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Sunday
Jul282019

Review: Compendium of Forgotten Secrets: Awakening

 

Product Format: PDF

Method of Acquisition: Purchased (Genuine Fantasy Press Website)

One of the many features of 5e that I appreciate is the modularity of its character classes. The subclass system introduced in the PHB allows for two characters with the same base class and different subclasses to feel very different in play, not just from a mechanical standpoint, but from a flavor and lore one as well.

This versatility is especially pronounced in the Warlock class. In addition to picking a patron at level 1, the class also chooses a pact boon at level 3, and this changes the flavor of the class significantly. And then on top of that, spell selection and invocation selection further customize the class from there. It would probably be possible, with a little careful character building, to make an entire party of warlocks with the roles of healer, DPS/stealth, crowd control, and tank all covered by different builds.

However, the official WotC subclasses seem strongly-slanted toward "faustian bargain" style characters. The official subclasses have three options that are pretty strongly flavored toward the sinister (The Fiend, The Great Old One, and The Hexblade), two that are somewhat ambiguous, but probably at least somewhat dangerous in most settings (The Fey and The Undying) and one that's almost certainly benevolent (The Celestial).

Given the above, it's not surprising that various third-party writers and designers have fleshed this out somewhat, adding an additional option here and there, but those mostly come in dribs and drabs - a subclass here and there.

So when I first started seeing early versions of Compendium of Forgotten Secrets on /r/UnearthedArcana, I was intrigued. The book expands out the boundaries of the Warlock class in some really interesting ways, providing a host of character options that give warlock patrons a much more holistic presence in the game.

The book is written by William Hudson King, and is thus far his only commercial product.

I purchased this product in PDF, so I can't speak to the quality of the physical version (though I'm kind of kicking myself for not buying it and will probably do so in the future). What I can tell you is that the PDF isn't just a single document. What you get is a single file called "COFSA" that at least my Windows PC didn't know what to do with. Let me save you the guesswork: it's a compressed file archive, and it works just fine. Open it with 7-Zip or whatever your favorite file compression utility is and you'll be good to go. I will tell you right now that this lack of a file extension on the download file is my biggest complaint. I'm a fairly technical guy, so this didn't present a challence to me, but other folks might have a worse experience. If you know what to do it's a trivial hurdle to get over. if you don't, it's probably much more of a pain.

Inside that compressed archive are a batch of files - there's the current version of the compendium (1.6, as of this writing) in both regular and printer-friendly versions, a set of changelog files, a folder of artwork from the book, a small file with some bonus subclasses from the back of the book with alternate artwork, a small note from the creator (essentially saying "thank you, and if you like this, please spread the word," and a separate file with a new base class called the weaveshaper. This is fairly generous by the standards of the TTRPG PDF industry and the extra content was definitely appreciated.

The PDF is visually-appealing, being nicely laid-out and fairly similar in presentation to the first-party books, though some different font choices for headers and so on give it its own flair. The art is attractive, evocative used well, and the PDF is optimized well enough to be a smooth reading experience on both PC and tablet. It's a well-made PDF.

But the real meat of this product is the content and I've buried the lede long enough. The book opens with a couple of introductory pages that contain some basic advice about implementing the material. The author recommends using no more than four in your game unless you plan to make their interactions and machinations a major part of the setting. To this I say: good luck. I'll get into that more as we proceed.

The book introduces seventeen(!) new warlock patrons referred to as the Alrisen. For each of these, there is a couple pages of lore, the mechanical details of the warlock subclass that serves or works with the patron, and a unique familiar creature available to warlock that pick the pact of the chain. This alone is a solid, comprehensive approach to the class, and would be plenty for a GM wishing to integrate one of these patrons into their game.

However, that's not all the book includes. Each of the entries also contains a second subclass for different character class. All told, there are two subclasses each for the Barbarian, Bard, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Rogue, Sorcerer, and Wizard and one for the Ranger. Cleric and Druid don't get new subclasses here, which makes sense - those classes both represent a different sort of relationship to a more powerful entity, and while sometimes they can be mixed with Warlock under very specific setting circumstances (such as the Undying Court in Eberron), these are outliers at best. On top of that, ten of the new patrons also have a new character race associated with them, representing a character that has been transformed by the patron's influence.

The diversity and quality of options on display here is nothing short of breathtaking. Want a character that looks like a beautiful, immortal statue that serves a roaming extradimensional fortress dedicated to preservation? That's the Eternal Citadel. Want to make a sinister villain who has been warped by an evil extraplanar library filled with forbidden lore? That would be the Accursed Archive. How about a character built around astrological and tarot themes? The Fallen Exile has you covered. A cosmic enforcer of the balance between good and evil, law and chaos? That's the Warrior-Saint.

And I'm honestly not even sure those are the highlights. There's an option to essentially play a character based on The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a grove that attracts the hopeless who replace their hearts with a mass of thorns from the grove and gain a new zest for life in the process, a bunch of happy ooze cubes, a sinister conspiracy based around currency, the wild hunt, a terrible leviathan that collects secrets, a spider sitting in the middle of a web of lies, and several more besides. There's a wide variety of outlooks and implied alignments on display here; some of the Alrisen are pretty straightforwardly good or evil (The Eternal Citadel or the Accursed Archive, respectively) but most of the others are more ambiguous, wanting specific things and leaving what that looks like for an individual character up to the player controlling them. There's room for the usual "sinister or dangerous" but that's not all that's here by a long shot.

