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Saturday 12 February 2022

Abysmally Amazing

The Book of Demons brings an enemy that everyone hates to 13th Age, the roleplaying game from Pelgrane Press which combines the best elements of both Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition to give high action combat, strong narrative ties, and exciting play. The Abyssal enemies of the 13th Age crawl and skitter beneath the earth of the Dragon Empire, seeking to break onto the surface, where they can claw out hellholes where the weird rules of the Abyss below now apply, ready to fight everyone and destroy everything! Of the thirteen Icons, the Archmage wields his might magics to banish them from whence they came, the Crusader trusts only himself to take his righteous sword to slaughter every single one of the unholy creatures, the Great Gold Wyrm died to save us from destruction at their hands, and the Diabolist cavorts on the edge of the Abyss as she both steals their power and helps them up into the world. From between the Crusader, the Great Gold Wyrm, and the Diabolist steps a new agent—the Demonologist. Somehow the Demonologist is connected to all three though the Paths they are known to follow. To the Crusader via the Path of Slaughter. To the Great Gold Wyrm via the Path of Flame. To the Diabolist via the Path of Corruption.

The Book of Demons opens with a whole new Class for 13th Age, the Demonologist. This is a complex character Class much in the vein of the Druid Class. It is first and foremost a spellcaster, and it is mostly a summoner. Except when it is not, and that depends on the path selected by the player. Two of the paths, the Path of Corruption and the Path of Flame, definitely are, and their adherents will be summoning demons which they will send against their opponents, knowing that the summoned demons can stray from the Abyss only for so long. Unlike the Druid or the Necromancer, the Demonologist does not have to spend time controlling the summoned Demons. They will simply serve him once summoned. However, Demons have a half-life and lose Hit Points at the end of every round when they vanish. The Path of Slaughter is different. Its adherents are Demonic Warriors, leaping into melee where the followers of the other Paths do anything to avoid it. They wield heavier weapons and wear heavier armour than those of the Path of Corruption and the Path of Flame do.

In terms of spells, those of the Path of Corruption and the Path of Flame are highly thematic, as obviously are the demons they can summon. So those of the Path of Flame include Burners and Hellhounds, whilst those for the Path of Corruption include Demon Toads and Hopping Toads. Those of Path of Slaughter are all about frenzy, bloodlust, and the like. Many of the spells involve curses, and these and others are highly conditional. This adds to the complexity of roleplaying the Demonologist and is thus more demanding of the player. Of the three Paths, a Demonologist is free to choose from all three or specialise in one more than another, or completely specialise in one. The first two of these options enable a player to mix and match Talents and spells, and there is a guide for multi-classing the Demonologist as well. Of course, there are some notes on playing the Class in conjunction with the Tielfling Race, which of course, a natural fit.

The description of the Demonologist takes up roughly a third of The Book of Demons and is thus for the player to read. The rest is entirely for the Game Master’s eyes. This begins with discussing the nature and uses of the demon in play. Essentially, they are what the author describes as the ‘temp agency of evil’, as there is something pleasingly utilitarian about their use—they can turn up anywhere, serve anyone, and so on. They are not constricted by environment as a great number of other monsters are. There are suggestions as to giving them distinctive features and patterns of speech, but the best feature of this chapter is devoted to showcasing how demons are liars—and notoriously so. This is done in exactly the way it should be for 13th Age, Icon by Icon, and in each case, this is an interesting and different set of opinions upon the Icons, if not necessarily true.

The Book of Demons adds a way to change the ecology of the Dragon Empire with Hellholes. Created either through arcane means or ripped through the fabric of reality at its weakest, and although they come in many forms, they nearly all contain a gate to the hells or the Abyss, often hidden. A Hellhole is initially weak, and until it stabilises, this is the best time for someone—such as the Player Characters—to strike and close it. Once it stabilises and is fortified, a Hellhole can be ferociously difficult to close and destroy, and often the response to a stabilised Hellhole is to monitor and prevent any Abyssal forces raiding too far from it. Six example Hellholes are described in detail. These are scaled from First and Second Level all the way up to Eighth to Tenth Level, from Adventurer to Epic Tier. All include a description, hooks and perils to get the Player Characters involved, and a list of the demonic denizens particular to each Hellhole—and that is in addition to the generic Demons given earlier in the book.

