An Endzeitgeist.com review
This massive campaign setting clocks in at 279 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 3 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of advertisement, leaving us with a massive 270 pages of content, so let's take a look!
Picture a colonial nightmare, for beyond what we saw in real life: During the Meiji-era of real world Japan, the feudal, isolationist Japanese culture was forced into accepting a new globalized world order; the analogue continent of Soburin, setting of this campaign setting, has seen a less benevolent interaction, one characterized by more than a century of oppression and exploitation. As such, the development of the new technology brought to Soburin did have radically different consequences for Soburin than for its real world analogue. Where Japan’s persecution of Christians and rigid caste system broke down, where the age of the samurai ended, in Soburin, the length and relentlessness of the oppression faced resulted in thoroughly different dynamics, dynamics characterized by the magic and technology that suffuses the world.
This era of oppression, however, has ended – but not in a revolution for freedom. Instead, it was the eponymous mists, the monsoon rains, the catastrophes that seemingly separated Soburin from the rest of the world. If you’re like me, then this will undoubtedly put a smile on your face – yes, this book is proudly inspired by my favorite setting of all time, Ravenloft. In fact, if I were to provide an elevator pitch for the setting, it would be “An even more messed up Meiji era Japan + Ravenloft + Steampunk.” If that is enough to sell this campaign setting for you, then go ahead – chances are that you’ll enjoy this.
So, we all know about the importance of honor, face, etc. – everyone who had to work with other cultures or who has been exposed to them from one form of media or another, will most assuredly encounter differences. Even between related cultures like the American and European cultures [plural refers to both – I wholeheartedly subscribe to the theory that there is a vast plethora of American cultures], different values and taboos exist, in spite of both being generally considered to be part of the Christian part of the world. Now, if these differences and potential problems already exist for related cultures, you can picture the issues when dealing with a thoroughly different culture and way of life. It is easy to get caught up in exotisms, xenophilia or xenophobia -and more often than not, roleplaying games tend to generalize “Asian” – cultures and throw concepts together willy-nilly. Beyond being potentially insulting, the problem I tend to experience in such a context has always been that such melting-pot catch-all settings tend to lack a sufficient stand-alone identity, that they feel wrong to me. There are precious few exceptions to this rule, with Rite Publishing’s Kaidan being one of my favorite examples.
Another potential issue that this campaign setting faces, would frankly be the pitch: Ravenloft Japan with steampunk. Okay, that can be pretty amazing…but can it surpass the conglomerate of its components, or will it remain a jigsaw of pieces that do not really gel well together?
Well, in order to analyze that, let us being with the rules and analyze them from the ground up. It should be noted, that approximately 100 pages of this massive tome are devoted to player-facing options. As such, I can’t analyze them all without bloating this review far beyond what would be useful. As such, I will instead focus on providing an idea of the respective options.
All right, the first thing you need to know, would be that Mists of Akuma sports two new scores – they behave at once like attributes and differently from them. These would be Dignity and Haitoku (“haitoku” translates, unless I am sorely mistaken, to corruption, immorality, lapses of (social) grace) – from this constellation, you should realize that they are indeed kind of entwined. A new character begins play with a dignity score of 10 and a Haitoku score of 10. At the GM’s approval, a new character may choose to have a Haitoku score of up to 15, and it should be noted, that both the new backgrounds featured herein, as well as the PHB-backgrounds modify these scores. Speaking of the PHB-backgrounds – they have been translated to their cultural equivalent in Soburin without eating up too much real-estate, page-count-wise. I digress. After character creation, an increase in one of these attributes results in a decrease of the other by an equal amount. For creatures lacking either score, Charisma acts as the stand-in for Dignity, while Wisdom is used for Haitoku.
