Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The dungeons of the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth

The dungeons of the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth

Our Subsurface Environments Acquisition Specialist, Dave surprised us all with a surprise deliver this holiday season. Itar’s Workshop ran a kickstarter concurrently with the Dwarven Forge Kickstarter and offered similar compatible dungeon tiles. The basic set unpainted in dungeon gray made its appearance on the table this week. The pieces ought to go onsale once the kickstarter is fulfilled through the webstore Itar’s Workshop.

'Ere's wot wot wot ye got right 'ere.

‘Ere’s wot wot wot ye got right ‘ere.

The general apearance of the tiles is very similar to Dwarven Forge’s Dungeon Tiles, with the key differences that the floor bases are not as thick, and the walls are only about half as high. I actually prefer the heights of these walls as they allow a better viewing angle of the table top action.

The mmaterial is very light, and feels like plaster. They are fragile enough that I will try not to drop, knock, or crush them. I store my Dwarven Forge tiles in the canvas sack they came with, but for these I will find a shoe box or something in which to carefully stack them.

Itars Dungeon tles after one black wash

Itars Dungeon tles after one black wash

The material was light gray as opposed to the dark almost black of DF tiles. Therefore I decided to do the opposite technique for painting. Instead of drhy brushing light gray, I would begin with black wash. The material is strangely water repellant which made it extremely difficult to do an effective wash.Perhaps they needed to have a primer, but I assumed the wqash would act as a thin primer coat. Apparently not.

I ended up dunking the pieces into the pool of black and still it would drain off leaving no trace but pools in the depressions. After letting the first coat sit all night, I went back with a second coat, and this time I really worked the now partially evaporated therefore even thicker black wash into the cracks and crevices.I think the improvement is noticeable.

A box of black washed Itar Dungeon Tiles

A box of black washed Itar Dungeon Tiles

The next step will be to do a light grey dry brush over the high points, and also a tan fieldstone drybrush to pick out a few fieldstones. I am thinking of picking out some watery and mossy highlights as well to really make these pieces pop. I will also make sure to sealcoat these, preferably wth something with some protective qualities, a polyurethane perhaps. More pictures to follw.

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Kre-o Dungeons and Dragons Action

Kre-o Dungeons and Dragons Action

So having an addiction to all things d&d I had to rush out to the store and pick up some of the new Dungeons and Dragons Kre-O (like Lego) figures and playsets. Then I took pictures for you all’s edification. This is the money shot, albeit with terriblelighting and from an awful angle. The good guys are defending their tower from an onslaught of orcs with two ballistae and led by none other than Drizzt “Tyler” Dourden.

Twenty bucks worth of toys

Twenty bucks worth of toys

We recently took a field trip to the local ToysRUS, which was a fun event, since we hadn’t been there in so long. The Dungeons and Dragons section was practically pristine and un-picked over. I was able to judge every item, compare them, and pick out a good selection that totally met my budget. (Oh and I must mention that I went back the next day to “complete” my collection by buying the tower and the orc drummer.) The minifigs are seemingly randomized, but they contain codes on them which gives away which figure is inside the packaging. My kids were appalled when they saw me checking a youtube video to make sure I was getting the minifigs I wanted. They accused me of cheating, but I told them there was no such thing as cheating when real money is involved. I am still pondering the morality of this, but am coming down on the side of “then don’t put desciptive codes on them!”

The good guys

The good guys

Here is my collection of good guys. I have the majority of them, but there are a few generic or boring ones missing. I love the wizard but why no hat?

The bad guys... and Drizzt

The bad guys… and Drizzt

And here are the orcs and Drizzt. These are really great and fierce looking orcs. Not quite the pig faced Gammorian guard how I like to imagine them, these are more like Lord of the Rings Black Orcs. Drizzt comes with an awesome tree for some reason. My favorite one is probably the Warrior of Gruumsh or whatever he is called. Also that is one awesome spear.

And there you have it, the best of the Dungeons and Dragons Phase 1 Kre-O sets.

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Since our two year long 4e campaign just ended, we are cleansing our gaming pallets over the holiday season by playing some other games. This week we played the Pathfinder beginner box. The players used the pre-generated characters, and I used the introductory adventure, Black Fang. The game was a rollicking blast, and we completed the adventure, all ten encounter areas including five fights, in three and a half hours of free-wheeling fun.

Battles were incredibly fast, and the exploration was rife with many common fun-house dungeon features, including magic pools and trapped treasures. The game almost played like first edition basic/AD&D. Circumstances of many of the fights, such as cramped conditions and difficult terrain meant that most characters only took single actions on their rounds. This and the fact that the characters had only a few spells, skills, or weapons, meant that their main actions were usually straight-forward and quick to resolve. One of the classic hallmarks of low level play, besides character frailty, is limited options, and first level Pathfinder characters are no exception, though they made sure that every character had something worth doing every turn. And just as I hoped, the complete lack of opportunity attacks meant that much less emphasis was made on positioning, which sped up play vastly, and sometimes the miniatures and battle-mat were no more than afterthoughts.

By now, everyone around the table is familiar with dungeons and dragons, role-playing, and the basics of monsters, traps, and the game in general. Half the players had 3e experience. Most of the players have been around the dungeon block a time or two, so to speak, so these factors all combined to allow us to really get the most out of the adventure: savoring the role play, knowing the trap is about to fire, but going forward anyway, diving into the black black water to retrieve the glowing pile of loot – and even doffing armor beforehand. Rope, who doesn’t have fifty feet? Listening, searching, poking ,prodding, it was dungeons and dragons spelunking at its most basic, just like the box advertised. We blew through it and enjoyed every moment.

The party of seven included two clerics (the twins) two wizards (dumb and dumber) two fighters – the brains of the group (Eeoow!) and an elf rogue who got eaten (oops). Each of the four iconic classes are well represented by the pre-gens, who have great spells, skills, and other class and race abilities.

With both clerics and wizards all having detect magic at will, there was a lot of detecting going on. Like search beams throughout the entire dungeon and like tri-corders inspecting every find, these detectors could find and strip any magical object down to its bare bones in seconds. I tried to dampen the rampant magic and described many things like the potions for example, by their knowledge, rather than glowing, like by its pink bubbly fizz the wizard knew the levitation, and by its rich orange flavor, the cure light wounds. I like the division of arcane and divine powers that is so drastic in fourth edition, and it seemed like clerics and wizards should not overlap in thei detection. When, for example, a cleric cast detect magic on a looted wand, I described it as having s slippery feeling, and that she needed to hand it to a wizard for proper detection. Other than that, I really didn’t mind the ease with which magic items were detected, and the fact that wands had charges, and would run out eventually, added some coolness to it.

The funniest moment of the night came when the goblin, who only knew a few words of common, described his missing dragon toy with flapping wings by pantomiming yanking its tail over and over while saying “me want toy!” I go for the laugh, no matter how low or distasteful.

One major difference I felt, but would have a hard time pinpointing specific differences, is that Pathfinder tilts more in the direction of simulation, while Fourth Edition comes down on the more “gamist” side of the equation. Armor felt more realistic, with fighters having the highest, and wizards the lowest. Having a swim skill, and using it, was somehow nice. The thief being the only character with thievery was a good change of pace.

