Book Review: Monster Vault – Threats to the Nentir Vale


Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale
D&D Game Supplement
Brian R. James, Matt James, Sterling Hershey, and Steve Townshend

Item Details
Item Code: 283640000
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Page Count: 128
Price: $34.99 C$40.99
ISBN: 978-0-7869-5838-2

Terrifying monsters and villains for your heroic- and paragon-tier campaign.

The Nentir Vale — a frontier land sheltered by mountains and strewn with abandoned farmsteads, ruined manors, and broken keeps — is the perfect base for any Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale presents statistics, tactics, and lore for an array of new monsters that prowl the Nentir Vale, some of which trace their origins back to the earliest editions of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game. Other entries focus on campaign villains present in the Nentir Vale region, among them the Iron Circle, the Tigerclaw Barbarians, the Raven Roost Bandits, and several new villainous groups introduced here for the first time.

The monsters and villains contained within are appropriate challenges for heroic- and paragon-tier characters and fit easily into any home campaign, as well as other Dungeons & Dragons published campaign settings. In addition to a 128-page book of ready-to-play monsters and villains, this product includes 8 die-cut sheets of card stock monster and villain tokens and a double-sided battle map featuring four different encounter locations you can use when running encounters.

On the one hand, in this book, you have some of the very best monster design in 4e. WotC has only been getting better at monsters since Monster Manual 3 last year, and I haven’t found much to complain about in this one yet… Except for one thing, which I’ll get to.

Much like in the Shadowfell box set, we have a 128-page softcover book, a poster map, and six cardstock sheets of tokens. Unlike in the Shadowfell box, WotC doesn’t even try to make the container box-like; it’s a slipcover, shrink-wrapped, holding all the goodies. All told, this still makes the product rather pricey for the page-count… As I’ve said, this is quality material, so I’m not grouching too much, but it’s a tough sell at full price. (Sadly, the tokens continue to have the monster names across the Bloodied sides, which make them easier to find, but make it much tougher to use them as generic placeholders, and make it nearly impossible to hide monsters’ identities from your players. I’d rather guess!)

Also like in the Shadowfell box set, a large portion of the “monsters” herein are basically NPC groups, generally opponents. For me, this is awesome; it’s very easy to take a group like, say, the Blackfang Gnolls or the Tigerclaw Barbarians, and quickly construct a level-appropriate encounter for my players. It helps make prep-time low, and play-time valuable. I’m also partial to NPC groups in general; a faction such as the Iron Circle or the Grey Company has a lot more interest as a long-term foe than a simple Troll does. This also makes it very easy for me to integrate these foes into my home Dark Sun game.

Although I’ve not had time to exhaustively read the flavor text, there’s a ton of it, and it’s overall well-written. The Wandering Tower, Mooncalves, and Dythan’s Legion – the ones that caught my interest first – are all fantastic. The art is pretty uniformly high-quality, too.

So how nasty are the monsters? Calastryx was featured on the Wizards site within the last month, and he’s the scariest 14th-level Solo I’ve ever seen. Google him or the Boggle for examples. Perytons are back in their heart-ripping glory, and Pennaggalans are every bit as gross and creepy as ever. I’d go on, but I’m afraid I’d just rave about nearly every monster.

So given this, why four stars instead of five?

Well, the monsters here range from Level 1 to Level 20; everything at 19 or 20 is an Elite or Solo, so this book is mostly useful up until about Level 17 or 18ish. There’s not a single Epic monster to be found. Worse, somewhere around 3/4 of these are Heroic-tier; there’s a sampling of 11-20′s, but they’re in the minority, and there are only a few per level. While this is fine in general, it overlaps with the Monster Vault significantly, and is of only moderate use in my high-heroic tier game.

