Saturday, April 4, 2009

Death's Reach (Wizards of the Coast)

In the latest installment of the H-P-E-series, The heroes are headed to the Shadowfell to pay a visit to the Raven Queen, but when they arrive near her abode, they find it overrun by Orcus' minions. After liberating the place, they heroes meet up with RQ herself and are pointed towards Death's Reach, an ancient place in the Shadowfell, where gods can not go, where a horror from ancient times, the primordial Timesus is kept captive; Someone has penetrated Death Reach and is trying to unleash Timesus and his armies on the world. Yeah, guess who? I like that they tied the hooks to the adventure in with the epic destinies form the PHB - although the deadly trickster hook is mindblowingly silly - "Hey there Neighbour! I just heard that some guys are planning to attack the Raven Queen and I thought you could make something of that information" Another thing that annoys me to no end, is the seemingly random monsters that have been used to populate the dungeon in the adventure. I mean, we are deep in the Shadowfell, a place that has been locked up by the gods and the key thrown away. What are aboleths, githyanki, chuuls, rakshasas doing there? Sure, it's somewhat explained, but still. DR definitely feels epic. I mean, 2 liches and 1 dracolich in the same adventure, and none of them are even remotely near being the BBEG? This epic tier stuff might need some getting used to. That's not to say that it's a bad adventure. There is some very interesting opportunities for a lot of roleplaying and several pages dedicated to those encounters (also a lot of information to be gathered). First and foremost with the Raven Queen, and also with the angel who is not all what she claims to be. There is a couple of interesting skill challenges, and some very cool encounters (The one with a room and 4 traps and a SC to solve a riddle could be a classic I think) - and not to forget, probably the coolest monster designed for D&D yet - The Worm of Ages. Overall though, it's going to need a hand to satisfy my players and their DM.
Rating:* * *

Arcane Power (Wizards of the Coast)

Yeah baby, Grease and Glitterdust are back! When WotC remade D&D and published 4e, there were howls of outrage and nerdrage galore about the "new" wizard. He was no longer a god! I was one of those who really liked the new wizard, but still felt he could have been done better. More control, less damage would have been preferable. And some more varied magic. And now he is (finally) complete. Not only are some of the old-school spells brought back to life (although in more balanced versions) but he can finally summon and cast illusions (yeah yeah, I know about the Dragon Magazine article). The completeness is furthered by the inclusion of several interesting feats (I especially dig those that let a wizard improve his chosen implement), some cool paragon paths (I really want to play a summoner now) and some new builds. A very few things stand out as very unbalanced, most notably the new tome implement (Tome of Readiness + Improved Tome of Readiness) which allows a wizard to cast Sleep every combat. Might be really annoying with Second Implement (Orb). In general, I would say that this book is worth buying alone for the goodies for the wizard. This however does not mean that the rest of the book is bad. No sir.! While it seems that the Swordmage gets the short(est) end of the stick, the rest of the classes in AP (Warlock, Sorcerer, Bard) all get some great things. Aside from a plethora of cool powers and feats, an honorable mention goes to the new bard build (Prescient Bard, a ranged bard), the cosmic sorcerer (a good example of the increased complexity and flexibility of 4e classes) and the new warlock vestige pact (welcome back to the binder, just in a non-broken, non-silly form). Overall a great book that already is very popular with my arcane casters.
Rating:* * * * *

Adventurer's Guide to Cthonia (Alea Publishing Group)

I must admit, I have been waiting for this one for a while. A setting based on earth during the Dark Ages, but with magic. Not a ground-breaking idea (/wave TerraDave), but none the less a very interesting one. And if it is a campaign setting that you want, Chtonia delivers in spades. It's quite simply amazing how much great fluff they get crammed in there, despite all the crunch there is as well. They manage making abelievable setting, while keeping all the classic races and classes. I know I need to buy a thesaurus, but the tone and feel is just awesome/cool. There are also plenty of small gems in the mechanics (how druids become weaker the more urbanized the area they are in is, how arcane casters are hunted if they use powers in urban areas, some new keywords for weapons, a lot of flavorful and classic backgrounds, how to handle commands and last but not least, a very interesting pantheon and how nobility is handled as a magic item). Sadly, a lot of the crunch is quite broken. The noble multi-class is still good, but the possessed , while a cool idea, is quite useless if you strive for some sort of balance. Of all it's powers, only 7 have the appropriate implement/weapon keyword, or a scaling bonus to the attack. In short, they will be pretty darn useless. The PP's also suffer from a wide spectrum of issues, like missing keywords and one also breaks the economics of 4e. But then again, WotC managed to screw that up several times as well, so why shouldn't the 3PP's . Some powers are also quite broken (Weapon of the Inquisition for example), but it's perhaps among feats that you will find the worst of the offenders (Armor of the faithful: completely broken. every cloth-caster will multi into paladin (1 feat) and get armor of the faithful (1 feat) in order to get + 2 initiative, +2 all defenses and +2 speed). Buy this book (PDF), but beware of the bad crunch. I still think it is more than worth it.
Rating:* * * * *