One cleric was blessing, curing and healing up a storm the whole time, while the other cleric never healed anyone, but instead tore through enemies with a scimitar, or made impossible shots with a sling. Each of the classes are carefully constructed to provide a rich gaming experience, and the cleric seems to have been given big upgrades, and has tons of healing available in the form of channel energy. Ironically, though the potion was called cure light wounds, the cleric had no spell as such, but instead the heal and turn undead feature is combined into “Channel energy” useable half a dozen times a day. If we played correctly, then it would seem every time a cleric uses it to channel positive energy, EVERYONE in the thirty foot burst gains 1d6 hit points. It is powerful, and other than the few daily spells, and the constant beam of detect magic, the cleric is well armored and armed with both scimitar and sling.

The wizard has his own tricks. In addition to the detect magic, they can cast a ray of frost each round for 1d3 – not too shabby. They have 2 or three daily spells besides the ray, but the wizard was not left out of the “something to do every round” sweep, and the ray of frost becomes puny beside the amazing staff hurling abilty (which I dubbed the Blunt Spear technique) and was actually the wizards best at will power. This meant the wizard never had to resort to his dagger or crossbow, unlike previous editions. Magic missile required no to hit roll, and was the ultimate demise of the big bad Black Fang, by a twice-unconscious wizard lying on the ground at its feet.

The fighters were as they should be, masters of weaponry and taking the physical approach. They beat, they bashed, they swam and climbed their way though the dungeon, and led with their chins. I love fighters. One of them had a short bow, and used it well, and even picked up a goblin short sword for the high crit, which paid off! The other won the magic sword and took it to deal great wrath to Black Fang.

And finally there was the elf rogue Merisiel, who searched out and set off and disabled every trap she found, and managed to back stab a spider, though she was injected with a double-damage dealing diseased spider bite that gave her instant stomach pains. She would not suffer them for long however, when she attempted to bluff Black Fang at the end, by claiming fealty. He demanded to see her worthiness and called for her to come forward and kneel before him, which she did. The wizard (dumber) had just time enough to rush forward before Black fang judged his new minion “No, unworthy” and raising his head, he blasted a great torrent of acid which glanced of the rogue and coated wizard, instantly knocking him out, before splashing violently against the back wall. Behind them, the rest of the party flung stones and shot arrows from the balcony. Thanks guys, we got this!

One of the clerics came forward to heal the unconscious and foolhardy wizard. (Or was he? One theory suggests that the wizard may have run forward in some vain attempt to “rescue” or otherwise save his damsel, or possibly even sacrifice himself for her.) The dragon was happy to have two snacks before him and after a flight of ranged attacks towards him, including a savage arrow strike that did quadruple damage and tore open his throat, thanks to a critical hit card, the dragons turn came around again. Most of the characters were still stuck on the stairs.

TA rogue and wizard were within his reach, and so it was time for the infamous claw-claw-bite. First claw fells the foolish wizard (for the second time) and the second claw fells the rogue who had stood her groundand tore into his soft underbelly with her knives. He is left with one choice: which one to bite? Gulp, the discerning dragon will always choose elf flesh, and so poor unconscious Merisiel was swallowed whole (by taking her below -10 with the bite attack.) One cleric quaffed her levitation potion (good use of acquired loot!) and came to rest beside the fallen wizard, healing him just enough to remain woozily half conscious and propped up on an elbow – at zero hit points, which meant a single action. He fired his magic missile into the bleeding and gashed open throat of the dragon, and slew the beast.

The beginner box is a perfect product for a fast and furious game of “basic” d&d which after all these years of numbers crunching “new school” complexity comes as a refreshing change of pace. I could see playing a mini campaign up to level five taking anywhere from 3 months to a year of real time. This sounds pretty good, and right about where my attention and passion for grand campaigns stand.

Unfortunately, there is one thing holding this game back from being my players first choice. Even though I am sure I could convince them to choose amongst four classes and races, there would be lots of overlap, and they immediately pointed out that they prefer the huge range of character classes and races that 4e offers. This alone sways the argument in favor of 4e. The full Pathfinder experience might close the gap of races and classes, but then we are adding the complexity of 3e mechanics back into the game, by which I mean opportunity attacks mainly, and the avalanche of feats, secondarily. So in the end Pathfinder Beginner Box was an amazing experience, with lots of potential, but its elegant simplicity is marred by the lack of character options todays players like to see. 4 and 4 is just not enough – or 5 counting the online addition of the beginner barbarian.

For casual pick up games, one night beer-n-pretzel games, or for teaching the basics of any edition of dungeons and dragons it is just about perfect. For a group experimenting with Pathfinder, I think it does a great job of getting the feel of the system, without becoming burdened down by more complex rules. In this way it reminds me of the ad&d/basic edition divide of the 1980’s, which I suspect is exactly what Paizo has in mind, considering the name. One can only hope that they will soon release an “Expert Box Set” and if it contains more character class and race options, this could turn into a full fleshed out game experience. Pathfinder is blazing a trail into the future of dungeons and dragons, or at least in to one possible future, and I like what I see.

Final verdict:

Pathfinder Beginner Box is the Return of Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

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The Pathfinder Beginner Box is beautiful to behold, a joy to hold in hand, and a great introduction to the Pathfinder branded game of dungeons and dragons, also known as D&D 3.75, also known as the unofficial successor to the 3rd (and 3.5!) edition of the most famous role playing game of all time. It also happens to be the first non-dungeons and non-Wizards of the Coast role playing product I have bought in a long time. Having played D&D since the very early 1980’s, I converted over from 3rd edition to 4th a few years ago, but during that time Paizo, a long-time publisher of Dungeons and Dragons products, including the line of magazines that bears its name, chose not to embrace the new edition of the game, and instead went its own way with an updated rule-set based on the previous, 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

This schism is said to have caused a fracturing of the player-base, as it helped divide the players of the game of D&D between the current and the previous editions. This is known as “the edition war” and is not a subject of this review, only brought up in order to give a little history about how this product came to be. My own reasons for moving on from 3rd to 4th edition are myriad and not worth discussing, however enough time has passed, and this product is attractive enough, to break down my resistance against 3rd edition in general and Pathfinder in particular.

During this review, there is some comparison made between the Pathfinder Beginner Box and the its titular competitor, the Red Box Starter Set from Wizards of the Coast. It must be noted, however, that there is a vast difference in price between the two, with the Pathfinder Beginner Box selling for almost twice the cost of the Red Box. So while it may seem that the Pathfinder Box comes out ahead in many or most of these comparisons, the price difference is the great equalizer here, and I would be hard pressed to say which one is inherently better. In the end it comes down to system preference, so objectivity is difficult. It is good, though, to have a currently published version of the previous edition, in the same way that having “Old School Renaissance” products is good to keep the spirit of the previous editions alive, popular among gamers, and selling.

The Contents

The Pathfinder Beginner Box is a gorgeously crafted work of art. The box itself is big, sturdy, and covered with slick art by modern fantasy luminary Wayne A Reynolds. Iconic images, such as the Pathfinder logo, the famous Pathfinder goblins, and the new Pathfinder Black Dragon cover the box, even the unseen sides. As a fan of boxed sets, this is my favorite box yet, from the viewpoint of looks and sturdiness. It is also heavy, and heavily laden. There are no pieces of cardboard to help this pile of stuff fill the box, it does so handily all on its own.

Upon cracking it open, one is greeted first with a couple of pamphlets advertising the world of Golarion and other pathfinder products, including the Pathfinder Society Public play. It is important to remember that this is a starter product, meant as a gateway into the wider, more expensive world of the full Pathfinder experience.

