Vaesen by Free League Publishing is a Tabletop RPG set in the dark and foreboding setting of rural Nothern Europe in the nineteenth century (1800s). Using the Year Zero Engine game system, investigators will find themselves nose to nose with macabre, enigmatic, and terrifying myths from Nordic folklore. But is this system right for you? Lets talk about it.Continue reading “TTRPG Review: Vaesen”
Wizards takes us to the fabled realm of Dragonlance – with more dragons than you can dragonshake a dragonstick at. What’s in here? Some good stuff. Is it worth your attention? Maybe.Continue reading “Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen”
The newest D&D5e release is an anthology of 17 book-centric adventures written by a collection of people from the tabletop, videogame, and board game communities. How do they fair? Are they right for you? Find out.Continue reading “Wizards of the Coast Review: Candlekeep Mysteries”
There’s a whole bucket full of high-fantasy stuff poured into Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but it made a bittersweet brew. Let’s talk about why.
About This Review
This book contains as much stuff as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and instead of just giving my overall opinion on the book and moving on, I painstakingly wrote my thoughts on each and every individual element of the entire book. It took like 18 hours of my life to do, but it may feel a bit more fragmented and less connected than other reviews. Bear with it until you reach the “Overview” section at the bottom, where I collect my thoughts on the book as a whole and tell you what works for me and what misses the mark and why.
Chapter 1 – Character Options
This chapter sparks off with optional rules for customizing your origin (such as “lineage” and race options), options for changing your subclass (a little too easy, if you ask me), and swapping out languages and other base identifiers for the “race” selection. All of these options are covered on 2 pages at the introduction of the chapter, which is a bit of a shock.
Most of this developmental section is “if your DM lets you, change it!” Which is… ah… a choice. Don’t use a skill? Swap it out when you get an Ability Score Increase to another one your class offers at level 1. Don’t like your subclass even if you’re a level 16 Conjuration Wizard? Change it to a different one!
Particularly, the idea of “just change it” doesn’t feel right when put in context of the game. It’s one thing for a player to say “I actually hate this subclass, can I change it?” Of course – no one should be PUNISHED for making a bad choice in their character creation. But seeing the rules written here, including optional-optional training time and cost rules, what levels you can change subclasses, etc – it feels kinda weird to have those ideas gamified. A Druid who spent 11 levels mastering their Wild Shape as a Moon Druid could just decide to -bink- swap their entire power set to Circle of the Shepard and healing the party. A battle master fighter could stop using maneuvers forever and decide they want to be a physically perfected champion with a few hundred gold and a week… nah, they miss tripping stuff, so now it takes NO gold and HALF the time to change back to a battle master. I’m not saying this part of the book shouldn’t exist, it just feels weird seeing it presented in this aloof, hand-off way to me.
Classes and Subclasses
Optional Class Features: Not many of the optional features are all that powerful, but the hard part is… they do something, so there’s no reason NOT to take them if the DM lets you, which is a shame. The few that replace other features feel more interesting and well balanced than just additional features. There’s no drawback – just more stuff to do. I think in future books, until 6th edition launches, these optional class features could be a great way to balance underperforming classes at certain levels, which is a great idea.
The Artificer is copied here, along with rules for multiclassing (I’ve never been a fan of multiclassing, but don’t yuck anyone else’s yum). It comes loaded with the Alchemist, Armorer, Artillerist, and Battle Smith, subclasses as well as many new infusions. I’ve never played or spent much time with the Artificer with game-theory in mind, but the above classes do exactly what you’d expect them to do and seem pretty powerful, as the artificer has always been rumored to be.
The Barbarian comes in with two new optional class features: Primal Knowledge at 3rd level (1 additional barbarian skill proficiency), and Instinctive Pounce at 7th level (you can move half your speed when you enter a rage). Neither option is all that interesting or worth the effort to me, but hey… they’re free. In addition, the book has the following subclasses on offer: the Path of the Beast and the Path of Wild Magic.
- Beast. This subclass seems aimed to fill the role of unarmed barbarian. Flavored with bestial claws, teeth, or a tail (tail???? you just sprout a tail??? okay) to take the place of mundane armaments. As the levels progress, a Beast Barbarian will gain access to more predatory movement, magic natural weapons, curses (that deal psychic damage or push targets to savagery), and a magical group d6 damage bonus. All-in-all this class is absolutely not for me in any capacity, but if you’d like to skirt the line between humanoid and lycanthrope/beast, as driven my magic, this might fit your flavor even if the features aren’t all that effective.
- Wild Magic. This subclass deals with sensing and manipulating magic. It’s no secret I detest mixing magic with the barbarian, but apparently I’m just a goddamn fool. At level 3, you nab the ability to sense magic within 60 feet a few times each day, and roll on the wild magic table each time you enter a rage – not the wild magic SURGE table – it’s a curated d8 list that either moves you, deals different kinds of damage, or protects you. At 6th level you can boost your companions by giving them back a spell slot or a bless spell effect. At 10th you can roll on the wild magic table when you’re hit. And at 14th, you roll twice instead of once on the wild magic table. I can’t see why someone would choose this subclass unless they wanted to be goofy, like a “muscle wizard” sort of joke, but I won’t judge too harshly. The crux of the class revolves around the Wild Magic table, much like a Wild Magic Sorcerer, but this table is more focused on just helping the barbarian deal damage in comical ‘cosmic chaos’ ways.
The Bard gets a few optional features that raise eyebrows, including 15 additional spells to choose from. At level 2, they can boost healing or damage spells with their Bardic Inspiration. And at level 4, “Bardic Versatility” lets them swap out cantrips or skills each time they hit an Ability Score Increase. These options obviously bolster the bard CONSIDERABLY, which is a bit of a surprise considering most people are happy where the bard already was. These are exceptionally potent options that I cannot imagine a bard NOT taking, if possible.
I’ll not be going into every feature for the bard subclasses, as they’re QUITE LONG, but here are my general impressions and summary:
- College of Creation. This subclass revolves around the Song of Creation, in which you boost the effectiveness of your bardic inspiration depending on how it’s used and create/animate objects (like dancing knives, sweeping brooms, etc). Overall, I think this is a cool set of mechanical abilities, if the narrative is a little wonky. Conjuring forth 5 silver ravens to peck your enemies apart or flit around you as you recite a poem is just cool.
- College of Eloquence. This subclass is broken as hell and undercuts not only several other subclasses but a HUGE SWATH of spells and abilities from all over other 5e publications. At 3rd level, you can’t roll below a 10 on a Persuasion or Deception check. Full stop, there is no better class in this book or homebrew for navigating the social pillar of D&D. Doesn’t even matter it greatly increases the power of your Bardic Inspiration at later levels, just the 3rd level feature is enough to sell me and you on the potency of this subclass. No need for the social spells and skills, the magic items to give you advantage, the non-magic treasure options and background features to help you navigate social situations. Chances are, you’ll never roll below a 16 on Persuasion or Deception again. Woof.
The Cleric gets 8 additional spell options, more spell slots, can swap out cantrips, and can put Divine Strike damage onto spells and cantrips through optional class features. Gods be praised, these are all VERY potent and unilaterally improve the cleric… I’m literally gobsmacked at the optional rules, considering clerics were already SO powerful, some consider the MOST powerful, from level 1-20.
- Order Domain. This subclass gets a lot of paladin-esque spells, and heavy armor. Some of their features make allies attack for free when you cast spells on them, disarm whole groups with a channel divinity, cast enchantments as a bonus action, and make your weapon attacks deal a TON more damage when working in tandem with a teammate. This class is equal parts battlefield commander and frontline combatant, paired with certain spells, Order could be the most damage-dealing frontline cleric. Paired with a paladin’s auras, it could be neigh unstoppable.
