It goes without saying that the third party marketplace is a crowded affair, and it’s hard for individual products to stand out. This is magnified for first-time publishers, who often don’t have the staying power of name recognition or networking of their older peers. But Historica Arcanum: the City of Crescent, managed to make a strong first impression with a rather novel idea for a KickStarter.
In lieu of your standard medieval fantasy, the City of Crescent sought to use 5th Edition to make a setting and level 1 to 8 adventure path closer to the urban fantasy genre. A more modern world, but where secret societies of monsters and magicians lurk amid the teeming masses of humanity, hatching hidden plots via cloak and magical daggers. But unlike the modern Earth of said genre, the City of Crescent takes place in an historical fantasy version of 19th Century Istanbul, where a Sultan-to-be in Topkapı Palace turns to dangerous magic to reverse the decline of his Empire. Where a once-loyal officer, who sacrificed so much to strengthen and modernize his country, finds himself taking up arms against the crown in the name of liberating the oppressed. And where the PCs, who have been hired by the Royal Polymath to accompany him on an archeological expedition, discover that their employer’s memory has been magically wiped of vital knowledge. Thus they find themselves in the crosshairs of those who seek to transform the Ottoman Empire into their own image, by blood and spellfire.
It even has a custom soundtrack, found on YouTube and other places such as Spotify. The book itself matches up the track titles with proper characters, locations, and events. I will do my part in linking up the tracks as appropriate during my review.
Chapter 1: Historica Arcanum
Origin of Magic: In the alternate timeline of Historica Arcanum, magic is a force that is at odds with reality, the supernatural twists and breaks the natural via tears in space-time. The more one relies on magical powers, the more fragile they make the surrounding environment and even themselves, and this fragileness can be exhibited in a multitude of ways. The magic of wizardry is believed to draw upon the forces of entropy, divine magic is empowered by subjective faith, sorcerous magic is the result of one’s bloodline being affected by otherworldly environments or creatures, druidic/natural magic is believed to create spirits of nature from one’s subconscious, and users of pact magic gain their powers from the blessings of a magical entity.
Mythologia Arcanum covers fantasy races and monsters, their origins and place in the world. Virtually every entity that doesn’t exist in the real world has been created or shaped by magic in some way: for example, dragons were worshiped as deities by Mesopotamian cults, originating from humans who turned into winged beasts through centuries worth of experiments and rituals. People who die with the desire to perform some great unfinished task commonly rise as undead or were forced that way from necromancy. The process is dangerous enough that most people become mindless or consumed with a singular purpose, such as zombies and ghouls, which are known as hollow undead. But more powerful individuals can retain a semblance of free will, known as the primogenitus which counts vampires, liches, and other such entities among their ranks.
But what of the Player Character Races? Well they too have a place in this setting. Unlike other worlds and time periods the non-humans of Historica Arcanum have been forced into hiding, relying upon magic, disguises, and hidden communities to avoid persecution. Some, such as elves and halflings, have an easier time walking the streets of Istanbul with strategically-placed cloaks and hats or a cover story for why their non-human features look that way. More overtly nonhuman races, such as dragonborn and tieflings, must resort to more full-body disguises.
The dragonborn have similar origins as dragons, although their particular lineages came during the collapse of Bronze Age Empires. Dwarves were humans who turned to magic to survive the Ice Age, the elven lineages are differing results of spellcasters abusing magic to achieve immortality, the orcs were elite soldiers of the Bronze Age Sea Peoples, the halflings surviving tribes of a massacre by Qin soldiers during the Battle of Changping, gnomes were monks and scholars of the Shang dynasty whose forms were altered from magical research, and tieflings are the children of parents and ancestors who turned to pact magic.
Running a Story in Istanbul covers the more mundane aspects of life in the City of Crescent, being closer to how life was back then without the backdrop of magical conspiracies. Istanbul has gone by many names, but what people across eras and cultures could agree on was that it is the jewel of the Mediterranean, a bastion of knowledge, trade, and history. After the conquests of 1453, the Ottomans viewed themselves as continuing on the legacy, the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire being absorbed and reborn under their rule.
But the Ottoman Empire’s greatest days are behind it: few doubt this fact, but the reasons as to why and how to reverse it, if possible, are of great debate. The current government sought a path of modernization, to refurbish their social and political infrastructure along with aspects of Westernization in the hopes of drawing upon more successful European practices. Such reforms are not without controversy among traditionalists, and one such consequence was the violent destruction of the Janissary Corps in an Auspicious Incident that would go down in infamy.
This sections’ entries are broken up into various subject matters: how magic is viewed by the general populace (shirk, wichcraft, tools of wicked folk, but people still use them discreetly), where do the non-human races congregate (in the Undercity), a common list of aristocratic and governmental titles, common exclamations and loanwords (such as Insallah meaning “God wills it,” basically “I hope”), common names for inhabitants based on ethnicity and religion, and recent major events (such as the Tanzimat Reforms and Crimean War). These entries also go into detail on common occupations by economic class as well as what people in said economic groups commonly wear, do for fun,* where they get their news from, and general education level and likelihood in being multilingual.
*There’s even skill checks and very brief mini-games provided for such events, from shadowplays to bidding on rare items at auctions. We even have a table for less leisurely activities, such as skill challenges for chase scenes involving rooftop jumping, underground passages, and horse carriages!
Speaking of languages, the book mentions that Istanbul, and the Ottoman Empire at large, is a very heterogeneous society. Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Slavs, and a multitude of other ethnicities and nationalities are a common presence in the city, and minority groups are more likely to be fluent in their native tongues and less likely to be secular on account of adhering to their cultural traditions in lieu of assimilation. The book also notes likely reasons why people from certain countries would be visiting Istanbul for both PCs and NPCs.
The Lies We Told: One of the appendices in back discusses the creative liberties the authors took in regards to real-world history. For instance, Istanbul wouldn’t become the city’s official name until the 1920s, and it was more popularly called Constantinople during the 19th Century. This was done to be a catch-all more in line with an international audience. Additionally, the current year isn’t clearly defined, and events from the early to late 19th century have been squeezed closer together. But the aesthetic and technology of the adventure is in line with the 1850s.
While it will go into greater detail in the next chapter, the book makes a brief note on changes for languages and equipment. Those PCs who would know Common in other settings are fluent in Turkish, French,* and Arabic. Proficiency in exotic/rare languages instead nets proficiency in a dead language, while other languages such as Dwarvish and Elvish let the PC choose another living language in the world. While the book still uses the copper/silver/gold standard, the closest equivalents at this time would be akcha (silver piece), para (gold piece), and Ottoman Lira (1 platinum piece). A more accurate economic interpretation would be where 1 Ottoman Lira is equal to 100 kurush, and 1 kurush is 40 para,** but the writers are going with the more convenient 1/10/100 progression.
*Many wealthy Ottomans are Francophiles, and it is from that country that many Westernization attempts are modeled after at this time.
**I suppose they could’ve made the kurush the electrum piece standard in being the oddly-fitting currency a lot of gamers have headaches about.
Additionally, there are reflavored versions as well as alternate lists for weapons and armor, given that the 19th Century has traded in the bow and plate armor for firearms and lighter protective gear. Anyone who is proficient in martial weapons is proficient in firearms.
Just looking at these tables of new weapons and armor, we can make some comparisons. Steel vests are equivalent to half plate armor, but cheaper and let you maintain stealth along with being partially bulletproof. Buff coats are also more appealing than any light armor and some medium for similar reasons. In regards to weapons, firearms stand out the most. Handguns of both types deal shortbow damage but are much more expensive and have longer range increments. The Tufeq is also longer-range than a longbow, but like the handgun and crossbows it must be reloaded so you can’t make multiple attacks with it in a round. Early shotguns are pretty damaging, but have a much lower range than a heavy crossbow although they can shoot twice before needing to be reloaded instead of once. Furthermore, all weapons with the Gunpowder property are very damaging; if they roll the maximum number on a damage die result, the die is rerolled and that new value is added on top of the previous damage. As the text doesn’t specify weapon die damage, this can be really good for Rogues with Sneak Attack.
While one may say such gear is “overpowered” in comparison to Core 5e equipment, it’s not the kind that can wildly throw off encounter balance and does line up with encouraging PCs to gear up with less outdated items.
Thoughts So Far: Historica Arcanum is off to a strong start. The setting is a novel one you don’t see very often in Dungeons & Dragons, and the authors do a great job setting up the initial concept while giving brief yet informative descriptions on daily life in the city. The weak points are that the initial artwork is simple and sparse,* and while there is some variance a lot of the fantasy monsters and races feel a bit too similar in being variations of “a wizard did it” in their origin, even if the monsters or magic come from unique backgrounds or ways of expressing said magic.
I don’t know how to feel about making firearms into martial weapons. The proliferation of guns was partly due to their ease of use in comparison to bows, and you get some odd choices like Rogues being able to use hand crossbows but not pistols. There’s also the fact that handguns don’t have the light property but there is a feat and several cases in the book where NPCs are dual-wielding them, so I feel that this is an oversight.
*It gets a lot more detailed in the following chapters, particularly Chapter 3 onwards.
Join us next time as we cover Chapter 2 and learn how to make a character!
Making a character in Historica Arcanum is similar to making a character in other 5th Edition campaigns. The main difference is that PCs can choose any firearm as a martial weapon for starting equipment, and there are some general questions for story hooks for characters based on their race, class, and where they come from. We get a table of Background Ideas for why they’re accompanying Osman Hamdi Bey, the Royal Polymath, on his expedition to some Trojan ruins in the Mediterranean.
For new material, we have 25 spells, 28 magic items, 5 feats, a new subclass for every OGL class save Ranger,* and a Spell Rebound table reflecting the dangers of shredding reality via using too much magic at once. I won’t cover every spell and magic item due to volume, only the ones that are more notable and interesting.
*we get a second warlock one to make up for that.
For the spells, the vast majority are within the casting range of the expected level range for this adventure path, with only 4 being above 6th level. In terms of classes there is a bias towards the primary arcane casters. The Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard get access to 14, 18, and 17 spells respectively, with the Bard getting much less at 7. The nature-themed classes are short-shafted, with the Druid only knowing 1 and the Ranger none. For the divine classes the Cleric gets access to 16 and the Paladin 6, which are respectable amounts.
Some of the spells are themed around Djinn: Detect Djinn is self-explanatory, Djinnstrike can afflict psychic damage and a variety of powerful negative effects on a failed save (ranging from being unable to speak or disadvantage on all ability checks), Exorcise Djinni forces said creature out of a possessed target, Solomon’s Everlasting Wish is an AoE that robs a single kind of resistance from affected enemies and makes them take that kind of damage, and Summon Zawbaw’ah/Lesser/High/Noble Djinn summons various kinds of genies into the world, who are hostile to everyone who isn’t a native of Al-Ghaib. In the case of the summoning spells, a blood sacrifice as part of the casting can protect those inside a circle of blood that the djinni in question cannot cross or do harm to those within.
Several spells involve manipulating the forces of fortune. Knot the Luck and Purifying Breath are general cantrips that place good/bad luck charms on people such as altering their fertility, or imposing minor accidents or good fortune in regular life. Faithful Guidance (1st level) lets a target make their next roll with advantage, while Nazar the Evil Eye (2nd level) has a large list of curses split up by saving throw types, such as gaining a level of exhaustion, unable to use hit dice during the next short rest, or gaining disadvantage on a general type of task. Nazar the Bead is a cantrip that imposes disadvantage on the next ability check or attack roll if a target fails a Wisdom save.
The remaining spells tend towards the subtle, being more themed around divination, protection, curses, and more folkloric kinds of magic than the more overt fireballs and fabricate. Consecrate Brethren is akin to a lesser form of Heroes’ Feast, where targets drink a sacred liquid to gain advantage on saves vs poison and disease along with 10 temporary hit points. Infernal Whispers involves cutting a cat’s eye in half to ask a question of a powerful demon who must truthfully reply. Sense the Sinner lets the caster learn about the target’s past sinful actions. Warlord’s Bond requires a piece of armor or armament blessed by a priest to add proficiency bonus to damage of the next attack made by the caster and one other ally selected by the spell (higher slots mean more allies). Two spells relate to ancient Greek philosophers known as the Sophists. Mandate of the Sophists: Avicenna grants advantage on Medicine checks and can detect the properties of natural diseases and poisons in a body, while Mandate of the Sophists: Rumi causes nearby creatures who hear your voice to make a Charisma save or immediately reveal their true form if they are using shape changing or illusion magic to conceal their true form.
For spells that stand out, Karya’s Dream Flow shares memories with up to 6 other humanoids when you all sleep, although unlike other spells it doesn’t list what classes gain access to it. Serenity of Dervish is a powerful one, where for 1 hour you gain resistance to all non-psychic damage and immunity to psychic damage; it’s partially balanced by Concentration and requires the consumption of silk worth 250 gold pieces, but at the level PCs can cast it most of them should be swimming in treasure.
For magic items, most of them require attunement (19) with 6 of those requiring specific class levels or proficiencies. Some of the items are less overtly magical and can pass as expertly crafted items, such as the Greek Flamethrower (fire-based AoE weapon), Janissary Musket (magically enhanced to overcome resistance to piercing damage), Lydian Coins (founders of minted currency that aren’t magical but their cultural significance allows their owner to use them to make a fully fair trade agreement with a seller), Talismans of Warding (most are crafted by charlatans as good luck tokens, but the real deal grant advantage on saves involving curses and possession, a permanent Protection From Evil & Good effect and lets the wearer cast Bless once per day), Reyhan Sherbet (sweet potion that gives advantage on Charisma checks for 8 hours), Rider’s Bow (+2 to damage while mounted), and Wings of Galata (mechanical contraption attached to armor that grants the wearer a fly speed for 10 minutes once per day).
A few magic items have historical significance in being attached to a famous figure. Al-Jazari’s Book of Engineering was written by a scientist in Saladin’s court and functions as a wizard’s spellbook with several conjuration spells already inside it; the Crown of Sargon was worn by the ruler of the first empire and can spend charges to cast various enchantment spells; Kopis of the Great is rumored to be the sword of Alexander the Great, granting proficiency in Intimidation and Persuasion (or double proficiency if already proficient) along with advantage on all Charisma checks; the Sword of Yakup Agha of the Janissary Hearth is a +2 scimitar that grants its wielder proficiency in Wisdom saves; and Yasevi’s Arcane Tome allows an attuned spellcaster to sacrifice hit points to regain expended spell slots up to three times per day.
The Spell Rebound Table is one of our two new sub-systems in Historica Arcanum. Using magic in Historica Arcanum is riskier than in other settings, even beyond the fact that it’s less trusted by the general public. Basically, every time a spell is cast it increases the Threshold by the level of the spell. Each caster has a Defiance Rating equal to their spellcasting ability modifier which acts similarly to hit points, representing the caster’s will to withstand the consequences of breaking reality apart. Once someone’s Defiance Rating runs out, future casting of spells apply fully to the Threshold. At certain points of Threshold (ranging from 3 to 19) the caster must make an appropriate saving throw with an effect based on the spell’s school, and higher degrees of Threshold have higher DC and more extreme effects. For example, a minor Threshold for Divination may force the caster to lose 2 random senses for 2d6 minutes, while a moderate Threshold for Illusion may cause the caster to become irrationally afraid of the target of their spell on a failed save. The most powerful Threshold effects at Severe have Terrestrial Repercussions, where the magic affects the surrounding environment on top of the caster themselves, representing an uncontrollable overflow of magic.
Threshold can be lowered by taking a short rest, and Defiance Rating is fully replenished during said rest. Supernatural effects that don’t accumulate Threshold include Cantrips, spells cast from spell scrolls, and effects that consume spell slots but aren’t spells such as a Paladin’s Smite.
So, a new risk for spellcasters that is healed during short rests and doesn’t affect cantrips? Laughs in Warlock.
Initial Thoughts: For a more serious analysis of these new rules, minor rebound effects (3) are likely to occur at any level, although major (12) effects aren’t common until middle levels and extreme and severe effects (18 and 19+) are only likely at higher levels.
A Warlock relying on Eldritch Blast is the least likely to be affected by these rules given they usually put their highest score into Charisma, and their spell slots recharge on a short rest which automatically restores their Defiance Rating and lowers the Threshold. The only time they’re likely to risk more than Minor Threshold effects is if they spam at-will invocations such as Fiendish Vigor.
A Sorcerer, by contrast, is more at risk. While they likely have a high Defiance Rating like the Warlock, they have the most spell slots of the primary caster classes and get up to 9th level as well. A 5th-level Sorcerer with an 18 Charisma has 16 levels worth of spell slots and a Defiance Rating of 4. And possibly more if they burn Sorcery Points for more slots. They’re more likely to rely on their spells in combat whereas other classes can fall back on eldritch blasts, smites, or nonmagical techniques. They may be able to safely cast 6 levels worth of spells in a particularly hard or risky battle, but if the short rests are widely spaced apart they may start getting Threshold.
Let’s take an 8th level Wizard with 20 Intelligence. They have 20 total levels worth of spell slots and a Defiance Rating of 5. They can get away with casting several 1st or 2nd level spells without problem, and with enough short rests they can stay within this comfortable area for a while. But if they’re impatient or in a risky situation and don’t have another short rest, or when they start breaking out 3rd and 4th level spells, they begin risking Threshold. In order to gain a Moderate Threshold (8) they’d have to cast 13 levels worth of spells between short rests, which is a little over half of their spell slots, discounting Arcane Recovery and magic obtained from other sources.