The box includes a set of 7 dice. It is good to see the percentile die back, which has been suspiciously missing from the 4th edition of the game. The dice in my box were red-orange with crisp white numbering, and they were immediately hurled into my big barrel o’ communal dice, except for the d12, because I needed another one and this one matched my Dm set. Providing a set of dice is an awesome way of saying “we’ve got you covered” and providing everything needed for an aspiring Pathfinder player.

Next up in our list of contents are the cardboard miniatures. Pathfinder has done something unique here, by providing cardboard cut-outs that stand up on provided plastic bases. The cardboard cut-outs are printed on thick, high quality cardboard, and the art is colorful and clearly depicts the character or creature it represents. Since they stand up, have a 3d aspect, and can be used right alongside actual miniatures with less cost to verisimilitude, this is a much better method than the cardboard tokens provided by Wizards of the Coast in their boxed sets.

The idea that some alternative to miniatures should be provided to these largely miniatures-based games in order to facilitate play, is a good one, and it is intriguing to see the different routes taken by each company. I have found uses for the cardboard tokens and I look forward to adding these stand-ups to my repertoire of gaming aids. However, in the main, my game has used miniatures since the beginning of time, and so that short window of needing a miniature alternative for play is directly intended to new and first-time role-players. Looked at in that light, it makes perfect sense to include affordable cardboard alternatives, though they are of limited value to the experienced player.

Fitting right in with the cut-outs is the map board, called a Flip Mat since it is useable on both sides. This beauty is made of a hard, yet flexible material coated in a plastic that allows it to be marked on and wiped off by virtually any type of marker, dry or wet erase, and can be folded into typical letter size. This map board is one of the publisher’s greatest products, and they sell a whole line of double-sided Flip Mats with all sorts of maps printed on them. On one side of this map board is printed a dark dungeon full of typical hazards, traps, and chambers one might find in a dungeon. If I have a complaint about these maps, it is that they are sometimes printed too dark pick out all the details, and this dungeon map is beautiful and chock full of little elements. The other side, however is a plain grid on a yellowish-tan backing. The color is an unusual choice, but it looks like its brightness will help draw attention to whatever is drawn upon it, and that is a good thing. I suspect it is meant to represent either sandstone, desert, or an autumn field, and tan is a good generic color for standing in for many environment

These Flip Mats are not cheap, and this is one area where the Pathfinder Beginner Box is head and shoulders above its competition. The 4e Red box contains two poster maps of similar dimensions, but they are printed on paper, and lack both the sturdiness and versatility of the map board. So while Red Box gives us 4 environments suitable for play out of the box, Pathfinder gives us one dungeon, and one blank map of limitless potential. It is one of the best items in the box, and has universal appeal that will be of use long after the prospective buyer has moved beyond the status of “beginner.”

Moving in towards the meat of the product, we stop momentarily to glance over the character sheets. These come in two varieties: specific pre-generated characters, and blank character sheets. Both are printed on sturdy-eraser friendly paper, and are in full color. The four pre-generated characters are especially attractive, and made like folded pamphlets. The outer cover contains a huge full scale portrait of each the four Pathfinder iconic classes: Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Rogue. The character sheet itself takes up the central portion of the unfolded sheet, with notes and advice around the over-sized margins.

Upon first opening the Pathfinder Beginner Box, the four iconic pre-generated character sheets leapt out as especially interesting eye-candy. Their usefulness, however, is diminished after the first couple of games, as the sheets themselves will be rather unwieldy at the game table. As a training aid, and an intro character sheet, they are perfect. The blank character sheets, on the other hand, seem to hit all the right notes that a good, one page – front and back – character sheet needs. It is in color, and there are some funny design decisions, like featuring a picture of each die type down the left margin for no apparent reason, but it looks good, and it laid out in an appealing, easy to remember way.

Now we come to the meat of the package: the Players and Dungeon masters Guides. These books are put together with the same incredible quality that the publisher Paizo is known for. In other words, they are beautiful, like the box itself, and each of the books is slick and colorful, with full color art and headings on every page. The action literally jumps out at you as you flip through the pages, and the art was placed with an eye towards sparking the imagination of the potential beginner. These guides are large with a stiff glossy cover, and a spine with the printed title, so they will look good on a bookshelf, out of the box, if that is the intent. But that is merely the looks of this pair of books, let us turn now to

The Game

The Players guide opens with a choose-your-own-adventure style introduction to role playing. This method of gently immersing the prospective role player in a fantastic story where they get to influence the character’s outcome, and maybe roll some dice and kill some monsters along the way, has been a component of every beginner box since the dawn of the role playing industry. Pathfinder does not let us down in this aspect, nor does it in most classic tropes of the beginner box, which shows that this product is well thought out, and well designed to meet the goal of introducing new players to the world of Pathfinder role playing.

After the intro, the book delves right into character creation, and it is pretty run of the mill, with a section on rolling dice for ability scores (hallelujah!); a section on the races, which are human, elf, and dwarf, and finally an overview of each of the four core classes offered, complete with all skills, abilities, and spell lists for each of the classes. These pages also include everything needed to advance characters to fifth level.

Ok, let me start by saying a short prayer of thanks for ability score rolling. After two years of playing 4th Edition, where every character had a standard array of scores, I relish the individuality that going back to ability score rolling provides. I am not saying I WANT a character with an attribute below 8, or without a perfect bell curve of scores, but it should damn well be POSSIBLE. The only rolling method advocated is to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die and arrange in any order, which has actually been my preferred method of rolling since at least 1983. I also allow a player to subtract 2 from one score in order to raise another score by 1, which allows for slight optimization, but at a steep cost.

Moving on, it is somewhat of a surprise to see the small number of races. The halfling (hobbit) has become such an integral part of the dungeons and dragons mythos, that I was actually surprised to see its absence. It is the only difference between the 4e Red Box which has five races, including the halfling, but which game splits the elves into two types. So Red Box comes out on top with 1 extra race, the poor missing halfling. Since the iconic Elf thief is one of my favorite pathfinder characters, I am not too disappointed by this lack, but I do hope it doesn’t mean that the halfling was merely a 30 year fad that is now fading away. I love those buggers.

The four basic character classes – fighter, mage, cleric, and rogue – were all represented with a standard approach that seems little different than 3rd, or any previous, edition. The cleric had zero level orisons to match the wizard cantrips, and none of the classes had any “powers”. Instead, they had class abilities, attack modifiers, spells, and skills to take the place. This could be considered a boon or a drawback, but it is in line with previous editions, especially 3rd edition, upon which Pathfinder is based, and it is a refreshing change of pace. Too often of late, have I seen players with blinders on, who could think of nothing for their character to do that wasn’t printed on a power card.

After combat, comes skills, feats (ugh) and other necessities of a characters life, like their equipment, arms, and armor. All of this is fairly typical, and it is good to see somewhat realistic array of prices on the goods. Plat mail SHOULD be vastly more expensive than leather, and the gods of balance be damned. In fact, it is refreshing throughout the entirety of the book to see that Pathfinder will at least take a nod towards realism whenever possible, rather than to go for the purely gamist attitude when it comes to the rule set. Having all armors cost roughly the same amount of gold in 4th Edition D&D is a good example of the fair and balanced yet gamist style that that system utilizes.

I have developed a huge chip on my shoulder about complex character creation systems, and it is a constant irritation that in 4h edition it is practically impossible to create a character without a computer, an internet connection, and a monthly subscription to the Character Builder. This idea chafes against my natural tendency towards freedom, and it is one of the driving factors of my dissatisfaction with Dungeons and Dragons. However, non e of that is needed to make a Red Box character, so it shouldn’t be used as a reason to prefer this Beginner Box over that Starter Set.

