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Monkey Business (Digital Edition)
Publisher: Disoriented Ranger Publishing
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/15/2019 13:43:39

An Endzeitgeist.com review

Okay, the first thing you’ll notice upon downloading this, is that you get an archive that contains 6 files – one is a read me, while three are cheat sheets; the other two files are Monkey Business, and the “Appendices”-file – which may be rather misnamed, but I’ll get to that below. The adventure booklet is 51 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover left blank, 1 page editorial, 1 page introductory quote, 1 page ToC, leaving us with 46 pages; the Appendices booklet clocks in at 55 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, leaving us with 52 pages of content. The booklets are laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5).

Now, I have received print versions of these booklets in exchange for a fair an unbiased review, and said booklets are saddle-stitched and rather nice; the author is currently working on PoD, but if that takes a while, you might contemplate asking for such a copy. Anyways, I primarily used these booklets in my review, though I did also double-check the respective pdfs, obviously. Suffice to say, as per my usual policy, receiving print copies made me move this up in my reviewing queue.

As far as rules are concerned, this employs the Labyrinth Lord (LL) rules, which means, in case you’re not familiar with them, HD-ratings, descending AC, saves referencing class tables, and movement rates that tend to assume 90’ (30’) as the default, but which can oscillate rather significantly. Morale values are included. From my experience, conversion from LL to other OSR-rules systems is pretty simple; in this instance, the relative danger of the adversaries herein means that I can see this working in more high-powered OSR-games very easily. Important for purists: The module borrows the advantage and disadvantage terms from 5e, so if you dislike the use of those, be wary of that. The booklets are intended to provide gameplay for low to mid level ranges, and I’d second this – the tougher challenges work best in the mid-level range and remain dangerous there.

Okay, so, the formal part out of the way, let us talk a bit about what this is, and what it isn’t. Monkey Business proudly wears the DIY-component of DIY OSR as a huge badge; this is NOT a finished adventure you just read and run – instead, it is an exceedingly reusable toolkit with a part of a story, a set-up; the rest happens, for better or worse, in emergent gameplay. Personally, I’d argue that it’s fairer to review Monkey Business as a toolkit, rather than as an adventure, for that is where an obviously serious part of the focus went – so that’s what I’ll do. One thing you need to be aware of: The text throughout is very conversational in style: “Well. Who doesn’t like cannibals?!” and similar interjections suffuse the text of this supplement, and don’t stop throughout – the like usually rubs me the wrong way, but considering the themes of the adventure, I found it oddly appealing – when it stayed out of explanatory sections or rules.

While the toolkit components are obviously entwined with the specific situation presented within these pages, the toolkit component per se can be utilized beyond the scope of this booklet and its themes, so let us start right there, with making the actual site of the adventure/sandbox we have here – a vast, gonzo jungle.

Gonzo? Yeah, and I mean big time. This is closer to the fourth-wall breaking, pop-culture referencing original iteration of Crimson Dragon Slayer or to Fever-dreaming Marlinko, than to the other Hill Cantons books; in a way, “gonzo” is a not a descriptor for the genre here; it IS the genre. There is intrusion of 1920s tech, plentiful quoting of exploitation-themed movies and pop-culture references, and the very concept of the book; so if you don’t like that sort of thing, this might turn you off. It should also be noted that this comes with a “Mature Content” warning – that, at least to my German sensibilities, is not necessarily required. Then again, the themes include drugs (central to everything herein), and there are some fade-to-black-style mentioning of sexual intercourse. And a LOT of swearing, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you have been warned. The author is also not a native speaker of English, and while I have read plenty of non-native speakers writing lavish prose, there are a couple of glitches in this one: Some examples for glitches include “under her ban” – as a fellow German, I understand the origin of this one: “Unter jemandes Bann stehen” in German means “to be under sb’s spell”; “set/sat” and similar (near-) homophone errors are more common hiccups herein. That being said, I have seen plenty of books by native speakers that fared worse.

Thankfully, you can get this module for PWYW, so if those are potential deal-breakers for you, you can check out the book and leave a donation if you enjoy the material.

The generators included herein are somewhat entwined with the content of the module, so there will be some SPOILERS below. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the central theme of the book would be “intelligent drug pusher apes and monkeys.” Told you this was capital letters GONZO. These fellows are the primary antagonists, and as such, you begin the jungle generation by taking a hex-map, and putting their base smack in the middle – this is the Gorilla Headquarters, a no-longer-abandoned temple. The other “factions” are ruins, cannibals, mushroom people, and aliens.

From the central hex (hex A) that contains the Gorilla HQ, you move clockwise through the adjacent hexes in a spiral pattern, and designate them with letters. You roll a d100 for every hex field: The d% of the roll determines the Elevation of the hex, while the d10 of the roll determines the Complexity of the field, which denotes how easily it is traversed. The two parts of the d100 also determines the number of vistas that may be found 1 – 3 on either die means one vista, 4-6 two vistas, and 7-10 three vistas. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we’ll just be rolling lots of d100s and putting the numbers down on the cheat-sheet, one for each hex. Then, we check the results: There are 9 different sub-categories of the table: So, for example, entries 01 – 10 denote mountains; 21 – 30 denotes lakes and moors – you get the idea. Each number has its own little entry. If some rolls make no sense in proximity to each other, you can modify them relatively easily on the fly. These categories feature something important for the whole generation process, the component of the engine that generates setting-inherent dynamics: The resource-level, or RL. Each category has a resource level ranging from 1 – 4, with some of the individual entries modifying resource level further. The presence of underwater lakes or deep caverns can mean essentially an extra environment with extra resource levels, while e.g. a jungle-less plateau can reduce resource levels by -2. You also put the resource levels down in the hex cheat sheet.

We have now established the lay of the land – now, let’s return to the factions. For each faction, you roll a number of d6s equal to the resource level, and compare the results with the respective “faction” table (ruins are a faction primarily because the engine treats them as such!) – anyhow – each faction has several things they might or might not have: The result of the resource level roll is used in a point-buy manner to purchase stuff: Mushroom folk can pay for a village circle with 6 points, mushroom artworks cost 1 point, and the mighty Father Shroom costs 14 points, with a maximum of one per hex. Gorillas mighty be constructing roads (5 points), seed hidden stashes (1 point per stash) or create a hidden base for 10 points. This is generally a really amazing system, and I kinda wished we had more entries for each faction, particularly because each faction has a kind of threshold value – usually 15 or 20: If the resource level exceeds these values, we have each ruins with still functional magic properties, apes proceeding to the next phase of their master plan, or there might be an alien ship around! This system is elegant, pretty easy to grasp, and made using the generator, surprisingly, pretty FUN for me. Perhaps it’s my German nature, but I loved this little engine and how it gamifies what would be potentially bland busywork. It also appeals to my OCD-tendency of providing details for everything, giving me a solid framework that suffices for fluid gameplay. Is it required? No, not exactly. And I think the threshold value for the completion of Phase 1 is much too low. But it does almost feel like engaging in a Sim Gonzo Jungle-like mini-game.

You write down what each hex has for the factions, and you can obviously expand upon this engine, add other factions and effects – the elegant system is exceedingly easy to modify. Heck, you could go full-blown RTS and make the replenishment of creatures slain contingent on resource levels, cost points, etc. – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s now take a look at the cannibal village generator – for this one, we roll 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1 d10, 1d12 and 1d20 all at once. The sum of these rolls is the basic population. The pattern your dice show on the table, like on a die-drop table, is copied (doesn’t have to be perfect) on the Cannibal Village cheat sheet. D4s represent sick huts; d6s represent big communal huts; d8s storage huts; d120s initiation huts; d12 is the shaman’s hut, and d20 the chief’s hut. You check each of the entries, which influence reaction rolls, culture, and sometimes have quest angles. These results also indicate the presence of potent individuals like magic-users and more potent combatants. If you roll the same number on two different dice, that indicates a strong bond between the inhabitants of the respective huts. As written, these dice represent abstractions, but with minor modifications, you can use additional dice and modify the system by e.g. throwing more dice. A minor complaint regarding didactic sequence – the sum of culture modifications is called “basic culture”, which can cause some slight confusion regarding terminology, and its actual use is explained AFTER these tables; the culture value is used as a modifier to the reaction roll (2d6 +/- basic culture).

Now, I mentioned before that this has a kind of resource management engine, right? A tribe uses resources equal to 1/10th of its population (rounded up to the closest multiple of 10) per week, and a tribe gains Resource Level times d6 per week – so abundance may quickly turn to famine on unlucky rolls. This engine is elegant, cool, and really helps propel gameplay – I just wished the book did more with it. Apart from facilitating the illusion of an organic, dynamic world, this has no real repercussions. Storage, feasts and events, raids, etc. would have helped. Resources also always remain abstract, so if your players want to steal them, you’ll have to improvise regarding weight, etc. This generator is really cool, but it doesn’t live up to its full potential.

Ruin generation follows a similar paradigm, once more starting with a die-drop like throw of dice, but omits the d4. Instead, you roll a d100 – which is the ruin’s limit; if you make larger ruins, you add 50 to this roll. Additionally, you put a circle divided into quarters on the table where you roll – upper left denotes ruins being above and plain, lower left that they are in the plain and hidden, etc. You then take the dice from left to right where they fell, and reference brief and basic tables to denote first impressions, inside, features, etc. – minor complaint: There are three entries designated as “1.”, which made this aspect of the generator somewhat hard to grasp at first glance; once more, the procedure how to do this is explained after the tables. Granted, the generator walks you through its use, and once more, the pattern and even/uneven numbers denote connections, with hidden spaces designated by dotted lines. The results of die rolls are detracted from the initial d100-roll, and you keep rolling for as long as this budget is not emptied. I like this per se as an idea. Two complaints: 1) The treasure is not formatted properly (and PAINFULLY boring); 2) I fail to see the benefit here; where the village generator resulted in dynamic environment and gameplay-facilitators, this one is an awful lot of work for a backdrop generator sans dressing; particularly the ruin budget (the d100 from which you subtract your rolls) is an unnecessary complication without much benefits. Using simply a point-buy method would have probably been a) simpler and b) quicker. Speaking of treasure being not exactly exciting – there is a 1-page jungle treasure generator, and it’s honestly not very exciting; it has you roll 4 dice, and doesn’t really deliver anything interesting.

The final generator lets you make your own monkey monsters – and it’s per se a cool one: 4d10 to determine body, fur, tail and face, 4d6 for organization, intelligence, abilities and motivation, done – that’s pretty smooth…but lacks stats or mechanical meat. This is particularly evident regarding the abilities, which e.g. talk about howling potentially causing sonic harm when executed by a group. Okay, how much? Range? How many monkeys required? Where is the means to determine HD? Monkeys that automatically return as undead? Heck yeah! Stats? Nada. This is a good dressing-generator, but it falls short of immediate usefulness at the table to make mechanically-distinct adversaries. The appendices also contain a fully mapped Gorilla HQ (including sideview, etc.) designed by Mark van Vlack, which is actually a pretty nice compound – I enjoyed this one as the culmination!

Now, remember that I mentioned those pop-culture references? Well, this is nowhere more apparent than in the bosses (also collected, alongside other stats, in its own chapter) – there is, e.g. King Kolossus, who grows whenever he’s hit; there’s a drill sergeant (Seargent[sic!] Mincy) who gets to continue attacking as long as he hits; there is Bling Kong, a gorilla super-scientist (The Brain) and his Pinkie-henchmen…and, of course, there are monkey ninjas, orangutan drug pushers, former noble turned scrummy drug addict Tarzang…you get the idea. Somewhat asinine: The stats sometimes omit abilities that the creatures have – King Kolossus, as the module notes, has the power to command addicts – guess what’s never managed in the bestiary section? Bingo. This is particularly grating regarding Bling Kong, who shreds armor, and breaks bones – guess what’s not mentioned in the statblock? Bingo. You have to essentially cobble together the combat stats from both books. It should also be noted that “The Brain”, RAW, has “devices with effects as a level 20 magic-user has spells.” This fellow is working on a tank. That’s imho overkill. If a GM even remotely play this fellow to his full capabilities, he will ANNIHILATE the party, regardless of their plans – particularly since there is no limitation provided for these devices. Here, a little generator to determine devices and effects would have made sense. Or at least give us some cursory rules for their use to set them apart. Can the party use them? No clue, but I assume that the answer’s “no.”

But what is this module actually about? Well, the party finds themselves in the jungle, and there are several rumors and adventure hooks provided. So, essentially, the gorillas and other apes are subservient henchmen controlled by a sentient fungoid rhizome – the drug furthers its nebulous agenda: Simians consuming the drug become super-intelligent, thus explaining their sudden leap on the evolutionary ladder; other species experience different effects: Goblins (like The Brain’s Pinkies) become suicidal and explode upon death, making them essentially Warhammer goblin fanatics (Heck yeah!) minus the ball-and-chain. Tarzang is a junkie, as noted before, and dwarves become stronger, but slowly turn to stone; halflings experience a sort of devolution, and poisonous reptiles? Well, these have their poison changed into an even more potent drug! Normal reptiles under the effect may end up possessing you and make you engage in unpleasant activities – pretty random, that one. Other animals have their own entries and display erratic behavior, and yes, the book species what it takes to get off the drug – cold turkey, essentially. Here’s the thing: For humans, the drug is a potent boost, and may result in special powers in a select few. Half their Intelligence is siphoned off while under the influence, though – this siphoned off Intelligence of magic-users is used by the fungus in some manner that I genuinely failed to understand and grasp, even upon rereading it multiple times. On the plus-side, the drug is a perfect in-game validation for the presence of so many cannibals – eating human flesh dampens its effects. Oh, and if you’re an elf? Well, then you’ve just entered a dangerous area – you see, elves drop essentially comatose, and the monkeys attempt to get them home. Why? Because they are connected to the mushroom and used as a kind of living RAM, sending them into a disturbing shroom-Matrix. For what purpose? That’s never specified – the book has this super-asinine insistence that the high-concept stuff remains up to the GM. No. That’s literally the reason why get modules.

