Monday, March 9, 2015

Temples of the Frogfolk (13th Age) Review

The frogfolk are mysterious.  Partially they are mysterious because there aren't that many of them.  Partially they are mysterious because not many people study them.  Mostly they are mysterious because those who do study or encounter them tend to end up dead.  Perhaps it’s bad luck or the attentions of the divine.  Perhaps there’s a secret society out there dedicated to erasing all knowledge of the frogfolk from the world.  Sages know enough to be wary, but not enough to know why they should be wary.  And this is the frogfolk’s strength as a plot device.  

We don’t know much about them except that they are insanely paranoid, have highly secretive goals, and that they live on the periphery between mysterious and apocryphal.  Why are they paranoid?  Well, there are 13 possible reasons listed.  What are their goals?  We’ll discuss that when Icon talk comes around.
How do I feel about this PDF overall?  I really, really like it.  As I noted in my review of the January issue of 13th Age Monthly, I’m not over-enamored of dragons.  So, dragon-riding rules weren’t really going to engage my interest.  I didn’t expect to be enamored with the frogfolk.  But, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan has done something impressive here.  He[1] has given lots of good crunch so that I don’t have to magic up a lot of statistics to run these mysterious beasts.  At the same time, he’s created just enough fluff that I’m starting to have ideas about how I’d like to see the frogfolk work their way into a campaign.  At the same time, he’s stopped at the exact perfect point.  Now that my mind’s been primed, I’m ready to see what else I can think of.  This is the exact sweet spot for any campaign setting-type sourcebook.  Now, what do we have inside?

4 Pieces of art
·      The PDF (shocker) begins with full page cover art.  It depicts some heroes, we’ll call them the PCs, battling frogfolk with their temple in the background.  What’s going on with the light on top of the temple?  The frogfolk have a…strained…relationship with the divine.  Is that arcane power on top of their temple?  Have they rekindled a connection with a deity?  If so, which one and to what end?
I like this piece.  It’s not super realistic, but it’s realistic enough that it draws you in.  The temple is reminiscent of Boltstrike Tower from the adventure in the back of the 13th Age core book.  Here’s a weird ass rationale for the magical effects on top of Boltstrike Pillar:  maybe Boltstrike was a frogfolk temple where the wrath of the other gods destroyed the frogfolk’s deity, cursing the frogfolk as a final F-U backlash against the race.  Today the frogfolk sit at another temple they’ve built—in exact imitation of Boltstrike—plotting their return to glory.
·      Picture of frogspawn, the frogfolk mook.  This is a generic bestiary-style picture.  It’s useful for showing to the PCs.  This frogfolk actually looks a little bit cute and cuddly.  Is she part of a misapprehended race or are her disarming charms a deceitful lure to bring you within range of her long tongue’s reach?
·      There’s a painting of two frogfolk peering at a human’s back while another human looks on.  All four are ankle-deep in water.  The human being examined has a tattoo, but the frogfolk appear to be looking lower.  Are they expecting the tramp stamp of prophecy?  Is this a lure to lower the human’s clothes around his legs and effectively immobilize him, trapped in his own garb?
·      Finally, on the page outlining racial stats usable by frogfolk PCs, there’s a jumping frogfolk.  Cements the frogfolk’s role as a possible PC.  I wish that it depicted the frogfolk’s racial trait related to its tongue rather than showing a jumping frogfolk.  Did they originally intend for the frogfolk PCs’ racial power to be the erratic leap power listed as part of their possible abilities?