Let’s take an 8th level Ranger with a 14 Wisdom. Their total number of levels worth of spell slots is half, being 10 levels worth. They have a Defiance Rating of 2, and as their highest level spells are 2nd they basically can cast 2 2nd level spells (or 4 1st level spells) without worrying about Threshold. If the party spaces out their short rests the Ranger doesn’t have to worry about them at all.
But the people who take the most risk are those people who have spells from feats, magic items, and half-casters who don’t have high mental ability scores. That Necklace of Fireballs your dim-witted Barbarian has taken a fancy to? He’s going to accumulate Threshold fast.
Subclass Options is self-explanatory.
Urban Vagabonds are barbarians who serve as vigilantes in city centers, adhering to a moral code that makes them more trustworthy than the average criminal. Initially they can make an AoE fear effect on enemies within 60 feet once per rage, and at higher levels they can deal extra damage with the first attack they hit with on their turn and force the struck creature to take disadvantage on attacks made on others besides the barbarian, grant their bonus damage to allies within 20 feet along with advantage on attacks and saving throws once per rage, and at 14th level can let themselves and allies within 10 feet use their reactions to prevent damage up to the vagabond’s barbarian level once per rage.
Thoughts: The Urban Vagabond makes for a surprisingly good crowd controller and tank. Multi-target frightened condition can move enemies away, and imposing disadvantage on attacks against other characters is always appreciated. An aura that grants advantage and bonus damage helps the entire party.
Shadowactors are bards who learned to magically manipulate shadows for entertainment and more practical purposes. At 3rd level they can use sources of held light as a spellcasting focus, see in dim light of their focus as though it were bright light, and make grapple attacks with shadows in melee range. At 6th level they can claim the shadows of slain creatures to later summon where they have limited versions of the original stat block, and at 14th level such shadows can remain in existence for a longer duration (1 minute instead of 3 rounds) and the bard can transfer half damage suffered to a shadow as a reaction.
Thoughts: The initial 3rd level features aren’t so hot; the shadow-grappling has potential as it’s a melee spell attack, meaning that grappler bards can focus purely on Charisma. They are limited by Bardic Inspiration uses for this particular type of grapple, however. The ability to summon the shadows of slain opponents can be pretty powerful depending on what creatures are slain. While the shadows cannot cast spells with verbal and material components, that is their only real limit; legendary actions, lair actions, and legendary resistance are certainly within the rules, although this may wear out your DM’s patience so ask them ahead of time!
Realitymenders are clerics dedicated to repairing the tears in reality that come from reckless use of spellcasting, and specialize in countering all kinds of supernatural effects. They gain a bonus to their Defiance Rating at certain levels in Cleric, and their domain spells are a mixture of divination and anti-magic effects such as banishment, counterspell, dispel evil and good, and silence. At 1st level they gain proficiency with a knowledge-based skill, the Resistance cantrip, and can detect Celestial, Fey, Fiend, and Undead creatures within 60 feet like a Paladin’s sense. At 2nd level their channel divinity imposes a curse on a wide variety of supernatural creature types for 1 minute, suffering disadvantage on spells the cleric casts on them. At 6th level they can cast counterspell and dispel magic effects at higher spell slots automatically, at 8th and 14th they deal extra radiant damage on weapon attacks, and at 17th level they can give their allies magical shields as a reaction that a bonus on saves vs magical effects equal to your Wisdom modifier.
Thoughts: Ironically the Realitymender makes for a good “pure caster” Cleric with their bonus to Defiance Ratings. Their domain spells are pretty broadly useful, and their Channel Divinity is useful against a lot of creature types. They aren’t as useful when fighting against more mundane opponents, but in being a Cleric they should still have a few spells up their sleeves to handle this.
The Circle of Nazar are druids who learn about the Evil Eye to protect mortals from all manner of wicked magic. Their bonus spells are a mixture of divination and protection related magic, such as Divination, Lesser and Greater Restoration, Protection From Evil & Good, and Exorcise Djinni. Initially they can detect various supernatural effects on a creature by touch, learn either Spare the Dying or Purifying Breath cantrip they can cast as a bonus action, and can spend a WIld Shape feature to remove Djinnspeak and evil eye cantrip effects from a target. At higher levels they can regain a portion of expended spell slots when casting Remove Curse of Exorcise the Djinni spells along with Wild Shape uses, can cast certain protective magic faster, as rituals, and/or without expensive material components, become immune to possession, and at 14th level they can cast Banishment and target up to 3 creatures this way, who suffer disadvantage on the save if they are of certain creature types (fiends, fey, undead, celestial, or djinn).
Thoughts: This druid is rather specialized in that much of their class features are reactive and key off of specific effects which relate to undoing curses and possession. Although iconic, djinni aren’t that common an encounter type in the adventure path by default, and some of the more climactic battle encounters don’t make use of the Nazar’s favored creature types which knocks a few points off of it. There’s also the fact that Osman Hamdi Bey, a recurring ally of the PCs, knows several spells the Nazar druid can use, which makes them less irreplaceable.
The Janissary Fighter is perhaps the most iconic occupation of the Ottoman conquests. Their once unmatched martial prowess was becoming eclipsed by European militaries, and after their violent disbandment they now work in the shadows for crime lords and other shady figures.
At 3rd level they gain access to new and existing Fighting Style options, and two times per long rest they learn Hidden Vigor, which lets them reroll a missed attack roll as a bonus action. At higher levels, such as 10th and 18th, they can use them more often and restore them on a short rest. At 7th level they master the iconic Ottoman Slap, an unarmed strike made as a bonus action that deals greater than normal damage for its type and can stun the target on a failed save (doesn’t specify the ability score). It says that the PC can use it a number of times equal to half their proficiency bonus, but not whether this is per short rest or long rest. At 15th level their special fighting style grants additional bonuses (usually a further +1 to attack or damage rolls).
Thoughts: The Fighter is a rather underpowered class, so its subclasses really need to step up their game in order to be attractive choices, like we see with Battlemaster, Rune Knight, and Echo Knight. Unfortunately the Janissary’s abilities feel lacking in comparison to these existing options, with most of them revolving around being able to reroll missed attacks which are nice to have but don’t have that wow factor. The Ottoman Slap is a pretty good bonus attack with appreciable damage and a nice stun condition, but its lack of a specific saving throw and refresh rate is a rather glaring typo and thus its real utility will depend on DM Fiat in presuming what save makes sense to them. For what it’s worth, NPC Janissaries force a Constitution save and regain uses after a long rest (save for Ahra, who is a special NPC).
Whirling Dervish Monks are mystics who seek enlightenment by practicing rhythmic motions and chants to temporarily sever their link with reality. Initially they gain bonus proficiencies in Performance and a musical instrument of choice, and can perform one of three special dances with a variety of effects such as swapping spaces with a nearby ally or avoiding opportunity attacks by spending extra movement. At 6th level they can spend 2 ki points as a reaction to gain +5 AC until the beginning of their next turn, at 11th level they can enter a trance once per long rest for a minute where attacks cannot have advantage against them, they cannot suffer disadvantage on melee attacks, and they make Acrobatics and Athletics checks with advantage. At 17th level they can become one with the cosmos for 1 minute, gaining resistance to all non-physical damage types and advantage on saves vs spells and the very broad “similar effects.”
Thoughts: Being able to avoid opportunity attacks and gain +5 AC are some pretty powerful defensive features for a monk; it’s akin to casting the Shield spell. The 11th level trance can be useful for grappler builds via the advantage on Athletics, and it lasting for 1 minute is pretty much the duration for most battles. However, they don’t have the wider utility of some other monk subclasses out of combat, such as the Way of Shadow’s sneaky nature and limited teleportation or Mercy’s healing arts. The Way of the Astral Self also has a much longer combat buff of 10 minutes.
Paladins gain additional abilities in regards to djinn. Lay on Hands can cure djinnstruck* effects, Divine Smite’s extra damage applies to djinn as well as fiends and undead, and they can sense creatures of the djinn type with Divine Sense.
*This is a new pseudo-condition that comes from coming into contact with djinnis and can be cured like a curse or via Lay on Hands. A djinnstruck creature loses control over basic music movements as well as their own speech, either talking in gibberish, Djinnspeak, or uttering the names of the djinn lords.
Oath of Silence Paladins are aware of the necessity of secrets, particularly when it comes to the supernatural lurking in the shadows of humanity. Their tenets are very vague and more personality traits than moral conduct (“do not deny the facts, swallow the truth and accept it,” “do not jump to conclusions, think twice, walk once”) but their oath forbids them from verbally speaking.
Their oath spells tend towards divination and defense. Their channel divinity options include not suffering disadvantage from stealth due to armor for 10 minutes and silencing 3 creatures of your choice within 60 feet for 1 minute if they fail a Charisma save. They can also ignore the verbal components of any spells by substituting a somatic component if it doesn’t have one…and they can telepathically communicate with up to five other targets within 30 feet along with resistance to thunder damage. Wow, talk about a front-loaded subclass!
At higher levels they can cast the Silence spell once per short or long rest and they and allies within 10 feet can convert the damage of their weapon attacks to thunder damage, cause enemies who strike them to take thunder damage, and at 20th level their special form grants resistance to elemental damage types, immunity to thunder damage, deals additional thunder damage with weapon attacks, and can give their elemental resistances to an ally for 1 round as a reaction.
Thoughts: The inability to speak is partially made up for via telepathy, although the text says that the words and images are “on a very primitive level” which can be a pretty big hindrance depending on how it’s role-played out. Substituting verbal for somatic components isn’t as good for a paladin on account that it’s likely for them to be using two-handed weapons or sword and board fighting styles, and their 7th level aura that does bonus thunder damage is rather weak in comparison to other subclasses such as Ancients or Crown. Being able to cast silence is a nice way to shut down spellcasters, and at 5th level they gain spirit guardians which is a very nice spell, but I don’t know if that makes up for other stuff.
The Secret Service are Rogues who act as all-purpose spies and fixers. At 3rd level they gain proficiency in one skill of their choice, can substitute Intelligence for Wisdom on Perception checks, make an unarmed strike at 1d4 damage as a reaction to being attacked in melee, and can choose from 1 of 3 False Backgrounds representing their social circles: Underground Contacts gives them broad access to safe houses, half price on various criminal goods such as weapons and poisons, and access to forged documents; Secret Collector is extremely broad and vague, basically being “you can collect secrets on a character you direct your minions to research;” and Arcane Tracker places you in contact with spellcasters who can help identify magic items and curses and give half prices on such services. At 9th level they can select a second False Background, at 13th level once per long rest can treat an Insight roll as a 15 for detecting lies, and at 17th level can cast True Sight to 10 feet, Disguise Self, and Invisibility once per day each.
Thoughts: This is one of those “role-play heavy” options in an RPG, where player skill and DM Fiat really determine this class’ effectiveness. But even overall, it’s pretty weak in that it doesn’t give you anything mechanically meaty for most of its progress. An unarmed strike as a reaction may be useful if it triggers Sneak Attack, but there many other ways for a Rogue to gain reaction-based Sneak Attack damage. The half price on goods and bonus skill are the only real explicit abilities you get for much of its career, and by 17th level the bonus spells are woefully underpowered for the level at which they’re gained.
Djinnpossessed Sorcerers are perhaps the most unfortunate sorcerers of all: they are forced to share their body with a djinn! Most of the time the sorcerer is being hijacked by the djinn, with rare moments of the mortal soul regaining control. However, in terms of gameplay this is more for RP flavor as the player has full control of their PC. Their bonus spells are on the offensive debuff side, such as Hold Person, Bestow Curse, Black Tentacles, and Insect Plague. At 1st level they learn the language of djinnis (Djinnspeak) and can expend a 1st level spell slot to make a touch attack against an enemy to deliver one of three debuffs (cannot speak for an hour, gain a level of exhaustion, or suffer disadvantage on saves in dim light and darkness for an hour). At 6th level once per long rest the djinn can leave the sorcerer’s body as a summoned creature with the same stats as the sorcerer, although they’re more limited in the actions they can do. At 14th level they can lay a curse on a foe as a bonus action imposing disadvantage on their next saving throw a number of times equal to their proficiency bonus per long rest, and at 18th level can take the true form of a djinn for 1 minute once per long rest. In this form they can fly, have advantage on saves vs all spells and recover hit points when they resist a spell, and whenever they use a damaging spell they have a 50% chance to deal the maximum damage.
This class has an optional feature based on campaign appropriateness but fits in with the flavor of the subclass. The djinn’s presence is harmful to mortal bodies, as the two souls inside are constantly at war with each other. At certain points in a campaign, such as exorcism or the sorcerer winning the battle of wills, the PC can become a warlock with the Djinnmaster patron, although the DC for exorcism attempts increases by the number of levels you have in Sorcerer. At 6th level the sorcerer’s body begins to decay, imposing cumulative penalties over several weeks and after 1 month the body is at risk of dying with no chance of resurrection. A special ritual that is done on an unconscious humanoid body can transfer the PC to the new body. The CR of the humanoid must be half their level, so you can’t use this to gain the body of some of the more powerful PCs in this adventure path.
Thoughts: Barring the Distant Spell metamagic option or multiclassing with a sturdier class, sorcerers shouldn’t be getting into melee combat by default, which makes their Djinntouch debuff more of a backup attack. The summoned djinn is a bit limited in that it has a rather middling default melee attack (2d6 psychic damage) and can’t do many actions. The higher-level abilities are more potent, although most campaigns aren’t going to go so high.
There are Warlocks who pledge themselves to Ancient Sages, famed mortals whose works of wisdom persist far beyond their mortal lives. Their expanded spell lists are heavily divination-focused. At 1st level the warlock gains proficiency in two scholarly style skills as well as a talisman from their patron which can force a target to truthfully answer a question posed to them on a failed Wisdom save. At 6th level they can sense non-humanoids within 60 feet as a bonus action and also learn their creature type. Both this and the talisman can be used a number of times per long rest equal to their proficiency bonus. At 10th level they gain advantage on Wisdom saves vs spells and magical effects, and at 14th level they can call upon the cumulative knowledge of many mortal sages for a variety of effects: resistance to psychic damage, can speak to any “spectral undead” and advantage on Charisma checks to gather information from them, understand all spoken languages and creatures with Intelligence of 3 or higher can understand the warlock, and once per long rest can let the spirit of a sage possess their body for 1 minute that gives them advantage on spell attack rolls and imposes disadvantage on saves they make. This last part is pretty broad, as it reads “creatures that you force to make a saving throw have disadvantage on that roll.” This isn’t just spells, and can apply to all sorts of stuff such as a deadly poison the warlock used.
Thoughts: The Ancient Sage warlock makes for a pretty good diviner via their expanded spells and recovering said spells on a short rest, and their creature detection is even broader than a paladin’s. Advantage on saves vs all spells is great, and the sage possession is a pretty strong capstone feature. The ability to force a creature to answer truthfully is pretty useful for investigation-related adventures, but of more nebulous use in other types of campaigns.
Warlocks whose patron is a Djinnmaster are playing a dangerous game. There are more things you should not do regarding genies than that which you should, and while the benefits can differ, the drawbacks are uniformly awful to those who displease them. But even so people throughout history still make deals with them.
Their expanded spell list is mostly debuffs with some divination. At 1st level they gain proficiency in Arcana or another Intelligence skill if already proficient, and once per short or long rest can gain a +10 bonus to checks about Al-Ghaib by asking their patron about it. Also at 1st level they can let their patron temporarily possess their body once per long rest as a bonus action for 1 minute, dealing bonus force damage on all melee and ranged damage rolls (ranging from 1d6 to 3d8 depending on their level). At 6th level a number of times per long rest equal to their proficiency bonus any caster using divination or enchantment on the warlock must make a Wisdom save or take 1d6 psychic damage for every level of the spell they used. And once per long rest the warlock can show a fraction of their patron’s true form as a multitarget ability that can impose the frightened condition. At 10th level the warlock can spend a spell slot or mystic arcanum use as a reaction to reduce the damage of an incoming attack by 2d8 or a number of d8s equal to the spell level of Mystic Arcanum. And finally at 14th level once per long rest the warlock can make their patron possess a humanoid body within 60 feet, being equivalent to a Dominate Person spell but can’t use their other subclass abilities while the effect lasts.
And just like the Djinnpossessed, this subclass comes with an optional feature where they must make a Charisma save every time they gain a level in warlock; if they fail three saves then the djinn takes control of their body, where they swap out their warlock levels for Djinnpossessed Sorcerer.
The Djinnmaster also has a unique pact boon, the Pact of the Eye. It grants +2 to Passive Perception, Blindsight out to 10 feet, and a number of times their proficiency bonus per short or long rest can gain choose from a list of enhanced sensory capabilities: 120 foot darkvision for 10 minutes, can detect curses, diseases, and unholy or holy places within 60 feet, can see invisible and shapechanging creatures for 1 minute, and can detect extraplanar influence from Al-Ghaib (or the Ethereal/Astral Plane in other settings).
Thoughts: The bonus force damage is so, so good, even if it’s limited use. It really enhances what the warlock is already good at in being a DPS machine. The higher level abilities are still fine but not as useful, and the 14th level capstone ability is rather underwhelming in that it’s a free use of a 5th level spell but at a heavy cost.
The Pact Boon is pretty good and open-ended; refreshing on short rest means that a djinnmaster warlock can afford to be liberal in its uses, and the list covers a broad variety of detection effects.
