D&D 5E [Mini-Let's Read] The World of Aetaltis

Libertad

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The World of Aetaltis is a fantasy setting that’s been worked on since 2014, originally made for Pathfinder with a free adventure. It’s had some high points and low points when it came to crowdfunding, although the next-to-last KickStarter was successful and knocked things out of the park by supplying seven products to backers. All of which have lots of detailed art and respectable page counts. Regardless of how one feels about the setting itself, I have to respect the amount of work put out by the publisher in delivering to backers, and they did a good job of keeping in touch with people from my recollection. The KickStarter took 2 years but there weren’t any huge stretches of radio silence, which is a lot more than I can say for some other publishers.

In the author’s own words, World of Aetaltis is a love letter to the classic fantasy tropes of days gone by. While acknowledging that they can be painful in some places, he feels that there’s a strong reason why people strongly adhere to a lot of cliches, and made the setting as a way of taking the best of the old but with some new twists.

While tastes are subjective for classic fantasy, this is part of why this isn't a full review; a lot of Aetaltis is well-trodden ground, and when I start speaking about elves and dwarves anyone who has gamed in tabletop for any length of time can see what's coming a mile away.

Aetaltis’ basic concept is that it’s a medieval-era region set around the Amethyst Sea, where this body of water dominates geography and most civilizations surround it. Think the Mediterranean. It really hews closely to Tolkien fantasy cliches: a pantheon of gods known as the Enaros created various elder races known as the enari (elves, fey, and such). But Endroren, one of the gods and Master of Magic, turned against the rest of his kind over the debate of whether to grant this power to their creations. Endroren went behind their backs and soon it was used with destructive consequences. The rest of the pantheon punished him and Endroren basically became not-Sauron, imprisoned deep beneath the earth by powerful magic wards. He created and corrupted various creatures to serve as his minions known as the Dark Hordes. Goblins, orcs, the various evil humanoid races plus some new ones, are known as the Endrori or the Fallen* and are the main threat in the setting. Now the wards are failing and the Dark Hordes are amassing on the surface in great numbers. Imagine the Blight and Darkspawn from Dragon Age, and you get the idea.

As a result of this, kingdoms began encouraging the practice of freelance military specialists trained in patrolling the land and underground expeditions to deal with threats conventional forces couldn’t. In other words, adventurers! The kingdom that came up with the practice, Agthor, has a bit of author favoritism as it’s the “bright, shining hopeful land” where the published adventures so far are set and was the region what the last (unsuccessful) KickStarter wanted to focus on.

*There’s a differences in the two types, but I will cover that in another post.

There isn’t a single “corebook” like with most new settings. The closest we have are the Player’s Guide, which presents the player-friendly side of things along with some generic information on the world. The Gamemaster’s Guide covers campaign secrets, new house rules, and monsters; in fact, roughly half the book can be penned as that, being half DMG, half Monster Manual. There’s also an Adventurer’s Guide, which is an entirely in-character scholarly treatise given out to new adventurers telling them about the world along with personal handwritten commentary in the margins by in-setting scribes. Then there are four supplements: Champions of Aetaltis, a novel, which collects a series of short stories by notable fantasy writers such as Ed Greenwood, and three different adventures.

As you can imagine, the splitting up of vital content into different books isn’t the friendliest method for attracting new blood. The Gamemaster’s Guide heavily encourages you to read the Adventurer’s Guide to get the full picture, and while some of the adventures have quick rundowns of the basic facts of the world you’re still going to be missing content if using them by themselves. There’s no free “quickstarter” rundown.

One of the more innovative aspects of the setting are the two major racial groupings, and races are referred to as Lineages. There’s the enari, who are the primordial inhabitants of Aetaltis, made up of dwarves, halflings, fey, and drothmal. But there was an extradimensional colonization project known as the Atlan Alliance which visited Aetaltis. Humans were the most numerous race of the Alliance, and were accompanied by three races, one of which are basically ogres but not evil and two of which are heavily based on Star Trek aliens. The Newardin are pale white, seemingly emotionless creatures who prize logic and live in their own isolated communes; basically Vulcans. The cheebat are the short comic relief race of the setting and are basically a cross between ferengi and kender. Like ferengi they’re obsessed with material accumulation and have an intricate series of laws revolving around this obsession. But like kender they are extremely friendly, almost everyone loves and welcomes them, and they are supernaturally resilient to Endroren’s evil corruption. And although they’re part of the enari, the Drothmal are a Proud Warrior Race who can be summed up as “what if Klingons were into S&M?”

Two races which grab my eye for their abilities are the Orog (ogres are actually orogs corrupted by Endroren) and the Fairies. Orog are Large-sized powerhouses who have a great +3 Strength and +2 Constitution, along with +1 AC due to thick hides and advantage against threats which would forcefully move/trip/shove them. They have disadvantage on checks to resist mind-affecting and corruption effects (a new subsystem). They’re the only race which has a +3 bonus to something outside of the Newardin (+3 Intelligence) which can easily net them an 18 at 1st level if going by the standard array or point buy. Technically humans can as well with the right feat. Fairies are a Tiny-sized winged people with a 30 foot fly speed. They have some big penalties apart from their Tiny size, such as disadvantage on concentration checks and whenever combat begins they begin adjacent to a random ally due to their distractible flitting about.

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In addition to Lineages there are also Cultures, which detail kingdoms and cultural groups around Aetaltis. While certain lineages are more likely to live in certain cultures, the latter focuses more on a broader national sense.

There aren’t any explicit science fiction elements in Aetaltis despite the racial Star Trek overtures. The Atlan Alliance isn’t really detailed beyond Aetaltis, as the portals to other worlds were destroyed in a Cataclysm. I do like how it bucks trends by making humans an otherworldly civilization and the fey are actually the ones native to the world.

