Grim Hollow Player's Guide - 3rd Party Review

Sparky McDibben

One thing I hated about Grim Hollow's Transformations was how many of the drawbacks would be all but impossible to deal with in-universe.

As an example: The Lich's drawbacks (8 CR worth of souls every day at the highest level of the transformation) would mean a lich would swiftly depopulate any area they were in just to get enough souls to keep going. And they can't use commoners since they're CR 0.

The idea is the DM is going to ensure the lich player faces enough enemies each day to keep their soul cage filled, but it breaks suspension of disbelief and just feels silly. Liches in-universe would need to go on daily murder sprees to keep from burning out.
I always viewed the souls requirement as a spur to adventure, but I agree that it falls apart as soon as you go to downtime. Maybe like CR 8 per month?

Alright, kids. I don't technically own a new kidney, but I have one in my possession. And while I'm browsing BackPage for people with surgical training and loose morals, I figured we'd talk some of the spells in here!

This book presents 42 new spells, quite a lot of which are sangromancy, a new type of spell that requires the expenditure of hit dice to power the spell. Typically, you spend a number of hit dice, roll them, and that total modifies the spell somehow. It's an interesting way to use HD in powering spells. These vary from "damn-near a must-have" to "only in very specific instances?"

To compare, let's take the really good option. Blood rush is a first level bonus action spell with no concentration. You spend and roll a HD, then add that total to your spellcasting modifier as healing. It's only available to druids and sangromancy wizards, but almost anyone could pick it up with a feat (or a bard with Magical Secrets). Honestly, this spell might make a two-level dip into sangromancy wizard good for barbarians and fighters, since sangromancy wizards get to use d12's instead of your HD for sangromancy spells.

By contrast, blood bond is a 3rd level spell action spell with a duration of 1 hour. It gives a target 3HD worth of temp hp, and lets you track the target for an hour. The target can end the effects of the spell on itself at any time. So you can really only use this to track a willing target, and it gives them some temp hp. Like, just use a familiar to follow your target. Yeesh.

So sangromancy can be a bit of a mixed bag. The rest of the spells, on the other hand, are great. There's one that lets you cut off your hand and turn it into a spider you control, through which you can see and hear. Holy crap that's fantastic! There's another that lets you die and turn into a ghost for 1d8 hours. As a fun extra, ghosts get to possess people, so you can wreak some absolute havoc with this spell. "Your Majesty, I hate to say it, but Jenny has been talking mad smack about your hair..."

I really like the spells in this book, honestly. Well done, Ghostfire.

And now, let's turn to the advanced weapons chapter!

Right off the bat, we get hit with a bunch of new weapon properties. I have no idea why designers keep adding these - most of them are not a huge value-add. There are twenty four new properties for these weapons. Holy crap. Look, I can barely keep track of the six or seven that matter in the PHB. Twenty four new properties? This is just a non-starter for me. Some of these can do neat things, like disarming or entangling an opponent. These would be OK, as long as your players are on the ball and know how they work. Some of these are going to be a pain in the ass. The armor-piercing property gives you a +1 to hit as long as the opponent has natural armor or is wearing armor. So be ready to answer one question literally every round of combat: "Are they wearing armor?" The defending property lets you take a reaction to add a 1d4 to your AC against a single melee weapon attack that hit you. So be ready to go back to the rules every time to make sure that every single one of those conditions is met. It's clunky as hell design, and it'll slow down my table more than it has been already.

No thanks.

But what about the actual weapons? Maybe they're better. Well, here's the table:


"Hey guys, is there a way to make the spiked chain from 3rd edition worse?"
"Sure, let's make four of them!"
"Goddamnit, Ricky, you're a genius!"

What, exactly, differentiates an elite rapier from a regular rapier? Diegetically, in the world, what is the difference? This kind of complexity in an already-crunchy system just blows my mind (and not in a good way). Hard pass on this entire chapter.

Alright, gentlemen, I'm going to be back hopefully tomorrow night after I take my wife on a date and get this kidney installed. At that time, we'll go over new magic items!

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To add onto the ridiculousness of Advanced Weapons, their price points are overinflated. That Gladiator Net is worth as much as a greatsword and breastplate combined, but what does it do that a regular net can't? Well, you can grapple the target as a bonus action without needing a free hand, for the weapon counts as the hand. And given that its short range is still 5 feet, throwing it at someone beyond this costs disadvantage, so it's not so great as a "ranged grappling" weapon either!