- Peace Domain. This subclass gives you a lot of group-focused buffs. Even at level 1, you get a bless-style spell effect 2-5 times a day. The Emboldening Bond is the crux of the subclass and its power and effectiveness – it offers damage resistance, numerical bonuses, teleportation, and other stuff. Seems like a cool option for people sick of playing Life Domain clerics but love being the group parent! Though it’s a rough copy/paste of the Oath of Redemption paladin… so…
- Twilight Domain. The most thematic of the three subclasses, this option gives you a… THREE… HUNDRED… FOOT… DARKVISION which you can SHARE with your party. It also lets you boost people’s initiative, make a sheltering dome of darkness, and do all sorts of cool manipulation of your movement fueled by darkness. I like this one. It’s troublesome mechanically, but very thematic and cool – great for neutral clerics, I think!
D-Druids… (sweats) get optional class features that… give them 16 more spells, a free familiar, and the ability to swap out their cantrips. Again, 3 very powerful options that improve a class that has been heralded as THE STRONGEST class since 5e was launched. Oofta. I don’t think Druids needed to be stronger to be picked more often (they are the least chosen class in 5e), it’s just hard to make a narrative for a class portrayed as “forest hippie” for most people. Before you clap back at me for that – think about your favorite Druids in popular media… do they drink/smoke/have neon colors, preach about peace, act really non-committal? Just saying.
- Circle of Spores. A copy-over form the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, circle of spores has been pretty popular. It centers around thematic uses of mold, growth, death, reclamation, etc. Mechanically, it does let you conjure clouds of spores, fungi that animate the dead, and such. Not a game breaker, but pretty fun.
- Circle of Stars. This subclass cuts its teeth on a thematic opposite of the Twilight Domain Cleric. It gives insight through maps and navigation, light-based spells and cantrips, and offers you a “starry form” based on the constellations. It’s pretty wide-reaching and interesting. I like that it gives an alternate use for a druid’s wild shape, too. Overall, I like this one, if it’s a little hard to work into an average game’s narrative. I suspect “I am a sailor who loves staring up at the open sky” to be a pretty well-worn foothold for this subclass in a year or two.
- Circle of Wildfire. The focus of this subclass is on a Wildfire Spirit that can be manifested (with stats). It acts on your initiative and in tandem with the fire spells in the Druid and Cleric spell list. Past the summoning aspects, it has features that let you create healing/damaging zones from corpses and bring you back from death like a phoenix at the cost of your spirit’s material form. They threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall with this in terms of ideas from mythological fire beings, but I think it came together pretty well. It’s an interesting Pokemon-style take on the Druid. Overall, I like it.
Fighters! Oft overlooked and by FAR the most chosen 5e class. There are 5 new fighting styles for you to choose from at level 1: Blind Fighting, Interception (you protect someone with a shield or weapon), Superior Technique (you learn a Battle Master maneuver), Thrown Weapon Fighting, and Unarmed Fighting. Of them all, Unarmed Fighting is both the best and the weirdest, to me – as you become a BETTER unarmed fighter than a monk at early levels (your unarmed strike deals 1d8 damage at level 1, but doesn’t scale), and you automatically deal 1d4 damage to creatures grappling with you. It pairs up ruthlessly with several of the tattoos in this book to make a buff lady wearing just cotton pants as viable and deadly as a longsword-wielding fighter with plate armor.
In addition, you get “Martial Versatility” – where you can swap out your fighting style every time you get an ability score increase… which is nutty and opens up a lot of doors to use WHATEVER magic item might be strongest and on-hand.
In addition, addition, there are 7 new Maneuvers: Ambush, Bait and Switch, Brace, Commanding Presence, Grappling Strike, Quick Toss, and Tactical Assessment. They do pretty much what you think they do and mirror the fighting styles. Which is a little weird – you can take a fighting style that lets you learn a maneuver that mirrors a fighting style you gave up to learn a maneuver. A lot of fighter options have been homogenized by these choices, but… they’re more versatile?
- Psi Warrior. Is a subclass that gives you a psionic energy die and works a little like the Battle Master, but basically gives you jedi combat skills: giant leaps, telekinesis, force fields, and mental acuity fueled by your psionic energy dice. So… yeah. Straight up a Jedi.
- Rune Knight. This subclass is full of accidental comedy, in my mind’s inner workings. It is built around the rune-magic of giants, of which you can know 2-5. What’s making me cackle, though, isn’t the magical effects of the runes (some of which are very complex and long) but the “Giant’s Might” feature. No matter what size creature you’re playing, as a bonus action you can become Large size, get a damage boost, and advantage on Strength checks and saves. I cannot help but imagine this kobold fighter walking around scraping runes on stuff with a stubby fingernail, then “BRRRAHHWWWWW!” becoming the size of an ogre (8-10 feet tall). The class has a LOT of mechanical stuff going on involving a lot of rolls, numerical bonuses, magical effects, etc. I can’t help but imagine “fighter+artificer” being on the design board when brainstorming this one. If you like the artificer, you’ll like the Rune Knight.
Builds. Fighters also get additional love in the form of “builds.” It’s just a list of possible combinations – including feats, maneuvers, etc, and how they’d work. It’s wholly pointless and offers nothing new for the fighter, but some people who have never played a Battle Master might have their eyes opened at just how much detail can be attained by the class, so it’s not wasted effort.
Monks are handed the options for Dedicated Weapon (you can ‘focus your ki’ into any weapon and make it a monk weapon), Ki-Fueled Attack (you can attack as a bonus action on your turn for 1 ki), Quickened Healing (spend 2 ki and regain some hit points as an action), and Focused Aim (when you miss with an attack, you can spend 1-3 ki to increase your attack by 2-6). I suppose some monks needed additional ways to spend their ki, but I’m not really a fan of any of these, to be honest. They are extremely situational, but again – nothing is lost by taking them if your DM allows it. It just smears out the edges that made monk selection important by letting you do whatever for ki. Not bad, but good luck fitting everything on your character sheet!
- Way of Mercy. This tradition has the coolest art of any monk for me, so I immediately enjoy it. This is the PLAGUE DOCTOR of monks, if you cut away all the other trappings. It lets you heal others and yourself with your Ki, deal necrotic damage with your strikes – and everything else builds off of that, including using Flurry of Blows to heal/harm, and bring the dead back to life once per day, taken from the mystic. Kinda weird, but in a good way. I think people will love this one – especially since picking a mask is part of the subclass.
- Way of the Astral Self. This subclass lets you form extra appendages and beat the hell out of people with them. It also lets the monk forgo Strength checks for Wisdom checks. It’s got a LOT of verbiage for what it does – but really that’s all you need to know. The subclass gives bonuses and alternate uses for those spectral arms that increase versatility pretty substantially, but primarily in combat.
Paladins are given 5 additional spells to add to their spell lists, 3 new fighting style choices (Blessed Warrior gives you cantrips, Blind Fighting, and Interception from the fighter), Harness Divine Power (which lets you use your channel divinity to regain a spell slot), and Martial Versatility (swap your fighting style when you get an ability score improvement). Paladins are pretty strong, probably in the top 4 in terms of power through all classes, but none of these options really break anything or boost their power all that much. They’re all good options, but none of them should shock or amaze you, which is a good thing. They just spread out the versatility and options for a paladin.
- Oath of Glory. Paladin oaths are complex, but this subclass focuses on battlefield movement and support: temporary hit points, bonuses to walking speed, buffs to AC, and you take on the Living Legend aspect at 20th level, which makes you unnaturally Charismatic and lets you turn misses into hits each turn. Overall, I don’t think this subclass is very good, but it’s not horrible. If it fits your flavor, you’ll probably enjoy it, otherwise, it’ll get glossed over for more potent options.
- Oath of the Watchers. This oath works on a bit of a mechanical level to represent “foresight.” It offers advantages on saving throws to groups or battlefield control against extraplanar creatures with its channel divinity. Bonuses to initiative and free damage if you or your party have to make saving throws round out the idea of the watchful protector. The level 20 feature gives you the aspect of an all-seeing angel, basically – attacks that banish, truesight, advantage on attack rolls against nearly all extraplanar creatures. It’s pretty good, not great, but it does fit a very specific theme. I think it could have used more cool eye magic (reading all languages, eyebite, blah blah) but it’s not a bad subclass.
