Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Wizard's Cabal (Almost Final)

The Wizard's Cabal is the first sourcebook for Dave Arneson's Blackmoor. It's the third product, there was an adventure released about 4 months ago called "The Redwood Scar".

While nominally about the Wizard's Cabal, it's actually sort of a jumble of stuff, not unlike the original Blackmoor supplement for D&D. It includes background information on the Cabal (and Blackmoor itself); quite a few new magical rules (including a spell point system for arcane spellcasters, new spells, and of course, new prestige classes); a short-ish city based adventure; and a short story (along with background information on things mentioned in the story).

The first section (2 chapters, about 32 pages) is on the Cabal itself, starting with its history and indeed, the near recent (say within a few hundred years) history of the Blackmoor region itself. It seems that Blackmoor is very conducive to magic, so lots of wizards moved there. It also gives raise to lots of sorcerers. The more powerful ones decided to make themselves rulers (in typical D&D fashion, actually)

Anyway, it seems that the various magic users didn't get along with each other. So they started fighting among themselves. This went on and on for a while and the region became war ravaged.

Meanwhile, this one wizard decided to not get involved, and just kept on studying. And studying. He apparently made several breakthroughs in magic, most notably the use of a spell focus (basically a gizmo that can substitute as a spellbook and give the eschew materials feat).

One of the factions (sorcerers, as it were) fighting the Mage War decided for some reason that it would be a good idea to raze this guys hometown. And so they did. This didn't sit well with this wizard, and so he decides to enter the fray. And so he does and in a short time, he wins the war.

(This is one of those things that doesn't jibe with d20 rules - I mean, usually you don't get an increase in character ability while just sitting around and studying, and you do get stronger by going around killing stuff)

Anyway, after winning the war, he sets up the Wizard's Cabal. Basically, it's really more a guild than Cabal, since you don't join, they break your legs or worse. Also, apparently because he still held a grudge against sorcerers, they were also banned. If you were one, you pretty much either get killed or subjected to medical experiements.

Beyond that, there's some information on later wars, including Blackmoor's war of independance and invasions by the Egg of Coot and the Afridhi (humans who are sort of like the bad guys in the original Conan movie, only instead of James Earl Jones, there is an actual god and his wife, a very nasty couple, sort of like if Donald Trump & Martha Stewart were married).

And some fairly brief information on the Cabal of today, and it's main campus. (A map would have been nice).

There's about 15 pages of prestige classes. Personally, while I am not tired of d20, I am getting a bit tired of prestige classes, so if you detect any lack of enthusiasm in my description of them, well, you know why.

There's the Cabal Magister. This is a fairly simple 5 level prestige class for Cabal wizards, basically they just get a few exra perks. For one, "Magister Spellcasting", which lets him count all caster characer levels for his arcane spellcasting, not just one. For instance, if he had a few levels of Cleric, those would count towards the total.

Then for the more physical types, there's the "Inquisition Hunter", which is sort of like an arcane version of the Ranger. For the sneaky types, there is the "Inquisition Spy" (the illustration for this is rather amusing, sort of a fantasy James Bond guy).

The "Profector" seems to be a prestige class for the "Arcane Warrior" core class from Blackmoor. They are basically even better at hunting down rogue spellcasters than normal Arcane Warriors. There's something of a "CSI: Blackmoor" component to them as well, as "Autopsy" is a special ability.

The most detailed prestige class is the "Researcher". Basically it's like a suped up Loremaster, but in exchange for the additional abilities, they give it a non-stand base attack bonus progession (+3 at 10th level) which is generally considered a no-no. They get to pick a lot of special abilities from several lists depending on what they want to specialize in. It's also implied somewhat that these are the people who do the experiments on the rogue spellcasters/sorcerers they catch.

Lastly is the "War Wizard". As you might guess, they are wizards who are good at fighting, not so much with weapons, but with offensive spells. Interestingly though, they get both evasion and improved evasion, which means they are also quite good at avoiding damage from spells (at least spells that allow a reflex save).

