Slavelords of Cydonia

Slavelords of Cydonia is the first adventure sourcebook for Bad Axe Games' Grim Tales. Set in a time and place of the GMs choosing, Slavelords of Cydonia pits the heroes against tentacled horrors from beyond the stars in a world-spanning struggle to avert a second cataclysmic war. The book features a complete campaign for adventurers level 1-20, in addition to supplementary source material presenting new monsters, spells, technology, races, feats, and talents suitable for any Grim Tales campaign. Slavelords of Cydonia is 100% compatible with the latest edition of world's most popular roleplaying game, and can be played with or without the Grim Tales rulebook.
 

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THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

FOREWARD

I received a copy of Slavelords of Cydonia personally from Benjamin Durbin, who asked me to write a review. I had not playtested any of the material prior to writing this review.

OVERVIEW

Slavelords of Cydonia is the first supplement to utilize the highly acclaimed Grim Tales campaign toolkit. The tagline of Slavelords of Cydonia is “An Epic Adventure Sourcebook for Levels 1 – 20”. The back cover has the following description:

“In a time lost to history, the first Lethid War sundered the Earth and sank mighty Atlantis, the heart of the Sli’ess Empire. The cruel reptilian sli’ess were scattered, their interplanar network destroyed, and their technology lost. Mankind has forgotten the scourge of the Slavelords, and time has moved on.

Now, thousands of years later, tentacled shapes once again cast their shadows across the stars. The lethid are returning, eager to extract revenge on the Sli’ess Empire. Will Earth be caught once again between evil forces – or are there yet brave heroes to answer the call?”

Slavelords of Cydonia is both an epic campaign as well as a setting sourcebook. The difference between Slavelords and other lengthy modules or campaign settings is that the world and setting are unveiled throughout the campaign itself rather than from regional descriptions only.

Slavelords of Cydonia is a black and white hardcover with a full-color cover. Weighing in at an impressive 238-pages, it’s actually 24 pages larger than its predecessor. Except for large tables, maps, or illustrations, a 2-column format is utilized throughout the entire book. Quickly flipping through Slavelords makes one thing perfectly clear: this book is PACKED with info. Of its 238 pages, I would estimate that only 2-3 pages is white space.

After an introduction, Slavelords is divided into essentially two “halves”. The first half (164 pages), which is divided into five books, detail the campaign itself. The second half (68 pages), which is comprised of seven appendices (A thru G), contains information on the sli’ess and lethid races, new creatures, statblocks, equipment, and even a mass combat system.

INTRODUCTION

Although only five pages, the introduction in Slavelords of Cydonia contains some fairly important information. After a brief breakdown of how the campaign is organized (which I will go into greater detail below), the author offers some insight about running the campaign in a section called, appropriately enough, “Running a Campaign Book”. The first two lines of this section should be in all caps, underlined, italicized, and in bold:

Slavelords of Cydonia is not your standard dungeon crawl. It requires an experienced GM to make the most of the information here.”

Trust me, the author means it (more on this in the campaign section below).

The introduction also contains conversion information for those without Grim Tales. A table of new feats and a list of talents with a brief description of each is included. While a GM without Grim Tales still may have to tweak some things here and there, the conversion notes will certainly help. The conversion section also addresses spellcasting in a low-magic setting and what to do with traditional spellcasting classes. While the conversion section is a nice touch, I’m not sure I see too many people using Slavelords who don’t have Grim Tales. Even if they don’t, Slavelords is still perfectly usable with other d20 RPG’s. Regardless, the conversion section is only about three pages long and constitutes an extremely small percentage of the book as whole.

CAMPAIGN

The Slavelords of Cydonia campaign is comprised of five books:

Book One: Dark Tides
Book Two: The Slave Pits
Book Three: Freedom and Conflict
Book Four: War
Book Five: Endgame

Each book has the following sub-sections:
  • Synopsis: Gives the GM an overview of what has happened, what is happening, and what’s going to happen in the campaign.
  • Goals: What must happen in order to advance to the next book.
  • Key Campaign Points: Things the GM should keep in mind while running this book.
  • Setting: Summary of the major players and places in the book.
  • Chapters: Each book is divided into chapters according to prominent events within that book.
  • Adventures: Each book contains many potential quests that the PCs may or may not participate in (although some are required). Each adventure is essentially an outline (albeit a very detailed one) for the GM to flesh out as he sees fit. The adventures are outlined using the following sections: Dependencies, Locations, Key Actors, Important Background, Details, Facts/Clues, Events, Effects/Awards.

The variety of adventures the GM can choose from within each book is one of the fundamental concepts of Slavelords. Instead of a linear timeline, the GM is given a variety of possibilities in which to involve the PCs. This gives the GM complete control to tailor the campaign but, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. The GM must plan well in advance which adventures to use, how they will interact with one another, and the consequences of each on the campaign as a whole.

I can actually see myself using the format of Slavelords to design my own campaigns. Even if you never play the campaign as written, it’s virtually a campaign building “how-to” guide. The presentation and format of the books and adventures are intuitive and informative and easily adaptable to any campaign under the sun, d20 or not. The format and organization is unique and unlike any other product I have seen. Even if this book detailed the campaign format alone, it would still be highly useful. With Slavelords, you get the campaign format but also get to see it in use with an actual epic campaign.