And those repeater crossbows? That property only lets you make a bonus action to attack when you take the attack action. While it negates the Reloading property of crossbows so that you can make extra attacks, most games that allow feats will have crossbow users making use of Crossbow Expert to get around this. You're basically paying hundreds or even a thousand gold just to do something that bows can already do.

The sabre is perhaps my favorite. That swift property grants you advantage on the first attack roll you make with the weapon against a target that you missed attacking. The duration is before the end of your next turn, so it can definitely trigger in the same turn if you're doing something like an Extra Attack. Question is, is it worth 500 gold? Maybe, but given that it requires a trigger from a missed attack it's not so much a benefit as it is making a bad situation less bad.

Honestly, when it comes to expensive stuff I feel that armor and some mounts are perhaps the only really justifiable purchase for mundane equipment. Plate mail is crazy expensive at 1,500 gold, but given that it's the best armor in the game and when combined with a shield it nets you a base AC of 20, the benefits in missed attacks alone are worth the weight in gold. When it comes to weapons, a lot of these properties are situational or designed to mimic/replace certain feat traits, so they're less of a no-brainer option to take.
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Sparky McDibben

To add onto the ridiculousness of Advanced Weapons, their price points are overinflated.

Honestly, when it comes to expensive stuff I feel that armor and some mounts are perhaps the only really justifiable purchase for mundane equipment. Plate mail is crazy expensive at 1,500 gold, but given that it's the best armor in the game and when combined with a shield it nets you a base AC of 20, the benefits in missed attacks alone are worth the weight in gold. When it comes to weapons, a lot of these properties are situational or designed to mimic/replace certain feat traits, so they're less of a no-brainer option to take.

An excellent analysis! I would argue there's one more way these costs could be justified: if they serve as a springboard for the player to develop a "legacy" magic item. But that's such a niche instance that it feels like I'm trying to fix the developer's work in order to justify using them at the table.

Alright, folks: we're working with Magic Items today! This is a pretty light chapter, focusing mostly on magic items that would be most useful for various Transformations. Each Transformation gets four potential magic items. The Aberrant Horror, for example, could choose between the fin symbiote, the stalk symbiote, a straitjacket, and a star metal ring. These are not super-intuitive; you'd expect that fin symbiote, for example, to give you a swim speed, but it's a an aboleth fin you can stitch onto yourself. All it does is increase your Transformation DC by 2. I figured the stalk symbiote would give you some kind of beholder abilities, but it's basically the Alert feat as a magic item. The straitjacket just lets you roll twice on the Aberrations table and choose which effect takes place. These are not what I'd call inspired design.

However, when we check the items for Fiends, we start to see some very interesting gear. The one I'm most interested in is Ardor, an artifact-level battleaxe. This bad boy is a +3 battleaxe that does an extra 3d10 necrotic damage on a hit. It makes the wielder immune to the charmed, frightened, paralyzed, poisoned, and stunned conditions. It gives you a bunch of spells, including bane, banishment, and incendiary cloud. And as a bonus action, you can command it to hit something within 50 feet. If you give this thing out in your campaign, well, have fun wrapping it up.

So both of these examples illustrate that there is a wide gulf in quality in the writing and imagination on these magic items. There are some excellent items in here, but there are some stinkers, too.

There are a few generic magic items not tailored to specific Transformations, but only four, and none of them are all that interesting.

Alright, the next chapter is about Inspiration and Corruption. If you're looking to help bring that supernatural feeling of dark fantasy, you need Resolve Dice and Beast Dice (both are pools of d6's). So Resolve Dice are these odd meta-currency dice on the players side. Beast Dice are the same meta-currency on the DM's side (no relation to the YouTuber). Props on the names, boys - they're vague and evocative.