But that’s not all the Warlocky goodness we get! We also get 6 new invocations. Way of the Sage grants you proficiency in Arcana and History (ho-hum), Dead Spirits Abound lets you sense undead within 300 feet (highly contextual based on the campaign), Touch of the Eye lets you cast Nazar The Evil Eye* once per day without a spell slot (I’ve seen better), Voices of Al-Ghaib lets you a number of times per proficiency bonus per rest detect fiends, feys, and djinn within 30 feet and not behind total cover as a bonus action (also contextual), and Sense the Vile lets you cast Sense the Sinner once per day without a spell slot (another average one).
*the text reads it as just Nazar, so I presume it’s this spell and not the Bead cantrip.
But the last invocation, Maddening Blast, is really good. A number of times per proficiency bonus (doesn’t specify short or long rest) you can force a creature hit by your eldritch blast to suffer disadvantage on their next attack roll. Even if it’s long rest based this is good, because most warlocks are going to be reliably using eldritch blasts for most of their career.
Stargazers are wizards who research the Zodiac constellations to learn about time and destiny. Initially they can weave one of twelve Zodiac signs on a creature within 60 feet a number of times per long rest equal to their proficiency bonus. The Zodiacs are a diverse array of positive benefits, such as making the target auto-succeed on their next save vs the frightened condition, resistance to one damage type from any source for 1 minute, or making the next melee attack against them suffer disadvantage. A Stargazer has access to all 12 Zodiacs initially, meaning they aren’t limited in which ones they can potentially use. They also automatically learn bonus spells as they level up which count as prepared spells for them, such as Augury and Legend Lore.
At 6th level during a long rest while watching the stars, they can choose from one of three effects: grant advantage to allies a number of times equal to half your Intelligence modifier (round up), cast certain divination spells once without expending a spell slot, or learn the intentions of a creature within 60 feet if they fail a Wisdom save. At 10th level they regain the use of making Zodiac signs if they have none remaining and roll for initiative, and at 14th level once per long rest they can call on the power of the stars for one minute. In this form they gain True Sight out to 30 feet, are resistant to radiant and psychic damage, and can throw up to 5 glowing orbs as damaging ranged attacks that dispel invisibility.
Thoughts: Much like the default Wizard, the Stargazer subclass gives the player a diverse set of tools for all manner of occasions. The broadness of the Zodiacs are useful for most scenarios, along with bonus casting of divination spells. The 14th level star-throwing ability feels a bit out of left-field, being both overtly supernatural and offensive in comparison to the earlier class features.
Our new Feat options relate specifically to the 19th Century Near Eastern fantasy vibe the campaign is going for. Firearm Expert is basically Crossbow Expert but with handguns, the Fortune-Teller lets you cast a specialized version of Augury whose fortunes make a prediction about a target’s fate within 30 minutes via an obscure omen. Urban Hunter grants proficiency (or double proficiency) in Survival or Investigation as well as learning a creature’s type when searching, tracking, or analyzing clues about someone. Strong Breath gives your breath magical healing, being able to cast either Purifying Breath or Guidance as a cantrip and Exorcise Djinni or Remove Curse once per day. Djinn’s Foul Touch comes from those who made contact with a djinn, but it’s strangely worded.
Djinn’s Foul Touch: You were once in contact with a djinn. This event affected you in the following ways:
• You learn evil eye, knot the luck, or viscious mockery cantrips.
• You can cast nazar or bestow curse once a day, without using a spell slot. You can’t do so again until you finish a long rest.
Nazar the Evil Eye is a 2nd level spell, not a cantrip. I presume they mean Nazar the Bead. Also Nazar by itself I presume is meant to be the Evil Eye for the once per day spell. I should note that gaining Bestow Curse via a feat is really strong; if you’re a Variant Human you may be able to cast a 3rd level spell at 1st level!
The Profession System is our second sub-system for Historica Arcanum. They are basically super-Backgrounds, giving PCs special abilities as they increase in rank. Professions start at Rank 1, and performing activities in line with the Profession nets you PEX (Professional Experience) which increases your Rank and which can be spent to buy special abilities. Rank 4 is the maximum.
The Professions follow a universal system: Professional Experience lines up with the Challenge Rating of adversaries and tasks related to tasks for their furtherance, with the difficulty mostly determined by DM Fiat or existing tables based on the Profession at hand. During Downtime PCs can perform activities related to their profession, which either automatically grant them gold pieces or they can spend gold pieces to earn an equal number of PEX. Professions can only be taken at 3rd level, or at 1st level if a PC chooses from one of the new Backgrounds in line with said Professions. Each Profession has a Magnum Opus, an open-ended quest marking the pinnacle of their career and which is typically done once they are at Rank 4 (the maximum Rank). A Bounty Hunter’s Magnum Opus may involve them tracking down and capturing/killing a lifelong foe, while an Alchemist’s Magnum Opus may involve brewing a Philosopher’s Stone type potion that imparts some powerful effect. Completing a Magnum Opus grants a unique reward to the character, and at Rank 4 a Profession grants a unique ability for free related to them becoming well-respected among their peers, as well as Stories of the Past. This latter ability lets the character grant a number of free Inspiration equal to their proficiency bonus once per day to those who listen to their tales.
We’ve got six Professions for enterprising PCs.
Bounty Hunters count all manner of men and monsters as their quarry, and in learning the hunt have a variety of tricks up their sleeve. They earn PEX for turning in bounties, and their purchasable abilities include proficiency in a certain skill related to tracking people, brewing and buying special potions such as granting darkvision or enhanced speed and endurance when out of combat, can buy equipment specialized for hunting monsters (such as cold iron and silver weapons) at half price, and gaining advantage vs various conditions and attack types against a target which they are currently hunting. Their more powerful abilities include being able to buy items such as Igniter Bombs and Antimagic Bolas, and their Rank 4 ability grants themselves and the group they’re traveling with immunities to various things such as being surprised and reduced speed in difficult terrain.
Burglars are experts at breaking into secured places, often for the purposes of obtaining ill-gotten wealth. They gain PEX for each act of thievery they perform, and their purchasable abilities include automatically learning information about guards (when do they sleep, who can be bribed/blackmailed, etc) when scoping out an area for 24 hours, lowering lockpicking DCs by 5, obtaining special bags that increase carrying capacity, and advantage on certain skill checks when on a heist. Their more powerful abilities include being able to purchase magical talismans that can create poisons or swords that can break off in a target’s body to deal damage over time, and their Rank 4 ability makes them the leader of a thieves’ guild that comes with a variety of social benefits along with insurance for a resurrection spell (you’ll owe your guild a debt).
Alchemists learn to combine various substances together to make almost-magical potions and chemical devices. They gain PEX for brewing potions based on their Rarity, and unlike other Professions this means of PEX earning costs you gold rather than something done for free or for profit. Their purchasable abilities include decreasing the cost to brew potions by certain percentages and being able to brew a large variety of potions and poisons: healing hit points, buffs of various kinds such as breathing underwater or Giant Strength equivalents, poison damage and debuffs such as blindness and unconsciousness, and so on. All of these abilities come with a base price for creation/buying. Their Rank 4 ability lets them be able to brew potions of Very Rare quality.
Antiquarians are historians who specialize in magical items. They, alongside burglars and archeologists, are the most likely types to delve into ruins and dungeon-type environments on the hunt for lost relics and knowledge. They gain PEX for each magical item they recover from such environments, with values based on the item rarity. Their purchasable abilities include being able to cast Detect Magic and Identify as rituals, can attune to magical items faster, gain advantage/double proficiency in History checks when spending at least 8 hours in a library, can keep an expended charge from a spell scroll if they make a successful Arcana check, and resistance against certain damage types from traps. Their most powerful features include being able to cast various divination spells once per day, and their Rank 4 ability lets them ignore any restrictions for attuning to an item.
Archeologists delve into ruins like Antiquarians and Burglars, but they do so for knowledge rather than wealth and power. They gain PEX for artifacts (not the magic item type) they recover and restore from such places. The DM is the judge on the rarity of such artifacts, although there is a sample table that assigns PEX based on their age. Their purchasable abilities include advantage on Investigation and Survival checks for determining directions, learning Alarm or Comprehend Languages as a ritual spell, or gaining proficiency with the whip and advantage on climbing checks using a grappling hook.* Their more powerful features include being able to buy special talismans that can supernaturally restore broken and aged objects and communicate with non-hostile incorporeal undead. Their Rank 4 feature makes them a prestigious member of the Archeologists Association, providing them with a variety of contacts worldwide and free mundane transportation methods to any dig site.
*Indiana Jones, a century early!
Spies are criminals legitimized by the power of their patron state. They operate in foreign territory, on the lookout for ways to destroy their nation’s enemies. They gain PEX based on the magnitude of secrets which they uncover and deliver, with a sample table. Their purchasable abilities include gaining proficiency in Thieves’ Tools or Disguise Kits, advantage on Persuasion checks against those belonging to high society (nobles, merchants) or low (criminals, pirates, guardsmen). Their more powerful features include gaining advantage on saving throws and skill checks to resist torture, divination, and enchantment spells, and can buy a special Talisman that can be used on a guardsman or government official to aid you during a time of crisis. Their rank 4 feature places them at the leader of a spy cell, gaining resurrection insurance like a Burglar along with safehouses and various social benefits.
Thoughts: While I do appreciate the Professions being keyed to concepts that make for easy adventuring backgrounds, they are mixed in implementation which can determine their effectiveness in play. The City of Crescent default adventure isn’t heavy on dungeon crawls, being more geared towards urban intrigue, which hurts the Antiquarian and Archeologist. While the alchemist has access to some pretty powerful items, they have to spend a lot more gold than other Professions to even use their abilities. I can easily see a Burglar PC trying every opportunity they can to Sleight of Hand or justify looting the bodies of fallen opponents as an act of thievery, which can make their PEX gains far higher than the other Professions. The Antiquarian’s features are of much more situational use, and their resistance towards only certain damage types from traps is rather weak. However, their ability to potentially reuse spell scrolls provides a nifty way around Spell Rebounds, as that’s the only magic item that doesn’t generate Threshold for the user.
My favorite Profession is perhaps the Bounty Hunter. Ironically their abilities are perhaps the broadest use in the default City of Crescent adventure path, on account that a lot of them are broadly useful in both investigation and straight combat, along with broad-purpose “monster hunting” stuff.
Thoughts So Far: This chapter leaves me with mixed feelings. I like how the spells and magic items help reinforce the urban fantasy themes of conspiracy and intrigue that the setting emphasizes. I feel that I cannot fully judge the Spell Rebound rules until I test them out in play, but they seem more a slight restriction than a crippling penalty.
The subclasses and professions make me rather iffy. Among the subclasses we have some strong options in the Urban Vagabond, Shadowactor Bard, Realitymender Cleric, Whirling Dervish Monk, Stargazer Wizard, and both Warlock patrons. The rest of them ranged from situationally useful based on campaign type or clever build, such as the Circle of Nazar Druid, while the Janissary Fighter and Secret Service Rogue left me the coldest. I already went into detail on the balance of the Professions. There’s also the fact that several areas could use another editing pass, such as the Ottoman Slap lacking a specific save type or the Maddening Blast Invocation not mentioning the refresh rate for rests.
Join us next time as we get an overview on urban fantasy Istanbul and the movers and shakers in the upcoming adventure path in Chapter 3: The City of Crescent!
This chapter is actually the longest one of the book, covering the DM-facing material along with the adventure path itself. The latter is split up into four acts, but for this post we’ll cover the major locations, characters, and broad timeline of the adventure.
Oddly enough, there is a fancy-looking map of Istanbul as the cover for this section, but it’s not in handout form but an in-universe view which makes it impractical for use. While there are real-world maps of the city at this time, it would still be nice to have had a proper handout given that we’re also covering locations that aren’t necessarily real to life.
Locations covers the more interesting places in the City of Crescent. Just about every location of note includes italicized boxed text setting the mood and providing first impressions for their inhabitants.
We first cover the Undercity, that subterranean community of elves, tieflings, and others who cannot walk openly on the streets of Istanbul. There are five major entrances into it throughout town: a hidden door in a spice shop in the Grand Bazaar, in the Valens Aqueduct provided someone presses certain bricks in the proper order, a third under a trapdoor whose location is marked by the shadow of the Theodosius Obelisk at 4 PM, a hidden staircase in the Pearl (the city’s most famous brothel), and a passageway in the Court Restaurant which also sells magical consumable foods to those in the know.
The Undercity itself is an expansive and lively place. The Misty Pond is a large fluorescent body of water lined with enchanted candles that never go out, serving as the community’s primary source of water, while the mazelike Thieves’ Bazaar is Istanbul’s primary black market has a stunning array of magical gear for sale. The Shapeshifter is a clothing and costume shop specializing in disguises for nonhuman residents, and the Retired Refugee is a weapons shop run by a dragonborn as old as the Undercity itself. The Ermeydani is a fighting ring where contestants fight in battles to unconsciousness and even death, and PCs who seek to participate can fight a variety of warriors, mages, and even monsters. The Spectral Hippodrome is the other popular form of entertainment, where the ghosts of Roman chariot racers compete against each other to the delight of residents. And then there is the Headquarters of the Ghost of March, the Undercity’s rising star, a school-turned-fortress for his upcoming revolution.
And yes, we get specific items, prices, and even NPCs for the above shops and fighting tournaments. This isn’t just flavor text!
This is one thing I like about the art: even in daytime scenes the use of lighting and shadows still gives that ever present sense of darkness, in keeping with this setting’s themes of occult secrets lurking beneath the veil of normalcy.
As for the above-ground neighborhoods, we have the upper class Pera District with an Art Noveau style, where the rich and powerful mingle in balls, cafes, and art museums. It is here that Giannis the Cut, one of Istanbul’s most notorious crime lords, lives in a mansion that contains a storehouse of magical items. The Grand Bazaar is crowded during all times of day, even with 21 gates leading into it. Even though it’s not in the Undercity, enterprising PCs can find things of interest to buy here: Olden Star Antiques sells well-loved objects, furniture, and magical talismans for the curious eye, while Daniel the Trap Maker sells hunting supplies that are suitable for animals, people, and even monsters. And the Chained Inn looks normal on the surface, but in reality its human owners take orders from the cats of the Council of Ninth Life, whose members hide in plain sight as they lounge about and purr, hearing secrets from loose lips of humans who figure them to be mere animals.
Note: Cats are a pretty popular animal worldwide, but they have a special place in Istanbul. Originally imported into the city to counter the rat population, street cats can be found roaming just about everywhere and are well-fed in spite of their feral status.
The Imperial Peninsula is the core of the Ottoman Empire. The ruling Sultan and other high-ranking nobles live here in Topkapı Palace and stately manors, along with the city’s most famous religious locations such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The place with the most detail in this section is the house of Osman Hamdi Bey, the Royal Polymath and primary employer of the PCs for the first part of the adventure path. When the party first comes here they will be acquainted with Eshref, Osman’s talking tortoise butler and best friend who will show them around, but a secret room containing magical items will be revealed to them at a certain point in the story.
The Kasimpasha District is Istanbul’s rough section of town. The city’s poor congregate here, and the government deigns to ignore them for the most part. As a consequence, the various gangs and organized crime syndicates hold the reins of power here. The surviving Janissaries established a hideout in this district known as Banished Angels. The entrance is cleverly concealed between two unfinished and empty houses, and a labyrinth full of dead ends that helps throw off would-be intruders.
Timeline & Synopsis of the Whole Story summarizes the major events surrounding the City of Crescent adventure path. As I will be going into detail on the adventure in my next few posts and we learn about some of the backstory elements in the following section, I won’t be repeating myself.
This provides 14 NPCs of significance in the City of Crescent and the following adventures along with artwork and stat blocks. Not all of them are of equal magnitude in regards to the plot, and a few are hardly mentioned at all, so I’ll place emphasis on the big picture and recurring characters.
The Ghost of March, Alemdar Pasha is many things. He once served as a proud military commander and Vizier to the Ottoman Empire, but now finds himself at odds with the crown he once served. He and Sultan Mahmoud II sought to reform Ottoman society, with Alemdar focusing on the military. Mahmoud feared a backlash from the Janissaries and put a halt to the changes, and it wasn’t long before the Empire’s elite soldiers retaliated against Alemdar by laying siege to his mansion. Fearing such a response, Alemdar ignited the vast stores of gunpowder beneath his home, killing Alemdar, his guards, and hundreds of Janissaries.
That happened in real life. In this alternate timeline, Alemdar miraculously survived, his burnt, mangled body falling into the tunnels of the Undercity. The nonhumans and mages nursed him back to health, and he quickly rose to leadership among them after killing a corrupt elven warlord. Now known as the Ghost of March, he founded a paramilitary group known as the Sekban-i Cedit, or Sekbans for short. The Ghost now desires revenge on the government and vows to bring equality to the downtrodden peoples, magical and non-magical.
The Ghost of March has a complicated relationship with Ahra, the Wolf at the Door, and the Janissary Remnants. They too were betrayed by the government they served, but Alemdar’s explosion killed many of their comrades in arms, including the Wolf’s father. While the Ghost recognizes the validity of an alliance, an outstretched hand will have to come from someone besides his bandaged face.
The Ghost of March is a CR 13 Rogue with some minor arcane spellcasting, Blindsense, and Legendary Actions. He also wields a magical life-draining sword Kerberus and can make special Battlemaster-style maneuvers in lieu of dealing damage.
But that’s not all the Ghost of March can do. For you see, Alemdar is a shonen anime character. It’s possible that during a certain point in the story when his bandages are removed, he gets a new stat block where he trades in his Rogue-like abilities for Paladin style features. He can deal more damage with divine smite, has a higher Armor Class, and gains a new psychic weapon known as the Judge.
