Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tommy's Take on Midnight Second Edition

I’m not a big Dungeons & Dragons fan. Don’t pretend to be. That said, I like a lot ABOUT Dungeons & Dragons, and one of my favorite things from the D&D 3/.5 era is the Midnight campaign setting by Fantasy Flight Games.
I wish I had a larger version of this,
because it is epic. 
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: First and foremost, Midnight is – to the best of my knowledge – out of print, though the PDF is still available at RPGNow. Midnight is a desperate, dark fantasy campaign setting commonly described as “Lord of the Rings if Sauron won and corrupted the Fellowship”. This review is of the physical copy of the book, rather than the PDF as I commonly review, and the book is written with the D&D 3.5 system in mind. I have ran it with 3.5, and am planning on resuming that campaign, though we will be switching to Savage Worlds.

The book is absolutely gorgeous, with the cover depicting Izrador’s (the Big Bad of the setting) Night Kings, four fallen heroes who are now his most powerful and vile generals. As was common for FFG at the time, the first 30 pages or so are full color setting material, before diving into the rules. The full color section tells the story of Aryth, how Izrador was cast out by the Gods and how the act of doing so trapped him on Aryth and cut the Gods off from the planet, as well as how the people of Aryth repelled his forces not once, but twice…only to be betrayed by their greatest heroes the third time. Now the good and decent people of Aryth are fighting for their very survival…the humans largely betrayed by their leaders, the dwarves cut off in their caverns and the elves waging a final, desperate war as their forests burn.

The tome is divided into three Books, the first being Adventures in Midnight, essentially serving as rules the player’s need. Midnight makes some key changes to the d20 rules, which are detailed here. For one, every PC has a Heroic Path, a destiny that grants them abilities to fight Izrador’s forces. Some of these include Beast (the hero is reverting to a primal state, gaining bestial senses and the ability to rip his enemies apart with his bare hands), Charismatic (the hero is a beacon of leadership, using his words to sway allies…and sometimes enemies), Giantblooded (the blood of giants run through the hero’s veins, making them larger than normal, and they can learn to use this size to their advantage), Painless (while the hero can still take damage, they shrug off nonlethal damage, and can even learn to channel the pain of attacks suffered back at his enemies), Pureblood (a very Aragorn-like Path, being master adventurer’s descended from kings) and Tactician (generals with a knack for finding the most effective means of victory).

The Class list gets altered, with Barbarians, Fighters and Rogues existing largely unaltered, though Fighters do gain a Warrior’s Way at 4th level, with options like Adapter (the Fighter gains more skill points to give him more options), Improviser (anything that’s handy), Leader of Men (extra Feats to help lead) and Survivor (providing bonus feats designed to keep the Fighter alive). There is a single spellcasting class (Channeler), and the magic system is not Vancian here, with Channelers instead channeling spell energy to cast their spells. There are three “Traditions”, which serve to distinguish one Channeler from another. The Monk-like Defender and Ranger-like Wildlander round out the class options.

The racial selection is also a tad different here, with three human options: Dorns (Highland warriors), Sarcosans (nomadic horsemen) and Erenlanders (thhe more “common” humans). Dwarves are divided into Clan Dwarves and Kurgan (surface dwellers). Elves are split into Caransil (the wood elves), Danisil (savage jungle elves), Erunsil (snow elves) and Miransil (sea elves). Gnomes rule the rivers, often openly serving Izrador while secretly helping resistance fighters. Halflings have had their society crushed, with many becoming nomads while the rest try to cling to a farming lifestyle. Orcs, Izrador’s favorite warriors, are also a playable option, as a few occasionally break from the monolithic evil and join the side of good. In another twist, there are halfbreeds, but humans cannot breed with other races. Instead, we get Dwarrow (from Gnomes and Dwarves), Dworgs (Orcs and Dwarves, and yes, they are commonly products of rape) and Elflings (Elves and Halflings).

Prestige Classes include some familiar classes like Druid and Wizard, as well as more Midnight-specific options like Avenging Knives (assassins operating against Izrador), Bane of Legates (those dedicated to fighting his priests), Smugglers and Haunted Ones (conduits for the dead).