But in spite of this novelty, the mechanics for the races take a step back. In being an ode to “classic fantasy,” the mechanics of the game more heavily encourage you to take stereotypical roles via penalties to certain ability scores. Furthermore, every race save humans have requirements where particular scores cannot be less than or exceed certain values during character creation. All Drothmal need Strength and Constitution values of at least 10, all Halflings need a Charisma of at least 8, Dwarves cannot have a Dexterity value higher than 16, etc.

And as for humans, they get the best of both regular and Variant human abilities from the Player’s Handbook. They get a net +6 to ability scores but can arrange them such that they can get +2 in 1 to 3 scores, and they get an extra feat on top of that. Compare this to some of the other races, which may have a net +4 bonus with no penalties or a net +1 with a mixture of bonuses and penalties. I feel that the straitjacketing of races via ability scores is a weakness, not a strength. It feels like it’s hearkening back to old-school D&D where nonhumans had narrower ranges of classes they could play or level up in, but in 5th Edition it just feels jarring.

Furthermore, a lot of the Lineages and Cultures feel very one-note. The elves are vain magical people who live in forests and the dwarves are beard-loving stubborn folk obsessed with retaking their underground strongholds from Endroren’s forces. You have your idyllic halfling shire, your decadent rich merchant city-states, and so on and so forth. Huge portions of national cultures are strongly themed around some singular ideal or personality trait. Even the new races feel mono-dimensional, as their Lineage entries are half a page of flavor text and the Cultures all adhere closely to cliche fantasy tropes.

There are some novelties here and there, but these are the exceptions. The Newardine, in spite of emotional repression, do secretly yearn to rebuild the portals and go back to their ancestral homeworlds due to a sort of multigenerational homesickness. Additionally, Selethea is a newfound wizard-nation which is known for being a weird and quirky place because their novel style of economy and government frankly hasn’t been tried before. This is not to mention all the strangeness that occurs when you gather a bunch of powerful magic-users in one area. I will give one additional bit of praise: the Cultures do list traditions for birth, age of majority, marriage, and death customs along with peculiar taboos and traditions regarded as strange by everyone else. I do like these touches, which I surprisingly don’t see detailed in most other settings.

Aetaltis also has a new class, the Mountebank which is basically a suave con artist type. As for why its role cannot be easily filled by the Rogue or a new subclass, I don’t know. The mountebank overall is rather underpowered. They get Extra Attack but they don’t have a powerful offensive feature such as Sneak Attack and none of their subclasses grant spellcasting ability. Their class features involve forms of luck and charming feats of daring, like treating a cloak as a shield or gaining advantage on Charisma checks to influence a specific group of background/profession who are the mountebank’s “favored marks.” Several of the subclass abilities are rather situational or come in too little for late. Examples include a 7th level ability to pass yourself off as a native to a particular culture, or a 15th level ability which lets you disarm a foe in lieu of damaging them if they fail a Strength save. When I read the Mountebank, I am prone to thinking of things a Bard, Fighter, or Rogue can do but with better magical and offensive capabilities.

But there is one rather galling class feature, Mountebank Luck, where if you roll a natural 20 you can turn the roll into a failure to gain Inspiration. It’s limited use based on short rest and the Inspiration only lasts until the next short rest. Given how rare natural 20s are and how Inspiration basically gives you advantage on a roll, this feels like a tradeoff a lot of players won’t do unless they’re rolling for something they don’t deem “important.”

Beyond the Mountebank’s own, there aren’t any new subclasses save for new cleric domains, each of which is named after one of the gods.

The author is quite the fan of medieval economics. One of Aetaltis’ selling points is that it has coins and prices based off of real-world 1300s Europe, and silver pieces are the standard unit of currency. Many of the major Player’s Handbook weapons and armor are changed, reworked, or replaced in some manner. Heavy armor grants resistance against various nonmagical damage types, and there new weapon qualities such as Penetrating which can ignore this damage resistance if it’s granted by armor. Anyone wielding a shield may spend a reaction to automatically deflect a blow if they make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw. This reduces the shield’s AC and breaks it when it reaches AC 0.

Edit: The heavy armors in the Player's Guide apply their damage resistances only to non-magical attacks.

Resistance Some armor is especially effective against certain types of damage. This is reflected in the resistance column of the armor table. Non-magical attacks that inflict damage of the type the armor is resistant to is halved. Resistance is applied after all other modifiers to damage. Additional instances of resistance that affect the same damage type are ignored.

I haven’t had time to test it in actual play, but I feel that these changes will make shields a lot more valuable, and can see PCs carrying around spare shields to block attacks and go out of their way to gain shield proficiency. Additionally, unlike may monsters with such resistances the armors don’t specify if the bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing resistances being overcome by magical weapon attacks one way or the other. I presume not, which means that heavy armor is a lot more powerful on top of the good AC bonuses they already give.

There’s also extended tables for a variety of mundane items, from common containers, clothing types, miscellaneous gear, and a lot of common domestic animals. Nothing really jumped out at me, although I did like how they had prices for maps of locations based on how dangerous, well-traveled, and populated the region it details.

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Arcane and divine magic still exist, although arcane magic now gets its own sub-system to make it more distinct. The only kinds of arcane spellcasters that exist are Wizards; Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks don’t exist in Aetaltis, nor do Monks or Paladins. Arcane spellcasters get a point-based system where they draw upon and make use of Essence to cast spells via glyphs. They don’t have to memorize spells or use spell slots, and they can cast spells above what their level normally allows. Every time they cast a spell they must make a spellcasting check against a DC based on the Essence Point cost, and failure causes nothing to happen but the Essence is still paid. Natural 20s and 1s can cause critical successes and fumbles, where the former halves the Essence cost but the latter rolls from a 1d100 table of various (often detrimental) effects. Casting spells above your level is known as overcasting, which not only costs more Essence than usual but imposes various penalties and greater consequences for failure such as by increasing the critical failure range.