Haseki Sultan Bergüzar Hatun, the Seeing Eye, is perhaps the most powerful mage in the Ottoman Empire, if not all of Earth. The powers that be took notice of her talents and brought her to the Ottoman Imperial Harem, which held a secret society of women diviners who made a pact with Suleiman the Magnificent for protection; in exchange, they used their powers to steer the course of history. It won’t be long before Bergüzar is Queen, married to Padisha Mejid and serves as his counselor and voice of reason. Her magic lets her see things unknown to others, and knows that a vague yet dire fate awaits the Empire’s future. Her husband has no regard for using whatever power he has at his disposal in making his kingdom great again, but his path lies a world in ruins, the death of her son, and her dying at the hands of the PCs. During the adventure she will send cryptic dreams to the party in hopes of finding a way out of her dilemma and perhaps survive in a world worth living in.
Bergüzar’s stat block is a CR 13 (14 in lair) divination-focused wizard with legendary and lair actions. On top of her capabilities as a 15th level spellcaster, she can generate mists which can interfere with spellcasting, wears a magical cloth that acts as armor and grants immunity and resistance to psychic and force damage, and all divination spells fail against her. She is unable to use any divination spells at all if her long-lost sister Mira is within 120 feet of her, and vice versa.
The Lies We Told: The Ottoman Imperial Harem was certainly a gilded cage for its inhabitants, but it wasn’t a lurid “Orientalist sex dungeon.” And to be fair, the module doesn't portray it this way, either. The Harem included people who the Sultan wasn’t in a sexual relationship with, such as his mother and children, and the Harem trained its members in a variety of knowledge and skills as courtiers.
His Imperial majesty, Padisha Abd-ul Mejid Khan, the First of His Name of the Eternal State was born to be next in line for the Imperial Throne. Even as a child he could see the Ottoman’s grasp weakening, fading into Europe’s shadow with the growing spread of nationalist movements and political corruption fraying the seams further. The Caesar of Rum, the Caliph, the Khan of Khans among many other titles, would not let himself be the next Romulus Augustus or Constantine XI. He hopes to use his wife Bergüzar as part of a master plan to reassert the Empire’s dominance, but there is something blocking her most powerful spells: Mira, her long-lost sister.
Due to the supernatural circumstances of Mira’s birth, her presence cancels out much of Bergüzar’s own powers, so he hopes to find the source, hiring the Royal Polymath Osman Hamdi Bey and through them the PCs. However, Mira is but an innocent, and knows to reveal her location is to sign her death warrant. So he locked the memories of his findings in his encrypted journal. Once she is removed, Mejid will move on to eliminate the other threats to his rule: the Janissary Remnants and the Sekbans.
In terms of stats the Padisha is a CR 13 Paladin, with unique abilities and equipment modeled off of his noble status: for example, as the Caesar of Rum he deals bonus radiant damage with martial weapons and can give allies temporary hit points, and with the Coat of Hudavendigar he has AC 18 and resistance to poison, fire, and non-magical physical attacks. And he also has Legendary actions and the ability to reroll a failed save up to 5 times per day.
The Lies We Told: Abd-ul Mejid was known for promoting reformist policies, but in reality many of his credited works were designed and enforced by others in government. By the time he took the throne he was rather politically inexperienced.
The Royal Polymath, Osman Hamdi Bey, is a master of many trades. An artist, an archeologist, exorcist, and polyglot of dead and living languages, the Imperial court is never lacking for his aid. As of the adventure’s beginning he has been visiting various archeological dig sites in the Near East, and has hired the PCs to accompany him on an expedition to the ruins of Troy. For much of the early campaign he serves as a mentor of sorts and dispenser of knowledge to the PCs, as well as introducing them to several of the City of Crescent’s factions. Through fate and tragedy the secrets of his journal and therefore the location of Mira (detailed further below) will be the MacGuffin driving along the adventure path.
In terms of stats Osman is a CR 8 character casting spells as an 11th level wizard. He has a huge bonus in all sorts of scholarly skills, can cast several spells without expending a spell slot once per day or long rest, and adds his Intelligence modifier to initiative among other “smart person power” abilities.
Ahra, the Wolf at the Door, is the leader of the Janissary Remnants. For a thousand years they served as Guardians of the Empire, but in the relative blink of an eye they would lose it all. Cut down and shot like rabid dogs at the hands of Alemdar and other modernists, hundreds of Janissaries died in his “cowardly explosion” which took the lives of Ahra’s father.
But unlike the Ghost of March, the Wolf at the Door doesn’t want to tear down the crown that betrayed her. At least, not initially. The Janissaries have extensive knowledge of the criminal underworld as former police, and knew just how much chaos could be spread if the Empire’s former guardians were to aid them. This way, they could show the people that the Janissaries are a needed shield against the Wolves at the Door. Even so, she is not a friend to Giannis the Cut and other crime lords; she much prefers them being at each other’s throats rather than a unified front. For once it comes time for the Janissaries to reclaim their rightful place, their kind will face the gaol or the gallows.
I’d like to briefly note that Ahra’s soundtrack is by far my favorite. The music really underscores her character and double-edged mission to bring order to the Ottoman Empire via controlled chaos. In terms of stats she is a CR 9 primarily martial character with the features of a Janissary Fighter. It is through her stat block that we get a sense of said subclass’ refresh rate, for she can perform the Ottoman Slap once per short rest. However, other Janissary NPCs in the book regain their slapping powers after a long rest instead, so I presume the latter is the default.
The Lies We Told: The Janissary Corps and the Ottoman throne had clashed many times, to the point that they even violently overthrown several Sultans Praetorian Guard style. Although they were certainly anti-government during the Auspicious Incident, they weren’t pro-populist or revolutionary either. The Janissary’s ties to organized crime syndicates is a subject of debate among historians, as history is written by the victors and the government obviously held a bias against them.
Mira is the crux of many events in the adventure to come. The younger sister of Bergüzar, the two girls had a rough upbringing at the hands of an abusive father. One day it came to be too much, and Bergüzar would kill him with her magic. Mira would not walk the same path of her sister, viewing magic as something that ruined her life but also kept her safe. For years she lived in her now-decrepit childhood home, her latent supernatural talents causing the house to gain a sort of sentience and serves as her guardian. Like Bergüzar she is a powerful diviner, and it is her life that prevents the Empire’s Queen from drawing upon the most powerful divination magic her husband desires to gain an edge on his enemies. When the Royal Polymath found Mira he knew just why his employer sought her out, and refusing to condemn her to death he asked the girl to erase his memory of her location. Her fate lies within his encrypted journal, and through it she will be the lynchpin for many of the events of the adventure path.
Mira is CR 9 and purely a spellcaster, being akin to a 13th level wild magic sorcerer who can cause additional random effects every time she casts a spell. When within 120 feet of Bergüzar neither of them can cast any divination spells at all.
The following NPCs are Istanbul’s various criminal leaders and some less important characters. I won’t be as detailed in describing them barring a few interesting ones.
Giannis the Cut* belongs to the Angelopoulos family, owners of the best vineyards in the Ottoman Empire. But as the wine trade has grown less profitable the family has taken to more criminal enterprises. Giannis is the Angelopoulos patriarch, having made a warlock pact with an Ancient Sage, Carya of Laconia, and is a smuggler of many magical artifacts. His nickname comes from the saying that he has a hand in virtually every illegal enterprise in the City of Crescent. One way or another, Giannis gets his cut.
Statwise he is a CR 9 warlock who casts at 10th level. In addition to his supernatural capabilities Giannis has proficiency in a variety of mental and social skills and wields two unique weapons: a special pistol that shoots Greek Fire, and a bronze Kopis that can restore a spell slot to the attuned one once per long rest.
*This soundtrack is for the crime lords in general and not any specific one.
Image spoilered due to graphic violence
Hano the Widow is another crime lord and leader of Istanbul’s bounty hunters. However, she is of a more moral persuasion than Giannis on account of her backstory, which has some pretty big content warnings. Hano was the widow of a wealthy man and mother of a young boy. She would find love again with a suitor, who would betray her in the worst way possible.
He would take her son to be drugged and raped by men at a bathhouse in exchange for money. When she discovered the truth, she slaughtered her ex-suitor and every man responsible.
Walking out into the streets of Istanbul a bloody mess, news spread of her work, and as several of the guilty parties were notable criminals she took over their former trades. But Hano has a soft spot for women and children, and has taken to training many women in combat. Ahra once attempted to recruit her to the Janissary Remnants, but while respecting her work she declined, viewing their struggles as separate.
In terms of stats Hano is a CR 9 Barbarian with blindsight and a unique Slayer Axe which allows her to continue raging even if she doesn’t attack a creature or take damage.
Sheraf the Strong Fur is most unusual for a crime lord, much less a nonhuman. He leads the Council of Ninth Life, which consists entirely of intelligent talking cats who use their innocuous forms to listen in on all manner of gossip and secrets.
Aziz Sefa Bey is the leader of the Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa, aka the Certain Community, the Ottoman Empire’s secret police. He was the one who found Bergüzar and took her to the palace where she was raised and trained by the mages of the Harem. The friendship they made along the way helped him rise in the Imperial court’s eyes to become head of intelligence.
The Lies We Told: The Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa actually translates to Secret Organization, and whether or not it actually existed is debated by historians. The authors chose the term “A Certain Community” for dramatic effect, and Aziz Sefa Bey is inspired by Aziz Vefa Bey, the main character of Yahsi Bati. Yahsi Bati is a Turkish comedy where two Ottoman secret agents head to the United States to deliver a diamond as a gift to the US President.
The remaining NPCs are quite minor: Mosolite Nazif is the doorkeeper for one of the Undercity entrances and earned a lot of enemies by taxing passage through it as it’s also a prime smuggling route. Chic Manu is a fashionable gambler and award-winning writer with a very wide social network. Kore the Nightingale is a half-elf singer who found and saved Alemdar, and serves as his chief spy with her cover as a great singer. Mervhan of Al-Ghaib is a half-orc warlock who is friends with Kore but secretly distrustful of the Ghost’s intentions.
Visions of Berguzar is the final section of Chapter 2. They are basically non-interactive scenes sent to the PCs while they sleep by the aforementioned eponymous diviner. They basically outline her backstory, and during the scenes PCs can roll ability checks to learn more information from them. The book recommends that one dream is given every long rest and that they are completed before the Grand Negotiation quest of Act 3. Which occurs pretty late in the adventure path, and as it happens after the PCs locate Mira they’ll know who she is by then.
There are 13 dreams in total, but to summarize them: Bergüzar’s original name is Karya, she and Mira grow up under an abusive father who hates the former’s magical talents. Eventually Karya enchants her mother to kill her father when he gets violent. Mira blames Karya for killing him and yells at her to leave and never return. Wandering through the woods she catches sight of Abd-ul Mejid, then a teenage boy, studying how to fight (and also undergoing paladin training) under the tutorship of Alemdar Pasha. Mejid ends up using a divine smite during the sparring, earning a rebuke from Alemdar to not use magic in public places. Karya is spotted, and when she tries to run away she is cornered by guards. But Mejid doesn’t want her to get hurt and asks why she is alone, learning her story. He gives her a paper with an official seal she can use to reach out to him, although Karya is illiterate so she doesn’t know what it says. Later on in a village someone tries to con her out of the paper, and during which time she comes to the attention of Aziz Sefa. Karya is taken to the Harem, where the mages help refine her magical talents, is given the new name Bergüzar, and undergoes the Pact with Suleiman.
Bergüzar and Mejid later marry, but she learns terrible visions of the future that she keeps secret from everyone else. Mejid takes Bergüzar to meet Shahmeran, a serpentine monster, to find out what is holding back the true extent of her powers. Shahmeran tells her that it’s likely due to the interference from someone of the same bloodline. The final vision takes place in the vague future of the next century, where an ash-covered sky bearing planes drop bombs upon the streets of Istanbul. An elderly Bergüzar is in the throne room, begging her son not to cast the Wish spell. He ignores her, and the invading forces are demolished. But so is everyone else, as the sea itself rises, the earth is broken apart, and everyone screams as they fall into darkness.
Thoughts So Far: Unlike other adventure paths, City of Crescent highlights the major players, their motivations, and the overall plot ahead of time rather than being picked up as you read along, which is very helpful for DMs. There’s a variety of interesting characters with their own exclusive goals and backstories, with many having shades of gray that aren’t necessarily clear-cut good and evil.* It should also go without saying that due to their high CRs that either Alemdar or Padisha Abd-ul Mejid will serve as the “final bosses” of this adventure path.** City of Crescent has branching pathways and even exclusive missions based on who they side with. There’s even the possibility of a Yes Man style conclusion where a leaderless Empire is left spiraling into chaos. Even so, there is a bias in favor of Alemdar, both in the adventure itself and who I imagine most gaming groups will side with: besides the fact that his faction is friendlier to nonhumans and spellcasters who want to strut their stuff, Mejid comes off as closest to “bad guy” status even though technically he is of neutral alignment. The final dream vision is going to show that the status quo is going to lead to destruction, which will likely have an effect on the PC’s decision. Add onto that with Mejid seeking the death of Mira; I can see many PCs of a more moral persuasion not wanting to go through, especially given that Osman refused such a decision himself.
*Each NPC, including the power-hungry Padisha and Giannis the Cut, are morally neutral.
**Yes, the book uses this term!
As for the dream visions, I’m of two minds. There are gaming groups out there who aren’t fond of non-interactive scenes, in that they basically amount to the DM talking to themself. On the other hand, they do a decent job giving vague outlines of the background of several important characters that don't amount to infodumps.
I do have several pieces of critique: placing the stat blocks of the major NPCs in one section, rather than the times PCs are likely to fight them or see them in action, will result in quite a bit of page-flipping in the use of a physical book. There’s also the fact that some of these NPCs will die offscreen or during a non-interactive cutscene, which brings to question how useful their stat blocks will really be during the adventure path.
And there is another part that leaves me confused: although it’s clear that time has progressed quite a bit, Mira’s picture and appearance later in the book still show her as quite the young child. The in-character text in the adventure even describes her as a “small girl.” Was she a toddler when Bergüzar left home? How old is Bergüzar?
Join us next time as we begin the adventure path proper in Act One: the First Crescent!
I'm waiting on my physical copy, but the PDF is beautiful in the meantime. I'd love to run it if I ever got a more experimental 5e group together.
The AP portion seems a little too railroady for me, but you haven't gotten there yet in your review...
Now we really begin the adventure path! Like many other modules it uses the milestone system, where the PCs level up at predetermined points. However, there are parts of the adventure path which open up into a sandbox mode, letting the PCs explore Istanbul as they will, doing downtime and engaging in side missions. Side Quests have their own particular section detailed after the adventure path itself.
We first meet our PCs on the Ejder-i Derya, a steamboat that ferries travelers all over the Mediterranean Sea. The saloon is the largest room on the boat, with tables for various games, meals, and other diversions as a band plays. Osman, the party’s employer, is engaged in a game of chess against himself. The pieces are arranged with an in-game handout, and he asks one of the PCs to take a turn. They can impress him by finding the right move via an Intelligence check or making the move themselves via player skill. He then asks if it’s the PC’s first time in Istanbul, an opportunity for them to expand on their backstories.
But all is not well, for a group of Sekbans seek to steal Osman’s journal to find out what the Imperial court is up to. The band’s singer is actually Kore, and is subtly weaving a verbal component for the Darkness spell into the final word of the song. After Osman magically dispels the darkness an hysterical man shows up, claiming his wife got possessed by a djinn. This is definitely Osman’s area of expertise, and he asks the PCs to accompany him where he finds the woman thrashing on her bed Exorcist-style. The djinn attacks the party as it’s expelled, and in turns of game stats it’s pretty strong for a party of level 1s. It has 27 hit points, resistance to nonmagical attacks, and in addition to a regular 1d6 damaging touch attack it can impose a variety of conditions, such as disadvantage on a target’s next saving throw or even possessing a new target! Fortunately Osman has a few magical tricks up his sleeves to put the monster in its place.
Obviously this is a ploy to distract the Royal Polymath and his entourage, for Kore uses this opportunity to break into Osman’s room and steal his journal. Once defeated the djinn will mock the party, saying they got played, ensuing a dramatic chase scene as the PCs follow Kore through the steamboat’s hallways and cargo bay. She will use throwing knives, caltrops, and magic to aid her escape before reaching a premade teleportation circle which takes her and another Sekban away. The adventure presumes that she escapes, as hunting down the journal plays a large part in driving forward the plot and getting the PCs to learn about the Ghost of March’s revolution. The steamboat’s engine was also sabotaged, so the PCs have to escape; Osman is frantically looking for his journal by the time the PCs find him, although Mejid’s soldiers were quick and sent out a rescue vessel to save Osman and the passengers. The Sultan-to-be himself is on a nearby galley, and will welcome the party to Istanbul. If any of the PCs were Djinnstruck, Osman will try to make excuses for their weird mode of speech and invite them to stay at his manor where he can cure them and/or talk further about why his journal is so important.
So right now I already spot a problem; this adventure hinges upon Kore escaping with the journal, but an active chase scene will put the narrative at the whims of the dice. While she is an accomplished Bard and the PCs are 1st level, the question arises of what happens if the PCs manage to stop her and secure the journal. Ideally this can be easily changed by having her escape with the journal offscreen, or the PCs find her just as she teleports away.
