Wednesday, September 29, 2010

4E Open Grave - A Review

Undead: A staple of the D&D game from its earliest days. Feared and avoided in BECMI, 1E, and 2E for their level-draining tendencies.  Hated and avoided in 3E for their level drains and immunity to critical hits and sneak attacks. Laughed at in many cases if you had a decent cleric along (Poof!). This is the 4E Big Book O' Undead Stuff, a 224 page full-color hardback published in 2009.

Overall I like this book, but I have some mixed feelings about it.I feel like I should like it more than I do. It does cover what it says it will cover, but compared to the Draconomicon it just feels less good.

It starts with about 20 pages of biology, psychology and a bit about undead cults. I am not terribly concerned about the biology of the undead so this was of limited use to me. Also the cult section is small and I felt it could have been interesting as a whole chapter on its own. Then we get 3 pages on the Shadowfell - it seems really brief, but it's alright. I still would have liked more.

Next we have 25 pages on using undead in a campaign - brief campaign outlines, skill challenges, magic rituals, artifacts - it's all good though some parts stood out to me more than others. The campaign outlines are good - I would not normally think of undead-fighting as a campaign-long theme but the ideas here are solid.

Chapter 3 is "Undead Lairs" and it is 75 pages of drop-in goodness in the form of 9 ready-made encounter sites 3 for each tier. These are short, consisting of an overview map and 2 encounters which is shorter than the ones in Dungeon Delve, but it's still useful.

Following this is almost 100 pages of new monsters, templates, and some alternate powers to give to undead monsters. Some are returning classics (undead beholder, sodden ghoul (lacedon), stench ghoul (ghast), some are cool variations on stuff we know like liches, mummies, and vampires, and some are just...weird. Fleshcults who don't like undead? Brain in a Jar? Blasphemes? Some of them just feel like they belong in a different game altogether.Brains in Jars - should those even be undead? I thought the whole point of that was to prolong life? - feel to me more like a modern-age pulp or superhero game, not D&D. I probably have a narrower vision of "D&D Undead" than some people. Some of the others are things like a pile of parts or a glob of goo that animates spontaneously as undead. I can see using those but they would probably be one-off things to encounter or maybe one time within a campaign at say a haunted slaughterhouse, but I can't see them being mainstays of a recurring campaign. One bright point her though is the famous undead section - Acererak, Ctenmir, and other famous names are given stats for 4E, and I liked them all.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good, solid book. If you're planning to run an undead-heavy campaign or even a decent-sized adventure using undead you will probably find some useful material here. I just didn't feel as inspired as when I finished the Draconomicon. That book was full of good ideas and useful monsters and bits. This one just didn't fire me up as much. Maybe I'm more of a dragon guy than an undead guy. Additionally the usefulness of this book is a step down form that one and from Dungeon Delve. A fully-statted out dragon's lair is a good thing for a DM to have. A 3-encounter monster lair or dungeon is a nice drop-in piece. A 2-encounter graveyard in need of more work, really. It seems like it's missing at least one encounter and for a themed location like a graveyard or temple, I'd push that up to 5 encounters to be truly interesting.

So for me it's not as inspirational nor is it as practically useful as the Chromatic Draconomicon. It's not a bad book, but for me personally I would have felt bad if I had paid the full $30 list price. Like a lot of gaming products the bang for the buck matters greatly to me and with this one it's just not as high as some of the other 4E books out there.

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