In the Pathfinder Beginner Box, character creation is simple, and shouldn’t take too long. Feats were new to 3rd edition, and I am still on the fence to their worthiness. While I respect the customization it allows, the fact is that I have witnessed feats to be a HUGE drain on character creation time, and rarely used in play. Some people may have the ability to perfectly orchestrate their characters actions to provide the best use of feats, but mostly, they just go about their business and get happily surprised when a feat, such as headsman’s chop, comes into play. Then there are the “mandatory feats” which are so important that a character who has not taken them are at a disadvantage to those who have. In neither of these cases, is a good case for the inclusion of feats made. In fact, they are a detriment. Harrumph.

Skills on the other hand are a finite few which each character can use to help them in specific situations. The skill list is not much different than 3rd edition, and the way they are calculated is also not much different. Ranks are spent each level to increase a characters skill level.

After character creation, the remainder of the Player Guide is spent on combat, and here I notice one glaring omission, so important I need to scream it in all caps: THERE ARE NO OPPORTUNITY ATTACKS! Do you, gentle reader, realize what this means? It means fast and furious combat, without worrying too much about positioning. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am certain that it allows for grid-less combat. It has been many years since I ran a combat merely in the imagination of my players, but the Pathfinder Beginner Box is giving me that itch. Anyhow, I can only assume that this is a simplification of the rules in order to facilitate play, but it is still an interesting idea.

Enough about the Players Guide. It is colorful, easy to read, and full of pictures of literally every item of equipment, weapon and armor. The character creation is quick, easy to follow, and the combat rules are clearly pared down to the basics. It makes for an interesting design choice, but one that I can approve of, though I think it is possible that the choice of narrowing down the combat rules could be considered a detriment when prospective new players attempt to advance to the core game. That said, I had no trouble advancing from the Basic rules to the Advanced D&D game when I was a kid, so Im not worried about it – it provides for a fresh quick style of combat.

The Dungeon Masters Guide jumps right into the action with an adventure – a dungeon crawl which just happens to use the provided flip-mat. This incidentally follows the Red Box design, and is also a classic element of beginner’s DM guides. The adventure is exciting, offers a wide variety of encounters, and is rife with combat, treasure, traps, and even a few role-playing opportunities.

What follows the adventure is a guide to creating one’s own adventures and plenty of good advice for the aspiring game master. The advice is helpful and very basic, by design, and covers a wide variety of issues, from pacing to puzzles. The guide then devotes a huge amount of pages to describing many of the most common elements of the adventuring environment. This guide is extremely useful and provides a wealth of detail and tables for all kinds of traps, hazards, objects, and other environmental affects. This section is divided by the type of terrain, and includes dungeons, deserts, urban, and wilderness, among many others.

The next section of the book covers the necessities of the dungeon master: magic items, monsters, and and an extensive section on random encounters. In fact, the amount of random generation possible in the guide is surprisingly high, and including treasure tables, and even extensive, random monster encounters, by region. The guide relies heavily on random tables to help out novice dungeon masters, while offering helpful advice about adventure creation along the way, and intersperses this with help for matters around the table, such as the items needed to bring to a game, to the fact that having fun should always be the main goal. The guide is well suited to this, but at the same time, the random tables should be useful for experienced dungeon masters as well.

Finally the guide ends with a quick example starting town, in this case Sandpoint, which if memory serves, is a classic introductory setting from one of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths/ The last few pages are made up of handy references for use during the game, such as the order of a combat round, and the common skill DCs. Both books feature an index.

The Pathfinder Beginner Box does everything it sets out to do in spectacular fashion: it provides a complete dungeons and dragons role playing experience. From complete neophytes, to young people, to grognards looking for an updated rule-set, this box set is all the introduction needed. What sets it apart, however, besides the absolute stunning quality of its production, is the fact that the set can provide a level of fun for not just one or two nights, but the seed of a whole campaign, spanning months of play.

Going up to 5th level is a big achievement, especially when coupled with a simplified combat system. This set is really all one needs for a complete experience. The more I think on it, the more I think the Pathfinder Beginner Box would be perfect for a low level short campaign, or a beer-n-pretzels style of game. I intend to test this theory over the holidays.

Whether or not this leads to adopting the complete Pathfinder rules, I cannot begin to fathom, but I should say that I made a conscious choice to switch from 3rd to 4th edition, and have not regretted it in the least. There are certain elements of 3rd that I miss, and this set has all of it. However, in planning my next great campaign, I am still thinking in terms of 4th edition. A quick romp, a tryst, or a low level campaign, yes this box set can provide that, but the full Pathfinder rules will be necessary for a longer game, especially a higher level game, or a game with players who expect more choice of race and class.

This game is a great introduction to the Pathfinder brand of the worlds most popular role playing game, and provides all the tools needed to get a game up and running. In addition, it is packed with value that can be used to create a complete campaign experience spanning months of real time, with characters advancing to 5th level. It has value beyond even that, with the flip-mat and the random treasure, monster, and encounter tables. It is a great learning tool for the 3rd edition rule-set and provides a slightly simplified combat system that looks built for fast, exciting combat. This boxed set is worth getting.

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My experiment with the new Fortune Cards has been going on for a few weeks now. There is quite a bit to love about the cards: they are well made and look handsome with very nice artwork. They offer the player another resource to use at the table, and add to the variety of play pieces and tactile stuff we have available in the game. On the downside, they definitely add a layer of complexity to the players turn – having to remember to flip them and even look at them to see if the card is usable seems to be the biggest hurdle. A players turn often descends into the tyranny of too much choice, and the cards can exacerbate that all too common 4e affliction. In addition, some of them are overly complex, requiring a+b+c to happen for the card to work. They are also “collectible” which can cause aneurysms in some purists.

What has come before


The addition of cards into the game has been slow but steady since even before 4th edition came out. In our 3rd edition game, I used cards for magic items and for criticals (both published by Paizo). 4th edition took the concept to new levels, making the class powers of the characters into cards, or card-like pages. Same with magic items, although I wish they would put out an actual deck of magic item cards, rather than the print-outs we get with our character builder.

Aside: ]
This was tried with player power cards, but the separately sold class power card packages did not go over so well. It is my opinion that this was due mainly to the amount of math required to configure the powers, as well as the constantly increasing number of powers available through DDI and splat books, and ALSO because of the constant errata, making the power card packs obsolete and practically useless before they even left the store shelves. It is pointless to buy a pack of uniquely over-sized cards only to find some of your powers missing, and that every time you leveled you had to redo all the math for them. The handy card pages that print out with the character sheets are nearly perfect – besides having to be cut out, and being printed on standard paper rather than card stock. They work because they are automatically updated from the Character Builder.

You sir, are prone!Condition cards are another type of card used for 4th edition. These have been given out as DM rewards for the Encounters program. I have never seen them on sale, but they are fairly useful. I like to hand them to a player if his character is suffering from one of the conditions, especially ongoing damage, since no one ever remembers it.

So, all in all the card creep has been coming to D&D for years, and I am not surprised or opposed. Why should dice have all the fun? cards are an historically important gaming aid, and for D&D to expand into greater use of cards adds to the complex, esoteric mystique of the game. I would have absolutely adored these back in the glory days of 1st edition gaming, but sadly all I had back then were the Monster Cards (which I loved for all their absurdity.)