Personally speaking I’m not a fan of the system, as critical fumbles affect PCs much more often and forcing one to roll a check every time they cast a spell makes arcane magic more unreliable across the board without much benefit. I can see a lot of players choosing divine casters with appropriate subclasses for a close enough role to the wizard they’d ordinarily play. I get that the idea is a wizard PC who comes upon a spellbook or scroll with powerful magic can draw on it at increased risk or cast spells “right from the spellbook,” but as such gains are controlled by the DM (or cost a lot of gold) it’s a benefit that is subject to DM Fiat. I should mention that Wizards in Aetaltis don’t automatically learn new spells as they level; likely a good choice for this system as some powergamers may immediately take 9th level spells upon leveling up, but my overall criticism of the system still stands.

Thoughts So Far: Aetaltis doesn’t really do anything new that you haven’t seen in fantasy settings already many times over barring some novelties here and there. Whether that's good or bad is subjective. But then that makes the major selling points what it does different or the new rules mechanics, which I feel fall flat in several areas. The more novel parts, like the spell point system for casters or the buffing up of shields and heavy armor, aren’t weighty enough to uplift the Player’s Guide on its own.

I’ll cover one of the adventures, Heroes of Thornwall, in my next post. I feel that Aetaltis' high points are in its adventures. Heroes of Thornwall in particular gives a good impression of what sets it apart in a clear-cut way from many other fantasy games on the market.
 
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Libertad

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I know I said I’d do the World of Aetaltis Gamemaster’s book next, but figured to share my thoughts on Heroes of Thornwall as this one’s freshest in my mind. It is in fact the first product made for the World of Aetaltis, originally existing as a Pathfinder product back around 2014-2015 for free. It was a huge tome, standing at 163 pages with top-quality artwork. Now it’s been updated to 5th Edition.

I rate this book a lot higher than the Aetaltis corebooks, in that I think it hits on one of the author’s and setting’s strengths via a specific theme and feel: hearth fantasy.

Thornwall is a settlement of three and a half thousand people in the hinterlands of Agthor, surrounded by a magically-regenerating circular hedge that is the byproduct of ancient fey magic. The product’s goal is meant to evoke the cozy feel of those idyllic “starting towns” in so many fantasy novels and RPGs which often serve as the protagonist’s home, and the book’s settings and mechanics reinforce this strongly. Thornwall isn’t exactly a city brimming in intrigue or danger, but a little over 60 homes and buildings are detailed with various characters, their families, their duties and trades in the town, their relationship with other people, and what they’re likely to make of the PCs as professional adventurers. A few major NPCs even have boxed text dialogue that reads like entries from a novel in detailing their backstories or how they may likely interact with the PCs. As for how adventurers may interact with or impact the economy, like finding someone willing to buy the weird art they found in a dungeon or build them a magic weapon, there are characters who can serve those purposes. Like an eccentric merchant with a family member in the big city who likes the weird stuff adventurers find, or a dwarven apprentice brimming with talent who can learn magical craftsmanship over the course of the campaign.

There’s also a huge list of goods and services that promises authentic price guidelines on 1200-1300s medieval European items for the various people the PCs can visit in Thornwall. Ever wanted to know how much a bushel of milled grain costs? Got you covered! Or how much you can sell that fox pelt at the rural trading post? There’s a table for that, too!

There are many Sidequests where the party can help out locals, sometimes mundane things like replacing a faulty bell for the town guard, while some have higher stakes such as harvesting some unique plant growing in the nearby dungeon for the herbalist helping resolve a duel nonviolently between an ornery elder farmer and a passing merchant. There’s a few unusual ones like finding a way to sanctify a hidden holy relic which during a certain time of year summons ghostly fey to plague townsfolk with exhaustion from being so frightful. A lot of these Sidequests are rather noncombative in nature, and accomplishing them* can earn PCs Goodwill. Goodwill is a metagame resource which can be spent for various benefits in town, like getting a discount when shopping, being forgiven for a minor transgression, having a specific character perform a Boon for the party depending on their capabilities (every stat block has a sample Boon), and so on.

*and other actions which can affect the party’s social standing.

Although it is meant as a “starting town” for greater adventures the PCs will go on, the amount of time and investment characters can pour into Thornwall make it feel more appropriate as a sort of central base of operations. It can easily make a short campaign if combined with the other large adventure Defenders of Dunbury Castle, and easily accomplishes the goal of giving something the PCs to fight for. Barring a few exceptions, almost every NPC including generic stat blocks are good-aligned. There are some bandits and a power-grubby Warden who seeks to have the current Forester (think park ranger) replaced by a puppet, but when it comes to the main threat it is the outbreak of goblins in the nearby dungeon. The PCs are meant to be heroes in the classic fantasy sense of the word; humans and the allied races may have wicked beings among them, but overall the community they’re fighting for is worth saving against a great evil that seeks no quarter.

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The Temple of Modren is a modestly-sized 27 room dungeon, once dedicated to the god of the forge and now an outpost for goblins that are led by an orcish wizard seeking to summon a more powerful monster. Heroes of Thornwall notes that the adventure was designed for convention play and balanced for 4-8 1st level characters. I find that range strange, as the maximum recommended size is literally twice the number of the minimum and would thus play very differently. The Temple has mostly goblins as enemies with a fair bit of traps, and there are some goblins with different enough stat blocks or special abilities to allow for some variety in a few of the encounters. The final battle against the orc wizard takes place on a platform suspended over hot lava and he has a magic staff which he can use to summon skeleton minions. There is one encounter I find problematic, but I feel it’s better saved when I talk about the Endrori and major villains of Aetaltis in the post discussing the Gamemaster’s Guide.

