Into the Wintery Gale: Wrath of the Jötunn

Into the Wintery Gale: Wrath of the Jötunn

This massive mega-adventure/sourcebook clocks in at 199 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages panorama/art-showcases of the front cover sans logo etc., 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 2 page KS-thanks, 1 page encounter contributors, 1 page rune-design sheet (more on that later), 1 page back cover, leaving us with 187 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Okay, so this module takes place in the Vikmordere Valley on the planet of Aventyr – in case you’re not familiar with the culture, let me give you a brief run-down: Picture a blending of the cultures of Native Americans and Vikings. Sounds badass? It is! One of the biggest strengths of AAW Games’ early offerings is the establishment of this culture, of depicting it in a way that is plausible, that feels real and yet fantastic and different. It is, at this point, no secret that I adore the Vikmordere as a concept. In this book, we take a look at their home, the majestic Vikmordere valley around serpent lake. In fact, a significant part of this book can be considered to be a sourcebook of life and survival in this region – there are really cool rules for 3-step hypothermia and frostbite that add the survivalist aspect for groups that enjoy a challenge in that vein – they are simple, yet rewarding and make seeking shelter, exposure etc. a significant aspect of the game. Big plus for these tundra survival rules. In these, e.g. Vikmordere winter outfits (completely described and explained), rations, boneskates and frossenpine (a wooden pole used to catapult iceskaters along), bear paws – the basic set-up is great.

Beyond that, we get an amazing table that lists all traveling distances from place to place – really comfortable for the GM and something we only see rarely in modules for the more modern systems. Now, I called this both an adventure and a setting sourcebook – there is a reason for that. You see, there are two magical hazards that render this massive adventure more of a challenge – the ice fog and the wintery gale: Ammo is swept by the winds, teleportation is cursed and snow-blindness due to whiteouts is a deadly threat. On the lake, sentient icebergs (!!) make for a fantastic, yet amazing “trap” – more of a skill challenge than just a simple trap or haunt, but yeah – hunting icebergs? Come on, that is amazing and oozes fantastic North from every pore, right? The book also features MASSIVE random encounter tables, with full stats of the creatures included for your convenience.

And there are special events. 30, to be more precise. These were sourced from the contributing backers and are thoroughly creative and diverse: Stalking yetis, dazzling ice rifts, bridges across chasms, where the gale is funneled into the depths, wells inhabited by Brunnmigi, hobbled hunters, ice trolls in a feud with the Vikmordere who actually want the conflict resolved, strange shrooms that bury into the unconscious to animate them, white wyrm riders – the encounters are GOLD and feel, very much, like the notes that you can read in an old-school hexcrawl – not exactly lavishly detailed, but thoroughly inspiring.

Now, there is an issue that particularly inexperienced GMs running a hexcrawl will be all too familiar with: How many descriptions of a landscape can you create before it gets dull? How many different ways do you know to describe an icy tundra? New school modules tend to deal with the requirement for lavish descriptions via read-aloud text, but that usually only works within the context of a linear structure, not a sandbox. The rebuttal to this problem that this massive sandbox provides is glorious in its simplicity and something I honestly expect to see from comparable modules from this point onwards. The solution is, simply, descriptions. Grouped by area. Open tundra, mountain base, mountain pass, glacier – all types of arctic environments featured herein come with a TON of glorious prose-descriptions for the wilderness. More than 16 pages, to be more precise. These descriptions really help to maintain the atmosphere, are easily scavenged and make sense in a ton of ways.

Which brings me to my central thesis regarding the analysis of this adventure: This is a blending of both old-school and new-school design aesthetics; the wilderness sections behave like an easy to customize point-crawl, driven by plot, but lavish in its freedom within the traveling experience. At the same time, both highly detailed adventure hooks, read-aloud texts etc. provide an engaging plot.

Okay, at this point, I need to start going into the details of the plot, so from here on out, the SPOILERS reign. The wintery gale will take intrepid players that read any further! Skip to the conclusion or incur the icy wrath!

All right, only GMs around? Great! We begin with potent symbolism – the PCs are surprised by a horrible snowstorm, only to be visited by an ash-grey owl that tries to lead the PCs further; as the blizzard seems too potent, the owl suddenly is wreathed in flames and guides the PCs – for they are the ones chosen by the demi-goddess Ningatha. As they make their way through the relentless cold towards Völsfiheimr, she introduces the PCs to the Northern Fury Council of the Vikmordere clans. Honoring the request of the ancestral spirit, the PCs get to participate in the gathering of jarls. You see, the Ohjaslange has approached once more and a vast evil stirs – 400 years have passed since the Vikmordere last managed to defeat, by the skin of their teeth, the dread Jötunn – and now, they and the curse of their gale has returned. In order to stop the dreaded undead, immortal frost giants, the PCs will have to reclaim the ancient artifacts that once provided the tools of the downfall of the giants – the sword Vlfberht and the shield Skojold Rustning – both, however, have fallen into deep obscurity, the bloodline that once guarded them fallen into obscurity. While the PCs are celebrated if they take the richly-rewarded quest (and may certainly engage in Glima!), they will first have to pass the unsafe waters of Serpent lake to find the old witch Arurún – and bypass her giant bear.

The PCs will have a chance to learn a unique spell from the witch and even the runepaining magic of the Vikmordere – the engine is pretty solid, if not too spectacular; as a supplement for an adventure, it is solid enough and adds some serious local flavor to the proceedings. More important would be that the witch provides an amulet that helps the PCs find the resting places of the artifacts long lost – here, I should comment on something thoroughly impressive: We get GORGEOUS top-down AND isometric maps of the dungeons – and yes, player-friendly versions included. The cartography provided for this module is masterclass – Tommi Salama at his best. Beyond the aesthetic component, it is in the dungeons that contain the artifacts that the design-aesthetics become pretty old-school: We have indirect story-telling; understanding the culture and values of the Vikmordere will make the exploration easier; similarly, the dungeons themselves feel like they have been taken straight out of the good examples of the heyday of RPGs – they ooze flavor, reward smart players and the dungeons also sport puzzles – while brute-forcing them is an option, as a person, I suggest trying them out – most groups like, at least once in a while, using their brain.

Returning with legendary Vlfbehrt to the witch, the PCs will witness a grim scene – the Jötunn are on their heels, the witch slain – and now, the deadly, undying Jötunn remain – though, at this point, the PCs may not yet know about the truth behind the undying nature of the Jötunn. Without a guidance, it is a benevolent haunt, a manifestation of the guarding ancestral spirits, that the PCs will be brought to the vault wherein Skjold Rustning lies – the dungeon will once again demand that the players use both brain and brawn to survive…And yes, the Jötunn are still on their trail…

That being said, the PCs have the artifacts – so it’s time to face the Jötunn and end this! This is where the module sports one of its weaker aspects: There is a traitor in the Vikmordere’s ranks and the wielder of the artifacts is slain; in spite of the presence of mass combat rules for PFRPG, we don’t get the like – instead, we get some regular encounters before Ningatha intervenes…as, while the Vikmordere seem to win, the Jötunn’s immortality kicks in – and the vanquished giants rise. The result is a horrible rout, one that the PCs and Vikmordere only survive due to Ningatha expending almost all of her divine powers.

All seems lost, as the evil ice maidens lend their powers to the forces of the Jötunn – and the PCs will have but one final chance to stop them: Within the tomb of the ancestors, there lies the only way to reach the isle of the maidens – the magic ship called Sorrow’s Snekkja. En route, the PCs will be shipwrecked by a mighty sea serpent…and that is not where it ends. However, it takes the sacrifice of both Ningatha and the guiding Vikmordere spirit to open the doors, as the erstwhile lovers are once again united, their love a symbolic sacrifice and hope for the PCs to claim. With the stakes that high, the exploration of the tomb makes the dungeons so far look like child’s play – the PCs will have to activate the well of lost souls in this legendary complex and sail the magic ship out of the complex!