In many ways, the recently released Gamma World takes cards to the next leval (again with the collectible option.) Based on a stripped down D&D rule set, Gamma World paved the way for more card use with their Alpha Tech (powers) and Omega Tech (treasures) which became an integral part of the character. The game came with dozens of cards, and random packs were available to purchase for more options, or to complete the set. There was no necessity to purchase additional cards, and Wizards of the Coast seems very cautious about making sure that none of these card packs (so far) are mandatory for any kind of play. With Gamma World, additional packs are optional and merely increased the number of different possibilities. Being optional has mollified many enthusiasts who worry about the increasing buy-in for the game. However, it does nothing to quell the unspoken fact that people who spend more on the packs in 0rder to build an optimized deck will have characters who perform better.

4e Fortune Cards for a better future
All this backstory brings us to the newest product for D&D – Fortune cards. These cards have many of the traits gamers have come to dislike about card usage in D&D. They are collectible. They are sold in random packs, with variable levels of rarity. They are relatively expensive at $4 for a pack of 8, though cheap enough that the average customer would have no problem buying them as a spur of the moment purchase – such as just before an Encounters game. They add a layer of complexity to the game, by adding choice and requiring more accounting. They are also one more thing to forget about and regret not using later.

But they make up for this with positive additions to the game. They give more choices to the player (a double edge sword) and offer at least the chance for character development. At best they are a prop or pompt for some role playing opportunity. They offer a small to medium level bump or buff to a characters power level. But the best thing about them, as written, are that they are completely in the domain of the player. The DM does not need to remember to use them, or to keep track of them at all. The only interaction the dm has with the cards, in the official rules, is to adjudicate whether they are usable in a specific situation, which doesnt look too difficult. Thus the true beauty of the fortune cards, for me personally, is that I dont have to do anything at all.

This is your card, may you use it well.

The above example is fairly typical of the cards. Some are slightly more powerful than others. Some cards are completely useless most of the time, and require very specific circumstances to work. This adds value to “personally constructed” decks, made up of cards that all have meaning for a particular character. Careful aim would be useless for an assassin, for example, but a fireball-hurling wizard would surely make the most of it.

In D&D Encounters: March of the Phantom Brigade, we use them by the book. The first few encounters, when each character had merely one packet of cards to play with, it meant that the majority of cards never got used, and indeed, in most cases were forgotten or even purposefully spurned. One or two players tried using them, and especially the way they worked in conjunction with the twitter buffs (another headache of mine, since I have to constantly adjust for them) but that was especially confusing. Hopefully they will figure it out, but as Dm, I dont waste my time with it (unless Im very bored at work.) The fortune cards are thus not being shown to their best, most gamey-ist, i.e. helping the rogues get combat advantage each round, giving the wizards the chance to cast a rage spell without provoking, and similar tactics. This is what optimized decks allow.

Aside: Power creep?

There is little doubt after imagining optimized decks, that a level of power creep is coming to those characters with such decks. A great set of 8 or 10 cards would allow a character to consistently perform at their best – about on par with a great night of rolling. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing depends on each playing group. I could see some player envy happening at a public play event, but in private, any good DM should limit that type of gaminess by making them available for all (thus putting some cost back on the dms shoulders) or by disallowing them altogether (and thereby pissing off their gamey Monty-Haull assed, munchkin friends.) The cards at their worst could disrupt tables with incomplete card coverage.

By the book
From the DM perspective, there are many ways to alleviate some of the problems that come when using the Fortune cards, and to even put them to new uses. One way to help out the players during public events is to have a “DM Deck” that a player can opt to draw from if they do not have a deck of their own. A friendly dm, could even go out of their way to optimize their own deck, thus helping the poor player to get a fortunate outcome. This is a great way for a DM to get some use out of the cards, and to justify spending a bunch on them, rather than their obsessive compulsive desire to have a complete set of all the tools available for the game. When going this route, it might not be a bad idea to put the DM Deck fortune cards in sleeve protectors, making them easily identifiable during clean-up.

The only other way I bother with Fortune cards while DM’ing Encounters is to remind some one that they might have a fortune card to help them, if their attack misses. Whenever a players turn goes south I try to give them upbeat advice to turn things around, like spending an action point, and now checking their fortune card. But then, I am a pretty easy going dm (usually!) and I make it a priority to try and let the players ‘write their own script’ as we play. These cards, if woven into the story, provide a chance to add to the story of these heroes exploits, and that is a good thing.

Going off the grid

Something wicked

When I first heard about the fortune cards (and their evil twin, the despair deck) the wheels in my skull immediately began concocting ways to use them. The Fortune cards offer a chance to hand out treasure-like boons that offer small to medium sized benefits without being burdened by the wealth of countless magic items. They can be gifts bestowed by powerful allies, or fortunes won through amazing luck. Most recently, I had each player draw from my deck of Fortune cards when they attempted to read the stone tablets of a long-dead frog god. Those who were successful, pulled a card, which I read and gave a sort of mini-prophecy to the player.The character would then have the card to use whenever they needed, be it this session, or in six months time.

I love D&D. I love the products, and all the different formats, from large glossy tomes, to strange shaped dice. Adding cards into the mix of stuff I use around the table, which includes stuffed bears, and once even a stuffed e-coli virus, is a good thing to me. Props are fun, and I will find many ways to use my set. Handing them out as minor boons seems to be working better than having an unoptimized deck. Some other ideas are giving out optimized decks, or quest lines that involve attaining an optimized deck. Sort of a good fortune deck of many things. It could be used to make a pretty cool artifact.

Coming soon, the optimized Fortune Deck, used by Drizzt himself in his battle against Chaos warped Orcus. Watch as he leaves Orcus in the lurch, trips him up, thumps him a good one, then leaves him rolling on the floor with some distracting banter before finally whipping him mano a mano.

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A faithful aqaptation

Our group spent a month exploring the Tomb of Horrors and it was the first time for all of us. 7 characters of 8th level spent four game sessions, or about 14 hours total, inside the Tomb. Their characters spent two full days, with one extended rest, within the tomb. For the adventure, we used the DM Reward “Tomb of Horrors”, revised for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons by Scott Fitzgerald Gray. Also on hand was the original module by Gary Gygax, creator of the original Dungeons and Dragons and founder of modern role playing games – both for the awesome artwork, as well as to cross reference any inconsistencies or questions of conversion between systems.

It is also important to note that the party only went through the first half of the trap-filled dungeon, up to the point of contact with the false lich with the crown of fear, which led directly to the final confrontation. A few legendary encounters were thus missed, such as the three vats, the rolling juggernaut, the slime room, the mummy lord, and the animated weapons, to name a few. However, the party successfully navigated many of the truly renowned encounters before having the climactic two-part battle, first with the false lich then without pause they fought the demi-lich himself, awakened by the false liches demise. This was done for a variety of reasons, but mainly I wanted to finish the mini-arc of the campaign before the holiday break. What follows is my personal take on what worked, what didn’t, and how it all went down, through the lens of the 7 great players whose characters risked it all for the glory of storming the Tomb of Horrors. Of course I didnt really give them a choice in the matter. For a play-by-play recap, consult the four part session reports:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The Thrill of Frustration
It is no secret that this adventure is diabolically difficult, with deadly traps galore. The preface to the original warns us that this is a “thinking mans game” and that hack and slashers will be disappointed. The two main frustrations from the players came from the “unsolvable puzzles” for one – which included the three armed gargoyle and the slot; and that some of the traps were very unforgiving, especially the teleporter and the gender changer. I can commiserate with my players on these two points, and agree that the frustration and anger they felt was justified. Many of the traps and hazards are unfair. In the original, most of the traps would lead to instant death, with a single save-or-die roll of the dice determining the outcome (sometimes not even that. Make a wrong step, and your character is toast.)