But wait! Weren’t there other factions? Yep, and they are pretty awesome: The aliens masquerade (VERY BADLY) as British gentlemen explorers. Okay, they may fire plasma guns at cuddly animals (because they’re really afraid of small and fluffy things) and their camouflage is pretty sucky, but they are essentially the wild-card. They have powerful weaponry, and while they don’t grasp the intricacies of humanoid mating protocols and the like, they certainly are a welcome addition, and a good way for the GM to provide some help in combat against the superior simian forces. And yes, the book covers different romance options. Here’s a clue: They will be awkward and quite possible not fun. The aliens come with their own surprisingly detailed random encounter/event table that makes it very obvious that something’s off – the juxtaposition of the uppity British explorer trope with weirdness works well here, and the section actually had me a chuckle a few times.

The other faction would be mushroom pygmies (who, like monkey ninjas, get a kick-ass original artwork by Mark Van Vlack) – these fellows are easily one of the most hilarious takes on the mushroom man trope that I’ve seen in a while: They are friendly, and unless you’re high as a kite on fruit they offer, you’ll not really be able to communicate with these harmless fellows – before that, their speech sounds like farts and giggles, with occasional exclamations of “Yippieh!” Even after that, the pdf suggests communicating in Dadaist manner, and as though affected by a draw of helium – bonus points if you actually do that at the table, when roleplaying them. This may not be groundbreaking, but the levity provided by these genuinely friendly folks was very much appreciated – and in an interesting angle, they are good, but serve the evil fungus-network: They figure they have to balance the deeds of their deity. Oh, and eating them temporarily grants you super-powers, with their dots denoting the ability. Just don’t become too greedy. They reminded me of Zzarchov Kowolski’s Gnomes of Levnec, non-grimdark gonzo edition, and I sure as hell mean that as a compliment. Annoying: The can do something about the monkeys when they grow a Father Shroom” as per the generator rules, but otherwise are harmless. No stats are provided for either, though. The main book references the appendix book, but no mechanical information is provided, just a general notion for the GM to make it badass. That’s not helpful.

There is another micro-faction/surreal cadre of encounters contained herein – a traveling circus, whose performers were changed by the drug in strange ways. Hopelessly knotted contortionists, pantomimes that create actually existing things, trapped in an invisible labyrinth…these NPCs are genuinely cool, particularly in one instant, where a potent enchantment requires clever roleplaying to solve: Affected characters tend to become aggressive and hear the opposite of what’s said – and this needs to be understood and exploited to break the spell. LOVE that! Did I mention the magician, who is essentially Penn, with hapless PCs filling in as Teller…with the minor issue of potential death and mutilation, of course? Even beyond those, we get a surprisingly detailed and cool list of random encounters and some guidance regarding setting of the scenery etc. – and that’s it.

Yeah, there is no real masterplan provided – partially due to the focus on generator-powered emergent gameplay, sure, but also, well…due to that aspect of the book simply ending. This is a crazy set-up. Throw in PCs. Watch. End-game plans, NPC motivations and the like? The meaning of it all, if any? You’ll have to come up with that yourself.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting leave something to be desired on both a formal and rules-language level: On a formal level, as mentioned, there are quite a few typos and sentence-structures that feel a bit off; you can easily discern what’s meant, but particularly when the conversational tone intrudes upon explanatory text and/or rules and sports such hiccups, things can become a bit grating, which is a pity, for quite a few of these digressions are genuinely funny. On a rules-language level, I am primarily annoyed by some (but not all!) special abilities being split between description and stats, requiring you to cobble together the actual stats. Formatting of rules-elements can also be off at times, but that particular snafu happens rarely. Layout adheres to a 6’’ by 9’’ (A5) one-column b/w-standard, with the artworks sourced from thematically-suitable public domain, and, as noted before, some surprisingly neat original b/w-images by Mark Van Vlack. The HQ of the primary antagonists is presented in a nice b/w-map, but no player-friendly version is included. Inexcusable as far as I’m concerned: The pdfs lack bookmarks, making navigation painfully inconvenient. I STRONGLY suggest printing this; without the ability to reference my print copies, particularly considering the generators and split stats, I’d have been much more annoyed.

Jens Durke’s Monkey Business (with contributions by Mark Van Vlack) is a tough nut to review. On the one hand, it does a lot of things right. At no point does Monkey Business devolve into a “Lol, oh so random!” disaster, the most common pitfall of gonzo modules, particularly ones that seek to retain a sense of plausibility. And indeed, this module, in spite of its weird factions and Hitchhiker’s Guide and Donkey/King Kong references always retains this ephemeral plausibility, of making sense within its own bonkers world. In short: This never devolves into numbing weirdness for weirdness’ sake, like e.g. “Isle of the Unknown.” It is cartoony and funny, but those aspects are contrasted with the more mundane aspects of the jungle, thus avoiding falling prey to becoming a numbing sequence of quirkiness. They have (mostly) a singular source, they have a raison d’être, if you will. That’s pretty important to me

It is also very much evident that this is a passion project, a freshman offering, and a very ambitious one at that. The attention to detail provided for the system to render the jungle dynamic? It is genuinely amazing, and particularly if you want to simulate a dynamic hex-wilders with different factions, this aspect of the module will be a godsend: Just reskin the factions, and you could e.g. simulate a conflict of tribes in the prairie, you could simulate city-states clashing, etc. – I absolutely ADORE this toolkit. Heck, from Carcosa to the pretty much any other long-term wilderness, I’ll be tweaking this one. It’s a seriously awesome tool for detail-oriented dynamics. It is genuinely inspired. However, not all generators can claim as much – as mentioned, the ruin generator is, at best, over-engineered for what it delivers. If it resulted in actually interesting material, it’d be amazing, but the individual entries are painfully obscure and cookie-cutter. And this dichotomy between bombing hard and being nigh genius extends beyond that. The mushroom pygmy faction is awesome, detailed, funny – contrast that with the absence of any notions of what their Father Shroom is, how it works, etc. Or random encounters that have subentries like “Playful and colorful birds” featuring in the same table as “A group of animals working together to build some sort of machine from earth, bones, stones, wood and spit.” “Make it magnificent and scary!” has no place in a dressing table. That’s what dressing/encounter tables are for, so the GM doesn’t have to come up with it.

And this is Monkey Business’ primary issue: It is very apparent where the authors’ passion lie – these sections tend to be funny, clever, and often provide some nice roleplaying cues as well. The other sections, though? They feel like afterthoughts. In a way, it is pretty apparent that, at one point, the author wanted to be done with this – as a module, Monkey Business is simply unfinished. From the wildcard super-weapons of non-simian factions not properly codified to the split stats, we have a couple of instances where the module struggles. This is most apparent due to there not actually being a plan beyond phase I (which is to spread the drug) – I was reminded of certain gnomes from South Park:

  1. Spread the Drug
  2. ?????
  3. Profit! This is a half-finished module in many ways; there are SO MANY ideas herein, and a LOT of them are great – but go nowhere. Okay, so reptiles possess you! Cool! Do they have an agenda? Will there be a new shaman tradition to exorcise reptile spirits? With the presence of super-science, why are there no super-science items, and instead we get one of the lamest treasure tables ever? (Seriously, not one cool piece of loot. Not one. Okay, perhaps one: Tarzang’s sword is kinda funny, but its rules are not codified well.) Answer: Because the author wasn’t interested in that. We get efficient, cool generators for cannibal villages – but no such dynamics for the other factions. We get the utterly unique and often genius circus performers that are seriously super-creative…but their abilities often don’t go into enough depth. I mentioned the pantomime, whose performance becomes real, right? Okay, so can e.g. the ability to see invisible see the labyrinth he’s trapped in? Can you just walk though it? Does the labyrinth exist only for him, or only once you’ve seen it/believe in it? I LIKE roleplaying-based abilities that can’t just be solved by rolling the dice, and this module BRIMS with them. However, they often just shrug and ignore the mechanical representation that should accompany them. The circus folk? They are normal humans. Kinda. The strongest man alive, whose even barest of motions can cause devastating damage? Awesome. What’s the range? No clue. He also suffers from banana-phobia, something I can relate to. See, it’s funny. It’s weird in a good way. It’s unfinished.

If I got this in my capacity as a developer, I’d send it back with a lot of “develop this” and “cut this” notes attached; the book buckles under the weight of a vast amount of awesome ideas, which regularly suffer from the execution simply being not nearly as precise as they should be. Which is kinda heart-wrenching for me.

You see, in spite of its copious amounts of flaws, I genuinely LIKE Monkey Business. In fact, more often than not, I found myself loving some aspect of the adventure and its kits. But these moments always were cut short by some sort of obvious oversight, by some component that feels painfully phoned in, at least in direct contrast to the cornucopia of genuinely neat ideas directly preceding it.

And yet, I can’t call this a failure either; the procedural generation systems, even when their presentation isn’t always as smooth as it should, genuinely are inspiring and they represent a truly valuable tool. Many of the special abilities, if you care to iron off the rough patches here and there, similarly are absolutely inspiring. And then you notice that the generator for monkeys lacks proper codification for the few special abilities it notes. And then you realize that yet another entry tells the GM to make something cool up. No. Just frickin’ no. That’s what the frickin’ module is for. If I feel like it, I’ll do that anyways, on my own terms.

How, by Asmodeus’ goatee, am I supposed to rate this? What we have here is a flawed indie production with glitches galore, one that feels like it just stops and tells the GM to do the heavy lifting for several key components. At the same time, we have pretty mighty tools that allow you to procedurally generate complex environments and a pretty darn amazing dynamic landscape with different factions – and said tools can easily be transplanted into pretty much any context. There is serious value to be found herein. In many ways, Monkey Business is saved by this system, and by it being available for PWYW, which is, considering the amount of effort and time that went into this, stunning. You can easily check out the book, and leave a tip if you like it. I’m willing to bet that if you even remotely enjoy gonzo ideas, then you’ll find some cool angles herein.

This module/toolkit is, when all is said and done, a prime example why it’s important to have someone edit or develop your material; with some polish and refinement (and all the half-finished bits completed, perhaps a treasure table that is not an analgesic), this could easily have been a 5 star + seal of approval masterpiece; heck, it could have ended on my top ten lists. As presented, this is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read all year; It could have achieved true greatness, and has several hints of brilliance, but like Tarzang, Slacker-King of the Jungle, squanders its potential. If anything, this module shows that the author is smart, has potential. Ironically for a German author, the crucial flaws can be summarized as a lack of discipline when it comes to rules, and once more, ironically for Disoriented Ranged Publishing, a lack of orientation and direction, of meta-structure. (I’m German myself, I’m allowed to crack that admittedly sucky joke.)

On the other hand, Monkey Business is, with precious few exceptions (Treasure! Ruins!) not boring and oozes genuine creativity; it s impossible to not experience a strong reaction to this, whether positive or negative. As a person who is well-versed in rules-language and design, I genuinely loved a lot about this book. When I started analyzing it, though, the flaws and shortcomings started piling up. As a reviewer, many of these can be considered to be dealbreakers – from the missing bookmarks to aforementioned snafus, there is unfortunately also a lot to be contrite about. I find myself at once wanting to recommend this to everyone, and to tell everyone to steer clear; “Zwei Herzen schlagen, ach, in meiner Brust”, to paraphrase good ole’ Faust.

To sum it up: This is, on a formal level, not a good adventure; it relegates too much of the heavy lifting to the GM, is too unfocused and flawed; however, it also is an inspired adventure toolkit, and the procedural generators, even the one with the weakest execution, are exceedingly useful if you are looking for a concise, detailed engine. You can love or hate this for a wide variety of reasons; this is a deeply flawed book. But it is also a deeply inspiring one. Rated only in its function as an adventure, disregarding the formal hiccups, this’d be a 2-star product, simply due to being unfinished. As a toolkit and book to scavenge ideas from, this’d be closer to the vicinity of 4 stars.

As such, my final verdict will clock in at 3 stars. If you even remotely like gonzo themes, please download the PWYW and take a look. This is worth your time and HD space. And I’ll also do something I have only done once before, I think, in my entire reviewer’s career: For its mighty toolkit-functionality, this gets my seal of approval as a symbol of how much I, as a person, liked this and the sheer amount of utility I’ll get out of the engine in years to come.

I sincerely hope that there will be a refined, revised and expanded edition at one point. With the proper refinement, this could easily turn into a gonzo masterpiece.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Monkey Business (Digital Edition)
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Star Intrigue
Publisher: Legendary Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/14/2019 12:18:51

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This supplement for Starfinder clocks in at 44 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of introduction, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 35 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in ym reviewing queue at the request of my patreons.

So, this book builds on the “kingdom”-building style engine presented in Star Empires – it is, in a way, the Ultimate Intrigue to Star Empires’ Ultimate Campaign, to draw some PFRPG-analogues. As such, I assume familiarity with Star Empires in this review.

In more details: We begin with rules for factions: Factions have an alignment, with Lawful factions gaining +2 to resources, Chaotic factions gaining +2 to power; Good factions get +2 to reputations, Evil ones get +2 to power; Neutral factions get +1 to both resources and reputation. Now, as you all know by now, I am NOT a fan of alignment – and this pdf does oblige, which is a big plus: Instead of using the simplistic alignment angle, Ethos can be used: A table with traits, bonuses and opposing traits is provided, allowing for more nuanced gameplay – love this!

A given nation may have any number of factions, but if the combined size of all factions exceeds 10 times the nation size, it does get Unrest +1 during the Upkeep phase, representing a splintering of identity – and providing, obviously, a justification to eliminate factions… Not every type of faction will be represented in a nation, but all nations should have a Civil faction representing the citizens, a judicial one to represent the rulers. Factions have a goal, obviously.

The term “operation” is used to denote a task a faction can choose during the faction turn. Factions have 3 types of “ability modifier” analogues – power, reputation, and resources. Size denotes, well, size – one point represents approximately 25 individuals; this is an arbitrary number, though – you could easily use e.g. 1000 as a number instead to track massive factions, but you need to make sure that factions all use the same scale. Factions receive a modifier to faction checks equal to 1/10th of the faction’s size, rounded down. Tension is somewhat akin to a faction’s Unrest – it denotes a penalty that is applied to all faction checks – 1 for every 10 tension points the faction has. If tension reduces a faction modifier below zero, the faction splinters. Certain types of operations and things happening can increase or decrease tension.

