by Lev Lafayette
Vampire : The Masquerade
Physical Product and Preface
It is possibly the single most influential representation of undead in the history of roleplaying games and arguably the second most important roleplaying game in existence, after Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Having already produced a softcover first edition (which generated sufficient playtester feedback), the hardbacked second edition of Vampire : The Masquerade is an extremely well-produced book, tightly bound with semi-gloss paper. The presentation is extremely good as well. Pages are given an appropriate border with the right amount of white space, each page is marked with the chapter, title and page number, headings and sub-headings are clear. It is mostly presented in a serif font with two-column justification with a four page index, but an woefully inadequate table of contents that even lacks page number references.
Artwork from a book that notes a chuckle-worthy trademark of "Gothic-Punk" is to a particular style, and it does not fail to impress. Both the simple but evocative red rose on the cover by Mark Pace and Chris McDonough and the various black-and-white internal art are of a high quality, showing both technical acumen and a good sense of the representational style, especially those pieces by Tim Bradstreet. Despite several different internal artists with different techniques the overall effect does not clash, although a fair criticism is that the art is rarely contextual except when absolutely necessary, such as with sample NPCs or Clans.
The organisation of the text and writing is not entirely to my taste. The book is broken up into three "books" each with three chapters. Following a thirteen page Preface, which provides The first is "Background" material describing the setting and style of the game is fluffy detail, taking up over fifty pages. The next set of chapters, "Becoming, also weighs in at around fifty pages and covers matters of core rules, character generation, and roleplaying advice. The third set of chapters, "Permutations", at over one hundred pages, includes character traits, character development and rule elaborations, and dramatic resolution. In addition to this there is a handy twenty-five page appendix which includes some handy generic NPCs and a introductory setting and scenario. The writing style throughout is mixed; it does a fair job at expressing the appropriate style for the setting, but does so in a manner that lacks economy. Of note is the use of literary and popular culture references to illustrate a section.
The Preface really covers the core setting information; this is a book about being a particular type of monster, an ageless vampire, a member of a community that makes a great deal of effort to remain anonymous. These are not entirely the cinematic sort – they can tolerate crosses, they have a reflection in mirrors, but they do burn in sunlight. They have ghouls, mortals under their sway who have drunk from the kindred but have not been converted. Most important however is “the hunger”, the endless desire for blood and the incredible ecstasy that it brings.
The first chapter, with the title “Introduction”, covers a lengthy introduction to roleplaying with an emphasis on the storytelling aspect, and again references to the thematic considerations. It is a fairly good introduction, but overly long. Effectively the entire chapters could have been reduced to a couple of pages without losing a sense of its importance.
The second chapter, “Setting”, is what it says on the tin. The style is expressed as “Gothic-Punk”, a world like our own but that is far grimmer – much of the happiness and levity has been turned off. Of particular note are the social distinctions within vampire society and the role of a local prince, or elder vampire, that has at least nominal control over an area. Vampire society has more than its fair share of intrigue, and “the Traditions” – the most important being the masquerade (do not reveal the existence of vampires), the domain (the prince rules), the progeny (do not sire vampires without the permission of an Elder), and so forth. The traditions are enforced by the largest vampire sect, the Camarilla. Smaller sects include the rebellious Sabbat and the distant Inoccu. Another important features in the vampire setting are the bloodlines, which in a weird sort of way are sort of character class and culture (e.g,. the Brujah are rebels, the Malkavian are the insightful crazies, Toreador are bohemian artistes, Ventrue are social elites and so forth). Vampires have their share of enemies and concerns (witch hunters, government, inquisition, etc). The chapter concludes with a few pages of lexicon.
The last chapter of the first book deals with “storytelling”, which is a lengthy description and advice for gamemasters (or “storytellers” in this system). It is mainly various tools of the trade, to provide matters of pacing and intervention. The advice is sound, but rather like the first chapter, far too verbose and something that could, and should have, been completed in less pages.
By page 75 and the fourth chapter, we're finally introduced to some rules. This starts with timescales (turn, scene, chapter, chronicle). The core mechanic is based on a d10 dice pool of typically the Trait and Ability (e.g., Perception plus Alertness) against a difficulty target number, with degrees of success based on how many dice in the pool beat the target difficulty. Each die result of a '1' cancels a success, and if more '1's than successes are rolled a botch results. Whilst at first glance all this sounds fine, but more careful investigation reveals some unfortunate quirks – such as the fact that the greater the dice pool the greater the botch chance. Actions are resolved as either simple, extended, resisted, and resisted and extended. Basic options for teamwork are also provided by combining results.