This adventure in its original 1st edition, is not suitable for characters involved in a long term campaign, or a high fantasy campaign, as the case may be. It was widely known as a killer dungeon. This and the fact that my players never got to high enough levels prevented us from playing it in its original edition of the game. My games have always been of the high fantasy fellowship with a story to tell and a world to save. It never occurred to me to play with pregenerated characters, even though the original comes with 20, and besides, the players always wanted to continue the story arcs with their beloved characters, not play something evil and painful with throwaway characters. This trend is as true today as it was then, which led to many moments of serious pissed-offness.

The 4th edition adaptation ameliorates the save-or-die problem somewhat. In a rather brilliant way, it turns the dungeon into a sort of race against resource depletion. Being able to take extended rests can reduce the deadliness even more, both in this version, and in the original, though it might mean days of rest, rather than a single night. Even still, the risk of fatality is ever present.

For example, the first gargoyle they fought did an amazing 72 points of damage in a single turn. It would have instantly slain many of the characters, but the barbarian was able to soak it up.

The other issue, that of “unsolvable puzzles,” comes in two types: those that do not hinder the continuation of the adventure, such as the three armed gargoyle, and those that do, such as the slot in the chapel of good. In the first case, the addition of a difficult riddle can be a great challenge that many players will want to investigate and solve. They can keep coming back to it, and indeed they did, until they solve it or give up. Clues might appear or they might have an inspired moment of “ah-ha!” This is the height of riddle design.

The second type of puzzle however, creates a bottle neck, where the players as well as the characters are prevented from continuing the adventure until it is solved. This particular riddle, with the slot in the chapel of good led to a 2 hour stand-still in our game, where no one had any fun, no one was rolling dice, and one person even nodded off! There are other riddles and puzzles of this nature in the module, including puzzles which will cause a character to be trapped in a room with no way out until they starve to death. Joy.

The world continues to speed up, and people’s time is the currency they spend on adventuring, especially for adults with professions, kids, and numerous other worries and time constraints, who have very little time each week to devote to their favorite hobby. Game design has come a long way since Gygax penned this classic, and bottle necks, especially ones that rely on a particular insight from players, is a pathway to failure. And failure is no fun. I would much rather behead my player’s characters with a short sharp shock than have them stumped in front of a puzzle, scratching their heads and trying unsuccessfully to solve it. Wrong or right, my games are about fun. If it lessens the fun, it doesn’t belong.

To clarify, I am not saying everything needs to be rose colored and happy – death should await behind every corner, every closed door – just that the frustration of banging your head against an immovable wall is the opposite of fun. Puzzles should be optional, able to bypass, or have alternate possible solutions. This is game design 101, and it is humorous that one of the most highly regarded modules in the history of Dungeons and Dragons breaks pretty much every rule in the game design manual. It is humorous until the players find out what is happening to their characters, then the humor seems to melt away.

Which leads us to the next level of frustration, this one the “Gotcha!” trap. Like much of old school DnD, the original adventure is CHOCK full of save or die effects: that is, the player may get to roll one (if any) dice to hopefully survive the trouble he has gotten himself into. Sometimes there is not even that. For example, in the original, if you jumped into the green devil mouth, you were disintegrated, just like that. Roll a new character. In the new version, you take massive damage, but can be rescued by others willing to lend a hand, before being fully disintegrated. This shows a more recent game design, and goes back to resource depletion (of hit points and healing surges) rather than character depletion. In our game poor Hex, while alive, will never be able to forget his few harrowing moments in that green devils mouth, Im sure.

Another trap, and the one that perhaps caused the most frustration of all, even more so than the ring, despite being over in seconds, is the misty archway that teleports you back to the entrance – without your gear! Ouch! One of my players almost walked out after losing his stuff. Granted, I had used that trick on them once before, and so the sting was especially bad, but in this game gear is so important, that without it, one can hardly expect to go on. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as one player mentioned they should all just pile through. If the entire party had lost all their stuff, the campaign would have ended. That is not a good trap. In a side bar, Gray mentions that magic items above a certain level could make a saving throw to remain with the character. This small saving grace made all the difference and allowed the unlucky characters to continue on.

The Agony of Character Death
The Tomb of horrors was written at a time when adventurers, and the players who created and played them, were still developing the methods of adventuring we all use and abuse now, 30 years later. From 10 foot poles, to listening at doors, to a small army of “red shirt” henchmen, the things that we take for granted now were being worked out for the first time by those hearty lads that forged ahead through dungeons like this one. In other ways, times have changed and they left some of the common practices of the old days behind. Two of these depopularized factors are henchmen, and rampant character death.

It was a brutal first decade of gaming, and tales abound of meat factory adventures where players are expected to bring two or three characters to the table, anticipating character death. One way around this trouble of ‘save or die’ affects is to have a slave army of hirelings, also known as “cannon fodder” to send ahead to their deaths and clear the way for the real characters. There are stories of players sending in veritable armies of hirelings and henchmen, and at least one story of a player who led a herd of cattle into the tomb in an effort to lessen the impact of deadly traps. Another story circulates about a player who lost his character to the disintegrating mouth of the green devil face, and promptly made a new character and sent it to the same fate; and another and another until he had to be forced to stop jumping into that devil mouth. This module does weird things to people.

Styles of play differ, and this can have a huge impact on how the Tomb of Horrors is received by the players. When the game first came out, about the only differentiation of the characters within a given class came through the random rolling of character stats, or ability scores. Being random, this led to the quick rolling up of many characters, all of them nearly identical. Even the advantages and disadvantages given out through high or low ability scores was smaller then than now. In the intervening decades, game developers have come to realize that players crave customizability and want unique characters that match their imagined ideas, and who can blame them? – the game has become more and more focused on character development.

The simple fact that in 1980, you could make a character with little more than 6 dice rolls, compared to today, when it takes a computer program and a good hour at least to make an optimized character, has led to a greater importance on characters as individuals, as more important, and therefore as more painful to lose. If a 9th level hybrid Warlock-Swordmage jumps into the green devil mouth and gets disintegrated, it is going to take quite a lot longer to rebuild than Fred the Fighter or Lackey #7.

This focus on character customization has led to characters being much more valuable than ever before, and their loss is a blow like never before. This type of gaming has also led to a greater investment in the story-telling aspects of the game. Players want epic stories for their epic characters. And epic stories do not usually end in a total party kill. Or I should re-phrase that: a total party kill ends epic stories every time. That is not to say that death is absent, characters can and should face the inevitable, either through stupid mistakes, extreme risk, or very unlucky dice rolling. But to have a character that was lovingly crafted over months of play wind up dead because you chose left instead of right is an style of game play that has slowly receded with the henchmen, the sheaf of ready to play characters, and the herds of trap-springing cattle.

What was Awesome
The 4th Edition re-make of Tomb of Horrors went a long way to curtailing much that has become maligned in recent years, but its foundation, that of a “killer dungeon” was still very much in the minds of the players as they sent their characters through the tomb. The challenges were difficult. There were few fights, many traps, and plenty of riddles and puzzles to solve. The adventure is very open ended, even though it is almost a perfectly linear “rail road” adventure. Almost every puzzle must be solved before getting to the next, but at the same time there is a move at your own pace feel to the adventure that is less common in recent editions.

