It's time to check in with the table-top scene, with a slew of products from earlier this year. With one exception, everything I have to discuss today is from Wizards of the Coast (WotC). The well-known maker of Dungeons and Dragons is having a banner year, a year they've been referring to as the 'Year of Dragons'. Their draco-specific products will get a look here on the site in a month or two, and later this month I should have a full report on the 4th Edition of the Shadowrun RPG. Today, though, we've got demons, psionics, epic-level play, and a second Player's Handbook. Oh yeah, and a 670-page, $120 sourcebook called Ptolus. Read on for my impressions of these great excuses to throw a d20.Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss
James Jacobs, Erik Mona, Ed Stark
$29.95, 160 pages
The first in a series of sourcebooks detailing the denizens of the outer planes, Hordes of the Abyss is a title squarely aimed at the GM. Penned by some well-known alumni of Dungeon magazine, this text is a rare accessory, in that almost every D&D GM could make use of it at one point or another. Because of the popularity of the Abyss and its denizens throughout Dungeons and Dragons lore, after a certain point you can be certain your players will either be fighting, summoning, or visiting creatures from this horrific lower plane. It follows the same template as most location-specific sourcebooks; there are new feats, monsters, and spells, and a large section detailing the geography of the area. The most enlightening part of the book deals with the powerful, but fickle, demon princes that rule over the various layers. They're given statistics, but I find the material on who's squabbling with who much more interesting. If your players are even vaguely interested in traveling the planes, plot hooks like Graz'zt's war with Demogorgon or the machinations of Dagon are great ways to get players interested. This is a textbook example of what a great GM accessory should be; concise, specific, and heavily detailed.
Players Handbook II
$34.95, 224 pages
The Dungeon Master's Guide II (DMG II) gave GMs the tools they needed to run a better game. The Player's Handbook II (PHB II) aims to provide players with the tools to make and run a better character. There are some crunchy bits here, with new classes and spells filling out parts of the book, but even more space is spent on coming to understand your character and their place in the world. Every class is given a new look, examining not only what it can do but what role it should play in an adventuring party. How to act as an adventuring party is also explored, with game mechanics assigned to roleplaying elements like camp preparation and team-building exercises. Gamers familiar with White Wolf's titles will recognize the section on character backgrounds: archetypes that a player looking for a hook can exploit to get inside the head of his new avatar. While I'm very glad to have it on my shelf, I don't see this as a required text for every D&D player. There's nothing in here that a player absolutely has to have. New players are probably going to get more out of it than veterans; those who do purchase it will be getting a lot for their money.
Power of Faerûn
Ed Greenwood and Eric L. Boyd
$29.95, 160 pages
Power of Faerûn is a GM-specific text that offers reams of advice for dealing with players that are powerful enough to move mountains, found kingdoms, and win wars. Where many other WotC texts focus on mechanics, Power has almost no references to the D&D rules-set; consumers who like their sourcebooks crunchy should be advised. What Greenwood and Boyd fill the book with, instead, are hundreds of plot hooks and guidelines for running high level campaigns. If your players want to become nobility, build a keep, and tame the frontier, this book has exactly what you'll need. It's set in the Realms, of course, but many of the suggestions they make could be easily translated to other fantasy settings with a little work. I'm not sure how many DMs actually run epic-level campaigns, to be truthful, but it is still one of the more useful Realms supplements I've read. While the book is intended for epic play, every chapter is essentially a framework for an entire campaign. I highly recommend this to GMs looking for inspiration and a campaign workbook.
Bruce R. Cordell and Christopher Lindsay
$29.94, 160 pages
Unlike the other 'Complete' books, which provide variations on a theme for the core classes, Complete Psionic only increases options for campaigns which use the 'mind magic' introduced in the Expanded Psionics Handbook. With rules for psionics-using races, several new classes, abilities, and monsters, GMs that have a use for this material will be undoubtedly pleased. As far as I know, though, only a small percentage of campaigns actually use the obscure rules referenced in this book. Most campaigns stay close to the D&D world described in the core books, which have no mention of the sometimes confusing and often broken mechanics associated with psionics. Thus, for something like 99% of all D&D players and GMs, this book is completely useless. Considering the high utility factor of the other books in the 'Complete' series, or even the 'Races' series, the narrow focus of this text seems disappointing and wasteful.
Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire
Monte Cook, Sue Weinlein Cook, Todd Lockwood, et. al.
$119.99, 640 pages
A tour de force project from Malhavoc press, Ptolus is breathtaking (and backbreaking) to read. When I mentioned it earlier this year in connection to the freebie Player's Guide, I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. I sat down to flip through the book after last month's Gen Con, intending to skim enough to get an idea of the setting and pass on to you the salient points. Instead, I delayed this article by reading through the entire text cover-to-cover. The reason? It's special. Frustratingly, it's hard to pin down exactly what's special about it without doing a lot of arm waving. Ptolus isn't likely to bring many new players to D&D, being as niche and jargony as any other setting you're likely to encounter. I also don't think the well known settings that WotC publishes have anything to worry about; the Realms and Eberron are going to continue to outsell the books associated with the 'City by the Spire'.
Despite that, I found Mr. Cook's offering to be invigorating. A campaign setting built during the development process for the newer editions of Dungeons and Dragons, Ptolus is the hand-worn world used to test many of the concepts found in the Player's Handbook and Dungeons Master's Guide. Despite being so closely associated with core D&D, the setting still has enough deviation from the norm (guns, a few new races, technology) to make stale situations fresh. The book's astonishing size is due to the sheer amount of detail available. Each district of the city is described, as are important factions, several dungeons, the history of the world, technology, and magic. Probably the most surprising element of the text is its accessibility. Although there is a mountain of information available, each chapter is laid out in an intuitive fashion. Each district description contains only what's useful for running that area of the city; there are shops and streets listed, but no attempt is made to flesh out every single building. The book's utility is aided by sidebars on every single page (containing page references to key elements), several detailed glossaries and appendices, dozens of maps, and copious illustrations.
The book's extraordinarily high production value is breathtaking to behold. Not just the value of the layout, paper, and binding (although those are all amazing) ... the production value of the world has been polished to a mirror finish. That's really what makes Ptolus special; years of running characters through this setting has made Mr. Cook's vision crystal clear. His deep understanding of the 'City by the Spire', and his talent as a GM, is passed undiminished to the reader. As someone who runs games regularly, I found the book almost leaps from your hands with sheer potential. Some settings and sourcebooks leave you bewildered, wondering when you'll actually make use of the content you've purchased. Ptolus not only made me want to run games in the setting, it's inspired me to make other games and worlds better.
Given the cost, I expect few people will rush out and purchase this massive setting. Via DriveThruRPG, though, you can buy the entire book in sections in PDF format. Heck, if you're even vaguely interested the first chapter is free for the taking. At the end of the day, the Ptolus line is a testament to what a small publisher can do if with the proper inspiration. I don't think that this Mr. Cook's opus is going to change the way the industry works ... but I certainly hope it opens some eyes.