Champions of Darkness
Authors: Beth Bostic, Carla Hollar, Tadd McDivitt
Chapter One: Creating the anti-hero
OK, where do I start ? With my ending note, I guess it will say it all: 1 on 5. Simply avoid this product. It pain me to be that hard, as I didn't say that often for any product of the Ravenloft line (the other being Forged of Darkness). The concept idea behind the book is good, but in the end, unfortunately, it has numerous important flaws… In short: overpowered and out of place villains (Sheriff VZ) and weird PRCs.
Chapter One: Creating the anti-hero - Prestige classes
In general, the PRCs are strange, in the sense they are proposed as PC option, but really I do not see a PC being propagandist or mesmerist… First comment: these PRCs should be mainly for NPCs, and not at all for PCs. Did we need more PRCs is another question. Twelve new PRCs in this book is way too much and looks like filler; 4 or 5 well-made and neatly designed PRCs would have been enough.
Chapter One: Creating the anti-hero - New feats
The good: Brawler, Deadly Presence, deathly Pallor, Dirge of Woe, Ethereal Touch, Piercing Gaze, Unwholesome Ichor
Chapter Two: Patrons
The good: return of Carnival (however way too short and bland!), Freeman of Falkovnia, l’Académie des Sciences
While innovative (and we appreciate people taking risks), the concept goes nowhere … "The primary duty of the OotEG consist of ferreting out and executing any member of the Kargat found in Barovia" (and other darklords spies as well). Where does that comes from, a Kargat menace in Barovia ? Perhaps in the time when Barovia and Darkon had a common border, but that's not since a very long time! We know Strahd hates Azalin, but Strahd has much more to do with the Gundarakites then with Kargat!
First, here's a major continuity problem with the Gazetteer 1 Barovia text, where no mention of the OotEG is ever found (and that is for good reasons). Second, this Order is absolutely unnecessary, as I don't think Strahd could care less about the Kargat while Gundarakite are leading open rebellion against him. Third, it is absolutely out of character for Strahd to surrender his duty to an Order of highly visible (black lacquered gargoyle plate), unsubtle thugs. Four, the Town of Forgotten Whispers as a secret training camp where you get teleported and where food and supplies is also teleported ? No, I don't think so… This is not Forgotten Realms!
My advice: put the Ebon Gargoyals in Falkovnia. Drakov would be a better choice for this gang of thugs.
Chapter Three: Who’s Doomed ?
The good: The return of Jander Sunstar!
Why ? Strahd would never do such a thing. First, Strahd isn't control obsessed, like Azalin is. If his people fear him, he feels good. He doesn't care about what they think as long as they behave. The only thing that interest Strahd are his search for the blonde girl and his magical research. The rest is accessory or something that distract him from his interests. Second, he got the vistani for spying! Third, continuity: Barovia is a backwoods domain ruled quietly by Strahd. He had 400 years to implement a police. He didn't and left all day to day to his local burgomeister. He intervened only when these could not maintain calm. I just don't see Strahd as changing his mind now. IMHO, Strahd "has other things to do". Four, Strahd has a history of quickly and successfully erasing any threat. Why would he now have to rely on a Sherriff ?
Chapter Four: The Campaign in Darkness
In conclusion, unfortunately one of the most flawed Ravenloft product ever. Consider it uncanon! I'm sorry to the authors for being harsh, but, really, in my humble opinion, the setting continuity flaws in this book are major!
John W. Mangrum
Well, the first problem with the "Sheriff" is that he's extraneous -- he essentially fills a role already filled by Vasili van Holst (I hope I'm remembering that name correctly), Strahd's "representative" when he doesn't want to be seen as being personally involved. On top of that basis they've laid aspects of the (purposely) overtly brutal and faceless Talons of Falkovnia, so this one character manages to bleed away distinctive elements of two domains.
Another problem is the Gargoyles -- presented as being an army created to root out the Kargat. Azalin has about 200 Kargat, total, and considering that their primary purpose is to grease the wheels of Darkonian law, at most, maybe, half of them may be posted beyond Darkon's borders. In the end, it's probably highly generous to assume that there's more Kargat in Barovia than you could count on one hand. Rooting out five guys requires an army? And if so, why not use, say, the army? Barovia does have one...
