Thursday, December 4, 2008

Critter Cache – Animals and Beasts (BlackDirge Publishing & Goodman Games)

I have got to admit one thing. It’s probably the first 4e product that made me laugh out loud. In one of the encounter suggestions, the following line is found: "1 orc eye of the orcish god (level 5 controller)" – We all know why it says that, but that line just sounds so silly and made me laugh. Anyway, there is little doubt that a lot of people think that the MM could have used some more regular animals. Let me say up front that I am not one of those. Animals and Beasts should definitely fill out the hole left by the MM. As far as I can tell, most if not all animals that were weren’t included have now been covered. We even get a new poison and a nasty disease as a bonus. There are however some issues here and there with the crunch, such as the Dire Ape that can stunlock you to death (Only the ape missing can prevent this, there is nothing you can do), the Tyrant Ape (hello mr. Kong) who seems very weak for a solo (if the crunch followed the fluff, it would be passable, but definitely still on the weak side) and a stomp attack that makes very little sense (I can buy the elephant having 3 reach, but how does it keep a character pinned at 3 squares range. I just don’t see it). Last but not least, BlackDirge continues to explore 3e’isms in 4e. Most notably resist damage with weapon keyword and fighting below zero. I must admit that especially the fighting below zero is not my cup of tea, and I wish it had been done more smoothly, more 4e-like, instead of (sort of) copying the 3e way. Overall, it’s not a bad product, but definitely the weakest of the Critter Cache line, and the one I will use the least.
Rating:* * *

BlackDirge’s Dungeon Denizens (BlackDirge Publishing and Goodman Games)

Overall, I have to say that DD holds a horde of very flavorful monsters, most of which look solid (crunch-wise) and definitely interesting enough to use in my campaign. The art is very 1e’ish, and in general, the monsters are a (good) bit more lethal than monsters of the same level from the 4e MM. He really pushes the envelope on how much a damage a monster of a given level should deal. As a DM who likes to kill his players (according to them), this is cool by me (Yum, yum, Greater Barghest drains two healing surges!). Although the book is far from flawless - there is notably a few issues with a few of the solos. They are either too weak, or they are way over the top; Grave Swarm I am looking at you! The editing or crunch mistakes are kept to a minimum, just like we should expect from Goodman Games. The spread of monster by level is good, although it is a pity that there are no regular monsters over level 19; only elites and solos. On the other hand, they are so many cool things (all monsters are indexed by level, by type and by keyword – just awesome for a DM) in this book that you quickly forget and forgive mistakes. Blackdirge reintroduces stuff like magic resistance and damage reduction in 4e format. Some will love this, some will hate it. He also introduces resistances based on the alignment of the attacker – I can’t say that I am huge fan of this, but it will please some people, that is for sure. As a bonus, we also get one of the sweetest curses (disease) that I have yet to see. I can’t wait for my players having to eat the flesh from the corpses of sentient beings in order to be able to heal. Cannibal Curse FTW!
Rating:* * * * *

Poisoncraft : Venomous Villains - The Syrallax (One Bad Egg)

The Syrallax, a distant cousin of the male medusa, is an evil subterranean race using nasty-looking weapons fashioned from the bones of their victims. They excel at tactics and mind-control, and they are in general just plain nasty. I find them a good and refreshing alternative to the evil overlord race from below to add to my campaign. And the art by Kev Crossley is just perfect. Like really awesome. Aside from two examples of the Syrallax (1 or 2 more wouldn’t have hurt), we are treated with a fully fleshed out encounter with a Syrallax Overlord (level 20 elite controller) and his multiple minions, taking place around a defective poison refinery. The refinery can blow up (treated as a hazard) and so can many of the barrels of poison (obstacles) that have been placed around the encounter area. Definitely a great encounter that shows just how interesting and dynamic 4e combats can be, if done by the right people. We are also treated with a little preview of the upcoming Codex Venenorum IV in the form of the Evershroud, a very nasty level 22 poison. Watch out for the aftereffect – it’s not a typo, the poison deals the same damage after the first made save. I think that’s a great way to increase potency of poisons without merely pilling on the base damage. All and all it is a great product, its biggest problem being that it leaves me wanting to know and read more about the Syrallax.
Rating:* * * * *

Hard Boiled Cultures (One Bad Egg)