A faction’s wealth is measured in Wealth Points (WP), with 10 WP roughly approximating 1 BP. Here are a couple of observations – the supplement, oddly, refers to credits by the opaque “cp”-term, which is confusing; the book should refer to credits, or at least properly explain that. Secondly, I’m pretty positive that something is very wrong in the conversion rates from WP to BP to credits. A WP here is noted to only be worth 400 credits, which is RIDICULOUS. It becomes even worse when using this and extrapolating the conversion to Star Empires sizes, as that leaves you with an empire’s starting budget clocking in at less costs than many high-level weapons. Something went horribly wrong here, and since the latter sub-chapters reference, multiple times, how characters can purchase WP, this glitch remains persistent and compromises a core component of the engine. There was a reason for there NOT being such a conversion rate in Star Empires. After some cursory math, I’d recommend making a WP cost AT LEAST 4,000 credits; if you’re like me and like round numbers, 5,000. Just my two cents.

A faction begins with 10 WP and a size of 0; infrastructure will increase the size, and factions of size 1+ can launch operations, earn income and increase its size. If a faction is reduced to size 0, it can only undergo the recruitment operation.

Faction checks are rolled by using a d20 and adding the relevant faction’s attribute, with default DC being 15; 1s are automatic failures, 20s automatic successes, and factions may not take 10 or 20 on faction checks. The pdf presents a total of 10 faction types, ranging from trade to military, and also presents brief guidelines for the GM to build new types of factions. The type determined, we have to think about secrecy states – factions can be open, covert, or disguised.

As noted before, factions can have one or more goals – these may be public or secret, and consist of an Aim, a Scale, and a Subject. The Aim is classified in 4 rough categories: Control, Boost, Reduce and Eliminate. There are 6 different scales to consider, from individual to international, and all of them as well as public/secret goals influence the DC of the faction check, as a handy table summarizes.

Faction turns happen during the nation turn sequence, after the Edict phase, and the results of the faction turn come into place before the Income phase. The sequence in which the factions act in a turn is determined by a Power-check as a kind of initiative, acting in reverse order. In the instance of a tie, the smaller faction goes first.

The faction turn begins with the Upkeep Phase: If tension reduced an attribute below zero, the faction has to check for splintering; after that, the faction pays its size in WP as upkeep costs; after that, wealth is added first by characters (here, the credit-conversion-issue once again rears its ugly head), then by Resources checks. After this, Operations phase begins: The faction size determines the maximum number of contiguous faction operations a faction can undertake at once. Launching an operation costs the operation’s cost. Operations are classified in two types – only one type of active operation may be performed in a given turn, but maintenance operations may be performed more often. A total of 16 such operations are presented.

Just like they can influence the course of nations, so can they interact with individuals – their relation to individuals can be easily tracked with 5 positive and negative ranks, all of which have their own name and explanation provided. – having a positive rank of 5 means you’re in control of the faction, having a negative rank of 5 means that you’re anathema. Gaining and loss of influence points are presented in a concise and easy to grasp manner, and, as you could probably glean, there is a more fine-grained way to describe interactions with factions – namely influence points. Thresholds for ranks are provided, and in a rather cool way, faction size once again comes into play, with larger factions making rising to the top progressively harder.

Factions can grant favors, which the PCs may cash in – borrowed resources, gathering information, etc. 30 such favors are presented, and some of them get their own table that differentiates between influence ranks and the extent of the favor. To illustrate this issue, and how the credit-formula imho yields persistently odd results: Borrow Resources, for example nets you resource times 20 credits on rank 1, while rank 5 nets you resources times 5000 credits. For comparison – the largest sample faction herein is a megacorp with a size of 467, which would yield the equivalent of 9340 credits borrowed at rank 1, while someone with a rank of 5 (which means “in control” of the faction), could borrow “only” 2,335,000 credits – a vast sum, sure, but for the CEOs of a megacorp? That’s only slightly more than two level 20 armors. Sure, impressive, and maybe I’m too strongly influenced by Shadowrun, but that’s still not a sum that impresses me, particularly considering that the resources are borrowed. In PFRPG, this would have been a very impressive sum indeed; in SFRPG? Less so. You can’t even outfit a whole high-level party with state of the art armor. The command team a rank 5 fellow can send out? It’s CR 10. All in all, these don’t feel right to me; further delineation and a finer differentiation between ranks, with higher ranks/benefits for larger factions would have been prudent here.

The same, partially, hold true for the hazards, i.e. the negative things a faction can do to the PCs and instigate to hamper them, but, courtesy to the more narrative focus here, it struck me as a slightly lesser issue. The pdf then proceeds to go through the process of creating factions for existing nations, and features a couple of sample factions for your convenience. I usually do not comment on artwork and the like, since I’m more interested in the actual content, but here, I feel obliged to do so: The pdf sports two artworks prominently displaying a red flag, with a white circle inside; in the white circle, printed in black, the black sun rune can be seen. One is a propaganda poster reading “Pure of thought, pure of purpose, pure of race.” In case you didn’t know: The black sun (Schwarze Sonne) is a design based on the sun wheel (Sonnenrad), and first occurred during Nazi Germany; SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler (one particularly loathsome bastard, even for a Nazi) gave the order to have the symbol laid inside the Wewelsburg; it literally consists of twelve radially-aligned and mirrored victory runes (Siegrunen – the notorious “S”s), or 3 superimposed swastikas. These symbols are LITERALLY used as a replacement sign of recognition for Nazis in places, like Germany, where the use of a swastika is prohibited by law, as well as by the right-wing, racist esoteric underground. So yeah, if you see someone walking around with a schwarze Sonne, then there is a very high chance they’re frickin’ Nazi pricks. And they are the artworks chosen for sample factions, without any context. sigh Now, I know that Legendary Games takes a decidedly anti-fascist stance; heck, they even have a module for that purpose, and I assume that the artworks were taken from that module. However, I still consider the artwork’s inclusion sans context here tasteless or at least, tone-deaf– as a person, I do think that the depiction of Nazis as one-dimensional villains detracts from the true horror they wrought (and I’ve explained as much in a very detailed and long essay on my homepage), and these pictures would have made me without the context of knowing Legendary Games, put down the book to never touch it again. These symbols and slogans are depicted without any context whatsoever. So yeah, I know that no ill intent was at the root of the use of these artworks here, and Legendary Games is beyond reproach when it comes to their politics, but for me as a person, this was still puzzling. Note that this will NOT influence my final verdict, but it’s important enough to me as a person to explicitly point it out.

The second part of the book provides the SFRPG version of verbal duels: Getting to know an audience bias is a DC 15 Sense Motive check, which seems low to me; considering how skills balloon, this fixed DC, while subject to optional GM modification, seems low. Anyhow, seeding the audience is handled better, with a DC scaling by CR and a more pronounced manner – 1.5 times CR +15-20 is suggested as the top, which seems more feasible to me. This also allows for the seeding of edges, which may be used to reroll checks. A duelist has a Determination that consists of the highest mental ability score + total level or CR. Cool: Roleplaying has a serious influence here, with multipliers or divisors added to Determination depending on social advantage or disadvantage. Like it! Using the last tactic or repetitive tactics imposes a penalty on the associated skill check. A verbal duel consists of verbal exchanges.

At the start of an exchange, a duelist chooses a tactic for an opening, makes the associated skill check, and increases the ante for the exchange by 1. The current DC for the exchange is set to the result of the skill check. The opponent can choose to end the exchange, or increase the ante by 1, choose a tactic and roll the skill check. If it exceeds the previously set DC, then the argument continues and goes back to the instigator; if not, the exchange is lost, and the ante is deducted from the Determination score. Choosing to end the exchange nets the opponent one edge instead. 10 different tactics are provided with individual rules – it is here that tactical depth enters the fray. Personally, I think it’d have made sense to have an option to up the ante to speed up verbal duels. More circumstantial modifiers would have been nice as well, as Starfinder has greatly streamlined skills by CR in comparison with Pathfinder. Multidirectional and team duels are also touched upon, but as a whole, I think the engine could have used a bit more meat on its bones.

The pdf then proceeds to present rules for personal brands: A public personal brand has 6 facets ranked from 0 to 10; these are Charm, Genius, Heroism, Altruism, Acumen, Guile. These ranks may be used in place of the key ability modifier for the position’s associated ability score in related checks. Considering that the default NPC rules assume that +10 in an ability score is assigned to ~CR 16, this generally checks out regarding in-game logic. As you could glean from the conspicuous amount of facets, you determine starting ranks by checking your ability score – a value of 14 or higher nets you a rank in a facet, and appropriate behavior may net you more, depending on the GM’s decision. Each of the facets also has three skills assigned to them. The system for brands assumes a Trending Phase as an abstract turn, in which the characters leverage and build their reputation; in the context of Star Empires, this should happen once per nation turn; otherwise, there should be about 4 such phases per level. At the start of each such phase, PCs can determine one of two actions – developing the brand, or launching an engagement. Developing a brand is done as follows: Select a facet to improve, roll an associated skill check; on a success, increase the rank in the facet by 1. The DC is pretty low – 15 + twice the rank the PC is trying to achieve. This makes the maximum DC 35 – high, sure, but also an assured victory starting at the higher middle level-range. I kinda wished the system scaled better.

Anyhow, a personal brand nets the PCs twice the starting number of facet ranks as agents; these can be directed to undertake engagements. At higher facet ranks, admirers, skill bonuses and the like enter the fray, and more complex engagements may be undertaken. Rank 5 nets an accomplice – basically a cohort-style henchman at CR-2. Engagements are classified in three groups: Basic engagements are unlocked at rank 2, intermediate engagements at rank 6, and advanced engagements at rank 9. Engagements have fixed DCs and success is determined by rolling a d20 and adding the number of agents tasked with it, up to a maximum of the respective facet’s rank. Natural 1s are always failures, natural 20s always a success. A PC may have one persistent engagement in effect (DC 17), and some are risky – the latter can result in agent loss. All engagements are associated with one or more facets. All in all, I liked this system.

The final page of the pdf presents 4 new feats: Adept Leader treats your ability score to affect an empire’s attribute as two higher and nets a bonus to Stability. Center of Power is cool, in that it lets you use your personal brand accomplice to survey an infrastructure, which provides serious benefits. Effective Operator grants your faction once per faction turn a bonus equal to one of your mental ability score modifiers. Fortunate Leader lets you reroll during the event phase on the empire or colony table and choose the result. The decision to roll twice must be made beforehand, though.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level. On a rules language level, the book is not bad in any way, but there are a couple of instances where I couldn’t help but feel that the math could have used a few adjustments. Layout adheres to the series’ two-column full-color standard, and the pdf features, for the most part rather nice full-color artworks that fans of Legendary Games will be partially familiar with – and, as noted above, some unfortunately placed pieces. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Hmmm. Matt Daley and Ben Walklate’s Star Intrigue was a book I all but had pegged for a top ten candidate; I liked the direction Star Empires was taking, and when I realized that this book would have faction rules, I was ecstatic.

Plus, I really enjoy social combat engines in my games. By all accounts, this book should have won me over without even trying. However, quite the opposite happened. Star intrigue is a good book, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not even close to the homerun I hoped it’d be. The credit to WP/BP conversion issue throws a wrench in the entire system’s integrity. The verbal duels and personal brand components are damn cool in concept, but remain pretty small aspects, like afterthoughts, when they deserved more room to shine. The factions completely disregard interaction with star ships (star ships feature in Star Battles), which makes the faction rules feel incomplete. The benefits for high influence ranks also feel a bit low for the internal logic of Starfinder’s economy. The verbal duels are per se solid, but also slow, and feel like they, with 10 or so pages more, could have been truly awesome; same goes for the personal brand sub-engine. As an aside: The way in which information is presented is also somewhat less than ideal – this requires close-reading, when a few sidebars summarizing the process, some bolded key-sections and the like would have made this more player-friendly. Personally, I don’t mind that, but since this is a book that players will want to peruse as well, it bears mentioning.

All in all, this is a solid book; it’s not perfect, but it does what it says on the tin rather well. And yet, it left me with the nagging feeling that splitting it “Star Factions” and “Star-dom” or something like that would have benefited the individual systems. This is one of the books that tries to do A LOT, and does it well, but which could have done everything in an excellent manner, had it featured the room required for it. All in all, I consider this to be a good book that left me as a person dissatisfied in several of its finer components, though it should do its job well for most tables, which is why my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Star Intrigue
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The Undercroft #6
Publisher: Melsonian Arts Council
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/14/2019 12:17:44

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The sixth installment of the Undercroft-‘zine clocks in at 26 pages (laid out in 6‘‘ by 9‘‘/A5) if you ignore the editorial – though I did really enjoy it this time around – the text flows around a medieval image of the Rittertod (Knight’s death), with the text on the left and right of the artwork continuing the previous paragraph independently from each other, only to once again coalesce below – kinda like an alternate timeline in textform. …this made me sound like a pretentious prick, right? Sorry.

Anyhow, rules-wise, the default system intended for this ’zine would be LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess), and, as always, the material can be adapted to other OSR-systems with relative ease. This is a horror/dark fantasy supplement, and as such, reader discretion is advised – if you’re easily offended or triggered, this is your warning. This review is based on the stitch-bound softcover of the ’zine.

Okay, so, the first article (penned by Forrest Aguire) deals with Jonas Ludolf, the celebrated Flemish tapestry cartoonist (XD), who embarked on a trip towards Formosa to learn from the best of Eastern philosophers; of his effects, only the tome known as Ludolf’s Folly remains – a grimoires penned in an opium haze, referencing places like Leng – the storied item is depicted in detail, which is pretty awesome. Content-wise, the book has a genius angle that LotFP, if the company is smart, should take under serious consideration as a new magic system: You see, the book contains various spells you may be familiar with, like divination, detect invisible, wizard’s eye, etc. – you can see a divination focus here, but the exciting thing? Ludolf was in the throes of various drugs and insights while scribbling his notes, which had a dual effect: ANYONE can cast these spells…or at least ATTEMPT to cast them. You roll 1d6, and on a 1 or 2, the spell works…and on higher results? Catastrophic failures. These actually relate to the spells: Take wizard’s eye: A mild failure may end up with you vomiting eyeballs; a more serious one might see you blinded for months, and a really bad failure may see your eyeballs pop from their sockets, with obvious consequences. I love the book’s story, though it primarily makes sense for low-fantasy games; why use a potentially fatal spellbook if you can easily cast a spell? So yeah, the appeal might be slightly limited, but that notwithstanding, I consider this to be pretty much the best suggestion for a global modification of LotFP’s magic system. Having a whole book that provides this treatment to all spells? I’d put down money for that.