The new skill and feat chapter is fairly short. For some reason, the authors thought it would be a good idea to introduce 3 of the skills from d20 Modern into D&D, Navigate, Investigation, and Research. The descriptions are different, but the rules themselves are straight out of the d20 Modern SRD.

Many of the feats are basically the +2 bonus to 2 skills variety (many involving the "new" skills) and most of the rest aren't that remarkable.

8 pages describes a fairly simple spell point system. It includes rules for any sort of arcane spellcaster to use (Wizard, Sorcerer, Bard, plus Blackmoor's own Arcane Warrior and Wokan classes).

Basically it works like this: A spell costs a number of spell points to cast equal to its spell level. So a 3rd level spell would cost 3 points and a 7th level spell 7 points. Metamagic can also be used, and basically the same way. If a metamagic feat would increase the spell level by x, then the spell costs an additional x points.

As near as I can tell, the number of spell points a caster gets was determined by reversing the process and applying it to the spells per day chart for each class (and 0 level spells contributing 1 point).

Beyond that, to order to cast it successfully, the caster has to make a spellcraft check. The DC for this check depends on a combination of the caster's spell focus (a magic rock) and the level of the spell.

While I'd have to use this spell system extensively to make any true judgement of it, I can seem some potential problems. First off, it seems boost the power of spellcasters. For instance, a 1st level wizard gets 4 spell points. That means he can cast 4 1st level spells. Compare that to the normal wizard, who can cast 3 0-level spells and 1 1st level spell. Quite a difference.

Now it's true that because of the spellcraft skill check, he might not be able to cast all 4 spells a day. But that leads me into my next problem with it. It favors wizards over sorcerers too much.

True, sorcerers get more skill points. But since they have to make a spellcract skill check, they will be able to succeed at casting even less often than a wizard. For one basic reason - a Wizard's casting attribute is Intelligence, while a Sorcerer's is Charisma. Intelligence also happens to be the attribute that modifies the number of skill points a character has (thus allowing a Wizard to be better at Spellcraft), it's also the attribute for Spellcraft (and so a wizard gets to add his Intelligence bonus to his spellcraft check).

So basically, this system gives the Wizards all the benefits of a sorcerer (spontaenous spellcasting) with no real downisde, other than a 5% spell failure (because while they will almost always make the spellcraft check, if they roll a 1, it's still failed)

Furthermore, it allows the spellcaster to spit out a lot more high level spells than he should. Sure, it's at the expense of low level spells, but often one high level spell is much much better than lots of low ones. And higher level spellcasters often don't use all their spells a day as it is.

Included is a low level adventure related somewhat to the Wizard's Cabal. It's more investigative than anything else - going around and talking to people.

Basically a cabal wizard has lost his precious spell focus and so is largely helpless without it. He hires the PCs to get it back for him. It's also something of a two parter - he is in town hunting down a sorcerer, and presumably the PCs will do that for him, too, the cabal wizard NPC just pretty much being useless, period.

So presumably the PCs go to the crime scene and start talking to witnesses. This is actually well done, the NPCs have fully fleshed out personalities and vivid descriptions. (I would give an example but the descriptions are actually too long for me to type in quickly. Which is great, I think). Eventually they get enough clues to find both the missing focus and find the sorcerer, though the latter is pretty easy.

Later on, NPC names get a bit silly, often being aliterative. Zoejee Zackerway, Siggnafter Sillias, Ligmy Loterman, Socryt Sasimeyer, etc, etc, etc. Which really only works for porn stars.

It's apparently one adventure from the "Blackmoor: The Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game", which is basically their version of "Living Blackmoor", games run at cons. Apparently there are 12 others, but apparently unavailable unless you are a member.

The last 30 pages or so is a short story set in Blackmoor, along with game information based on the story. The story tells a tale of "Col, the Clockwork Inquistor", who to my mind seems cut from the same cloth as Drizzt. (But so is his opponent in the story, Garotte the katana wielding half-orc assassin) so you can guess how the story ends).