Rangers get 2 full pages of apologies… I mean, Optional Class Features. Together, they basically rework the whole class. The big changes are: Deft Explorer (which takes the place of Favored Terrain) removes all of the limitations from Favored Terrain and just gives you expertise on certain checks, increased speed, and temporary hit points, through the various levels. Favored Foe (takes the place of Favored Enemy) gives you BONUS DAMAGE! BWAMP BWAMP BWAAAAAMP! *confetti cannons go off, fireworks* along with letting you track targets, and all the other stuff a great hunter should do. You lose a LOT of flavor and narrative expertise, but this class mechanically has suffered enough.
In addition, you get additional spells, new fighting options, spellcasting focus rules, Primal Awareness (which takes the place of primeval awareness), Martial Versatility, and Nature’s Veil (which takes the place of Hide in Plain Sight). The whole class has a new foundation and many features are tweaked and twisted.
Do I like the changes? They’re fine. A little homogeneous, but fine. I’d have rather kept the original limitations of the features but had their usefulness when active to be SUBSTANTIALLY boosted. Like: Favored Enemy should have made you crit on a 19-20, deal 1d8 additional damage on attacks against those enemies, have advantage on saving throws against them, and all kinds of other shit for the fact it was so limited. If it were designed that way, the ranger would feel rewarded when bumping up against their Favored Enemy instead of feeling like they’re punished or useless for NOT facing off against the Favored Enemy constantly. Instead of ‘going deep’ they decided to designed ‘going wide.’ So now Favored Foe is just whoever you don’t like at that point in time. It’s fine, just a little bittersweet.
- Fey Wanderer. Bonus damage, extra spells, glamor, charms, summon fey for free, and misty step for free – this subclass gives you all of the highpoints for fey creatures mixed into a generically useful subclass – though it’s not all that special, thematically. For people who LOVE fey, elves, pixies, etc – you’ll obviously enjoy this subclass.
- Swarmkeeper. Many people have been extremely excited about this one. You can conjure or call-forth a swarm of insects, blights, birds, pixies, or whatever tiny critters suit your fancy, and use them much like a wizard does with a flaming sphere to terrorize the battlefield. The swarm is limited in the fact it is only useful after you hit with an attack, but it’s fine. The swarm can move you, deal damage, and push/drag targets, all of which are useful for melee or ranged Rangers. Everything else boosts, bolsters, and affects your swarm. I like the theme and the style of this class a lot, and can tell tons of people will enjoy this one.
Beast Master Companions also get a substantial rework, now, along with generic stat blocks related to what type of creature it is (land, sea, sky). Again – you lose ALL of the flavor in exchange for a more generic, homogenized, but optimally nutritious slurry. Mechanically, I’m sure these stat blocks will translate to a more useful and usable subclass. Two edges to the same blade, pick your poison sort of thing.
Rogues get NOTHING! ZILCH! THEY GET A SLAP IN THE FACE AND PERMISSION TO SAY THANK YOU…. oh wait, they get Steady Aim, which lets them… gain advantage on a ranged attack with a bonus action?! HOLY CRAP! That’s nutty, especially since 7/8 rogues use crossbow expert and/or sharpshooter to puke out a billion damage each turn. Now they don’t even need to hide, they can be 319 feet away and plonking sneak attack damage every round, a cigar hanging from their mouth, cackling. How fun! (he said, sardonically)
- Phantom. This subclass builds a theme around walking between life and death and handles it pretty well: additional ghostly guidance to help your skills, sneak attack dealing necrotic damage to other nearby creatures, soul trinkets that give you tons of bonuses, a ghost-jaunt that lets you walk through objects – it’s all pretty potent and thematic., though you’ll see this theme copied and pasted a few other places. I can’t help but feel like this would work far better as a warlock subclass, but thematically and mechanically it’s well made. The only thing that takes away from it is having it tied to the Rogue.
- Soulknife. Oh boy, oh boy. As soon as I read the name, my eyes fell out and went to the store for antacid tablets. I played a Mystic Soul Knife for a about 7 sessions and RETIRED HER because she was unfairly powerful. This subclass offers: telepathic communication, bonuses to ability checks, murderous 1d6 psychic blades which you can throw as a bonus action after attacking with them, and many psionic abilities that help you dump tons of damage and zip across the battlefield into and out of cover through psychic teleportation. So yeah, this has a lot of the trappings that made the Mystic insane, so expect this to be a pretty often-used subclass for the Rogue. I will pray for all you DMs out there.
Sorcerers rake in 21 additional spells for their spell list, 2 additional metamagic options (Seeking: lets you reroll an attack roll, and Transmuted: lets you change the damage type of a spell), Sorcerous Versatility (which lets you swap out metamagic and cantrips), and Magical Guidance (which lets you reroll ability checks with your sorcery points??? Okay…).
- Aberrant Mind. We actually see the return of expanded Spell Lists! which is dope and sorely missed. The spell list, much like the subclass itself, is a mash-up of Warlock and Bard. The Aberrant Mind also gets some Mystic trappings, like telepathic speech, resistance to psychic damage, and inhuman movement by expending points (sorcery points in this instance). So listen, if you like Warlocks and enjoy the idea of Mystics – you’ll enjoy this subclass. I don’t think it’s all that powerful, but sorcerers have some of the worst mechanical subclasses out of all classes, so at least this one does enough to be useful!
- Clockwork Soul. The whole subclass is balanced around the idea of… balance. The abilities give you control over advantage/disadvantage, protective wards fueled by sorcery points to reduce damage, put yourself into a state that makes your ability rolls of 9 or lower become 10, and finally… summon spirits? that heal or damage or dispel stuff? Idk. Overall, the subclass is designed to even out the chance/fate aspect of combat with your party. To me, this is not what sorcerers are made to do, so I don’t particularly love this subclass, but it’s mechanically fine. It’s whatever. If you wanna play a sorcerer who acts like a Cleric but is as squishy as a Wizard with half as many spells known – have at it! They did make it, thematically, cool, which keeps it afloat.
Warlocks have a lot of new options in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. They get 20 new spells on their spell list, a new pact (Pact of the Talisman – gives you a d4 bonus on 2-5 checks each day), the ability to swap out spells, cantrips, and invocations, and a list of 8 new Eldritch Invocations. As with all warlock options, they’re very situational and will vary widely based on who you’re playing.
- The Fathomless. Consume. This patron dips into the pacts of stuff like krakens, water elementals, or even Cthulhu-esque creatures in the crushing deep of far distant planes. This subclass lets you conjure a swiping tentacle, gives you a swimming speed and underwater breathing, resistance to cold damage and ability to speak to underwater creatures, and culminates in a teleportation ability that drags you and 5 others across space-time into a body of water you’ve seen within 1 mile of you. So, like all Warlocks, it’s thematic as hell but pretty understated, mechanically. You have to supplement the power of the subclass with invocations and spell selection, and I hope you agreed to a water-based journey with your DM in session zero. A stent wandering a desert will likely make you regret picking this subclass.
- The Genie. This one reminds me of the Draconic Ancestry subclass for the Sorcerer but… with genies instead of dragons. It lets you do some really cool stuff with a Genie Vessel, like disappearing into a lantern, being smuggled into a place, and popping out to aid your companions. There’s a lot of stuff here to supplement the core Respite and Wrath abilities, both tied to your Genie Vessel, but it’s a really wonky, fun subclass. THIS feels like it should be a Sorcerer subclass to me. Idk. But this one is a lot of fun, complete with the ability to ask your patron to cast a wish for you!