Book One starts off with a list of possible adventure hooks for getting the players involved in the campaign. What is notable about Slavelords is that these hooks are offered in three different eras of play: archaic, modern, and post-apocalytic. The campaign opens with the PCs making their way to a remote valley deep in a jungle. Here they find an expedition investigating some ancient ruins. These ruins contain an inactive portal that leads to Cydonia. Book One ends when the portal is opened and the PCs, willingly or not, step through it.

Book Two begins with the players held in captivity by a mid-ranking sli’ess noble. Through the course of Book Two, they learn about their captors, their language, and Cydonia, all while their sli’ess captor tries to keep the existence of the portal and the origin of the PCs a secret.

Much of Book Two also deals with the players as gladiators in the Arena (which is important in Cydonian society). This is a chapter that I’m especially fond of. Getting the players into the Arena is a bit vague, however (even though the Arena chapter opens with: “At some point in this Book, the PCs are sent to fight in the Arena.” ). Are the players being sent to the Arena as a reward? As punisment? To gain status for the house? There are enough details given, however, for a creative GM to work with.

Anyone interested in running a scenario involving gladiatorial combat (or if you just like movies about gladiators) in ANY type of campaign, you would do well to borrow heavily from this section. Different styles of gladiatorial combat are given, as well as background information on how the Arena is integrated into Cydonia culture, and a TON of opponents for the PCs to battle.

When the secret of the gateway is out is when Book Three begins. A politcal struggle begins over control of the portal. Up until now, the lethid have been secretly using the gateway to infiltrate Cydonia (by implanting themselves in humans on Earth that have been taken prisoner by the sli’ess). The PCs start to undertake missions to learn more about the lethid.

Book Four is aptly titled as the fog of war sets upon Cydonia. This book uses the mass combat rules as detailed in Appendix F. To prepare for the upcoming war with the lethid, the PCs will earn “Victory Points” for sucessfully completing various missions. These missions may entail rescuing various important sli’ess officials, to retrieving important pieces of equipment, or gain control of strategic military installations. As the PCs complete these missions, their status will grow, eventually to the point where they are granted their own units to command in battle. The PCs will be able to “purchase” these units according to the number of Victory Points they earned. Allowing the players to control units within the sli’ess army is another high point of the campaign. Book Four will evoke a feeling of accomplishment but also of importance in the players as they will know that the survival of the sli’ess is in their hands.

Book Five is the culmination of the campaign. After having been slaves, gladiators, political spies, and military heroes, the PCs are finally given their just due. During a medal ceremony, the PCs are told they will not be allowed to return to Earth because they know too much about Cydonia and its military capabilities. To add insult to injury, they are branded, with the blessing of the Emperor, as spies. Would I love to see the look on my player’s faces when this bomb is dropped!!! From here the PCs have a few options, each resulting in a different ending to the campaign, all of which are quite epic and should be accompanied by a John Williams orchestral score.

Overall, the campaign is superb. Each book is well-organized and gives the GM the ability to mold and direct the campaign as he sees fit. The campaign offers immense opportunity for some incredible and cinematic gaming and contains many memorable scenes. Much of the campaign is role-playing heavy but it is certainly not without its fair share of combat. Slavelords gives all character types a chance to excel during the course of the campaign. However, many of the challenges in the campaign cannot be solved with violence so if you plan on sending a kick-in-the-door style group to Cydonia, be forewarned that the campaign may be short-lived, at least until the players alter their tactics.

Although the campaign is comprehensive, there are a few places where some “leaps” have been made to further the storyline. In such cases, the GM is going to have to fill in the blanks a bit. For example, at the start of Book Two, the PCs begin to learn the sli’ess language. If they accomplish this, they gain Speak Language (sli’ess) as a bonus. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any mechanics to illustrate the learning process. While much of it can be role-played, a table detailing a series of Intelligence checks (perhaps modified by Wisdom, Sense Motive, other Speak Language skills or language talents, etc) would have been helpful. Again, a resourceful GM should be able to create a system that works for him or her.

There are also other areas where the author may assume that the PCs will take a certain course of action. Again, in Book Two, much detail is given on what to do if the PCs escape. Escaping introduces the PCs to many impotant NPCs and could possibly be a hook to get them into the Arena. But what if they never escape or never even try to? This is certainly plausible and the GM may have to alter certain events as a result.

The Slavelords campaign might also suffer from providing too much information. As the campaign develops, it gets increasingly complex. Cydonian society has many races, opposing factions, political houses, and organizations, each with their own motivations and goals. The GM just have a firm grasp of what’s going on outside of the PCs immediate surroundings as much as what the PCs are interacting with directly. Also, because the PCs can embark upon a multitude of paths to reach the same common end, the GM must be prepared for some quick-thinking and improvising to keep the action flowing. Again, a thorough understanding of the major players involved in each section is a necessity.

APPENDICES

Slavelords of Cydonia contains seven appendices:

  • Appendix A: The Sli’ess
  • Appendix B: The Lethid
  • Appendix C: Bestiary
  • Appendix D: Statblocks
  • Appendix E: Cydonian Equipment
  • Appendix F: Grim Tales’ Mass Combat
  • Appendix G: Mouldstone & Mutations

Appendix A details the racial descriptions of the six sli’ess subraces, each of which is based on a different reptile: snake, gecko, chameleon, croc/gator, tortoise, and half-bloods. Also included is information on the sli’ess empire, society and social structure, political system, magic, etc. I almost wonder if this section should come before the actual campaign because I wished I had read it before I started reading the campaign as it gives great insight on understanding the motivations of the sli’ess.