Things get weird with Evey Lockhart’s contribution, which provides two unrelated artifacts from other dimensions – these have nothing to do with each other, but their combination can be rather fatal. The unknown disk may be held in place to generate a portal to the strange, overgrown post-apocalyptic jungle-world beyond; the pyramid of flesh is more visceral: It’s what it says on the tin, with each side of the super-quickly regenerating and thus indestructible pyramid sporting a line, a fold, like a mouth or eye pressed close. Turns out, it’s both – the mouth-eyes might open, and contact to flesh will see the pyramid fuse to you, potentially requiring amputation. It also replaces your innards potentially, which can result in vomiting worms and becoming oddly inhuman; attached to the head, it bombards you with secrets. ALL THE TIME. What your childhood crush thought about you, what someone did – no rhyme or reason, all the knowledge of the cosmos, but no filter. If the pyramid is inserted on the disk, things go horribly wrong – the first couple of times, the effects are vast swathes of destruction, annihilating everyone in an ever closer-drawing circle…and eventually allowing a horrid chthonic entity access to our reality. Yes, this being is properly statted. I enjoyed this one as well.

Daniel Sell provides what would have been my favorite section herein – the Wolfmother. A twisted fairytale that is truly horrific, haunting the Kairnlaw, where the men marry early, and not well, before the stag-dreams; the fear of the entity includes potentially forced marriages, which can be pretty frightening proposals. Unmarried gentlemen in the region have a 1 in 20 chance of attracting the Wolfmother, a woman with the face of a wolf, dressed for a spring wedding. She will offer a gift – and those not offered one must save vs. magic to wake up. The person offered the gift can choose to refuse the gifts or accept them – the gifts are delightfully twisted: An immovable rope with a tied sorcerer dangling from it; a song so beautiful, it might strip you of your ability to enjoy music…the gifts are unique and strange. Accepting three of them will make you leave with her, never to be seen again. If you refuse the Wolfmother, she will attempt to rape the character (she has the might of an Ogre), to give birth to resentful wolves that will hound the character. Here’s an issue I have with this otherwise genius critter: It doesn’t provide stats, which is legitimate for horror-creatures that behave more like story obstacles (see Undercroft #2 for a great example on how to make a creature-as-story-obstacle work); however, there is a good chance that the Wolfmother will be fought, and needs to be faced in combat. The text even notes: ”if defeated..:”, so the absence of stats is a downside. In spite of this, any GM who likes dark fantasy/horror with a fairy-tale-ish slant should consider this to be a gem: I’d see this as a great creature for the Witcher RPG or Dolmenwood, for example.

Ezra Claverie’s Furnace Athropoids are next – these are essentially power-armors for a race of alien explorers accustomed to scorching heat. As such, their suits are potentially dangerous to be around; more importantly, their telepathic messages can influence the brains of stupid humanoids, and cause compulsions. I should love this. The writing is excellent. And yet, this is easily one of the weakest offerings in the entire run of the Undercroft so far. The rules-relevant material is buried in flavor-text, and inconsistent. At one point, the text suddenly mentions different HDs, and flavor-text and rules-relevant information is blended everywhere. Using the material herein is a total mess, and having proper sequence of presentation, proper stats, would have made it shine as much as the concept per se deserves.

The final section also showcases how multiple HD-creatures work – Anxious P. Introduces the most twisted creatures here, with the Noble Giant families. We begin with essentially a confession/diary of a kind of crypto-anthropologist researching the giant family called the “Manifold Crust-Whippets”; these giants lair in a state of primitive savagery, and the author claims they do not differentiate the Self from Want, which is an interesting take to make the giants less human. Indeed, the scientist seems to develop a strange and disquieting obsession of trying to be like them (making this a great read) – as it turns out, this is due to the drugging pollen the plants they bring around. They also have a honey-angle on a mechanical level, and there are guidelines of how giants of different sizes and local populace interact (“fight or flight”-size, etc.), with stats grounding the content in mechanics. The effective horror hits at the end of the scholar’s account – when he witnessed what they do in their disturbing orgies with the bears they capture, when the small clues fall into place. It’s not pretty. Honey…could kinda work as lube, you know…This one really made me shudder. It’s that well-written.

Conclusion: Editing is generally very good on a formal level; formatting and information sequence, as noted, could be better in some of the sections herein. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard, with two nice original artworks. The print version is certainly worth owning.

So, this installment of the Undercroft penned by Daniel Sell, Anxious P., Evey Lockhart, Forrest Aguire and Ezra Claverie had a tough job – I consider the Undercroft, alongside with Dolmenwood, to be one of the best ’zines out there, easily. The Undercroft features some of the best pieces of content I’ve seen, and is remarkably bereft of filler. Against this backdrop, this installment struggles slightly. For example, I absolutely adore Forrest Aguire’s grimoires in every way, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have warranted an application of the system to the entirety of the gaming system in a full-blown book. Daniel Sell’s Wolfmother is a GENIUS creature, and it’s so close to being perfect, but the need to stat the creature’s combat encounter, etc. makes it less comfortable to implement than it should be. And then there is Ezra Claverie (whose writing I love) clearly struggling with the presentation of the concept – only to have the next article, Anxious P.’s giant families, showing how it’s done. (As an aside: I always love what I read from Anxious P. – please write a big book. Please? Publishers, get on it!) As a whole, this Undercroft-zine feels uneven not in the quality of the concepts, which are awesome, but in their precise implementation and scope. As such, my final verdict can’t exceed 4 stars.

That being said, if you even remotely consider the concepts in this installment to be cool, get it – it’s certainly worth the low and fair asking price.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Undercroft #6
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Monstrous Lair #38: Frost Giants' Glacial Rift
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/13/2019 11:42:18

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This installment of the Monstrous Lairs-pdfs clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, leaving us with 2 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Sometimes, you just need a bit of dressing for a wayside encounter – or something specific to a monster type. Finding appropriate entries can be rough, and so, this series attempts to remedy this shortcoming on 2 pages, with a total of 7 d10-tables. The layout of the tables has been streamlined and looks better now than it previously did.

Frost giants are not as primitive as their hill giant brethren, and thus, looking at the area outside the lair, we may see intricately-carved arches, streams of melt-water, and lavish carvings of bearded faces depicting proudly the heroes and jarls of this wicked race. As for what’s currently happening, we have old giants tending herds of furred cattle; we have slaves freezing while under the stern auspices of their giant mistress; we can see youths chip away at ice walls to form spikes and blades of ice. Hammer-throwing at icicles, breaking of polar bears to heel – this feels very distinctly like a frost giant place.

Major lair features include steam pipes melting hinges of gigantic ice doors, bizarre Superman-style museums of things encased in ice, fences of mammoth-tusks and the like – this table is gold. Minor lair features include heads draped, with looks of terror in the icy walls, slaves lying shivering surrounded by sharp icy spikes, sunlight filtering through a mirror-sheen-like lens of ice – this is really cool!

The pdf also sports a table for frost giant appearances, which include heavy furs and plate armor, and a general focus on war attire and furs. Treasures include walrus-tusk horns, crowns topped with fluted spikes, reindeer hides featuring beautiful paintings – rather cool! The table for trash includes shed fur cloaks, squashed helmets, oxtails tied to sticks, used as paintbrushes – rather nice ones that grant an insight into their culture.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no serious hiccups. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ elegant two-column b/w-standard, and we get a nice piece of b/w-artwork. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, in spite of its brevity (kudos!) and is included in two versions – one optimized for screen-use, and one for the printer.

Steve Hood has manages to sufficiently differentiate the frost giants from their brethren, and all without tapping too closely into the obvious Norse associations – well done! 5 Stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Monstrous Lair #38: Frost Giants' Glacial Rift
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Glad you liked this one, End! Thanks very much for the review!
Monstrous Lair #37: Hill Giants' Steading
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/13/2019 11:41:03

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This installment of the Monstrous Lairs-pdfs clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, leaving us with 2 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Sometimes, you just need a bit of dressing for a wayside encounter – or something specific to a monster type. Finding appropriate entries can be rough, and so, this series attempts to remedy this shortcoming on 2 pages, with a total of 7 d10-tables. The layout of the tables has been streamlined and looks better now than it previously did.

In this installment, we take a look at the steadings of the notoriously hungry and wasteful hill giants, and indeed, the table for outside the lair, with its discarded sheep carca sses and skeletal legs protruding from huge boulders giving good hints for the smart and perceptive player. With long-horned cow skulls and deep footprints we have further hints befitting the less than subtle nature of these giants.

The pdf also presents a table for what’s currently going on, which includes females in the process of horse-butchering, neglected wolf-dogs fighting over scraps, giants hollowing a horn or less than safe attempts to repair the roof. The leitmotifs of waste and subdued laziness are represented well here. Major lair features include neglected palisades that nobody bothered to repair, ramshackle doors on rusty hinges, carts used as dining tables – some cool ideas here that smart players can use in combat or stealth.

Minor lair features include bodies of unruly slaves, haphazardly-stocked piles of logs and rocks as ammunition, skulls used as beer-tankards and the like. If you need individual appearances, you can find podgy and stinking giants, greasy-haired females wearing rotting furs, or giants imitating (badly) a noble’s attire with crudely-woven-together rabbit fur coats. Cool! The treasure to be found include silver mirrors dabbed half in feces, rotted wedding dresses, magically shrinking boar hide belts and the like – nice ones! The final table deals with trash, which can include rusted breastplates used as doorbells, lice-ridden sheepskins, rows of teeth lined up – weird, suitable, like it.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no serious hiccups. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ elegant two-column b/w-standard, and we get a nice piece of b/w-artwork. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, in spite of its brevity (kudos!) and is included in two versions – one optimized for screen-use, and one for the printer.

Steve Hood’s take on hill giant dressing manages to capture their folksy laziness, manages to make them frightening and funny, weird and wicked, all without dipping into truly degenerate components reserved for ogres. Great little dressing file, worth 5 stars for the low asking price.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Monstrous Lair #37: Hill Giants' Steading
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Glad you liked this one, End! Thanks very much for the review!
Monstrous Lair #36: Fire Giants' Hall
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/13/2019 11:40:22

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This installment of the Monstrous Lairs-pdfs clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, leaving us with 2 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Sometimes, you just need a bit of dressing for a wayside encounter – or something specific to a monster type. Finding appropriate entries can be rough, and so, this series attempts to remedy this shortcoming on 2 pages, with a total of 7 d10-tables. The layout of the tables has been streamlined and looks better now than it previously did.

Outside the lair of fire giants, smoke and steam may reduce visibility, and the unwary may have to face superheated landslides; similarly, black basalt devoid of vegetation may be found. You’ll notice here, that not all entries actually have a reference to the actual giants, which is a bit of a pity – while there are cultural artifacts in some entries, they’re only in less than half of them. The table that sports current proceedings suffers from a similar issue: “Lava oozes down a side of a volcano in the distance.” That’s background dressing, not what’s actually going on in the hall. “A fire giant, his back to the party, jogs back to the hall.” We don’t need a dressing entry for that. You could replace “fire giant” with anything, and it’d work. :/ Not a fan of this one.

The major lair features cut copy pasted the first entry of the outside table, and add that it’s hard to breathe. Deep shadows in the high ceilings? Similarly, not a major feature per se; had beams been there? Had there been a kind of pattern? Something like that? Sure. As written? Not impressed. Cracks crisscrossing the floor, though? Nice. Pit traps that drop targets in lava, though? That’s not exactly interesting. Minor lair features include smooth floor that might make you fall, hot, but not dangerously so, walls. Sculpted basalt furniture and more – this table is thankfully somewhat stronger than the previous ones.

Fire giant appearances include put-helmet wearers, flame- and spark-spewing hair, scintillating skin and the like. Some solid entries here. The pdf also sports treasures, which include “a heavy dwarven waraxe leans in a corner of the room.” That’s a toothpick for giants. Or is it giant-sized? Lame. Contrast that with a massive tapestry of strangely beautiful volcanic vistas – that feels like a giant treasure! Polished white dragon scales, carved coffers – there are some nice ones here. As for less valuable objects – smashed remains of axes awaiting being smelted, ragged capes, skeletons hung on (many, I assume) cleverly positioned hooks, draped in a kind of fight scene – we have some strong entries here, and some generic ones. A ragged flag of a rearing griffon? That could kinda lie everywhere.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no serious hiccups. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ elegant two-column b/w-standard, and we get a nice piece of b/w-artwork. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, in spite of its brevity (kudos!) and is included in two versions – one optimized for screen-use, and one for the printer.

Robert Manson’s little dressing file on fire giants isn’t bad per se, but it also is a bit more uneven than Steve Hood’s excellent dressings for the other giant types; there is less direct correlation between the dressing entries and the fire giants, and there are more entries for which you simply don’t need a dressing file. Smoke and heat reduce visibility? A banner on the ground? That’s not unique, thetas generic; where is the correlation to the creature? As a whole, I consider this to be one of the weakest Monstrous Lairs-installments out there. My final verdict will clock in at 2.5 stars, rounded up due to the low price point.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Monstrous Lair #36: Fire Giants' Hall
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Sorry you didn't like this one, End! Thanks very much for the review, though!
Villages of Ashlar (5e)
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/12/2019 12:40:55

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive compilation of the villages situated in the Duchy of Ashlar clocks in at 71 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 64 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Okay, in case you were wondering: the Duchy of Ashlar is the region that features Raging Swan Press’ Gloamhold dungeon, as well as several important locations – like the phenomenal city of Languard with its intricately detailed and amazing quarters, fully detailed in the City Backdrop and the associated Languard Locations-pdfs. The slightly smaller towns Dunstone and Dulwich, both featured in their Town Backdrops, can also be found in the duchy. The region, in case you’re new to it, has a very cool, gritty old-school Greyhawk-ish vibe, and this book collects the individual villages you can find in the duchy.

This means that this book does not contains the towns or the city of Languard, nor the Gloamhold book’s information, and instead compiles all the villages in Ashlar that have previously been released in the Village Backdrop-series. Since the individual Village Backdrop pdfs don’t denote the like on the cover, and since the Village Backdrop-series also features a ton of villages not situated in the duchy, this represents a pretty nice comfort bonus – you now have one book that will contain all villages of Ashlar.