While I applaud the new monster design, there’s a dearth of Epic-tier foes using the upgraded design standards. I was hopeful that this book would cover all levels, but it doesn’t. With this and with the high cost per page, I had to drop this otherwise outstanding product 1 star.(from Amazon)

THE GOOD: As a guy who must and will own all things 4th edition, I picked this up primarily because well, it’s a 4th edition book and I really like those things. To my surprise, however, I found it be the best monster book in the whole system thus far, even supplanting my old favorite the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. The reasons for this are twofold; first of all, in addition to a random assortment of new and classic monsters, the book focuses on actual factions and power groups present in the Nentir Vale, and secondly the sheer amount of flavor text makes even the most seemingly mundane entries pop with interesting hooks. These two elements combine to create a book that’s just as useful for adventure-planning as it is encounter-planning, and I really appreciate that.

While the book is short compared to pretty much any other 4e monster gallery, it makes up for this with the addition of a few useful tools. First up is the double-sided poster map, which has four different encounter locations all done out for you nice and smooth. I have a lot of dungeon tiles myself so this isn’t the most useful thing in the world to me, but I ALWAYS welcome new maps, particularly generic ones that don’t look like I stole them from a module (I do that, sue me). More importantly, however, are the creature tokens. I LOVE these! There are 10 different sheets, each with an average of 30 tokens to represent the different monsters presented in the book or as placeholders for other creatures. For a group like mine who previously used pennies, bottlecaps, and small rocks with rubberbands wrapped around them to represent different characters on the battlemap, these tokens are like adding hundreds of miniatures to our collection.

THE BAD: There’s been a lot said about the price of the book, and I have to concede that it is a tad on the expensive side. That being said, I’m hardly surprised. You see, Dungeons and Dragons has a lot in common with crack-cocaine; it doesn’t seem all that expensive at first, especially when they give you your first dose (read: the Essentials products, the original core rulebooks, or a $10 rock sold for $5) at a noticeable discount. But from there you realize that you can’t get enough, and it’s no secret to anyone else. Future doses are thus more expensive, and you don’t complain because you’re already hooked. Still don’t like the price? Try to find it at a discount man, you’re on Amazon.com RIGHT NOW!

THE UGLY: I really wish this product came in a box all its own, just like the previous Monster Vault. As it is I have to store the creature tokens in the other Monster Vault box with a divider between them so I can easily tell which book a given sheet is supposed to go with. Luckily the tokens pop in and out of their sheets really easy so storing them isn’t exactly MESSY, just a bit more cumbersome than it should be for what I paid. Also, the book itself is the first soft-cover 4e book I’m aware of, and it’s a bit smaller in size. While the green binding looks good next to my Monster Manuals 1, 2, and 3, overall it’s an odd fit on the shelf and that’s, well, ugly.

OVERALL: The crunch is good (check out Callistryx, the three-headed red dragon!), the fluff is even better (I really dig the Fell Court, for instance), and even if you don’t run your game in the Nentir Vale everything here is generic enough to be easily slipped into any campaign with little to no adjustments. Thus, if you’re a DM, you need to add this book to your collection. I’ve been taking it to work with me for two weeks now, and I find something new and fascinating to read about every day.

Book Review: Elminster Enraged


Elminster Enraged
The Sage of Shadowdale
Ed Greenwood

Commanded by the vestige of Mystra to work together, Manshoon and Elminster engage instead in a ferocious battle that sends the Sage plummeting into the Underdark as a cloud of ashes. Elminster soon inhabits the body of a fallen dark elf, so that he can begin carrying out Mystra’s orders to rally Cormyr’s Wizards of War, seek blueflame items to mend immense rifts throughout the realms that are releasing deadly monsters, and prevent the ancient Primordials from rising and unleashing their rage.

But his sworn archenemy, Manshoon, has plans as well: to conquer Cormyr and be the new Emperor, and hunt down the Sage’s clones. The battles are fierce, the stakes have never been higher, and the fate of Cormyr is on the line. Meanwhile, War Wizards are being mysteriously assassinated . . .

Ed Greenwood writes an excited conclusion to the Sage of Shadowdale series. The story picks up right were Bury Elminster Deep ended. The story continues with a focus on a Cormyrian prison holding traitorous nobles. Like the other books in the series, the narrative jumps a lot, from character to character, to seemingly random noble. This can sometimes make the narrative hard to follow, but Ed makes it work in the end as you see all the jumble begin to take shape in the second half of the book and begin to realize how everything is connected.