The sli’ess race is well-detailed and in addition to providing a wealth of information for the Slavelords campaign, also gives GM’s a sinister and scheming race of creatures to introduce into any campaign. One notable section of Appendix A is a new type of magic called Visceral Magic. Practiced by the Red Cadre, a secret relgious sect that worships a shunned deity of blood, visceral magic requires the drawing of fluids from a living creature’s organs. Some new spells are also included relating to visceral magic.

The antagonists of our story, the Lethid, are detailed in Appendix B. “The lethid are parasitic creatures that devour the brains (and thoughts) of intelligent creatures.” They are equal parts aboleth, mind flayer, Alien facehugger, Ceti eel from the Wrath of Khan, and all Cthulhu - basically a GM’s dream come true.

In addition to a variety of psionic powers, the lethid’s primary ability is to control other living creatures. Some of the lethid do this by burrowing into the brain of the creature (mohldaleth) while others physically attach themselves to the creature (nihileth and rgleth). The advantage of the mohldaleth is that they are undetectable since they control their host from within. It is this method that allows the lethid to infiltrate Cydonia. The slug-like Shibboleth and the True Aboleth round out this fun-loving bunch.

Appendix C lists the creatures of Cydonia. Unfortunately, this section could have benefited the most from additional artwork. Of the 14 new creatures, only two have accompanying illustrations. Most of the new creatures are native animals and beasts of burden on Cydonia although there are some standouts. The colossal Aurag is a flat, tentacled creature that lives under the desert sands. When a creature walks over it, it lashes out with its 100 tentacles to wrap its prey. Once immobolized, its tentacles burrow into the creature’s skin (this seems to be a recurring theme).

All unnamed creatures are listed in statblocks in Appendix D. This section also lists creatures that have been implanted with a lethid (which adds a template to the host creature).

Appendix E lists new Cydonian equipment. These range from melee weapons used by gladiators in the Arena, crystalline energy weapons, and heavy battle armor. The rules on crystalline technology is the high point of this section. While all crystalline weapons are powered by at least one crystal, more crystals can be added to produce more powerful effects. The primary advantage for adding additional crystals to a weapon is to increase its rate of fire. There are also a variety of crystals that can provide secondary effects by expending an extra charge. For example, a weapon using Crimson crystals may set its target on fire. Melee weapons can also be crystal weapons. Although crystals cannot be added to them, they are made of a specific type of crystal which also adds an extra effect. An Azure melee weapon adds +1d6 electricity damage and the target must make a save or be stunned.

The crystalline weapon technology rules provide a simple method of greatly expanding the already large weapon selection. It also provide the players with a way to improve and customize their weapons instead of being stuck with the same one throughout the course of the campaign.

The Mass Combat system is detailed in Appendix F. I don’t have much experience running large-scale battles but if I planned to run one, I don’t see myself looking much farther than this. The beauty of the Grim Tales’ Mass Combat system is that it is fast and simple yet powerful and abstract enough to account for many scenarios. The basis of the Grim Tales’ Mass Combat system is the Battle Rating (BR). BR is equal to the unit’s Effective Level (EL), as determined by the superb CR to EL calculation system in Grim Tales. BR is essentially the unit’s “hit points”. At the start of the battle, both sides secretly choose a goal from a list of options, which will determine the difficully of the maneuver and potential casulties. When units go to battle, an opposed roll is made to determine losses on both sides. The system is also highly scalable and can be adapted for any size battle very quickly. At the start of the battle, the players and GM determine the unit size and then adjust the scale of the battlemat accordingly. To top it all off, rules are given for running battles without the use of a battlemat.

Appendix G describes the effects of exposure to mouldstone, which is a radioactive material primarily used to power the gateway to Cydonia in Book One. There are also optional rules for prolonged exposure to mouldstone resulting in physical mutations.

INDEX

At the conclusion of Slavelords, an index/glossary is provided. As I read through the campaign, this became an extremely valuable tool as the GM can reference and obtain quick definitions of the many new words and NPCs introduced in Slavelords.

ARTWORK & MAPS

Compared to other products of equal size, the amount of artwork in Slavelords is on the light side. While I was reading through the campaign, there were a few places that I thought an extra illustration of a certain NPC or race would have been helpful. The lack of an extra picture here or there certainly doesn’t detract from the book as a whole. The overall quality of the artwork is good but nothing extraordinary (although the cover art is superb).

Maps are provided for a variety of locations in Slavelords. Recurring locations usually appear at the beginning or end of a campaign book while smaller maps will appear in the adventure description they correspond to. This layout does cause some page flipping at times. The cartography is excellent although some maps would really benefit from being a bit larger.

CONCLUSION

Slavelords of Cydonia is an ambitious and innovative work. Badaxe Games has created a unique tome and should be applauded for offering a fresh perspective on the epic campaign. Slavelords is not the shiniest or prettiest book. It’s also not the easiest to use. It is, however, a product that values substance over style.

While the campaign itself is exceptional, Slavelords offers much to those who may never run it. The campaign style and format can be used as a template and “how-to” guide for anyone organizing and running their own homebrew campaign. The equipment and creatures can be used in numerous settings and the crystalline technology offers a new and customizable weapon system. The inclusion of a mass combat system is just icing on an already delicious cake.

I would rate Slavelords a 4.5/5 or 92%. Aside from some minor criticisms, this is an excellent product. 5/5.
 