You will probably have already deduced that, but yes, Dignity is pretty much how a character is perceived regarding ideals/behavior/etc.; it can be pictured as a combination of honor, face and reputation, if you will – and dignity has overlaps with Charisma. Breaching etiquette can call for Dignity saving throws, which also may be called for to resist Haitoku-based abilities and it governs e.g. the ability to gain travel papers, show the appropriate etiquette, etc. But it is also an important, metaphysical concept. More on that later. Haitoku, on the other hand, is both the measure of Intimidation, the depth to which a character is willing to go; while obviously connotated with evil, it also represents the measure of the character’s spiritual perseverance to unlock e.g. the power of magical items. It allows the character to fight back from the brink of death – in short, it is not necessarily evil – more a measure of the uncompromising drive of the character to do whatever it takes. It should also be noted that the breathing of the mists of Akuma requires a Haitoku save. It should be noted that Dignity cannot be substituted here – the higher your Haitoku, the higher the chance you’ll be able to resist the mists. At least, that’s what the rules of the Haitoku attribute state. The rules for the mists themselves, unfortunately contradict this, calling for a Dignity saving throw instead to resist the effects of the mist – which makes less sense to me: Considering the tone of the setting, I think Haitoku may be the more sensible option. Haitoku can btw. also be used to resist mind-bending horrors as a kind of sanity-save.
(If you need an example to illustrate the concept: Shishio from the classic Rurouni Kenshin anime would imho be a good example for a character with a high Haitoku score – he managed to claw his way back from death, is willing to put allies and whole landscapes to the torch and still retains a somewhat sympathetic character. Oh, and stop after the Shishio arc. Everything after it is really bad filler.)
Okay, now this tapped into the eponymous mists, so let’s take a look at them: As mentioned before, the rules do contradict those presented by the attributes, which is a bit of a bummer. The pdf provides 2 conditions: Hated puts you at disadvantage regarding Charisma- or Wisdom-based checks against humanoids who do not have the condition, simulating the practice of cultural ostracization. The Misted condition comes in 8 levels and a creature always has a number of permanent misted levels equal to the creature’s Haitoku modifier. While examples are provided for the effects of each step, this remains thankfully open for the GM to tweak. The misted progression can be pictured as a kind of dark powers-corruption, beginning with relatively subdued effects and increasing them to pretty serious benefits – though stage 8 represents full-blown transformation into an oni – and as such, NPC-dom. The saving throw to resist exposure to the mists would be Dc 8 + 1 per previous save in the last minute – failing the save means that the character accrues 1 point of Haitoku, which, however, does not reduce the character’s Dignity…oh, and it can raise a creature’s Haitoku above 20.
The astute reader will have noticed that running from the mists will be a more than popular tactic – after all, the Haitoku modifier governs the misted stages! Prolonged exposure can make you go oni VERY fast. There also would be a skill associated with Dignity, namely Culture. You can choose it instead of any other skill proficiency you’d gain from class or background. This allows you to avoid social faux-pas, insulting gifts, etc. Religion-wise, Soburin lacks true gods per se – as such, mythical beings like the Imperial siblings, yai sovereigns, etc. are representations of the divine, with the practices of placating the kami being the most prominent remnant that remains of Soburins Shinto-analogue.
Since we have already touched upon backgrounds, let us take stock of them: There are 8 new ones: Disgraced amputees can begin play with augmetics, for example. The backgrounds generally are more potent than those in the PHB, but mostly in line and flavor-wise, interesting: Gaining some gadgets, being a shinobi, rules entwined with mists etc. – the backgrounds are interesting. That being said, they are only focused on the rules v- the complimentary dressing-tables you know from the PHB are not included herein. There is one background that is either extremely important or problematic, depending on your particular execution of the setting: The Yamabushi background lets the character perform a cleansing ceremony: The target of that ceremony may make a Dignity save – on a success, the target loses 1d4 Haitoku. While this does not increase Dignity and thus does not wholly trivialize the corruption-angle and provides an easy angle to exert control over Haitoku from the player-side, it does allow for a relatively easy way to decrease the score that may not gel well with games that use the mists themselves more sparsely.