Thoughts So Far: Overall, I rate Heroes of Thornwall quite highly, and would consider snatching the Goodwill rules for other campaigns. It sets out to capture a certain feel and populates a rural woodland town with plenty of interesting people gaming groups will be inclined to grow attached to and protect.

I do feel that the product is a tad too detailed at times when it comes to the “mundanities” of things. There are so many different types of noncombatant stat blocks that feel like padding. In many cases I feel that existing fractional CR NPC stat blocks such as the Commoner, Guard, and the like serve the purpose well enough. I don’t see why we need a Lumberjack as their own stat block when you can have the book just as easily go “use the stats for a Commoner but raise their Strength to 14 and give them an axe weapon with which they are proficient.” The sheer amount of goods and services on sale may be fun for DMs who want increased verisimilitude, but many may be just fine with the abstracted nature of the PHB’s lifestyle expenses or winging it instead.
 

Libertad

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The Gamemaster’s Guide is actually the shortest of the three corebooks, but even then it’s still a respectable 154 pages. Split into 5 chapters, the first half of the book deals with Secrets of the setting not in the player's guide, new setting-specific rules, and new types of treasure generation methods. The second half is one bestiary chapter containing monsters and NPCs.

Secrets of Aetaltis talks about the primary themes of the setting: the classic good vs evil conflict, “street level adventures” which focus less on epic world-spanning conflict and more of the hearth fantasy I described above, the threat of corruption and the rising tide of the Dark Hordes invasion, etc. This chapter also includes a more accurate map of the setting, containing secret locations not detailed in the other books. The “player-friendly” map from the Player’s Guide apes the feeling of a more hand-drawn map. There’s a more in-depth timeline along with common and forgotten technology of the setting.

Rules of the Game is full of optional rules. There are rules for ability score alterations based on age category like in that of 3rd Edition D&D, two new NPC reaction attitudes of Loyal and Violent in addition to the Friendly/Indifferent/Hostile, new tables for determining the relative strength and sturdiness of common construction materials, and a few new diseases and traps. There are pseudo-traps known as Hauntings which represent otherworldly influences of ghosts and other strange supernatural events. We also have a new value known as Resolve, which is a form of mental hit points that represents a character’s desire to continue adventuring. Resolve is lost through traumatic events and gained via things that reinforce hope such as completing personal goals, gaining levels, or paying respects to fallen teammates. If you hit 0 Resolve you have to roll a special saving throw akin to death saves, where “death” causes the character to choose a less risky lifestyle and is retired from play. Or flees the party if in a dangerous area.

A few related house rules include Divine Inspiration Cards, cards which are awarded to players from a typical 52 playing card deck. The cards represent certain gods working their influence in the current adventure and can be spent by players to trigger some auspicious event. The suit of a card determines its Influence Level, and the higher the level the higher the equivalent spell effect it can generate. Another rule representing one’s relationship with the gods is Grace, a numerical value representing a character’s relationship with particular gods. A score of 0 is neutral, while positive and negative scores represent varying levels of friendliness and hostility. PCs who gain special abilities, magic items, and class features related to one or more gods can lose access if their Grace score with said gods drops too low. In some cases this can even prevent them from physically entering areas regarded as sacred to a specific Enaros. On the positive side, Grace points can be spent to reroll failed d20 rolls with advantage or regain more HP when spending Hit Dice to deal.

When it comes to these new rules I’m rather fond of Grace and Divine Inspiration; they provide a more direct benefit for PCs who entreat favors from the gods without necessarily being priestly classes. It also helps reinforce the feeling of a world where their influence is felt by all in ways both subtle and fortuitous. I’m not a fan of the Aging rules as I feel it will encourage further straitjacketing of certain character concepts, and the Resolve feels more suited in a grittier dark fantasy setting. Combined with Corruption below, there’s two ways PCs can end up “retired,” which may not be to everyone’s standard. However, Corruption is less likely to happen on account that its triggering effects are more easily controlled.

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Secrets of Magic is a shorter chapter, mostly revolving around supernatural corruption and abilities restricted to Endroren’s legions. Corruption is a value which represents a character’s gradual succumbing to Endroren’s influence, which can make them detectable to certain divinations and gain physical and mental changes of a macabre nature from a 1d100 table. Existing corruption is added to the result, and a result of 120 or more transforms a character into the Fallen (or dies a horrible death if a cheebat). The Fallen is a type of evil humanoid who is little more than a slave to Endroren’s will. There’s a list of various ways people can be corrupted; even places and objects can become Corrupted, and spellcasters run the risk of gaining corruption when casting spells in these areas and anyone risks Corruption when using such items. Naturally, a fair bit of classic “dark magic” risks corruption, such as creating undead or using teleportation magic, a type of magic restricted to Endroren’s influence. Finally we get a detailed writeup on the Wards of Alantra, the supernatural barriers that seal Endroren and the Dark Hordes underground. The wards are nodes of a large network of divine magic, and being linked together lets them shield the areas in between. One of the major means of weakening this field is via digging tunnels from the surface as the field is woven into the living essence of the planet.

A saving throw is required to pass 10 feet through this field from within the Deeplands, and supernaturally evil creatures including the Endrori and Fallen have disadvantage on the save and also suffer damage as they move through it. Non-evil clerics can bypass these Wards by spending channel divinity, and there’s a 5th-level spell known as the Ward of Alantra which can temporarily raise or lower a ward. Outright creating a new ward is more of a plot device requiring a unique ritual spell learned through downtime along with specific natural material.