JoeGKushner

First Post
Slavelords of Cydonia is a huge adventure-sourcebook for the Grim Tales game engine by Bad Axe Games. Written by Matthew Beall and Eric Tam, Slavelords weighs in at 238 black and white pages and runs for $34.95. Slavelords is designed to take characters from 1st to 20th level.

SoC is broken up into five different books. Each book covers a main theme or section. Each book comes with an introduction to break down the text, ideas on running that section as it’s own unit, numerous scenarios, and further adventurers.

Let’s get some of the bad things out of the way. Like about 98% of RPG material I read, there are the typical errors here. Editing could’ve used another round for clarity and in some cases, game mechanics. The worst offenders to me though, aren’t the little typos or the little ones or twos off in game stats. It’s stuff like see table X where table X doesn’t exist but is supposed to be table Y. It’s see character on page 28 when it’s on page 29. In one section, there’s not even a level range, but based on previous chapters and future chapters, I’d put chapter three at about 9th-12th level.

Something some GM’s may find an issue, is that this is for experienced GMs who don’t mind shouldering a lot of work. While this is a huge adventure, it’s not packed with maps or fully fleshed out NPCs. Instead, you’re given a skeleton to work on. A very detailed skeleton that’s complete in and of itself, but one that will require a lot of work. Some little things could’ve made this easier. For example, some flow-charts of possible scenarios that the players followed.

The book isn’t organized to my taste either. In the weeks I’ve been running it, there are characters that move from book to book. Unfortunately, each character is written out when he first appears so instead of having those characters put into an appendix with clear and neat descriptions and a written text that covers the characters descriptions, we get each character as they appear in the book with all future references to that character referring you to that chapter.

Some of the XP seems off too. I’m in the middle of book two, which is recommended for 5th level character. The players in my game were third level, and that was with a lot of story awards that I didn’t divide up. Maybe I’m not running enough random encounters but I don’t see characters gaining all the necessary levels just by the adventures alone here.

Lastly, the book isn’t going to appeal to all players. Now the back of the book notes ‘experienced’ players but I disagree. It’s more about ‘trusting’ players. If your players don’t trust you to mess with them, this adventure will not work at written and will require extensive rework. I say that because well, for the most part, the players are going to be slaves. Now they may be important slaves for many parts and may win their freedom at the end of things, but most players don’t play d20 games so that they can take up the reigns of slavery and fight for another master.

Now that those thoughts are out of the way, what do I like about it? Well, since it’s using the Grim Tales engine, it’s pretty easy to use with any standard d20 game system as long as you’re familiar with Grim Tales and the engine you’re converting it to. For example, I’ve been running it with the players using Black Company rules. Four weeks down so far and no big issues. I’ve had to take a few notes on armor class, as Grim Tales characters have an armor class bonus, and some notes on what the talents here do in regular d20 games.

In that aspect though, the book is pretty helpful. The introduction covers what the feats and talents do in abbreviated form giving you a quick heads up on what the effects of various game mechanics are. Some of them my players are even interested in. For example, one player is a Sword Master from the Black Company whose thinking of taking Agile Riposte, which grants you an attack of opportunity if an opponent misses you with a melee attack. Ironically enough, despite the fact that it uses generic currency, I’ve basically cut all the currency by a factor of ten as it’s still too high for a Black Company game.

In terms of use, the book starts with the players hired to investigate some ruins. As they do so, they encounter another group already there and the GM has some opportunities to throw different adventure seeds at the characters until the main ruin opens up to Cydonia and the invaders from that world come and take the players back, as slaves, to their world.

At that point, the characters are now involved on Cydonia and don’t have a good chance of seeing their home world again until the book’s end. That puts a little strain on the GM as if any of the players die, it becomes a little harder to rationalize why another character is just ready to go. For me, I had the players be part of a larger exploration group that was captured so that if any of them die, it’s not a problem to switch out a new character that’s an earth native as opposed to coming from Cydonia, which would remove most of the flavor of the game.

Once on Cydonia, the players are thrust into the politics and dealings of the Sli’ess empire. The good news is that it gives the GM the chance to test some interesting combinations of race and class against the players in an arena. The bad news is, well, at least not apparent to the players at first, is that something else came through the gate and has infested the decadent empire of the Sli’ess.

The party spends a lot of time after that building up contacts, resources, and information in their fight against the Lethid, one of the main foes from the Grim Tales core book. During the adventure, the characters have the chance to rediscover ancient technology, learn hidden truths about Cydonia, lead slave rebellions and fight at the head of great armies. All the good stuff from all the old John Carter of Mars books.

The strengths of the adventure lie in its modularity. Because nothing is forced into the plot, the GM can use different adventure seeds and ideas for different groups. This requires the GM to know the material fairly well or when the players do something off beat, there may be some page flipping as the GM tries to figure out what path to put the players on next.

For those not interested in running an adventure, the book offers a few other tasty morsels. For example, we get details on Cydonia and it’s masters, the Sli’ess. These beings aren’t you’re typical overlords but remind me of the Yuan-Ti in that they’re reptilians with various caste. Each caste has it’s own place in their society and they rule over their planet with an iron hand. Party members will clash against the social graces of the ra, match wits with the lor and test their strength against the crocodile headed bru while fighting back the savagery of the abominable gots.

Part of the details of Cydonia, include the various weapons and armor that the Sli’ess empire uses. As wood is rare, they tend to use a lot of metal and crystal in their goods. The ruling empire has some high-tech goods and use cells to power their weapons with different effects. One of the most interesting aspects though are the primitive weapons as one of the lower slave races, the rat like Skreet, cobble together various metal implements of death to fight off their masters who tend to eat them.