Okay, so what about the class options? Okay, so the first would be the Bushibot, a fighter who gains augmetics sans Haitoku-increases. The shinobibot would be the equivalent for the rogue class. There are two druid circles: The circle of the blight is basically an evil circle focused on decay, while the circle of shifting is a more complex modification of the druid – it does not grant the usual spells, instead focusing on unlimited wild shapes – and yes, thankfully, the circle does account for the loss of spells regarding in the later abilities. The clockwork adept wizard can generate basically limited clockwork spells, which are not subject to being dispelled or countered – which can be a truly potent…same goes btw. for the level 14 ability that nets you a clockwork creature of a challenge up to the wizard’s proficiency bonus. The bardic college of the gun nets you an enchantable, powerful vested gun that you can enhance in a variety of ways. The detective rogue is a skill-user specialist, obviously inspired by PFRPG’s investigator class – the class gets a pool, which allows the class to add surge-like bonuses to skill-checks. The herbalist rogue gains a very limited array of spellcasting and, at high-levels, even potent explosions – minor complaint here: Spell-reference not italicized. This is btw. a complaint that can be made multiple times. The ju-wai shu sorcerer bloodline is a master of the calligraphy staff who can tear open reality to negate attacks/spells – with a hard cap. One of my favorites herein.
The kami domain cleric is a neat offering, while the mage wizard is a good example of the classic scholar. Minor complaint: The most potent option allows for the combination of spells, which causes damage – the type of which is not properly codified. Martial Artist monks make use of the martial arts feats. Ninja rogues can throw multiple kunai/shuriken with one attack and gain the proper Stealth etc. tricks. The path of the faded for barbarians is cool: You ooze necrotic mists and upon ending the effect, you temporarily accrue misted levels. The priest monk gains limited druid spellcasting and blends martial arts with these tricks. The paladin can choose to follow the samurai sacred path, sporting ancestral weaponry, iaijutsu and sums of the tenets – solid. The tattooed monk can trigger magical tattoos via ki – cool. The tsukumogami hunter ranger is guided by a spirit of a former hunter and is particularly adept at dealing with these threats – more on the tsukumogami later. The Wu-jen warlocks, finally, are associated with the tainted nature of Soburin, and come with taboos: One patron for each of the 4 seasons can be found – and additional notes for the flavorful integration of them are provided. As a whole, I considered the class option section to be pretty neat – they are flavorful and offer some interesting options. Not all are glorious, but as a whole, I like the themes they represent – particularly the warlock-wu-jen-analogue was interesting.
Okay, let’s move on to the array of races. The pdf does sport notes to play spirit-folk and Korobokuru, the elf- and dwarf-equivalents: Humans are changed – the base race gets three different ethnicities: The native Soburi, the Ceramin (tech adepts) and the Ropaed – foreigners and socially adept. The goblins of Soburin, the bakemono, also come with 3 subraces – one of which can assume swarm form. Minor complaint: It would have been more convenient to have the swarm form’s insect swarm stats in the write-up. Enjin are monkey-people wit advantage on saves to resist exhaustion…but also more expensive armor-fitting and vulnerability to cold. No less than 7 different hengeyokai can be found herein, one of which sports a +1 bonus to all saves – rules-aesthetically not my favorite choice for the representation of luck in 5e, but oh well.
Oh, and there are 4 hengeyokai types that ostensibly are extinct – stats have still been included, for they are rare and secretive, but yet survive. Kappa are interesting – tough and armored, but they also have a harder time standing up. Mutants are ostracized and hated…but honestly, they feel like a race that doesn’t really fit that well with the tone of the setting. The necroji, finally, is a skeletal thing that houses an amalgamation of 9 souls, with a ton of immunities, but also radiance vulnerability. The oni-touched are not transformed by the mists at stage 8 – they are hated, but can move freely through the mists, trivializing the threat for the race. Psonorous are embodiments of all that is good in the dying world – two variants are provided. The pyon frog-folk are one of the more intriguing and well-situated races herein – they are deeply entrenched in the setting, sport more lore – they are, in short, more interesting. The shikome, another race resulting from exposure to the mists, would be the shikome, who can 1/turn deal an extra 2d4 damage hit with a melee weapon – they come in two versions. Not a big fan of them. Surprisingly, the construct-race of the setting, the steametic, is actually pretty well-balanced and interesting. Tengu and Tanuki can also be found, as can Umibo – people of living water, which are pretty interesting.
