DOII.

Now, let us talk about the scope of Dark Obelisk II, for unlike the first book, it is a less compressed experience: This book covers a massive mining town, the eponymous Mondarian Elective, as well as a ginormous 9-level mega-dungeon/mine below, one that even dwarfs the town above. Structurally, the module represents a significant improvement over Dark Obelisk I, courtesy of a lot more unique hazards and terrain features, which render the exploration and combat simply more interesting. City and mine have default random encounter tables, with more specific ones provided where applicable. One of the issues of the mega-dungeon in general sports a rather neat solution: Provided the GM wishes to do so, the minecart system can be used as a sort of fast travel, which may or may not be exempt from random encounters. I very much appreciate having this option represent in a physical manner in the module. The module also includes elevators as further means of progressing between the mega-dungeon’s levels; beyond this, the module also lists the connections of each of the levels to other levels in the beginning of each dungeon-section. Read-aloud texts are provided, with read-aloud texts in italics employed for text that is only read if certain conditions are met, such as the presence of elves or dwarves among the party members. As a nitpick, a few of these pieces of information are gated behind racial prerequisites, aligning them with language. The thing is, PFRPG does allow for very easy access to said languages – you don’t have to be an elf to speak elven, and in the case of obscure and barely legible scrawling, the like is usually handled via Linguistics check, not via racial prerequisites. While this is easily enough remedied, it’s something to be aware of.

Theme-wise, we have a class-struggle with racial tones as a backdrop, as the elves of the Druid Enclave are essentially the overlords of the city, with dwarves and other humanoids as the workers. It should be noted that Dark Obelisk II also “discovers” something I very much enjoyed seeing: Subtlety, and the more silent tones that build atmosphere. Dark Obelisk I was very much an action romp once the escalation trigger was reached; in comparison, Dark Obelisk is a slow burn, and one that manages to evoke a sense of what I’d call a “Silent Apocalypse.” You know, this subdued sense of desolation that Dark Souls so perfectly encapsulated? Picture that sort of theme, taken down a notch. The environments here are not yet as bereft of life and hope as e.g. Lordran, but the general sense evoked, ultimately, is one of a recent cataclysm that went unnoticed, of a place where terrible things happened.

This commitment to the notion of a slow burn is one that really sets this massive module apart, as most adventures simply can’t pull it off due to the limitations imposed by their very scope. As you have by now realized, Dark Obelisk II does indeed have the massive scale required, and it’s one of only two mega-adventures that attempt t evoke this type of atmosphere, the other being Greg Vaughan’s masterpiece “Slumbering Tsar.” In many things, Slumbering Tsar’s setting gets closest to the aesthetics of the Dark Souls games as far as I’m concerned.

Dark Obelisk II has a different focus than aforementioned book; where Slumbering Tsar manages to evoke a nigh-unprecedented vision of a lavishly-detailed region and ruined city and mega-dungeon, with the focus eminently placed on challenging veteran players, Dark Obelisk II has a different focus. Where Slumbering Tsar sports a strong survival theme, Dark Obelisk II instead focuses on exploration, with some minor investigative focus added on top. In short: Dark Obelisk II won’t necessarily be a module that’ll challenge veterans of the game on a mechanical level, also courtesy to aforementioned shortcomings in the statblock department. A similarity, though, would be the emphasis placed on atmosphere, which is arguably the main focus of Dark Obelisk II, to the point where the actual story of the adventure is a less important.

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

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the PCs are basically called to investigate the Mondaria City, probably on behalf of the Druid Enclave that controls the massive mining town; communications have stalled, and foul play is suspected. And it is Mondaria City that drives home very well that something bad has happened. Chances are rather high that the PCs won’t meet locals at first– just signs of struggle, fruit spoiling in the market-stands, and upon closer investigation, the PCs will soon find corpses, signs of attacks – and probably encounter some creature sooner or later. This is where I have to recommend two things: While the module does leave it up to the GM to determine when to spring NPCs or monsters on the PCs (you can do so via the module’s system/random encounters), the best thing you can do, is let the PCs breathe in the atmosphere of a place abandoned, a place stripped of (most of its) people. If you let the PCs meet NPCs soon after arriving, I’d strongly suggest not using some of the rumors featured in the global rumor table – there are a few of those that take a bit of the mystery, and one of the best aspects of the module, away.

This atmosphere is driven home by the phenomenal amount of details provided: Let’s take the small marketplace as an example, shall we? We have read-aloud text and material for every stand, every tent. Every house, building? Everything is fully depicted. It is utterly impossible to discern the usual “interaction points”, “relevant buildings” and the like – instead, the book manages to depict EVERYTHING. And unlike Dark Obelisk I, the respective places manage to attain a degree of fidelity that is impressive indeed: You can see each toppled stool, you can count the cutlery on the table; you can see the number of barrels, or crates, you can see blood-spatter on the floors. If anything is indisputable for Dark Obelisk II, then it is that the adventure is a serious achievement regarding cartography. Gone are the inorganic or somewhat blocky structures in the previous module: Mondaria City, and the dungeon itself, are absolutely lavish in their details. This book contains all the GM maps required to run the adventure, with the Atlas supplemental book also sporting the player-maps.

But there is more to this than just maps: Each map has read-aloud text for rooms, regions – and rewards attention to detail, lets the players contemplate the things happened. Which brings me to the second supplemental book I’d strongly recommend for use in conjunction with this, namely the FlexTale 1.0 book included in the purchase of the module. You see, the adventure uses that engine to fill in even more details, if required: Let’s take one random room from the book by flipping it open: I got a table that reads “Crates, Large, 3x”; contents list “Glasses, metals and Woods, Large” – so you roll on the respective table in FlexTale, apply the modification for the amount, and there we go! In short, beyond the already massive attention to detail provided by the maps and sheer amount of area covered with read-aloud texts, the FlexTale system can be used to add even more detail on the micro-level to the setting.

In a way, this represents a means to “zoom in” on a huge amount of objects that’d usually just be generic set dressing. To give you an idea: Mondaria City’s overview map contains 28 keyed locations. Each of these keyed locations correlates to another one-page map, with a rough average of 10 keyed locales per such location; the total number of individual keyed locations for Mondaria City alone exceeds 300. That is before adding details with FlexTale. On the ground-floor only, and many buildings have multiple floors and basements. The ambition, hinted at in Dark Obelisk I, realized here, is quite staggering. Mondaria City is infinitely more compelling, feels much more alive, than Berrincorte ever did, in spite of being a less populated place.

In the face of so much material, it should be noted that small boxes containing the level-map, with the respective sub-area framed, always allow you to retain control over the proceedings; you’ll never be confused where a sub-area is with regards to the global map of the level. Now, I know that I’ve been raving about Mondaria City for a while, but the module manages to retain this depth in the dungeon as well: Different-colored mushrooms, different spider-webs, clearly visible barricades of the minecart tracks. As noted, this module lives a lot through its cartography, which is btw. provided in jpg format as well, though these do tend to be rather massive in size; the sheer amount of detail provided on these maps makes the GM’s job rather easy – just start unveiling the map, and a single glance will show what’s relevant.