Coins, Treasure, and Trade is a reworking of treasure generation in line with Aetaltis’ economy being based more on 1200-1300s Europe. There are different tiers of art objects based on craftsmanship, rules for PCs who invest in a business for potential future returns, tables of specialist merchants and what kinds of items they’re interested in buying (they can pay better prices than more general businesses), and even a table full of “magical baubles” which are magic items designed less for adventuring and more quality of life enhancements. This includes pillows that help one sleep soundly or tapestries with animated artwork. Oddly there aren’t any rules for setting prices for existing magic items in the core rules.

I don’t have many strong feelings about these new rules one way or the other.

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Minions and Monsters is the meat of the book, talking about how both new and existing monsters fit into the world of Aetaltis. The biggest change to existing creatures is that Fey is no longer a creature type, instead becoming a tag for humanoid creatures. There’s also values for Essence Points based on Hit Die for monsters and NPCs that make use of arcane spellcasting.

Endrori are the primary villains in the World of Aetaltis. They are evil versions of the enari lineages, the first ones captured by Endroren and twisted into extensions of his will. They are strongly based off of Tolkien’s conception of orcs and are always evil-aligned. Endrori are intelligent, can reason and speak, but they don’t have free will in the traditional sense of the word. Endrori without exception seek out the destruction of all that is good in Aetaltis, and this driving factor raises above all other motivations. Their cultures are thus limited in this sense: orcs were made from dwarves, and virtually every economic and social aspect of orcish cities revolves around endless labor, martial training, and heavy drinking and fighting. Pecks are the twisted versions of sprites who get off on hunting down, torturing, and killing other beings and are basically nomadic serial killers. The Wraethdari are twisted elves and the Ring-Wraith equivalents, serving as the warlords of the Dark Hordes. They are unable to form any sort of bonds or friendships with anyone else and see all relations as a form of exchange with one side being dominant and the other submissive. Wraethdari thus use intimidation to maintain control over others as opposed to other forms of persuasion.

It’s better to think of the Endrori as soldiers in a military strategy video game, with Endroren being the player. Endrori, like those video game soldiers, have “idle roles” and can take their own initiative. But they’re limited by the roles they can do, for they were programmed for specific purposes and nothing beyond that. Endroren can effectively hijack direct control over them if he wishes to be more hands-on, as they are all really just extensions of his personal will.

The text notes that this is all intentional; Endroren and the Endrori are designed to have a clear-cut evil the PCs can not feel bad about killing en masse, an enemy that cannot be reasoned with or have civilians and noncombatants to raise sticky moral dilemmas. As quoted by the book:

you don’t need to mess with this simplicity, and in most cases you shouldn’t. The real world is terribly complicated, and sometimes it’s nice to have things a bit more cut and dry on game night.

Ironically the text later on that very same page creates a kind of contradiction:

There are ways, however, to add more depth to endrori encounters if you desire it. One way is to mirror the less-than-heroic choices players make in the actions with endrori they encounter. For instance, if the players refused to show mercy to some bandits they fought and killed them all without a second thought, have them encounter a group of endrori behaving the same way. Create a scene that echoes back to their past choices, and challenge the players to think hard about what it means to be a hero.

So it suggests more depth by showing how not showing mercy is a bad thing… when the endrori are created as a villainous group not to show mercy to? I feel that this may confuse a lot of players unless the DM is explicit about what kind of game they’re running, and what’s considered reasonable behavior in dealing with evil in regards to these expectations.

Now as you can imagine, there are some unfortunate implications of an always evil humanoid race. Unlike animals, automatons, or some utterly “inhuman” monsters, most of these humanoids in fantasy are often more or less portrayed as fully-fledged societies of “humans but with X.” In quite a few cases such humanoids, orcs particularly, served as the stand-in for real-world groups the author doesn’t like. Lord knows there’s been lots of discussions about this ever since Tolkien felt religiously conflicted about an entire group of otherwise self-aware beings lacking autonomy to “choose grace or damnation.” Portraying evil humanoids as fully-fledged societies have also raised debates about the Baby Orc Dilemma and what exactly their members do when they’re not doing typical evil stuff such as raiding and murdering. The World of Aetaltis attempts to answer some of these questions by making them closer to video game enemies, looking alive and sentient but more of a crude facsimile of human society stripped of any redeeming parts. As for the Baby Orc Dilemma…well, in Heroes of Thornwall, there is one encounter in the Temple of Modren that provides an answer that is already thrust upon the PCs.

Content Warning: Child death

There is one room that serves as a goblin nursery; the goblin concept of parenthood is virtually nonexistent, consisting of locking their children in a room and throwing food and water in every so often. Their mothers have no maternal instincts and don’t seek to protect their children from harm. Aetaltan goblins, even as babies, are ravenous murder machines, and will attack the PCs as a surging, biting swarm. They are Chaotic Evil in alignment and will even eat each other if there’s no food around. The book even has an image of the swarm attacking adventurers:

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The Fallen are the other major evil group influenced by Endroren. They aren’t confined to the Deeplands nor was their nature thrust upon them by that god. The Fallen are closer to the autonomy side of choosing evil, for they only spring forth from the enari and Atlan Alliance races who succumbed to Corruption. But once they cross that moral threshold, there’s no turning back, and like the Endrori their minds change so that spreading misery and woe becomes their all-consuming concern. Fallen tend to be specialized in some kind of harm or sabotage: Bloodborn are basically elven vampires, Creepers (halflings) are basically Gollum in being consumed by greed and living in dark places, Darkholders (dwarves) dedicate themselves single-mindedly to serving as laborers for Endroren’s forces, etc. A few can live “peaceably” in society for a time, such as the Shadowmasks which are fallen humans, but even then they seek to bring about ruin and misery from behind the scenes.