For some of the weapons, the crystals have different effects. The powerful bru for example, love to use the adamas crystal as it improves the critical threat range of a weapon while jade inflicts extra sonic damage. Good stuff but not overpowered even when compared to the lower powered Black Company setting as it relies on the crystal to power the extra abilities.

Another interesting aspect is the Lethid. Take one part Possessors from Ronin Arts, add in some Aboleths and something possibly inspired by the Shoggoths of Call of Cthulhu and mix ancient dark history with more variants, and you’ve got the Lethid. Seems that they clashed with the Sli’ess many moons ago and now want some payback. It’s a bit of a weak plot as they should really be focused on taking over the earth. I mean, if someone managed to avoid my supreme power a long time ago and I still hadn’t taken over the world I’d been stranded on, I’d probably just blow up the transporter between worlds until I took over the world and then move onto that other world. Still, by playing up the ancient enmity between the races, the GM can smooth over that premise pretty easily.

I haven’t delved deeply into the Mass Combat section. All those big fights with the PCs at the heads of their armies come at the end of the book. It looks pretty simple and easy to use however. You create the army, figure out where the battle is taking place. Have each leader pick their goal and make a Command check to see who has the advantage. Then each unit dices for imitative and the battle starts. Units pick different battle action.

Combat can end in a few ways. One side can be eliminated, each side can hold their ground for a draw or one side can retreat. The system uses a battle rating, which is equal to the EL of the group. Now that EL is determined per Grim Tales rules. One nice thing is that the authors give you a look behind the numbers to see what they’re thinking, a nice touch that could be done more often.

The book includes other little things here and there. For example, there are numerous creatures with the Lethid modifiers taken into place. There are numerous NPC stats written out. There is a massive index to make navigating the book a breeze. Most of the maps are clearly drawn and easy to use.

My group is enjoying the adventure thus far, but are leery of the whole slave thing. I keep reminding them to ‘be cool’ and enjoy the adventure, that I’m not out to deliberately screw with them and that there’s a plot and purpose and that while I’m not going to railroad them into following the game’s main plot, that it’ll be easier for everyone if they do. So far, so good.

Slavelords of Cydonia can sever several purposes. It can act as an example of an alien culture and setting that can be imported into any game with a remote location where an invasion slowly takes place. It can be used as a sourcebook on alien technology and cultures. Of course, as I’m doing, it can be run as it, a skeleton structure that the GM has to take and weave maps and detailed descriptions around even as allowing the players the freedom to move around the grand tapestry that is… Slavelords of Cydonia.

If anyone has any specific questions on what I'm doing with Slavelords or how it's going, just drop a line and I'll respond.
 
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Narfellus

First Post
Thanks for the review. I bought Slavelords on my sheer admiration for GT, but i'm not sure how i feel about the product. It DOES require an immense amount of input from the GM. I think i would have liked to see more of that done ahead of time, maybe some sketches and timelines laid out. Still, i haven't acutally run it so i can't say. And too much pre-development on the designer's part would take away the flexibility of the GM inserting his own campaign world.
 


buzz

Adventurer
Nitpicking

Aboleth's = possessive of Aboleth
Aboleths = plural of Aboleth

it's = "it is"
its = possessive of "it"

Your reviews rock, Joe, but they'd rock even harder with a little editing. :)
 


Cith

First Post
How detailed is the setting information?

How detailed is the setting information? Is there enough meat to use it as a campaign setting without running the campaign?
 

Teflon Billy

Explorer
This is Bad Axe’s first setting supplement for their awesome Grim Tales D20 system.

Now I loved Grim Tales. Absolutely adored it.

When I finished reading it, I realized that I had in my hands the D20 toolkit so many folks had been asking for. It looked awesome for most any genre I could think of (and included examples that ranged from “Dark Medieval Fantasy” to “Post Apocalyptic”). It was, at its core, tools for the Game Master to create what he needed; rather than trying to fit his vision of a campaign into the setting assumptions made by the game’s designer.

So if you had asked me if a setting was necessary for Grim Tales, my first thought would’ve been “no, not really”. No hostility or anything like that (publishers need to publish after all), but like GURPS Fantasy before it, I thought that the published setting would be a nice example of how the system could be used to make a setting, and would have some adventure tossed in as an afterthought (the very name Slavelords of Cydonia itself made my mind hearken back to Slave Pits of the Undercity, fair or not)

What I wasn’t expecting was a work of such utility and imagination. I really need to get past my constant surprise at the quality of Bad Axe’s product, seeing as they have never to my knowledge produced a product of less-than-exceptional quality.

But where was I? Ah yes; what I was expecting was a vanilla “Dark Fantasy” setting with some example adventures.

What I got was a series of connected adventures taking the characters from levels 1 through 20, drawing not only themes presented in the Pulp Adventure novels I grew up with (Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books spring to mind a lot), but presenting them seamlessly melded with advice for the DM on running this massive, dimension-spanning campaign for characters from any of the settings described in the core book (remember? Post-apocalyptic to Dark Medieval Fantasy?). Quite a feat.

Now, that said, the product is far from fully fleshed out. It almost couldn’t be given the scale of adventure we are talking about here. The entire thing is a massive, detailed blueprint that will require a fair whack of work from the Game Master to make into something workable. I don’t know that this is even a flaw, I think it might almost be a necessity. On the scale that this adventure operates, a GM would be sorely pressed to utilize (or remember) every detail without a certain amount of “making it his own” allowed.