Regarding races…I couldn’t help but feel that less would have been more in the race-section. The mutants, necroji and shikome, to me, do not feel like they should necessarily fit well within the contexts of the setting; the different levels of detail provided for the races also contributes somewhat to that impression. In the end, the chapter does feel a bit like it wants to cover all those weird-race cravings some player may have, but loses some of the settings integrity, leitmotif-wise. Just my opinion, obviously.
The book also contains a wide variety of feats – from the aforementioned, customizable Ancestral Weapon – really interesting execution there. There is an investigation-based Deductive Mind feat for PCs that want to want to fail forward (an alternate investigation that always proceeds the plot somehow). Transforming into a Soburin-clan’s creature, good reputations, staring down foes with your killer’s glare, supernatural, mist-based abilities – in these, the Haitoku/Dignity thresholds become important. It should be noted, that although Haitoku and Dignity are pretty fluid, the score at the time of gaining the feat counts: You can thus gain some serious abilities for roleplaying characters that oscillate between redemption and damnation.
Now, I have already mentioned Martial Art Stances: These feats can be taken up to 3 times; In their basic form, they e.g. add fire damage to your attacks ; taking the respective feat multiple times adds usually resistance and immunity to the respective damage type, with some of the more common damage types gaining additional benefits…which does bring me to a slight problem: The damage-scaling for them is identical, making e.g. force damage a significantly better choice than e.g. the often-resisted fire damage option – and the additional benefits don’t really manage to catch these discrepancies. More unique benefits that transcend numerical escalation would have probably made these more interesting. Stances work only with unarmed strikes, shortswords or simple weapons and unarmored characters increase their AC by the stance feats known. Proficiency bonus (not modifier, as the pdf calls it – minor hiccup) acts as a cap for the maximum number of stance feats known. Problematic: The Martial Artist monk mentions a maximum number of stances that the character can be in at any given time –a limit curiously absent from the write-up of the feat-section. It should also be noted that taking multiple stances can provide a lot of simultaneous damage types, which is a pretty strong option in 5e’s rock-paper-scissors-based gameplay regarding vulnerabilities and immunities.
Okay, so what about the equipment-section? Well, here we have some interesting bits indeed: Variants of gunpowder, locking garrotes, 5 different armors – some intriguing options here. Firearms include an anti-scavenging caveat (good!) and otherwise behave pretty much like loading weapons. There are, however, a couple of questionable components here: The hand hwacha, for example, can fire 13 bullets at once, hitting each target in a 30 ft.-line (how wide? I assume 5 ft., but it could be just as well 10 ft., analogue to e.g. gust of wind) with a separate attack roll for each. This deals a whopping 4d6 piercing damage to targets. Okay, the weapon is costly and reloading it to 13 takes a lot of time, but still – why not simply employ a capacity-engine? RAW, it’s either all 13 or single shot. On the plus-side, I liked the grappling hook launcher – I would have liked it even more, if it specified how much it could carry (the PHB is annoyingly opaque there), but oh well. The book also contains some interesting vehicles.
Now, I mentioned the augmetics – the steampunk-prosthetics and augmentations. Installing these requires a Wisdom (Medicine) check versus “5 + Dignity modifier” – I assume, the modifier of the patient is meant, not that of the one installing the augmetic. The installation is grueling and makes the target take 1/2 maximum hit points in damage. Augmetics may be directly targeted at wearer’s AC +6. The augmetics follow a formula of magic items in presentation, with scarcity ratings etc. However, they also cause the person with the augmetic to gain varying amounts of Haitoku – in that way, not like Shadowrun’s essence attribute. These range from +1 to +1d4 per augmetic. Somewhat problematic: The book remains curiously silent on how these permanent body-modifications interact with magic items – I assume they do not count towards the maximum of attuned magic items and that they just work, but some note on that interaction would have been nice. Also weird: A couple of backgrounds and class options grant Tool Proficiency: Augmetics – but the book never introduces the toolkit, and the implanting of them is done with Medicine. Augmetics can be destroyed, as many come with hit points. Weird: Some note that they can’t be targeted…while others simply remain silent on the matter, leaving me guessing there. If you btw. expected a big chapter here – that is probably a component, where the book could have used more content. A lot more content. The augmetic-section spans barely 3.5 pages, which isn’t much, considering that it’s a central selling point and pillar of the setting’s vibe.
