Secrets of the Dread Realms
Authors: Andrew Cermak, John W. Mangrum, Andrew Wyatt
Summary of content: This product contains a prestige class (the Witch Hunter), a separate DM's screen, the list of darklords by domains, but mainly the book gives detailed backgrounds for major darklords of the Core domains, and two NPCs:
Very good book. One of the best RPG deal around, for 15$ US! The Darklords are well designed for 3e, and most of the backgrounds have been clarified and enriched. Some underdeveloped (Alfred being one) are now well explained, while the current sketch of others have been updated - well done (Aderre).
The color screens are cool and useful. It's got the useful tables (checks) and also a guide for DMing skill checks. That was a good idea, no wonder the 3.5 PHB now uses it. The book is full of small tidbits: more information on the Ravenloft setting, like Strahd choking fog, the Dilisnya Borrowed Time potion, Kargat, Talons of Falkovnia, false memories of Darkon, White Fever of Valachan, etc. Those boxes are priceless and useful.
However, the PC class is strange in that it looks out of place (looking at the author's notes, we can see many of the SotDR texts were cut out the final book… They should have cut the Witch-Hunter (oddly named by the way!) and put it elsewhere then since it looks odd alone).
Unfortunately, as the Gazetteer comes out, this book will be obsolete as all the darklords will be covered by the Gaz serie… Until then, 4,5 on 5!
The nearness of Halloween was the cause of me getting this product and the two others that I finally took the time to grab. I would have grabbed some more books had my pocket book not screamed foul, but I digress. Generally of the three I managed to purchase SotDR was the most disappointing.
First off I will say like so many others before me that the Witch Hunter prestige class should not have been in this book. It was only a single prestige class and they didn't even get the whole thing in the book having to release an errata later. The only reasoning I can possibly think of to include it was some sort of pressure being applied to the writers to include at least one prestige class, it totally feels like a tack on that disrupts the flow of the rest of the book these pages could have been used better for one of two things. An introduction to the book with some comments on how to effectively use Darklords in your own campaigns or perhaps another Darklord could have been chronicled (Anton Misroi getting my vote.) As with the lords themselves I was generally happy to receive a fairly updated accounting on what has been happening to them recently. (Plus having their stats converted for 3E is nice too.)
However with few exceptions almost all the artwork was recycled from pre 3E Ravenloft material which added to the feel that this product was thrown together at the last minute. However even though the art on the screen is recycled I enjoyed it because I have a particular affinity for Strahd. Mention of the screen leads to the final note of complaint, the skills check chart was way too big and some of the space could have been used for something else.. Well that's all for now, generally I have grave reservations about this product as it was hardly anything it was promised to be and it was put together shoddily.
Secrets of the Dread Realms starts off with the weakest part of the book, the "Witch-Hunter" PrC. Quickly superseded by the Monster Hunter PrC from the Ravenloft Players Handbook, the entire thing felt tacked on in the worst possible sense. There's no plausible background to why the class is even in the book, it just appears in the first chapter. Fortunately, you can quite easily ignore it's presence, as it takes up a mere two pages.
Once that ordeal is over, we come to the core of the book, the Darklords. These are generally well written and interesting. Some skip lightly over certain matters of the Darklords most recent activities, for instance, there is no mention of Azalin's cloning. Personally, this is a big mistake, especially considering who (most likely) wrote the Gazetteers. There's also a noticeable lack of information on Death. Although I dislike the premise of the Necropolis, I'd still like to know that it's all about from a canon source rather than forum gossip.
Although this book is clearly going to be made redundant as I begin obtain the Gazetteers, it will still be a source of useful information for those domains I don't have information on at that time. The size of the book surprised me somewhat and I felt that maybe some of the Darklords could have been padded out more, but then again, the book is the cheapest in the line.
The Secrets of the Dread Realms also came with a gamemasters screen, my first ever screen! The content seems useful though I am yet to run an adventure so I have had no chance to play test it. The skill DC chart seemed a bit large, considering I find setting skills DCs one of the easier things in D&D. I also disagree with some of the DCs the authors have chosen, though that is purely personal preference. However, I will still be using said screen and I am sure it will be useful.
For a score, I think I will give the Secrets of the Dread Realms a healthy 3 severed fingers out of 5.
Several years ago, on some minor anniversary of the show's run, the "Simpsons" ran a clip-show, set up as a retrospective hosted by Troy McClure (voice of the late, great Phil Hartman). At the beginning, a "disclaimer" ran across the screen: "Warning: contains only 23% new material. Doesn't satisfy USDA entertainment requirement". It was a cute line, and Secrets of the Dread Realms reminded me of it. Like that clip show, this book is mostly a retread of material that has appeared before. Most of this book is a revision of the stats for some of the Core's Darklords. Not all of them, just most. Many have been beefed up, thanks to the NPC character classes from the DMG. All of them have magic items now, and there are sidebars that detail info on the Kargat, the Obedient, and Shallow Feeding for vampires. There are some new bits for a few of the Darklords, but a lot of info reads almost verbatim from Domains of Dread. The artwork is mostly recycled from DoD as well.
The only info in the book not about DLs, is a prestige class, the Witch-hunter. Unfortunately, sloppy editing, and a lack of power (compared to the Prestige Classes in Van Richten's Arsenal) leave it looking like a tacked on addition. The promised information on the "Secrets of Ravenloft" for DMs was left on the cutting room floor.
Then there is the DM's screen. The artwork is recycled, but its the best recycled artwork there is: three images of Strahd in all his glory. The info inside is useful, but nothing great, since there is little material from either the PHB or DMG, such as the experience tables, or equipment.
I can't in good faith recommend SotDR that much. If you are a RL fanatic (like me), and have 15 bucks to spend, get it. Otherwise, use the conversion manual Wizards published, until the gazetteers come out.
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