A handy and well-drawn map of the whole duchy is provided, ad since cartography is handled by Tommi Salama, you know that the maps herein are pretty gorgeous to look at. On a content-level, the pdf sports some pretty nice internal consistency regarding nomenclature and the like, differentiating between ethnicities, etc. The villages featured are presented in alphabetical order, and since I’ve covered all of them in individual reviews, I’ll be brief:

There is plague-ridden Ashford, and nearby Underdell; the latter ravaged indirectly by the fear that the plague fostered; there are Hard Bay and Coldwater, two places that feature a somewhat Lovecraftian undertone, with deformities, ancient secrets and former pirate angles; there is Kingsfell, atop an ancient battlefield, perpetually haunted by a strange sense of unease; there is the amazing and hotly-contended bridge-town Longbridge, the isolated swamp settlement Thornhill; there is the backwater Woodridge, where ambition of the local lord festers, and Wellswood, riddled with wells, that hide many a thing beneath its surface – proverbial and literal. Finally, there is the by now classic White Moon Cove, where the “Sunken Pyramid” adventure has its start.

I have written more detailed reviews for all of these village backdrops, so if you require further information on them, please consult those.

Now, this is a compilation, but if you expected a bit more than just a sequential depiction of the villages, then you won’t find that here – the book misses the chance to e.g. include information on how long it takes to travel from village to village, does not elaborate on overarching plots or the like – the book only compiles the villages.

Big plus: The templates in the PFRPG-version have not simply been cut – instead, some custom features for monsters and NPCs are presented for your edification. Kudos for going the extra mile there.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ two-column b/w-standard, and the book features plenty of nice b/w-artworks, quite a few of which I hadn’t seen before in the individual village backdrop installments. Additionally, the book comes in two iterations – one optimized for screen-use, and one made to be printed out. Huge kudos for Raging Swan Press doing that – this practice should be industry standard. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Cartography is excellent and b/w. I can’t comment on the virtues of the print version.

Creighton Broadhurst, John Bennett, Greg Marks and Marc Radle all are talented authors, and it shows – the villages herein have a great, subdued and palpably gritty feel to them, all without devolving into grimdark territory – this is a region suitably for dark fantasy, but you can just as well play a more heroic angle; the region is in need of heroes and it shows, but it does not devolve into a pit of misery. I love Ashlar as a region and very much enjoy the settlements therein; at the same time, this book misses the chance of tying the villages more strongly together, of making this feel more like a setting sourcebook than a compilation. That being said, on the plus-side, I did check for a couple of minor snafus, and this book has obviously seen a clean-up, so that’s a plus – that and the convenience. Now, personally, I’d love to see a big “Duchy of Ashlar”-hardcover, with travel distances, political angles, region-spanning events, encounters, etc., but for now, this makes for a handy tool to have. The 5e version is on par with the PFRPG-version, resulting in a final verdict of 5 stars, though only if you don’t already own the villages.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Villages of Ashlar (5e)
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Creator Reply:
Thank you, End, for the review! Ashlar is my baby and I'm delighted you enjoyed Villages of Ashlar. I am indeed plotting a hardback at some point in the future, but there's so much to do first!
Villages of Ashlar (System Neutral)
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/12/2019 12:40:13

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive compilation of the villages situated in the Duchy of Ashlar clocks in at 71 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 64 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Okay, in case you were wondering: the Duchy of Ashlar is the region that features Raging Swan Press’ Gloamhold dungeon, as well as several important locations – like the phenomenal city of Languard with its intricately detailed and amazing quarters, fully detailed in the City Backdrop and the associated Languard Locations-pdfs. The slightly smaller towns Dunstone and Dulwich, both featured in their Town Backdrops, can also be found in the duchy. The region, in case you’re new to it, has a very cool, gritty old-school Greyhawk-ish vibe, and this book collects the individual villages you can find in the duchy.

This means that this book does not contains the towns or the city of Languard, nor the Gloamhold book’s information, and instead compiles all the villages in Ashlar that have previously been released in the Village Backdrop-series. Since the individual Village Backdrop pdfs don’t denote the like on the cover, and since the Village Backdrop-series also features a ton of villages not situated in the duchy, this represents a pretty nice comfort bonus – you now have one book that will contain all villages of Ashlar.

A handy and well-drawn map of the whole duchy is provided, ad since cartography is handled by Tommi Salama, you know that the maps herein are pretty gorgeous to look at. On a content-level, the pdf sports some pretty nice internal consistency regarding nomenclature and the like, differentiating between ethnicities, etc. The villages featured are presented in alphabetical order, and since I’ve covered all of them in individual reviews, I’ll be brief:

There is plague-ridden Ashford, and nearby Underdell; the latter ravaged indirectly by the fear that the plague fostered; there are Hard Bay and Coldwater, two places that feature a somewhat Lovecraftian undertone, with deformities, ancient secrets and former pirate angles; there is Kingsfell, atop an ancient battlefield, perpetually haunted by a strange sense of unease; there is the amazing and hotly-contended bridge-town Longbridge, the isolated swamp settlement Thornhill; there is the backwater Woodridge, where ambition of the local lord festers, and Wellswood, riddled with wells, that hide many a thing beneath its surface – proverbial and literal. Finally, there is the by now classic White Moon Cove, where the “Sunken Pyramid” adventure has its start.

I have written more detailed reviews for all of these village backdrops, so if you require further information on them, please consult those.

Now, this is a compilation, but if you expected a bit more than just a sequential depiction of the villages, then you won’t find that here – the book misses the chance to e.g. include information on how long it takes to travel from village to village, does not elaborate on overarching plots or the like – the book only compiles the villages.

Utterly grating: The system neutral version has not deemed it suitable to unify the class-references – some villages refer to “rogues” or “wizards”, while others use the old-school parlance of “magic-user” and “thief.” On the plus-side: The PFRPG versions’ templates have not simply been cut, but replaced with flavor text/tables – nice!

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level, if, alas, inconsistent. Layout adheres to raging Swan Press’ two-column b/w-standard, and the book features plenty of nice b/w-artworks, quite a few of which I hadn’t seen before in the individual village backdrop installments. Additionally, the book comes in two iterations – one optimized for screen-use, and one made to be printed out. Huge kudos for Raging Swan Press doing that – this practice should be industry standard. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Cartography is excellent and b/w. I can’t comment on the virtues of the print version.

Creighton Broadhurst, John Bennett, Greg Marks and Marc Radle all are talented authors, and it shows – the villages herein have a great, subdued and palpably gritty feel to them, all without devolving into grimdark territory – this is a region suitably for dark fantasy, but you can just as well play a more heroic angle; the region is in need of heroes and it shows, but it does not devolve into a pit of misery. I love Ashlar as a region and very much enjoy the settlements therein; at the same time, this book misses the chance of tying the villages more strongly together, of making this feel more like a setting sourcebook than a compilation. That being said, on the plus-side, I did check for a couple of minor snafus, and this book has obviously seen a clean-up, so that’s a plus – that and the convenience. Now, personally, I’d love to see a big “Duchy of Ashlar”-hardcover, with travel distances, political angles, region-spanning events, encounters, etc., but for now, this makes for a handy tool to have. That being said, I was a bit saddened by the annoying inconsistency regarding class references. As such, this version only gets a final verdict of 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Villages of Ashlar (System Neutral)
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Creator Reply:
Thank you, End, for the review! Ashlar is my baby and I'm delighted you enjoyed Villages of Ashlar. I am indeed plotting a hardback at some point in the future, but there's so much to do first!
Villages of Ashlar (Pathfinder)
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/12/2019 12:39:33

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive compilation of the villages situated in the Duchy of Ashlar clocks in at 74 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 67 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Okay, in case you were wondering: the Duchy of Ashlar is the region that features Raging Swan Press’ Gloamhold dungeon, as well as several important locations – like the phenomenal city of Languard with its intricately detailed and amazing quarters, fully detailed in the City Backdrop and the associated Languard Locations-pdfs. The slightly smaller towns Dunstone and Dulwich, both featured in their Town Backdrops, can also be found in the duchy. The region, in case you’re new to it, has a very cool, gritty old-school Greyhawk-ish vibe, and this book collects the individual villages you can find in the duchy.

This means that this book does not contains the towns or the city of Languard, nor the Gloamhold book’s information, and instead compiles all the villages in Ashlar that have previously been released in the Village Backdrop-series. Since the individual Village Backdrop pdfs don’t denote the like on the cover, and since the Village Backdrop-series also features a ton of villages not situated in the duchy, this represents a pretty nice comfort bonus – you now have one book that will contain all villages of Ashlar.

A handy and well-drawn map of the whole duchy is provided, ad since cartography is handled by Tommi Salama, you know that the maps herein are pretty gorgeous to look at. On a content-level, the pdf sports some pretty nice internal consistency regarding nomenclature and the like, differentiating between ethnicities, etc. The villages featured are presented in alphabetical order, and since I’ve covered all of them in individual reviews, I’ll be brief:

There is plague-ridden Ashford, and nearby Underdell; the latter ravaged indirectly by the fear that the plague fostered; there are Hard Bay and Coldwater, two places that feature a somewhat Lovecraftian undertone, with deformities, ancient secrets and former pirate angles; there is Kingsfell, atop an ancient battlefield, perpetually haunted by a strange sense of unease; there is the amazing and hotly-contended bridge-town Longbridge, the isolated swamp settlement Thornhill; there is the backwater Woodridge, where ambition of the local lord festers, and Wellswood, riddled with wells, that hide many a thing beneath its surface – proverbial and literal. Finally, there is the by now classic White Moon Cove, where the “Sunken Pyramid” adventure has its start.

I have written more detailed reviews for all of these village backdrops, so if you require further information on them, please consult those.

Now, this is a compilation, but if you expected a bit more than just a sequential depiction of the villages, then you won’t find that here – the book misses the chance to e.g. include information on how long it takes to travel from village to village, does not elaborate on overarching plots or the like – the book only compiles the villages.

The Pathfinder version has btw. the most content of the three iterations: Two templates featured in the villages are provided, and with settlement modifiers (which can help GMs in other systems roughly determines characteristics at a glance) and the like, this is the version I’d recommend over the other two if you’re not playing in 5e; the 5e-version is the best choice for that version.

Conclusion. Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to raging Swan Press’ two-column b/w-standard, and the book features plenty of nice b/w-artworks, quite a few of which I hadn’t seen before in the individual village backdrop installments. Additionally, the book comes in two iterations – one optimized for screen-use, and one made to be printed out. Huge kudos for Raging Swan Press doing that – this practice should be industry standard. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Cartography is excellent and b/w. I can’t comment on the virtues of the print version.

Creighton Broadhurst, John Bennett, Greg Marks and Marc Radle all are talented authors, and it shows – the villages herein have a great, subdued and palpably gritty feel to them, all without devolving into grimdark territory – this is a region suitably for dark fantasy, but you can just as well play a more heroic angle; the region is in need of heroes and it shows, but it does not devolve into a pit of misery. I love Ashlar as a region and very much enjoy the settlements therein; at the same time, this book misses the chance of tying the villages more strongly together, of making this feel more like a setting sourcebook than a compilation. That being said, on the plus-side, I did check for a couple of minor snafus, and this book has obviously seen a clean-up, so that’s a plus – that and the convenience. Now, personally, I’d love to see a big “Duchy of Ashlar”-hardcover, with travel distances, political angles, region-spanning events, encounters, etc., but for now, this makes for a handy tool to have. If you already have all the villages, you may want to skip this, though. As such, my final verdict will be 5 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Villages of Ashlar (Pathfinder)
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Creator Reply:
Thank you, End, for the review! Ashlar is my baby and I'm delighted you enjoyed Villages of Ashlar. I am indeed plotting a hardback at some point in the future, but there's so much to do first!
IRONCLAW Omnibus: Squaring the Circle
Publisher: Sanguine Productions
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/12/2019 05:32:05

An Endzeitgeist.com review

Okay, so this massive RPG/campaign setting comes with a couple of pdfs – a one-page cover of the player’s handbook and host’s handbook, which seem to have been combined into this book, a separate cover, a char-sheet and a pdf that contains 10 pregens as well as a sheet; if you take away the cover, editorial, etc., we arrive at 343 pages, not counting the two-page index; said index is devoted primarily to campaign setting concepts; the couple of times I wanted to use it to look up some game term, I couldn’t find it.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreon supporters. I also received a hardcover copy, and my review is primarily based on the PoD-hardcover, though I also consulted the pdf-version.

Now, to state the obvious – Ironclaw is a game and RPG-setting focusing on a world inhabited by anthropomorphic species; it could be designated as a furry-RPG, but unlike many of the less serious attempts on the genre, this is not about sexuality or the like. Instead, this focuses on being a game for everybody to enjoy; you can have potentially have fun with this, even if you’re no furry. That being said, I’m no furry and only tangentially aware of the discrimination fielded against these individuals; having been maligned and discriminated against myself, I will attempt my best to give this a fair shake. If I do miss (or think that I might have missed) something that is generally taken as a given in the subculture, please feel free to enlighten me. I will try to include as much relevant information as possible without bloating the review.

If you don’t like the artwork on the cover, you’ll be happy to hear that there are two other styles present herein as well, both of which are imho superior to the one depicted on the cover – there are somewhat realistic, old-school-y b/w-artworks herein, but my favorites? Each species herein gets their own full-color piece, often reminiscent of the illustrations seen in old-timey fairy tale books. These illustrations are genuinely charming and high quality, and to me, encapsulate better than one would think the atmosphere of the campaign setting. It should be noted that mammals (and two avian species, Sparrow and Raven) constitute the different types of species available; there are no playable amphibious or reptilian species.

Okay, so the book begins by explaining what an RPG is, with different frames of references taken into account: There is an explanation if you don’t know anything, one for veterans, etc. For our purposes, we need to state a few things: The GM is called Host in this game…and that, if this is your first RPG book ever, then whatever deity you may believe in have mercy on your soul. Why? Because this book is one of the most needlessly obtuse games I’ve ever tried to review, and primarily because its organization is really bad. If you want to play the game, don’t just start reading the book – the character creation takes up over 100 pages of real estate, and the rules that explain how to actually play the game? They start on page 109. Start reading this book THERE. After you’ve understood how it works, return and make your character. This is particularly important, since the game’s system is pretty different from d20, BRP, WFRP, TinyD6, etc. – it is a rather unique system, and once you can get beyond this huge hurdle, one that does have its merits.

