So let me start by saying. I like the concept and idea behind this book.
My favourite setting that I'm currently running in Eberron and in that setting there's a big emphasis on nation as an identity instead of race. For a product to look at a way to translate that idea into a system is great for me.
The issue is I don't think it's executed in a way that would work at my table.
It's only fair if I am giving this product a slightly negative rating. I should at least provide a comprehensive reason.
Artwork. I'm a big fan of the artwork in this book. Especially Camille Kuo's work. There's a nice variety of pieces both B&W, Line Art, and full colour. Since this product also contains two adventures I think the sketches included bring these NPCs to life and if I were to run any of these two at my table I'm sure my players would love each NPCs artwork.
Aspects of the Adventures. First off, I have to say it's nice to have two adventures included with the product. I enjoyed the indepth scaling features of each adventure, it's a nice attention to detail that means I can have the adventure scaled to my group. Since some of the encounters also have similar scaling, if I were to run these, I could adjust these easily if a player was missing for a session. A lot of the encounters have environmental features that player can interact with which is always fun.
The Price. Super cheap, for a ruleset and two adventures $9.95 is an absolute steal. You find a lot of books on this site would charge 15-20+ for a similar offering. The fact that you can get a physical print of this for $14.95 is insane.
- Production Value. You are getting a book that is of a similar quality to some of the top products on this site.
- Balance. By far my biggest problem with the book is balance wasn't given a second thought. The book has a section on balance stating that while the system isn't balanced and can create overpowered characters, balance was taken into account. This stance seems to contradict statements from the author's twitter in which they stated that "balance doesn't matter" and using the analogy that official WotC isn't balanced stating the ranger as an example of something that is underpowered but fine because it's flavourful (On a side note I feel like most players and DMs disagree with this, the Ranger and Revised Ranger are both bland classes and feel like more like Druid/Fighter hybrids then an actual unique class).
The system isn't balanced.
Tying ability scores to culture isn't a good system because for certain races the way ability scores work offset the balance of certain abilities.
The system is almost misanthropic in its balance, making Humans extremely weak as an Ancestry effectively making humans a race not worth playing.
Human Ancestry grants, a skill proficiency and a tool proficiency. That's it.
Compare that to other races that get Darkvision, breath weapons, resistances, unique features like Halfling's 'Lucky', advantages on certain saving throws etc
It just comes up short.
What made Human's balanced as a race was that they either got a +1 to every stat or using the variant rule system a feat. As a design choice this is great on WoTC's end because it represents them as a jack of all trade race that are masters of their own destiny.
Delegating this feature as cultural means that Humans become boring and the weakest race to play.
To quote the author on twitter:
"This is why Wotc still hasn’t “fixed” the ranger beast master. Yes it’s underpowered, it it’s flavorful and narratively satisfying, and their research shows some folks like it."
Humans in the Ancestry & Culture system are neither flavourful or narratively satisfying.
To say that unbalance is fine as long as the narrative is interesting is fine, I agree.
Having two proficiencies as the thing that makes your race unique is neither of those things. It's plain boring.
How do you fix it? Developing a unique feature for Humans would have been a better touch.
Human culture has the opposite problem. Making it the only culture worth taking.
Why would you not have your cake and eat it? All ancestries bar human get all the good unique features of each race, and they can take Variant Human Culture to get a free feat on top of that as well.
The Narrative of the Adventures. D&D adventures (both third party and official) tend to either be vague sandboxes (not giving a lot of details to the DM giving them the freedom to add their own flavour) or railroady (giving them too much detail and locking the players into set choices. Both adventures in this book fall more towards the railroad side of the coin. Light of Unity is a semi ok adventure, but Helping Hands is lacking. The problem with both is they're a bit weak with story structure. The issue could be that they're not really full adventures more like singular quests consisting of a handful of encounters which could be covered in one to two sessions.
I don't want to add spoilers in case a player reads this and a DM is intending to run either of these but the narratives are filled with railroading and safety nets protecting the players from consequences for their failure.
Helping Hands especially suffers from this.
The first encounter puts the players in a dangerous scenario that even if they fail nothing bad happens. There are notes for tone meaning you can add more consequence but by default even if the players don't succeed the same result ensues.
This encounter also has zero purpose to furthering the plot of the adventure other than saying 'here's a bad situation, people are unified despite it'. The rest of the adventure also suffers from this, feeling like a collection of encounters stringed together rather than a solid cohesive narrative.
The party in Helping Hands are railroaded into a plot where there only purpose is to be pacifists who spread cooperation and egalitarianism. Which is great if your party's characters believe that not so great if you wanted to play a character that didn't.
Perhaps the adventure is called Helping Hands because it holds the player's hands on a journey to explain why cooperation is good while giving them no space to agree or disagree with the sentiment. This creates no real conflict in the story and results in a rigid railroad adventure.
- Introduction Essay. Anyone that has bought this product would already be onboard with the ideals and reasoning behind its inception. We don't need a 3 Page essay telling us why it's necessary and important.
Xanathar's Guide to Everything has a two-page introduction (some of which is images), the Player's Handbook has a one page preface and a four page introduction explaining core mechanics. Both are significantly meatier products then this.
The book opens up with a 1653-word essay and honestly it feels really indulgent.
It could have effectively been removed without impacting the final product and shortened to a single page.
The system feels very locked in. Improving it would involve an evaluation of the individual values of each racial trait and creating more choices within both the Ancestry and Culture selections. Offering more customisation rather than the system with locked bundled traits as it currently is.
For the relative value of the book I'd say it could be worth a pickup if you're looking for ways to tailor a system to your own game.
It's the balance and execution of these ideas that let it down in the end.
EDIT 14/07/2020 22:43 GMT
After writing this review and reading the author's response, I went back to the original twitter thread to check if I had misrepresented the author's view on balance and apologise if I had.
Unfortunately in quite bizzare fashion the author has blocked me because I assume they didn't like my criticism? That's fine it's a free world.
Upon inspection of the tweets again (viewed publically when I am not logged into the account) I don't think I misrepresented the point of the author.
According to the author Eugene Marshall:
"balance doesn’t matter, not like you think. The official design is intentionally unbalanced. Some races, classes, items, & spells are more powerful than others, and that’s ok as long as it fits the narrative. ... No of course they’re not perfectly balanced nor should they be. As long as none of them are so unbalanced as to ruin other people’s fun at the table, then they are balanced enough. And none of these ancestries or cultures would do so. ... this is why Wotc still hasn’t “fixed” the ranger beast master. Yes it’s underpowered, it it’s flavorful and narratively satisfying ... Only people unduly concerned about artificial balance concepts worry a out it. I’m not one who does."
Dissecting that block I believe I wasn't unfair in saying the author doesn't care about balance. As I explain in my review the underpowered nature of humans isn't fun, it isn't flavourful, and it certainly isn't narratively satisfying. It's not too much of a logical leap to say the author doesn't care about balance when they say it in a roundabout way above.
I'm glad the author at least read my review, the praise I gave, and my agreement/sharing of the ideals surrounding the creation of the book.
Despite this they deemed me the unsavoury sort who should be blocked. I don't think I was unfair or rude and if I was I would apologise so I guess they just don't like criticism.
[1 of 5 Stars!]