Now, I’ve been calling the mines below a dungeon, because that’s functionally how it operates, but this is not 100% correct either; you see, this is a huge mining operation, and as such, there are essentially cafeterias and buildings down there; the mines always retain the sense of being, well, mines, but they similarly have a touch of the subterranean city as well. Sooner or later, the PCs can e.g. happen upon a camp of male and female prostitutes. The result of all of these components coming together is unique: The restraint shown with fixed quest-lines and the relatively low amount of “boss encounters” throughout result in a different kind of narrative experience: The focus lies very much on environmental storytelling and lore – not in the “background story/info-dump”-way, but instead in the way of objects, NPCs, hazards, etc. coming together; the observations of the players will ultimately tell the story more compellingly than a simple expository text could. And there is a reason for that: I can explain the module in one sentence: “The locals were ordered to dig deeper, regardless of consequences, probably in order to mine the exceedingly powerful dark obelisk shards, and happened upon a proper Dark Obelisk.” That’s pretty much all there is to it. The corrupting influence of the obelisk drove people mad; dreadslime was exuded and tainted beings; dreadslime golems and even an infected dragon can be found. It is said dreadslime, by the way, that makes up some of the dark fantasy-components, and that I referred to opaquely before: This should have been a proper template.

Anyways, regardless of my frustration with some mechanical components, I was talking about the indirect storytelling, right? Well, cognizant of the danger, some of the former shard-mining parts are hidden behind secret passages, and the mine does contain false obelisks worshiped by those tainted. The latter are one reason why I recommended caution regarding the rumors: The chance for careless PCs to be faked out by having “solved” the issue is nice – though if they check the magics, the party will notice the ruse. I like this type of thing, and the rumor table can spoil that one. On the positive side of things, the module does seem to be very much conscious of just how strong its scope can render it: Level 8 of the mines, the penultimate one, is essentially just a massive descent, not much beyond that: Endless stair or elevators down, fully describes and mapped. Try it at your table, have the PCs walk down, read it, unveil the map slowly. It WILL make them properly anxious for the things to come.

There is another aspect of the module that I personally liked: As written, the PCs have no proper way to destroy the Dark Obelisk. They’ll arrive here, after much hardship, and probably will have to leave – for the means to destroy the obelisk include the requirement for humanoid sacrifice. This is handled in a more narrative manner, and, somewhat to my chagrin, not by using PFRPG’s perfectly serviceable occult ritual or incantation rules, which, mechanically, deprives this finale of some of the impact it could have had. Then again, having the PCs be forced to retreat is a rather rarely-evoked strategy, so in a way, I do actually appreciate this to a degree. And if the PCs have no compunctions sacrificing dreadlimed miners, well, then the finale can make for a mechanically interesting and rather intriguing finale, though not all parties will consider resorting to the like a viable option.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are better on a formal level than a one-man-project of this staggering size would make you believe. On a rules-language level, we have perhaps the one aspect where Dark Obelisk II does not realize its full potential, but more on that below. Layout adheres to Infinium game Studios’ two-column full-color standard, and, as noted, the artworks provided for the NPCs and monsters are original pieces ranging from solid to amazing. The full-color cartography, in many ways, is the aesthetic star of the massive module, at least as far as I’m concerned: The lavish attention to detail, the focus on making the entire city and dungeon feel organic and plausible is a singular achievement as far as I’m concerned. It is also an intrinsic, vitally important factor of the playing experience, to a greater degree than in other adventures. The hardcover is an enormous tome, with everything noted on the spine; the pdf comes in two versions: The screen-version is fully bookmarked, and the printer-friendly version has a white background, but seeing how the module uses a lot of color-coding, I wouldn’t recommend printing it in b/w.

J. Evans Payne’s Dark Obelisk I was compelling in many ways, in its novelty and ambition, but in comparison to this module, it almost feels like a gimmicky test-run of what the author can achieve and do. That’s obviously a good thing, since the novelty per se can’t carry yet another such book. There are ultimately two conflicting perspectives one can have regarding this tome.

To make that abundantly clear: Mechanically, this is not a particularly impressive book; it does work, but neither NPC/monster builds, nor are the DCs or implementation of skill-use for interaction particularly well-executed. They are functional, but that’s as positive as I can become about them. In many ways, while the formula and aesthetic has evolved regarding the narrative, the storytelling, etc., and shows the restraint in combination with the scope that makes it so special, the quadded statblock formula does not yet work to the same degree that the other components do. This becomes particularly evident when looking at the cool monster artworks, and the comparably lame statblocks – I am not sure at this point, but the problem may be system-immanent, as the scaling employed simply does not correlate with realities at the table. In many ways, I think, that with ONE set of genuinely cool statblocks for monsters and named NPCs, instead of 4 at best mediocre ones, this’d be significantly improved. This scaling issue also shows up, as noted, in the FlexTale book that you’ll consult a lot for lock DCs, etc. On the other hand, FlexTale does allow for a ridiculous amount of depth on a micro-level regarding the mundane treasure found. If you take a look at this solely within the context of the mechanics of being a PFRPG adventure, it will not fare too well. My recommendation for the mechanical aspects of this, particularly regarding NPCs and monsters, is that you take a look at your collection of monsters and populate the adventure with those builds for the combat-relevant NPCs instead, and use the stats herein for the nameless individuals.

However, it is my firm conviction that doing so, that only considering the mechanics, would be a disservice to this tome.

Yeah, I never figured I’d write those words either. You see, Dark Obelisk II is firmly, staunchly, made to be PLAYED. It plays much better than it looks, or that the rather basic set-up would lead you to believe – and that’s due to something that I genuinely have never seen before.

Where other books of this size, with precious few exceptions (like legendary Slumbering Tsar) tend to try their hands at regular dungeon design on a grander scale, and as a result feel cluttered, Dark Obelisk II exerts a surprising amount of RESTRAINT. It lets its vast scope BREATHE, develop. There is a ton to do, don’t get me wrong – but the use of the cartography and daring to not jam in an encounter or quest every 2 rooms lets the players take in the vastness of this environment, lets them actually take the time to speculate about the environments, about what might have happened here.

The result is an adventure that plays unlike anything I have ever laid my hands on; much like a good horror/mystery game, it lets you take in the environment; it feels decelerated in an almost daring way. To me, this is very much the antithesis of the action-blockbuster railroad, a lore-centric sandbox devoted to indirect storytelling, and one that very much knows how to capitalize on its strengths.

This adventure will not be for everyone; it is much more daring than Berrincorte ever was, stepping away from traditional formal structures in a kind of narrative experiment that I personally consider to be a grand success. At least when you run it as intended, with the Atlas and FlexTale properly in use. While the latter has some issues, I penalized that book in my review of it, and doing so again here would be redundant. Still, without these two books, Dark Obelisk II loses some of its appeal; not getting the atlas means that you won’t have those handy player-maps (see my review of that book), and without using FlexTale, you’ll lose the depth on a micro-level regarding the mundane treasures throughout. Without these, I’d suggest subtracting at least 1.5 stars from the final verdict.