But the question is how to make the Sheriff and the Gargoyles fit into Barovia's atmosphere. Well, at the very least, I would look up the correct name for a "sheriff" in a country with Barovia's territorial system. I also have no idea why the guy's named "von Zarovich." As for the Gargoyles, there was a secret society that served the same role in Andrew Wyatt's original draft of the Barovia gazetteer -- a covert group of giorgio informants who kept tabs on their neighbors in return for payoffs. Same goals, but with the added bonus of subtlety in a domain of subtleties. Sadly, I cut the group (in my role as shadow developer), primarily due to space, but also because I felt that Strahd already had an extremely effective network of spies who could cross borders for him -- they're called the Vistani. However, in 20/20 hindsight, knowing that the concept of a giorgio secret spy ring in Barovia was inevitable, boy did I make the wrong call. I have, honestly, felt bad about cutting out Andrew's good idea, inadvertantly making room for a bad idea, ever since.
I don't remember the name of Wyatt's group, but I'll check when I get home from the office. I think it was the Vespertines, come to think of it. Even the name was more thematically appropriate. (Andrew Cermak: It was the Vespertine. I remember because I've always felt that name was cool as hell)
Here's another problem with the Sheriff and the Gargoyles -- outlawing sale of the Vistani remedy is actually counter-productive to Strahd's goals. Strahd's many things, but stupid isn't one of them. As it is, the ring of fog encasing the Svalich Pass creates a natural chokepoint for trade and information. For now, the Svalich Pass is the only route through the Balinoks; the mountains to the north and south are exceptionally treacherous, without a single reliable secondary route to fall back on (at least since the severing of the Timori Road). As it is, going through the Village of Barovia is onerous but not outrageous. Everyone who wants to go through Barovia has to pass through the fog, be they trader carvan or adventuring party. To get out, they have to deal with the Vistani -- and the Vistani report all their dealings to Strahd, as part of their pact. End result: Strahd knows exactly who's snooping around.
Now, we have Strahd outlawing sale of the remedy. This would not be difficult to enforce -- just have some wolves and bats hang out near the gates and watch for giorgios trying to get out. So, giorgios quickly figure out that there's no way out of the Svalich Pass for them. No way out at all. The Svalich Pass has now been severed as effectively as the Timori Road. Just as is happening up north, it becomes worthwhile for others in power to find new ways around the Balinoks that bypass Strahd and his fog entirely. This path would either have to carve through the Barovian Balinoks or, possibly, cut through the extreme southern lowlands slipping between Kartakass and Hazlan along the razor's edge between Forlorn and the Dead Hills.
Unlike the north, there's no conveniently located superpower with the will and ability to create that new road, but it *would* happen eventually, what with the relationship between necessity and invention, after all. In the long run -- which, as a centuries-old vampire, Strahd would certainly be looking at -- he loses his chokehold entirely. Having severed the route passing literally under his shadow, he no longer gets the trade (less trade means less taxes means less coin in his coffers means less soldiers and magical experiments), and he loses an extraordinarily convenient way of spying on roaming do-gooders.
And he ticks off the Vistani, since he denies them their ability to collect the "captive tax."
It's just ill-considered, and that's before we get into the high-magic town of lebendtod and whatnot.
I agree with what some other posters have said -- from what I'm seeing, among the people who do use the Sheriff, what most of them actually seem to like about him are actually the new ideas they've created to make him palatable -- they're giving the book credit for the product of their own imaginations.
I have always been an avid Ravenloft buyer. Without too much thinking I wandered into the local Hobby shop and picked up a bunch of RL books. Later, I took that trend to On-line shopping. Most of the times it was a good buy (Forged of darkness being the biggest exception), and I was always happy with the products. Until Champions of Darkness.
The book is dedicated to those heroes that willingly or unwillingly do bad things for a greater good. In the eye of the authors, these characters will eventually become bad guys, thus becoming the anti-hero. I thought that by definition, Ravenloft is full of anti-heroes. Gothic horror is filled with them. Most often than not, the PCs will be anti-heroes. Although he has some of the personality flaws and ultimate fortune traditionally assigned to villains, he also has enough heroic qualities or intentions we can relate to, and still be the hero at the end of the day. So, do we really need a book for playing and DM-ing the anti-hero character? No, not really. It is the very essence of the setting to have anti-heroes. It’s in the very essence of us to act like anti-heroes, most of the time. That’s why we can relate. That’s what Ravenloft is about.
