Thursday, May 24, 2018

Go and STAHP!

So, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is, as I’m sure you’ve heard, like that Volo’s book but different. Where Volo’s was more “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood,” Mordenkainen’s is a 30,000-foot view of the default multi-dimensional politics of D&D. The first section is the Blood War.

Now, straight up, the Blood War is one of my least favorite bits from Planescape. It’s just not that terribly compelling to me. It’s an endless, eternal war with no real prospect for major movement, forget climax. The way it’s described in Mordenkainen's makes it clear that, should either side actually achieve any serious victory, it could very well cascade into a rolling series of conquests that result in the end of everything, everywhere.

This is perfect if your game is all about the PCs trying to prop up the status quo by running around putting out little fires. To me, it feels way too much like Joss Whedon stomping on your face with the “Reprise” episode of Angel forever. Anyone who scratches at it even a little will see the nihilism-filling under the candy shell. It’s the antithesis of everything in Rients’ Broodmother Sky Fortress. If your idea of a good time is unleashing the PCs on your poor, unsuspecting worlds and watching them actually change things and knock stuff over or build their own stuff, the Blood War could serve as the outer bounds of that sandbox, but it threatens to become a wet blanket to smother the whole thing.

Even worse, it takes WotC something like 2,000 words to basically say that the demons and devils are engaged in near-constant warfare on the banks of the river Styx, primarily where it flows into the first layer of the Hells. The war is trapped in a deadlock where vast hordes of ravening demons smash against the highly organized and disciplined defenses of the devils. Both sides scour the multiverse for a way to break the impasse, thus creating all manner of opportunities for PCs to thwart cults, treasure-hunters, etc.

That up there is less than 100 words and gives you just about everything in the 2,000 words from the book. Paying writers by the word is a sickness that needs to be stamped out.

Now, we do get some fun stuff on demonic and devilish cults, the big personalities of the Hells (which is new for 5e) and the Abyss (which is largely lifted from the Out of the Abyss adventure) as well as fun random tables for creating cults and the like. Lots of useful stuff here for DMs, especially if you’re running a sort of PC-Inquisitors-vs.-Cults-of-Evil campaign. There are ways to customize cambions based on who their otherworldly parent was. We also get some tiefling sub-races based on the heavy-hitters from the Hells. Alas, there’s nothing in there about Abyssal tieflings. Boo!

The section on elves is probably the most useful for players. It’s nearly 30 pages long and gives us what may be the most Tolkien-esque version of D&D elves to date. It’s laced through with that melancholy sense of doom, this time cast as family drama, with the elves eternally longing for the acknowledgement and acceptance of a father who never really wanted them and can’t set aside his jealousy long enough to forgive them for wanting something he had no interest in giving them or helping them acquire. (Seriously, everyone comes out of this looking like self-centered jerks.) We get a nice big elven pantheon, and then we get new elven subraces, including sea elves, shadar-kai, and yet another version of the eladrin (this one kinda being four sub-races in one, as your eladrin character can shift between four seasonal versions depending on their general mood that day).

This is followed by shorter sections on the dwarves (including the duergar subrace), the giths (including playable versions of both gith-kind and an excuse for gith of both kinds to cooperate temporarily), and finally a section on halflings and gnomes (including rules for the sverfneblin sub-race).

This stuff could be nifty-keen if:

  1. Your DM reads this stuff and agrees that it describes how it works in your campaign, and…
  2. Your players read this stuff and incorporate it into how they play their characters.

The shortest of these sections is 12 pages long. There was a time when I would have read these entries with the obsessive eye for detail of a medieval scholastic. But that was junior high, and I was weird. For most of us, we might incorporate some of the sub-races listed here, as well as some of the fun random tables. Otherwise, there’s a lot of stuff that you might read once and then promptly forget.

In spite of all that, if you’re a DM, you want this book. Why? Because it has some of the best monsters ever officially produced for the game. The very first monster, the allip, is what happens to a scholar who learns cursed knowledge. The only way to escape the curse is to basically infect another scholar with a manic episode in which they scribble out all manner of nonsense that also includes the secret that cursed you. Flip the page (past the Astral Dreadnaught) and you find the balhannoth, a teleporting tentacle monster that uses illusions of your deepest desire to lure you into its traps. There’s the boneclaw, the result of a botched attempt to transform into a lich and which bonds with someone with “an unusually hate-filled heart.” They might not even realize they now have a talon-fingered undead slave eager to fulfill their most blood-curdling revenge fantasies, resulting in all manner of Carrie-esque hijinks. The cadaver collector is an automaton that spears corpses on itself and then raises the spirits of those corpses as specters in combat, which alas is mildly overshadowed by the more versatile corpse flower which kills you before adding you to the flower-like arrangement of corpses in its tangles, which it later uses to power its magical abilities.

And that’s just the first handful of pages from the bestiary. It doesn’t include the various sorts of deathlock, warlocks who have gravely offended their patrons and paid the price, or the alkilith, demonic fungus that grows in broken windows and open doorways, transforming them into portals to the Abyss. We also get the duergar hammer and screamer, mining machines with punished duergar strapped inside, which feed on the pain of their tortured occupants. There are the very Harryhausen eidolons, guardian spirits that animate sacred statues. There are the elder elemental kaiju, and the trapped-in-armor elemental mamluk myrmidons. We get horror-movie-esque baddies like the giant nightwalker and the body-snatching oblex. We get wargamey ogre variants: battering-ram, bolt-launcher, and howdah. We get some interesting variations on old favorites. The retriever is now a drowish automaton that scours the Demonweb for demons to enslave. Grue are now a version of the star spawn, cthulhuish monsters analogous to demons or fey. The grey render is the very embodiment of Kiel’s “Good Boys.”

Alas, the failings of the first part of the book do intrude in the bestiary. This shows up most strongly in the devil and demon entries, most of which read like units for a wargame. Still, there’s a ton of fun stuff for DMs in the monster section. If you’re a player, you can probably give this book a pass, especially if your DM uses bespoke settings and will allow you to use the Unearthed Arcana versions of the sub-races in this book.


JB said...

Wow. I am definitely not the "target demographic" here...nothing about this sounds interesting or appealing.

[but thanks for writing the review!]

trollsmyth said...

JB: Happy to dive on that grenade for you. ;) But more seriously, I assume there are folks who will just eat up what WotC is serving; I can see my 14-year-old self being excited by large swathes of this. I used to read DRAGON magazine cover-to-cover, too, even stuff that wasn't for games I played. But then, DRAGON articles tended to be rather short, so maybe that's a difference?