How to rate this, then? Well, here things become tough. I’d usually penalize this for outsourcing its player-friendly maps, but considering their sheer amount (see review of the Atlas), and their level of detail, I get it. As noted before, the biggest weakness of the module would be its functional, but comparable weak stance in mechanics, situating it, at best, in the 3-stars vicinity; on the other hand, managing to genuinely evoke a jamais-vu experience anno 2019/20? That’s some seriously impressive achievement, and considering the huge amount of roleplaying supplements out there, can be seen as the well-deserved vindication of the concept underlying Infinium game Studios’ approach to world-design. For this component, I admit to being sorely tempted to consider this to be in the 4 – 5 star vicinity, and one could argue that it deserves the seal of approval for doing something novel that well.

And I don’t mean “novel” as in “novelty”; where Berrincorte’s selling proposition of scope, depth and vision was novel, Dark Obelisk II does not have that luxury anymore, and still manages to blow its predecessor right out of the water with a singularly interesting vision that fully utilizes the strengths of this adventure. It’s that much better than the first module, and it caters to a taste that is usually not serviced by roleplaying game supplements. I hope that may review helps you determine whether this is for you, or not, because I can see this being very polarizing – you’ll hate it or love it; just give it a shot in actual play before you judge it from the reading experience alone.

As far as verdicts are concerned, I can’t rate this as high as I would want to due to its mechanical shortcomings; however, I do love what this tome does, how its uses its format. My final verdict will thus be 4.5 stars, rounded down – and this gets my seal of approval for its uncommon approach to storytelling.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dark Obelisk 2: The Mondarian Elective (Pathfinder)
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Dark Obelisk 2: The Mondarian Elective: Atlas (Unisystem)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/13/2020 06:23:05

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The massive Atlas-supplement for Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective, clocks in at 479 pages, already minus editorial, front/back cover, etc. I STRONGLY suggest getting this book if you’re planning on playing Dark Obelisk II – it is almost required.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

So, as usual for the hardcovers produced by Infinium Game Studios, this is a HUGE tome, with proper notes on the spine and color-coded bands on the side that allow you to immediately jump to the proper maps for a given level/environment, making navigation of this huge tome of maps quick and simple in the physical version as well. In the pdf, you can use multi-letter search-codes to immediately find the proper map.

The first half of the book provides the GM-maps – with secret doors, numbers, etc. all provided, just like in the regular adventure book; as noted in my review of Dark Obelisk II, the cartography of these maps has VASTLY improved over the ones featured for the first adventure. While it is evident that software as used here, I have never seen one employed so well: Different tables, chairs and objects, different types of spider webs – this is all lavishly-handcrafted, and the constructions do make sense, everything feels organic, lived in, or formerly lived-in. The cartography is exceedingly impressive.

The main selling point, though? That’s be the player-friendly maps. The second half of the book, with the bands in light blue, provide key-less player-friendly maps. And I mean “player-friendly maps” in the best of ways. For one, transparent outlines of buildings are laid in a subtle manner atop basements. Love that. What I love even more though, would be that they are properly redacted! Where a hidden cavern is plainly visible in the GM-version, there’s just massive rock in the player-friendly iteration. This would be the grand picture, but the book also catches the small aspects.

The Dark Obelisk II-adventure is mainly compelling due to its detail-oriented approach; this is very much underlined by some of its challenges. For example, there is an inconspicuous pile of barrels and crates, with a blank space between their massive piles. That space conceals a trapdoor, which is properly depicted in the GM-map. In the player-friendly version, it’s just a piece of ground! That sort of level of care is frankly amazing to see. I wished every module went to that length.

So, all fantastic? Alas, no. You see, the city and dungeon depicted in Dark Obelisk II have more than one such hidden area that was redacted from the respective overview maps. It’s great that they’re redacted. But what once the PCs have found one such area? Well, unfortunately, these secret areas, out of some unfathomable reason, LACK player-friendly maps! This makes no sense, and remains the one big strike against the atlas, and it is one that seriously hurts it, considering that the convenience of the player-friendly maps is a core selling point of the book.

Conclusion: I already commented on the hardcover version; the pdf-iteration comes in two versions, with one printer-friendly iteration and a regular one; the regular iteration is properly bookmarked. The supplement comes with several archives containing the maps in jpg-versions. The full-color cartography contained in this tome is massive, excessively detailed, makes the environments feel organic and alive, and as a whole can be considered to be a great success for J. Evans Payne. Unfortunately, this triumph is somewhat diminished by the utterly puzzling decision to get leave out player-friendly versions of the secret areas. While certainly not enough to sink this tome, it does represent a serious blemish, which is while my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dark Obelisk 2: The Mondarian Elective: Atlas (Unisystem)
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Dark Obelisk 2: The Mondarian Elective: Players' Guide (Unisystem)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/13/2020 06:21:21

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The Player’s Guide for the humongous second part of the Dark Obelisk saga clocks in at 64 pages of content if you already disregard the editorial, etc., so let’s check this out!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

All right, so we begin with something pretty nifty, namely the first page after the introduction stating “So, your game begins in 10 minutes” – it’s essentially the cliff notes version of the current situation. A half-elven stranger leads the PCs to the mining city of Mondaria, which, while under the auspices of the Druid Enclave, has ceased communications with them. Unfortunately, we do have a page-reference not filled in here: The book references “p.<>” instead of the Dramatis Personae section. That should be p.51, btw.

After this, the book explains FlexTale, which makes less sense to be here – it’s a GM-facing tool, so what does the explanation do here? I wouldn’t usually mind as much, but it does have a few guffaws here that make me do so: “What is this book” has obviously been cut copy pasted from the first Player’s Guide or Dark Obelisk II, because it references, you guessed it, Dark Obelisk I. It also talks about being “an inspiration to create your own adventures” and similar GM-facing stuff. This is PARTICULARLY egregious, because the player’s guide actually SPOILS one of the more interesting tricks of the module! I kid you not! There is a potential for a false type of victory, and the player’s guide actually tells the players! Worse, it also flatly explains a certain magical effect right afterwards, undermining at least one of the more clever scenes of the adventure. That’s a pretty big no-go.

Worse, this section of the player’s guide also spoils several GM tricks the module uses to make the adventure run; if the players know these, they’re more likely to attempt to metagame them. Not cool.

There is, however, something that is REALLY cool: We get full play-friendly maps of the City of Mondaria, and I mean “player-friendly”; the book goes the extra mile here: Not only are numbers etc. redacted, secret areas are not shown on the overview map, nor are secret area entrances in any way obvious. This is great. Slightly less great: Arriving in Mondaria, as you can read in my review of that book, is a pretty unique experience, and e.g. the residential zone maps sport a couple of details that shouldn’t be on maps that the PCs got from NPCs – the people who hired them can’t know where bodies are lying, so that limits the immediate usability of a few of these maps. Personally, I’d recommend getting the Atlas instead – it also has player-friendly maps for all of the module.