Was I expecting something else from this book? Yes, the title told me something completely different as what lies inside, and even then it disappointed me entirely. What it turned out to be a book about fallen heroes rapidly becomes a book with no clear theme at all. The authors explain, that it is the job of the DM to “lure” the characters to make “the wrong decisions”. They say that, once the players take the bad road, they will inevitably fall to the dark powers, and eventually new Darklords will arise. I think this kind of DM-ing could easily turn into, The DM-against-the-players kind of game, which I find it to be completely wrong. As I read the book I wondered many times, what were the authors trying to achieve with the book? Clearly they had an idea about what they wanted to do, but they got confused in the process trying to insert too many ideas over a theme (Anti-heroes) that doesn’t need much explanation. The result is a bad and close to useless sourcebook.
The first chapter presents new prestige classes, a lot of them, but none of them of great use. Some serious questions arise when you go through this section. For instance, why the Nightmare court does not affect the Dreamcaster prestige class? Why use curses as a weapon (!)? Why do we get a Solitary Outcast prestige class for PCs, when all players go around adventuring in groups? Why add a Darklord avatar (Night Lord) prestige class? Many of the prestige classes presented here are only applicable to NPCs. But I wonder, why should an NPC have a prestige class, when I as a DM, can do just about anything with my campaign world? I have complete control over my NPCs and they can be just about everything I want them to be. Why should I restrict himself to a Prestige class for NPCs?
Chapter One also includes new feats. I am not a big fan of feats, but this time there are two that caught my attention. The Tarokka natural feat, which lets you, read Tarokka for free. As if the Vistani didn't have their hands full with problems, they now have to compete with some Vistani wannabes that read and own a deck of Tarokka cards. Not to mention the nightmare it can for the DM, having charcters that will use this ability everytime they feel like it.
The other one is called Tantric Ability, which states that you can have, err…. sex with someone and make him/her suggestible to your will for a certain period of time. Essentially making him/her your sexual slave. Who needs this feat for a game??
The second chapter refers to new secret societies or Patrons for would-be bad guys. We get five groups; most are mediocre, but suitable to introduce the new character classes to your game. Carnival is back, but is presented in such a poor way, that the information is next to nothing. They managed to squeeze the 2nd Ed 64-pages book into three pages. It’s a shame, that one of the best accessories for Ravenloft 2nd Ed has been completely destroyed for 3rd Ed. The other groups are okay and a few do not add anything new to the game. Especially, The Order of the Ebon Gargoyle, whose concept and purpose are completely out of place for any campaign.
The third chapter gives us a group of anti-heroes, which embody the character classes given in the first chapter. One good thing about this chapter is the inclusion of Jander Sunstar, the famous elven vampire. Other than that, it’s a collection of characters that you cannot relate to, some are silly like “Baron Morte (Baron Death??)”. Others are unoriginal, namely Estiban, the Gentleman Rogue, (whose name is so similar to the Gentleman Caller). Others are just plain bad, i.e. Sheriff von Zarovich.
The last chapter is the most ambiguous chapter of the whole book. You get some very loose adventure ideas, which most of the time have nothing to do with anti-heroes. The PCs then have to choose between what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”. A Campaign Idea, where you get tips for getting your PCs from first level to 20th level and beyond is included. This is a scenario very unlikely to happen and actually goes against the Cannon Ravenloft history. Is this useful stuff? Not at all, not for me. Wouldn’t it have been better to include one short adventure where all the material of CoD could be used? It strikes me as odd that the authors used more than 15 pages in adventure ideas instead of adding one complete adventure, which by the way would have made the book much more useful.
The layout and art of the book are good, nothing great and the common 3rd Ed quality. The art is not amazing but delivers. On the other hand the editing has some small faults; a constant feature in every single book of the line.
A book like Champions of Darkness, although it offers new character classes, NPCs and more, does not deliver anything in particular. It is not enough to create dozens of NPCs, prestige classes, and feats. The DMs and players should be able to relate to them entirely. We need background, we need stories, and we need the feeling of continuity in Ravenloft books. Once again, quantity does not equal quality. As for usefulness, I have heard many gamers saying that, ideas in this book are usable, if you do some modifications. Well, if you are going modify the material within, to make it useful, you might as well not use the book at all.
Before reading this book I thought, that the old saying “never judge a book by its cover” referred only to good books hidden behind bad covers. But Champions of Darkness proved me wrong. As for my purchasing, next time I hit the web or drop into the local Hobby shop, I will have to be more careful with what I buy.