The ending is great fun, it bumped this from 4 to 5 stars. Elminster gets well.. enraged. Its a lot of fun, stick with the jumps, and you’ll come to a conclusion that had me smiling as a reader, as a fan of Ed’s, and definitely as a fan of the Realms

Book Review: Player’s Option – Heroes of Shadow


Heroes of Shadow
D&D Game Supplement, Player’s Options
Mike Mearls and Robert J. Schwalb

For heroes who bask in darkness.

The Shadowfell is a cold, grim place through which the spirits of the dead must pass on their way to… wherever. Dark, evil things live there, suffused with the power of shadow. Some mortals in the natural world learn how to tap into this source. Assassins. Necromancers. Hexblades. By all accounts, a ruthless lot. However, not all beings that draw strength from the Shadowfell are vile, blackhearted fiends. A few even dare to call themselves heroes, using the power of darkness to fight darkness. Are they evil? No. Deeply disturbed and hounded by their own dark demons? You bet.

Player’s Options Heroes of Shadow focusses on characters that fight evil in ways that make others cringe. In addition to exploring the nature of the shadow power source, this book presents races, classes, feats, powers, and other options aimed at players hungry to play the archetypical antihero with a dark edge.

Item Details
Item Code: 280880000
Release Date: April 19th, 2011
Series: Player’s Options D&D Game Supplement
Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 160
Price: $29.95 C$35.00 ISBN: 978-0-7869-5745-3
As a shadow-focused book in the Essentials line, HoS is a quality supplement. I DMed the Dark Legacy of Evard official D&D Encounters events for a full season, so I got to see all of the classes in action. The classes generally have interesting flavor, and are offensively focused. They are well-designed enough to fit into existing parties.

There are also new options for existing classes and builds, including original 4th edition classes (Wizard, Cleric, and Warlock options), so that is a nice bonus. You can see that WotC’s investment to delay the book and change it to hardcover paid off in additional content and a more well-rounded supplement.

However, I have to question many of the thematic choices made by the writers. This book often talks about the disadvantages of trading/binding your soul or giving up some of your humanity in exchange for power. But other than those cursory references, there are no substantial downsides or limitations to, for example, the Blackguard (“Anti-Paladin”) or Gloom Pact Hexblade classes. It’s a quirk I’ve noticed with 4th Edition – in the name of balance, classes have become a little too homogenized and similar in their abilities for my taste.

Still, anyone who has actually played using this supplement rather than arguing about it on the internet will tell you that it gets the job done well enough. The whole 4th edition “Everyone is friends now, deal with it” thematic issue is more of a matter of one’s personal taste.

This is a pretty solid book. It seems to be getting a lot of flak for appealing to mostly the Essentials crowd, but since the two lines are more or less compatible I see this as a minor issue.

I won’t go too deep into specifics since most of it has already been covered. This book is strong on flavor, which I think is great, but unfortunately it comes at the expense of some of the book’s crunch.

The blackguard is a mechanically capable class, as well as the most durable striker yet. In our playtest, the blackguard put out good damage throughout.

The vampire is unfortunately somewhat weak in its role (striker) as well as being ridiculously limited in choices (two choices throughout, I believe).

Binder seems a bit boring to me. I’m not really all that familiar with the 3e version so I can’t comment too much on it, but it seems mechanically weak as compared to the wizard.

Necromancer and Nethermancer are cool. They provide some really cool spells for the Wizard class, although necromancer is a bit limited in what it can do (lots of necrotic damage and undead-controlling stuff). Nethermancer seems to be the stronger of the two; Necromancer seems like more of a striker than a controller.

I didn’t love the Gloom pact Hexblade. I think I would have preferred an adaptation of the Forgotten Realms’ dark pact for the Hexblade. Ironically, the gloom pact Hexblade does not use a blade. The class is much more of a controller than the other Hexblade pacts.

Finally, the death domain for the cleric is awesome. It provides a lot of options for “Pre-E” clerics, as well as a new domain for warpriests that is focused mostly on implements.