So you might think that Aetaltis isn’t a setting that leaves much room for moral gray areas when it comes to monstrous races, right? Actually, the beastfolk were made to serve such a role. They are animal-humanoid hybrids created during the Cataclysm, consisting of existing monsters such as gnolls and lizardfolk but including a new one in the form of the ratfolk. Much like the Endrori and Fallen their natures create conflict with the civilizations of the Amethyst Sea. But unlike the Endrori and Fallen they aren’t motivated by a desire to spread harm. Rather, their minds are sufficiently different and animalistic in certain ways that they are unable to understand certain mindsets and mores. It’s possible for enari and Atlan Alliance races to maintain peaceful relations with them or even ally, although such attempts aren’t a sure thing and often have to be done in a means that lines up with how the beastfolk see the world.

For example, the ratfolk are scavengers who take whatever they can to survive and often gorge themselves on whatever food they can get on hand. They also lack empathy and cannot understand why people would be upset about this or the long-term implications of things such as famine leading to resentment against them and thus further violence. To the ratfolk, the world is an unpredictable place, and you never know where your next meal will come. Those crops on the farm may just as easily be eaten by someone else who comes by, so may as well take them first to ensure you’re one meal fuller, lest the next opportunity is harder to get and you end up starving.

Another good example are the lizardfolk. The lizardfolk can only imagine relationships in a hierarchical way as a means of knowing where everyone stands. They engage any newcomers in a 1 on 1 duel of physical combat. This is preferable to conventional fights as the risk of death is often not worth it. These duels allow lizardfolk to know who can conceivably kill or be killed by them, which allows a degree of societal security and surety. They see this as a straightforward means of testing character, and don’t understand why challenging a human King to a duel may cause the local barony to take up arms against their entire tribe. Everyone’s violent, the lizardfolk view themselves as being honest about what they see as a universal truth.

The rest of the new monsters are mostly variations of more “mundane” animals, such as Crypt Beetles who infest graveyards and burrow through flesh, Grey Cats who stalk a mountain range that were once used as mounts by dwarven royalty, and Reavers which are magical worms that can swim through stone like it is water.

We end this chapter with a list of generic NPC stat blocks, a lot of which are taken from Heroes of Thornwall and have a heavy influence on noncombatant medieval occupations. We have a Glossary appendix with an alphabetical list of new setting-specific terms, which is appreciated.

Thoughts So Far So the thing with Aetaltis is that it’s a setting that is heavily defined by its monsters and enemies. It veers closer to a certain perception of Tolkien-inspired Low Fantasy, where the primary foes aren’t as much exotic monsters so much as evil mirrors of the homelands the PCs seek to defend. The problem with this is that barring the high-CR Wraethdari the Endrori and Fallen are overall low-CR monsters that aren’t awash with magical power. Thus a more long-running Aetaltis campaign needs more variety of these evil humanoid monster types if they should serve as recurring villains. The setting also takes an explicit stance in regards to the ongoing discussion of evil humanoids, one that veers from the standards of what Wizards of the Coast is doing in their newer material. Much like how a lot of the lineages and cultures in the Player’s Guide feel surface-level, so too do the villains, which makes Aetaltis feel flatter as a setting in comparison to others.

Of course, there are a lot of campaign setting with less depth and word count than this one, but oftentimes a key feature of verisimilitude is giving the illusion of depth. Most RPGs aren’t designed as ethnographic simulators, but often include “just enough” to make the world feel real and living. Paradoxically, Aetaltis does have depth, particularly in regards to equipment, economy, and just exactly what specific medieval occupations can do in regards to the game rules via NPC stats. It thus feels like some of the simulationist aspects of 3rd Edition, like how its settlement generation tools can tell you just how many Fighters, Commoners, and Wizards lived in a particular settlement down to the last NPC.
 

Libertad

Hero
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The other big setting/adventure book for Aetaltis, Defenders of Dunbury Castle, centers on a local territory known as the Scir of Dunbury, Described by a Drive-Thru RPG commentator as “Keep on the Borderlands for the 21st Century,” the major adventure hooks and plots center on Dunbury Castle whose captain is responsible for overseeing the welfare and order of the region. But with a tightening budget, understaffed ranks, a crooked Warden* who is replacing foresters with morally dubious yes-men to serve as a private army, the rising amount of Endrori attacks from unwarded Deeplands entrances, and several other dangers, the good folk of Dunbury Castle can’t do this alone. That’s where the PCs come in!

*manager of the foresters, who act as rural law enforcement in the Scir.

Like Heroes of Thornwall, Defenders goes for the local hearth fantasy angle in encouraging PCs to form relationships and care about locals by helping them with sidequests via the Goodwill system while also having several adventure-friendly locations to explore. This was intentional; much like how Heroes of Thornwall was inspired by those “cozy starting towns” in RPGs, Defenders of Dunbury Castle is inspired by those times in classic RPGs where the protagonist visited the “starting castle” for an audience with the King to help solve some local trouble or saving the world. While Dunbury Castle doesn’t have a King, it is in need of help, and its proximity to Thornwall is what the book calls a “campaign launchpad.” Not a full setting, but a starting area with enough material for the Dungeon Master to get things going.

Dunbury Castle itself occupies a good count of 60 out of 156 pages, and like Heroes of Thornwall the author does a great job in making the place feel like a real medieval community rather than just a fortress full of soldiers. There’s also quite a level of detail to real-world architecture and terminology. Have you ever wondered what taluses are and how they can be used for defensive benefits against climbing attackers? How about nightingale floors, which actually existed in real world Japan and were used to guard against silent attackers sneaking about? Defenders of Dunbury Castle’s got you covered!

There’s also brief talk of running a campaign where PCs are soldiers in a military capacity, with discussions on requisitioning equipment, the typical duties outside of field work,* and discussion of ranks and how many soldiers they can command. Yes, PCs can get additional help this way.

*term for when soldiers go out into potentially hostile territory or otherwise out on patrol.