The following chapter provides character creation (yes, finally). It's effectively point-buy system starting with character concept, including selection of clan, nature and demeanor (optional). A distribution of attribute points is the second step, distributed among Physical (Strength, Dexterity, Stamina), Mental (Charisma, Manipulation, Appearance), and Social (Perception, Intelligence, Wits) attributes. The same is then applied to Abilities (Talents, Skills, Knowledges), then Advantages (special power Disciplines, Backgrounds, Virtues), base scores for Willpower, Humanity, and Blood Pool, and then a distribution of free points. Of particular note in these components is the incorporation of game-setting themes (willpower, humanity, and blood pool) into the game system, and the sense of balance in a guided point-buy system.
The sixth chapter is entitled “Chronicle” and it's a Storyteller advice chapter. Whereas the previous one (chapter three) was about the art of telling a story, this one is about the art of setting up scenarios and narratives, using literary elements such as motif, setting, characters, antagonists, and scheme (i.e., planning the narrative direction). A variety of
conflict and narrative elements are provided, along with story archtypes. Again, the advice is sound, but the organisation a little sporadic and the writing is a bit fluffy.
The third books starts of with a chapter on “Traits” beginning with specialities for high abilities allowing an additional potential die when appropriate – why it was mentioned in the original rules section is perplexing. The clans are elaborated in detail, in terms of their history and attitude, appearance, organisational structure, and approach towards others. In actual character creation the jumping between this section and the fifth chapter is common, as it moves on to elaborate the meanings of various attributes, abilities, disciplines, backgrounds, and so forth. This is a utterly solid, rules-heavy chapter whose content could have been better distributed throughout appropriate sections of the book.
The eighth chapter, “Systems” covers the rules for character improvement (experience points), which are heavily based on roleplaying and heroism at the end of each chapter, and with additional points at the end of each story. There is also rules for healing for both normal wounds (very rapid) and aggravated wounds (not so much), typically those acquired from sunlight, undead attacks and so forth. A variety of sources of injury and their ratings are provided, and the resultant humanity-based torpor for the equivalent of death. Mental states are also described in this chapter with vampires being surprisingly sensitive beings and subject to frenzy through provocation. Rules are also provide for courage in the presence of fire, derangements, and creating blood bonds.
The ninth and final chapter, “Drama” again initially seems to follows the preceding Storyteller advice chapters. However in this instance there is a variety of effectively spot rules for applications of physical, social, and mental actions that can be quickly derived. Following this is an step-by-step presentation of the combat system, which follows the time-honoured tradition of initiative, attack, and damage. Appropriately the ranged and melee weapons list is quite modest. Finally the chapter gives an example of play, split between a story and game system explanation.
Conclusion and Assessment
It is not unfair to say that Vampire : The Masquerade changed roleplaying and changed it for the better. Physically it was a rock-solid piece of work; strong and attractive. It had an innovative game system and setting, added new thematic content, and provided a new emphasis from game and simulation to story. It must also be said it attracted a large influx of new gamers to the hobby by making an explicit appeal to the real world gothic-punk subculture, many of whom are still playing RPGs to this day.
The greatest weaknesses is in the organisation of the text and the text's density, especially in some of the Storyteller's chapters – it's not quite rambling but it's hardly up to an average standard. The two things mean that the style and substance ratings are lower than what they should have been, at least at the point level. Overall in aggregate this game is one of the most stylish that has ever been produced. With well above average substance as well, it stands up will to the test of time and undoubtably deserves a place on every RPG collector's shelf.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .9 (art) + .9 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .9 (product) = 5.2
Substance: 1 + .8 (content) + .4 (text) + .8 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.5
Introduction and Physical Product
GURPS Undead comes a part of a stock-standard product for the third edition line; softback, a solid glue binding, 128p, and with a good cover piece by Rogerio Vilela. The interior art includes many pieces but the irrepressible Dan Smith, with a scattering of others that supplement rather than detract from the style. The artwork throughout shows talent and creativity (the undead are always fun to draw) and are occasionally contextual - however one does get the sense that these started as "undead filler" and were placed after-the-fact. The format switches between two-column justified to single-colum with side-bars; it is a little disconcerting and probably detracts from the overall presentation.
There are six main chapters to the book, roughly of similar size. It starts with a history of the undead, followed by "dealing with the undead", then various game system mechanics, sample undead beings, sample characters, and finally undead campaigns. There is also a two page table of contents, a solid index, and recommended reading. The writing style is typical for GURPS products - a mixture of formal and informal, the occasional joke and semi-random use italics. It's not really to my personal taste, but it is not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination.