At the behest of a few on twitter, I’ll do a 1-sentence review of each of the new eldritch invocations listed in the book to pique your interest or dissuade you. I did play a Warlock in a weekly game for 14 levels, so maybe I can at least hit the dartboard with my opinions:
Bond of the Talisman. (Talisman) Lets you teleport ANYWHERE ON THE PLANE to be adjacent to someone wearing your talisman or them to you.
9/10. Multiple uses, no range, resets each day. Choose a buddy.
Eldritch Mind. (all) War caster concentration bonus but as an invocation.
4/10. How often do you drop concentration in a fight? May be higher or lower – rarely happens to me.
Far Scribe. (Tome) Another buddy spell, free sending to up to 5 people at no cost.
3/10. Sending is irksome to use on NPCs and mostly worthless on party members, but this invocation is very thematic and I like it a lot. Text your buddy!
Gift of the Protectors. (Tome) Free daily deathward against damage (not kill spells) for up to 5 of your buddies.
10/10. Death ward is a powerful effect, having it EVERY DAY FOREVER is nutty.
Investment of the Chain Master. (Chain) Boosts your familiar pretty substantially.
8/10. Fly or swim, resistance to damage, magic weapons, an attack action – just makes the familiar better all-around.
Protection of the Talisman. (Talisman) A 1d4 bonus on up to 5 saving throws a day is just not that great.
2/10. An average of +2 to saves for the wearer AND you’ll never remember it, like you never remember bless? Pass.
Rebuke of the Talsiman. (Talisman) Use your reaction, deals a tiny bit of pyschic damage, and pushes someone after they hit the talisman’s wearer.
5/10. The only reason it’s this high is you can do it every turn, but the effects are generally weak and will only help VERY selectively for a squishy buddy to run away.
Undying Servitude. (all) Animate dead once per day.
4/10. Unless you want to make your own buddy for all these talisman tricks and name him Mr. Boneypants, this is just not worth it – so many more invocations are so much better, but it is useable and you WILL love Mr. Boneypants.
Wizards. Wizards need no help. The internet, and the min/max gamifiers who inhabit it, have proven Wizards to be basically gods at like, level 9… but they get boosts anyway! 23 additional spells added to their spell lists and Cantrip Formulas that lets them… change out their cantrips…. So yeah, the only limitation the wizard had is now gone! Go nuts!
- Bladesinger. A copy-over from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, it’s a tried-and-true fan-favorite because: Wizards with swords! (sips tea) Enjoy.
- Order of Scribes. Would that be “A wizard of the arcane tradition of the order of scribes”? Damn lofty title. But it’s got a cool premise – specialization on writing and copying things. That translates to summoning a magical quill, Awakening your own spell book, manifesting the spellbook’s essence (and casting spells from its location like a familiar), making spell scrolls for free at a long rest, and sacrificing your copied spells inside the spellbook to save you from damage (for a time). I think, thematically, it’s the coolest and most interesting Wizard subclass. I actually really like it, even if I loathe Wizards. Well done!
WE GOT MORE FEATS!! WE GOT MORE FEATS, EVERYONE! IT HAPPENED! I’m going to give you the title of the feat, a 1 sentence summary of what it is, and a rating on 1-10 (1 being pointless, 10 being ‘get ready to see this every game’). Ignore my cattiness, it’s used for humor!
Artificer Initiate. Gives you a cantrip, spells, and proficiencies from an artificer.
6/10 – It’s fine, another Magic Initiate.
Chef. Increases your Con or Wis and lets you cook meals that heal the party more or treats that give temp hp in battle.
6/10 – It’s fine, thematic.
Crusher. Increases Str or Con, puts some spice on your bludgeoning attacks and makes crits give advantage to your companions.
8/10 – kinda nutty since monks deal bludgeoning and attack a thousand times.
Eldritch Adept. Spellcasters get an eldritch invocation which they can replace every level.
10/10 – no reason not to use this, some invocations are insane and wonderful, the versatility here is frightening.
Fey Touched. Increases your Int or Wis or Cha by 1 and gives you all the cool stuff from an Eladrin.
8/10 – for non-elves.
Fighting Initiate. Gives you a fighting style (from the Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, etc).
3/10 – kinda crappy. Fighting styles aren’t THAT good compared to increasing an ability score, even if the feat lets you change it when you’d get an ability score increase.
Gunner. Gives you +1 Dex and firearms go bang-bang-bang, lol, how cool, lol.
5/10 – you’ll probably see it a lot, but I, personally, am bias.
Metamagic Adept. Makes you a Sorcerer, like actually gives you 2 metamagic and 2 points to spend AND you can swap them out every level.
10/10 – only Quicken spell and Subtle spell will ever get taken unless someone’s trying to prove me wrong. The ONLY thing that makes Sorcerers unique is now yours as a level 1 (or 4) spellcaster. Oof.
Piercer. It’s Crusher but with pokey stuff and gives built-in Savage Attacker.
8/10 – kinda nutty since bites, daggers, and rapiers are piercing damage.
Poisoner. They give you a way to bypass the fact 90% of creatures have resistance or immunity to poison damage but doesn’t do much.
5/10 – thematic at least!
Shadow Touched. Increases your Int or Wis or Cha by 1 and gives you invisibility and another spell for free.
8/10 – thematic but kinda weird to take as a feat. If you need to bump Int, Wis, or Cha, you should obviously take this.
Skill Expert. Increases an ability score by 1 and gives you proficiency with a skill and expertise in a skill.
9/10 – only people who refuse to make skill checks will not want this, it’s insane.
Slasher. It’s like crusher and piercer but with cutty cutters.
7/10 – slashing is more boring, but still good for giving disadvantage on the target’s attack roll.
Telekinetic. Oof. +1 to an ability score, mage hand but better, and ranged shove, pull.
10/10 – you’ll see this too much, what the hell?
Telepathic. Oof. +1 to an ability score, free one-way telepathy for 60ft, and detect thoughts for free?
10/10 – you’ll see this too much, what the hecc?
Chapter 2: Group Patrons
Patrons are just that – people who support, give assignments, offer perks or payment – the appointed “mob boss” of the group.
Patrons can include Academies, Ancient Beings, Aristocrats, Criminal Syndicates, Guilds, Military Forces, Religious Orders, or Sovereigns. Everything from kings to schools can work as a patron.
Now me, I’ve been using these forEVER because they work as a perfect in-world mouthpiece for the DM to influence the game and give the party someone to lean on and rely on when they need guidance/assistance to progress the story.
Each of the patrons have a lot of types, perks, contacts, roles, and quests that I think will spark some creativity in DMs and storytellers. In addition, there are rules for becoming a patron yourself (as a character or as a party), so I wholly support this chapter. It’s a good addition with some really inspired art!
Chapter 3: Magical Miscellany
I have an area of expertise when it comes to magic in D&D. Since my bestselling spell collections often come with HEAVY BACKLASH to every design decision, I’m not even going to review each spell because you’ve collectively burned that bridge. There’s also not a lot of new spells anyway, so lets take a bird’s eye view!
Firstly, there’s a collection of 21 spells taken from other books and made entirely for this one. Some new spells include Tasha’s Caustic Brew, Summon Beast, Tasha’s Mind Whip, and Blade of Disaster. The new spells have a dark undertone – such as slipping into different worlds through your dreams with Dream of the Blue Veil, Call forth the spirit of alien aberrations with Summon Aberration, or twist your body into a protective shell with Tasha’s Otherworldly Guise.
One thing I do notice is – there’s a LOT of collected summoning spells: undead, aberrations, fey, fiend, shadows, constructs, celestials, elementals… but all of the spells homogenize what is created by them in the form of an amorphous stat-block. What we lose is specificity – you can’t summon a revenant or anything, but you get a GENERIC undead spirit… which you can describe and customize to fit your desires. Now you can summon an angel instead of being stuck with a unicorn over and over, by example. It’s bittersweet, but I think a net positive for summoning spells.
Much to the theme of this book, the rules for personalizing your spells is: “if you don’t like it, change it!” So… that’s there.