Buy this PDF

Advanced Class: Sorcerer (Silent7Seven Games)

This new PDF brings us a variant spellsource for the sorcerer - a Far Realm (Sorry, farthest realm, but really, shouldn't it be furthest realm? :)) infected sorcerer that spontaneously (well almost) bursts tentacles or mouths amongst several things. The Big C flavor is good and strong (iirc at least, its been 20 years since I played CoC and read the books), and we are presented with several new interesting options. From the switching of racial stats to CON (making more races better for this kind of sorcerer) to the aberrant growths (I mean, who wouldn't want to be sprouting mouths or tentacles), passing by the upgradable powers (that means you might be able to keep your favorite power, without it ever becoming outdated). The powers are complex (lots of circumstances) and powerful, but this is balanced by the fact that they are fairly circumstancial. Some are really cool (I <3 distortion field, pushing people away from you before you teleport and again when you arrive), while at least one is quite broken (yes, Sorcerous Rays, I am looking at you - auto effects like blind, immobilize or fear is just too good, even for a level 9 daily). Overall, it's solid, with some great ideas. Had a few more things been properly balanced, I would definitely have upped the rating.
Rating:* * * *

DCC61 Citadel of the Corruptor (Goodman Games)

The heroes arrive at an old remote fort in the mountains. There they find a lot of hostile (surprise!) orcs. The orcs however have nothing to do with the inhabitants of the fort being dead. After clearing the fort, they follow the clues to the BBEG, a psychopath evil dwarf who uses a demonic semi-sentient (props for coming up with that one) and poisonous gas to kill people, and thwart his nefarious plans. There are a few very nasty traps, and some of the encounter are really interesting - I especially like the one with the ghosts and wraiths, although I suspect some will be turned off by the whole subject of killing children - I think it's a great scene to show the horrific effects of the demonic gas. There is one (good) skill challenge in there, and in general, it seems as if skills are more frequent in this DCC. Overall, the crunch in DCC61 seems more polished, with very few errors (although a couple of the insubstantial monsters seem to have too many hit points - insubstantial monsters get around 2 hit points less per die than normal creatures). It also marks a change from the other DCC's. No abundance of elites many level higher than the party. No abundance of solos. In general just more polished, as I have mentioned before. But, somehow, it feels less nasty than the average DCC (although using the semi-optional tearing storm and the winter hags should remedy that). Except for the final encounter (of course), which can potentially be devastating, with players hacking away at each other - that should be good fun. Overall it's a good adventure, but it's lacking a certain je ne sais quoi in order to blow me away. Definitely usable though.
Rating:* * * *

Dark Assassin (Dark Emerald)

When I read the class abilities, I thought: Damn, this assassin is going to have to do a lot of [W] damage or ongoing damage (or something else) to keep up with the rogue. Basically, it's damage-based class ability is just a weak form of Sneak Attack. But, this doesn't happen, and overall, the Dark Assassin just comes off as a significantly weaker rogue with really bad powers. Except a few of course, because level 1 dailies that render the target helpless (save ends) is just broken of course. Is there any melee based character who wouldn't multi-class into DA and pick that? Anyway, the class is a series of bad design choices, from random ongoing damage to attacks based on strength, dexterity, wisdom, charisma and intelligence (can you spell M.A.D.?), passing by utilities that are really attack powers and ending with secondary attacks that are based on other stats the the primary attack and/or damage keyed to a stat different from the one that governs the attack.I know it's hard to write balanced and fun 4e classes, trust me, I know - I am writing one myself, which will (hopefully) soon be published, but this doesn't seem like the Dark Assassin has been thought through at all. Also, the editing is sloppy, with 2 of the 4 at-wills being the same. Do yourself a favor and play a rogue instead of spending your hard-earned money on the Dark Assassin.