After the deadly dungeon, the PCs will finally be able to arrive at the island – where the mighty ice queen and her wyrms remain – and where the PCs will have to destroy the Wintyrsyrd, breaking the potent magics of the dread lady. If they manage to survive this ordeal, there will be but one final task that remains. Rendezvous with the Vikmordere, then lead one final, desperate assault, wherein the forces of the noble Vikmordere will cleave a path through the Jötunn forces, allowing the PCs to make their way to the dread keep of King Krumma – if they can defeat the mighty lord of the Jötunn, they may yet stop the relentless, seemingly unstoppable horde of undead giants. He’s btw. CR 24. Yeah, good luck…the PCs will damn well need it…

Editing and formatting are good, almost very good – there are a couple of instances where blank spaces etc. are missing, but not unduly many; as a whole, this book is pretty well-made in that regard. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard that is absolutely glorious – BJ Hensley and Daniel Marshall did amazing work here. The book sports a metric TON of glorious, original artwork with a uniform style – Mates Laurentiu really rocked this book; the cover by Jason rainville is similarly amazing. Cartography by Tommi Salama is AMAZING. Even better: We actually get VTT-friendly high-res versions of the maps. Master-class in the cartography department. I mean it. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested, detailed bookmarks. I won the hardcover version of the book – and, frankly – if you have the choice, get the hardcover. It’s worth owning.

Justin Andrew Mason’s “Wrath of the Jötunn” seemed to be cursed; the author, at one point, lost a ton of his notes and had to recreate the saga. It is puzzling, considering this complication, that he managed to not only deliver a good mega-adventure, but a great one.

Let me elaborate: This is, in essence, a massive sandbox with a really strong narrative that resounds with themes of love, loss, glory; this feels like a larger than life tale, straight from a mythology that could have been. This module at once manages to evoke themes of old-school masterpieces, the sense of myth, the sense of plausibility and the new-school focus on a captivating narrative, with tons of read-aloud text, diverse challenges, etc. Now, personally, I was not necessarily too happy about some of the cut-scene-like sequences and how they can feel slightly too linear; at the same time, though, the book handles these in a smart way – it moves quickly in the sequences and provides the next awesome thing; the excellent prose helps the GM to navigate these slightly weaker spots in the otherwise inspired, epic narrative. Now, I would have loved for a few of the foes herein to have a few more unique tricks on their plate, but all of that is me complaining at a high level.

In the end, the exploration of the Vikmordere valley, from the inspired threats to the mythological items, the evocative dungeons – all of that makes this mega-adventure a thoroughly unique and evocative experience. The blending of new- and old-school design paradigms has been executed in a masterful manner that I absolutely loved. This may not be perfect, but it does a lot of innovative, convenient things for the GM; it is easier to run and navigate than comparable offerings; it tells a fantastic story resounding with the classic themes, adding a unique spin to the tropes. It is suffused with glorious cultural tidbits. It is a great read. The massive dressing-entries and sandboxy aspects add a further dimension of longevity to the module. In short: I adore this book. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars (reflecting the minor imperfections), but I will round up (since this is excellent, not just good). I thoroughly LOVED this gem, which is why this gets my seal of approval. And for its blending of adventure-design-schools, for the convenience-aspects, the supplemental material, etc., for going one step beyond in pretty much all aspects, this also is nominated as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.

You can get this inspired mega-adventure here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


Grimoire of Lost Souls

Grimoire of Lost Souls

The massive hardcover Ultimate-style book for Pact magic clocks in at 387 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page KS-thanks, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 376 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

I was a KS-backer for this book and as such, I have received the massive hardcover. My review is mostly based on the print version, though I have also consulted my pdf-iteration for it.

So, what is this book? The short tl;dr-version would be that it is for Pact Magic, what Ultimate Psionics was for psionics. A more detailed response would also note that this book is not simply a compilation of previously-released material; in fact, this massive grimoire does feature a lot of new material, material previously not seen for PFRPG and some massive tweaks to existing options.

So, what is pact magic? Well, the short reply would be that it was the original Pact Magic. First conceived in 3.5’s Tome of Magic, the system had some serious hiccups and balance-issues in its initial iteration, but at the same time, it was a revelation for me: The idea was that named spirits exist; said spirits have fallen past the usual confines implied by D&D cosmology and, from their in-between status, they hunger for the chance to interact with the realms of mortals. From legends to archetypical beings to strange demons, all kinds of weird spirits, some of which were influenced by the key of Solomon, were thus presented.

This system was greatly expanded in two massive hardcovers back in 3.X, “Secrets of Pact magic” and “Villains of Pact Magic”, both of which are undeservedly obscure and have a place of honor on my bookshelf. They tweaked the balance of the system, expanded it and made it more unique – and, more importantly for me, they rank as some of my favorite rule-books of that age – the spirits came with HUGE short stories depicting their legends, adding a vast amount of flavor to each of the options herein. Then, two stand-alone updates/expansions for PFRPG were released, expanding the concept and translating it to PFRPG, though these did cut back on the beloved legends I enjoyed so much. This book once again features a lot of legends, though some have been externalized to a short-story collection.

Fast-forward to this book, which presents basically the latest and most refined iteration of the concept. At the heart of this system lies the pactmaker class, which gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and good Fort- and Will-saves. The class adds +1/2 class level, minimum 1, to Knowledge (arcane), Knowledge (history), Knowledge (religion) and Knowledge (planes) and gains a bonus on these to research a spirit’s knowledge tasks, instead gains a bonus equal to full character level.

So, what are knowledge tasks? Each spirit has a specific, occult seal that is drawn by the binder: This seal and the spirit need to be researched via knowledge tasks – basically, these represent the effort to learn a spirit. This is important, in that there is no limit otherwise on spirits known, if you will: While a pactmaker can only bind spirits of 1st level in the beginning, he may learn all of them. New spirit levels are unlocked at 3rd level and every 2 levels thereafter and spirits are organized by levels, much like spells; the 9th level spirits being obviously the most potent. A pactmaker may bind multiple spirits at higher levels – 2 at 4th level, +1 one spirit every 6 levels thereafter. 7th level and every 6 levels thereafter allow a pact maker to replenish an expended spirit ability 1/day and the capstone makes spirit abilities count as extraordinary and allows for the ignoring of personality influences and also nets the class automatically the capstone empowerment. Bear with me for a second – those are spirit terms. 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter provide a choice of bonuses while bound to a spirit. Saves against abilities, generally, are determined by Charisma as a governing attribute.

And that is already pretty much the basic chassis of the class. Let’s move on to the basics of pact magic, shall we?

The term to denote a character using pact magic is “binder”; a binder level is the equivalent of the caster level, for the purpose of governing the spirit’s abilities. A binding check is a d0 + ½ binder level + Charisma modifier, and it is made upon summoning a spirit to determine the power of the pact. This requires a ceremony and a binder check versus the binding DC of the spirit in question – rushing the ceremony is possible, but results in massive penalties to the check. On a success of the check, the binder gets a good pact. A binder that makes a good pact can freely suppress the physical sign or minor granted abilities of being inhabited by the spirit (like horns, tentacles, weird voices, etc.) and suffers no penalty when acting against the spirit’s influence – basically, the personality of the spirit. If failing the check, he still gets the spirit, but makes a poor pact; the binder must exhibit the physical sign and suffers cumulative penalties when disobeying the spirit’s influence, lasting for 24 hours, even if the spirit if exorcised before that duration has elapsed. Suppressing a spirit eliminates all benefits, but also all penalties that may be incurred by having a spirit inhabit you. The process of making a good pact can be improved by using totems – basically optional material components or terrain components. Additionally, some spirits are more well or ill--disposed towards some races (favored allies and enemies), beings with certain alignments, class features, etc., while others reward those that call them in dark places, while stricken by illness, etc. the possibilities here are endless and tie in very well with the flavor of the spirits in question, rewarding players for caring about the story of their spirits.