Forty-seven (47) new magic items are populated, including magical tattoos. 4 common, 12 uncommon (or uncommon+), 19 rare items, 5 very rare items, 1 legendary item, and 6 artifacts. Much like feats, I’m going to give a one-line summary and a gut reaction rating of 1-10 for the magic items!
Absorbing Tattoo. Generic resistance to a single type of damage, though I hate it’s the needle that’s magical not the act of applying it.
4/10 – requires attunement.
Alchemical Compendium. It’s a book that lets wizards swap out spells for situationally useful transmutation spells and turn items into other items.
6/10 – requires attunement for wizards only.
All-Purpose Tool. Acts as all types of artisan’s tools and is a +1-+3 casting focus for artificers.
9/10 – requires attunement for artificers only.
Amulet of the Devout. Bonuses to spell attacks and DCs for clerics or paladins plus an extra channel divinity.
9/10 – requires attunement for clerics or paladins only.
Arcane Grimoire. Bonuses to spell attacks and DCs for wizards plus a bonus to Arcane Recovery.
9/10 – requires attunement for wizards only.
Astral Shard. Gives sorcerers a mobile/modular spellcasting focus that attaches to random stuff and lets you teleport when you use metamagic.
4/10 – requires attunement for sorcerers only.
Astromancy Archive. Like the Alchemical Compendium but with divination spells and gives you a 1d4 bane for a charge.
5/10 – requires attunement for wizards only.
Atlas of Endless Horizons. Like the Alchemical Compendium and the Astromancy Archive but with almost mandatory teleporation spells and gives you a short teleportation for a charge.
8/10 – requires attunement for wizards only.
Baba Yaga’s Mortar and Pestle. A creepy half-weapon half-utility artifact that’s got a great theme and creepy, nasty utility.
7/10 – requires attunement and is more thematic than powerful.
Barrier Tattoo. Scaling from Uncommon (12+dex) to very rare (18) this tattoo takes the place of armor.
10/10 – requires attunement, is dope as hell and useful for every class.
Bell Branch. A spellcasting focus for Warlocks or Druids that helps find extraplanar creatures.
4/10 – requires attunement by a warlock or druid, not all that useful.
Blood Fury Tattoo. A tattoo that gives you 10 charges to deal buckets of extra damage each day.
10/10 – requires attunement, just flat-out good but perfect for fighters or monks.
Bloodwell Vial. Gives a bonus to spell attacks and DCs and, more importantly, gives you back 5 sorcery points when you spend a hit die once per day.
8/10 – requires attunement by a Sorcerer.
Cauldron of Rebirth. Cauldron that gives you a potion of greater healing every day and brings recently dead people put inside it with salt back to life.
10/10 – requires attunement by a Druid or Warlock, useful every single day and grants eternal life to the party so long as they can collect the corpses.
Coiling Grasp Tattoo. Makes tentacles sprout from your body and drag people back to you.
8/10 – requires attunement, eats the target’s action to escape the grapple.
Crook of Rao. An artifact with some good spells and a massively powerful banishment ability offset by a horrible curse.
8/10 – requires attunement, can spark a whole plot undoing the curse.
Crystalline Chronicle. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, and Atlas of Endless Horizons but with psionic/brain spells and spend charges to ignore up to 100gp of material components and copy subtle spell from the sorcerer.
7/10 – requires attunement by wizards only.
Demonomicon of Iggwilv. Gives you a lot of spells to cast with charges, specialty in Abyssal lore, maximizes damage against fiends, 9th level magic circles for free, this thing is a one-stop shop for unraveling fiendish campaigns.
10/10 – requires attunement, will completely dismantle fiends with expert efficiency.
Devotee’s Censer. A flail that deals bonus damage and lets you heal the party for 100d4 hit points outside of combat.
8/10 – requires attunement by Clerics or Paladins only.
Duplicitous Manuscript. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, Atlas of Endless Horizons, and Crystalline Chronicle but with illusions and lets you give disadvantage against your illusions as a charge.
5/10 – requires attunement by wizards only.
Eldritch Claw Tattoo. Gives you a +1 magic bonus to unarmed strikes and makes you stretch armstrong for 1 minute.
7/10 – requires attunement, not bad at all for monks and the new unarmed fighter.
Elemental Essence Shard. Like the Astral Shard but gives you an elemental bonus for Metamagic like a short flight, damage resistance, damage, or forced movement.
8/10 – requires attunement by Sorcerers only, some elements are way better than others (air is 10/10)
Far Realm Shard. Like the Astral Shard and Elemental Essence Shard but lets you thwack someone with a space tentacle.
5/10 – requires attunement by Sorcerers only, gotta be within 30 feet, frightened isn’t great, but free damage is free damage!
Feywild Shard. Like the Astral Shard, Elemental Essence Shard, and Far Realm Shard but lets you roll a random wild magic surge.
3/10 – requires attunement by Sorcerers only, probably better if you like trolling your friends.
Fulminating Treatise. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, Atlas of Endless Horizons, Crystalline Chronicle, and Duplicitous Manuscript but the annoying spells DMs hate and lets you deal extra damage with charges.
7/10 – requires attunement by Wizards only, I’ll never forgive you, designer.
Ghost Step Tattoo. Lets you become semi-ethereal and walk through people and objects like a ghost.
8/10 – requires attunement. I really like this! Freedom of movement, damage resistance, auto escape grapples, 3 per day. Not bad!
Guardian Emblem. A holy symbol that turns critical hits into normal hits 3 times.
1/10 – requires attunement by a cleric or paladin. Not worth attunement at all.
Heart Weaver’s Primer. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, and Atlas of Endless Horizons, Crystalline Chronicle, Duplicitous Manuscript, and Fulminating Treatise but with the less-used but thematic enchantment/attention grabbing spells and lets you give disadvantage against them with charges.
6/10 – requires attunement by Wizards only, the spells are fun backups but far less useful.
Illuminator’s Tattoo. Use your finger as a quill and pass invisible notes.
2/10 – requires attunement. It’s common, but attunement hurts it immeasurably.
Libram of Souls and Flesh. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, and Atlas of Endless Horizons, Crystalline Chronicle, Duplicitous Manuscript, Fulminating Treatise, and Heart Weaver’s Primer but with necromancy spells and lets you disguise yourself as a zombie.
7/10 – requires attunement by Wizards only, the spells are damage dealers and good to swap too.
Lifewell Tattoo. Gives you resistance to necrotic damage and death ward every day.
8/10 – requires attunement. Daily, free death ward is nice and resistance to a damage is solid.
Luba’s Tarokka of Souls. A deck of cards that gives a huge variety of random effects and a couple niche spells.
4/10 – requires attunement. The spells aren’t super impressive and there’s huge downsides to using the most interesting feature.
Lyre of Building. A bard item!!!! An instrument that lets you safeguard a building or structure and cast spells to manage or navigate buildings.
5/10 – requires attunement by Bards only. Niche but interesting when paired with meteor swarm!
Masquerade Tattoo. A shape and color changing tattoo that lets you cast disguise self on yourself.
7/10 – requires attunement. I really love the hat of disguise and this is that but more useful at a lower spell save DC to see through the disguise – not bad for a common item!
Mighty Servant of Leuk-o. A 10-foot tall mechanized badass suit of armor 2 people can pilot to destroy everything.
9/10 – requires attunement (up to 2 people). It’s fast as hell, carries a ton of stuff, and can beat up a dragon.
Moon Sickle. A sickle that acts as a spell focus with a bonus for druids and rangers that gives them a bonust 1d4 to healing spells.
5/10 – requires attunement by Druids or Rangers only, the bonuses are great, the healing is whatever.
Nature’s Mantle. Lets you do what wood elves do and hide in the rain but is also a spellcasting focus.
4/10 – requires attunement by Druids or Rangers.