When the subject of Osman’s journal is brought up, the Royal Polymath finds himself unable to answer as pain runs through his body. He and magically astute characters know that his memory has been magically modified, although he is aware that it may relate to his quest in searching for Mira.
Although he truly does not know who could have cast such an enchantment on him, Osman Hamdi Bey still remembers the true nature of his quest at the dig site at Troy, which was to track down Mira, but he does not mention it to the characters just yet. Knowing that his journal is practically impossible to decrypt without him, he is sure that he and the characters are in grave danger, as whoever attacked the ship will come back–this he mentions to the characters.
First Steps Into the City: At this point the PCs level up to 2, and learn that Istanbul is in a State of Emergency due to the Padishah’s death. Mejid will be crowned in an upcoming ceremony, and nobody is allowed to leave the city, which in Video Game Speak is an indication that the sandbox is not fully open yet. Osman knows who can best help find the journal: Ahra and the Janissary Remnants. He gives some tips to the PCs on how to conduct themselves around them (don’t cast spells in front of them, they view it as unnatural, they hate nonhumans but shouldn’t bother with disguises as they hate such deception even more) along with some brief backstory about the Auspicious Incident and the palace’s conflict with the Janissaries for foreigners.
One carriage ride later, the party’s meeting the Wolf at the Door in the courtyard of the Janissary Hideout; she likes Osman and his vouching for the party lets them into her confidence a bit. She needs them to do some odd jobs for the city’s crime lords in order to gain their trust, for she wishes the Janissaries to have as clean hands (and consciences) as possible for when the time comes for them to betray the criminals when they once again become legitimate in the eyes of the Empire. PCs who may have moral reservations against such missions cause Ahra to let them know they can sabotage their missions if they can get away with appearing to have tried their hardest.
At this point various Side Quests open up for the PCs. The main plot progresses once they do at least two quests and they get comfortable with the city, at which point they unlock the final dungeon crawl for this Act. However, one quest with Chic Manu should be saved in reserve for when the PCs first meet the Ghost of March.
The Crowning of the Padishah is a short scene after several quests are completed, where the PCs attend the Parade of the Sword with Osman, a ceremony marking the crowning of Shahzadah Mejid. During the ceremony many audience members are praising Mejid as the guards hand out coin pouches to Istanbul’s poor. However, one of the giftees protests by throwing the gold to the ground, loudly declaring that it belongs to the Janissaries. An awkward silence breaks out as the protester is surrounded by guards, and although the celebrations continue it is clearly forced smiles now marked by unease.
The Ghost of March Shows His Face takes place after the PCs do a side quest for Chic Manu, where they meet their quest giver and Mosolite Nazif (the maintainer of the Undercity’s Grand Bazaar entrance) at a picnic during the Festival of Candles. This celebration is rather peculiar, for turtles with candles on the tops of their shells roam about the city, hungrily enticed by leaf trails. However, the Ghost of March is using this tradition to his advantage: several turtle-candles have been covertly packed with gunpowder, and when the wicks reach a certain point several explosive reactions will trigger throughout Istanbul. The bombings are a distraction for the Bostanji and Manguar Guards, as the Sekbans will use their dispersal to more effectively raid their armories.
The Ghost of March has some personal business to attend to with Nazif. Soon after the PCs hear explosions the Ghost and over 20 of his fellow Sekban will rush through and occupy the courtyard containing the party. He and Nazif will briefly exchange words, and with a declaration of not letting his greed oppress his people any longer the Ghost snaps Nazif’s neck with a swift crack of his whip. With him dead, the Council of the Ninth Life will gain control over Nazif’s Undercity passage, meaning that the balance of power has shifted-
Wait, hold on a second. The PCs are sitting there, they just heard explosions, and they’re seeing nearly two dozen guys with guns rushing to ruin their picnic! And their quest-giver is sitting with them, to boot! What do you think most gamers are going to do in this situation?
Okay, I guess it’s another “But Thou Must” situation like with the journal. After demonstrating his mad whip skills, the Ghost of March will tell the PCs they have nothing to fear from him if they stop working with the crime lords, and if they want to fight for a good cause instead they should approach him “below,” a vague reference to the Undercity. Then he and his Sekbans will retreat.
Side Note: Looking up the Festival of Candles doesn’t return much in terms of real-world celebrations, although the closest I could find is Kandil, which refers to five Islamic holy nights.
A Legend Lie Among the Ruins is our final section of Act 1, and at this point the PCs will be 3rd level. We had quite a bit of urban intrigue so far, so it’s time for a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl! Ahra claims to have found the journal, but will part with this information if the PCs clear out some undead from the Church of St. Benoit. Some unknown phenomenon is causing the dead to rise again, and the party’s tasked with putting an end to it.
The Church is a 23 room dungeon split between 2 levels, and the responsible party for the undead rising again is none other than the entombed body of Count Dracula. When Vlad Tepes turned to dark magic to gain undying immortality, his brother sought to seal him away so he could harm nobody else. Mehmed II, the Ottoman Emperor of the time, helped him design a cage in which to imprison him. After his capture, Dracula was entombed under St. Benoit Church, but the seals were broken during an earthquake in the 1700s, letting his foul influence gradually grow.
There’s one special thing the DM must keep track of during the dungeon crawl. All damage dealt to the PCs and any living creature in the dungeon that can shed blood (bludgeoning, force, and necrotic excepted) further empowers Vlad Tepes, increasing his hit points by a set value for the final battle with him. Perceptive PCs will notice that all blood pools unnaturally in a certain direction, being drawn to the vampire.
During the dungeon crawl the PCs can encounter grave robbers who can be negotiated with and even join the party, meet a ghostly knight who guards a secret entrance to the underground tomb, fight Semi-Sentient Plague Stricken which aren’t undead but colonies of worms wearing corpses as skin suits,* fight Gulyabanis (reflavored ghouls), encounter traps such as crude hunting snares and swarms of vengeful ghosts that attack thieves stealing their belongings, fight a colony of scorpions including a a bloated Scorpion Queen (stats like a giant scorpion but actually weaker at CR 1), learn more about who is entombed here by entering a locked room containing heirlooms of Vlad Tepes, convince a suit of animated armor possessed by a Wallachian Boyar into parting with the holy water it is guarding, and loot an armory and laboratory of magic arrows, spears, and potions. Fun stuff!
*They’re CR ½ enemies which can infest creatures they strike and counterattack with poisonous ichor when struck in melee.
Vlad’s body is guarded by four unique named zombies who were all wicked men in life, such as a Varangian guard berserker, a Janissary who performed human sacrifices, a Byzantine mercenary, and a bomb-throwing arsonist whose armor is wreathed in flames. The final room with Dracula looks like an arena, holding spectators of ghosts of the many people he personally killed in life. The ghost of Vlad’s brother appears, sounding rather annoyed and hoping that the PCs put him down so his spirit can “leave this godforsaken ruin of a church.”
Befitting a vampire of his station, Dracula has a kickass full-page artwork and some pretty cool battle music. Of course he’s not a typical CR 15 vampire: statwise he’s a CR 3 undead whose hit points equal the amount of damage that living beings took in the dungeon, to a maximum of 90. His primary attacks are a Dark Blade that he can attack twice with that deals necrotic damage, and a multitarget attack where he summons stakes surrounding him in a 5 foot radius twice per long rest. He wears plate armor, making him hard to hit, but besides that he has no other particular defenses besides standard undead stuff. He is vulnerable to radiant damage and doesn’t possess any legendary or lair actions, so it’s entirely possible for a party to mob him.
Once Dracula is killed and the PCs report back their successful mission, Ahra reveals that Osman’s journal was stolen by Kor and Mervhan, two agents of the Ghost of March who reside in Araf Tavern of the Undercity, along with the various paths one can use to descend into this subterranean realm.
Thoughts So Far: First with the good. The adventure’s beginning does a good job in foreshadowing the facts of the setting, along with the modus operandi of Istanbul’s various power players in a manner that observant players can put together. We learn several important things through strong acts of showing over telling: that djinni are less blue jokesters and more akin to monsters from a horror movie, that there’s a lot of tension over the violent disbanding of the Janissaries and that not everyone is happy with the government, the use of scene and character appropriate music helping set the mood, the sprinkling in of side quests during the free-roaming segments gives PCs incentive to further explore the city, and fighting Count f-ing Dracula as the climax helps the party feel like badass heroes rather than 3rd level neonates. The dungeon crawl itself has healing potions and a fountain in the final arena that can restore hit points, which can help patch up hurting parties for the final battle.
Now with the bad. The adventure is railroady in places it doesn’t need to be; Kore’s stealing of the journal and the Ghost’s assassination of Nazif can be done easily enough offscreen or just as the PCs stumble upon the scene after the deed is done. During that scene as well as the Parade of Swords the adventure heavily suggests the PCs make themselves scarce rather than sticking around, which forces the railroady feeling further. And while it may not be a big hindrance on account that several Professions lend themselves to an extra-legal flavor, a willingness to work with the criminal underworld is heavily encouraged for PC personalities and backstories; your stereotypical Paladin won’t do well in such an environment.
Join us next time as we descend into the Undercity and find themselves playing both sides in the game between the Sultan and the Ghost of March!
I'm waiting on my physical copy, but the PDF is beautiful in the meantime. I'd love to run it if I ever got a more experimental 5e group together.
The AP portion seems a little too railroady for me, but you haven't gotten there yet in your review...
I'll be going into detail on it in the above post as well as the following ones, but there are a lot of problems with the adventure as presented; railroading is but one such thing. Which is a shame, as the adventure is by far the largest section of the book.
This is a book of such amazing ambition. If I'm being asked to pay for a setting, I like when it's something I would never have come up with or would never have been able to pull off as well. This definitely falls into both camps.
The PCs hit level 4 at the start of the Second Act, and while they have several means of entering the Undercity the most convenient route is Mosolite Nazif’s now-abandoned shop. The cats of the Council of the Ninth Life will attempt to stealthily follow the PCs, and their leader Sheraf will reveal himself as the route’s new guardian. He will grant the party passage, provided they do some odd jobs for his syndicate once they leave the Undercity.
The PCs can find Kore and Mervhan easily enough, and the party can either speak with them or find out through other means that they gave the journal to the Ghost himself and it’s in his headquarters. The Sekbans are unable to crack the code and thus the journal has no more value to them. The Ghost will part with it if the PCs can do the Undercity community some favors to prove their good intent. We have three short adventures they can take: find a cure to a tiefling child’s unique magical illness that involves a Realitymender and some herbs; sniff out a turncoat among the Janissaries to improve relations between them and the Sekbans; and retrieve a magic sword belonging to Yakup, Ahra’s father, which was thrown into the ruins of an old undead-haunted manor after Alemdar’s sacrificial explosion. All of these missions have some degree of risk or further character development; a Realitymender can be hired in the city but is being monitored by a Certain Community, the renegade Janissary is a Sekban in disguise whose wife was killed for being a magic-user and doesn’t want his organization to ally with her killers; and the manor contains the ghost of Ahra’s father who can be communicated with by the party.
Missions For the Palace: At a time narratively convenient, the PCs and Osman will receive an official invitation to a banquet in Topkapı Palace. Beyond the stress that comes with such a high-profile meeting, Osman suspects that the banquet has an ulterior motive. He is correct: Kavalan Pasha, the current ruler of Egypt, recently raised an army to declare independence from the Ottoman Empire and is making an alliance with Russia, an archrival to the Ottomans. He is visiting Istanbul to engage in discourse about the terms of surrender, although nobody expects him to just give up that easily. Although the PCs are free to refuse, this will greatly lower their standing in Mejid’s eyes.
The Lies We Told: Pretty much every Empire of note used private troubleshooters/mercenaries to do their dirty work during certain times, but the people of such occupations are far beneath an Ottoman Sultan’s notice. In real life, mercenaries would’ve met with lower-ranking government officials for business matters, and Mejid would’ve never had to learn their names, much less meet them personally.
While visiting the Palace, the PCs can run into Bergüzar and recognize her as the woman from their dreams on a successful Perception check. She would tell the party to keep this information a secret for the time being, and if a character is so brazen to announce this in front of Mejid they will be arrested and thrown in the dungeons.* During an audience with Mejid, the head of a Certain Community Aziz Sefa** will do much of the talking. He will explain that one Hamitz*** the Quartz, one of Kavalan Pasha’s assassins, is active in Istanbul. He is to be taken in alive so that they can find out what he knows, and the PCs are given a magical scroll made by Bergüzar that can remove the assassin’s memory of the PCs for the upcoming plan to trick Kavalan.
*in such a scenario the adventure doesn’t explain ways for the PC to break out/be released. I take it to be a Nonstandard Game Over.
**I don’t know why the text has removed the “Bey” title.
***the text alters between calling him Hamitz or Hamit, I don’t know which one is right.
The PCs can learn about Hamitz’s whereabouts by pressing on contacts and the use of skill checks. He’s staying at the Pearl, and if the PCs convince the owner (auto succeeds if they mention they’re working for the crown) she can make sure no words spread about their intrusion. If captured and interrogated Hamtiz will reveal that his mission is to assassinate Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman Vizier, to throw the peace talks into disarray.
In terms of stats Hamitz is pretty strong: he has 120 hit points, an AC 18 from a magical Vest of the Sphinx that is basically plate armor but no disadvantage on Stealth, a variety of potions on his person he can drink as a bonus action, and is somehow able to carry 14 weapons on him* and can freely mix pistol/crossbow and scimitar attacks with Multiattack. But if the PCs corner him while he’s…well, naked he will surrender.
*Aziz mentions that he’s noted for having a seemingly endless arsenal of guns. No he doesn’t have a Bag of Holding or magical talents.
If the PCs use the scroll to wipe Hamitz’s memory, they may recognize it’s the same spell afflicting Osman. This is a bit of a red herring, as it may cause the PCs to presume that someone in the Imperial court cast the spell on Osman (Aziz doesn’t say who made the scroll).
At various points between the beginning of this Act and Defense of the State, the PCs can take on more Side Quests. In fact, at this point in the adventure path they can do just about every quest within their recommended level. Only 2 of them have a Recommended Level of 5, which is the highest number for them all.
Defense of the State: The PCs level up to 5 now. This is a very involved “tower defense” section, and the adventure’s a bit railroady in that it presumes the PCs managed to capture Hamitz alive and erased his memory without a hitch. After reporting their findings back to Aziz Sefa Bey, he lays the next plot in motion: the Vizier will be taken to Yedikule Fortress ostensibly for protection but in reality is to…draw Hamitz and his hired goons out as bait and capture him alive.
Wait wait wait, the PCs earlier had Hamitz at their mercy in the Pearl! Why the need for this roundabout stuff, which puts the Vizier in danger on top of things? The text does explain they can’t use a body double for the Vizier, and Hamitz isn’t the only one gunning for him, so I don’t understand why Hamitz had to be let go in the first place. The adventure still flows just as well if the PCs manage to learn about Hamitz’s plans but it’s revealed there are other bad guys gunning for the Vizier.
Anyway, on with the show. The PCs have 2,500 gold worth of discretionary funds to further secure Yedikule Fortress, from buying and placing traps courtesy of Trap Maker Daniel, hiring mercenaries with larger sums granting more powerful stat blocks, and in a moment of desperation draw desperate people from the Ottoman Empire’s prisons to fight for their freedom. And yes, they have lower morale and will react less than tactically sound in a manner akin to (but not the same) as the Confusion spell at the end of every turn in combat. Not every round.
The PCs can also spend gold to make repairs and fortify sections of the fortress, too. All of these options have involved detail, from unique trap stats to even stat blocks for some of the more powerful prisoners. The fortress also has a map with 17 detailed rooms and it’s up to the party where the Vizier is placed.
The PCs have a day and a half to prepare for Hamitz’s strike force to arrive. In addition to him he is aided by three other assassins: Seyfeddin a Janissary-turned-mercenary who fights with a magic longsword and has Champion Fighter abilities, Ziya an assassin who killed off lots of Kavalan’s political opposition, can Sneak Attack like a Rogue and thus prefers to fight with a longbow rather than loud guns; and Hamza the barbarian and train robber, who has Barbarian abilities.
That’s a lot less than I was expecting, and none of them have supernatural abilities. They do have some pretty high skill modifiers so Hamitz and the assassins can easily outmanever the average mercenary, but they don’t have any antimagic counters to deal with things such as the Alarm spell or putting the Vizier in Leomund’s Tiny Hut.
Once again the adventure proceeds with the expectation that the Vizier is alive and the PCs manage to take in Hamitz alive…again. The PCs are invited back to the Palace as the diplomatic talks are taking place, and in rather dramatic fashion Mejid has the PCs and a bound Hamitz escorted in. As he announces to the gathered attendees that he captured one of Kavalan’s assassins, the Egyptian rebel suddenly interrupts the speech to go over to Hamitz, suddenly whipping out a dagger to slice the assassin’s throat and casting a spell upon him, causing Hamitz’s eyes to glow shortly before he dies.
Part of the boxed text said:
“I suspected foul play when Hamit told me that you did not even try to investigate our plans. I have learned that death is a good way to dispel unwanted memory effects. Quartz, my servant: Did anyone modify your mind?”
Kavalan moves on with his questioning, implicating the palace but leaving the characters alone. Your eyes gaze slightly to Mejid. It seems as if his mind is fixed on something else. He looks both relieved, and disturbed. You, and Mejid, also notice an official of the Palace leaving the talks with haste.