Scarrport (Reality Deviant Publishing)

In the first of their Campaign Cutouts - locations to fit in any campaign - we are introduced to Scarrport, a seedy tradeport on the banks of where two rivers converge, and its inhabitants. The PDF is divided into 5 chapters and some appendixes. We have City-fluff and NPC's (38 pages), 3 new races (10 pages), 1 new class (the elementalist, 34 pages), New magical items (10 pages), new monsters and hazards (17 pages) and last but not least, the appendixes (12 pages), which include a short level 1 adventure, random encounters in Scarrport and same sample game of chance. For $11 (discount at the time of writing, won't last forever I presume), I think that's a steal - or almost. I am going to risk my online neck and say that Scarrport suffers from the same illness as many other 3PP products. Cool fluff, awesome ideas, but not that well implemented crunch-wise.The races are either overpowered (if not broken) or just plain weird (ie no real connection between fluff and crunch). The elementalist is (IMO) clunky, with all sorts of weird conditions that must be met in order get the most of the class. On the other hand, it definitely doesn't feel overpowered (why does it have to take a feat to gain implement on summons?). It has a good AC, but with a lot of short range powers, I think the elementalist will be in for a world of hurt.In short, it didn't appeal to me, but might to others. The decisions regarding level/type of the NPC's makes me shake my head (like guildleaders who are level 9, but every guard is apparently a level 12 soldier, with common thieves being level 8 minions? The monsters/NPC's have a good deal of errors (like weird tohits and wrong number of hit points - for example, the first 20 NPC's and quite a few of the monsters have incorrect hit points - Stone dog cultist on page 35 is the first one they get right unless I am mistaken). Now, I hope you are still reading, because despite the fact that the crunch needs a lot of work, I have got to admit that they sold me on Scarrport. Because when I read the first chapter, I really felt the city come alive, especially through the NPC's described. Lots of good ideas and potential there, and despite the rating, I would buy more about the city in a heartbeat - because I like the feel of the city. But I am going to have to "fix" all the crunch parts.
Rating:* * *

Creature Collection (Fiery Dragon Productions)

The newest monster book available, Creature Collections brings us the horrors that infest the Scarred Lands setting. The art varies from awesome (the breasts on that dryad are just perfection) to dreadful (some of the golems look like something out of a 80'ies Marvel Comic), but definitely more hits than misses, unless you hate old school black and white stuff. Then you will hate them all. Except the Dryad. Innovations are few and far in between, but there are some (disclaimer, while I have read everything published for 4e, I might have forgotten stuff, after all, there are already a lot of monsters and powers out there), although not all are for the better (just IMO). Endurance checks to resist auras, no thank you, the immediate save mechanics is there and works just fine already. Auras that give a bonus against attacks with a certain keyword; no thank you even more. Just give some resistance instead, and be done with it. I also do not need to see ritual magic in a stat-block. I can decide just fine when my monsters need to have access to ritual magic, without it cluttering up my stat-blocks. However, the Bloodmist Naga is a nice take on how to have elites do more damage without just upping the damage or giving it double attacks. Luckily, it is not a big part of the monsters who "suffer" from the things mentioned. A lot of monsters are actually cool enough, although a bit low on the power curve (especially their elites), much like those from the original MM. This is one place where I would not mind a little power creep. The lore/fluff seems more ample (sorry, can't get that Dryad out of my head) than what is in the MM, and there are quite a lot of flavor about the setting everywhere. Of course, not all monsters are equal, and some have awesome fluff, while others have some very sparse fluff. Some of my favorites include the Asaatthi (lizard-race), the Overghast (okay, sounds like WotC does not have a monopoly on bad names), the Legion of One (sheds of swarms during the encounter), Doom-mite Swarm (go home locusts), hags, rat-men (they are the new kobolds, just ... you know, more hip!) and lets not forget the Blood Moth Swarm - I mean, cute butterflies that drink your blood? That's like a cake of coolness with awesome-sauce on top (just a pity they didn't make a higher level version). Overall it's not the second coming of monster books, but it's a good book. I know I will be using quite a few monsters and some of the lore from it.
Rating:* * * *

DCC60 Thrones of Punjar (Goodman Games)