Facts, Theories, and Mechanics
The first two chapters can basically be described as 'facts and theories', with one chapter on each. The factual part is a historical and cultural overview of the undead, It starts of on a few tangential matters (funeral rites, eschatology) before delving into various cultural beliefs, covering in a rather sweeping manner the classical world, "eastern" beliefs, medieval approaches, the pre-Columbian Americas, and finally modern and cinematic approaches. Surprisingly included in its own section is various "trappings" of the undead; mummification, tombs, grave robbing, and so forth - even though these are very much culturally specific.
This approach continues in the second chapter. It starts with undead origins, giving an scatter-gun overview of cultural and fictional approaches, with a split between "the restless" (e.g., ghosts), "the willful" (e.g., vampires, liches), and "the enslaved (e.g., zombies). The same approach is taken to describe what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how does one put the damn things down.
The third chapter, "The Mechanics of Reanimation" is various theories of how the undead operate. That is, how do they come into being, what form do they take. The first section is essentially how to build your own undead by starting with a broad form-based template and adding in strengths and weaknesses after that. It is not, one must emphasise, as crunchy as a "GURPS Vehicles" for the undead, but it's sort of in the same principle – unlike that book there is more attention to providing examples of actual undead rather than just how to build them!
Mechanics, Characters, Campaigns
The fourth chapter is an application of the template system to some sample undead and sample characters. The major types receive quite a lot of detail; there's two pages of game statistics and description for the ghost, lich, shade, shadow, spectre, wight, wraith, zombie and a page-and-a-half for a mummy, revenant, skeleton, and vampire. Sometimes these are culturally clumped, so that the variety of culturally different vampires are given some extra advantages and disadvantages to the standard form - although I cannot help but be disappointed that my personal favourite, the Penanggalan, missed the cut. Various other, more unusual, forms of undead (undead animals, undead plants, undead microbes), receive significantly briefer descriptions.
Character notes (both PC and NPC) are provided in the following chapter. There are standard templates for living characters which are undead related (e.g., priests, grave-robbers, necromancers, hunters, etc), followed by various templates for undead characters (e.g., evil overlords, guardians, righter of wrongs), with suggested undead types. Obviously the "brainless" undead aren't a major feature. Also very much worthy of note are various sidebar notes which add to the various advantages, disadvantages, and skills from GURPS Compendium I, specifically for undead settings. To say the least, these are a very useful addition for clarification and elaborations.
The final chapter, campaigns, starts with the thoroughly sensible observation that the undead when present, often take a prominent role and are tied to the notion of horror. After all, they are not subtle! Campaign issues include the origins of the undead, types, power level, and interactions. GMs have to concern themselves with their quantity, location, various stories generated about them, the undead as foes (and occasional allies), and finally a few notes the use of the undead with other GURPS supplements. Again, the sidebars are very useful, discussing campaigns in a somewhat literary model including genre, mode (i.e., style), background (i.e., setting), sample campaigns, and historical motifs. Rather pleasingly, concluding with "zombies and chainsaws".
Physically attractive, a solid presentation, and well organised on a chapter level, the weaknesses in terms of style is the inability of the game to generate a sufficient sense of undead horror, and a somewhat confusing approach between contextual approaches in some chapters and the universalistic approaches in others. In terms of content, the text is a little on the verbose side, although it does cover a lot of ground, especially in terms of rules elaborations. The book is both useful in the sense of being immediately useful on the gaming table, and useful for the developing background material. Whilst it lacks panache, it is a solid product and will be helpful for GURPS undead campaigns - it does what it says on the tin.
Style: 1 + .4 (layout) + .7 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .7 (product) = 3.7
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .5 (text) + .6 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.1
ALL FLESH MUST BE EATEN
Introduction and Product
The first edition of All Flesh Must Be Eaten (AFMBE) is perhaps the most well-known roleplaying contemporary implementation of survival roleplaying game settings, perhaps mainly because of its main antagonist component; zombies. Despite some claims to the contrary, it seems that popular culture has not tired of the zombie apocalypse setting, which really kicked off with 28 Days Later in 2002 and The Walking Dead comic series in 2003. In any case, AFMBE has been a hit and because RPGs are awesome and cutting edge, was published in 1999 before the rest of the world caught up. Two of its fiction supplements (Prometheus Unwound and The Book of All Flesh) have won Origins awards.