Apparently, Mr. Hicks and co. can do no wrong. Hard Boiled Cultures is a DM’s guide to making the standard races of your campaign more diverse. They deconstruct the basics of the races (stats, feats, abilities) and show us how to twist that into distinct sub-races ready to populate and enrich your campaign world. While they use the PHB races as examples, there is no reason that their theories can not be applied to any and all 4e races. I think it is a brilliant (trying not to use awesome here) idea that every DM should embrace. Doing so offers true flexibility and choice for your player characters. No longer will every rogue be halfling, every fighter be dragonborn, or every cleric be elf. By creating sub-races using HBC, your players will no longer have to choose between making the character they want and making an “optimized character”. The only thing missing (IMO) are tables of alternate abilities. OBE tells us how to evaluate each ability and power, but all examples are based on already existing abilities. Which works great, mind you. I just wish there had been a few tables with lists of cool ideas for abilities for each race. It’s still an awesome product though.
Rating:* * * * *

In Search of Adventure (Goodman Games)

ISoA is a collection of 6 1st-2nd level adventures. Overall I am not too impressed. Adventures 2-4 are all three set in a desert, which is an almost automatic turnoff for me (and the ones presented did nothing to change my mind). The 1st, 5th and 6th adventure have some great background and interesting ideas for encounters, but the execution is just boring. Too often they use 4-5 of the same monster and nothing else in a combat. Variety is the spice of life, and of 4e. Lots of new monsters, but I am a bit (okay, a lot) concerned about the balance of these monsters. It seems quite a bit off, at times. In general, they seem way too happy about solo monsters as well – I mean; two solos in a 10-page level 1 adventure? That’s not how 4e works at its best, IMO.
Rating:* *

Wrath of the River King (Wolfgang Baur, Open Design)

If you read this and wonder why the review has changed, it's because I lost this review to the evil overlords of the interweb. With no backup. Anyway, WotRK is a tale of greed, love and revenge, where the heroes start off trying to find the miller's wife, but quickly find themselves embroiled in a game of thrones amongst 3 factions of Fey. They end up making their way towards the castle of the River King in order to prevent a Fey attack on the mortal realm. The adventure is very flexible (sandbox style) and stuffed full of interesting skill challenges, combat and more than anything else, roleplaying encounters and opportunities. The Queen's Birch Fair especially shines in this regard and is so full of adventure hooks that you can probably use it basis for half a campaign. For the more combat-minded, there is plenty as well. Several of the encounters even look positively deadly. All in all, this is by far the best 3PP adventure written for 4e. And not only is it a great adventure, but it is also an awesome inspiration and a must have for any DM who ever plans to bring his players to the Feywild. You can still purchase this if you sign up for Halls of the Mountain King, else you are probably SOL.
Rating:* * * * *

Pact of the Angelic Choirs (Adamant Entertainment)

I was very much (okay moderately) looking forward to this one. I have a thing for angels, and if done right, it would definitely be something that would be incorporated very quickly into my campaign. But alas, it wasn’t. There are some decent ideas in the fluff, but the crunch is just horrible. Some of the issues are small, things that annoy more than anything, but when you couple that with a good deal of powers that look horribly broken, it’s kind of hard to ignore. Small stuff includes the at-will dealing radiant damage, despite being described constantly as a fire attack. The constant use of willpower instead of will. Then again, that’s probably because it’s not released under the GSL. Also, Truename. Good idea, poor implementation. I mean, why give penalties to monsters’ defenses (and thus give the DM more work) when you can give the player unnamed bonuses that stack with everything else. Anyway, as I said, mostly small stuff, so let’s move to the bigger issues. How about a level 2 utility that gives 1+int mod to AC, all defenses and resistance 1+int mod vs. fire, acid, radiant and lightning. For 5 minutes… Or how about a level 6 utility that as a minor action gives 1+cha (main stat) modifier to a roll. But it can be any roll used within the next 5 minutes. Or how about a level 10 utility (immediate reaction) that when used gives you temp hit points and an action point. Or how about an immediate interrupt that “rewinds the clock” to before the event, and lets you cut in with a minor, move and standard action. Seriously? A level 5 close burst for 3d10+modifiers+ knock prone? Or a level 29 burst 5 that can do 10d10 (of no less than 3 different types of energy) + knocks prone? Sure, you might have to hit yourself, but still? Too much work in this one, in my opinion.

Pact of the Vermin Lords (Adamant Entertainment)

The idea is good, no doubt about it. For the most part, the power s fit well thematically, and there are some great ideas in the fluff. AoE spells become a spreading contagion, healing becomes shedding the husk, zone spell becomes a cloud of nasty tomb insects, ongoing damage a parasite worm etc, etc. Overall some very cool fluff for a very dark character. The issues I have with PotVL come from the crunch. First of all the at-will is extremely controllerish. I know that the warlock is strike with a tad of controller, but that at-will should be a controller at-will. Oh and did I mention that it is very good? There are also a few powers that look broken and/or weird (You Are My Host, I am looking at you), but overall, it’s fairly solid.
Rating:* * * *

The Shroudborn (One Bad Egg)

The Shroudborn gives us a new multi-class option full of flavor and role-playing abilities that any semi-sane DM should at least consider to introduce in his campaign. Now, not all DM’s will feel that The Shroud fits in his campaign, but no problem there either. The Shroud could really be anything. You could simply be attuned to the Spirit-World. Or you could be cursed by the Gods. Or yet again, you could be touched by the Fey. (Okay, maybe not that one, but you get the idea I am sure). Oh and it works great for NPC’s as well! It's a good way to inject some flavor into that boring Orc chieftain or Hobgoblin captain.