The first half details the adventure itself and is divided into five “Books” each detailing broad sections of the adventure. The second half is a collection of appendices (A thru G), which detail the campaign setting (Cydonia) by defining and describing the Lethid and Sli’ess (the main combatant races of the adventure), creatures the PC’s may encounter, equipment, and a brilliant, brilliant mass combat system.

I would have paid decent money for the Mass Combat system alone.

To understand the beauty of the Mass Combat system, we need to, again, hearken back to the Grim Tales core book. EN World’s own Upper Krust contributed a very, very intricate and granular Encounter Level system rewrite that is—in the opinion of your humble reviewer—miles better than the core D&D EL System.

Slavelords of Cydonia makes use of this powerful engine in it’s Mass Combat system, allowing a balancing of forces that many previous Mass Combat efforts have failed to achieve. If a “unit” (meaning damn near anything given the utility of Upper Krust’s EL system) can be defined in D&D terms, it can be effectively used in the mass combat system.

The maps are nicely done, the index is trop notch (and pretty much a requirement if one is to get any easy use out of this beast) and the adventure itself (my group is nearing the end of it) is as fun as it is unusual.

Oh, and the cover art is fantastic, reminding me of old-school Frank Frazetta.

I may well update this review when my group is finished the adventure, but for now, it earns a strong 4/5.
 
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Zoatebix

Working on it
Hey Remial!

Try these pdf/spreadsheet products:

http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=4035&

http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=4036&

http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=4037&

Creature Creation (the CR system), Gamemastering (the EL system), and Mass Combat, respectively.

You can also pick up U_K's version 4 CR/EL document here: http://www.enworld.org/showthread.php?t=66470

The Grim Tales versions definately have more bells and whistles and an equation-based system for EL developed on these boards rather than the table-based system in U_K's document, but the v4 document has calculated CRs for all SRD fantasy monsters and some pretty robust design parameters and discussion. Really, I recommend all of these things. And the Grim Tales book itself, of course ;)
 

remial

First Post
FWIW I was asking about Upper Krust's system. I already have Grim Tales and a copy of Slavelords is on it's way to me as I type.

I spent about 3 hours last night searching the boards. it mad eme really wish that they had a search function.
 



GameWyrd

Explorer
Yus. Pick up Slavelords of Cydonia and you'll feel that is has the "Yus Factor!". This is a chunky hardback and, to be honest, this is what you'd expect for any adventure supplement that promised to take your players from Level 1 to Level 20. Chunky adventure supplements enjoy the "Yus factor".

According to Bad Axe Games an 'adventure supplement' is a product which contains an adventure and has room for standard supplement-esq rules. Slavelords of Cydonia has over 230 pages - it has room for both an adventure and supplemental rules.

One of the reasons why Slavelords of Cydonia appeals to me so much is that it's a Grim Tales supplement. It's a low fantasy supplement. Or it's a gaslight London supplement. Or it's a modern age supplement. Or it's a post-apoc supplement. Herein lies Grim Tales's strength (not to be confused with Grimm, also well respected) - it's about a style of play rather than a genre/theme of play. Slavelords of Cydonia and Grim Tales are pretty grim at times - players are likely to be, er, well, slaves at some point.

Holy silt. If you're worried about spoilers then flee now. Flee! Flee! Flee!

I don't think the fact that the players are likely to become slaves is much of a spoiler. If they didn't see it coming from the title of the book and the fact that they're level one to begin with then they're blooming unlikely to be reading this review.

Slavelords of Cydonia is also an unusual type of adventure - handy since I don't think the usual, scripted, linear adventures work very well. The fact of the matter is that your players will do something that the linear plot didn't expect. They will. Face it. Slavelords of Cydonia deals with this issue in an intelligent way (and as the professional extension of the way many of us have been designing our own notes for years now). Slavelords of Cydonia is modular. It's not modular in the sense that it contains a linear module/adventure but modular in the sense that the GM can pick or choose plot points, adapt and respond as needs be to get players from outcome A to outcome B.

Slavelords of Cydonia achieves this mean feat by providing the framework an experienced GM needs to make things happen. I should note that the book makes no apologies for requiring an experienced GM - but, once again, if you're reading this then you probably are. We know what the NPCs are up to. We know what the players need to learn to set the mood for the next chapter and we know what they shouldn't learn yet. We have locations and some nice events. What we don't have is the step-by-step walkthrough through which we neither need nor expect to happen. If the players are mean to a NPC then they can expect no help but if they are helpful to an NPC then they're more likely to be their friend - the GM can moderate this. Of course, it's also possible that if the players are helpful to an NPC that the NPC is a Lethid spy sent to win their favour.

Oh! Such are the tempting plot twists of low fantasy. I suppose I should also say that if don't have Grim Tales (why not?) and if you're not fond of low fantasy (why not?) that the book provides conversion suggestions for you. You can take a spell caster from another setting (Grim is low magic) and use them here but it is worth noting that this tome begins at a very low level.

Slavelords of Cydonia might be a low fantasy (if you want) adventure but it is set on an epic scale. Taking characters from level 1 to level 20 is no mean feat. We begin on Earth but quickly ramp up the exotic flavour from there! To find the beginning of the plot you must go back to a time now low to history. To a time where the cruel Sli'ess Empire (lizards, don't you know) ruled Earth from... yes, Atlantis. We need to go back to the first Lethid War when the unfathomably evil Lethid race moved across the stars to defeat the Sli'ess. By the end of the book you'll never want to see the word "unfathomably" beside the word "evil" again. If "unfathomably evil" has something of a Lovecraft ring to your ears then your ears are not alone.