It's actually not a bad story. But the praise for it in the introduction is quite a bit over the top, basically 3 paragraphs saying how great a story it is. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think a product should praise itself. Especially not that much. Being a contrarian by nature, after the slobbering introduction, I was expecting to dislike it, but it's good for game fiction.

It's sort of an odd looking book. The focus was apparently trying to fit as much into the book as possible over looks, so the margins are basically non-existant and there is very little white space.

The text is two column, but for some reason has an unusual amount of words broken up by a hyphen. There are more than a few spelling mistakes and typos, I think it could have been proofread a couple more times and in some places I think the text needed some polishing.

Most of the artwork is sharp, but a few items are very very pixelated. The artistic quality of
the art is generally quite good, though the book uses quite a few different artists, so there is something of a clash in style.

One picture really strikes me as odd, but odd in a wonderful way. Have you ever imagined what Disco Stu (a minor character on The Simpsons and also the inspiration for my screen name on most website) would look like if he were a hobbit*? Well, except for the glasses, there is a dead ringer for him in the illustration for a magical ritual (I think that's what it is supposed to illustrate). Perm, medieval-ized disco outfit, and he's even dancing.

* Blackmoor halfings are basically hobbits, right down to their "fuzzy-wuzzy toes" as Leonard Nimoy might sing. (That song might have worked better as a disco song, anyway. Though in that case, Uhura would probably have to sing it. Or maybe Sulu...)

It's not really a bad book, but to me it seems a rather odd choice for the first sourcebook. While I don't run Blackmoor right now, I plan to as soon as I get the Wilderlands boxed set (I plan on combining the two, as they mesh fairly well) and I've been trying to decide on what rules I want to use in it. I probably won't be using anything from this book. I don't mind spell point systems, but the one in this book seems too powerful and essentially screws over the already screwed Sorcerers. If wizards can now spontaenously cast, then what's in it for sorcerers? (Except a few more spell points)?

Besides much of the mechanics, I have to say I find the whole magical inquisition thing repugnant. I hate to be that blunt, but that's probably the nicest way of putting it. The idea of a secret group of people hunting down people who happen to be born a certain way and either killing them or subjecting them to horrible medical experiments is just not something I want to have in a game. While that sort of thing has happened in real life all too often, it just turns my stomach.

Given much of the source material in this deals with the inquisition in one way or the other (the adventure partly deals with tracking down a sorcerer, while the "hero" of the story is an inquisitor), I ate quite a few Tums while writing this review. At least the adventure gave the option for the PCs to not fight the sorcerer (but not to fight him, then actually let him go upon learning his life story by reading his diary (though he wasn't particularly nice, either, he doesn't seem to have done anything wrong, either, and has been wronged by the Cabal).

History/Cabal info: B- (needed more hard info on the guild, and a map of their HQ, not just descriptions of some of their most famous rooms)

New Rules: C- (broken prestige class, pointless skills for D&D, decent if somewhat overpowered spell point system)

Adventure: B+ (lots of role-playing, good NPCs)

Story: C+ (Okay, but the two main characters are too Drizzt-y).

So call it a C, overall. The book is full of stuff, but rather than being "meaty" a lot (especially the fiction) seems like filler (or bun), and it doesn't help the adventure was recycled from their con game, so it gets a 3 for substance. And for style, as much as I loved the discoing hobbit, the book reminds me of some of the early Mystic Eye releases, somewhat amateurish looking. (Which is odd, since the two previous Blackmoor releases are quite professional looking). And the text has quite a few mistakes, including things that would have been caught by a computerized spellchecker (including often using "sorceror" instead of "sorcerer". But not always). So style gets a "2", needs work.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Power Whatzit Review up at

Could the name of the product be any longer?

The Power Gamer's 3.5 Wizard Strategy Guide
(The 100% Official Guide to Kicking Monster Butt and Winning the Game)

Thursday, November 03, 2005


My geocities site has been updated...