The talks resume - but with a bitter taste for every diplomat on the table. Although the talks are not at an impasse, Kavalan is still resisting many of the demands, trying to use Mejid’s attempt at manipulating his lieutenants to his advantage. Many think it will take a long time for a lasting peace to be achieved.
What Mejid is privately realizing is that he doesn’t need Osman alive anymore, but that simply killing him and using divination to pick at the now-unlocked contents of his brain will be enough. The “diplomat” leaving the talks is an informant of the Sekbans, which means that the Ghost of March will soon learn of this as well.
Moment of Truth & the Death of a Mentor: This is the major turning point in the adventure path. In video games with branching pathways and moral systems, this would be the moment where the player chooses to side with good or evil, or not-so-good and not-so-evil in this case. Osman will meet with the PCs one last time, where he starts off with a friendly discussion about his newest painting before moving on to political matters. The subject of the Ghost of March and Padishah Mejid will be brought up; he is conflicted on who he should support and wants the honest opinions of the PCs. He suspects that the Ghost of March is Alemdar Pasha, and while officially working for Mejid acknowledges that the Ottoman Empire’s new ruler has made hasty decisions that have done more harm than good for the common people. Based on who the party argues in favor for or side with determines future events and missions for Acts 3 and 4.
At this point the Ghost of March will send for the PCs, now willing to give them back Osman’s journal. During (or shortly after) this time the Royal Polymath will meet a violent end. If the party supports the Ghost of March, it will be Mejid himself, killing Osman in one fell stroke with a dagger during a supposedly friendly chat. If the party supports Mejid, then it will be the Ghost instead.
By the time the PCs visit the manor again they will find only Eshref the Tortoise as the sole survivor, with Osman’s body taken away. Still in a state of shock and sorrow, Eshref will give the PCs a will and testament written by Osman in the event of his untimely death, where he bequeaths the PCs their manor and its contents in the secret room. The letter also explains that the journal’s contents contain the known location of Mira, Bergüzar’s sister, and how she subconsciously prevents the Queen from making use of her full magical capabilities and thus Sultan Mejid’s grandest ambitions. The journal has several failsafes for its decryption, one of which involves Shahmeran’s aid, who the PCs can learn more about from the Ghost or Mejid depending on who they sided with.
And lastly, my dear friends; you once sacrificed the queen, and let the knight take the king, but succeeding without unnecessary sacrifice is where the real victory lies.
Osman Hamdi Bey,
The Loremaster of the Lodge of Byzantion, CCXVII”
Atop the letter lies a chess piece. A black queen. A metal snake is wrapped around her.
This is a callback to the chess game at the start of the adventure path. I like this touch, as it brings things around to the very beginning; as Osman lived, so did he die.
Thoughts So Far: Oh boy, where to start. Some of the problematic trends in Act 1 are more prominent in Act 2. Not only does the adventure presume that the PCs will act in a certain way, it also presumes that certain events will play out with the PCs succeeding at a task with a real element of failure. The side quest opportunities seem like a stress relief valve to give a greater feeling of freedom, but even then there are no answers for some totally legitimate questions: what if the PCs decide to infiltrate the Sekban’s hideout to steal back Osman’s journal instead of negotiating with the Ghost of March? What if the Vizier dies? What if the PCs end up in a loud shootout with Hamitz at the Pearl and there’s a huge amount of witnesses who can relay what happened to the other assassins? What if they ask Aziz why the hell they released Hamitz, only to try and capture him again? What if the PCs realize what Kavalan is about to do and interpose themselves between him and the captive Hamitz? What if the PCs don’t like either the Ghost of March or Abd-ul Mejid and take an Enlightened Centrist attitude during the conversation with Osman?
These are all very real possibilities I can see popping up in a lot of gaming groups, and the fact that the adventure doesn’t seek to answer them is a real weakness.
Join us next time as we descend into Istanbul’s depths to search for the Queen of Serpents and save Mira from a hit squad in a haunted house!
I couldn’t help myself; I had to make one more post. We’re getting near the end of this book/adventure and I’m too antsy to wait until tomorrow.
The PCs hit level 6 at the start of this Act.
The Den of Snakes starts with either the Ghost or Mejid explaining that Shahmeran is a monster known as the Queen of Serpents, and who is chained beneath the Basilica Cistern. The PCs must strike a bargain with Shahmeran to decrypt the journal, but their ally also expects the PCs to ensure she remains imprisoned or dead. As for why, she is too powerful to let roam free.
The Basilica Cistern is effectively a dungeon with 2 large rooms. The ground floor is a cistern home to two groups of monsters, bichuras and merrows, at war. Bichuras are a new monster type, being the spirits of spells given flesh and form. In terms of stats they are small neutral monstrosities who can pick up and throw large objects well beyond their Strength and size limit as thrown attacks; they also have tremorsense and are always considered to be hiding unless detected via divination magic. On this level the PCs can find a journal written by a famous traveler hidden in a box with some potions and a scroll talking about the prison below, back when it was commissioned by the Roman emperor Justinian.
The prison beneath the cistern is guarded by powerful magic. The area within the jail cells have time frozen in them, and a persistent antimagic effect prevents spells from penetrating their area unless the door for that cell is unlocked and open. The prison is guarded by a Naziat, a celestial banished from Heaven yet still tasked with gathering the souls of evil creatures. They wield a magical scythe that can reduce a character’s maximum hit points until magically healed or a long rest is taken, and they have special abilities which detect and deal extra damage to evil-aligned targets so let’s hope all of the PCs are on the straight and narrow! There are a total of 15 cells with a variety of prisoners and remains, from two elven skeletons and a spellbook, the soul of a human trapped in a drawing who offended a Byzantine politician centuries ago and can be restored to bodily life if the drawing is dispelled, a crazy pyromancer who takes the form of a fire elemental, a gnome who doesn’t want to be freed as he’s doing penance for horrific murders committed lifetimes ago, and a former Vizier who is cursed with serpent eyes and has a burning hatred for nonhumans. One of the prisoners is the favored concubine of Suleiman the Magnificent, and can inform the PCs more about the magical origins of the Harem. They earn their powers from a pact with Suleiman, but hates Roxelana, the originator of the pact. The concubine blames her for everything bad that happened and has continued to happen in the Ottoman Empire.
If confronted with the fact that it is now centuries later, she will become suicidal and try to kill herself.
As for Shahmeran, she will be willing to parley with the PCs, offering to decrypt the journal in exchange for her freedom from the four chains binding her. As for her imprisonment, she will claim that she attempted to overthrow Justinian for “the good of the people of Constantinople,” but in reality her motives were selfish and she wanted to become an empress herself. Shameran is a snake in more ways than one, and will attack the PCs even if they honor her deal of freeing her.
In terms of stats Shahmeran is a pretty strong magic-focused monster. She can cast a variety of spells both utility and combat, and up to 3 times* can use a reaction to “steal” a spell cast, counterspelling it and then being able to cast it herself. On top of that, she radiates a short antimagic cone from her eyes like a beholder, and has an AoE attack that can deal psychic damage and stun nearby opponents.
*The book doesn’t say when this feature refreshes.
Once the PCs get the information they need and deliver it to either Mejid or the Ghost, the location of Mira is determined and their mission is as follows:
If the party goes to see Mejid;
“Have you acquired what I asked for? Marvelous. I might have offered you a feast for this accomplishment, but we have a limited amount of time here. The Ghost of March already knows where she is, and you must get to her first.” He pauses for a second and draws a heavy breath. “Though what I will ask from you now, you will not enjoy. I assure you, I will not enjoy uttering these words either. You must kill the girl. Before you protest, I know how distasteful it is to kill a small girl. But she is not a small girl, is she? She is a weapon. I would suggest you keep that in mind. So, go to the location and kill her on sight. Or you might not survive her powers.”
If the party goes to see The Ghost of March;
“You have found the address? Solid achievement. But we are almost out of time. If we know, he knows as well. You have to hurry and save the girl. He will surely murder her. The only way of protecting her will be to bring her to the Undercity, to safety. She might not want to come, but capture her if you must. She might not know what awaits her if she stays. And be careful. She might be a small girl, but she is quite dangerous.”
So I feel that the whole “you must choose who to side with” has come rather early in the adventure. Killing children is a topic that many gaming groups are very uncomfortable with, particularly for parents. And even if it’s a topic they don’t mind, it’s the kind of thing that establishes characters in a story as “a really bad guy.” There’s a very real effect that many gaming groups may decide to go against the Sultan, even if they don’t necessarily side with the Ghost of March. Of course the adventure doesn’t portray the Ghost of March as a saint either, given his minions’ sabotage of the steamboat in the beginning or the turtle-bombs during the Festival of Candles. But it’s another thing entirely to have a faction leader order the PCs to directly harm an innocent person.
Again, this brings up the question of Mira and Bergüzar’s ages and how long it’s been. Mejid went from a teenager to a grown adult since first meeting the latter and the start of the adventure, so for Mira to still be a small girl must mean that Mejid himself is not much older than his adolescent years or Mira was a toddler since Bergüzar left. I get that the timeline of real-world events has been squished a bit for dramatic effect, but in regards to the in-universe timeline of events an explicit statement would be good to have to avoid confusion on this matter.
The House Lying in the Dreams takes place in Bergüzar’s abandoned childhood home near the Trojan dig site. The party’s opposition will differ depending on who they sided with: if they sided with the Ghost they will be encountering Aziz Sefa Bey along with 2 Certain Stalkers and 4 Bostanji,* while siding with Mejid pits the party against Mervhan and Kore along with 4 Sekbans. In both cases the enemies will attempt to ambush the party and open with a barrage of long-range gunfire and/or spells. Mira will have taken notice of the battle outside and be hiding in the house, using her spells to keep away from the PCs. Mira is unwilling to leave the house, viewing her magic as a danger to the world and has taken precautions against such a scenario.
*antimagic rogues and regular warrior types.
PCs who force Mira to leave cause the house to come to life to attack the party and retrieve her. It’s a Gargantuan construct with some damaging grappling melee attacks, a 20 AC, and 144 hit points along with a variety of immunities. However, it has no ranged attacks of note and it cannot depart more than 500 feet from the place where it was built.
So wait, the House doesn’t come to life if the PCs try to kill Mira?
After this event’s conclusion the PCs will hit 7th level.
The Grand Negotiation (Ghost of March Route) happens when the PCs safely escort Mira to the Undercity. At this point the Ghost of March wants to call together a meeting of the various anti-government factions. Depending on how certain Side Quests have been resolved Ahra and the Janissary Remnants will either use the meeting to attack and kill Istanbul’s crime lords, or put it off and come to the negotiating table in good faith. Each faction leader has their own agenda and goals, several of which are mutually exclusive, of topics ranging from treatment of the non-human races, the Ottoman Empire’s foreign policy, and what should be done about the Harem mages and Bergüzar. The PCs must act as a negotiating balance to ensure a compromise. For example, Ahra wants the Janissary Hearth to be reinstated, but the Ghost wants to keep them abolished. It is possible to negotiate to have them in a symbolic role as one possible outcome.
The rest of the adventures in this Act and the following take place once the PCs are 8th level. And given that there aren’t as many story beats involving Mejid and practically every sidequest is below the PC’s capabilities by this point, there’s a dearth of content for 7th level PCs loyal to the crown.
Moreover, if Ahra agrees to be present at the table, she will forgo her plan of taking out all the crime lords to get in the good graces of the Palace. However, for her to agree, the characters must have done the previous quests of The Ghost of the March and brought her the “gifts” from the Sekbans.
Alright, so what happens if the PCs haven’t won over Ahra, and she and the Janissaries decide to crash the negotiations and start shooting? Well, the details of this event happen in the Mejid route offscreen…or is the implication that in the Ghost route she just doesn’t show up out of protest and this particular plot doesn’t develop? The book is rather unclear on this.
To Kidnap a Shahzadah (Ghost of March Route) happens at level 8, and its outcome is dependent on who is chosen to sit on the throne with Mejid’s removal during the faction negotiations. The quest is skipped if the PCs convince the factions to keep Mejid on the throne but with severely limited authority, but otherwise a plot is hatched to take the future Padishah/Sultan-to-be into a secure place before the coup. The most likely contenders to the throne are all Princes living in the Harem, and the PCs are to infiltrate it and replace him with a doppelganger double body known as Asfendaq who owes the Ghost a favor. He doesn’t take life too seriously, which can prove to be a hindrance.
The details for infiltrating the Imperial Harem are detailed in Act 4, which contains the final dungeons of the two routes in Historica Arcanum. Well, the final dungeon for the Ghost route can happen in Act 3 in the Tower of Justice, so a lot of this stuff is rather out of order.
Force the Snakes Out of Their Holes (Mejid’s Route) tasks the PCs with opening negotiations with Ahra and the Janissary Remnants. Mejid isn’t fond of Istanbul’s crime lords and knows that Ahra isn’t either. However, a house divided cannot stand, so he wants Ahra to be convinced that the crown will rightfully restore the Janissaries if they pull their support from the crime lords. Mejid has no intention of honoring this bargain, as like former emperors of old they will most assuredly place limits on his power if reinstated. While the Janissary’s restoration is a goal Ahra wants, she hasn’t forgotten the betrayal, so if she detects some hint of deception or cannot be persuaded she will ally with the Ghosts and Sekbans. But if the PCs win over the Wolf at the Door, she will move on with her plan and slaughter all the crime lords offscreen.
Personally speaking this feels a bit…iffy. The Janissaries hate nonhumans and swore off magic, but the crime lords don’t. I can’t see a guy like Giannis the Cut letting himself get gunned down so easily, and the Council of Ninth Life has eyes and ears everywhere. Maybe Chic Manu or Hano the Widow can die as I can see it being fairer fights (or at least one-sided in Manu’s case), but this is the kind of thing the PCs should be involved in.
Once the Janissaries hobble the crime lords and sever ties with the Sekbans, Mejid’s next plan is to deal with the Ghost’s support network. Aziz Sefa Bey learns that Mervhan is much more revolutionary than the Ghost, who is still progressive but more reformist in regards to policies for nonhuman rights. Mejid’s role in the Tanzimat Reforms has caused some nonhumans to hope that this progress will be extended to them, so the PCs must widen the gaps between the Sekban leaders by convincing Mervhan that Mejid is willing to bring them to the negotiating table. If Mervhan is not brought over, the PCs will be assigned to help the Bostanji take control of the major Undercity routes, blocking off all traffic to starve the inhabitants and make the Sekbans desperate…and therefore careless.
The Third Crescent - The Eye of Suleiman (Ghost of March Route) takes place in the Tower of Justice, a 20 room dungeon for the Ghost’s route that can occur during one of two events. The first is if they convince the Ghost of March to spare Bergüzar during the negotiation with the faction leaders. Otherwise it happens post-game if his coup and revolution succeeded but Bergüzar is dead, at which point he wants to find personal peace. The Tower is connected via a secret tunnel linking it with the Hagia Eirene Church, and tales say that the Padishahs used to climb it to overlook Istanbul from a hidden vantage point to remind people that the Empire is always watching. But its true function is to supernaturally tie the Harem mages’ spirits to the tower to stand vigil. It also mandates that said mages guard the imperial bloodline. In such a case, the Tower assault will take place before storming the Palace to ensure that Bergüzar and the other harem mages will be freed from their magical servitude. If it’s not broken, Bergüzar will be supernaturally compelled to defend Mejid even if she doesn’t want to.
This was done back when Suleiman the Magnificent and Haseki Sultan Hurrem/Roxelena married. Roxelena saw too many female mages persecuted and slaughtered the world over, and wanted to forge a safe haven for her kind. Suleiman was keen to this idea, and saw the value in strengthening the Ottoman Empire with magical might. This established the tradition of the Harem teaching its members the magical arts and a pact to never bring harm upon the Imperial bloodline. Due to the tower’s magic it won’t let in living servants of the state, so Alemdar will join the party once they break the seal.
The dungeon itself is rather linear, containing several rooms with puzzles that let the PCs pass safely if they figure it out, and pit them against supernatural guardians if they fail. There’s also some pretty potent magic items to be found here, such as the Blade of Suleiman* and Yasevi’s Arcane Tome.
*It is a +2 yatagan sword dealing +2d6 psychic damage against all non-djinn, and the wielder can see any djinns even if invisible and makes them immune to possession attempts. Sadly we won’t be fighting any more djinn during this adventure path, so these abilities are rather moot.
In terms of stats Mahmoud II is a powerful CR 15 undead with 20 AC, 247 hit points, resistant and immune to quite a number of damage and condition types, can Multiattack with a deadly spectral blade dealing necrotic damage, and can summon two Grim Golems to his aid. The Grim Golems aren’t anything special, being CR 6 bags of hit points that deal melee slam attacks. There’s a sidebar of quick quips and exclamations for Alemdar and Mahmoud to say to each other during the fight.
Thoughts So Far: This Act feels oddly structured. The Ottoman Imperial Harem’s details are one more Act away rather than being in this Act, and there’s clearly a lot more content for the Ghost of March/Sekban route than the Mejid route. I feel that there’s some author favoritism towards the former due to this. The Cistern dungeon crawl is definitely the highlight of this chapter, and I do like the fact that the negotiation meeting in the Ghost route has many angles for PCs to determine the political structure of the Ottoman Empire in the ending.
I’m not fond of the idea of child death being a nigh-mandatory act* for one route, nor am I for the offscreen deaths of Istanbul’s crime lords. This adventure has suffered quite a bit in de-autonomizing the PC actions, and at this point it’s recurring enough that DMs trying to fix it will have to do quite a bit of work.
