July 2010 has been a bumper month for 4e releases. I’ve had to go hell for leather on my reading just to keep up. I’ve already covered the slimmer releases in Stonefang Pass and Vor Rukoth. Now it’s time to dive into the brace of hardbacks, Demonomicon and Tomb of Horrors. First, into the Abyss.
Confession time. My readers will know that I’m a returning D&Der after a long time out of sorts playing other games. Even though I’ve always kept half an eye on the fortunes of the Worlds Original Roleplaying Game, I haven’t really understood the details. Add to that the fact that I’ve traditionally always been a low level player and DM and what you get is someone that doesn’t really get the whole demon and devil thing. The cosmology I do get, that’s fine. I’m cool with the 4e version of the cosmos, I actually enjoy it and see how it’s eminently more gameable than previous attempts to rationalise the D&D worlds. But demon stuff somehow slides off my brain. Even now, I have to stop and think about Tharizdun (god right?) and Lloth (goddess yeah?) and how they live in the Abyss (home to all demons, got it) yet Grazz’t (devil turned demon?) has a home there too. Suffice to say, if it’s any type of x-loth, I’m starting from a position of ignorance.
I’ve been trying to keep up though. I’ve been on board with 4e since the beginning. Actually since before then as I devoured the Worlds & Monsters preview book a few years ago. There’s plenty on the set up there, in fact I maintain it’s a decent primer to this day. Since then there’s been an accumulation of canon that started with the first 3 core books naturally. Then there was the Manual of the Planes (my favourite 4e book) and a substantial expansion of knowledge through the Plane Below: Elemental Chaos. Dragon and Dungeon magazines have piled on the backstory even more. It’s like WotC have a major jones for all things demonic.
So imagine my horror when within the opening pages of this book, I’m confronted with the Obyriths. According to Wikipedia these guys were introduced in 2006, during my wilderness years. So I don’t feel so bad now. Trouble is, I think the authors of this reboot half expect the audience to know who or what these bad boys are. After reading the Demon Lore chapter twice, I’m still not sure who is who and what hates what. Then there’s the Queen of Chaos, the Wind Dukes of Aquaa, Kostchtchie and Oublivae to name but a few hard-to-type creatures. Again, I’ve had to do a bit of research to find out the game history of them, for instance, Kostchtchie first appeared in the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for AD&D in the early 80s. Whereas Oublivae is (I believe) new to D&D. Incidentally, she’s great stuff.
All this back story is interesting, that’s not in doubt. I do wonder how much of it is easter eggs for the old school and how much of it is actually destined to be said out loud at the table though? One of 4e’s main draws (for me) is the emphasis on playability. It can make for a dry read, and Demonicon is not that, but it does make the books more useful at the table.
Speaking of utility, there’s more in here than is first apparent. Every time you turn the page there’s a good chance you’ll run across details of skill challenges, or new demon themes, or summoning rules. Don’t fear, the crunch is here. Variable resistance gets a free upgrade if you’re interested.
I think my favourite section is the one labelled, appropriately, the Abyss. Here we get the inside story on some of the individual planes, from the Plain of a Thousand Portals, all the way down to Abysm and beyond. There’s a really evocative Roll of Abyssal Layers on p80 (opposite a fabulous image of Grazz’t and Iggwilv), that lists the names of the known layers, who’s in charge, and whether or not it gets a write up by WotC somewhere. This book does another 19 of them. Room for more then. Some of these layers are really wonderful creations that scream out for adventure. The City of Morglon-Daar is a good base for adventurers, and a great jumping off point to most other layers as it’s at the hub of the Blood Rift. Before I say more, I have to give credit to the superb cartography of Jared Blando. His maps are like ancient relics rather than modern tile based images. They exude malevolence, and invite you to pore over them for exotic names and places. Top draw.
Not every layer is a gem. Grazz’t is master of three layers and they’ve already had some time in another book so get skimmed over here. The Iron Wastes is almost deserted, for the abyss that is. I always think of hordes of tumbling demons rather than deserts and wastelands? But then there’s Abysm, two layers for the price of one, home to Demogorgon and Dagon, it’s like Lost on pcp.
The fact is, it’s never less than fascinating to read. It gets the DM juices running, and there’s mechanical back up to the ideas within so that you really can bring it to the players ready to serve. There’s a pair of fully statted out delves for you too. One in the Wasting Tower for 20th level, the other gets you into Abysm for 25th level parties. They are both of a decent standard, and serve as good starting points for you to generate your own content.
Speaking of which, the content of this book is mainly about the monsters. The last chapter, running to 60 pages, is the Demon Manual. 66 entries (sub creatures included) that run from a level 2 skirmisher (Abyssal Scavenger) to a level 33 solo (Pazuzu). Any collection of monsters is going to be hard to sum up. These run the gamut as you would expect. Some of them seem a bit ordinary (Blood demons, Fire demons) and some are brilliantly twisted (Zovvut, Wendigo, Incubus). I imagine most DMs will feverishly flick to the Demon Lords to see who’s got a seat at the top table of 4e bad guys.
There’s the aforementioned Kostchtchie. He’s a level 31 solo brute, and he’s carting around the Maul of Brutal Endings. He’s billed as the Prince of Wrath and he’s got all the hate that ever was inside of him. So much that he’s gunning for all the other demons simultaneously, and he’s actually got some chance of pulling it off truth be told. Like the other lords, there’s a longish lore section as well as a secrets entry as well as guidance for his cults and using him out of combat (yeah right).
Oublivae is a truly nasty piece of work. She’s a level 30 solo controller, and she is queen of the barrens. Her powers are flavourful and really evoke her modus operandi of isolation and hopelessness. Take her aura 10, Perish Alone, which if you start your turn there, not adjacent to an ally, you take 10 damage. 15 if she’s bloodied. Nice.
Pazuzu is the strongest in the book, on paper. Actually he’s most likely to be encountered in many games, as he’s in charge of the first layer and doesn’t mind getting involved in mortal business. I didn’t get too excited by him, but that’s mainly because he’s up against stiff competition for the epic end game. Same for Phraxas, although he’s introduced personally in one of this books delves. I was far more interested in Zuggtmoy, who’s currently merely a level 22 solo controller. The book had me at:
“Her cult’s most notable practice involves the burial of human sacrifices in the muddy soil of a bog. Left with a thin leather tube to grant it air, the sacrifice is fed a thick gruel of spore laden fungus that slowly transforms it into a fungus creature loyal to the Lady of Decay. A sacrifices muffled screams sometimes serve as a warning to those who draw too close to such a site.”
To round up: this is a miscellany, given that it’s expanding on broad brush strokes from previous books. It mostly hits the mark, and when it’s good, it’s really good. Even so, this has to be put in the unessential pile as once you’ve skimmed it, you’re not likely to reference it again, and DDI will give you the numbers you need. That said, it’s a great read, and really gives you an insight into the cosmology of the new D&D. You pays your money, you takes your choice.