This does conflate with another aspect of the book you should be aware of in the dramatis personae chapter. The chapter not only provides information on evident characters, but also those that the PCs not necessarily know about from the get-go, once more providing a kind of SPOILER. The NPCs are depicted with absolutely gorgeous full-color artworks, including a couple of b/w-pieces. The descriptions, as a whole, tend to be good – though there are a few that also contain SPOILERS – like notes on how an individual is secretly racist and full of hate, or about hidden weapons. USUALLY, the NPCs differentiate between appearances and descriptions, with the latter being great. Oddly, not all of the NPCs come with this distinction, and particularly the ones that lack the “appearance” section are prone to having information noted that has no place in a player’s guide. And yes, the first player’s guide for Dark Obelisk had similar decisions, but unlike this one, the player characters were supposed to be somewhat familiar with Berrincorte – the same can’t be claimed for Mondaria. They can’t know about racist tendencies, deeply-ingrained hate and the like. How could they? They just got here!

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are okay for a one-man outfit, but certainly not impressive – names are e.g. inconsistent “Gordstrull” vs. “Gordsturll” and the like. Layout adheres to Infinium Game Studios’ two-column full-color standard, with nice, original full-color portraits and cartography – though both of these can be found in the main books as well. The print version is a perfect-bound softcover that properly notes its name on the spine.

I’m sorry to say this, but I consider J. Evans Payne’s player’s guide for Dark Obelisk II to be a disappointing failure. The NPC characteristics and secrets spoiled is not ideal; add to that that the incomplete redaction process for the maps can be considered to be a minor spoiler for one of the best scenes of the start of the adventure, and we have a more significant issue. The third, and most egregious one, though, is that the PG spoils some meta-mechanics and even one of the most effective tricks of the module. One that the actual adventure encourages you to pull off. Well, not if the players have read this.

It genuinely pains me to say this, but I genuinely believe you’ll have LESS fun with Dark Obelisk II if you’ve read this guide, making it pretty much the antithesis of a successful player’s guide. This is PARTICULARLY jarring, because Dark Obelisk II’s unique structure would have warranted some pieces of advice that it should be tackled in different ways, encourage players to play it differently than most modules. You know, encourage attention to detail and yet caution moderation, when moving on is prudent, etc. Advice sans spoilers that makes the experience of the module more fun. Some basic investigation suggestions? Perhaps an extended briefing? What to look out for?

The fundamentals are here, but the execution of this guide was obviously rushed, to the crippling detriment of this book. As the baseball metaphor goes – 3 strikes, and you’re out – my final verdict can’t exceed 1.5 stars, rounded down.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[1 of 5 Stars!]
Dark Obelisk 2: The Mondarian Elective: Players' Guide (Unisystem)
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FlexTale Encounter Generator (General Purpose v1.0; Pathfinder / 5E / Unisystem)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 03/12/2020 01:43:30

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The FlexTale Encounter Generator 1.0 clocks in at 92 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages colophon (including backer thanks), 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page information about the studio, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 85 pages of content- 5 of these pages include some explanations of concepts Infinium Game Studios books use, including explanations of boxed text colors, etc. – which are, for this book, less relevant, and probably here for the sake of the book template, and to establish the notion of 4 different general power-levels, as indicated by differently-colored icons. An icon with a red box with white swords indicates the highest level version, while a white one with black swords indicates the lowest level one; this is effective, and lets you quickly discern the proper content.

This leaves us with 80 pages of FlexTale-relevant material, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Okay, so the first thing you need to know about FlexTale is, that it is a TOOL for the GM; this is not a book you’ll read from cover to cover, but it is one you’ll actively use at the table. While penned for PFRPG’s 1st edition, the book is functionally almost system neutral and retains most of its functionality regardless of system used. If you want to see what this book can do in action, Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective makes ample use of it. While the book is billed for 5e as well as Pathfinder’s 1st edition, it should be noted that, for the purpose of the weapon/armor-sections, the book does not provide a scarcity level like uncommon, rare, etc. – if you are using this with 5e, you might be better off considering it as system agnostic, as the book was clearly designed based on PFRPG.

But what is the idea here? Well, know how randomized treasure tables in RPGs tend to be singular experiences? Well, the system proposes so-called “contexts” for everything, from NPC interaction to research, to loot. FlexTale generally presents 4 such contexts to roll on, with a module or GM determining the appropriate context: The sample example takes a wizard’s chest, and establishes contexts based on the attitude of the wizard to the PCs: A hostile or indifferent wizard’s chest may well hold a cursed reward, while a helpful wizard’s wouldn’t.

This might seem odd at first from the GM’s side, but it makes a surprising amount of sense and actually puts MORE mechanical agenda in the PC’s hands; an example not taken from this book might illustrate this better, and that is gathering information: Just randomly looking for clues yields context A, pointed and more specialized inquiries yield another context. You still roll as a GM on the context column of the respective table, so there is still the factor of chance, though it is a more finely curated and relevant one.

In order to properly explain what this book does, let you consider an average dungeon room. In function, it behaves very much like something from a point and click adventure game: There are fixed dimensions and interaction points, areas that trigger certain responses. Much like in an adventure game, the very medium in which it is presented, is subject to limitations. Due to constraints on both wordcount and time of the author, it is not feasible to e.g. describe the contents of all 8 barrels inside, right? This is where the potential problem comes in. If the contents of such a barrel are irrelevant, the module will not differentiate between the barrels, and state that they hold the same content, perhaps brush it off with a general notion. “The crates contain moldy sheets.” “The barrels contain spices worth 50 gp each.” That’s functional and efficient, right? Okay, so what if the module’s plot hinges to a degree on e.g. one of the barrels containing an exotic spice, perhaps being laced with poison? Suddenly, there will be more information given by the adventure, and more information relayed by the GM. In the context of a point and click adventure, we would probably get a zoomed-in screen of the barrel in question, but probably not of the others – the constraints of the medium, whether wordcount or time of the designer, limit this aspect. If it’s not relevant what herb there is inside, it’ll just be “medicinal herbs”, right? On the other side, if there’s a werewolf stalking the region, a shipment of belladonna would spark interest and be called out.

This issue in the “zoom-factor” of interaction points may not be something that most players consciously think about, but it’s one of the things that happen regardless. An experienced player will perk their ears when a GM starts describing the contents of a container, the herbs strung up in a witch’s cottage, in detail, as opposed to the use of the general term. In a way, there is a basic kind of spoiler by experience, a kind of unconscious metagaming going on. After all, even the best of GMs and adventure-writer will not spend their time and wordcount describing in detail every little thing, right? That’s neither helpful, nor compelling, and thus, we have found a limitation of the medium of table-top roleplaying games that has been accepted as system-immanent. To be precise: I am NOT talking about the macro-level: Raging Swan Press’ superb dressing books allow for the creation of compelling landscapes and dungeon dressing that help make these areas feel alive.