Resolve Dice have a number of uses. They can be used (during a rest) to remove conditions or a level of exhaustion. You can spend two to reroll a failed death save. You can use them instead of HD. You can spend six Resolve Dice to grant the entire party advantage on all rolls, resistance to all damage, and all damage they deal is doubled...for one round. So they're useful, but highly situational. This is not something your players will be using every session, or even every few sessions. If you want your PCs to use them, you will have to remind the PCs about them. Resolve Dice can be gained by a player sticking to their traits, bonds, ideals, or flaws, or when the PCs hit certain milestones in the story, etc. Frankly, placing the recharge out of the PCs hands means that the PCs will be even more parsimonious about using Resolve Dice because they don't know when they'll be getting them back.

Personally, I don't like this design. It's fiddly to track. Just give them a full pool of six at the start of each session and let the PCs spend them as they will. Use them like Fate Points in Dark Heresy, for example.

Moving to the DM's side of the ledger, Beast Dice! Be a manly man and play with BEAST DICE! Basically, this pool increases whenever the PCs take actions that darken the tone of the game, or whenever a boss monster shows up. The text specifies a "particularly strong, evil, or frightening creature," but it's a boss monster. You get it. It also grows whenever the party encounters something particularly horrifying or disturbing. So, my first thought was that this is weird design. As noted above, the PCs' Resolve dice do not recharge on a schedule they control. But the Beast Dice can grow whenever the DM wants to throw in a nasty monster. It's also weird, because who exactly decides that something is horrifying or disturbing? I mean, assuming you can do something like that within the bounds set out at session zero. Is that a PC decision? Or am I OK to be like, "Yeah this is enough, and I can add a Beast Die"?

We'll come back to this in a second. First, let's see what Beast Dice can do! The DM can spend a Beast Die to reduce the disposition of an NPC (from Friendly to Neutral, for example). You can also roll a Beast Die when a PC hits 0 hp - on a 5 or a 6, the PC fails a death save. You can spend any number of Beast Dice to increase the number of creatures in an encounter. You can use them to inflict a curse or a Transformation on a PC. can manifest the Beast near the PCs. What does the Beast do? Well, that's up to you!

"The effects of the Beast’s presence are felt throughout the region and vary based on the closest region of the empire: fleshy abominations in Abendland, vicious puppets in Rauland, corrupted beasts and plants in Nordenland, and armor-fused horrors in Unterland. This option may also be used to represent some other major threat based on locations outside the empire, such as an outbreak of coldfire in the Valikan Clans. These events cause serious damage to the local populace and represent a major, continuing threat for the party."

So let's break this down: The Beast Dice can either 1) change things that should properly flow from the world (how many monsters in an encounter, the Curse / Transformation thing), 2) screw with someone's character (the death save thing), or 3) We don't know, make it up!

None of these are helpful. At all. Imagine having your character wake up and the DM says, "Look, we don't have time for you to get mentored by a lich, Steve, so I'm just gonna use these Beast Dice to give them the lich transformation. Have fun eating souls, bro!"

There are some "Neutral Abilities" that both PCs and DMs can use - you can burn dice to mimic a spell, add hit points, or have a "stroke of luck." These are all minor benefits that can manifest in a scene; they're fine.

In total, then, we have a system that functions much like PHB Inspiration - it's intended to reward RP, but it's removed from any mechanical recharge trigger, entirely on the DM to track, and only situationally useful. I'm not sure why people keep thinking that we can "fix" players not roleplaying with lightweight mechanical incentives. Pass.

The next section is about Dark Bargains. Save yourself some time, and go read the section on similar mechanics in Van Richten's Guide, or in Blades in the Dark. Much better advice.

Finally, there's a section on running Session Zero in Etharis. This is solid advice, and pretty well done! It's only three pages, too, so it feels less like homework.

So here at the end of it all, let's go back to our criteria:
  1. Does it do a good job selling players on the setting? Does it get them excited to play?
  2. Does it work well within the 5E standard game loop, or does it impose a unique burden on the DM?
  3. Does the content exceed what I could have come up with on my own?
This does a great job selling players on Etharis - everything from the races to the subclasses to the magic items highlights things unique to this world. It works pretty well within a standard 5E game loop, without imposing a unique burden on the DM. And most of this content is stuff I couldn't have come up with on my own.

I recommend you buy this if you're interested in putting more dark fantasy into your game, or if you're a fan of more edgy material. You might want to hold (wait for the price to come down) if you're just looking for mechanical options. Personally, I'm glad I bought this, and I had some fun with this review! Thanks for the recommendation, y'all!

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