The Lethid are tentacled psions and whereas they might be the obvious blend of Mind Flayer and Lovecraft at least they are a good and interesting blend. These alien baddies are the behind the scenes terrors for the first couple of chapters. They're truly scary. I think one great example of how scary the Lethid are is the fact that the players may never realise who their enemy actually was in chapter one...

It's jolly easy to write adventures when your players are slaves. It's easy to send them off on hairbrained missions or have them fight in the gladiator pit. Or both; classic. Slavelords of Cydonia is aware of this fact and keeps this chapter particularly loose and this suits me well. As an example of how thorough Slavelords of Cydonia is - whilst being "hands off modular" - is that we have from the supplement a couple of pages of slave gladiators and gladiator plot ideas... and there's no compulsion to have the PCs as gladiators in the first place. It's this flexibility which helps push the adventure supplement into the mighty tome (with the "Yus! Hefty supplement!" feel) that it is.

The adventure section has these plot hooks, it has NPCs and locations as well as a succinct set of GM eyes cartography.

The other half of Slavelords of Cydonia is the "supplement side". To this end we'll note that the Appendices begin at page 158 - so that's half the book.

We have a whole appendix on the humanoid reptiles, the six sub-species, know as the Sli'ess. Just for the flavour let's list the six sub-races; the Sli'ess'ra are the high snakes (bosses) of the lot, we've the Sli'ess'lor, the Sli'ess'suul, the Sli'ess'bru (the gator warriors), the Sli'ess'yul and the half-blooded abominations the Sli'ess'got. The Sli'ess are divided into houses and bloodlines. Appendix A also dabbles in new spells.

Appendix B focuses on the lethid. I'm in two minds about a resource section which beings; "Little is known - or will likely ever be known - of the Lethid". Fortunately, Slavelords of Cydonia does not play silly buggers with us and tell us all about the Lethid. And yes; cosmic alien horrors from beyond the void are on topic here.

By the time we reach the next appendix horrors like the Plasma War Golem and the Aurag (Beast of Infinite Wastes) are on topic too and the players are much more likely to have to deal with them. In fact there's a nice balance of creatures in the bestiary.

Appendix D is a true appendix in that it gives us the full stat blocks for previously truncated entries. Slavelords tries very hard to ensure that you have all the stats you need on the same page as any encounter or plot strand you might be dishing out of the players.

Let's just skip the equipment section because no one wants to fall asleep and rush on to the mass combat rules. I must admit; mass combat is a thoroughly unexpected twist and bonus from the book. Slavelords of Cydonia present one of the most abstracted mass combat rules yet - and one of the best. To be harsh (and let's be) I maintain it's still too bitty for my tastes (having to deal with each unit) but its over in a few pages and that's a jolly good sign.

I really quite liked Slavelords of Cydonia. I'm not a fan of linear junk as my players will avoid it like true experts (do your players still explore dark basements alone or venture out on wolf invested moors without silver, no? neither do mine) but I do admit that Cydonia has cracked this thorny issue by simply crediting the reader with some intelligence. I think the average Slavelords of Cydonia reader will be of above average intelligence so this assumption should work out for the best. Whereas I appreciate Cydonia's method of preventing adventures to the GM I'm not convinced there's really enough here to take players smoothly from level 1 to level 20. There are about 230 pages; I wonder how many experience points a page that works out to be? Only half of those are plot pages too. I suspect the GM will have to weave a substantial amount of plot themselves.

Is the meta plot the easy part and are the individual scenes the hard part? Slavelords of Cydonia hopes this is not the case.

I thoroughly enjoyed Slavelords of Cydonia. The book is a great idea resource. It's an uber-plot worth running and has enough help in its mass of pages to make it easy enough to run - though the work needed on the GM's side should not be understated. It's a credit to Slavelords that I see that the GM will need to do plenty of work and yet it's very tempting to run the game.

I'm not sure how much of a stand alone supplement the book is. The supplemental rules support the new adventure bits (and most adventures offer that, at least) but it is possible to cherry pick bits from this tome and use them yourself.

I think if you're a Grim fan then you should consider Slavelords of Cydonia strongly. If you're a fan of coordinating with paid-for adventures then snap up this hefty hardback before they rise the price to over $40 ( US $35 at time of writing) . If you've no desire for uber-plot input then I think it's fair to say that although you'll appreciate Slavelords of Cydonia's style that you probably won't use the book.

Good book.

* This Slavelords of Cydonia review was first published at GameWyrd.
 

JoeGKushner

First Post
In terms of xp, when I was running it, I just hand-waved it and made the characters whatever level was appropriate for the parts they were in, using things like gladiator training and actual gladiatoral combat to help them earn it.
 

Psion

Adventurer
[imager]http://www.badaxegames.com/mm/images/products/slavelords_of_cydonia/photo_slave_lords.jpg[/imager]Slavelords of Cydonia is an adventure sourcebook, principally written for Grim Tales, but with adaptation notes allowing it to be used in other games. The adventure concerns the players struggling against the lethid, Grim Tales’ take on the aboleth and related psionic creatures, against the backdrop of a Barsoom-like fantasized version of Mars. The book is written by Benjamin Durbin and published by Bad Axe Games.