So what does it mean to be touched by the Shroud? Well, first of all, you can swap one of your +2 stat modifiers for a +2 Int modifier and one of your racial skill modifiers for a skill for a +2 stealth modifier. You also acquire some minor physical changes, like milky white skin or pale eyes. After spending a feat, you get to choose another ability (from a very short list, based on race), and qualify for further multi-classing. Which is probably a good idea, if you want to expand on your character’s connection to the Spirit-World.

The powers are cool, thematic and flexible. None seem obviously broken, and OBE even introduces a new key-word: Arena, which pulls you, your target(s) and possibly your allies to a closed off demi-plane sort of place, where you can continue to fight. What can I say? Yet again, OBE delivers.
Rating:* * * * *

DCC57 Wyvern Mountain (Goodman Games)

Wyvern Mountain is the latest adventure from Goodman Games. It is an extremely linear adventure that sends the heroes to Wyvern Mountain to investigate what shenanigans are afoot. They follow the road (and monsters on the road) to the former dragon lair, now occupied by a goblin tribe. They kill the goblins, solve the riddle to enter the real lair that has been in temporal stasis, and defeat the guardians and master of the lair. Game over.

Overall I am disappointed. While there are some cool (read nasty) traps (7d10 at 4th level – OUCH), they are never part of an encounter, so unless players die from it, they are never really in any danger. There are some crunch issues, as well as some odd suggestions of tactics (like a monster starting by using a close burst power that makes its allies regain hit points). Worst of all is the lack of interesting terrain or features in combats with high level/high hp opponents. On the positive side, there are some nice puzzles and we get two new cool monsters, the vargouille and the barghest – yeah, when I say new, I mean 4e-style obviously.
I get that DCC's are supposed to have that oldschool hack and slash feel. Screw the roleplaying etc, but where is the harm in making interesting combats, if combats is all there is. Way too often they resort to using one type of monster in their combats. Only once in the whole adventure do they meet more than 2 different monsters at the same time, and that's when they encounter a ranger with his pet dire wolf and eagle. Diversity FTW.
Rating:* *

Demon Queen's Enclave (Wizards of the Coast)

The heroes find themselves (depending on which hook you use) heading to a drow settlement in the Underdark in order to stop a greater evil brewing. An rebellious drow has been lured to the dark side (as if Lolth doesn’t qualify as the dark side already) by Orcus. The drow, now a vampire, has taken over a domain in the Shadowfell which used to be ruled by an exarch of Orcus. From there, it has launched an attack on the drow settlement, breaching it defences.
So when the players arrive, they find a town-battlefield, infested by undead and demons. And drows, of course. The goal might be to stop the nefarious plans of the Orcus worshipping vampire-drow, but how do you do that. Do you ally with the lone drow necromancer, with the failed drow commander that thinks of himself as dead man walking, or do you see out the matron mother in the temple of Lolth, and strike a deal with the most unholy of all. Or maybe you just plow through everything. That would of course be a pity. Once an alliance has formed, how do you proceed to enter the realm of Orcus? There is also a personification of the plane that has its own agenda, and an artefact that doesn’t quite want what everyone assumes it wants.
The adventure is choking full of interesting encounters, awesome settings, meaningful choices, cool application of skill challenges and interesting NPC’s.

DQE (P2) is by miles the best adventure WotC has ever produced. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it is probably one of the best adventures made for D&D in many years. Buy now!
Rating:* * * * * *

Manual of the Planes (Wizards of the Coast)

The 4e MoP follows the trend started with the 4e FRCG. WotC provides the structure, with enough info to set the correct tone, and leave enough room for the DM to stretch his creative muscles and make it his own. If you are the type that needs to have books with answers for every single question, then this probably isn’t the book for you. If you on the other hand want a framework on which to base your own stuff, to help those C-juices get flowing, then the 4e MoP is an invaluable tool. I am not going to give it six stars, mostly because you can get by without, if you have a lot of material from prior editions. But it’s a damn good investment, if you ask me.
Rating:* * * * *