Here is the catch: Spirits have three types of abilities: Minor abilities, which are always granted; major abilities, which are expended for 5 rounds after being used unless otherwise noted, and capstone empowerments, which are only gained when the spirit’s DC is beaten by 10 or more, making even low-level spirits retain their usefulness at higher levels.

It is not in the chassis of the pact-maker class or one of the numerous pact magic based class options that the system’s appeal lies; it is within the massive, colossal array of spirits. It should also be noted that most spirits are assigned to a constellation – upon binding them, the binder gains constellation aspects and these general affiliations double as thematic restrictions and schools of spirits if you will; you can focus on binding nature spirits…or fiendish ones…or those that hearken from the dark beyond. Whether you want to focus on slenderman-like entities or strange fey or on any combination of them, the spirits are here and allow for a wide variety of different types of character. And yes, benevolent spirits like cynical detectives that have fallen through the cracks of reality or basically saints can also be found – this is important to note, for pact magic, requiring less study thanb comparable magic and no divine oversight either, does carry with it the flavor of the forbidden, of the occult. And yes, there are starless, more obscure spirits.

As you may have gleaned by now, a strength of spirits lies in the way in which many of their abilities operate on a cool-down mechanic…and frankly, I went through this massive tome with my analysis, and rules-wise, there are precious few hiccups: To note two remarkable ones: The spirit Sevnoir, for example, heals you when inflicting damage to a creature suffering from a fear-effect. If you have a character with a fear-aura on hand, the 1/round caveat doesn’t prevent cheesing this via kitten slaughter.

At the same time, this book does predate the release of Occult Adventure regarding when it was worked on, and as such, unfortunately does not provide synergy with that glorious tome. Prestige classes, magic items, feats, special binder secrets (talents), spells, races, planes and organizations (apocryphal desert…nightmare weald…need I say more?) – the book has a ton to offer in crunch and I could bloat this review to 14, 20 pages even – easily, and still scratch the surface of what the book offers in terms of sheer content. There are some minor formatting inconsistencies to be found, with abilities that should be red showing up in black instead and the like.

There is one more thing you should be aware of: RAW, binders do NOT gain new spirits upon reaching new levels. While *personally*, I require downtime training to gain the benefits of a level up (I really dislike just *pling*, getting level-ups mid-dungeon...), I know that many groups do just that – in such cases, I’d suggest automatically gaining a spirit upon reaching a new level. So yes, this may be, for some groups, a drawback of the RAW engine, though one that can be houseruled away with ease. System-immanently, groups that do not engage in a lot of roleplaying as opposed to rollplaying will have a bit less fun with this, though please do take a look at my conclusion for what I mean by this.

I have to break my usual system of presentation here a bit in order to convey what this book provides, so let me prematurely interject my

Editing and formatting are good, but not perfect – I noticed a couple of hiccups here and there, some formatting glitches and the like; less than in many books of this crunch-density, but enough to notice. Layout adheres to a gorgeous 2-column full-color standard and the book comes with a TON of absolutely phenomenal full-color art; some of which was previously used and colored, but most is new. Each spirit has his/her/its own seal as a visual representation, so yeah, you can actually draw the seal, if that’s how you roll! The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks for your convenience and thankfully, the book has a massive, multi-page index that helps navigating this tome. The hardcover is a beauty to behold and well worth getting.
You know, as a person and as a reviewer, I generally tend to gravitate towards complex options; beautiful mathy constructs and subsystems that provide an interesting playing experience. I can honestly appreciate it when math works out, when some abilities do something utterly unique with complex rules operations. While certainly not simple in these regards, pact magic never reaches the complexity of akashic mysteries, ethermagic or similar systems. And still, it is one of my favorite systems ever.

I am not a sentimental man, so nostalgia is not the culprit here and it took me quite a while to deduce why pact magic works so well for me. There is no simple answer. One, though, would be that much like psionics, I can see it completely replacing the standard spellcasting classes for a completely different campaign experience, one steeped in occult lore, research…and one that makes magic more dangerous, feel more forbidden, medieval. In fact, I’m regularly stealing spirits from this book when playing OSR-games, breaking them down to the simpler rules of such systems. LotFP, LL, S&W – it works and fits thematically perfectly will the often more gritty aesthetics there. This has literally transcended the bounds of its system, at least for me – something only precious few books in my vast library achieve.

At the same time, the strength of the system, its appeal, does not lie wholly in its mechanics; pact magic, to a degree, is the original occult magic, prior to Occult Adventures. In my review of Paizo’s phenomenal hardcover, I commented on the fact that I love how player agenda AND character agenda are emphasized, and how the classes have ROLEplaying potential hardcoded into their respective rules. This is, ultimately, why I adore this massive tome; I adore tactical combat and I’m the first to appreciate a well-made combat-encounter with strategically-interesting hazards etc. – I love these. I love the tactical, complex combat aspects of PFRPG. But I also adore the storytelling aspect of the game; I love good roleplaying between characters, between PCs and NPCs; I use story-rewards a lot. To me, the beauty of roleplaying games with a high rules-density lies in the blending of strategy and story-telling, in the fusion of stories and tactics. Ultimately, for me the best rules let me do either unique things in the strategy department, in the roleplaying department, or both.

Every single spirit is a bit like an unruly character that influences the PC or NPC; they all have personalities, quirks and goals, enemies – and they may grow with your PCs. When a spirit helps vanquish a certain foe after being bested by him, you have your work cut out for you as a good roleplayer; you can tweak your character with spirits and keep them perpetually fresh and interesting; perhaps your character is a teetotaler, so binding some spirits may be something he’d be loathe to do; perhaps bidning one spirit and succumbing to the spirit’s influence nets you some complications…or new allies – it’s small, organically happening constellations (haha! – sorry, I’ll punch myself for that later) that make this shine as brightly for me.

There is another aspect to this book. One that perhaps bears no importance for you…but then again, I think it does.
No other system I have used has made me write this much custom material.
When, for example, Aldern Foxglove was a very popular character in my RotRL-game back in the day and then died (trying to be SPOILER-less), I promptly had him come back as a spirit with peculiar personalities, fluid constellations and abilities depending on the dominant personality; when my PCs liberated the ghost lions from the Ghostlord in Red Hand of Doom, I made the pack return as a spirit to be bound; When Kyuss fell, he became the master of the Worm constellation. The Crimson King is a spirit in my game. So is the Dark Tower.

And yes, you can use the spirits herein as guidance, tweak and reskin them for a lot of purposes. Don’t like a legend or a particular spirit? Chances are that you won’t have to do a lot of writing, just replace an ability and come up with a new legend. Done. When one of my players happened upon notes on a blood-drinking lizardfolk thing from ages long past, I took N’aylia the first vampire, tweaked her abilities a bit more towards the lizardfolk-esque and there we go. I actually improvised that reskin on the fly while GMing and nobody noticed.

Or, you know, you can pretty much write infinite amounts of new ones, based on your campaign. I have psionic spirits, akashic spirits, ethermagic-spirits…you name the subsystem and I pretty much have a spirit for it. Why? Because the engine per se is simple. You can easily complicate it in a vast variety of ways by grafting pretty much anything on top of it, with only your own skills as the limit – and the glue that holds all together is this basic system, one that is defined by choice, yes…but more than that, it is defined by the stories you tell with it.