AFMBE comes in a 232 page B5 sized hardback with good stitching. The cover art is, unsurprisingly, a bunch of rampaging zombies of average technique. Interior greyscale art is also of the same quality but almost invariably as filler art rather than being contextually bound (the sample characters are an obvious exception). Text is provided in two-columns, justified, with a serif font with boxed elements. There is little waste in white-space yet page numbers and chapter titles are also mostly clear. The table of contents is minimal, but there is a four page index. The book is written in a style that is informal without become chatty, and provides information in a manner that is lucid and fairly precise.
There are six chapters to the book and an appendix (character sheet, glossary, skill list, source material). The first chapter is setting information, 'The Dead Rise' which contains a fiction introduction and a description of what roleplaying games are about and what AFMBE is about, along with elements like dice notation etc. The second chapter, 'Survivors', is character generation, skills, and pregenerated archetypes. The third, 'Shambling 101', is the game system, including combat because there is plenty of that in a game like this. The fourth, 'Implements of Destruction', is the various personal possessions that one may find handy in the zombie apocalypse setting. The fifth, 'Anatomy of a Zombie' discusses the various ways that zombies have come into being in a setting and the final chapter, 'Worlds in Hell', provides several fleshed out examples of zombie settings.
Character generation is based on selecting a character type, determining attributes, qualities and drawbacks, skills, metaphysics, and possessions. Several pre-generated archetypes are provided for instant play. It's a point-buy system with Character Type determining the general level of competence; Norms are average types who have just that little bit of experience and grit that's allowed them to survive the zombie apocalypse., Survivors are the truly tough characters who make up the heroic protagonists of the genre., and the Inspired are those who have a touch of supernatural ability but are typically not as tough as Survivors. Character attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Perception, and Willpower with a typical range of 1-5. There are also secondary, derived, attributes for Life Points, Endurance Points, Essence Pool, and Speed. With the exception of Speed these are all notably resource characteristics which can change in play. There are some excessive break points in the Strength chart and some clunky rule twists for especially low stats to ensure that they fit in the game system, but as a whole it's fairly workable.
Qualities and drawbacks are just what one would expect that they mean, and are left with a fairly coarse definitions and a typical range of 1-3 points, positive and negative. One of the more unusual values is the 3-point quality for Artistic Talent, which also adds to a character's essence pool. There is a section on specifically supernatural benefits (e.g., Accursed, Inspiration) some of which are quite expensive and powerful. In addition to these there are skills, normally rated from 1 to 5 (at the same cost in character points in generation) but with a potential higher levels (with a graduated breakpoint at 5 in costs). Also costing a further investment are "special skills" which have an apparent intrinsic difficulty in learning (e.g., martial arts, medicine). In addition there are Skill Types, representing requisite specialisations that must be taken (e.g., Guns - Handguns) and optional Skill Specialties which provide a +2 bonus when relevant (e.g., History - Early Middle Ages), the latter of which may be taken at extra cost. There are just over sixty base skills, typically described in a paragraph or two, with occasional system use information. In addition to this, there are several metaphysical powers (Healing, Holy Fire, Blinding, Blessing) for those who run supernatural stories; understandably these do better on the system information.
For those in a hurry there are twelve archetypical characters of varying powers are provided; Athlete, Biker, Cheerleader, Detective, Goth Chick, Hacker, Police Officer, Priest, Reporter, Scientist, Soldier, and Video Store Clerk. They're fully developed characters with an often amusing personality background. These are also obviously all modern setting characters, which is a little unfortunate as one of the strengths of the basic narrative is the variety of historical settings it can be used for. I also grimaced a bit at the proposed female roles (Cheerleader, Goth Chick, Reporter); the Cheerleader really is an idiot (suitable for zombie comedy only) and the Reporter is depicted as self-centred and still wearing heels, which fortunately doesn't affect her Speed. The Goth however has the Inspired power to control the zombies; so if you're female in the zombie apocalypse, you'd better be the weirdo. All this is easily enough to change of course - the game system doesn't differentiate between male and female - but cringeworthy nonetheless.
The game system, covered in the 'Shambling 101' chapter, allows for two main resolution modes; a random (dice or card) based system, or a straight comparison of values against target numbers, which is termed "story-driven roleplaying". The random method is simply a d10 roll plus appropriate attributes and skills, modified, and if the total is 9 or more, the action succeeds (on average, roughly equal to a 'challenge' target number in the story-driven method). If the action does not have an appropriate skill, the attribute doubles. In addition, in the random method, die-rolls are open-ended with raw results 1 and 10, with additional rolls at -5 and +5 respectively and the penalty or bonus added as appropriate if it results in a negative or above 10, or, as a simpler option an additional d6-1. An outcome table gives a description of six-plus degrees of success, but with no equivalent for failures. In addition there is no equivalent for the diceless method either, although that should have been trivial to include.