Rating: 1 Skeletal Dread Companion out of 5
I bought Champions of Darkness on Tuesday, and having read through most of the book, here is my review. There are some spoilers in this review, so consider yourselves warned.
The basic theme of Champions of Darkness (hereinafter ChD) is the PC as anti-hero. Whether it is a Zorro style highwayman, who robs from the Darklords to feed the poor, an ex-lycanthrope who still has an affinity for the wild side, a cleric who succumbs to the temptation to lay curses on evil-doers, or the latest in a long line of Pharazian torturers, these characters cross the moral line that the Dark Powers have drawn in the sand either for their own benefit, or to help others. These characters, and the moral dillemas they face, are detailed here.
The book is divided into four chapters, with an appendix with DM's notes (similar to the Attatched Notes in Gazetteer 1). Chapter 1 has twelve new prestige classes, a new prestige cleric domain (see Defenders of the Faith for more info on prestige domains), 2 new weapons, and a ton of new feats. The best of the PrCs include the Highway Rider, who robs the rich to feed the poor ala Robin Hood and Zorro; The Mesmerist, who can hypnotize the unwary; The Scourge, a professional torturer; and the Nightlord, a character who has drawn power from a Darklord, in the process becoming the Darklord's servant. There are also a few duds, like the Propagandist and the Solitary Outcast. The Propagandist is unsuitable for PCs (the description says as much), and is superfluous with two other PrCs that have similar functions (the Charlatan and the Manipulator).
The new feats are wonderful, and are useful for all different characters. Fighters, rogues, monks, and spellcasters will all find something tempting here. Just be careful: taking some of these feats calls for a DP check, since they are really evil.
Chapter 2 lists several shady secret societies that might either hire anti-heros, or oppose them. The most prominent is the Order of the Ebon Gargoyle, Count Strahd's answer to the Kargat. Essentially a Barovian secret police, dedicated to killing Kargat agents in Barovia, as well as dissenters, Gundarakite rebels, and innocent cleics of the Morninglord. There is also a chapter of the Scourges, (the secret society of torturers, once native to Pharazia), a group of anti-Drakov Falkovnians, and a brief recap of Carnival's history. Each group is listed with several adventure hooks, but these are not fleshed out with statistics. (There are a few exceptions.)
Chapter 3 is a who's doomed chapter. The star of the chapter is "Sherriff" von Zarovich, the head of the Ebon Gargoyles, and Strahd's Nightlord. Also present is a new write-up of Jander Sunstar, although this one is somewhat deficient. After a quick glance at the stat block, I realized that the authors didn't give him enough feats, or the racial skill bonuses from having the vampire template. The other characters are examples of the new prestige classes from chapter 1.
Chapter 4 is the author's strongest work in the book. It is a series of DM advice, adventure ideas, and campaign hooks, for running a Ravenloft game with anti-heros. The advice on how to use Dark Powers checks are a must read for any Ravenloft DM. In this chapter, the authors, no longer bound by the D20 rules system lay out wonderful ideas for dark, haunting campaigns, where players have to make moral decisions, and live with the results of their actions.
The appendix has a three new monsters, including a Darkling template.
There are some problems with the book. All of the PrCs only go up to 5th level, not 10th like the ones in VRA. This is especially galling when considering how wonderful the Highway Rider or Scourge could be as a long term career choice. They are still good classes, but could be even better. Then there are the duds, like the Propagandist, cluttering up chapter 1.
Even worse, the book needed a good editor. In addition to the typos that have plagued all of Sword & Sorcery's Ravenloft books, there are serious rules problems, like Jander's missing feats. The Nightlord is a great class, but the prerequisites require the character to be a mounted warrior, barring the class to more subtler agents of a Darklord. (For example, Ivana Boritsi could not grant these powers to her confidante, Nostalia Romaine, because Nostalia isn't a high level fighter.) Then there is the Tantric Sex feat. That's right Tantric Sex. I realize that this was a serious form of magic in Medieval India, and that it ties into Sri Raji, but come on, how many players are really mature enough to take it seriously?
Overall, though the book has some flaws (some more serious than others) the authors have presented a serious look at the temptations that evil provides, and the serious consequences of giving in to them. Out of 5 blood drops, I give 2 1/2. (I'll give you guys three if you release an errata file pronto.)
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