A haunt put to rest? Potential spirit. An outsider slain? Potential spirit? Anything weird, from mages that fell through space and time to sentient constructs? Potential spirits. Fey kicked out of their courts/dethroned fey queens? Potential spirits. Defeated campaign endbosses? Potential spirits in the next one. Paladin PC that sacrificed his soul to seal the demon-lord in an artifact? Potential spirit. Endzeitgeist, a zeitgeist-like spirit of the end-times? Potential spirit. In fact, the book does an amazing job at showcasing the sheer infinite breadth of themes that you can cover with these spirits.

Pact magic is a nice, well-made system on its own – probably one that deserves, when divorced from all flavor, a verdict of 4.5 to 5 stars, somewhere in that vicinity. But this would not do the system the least bit of justice. Dario Nardi and Alexander Agunuas deliver with pact magic perhaps the most literally inspiring system I have ever encountered for a d20-based game. Its genius does not necessarily lie within its rules, but within how it is an incredibly potent narrative instrument, how it can change the depiction of a fantasy world to make magic feel more magical, how it rewards customization and making the system your own more than any comparable system I know. I guarantee that, when using the system thus, you will have perhaps the most impactful alternate system ever on your hands.

In case you haven’t noticed by now: I absolutely LOVE this system. Even my reviewer-bot-persona can’t really adequately complain about it, mainly because separating the fluff from the crunch divests the system of its core principle – it is, frankly, impossible to rate this fairly as anything but the sum of its parts, and that sum is a thing of absolute, inspiring beauty. This book will grace my shelves for years to come; it has already spawned more ideas than I’m ever likely to put to paper. It is, in short, the streamlined, improved heir of the old system; tighter and more concise, yet without losing any component of its uniqueness.

This is one of the most inspiring books, quite literally, that you can purchase for PFRPG. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This is also, big surprise there, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017. It also receives the EZG Essentials tag as a book I consider a must-own expansion for the system.

Now, can we have an Occult Adventures/Horror Adventures-crossover sequel or do I have to write the spirits myself? Who am I kidding – I’m going to write them either way!

You can get this phenomenal tome here on OBS!

You can get the complementary short-story collection here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


Skill Challenge Handbook

Skill Challenge Handbook

This handbook clocks in at 79 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 3 pages of advertisements, leaving us with 71 pages of content, so let's check this out!

This book was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

It is no secret that I never liked D&D 4th edition. I tried the game and I'm not trying to discredit it or its playstyle - it just wasn't what I considered to be enjoyable and in contrast to PFRPG and 5e, it didn't let me tell the stories I wanted to tell. That is not to say that I think it's a bad system. I get why people like it and it has its definite merits. One such merit outshines, at least for me, pretty much all others, and that would be the concept of the skill challenge. In short, this represents a cooperative, dangerous endeavor undertaken by the group, based mostly on skill use - preventing a raft from going down the waterfalls, stopping a trap-room slowly filling with sand, chases - there is a vast plethora of different applications of the original system. However, at the same time, its implementation wasn't always as smooth as it could have been...but that's a topic for another rant.

Ultimately, skill challenges addressed an issue with skills that has been with us for quite a while, namely that, for such an integral component of the game, skills tend to...not be as fun as they should be. When 101 New Skill Uses hit sites back in the day, I was ecstatic. Similarly, the idea of rank-based Skill Unlocks was one I cherished and thankfully, more and more modules differentiate between degrees of success and failure when it comes to skills. All of these, however, do not necessarily change the structure in which skill-use works. To take perhaps one of the most maligned and disliked components of the game, namely traps: Mechanically, they're usually 2 - 3 rolls: Perception to see them, Disable Device to disarm them. Or an attack roll by the trap. Or a saving throw. It took a while, and then publishers like Raging Swan Press etc. realized that this was not necessarily the most fun incarnation of such challenges and thus began crafting more interesting traps that involved the whole group. Similarly, whether via conversion (e.g. in the Zeitgeist AP) or even via the big dog Paizo, which has, by other names, used similar mechanics in chases and the like - a complex series of tasks that would be resolved, a series of tasks that does not hinge on just one roll, but multiples and that engages the whole group, as opposed to just one characters. You know, emphasizing the cooperative aspect that makes roleplaying awesome.

The downside and caveat that ultimately comes with these tasks would be that, at least right now, they have not had a proper engine to run on; their mechanics had to be clarified, which cost words...you get the idea. This is where this book comes in. The Skill Challenge Handbook's goal, hence, would be to codify rules that allow you to set up any type of cooperative, non-combat task as a group-based endeavor.

The mechanics for this are interesting, to say the least: We begin with the so-called "Skill Challenge Cycle", which behaves basically like a combat round: You roll initiative and retain it throughout; you get your turn and may even begin with a surprise cycle and you may be flat-footed until you act. Here's the thing that sets it apart: While you can easily assign a cycle of 1 round and run a skill challenge even during a combat encounter, there is no requirement for doing the like: You can run skill challenges in pretty much any temporal interval you'd like: Want to depict a grueling, weeks- or even months-spanning overland trek/escape from a hostile army? Well, you can simply define the cycle as hours, days, months...or conversely have two brilliant strategists try to outthink one another in a manner of seconds! While the default cycle-lengths, called frequency, are defined tighter, as a whole, there is nothing keeping you from expanding these - the system retains its modularity.

Similarly, the spatial factor can diverge wildly - squares of movement, from the local to the global, are covered - in theory, you could play skill challenges with kingdom or settlement stats with a minimum of fuss! More important for most groups, however, would be that both targeting, riding and vehicles, all those dicey types of movement, are covered within the frame of this modular base that sits at the heart of this book.

A skill challenge has, obviously, per definitionem, an inherent chance of failing it, but the completion of the challenge may be just as modular - in fact, multiple parties, characters or otherwise active participants may have wildly different success conditions! Beating a skill challenge is called "Completion" and is achieved, ultimately, by making "progress." Progress is made y using the applicable primary or secondary skills associated with the skill challenge - secondary skills decrease the die-size used to roll progress by one step. Wait, what? Yep, if you have a lot of ranks (based on hard ranks, thankfully!), Skill Focus or class skills used here, you'll roll a larger die than those who have less expertise in the field, allowing you to actually become better in the way you succeed. And before all those munchkins start complaining: Your carefully minmaxed skills still yield bonus progress if you beat the DC by 5 or more. Oh, and 20s may become crits when confirmed, while 1s are always failures - akin to combat.

Speaking of which: The book takes class abilities, ability checks, feats and spells into account, covering and codifying in concise terms the way in which such abilities are used in the context of the skill challenge system. So, how does it work? Actions are defined as pertaining the cycle, differentiating between cycle and half-cycle actions - this allows for the easy integration of all action types of PFRPG easily and yes, swift/immediate actions are codified properly as well. Beyond these, there are some special actions: Aiding others, creating an advantage in a movement-based skill challenge...oh, and an important aspect: How do players or PCs know what they can do in a given challenge? A concise system for actually realizing how such a challenge works has been included: Relevant Knowledge versus a DC that scales with the CR of the skill challenge at hand.

The skill challenges as a base system can easily be modified by optional elements - from languages to skill bonuses, time pressure, backlash for failures, demerits (deteriorating benefits the longer it lasts) to failure tolerance - the modifications are all concisely defined and present perfectly defined key elements to customize the base system. These are further expanded with optional SQs that allow for critical fumbles, individual completion, limited completion or perhaps the challenge takes place in a magically imbued area - all of these frameworks are defined in the clear and precise manner we have come to expect from Everyman Gaming. Beyond these, an engine for obstacle creation for movement-based challenges can be found - including unavoidable or magical obstacles! Oh, and I should mention thresholds - with this system, you could create multi-step rituals the PCs must complete, with escalating and different conditions and tasks in each of the steps, separated by thresholds.