The paragon paths and epic destinies are more flavor oriented than anything else. This book is really cool and definitely provides a lot of options that have been missing in 4e. Looking forward to what’s going to be in Heroes of The Feywild.

Book Review: Adventure – Legacy of the Crystal Shard


Legacy of the Crystal Shard
Sundering Adventure II
R. A. Salvatore, James Wyatt, and Jeffrey Ludwig

Evil Stirs in Icewind Dale

Legacy of the Crystal Shard is a Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Gameadventure that can be played using the rules for 3rd Edition (v.3.5), 4th Edition, and the D&D Next playtest.

The people of Icewind Dale have long stood against the perils of the North. For most of these folk, the events that shook the region a hundred years ago are now distant memories. But what was defeated was not destroyed, and the sinister influence of the Crystal Shard, Crenshinibon, has now wormed its way into the very land of Icewind Dale. As evil forces converge on Ten Towns, the people of the North face their greatest trial yet. Fortunately, they won’t have to face it alone.

Legacy of the Crystal Shard allows characters to continue to participate in important events connected to the Sundering and glimpse the future of theForgotten Realms.

Components:

  • 64-page setting book describing Icewind Dale and its inhabitants
  • 32-page adventure book describing major plots and encounters
  • Four-panel, deluxe DM screen with maps and information for the Dungeon Master

Additional Downloads:

Monster Statistics: 3.5 Edition (2.5 Mbs PDF)
Monster Statistics: 4th Edition (2.6 Mbs PDF)
Monster Statistics: D&D Next (2.5 Mbs PDF)
Item Details
Item Code: 0786964642
Release Date: November 19, 2013
Pages: 96
Price: $34.95 C$39.95
ISBN: 978-0-7869-6464-2
Lets get the bad out of the way: I wasn’t impressed with the wraparound cover. Once the plastic is taken off, all the pieces of Legacy are loose. It can be remedied easily enough with one of the many pocketed folders I have for my tabletop games already, but frankly I really think it should have been part of the packaging already. Since Murder in Balder’s Gate was the same way, I figure future Sundering adventures will follow suit. Oh well…

That done, lets move on to the important bits. The adventure is well written, and I heartily approve of the “edition neutral” style of both Legacy of the Crystal Shard and its predecessor. Since stats for all major NPCs, monsters, and several random encounters are available at WotC’s site, for free, for 3.x, 4E and D&D Next, even if you just want something to drop on the table and go, Legacy lets you do that with no fuss.

I also was very happy with the way the game allows the “illusion of choice.” The overwhelming majority of times this adventure is run, I can guess who the final villain will be. Its possible to go against the flow, however, and the writers accounted for that. It would require a bit more preparation on the part of the DM if that happens, but as I said, it means the players (probably deliberately) swam against the stream. Real effects come about from the choices the players make, and Legacy’s writers give you the tools to account for as many as they could think of; any one of the three villains presented in this adventure could be major or minor adversaries, depending largely on how fast their schemes are uncovered and focused on by the adventurers.

The only gripe I had about the adventure was that it either ignored, retconed, or was unaware of some recent events regarding Auril and her moving away from her ancient corruption, due to the events of the Stormstar Requiem. That might be intentional, as there isn’t much information ABOUT the Stormstar Reqiuem, other than it happened. Moving on.

Final words is that this product has great background material on the Ten-Towns of Icewind Dale, with populations, relationships among the towns, and places of interest both in the Ten-Towns and in the surrounding geography. Its a great product to have, and I hope WotC produces more in similar vein.

Like its predecessor, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, Legacy of the Crystal Shard is an edition-neutral game supplement for Dungeons & Dragons which in and of itself is an interesting hook. If you, like me, came to The Forgotten Realms via R. A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy, aka the Drizzt Do’urden series; this adventure will be of particular interest to you. Set in the Icewind Dale more than one hundred years after the events in the Icewind Dale trilogy, The Legacy of the Crystal Shard revisits and updates the setting for a new generation of heroes — your heroes, since Wizards of the Coast is soliciting your progress and the outcome of your group’s participation in the adventure to determine the overarching outcome of their event: The Sundering.
The materials included in the packet are top-notch: beautiful maps; loads of information about Ten-Towns, Kelvin’s Cairn, and more; all wrapped in a slick DM screen with head’s up display laid out information for running the adventure on the inside, and setting maps on the outside. WOC pretty much has all D&D editions in print right now, so play through this adventure with your preferred set, or use the D&D Next rules if you participated in the public play test. Cheers!