Outer Essence Shard. Like the Astral Shard, Elemental Essence Shard, Far Realm Shard, and Feywild Shard but based around alignment with bonuses like ending conditions, changing advantages, giving temp HP, or dealing damage.
6/10 – requires attunement by Sorcerers only, some are way better than others but all are situational but Evil.
Planecaller’s Codex. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, and Atlas of Endless Horizons, Crystalline Chronicle, Duplicitous Manuscript, Fulminating Treatise, Heart Weaver’s Primer, and Libram of Souls and Flesh but with summoning/banishing spells and give summoned creatures advantage on attack rolls for A WHOLE MINUTE.
8/10 – requires attunement by Wizards only. For conjuration wizards this is pretty insane.
Prosthetic Limb. Replaces a limb or appendage you’ve lost and works like your natural appendage.
10/10 – doesn’t require attunement, is a common item, opens the door for your DM to lop off your arms, hands, fingers, etc without needing adjudication. Note: you really don’t need this, but for people who like telling those stories, it’s a good addition. Don’t be afraid of disability, y’all.
Protective Verses. Like the Alchemical Compendium, Astromancy Archive, and Atlas of Endless Horizons, Crystalline Chronicle, Duplicitous Manuscript, Fulminating Treatise, Heart Weaver’s Primer, Libram of Souls and Flesh, and Planecaller’s Codex but with solid abjuration spells that might come in handy and lets you give temp HP with charges.
9/10 – requires attunement by Wizards only. The spells are actually useful backups for certain situations.
Reveler’s Concertina. A bard instrument that boosts your spell attack and DC and lets you cast irresistible dance once a day.
7/10 – requires attunement by Bards only. The +2 bonus is great, everything else is icing.
Rhythm-Maker’s Drum. A bard instrument that boosts your spell attack and DC and lets you get back a Bardic Inspiration use.
7/10 – requires attunement by Bards only. Bonuses are great, Bardic Inspiration is great.
Shadowfell Brand Tattoo. Tattoo that gives you darkvision, advantage on stealth, and damage resistance.
8/10 – requires attunement. Pretty much always useful and handy on anyone.
Shadowfell Shard. Like the Astral Shard, Elemental Essence Shard, Far Realm Shard, Feywild Shard, and Outer Essence Shard but lets you give disadvantage to an ability score’s checks and SAVING THROWS…..
10/10 – requires attunement by Sorcerers only. Quicken spell cantrip, disadvantage on wisdom saves, action to cast Hold Person/Monster, PROFIT… How did this get approved? It’s so good.
Spellwrought Tattoo. Tattoo that lets you cast a 5th level or lower spell without needing to know spellcasting or anything else.
10/10 – Doesn’t requires attunement, can be any number of incredibly useful spells, etc. Dope. A+, put them on everyone. Hire that tattoo artist and choose from their personal portfolio!
Teeth of Dahlver-Nar. An artifact that gives you the biggest table in all of 5e D&D to summon all sorts of bombastic stuff from red dragons to mundane cats.
9/10 – requires attunement. This item will be annoying, troublesome, and probably not used all that much because it’s hard to adjudicate, but perfect to put in the hands of a low-level party and watch the chaos eat up a few sessions.
Chapter 4 – Dungeon Master’s Tools.
This chapter tackles many heady and important topics, though sometimes not as minutely as I would have liked. But each of the topics touched on are pretty important, especially with the evolving nature of Tabletop Gaming Narratives.
Session Zero: Character and Party Creation/Composition, Party Formation and Origin, One-Player games, Social Contracts and safety tools, Game Customizations like house rules.
Sidekicks: How to create them, adjudicate them, level them up, handle their skills and spells. Some of the art in the Sidekick chapter is phenomenal and sidekicks really should be a larger part of D&D overall. I think what they have here works well, though it does homogenize the stats away from stat blocks in the Monster Manual.
Parleying with Monsters: How to do monster research, establish desires for creatures (sapient or not). The most fun part here is the idea of offering certain things to creatures that would normally just want to eat you in order to part ways in peace. Like a vial of putrid, tasty liquid given to an ooze – if you give it a unique, delicious experience that might tickle it’s body chemistry, it may happily let you pass in hopes of getting more of that later. Satiation comes in many forms!
Environmental Hazards: The DMs Guide had a few, of these, but Tasha’s offers some more rare options for Supernatural Regions (upper planes, lower planes, far realm, haunted locations, biomes infested with insectoids, even magically fractured places like “Mirror Zones.” so if you’re looking for REALLY weird places to fold in monsters from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, this section might be great. Especially if you toss them into a zone of nothing but mimics… which is pretty cool.
Puzzles: (Note – I hate puzzles in D&D, but I’ll keep an open mind). There are solid rules for running puzzles in which they attempt to break apart puzzles into its easy-to-define aspects (difficulty, features, solution, hint, and customization). Truth is, I’d never put any of these puzzles in my games, but the few that I read seemed fine – if a little familiar from videogames where it’s much easier to navigate when you can psychically see the problem. There are 13 puzzles on offer ranging in difficulty from Easy to Hard with various handouts at the end of the book, most of the puzzles take 1-2 pages and do a lot to fill in any questions the party might have about how they function to prevent derailing.
Oofta, 12 pages of notes! There’s a whole butt load of stuff in this book – and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I think, if you’ve read the whole overview/review up to this point, you’ll realize I throw around the term “homogenized” a lot. What that means in game-design terms is, Wizards of the Coast has altered their game design focus from ensuring each individual class is given specific opportunities to shine and roles to play and instead focused on mixing roles, resources, and style together so each option appeals to a wider audience. A lot of my character options review was “fighter + wizard” or “fighter + artificer” or “Druid + Necromancer” because that’s exactly what the majority of this book feels like. “What about we give them a feat that lets them be a sorcerer?”
The problem with homogenization is, eventually people realize their choices don’t really matter. The wizard will play like the fighter will play like the ranger will play like the rogue. It spelled DOOM in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and very nearly killed off the franchise, had the early editions and interest in Pathfinder not maintained audiences through until the release of 5e. And I’m seeing a lot of the same power creep and bland uniformity coating even the coolest ideas in this book.
The main theme for optional rules, player aids, and Dungeon Master aids was: “If you don’t like it, change it!” And while I think that promoting that is a good idea, as this game is meant to be fun and entertaining, not punishing and loaded with baggage, I’d have loved to see more effort taken in presenting interesting narrative rules to handle that kind of thing. As written in the book, you can just change your subclass any time you hit a new Ability Score Improvement, regardless of level or story elements. Or, if a story element lets you, you can change it immediate. Or, if you want to for no reason at all and your DM wants to make it difficult, you have to train to do it. It’s all kind of loose – like a jungle gym that moves a little TOO much when you hang on it.
What the book does really well is give DMs and Players a lot of wiggle room. It’s made to fit into the Adventurer’s League rules for how many books your character can be built using and let people who follow those rules to the letter not feel the headache of being stuck as a level 10 ranger with a beast companion that dies as soon as combat starts. It gives DMs a way OUT of annoying situations when they’re uncomfortable just letting the player “do whatever.” And many DMs will enjoy that quite a bit! But on the other side of that coin, it also gives more selfish players (particularly those who love ‘gamifying’ the system to the breaking point) ammunition to point to a rulebook and say “But in Tasha’s it says _____ so why not?”
A fear I’ve shared with my patrons the past few months as I awaited this book is: a lot of the ideas incorporated into the book have been developed and designed by outside creators to far greater effect than is put into Tasha’s Cauldron, but now that there is an “official” version – it’s the version people will likely go with even if there are incredible resources for non-race centered character creation, Tabletop RPG safety tools, Summoning Rules, Summoning Spells, and Sidekicks out there already. So seeing that fear come completely true in this volume is a bit sour for me.