All of this sounds highly theoretical, but if you prefer examples, from babysitting to powering up runestones, making a meal for a dragon, cracking encoded spellbooks to gaining an audience with the king or staying the course in a brutal storm - the system's applications are, without any hyperbole ENDLESS. But perhaps you're a GM who does not like to bother with the nit and grit of math and all that stuff? Well, in that case, you'll ADORE the massive, massive tables of sample skill DCs by CR, the progresses, obstacles etc. - basically, if you don't want to bother with a variety of customizations, you can simply take one of these rows from the table and run them as is.

Okay, so this would be the base engine - it is titanic in its vast potential...and it becomes more awesome from here on out. You see, from here on out, we move to the subchapter that take a look at specific implementations (and modifications) of the system: The first of these would be the chase challenge, which includes rules for forced marches, tracking quarries and obfuscating trails. You're the couriers, trying to warn the kingdom of the impending invasions, with killers and soldiers at your heels? There you go - here are the rules to depict your heart-pounding escape! Whether chased or chaser, the system works. The second system covers something I have been waiting for: Contests. From Poker to Chess to pretty much any athletic of other form of competition is covered: Grapple contests, momentum contests, those featuring nets/walls, competitive recollections and stochastic/strategy contests -all are concisely and precisely defined - subcategories and point-based completion...all included. The actions, from blocks to fake outs, catches, passes, pushing self etc. are provided. Want to play Fantasy Soccer or Football or Bloodbowl (yep, dogpiling rules...) or Quidditch in PFRPG? There you go - the rules are here! If you once again encounter the challenge of playing chess in-game, you won't have to whip out the board and bore your players or resolve it as a banal series of roles - you can actually make it INTERSTING and EXCITING. The sample challenges include, fyi, baseball, chess, horseshoes, poker, rope-skipping (!!!) or trivia contests...the options are as infinite as our tradition as a species to make games. Heck, you could go meta and have your PFRPG-characters play a simplified RPG in-game...

Now, all of this is cool, but personally, I gravitate to complex plots - as such, influence challenges of e.g. diplomatic tasks during banquets, backroom dealings, courtly intrigues, hashing out deals with merchant consortiums - all of these and infinitely more can be realized with the chapter focusing on them, adding a vast array of playability to any intrigue scenario - I certainly know I'll use the hell out of that in a certain, upcoming Taldan AP...and speaking of which: Verbal Duels tie in perfectly with the former, acting not only as a stand-alone chapter, but also as a kind of extension: From an influence to a verbal duel and back, you can stack these upon another in a variety of genius ways - since discovering a bias, seeding audiences and gaining edges are all provided, you can basically run a whole campaign focused on senates, hearings and the like if you so choose! Various strategies and the like can be found, with skills being assigned to tactics...and yes, before you're asking, countering a tactic with the same tactic, repeating one over and over and the like all come with repercussions! And yes, this retains, obviously, full compatibility with Ultimate Intrigue.

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to Everyman Gaming's two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The full-color artworks throughout are full-color and well-made, provided by Brett Neufeld and Jacob Blackmon. The softcover print copy is nice, though it does not sport the name on the spine, which is a bit of a pity.

Alexander Augunas' Skill Challenge Handbook is an extremely versatile...oh who am I kidding? Let me spell it out clearly:

THIS IS PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT RULEBOOK I HAVE READ IN YEARS. Perhaps, it is even the most important 3pp-PFRPG book - period.
Are you playing Pathfinder? Do you want to do more than killing things? Then this is a MUST-HAVE PURCHASE. Scratch that, even if you just want to kill things, this'll make the combats more exciting!

I am not kidding, nor engaging in the slightest kind of hyperbole when I'm saying that:

-This should have been Core. Seriously. If I had to choose one 3pp-book to add to PFRPG's core-rules, this would be it.

-This book makes EVERY single PFRPG campaign better for using it.

-This is a MILESTONE and vastly improves the game.

-I have NEVER seen a supplement, regardless of rules system, enhance the number of stories I can tell to this extent.

The skill challenge handbook is, even among Alexander Augunas' impressive cadre of amazing books, a shining example, a paragon of its kind. Didactically-concise, well-presented and easy to grasp, yet incredibly modular, the system presented herein unlocks innumerable, nay, infinite options to tell fantastic, engaging stories. Heck, I even used it for stuff it was never intended to do - like portraying conflicts between settlements! The system is so incredibly modular and versatile, it can literally depict anything in an exciting manner.

Nail-biting in-game chess-duels for the souls of fellow adventurers? Check! Backstabbing courtly intrigue? Check. Over the top fantasy bloodsports? Check. Venturing into the depths of the earth? Check. Scaling a giant beanstalk? Check. Flying a ship through the deathstar's/SIN's defenses? Check. Navigating the Eye of Abendengo? Check. Leading the Chain of Dogs through the desert? Check. Playing Quidditch? Check. Making traps that engage the whole group? Check. Diffusing a magical reactor? Check. Finishing a ritual to banish a demon lord while he tries to eat you? Check. Catching enemy spies? Check. Running down couriers? Check. Ben Hur-style chariot races/combats? Check. Doing the Cicero in Senate? Check. Going fantasy Ace Attorney? Check. Ride an Avalanche? Check. Scaling a Kaiju? Check. Riding the gigantic tsunami-wave of crystallized shards from the heavens? Check. Deciphering a grimoire before the THINGS get you and your comrades? Check. Negotiating with the cannibals about to eat you and yours? Check. Navigating the dragon's hoard sans waking the wyrm? Check. Depicting guild warfare? Check.

...I could literally go on all day long and just add to this list.
I am not kidding when I'm saying that this is the single most important 3pp PFRPG-rule-book I know and own. I cannot stress enough how incredibly, incredibly inspiring this book is. The base engine is deceptively simple-looking and elegant and can be tweaked by even the most novice of GMs to deliver pure, unadulterated awesomeness. All those situations that some players sat out, all those high tension scenes that deflated by being reduced to a single, bland roll now extend to the whole group - and by virtue of the structure of the system, they engage all players and deliver the high tension of comparable scenes from other forms of media.

There is no other book out there that delivers a similar increase in quality and versatility for the game. If you are a GM, BUY THIS ASAP and never look back. If you're a player, buy it as well. Keep a copy and gift one to your GM. No matter how good your GM is, chances are that your game will be better with this book in your life.

In fact, even if you do not play PFRPG and thus can't sue the math aspects of the game, as long as you have actions you take in combat and some sort of skill system, you can use a big portion of this system with some modifications!

If the sequence of superlatives was no clear indication: This belongs on the shelves and HDs of literally EVERY PFRPG GM. No exception. This book is fantastic, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that is supreme, no matter the scale you apply: If I had 10 stars, this would be 10 out of 10 and I'd complain about not being able to award it 11. This book is an apex-level toolkit of raw potential and excitement, 5 stars + seal of approval, is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017 (who am I kidding - this has a very high chance of getting the number 1-spot!) and also gets my designation as an EZG Essential, as one of the books I'd consider to be absolutely required reading.

Do yourself a favor and get this dazzling, resplendent gem of a book today.

You can get this amazing, glorious book here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


The Northlands Saga Complete

The Northlands Saga Complete

This GIGANTIC tome clocks in at 795 pages if you take away editorial, ToC, etc.. No, that is NOT a typo. While I was a backer of the kickstarter that made this book, I was in no way involved in the production of this epic tome.

All right, so the introduction tells us a bit of what this is: A take on Norse adventuring, with a healthy dose of the weird, fantastic and sword & sorcery sprinkled in. It should be noted that the 8 pregens from the Player's Guide, as well as the excellent "Winter's Teeth" stand-alone module from the "Long Winter's Night"-series are included in the back of the tome.

Okay, so this massive AP (and before you complain about the price, compare this tome's content with other APs and you'll notice you're actually getting an excellent deal...) is situated within the Northlands of the Lost Lands, and as mentioned in my reviews of Player's Guide and the stand-alone plug-in-module-series, it gets the flavor of the North, what makes the culture work etc. rather well - but unlike in those previously-mentioned tomes, we begin this tome with a massive, mapped and lavishly-detailed sourcebook section that explains the peculiarities of the region not only on a local, but also on a global scale.