One of the great stylistic elements of zombie films is people freaking out with regular and close encounters with the walking dead and the use of firearms to prevent being zombie food. Fear tests are used for the former, with a Difficult Willpower test for most charaters, and a Simple Willpower test for Inspired characters, with modifiers depending on gore and hideousness. A failed test results on with a d10 roll on the Fear Table, with a Willpower reducing effects, but with the hideousness and gore modifiers adding to it. Characters can lose Essence as a result of such encounters, and if reduced below zero they're pretty much useless or crazy.
Combat is carried out in turns of roughly one to five seconds. Turn sequence is declaration of intents, initiative (determined by the GM, or d10+Dex), actions, and damage resolution. Multiple actions are at -2 per action, including dodge. There are various spot rules for targetted shots, multiple shots, corrosives, etc. Damage is meted out in Life Points (or Dead Point, if it's a zombie), with armor reducing damage by a random amount. Weapons inflict damage multiplied by the Strength of the attacker, for melee, or by a number modified by range for ranged weapons.
There are graduated effects at seriously wounded (five or less) and unconscious (zero or less), or at death's door (negative ten). Obviously there are scaling problems with such absolute values, which may be of concern if your GM is inspired by the ideas of zombie elephants or zombie mice. There is also a short foray into vehicle and air combat rules, because running over zombies or straffing them is par for the course. The Life Point and damage range is quite high, which does suit the genre of gradually grinding down the protagonists. Overall, there's some likeable features in the combat system, but in actual play it lacks variety.
Throughout the system, random die roll are also provided with bracketed values for the diceless version of system resolution. All of them, however, make an "off by one" error per die). For example, a .357 handgun does d8*4 damage in the random method or 16 (4*4) in the diceless method. This is incorrect of course, as indices on a die start at one, not zero. The diceless method should provide, for example, 18 (4.5*2). Not a big deal? Well, when that Walker takes you out with 2 Dead Points left, just remember your grade school statistics.
Equipment, Zombies and their Worlds
Taking up about a half of the book are the three chapters for equipment, building zombies and campaign worlds. They are necessary supplementary material and as such can be described in some brevity. The equipment chapter has a strong bias towards modern settings, but does provide a very good range of items in the zombie apocalypse barter economy. Items are usually given a couple of sentences of description, an encumbrance value, a comparative cost, and a rarity rating. The equipment is broken up into electronics, medical, scientific, surveillance, survival, and miscellaneous, before breaking into everyone's favourite of melee, ranged wepons, and armour. There's also a notable selection of vehicles, from a bicycle to a Huey helicopter.
The Anatomy of a Zombie chapter is a relatively short selection of various options that a Zombie Master can add to their campaign world and scenarios. After all, there is good variety in the film and literature, and for a game there must be some means of evaluating the relative powers. Some require a head-shot to kill (classic), others are disturbingly fast, or worryingly strong, or with with the dangerous requirement to eat the brains of the living with alarming regularity. All these things make can zombie more powerful than a baseline version and as a result they 'cost' more points. For those who want every more colour and glitter to their game, there's a small selection of fantastic powers as well, including such things as x-ray vision etc.
The final chapter provides eleven zombie world settings, with a background history, specialised zombies, and a few tantalising potential story trajectories. These are all quite delightful to get the creative juices moving; one chuckles with glee at the appearance of the zombie cow in 'Rise of the Walking Dead', reaches for J.G. Ballard in the all-too-alive foliage in 'Sacred Soil', and prepares for alternate medieval history in 'Dead at 1000' or a weird war II 'Mein Zombie'. They are all excellent game-worlds, but surprisingly without a single fully-fleshed out (pun intended) scenario.
Physically it is a solid piece of work, presentable, quite readable, and reasonably well organised. AFMBE really picked an excellent time for their initial release and the authors clearly understood the style and thematic content of the genre that they picked, and they developed the main focus of the game system to suit that genre with notable acumen. The game system itself is actually fairly mainstream, (d10+stat+skill, hit target number, open-ended), but has a few unnecessary rough edges which can and do come up as issues and exploits in actual play.