There are a lot of adventure opportunities and characters to interact with, and even the “NPCless rooms” have some kind of detail which helps enliven the place and makes it feel more real. Take this text about a medieval fire prevention system in the barracks:

The roof barrels collect rainwater. Each individually, or all at once, can be tipped by pull-ropes inside the attic in the event flaming projectiles set the roof afire. Half are designed to tip toward one side of the roof, and the other half toward the opposite side. Unless sabotaged, the simple fire-extinguisher works as intended, although re-filling the reservoirs takes 10 person-hours of labor or a month’s accumulation of rain or snow (on average). The system has not been required for a real fire in decades, although Sergeant Hodge oversees a practical drill twice each summer—the exact date depending on the temperature and the general morale. “The splash” is a festive event during which soldiers and other castle residents crowd each other for a place under the roof edges for a cool shower. On occasion, someone “wins” the surprise of a drowned rat or pigeon and is considered blessed with luck for the rest of the season, but the real prize for everyone else is the “winner’s” scream of horror.

This section serves a dual purpose: it helps explain features of the castle security versus a common threat, and also a means of showing how people have fun and find ways to blow off stress. It sounds like the kind of thing medieval fantasy villagers would do as a means of livening up an otherwise boring day of drudgery. There are other bits of character flavor here and there in the book, for general communities and for individual NPCs.

For example, take this orog cook who works at the local Three Hounds Inn:

Official or wealthy visitors to Dunbury Castle can expect lodging within the fortress, but others can purchase lodging at the only inn in the village, one with a carved sign depicting a trio of hunting hounds mid-leap. The prices for meals, drinks, and services match those shown in the equipment section of the World of Aetaltis: Player’s Guide.

The proprietor is Basil Spicer, who tends bar and waits tables. His business partner, who serves as both cook and bouncer, is an orog named Mama who has Strength 20 and wields an enormous club (1d8 + 5 damage) fashioned from an old oar wrapped tight with hardened rope. Ordinarily Mama is shy and sweet, easily embarrassed by flattery or kind gestures. Most of the visitors to the Three Hounds make a point of complimenting the cooking and thanking Mama before leaving, which always causes the big cook to blush. But should Basil call for help, or if violence breaks out, she is quick to wade in and dispense thumps. When possible, she stops short of killing offenders. Spicer punishes any disruptive behavior with a term of banishment from the establishment ranging from a single night (for minor offenses) to weeks, months, or even years of exile. To many locals, such a punishment is considered the worst possible fate.

Anyone who disparages the food or Mama is banned until she accepts a public apology from the offender. She considers apologies only once per evening, and a successful DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion) check indicates she melts down into blubbering tears, hugs the offenders for 1 hp of bludgeoning damage, and forgives them.

Even if PCs aren’t mean enough to get on Mama’s bad side, the information provided still sets a strong mental image of her personality type to the DM in how to roleplay her. And she is also tied to two other characters in the book, another Orog who is one of Dunbury Castle’s “secret weapons” and her father who has sadly transformed into an Ogre who has become a vicious raider. While it’s not necessarily the norm, there are quite a few NPCs like Mama who may seem ordinarily innocuous but tie in to other plots and characters.


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Unlike Heroes of Thornwall there is no big dungeon that serves as the main adventure hook, although the text makes up for that with smaller encounters and locations in need of adventurers, and tend to have higher stakes than the minor errands and village drama in Thornwall. Here’s a few:

The local fairies who are beloved barbers in the castle are secretly spies for a nearby hidden fey kingdom, using animal messengers to relay information.

The court mage’s apprentice has secretly pledged herself to Endroren and is building up from animal sacrifices to humanoid ones in her quest for power.

One of the castle towers is haunted by a nobleman bound to the place by a night hag’s curse, and there are several ways to put his spirit to rest. The night hag responsible can also be encountered in the Scir, and while using it risks corruption her coven has a bubbling pot that can see through the eyes of spiders which can be used to determine future adventure hooks.

There’s the lair of Brightburn, a copper dragon who is not a villain to be slain, but actually on the run from an evil green dragon and her Endroren minions. PCs who aid her can get a unique magical harp from her hoard, and if they’re in a tight spot she may swoop in to give a helping claw.

Thoughts So Far: To me, this is where Aetaltis’ strengths lie. Not so much in the big picture of the setting or the “ode to classic fantasy,” but more in how the adventures do a stellar job of making a realized, interconnected world players can immerse themselves in. While Defenders of Dunbury Castle is more a broad blueprint than a whole campaign, there’s enough sidequests and opposition to make the realm more than just a campaign launchpad for 1st-level heroes to start in, leave, then forget about.

If I had to give any criticisms, I’d say that between this and Heroes of Thornwall, the book contradicts itself by mentioning NPCs who have classes that otherwise don’t exist in the setting. Notably bard, which shows up a couple of times. There’s no in-game explanation for their unique talents, either.

I don't know if I'm going to cover the Adventurer's Guide to Aetaltis. From what I skimmed a lot of it repeats information from the two other corebooks but from an in-character perspective. The remaining adventure, the Forgotten Gate, is much shorter than the other two and is a straightforward dungeon crawl.

The collection of short stories, Champions of Aetaltis, isn't an RPG sourcebook so I don't intend on covering it in this thread. It could be good, but at the moment I'm more interested in covering the World of Aetaltis as a D&D setting to run adventures in.

Final Thoughts to come later, as I'm posting this late at night.
 
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Libertad

Hero
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Final Thoughts on World of Aetaltis

A huge amount of fantasy RPGs can be boiled down to the phrase “generic medieval fantasy setting, but X.” Shadow of the Demon Lord is “generic medieval fantasy setting invaded by a world-destroying cosmic horror.” Midgard is “generic medieval fantasy setting, but with a Germanic/Slavic focus rather than British.” Ravenloft is “generic medieval fantasy setting, but with Gothic Horror themes and is actually a prison plane.” In some cases such as Dark Sun or Eberron the setting is different enough that it can’t really be described as “generic” anymore but still have some main pitch.