A First Look

Slavelords of Cydonia is a 240 page hardcover book available with an MSRP of $34.95.

The cover of the book, by Ken Kelly, has a somewhat Frazatta-like style to it, and features a warrior amongst a trio of panthers with a reddish-orange backdrop.

The interior is black-and-white, and features artwork by Andrew Hale, Peter Johnston, John Moriarty, Claudio Muniz, Scott Purdy, and Chad Sergesketter. The artwork is a mixture of line art and detailed shaded grayscale art. The work is competent, and I particularly like Purdy’s exotic style. The book as a whole is a little light on artwork and comes across a bit dry in presentation.

A Deeper Look
(Spoiler warning: this section reveals some content of the adventures within the book. Potential players read at the peril of their own fun.)

Slavelords of Cydonia is nominally separated into two major sections, the campaign (the first five “books” containing the various adventures in the game, as a whole designed to take characters from levels 1-20) and the sourcebook (the appendices, describing world elements of Cydonia, such the reptilian sli’ess, the horrifying lethid, a mass combat system, Cydonian creatures, stat blocks, and technology.)

Some may recognize the term Cydonia as referring to a region of Mars that is accorded much attention in UFO lore, so the reference to Mars may be obvious. But the world of Cydonia is made to resemble a much different Mars, that of the pulp era Mars popularized by Burroughs’ John Carter series of books. For those not familiar, these books are a classic in the “planetary romance” genre, wherein transporting a hero from the mundane world to the fantastic is pretty much the norm.

This technique sees immediate use in the book. As fans should know, Grim Tales is not anchored to a specific time period, but allows the GM to run games from a variety of eras. Which era the characters hail from is sort of irrelevant, however, as they will soon be transplanted to the pulp-like majesty of the world of Cydonia. The introduction section provides a variety of introduction sequences for the campaign depending on the major choices available in Grim Tales (and easily adaptable to other d20 games as well.)

The progress of the campaign as presented has the PCs being captured and enslaved by the reptilian Sli’ess, where they enjoy some gladiatorial action. In the meantime, when the lethid discover that the “gateway” network that transported the PCs there is now open, they take steps to enslave or eliminate the sli’ess. It’s a rollicking planetary romance ride, with the players struggling against the lethid as well as getting embroiled in sli’ess politics (and becoming the target of it.)

The style and presentation of the campaign is somewhat of a departure from the norm. Instead of being thoroughly scripted and every event laid out for you, each section and adventure is written in more of an outline format. The format specifies such things as major players, events, and facts pertinent to the situation, as well as conditions that the adventure depends on.

This does present a challenge for those who would use the product. It requires a lot of design thought and management on the part of the GM. That said, not only does this not daunt me, I find the approach rather appealing. I find that adventures often go off the beaten path anyways, and it seems better to me to minimize the amount of material that is easily invalidated by the sheer randomness of player actions. All that you really need to do is try to manage around the key points of the adventures, and unlike so many more verbose adventure products, those are laid out clearly for you.

Another inclusion that makes Slavelords of Cydonia very flexible is the adaptation section at the end of each book. These provide guidelines for those who wish to adapt the various book

The mass combat system in the appendices is interesting as well. It is lightweight and abstract. It is built on the CR/EL system, making it possible to pull in troops from a variety of core sources. The system takes into account terrain and strategic conditions, pulling in terms that sound like they were out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It is an interesting, easy to use, and compelling take on strategic combat. Incidentally, the author has made the mass combat system available as a download at rpgnow. (link)

Conclusions

As mentioned, the biggest hurdle to using this adventure sourcebook is that it puts the onus on the GM to handle the details of the various adventure and make sure everything flows right. Also as mentioned, I don’t consider this a big problem, as I find that you have to rewrite or work around parts of event driven adventures anyways. I see Slavelords of Cydonia as a very lean, meaty product for that.

Another obstacle to using the campaign as a whole is that it is a campaign setting spanning 20 levels, and it spans those levels in an alien world, which could make “doing your own thing” difficult. However, the adaptation notes are very friendly making it very practical to use some sections piecemeal.

The status of PCs as slaves during much of the adventure can be a boon of a curse. It lends a unique feel to the campaign, but many players would not be tolerant of such a condition. Though the author provides some troubleshooting notes for dealing with this, I still think that a GM should carefully consider whether his group can handle being in such a condition.

Though the book was principally written for Grim Tales, I see it as eminently adaptable. Though there are some differences between d20 modern and Grim Tales, I don’t see that you would notice much difference if you used the stat blocks as-is and dropped this book in as a d20 modern/future campaign. It’s a shame that the various d20 Modern product publishers have yet to put out a large adventure arc for the game and that it seems better served by a publisher who was targeting a modestly different audience.

It’d be a bit more of a task to run this adventure for D&D or another d20 game, and would require your tolerance for massaging away differences in the way statistics blocks are handled.

Overall, Slavelords of Cydonia is a nicely written flexible campaign product with a classic SF feel to it. Grim Tales fans should naturally be on top of the book, but those playing other d20 games who are interested in the classic concept of a habitable mars-like world would do well to consider it as well. I could easily see the campaign starting in book 2 with the crashlanding of a starship (say from Traveller d20 or Dawning Star) on the world, or could see martial arts masters from Blood & Fists competing in the alien arena. Further, the lean, transparent, and adaptable presentation of the adventure should be something that other adventure writers should take note of.

Overall Grade: B+

-Alan D. Kohler
 
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