No, I am talking about the fine details that may or may not spoil an investigation. When it comes to the small tidbits, to the treasure found, to the goods? More often than not, it is a GM’s responsibility to generate details for these aspects on the fly, and that is a task few would relish in. Heck, I am as OCD as they get regarding the plausibility of a world and environment, and yet, I have never felt the urge to rectify this “zoom-in problem.” And, at least according to my experiences as a reviewer, I haven’t seen any other book trying to do that either. Everyone just accepts this as one of the concessions that must be made for the medium.

Well, turns out that not “everyone” accepted this seemingly intrinsic limitation – J. Evans Payne, with his extremely detail-oriented vision wasn’t happy with it, not content to just make the GM take care of that. Enter FlexTale.

We get tables. Tables upon tables, and all with 4 contexts. For the purpose of this book, the default context is A; if the players had a negligible challenge to get to it, it’s context B; if the party had to face a great challenge, it’s context C, and if the party seems disinterested, it’s context D. Sizes of a haul, where relevant, are swift and easy to determine: Small makes you roll once, and use the result; medium makes you roll 1d4 times, doubling the given value; Large makes you roll 2d6 times, quadrupling the numerical value.

The book then proceeds to provide 28 such tables. To illustrate how this works in practice, let’s say the PCs open a container containing simple foodstuff/spices. You roll a d%, and get a 77. If you use context A (default), the PCs will find rosemary (1d6 lbs., 1 gp each). If you use context B (negligible challenge), they’ll instead find saffron (1d6-2 lbs, 15 gp each, good chance of finding nothing). If the PCs had to face a greater challenge, and you’re using context C, they’ll find lots of potatoes (4d20, priced at 2 cp each); in the “not interested” context D, the PCs will find turnips (5d12 lbs., 2 cp per lb.). This illustrates the utility of the system, but also a minor issue in it: From a pure design-perspective, context C should have yielded better results than B, but didn’t. That being said, the table as a whole makes sense: The context C has greater chances of providing more valuable yield than the one provided for context B.

Let’s take a gander at another example, the writing supplies table. We rolled a 36 on the d%. For the default context, we get an inkpen, including value noted. For context B we also get an inkpen – in this table, that’s the entry for 27-50; same for context D (33-57 here). For Context C, however, we get invisible ink of superior quality – an entry that can only be found in context A and C; contexts B and D don’t ever yield this result. Value is provided for these entries, in case you were wondering. This system has a surprising depth, and sizes are noted individually for the respective tables. It also allows you to zoom in farther than usual. Regarding glass, metal and ore, we have a proper write-up of obelisk-tainted ore and its taint as a general property.

It should be noted that the book’s tables also sometimes differentiate between the 4 different power-levels of the PCs – for coin treasure, the higher entries on the table differentiate between suitable treasure for the 4 general level-categories; on a 100 on a d% using context A, a 2nd level party would e.g. find 3d20 gp, 1d12 x 10 sp, 1d20 x 100 cp.; the same group, at the highest levels, would instead find 1d20 x 100 pp and 5d20 x 500 gp. It should be noted that this also holds true for all 4 gem tables. Yep. 4 gem tables. Somewhat to my chagrin, there is one pretty bad glitch here: The very second table, the one for rations and prepared food, is actually missing: A gaping hole of half-blank page is all that is here. This sort of stuff REALLY should have been caught. Thankfully, it’s the only table missing, but one missing table is bad enough.

It should be noted that there is a general supplies table as well, and that it points towards some more specific tables in some entries. If anything, I LOVE this engine. I mean it. It is deeply satisfying for my more compulsive behavior patterns to be able to reference this amount of detail at the throw of a die, and the potential for expansion, not only of the individual tables, but of the master-system as a whole, is VAST. The engine could carry a whole lot more than what has been provided in this 1.0-version.

Of course, the book also provides tables for more traditional “adventurer-relevant” treasure like weapons and armor. The global table denotes whether you roll on light, simple, ranged, martial one-handed or two-handed, or on the exotic weapon table.

And this is where my previous warning announcement regarding 5e becomes relevant: If you object to Pathfinder’s weapon categories being used in 5e, then this might be problematic for you. Same goes for weapon types. The 2-handed martial weapon table can, for example, yield a bec de corbin, or a horsechopper, and it differentiates between a glaive and a glaive-guisarme, which 5e per default does not do. (And there obviously are no exotic weapons in 5e, which would necessitate that items in that table be categorized as simple or martial in 5e. In short: For 5e, immediate functionality is somewhat diminished. This also extends to the prices of the regular items in some instances. Take the bullseye lantern –per the 5e PHB, it’s 10 gp; per this book, it’s 12 gp. Hooded lantern? 5gp per PHB, 7 gp per this book. In case you were wondering: The prices in this book are the ones for the PFRPG-items. Most groups won’t mind this, but it certainly is something to bear in mind when using this with 5e. This also holds true for enhancement bonuses: While PFRPG’s magic item creation engine provides a direct correlation between item enhancement and abilities, 5e has decoupled these to a degree; as such, the tables providing enhancement bonuses for weaponry, armor, etc. have a more limited utility for 5e games.

This becomes more obvious still when taking a look at the lock-tables, which note not only their hardness and hp, but also 4 Break and Disable Device DCs, with each sporting a randomization element: Let’s say, we rolled 82 on Context B of the table, and the PCs are of 8th level: We take the second of the 4 values, which lists the Break DC as 12 +1d8, the Disable Device DC as 14 +1d8. Of course, this is not at all how 5e handles locks and breaking them – no damage threshold is provided. On the other side, the DCs to open the locks remain very much feasible in 5e, while the DCs quickly become automatic successes in PFRPG. Which high level (16+) PFRPG-rogue would even have to roll to beat a DC of 18 +1d6, for example? The highest Disable Device DC can be found on stronghold doors, and clocks in at DC 29 +1d8, which is something well-built rogues can routinely beat at the mid levels. And that’s the extreme end, mind you.

So yeah, as far as the quadding concept is concerned, this book has not managed to win me over; my observation that the automatic progression breaks apart at the 3rd statblock, at the very latest, still holds true here. This also holds true regarding the traps (which drop any pretense of working with 5e in mind); while these generally work and e.g. list their damage types MOST of the time, two, the acid needle and arsenic needle, are WEIRD. They e.g. list: “Atk 10 +1d8 melee and melee touch (2d6 plus arsenic).” The ardent reader will have noticed the absence of a damage type noted here (which previous traps did have); furthermore, and attack can’t be “melee and melee touch” – it’s either or, and this verbiage implies two attacks! To further underline my point regarding the quadding-scaling for these not working properly in PFRPG: The Perception DC to notice such a trap is 10+1d6 for the lowest levels, DC 16 +1d8 for the highest levels. As noted: the first two power tiers kinda work, the higher two…don’t.

In summary for this section of the book: The 5e-implementation is problematic, and the quadded concept tends to hamstring the combat-relevant aspects in the higher tiers for PFRPG; this is a significant issue – but it does not invalidate the enormous utility the system provides regarding its ability to simulate the micro-level; the issues are in the mechanical details and the assertion of trying to cater to two systems that diverge greatly in assumed player character power-curve, which would be impossible in a regular file, the problems exacerbated by the quadded challenges and high-level scaling not working properly for PFRPG.