New Feats are provided, like Friendly Agent (which lets you spot potential allies, as well as hide your own allegiance from Izrador’s Agents), Drive It Deep (allowing you to boost the damage of small weapons), Orc-Slayer and Whispering Awareness (allowing you to hear the whispers of the woods).

Spellcasting is handled by channeling energy and casting the spells needed, rather than preparing spells beforehand. Using magic (even magic items) is dangerous…because the Legates have hunting companions called Astiraxes which sniff out magic and lead the Legates to the users.

Of course, living under the bootheel of Izrador, weapons and armor are also restricted, and being elven or dwarven is an automatic death sentence.

Book Two: The World of Midnight dives heavily into the setting itself, describing each region, its people and providing plot hooks. For instance, in the Great Forest, Dire animals are actually allies of the Elves, because they are intelligent enough to know that the Elves share their home, as well as their desire to protect it. Stuff like this is all over the book, like how the Danisil are fairly occupied with dealing with honest to goodness demons in the jungles while their kin are fighting the forces of an evil God.

Book Three is essentially the GM’s section. It covers the Northern Marches, the rarely-explored area where the Orcs make their home, under the rule of Izrador. Don’t want to give this info to the players up front. Again, plot hooks abound, like the Followers of the White Mother, who realize that they are nothing but cannon fodder, and are slowly spreading their word to other Orcs. This section also lays out an overview of the final plans of crushing the dwarves and the elves, who are cut off from one another, with no human aid coming.

We also learn about the Black Mirrors, which drain magic into Izrador, so long as blood sacrifices are provided to it. The four Night Kings are also profiled, describing who they were, how they fell and who they are now. A Legate NPC class is provided, with variations like Witch Takers, Soldier Legates and the Sisterhood of Tender Mercies.

Power Nexuses, places around Aryth with great power than can be tapped into, and Covenant Items (magic items that unlock new powers as their owners become more experienced) are described here as well. Midnight eschews the “arsenal of magic items” approach in favor of generally only doling out a single item or two that scales with the character, to compliment their Heroic Path.

Magic is heavily limited, with healing magic at a premium, and resurrection impossible, due to the limits of magic and the nature of the world (no dead can move on, with all deceased coming back as some form of undead unless properly disposed of).

A bestiary is provided, featuring the Astirax (mentioned earlier), a couple of dragons (Midnight definitely treats dragons as special, named creatures and not just monster entries), as well as suggestions on the kinds of creatures from the standard monster manuals that are likely to appear on Aryth.

Given that this is the second edition of the book and some supplements were available at the time of the release, Fantasy Flight Games took it upon themselves to tackle essays on various adventure types, tying these suggestions into the various supplements.

An introductory adventure is provided, as well as a series of random encounter charts for each section of the world, and some sample enemy NPC templates.

WHAT WORKS: The production values are amazing. The flavor text is generally short but evocative, and the art almost universally compliments the feel of the setting. A ton of information is provided (it is a 400 page book), giving ample material to run the setting out of the one book (or so I assume…I do own the whole game line). A lot of effort has gone into making the world oppressive. In many ways, Midnight is more horrific than classic horror settings like Ravenloft. Also, there is no metaplot. The game line never really advances the timeline, so the setting is truly yours to do with as you will.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: I would kill for a version of the book that isn’t written for d20, though I do have a great Savage Worlds conversion downloaded. I don’t necessarily need more supplements, but the line being available via print on demand or something would be great. The setting is written with the assumption that the heroes will always fail, though with no true metaplot being present, that can be worked around.

CONCLUSION: Midnight, along with the Art Haus Ravenloft, is the best thing to come out of the d20 era for me, regardless of how I feel about the game system. I’m eager to give the Savage Worlds conversion a go, and I’ll report back on how that goes here on the blog. I went out of my way to ensure that I purchased the entire Midnight collection in print (I even own the first edition and Against the Shadow, both of which were largely folded into Second Edition), and I’m glad I did. And while I will run the setting harsh, the outcome will ultimately be very much in the hands of the PCs, not myself or the designers’.