The book also sports a brief chapter on spells…which would be as well a place as any to note that, while for the most part, the rules-language is tight, there are a few Pathfinderisms to be found – references to subtype instead of subrace, a few references to PFRPG action types (thankfully few and far in between) – but yeah. Why do I mention that? Well, we have a remnant “Personal” here in the ranges, a reference to “target” that should reference “you” – mostly aesthetic hiccups. Strike within and without, however, is somewhat problematic: You choose a creature you can see within 30 ft.. Wait…is it 30 ft. or 60 ft.? The book contradicts itself here. Anyways, the creature takes damage as if critically hit by your melee attack, and you take half the damage dealt as damage. This damage ignores all resistances and immunities. 2nd-level spell for rangers and palas. As a whole, I wished the space allotted to the spellcasting section had mostly been used for more augmetics – though there are a couple of interesting components here: E.g. there would be a spell that influences the season-based options of e.g. the Wu-jen – that is creative and interesting.
Okay, so this would sum up the rules-centric section of the book. Approximately 30 pages of the book are devoted to Kyōfū, Sanbaoshi and Nagabuki – three absolutely glorious cities. The writing here is inspiring and interesting – and frankly, I wished, we got more. Thankfully, the book proceeds to blend flavor-information with another type of crunch: Namely 60+ pages of information on the clans and powerful factions of Soburin – each comes with at least 2 statblocks and yes, we do get an entry of oni overlords on yai sovereigns – and yes, there are locally forbidden technologies. In the stats, there are a few instances of dual damage-types – which makes it hard to discern if the damage is supposed to be half each or once the full damage in damage type I and once in damage type II. This can be particularly wonky considering 5e’s approach to damage types and the resistance mechanics. This can btw. be also observed among the otherwise pretty amazing dragons that get their very own chapter. The oni/monster chapter once more is massive and sports some serious gems beyond traditional Japanese monsters – however, these beasts receive a context, mostly courtesy of the setting’s unique set-up: Qirin, Tikbalang, Jiang-shi, Yuki-onna…and some classics and gems: Longhair ghosts, rokurokubi, gaki…neat monsters with unique abilities. The stars, though, would be the tsukumogami: Objects that turn 100 may well gain sentience – and represent one of my favorite monster class in ages, including basically a demon-tank. Yeah. Amazing!
The final 25 pages of the book are taken up by the adventure “Revenge of the Pale Master”, intended for PCs level 8 – 10. The adventure takes place in the city of Kazi, just before the Festival of Falling Hawks. Children have disappeared. An ancient evil rises. The adventure is one of the highlights of the book: It is a flavorful investigation with nice maps, mugshots of the characters, some cool NPCs and advice for running the NPCs. The module is interesting, well-written and provides some nice further adventuring – as far as modules for campaign settings are concerned, this is definitely one of the good examples, particularly for the allotted page-count.