Style: 1 + .7 (layout) + .6 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .7 (product) = 4.5
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .7 (text) + .6 (fun) + .4 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.5
LIBRIS MORTIS: D&D 3.x
Introduction and Product
As a 192 gloss page hardback Libris Mortis is very well-bound, with a colourful cover piece of a graveyard summoning. The contextual internal art, of colour and monochrome, is of highly variable quality although shows some notable aptitude in creativity; the bored lich is a particularly nice piece as an example. The book comes with a one page table of contents, but no index. The content is in two colum justified serif text with good use of white-space and clearly marked chapter title and page numbers in the margins. As with all books in the edition, the use of black-on-yellow chapter pages is annoyingly difficult to read. The writing also leaves a little to be desired; it is far too vebose, often chatty, and there are an unexpected number of minor typographical errors.
The content consists of seven chapters; Introduction and All About Undead (14 pages), Character Options (17 pages), Prestige Classes (16 pages), Spells (13 pages), Equipment (6 pages), New Monsters (51 pages), and Campaigns (57 pages), which are all pretty much what they say on the tin. As can be easily ascertained, this is primarily a book for new undead monsters and undead campaigns, and the review with emphasise those areas as appropriate.
For its own part, the first major chapter starts of by bringing together various definitions of the undead, and provides an excellent variant rule of 'Haunting Presences'. It also deals with the rather ambiguous issues of undead physiology and does so more as a collation rather than bringing the disparate implementations together. There is all too brief discussions on undead psychology, society, and religion although for the latter the 'Evening Glory' deity of undying love is at least interesting. The chapter concludes with various aspects of fighting undead including knowledge checks, tactics, and of course the time-honoured favourite of ability and level drains that the cold hands deal.
Character Options, Prestige Classes, Spells, and Equipment
The 'Character Options' chapter starts off with almost three score of new feats, some of which are inevitably variations on existing abilities, but are otherwise a good selection albeit with some bias toward spellcasters. There are some notes on undead in the party with the usual character classes (associated with some evocative art) and 'monster classes' for ghoul/ghast, mohrg, mummy, vampire spawn, and wight. The latter collection were not nearly as interesting as I hoped and do remind one when the game had 'demihumans' as classes.
The implementation of prestige classes are not something that this reviewer has been particularly enamoured with and the chapter dedicated to such professions is no exception. Simultaneously twee and munchkin, to their credit the seven classes have a good range and come with the usual collection of requirements, skills, and features, along with some rather useful sample characters. The bard-derived dirgesinger is probably the most interesting of the set. Alas, the additional four unded prestige classes are seriously lacking in creativity.
For new spells there is a brief check of undead related spells broken down by class and domain, then almost 60 new magical incantations related to the undead and necromancy, with a handful of others. Most usefully is a clarified and expaned version of Summon Undead and of the set Ghost Form, Necrotic Cyst, and Necrotic Tumor are quite interesting. A few of the spells are apparently reprints and reworkings from the 'Book of Vile Darkness' supplement. Personally, I still carry the torch for when healing spells were considered necromantic spells.
The equipment chapter shows some creativity; there is a small selection of various alchemical substances, several positoxins, about thirty magic items, and over a dozen undead grafts. By positoxins what is meant is poisons to the undead, prepared from holy water. The undead grafts are various bodily items that are grafted to a character for supernatural powers, like a scaled down version of the various bits of Vecna of yesteryear (alas, no Head of Vecna). Perhaps useful for a villain, or the insane, having bones of the deceased grafted into your skin as a type of natural armour is not likely to see encouraged in normal civilization.
At around fifty pages and sixty pages respectively, the Monster and Campaign chapters are central, at least in page count to the supplement. The former includes almost fifty news monsters, of which about a dozen are expressed in a template format for further elaborations and additions. In terms of Challenge Rating most fall in the mid-level range (3-7) although there is a minimal number of CR4 creatures. To be honest, a graveyard collection is not something entirely inspiring, indeed it is a little lazy. Surely Dungeons and Dragons already has enough undead monsters?
Apparently not; from the Angel of Decay to the Wheep (I kid you not) a range of living dead permutations are provided. They are presented in the style typical for the game's edition, which is quite good insofar that it provides a higher level of 'monster equality'. Most however, it must be stated, are quite unimaginative, more or less variations of well-known existing undead creatures. Yet with such a range it is inevitable that are some which grab one's attention; Atropal Scions, the stillborn godlings with a death gaze, the Desiccator, an undead water elementals (alas not repeated for the other elements and presented with downright awful artwork), and various forms of Evolved Undead and Mummified Creatures. Worth noting that there are specified three different types of undead rat.
