Massimo Bianchini & Mario Pasqualotto (Mongoose Publishing)
Summary: D&D + WHF
3e is a divisive creature. On the one hand it was DnD’s salvation, rescuing it from the withered death-grasp of Loraine Williams as she fell into the gaping abyss of Rpg history, there to languish for all eternity (praise Arneson praise Gygax). On the other hand it gradually became a hot mess of power-gaming and min-max gremlintude as the years went by. The OGL was a blessing and gave birth to a veritable legion of basement-dwelling rpg-cobblers. Like any medium that is given over to the public at large, the unwashed masses created products that were both infinitely superior to the well-polished yet soulless products being trudged out of the assembly lines of WotC and a veritable torrent of atrocious, terrible and useless garbage that no one in their right mind would ever purchase or use in a game.
It goes without saying that I will be leaving the slush pile for another day (I’ll find something embarrassing soon don’t worry) and focus on something that was and by modern standards is still really good instead.
Nephandum was originally created by the Italian Asterion press (think a Fantasy Flight games inhabited and manned solely by rowdy cat-calling and pizza-eating Italians) and translated to English and published by the good folks of Mongoose Publishing, one of the larger d20 3rd party publishers. It’s like the official 3e sourcebook that never was, pulling off that little extra that it needed to be great where the official stuff often fell flat just short of the mark (Not looking at you Libris Mortis, Book of Vile Darkness & Lords of Madness I still love You!). It was supposed to be part of an Extreme Fantasy line that never got off the ground and thus it is the only English member of its kind, leading us to ask why?!?. Why couldn’t it be World of Darkness instead?!? I believe the Italian version eventually got itself a much needed monster manual that will tragically remain beyond my reach since I do not speak Italian, though a close personal friend assures me 3rd edition speak is its own Rosetta stone and a bestiary would not be hard to google translate. I’d never heard of this game and no one else has either which is A HORRIBLE CRIME AGAINST THE HOBBY AND EXISTENCE.
On to the sourcebook proper: Nephandum is 168 pages of pure, unadulterated awesome, punctuated by dark, moody, deeply unsettling artwork, and drawing obvious inspiration from Warhammer Fantasy, albeit with more restraint and more King in Yellow/Call of Cthulhu then Moorcock. Now YOU too can introduce to your campaign world inimical forces from distant outer planes long forgotten and herald in the End Times at the behest of the
Four Five Gods of Chaos Ancenstral Terrors. If you dare to brave the flowery prose of Massimo Biachi & Mario Pasqualatto’s translated Italian that is.
Chapter I: These are not your Grandfather’s Outer Planes.
Nephandum starts out by breaking all the rules because it thinks it is cool. It is. It is cool. By the time of 3.5e any spellcaster worth his salt could conjure up a spell and transport everyone to the Outer Planes. It made it easy to go there and have adventures but it took away some of the mystery. Wanted to know what was there? Cast a bunch of Divinations or conjure up a creature and ask it. Bleh.
Nephandum introduces the concept of Hypogean Planes (and Apogean Planes but whatever); outer planes outside of the normal organisation of the multiverse, which do not have a fixed location, can link only with the prime material plane and cannot be reached by conventional means of planar travel. Even the gods know little of them but half-remembered legends. If they connect with a suitable prime plane they tend to alter them (with devastating consequences for the local inhabitants) until the Prime Plane becomes, in effect, another Hypogean plane. A predatory alternate cosmology if you will. Nice. All information that is given is kept vague which is excellent since no one should have ANY FUCKING IDEA WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON beyond ominous warnings and perhaps a planar trip to the most recently co-opted plane followed by a gibbering flight back to your own plane with 50% casualties and imprisonment for spreading panic and heresy when no one will believe you.
The only contact with hypogean planes like Nephandum (scholars think Nephandum and hypogean planes are one and the same) is via Dimensional Vortexes, which appear under vaguely determined circumstances and are usually short lived. They are also one way only, either entrance or exit. Once one appears on your plane, you too are FUCKED and the nightmare hordes of Nephandum may begin their corrosive work upon your world. What few facts are known have been gleaned from the half-mad whispers of planar travellers that managed to escape their home plane before it fell to the nightmare onslaught.
It is at this point I should probably remind my two readers (Hello Mother!) of my strong personal bias towards all things resembling or relating to Warhammer 40k and Fantasy, both settings I love to bits. I also confess to being an avid fan of the works of Lovecraft, C A Smith, R E Howard and early non-shitty Moorcock. I could not be more favorably disposed towards this concept if it was a game about me chain-punching space-SJWs and feminists to rescue a ringworld made of government-issue heroin inhabited entirely by overly promiscuous green redheaded supermodels that are the product of a millenium long breeding program to create the perfect sexually compatible female green redheaded alien. And they also agree with me (when their mouths are not otherwise occupied) that White Wolf sucks.