*Presumably the PCs can thwart Mejid even when siding with him, as the ending details such an occurrence, but doesn’t say what actions the Sultan will take if he finds that the PCs betrayed him nor further details Mira’s characterization of being a living MacGuffin.
As for the fight with Mahmoud II’s spirit, there is one thing that stands out: the PCs are fighting alongside the Ghost of March, who has Legendary Actions and can hold his own in battle pretty well. Mahmoud does not have legendary or lair actions, and even with his golems he’s outnumbered in terms of action economy. This means that the fight may be pretty easy, and given the sidebar of quips the PCs may feel like they are second-stringers to the Ghost of March.
Join us next time as we seal the Ottoman Empire’s fate under a blood-red lunar eclipse in Act IV!
The final act is the shortest of the book. At this point the PCs will assault the stronghold of their adversary as a dungeon crawl. One dungeon is the Janissary Hideout, the other the Ottoman Imperial Harem. It is possible in the Ghost of March route for the PCs to assault both if the Janissaries haven’t been won over to the Sekban’s side. If the PCs sided with Mejid, the Janissary Hideout will be the final dungeon as the Janissaries and Sekbans banded together for one last stand. In both playthroughs the PCs may have the aid of an NPC ally in assaulting the stronghold: if they sided with Mejid then Aziz Sefa Bey will join the party. If the PCs sided with the Ghost of March then one of three factions will lead an assault on the Palace once their favored Prince is secure: Alemdar, Ahra, or Hano will fight directly alongside the party.
The Janissary Hideout stands out among the two dungeons, as I can’t find the map for it here or elsewhere in the book. There are six major locations, and many of them are riddled with traps: there’s the entrance, the labyrinth which forces skill checks to find the right door and random encounters with Janissaries of various types; an inner chamber where a guard can pull various levels to activate all kinds of traps throughout the hideout from spontaneously combusting stairs to raining arrows; an armory filled with silvered weapons, guns, and a magic +1 trident and shortbow; trapped hallways with locks that fill the corridors with fire, poison gas, and rot bringer monsters; and Ahra’s personal chamber. She will make her last stand alongside two Janissary Conquerors (the strongest type of Janissary), and the room will fill with poison gas that she and her allies are immune to. If the Ghost is allied with her the two will make a Lord of the Rings reference before fighting:
As you enter the room you will see The Wolf and The Ghost are sitting down waiting for you to come through the door, weapons drawn.
“Welcome, children. We were waiting for you,” says Alemdar Pasha. Ahra jumps to the conversation. “How disappointing to see such a promising group to be sided with the enemy. We could have done great work together.’”Alemdar agrees: “No matter our differences, we could have built something special.” Ahra sighs, “Perhaps this is our final moment. I never would have thought to fight side by side with a Sekban.” Alemdar smiles at Ahra, “What about fighting side by side with a friend?” Ahra shakes her head in agreement. “I’d be honored.” They raise their weapons higher to strike.
But in a Mejid route where the Sekbans and Janissaries aren’t aligned, the Ghost of March will show up after the PCs have killed Ahra and fight them.
After Ahra dies you hear a clapping sound coming from behind the door. Alemdar Pasha, The Ghost of March, enters.
“Congratulations! Truly. I am surprised to see how far you have managed to get. Destroying the Janissary, finishing what I started. I did not see that coming. However, the choices you made have sided you with a corrupt tyrant who has no regard for his country. Alas…You have let the blood of the innocent to pour, and because of this, your blood will drain by my hands!”
The Ottoman Imperial Harem by contrast is much more detailed, being a 24 room dungeon crawl complete with a map. The rest of the palace isn’t detailed as the Bostanji have thoroughly barricaded the main entrance, so the PCs make use of a secret passage. There are various means of sneaking in through disguises and contacts the Ghost/Ahra has in the Harem, although during the regicide mission several of these options will be cut off due to heightened security. In addition to noncombat servants and staff members, the hostile encounters include various White Sentinel guardsmen along with some of the women themselves who are accomplished spellcasters in their own right. The three princes have their own rooms, and will come willingly with the PCs based on certain circumstances: one will leave if he thinks the PCs have a chance at killing Mejid b/c he views his older brother as a threat to the Empire, another is a Janissary sympathizer and will join if Ahra and the Ghost joined forces, and another will join no matter what.
Bergüzar’s room is heavily warded and can only be accessed during the regicide mission,* although the book contradicts itself and says that the PCs can meet her in the room during the kidnapping mission. Her room is a mage’s delight, filled with books covering a variety of supernatural topics along with a table full of spell components and furniture covered with scrolls and mechanical contraptions. If the PCs are infiltrating the Harem to kidnap a Prince and do not wish to kill her, she will seek them out and invite them to her chambers to learn their intentions and if they understand the gravity of things.
*Truly unbreakable doors. Sounds like a case of video game logic.
But if the PCs have intentions of killing her, she’d have found this out via divination and her chambers will contain Certain Community agents hiding in hopes of ambushing the PCs. Bergüzar will instead be found in the Garden of the Purest with Mejid to fight the party and their ally.
The Garden of the Purest is the “boss arena” for the Ghost of March route during the regicide mission, where the Padishah will be waiting for the PCs here in this otherwise scenic area. However, he has a few tricks up his sleeve. First are four Ottoman cannons in the four corners loaded to fire once each time. Additionally there are four flower patches whose plants are magical and have various hazards: one patch generates an antimagic field by absorbing spells cast and explode in force damage if they absorb too much; another patch grapples hostile targets, a third are sunflowers which shine and deal radiant damage, and a fourth are flowers that emit misty darkness. Last but not least there is a gate where two Bostanji guards will enter every five rounds, but if locked the door will be broken down in 5 minutes via a battering ram.
There are several examples of boxed text for Mejid to perform a Villainous Speech, with context depending on which NPCs are allied with the PCs and whether or not Bergüzar is there to aid him. Here’s one example:
As the sounds of bloodshed fill the corridors before them, Berguzar slowly holds Mejid’s hand.
“After all this time, here we are fighting side by side. Aren’t you thrilled to see what I’m capable of, my dear?” whispers Bergüzar to Mejid.
Mejid cracks a small smile. “I’ve always known exactly what you are capable of, beloved. But stand back this time; protect our son. He needs you more than I do. And know, before we start this, that I have always loved you ever since I laid my eyes upon your face all these years ago. I vowed to protect you until my very last breath, today I might actually get to do that. But I forbid you to die.’
The footsteps boom as the characters approach, the guards aim their guns to the door. Bergüzar falls behind one of the pavilions. With a loud crack, the door falls to the ground.
Alemdar Pasha walks in and snaps his whip. ‘It is an honor to be in your presence again, your Grace. I wish we could meet under better circumstances. Alas…lay down your weapons and you may remain on the throne.’”
Mejid laughs. “I knew it. All along. I had this inkling that you couldn’t have died. Not that easy. But what an exit that was! Now you have come to betray me, I see…perhaps I thought better of you than you deserved.”
Alemdar starts to get angry. “My promise is to the throne. You have spoiled what you had, and it is my duty to clean up your mess.”
Alemdar then turns to the characters. “Don’t spill his blood. There will not be disrespect towards the royal bloodline on my watch. Let me end this.”
You know, the PCs are supposed to be the stars of the show. I get that Alemdar has a legitimate personal grudge against Mejid, but he ain’t one of the PCs.
If Bergüzar was spared and is freed from the Pact of Suleiman, she will ask the PCs if Mira is safe. She will realize that in order to avert the doomed vision she must leave the palace and take on a new life. With one heartfelt speech the Queen will depart the palace with the PCs.
And now we cover the possible endings. There are a lot of ways the City of Crescent adventure path can resolve, and the book gives broad outlines based on the fate of several characters and decisions made by the PCs. Some interesting options include:
If Bergüzar is still bound by the Pact and Mejid’s opposition is cut down, then he will use his wife’s abilities to learn the deepest secrets of the world powers to turn them against each other. As Europe and Russia grow weak the Padishah will set in motion plans for a New World Order and Eternal Empire. Reality-breaking arcane powers cause the lands of the Ottoman Empire to slowly come undone, and his son is born with magical talents unheard of in world history. Bergüzar is devastated, knowing her prophecy of the world ending will come to pass.
If Mejid is still on the throne but the PCs sabotaged his plans in some way (such as ensuring Mira lives or freeing Bergüzar from her Pact) then his master plan comes undone and will leave him in a deep depression. His rule will be strict and stern, without mercy as he knows he is ruling over an Empire destined to die.
If the PCs take something akin to the Yes Man route in Fallout New Vegas and end up killing Mejid along with both the resistance leaders and/or not getting a new Prince securely on the throne, the Ottoman Empire’s decline will be greatly hastened in comparison to the real world. The specifics are vague, but the book alludes to the domino effect of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination that eventually led to World War 1 as a potentially chaotic consequence.
Confined to a chapter all their own, these are short adventures the PCs can take during the sandbox segments of Acts I, II, and possibly III although they’ll be pretty overleveled for most of them by then. The Side Quests are split up based on faction, and have Tags detailing the adventure style, relevant Professions, and Recommended Level. There are 21 Side Quests split between six factions: 4 for level 2 PCs, 10 for level 3 PCs, 5 for level 4 PCs, and 2 for level 5 PCs. Each quest has material rewards, almost always gold pieces and sometimes a magic item on top of that.
Ahra has three side quests for the party. The first one is a mystery looking into a sickness afflicting the Janissaries, where a doctor they’ve been visiting is a warlock and pro-magic zealot who’s been using magical poisons made under the guidance of a djinn. The next quest involves looking into an underground auction of magic items that the aforementioned doctor was planning to attend, and during the auction a magic mirror believed to belong to Roxelana is suddenly stolen by an Egyptian spy working for Kavalan. The PCs can gain favor with other factions depending on what they do in regards to how they resolve the auction and the heist. The final quest involves visiting the safe house the spy was using, where the PCs can search for clues to find out that the spy network is researching a powerful memory alteration spell to take control of Aziz Sefa Bey’s mind and thus the Certain Community. This final quest can also earn the favor of said Community despite being an Ahra-involved quest.
Giannis the Cut has four missions for the PCs. The first is a museum heist where the PCs are to break into a museum and take a painting of Dionysus and Hermes out of the vault. The painting is actually magical, and is enchanted to be incredibly heavy in the hands of sober people. There’s a Greek text on a nearby slab as a clue, and the gods will start talking to characters who are drunk as they abscond with the painting. The second quest has the PCs depart for a Byzantine excavation site to steal a valuable magical crystal. In addition to arcanists part of the archeology team, there’s a group of bandits plotting to raid the camp. The crystal is actually a Pearl of Power, and PCs who keep it for themselves will earn Giannis’ disapproval. The third mission is socially intensive, where Giannis is in need of hiring specialists to infiltrate a rival smuggling operation, but Giannis needs blackmail material as leverage to encourage their cooperation if financial offers fail. The PCs must learn the secrets of said candidates, with more rewards for more secrets; if the PCs find all three secrets a magical fortune teller working for the rival syndicate will attempt to ambush the party.
Giannis’ final mystery is rather interesting. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is visiting Pera Palace on a book tour, promoting his latest work that takes place in Istanbul. Agatha Christie is also there along with a bunch of socialites. Giannis wants the PCs to steal a valuable piece of jewelry from Erline Read, Doyle’s muse who inspired his latest novel. However, Erline is stabbed to death during the events, kicking off a murder mystery! The PCs must somehow solve the mystery and take the jewelry without raising suspicion on themselves.
The actual murder is Agatha Christie, who was jealous of Erline in being Doyle’s primary inspiration. She killed Erline via a hidden kitchen access with a stolen dagger from another attendee, and then planted evidence in his room to try and implicate him.
The Lies We Told: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie didn’t visit Istanbul until the early 1900s, and Pera Palace was built in 1895. Additionally, Doyle was born in 1859 and Christie 1890.
The book also mentions that this Side Quest isn’t really a side quest, for the reward is “continuation of the main questline” as the PCs succeeding cause Aziz Sefa Bey to learn about their talents and thus later approach them to take them to the Palace. Uhhh, I feel this is the kind of thing that should be noted in Act II, given that it’s not referenced anywhere earlier in the book. Or better yet, just substitute completing it with a real reward and more esteem from Aziz and thus Mejid.
Hano the Widow focuses on hunting dangerous monsters and people. The first quest involves hunting an Albasti, or Devourer of Dreams, that is feeding on the city’s homeless population. The second quest involves looking into evil spirits haunting a graveyard which are actually tiny fey known as scavengers. The party can get them to leave the graveyard by competing in a variety of silly little games, and PCs who humor them have the scavengers lead the party to a real monster, a bichura, haunting a tree. The third quest involves looking into an apparent murder at a house. The actual perpetrator is a djinn who possessed the body of a helpless woman.
The woman was trafficked into sex work and ran away from her pimp when she discovered she was pregnant. Several months after the baby was born the pimp and his minions located her. When they broke into her house they tried to kill her and killed the baby, but the woman survived when a djinn possessed her and killed the slavers.
The djinn obviously doesn’t care for the welfare of the possessed woman, and if the PCs fail to exorcize him then Hano will kill the woman and the djinn, prioritizing the death of a monster over the safety of an innocent.
The final quest Hano has involves looking into some missing bounty hunters who were looking for a monster seen around Sulanahmet Square. The bounty hunters were frozen to death by a karbuga, who has taken the form of a young girl and claims that she was only fighting to defend herself. The text does not say one way or another if she’s telling the truth or lying; Hano has been tailing the PCs, and once again if they stay their hand out of mercy she will do what the PCs cannot.
It may just be me, but harm to children is a recurring theme with Hano. It also feels at odds with her backstory in her being so ruthless against the possessed woman and child-monster. I do understand that in the real world trauma doesn’t necessarily make one a better or more empathic person (in fact it can often do the opposite) but it goes against her earlier characterization of not wanting others to suffer like she did.
For the new monsters, the Albasti is a CR 4 fiend who can take on alternate forms, specializes in melee attacks, and has a ranged “dream devourer” attack that deals psychic damage against a sleeping target and afflicts them with a disease that puts them in a nightmare-filled coma. Karbugas are monsters that were originally people who were affected by too many ice spells over time. They automatically lower surrounding temperature and put out small flames, and have a damaging melee attack that deals cold damage and a rechargeable AoE breath weapon that shoots out a flurry of icicles. Scavengers aren’t very dangerous, being CR ¼, and they have features akin to low-level Rogues such as a 1d6 Sneak Attack and Cunning Action albeit given reflavored names.
The Council of Ninth Life don’t really have any linked themes. The first quest involves tracking down a djinn that has been poisoning the city’s cat population. It’s a rot bringer djinni that can impart diseases with but a touch. The second quest is hardly a quest at all, and just involves looking for a ghost in the Undercity’s chariot race tracks who knows the location of a powerful magic item. He can only answer with a cryptic saying that he longs for the “death of Justinian.” The third quest leads on from the second, where Sheraf realizes based on the ghost that the item is in the Maiden’s Tower, which in earlier times was used to quarantine people when plagues spread through the city.
It’s still quarantined, and the PCs have to find a way past the Bostanji guards in order to enter. The Tower is a 16 room dungeon crawl whose first half appears like a typical building with no monsters or hostile creatures, but it does have some traps. But the true dungeon is a hidden magical art gallery that was built by Yutba, a dragon of Turkish mythology, and who also managed to capture the ghost of a woman by the name of Helena whose father was the Roman emperor Constantine that Yutba held a grudge against. Located behind a magical doorway, the true dungeon has eight rooms portraying living scenes throughout history, and each one has its own creatures, traps, and in some cases treasures. For example, the Karakorum Timescape appears as the war tent of nomads, and undead warriors will offer to test the characters with various competitions such as an archery contest, drinking contest, or a magical duel. Solving the various puzzles of the timescapes will weaken Yutba’s stats and abilities. The dragon is located in the final room and has stats as an adult black dragon, who even if substantially weakened is pretty deadly for PCs given this side quest has a recommended level of 5 and they likely expended quite a bit of resources earlier on. The final treasure of the dungeon is the Crown of Sargon. This adventure doesn’t mention what rewards the Council gives for the PCs if they return the Crown to Sheraf, which is a bit of an oversight.
Chique Manu’s quests tend to be more light-hearted save for one horror-focused one. The first quest has him hire the PCs as bodyguards while attending a high-stakes poker game. One of the people Manu wins against is a sore loser and attempts to kidnap the man via carriage, possibly setting off a chase scene. The second adventure has the PCs meet with Manu during the Festival of Candles when a shadowactor performer’s spell rebounds, causing several shadows to come to life. One of them steals Chique Manu’s ring, a family heirloom that belonged to his grandfather. The PCs must track down and defeat the shadows to win the quest.
The third quest is horror-related, as a painting in Manu’s possession once portrayed a burning monastery with children standing outside. The children vanished from the painting, and Manu wants the PCs to find either the original painter or the monastery portrayed. Not of any concern for its creepy nature, but the fact that a magical painting will fetch a princely sum among collectors. The PCs visit a village that holds the monastery’s ruins, or find the painter who lives by himself in a house on an island. The reality of the situation is that a Naziat, an angel banished from heaven and tasked by God to collect souls, is the responsible party. In a twisted interpretation of its mission, the Naziat manipulated an orphan at the monastery to burn it down so that it could collect the souls of the dead. The Naziat still haunts the survivor who lives in the village, and will attack the PCs if they snoop around too much.