Aetaltis saw this common format, and rejected it. Marc Tassin decided that the generic medieval fantasy setting could stand on its own two feet, and when asked by people what made his setting stand apart from the competition, the answer he gave was that it doesn’t.

The post is wordier than those two answers, but during Aetaltis’ marketing this was the thing that was focused on and pushed to the public. And even then, the world still has that “but X” factor. Several, in fact.

Aetaltis is “generic medieval fantasy setting, but with humans as descendants of a Fantasy Star Trek extraplanar colonization effort.”

Aetaltis is “generic medieval fantasy setting, but with a reactionary* take on current D&D’s move away from evil humanoid monsters.”

But what I think Aetaltis is best at can be encapsulated by the scenes in the ending song to Konosuba: God’s Blessing On This Wonderful World.

If Crunchyroll isn't viewable in your country, here's the English lyrics version but with no scenes

Aetaltis is “generic medieval fantasy setting, but one where the Starting Village is the campaign.”

It’s not about visiting far-flung locales or vanquishing Endroren miles below the earth. Aetaltis is a more local, intimate setting, the kind where the Fighter takes spare time to train the village militia and children argue over who gets play-act as him when engaging in mock battles. The kind where when the orcish army breaches the walls and sets fire to the temple, the Cleric goes “oh no, Sheila was visiting her mother’s grave! We have to rescue her!”

The books call this campaign style Street Level, which I feel is a bit of a misnomer in that this brings to mind gritty urban adventures in the vein of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser or Batman fighting Two-Face in an abandoned chemical plant. It is not street level, it is hearth fantasy. I know that the latter term is overall rarer in RPG spaces, but it more accurately fits the World of Aetaltis. The adventures do a much better job at encapsulating what I feel sets Aetaltis apart from the competition in a way that the corebooks do not.

I can only speculate from the consumer side of things, but I feel that not emphasizing this homey feel or those reimagined classic tropes that now “feel totally new” was to its detriment. And the things I could find that were unique or helped set it apart from Generic Medieval Fantasyland, like the dwarves having socialist and communist governments** or there being a villainous group known as the Purifiers who “go too far” in fighting Endroren’s evil, aren’t all that fleshed out due to the setting’s surface-level approach and brevity in explaining individual entries. Add on top of this the fact that you need to effectively purchase the equivalent of three corebooks to “get the full setting” rather than one. That’s going to be a larger turnoff to consumers who are also told “our product isn’t different from these other brands you know and love.”

It’s still a very obscure setting even by 3rd party standards. When browsing YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and some of the more popular RPG forums, the only real content I could find for it was Marc Tassin’s self-promotion, an Actual Play series at a local convention, and videos that barely break 200 views. This is in spite of the fact that Tassin has promoted his work extensively, from buying out ad space on the bigger RPG sites to having tabletop big names such as Ed Greenwood sing its praises.

But Aetaltis does have a small yet dedicated fanbase. Although it was unsuccessful due to a very high goal, the last KickStarter raised 12,000 dollars from around 200 backers before the inevitable cancellation. This is actually a pretty great amount for most crowdfunding sourcebooks that aren’t giant tomes or sell lots of physical merchandise, but now the company is setting itself for more reasonable expectations in the form of a digital zine on Patreon.

At the end of it all, I feel conflicted about Aetaltis. The big-picture view of the setting didn’t strongly move me or make me go “oh yeah, I have to pitch this to my gaming group!” And the Planet of Hats nature of various lineages and cultures means that I may still do some heavy lifting on filling things out as a DM when the inevitable questions pop up that defer away from Hat-related issues.

But when I read the adventures, I found myself confronted with what felt like a different product line. I found myself marveling at how the locales practically jumped out at me as living, breathing worlds. I found myself opening up my web browser frequently, whether to Google some medieval term or household item or going “wow, I can’t believe something like this is rarer in other city/adventure sourcebooks!”

Aetaltis is different from other fantasy settings out there, and that isn’t something to be ashamed about. The authors spend loving detail in creating communities, and there are some gems like the Goodwill system or the little quirks and personality traits that tell you a lot about an NPC in just a paragraph of text. This drew me into Aetaltis more than the main pitch ever did.

*I don’t mean reactionary in the political sense. I haven’t seen the authors talk much about their political views to my knowledge. More in the sense that its larger themes are a reaction to the dilemma of evil-aligned humanoid monsters that predominates more modern tabletop fantasy.

**this isn't projection or extrapolation, the book uses those words!
 
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Libertad

Hero
Thank you for helping me to better articulate the "eh?" reaction I had while taking a look at these.

You're welcome! Even for me it was hard to describe the setting in a succinct way until I came upon the adventures, which was when everything clicked into place.
 

Endroren

Adventurer
Publisher
Thank you, @Libertad . This was really fascinating, and I truly appreciate the time you put into this. It's fantastic to see so much thought and care given to your review. It's also really interesting to hear your thoughts on the challenges we face in terms of trying to get this out to people and getting them to understand what it offers. We really have struggled.

And a couple of things to share. We actually have an entire book of adventures already written by Dave Gross to go with Dunbury Castle (as many pages as the original book). There just wasn't enough space for them in the first book, and we haven't been able to afford to print the adventures yet.

We also really want to publish more stuff like Thornwall and Dunbury. We just had SO many people say "Okay - where is the full setting book?" after the first Thornwall print, we felt a need to get those books out first.

Even for me it was hard to describe the setting in a succinct way until I came upon the adventures, which was when everything clicked into place.

We have the same problem. :) But your take is really cool and I'm definitely look at how we can use this.

Thank you!
 


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