Editing and formatting on a formal level are surprisingly good for a book of this size. The rules-language, on the other side, is not perfect. It’s not bad, mind you: I checked a LOT of the statblocks and the math is surprisingly solid. The book gets a lot of different, complex rules-operations completely right…but, you know, the book also sports several hiccups that do influence the rules-integrity. It’s small things in the finer details…but they do accumulate. Not to the point where they can sink this book, but they do detract a bit from it. I considered the basic Dignity/Haitoku-glitch particularly jarring. Layout adheres to a very dense standard that oscillates between one and two columns. The layout, while dense, is not as cluttered as in Mike Myler’s previous campaign settings, making the book, as a whole, more aesthetically-pleasing. Artwork and cartography-wise, we stick to a b/w-illustrations that range from cool original pieces to stock art and public domain art that has been properly modified – it may sound strange, but the latter tweaks actually represent some of my favorite pieces herein. The book sports a lot of dark pages with white text – to account for that, we actually get a printer-friendly version – huge kudos! Comfort-level-wise, the tome comes with a metric ton of nested, detailed bookmarks, making navigation comfortable.
Mike Myler, with additional design by Savannah Broadway, Luis Loza, Michael McCarthy, Christopher Lee Rippee, Jaye Sonia and Bryant Turnage, has managed to achieve something here, let me make that abundantly clear.
In fact, this is, at least in my opinion, the best campaign setting Mike Myler has crafted. While he tends to focus on the big picture, we get more details this time around, the information gels together better – Soburin feels like a place I want to run; it has the details and style. The campaign setting presented here is inspiring. It is more than the sum of its parts. It is more than just a Ravenloft-clone in a Japanese dressing. Neither is it just a steampunk-infusion. The continent comes alive as something more than the sum of its parts. Mists of Akuma is a thoroughly interesting, intriguing setting.
Let me make that abundantly clear: I adore this book. I really, really do. To the point where this had the potential to make my Top Ten list. Yes, that good. That interesting. At the same time, the aforementioned small hiccups accumulate. And there’s another component that prevents this book from realizing its true greatness to the full extent. Japanese Steampunk Ravenloft would already have been rather hard to get done right – and the book mostly gets this very tall order right in an exemplary manner. At the same time, we have these…strange tidbits that contradict the basic premises of the setting. From weirdo races to options to trivialize parts of the basic engine, the book almost feels at times like the authors (or one of them) at one point became frightened that one type of player wouldn’t like the setting, thus opting to try to cater to more folks…but this decision, at least in my mind, compromises, to an extent, the glorious flavor of the setting. There are basically apologetic options here – and they take up real estate that the setting could have used better.
It’s small things that give me this impression…and it thankfully is rare. It makes me feel like the visions of what the setting is supposed to be diverged to some extent among the authors – here’s the thing about anything noir/dark fantasy/horror: If you already are a full-blown monster and/or immune to the one corruption-source, why bother playing in that setting in the first place? It’s like playing CoC with immunity to becoming insane, like playing Vampire: The Masquerade sans bloodthirst or angst. Thankfully, these problems can be cut out of the book.
There is a second aspect of the book that SERIOUSLY underwhelmed me. Augmetics. Don’t get me wrong. I liked what I saw herein. But for a setting that is very much defined by 3 components, namely Japanese-inspired + Ravenloft + Steampunk, 3.5 pages of augmetics…isn’t enough. Not nearly. At least in my book. Mists of Akuma would have needed, desperately in my opinion, more of them. They are cool and an integral part of what makes the book so cool, what makes Soburin this amazing. Compared to that, some of the races, some of the spells and the metric ton of critters herein may be okay…but they all take up real estate. Focusing on the core ideas of the setting, on the thoroughly amazing, unique selling propositions of Soburin and providing more on them would have made this a true masterpiece.
You see, the flavorful entries we do get, the notes on the places, are inspired. So are the cool tales of the clans, many of the monsters – this is an inspired, great setting. One that is worth owning, that has great ideas, that feels unique and distinct. This is a really cool setting. At the same time, it is a book that, more so than Veranthea and Hypercorps 2099, borders on the verge of true greatness – and frustratingly feels like it holds itself back from that final step to true excellence. If you enjoy different, interesting settings, then check this out – it is certainly worth owning! For my final verdict, I will settle on a final score of 4.5 stars, rounded down for the purpose of this platform. However, since I absolutely adore a lot about this book, I will still add my seal of approval to this.
[4 of 5 Stars!]