5 Monsters
·      Frogfolk: We are again advised that the frogfolk are mysterious.  Therefore, their original appearances shouldn’t make sense—at least to the PCs.  Figuring out why the frogfolk is as much a part of using them as figuring out what’s going on with them.
o   Abilities: Temples of the Frogfolk lists four racial abilities with suggestions for how they can be attached to the various frogfolk monsters listed later in the book.
o   Frogspawn Grunt, 2nd level mook (humanoid): Pretty generic.  He’s a mook—what did you expect?  There is a nastier special listed for when your PCs think that they’ve got this whole frogspawn mook thing down pat.  It should wake them up for future frogfolk engagements.
o   Frogspawn Monk, 3rd level spoiler (humanoid): Despite the PDF being called Temples of the Frogfolk, I never thought of them as particularly monkish until I got to this entry.  The bright side of the monk is that he is a strong frogfolk opponent, especially if paired with the erratic leap general frogfolk ability.  The downside is that his special ability isn’t that different than the nastier special version of the frogspawn mook.  If it’s hard for my players to distinguish one from another that’s either a downside or perhaps another great way to keep them on their toes!
o   Frogspawn Spellcroaker, 4th level leader (humanoid): Frogs croak.  When these frogs croak, things get very nasty.  Players will lose access to the escalation die and have to reroll successes while dealing with boosts to the other frogfolk they are fighting.  These things are nasty.
o   Frog Knight, 5th level blocker (humanoid): This monster seems out of place with abilities more akin to a paladin or a fighter’s ability to do some strong combat damage but also protecting allies.  In a campaign where the frogfolk are the enemy, enter Sir Croaky, who wants to redeem rather than eradicate his people.  Since the mutant bullfrog is written basically to be his steed, an amphibious knight-errant is now on the menu (ideally with a better name).  Sir Croaky should meet the PCs after they’ve encountered the frogfolk, so they are suspicious.  If the PCs make common cause with him, will the frogfolks’ curse focus its eye upon them or does befriending one of them somehow alleviate it’s unlucky effects.  Is Sir Croaky really who he seems or is he a Manchurian Amphibian sent to infiltrate the party and strike when they least expect it?
·      Mutant Bullfrog, large 5th level wrecker (beast): These things are labeled as wreckers and that’s exactly what they are.  I like the fact that the PDF leaves open whether these creatures once were (or perhaps later might become) frogfolk or if they are a completely separate species.  My thoughts about using the mutant bullfrog as a knight’s trust steed above.  In the PDF they are the wreckers they’re designed to be—and your party’s wrath at a GM for pitting them against a mutant bullfrog will only be exceeded by their later pride at defeating one.

4 (8!) Magic Items
·      Batrachites (Neck or no slot): Batrachites grow as part of frogfolk.  It’s unclear if all frogfolk have them and whether or not harvesting one kills the frogfolk.  Equally unclear is whether or not frogfolk have castes.  Perhaps the more powerful stones can only be harvested from upper caste frogs.  Since the least valuable stone is the cursed one, perhaps that will warn the PCs off from harvesting any stones.  If their first encounters with batrachites have negative consequences, will they be willing to try other types.  Also of note, if harvesting a batrachite doesn’t kill a frogfolk, expect to see the frogs using the stones themselves. 
If the various stones are keyed to frogspawn by some sort of caste system, what if upper caste frogspawn’s stones were also somehow personally marked?  Is using a stone in battle a sign of honor or perhaps of shame?  A stone could be a gift given to a favored servant.  If harvesting the stones is fatal, perhaps higher caste frogfolk pass their stones to heirs as a method of transferring the estate.  If the stones are personally marked, that brings up another question: The frogfolk can tie a particular stone to the frogfolk/family that it comes from, but can the PCs/non-frogfolk? 
Coming back to our knight-errant, what if he were the dispossessed but rightful heir?  Only by reclaiming the stone can he show his rightful claim.  Of course, to acquire it he also has to make sure that it doesn’t get used in battle either.  Toadstones come in five different colors.
·      Frogskin leggings of leaping (Boots):  Frogs can jump around.  Now, so can you—but with mechanical benefits!
·      Toadskin of Insight (Glove): This magic item is fantastic.  It could also have different effects when used by frogspawn.  Perhaps the reason it gives…mixed…benefits to PCs using it is because they aren’t frogspawn themselves.  That’s also a nice magic item to be a quest item—PCs are unlikely to care about giving up a magic item to an NPC if it comes with strong drawbacks.  On an RP note, I would totally keep this thing though.
·      Muckseed (No slot):  One area scenario not considered by the PDF is that the frogfolk’s temple is underground.  Need to get down?  Time to create a muckseed tunnel!

·      Ambush and Temple:  We have two pre-generated encounter tables with numbers of enemies per PC for an ambush and for a temple fight.  The ambush table covers 3-7 2nd or 3-7 3rd level characters.  The temple table covers 3-7 3rd level and 3-7 4th level characters.  I like the ambush table, but I wish that the temple table was written for higher levels.  If the frogfolk are going to be a campaign meta-plot (or at least a recurring element), I want the PCs finding the temple later than 4th level.  Finding the temple feels like it should be a major plot point—something that champion-level PCs do.  That’s really just a quibble though.