The second part of the book deals with random encounters: It provides a global table to determine the direction from which the encounter comes, and whether or not they have surprise or are surprised, and one more table to determine the source of the creatures. The book presents a total of 10 such extensive tables, once more with quadded challenges. This section does refer to creatures such as dracolisks and dullahans once in a while, so while the majority should yield no problem in either gaming system, PFRPG groups will have 0 work here, while 5e-groups might need to find or make some builds for a few of the more obscure creatures. Still, as a whole, this works pretty well. As a downside, these tables are not necessarily global – they are tables for Dark Obelisk II, and limited to thematically-adjacent environments.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting is, as a whole, better than you’d expect from a one-man-operation – much better. That being said, a whole table missing is a glitch that should have most definitely been caught. Layout adheres to the 2-column/1-column two-column standard in full-color, with artworks being suitable public-domain photographs; there are a few pages wherr there is more blank real-estate than I enjoy seeing. The book comes in two pdf-versions: The regular one comes fully bookmarked; the printer-friendly one has a white background, but no bookmarks. As the books make use of color to indicate contexts, tables, etc., I do not recommend printing it in b/w. My hardcover is a solid little book, with name and icon properly noted on the spine – you can easily pull it out of your GM-shelf at one glance.

FlexTale’s 1.0 Version has me more torn than pretty much any book I’ve read in a long, long while. In an ironic twist, the book has different issues for both PFRPG and 5e. For 5e, the issues lie in rules mechanics simply not being catered to – it can be used for 5e, but so can OSR or 13th Age books. This is a PFRPG supplement in many ways, in the items referenced, in the name of potions found, etc. In PFRPG, the issue is an old one: The quadded approach for challenge-related content (traps, items, armor, etc.) simply does scale appropriately for PFRPG –you can essentially ignore the entries for the higher two iterations, because they are ridiculously low for PFRPG. Heck, high-level DCs can end up in a range that I’ve seen in modules for low levels adventures. Ironically, the bounded accuracy paradigm of 5e means that it works better than PFRPG with the DCs of the challenges provided, at least unless you are playing a particularly permissive and min-maxy group.

These are serious issues, and depending on your priorities, this might suffice to disqualify the book for you.

HOWEVER, this does not invalidate the crucial and genuinely amazing thing that the engine per se accomplishes, the fact that it increases the depths of the details of a gaming world to the point where the “interaction point” and “zooming-in” issues become impossible to discern for the players. That is a HUGE boon for GMs like me, for groups that want this level of detail. This book does something that no other book I’ve encountered does, and it does so well.

It is somewhat ironic for an Infinium Game Studios-book, for a book of a company devoted to making ginormous tomes with sheer obsessive amounts of details, that the main issue of FlexTale 1.0 lies in its scope and its allocation of content. This 1.0-book was obviously made with Dark Obelisk II in mind, and not necessarily as a global toolkit; this is reflected by the tables included, obviously.

In many ways, I wished that the book just focused on the FlexTables, provided more of them, and put the random encounter tables in Dark Obelisk II. Focusing on the detail-oriented tables would have been wise, as the rules-relevant issues outlined above make the challenge-relevant part, like interaction with magic item systems, DCs, etc., problematic. The detail-oriented tables don’t have this issue and work just as intended, to a degree that is amazing, that warmed my cold GM-heart. Instead of those problematic parts, know what’d have been useful? Weight values. Okay, so you find 1d4 nets. How much does one weigh? The tables list weight for items like spices, ore etc., as you roll the amount of pounds you get, but from lanterns to ermine pelts, the individual items don’t list eight values, which, if you’re peculiar about the like, will require page-flipping. And let’s be frank, if you’re using this book, you will be one of the people who track carrying capacity!

How to rate this, then? I’ve thought for a long time about this. There are, as noted, issues in details for both systems this was crafted for. The random encounter engine works as intended, and if you’re playing Dark Obelisk II, certainly adds to the experience, but it’s not something special; I’ve seen plenty of those before.

The main draw of this book, at least for me, lies in the sheer power to generate mundane “treasure” and components lying around, something that seriously adds a whole dimension of plausibility to Dark Obelisk II particular, and other games in a more limited scope. It is here that the engine does something truly novel, efficient and thoroughly rewarding. I wished that it further developed this aspect, and since this book is explicitly denoted as “1.0”, I am hopeful that we’ll get a bigger FlexTale book at one point. In such a book, a focus on making the details stand out, from plants to herbs to tools, might be prudent way to go.

How do you rate this? Ultimately, it makes most sense to rate this as a companion tome for Dark Obelisk II, as it does not have the scale for long-term, global application – yet. In that task, the book at once triumphs and stumbles, as outlined above. I can easily see this being a 2-star book for some groups, but similarly, I can see veteran GMs realizing what this system does, what I is capable of, and consider this to be a solution for a subtle, yet persistent problem of the medium itself.

As you have probably determined by now, I am in the latter camp: I am rather obsessive regarding details, and an engine like this is right up my alley. In fact, for the very first time, I am not simply curious regarding the future direction of Infinium Game Studios – I seriously want more! I really, really want this system to be expanded. Without the persistent quadded scaling issues and proper commitment to a single system, including implementation, and with a scope of 200+ pages, this system has all the makings of having the potential to be deemed an EZG Essential.

As provided, this is a mighty engine for Dark Obelisk II, but one that does have pronounced issues; its genius aspect notwithstanding, this must be considered to be a flawed book. Provided you want to use it for the lower two level-categories in PFRPG, and for Dark Obelisk II, this does get a wholehearted recommendation from me. If not, then I hope that my ruminations above have helped you deduce whether or not this is for you.

I have to rate this, though. And I thought long and hard; I genuinely should not rate this higher than 3.5 stars, and I can’t justify rounding up for the book as a stand-alone offering: Missing table and issues in both systems make that impossible. And yet, there is a genuinely inspired and amazing core here, one that made me want to slap my seal of approval on this, in spite of its flaws. I thought long and hard, and as a reviewer, I can’t do that, as my excitement for the engine’s potential and for what it does is not necessarily supported by broad application in context thematically divorced/ far beyond Dark Obelisk II. As a person, I love this. I want more. I want the formula to be refined. If you’re as OCD as I am, this might well hold true for you as well, though I can’t assume that. This is, ultimately, a deeply flawed book that contains a genuine diamond in the rough of an engine, one that demands to be polished to the proper shine.

Provided you use this in conjunction with Dark Obelisk II, this’ll enrich the experience significantly, as the random encounter tables are made with that book in mind. In such a case you should round up, which, after much deliberation, my official final verdict will do as well, solely on the basis of rating this as a supplemental book for Dark Obelisk II. As a stand-alone book, you should consider this to be a book in the 3-star vicinity. Please do note that, if the core engine here, the addressing of the detail-issue, is not worth as much to you as it is to me, that you should instead consider this to be a 2.5-star book at best.