The final quest has Chique Manu asking the PCs to rig one of the spectral chariot races so he can win a lot of money while betting. As they are incorporeal, this requires some out of body thinking: clever use of spells or abilities that can affect undead in some way are possible, as are rigging the physical chariots with a Woodcarver’s Tools check.
The Ghost of March has three related Side Quests outside of the tasks he wants the PCs to do for him initially in Act II. The first involves looking into the murder of a Sekban who a Speak with Dead spell reveals was killed by someone with “the eyes of an eagle.” There’s a village of people whose forms have been mutated by magic in a network of caves the PCs can investigate, where a tiefling known as Byzas offers to meet with them by a lake. But Byzas is ambushed by a group of ghouls and an Obur, and is beyond magical saving. His last words will mention that someone known as Eve is dangerous and hates humanity.
Obur is a new monster type; they are the twisted forms of knights of the First Crusade, turning to arcane magic to gain power. Obur are vampire-like cannibals who have an everlasting hunger, can attack with a poisonous grappling tongue, and can swallow Medium and smaller targets.
Tying into the second quest, the PCs can learn that a woman known as Eve was raised by an elven druid and pacifist known as Greenhat who doesn’t want to take sides in the upcoming revolution. Eve was rescued from a life of slavery by Greenhat, and the two of them can be met at his home, a cabin in the Undercity. Eve doesn’t like the Ghost, feeling that his goals of liberation will simply “bring the world above into the Undercity.”
If the characters somehow offend her, or reveal that they are working for the Sekbans, she will assault them. The druid will not join the fight, but he will heal Eve when she drops to a low HP.
Before she drops to 0 hit points and provided that Greenhat is not murdered, she will run away while threatening the characters. “Don’t follow me, or you will be dead.” If the characters follow, they will be stopped by a wall of stone spell.
They will hear the druid say with tears in his eyes, “She’s gone to the garden, to eat the fruit in chains.” He will not explain what it meant, if the characters force him, he would only yield to mind altering and affecting magic.
If they return to Ghost of March, he will know where the garden is. Any Arcana or History checks will not reveal the exact location.
And even in these Side Quests we get some rail-roaded results! What if the PCs are diplomatic and pretend to agree with her? What if they somehow manage to prevent her from running away?
The third quest of the Ghost of March involves the PCs returning to the Ghost, who mentions that the garden is a mythical location among the denizens of the Undercity, where it’s said that it has a tree that grows one fruit that will bestow whoever eats it with unimaginable power. But Constantine IV told the Undercity inhabitants to never eat the fruit upon pain of having their society sealed off from above and thus condemn them to a slow death. The Ghost knows where the garden is and will bring the PCs there, where Eve has gathered supporters to preach her hopes and dreams. She wishes for freedom for non-humans by destroying human domination of the world and bringing about a new order where non-human spellcasters are in control. The followers will flee upon sighting the Ghost, but Eve will attempt to grab the fruit only to have it wilt away in her hands. She will then fight the PCs with summoned undead, although the Ghost of March will stand back and watch the battle play out and only interfere if the PCs “are in dire straits.”
Once the PCs defeat Eve, a spirit will come from the ground, and the Ghost of March will speak with him:
“What is the power of the apple?”
“I desired to understand the reason why the Prophet pointed his finger at this city. Yes, it is indeed true that this city is the capital of the old world, the shining jewel that connects all the peoples of the world. But there had to be something else that would justify bloody conquest.`` He takes one step further. “I thought it must have been this, the fruit below. But it seems I was mistaken. Now I shall depart.”
“Be at God’s peace, Abu Ayyub. May your name be praised.”
The ghost looks back to The Ghost: “Before I go, promise me.”
Thoughts So Far: For the Ghost of March route, the City of Crescent spares little expense in setting up a suitably climactic finale. The garden in which the PCs fight Mejid is full of secondary hazards to keep them on their toes, and I like the varying tactics offered for PCs to infiltrate the Harem along with the motivations of the Princes. I also like the outlines for the various endings and fates of major characters.
But for Mejid’s route, the assault on the Janissary headquarters pales in comparison. This Act feels unfinished given the lack of a map, and the fight with Ahra (and possibly the Ghost) only has poison gas and some improvised weapons to take advantage of as the major environmental hazards. Doesn’t really stack up against magical plants, cannons, and summoned guards.
Additionally, there’s the fact that the narrative is assigning Alemdar Pasha/the Ghost of March a bit of main character status. In the final battle he wishes to be the one that delivers the final blow to Mejid; in the Tower of Justice he and Mahmoud II deliver barbs against each other while fighting; and at the end of his Side Quests he has a conversation with a spirit who asks him to not let the city fall. That last part would’ve been more impactful if delivered to the PCs instead.
I do get that prepublished adventures can’t take into account the myriad backstories thought up by custom-made PCs, and the campaign’s politicking and factions have it so that most major characters have a lot of history with each other. But these little touches steal the spotlight away from the PCs at times.
As for the Side Quests, I overall like them and the concept. They’re pretty short and when it comes to combat rather easy as only one of them is an actual dungeon crawl with several battles. But I do have my criticisms which I outlined above; additionally there are no Side Quests associated with parties working for Mejid/Certain Community besides some incidental outcomes in Ahra’s.
Join us next time as we finish this book in detailing the bestiary and Alternate History Toolbox!
This is our bestiary section, containing 36 humanoid/NPCs, 19 bestial monsters, and 8 djinn who are a new creature type of their own. The descriptive text for this section is written in an in-character format from the perspective of Osman, talking about his research into the world’s people and monstrous folklore.
Of the non-djinni monsters, we have 2 aberrations, 4 beasts (all sentient Ninth Life cats), 2 celestials, 1 construct, 2 dragons, 2 fey, 1 fiend, 2 monstrosities, and 3 undead. In regards to Challenge Rating two-thirds of the NPCs range from fractional to 3, with those of 5 or higher representing highly trained individuals and the best of the best within their particular occupations and societies. The monsters are similarly low in CR, fitting comfortably within the bounds of this adventure path, with the Abra dragon as a clear exception in being CR 17.
The Ottoman Empire has no shortage of skilled warriors and sages to call upon. Armsmasters are veteran soldiers who specialize in firearms, earning their kingdom’s name as the Gunpowder Empire. Bostanji are palace guards who fight with rifled bayonets and wear unique armor that function as breastplates but with a better maximum DEX bonus to AC, and the White Sentinels are guardian eunuchs* of the Harem who have advantage on initiative and can add a d6 to various sensory-related skill checks a limited number of times per short or long rest. The Mansur are the military replacement of the Janissaries that also double as civilian law enforcement, and include pseudo-fighters akin to the Bostanji as well as less powerful Informers with more Roguelike abilities in their role as detectives. Agents of a Certain Society are similarly Roguelike, although their elite Stalker units are specialized in fighting mages, knowing up to 2nd level spells and can attack spellcasters in melee as a reaction when they cast a spell. Avianists are soldiers who train birds for the purposes of scouting and war, and have the supernatural ability to see and hear through the senses of their birds.
And the Imperial court has no shortage of covert spellcasters either. The Lalas who tutor the nobility are highly trained wizards whose teachings are supernaturally enhanced, such as better range on the Guidance cantrip and granting advantage on ability checks to an ally for 10 minutes. The women of the Harem count some powerful mages among their ranks. Even the least among them can cast spells as a 4th level caster, their Oracles can reroll die rolls as they can see the fate of others (also doesn’t mention their caster level but can learn up to 2nd level spells), and their Elite Blades have mixed spellcraft and swordplay to be respectable battle-mages.
And what of the forces arrayed against them? The Janissary Remnants have their own diversity of talent. Chelebi are the newest recruits, homeless urchins who recently reached adulthood. The more veteran units have a variety of fighting styles via unique special attacks, such as the Thunderbolts who can use Cunning Action and Sneak Attack like Rogues, the Grimms whose strikes can impose the Frightened condition, or the Magnificent and Conquerers whose special attacks can deal double damage or extra d6s respectively against foes already injured. The Humbaraci are in a category of their own, the artillerists and sappers who can lob special AoE grenades.
For the Ghost of March’s forces, the Sekban-ı Cedit include a mixture of Fighter and Rogue types, with Musketeers and Blademasters serving as ranged and melee units and the Spies are armed with unique Silent Repeating Handguns. And in being in the Undercity, they have the aid of nonhumans, such as Elven Arcanists who specialize in blasty magic, and Tiefling Dealmakers who are warlocks with a more varied assortment of spells.
The remaining NPC stat blocks are a general mix of archetypes. Arcane Researchers are the magewright equivalent of Historica Arcanum, the most minor of magicians who are basically commoners with some appropriate divinations for detecting and identifying magical items, and Devotees are the divine equivalent who learned some beginner-level spells from their faiths. Ephes are violent revolutionary types of various stripes who are basically heavily-armored gunfighters, Kabadayi are honorable gangsters who are NPC Urban Vagabond Barbarians, and Levents are sailors who have a fast climb and swim speed on top of Cunning Action, and can avoid opportunity attacks if they hit a creature in melee. Muneccim (Turkish for “astrologer”) are mages who specialize in deriving magic from the stars and can make use of Zodiac signs much like the Stargazer subclass.
For the monsters not covered in the City of Crescent adventure proper, we have the Nashitat, the good-aligned equivalent to the Naziat who search for the purest of souls to take to the afterlife. They have resistance to all damage and immunity to a variety of conditions. They are primarily spellcasters, having Cleric-like magic up to 5th level.
Our two dragon types don’t appear in the adventure at all. The Abra live among the clouds and feed from spell rebounds to repair the tears in reality, and as CR 17 creatures they are basically what you expect from high CR dragons: powerful melee attacks, a frightful aura, a breath weapon that deals fire and radiant damage, the ability to detect and cancel Terrestrial Repercussions from Spell Rebounds, and legendary actions. The Bukre are reflavored pseudodragons, with similar (but not identical) stats and are fond of learning about different cultures and riddles, with many living in the Undercity.
The Council of the Ninth Life is a guild of intelligent cats. They share among them typical cat-like physical features, Fortunate Soul which lets them reroll a natural 1 as a reaction, and Nine Lives which drops them to 1 hit point instead of 0 if they’d otherwise be knocked out or killed, but each subsequent time it’s used requires an escalating Constitution save to activate. Cat Burglars are basically weak Rogues, Saberpaws can shapechange into larger humanoid-cat hybrids, Cat Spooks have some trickery-related magic, and Cat Officers are more powerful Rogues.
The Munqur are evil constructs made by sorceresses of long ago, tasked with finding and stealing the faces of the most beautiful people. Their missions still live on long after their creators’ deaths, and they stitch the faces of their prey in crude robelike cloths. They are melee attackers with a variety of fear-based debuffs, and can restore damage and gain temporary hit points when they wound frightened targets.
Aychura are undead created when one uses a spell rebound effect on the corpse of a pure soul. Also known as Tall Spirits, they are thin faceless entities with multiple whiplike tendrils they use to strangle people to death.
Between the description and image, I’m getting some Slenderman vibes here.
Ya’is round out our non-djinni monsters, undead spawned from the trauma when a loved one dies. They don’t have much specific to their purpose beyond hating anything that lives, but they are afraid of cats. In terms of stats they are incorporaeal undead with a lot of resistance and immunity to various damage types, can deliver a damaging scream that gives a straight -1 penalty on attacks, ability checks, and saves, and their touch can deal necrotic damage and grant them temporary hit points.
Djinn are synonymous with the unseen as well as the fear of darkness and the unknown. In Christian communities they are known as demons. Some believe that they were once mortal archmages who were corrupted by gazing upon Al-Ghaib’s secrets, while others claim that they are born from unstable magic. The djinn cannot be trusted when asked themselves, so their origins may as well be a mystery. Even those djinn who aren’t evil tend to act in chaotic and disruptive ways, meaning only the most desperate, power-hungry, and self-assured deign to even call upon them. Before going into their stats we have entries talking about exorcizing djinn, which in addition to the spell there are various ways the exorcism can be made easier or harder. Examples include the use of holy water, protective magic items, and folkloric stuff such as “the promise of a friend” or “blood of an enemy.” Others besides the spellcaster can participate in the ritual with appropriate skill checks, such as praying with Religion or a poem with Performance that can lower the DC for exorcizing the djinn.
Additionally, djinn are protective of their true names, and souls who learn them gain power over that particular djinn. Uttering their real name along with an appropriate command can force the djinn to obey on a failed Charisma save, while just saying their name in isolation compels the djinn to listen to the speaker.
We’ve got eight types of djinn, half of which are CR 1 and the others ranging from 3 to 6. Most of them share some commonalities among stats: they are incorporeal and invisible in dim light and darkness when not possessing someone, can possess someone if the target fails a Charisma save, can impose the Djinnstruck condition on those who contact them in any way, have a touch attack that typically deals non-physical damage types, and can inflict various debuff special attacks. Chor are the offspring of djinn and humans whose burning touch can damage and exhaust, and most religious people learned in arcane matters view their existence as a sin in and of itself. Soul Whisperers are minor djinn who masquerade as voices in people’s heads to subtly influence them; they have minor spellcasting capabilities and once per day can use maddening whispers to djinnstruck and even change a target’s alignment. Shivekar, or Silver Tongues, often take the forms of beautiful women to charm men and get them to do what they want, including a Charming Glance that inflicts…well, the charmed condition, but only on men.* Wicked Shades enjoy spreading fear, which stands in contrast to them often taking the forms of handsome figures and are the kind of djinn the PCs fought on the steamboat at the beginning of the adventure. Horrorists are similar in that they also enjoy spreading fear, but prefer to do it via retelling terrible stories as a special attack which acts like the Enthrall spell but with an open-ended duration of until the story ends. Shamhuresh, or rot bringers, can spread disease with a touch and are one of the more powerful of their kind, specializing in dealing necrotic damage and infection-related debuffs. Nar-As Samum, or the Blazing Rage, are djinni who are powered by fire and anger, whose flaming touch can ignite others. Finally, the Zawbaw’ah are attuned to air, being very fast and can wield lightning.
*I do feel a better wording would be “anyone who would be attracted to the djinn,” for a less heteronormative outlook.
The final chapter of Historica Arcanum doesn’t concern the campaign specifically but is a more general set of guidelines for DMs wishing to make historical fantasy settings of their own with 5th Edition D&D. Covering things broadly and thinly, it illustrates seven steps and common questions to ask, ranging from worldbuilding exercises (how did people deal with war, plague, and famine?), the creation of prominent political factions to center in the campaign, how does magic work and how common/known about are nonhumans, what are the points where the alternate history drifts away from real world history, stuff like that. We also get a new list of more advanced firearms for early 20th Century and beyond here:
Wow, these pistols have some mad ranges!
Finally the toolbox gives us notes for ten sample time periods, ranging from prehistory to the First World War.
If I seem rather brief on this chapter, it’s some pretty generic common-sense advice and things we’ve already heard about in other sourcebooks of that type.
Our book ends with a Cookbook of various real-world Turkish food recipes, an Appendix containing The Lies We Told mentioned earlier, and a Bibliography for further historical reading which I’ll repeat here:
This section is for those who are into the history of Istanbul and want to play a local in the City of Crescent. Checking out sections of these works could inspire the players and the GMs.
• Secret Istanbul, Emre Öktem, Jonglez Publishing
• Istanbul: The Imperial City, John Freely, Penguin Books
• Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City, Hillary Sumner Boyd & John Freely, Tauris Parke Paperbacks
• The Concubine, the Princess, and the Teacher: Voices from the Ottoman Harem, Douglas Scott Brooks, University of Texas Press.
• The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century, Zeynep Çelik, University of California Press
• A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul, Ebru Boyar & Kate Fleet, Cambridge University Press
• Istanbul: A History, David Jacobs, New Word City
• Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire, Suraiya Faroqhi, I.B. Tauris
Thoughts So Far: I like how the bestiary has an in-character format while still being informative, as it lends itself well to telling PCs what they’d know about the monsters and characters with proper checks. A lot of the enemies are on the lower end of the CR bend, although that’s to be expected in 5e in general. There is a pretty significant lack of boss-level monsters given the lack of Legendary and Lair Actions, but that’s my only real complaint.
Final Thoughts: Historica Arcanum is an ambitious project that had a lot of love put into it. Metis Media has taken great care to weave together reality and fantasy into an intriguing setting that feels deeper than a thin Hollywood pastiche. This is evident throughout the work: the use of an original soundtrack, bibliography of referenced works, and little cultural shoutouts such as the movie inspiration of Aziz Sefa Bey or Osman talking about his latest painting that was his most famous work in real life being several examples. The adventure has a strong cast of characters, and the interspersing of Side Quest rewards, Profession Downtime, and shops selling unique items encourages characters to do more than the bare minimum of going from one major plot point to the next.
And yet, the City of Crescent has many flaws that stand in contrast to the beauty of its work, be it the predetermined railroady sections, the bias for the Ghost of March route, or sections that could’ve been organized better or more clearly. The lack of balance and unclear mechanics in quite a few PC options are another mark against it.
There's enough material in it that a dedicated DM who puts in the work will have a unique campaign unlike anything on the 5th Edition market. But it is a lot of work that has to be done in regards to the adventure, and when weighed against the many other campaigns competing against it, it sadly falls short. As far as I can tell this is Metis’ Media’s first tabletop product, and in regards to this it shows: the campaign is very ambitious, but it feels like they bit off more than they can chew when it comes to adventure-writing.
Even with that said, I am hoping that they improve. For what I did like in Historica Arcanum I liked a lot, and am looking forward to what they do for Empires of the Silk Road.