Book Review: Vaults of the Underdark – Map Pack


Vaults of the Underdark
Map Pack
RPG Staff

Foldout battle maps for your D&D campaign.

Dungeon Masters need awesome maps to create memorable encounters. This pack contains 3 full-color, double-sided, 21″ x 30″ battle maps with 1-inch scale grids. One map features two never-before-seen encounter locations: a mushroom-filled cavern and a dwarven fortress along an underground river. The other two battle maps are picked up from out-of-print products. You can even combine the maps in this map pack to create huge encounter areas. All the maps provide attractive, reusable terrain suitable for any D&D campaign.

Map Pack products are compatible with all editions of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and are designed for use with D&D miniatures.

Item DetailsItem Code: 398910000
Release Date: July 17, 2012
Format: Non-traditional
Price: $11.95 C$12.95
ISBN: 978-0-7869-6046-0

These maps are very versatile! There is a forest scene, several cave/underground scenes, and a bluey-gray map that could work as a dungeon or old house or something. They’re extremely vibrant in color, the artwork is beautiful, and there is a lot of cool designs within like water sources, chests, rune areas, ect. Really, really cool maps that you won’t get tired of using in many different settings!
Whether you are creating adventures and encounters in the Underdark or just need some caves and caverns for a quick one-shot this is a must have. Amazing detail and good variety.
These are perfect for the “artistically challenged” DM. Quick to fold out, quick to set up the minis on. Love this product.

Book Review: Dungeon Tiles – The Witchlight Fens


Dungeon Tiles: The Witchlight Fens
D&D Accessory
Peter Lee and Jason A. Engle

Illustrated cardstock terrain tiles for use with the Dungeons & DragonsRoleplaying Game.

This roleplaying game accessory gives Dungeon Masters an easy and inexpensive way to include great-looking terrain in their games. This set provides ready-to-use, configurable tiles with which to build exciting encounter locations. This particular set emphasizes swamp terrain and serves as an extension to theDungeon Tiles Master Set: The Wilderness boxed set.

This accessory contains six double-sided sheets of illustrated, die-cut terrain tiles printed on heavy cardstock.

Item Details
Item Code: 317130000
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Format: Non-traditional
Price: $11.95 C$12.95
ISBN: 978-0-7869-5800-9
I think this is the first tile set I purchased where the sample dungeon didn’t require two sets.

I’d say roughly 50% of the tiles are land, while the other 50 is water or marshy areas. When I initially looked at the tiles, I was slightly disappointed because I was hoping the tiles would be darker in color and more muddy looking in appearance. However, I quickly got over that when I realized with the current color scheme, it is easy to piece together this set with previous releases of outdoor sets such as The Wilderness.

Here’s a rough idea of what tiles are included:

8×8 A dock
1×2 boat
2x raft
4×4, 4×8 bridge connecting two small pieces of land (easy to connect with larger bodies)
4×4, 2×4, 2×2 pond
2×8 (2) river
8×8 bridge connecting two pieces of land
8×8 small building on an patch of land with docks on two sides

Also included a few tree tiles, fallen logs, statues, large rocks and many pieces to create a small swampy island.

Overall, I’d say this is a really useful set. I was hoping to get more tiles for areas with water. :)

This review is pretty much in line with the original review of this product. I would add, though, that there are also several of the typical “dungeon-to-marshland” and “forest-to-marshland” tiles included, and that, as usual with WotC stand-alone tile sets (i.e. non-Master Tile sets a la “the Wilderness”, “the Dungeon”, “the City”), 6 double-sided sheets just isn’t quite enough material to make a sizeable map. Therefore, imo the set requires the purchase of a second set, such as the Wilderness set mentioned above, or a second or third “Witchlight Fens” set to really make a decent-sized battlefield. So, 4 stars from me as it is an excellent supplement but falls just short of being super.