The Hellholes begin with ‘The Ratwood’, sat over a tiny crack into the Abyss out of which the weakest of demons squeeze themselves and make bodies for themselves out of the local vermin. They just need a spellcaster to open it properly… Where ‘The Ratwood’ is a small encounter, the ‘High Heath of Unending Woe’ is much bigger and wider, a seemingly endless and timeless blight with fluctuating boundaries which is impossible to get out off, but can be crossed. Described as one big peril, it comes with a wide selection of random encounters , including flying sets of teeth, memories (?) of the Icons (to tie in with the Player Characters’ relationships), convulsions which warp the Hellhole, an avaricious demonically transformed slug who wants out, and more! Abandoned by higher demons and thus ruled by a surprisingly lowlier demon, ‘Claw Peak’ is a mountain on which there can be upslides and sidelides as well as landslides, whilst the ‘Floating Market’ is a Hellhole in the Eastern Marsh where mortals mix and trade with demons and the Diabolist keeps the peace through a system of randomly distributed tokens which indicate absolute innocence. Of course, the right tokens can be traded and stolen… Divided into various districts, the ‘Floating Market’ is constantly changing and the whole ‘city’ moves on an army of arms on its underside, and presents somewhere where the Player Characters will have to interact with demons rather than slaughter them and the Demonologist’s knowledge and reputation can really come into play.

Similarly, ‘Red Crag Castle’, once home to the Vocnort family which was said to enjoy questionable taste in both pleasures and alliances, is also faction riven. Four factions of demons—each very different in character and each with their own random demon abilities, now vie for control of this Abyssally-infested dungeon, whilst surviving members of the Vocnort family want the castle for reasons of their own. Plus there are Paladins who also want to storm the castle. Although not mapped, the castle’s locations are described in detail so that the Game Master can run them as is, or expand them with further locations or even map them out in true dungeon style. There is scope here for numerous missions into Red Crag Castle, to take advantage of rival factions, if not ultimately clear it out. Lastly, the Abyss explodes into the Overworld as a pillar of hellfire, ripping up chunks of the land around it and flinging them into the air to orbit around and even into the fire as Abyssal magic collides with Celestial magic. Beset by burning cloud castles, crazed Celestials, earthquakes, skyquakes, and spellquakes, and besieged by armies of the Crusader and a Host of the Overworld, this is the ‘Hellgout’, and populated with demons happy to co-operate given the array of enemies they have to taunt and fight. This is a big bold scenario which will see the Player Characters island-hopping further up and around the pillar of fire. Each of the individual islands is given enough detail for the Game Master to expand on, some requiring it more than others. Otherwise, ‘Hellgout’ has a fantastic sense of scale.

Two Icons make their homes in Hellholes and ‘Citadels of the Icons’ details both of them. These are First Triumph, home to the Crusader, a city-citadel under permanent martial law where demons bound by the deleterious effect of the Iron Spike do all of the drudge work and the Diabolist’s fortress in the Hell Marsh. Exactly what form her fortress takes is unknown, but everyone, including the other Icons and her cultists has an opinion, probably based on rumours or lies. Where the description of First Triumph is appropriately written in stone—since the Crusader is a lawful icon, that of the Diabolist’s fortress is given a range of options that the Game Master can choose from or adjust as is her wont. Of course, the Game Master is free to ignore or change the description of First Triumph as the text suggests, but the style and tone is entirely appropriate to both.

Physically, The Book of Demons is well written and decently illustrated, although the art styles vary widely. In terms of content, The Book of Demons brings all of the chaos of demons into play for 13th Age like never before, presenting them as both an enemy that everyone loves to hate (obviously) and an enemy which can be summoned and manipulated (if they are not manipulating you, that is). Its six Hellholes can be used together to build a campaign around demons or individually slipped into an existing campaign for a little or a lot of demonic danger. Plus, the Demonologist is a new Class for the player who likes a challenge in terms of both mechanics and roleplaying, the latter because no one trusts demons and certainly no trusts anyone who has dealings with them!

The Book of Demons is a damnably good source and scenario book for the 13th Age Game Master who wants to take her campaign to the edge of the Abyss—and back again!

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