The 'Undead in the Campaign' chapter starts off with incorporatig the undead as either monster or villainous masterminds, a disappointing and imaginately limited combination. Surely consideration can be given to involuntary undead, simply mad (rather than bad) undead, besotted lovers, or even good undead who must give heed and warning. In part some of these characterisations are provided much later under the 'Ghosts' section, but it is very strange not to count them as a thematic element.
The chapter continues with the title 'Running Undead Encounters' which in reality is several pages tactical considerations for various monsters following by a surprisingly amount of detail on the issue of incorperealness, considered necessary given widespread confusion on the issue. This is followed by the aforementioned 'Ghosts' section, which includes several sample personalities. This is followed by further elaborations and sample NPCs and monsters for liches, skeletons, vampires, and zombies. This is a good section, albeit with a limited range, providing interesting variants and can be put to immediate use in actual play.
There are, confusingly, a few sample floorplans in this section which are not actually keyed to any descriptions. Following a short and largely forgettable cults section (although with more handy NPCs), the text moves into a substantive adventure sites section which does provided detailed keyed locations. With a little bit of work and elaboration these can be easily slotted into existing campaigns and can provide a session of play. A half dozen of these are provided, varying from haunted houses to organised undead groups. This is followed by a fully-fledged adventure, 'Tarus's Banquet', which has more an early modern rather than medieval feel to it. The adventure has a good pretty much follows a well-established track of activities, but with some options for alternative developments at each temporal point.
Overall this is a fine publication. The physical product is excellent, the presentation above average, albeit marred by some questionable art and even moreso an overly verbose writing style. In terms of content, there is some excellent contributions in terms of elaboration and grounding in the opening chapters, and in the range of NPCs and adventure material in the back; the content rating however is reduced by what is effectively filler, especially in the monster section and the rather unimpressive character classes.
Other reviews, more contemporary of the publishing date, were very enthusiastic about this book and for good reason. Prior to publication, with the main exception of the Ravenloft supplements, undead in Dungeons & Dragons could be quite confusing with divergent presentation, powers, and capabilities. Libris Mortis provided a great deal of solutions to those issues, and as a result is necessary for anyone who is planning to use undead for this game edition, and recommended for those who are using other close game systems.
Style: 1 + .7 (layout) + .5 (art) + .5 (coolness) + .4 (readability) + .9 (product) = 4.0
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .4 (text) + .6 (fun) + .8 (workmanship) + .8 (system) = 4.3
OPEN GRAVE: SECRETS OF THE UNDEAD: D&D 4th ED
Introduction and Product
Following on from third edition's "Libris Mortis", "Open Grave : Secrets of the Undead" is the equivalent for 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, with Bruce Cordell notably sharing author credits in both supplements. The product is 224 pages, hardbacked and well-bound and full-colour glass pages throughout. The cover art is not exactly exciting, an undead visage, but is quite muted in tone and lacking in colour. The internal art shows a great deal of both creativity and acumen, and is somewhat contextual (yes for monster and NPC statistics which is necessary, no for most of the rest of the book). Mention must also be made of the rather attractive maps and floor plans, although they are perhaps a little too neat.
There is excellent use of white space throughout the book, with clearly marked page numbers and chapter identifiers. The book come with a single page table of contents and a two-page index, albeit limited to new monsters. The writing style is mostly formal with the occasional foray into the conversational, with a fairly good level of density, and particularly well structured (something which this particular edition of the game does well at). In terms of content there are but four listed chapters - Undead Lore (19 pages), DMs Guide to the Undead (27 pages), Undead Lairs (74 pages), and a massive New Monsters section (94 pages). The latter is a bit of a design flaw a even the table of contents indicates, it can be easily split into new undead and NPCs and Templates, with the latter taking a respectable 22 pages. As will be evident, some of the text ordering is a little awry.
Undead Lore and DMs Guide
The opening chapter deals with the origins, physiology, psychology, and society of undead and the integration of the undead into the default 4th edition campaign setting of the Shadowfell. Although starting with a trite cosmology, the origins section attempts to distinguish between animated corpses (e.g., zombies), disembodied spirits (e.g., ghosts), and the unnaturally maintained (e.g., vampires, liches) and ties undead genesis explicitly with metaphysical evil (sin, evil taints, life drain, contagion, reanimation etc). The physiology section describes what normally happens to a dead body and how the undead, through various means, minimise these effects, along with the respective abilities of different undead sense organs, circulatory systems, and metabolism.