The monsters in the adventure are exciting and challenging. Almost every creature is epic, so many of the fights get drawn out longer than they should, but this is a factor of 4th edition game mechanics, and not the module itself. That said, I might consider lowering some of the monsters defenses and hit points, and raise the damage they do even higher – but not too high, as these monsters can hit HARD.

The final battle with the demilich is suitably epic, and I am glad to see that Gray, when updating the adventure, went for an epic final battle, rather than the “puzzle-fight” that Gygax envisioned. It was a satisfying finale for the players, an enjoyable, yet intensely challenging battle, that had very real risks. I would rate the final battle with the demi-lich as one of the best fights we as a group have had in 4th edition. On the other hand, I always had a fondness for the crazy, almost impervious to harm demilich of elder days. Heroic sacrifice seemed to be one of the few ways to get the demilich in the original, which is an excellent climactic event for everyone.

One of the best aspects of the adventure is the atmosphere of the place. From the sparse descriptions, to the artwork, the place drips with malevolence. Just wandering through the halls is a creepy experience. The details stand out, and every one of them will be picked over by astute players, or promptly missed/forgotten and end in a terrible death or dismemberment. Creeping through the halls, prodding the floors, poking things with mage hand – only by carefully observing the surroundings and acting accordingly (and with fingers crossed) can the party make any headway through the tomb.

The Tomb of Horrors can be a fun adventure to experience, but it requires a group of players willing to spend a lot of time and patience. Some of the challenges are extremely difficult, and after a long week of work, they can be too difficult to solve, appreciate, and enjoy. On the other hand, as I kept reminding my players, getting through the tomb is a real DnD feather in your cap. Being able to say “I survived the Tomb of Horrors” is almost worth all the pain and agony of suffering through it.

For a story driven campaign of highly developed characters, Tomb of Horrors is going to sting. It is unabashedly unfair, and the original intent of the tomb was to create an adventure nearly impossible to survive. The 4th edition version is toned down to the level of “possible to survive but still unlikely” without losing much in the way of of its spirit or its ambiance. This tomb is one tough nut to crack. Player beware.

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so beautiful

This review is my second in the Dark Sun Review Series I am writing to honor the new campaign setting being released. I wrote my first review of the set, of Marauders of the Dune Sea, last week, and my review of the Campaign Guide itself should finally be published next week. I have also posted game-play recaps of the non-public material Wizards has released for the Dark Sun setting. These include Bloodsand Arena, a Free RPG Day 2010 offering; The Lost Cistern of Aravek, a Dark Sun Game Day 2010 release; as well as the weekly retelling of Dark Sun Encounters: Fury of the Wastewalker. And if you still cant get enough Dark Sun, my own campaign has dipped its toes into the hot sands of Dark Sun, and the characters have been rolling endurance checks ever since.

Before I get into the Creature Catalog, I want to add a special message about the intent of these reviews. First of all, I am an unabashed fan of 4e Dark Sun as released by Wizards of the Coast. I never had the pleasure of playing the original 2nd edition set, though I have acquired a copy of it for posterity. I have however steeped myself in the lore of the land for this edition. This is a biased review by a fan, not an objective breakdown of its strengths and weaknesses. I will go into very specific details of what makes the campaign setting special, and hopefully give insight to those who read this with the hope of understanding what makes the setting, and the monsters, so unique.

One thing that this review will not do is to make comparisons between old Dark Sun and new Dark Sun. I have no working knowledge of Dark Sun of the 90s, and so I approach this iteration with no pre-conceived notions or prejudices. In the same sense, this review will not make comparisons to other campaign settings released for DnD 4e, which include the Eberron campaign setting and the Forgotten Realms setting. These releases have little bearing on the subject matter or publication methods of the Dark Sun Campaign.

One fine looking book

The cover of Creature Catalog features a striking example of the major Dark Sun art pieces, and it is one of my favorites. The cover is gorgeous, and the rich oranges and browns make this book really stand out. The entire book is very attractive, and just cries out to be held, fondled, and cracked open. The inside cover is classic black. According to 4e tradition, the featured monster on the cover is also the mightiest foe in the book – in this case the Dragon of Tyr. Ringing in as a scrappy level 33 solo controller, the Dragon (always capitalize that D) looks fierce indeed.

There is an interesting story concerning the cover of this book – it almost didn’t have one. According to Wizards, originally the book was slated to have a soft cover, but the printer made a mistake and printed them in hard cover (and apparently ate the cost.) This was fortuitous to customers, because not only because we get the book in all its hard cover glory, but we are only charged the surprisingly low soft cover price. This is a sign of destiny – one more reason that Dark Sun was fated to be the greatest campaign setting of all time. I can see why they originally called for soft cover. 144 pages makes for a slim tome, but it is well worth it, and even for full price, I would not hesitate to pick this up. Another interesting discovery I made while inspecting the cover has to do with the authors. Richard Baker is listed as the main author, but following him, are the names Ari Marmell and Chris Sims, which is different than the online sites, including the publisher Wizards of the Coast, who list the authors as Richard Baker and Bruce R Cordell.

I have been lucky enough to fight with or against many of the monsters in this catalog, at least up into the lower paragon tier. I was happy to find the majority of the Dark Sun creatures in the catalog are for the heroic tier. A quick rundown of the monster by level tables in the back shows that over half the beasties are level 10 or lower. While the upper tier of level 20+ probably accounts for 20 percent or less. This is a great ratio, and I hope it is one the publisher uses for all future monster books. I was surprised by the ratio at first, especially as Dark Sun is labelled as higher level and more dangerous than a typical setting. In the original edition, characters were assumed to start at 3rd level to account for the difficulty of the setting. Have no fears, though, as these monsters are truly fearsome, and they crank the damage up a level beyond the Monster Manual 3, which is known to have hit the turbo button for all its monsters. Until a character has been hit by a dart for over 20 points damage by the lowliest creature in here, it is hard to fully accept the difficulty. Imagine biie one-shotted by a kobold.

The first thing one notices when using the monsters in the Creature catalog is that they are Deadly with a capital D. Dungeons and Dragons IV has been out nearly 3 years, and as the game continues to mature, and players become comfortable with their characters and the rules, the designers felt that some of the challenges from the early years were not quite up to snuff with a thoroughly modern optimized party. Design changes took place last year with the Monster Manual 2, where the solos and higher level creatures were adjusted, and again in the MM3 where all monsters got a damage upgrade. Addtionally, with the MM3, the stat blocks themselves got an upgrade to assist playability. And now we have the Dark Sun Creature Catalog hot on the heels of the MM3. It looks like the same underlying philosophy was used to create the monsters, including the new stat block format, and then they were perfected with a heaping helping of extra Dark Sun Deadliness. This creates a group of monsters able to tear through lazy or strategically inept parties, and maintain a white-fisted challenge for even the most jaded group of power players. The monsters are tough, as the short happy life of Bennybe the rogue will attest.

Cracking those covers open, we are confronted with a slim 144 page volume chock full of around 200 monsters. Reading the small table of contents, we notice that unlike any previous monster manual, this book is split into 3 sections. The first section is called Creatures of Athas, followed by a section of Personages of Athas, and finally the book rounds out with a section called Encounter Options. This is a unique layout for a monster book. It is also a little confusing. For example, you might find a human templar of Tyr under Human in the Creature section, but you could find templars to other city states in the “Personages” section. I think once I am used to the book, it will become second nature to know which section to look under, but for now, it is unclear.