As mentioned, one central fixture, theme-wise, would be the blending of the fantastic and the general aesthetics of the sögur with the fantastic, so one should not expect historic analogues in the traditional sense; however, the book is very strict in its adherence to the sense of authenticity it creates. This level of commitment can be found in the modified nomenclature and the pronunciation guidelines provided within this gigantic tome, to just note once example. I wholeheartedly applaud the decision to maintain a Nordic nomenclature instead of butchering the names; the book explains the Umlauts etc. for native speakers of English and dares to assume gamers that actually are smart and interested, dare I say, intelligent. It is one of the aspects that imho too often falls by the wayside nowadays and lends a sense to the book that its readers actually are interested in portraying a concise feeling. That is a big plus, as far as I'm concerned.

The commitment to generating a sense of a believable world is astonishing in its details: From ring-giving to hacksilver as a currency to a concise list of common kennings (hand those out to players!), the flavor generated by the details so lavishly and passionately collected herein, in the end, manage to create a surprisingly respectful and "real" take on the subject matter, putting this tome into the exalted context of the best of the Lost Lands books and their unique vistas.

This never just stoops to a simple reproduction of historic myths, however, - from modifications of the pantheon to minor changes in nomenclature, the Northlands here are always *almost* like hours, retaining their fantastic nature. And yes, both a massive time-line in the different chronologies found in the Lost Lands, as well as a full pantheon write-up complement this first part of the book. Beyond the class options (which, alas, share the weaknesses I commented on in the review of the Player's Guide) and items, we also receive a collection of magic items - which brings me to another point: The Northlands are intended for gritty and relatively down-to-earth gameplay (15 pt.-buy preferred): As such, magic items are not for sale and rare (YES!) and, as mentioned in the PG, several classes are banned in favor of options that fit with the aesthetic of the North. Once again, I applaud this commitment to the overall vision. Speaking of vision: In this first par of the book, which covers almost 170 pages, we also get a massive gazetteer of the north, with plenty of settlements with full statblocks, overview maps and the like. Moreover, the section contains a rather massive bestiary that includes some seriously cool, fantastic creatures as well as strange fauna - and the critters all get gorgeous b/w-artworks.

But that is not nearly the main meat of this massive section either. Instead, much like in Bard's Gate and similar epic-length tomes by the Frogs, we get an extremely helpful section to bring pretty much any region to life: With random encounters that cover the regular and the weird, strange phenomena and more. Additionally, it should be noted that, by region and theme, adventure hooks are provided by the dozens to bring the respective sections further to life, should the PCs step off the rails.

All right, I know what you've been waiting for...the adventures. Now those of you who have been following this for a while will recall the 3 brief stand-alone Northlands-modules that predated this one and my reviews for them. The lowest-level module clocked, back in the day, in as intended for PCs level 5 - 6, but this saga is made for a whole campaign: As such, we get modules that start at level 1, leading up to those we already know...and then, things go much further. Already played the classic modules? Flashback is the way to go. Seriously. You want to play these.

And at this point, I have come to the section that contains the main meat of the book, the massive campaign of Northlands adventures. It should be noted that the massive amount of maps and handouts amounts to over 150 pages! No, I am not kidding you. This is EXCESSIVELY mapped and better yet - player-friendly maps included FOR ALL OF THEM. That alone is a colossal plus for me. Now, the PCs are intended to be in the employ of the mighty Jarl Olaf Henrikson, jarl of Halfstead and begins in Silvermeade Hall.

As a discussion of the adventures, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. One more thing: I usually try to go into a lot of details in my discussions of adventures. If I did that here, the review would probably span at least 20 pages, which, even to my rather obsessive mind, would seem like overkill - as such, I will remain relatively brief and sketchy - this should not be taken to mean that the modules are short (or simple) for that matter; it is just a concession to the format of reviewing a single, ridiculously huge tome.
All right, only GMs/referees around? Great!

Kenneth Spencer's first module "Spears in the Ice", begins harmless enough: The PCs are to escort the Jarl's 3 daughters as they gather flowers in their sacred duty to Freyja for the spring rites - and as such, the beginning is a roleplaying-heavy section that can be used to establish dynamics, characters and yes, even a sense of the idyllic - via a number of small events, the shape of things to come are heralded and actions taken are bound to have serious consequences in the future. When a witch puts everyone to sleep and kidnaps the girls, the characters will have to get back their horses and find the girls in a race against time with various routes to save the girls. While the sleeping spell may look problematic in conjunction with e.g. elves, the module actually handles this minor railroad rather admirably.

Part II of this module, similarly a full-length piece, would be the "Wyrd of the Winter King" - herein, the Jarl sets forth upon his mighty ship, the Long Serpent, towards the farthest North. En route, the PCs discover a floating ice palace. Going ashore and surprised by a blizzard, the PCs explore the place to find it being an abode of the cult of dread Althunak - only by defeating this menace can they return successfully to their ship. This would be a rather grim, environment-driven and evocative piece, including dungeon-exploration.

These massive modules out of the way, we receive a fully updated and modified "Vengeance of the Long Serpent" - and yes, the original, alternate lead-in is still here, but no longer necessarily required. The module presents a free-form exploration of Ulnataland, a North Pole-style region of eternal, unremitting ice - and a storm, as is fated, claims the life of Hallbjorn here, the captain, here, allowing the PCs to step up. The exploration of these icy regions may net the PCs a magical weapon and put them, beyond trekking through the tundra, in conflict with the children of Althunak, breaking the grip of this dread cult over the local population.

From here on out, the PCs venture forth "Beyond the Wailing Mountains" to the city of the lord of winter at the lake of frozen screams. Read that sentence again. All things considered, the book manages to constantly generate an atmosphere so thick and almost palpable that you can almost taste the frigid cold, as the PCs cross these regions into the cold to brave a locale incredibly fantastic. If you're like me and love the theme (and employ, like me, a particularly slower-than-slow XP-progression), you may want to check out LotFP's "Weird New World" for a plethora of arctic threats of the most horrid and gruesome variety - particularly if you're playing the OSR-version of this epic! But that just as an aside.

After this, we're off to one of my favorite among the previously stand-alone adventures in the series, "The Death-Curse of Sven Oakenfist", which assumes that the PCs are wintering with Jarl Anud Cursespear, who once slew the legendary reaver and direct descendant of Odin, the blight upon the world called Sven Oakenfist. Unfortunately, he came to his success and riches by the death-curse of said hero and now, as an old man, the wight of the legend returns and barges into the hall of the Jarl  to pronounce a final deadline - on the Feast of Freyja, Sven will kill and destroy everything and everyone who swears fealty to Jarl Arnuld. In order to vanquish the wight, the PCs will have to find a way to unravel his mighty death-curse.

Unfortunately, with essentially a divine bloodline, said death-curse will prove to be rather difficult to find even a HINT to unravel. Thankfully, the three utterly mad daughters of one of the norns might provide the answers - if the PCs manage to best their trials. From defeating a unique dragon to save a beautiful maid, to doing (rather dangerous)chores for a matronly lady and defeating an evil crone in a game (when she's cheating, nonetheless!), the trials are worthy of the legendary daughters - hopefully the PCs don't think they can best the mad demi-goddesses in battle...

If they play along with their mad delusions, they are rewarded with cryptic clues that add up to provide the information to kill the legendary wight - each successful trial also decreases the power of the final boss, unraveling some part of his wyrd, thus providing more than one way of finishing this adventure and rewarding PCs who manage to succeed in all tasks. The final showdown in Sven's cairn sees a furious finale, including a potentially fatal collapse and the heroes receive treasures befitting their actions during the adventure.