The first thing you need to know, is that there is a difference between declaring and claiming; if you declare something, your character tries to do something, and you have to state it BEFORE rolling the dice. If you claim something, you can do so after the fact; for example, take cover when shot at; essentially, if you’d consider it to be something you do as a reaction or as an immediate action in other games, you’d claim. The game uses d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s, and d12s. Dice are not added together; If you roll 2d6, and have a 3 and a 4, you don’t get a 7, but instead compare your results of 3 and 4, depending on the roll in question, to determine outcomes. The highest die value you achieve is called “The Score.” The standard difficulty is 3, and in order to get a success, you have to roll HIGHER. Hitting 3 is a failure! In the above example, we’d have one success. If the character had rolled 5 and 4, we’d have two successes. Interesting here: As a consequence, there simply are quite a few tasks that not everybody can succeed at – if you have to roll against e.g. 8, you can disregard any dice below d8. It’s simply not possible for most people (with only d6s) to succeed at such a task.

The more successes you have, the better – and some specialized tasks may require more successes. You usually roll at least two sets of dice; for example Speed and Mind, to resolve a given task. This mechanic is also used for contests; you compare your results versus that of your adversary, and the highest showing number wins. Ties are resolved sometimes by the check type, and sometimes by call of the Host. Rolling all 1s is a botch – a spectacular failure. Long-term tasks can have quotas, successes you amass over a longer period of time, like building a house, etc. A bonus is an extra die to roll. A penalty is an extra die rolled against you. Help is interesting – a task has one primary person who tries it; others attempt to assist by beating the standard difficulty of 3. On a success, they add a d8 to the primary character attempting the roll; on a botch, though, something goes horribly wrong for everybody! Sure you want that assist? These mechanics are only relevant for non-combat aid. Combat uses somewhat different mechanics. If a roll is not under stress, or if you’re super familiar with it, you can do it by rote, which means that you maximize all your dice. Rotes speed up the game when you have two dice and only need one to succeed. On the other hand, sometimes, you suffer a limit – e.g. if you don’t have your proper tools, the Host may impose a limit that you can only roll d6 instead of your usual d10s.

The consequence here is obvious – the game has a pretty robust manner of depicting jobs and long-term tasks without having the often ridiculed 5% failure chance under duress that a d20 brings in many games; a crucial difference from many roleplaying games is something you may have noticed – this game attempts very hard to eliminate the need for adding up bonuses or penalties after rolling the dice.

Okay, these basics out of the way, let us take a look at character creation. This does a few things right, in that it specifies a couple of game terms (not that those’d help without a context of how the game actually works…), but they are still appreciated. A character has a career – a kind of job; there are 6 Traits – these are essentially your ability score, and they are Body, Speed, Mind, Will, Species, and Career. You begin play with one d4, three d6s, and two d8s. You assign one of these dice to each of your Traits. These do have in-game ramifications – a high die in Species, for example, denotes that your character is more animal-like, with a low die denoting a more human-like physique. You then choose a starting species. These determine your preferred habitat, diet, activity cycle, senses, natural weapons, and the like. More importantly, each species has 3 species gifts, and 3 instances of certain checks with which the species dice are used: Squirrels get the species dice for climbing, digging and jumping, for example. As noted, each species also gets three species gifts, but more on these in a bit. It should be noted that not all species are that different. The difference between the gray fox aristocracy and red foxes, for example, is that gray foxes include the species dice with climbing, red foxes with digging. Other than that, the difference is purely based in the setting.

Ironclaw’s setting and system are closely entwined, but for once, this is actually a strength of the game; in contrast to what you’d expect, Ironclaw can be considered to be a somewhat Elizabethan tale of class/race-struggles, which focuses on a comparably realistic vision in its details, with magic generally less earth-shattering than in comparable fantasy games; this somewhat grounded nature, interestingly enough, does render many components of the setting more plausible. As noted, gray foxes, per definition, are aristocracy by birth, and as such, there is a decent reason for the lack of distinction between them and their red brethren from a mechanical point of view; while I still maintain that a more pronounced difference between them would have made sense, the setting here provides a sufficiently viable excuse.

Next up, you choose your career from a list of 24 – these behave in much the same way as the species – you get three types of rolls where you include your Career dice, and three gifts bestowed by the Career. If there is overlap, you instead get Increased Trait – this increases the Trait’s die-size by one step, up to a maximum of d12. And no, the text doesn’t specify that – you have to look up the Increased Trait text much later in the book, in the gift list. No, no cross reference is provided, no page number noted. (For reference: Pg. 65 of the book.) You write your Career dice down for the skills granted by career, the species die for the skills granted by the species.

Then, you decide on a personality gift; which is chosen from a list. You also decide on a motto, and a starting region, which you are assumed to be familiar with. Regarding personality: These are defined by a combination of a more simplistic take on the teachings of humors, and the eight virtues and vices – these are essentially the 7 deadly sins and cardinal virtues, plus selfishness/selflessness, respectively. This Christianity-adjacent theme struck me as a somewhat odd choice, considering the anthro-angle, but I might be missing something here.

After this, you assign 13 marks among your skills; these are not skill points, but instead describe the die you get. No marks = no dice; 1 mark = d4, etc. At the start of the game, you can’t have more than 3 marks (d8), and more is only possible, if you have Gifts that add marks. Once you’ve reached d12, a further increase will net you an extra d4, which will then increase to further d6, d8, and so on. You get the idea. The book does feature a skill-chapter, which contains 26 skills. This brings me to a structural weakness of the system as a whole, namely that quite a few things are not really covered by skills, or that they are rather uneven. Academics, for example, includes geography, history, law, medicine, mathematics, physical sciences. Two other skills? Gossip and Deceit. Yep, those are two skills. Dodge is also a skill (and you really want that one); Inquiry and Negotiation? Two skills. Presence and Leadership? Two different skills. And Tactics is yet another skill. The examples don’t help that much either. From Tactics “When led by a particular leader”; from Leadership: “When outnumbered.” So, you need Tactics to follow orders? WTF? Granted, I am being slightly facetious – things become a tad bit clearer in combat, but honestly, not by much. While I love the little cartoons of fox-thespians playing the skills and providing examples, it’s pretty hard to draw strict lines between them. Plus, skills encompass e.g. Throwing, Ranged Combat, Brawling and Mêlée Combat. All of these are resolved in the same manner, as all are skills, but this makes plenty of skills simply mandatory for certain occupations. Odd as well: Endurance is a skill, applied to foraging and hiking. Okay, what about hunting? Is that ranged combat? What about using harpoons to whale? Throwing or Endurance? This is in so far weird, as the math kinda falls apart due to the insistence of trying to avoid the subtraction or adding of static values, which can result in weird situations.

Let’s say you have someone with a skill in something, right? Let’s say, this fellow is really good in their chosen field, e.g. Digging, and thus gets a d12 – the equivalent of a whopping 5 marks invested in that skill! They are competing against someone who only has a species and/or career die and a paltry 1 mark. Here’s the thing – if your species grants you a d8 in Digging, and you put 1 mark in the skill, which grants you a d4. These two dice don’t combine into a d8 or a d10 – instead you roll a d4 and a d8. This makes catastrophic failures, botches, MUCH less likely (because you have to roll two 1s, instead of 1 – basic probability calculation), but prevents the character without the Skill from beating the super high tasks. Okay, that does not make any sense. So, the untrained guy, by courtesy of the species, is pretty much better on average in Academics than the specialized scholar?  So this is one issue of the system that bothers me to no end; perhaps it’s me being OCD, but it really stresses me out. Your mileage may vary; you may not care. But this, to me, undermines the mechanical foundation of the system’s base check-system to a degree.

Secondly, the Skill-system is missing a bunch of areas. Jobs not related to crafting? No idea. Hunting? No idea. Forging documents? Heck if I know. Do you use Weather Sense or Vehicle for steering ships? Both? This section is missing a LOT of stuff I expected to see, and doesn’t do a good job differentiating some of the skills that are more similar to each other. Also, if you want to be a martially-inclined dude, you’ll be having a lot less skills; heck, if you want to fight and survive, plenty of skills are basically mandatory. Thirdly, the organization is once more pretty asinine – you can’t make an informed decision about many of the combat-related skills, unless you’ve read the combat chapter (Starts page 114, for reference). And finally? No sample difficulties for suggested tasks are provided.

Okay, combat. You roll initiative by rolling Speed and Mind Dice. (Though a gift called Danger Sense nets you a d12 as a bonus); the difficulty that you can detect the adversaries ranges from “Near Rage[sic!]” to Further than 10 paces away. So, is it the Observation skill or initiative? Do senses influence that? I have no frickin’ clue. Is Stealth rolled against Initiative? No idea. The RPG attempts a coop-out by stating that combatants act n the logical order, which is a non-resolution if I ever saw one. You can see that I have plenty of issues with the game in how it presents its rules; but don’t get me wrong – particularly regarding combat, the game does quite a few things right – it does not feel like yet another D&D-adjacent combat-resolution. Instead, the game does several clever things: It uses, for example, conditions (called “statuses” in the game’s parlance): Your initiative roll will determine, for example, if you start the combat with Focus, reeling, etc. – and these have SERIOUS mechanical repercussions. From a mechanical point of view, the game feels closer to playing Shadowrun crossed with a JRPG, and I mean that as a compliment, for the most part.

You see, the gifts granted by career and species, +3 of your choice, act in a way like feats, spells, special abilities – some have prerequisites, some don’t; some may be taken multiple times, and there are plenty of means to differentiate between builds: This game HAS tactical depth! But oh boy, the presentation. To explain the combat, we need to talk about values you need to fill in on your character sheet – the so-called battle array. As noted, Initiative is Speed + Mind Dice; Stride is 1 and can be improved. What does Stride do? It’s a movement. So is Sprint- Sprint uses your Speed Dice. If something is in your way when using Sprint, you risk crashing; you roll 1d6 for every point denied, and on a 5 or 6, you take one damage. This means that you can seriously injure yourself using Sprint. Your Run is the maximized Body dice, plus maximized Speed dice, + Dash. Oh, forgot about that one, right? Dash is half the maximum you could roll on the Speed dice, with a +1 if Body is greater than Speed. Run is btw. a stunt, i.e. you gain the reeling status after using it. You do NOT take damage when crashing into something. Why? I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t get it. This hurts my brain.

Are you beginning to see what I mean by issues in organization and rules-presentation and structure? Did I mention that there is an entire chapter devoted to rules like chases, hiding and sneaking, mounted combat, etc. Why are they all lumped in a chapter of their own, without rhyme or reason? No clue. Mounted combat should, you know, be in the section on frickin’ combat. And how does vehicle combat work? No clue. This chapter seriously made me angry; it feels like an “oopsie, forgot to put that information where it belonged, oh well, stick it in an appendix chapter”/bolted-on errata. On the plus side, this does have a table that provides conversions from the abstract “pace” measurements to both meters and feet. Know what’s ironic for a game set in a quasi-Renaissance default setting? Disarming is explained at the very end of this rules-addendum. Not even kidding you. Oh, and obviously grappling also should be here, where nobody’ll ever find it quickly; not in the section with the Brawling skill or with appropriate weapons. That’d have made sense.

Okay, so you at least have the Dodge defense, which is your Speed dice and dodge dice, if any. If someone attacks. You can also attempt to parry or counter, depending on situation and weapon involved; Attacker Succeeds, Tie and Defender Succeeds are options . Defenders may have to retreat, and hits can send you reeling – the engine per se manages to do the whole cloak and dagger/Swashbuckling feeling come off rather well. You compare dice values. Then, you check your Soak, which is the Body dice. Armor adds to the Soak roll, and may be layered – at the cost of being slower (automatically) and less dodging capabilities.

So, you roll an attack. The defender rolls dodge, fails. Then you cause damage 1 per success, plus, oddly here, fixed values for some values. Some weapons also ignore armor, help parry, etc. Equipment matters; once more, there is depth here. And then, you have the results – provided there are no reactions that are taken, or that the resolution of the attack didn’t necessitate further things. That’s a LOT of rolling, and, as the math-foundation of the game is not exactly even, can also result in odd scenes. Also: Throwing weapons get three dice: Boy., Speed and Throwing, versus just one Trait and the respective skill dice for all others. Doesn’t take a genius to see an issue here. Clearly, the Franziska-wielding equivalent of ancient Franconians would have conquered all of the land according to these rules. So yeah, there is some serious cognitive load imposed on the Host here, and frankly, the “don’t do math, just roll angle” might have made things more difficult here.

…this is starting to sound really bad, right? And yeah, it kinda is – but don’t get me wrong: The system presented? It actually works, and it actually works in a rather interesting manner. Combat feels very tactical and interesting, considering how many gifts have different refreshment intervals, and how the status-based angles can really add some tactical depth to fights. Being hit will send you reeling, and, much like Shadowrun, there is a death spiral going on – 5 points of damage = dead: 2 points of damage, and you’re hurt and afraid (can’t attack) – so you better hope an ally Rallies you. In a way, the basic premise of the combat system, when divorced from the flawed skill-chassis, is super interesting; I could e.g. see a Darkest Dungeon-style hardcore survival-game to work pretty well with a hack of these rules! There is some gold here, I mean it! It’s just buried under layers of unnecessary obscurity and some questionable design decisions.

Anyhow, you probably won’t be playing a dungeon crawler with this game; in fact, you probably won’t be playing a too combat-centric game, considering how lethal it is, in spite of its impressive depth. Instead, as briefly touched upon, Calabria, the default setting, is more of an Age of Sail/pseudo-Elizabethan setting, closer akin to the Three Musketeers than the medieval period, with e.g. the horses as the erstwhile knights still clinging to their old status and ideals; it’s a time of change, an age of mercantilism – though the world, it should be noted, is distinct and doesn’t simply mirror our own. As a whole, this is once more where you can feel that the authors genuinely cared. The setting is thematically consistent, makes a surprising amount of sense, and can be deemed to be an enjoyable reading experience. The campaign setting is easily the most refined part herein; it sports a gazetteer-section, a general overview, and we also get a small bestiary.