Either way, I sincerely hope that this is not the last I’ve seen of FlexTale.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
FlexTale Encounter Generator (General Purpose v1.0; Pathfinder / 5E / Unisystem)
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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Pathfinder Second Edition / P2E)
by Kendall C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 02/24/2020 16:57:45

This book has a great many number of bestiary entries, but reading through, it seems almost lazily crafted. Each creature in the book has four levels, sure, but only these 4 levels: Lvl 4, Lvl 8, Lvl 12, and Lvl 16 no matter what the power of the creature is. There are no level 1 creatures, no level 6 creatures. This means it is up to you as the GM to decide if the creature is suitable for your partie's level. There are also many strange inconsistencies, such as the Cave Bear being smaller than all the other types of bears, even though it's the most powerful one.

The stat blocks can be tough to read at times, but that might just be me. They are very busy, with a lot of information packed in to a very small place. The fact that it's a PDF only furthers this issue.

All in all, I might reference this book from time to time, it can be good inspiration, but the fact that you have to decide on what is balanced and what is not, because the levels are completely arbitrary, makes it no less tedious then creating your own monsters, or re-skinning.



Rating:
[2 of 5 Stars!]
Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Pathfinder Second Edition / P2E)
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Creator Reply:
Hi Kendall--Thanks for your comments and feedback! Please note that the CR "standard spread" issue is being remediated as I type and a revised PDF should be available shortly. Apologies for that oversight. I'll be making a hardcover option available soon as well. I recognize that the "Quadded Statblocks" approach to things is not everyone's cup of tea; GMs can review the free PDF below for an overview (this content is also in the intro to the ABRE book itself): https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/190268/Quadded-Statblocks-to-Enable-VariableDifficulty-Adventures-in-Pathfinder-RPG Thanks again for your comments!
Just a quick note that this has been updated so that the Challenge Ratings have been amended: they are no longer a "default spread" of 4 / 8 / 12 / 16 as they had unintentionally been laid out initially. Same for the other Volumes in the series. Thanks for pointing that out!
Character Compendium 2 (Pathfinder)
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 02/05/2020 12:10:33

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This huge book clocks in at 439 pages regarding its content – already excluding editorial, KS-thanks and the like, as well as excluding the usual introduction for Infinium Game Studios book that explains the FlexTale angle, quadded statblocks, and the like. For the purpose of this book, most of these are inconsequential, since this is all about pregenerated characters.

This book was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving the hardcover for the purposes of this review. My review is thus based on the print-version of this tome.

This tome is intended for the purpose of providing replacement/pregenerated characters, to be more precise, for the second tome of the massive saga “The Mondarian Elelctive.” And yes, review forthcoming. Quadded statblocks are relevant, though, so let’s talk about those – each character herein comes in 4 iterations – one for level 1, one for level 6, one for level 10, and finally, a level 14 iteration. If applicable, familiars or animal companions are provided as well. At the start of each sub-chapter of the book, we have a summary of class roles, explaining for example how important skills, armor, ability scores are and ideas to use the characters – particularly useful here are the “resist the urge to”-components. While I do not agree with all of these notions, these intros can be useful to the newer players in particular. Each of the sub-chapters also sports notes on designer’s soapboxes, which range in their applicability from sound advice to…less so. In the latter case, this stems from multiple character classes being lumped in one chapter. When e.g. the designer comments that paladins and rangers won’t out-DPS most fighters, I had a tired chuckle. Similarly, paladins and rangers have VERY different roles, with many rangers acting as half rogue-substitutes in my experience…but oh well. As a whole, these introductory paragraphs are useful.

The characters contained herein are presented mostly in a NPC Codex-style format, so they are e.g., to take the sole bard herein, the dervish dancer. No individual background story or the like are presented, which was somewhat lamentable, as the genuinely often intriguing character backgrounds were what made the villainous compendium at least somewhat work for me.

If you’re playing with different point-buys, you should be aware that no point-buy-scaling guidelines are provided, nor is ever explicitly pointed out which guideline is presented, which is kinda odd, considering Aquilae’s somewhat dark fantasy-ish, grittier tone. Favored class options have been applied, but as far as I could discern, are used for HP/skills, not for race-specific options. The use of favored class options for a reason is not explicitly called out in the book.

As far as class-dispersal is concerned, the book contains the following builds, as noted before, with each build featuring 4 iterations: -1 bard -3 clerics -5 fighters -1 paladin -16 rangers -15 rogues -3 cavaliers (in the rogue chapter) -2 gunslingers (ditto) -1 wizard -1 inquisitor -2 magi -1 oracle -2 witches -1 alchemist (Characters from wizard to alchemist all in the same chapter) …and there are a couple of druids. By far the largest chapter herein deals with druids. It’s 177 pages of the book, so if you’re not looking for druids, you’ll have less of a reason to get this. There are 29 druid-builds herein. It should be noted that the side of the book has colored markers that let you quickly skim to the respective chapters – since some chapters contain a variety of different classes, the direct utility of this feature is slightly diminished, but I still like this aspect of the physical book.

The respective builds have their class features cut copy pasted in the back, for easy reference, and same goes for less common feat-choices. Verbiage conventions have not necessarily been adjusted, but e.g. animal tricks for companions have been included, which is nice. Less nice: There are problems in some statblocks. Take the alchemist-build, the final build herein: The statblock lists 1d6+4 (+5 for final version) bomb damage, which is obviously incorrect; the class feature lists the additional damage the bomb is supposed to cause correctly, but only for the highest level statblock; this also violates how bombs are noted in pretty much any alchemist statblock ever. This is particularly weird, since the Infinium Game Studios stats are usually good about stuff that can be automated – take e.g. channel energy, which is correctly listed. To avoid giving the false impression: The book is pretty good at getting the formal stat criteria right – better, in fact, than many comparable books. The book lists background skills like Artistry, and not only lists the “big” skills, also noting e.g. penalized skills.

As far as the build quality is concerned, we have a step forward in comparison with the last pregenerated character book by Infinium Game Studios that I’ve covered; the builds are all capable of filling their role, so no over-encumbered monks or the like.

Role…well, this is a weird thing, one of the weirder aspects of the book: I have a hard time determining what exactly this is supposed to be, which is relevant for a fair rating. Are these supposed to be pregenerated PCs, or NPCs? There’s a difference in WBL guidelines etc. there.

The chapter headers don’t help either; they are called “archetypes”, because the NPCs sport somewhat archetypical functions, but “Archetype” in the context of PFRPG has a very specific meaning. I did check the equipment loadout of the characters versus the WBL-guidelines, and noticed some discrepancies – which brings me to an important note: While I am firmly opposed to PFRPG1’s Christmas Tree syndrome, favoring scaling magic items and ability progressions instead, the items for the characters herein tend to fall on the basic side of things – usually, they are restricted to a weapon, an armor, a shield where applicable, and sometimes an amulet or the like. If you’re experienced with PFRPG, you’ll notice that, at the very least in the highest-level iteration, this’ll make the builds fall apart. Take a roof runner rogue: +1 Will save, +3 Fort-save, AC 19, 42 HP, at 6th level. This fellow would DIE in my game. Quickly. One of my current game’s level 2 rogue characters has that AC and better saves, and a vastly superior DPR. Not even kidding. If your game is close in optimization thresholds to mine, then these builds will not qualify for PCs. For nameless NPCs, okay…but I wouldn’t use them for bosses or adversaries.