People are disappearing from the Devil's Thumb: When the daughter of a foreign ambassador disappears, things get even messier and the players are brought in the fix the international incident that is brewing. And it is all because an albino aboleth has made the severs of Punjar it's new home and made an unlikely alliance with a small noble house in a growing desperate situation. Thrones of Punjar is a good urban adventure. The module is filled with small goodies regarding Punjar (like the Whirling Death and the Stirgeskull games), and there are a lot of RP opportunities in it. In fact, I can't remember the last time a DCC had that many fleshed out NPC's - I think that part of the adventure is awesome. The story is solid without blowing me away, and while the fights do not seem as lethal as the normal DCC standard, the fact that players are on a deadline and can't just rest whenever they want might make it quite a bit harder than it looks at first glance. There are of course a couple of extremely lethal traps (3d10+6 + stunned (save ends) in close burst 3 which goes off every round a character starts on the trigger - well, you better hope that you make that save quickly and that the trap misses you) that should be fun for any DM to use against his players. The biggest problem (IMO) comes from several of the key fights, all involving solo creatures (and a couple of non-key solo fight - aura that weakens is a bad combi with solos). The two BBEG's both seem underwhelming as solos. Sure, they have guards and traps, but once those have been dealt with, you will be left with what looks like a big sack of hit points and no real danger. Luckily, this is a problem that is fairly easy to fix.
Rating:* * * *

Lunar Scrolls (Silent7Seven Games)

Lunar Scrolls presents us with a wealth of options for introducing a new power source into our campaigns: The Lunar power source. The fluff is decent, but to me, the core of thePDF are the lunar multiclasses , infusing your characters with lunar powers. The idea is intriguing, but sadly they suffer from various issues. First of all, they seem to "break" several of the normalmulticlass rules. Instead of taking an initial feat and then 3 separate multiclass feats, you take a multiclass feat, and then only take two feats to swap powers. The first gives you access to swap both an encounter and a utility power. Also, there are constraints as to which level of powers you can swap, seemsunnecessary to me. You also need to take all lunar multiclass feats in order to take a lunar paragon path. Again, why change what everyone else does? Another thing that "breaks" the usual rules, is the weird scaling of themulticlass encounter and daily powers that you can pick, if you have taken the appropriate feats. Instead, they should have made more powers, to swap in at higher level.Powerwise, there are a lot of things that are just too good. The first crescent striker multiclass feat enables you to remove 1[w] from an attack and daze instead daze the target until the start of your next turn. Even with the target getting an immediate save, it's quite powerful for a rogue using a dagger, since he only loses 1d4 damage. Also, there are a lot of possibilities for inflicting penalties to that save. The PP that grants -3 penalty to saves (at level 16) on all conditions that you inflict becomes a new must have PP for a lot of classes. Overall, a lot of powers seem fairly unbalanced, most of them leaning to the "overpowered" side, rather than the "underpowered" side. There are also a lot of clunky rules in there, for example the power that does X on a hit, unless it misses by more than 5, in which case it does nothing. Or regen that is granted that only heals up to Y times the target's healing surge value. Overall, the idea of a lunar power source was a good idea and could probably be great flavor for a campaign, but sadly, Lunar Scrolls would need a good amount of work before I could use it in my campaign.
Rating:* *

Book of Vicious Damnation 2 (Inspired Device)

Yeah. No thank you. I left alignment based spells back in 3.x, I do not what that back in my 4e. As for the rest of the powers, because, that is basically what we get, I do not see much that impresses me. I see missing keywords, clunky at-wills, encounter powers that requires healing surges to be spent (thus leading to the 15 min. adventuring day), encounter powers that give bonuses for the rest of the encounter, a power that can make a weapon daze on every hit for the rest of the encounter, etc, etc. Considering that the PDF is a god and 15 new powers, those 15 powers could have been balanced a lot better. Also, why are they CHA-based, if for a cleric? Seriously, the cleric is already screwed enough, with only ½ the powers to choose from, unless he wants to suffer from MAD.

