As some of you know, despite my passion for playing, running and designing for the Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin, the RPG that got me back to the game table after more than a decade away was the Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I hopped on the 4E train in June of 2008, just as the first three core rulebooks were released, and I soon found myself running a campaign that would span the better part of 18 months. That was followed by a break and second, shorter, 4E campaign, which was eventually abandoned in favor of my current AGE system one. I’ve also mentioned before how I’ve recently become disenchanted with 4E, though moreso for the bloat and seeming lack of a clear direction coming from its publisher, than from any fault of the core rules system, which is elegantly crafted if a little needlessly complex.
All that said, I still like to stay apprised of what’s happening with the 4E game, and still have a strong emotional attachment to the Dungeons and Dragons IP. Thus, my interest was piqued when I began to hear about a new system of building more powerful solo monsters for the game called Worldbreakers, being developed by Quinn Murphy (@gamefiend) from the At-Will website. As anyone who played 4E during those early days knows, the math for solo monsters (a creature that is supposed to represent a challenge for an entire party of adventurers on its own) was awfully, awfully off target in the first two monster manuals, which led to anti-climatic boss fights and unexciting game play at the table. I have plenty of personal anecdotes from my first campaign I won’t bore you with, but suffice it to say that solo creatures were not at all interesting or challenging battles unless the DM cheated. A lot.
So when Quinn mentioned on twitter that his first Worldbreaker, Etherkai, the Nightmare Dragon, had been released at DriveThruRPG, I was interested if not compelled to rush out and buy it. (That whole not playing 4E thing was a roadblock, I admit.) But as more and more reviews poured in about the refreshing game design the creature represented for the 4E game, my interest grew. So when I got home tonight I decided to download the monster and see what all the fuss was about. What follows is my first impressions having read through the document twice, with a few additional references made while typing up what I’m going to call a Five-Minute Review.
Price: At $2, an outstanding value. (Are you kidding me? I can’t buy a good cup of coffee for less than this six-page pdf cost me. And I’m not talking about your muka-mocha-effing latte here, just a simple black cup of joe.)
Layout: Simple, yet high quality. You can tell this was not a project that was thrown together in an afternoon. The layout features nice design touches that very much capture the feel of an official 4E project, and the custom, worldbreakers logo design around the page numbers is a nice touch.
Art: Good. A single black and white drawing accompanies the text and is very reminiscent of the interior art you would see in the more recent iterations of Dragon or Dungeon magazine.
Content: Again, outstanding. This is a completely playable world villain for the 4E game that provides not only an original and compelling backstory, but exciting new game mechanics that will change the way you think about solo monsters. What the Ehterkai provides, and what I take is a feature of the series of forthcoming monsters, is a boss fight where unique terrain effects and skill challenge components are built into the monster’s stat block. This creature literally alters reality around the players as they fight. And due to a terrific element of its design, components of the fight are actually created by the players as they play through the adventures leading up to the final battle, which makes the boss fight much more compelling and climatic. (No spoilers!)
Biggest Surprise: It’s 10th level. When I heard the name Worldbreakers, I thought for sure this would be some 30th level beastie I would never have an occasion to use, but this monster is the perfect cap to a heroic tier campaign, or excellent mini-arc end villain.
Conclusion: Buy it. Seriously. I don’t even play 4E anymore, but the ideas presented for monster boss fights in this pdf are portable to any system. Making a monster that challenges players on several levels while building an encounter based on their own fears is just awesome game design, and after you’ve seen it done here you’ll be stealing it for your own game no matter the system.
So will I be crafting an AGE-System version of this beastie for my own campaign? That’s for me to know, and Mr. Murphy and his lawyers to find out.