books | movies | rpgs
the book of immortals | judgement
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain
The Book of Immortals (2004)
No I am not reviewing my own book. This is the Book of Immortals from Mongoose Publishing, not the Immortals Handbook.
Naturally my emotions were mixed when I heard about this book. On the one hand I support epic/immortal gaming, so any release is a good thing. On the other hand, the premise and name were very close to my own work. So I had a few anxious moments before my ego kicked in to assure me that, when it comes to immortal gaming, I'm about the best there is...at least thats what I tell myself, it helps me sleep at night. :-P
You can find two other reviews of this book here and here.
The Book of Immortals is a 256 page hardback by Mongoose Publishing, designed/written by Shannon Kalvar. I hadn't previously read anything else by him, but I did get the opportunity to briefly talk with him on the forums and he seemed like a decent chap. Overall I like his writing, though I can't really say the same for his (or should that be the books) mechanics. Although it should be noted that he does comment upon that in the first of the reviews I give the links to above, giving the impression it was perhaps rushed.
First impressions were not great. The cover is quite good, depicting some immortals hovering in space above a planet. The interior text however, is not very dense though, offering perhaps half the density of the core rulebooks. There is a blank line between each paragraph (instead of just taking an indent), and weirdly the distance between each sentence is often two or three spaces, with no seeming uniformity. So its 256 pages could have easily been handled in half that. The page borders have illustrations of dragons on them, not really sure as to the relevance, but not offensive I suppose. One minor point is that the book has the most annoyingly springy pages ever, I've lost count how many times I have tried to get the darn thing to sit open by flattening the centre only to have the page(s) flop back over moments later.
Chapter One is not called chapter one, in fact no chapter numbers are mentioned, however, the first main section is called The Path to Immortality. This begins by discussing what immortals are. Here we learn that these 'immortals' are not actual gods, but instead something between mortal and deity. While this point is only slightly disappointing, it goes on to outline how these immortals in many cases are granted their power from covenants with archdevils, deities and demon princes. Its difficult to accurately gauge the power of the books immortals, but my impression is that at best its about +1 CR per victory, probably less. So the immortals in question probably don't outstrip the power of a quasi-deity.
Here we also get our first taste of the mechanics. Basically to become an immortal and advance as an immortal you complete challenges. Each successfully completed challenge grants a victory. The number of victories you have is one of two factors in determining your aura. Victories seem something like Divine Rank from Deities & Demigods. Fairly straightforward so far, unfortunately then we are introduced to aura.
Steps and victories determine aura, a new attribute. For example a Wielder (2nd Step) must have between 3-6 victories, completed 1 great challenge and will have an aura score of 5+1 per victory. The aura score can be anything from 1-66, depending on how powerful the immortal is. Aura is pretty much the backbone of the system, however, I have found it to be both confusing and somewhat superfluous. They could have easily made things simpler by just using the number of victories.
Victories are limited by immortal steps. After so many successful challenges, to progress any further you must undertake a great challenge. To parallel this with D&Dg, imagine steps are like: quasi-deity, demi-deity, lesser deity, intermediate deity and greater deity. Failure in a great challenge results in total loss of all immortal power gained so far - which seems ridiculously harsh. In fact I would advocate that anyone using the book at worst change failure in a great challenge to a loss of one victory, rather than a loss of all power.
Each time a character succeeds at a challenge he gains access to a power source, which is either a covenant or a tap. A covenant is an agreement between the character and a deity, the character becoming a sort of proxy. A tap connects to a 'wellspring', which is like a place of raw power. Each victory also brings with it a gift. These 'gifts' can be used to create artifacts, increase internal power, create servants or increase external power...but I'll deal with those in the relevant chapters.
The second main section is entitled Wellsprings. It deals with natural or unnatural places of power the immortal can tap. These are subdivided into three categories: Abstract (eg. Love, Magic); Elemental (eg. Fire, Negative) and Mythic (eg. Evil, Good). This is probably my favourite section of the book. Each of the 18 types has three sample wellsprings, and each makes for an interesting adventure spark. Surprisingly virtually all are to be found in the world (Prime Material Plane) which makes you wonder why there are no great armies or kingdoms built around them or immortals guarding them. Each wellspring grants blessings and banes, another nice idea, a sort of immortal myopia, sure to make for some interesting roleplaying moments.That said, the blessings are all fairly weak (each maybe akin to a feat) and cancelled by the banes, so they are more for flavour than any actual increase in power. Though each does give a variable skill bonus to channel and infuse, more on those later.
The third main section is called Covenants, and outlines agreements characters can make with either gods or collectives, the latter being multiple individuals within a certain parameter (such as all the people of one town, or a country etc.). While wellsprings have both blessings and banes, covenants only appear to have covenant terms (adding limitations to the character), with the exception of the variable skill bonus to channel and infuse and some meagre gift side effects. Again though, its the flavour, rather than the mechanics, that shines. As you increase the power of the covenant it keeps adding new covenant terms: commitments, allegiances, sworn enemies, bonds, offerings and quests.