There is a reason for the stark limitation of the magic items, and of the classes covered – the book only takes components of PFRPG prior to the release of the ACG into account. Now, my hatred for the Advanced Class Guide is well-documented, and I barely quit the game over it, but after that book, we got arguably the best two crunch hardcovers since the Advanced Player’s Guide, namely Occult Adventures and Ultimate Intrigue. Their absence is keenly felt when confronted with a book that does not take them into account. For some groups, those focusing on the old PFRPG-material, this might be a feature, but for me, it’s a bug.

Speaking of bugs: Some of the builds have obvious discrepancies between their concepts and execution – take, for example, the poisoner rogue. Guess which build owns NOT A SINGLE dose of poison. Bingo. The frickin’ poisoner. I mean, I like the blowgun and all, but…well. You get the idea. The infiltrator ranger never gets above Disguise -2. The Freebooter has Acrobatics +1, which’d make them fall all the time on deck, and Swim clocks in at a mighty +5 at 10th level. Yes, I know, historically, many people in the seafaring professions couldn’t swim. But in PFRPG, that kind of skill-allocation is begging for a mercy-killing. If anything, this is one of the biggest strikes against this book.

The tome states that it believes that character can be created from crunch, that rules can spawn roleplay. I wholeheartedly concur. But in the case of this book, the rules often get in the way of the story. And at this point in time, the book needed to evolve further from its troubled predecessor. It didn’t.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting, per se, are much better than what you’d expect from a one-man outfit in a formal manner; once you dive a bit deeper, you’ll notice issues not necessarily springing from the pure numbers generated, but from playing conventions and how things are done in play; paradoxically, the per se valid output generated does not survive the vagaries of the game as well as it should. Layout adheres, as always, the two-column full-color standard of these books, with color-coded headers helping orientation in the quadded statblocks, and helpful icons providing further guidance. As noted before, the colored indicators on the side of the book make jumping to sub-chapters easier – I like those. The hardcover properly notes its title etc. on its massive spine. There is one NPC, the alchemist Gloomy, who has a name, and a full-color artwork.

The predecessor of this book for Dark Obelisk I was easily the weakest book in the whole array, and unfortunately, the same needs to be said about this tome and how it relates to Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective. J. Evans Payne has crafted a decent array of statblocks if you need some quick stats for disposable, nameless NPCs, but I wouldn’t use these for PCs – ever. As a pregen book, this is a failure. If rated as an NPC Codex, I frankly don’t understand why automatic bonus progression wasn’t used – I can get behind the notion of not wanting NPCs studded with a ton of magic items, but as provided, these NPCs can’t hold a candle to all PFRPG groups I am aware of.

Had this been released anno APG, back when PFRPG was new, it’d fare differently. For the sake of fairness, I checked it against comparable files from the year 2011, and it fared better in such a context; the logic issues in some builds remained, but the output and capabilities of the builds proved to fare better in that context. They tended to be more focused, though – with several dumpstats resulting in oftentimes e.g. one good save and two abysmal ones. In many ways, this disqualifies the NPCs for anything but cannon-fodder with expensive equipment. And that’s a pity.

When all is said and done, I can’t really recommend this tome. It has learned from its predecessor, but not to a sufficient degree, and without lore or similar saving graces, I just don’t have anything but the stats to judge, and while the quantity is impressive, it is extremely uneven in its spread, and its quality is less impressive than what I had hoped for. Particularly the bugs that hamper direct use the builds as NPCs are what ultimately make me round down from my final verdict of 2.5 stars. I expected better.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[2 of 5 Stars!]
Character Compendium 2 (Pathfinder)
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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Pathfinder Second Edition / P2E)
by Thizz M. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/23/2020 10:22:51

this isnt perfect... some of the ac and attacks may mean more crits and like the other aquilea books some critters are too easy or hard. but this is huge if you want first ed monsters in 2e, converted right across with some rigor. huge time saver



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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Pathfinder Second Edition / P2E)
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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Fifth Edition / 5E)
by Thizz M. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/23/2020 10:21:03

no quicker way to get tons of monsters in 5e. i think these are all pathfinder and its great to have them in 5e. Some of the weak ones are a little tough and some of the hard ones are easy but the quad block thing is amazing and should be in every bestiary imo.



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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm: Volume 1 (Fifth Edition / 5E)
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Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm for Pathfinder Second Edition: Sample Monsters
by Federico C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/22/2020 00:02:53

The primary purpose of a bestiary is to provide GMs with usable statblocks to run their games.

While the concept for this product is interesting and there is a lot of potential and value in it, and I appreciate the principles and ideas, the statblocks are all over the place.

Let’s take the sample given -a banshee- and compare each version given to the benchmark values for Pathfinder Second Edition (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick to basics):

At level 4, this Banshee has abysmal AC, high HP, near extreme attack and moderate damage. It fits the role of an HP sponge (like an ooze) with sniper-style offensive.

At level 12, it has low AC, moderate-low HP, moderate attack, and moderate damage. It would probably work as a very squishy skirmisher - the flight and spectral ripple help.

At level 16, it has high AC, moderate-low HP, moderate attack, and high damage. It can fit as an armoured tank with imprecise, hard-hitting strikes.

At level 20, it has low AC, moderate-low HP, extreme attack, and high damage. It would play as a glass cannon, with highly precise, powerful attacks (this is considering that the +120 is an obvious typo and it was meant to be +12).

If this is meant to be a realistic representation of the final product, I would say that it fails in its base purpose - to carry a creature across levels. The same creature will give wildly different feels, because there is no attempt to keep a guideline or relation between the numbers, or in other words, there is no creature concept that these numbers represent. Each version of it plays differently, and likely has different playstyles and points of balancement (I am not going to evaluate in detail whether or not each of these four entries is balanced for play, but I’d eyeball a hard no). Not only this is not true-to-the-rules as claimed, this feels like it has never been examined with the rules at hand. If this is one that’s been chosen for representation, what of the other 6000+ entries in the actual product?

I like the idea of quadded statblocks. I like the idea of being able to carry a monster across, and above all, I like the idea of having access to a wide variety of creatures. However, I cannot advise purchasing a product this size unless I can believe it’s usable.

If there is going to be an attempt at fixing the product... It'll be a lot of work. I believe the main issue is in the adjustments used to "quad" the statblock. A valid way to do it would be to relate the original base stats to the value tresholds and use similar tresholds, adequate to the new level, for each of the additional blocks, rather than applying the current "templates and tools" (which, clearly, aren't working). I can't speak to the baseline conversion, as format and rules references seem to be okay, but evaluating values would require a lot more examples. The one positive note is that at least the closest leveled version (lv12) seems to attempt to maintain creature concept, if a little undertoned, so something is going in the right direction.



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[1 of 5 Stars!]
Aquilae: Bestiary of the Realm for Pathfinder Second Edition: Sample Monsters
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