With the release of this book, as well, we see a pretty considerable shift from Mid-fantasy to High-Fantasy for 5th edition. Most of the class options, feats, traps, and regions on display here are MUCH higher fantasy than what we got on 5e’s release. The reason I bring that up as a caution is – it’s considerably easier to turn mid-fantasy into high or low fantasy than it is to turn high-fantasy into mid or low. Without having the design of new releases be AVERAGE in terms of how much magic is involved, you’ll start to alienate parts of the audience while catering only to a certain portion of the audience. Most of you will not think this is a problem, and I very well might not be for you, but where do you go once you’re making fighters into psionic Jedi? Fighters that grow wings out of their back and hit people so hard it creates craters? That’s EXACTLY what happened in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, look it up.
One last little complaint… Tasha’s quotes through the book feel kind of lazy to me… We’ve had aloof, fickle, tongue-in cheek, quotes in Xanathar’s Guide (which fits his chaotic nature), Mordenkainen’s Tome (he’s the “mad mage” after all), Volo’s Guide (kinda weird, I always pictured him as grandiose but professional), and now Tasha’s? I’m desperately craving more nuanced, dark, brooding insight from Iggwilv, the Demonoglist lover of Grazzt, adopted daughter of Baba Yaga, and one of the most powerful archmages in the multiverse… but instead we get such slappers as “Magic is great and all, but have you smelled a book?” and “These paladins aren’t at all up to what I expected. Worse, they send home your party’s best guests.”
Maybe I’m becoming jaded, but I always assumed Tasha/Iggwilv/Natasha The Dark would have creepy and insightful stuff to say with undertones of Cydaea, Maiden of Lust. Off the top of my head: “Parchment, ink, and the smell of desperation reveal a scribe, no doubt hunting for the ever-elusive: meaning, power, or love.” Something more… “oh damn” worthy. But it’s a minor complaint, all things considered.
I think Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything will have something for you. It will have a spell or a rule, a subcalss or an item that will spark creativity and scratch that itch you’ve been waiting for without even realizing it was there. You’ll get use out of the book and you’ll probably reference it frequently given how powerful many of the options are. It’s well worth the purchase and the art, as always, is above reproach. I just wish it didn’t give me this lingering fear of what is coming unless new perspectives are brought into the fold.
I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.
Are you familiar with the tales of heroes plucked from the mundane world and hurled into fantasy to fulfil some prophecy or for no discernable reason at all? This is that – made into an crunchy, modular RPG.Continue reading “TTRPG Review: Conjured Outcast (pre-release)”
Rime of the Frostmaiden is a new release from Wizards of the Coast promising an expansive frozen region bubbling with horror, humor, and adventure. Published during the Covid-19 pandemic and involving a huge swath of new names, voices, and perspectives from the greater community, it’s an important release in more ways than one. So lets take a look inside and find out what we can.Continue reading “Wizards of the Coast Review: Content -vs- Execution in Rime of the Frostmaiden”
“It’s raining in Fallcrest.” Many of us were brought into this hobby from the exquisite work of Christopher Perkins and the Penny Arcade crew in the fledgling days of 4e D&D. Now, PA and WotC have come together to bring you EVERYTHING you need to make your own franchise!Continue reading “WotC & PA Review: Acquisitions Incorporated for D&D 5e!”
In our fifth official review for Wizards of the Coast, we tackle the new setting and adventure book Ghosts of Saltmarsh. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what the heck this book even IS – so I’ll waste no time: it’s a setting primer, 7 remade adventures, and dozens of pages of DM Tools for ocean adventures. Is it worth the wait and the cost of admission? Let’s find out.
The Book Itself
We’ve seen a lot of improvements as far as WotC’s quality control for their binding a overall book quality. We see a continuation of it, here. It seems the spine and the binding are well and away improved beyond early editions, including the DMG and MM I bought early on.
There has been a little bit of a stink over the alternate cover of this particular book, but lets check out the original first.
Looks pretty great, yeah? an action scene of adventurers sailing away from a ship, which is being attacked by a KRAKEN in the background! A sahuagin approaching the ship, trident ready. The contrast of warm and cool colors, the action in the foreground and background, the sloshing waves – I think this cover looks incredibly good.
Here we see the wrap-around back cover. There’s that Kraken, again! Holy butts, it looks extremely Cthuloid doesn’t it? Short and punchy synopsis – it’s a pretty solid cover front and back. Though I do wish there was some of that same action-heavy flare here. Perhaps more sahuagin emerging from the sea or even shark fins slicing through the waves. But as-is, it’s not so bad.
Alternate Art Cover – Dark Seas over Dark Skies
So here is the issue in its entirety. We were showed this promotional issue for the alternate art cover, and I think we can all agree, it’s pretty incredible.
The image is nearly electric. The water doesn’t look so much wet as it does alive. Vibrant, brilliant, sharp, bright blue. It’s got layers upon layers of color and darkness and depth. Very nice. But, I’m sad to report, here is what it looks like actually printed on the cover of the book.
The cover has a light holographic quality to every bright color. The holographic sheen helps in person a bit more than in photos, but it does suffer this exact fate. The color is washed out and flat. Notice the lack of depth. Not having true blacks wounds it quite a lot, the highlights are not as bright or vibrant, the Title plaque at the top is dingy and muted. It’s just… not very good.
I wont lie, I enjoy theback cover MORE than the front! The holographic print makes the scars of the door and the suction cups on the tentacles shimmer and twist with an eerie purple and green glow. The deep purples are warm and offer cool highlights, and the two sahuagin guardians look stylized and cool, as well as the skulls. But still, it’s so damn dark you can’t really make it out as well as the original color.
TL;DR: What IS this book? Is it worth the money?
The short form review is: this book has seven adventures set around a well developed fishing village called Saltmarsh. It does a great job giving you everything you need to plug Saltmarsh into any setting you need. It also has Sea and Ship rules that are robust and fill a much despised hole in the original D&D rules for 5e. The Monsters are interesting and the magic items are completely forgettable.
If you’re running a coastal game or a game with loads of sea travel, buy this book, it’s worth it. If you are cool hand waving sea fighting rules and have no interest in the written adventures, you can skip this one.
Wanna quick full-book preview? Watch my Youtube first impressions video here:
Saltmarsh – The Anchor
The book goes to extreme lengths to set up and display the fishing village of Saltmarsh. NPCs, Factions, Law and Order, Downtime Activities, Features of the Region, Adventure Hooks/Payoffs, and brand new Character Backgrounds. Thirty-five pages devoted to establishing Saltmarsh as a hub for your adventuring career, complete with many charts to determine the mood, small quests, rumors, and more – so each time you see the city, it can be a little different.
Politics and Factions
Saltmarsh, as written here, is controlled and dominated by three factions: The Traditionalists, The Loyalists, and The Scarlet Brotherhood.
What I like most about the three factions is they have concrete goals that prevent them from being “the good guys.” The Traditionalists want to thwart dwarven mining efforts and protect smugglers. The Loyalists are more loyal to the potentially vicious Sea Princes and see common folk as traitors, despite their adherence to the law. And the Scarlet Brotherhood is just capital-b Bad: megalomaniacs and villains.
The lack of a clear “good guy” faction helps keep the triangle of drama working without forcing the adventurers’ hands.
There are quick and easy rules for selling/buying magic items utilizing a very cool tiefling NPC named Captain Xendros. I love the idea of having a central merchant to go to with your Magic Item needs who is not a crazy craftsman wizard.
There are also special rules for Carousing using specialized locations in Saltmarsh (such as The Snapping Line or The Empty Net). It folds all of the roles back into the city, again, reinforcing the NPCs and story development of Saltmarsh.
The same holds true for Research, Employment, and Mercenary Work – all rotate back into the setting and other NPCs to help flesh out and develop more of the fishing village.
These ideas are great and are very well executed. This section was eye opening and fun to read, making me feel that this exact section should be included in every single major setting in future publications. Well done.
The Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Hermit, Noble, Outlander, Sage, Sailor, Soldier, and Urchin each get a small snippet helping to describe how such a background can be tailored to Saltmarsh specifically.