The fourth main section is Gifts, and details powers the immortal can choose, subdivided into four categories: Artifacts (Divine Equipment), Attributes (Internal Divine Abilities); Numen (Divine Servants) and Powers (External Divine Abilities). However, before they are explained, the book introduces two new skills; Channel (internal use of divine power) and Infuse (external use of divine power). Its here that the mechanics start to get really confusing, in fact I am not sure I fully understand them yet and I have read the book over three times. I'll attempt to explain things, hopefully that will help shed some light for all of us, because I am still not confident I 'get it'.
Successful challenges give you a victory. Victories (and steps) determine your aura, and each victory also gives you a gift. Two new skills (channel and infuse) are needed to determine how much aura you can add to gifts. You do this by making a channel or infuse skill check each time you want to increase the power of a gift, applying the results to the appropriate table for each, which determines the maximum aura you can increase a gift by at that given moment. Still with me? If you want to add aura to an artifact (one of the four types of gifts) you roll another skill check and check another table which tells you how many power points each point of aura converts to at that given moment.You then cross reference that figure with another table because the power points work differently depending on the type of artifact (armour, weapon, wondrous item etc.) you are adding the aura (now converted to power points) into. I'll stop there. I think it illustrates my point. There is no way these mechanics are feasible in game.
Here is how Wizards of the Coast handle pretty much the exact same thing in Deities & Demigods. Divine rank determines how many salient divine abilities you have. Thats it. Simple isn't it.
Okay, so we have went to so much trouble over gifts. They better be worth it right...in a word...no. I was very disappointed with these. There are 4 artifact abilities, 47 attribute abilities (more than half of which are slightly changed variations) of variable power, with most being equal to a feat if not an actual feat itself. There are 6 variations on the numen theme, and the 10 powers, while multifaceted are all really variations of the same thing with a different alignment or element. Of all the gifts the numen are probably the most interesting from a roleplaying point of view, but mechanically you are probably better off with a cohort.
The fifth main section is called Challenges and explains numerous adventure ideas for 18 types of challenges. Not as competantly handled as either wellsprings or covenants, but not a wholly redundant chapter, with some good ideas to be gleaned, although many boiling down to confrontation (though not necessarily a violent confrontation) with another immortal.
The sixth main section is unfortunately very brief. Entitled The Immortal World it endeavours to explain how immortals interact with one another and with mortals. This chapter shows some early promise but at only 7 pages long (and including 3 virtually half page illustrations within those 7), it never really gets into its stride before its all over. The idea of immortal predators is great, but its treated to nothing more than a few fleeting comments for a cool idea that was screaming to be fleshed out with new organisations, deadly monsters, interesting individuals etc.
The penultimate section, Aspiration to Transcendance, is another brief chapter, describing six potential paths the immortal might take and outlining for the DM which challenges to use . Each path also has an example of a great challenge, which is basically the equivalent to 3 regular challenges rolled into one. Theres nothing new in this section, although it was interesting how, when laid out, these paths could possibly be converted over to prestige class format (although the book itself doesn't make this supposition).
The final section, Immortal Characters, describes three sample immortals; a dragon, a lich and a knight. I must admit I found these examples lacklustre and confusing. Theres not one original idea between them. Even worse is that the descriptions make reference to the name of their gifts but don't explain them so you have to go hunting for those to make sense of it all. Also there seems no consistency in how they have increased challenge rating to compensate for immortality. The Knight has +2 CR with 2 victories, the lich has +5 CR for 10 victories and the dragon has +14 CR for 12 victories.
The art within this book is typical third party d20 product quality. Some good pieces, some bad. The gladiator-wraith (?) on page 4 is probably my favourite, so its a bit annoying that particular artist only appears to have one illustration in the entire book. Ah well.
In conclusion, I think this book in essence boils down to two things, flavour and mechanics. It has some interesting roleplaying ideas but on the other hand the mechanics are unnecessarily complicated and overbearing. As such I can see it maybe finding more use as a DMs resource for adventure ideas than any sort of player character framework they would want to put into operation.
The wellsprings, with their bane and bless approach, and the covenants, with their interesting burdens are the highlights for me. Each possesses many interesting adventure and roleplaying ideas. The challenges and all too brief section on the Immortal World provide moments of inspiration.
However the mechanics go about three levels of complexity too far, which is the total opposite of what you want at high/epic levels. Added to which they rarely, if ever, at any stage seem to draw upon the official rules (ie. Levels, Prestige Classes, Spells, Templates) for their mechanics, so everything appears even less familiar. There is little attempt to address balance or rate the powers in terms of challenge rating. The actual gifts are for the most part disappointing and the sample characters are pretty boring.
To sum up. Good ideas, very poorly executed.
Judgement: 4/10 (Writing and Flavour 4/5, Design and Mechanics 0/5)
Unless stated otherwise, all content © 2001-2005 Craig Cochrane. All rights reserved.