The next previously released module, "Blood on the Snow", takes place in Estenfird and could be considered to be the first of the modules that puts, as heralded before, the epic component into focus: Unbeknownst to just about all mighty beings, the beast-cult of the demon god Shibauroth has been gathering its strength: Making its adherents rather stupid, but enhancing them into deadly, primitive, cannibalistic killing machines via twisted runes, the cult has risen and seems to follow a surprisingly organized plan. The PC are to travel to the largest settlement, the town of Three Rivers, where local hero Hengrid Donarsdottir has traveled. On their way, they can recruit essentially a small army of undisciplined followers and hirthmen (alas, no Ultimate Campaign-synergy) to help the beleaguered capital of Estenfird.

On their way to Three Rivers, the PCs will have chances to deal with first encounters against the Beast Cult and, via befriending the Great White Stag, potentially even turn an otherwise lethal ambush upon the bestial cultists. In order to reach the city, they'll also have to sneak past the camps of the unorganized cult. Finally, inside the town, the PCs will have a bit of time to get accustomed to the fully mapped and lavishly detailed town before the horns are sounded and the assault begins - depending on the amount of followers the PCs have recruited, the respective monsters get hurt/decimated. Oh boy - the siege is awesome - standing on doomed ground, the PCs will have to combat elementals, badger-sapper-squads and even keep a war-mammoth from breaking the nigh-impregnable gates - all while ice trolls and drakes ravage the town in one of the most concise, superb depictions of a deadly siege I've ever seen.

As the dust settles, the PCs  will be in for a shock - the aasimar warrior-maiden has been kidnapped! Thus, the PCs have to enter a haunted marsh and infiltrate the poison-thorned, hedge-labyrinth of a frozen marsh maze in which the beast cult seeks to sacrifice the daughter of Thor himself in order to bring down their deadly beast-god: The finale sees the Pcs storm the ritual and hopefully free Donar's daughter from her bonds - otherwise, the terror has just begun. Oh, and bravery is required here - essentially the final encounter is insanely hard and requires the PCs to  focus on their goal of interrupting the ritual - should they succeed, Thor himself will annihilate the beat cult and scourge it from the lands. And while the treasure is rather weak due to the savage nature of the cult, the Aesir don't forget the PCs, as the module concludes with a feasting held by Thor himself to congratulate the PCs - if they succeeded, that is. If they failed, they'll have a  CR 22 Thanatotic Titan on their hands and survival chances that are at best slim...

Oh, and just as an aside: These previously released modules have not simply been copied inside: Details have been streamlined and we actually get Ultimate Campaign-compatible MASS COMBAT RULES!!! EFFFIN' YES!!!

After this truly epic and challenging module, we proceed with "Raven Banners over Gatland", penned by both Kenneth Spencer and master of evocative environments Greg A. Vaughan. Situated against a backdrop of a brutal feud between Gats and Hrolfs, the two jarls have tried to fix burned bridges by marrying their children - but, alas, hostilities are flaring up when the bride-to-be vanishes...and soon after, the groom as well. The PCs and surprisingly pragmatic jarls soon find the hand of the dread Jomsvikings in the abduction - in order to prevent the feud from turning into all out warfare (the jarls have to take the opinions of their folks into account, after all!), the PCs will have to board a ship and survive a horrible marine assault by the Jomsvikings and their supernatural allies...and ultimately, they'll need to capture one of their ships to have a chance to infiltrate the notoriously powerful island of these feared raiders.

Only by securing an alliance with the island's supernatural inhabitants and releasing them from the yoke of a powerful, devilbound witch and her creatures, will the PCs have a chance to infiltrate the nigh-impregnable fortress and rescue the two star-crossed lover...whose wyrd may not be so grim, after all! That is, if the PCs can survive encounters with the unique Jomsbeast and horrid, chthonic creatures - and yes, both of the youngsters may well perish - and all has consequences... This module is PHENOMENAL in all the right ways, managing to blend perfectly the aesthetics of the North and classic Sword and Sorcery literature - no mean feat, mind you!

Kevin Wright's "Plague in Trotheim" brings a completely different doom to the PCs - the dreaded Straw Death has fallen upon the city of Trotheim as the (hopefully!) wedding of the two jarl's children is interrupted by Meg Skulsdottir unleashing this horrid plague upon the unwitting population. A horrid pox is unleashed upon the city and the PCs will deal with the consequences of the horrid outbreak throughout this module, allowing a GM to free-form the encounters - here, godi are taken, lillin roam and fire elemental constructs erupt from funeral pyres for a rather apocalyptic overall theme - and only a mystic tree may provide the means to stop to the outbreak. Thus, the PCs need to hexcrawl through the lethal Andøvan mountains and best the tests of Skrymir...and best underworld dragons at the roots of the world and cure the rot that has befallen the roots of Yggrdasil's sapling - and then, Wotan shows up...and with echoes of Ragnarök's promise, the PCs venture back - provided they live through the hazardous trek back.

Kenneth Spencer and Greg A. Vaughan join forces again in "The Return of Hallbjorn", which resounds with the previous modules: Thought dead, the man returns with tales of Nieuland, mirroring the discovery of the new world and sparking a land and trade rush. Unfortunately, the jomsvikings follow to the new world: And yes, the journey is depicted and the colony and the threats encountered are only exacerbated due to the incursions of the jomsvikings - who also provoke the local skraelings into hostility, as unique threats and a strange prophet escalate the proceedings. This section is literally something I haven't seen before - a colonist tale of the conquest of a new world, with a healthy dose of viking and fantastic aesthetics. And the appendix btw. also allows for one or more PCs to take the mantle of the jarl - and the wilderness exploration of these lands sports a great change of pace in its aesthetics, while still remaining true to the themes. Another glorious winner in my book!

Returning to the Northlands, Kevin Wright & Kenneth Spencer depict a module deeply steeped in the culture and taboos of the North - "The Hallburning" deals with the aftermath of the horrid crime of the mordbrand, a murder-burning where a whole hall and all within have been cowardly burned to death - as depicted in one of the glorious short-stories in the Player's Guide. Gundrik Arison, Jarl of the Vestfelmarken, has been killed, but Runa Gundrikswif survived, against all odds, the horrid ordeal. Some of the perpetrators were caught and the Althing pronounced the criminals free to be slaughtered - and the PCs will probably want to eliminate the cowardly murderers...but there is more to this, namely a horrid conspiracy...the hall-burners are patsies...but there would also be the issue of competing adventuring groups on the hunt...and yes, if the PCs are not wary, they may fall to hall-burners themselves - and beyond exploring tin-mines and testing their mettle, they will also find themselves in dire need of speed - all actions have consequences and, in order to bring true justice, the PCs will have to best the jarl in holmgang...but the deities themselves may actually intervene here! And yes, I abbreviated the structure of this surprisingly brainy module rather excessively - this one is LONG.

Based on material by Kenneth Spencer and written by the dream-team Kevin Wright and Greg A. Vaughan, "Daughter of Thunder and Storm", we rejoin the PCs 3 years after they have taken the mantle of Jarldom. Hengrid Donarsdottir has survived (hopefully) Blood on the Snow, though a stand-in exists. In the wake of Hengrid's devastating raid on the Hall of the Hearth Stone, the PCs are summoned, for the daughter of Donar has stolen Kroenarck, the legendary sword of the High Køenig and most sacred artifact of the Northlands. The PCs are to return this sacred blade, but a godi present, in the fits of prophecy, tells them about Hengrid being possessed and fighting the dread entity, beseeching the PCs to save her. The PCs must venture to the  Virlik Cliffs, where their old foe Althunak raises his deific head - the entity is planning to usher in the Fumbulwinter to kickstart Ragnarök. Stakes high enough for you? Yeah, we're talking "epic" indeed, as the PCs follow the deific scion, still seeing signs of her struggle against the Lord of Winter - the PCs have to survive the creatures of the wild, the agents of the Lord of Winter and brave the legendary mountain Helgastervän's volcanic tubes, venturing to the gates of hell itself, opened by the sword - to save Donar's daughter, the PCs will have to venture into the Gunningagap and battle for the soul of the divine maiden - and yes, while combat is a means of solving this, we actually have a roleplaying encounter as an epic finale here: Smart PCs will have a significantly easier time, as no less than 5 iterations of this final fight are provided! Kudos indeed!