An example: the Soldier background can be from the Keoish army, and have probably served as the town guard for a time and have made friends among their ranks. You automatically have a good relationship with an important NPC to Saltmarsh, and you have access to a small plot of land and a farm! Just for making Saltmarsh your home.
Along with those additions to pre-established backgrounds, four new ones have been added: Fisher, Marine, Shipwright, Smuggler. Each is fully fleshed out with proficiencies, equipment, features, quirks, and characteristics as well as ties to Saltmarsh. Meaning each of these backgrounds can be used in any setting as easily as those found in the Player’s Handbook.
Adventures – 7 Modular Options
Unlike an Adventure Book like Curse of Strahd or Out of the Abyss, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is more of a Setting Book (Like the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) with adventures mixed in for you to use if you like.
Each of the seven adventures are modular, but tie back into the setting of Saltmarsh. Each has its own unique flare and structure, but most importantly, none are necessary to complete other adventures.
- The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh: The party explores an abandoned and dilapidated house that was once home to an alchemist. Level 1-3, 22 pages long.
- Danger at Dunwater: Lizardfolk are rallying together and amassing a dangerous armory that puts Saltmarsh in danger; the party must figure out the truth of the situation before it’s too late. Level 3-4, 24 pages long.
- Salvage Operation: A missing ship appears at sea, sparking its previous owner to gather a party to recover its lost fortune from the hands of a mad druid and their insane pets. Level 4-5, 8 pages long.
- Isle of the Abbey: Undead have overrun a highly sought-after island as dark beings face off against pirate threats. Level 5-6, 12 pages long.
- The Final Enemy: A war sparks between the citizens of Saltmarsh and the denizens of the deep! Level 7-9, 29 pages long.
- Tammeraut’s Fate: The citizens of the Firewatch Island Hermitage have been slaughtered nearly to a man, sparking many inquiries as to what is happening and what further evil may befall the small island seclude. Level 9-11, 20 pages long.
- The Styes: A series of vicious murders befalls the harrowed people of the port the Styes. The party must follow the clues, expose corruption, and uncover a dark cult and their otherworldly puppet master. Level 11-12, 22 pages long.
What you can easily tell is that the adventures are fairly equal in length (other than the truncated “Salvage Operation,” which relies on combat and exploration to pad out the run time (not a bad thing, just a thing). I think they all connect enough to be an interesting Adventurer’s League style adventure platform, but being able to pick and choose which to run makes it exceptionally easy for DMs who might be stretching their legs with side quests that might fill the gap between level 4 and 5, for example.
Of Ships and the Sea – Rules Refined
This is, arguably, the biggest selling point of the entire book: rules for running sea vehicles and sea combat. It gives hard and fast, official rules for populating ships as well as how to maneuver them in combat based on what part of the ship a player (or npc) may be controlling. Each type of ship also comes with a drawn map, easy to copy and print, for use at your own table and suggestions for types of NPCs one could use to populate the officers of each ship.
In Practice. I ran a test encounter between two ships and found the rules, at first, cumbersome – but as time went on, the roles of each section of the ship (helm, oars, sails, ballistas, mangonels, naval ram) began to seem like an entire combat encounter encapsulated in each ship. As the hit point values of each aspect of the ship decreases, the ship, as a whole, becomes weaker. Much like a pack of wolves becomes weaker and weaker as wolves die.
Example Crews. But my favorite part has to be the Example Crews for each size ship: did you know a sailing ship has 30 crewmen? And a warship can have as many as 80 – many of which are guards? Seeing the different number of people required to man the various ships resonated with me quite a bit as well as their different specialties. These ships are not just buckets with 4-5 NPCs and the PCs aboard, they are floating taverns full of unique people all with jobs and responsibilities! Far cooler.
Ship Upgrades. There are a number of upgrades listed in the book but… they are very high fantasy magic. Rune etched iron chains that cause a storm, Shadowfell made totems that emit horrific energy, Hulls made of unmelting ice. It really stands in direct opposition to the idea of the rest of the chapter, which focuses on the realism of sailing on these ships, populating them with believable people, and navigating a mundane treacherous sea. I’d have much preferred 20 small upgrades (heavy sails, harpoon guns, hull armor, metal ram, etc etc etc) than these epic high fantasy ship upgrades.
There are also upgrades to movement (oars, sails, etc), Weapons, and Figureheads, as well as miscellaneous upgrades to add flavor and flair to your ship.
Rules for Combat, Travel, and The Sea. The rest of this chapter is devoted to how ships can be used in various circumstances. The long and short is – the ship is a vessel (heh) for the entire crew to act in a kind of unison. Each officer has a series of moves that can affect the ship, and the crew can fight as a single whole unit so you don’t have 30+ initiatives to roll and manage!
The combat I ran using two ships saw a lot of merit in attacking and killing the crew instead of sinking the ship (in which all treasure and information is lost). This can cause a situation where most of the crew take the “dodge” action or hide inside the ship while a select few stay above deck and face off against the powerful fighters of the other ship. The combat took a lot longer than facing off against a young dragon or whatever, but the combat felt harrowing – there was nowhere to run and adventurers were slinging spells from each ship and trying desperately to keep the crew alive. I really enjoy how the combat played out, but don’t expect it to be quick!
The Sea. Dozens of charts for hazards, conflicts, as well as natural happenstances like fog, storms, and infestations! There are tons of cool happenings under the waves as well inside the Ocean Environs. Anyone interested in telling an adventure down where it’s wetter, this chapter will be an absolute godsend.
Magic Items and Monsters
My most favorite part of any WotC book – the Magic Items and Monsters! Oh boy, I can’t wait to see how many Magic items there-
One single page. There’s one page of magic items. 6 total items. 3 common items, 2 uncommon items, and 1 rare item that controls plants.
The monsters are cool! 26 pages of various monsters and NPCs to populate your sea adventures. Many of them are reprints used in the adventure to prevent you from having to flip between multiple books and hunt for stat blocks, which I appreciate, but many are brand new creatures to help flesh out the ranks of Sahuagin (from CR 1 to CR 6), new variations of pirates, and any creature or NPC needed in the various adventures. I think there is a big enough list of creatures in this book to merit the purchase if you’re a monster fiend, like myself. Lots of cool stuff in here, but to keep this review from dragging on for ages, I’ll not do a deep dive into any particular stat block.
This book is unlike anything else released by WotC. It is a setting and resource book with Adventurer’s League style adventures added. It has tons of DM Resources and many useful Player options. There have been comments that the art in this book is bad, but I feel the style is uniform and very unsettling and cool, if not as polished and high-def as other books (like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, for instance).
If you want to run an adventure on the open ocean or spend a lot of time in a coastal city, this book will more than likely save you $50 worth of time you’d spend cooking up these creatures, settings, factions, and adventures. Simple reskins and tweaks could make Ghosts of Saltmarsh a one-stop shop for any navy, pirate, island hopping, or underwater game.
If the sea and its murky depths do not interest you, I do not see a compelling reason why you would need to purchase this book outside of monster stats and possibly the cool easy-to-print maps.
It may not be for everyone, but I, personally, adore the bold direction WotC took with Ghosts of Salt Marsh – the only way I could appreciate the book more is if it came out several years ago – between Princes of the Apocalypse and Storm King’s Thunder, where I think this book would have gotten the most notoriety and praise for being a godsend to those desiring adventure on the high seas.
I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.
I have about 30 pounds of dice laying around. Don’t ask. But one of the things that I always appreciate and love to see made and made well are dice bags. Today we’ll take a look this beautiful offering from Greyed Out Productions.Continue reading “Greyed Out Productions Review – Reversible Dice Bag”
This adventure is a level 1-20 supplement for D&D 5e. Originally James Intracaso brought my attention to this some weeks ago. Overly funded on kickstarter, how did it turn out in final production? Lets take an aerial view for ourselves.Continue reading “PDF Review: The Demonplague (5e D&D)”