Book Review: Dungeon Tiles – Castle Grimstead


Castle Grimstead
Dungeon Tiles
RPG Staff

Your tabletop never looked better! With this pack of customizable terrain tiles, you can add a new dimension to your Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Easy to set up and infinitely expandable, this pack allows you to create the adventures you want to play. Pick up additional packs to create larger, more elaborate encounters.

This pack contains six durable, double-sided card stock sheets of illustrated terrain, with die-cut tiles, with emphasis on castles and fortifications. Use this product and other Dungeon Tiles accessories to make great D&D encounters that enhance your roleplaying game experience.

Item Details
Item Code: 39886000
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Format: Non-traditional
Price: $11.95 C$12.95
ISBN: 978-0-7869-6039-2

 

I like the D&D dungeon tiles. I use them often in the campaign that I run and I find their modularity to be powerful for setting up interesting encounters quickly.

I got the castle grimstead tile set and loved it. It makes the game for fun and easier for the players to know how a room or area looks.. The only downside is that if I want the full castle I have to buy more than one set.

With dungeon tiles I can almost always find appropriate tiles for the situation that I’m looking for, whether it be a forest scene, swamp, desert, generic indoor dungeon, or cave system. Indoor non-dungeon scenes are a bit harder to arrange due to the lack of good wall and room tiles, though recent sets have tried to make this better.

Along comes a set that seeks to further fill one of my major problem areas – ramparts. Until now I have not had good rampart tiles. There have been a few of the 8×2 strips in previous sets that could be used to emulate castle walls, but nothing that really fit the bill well. This is where Castle Grimstead comes in.

Grimstead has rampart tiles, moat tiles, a gate tile, and tower tiles. It also has indoor tiles showing rooms such as a guard’s room (complete with weapon racks and a game of cards being played on a small table), a small throne/audience chamber, a modest dining area (much smaller than the large horseshoe table from the previous sets), entrance chamber, and a small sleeping room with three beds.

Unfortunately, most of the rooms are printed on the back side of other rooms, so there is no good way to use one set to build a castle. You effectively need to buy two sets to make a complete castle encounter unless you want to pick up and re-lay your tiles (which I find time-intensive, not to mention having to remember which tiles go where).

I’m not opposed to buying two sets, and in fact I generally do buy two copies of each dungeon tile set for exactly this reason, but I really wish that WotC would release the sets in double-quantity so that only one purchase would need to be mafe.

Aside from that, no complaints. Durability is the same as previous sets, artwork is good, theme is good, tiles are usable and of the size I want (no silly 1×1 tiles and only one 2×1 tile), and the cost is reasonable.

Here’s what you should know about these tiles:

1. As other reviewers have mentioned, these tiles are double-sided. So, you should buy at least two of this set if you want your full range of options.

2. I started out using the tile layout on the inside of the packaging as a general guide. The problem is that even if you buy two sets of these tiles, you won’t have enough rampart pieces to complete the map Wizard includes. I found that a bit frustrating (and is the primary reason I’m giving this product 4 stars instead of 5) as you really shouldn’t need to buy three sets of tiles to complete Wizard’s suggested tile layout.

If this is something that would frustrate you, I hope that you have a nice scanner, as my solution was to scan the rampart pieces that I still needed and print them out on card stock. I know that may not be an option for all of you. But for those that can do this, it saves you from spending 10 more bucks just to get a few more rampart tiles.

3. If you’re planning on having a battle inside the castle, I hope you have some other dungeon tiles to make the castle bigger. If you set your castle up like Wizard suggests, you’ll find that it’s pretty cramped quarters for 5 creatures and 5 PCs. So, you’ll likely want to add some tiles to make your floorspace a little larger inside.

But overall, the tiles themselves are pretty much what you’d expect from Wizard. Solid and with enough variety to allow for many different combos. So, very much recommended, especially if you have other tile sets to mix in with these ones. Just remember that two of these sets is pretty much a minimum, three if you want to complete the ramparts around your castle (or use the scan and print method).