And there we are. 6 years later, in the final adventure herein, penned by Greg A. Vaughan and based on Kenneth Spencer's material. Levels 16 - 18. High level as can be. "The Broken Shieldwall" builds upon the consequences of the actions in previous modules and if the PCs have done their jobs right, Jarl Ljot Gatson, asks the PCs to raise an army to save his son and grandson from distant Mulstabha, braving the treacherous North Seas as they gather their forces, returning to Trotheim, Estenfird, speaking to the Althing, dealing with jomsvikings once again...and more, the PCs will amass an unprecedented host to lead into bloody battle. The war is on and the PCs will have to lead their campaign and infiltrate the citadel of Jem karteis, where the mysterious, ancient people of daemon-worshiping Huun and their legions prove to be the masterminds behind the plot. With no time and magic power, the PCs will also have to thwart a deadly assassination attempt on the man fated to become High Køenig of all the North...all while routing the forces of one of the most deadly and dangerous nations ever to spread its vile influence over the Lost Lands! And yes, once again, this truly epic, mind-boggling modules pits gigantic armies against each other in the most epic open warfare module I have ever seen - one that also pits the PCs against a titanic, quasi-deific monstrosity that will test their mettle to the breaking point. I have rarely, if ever seen such a fantastic conclusion to a saga.


Editing and formatting, particularly taking the sheer volume of this tome into account, are excellent, particularly considering that builds used herein do employ interesting combinations of creatures and crunch. Kudos to the editors Jeff Harkness, Dawn Fischer and Greg A. Vaughan. Layout by Charles Wright adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. If you can, though, you may want to get the massive hardcover - build to last in the tradition of Frog God Games. The artworks deserve special mention: Artem Shukaev, Rowena Aitken, Colin Chan, Tyler Clark, Felipe Gaona, Chris McFann, MKUltra Studios, Terry Pavlet, Blake Wilkie, Brian LeBlanc, David Day, Talon Dunning, Eric Lofgren, Cara Mitten, Nate Pride, Richard Thomas and Tim Truman have created a book that is gorgeous to look at: Many of these artworks are absolutely stunning and incredibly evocative. A precious few artworks of monsters have been used before (which often represent the weaker pieces), but the vast majority (as in: 90%+) is new, original and glorious. The massive tome comes with exquisite amounts of solid maps in b/w, which, while less staggering, map pretty much EVERYTHING. The inclusion of player-friendly, key-less maps is a huge plus as well. The massive tome also sports a really nice full-color poster map of the Northlands on the inside of the back cover - big plus there as well.

The work of three men: Kenneth Spencer, Greg A. Vaughan and Kevin Wright - and it still feels like this one, amazing, whole, legend. The voices of the authors never clash and all is subservient to a shared vision of epic proportions that encompasses what's best about classic sögur, the fantastic and sword and sorcery. This book has managed to blend these potentially disparate elements into an incredibly concise whole. And, as you know by now, I am EXTREMELY particular about "my" North: Scandinavia and the old myths have a very special place in my heart and I'm  extremely picky in what's "right."

The authors get it. They show a keen understanding of what works and what doesn't. Unlike a few of the stand-alone modules, none of the modules in this tome even remotely feels like its Northlands aspects are window-dressing: The themes resonate with a poignancy and internal consistence that is frickin' phenomenal and a pure joy to read. Time and again while reading this tome, I put it away. Why? Because I honestly wanted to savor every page. I didn't want it to end. It was one of the tomes I read when a series of frustrating reviews (writing bad reviews sometimes really does a number on me) had demoralized me. I read it when I had a bad day. For half a year, just reading this book has brought me more joy than you can probably fathom. It's that good.
While it does not have a linear plot per se, those of you who don't like the sandboxy nature of many Frog god Games books, well, this does deliver the more stringent and sequential sequence you wanted - though frankly, with the epic, multi-year timeframe of the saga, you will very well have a ton of opportunity to run your own material as well or insert other modules.

I am honestly sad to write this review. Why? because it means that the Northlands Saga, at least until I can run its entirety, is over for me. Now, this is not a perfect book: The player-content, as mentioned in my review of the Player's Guide, could be better. And while everything fits perfectly together, while consequences are evident, there could be a bit more repercussions from module to module, as far as I'm concerned.

Yeah, that's about everything I can say that could even be remotely construed to be negative.

The Northlands Saga, even in Frog God Games' canon of exalted adventure books, ranks as one of the best I have read. This gorgeous campaign delivers, with panache and aplomb, on the promise made of a true, Northern campaign, and that without bashing you over the head with Ragnarök. The themes resonate, a zeitgeist of the end-times seems to be slowly gaining traction, but if the PCs excel at their task, they may end this book on a truly heroic note. As an aside: This saga manages to portray high-level adventuring surprisingly well: Will the vast resources, epic armies clashing and ever more global problems, with metaphysical threats etc., the emphasis on roleplaying and the importance of brains is never lost - this is a book for roleplayers indeed. That does not mean, however, that there is not ample, amazing combat to be found herein - quite the contrary! The Northlands Saga manages to perfectly convey the grit and grime of the North, manages to depict, time and again, a harsh land steeped in mythology and horror, yes, but also in tantalizing beauty and wonder. This is not grim, nor is it dark. In a sense, it almost feels like a chronicle of a North that almost was, that could have been in another time, another world.

You know, I was excited for this and afraid at the same time. I am not a wealthy man and supporting a KS like this, for such a big book, is something I can't afford often. I also have a tendency to be very, very skeptical and nitpicky regarding the North. I also am not one of the guys who wants to like every KS I invest in; I am too jaded for that - years of reviewing will do that to you. ;) Supporting the KS for this book was only made possible by pinching pennies left and right for a prolonged period of time. TOTALLY WORTH IT! Worth every single day. I guess it was my wyrd to cave-in and get it  -wyrd bið ful aræd.

This is epic and amazing in all the right ways, a thematically incredibly concise, glorious book that, according to my projections, should yield AT LEAST a whole year of gaming, probably multiples. And even if you don't want to run the whole saga, you can easily just extract individual modules - the plus-side of being less driven by an AP-like plot and more by the players and how the PCs interact with their surroundings.

This ranks among the cream of the crop. This book is exalted and a masterpiece that deserves an honored place on my book-shelf. If you're even remotely intrigued by vikings, northern themes, sword and sorcery, gritty gaming or just want a change of pace: You'll be very hard-pressed to find anything better than this magnificent monster.

The Frogs do it again, as far as I'm concerned - this is absolutely phenomenal and worth 5 stars + seal of approval and is a no-brainer candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Heck, who am I kidding here, seriously? It'll score high on that list!

The one thing that really galls me about this book? It's unlikely that we get Northlands Saga II anytime soon and, even after more than 800 pages of Northlands, I still want more. And yes, I am aware that even now, even after all this praise, I can't properly convey how much I love this tome. Apologies, dear readers...but see for yourself. The North beckons.

You can get this phenomenal tome here on OBS or here on tabletoplibrary.com!

Prefer OSR gaming? You can find the S&W-version here on OBS or here on tabletoplibrary.com!

Finally, if you want print, you can find that here on Frog God Games' store!

Endzeitgeist out.