Monday, August 13, 2012

Augury – Wicked Fantasy series

Wicked Fantasy started as series of articles for Kobold Quarterly. On each article, author John Wick would propose an alternate version of a Pathfinder Core Race. Humans, elves and dwarves would get an “Ecology of…” article, but rewritten as something completely different from their standard/traditional roles. Those Kobold Quarterly articles were provocative and made you think beyond the usual rules and flavor.

John Wick expanded on each original article, starting the Wicked Fantasy series. This review is based on the PDF versions of the The Reign of Men (Humans), Children of Pain (Orks), Seeming Servants (Haffun), Guardians of the Wood (Elves) and For the Pack (Gnolls).

Before delving further, one last observation: John Wick’s material is renowned for having a strong “author’s voice”. Wick also enjoys creating fictional languages and a long series of alien words. If you don’t like it, stay away from Wicked Fantasy. If you’re a fan of traditional mechanics, this series might also disappoint you, particularly because the author’s tastes to mix mechanical bonus/penalties with roleplaying elements – a design approach many find unsuited to Pathfinder/D&D.

Ok. Enough background. To the PDFs.

“Physically” speaking, each product is a 26-34 pages color PDF. The text is edited in a two column format, and the pages’ background is beautiful. The art is rare and usually of average quality.

To our first ebook: The Reign of Men.

Humans here are described as the oldest race of the Known World. Ancient, proud, brave, passionate, cultured and intellectual. They don’t follow or honor the Gods, but the human spirit itself. Philosophers occupy the role usually reserved for priests and democracy is the chosen form of government. Think about a fantasy (and modernized) view of the Classic Greek ideals and world. It’s quite a change of pace, but a refreshing one and I really enjoyed these “new” Humans. They’re really unique.

Mechanically speaking humans now are good with teamwork feat and rally-like mechanics, gaining lots of racial traits and feats geared toward these effects. The Reign of Men describes 2 new domains (Humanity and Philosophy) and 2 new archetypes (Philosopher and Palatine).

The Reign of Men also details the Human’s greatest cities and gives general hints about the Known World.

Next PDF: Children of Pain.

Here we get our new Orks (with “k”). Flavor- and mechanical-wise this is definitely my favorite Wicked Fantasy so far (though I have high hopes for the Dwarves’ PDF). The idea behind Children of Pain is simple but awesome – imagine if the orcs, creatures breed to serve dark gods, eventually got tired of their lot and (literally) killed their deities. This is exactly what happens here. Finally free of their servitude and red rage, the Orks are slowly adapting as a full race. However, changing one’s nature is hard and the Orks are essentially creatures marked by pain. Today, through their blood shamans, Orks kind of “worship” Pain – not as something evil or that should be inflicted upon the world, but as force to be endured to make oneself stronger.

Children of Pain’s take on the Orks is interesting, from the “reskinning” of the race and some classes (specially the blood shamans, an oracle archetype), to entire new elements, like the whole idea of “orkfriends”. Most abilities (like feats) deal with the idea of pain and grant bonus in exchange of damage. It’s something hard to balance mechanically but the authors make it workable (if not fine-tuned). There are also rules for scars, god blood, a barbarian and bard archetypes, among other stuff.

The little ones: Seeming Servants.

This is the PDF about the “new” halflings. It was also the first article presented in Kobold Quarterly. John Wick took a really new perspective on halflings, while ironically keeping their initial flavor. No cannibal, otherworldly or kender-like halflings here. No sir, the Haffuns are true Hobbits, but with a clever twist – they’re the perfect servants. Think of an entire race dedicated to serve others and to understand someone’s inner desires. 

While the fluff here is terrific, the mechanics are a bit odd for me – especially the new base class: the Butler (yes, you play Alfred).

Now for the (likely) favorite of everyone: Guardians of the Wood.

These are John Wick’s elves (no, unfortunately not those elves). Elves in the Known World are creature literally bound to nature – their rulers are bound to the immortal Great Trees, their nobles to other trees, while their servants are bound to the soil. Each type of elf gets distinctive mechanical benefits that fit perfectly with their flavor.

There’re also rules for elves whose trees were destroyed or who’re iron-bound – severed from their tree-connection by iron shackles or chains. Before you ask: yes, there’re also “dark elves” and they’re excellent! Guardians of the Wood is probably the Wicked Fantasy product where Wick better mixes setting with mechanics.

There’re new feats, racial traits (lots of them), 4 new archetypes and a new prestige class. The Summoner archetype is the best “reskinning” of the class that I’ve seen.

For the Pack is the Gnolls’ PDF.

I had really high expectations for this one. Gnolls are so classic and well-known by now that they deserved to be made into a full (flavor-wise) PC race. This product was a wonderful opportunity to make justice to the “Beastmen”. Unfortunately what we get is a pseudo-wolfmen race (though I liked the Seven Moons part).

To make things worse, the mechanical aspects of For the Pack are overly complicated because they presupposes that gnolls spent 99% of the time moving in packs (even adventurer gnolls). There’s even a feat for buying more gnolls to your pack. While the idea is great and offers the chance for troupe-style adventures in Pathfinder, I found the rules lacking. For the Pack deserved to be a bigger product, with the page count necessary to properly address the complexities of integrating a pack mechanic do d20.

Definitely the most curious and interesting aspect of For the Pack is the setting, where its revealed that the Known World has seven moons.

What’s the augury?

Wicked Fantasy is a refreshing idea and John Wick is the perfect author to engage you – it’s hard to stay neutral to his material. Even if you don’t like his halflings or elves, each PDF gives excellent ideas.

I just wished John (and those that are helping him) had a better grasp of the Pathfinder mechanics. The Reign of Men don’t use complex rules – theoretically humans here are good at aiding others and working in teams – but the author’s implementation of rallying mechanics is a bit off (for me at least). Actually most Wicked Fantasy PDFs have strange bonus progressions for racial traits and feats. For the Pack is really bizarre on its mechanics.

One aspect that I liked about the whole series is that it uses a common (implied) campaign setting. This is really cool, especially given the fact that is easy to ignore the Known World and adapt the “wicked” races to your own setting. Another thing that I enjoyed was the cultural characteristics of each race – they felt really unique, different and engaging. Actually, these different traditions, secrets and taboos are perfect for running campaigns where the PCs are foreigners.

Of all the PDF, I felt that The Reign of Men and For the Pack were the weakest. The former adds little (of useful) to the original Kobold Quarterly article, while the later is just too difficult to use without resorting to an “all gnolls” campaign. Seeming Servants is good, though the new mechanics aren’t all that useful (like the Butler class). Children of Pain and Guardians of the Wood are top-notch material, with excellent flavor and interesting new mechanics. I recommend both with gusto. Each PDF costs $5.00.