The Arak (SuperGeniusGames)

I will make this short. The crunch is absolutely out of this world horrible. I must admit that I have to question if the guys who wrote this play 4e much. The races gets too many skill bonuses (small thing, I could live with that) but also gets an at-will power that enables him to deal 1[w] or 1d8 extra damage 1/round against a target he has CA against. Yeah baby, at-will.. /boggle. Some of the feats are pretty sick too, and will make it the de facto race for a lot of classes (deal one die higher with axes, bows and spears? yes please - I can already see the rangers dealing 5D8 on a twin strike at first level). Also, the Arak can get feats that grant him bonuses against primal effects and other feats that grant resist 5 primal. What the hell is that? Anyway, as bad as the crunch is, the fluff is just the opposite. Quite awesome. So buying this is definitely not a complete waste of money, but if you want to use it, it needs a little work.
Rating:* * *

Critter Cache: Fey Folk (BlackDirge Publishing and Goodman Games)

Three words for you. I want a Pooka! Okay, that was four words, but it’s still true. Critter Cache 4 is full of great (and small) fey monsters, that you can use to terrify your players when they visit the Fey Realm, or as WotC calls it: the Feywild (sigh). Highest on every adventurer’s kill-list is the Boggart. This otherwise fairly harmless creature suffers from having an aura that makes everyone nearby roll twice on attack and damage and use the worst result. Luckily for the poor bugger, it can turn invisible at-will so it might be hard to kill it, especially if you have your hands full with its allies. Seriously, every arch-fiend/demon-lord/├╝ber-lich should recruit one of these Boggarts. Another great monsters is the Spriggan Titan Guard. I can’t wait to use this and spring it on my players. From small to huge in the blink of an eye – that might surprise them. All is not perfect of course; there is a glaring and horrible mistake: The nymphs (there are 5 of them) are all covered way too much up! Seriously, what is that about? I know the GSL has a grand-ma clause, but I do not think you have to go that far . Also, I believe that “Prime Material Plane is a 3e-ism. Nowadays we live in the natural or mortal world. Anyway, joking aside. The crunch seems pretty darn solid this time around. There are a few monsters which are a tad low on damage (most notably the Bolg and Beanne Sidhe) due to their elite status, and also the power of the Red Cap Warrior is a tad odd, considering name and effect. On the other hand, I really like how marking is used by monsters other than soldiers, and it works well. Overall, CC4 is a great product, with great flavor, that complements my (relatively) extensive 4e library well, and many of the monsters therein will definitely be used.
Rating:* * * * *

Races of Violet Dawn: The Skarren (Inner Circle)

Fluff-wise, I must admit that I am not “groking” it. A (very) primitive race which barely even uses clothes, but suffer no penalties from wearing plate armor if need be. It’s not that the fluff is bad per say, but it just failed to entice me. The Skarren is described as a warlike race that despises other races and it has (IMO) that slightly chaotic neutral feel. All in all, it struck me as a poster-child race for anti-social and rude behavior. Crunch-wise munchkins will love it; a +2 unnamed bonus to AC and a racial attack that only takes up a minor action – at epic, with a couple of feats, your Skarren will be doing 3d10 + modifier + daze with a minor action. Yeah, that is a bit too much, for me at least. The rest of the crunch is solid, without being ground-breaking, although there are a few oddities, such as a feat that gives a bonus to second wind if you have less than 9 hit points. Okay, maybe I am missing a point there, but I just feel that’s a very convoluted way of doing things. Overall, this is not a race I will be using; others have done the primitive race in a (much) more interesting way.
Rating:* * *

Hard Boiled Armies (One Bad Egg)

I must admit that I have never paid much attention to whatever mass combat rules there was for D&D, so I can’t really compare or evaluate if OBE simply ripped off ideas from previous editions. What I can tell you is that with Hard Boiled Armies, they have created an elegant and smooth rules-set to guide us through mass-combat in our campaigns. At the core, it’s extremely simple. Units in combat are created and treated like characters. Then we are given some tools to figure out, depending on how big a battle and how big a battlefield we are aiming for, how long rounds, encounters and days are. We get a bunch of ideas to translate the 4e-isms such as encounter and daily powers into military happenings, how to adjust speed relative to the battlefield and last but not least how to figure out how long short and long rests are. They touch on the translation of special moves like grab, conditions, ranged attacks (if a square on the battlemat is 10 miles, maybe that range 10 on a power does not quite work as it should . Actually, while I could go on and on, because they do touch on quite a few relevant and diverse things on the 24 pages (the last 11 are devoted to the map used with the mini-battle-adventure included), but I think I have said enough already. I mean (and this is totally made up on the spot, it’s not from Hard Boiled Armies), with a few changes, that 1st level rogue with deft strike becomes a 1st level army of 10000 men with perhaps a light cavalry that strikes out quickly, surprising its enemies. Kill the fluff; use the crunch (with a few modifications). It’s very 4e and I am definitely going to try it.
Rating:* * * * *