·      Icon Relations:  The PDF presents scenarios to place the frogfolk in line with the Archmage, the Crusader, the Priestess, the Prince of Shadows, or the Three.  Rather than wade through these possibilities, let’s talk about what you could do to tie the Frogfolk to the other 13th Age Icons.  Because I’m wary of using something that’s debatably protected by copyright, I’m going to draw from the knock offs of the 13th Age official icons as presented by  Trust me, you’ll know which are which:
o   The Dark Mistress: [connect to demons or devils]  Frogspawn are debased demons?  Has she figured out a way to return them their former glory?  This ties in nicely with the Boltstrike Pillar scenario too.
o   Longbeard Thane: The frogfolk temple isn’t above the swamp and it isn’t at ground level.  The temple has sunk beneath the swamp.  Somehow the temple’s related to the Thane’s inability to return his people to the lowest regions below ground.  Both he and the Lord High Magus have an interest in the dwarves resettling the deeper caverns.  It was much easier to face living dungeons when they could be caught small and deep beneath the earth’s surface.  But what happens if the Savage Lord takes the temple first?  With the proper rituals, he could control how quickly living dungeons appear and where they go.  His armies can start a two-front war against civilization.  His hordes pour from his camps in the mountains as never before seen numbers of living dungeons make attacks on the Icons’ base cities.
o   The Triumverate: Few outside the elven ranks understand how the three elven peoples are connected to each other.  The same tiny proportion of elves know the secret of what happens to elves that lose their connection to the Triumverate’s unifying energy.  By returning an ancient lightning rod to the top of the frogfolk’s temple a hero could restore their lost brethren’s connection to the Triumvirate and restore their elvishness.  Similarly, a nefarious power with access to the same artifact could enslave the lost elves forever.  The Blue Dragon from the Council of Scales is rumored to have agents seeking this artifact in a bid to found an army.  But does the Blue want to unleash this army against the High King, the Triumvirate, or the other dragons on the Council?
o   The High King: Storms sweep the land and fields fail to produce sufficient food to feed the people.  A cursed people even sages fear to speak of have been seen for the first time in millennia.  These mysterious creatures carry the magic of the world in inside their heads.  Only by retrieving the proper stone can the High King make proper obeisance to the gods and save his throne from the coming rebellion.
o   The Platinum Dragon: The once benign frogfolk fell from grace centuries ago.  Banished to a swamp in the Empire’s hinterlands, they almost vanished from all knowledge.  Now the only creature left alive that remembers their former glory and the hubris that created their downfall is determined to redeem them.  He’s chosen a champion from their people and granted him a noble frog steed.  But, this champion will need aid in redressing his people’s antediluvian sin…if he can even discover what crimes his ancestors committed and how to atone for them.
o   The Untamed: Most things sink in swamps.  From time to time, other things travel to the surface, carried on gentle bubbles of swamp gas.  The frogfolk lived quiet lives in their natural preserve, but recently something has traveled to the surface and now they prepare for war.  Their former lifestyle in synch with nature’s cycles all but forgotten in the span of a decade, they are building a city of metal centered on the hill in the center of their swamp formerly crested by their sacred tree.
o   The Deathless One: Long ago, the Deathless One ruled what today is the Empire.  From his prison, he seeks to restore his glory.  Long ago he fell when an entire people agreed to sacrifice their dignity and take on the forms of frogs and be banished to a tropical swamp.  Today the Deathless One has identified a process to reverse this sacrifice, undoing the noble frogfolks’ suffering on behalf of the Empire and restoring his power in a single stroke.
o   The Savage Lord:  See the Longbeard Thane above.

·      Long Sticky Tongue has both Adventurer and Champion-level feats “attached” to it.
·      If you are thinking about significantly incorporating toadstones/batrachites into your campaign and somehow linking them to an individual frogfolk’s identity, I’d suggest adding an Adventurer-level feat that allows the PC to connect toadstones with individual frogfolk.  This is more appropriate if harvesting batrachites doesn’t kill a frogfolk.  If you’re feeling super generous, allow the PC to add a two-point skill related to the frogfolk as well.

New PC Race – Frogfolk
·      +2 Dex or +2 Con
·      Rare and mistrusted.  Get used to prejudice—though there’s suggestions for how to mitigate this with a One Unique Thing
·      Racial power – long sticky tongue: Once per battle as a free action, when an enemy successfully disengages or pops free from you, you may grab them with your sticky tongue and automatically re-engage with them. It doesn’t work if the enemy teleports away. You can also use your tongue to filch nearby items, grab onto objects, or nab a tasty fly.
o   Adventurer-level feat: Using your tongue on a creature automatically inflicts 5 ongoing poison damage (save ends).
o   Champion-level feat: You may use your tongue more than once per battle, but must succeed on a normal saving throw (11+) in order to use it again.  It’s unclear, but I’d rule to allow the save once per round rather than failing the save forcing the PC to forego use of the tongue for the rest of the battle.  It is a champion-level feat after all.  But, the text isn’t clear, so it’s open to interpretation.

Final call: 4.5 stars!  This one knocked it out of the park!

[1] My apologies in advance, Gareth, if you are a she.  Please forgive me and in your mind insert an ‘s’ or ‘S’ at the beginning of the third-person singular pronoun, lowering the ‘h’’s case where necessary.