Each of the entries includes a selection of invocations unique to the patron, couple of plot ideas and a few magic items associated with the Alrisen as well. And of course each has one of those additional subclass options I mentioned back at the start of the review.

The alrisen are all very well-realized, mechanically and in terms of lore. They manage to be flavorful, balanced, and full of exciting abilities one is anxious to use in play all at the same time. There are definitely some I'd be more excited to play than others, but it literally comes down to personal taste rather than some clear "correct" choices. The same goes for the secondary subclasses.

Remember how I said "good luck" to the idea that you'd integrate four? Once I was done reading the book, I knew I wanted ten of them in the world. Two and a half times the recommended number. This wasn't because they don't work independently of one another, either; quite the opposite. They're set up in such a manner where you could literally decide to just use one and it would slot into most campaign settings fairly easily. It's just that once I'd read the book, I was excited about the story possibilities the various Alrisen presented and decided the game would be much more fun and interesting with them than without them.

Past the entries on the Alrisen themselves, there's a section on the various new character races associated with ten of the seventeen new patrons. Each of these races can originally have been any of the base PHB races, but the new traits replace the old ones with the character's original race becoming a subrace. (It sounds more convoluted than it is.) The races fit well with the overall feel of their respective patrons and there's also room for any of them to be independent characters not tied to the patron who influenced their existence.

The next section is a batch of optional rules. Notable here are notes for modifying the Warlock base class so it's based on Intelligence or Wisdom instead of Charisma. These can be useful in a context where you're looking at a multiclass character and possibly as an additional point of differentiation between various patrons. There's also a "long day" rule designed to even out short-rest and long-rest classes when session length is a limiter. I'm not sure whether I'll ever actually use that rule, but as a middle-aged gamer who usually has to game in 2-hour chunks because of the demands of adult life, I can definitely appreciate the sentiment behind it! The section caps off with a selection of feats, one for each alrisen.

The next section includes a selection of warlock invocations available to any warlock character, regardless of patron. Some of them are more useful than others; in particular, the earlier Eldricth Shaping invocations don't do a ton compared to just using the cantrip on its own, but most are really interesting and some (in particular the Twin Blades invocation) seem to cover things that players probably wish were in the first-party materials.

This is followed by a section for GMing the various alrisen, and while it's not long, it includes some intriguing information. I especially liked the section at the beginning containing advice on how to combine one or more of the alrisen into a single entity. The next subsection goes into some detail on relationships between the various alrisen. There's not an entry for every pairing (with seventeen alrisen, the section would be well over 100 entries if there was), but notable potential conflicts in outlook and potential alliances are called out and given a paragraph or two each. The section wraps up with a further batch of potential plot ideas based on each of the Alrisen.

Familiars are up next, and like all of the material preceding them, fits both mechanically and flavor-wise into the niches carved out by the various Alrisen. While I tend to prefer Pact of the Blade myself for warlock characters, these make Pact of the Chain very tempting indeed. There's a tremendous amount of creativity on display here, with everything from animated shields to haunted crows to miniature mimics that look like coins on display.

The final section of the book is made up of new spells. Many of these are here to give the spell lists of the various warlock subclasses some additional flavor, but they've been added to the spell lists of various other classes as well. Some of the spells in here have interesting potential as plot devices; for example, the 9th-level End of Days essentially creates an artificial solar eclipse, turning an area 10 miles from the place where it's cast into unending night for 24 hours. Imagine the implications that would have for an army that doesn't like sunlight - vampires, drow, duergar, and so on would be able to march armies across large sections of territory in what should be broad daylight or extend assaults well past the dawn that would normally drive them off.

Past the licencing information is an additional bonus section with three more subclasses, one each for the Cleric, Sorcerer, and Warlock classes. These make the character who takes them into a sapient magic item (cleric), melee weapon (sorcerer), or firearm (warlock). These are some intriguing options and would make for some unique roleplaying challenges, but I suspect they'd be better for a one-shot or mini-campaign than a full-length campaign unless they were being used to make NPCs. Being unable to speak, physically interact with the world or move under one's own power would get old after a while for most players. Still, this is basically a half-dozen pages of pure generosity, so even if it's of limited utility in most campaigns, I'm certainly glad to have it just handed to me.

The bonus class (the Weaveshaper) that was included with this is getting a stand-alone release at some point in the near future according to the Genuine Fantasy Press blog, so I may cover that at some future point, but it sounds like it's still being revised, so I'll leave that for now.

As the reader can probably tell at this point, this is another of my favorite 5e products. I figured I might as well start my reviews with the things I can give an unqualified recommendation to and move out from there, so if you're sick of the positivity after this and the last two, you may need to find another reviewer. I'm extremely happy with the value for money I've received here. In fact, I'm kicking myself that I didn't wait until I had the funds to buy a physical copy of this because they throw the PDF in for free when you do. Still, that's an oversight I intend to correct at some point in the future. Aside from the quibble with the file format, this is indeed another unqualified recommendation from me. Frankly, it makes the warlock options put out by WotC up to this point feel a little bland by comparison. The amount of value in this book's 188 pages is kind of mind-boggling. There's scarcely a line in here that's not immediately useful, and as I said earlier, I was so enamored with the various alrisen that I plan to use over half of them rather than just the recommended four in the next campaign I run.

As a final note: the author mentions in the thank-you note that he's trying to put together funds to commission the art for a second book similar to this one about clerics and druids. After reading through this first effort of his, I am more than happy to signal-boost and hope he gets there. Soon. If you're on the fence at all, grab the free version offered on GFP's website (which contains most of the mechanical elements) and see if you want the rest.

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