I do have one serious question, though: It might be my own ignorance regarding the tropes of the Furry-subculture, but in a setting where anthropomorphized animals like Mice and Wolves coexist, in a game with that much emphasis on the theme, that you put your dietary habits on your character-sheet…what do all the carnivores eat? Do they eat the other species? If not, why not? If so, how does the law handle that? If not, what do they eat? This is particularly weird, considering that the flavortext sometimes uses “animals” as a shorthand for the species “…not content to live their lives as noisy, smelly animals, volunteer for the active life of a mercenary.”, and at other times for the animals the intelligent species consume. I assume that reptilians are eaten, as those are primarily the beasts of burden of the setting, but that would lead me to question how e.g. bears and wolves and (sub-) arctic animals survive. I know. This may not matter to you, but if you run a game in the setting, this WILL come up. It’s the one thing, lore-wise, that really left me wondering.

Anyhow, after all that, we’re done, right? NOPE! Because, you know, the wonders of atrocious information design have elected to put all the NPC-careers in the back! And these include nobles, diplomats, beggars, etc. – sure, they have a stronger focus on a role, but plenty of players will consider them to be interesting. There also are 42 of them. Oh, and magic? That’s also cut apart! The apprentice-level magic is in the front, the rest is in the back of the book! There’s also a bit of cognitive dissonance going here…and throughout the book. I tried to focus on the big picture, but as an example for the “glitches” in the details, i.e. the logic flaws, there is a magic school of sorts called Atavism, which is essentially about embracing the animal aspect. These represent special gifts to choose, and are per se a super-cool idea. The flaw here lies in the execution. How being particularly sparrow-like (minimum d8 Species die) can grant you a battering charge? No idea. If anything, this section should have focused on species-exclusive tricks. As written, it can result in some seriously weird benefits that don't fit the species.

The book also features three unremarkable, brief adventure-outlines without read-aloud text, and closes with a handy summary of statuses. If you want to play this game, tape these to your screen. You’ll thank me later. The final sections of the book are devoted to the calendar/time-aspect of the setting (why should it be in the setting-section, let’s put it in the back!) as well as yet another selection of variant rules, because, 3-4 different places where they could be are not enough. (Seriously, steer clear of those until you’ve mastered Ironclaw.)

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are not good on a formal and rules-language level; while the rules-language isn’t bad per se, its utterly arcane and Byzantine presentation is very aggravating. On a formal level, there are a lot of typos and stuff that should have been caught in editing. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard; it is not impressive, but functional. Artworks range from the Disney-ish style seen on the cover to the fantastic pictures for the species. The PoD is a solid hardcover, and the pdf, as a final formal insult…has NO BOOKMARKS! I am not even kidding you. A core game this labyrinthine in its presentation, and it has NO F**** BOOKMARKS.

Jason Holmgren, Chris Goodwin and Van Pigtain wrote the most infuriating RPG-system I have ever reviewed. No hyperbole. Not because of the subject matter, but because it feels PAINFULLY rushed, and certainly not like a second edition. Not even close. And because the game is so close to being genuinely interesting. The weapons that matter, the setting, the depth of the combat options – there is a lot here to genuinely like and enjoy. Once you understand the game and play it, you can have fun with it. Provided you can look past its myriad, accumulating, small glitches, hiccups and logic errors.

But you’ll have to fight tooth and claw (haha!) to get there, pun intended. This book gave me migraines trying to understand it. I am not kidding. Its information-design is worse than that of the PF Playtest was.

And the game has to stand that comparison, because it pays for its “we don’t add stuff to dice rolls”-aesthetic with outsourcing all complexity to the act before dice rolls, the sequence of dice rolls, or what you do after dice rolls. Things that are usually abstracted instead turn into MORE rolling, which needs to be compared, which needs to be interpreted. This works pretty well for non-combat scenarios, but considering how much detail and love is put into the whole combat, in making it feel genuinely different, it still becomes readily apparent that this is NOT a game for novices. This rivals and surpasses in complexity PF2. No, I am not kidding you. There is more rolling going on here than in Shadowrun. And I’ve played for years in a Shadowrun-campaign where everybody had amassed more than 300 Karma.

I maintain that, with a strict design-lead streamlining the base skill system, and some even decent information design (or mediocre one – heck, 5e-levels of rules-presentation would have sufficed), this could have been a genuinely enjoyable game, a breath of fresh air. All the makings of an interesting, rewarding game are here. But their presentation is the didactically-worst thing I’ve read in my entire reviewer’s career. Its an intricately interwoven system of rules-concepts influencing each other that never properly explains its basics. That tries the “let’s start with character creation”-angle, without realizing that you literally can’t make an efficient character, that you can’t make any semblance of informed choice, without, you know, actually knowing what you’re doing. The brief tables explaining rules-themes are appreciated, but I’ve never screamed at a book before. I now have. When, for the oomphteenth time, the game threw a term at me sans explanation, I seriously started hating my time with this game.

…not because of the themes, but because it is one of the most frustrating books ever. It seems to labor under the delusion that “no math = easy to learn”; it’s not. I’ve never had as hard a time trying to grasp how a game is played as with this book. And I have read A LOT of RPGs. Whether it’s 5e, PF2, Genesys, BRP, B/X, GUMSHOE, Storyteller, PbtA, any other OSR-game – I’ve never struggled so much with even getting the slightest idea of how a game plays. Did I mention how e.g. reactions and triggers are not the same? Can you remember which of the movement options did what? Which was the one where you halved your Speed dice? Which is the one that can damage you? Did that one send you reeling? Now imagine a book FULL of options like that, with information spread far and wide. And the nine hells have mercy on your soul if you only have the pdf and no bookmarks.

Is there a demographic to which I can recommend this book? Sure: If you’re a furry AND don’t mind wrestling with a system, if you don’t mind learning a highly complex game that has a thoroughly confusing presentation and a wealth of terminology rivaling Pathfinder, then you genuinely should take a look. Particularly if you gravitate to a more low-key aesthetics for magic, and still want some serious tactical depth in your game. In spite of all of its flaws, this is not a cynical cash-grab. It does show in many instances that the team did care. And if you invest serious time, you can streamline this and make it work for you and your group. I can see this work for a very select group of people, for those willing to invest a lot of time into trying to grasp this game. I genuinely hope that my review will help you in this task, that it’ll at least make getting into the game a tad bit easier. If you feel you belong to this group, round up from my final verdict.

Personally, I’ve come to LOATHE this book; not the setting, not the system per se, the BOOK. I like the world and many ideas herein, but I will never open this horribly obtuse game ever again. Analyzing this book has been painful for all the wrong reasons. I am just thankful that I didn’t get to tackle the first edition – if this is the refined version, I can’t imagine what the first one may have looked like. That being said, I do wish Ironclaw the best – perhaps, a third edition can get it right, can properly capitalize on the significant potential this game has…but my 2nd edition omnibus will not be used again. It has managed what few books ever did – it frustrated me and made me genuinely angry.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to rate this book; and in the end, my final verdict will be 2.5 stars, rounded down. Ironclaw’s second edition is too obtuse: A game of this complexity (particularly a complexity that is as layered as the one of this game) needs a precise, easy to grasp presentation, or at least one that makes sense - and this is the antithesis of that; add the missing bookmarks (insult to injury for pdf-customers) and the utterly messed up organization that makes philosophical treaties of applied objective hermeneutics seem easy to grasp at times, and we have a book that, no matter how much love and passion might be oozing from its pages, frankly is too flawed to even consider mediocre.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[2 of 5 Stars!]
IRONCLAW Omnibus: Squaring the Circle
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Gibbous Moon
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/11/2019 08:42:07

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The 5e-conversion of Gibbous Moon clocks in at 27 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC/author bios, 1 page foreword, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 19 pages of content, so let's take a look!

After a page providing an introduction, we receive a new and rather well-drawn one-page illustration of the approach to the module’s main adventure site. Barlow, introduced first in the PFRPG-collector’s edition revision of the module, has also been included in this 5e-conversion. What is Barlow, you ask? Well, essentially, the module comes with a full-blown Village Backdrop-style sample village for your convenience – and I mean that; Barlow is not simply some bland “slot in and forget”-place (though you CAN run the module that way and ignore it altogether). Instead, what we have here amounts to a full-blown installment in Raging Swan press' beloved series.

In case you are not familiar with my reviews of the series, this does mean that the town not only receives lavish cartography, but also notes for gathering information, bullet pointed subquests, a section for lore, notes for sample names and yes, dressing habits of the local populace. This also covers sites of interest and in this case, several events and notes on local rumors. Law and Order and daily routine of the local populace are touched upon as well and PCs doing the legwork can unearth plenty of further potential hooks for adventuring. If the game is lagging somewhat, local events helps you bring the picturesque village of Barlow to life - and alive it is: What started as an isolated druidic enclave has seen a recent influx of dwarves (originally rescued from redcaps), who brought with them a sense of modernity not known in the rustic place.

Now if you expect yet another nature vs. progress-struggle, breathe a sigh of relief - no, the dwarves are not the bad progress-guys here - they actually do submit to the village's way of life and thus thankfully deviate from the stereotype. The conflict at the heart of this place is one of change versus tradition - and as we all know, change is inherently painful, but sticking to tradition may lead to stagnation. This is a kind of subtle leitmotif that is part of the whole module. Oh, and have I mentioned that there is an actual dryad in the center of the village? Alas, in the last couple of months, some cattle have gone missing and racial tensions rise, while a grumpy hermit at the wondrous local Clear Water has been less than cooperative. It should be noted that, where sensible, the module references the default statblocks for NPCs, and that the DCs etc. have been properly adjusted to 5e.

Going above and beyond, we even get a mini-woodland dressing for the trek from the village to the hermitage, travel times noted, etc...

Since this is an adventure I'm reviewing here, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great!

The adventurers are led to the Clear Pool hermitage after unearthing some additional pieces of information via social skills etc. in Barlow. Once at the hermitage, they can find not only the grisly remains of sheep, but also encounter a savage dire boar. The hermitage, located in cliffs near a waterfall, is presented as series of natural caves with RSP's trademark attention to detail being reflected in a table of carvings, carcasses to find etc. Speaking of grisly finds - in one of the caves, Viljo, lone survivor of his adventuring team, awaits - he was also sent to this place to recover saintly bones, but his companions have been slaughtered by the resident of this place, a man named Dunstan who subsequently made zombies out of Viljo's former companions. This would be as well a place as any to note that the survivor Viljo, Dunstan, a dire boar (which is deadly!) and the aforementioned zombies all get proper 5e-stats, with Dunstan’s build actually taking shapechanging and Concentration re spellcasting into account - kudos. Dunstan, himself once an adventurer and necromancer, was infected with were-boar lycanthropy and is responsible for the cattle thefts - he stole the livestock to quench his lycanthropic hunger and prevent the beast inside from turning upon the local populace. The moral dilemma in confronting Dunstan is obvious. While the man has acted to keep innocents from harm, he has also resorted to theft to do so. Moreover, he has slain Viljo's comrades, animated them and infected the poor man with lycanthropy as well. He's not evil (yet) though, and while he is a necromancer, he's not one of the insane kind - so what do the PCs do? Kill him? Try to negotiate a deal between him and the village? Try to cure him? What is the right thing to do? This openness of the module is commendable and DCs to broker a non-violent solution are presented in detail. Same goes for tactics, if the PCs elect to fight. The pdf also btw. provides scaling notes for the combat encounters. A cure for lycanthropy regarding Dunstan’s particular strain and multiple hooks for further adventuring are also included.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to RSP's concise and crisp 2-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked and in two versions - one optimized for screen use and one to be printed out. Both files are small enough to not be a burden on mobile devices. The b/w-artworks and cartography are nice indeed.

Creighton Broadhurst and Jacob W. Michaels deliver a flavorful, gritty little adventure, and John N. Whyte’s 5e-conversion was done professionally and with an eye for details. The leitmotif and shades of gray themes are strong. Can a certain individual be reintegrated into a society already on the verge of change? This little module has lost nothing of its splendor in 5e; it is still delightfully unpretentious while asking engaging questions; it’s well-executed, interesting, and won’t disrupt your campaigns’ tone and flavor. 5 stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Gibbous Moon
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Creator Reply:
Thank you for this review, End! It's such appreciated and I'm glad you enjoyed the conversion!
Race Options: Gillmen
Publisher: Rusted Iron Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/11/2019 08:40:30

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This pdf clocks in at 9 pages, 1 page front cover, ½ a page SRD, leaving us with 7.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

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

We begin with a recap of the gillmen’s heritage and the pdf also includes the racial traits of the species. We get three alternate racial traits: One replaces being amphibious with 3/day charm person (not properly italicized) as a SP; alternatively, they can reduce land speed to 10 ft., but get 50 ft. swim speed. Interesting: There is a trait that nets you fast healing of 1 hit point per minute, but at a serious cost – you can only ever spend 3 hours outside of water before death from organ failure, escalating the water dependent trait. The supplement also features an array of favored class options for alchemist, arcanist, barbarian, bloodrager (aberrant bloodline), druid, kineticist, occultist, paladin, psychic, ranger, sorcerer (aberrant bloodline), vigilante and witch. All in all, these check out – they are potent, but not unduly so – relevant options to have.

The pdf contains 4 new feats: Aboleth’s Pawn increases enchantment resistance to +4, and the penalty vs. such effects from Aboleth sources to -4. You also are treated as having Skill Focus Knowledge (dungeoneering) for meeting the prerequisites of the Eldritch Heritage (aberrant) feats or other feats with it as a prerequisite. Water-retentive Skin nets you a longer deadline before requiring immersion in water – kudos: No this may not be used to cheese the potent fast healing alternate racial trait. Remembered Legacy lets you count as human and nets you the human subtype. There is an issue here – what if an effect would benefit gillmen, but penalize humans? This should specify how such cases work. Communal Mind-Gridding is a teamwork feat nets you +1 to saves vs. mind-.affecting effects for every ally with this feat within 30 ft., maximum +4.