Turning past the table of contents, we see the next 4 pages are devoted to breaking down the monster stat blocks. This is fairly important, especially for those who don’t have the MM3, where the new stat block made its debut. On the other hand, not much has changed, and comparing this section to the Monster Manual, I see little difference. Still, this is an important section, and I could save time during play by remembering this section rather than searching through the PHB and DMG for answers that are right here.

Now we move on to the meat of the book. Coincidentally, the first monster in this book is the same as the original first edition Fiend Folio – the Aarakocra, a race of flying humanoids once associated with eagles, but now known as vulture folk. It is a long ignoble drop from their previous existence, but Dark Sun is known for forcing the familiar to fall from grace. Following the aarakocra entry comes page after page of meaty Athasian monstrosity. Most of the monsters are weird in some way, often having psionic powers, and many of the beasts are either reptile or insect. Or plant. My players will never forget the zombie cactus they recently faced. What an evil, evil cactus.

Aarokocra then and now

t looks like most of the classic Dark Sun monsters are here. As I said, I never played the prior edition, and I don’t want to compare the two, but I do know something of it, and I can see most of the legendary monsters represented here: belgoi, gaj, gith, and tembo, check; athasian giant, silk wyrm, and tembo, all present. Kanks and crodlu, elf dune runners, it is all here. I wonder how many of the creatures in this tome are totally new, as I don’t recognize all of the names, such as: Chathrang, Cilops, megapede. One thing that I find extremely useful is that there is a new racial entry for the main races of Dark Sun: dray (dragonborn), dwarf, eladrin, elf, Halfling, human, Half-giant (goliath), mul and thri kreen. This will go a long way to fleshing out a Dark Sun campaign world, and most of the entries have multiple monsters to span one or more tiers of play. The human, for example, has a total of 10 entries, ranging from a lowly level 1 minion, up to a level 17 creep.

Some of my favorite monsters from this book include the hejkin, a race of grubby grouches who speak dwarfish, to the id fiend, a terrifying level 1 solo which I cant wait to drop on an unsuspecting 1st level party. The tembo is terrifying, and recently resulted in a total party kill while playing a character for the first time since the 1980s. There is a solo or elite monster for just about every level in the book. I counted about 20 solos and maybe twice that number of elites. There are plenty of minions, too, with all the major races getting at least one minion, and many of the monsters as well. There are some great new mechanics to help out these minions. For example, the human slave doesn’t drop until the round after it is reduced to zero.

There is a side bar discussing dragons, and how on Athas there is only one true Dragon, the undisputed master of the habitable lands. Even sorcerer kings pay tribute to the Dragon of Tyr. However, there is a set of epic level drakes, which can take the place of de-evolved dragons. It is suggested that any dragons be less intellectual and more bestial in Dark Sun. It would be nice if they had broken down the four elemental drakes into age categories for some multi-tier fun, but I expect that will happen in an upcoming article or supplement.

The creatures in the catalog go a long way to making the Dark Sun world so dangerous. The next section, Personages, gives the Dark Sun world much of its flavor. This section is full of locale specific personalities and should be perfect for urban adventuring and political intrigue. Each sorcerer king is statted out for the major cities left on Athas, and besides the ruler, a few other choice NPCs are given for each city, whether they be the temple guards, the sorcerer kings most devoted lieutenants, a prominent merchant or powerful gladiator. The sorcerer kings are all epic level, and each of them should provide quite a challenge, while NPCs associated with them run the gamut from upper heroic all the way to powerful enough levels to be a match for the sorcerer kings themselves. One sorcerer king, Kalak, is missing, because Tyr has thrown off the shackles of royal domination.

I like this section of the Creature Catalog – it helps make Dark Sun the unique setting that it is. Having single, named personages, who are tied into the campaign world in specific ways makes the world of Dark Sun that much more distinctive. Another way to look at it would be that you could take the Creature catalog and pull just about any monster out of it and throw it into an encounter that made sense, but the monsters listed in this chapter need to be handled carefully for maximum Dark Sun Flavor. For example, there are templars for all the cities, but each templar sect has its own strengths and weaknesses, and fighting a templar of Tyr (which are listed in the creature section, oddly – probably because there is no Sorcerer king to stick them with) and fighting a witch-doctor templar of Lalali-Puy is a very different experience. Finally, I get giddy imagining an Epic heavy metal campaign of assassination of the sorcerer kings, one by one as we go through this chapter – much like our group worked its way through Dieties and Demigods in our foolish youths.

This is what its all about, right here

The final section of the book is all about building Dark Sun encounters. The section begins with the idea of customizing monsters for Dark Sun out of the standard Dnd monsters. One example they give (complete with epic artwork) is the Silt Shark, based off the fleshtearer shark from Monster Manual 2. The customizing monsters introduction is short, and precedes the larger section on using monster themes. Themes have been with us since the Dungeon Master Guide 2, and the Creature Catalog devotes a few pages to expanding the list to include some popular Dark Sun themes, such as sun-warped, or arena-bred monsters for example. Because there have been so many monsters released, it is good that they have included this. I know that even with the great choices for monsters provided in this book, there is lots of room for more – and with this section, it becomes possible to take your favorite monsters and give them an injection of Dark Sun flavor to freshen them up, conceal their aging wrinkles, and make for more challenge.

We are coming to the last few pages of the Creature Catalog, and here we find another unusual addition. The world of Dark Sun is bizarre, and the ecology itself is one of the distinctive aspects of the world. It has been called post-apocalyptic, and this can be recognized in the fantastic terrains and hazards of the last section. Defiling is a mechanic in Dark Sun by which powerful spell-casters can hurt the world in order to channel more powerful magic. (In fact this is one of the basic tenets of the campaign – that careless usage of arcane magic irrevocably damaged the world.) Many types of defiled terrain are included, as well as other extraordinary landscapes, from salt flats to mirages, to Ztal hordes – massive colonies of tiny poisonous lizards.

Flowing seamlessly from fantastic terrain we move into the hazards section, and this too, while sparse, offers up some flavorful hazards to throw at adventurers. There are arena hazards, such as the worthy sacrifice, and wilderness hazards, such as the dust funnels and false oases. These are great, but I wish the section had been expanded to add even more unique traps and hazards. In fact, my only complaint about this book, really, is that I wish there was more of everything, and honestly that sounds more like a compliment.

I am not sure why this last chapter was included with the Creature Catalog rather than in the Campaign Setting. However, the section is entitled Encounter Options, and terrain is an important part of encounter design, so there is an argument for its inclusion here. Time will tell whether or not this method becomes the norm, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was done for space issues. The Creature Catalog is pretty slender, at least 14 pages less than any other hardback I own (the other thin books seem to be a minimum of 168 pages) but since this was never meant to be a hard cover, I really am stumped. The publishers must feel that rather than a monster book, so to speak, it is more an encounter book, but if that was the case, the last section could have really be expanded upon. I see this last chapter as one more aid to the Dm to give him the tools he needs to create his own challenging world of Dark Sun for his campaign.

Everything in this book drips of Dark Sun flavor, from the creatures to the major personalities of the world. From the monster themes to the fantastic terrains, this book is here to help you inject into your campaign a massive dose of Dark Sun. If I could only have one Dark Sun book, it would be this one. These monsters are the meat and potatoes (sometimes literally) of any adventure through the dangerous and difficult world of Dark Sun. Just flipping through it fills one with a sense of the strange dying world of Athas, where the struggle for survival is paramount. It would take very strong survival instincts indeed to survive all the nastiness contained in these pages.

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