The psychology section begins with a rejection the concept of various healing spells (e.g., Raise Dead) are part of necromancy which personally I thought added a bit of colour (not to mention historical accuracy) to the game's tradition. There is the useful overall suggestion that for those undead with personality the key element is that they are now divorced from and do not value life. A social section differentiates between the outcasts (typical for the mindless undead), secret citizens (typical), and the unusual situation of acknowledged citizens. Several pages are dedicated to two sample undead-related societies, followed by a description of the undead in Shadowfell.
The DM's Guide consists of social encounters, hauntings, undead adventures, campaign arcs, artifacts, rituals, and grafts. The first two sections are only a couple of pages each, but includes sample skill challenges which becomes a feature of the chapter as a whole. The undead adventures section includes three short descriptions, each with quest hooks to bring the PCs into the scenario. There are extended examples as campaign arcs, for varying tiers which present a potential narrative for each example. A dozen described artifacts with game statistics are provided, each with a bit of a back story and mainly within the scope of being related to the undead. The chapter concludes with two pages each for rituals and grafts, the former representing longer spell castings for particular effects and the latter, rather disturbingly, adding part of an existing undead to a host.
Taking up over seventy pages the Undead Lairs chapter is deserving of a subheading in its own right. Up to this point, the product is quite good, albeit a little hit and miss in parts. A generic lair features section is a hit, albeit mainly little bit of a brain dump with dot points on the key features that one would expect in undead lairs in a variety of settings (wilderness, urban, planar). But after this are nine fully-developed settings of a few pages, for character levels 1, 3, 6, 12, 17, 19, 23, 24, and 26. In addition to the individual lairs themselves, each are provided with multiple scenario hooks, general environment descriptions, location descriptions with challenges, full statistics for opponents, and keyed maps. Each of the scenarios is sufficiently complex and challenging to be easily make up an evening's play with a little bit of background work on the part of the DM.
The scenarios describe a variety of initial situations; the first is a group of walking dead at the local village graveyard. Another a commission from a city to deal with the periodic trouble of undead from local catacombs. Another is set in the headquarters of a former necromantic cult, and another a training and research centre operated by a lich. Perhaps most exotic of all is the high-level scenario based inside the corpse of a demigod floating in the astral plane. As a whole the scenarios are interesting, challenging, and provide plenty of opportunity for a DM to develop further. They provide an excellent structure for immediate play or campaign integration. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest they make the book by itself worth purchasing.
New Monsters and NPCs
As mentioned in other reviews there is arguably little need for an excess of new monsters, let alone undead, in Dungeons and Dragons - there is already plenty in existence and variations on these should be sufficient. If one's game is centred around "what marginal oddity will be encountered this week?" other narrative elements ought to be considered. Thus, from the outset there is some concern that over seventy-two pages are dedicated this section when there very well could have been alternatives, especially when the 'new monsters' are not exactly geographical or culturally specific.
The concerns are not misplaced. The 'New Monsters' section starts with an undead vine, then an an undead couatl, then an undead beholder and so forth. The 'Creeping Claw' is a hat-tip to 'Evil Dead' fans, and the 'Brain in A Jar', alas, is not an elaboration on the philosopher Hilary Putnam. There are variations on the standard undead (ghost, ghouls, liches, vampires, zombies etc) but most of these a relatively uninteresting. All said however, the structure for each creature is quite good, especially with the inclusion of group encounters and challenge ratings, albeit all with a significant over-emphasis on tactical considerations almost to the exclusion of all others.
Taking up a lot less space are several major NPCs, "The Undead Hall of Infamy", including time-honoured favourites such as Acererak, Strahd von Zarovich, and Vecna. Each are provided a statistic block, tactical considerations, and most interestingly related lore and difficulty levels. The section is supplemented with a two-page description of the Cult of Vecna, followed by templates for converting living creatures into undead or adapting existing undead, finally concluding with a brief description of alternative powers.
Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead is physically a very strong and attractive publication with excellent layout that is marred with some substandard textual organisation. In terms of content, the entire book can be justified by the superb chapter on undead lairs, and yet also reaches a trough with the new monsters, the former providing immediate actual play utility, the latter requiring some effort to find a justification to further add them into existing campaigns. Other sections are perhaps a little too short to provide the utility that they could have generated. Overall however it is a recommended product and especially for fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons DMs.
Style: 1 + .8 (layout) + .8 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .9 (product) = 5.0
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .7 (text) + .8 (fun) + .8 (workmanship) + .8 (system) = 4.8