The pdf contains 2 archetypes, with the first being the sea sentinel cleric, who is locked into the oceans subdomain, and does not get a second domain. The save DC of spells with the water descriptor increase by 1, and the archetype gets +1 to atk rolls of spells or abilities with the water descriptor, including explicitly the surge domain ability. The bonus increases by +1 at 10th and 20th level. The archetype can heal any aquatic or water subtype creatures, or command them with channel energy, as though per the Command Undead feat. 4th level gets rid of underwater combat penalties, including a limited range where ranged attacks take no penalty – the range of the latter ability increases. 7th level nets an animal companion as a druid at -3 levels, but the companion needs to be aquatic/water subtype. Essentially, a shepherd of the waves style archetype.

The second archetype is more extensive – the ephemeral visionary medium replaces the default spirits with 3 destinies – history, nonce and fate; these otherwise behave as though they were spirits. The spirit bonus of history applies to Charisma checks and Charisma-based skill checks as well as Fortitude saves, and the Séance boon nets +2 to attacks with non-spell attacks. Influence penalty applies to Dexterity-related checks and Reflex saves, and the taboos including refusing aid or harmless spells, an inability to let insults stand, or demanding half the treasure. The lesser ability nets martial weapon proficiency and Weapon Focus with said weapon. Intermediate nets you a teamwork feat that you may share with all allies within 30 ft. temporarily as a standard action, and it may be used again when accepting influence. The greater ability further enhances the weapon skill with the weapon chosen via the lesser ability, and the supreme ability nets a hefty +6 to all physical ability scores, which can be triggered as a swift action – essentially, this one acts as a warrior-suite.

Nonce applies the spirit bonus to Wisdom checks and Wisdom-based skill checks, as well as, oddly, reflex save. Expected to see Will there, but I assume intention here, since Fate applies the bonus to Will. The séance boon nets you swim speed. Influence penalty sees you paranoid that the aboleth masters will get you, preventing aid another and imposing spirit bonus as a penalty to Charisma-based checks and skill checks. Taboos include slaying all aberrations on sight, not leaving the water for more than an hour or sell at least 1/3 of what you find. The spirit abilities include seeing in water and create water as a 0-level spell (should be called knack); intermediate nets you favored terrain +2 as though a ranger, +4 if you choose water, and hydraulic push as a first level medium spell. The greater ability nets ranged disarm or steal under water a limited amount of times (accept influence for more uses) and slipstream as a 2nd-level spell. The supreme ability nets you the option to generate 5 supercharged geysers that also gate in summon monster VII water elementals every few rounds. OUCH! It also adds quench and geyser as medium spells.

The Fate option applies the spirit bonus to Intelligence checks, Intelligence-based skill checks and Will-saves, and. The séance boon nets a +1 to the DC of enchantment and illusion spells, and the influence penalty prevents you from casting beneficial spells on allies, unless you’re included among the targets or area of effect. Taboos include autofailing Will saves unless they directly harm others or result in directly harming others; communicating exclusively in Aboleth, or being forced to execute vanquished enemies. The lesser ability is using the mesmerist’s spell per day table (NOT the spell list!); for each spell level you get, you also choose a psychic spell to add to the medium spell list. The intermediate ability nets you a 15 ft.-reach tentacle with 1d4 base damage, a primary natural attack. You have to default regarding damage type. It can deliver touch spells. The greater ability lets you expend spell slots to make a ranged attack against a target in close range; targets hit take a penalty vs. your mind-affecting effects, with the penalty determined by the spell slot used. As usual, limited uses, accept influence for more uses. The supreme ability nets you a potent dominate monster SP.

The archetype also replaces location channel mirrors trance of three for other destinies, except the character gains the lesser spirit power, and the ability does some surprisingly interesting modifications, and as a big kudos, the fate destiny’s bonus spells become a separate, distinct array, but can’t be cheesed. Well, this is a cool class-hack. I’d particularly consider this one for 1-on-1-games; It’s versatile and interesting.

The pdf also contains two psychic options: The corrupting slime phrenic amplification, which can lace aboleth slime in linked spells (managing to execute some high-complexity rules-operations rather well), and also add Constitution damage to spell effects; and yes, balanced. Kudos! The major amplification, sleeper agency, can add an implanted suggestion (not properly italicized) in those affected by charm effects. This ALSO is forgotten. Wow. This may not sound like that much, but it can be used to super-devious ends. Like it!

The pdf also features 3 spells: Symbol of mental erosion works like a symbol of death (bingo, not in itaclis), save that it imposes a massive debuff versus mind-affecting effects; deep-sea armaments is a low-level spell that makes your weapon count as piercing for purposes of attack rolls and damage under water, but NOT any other way; kudos: The spell does explicitly state that damage type etc. remains unchanged. This is a really handy rules-hole fix. Underwater suffication[sic!] is funny, in that, while the title has a typo, it gets the formatting of spell-references right. This spell suspends the ability to breathe underwater, and the spell also has a chance of dispelling underwater breathing spells.

Conclusion: Editing is good on a formal level, very good on a rules-language level; same goes for formatting – the pdf may have some typos and cosmetic guffaws, but it gets often complex rules-operations done right. Layout adheres to Rusted Iron Games’ two-column full-color standard, and the pdf has a couple of solid b/w-artworks. The pdf, in spite of its brevity, comes fully bookmarked. Kudos!

Joshua Hennington’s humble little pdf surprised me in a positive manner. While there are a couple of options herein that I’d consider to be filler, the pdf’s occult options in particular are interesting and well-crafted; surprisingly, it’s not the class hack that I most liked, but the psychic options – they look simple, but are pretty tough cookies to properly pen. Anyhow, this is a solid little supplement, with a few lame things (the feats are imho superfluous at best), but also some gems – all in all, well worth 3.5 stars, rounded up due to the low and fair price and the well-wrought occult material.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Race Options: Gillmen
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Seven Dead Sinners
Publisher: Mind Weave RPG
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/11/2019 08:38:57

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This pdf clocks in at 5 pages, 1 page front cover, ½ a page blank, leaving us with 3.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

The premise of this pdf is simple – one undead for every one of the 7 deadly sins, each coming with a full-color artwork (not exactly aesthetically-pleasing). The presentation of the undead is system neutral, so no stats are included. Bible-quotes are provided for each of them. Acedai are incredibly bloated undead, surrounded by putrid stench and buzzing flies. The undead can also attack with belches and flatulence. Okay. Avarit are embodiments of greed and thus take on semi-draconic traits. They are unable to move far from their hoard.

Gula attempt to eat everything. Invid are envious and are very stealthy, gathering items in their stash…which is kinda close to greed and imho misses the mark, reducing envy to material possessions. Irat are a bit like revenants, driven by revenge, but are not released after achieving revenge, instead brooding until disturbed. Luxria carry diseases and, having been tainted by undead, can’t, ironically, fulfill their desires sans basically rape. Magnus reduce the concept of pride to basically a disappointed narcissism.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are per se good. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, and the full color artworks…exist. Not a fan. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length.

James Eck’s sin-themed undead are, pardon my French, lame. They are obvious and reductive takes on the seven deadly sins, often missing the mark profoundly. They take the most obvious routes, and I’ve seen all themes herein done infinitely better. The one saving grace here would be that this is PWYW, but considering how lame everything here is, how uninspired and dull, I will not round up from my final verdict of 1.5 stars. Unless you are utterly broke, get another pdf.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[1 of 5 Stars!]
Seven Dead Sinners
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The Genius Guide to MORE Simple Class Templates for Monsters
Publisher: Rogue Genius Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/08/2019 14:20:21

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This pdf clocks in at 23 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 19 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, applying class levels to monsters is often not a valid or smart move n the CR-system, as e.g. slapping a single wizard level on a CR 19 critter will contribute nothing to the build. The first of these genius guides remedied that for a plethora of classes, and this one follows that lead, this time around covering the Occult Adventures classes and the Vigilante. Since these classes have more complex systems, the abilities often work differently than for the class. Spellcasting only allows for the casting of the three highest spell levels it would have access to based on HD, though lower level spells may be spontaneously and optionally added, taking some build-load of the GM. The templates are often based on an ability score, and as such, a global guidelines is that a minimum ability score for an efficient critter should be around CR +9.

Each of the templates features quick rules and rebuild rules, and each of the templates features a sample creature. Kineticist creatures have CR +3 if below 10 HD, +4 CR if it has 10 or more HD, and use Constitution, unsurprisingly, as key ability modifier, and Burn is ignored, with infusions instead using daily limits – which makes sense for playability’s sake. The sample creature is a star here – we get a kineticist plague locust swarm! These sample critters also come with read-aloud text, and full-color artworks by Jacob Blackmon – nice!

The medium template (CR +1; +2 for 6+ HD, +3 for 10+ HD) ignores influence penalties and taboos, instead opting once more for a daily use cap; spellcasting is allocated properly, and the sample creature is the patchwork soul, an awakened flesh golem who can recall being other people – which is a genuinely cool angle! The Occultist creature has the same thresholds that determine CR-increases, and features a spell slot table. Not a fan: Resonant powers are ignored. I get why, seeing how mental focus is gone and focus powers are treated as daily use options, but yeah – the loss of resonant powers is sad. The sample creature here is btw. an occultist-v tooth fairy – aka cryptodontist. Easily one of the most twisted critters I’ve seen below CR 1!

Mesmerist creatures get +2 or +3 CR (with 9 HD being the dividing line), and a handy spells known table; the sample creature here is the baleful reflection, a CR 4 mesmerist soulsliver that may not be tough, but in the hands of a smart GM, can be a rather deadly adversary. Bold stare improvements are tied to HD, and mesmerist tricks are simplified to daily uses. Psychic creatures have their thresholds for CR-increases at 8 and 14 HD, respectively, and flat out uses Intelligence for discipline powers; phrenic pool points are gone, replaced with daily uses where appropriate. The sample creature here would be…a psychic velociraptor! Cool! Bu wait! We actually get more! We also get the cool psychic flumph from the cover! Yep, two builds! Nice!

The spiritualist gets a flat roaming range for the phantom and a small number of spells, with the HD thresholds to determine increased CRs once more being 6 and 10, respectively. The build here would be the gearghost-based “Ghost in the Machine”, which, with its phantom, can potentially wipe experienced parties – the build is pretty darn clever, and, when played correctly, will properly challenge a party. Kudos! (Yes, abbreviated phantom-stats are provided).

The vigilante creature, finally, can have its CR increase by +2 or +3, with 10 HD being the threshold; with slightly less moving parts than the other templates, this one allows for a pretty seamless integration that will make it very hard even for the most experienced of players to discern that the creature is not built via class features, regarding its overall capabilities, of course. The sample creature here, funnily, would be a vigilante unicorn!

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a rules language and formal level – I reverse-engineered the crunch for a couple of builds, and in these cases, the material checked out – kudos! Layout adheres to the 2-column full-color standard of the series (the one without the huge margins, mind you), and we get quite a lot of crunch here. The full-color artworks contributed for all sample creatures adds to the pdf. The pdf is also fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks.

This felt familiar. A quick glance at the credits told me why: The Faces of the Tarnished Souk-dreamteam of Matt Banach as author and Justin Sluder as developer once more reunites here, and presents us with genuinely challenging and exciting builds; I’d go so far as to claim that this pdf is worth getting for these sample creatures, even if you don’t have any interest in the tables! The creatures are creative, and the templates do what they’re supposed to – they allow you to quickly add class-specific angle to creatures without drowning you in minutiae. Love it! 5 stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Genius Guide to MORE Simple Class Templates for Monsters
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A Blessing and a Curse
Publisher: Mind Weave RPG
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/08/2019 14:18:42

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This little pdf clocks in at 5 pages, 1 page front cover, leaving us with 4 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

The concept of this pdf is simple: Players want goodies, and yet, items, nay, magic, should have a price to pay for it. The system proposed herein is simple – you roll 1d20 three times and check the table: Column one features 20 benefits, column two 20 drawbacks, and column three presents removal conditions.

To give you examples, among the benefits, we have “Protection from Evil – The wearer is protected from the effects of evil.”, but also e.g. “Time Slowing – The wearer perceives things as happening more slowly, allowing him more time to react and make decisions. The wearer may or may not have increased speed to match the change in time perception.” Or what about passing through walls and floors at will? In short, the benefits are classics, and some of these are interesting, whereas others boil down to spell-in-a-can effects.

The detriments are more interesting for the most part; evil being attracted to the user as one less intriguing example. But paralyzed limbs, uncontrollable squawking, the requirement to crawl on all fours? There are several rather nice ones here, once again often, but not always, being relatively easy to translate to most D&D-adjacent games.

The most interesting of the three columns, though, would e the removal conditions – items that need to be taken off by fae, that only can be removed by full body immersion, that require being enclosed in mud to be taken off? These are genuinely awesome and creative, and indeed, constitute the main draw of this pdf as far as I’m concerned. The supplement also walks you through a couple of considerations before portraying 6 sample items – that illustrate this design philosophy: Spectral rings net both silence and invisibility, but the wearer can’t interact with the real world and must be defeated before it can be removed. The trespasser’s mask lets you pass through walls, but prevents you from breathing AND requires that you return to the place where you were when you put it on to take it off. There are several such unique items here, and I very much enjoy the philosophy at work here.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no serious glitches, though it should be noted that the pdf uses bolding for item, drawback, removal means and benefits of the items. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard, with yellowish-golden headers. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length.

James Eck’s little pdf started off weak for me – the benefits, in many ways, felt too conservative for me, courtesy of being system neutral. In a way, this is easily adapted, sure, but chances are good that the benefits already exist in your system of choice. To a degree, this extends to the drawbacks as well – this really shouldn’t have been system neutral as presented. The standard entries are boring, and the creative ones? They’d require serious rules-fu to convert to your game. That being said, the system also presents the cool removal conditions, which generally tend to work super-well and enhance roleplaying. They highlight what benefits and drawbacks should have focused on as well – specific, roleplaying conductive tricks that feel distinct and magical. It also mirrors in many ways how I, as a person, like my magic items to behave and work. That being said, the pdf could also have used a higher price point and more meat on its bones – as presented, it can best be thought of as a kind of design philosophy guideline for magic items – it’s a good one, but the system neutral nature, paired with the pretty conservative sample effects, ultimately render this less compelling than it could have easily been. However, the low and fair asking price of $0.99? Totally worth it. My final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, as befitting of a mixed bag, slightly on the positive side. I’ll round up due to in dubio pro reo.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
A Blessing and a Curse
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