Anyway, by now you, the handsome, rpg-savy gentleman of taste and distinction, have probably figured out how this shit goes down. It starts with a subtle infiltration, one or more of the Lords of Terror/Ancestral Terrors sends its emissary and lo the culting (Lodges of Terror) and the corruption of churches and the transfiguration of the landscape may begin. I’m not covering it in great detail, since it is dense and quite extensive, but suffice it to say, various effects (I believe the 3e DMG calls them morphic traits or whatever) are put into play as the influence of a particular Ancestral Terror grows within the world (influence is categorized as weak, moderate, strong). Divine and arcane magic is altered or restricted (divination magic is fucked, conjuration magic gets fucked as the connection to the outer planes is slowly severed), thralls of the Terrors grow stronger and more numerous, a Nexus of Terror (think a weird and horrific extraplanar stronghold) appears and grows stronger and effects relating to the specific terror appear and increase in strength.
A comparison may be made with Elder Evils, which may have drawn a not inconsiderable amount of inspiration from this book, the similarities are too profound to chalk it up entirely to parallel evolution. What is a nice touch is that the Ancestral Terrors actually need to spread fear related to their central concept in order to increase their influence (not unlike chaos daemons in Warhammer). The flowery prose is starting to grate (is this what my readers must endure? Good Lord!), but the concept is so awesome I can forgive that, even if it is 140 pages that look like 170.
The influence of Nephandum is tied to specific events, detailed enough to implement perfectly, yet open enough so you could theoretically throw it in any campaign world. The gaining of influence starts with an emissary (essentially your Archaon or Gaynor the Damned), increases over time as the emissary retrieves a Nephandic artifact (Plot hook, stop that shit or steal one to use against a rival evil faction!), and is made superpowerful once their place of power arrives (e.g the Cathedral of Blades for the Lord of Blood). Stopping say, an Emissary, wont do much if the Artifact has already been retrieved, and destroying the Artifact wont lessen the influence once the Place of Power has appeared. They go so far as to mention that emissaries often have access to strange, eldritch secrets, possibly as a result of memories of their previous incarnations, making my Gaynor the Damned/Eternal Champion comparison very apt.
The PCs have to figure out what the shit is going on and stop up to five outer horrors (but there can be ONLY ONE in the end) from taking over reality. YEAH!
The Terrors themselves (not so much deities as “groups of conquered deities that in the course of centuries have joined and stratified about a central tenet”) draw at least some inspiration from the Chaos Gods of Warhammer Fantasy, but also The King in Yellow and H.P Lovecraft. You’ve got your disease god (Ashatha), your blood/sensation god (Melpheron, eros and thanatos!), your Hastur/Tzeentchian madness god (Hyssiris), your bestial/primal nature/fertility god (Tzanaar) and your magic/darkness god (Yordul). In true Dark Gods fashion, they do not necessarily work together and are often at cross purposes. Most of their servants will be corrupted versions of something else, another trademark of the forces of Chaos.
A nice touch: Ancestral Terrors can corrupt clerics from gods with similar portfolios (these are called heresies!) without those clerics losing access to their spells. Each Ancestral Terror gets an alignment (stupid) and super awesome and atmospheric descriptions of the types of emissaries it selects and what happens to a region when it falls under their influence (areas under strong influence, which at that point might as well be the entire plane, are more akin to other planes or R.Jordan’s the Blight then any terrestrial location).
Chapter II: The Apparel of Nefariousness, the Stooges of Dastardliness, the Holdfasts of Rascality.
The book gives some sample emissaries but they are kind of lame, or perhaps bog standard. Its good that they don’t resort to making them high level but their backstories are too standard and their motivations are too obvious (with the exception of the emissary of Tzanaar, a barbarian who was forced to resort to cannibalism to survive, and now leads a cannibal horde demanding human tribute from tribes, pretty good stuff). I don’t usually do this but feel free to replace the emissaries with the following;
(Ashatha) Insane nobleman turned homeless man after losing family to plague, (Hyssiris) seemingly mad plane traveler warning kingdoms of upcoming Nephandum invasion that took his home plane, John Farson The Good Man from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (Melpheron), Kharn the Betrayer/Archaon (Tzanaar), Saruman (Yordul). You are now ready to run shit properly.
The sample Lodges of Terror are way better, but again, just read Disciples of the Dark Gods instead. The sample disease cult (The Spores) are actually kind of nice, presented as an organization that slowly infiltrates a society, each member having suffered some sort of deformity, be it physical, mental or spiritual and thus seeking to subtly spread that deformity (they spread actual plagues when the influence of Ashatha starts waxing) and the sample madness cult (The Mosaic) operates as a sort of postmodernist/communist revolution, eroding the traditional structures of society and replacing them with nothing. The rest is also awesome. As a nice touch, each sample Lodge changes tactics as their deity’s might waxes. These are all very good and appropriately subtle (with the exception of the Cannibal Horde) and none require the crutch of magic or special abilities to make them interesting or functional with the exception of the Dark Veil lodge, for which I award an extra ten points for Italian Griffindor.
Next up are the sample Artifacts, one for each Terror, again, well done. In true grimdark fashion, Nephandic artifacts can only be destroyed by the sacrifice of either an important NPC or even a player character. We are off to a good start. Some of the artifacts provided are horrific and pretty atmospheric (a shroud that causes your skin to melt and fall off, a mirror that animates your reflection so you can do illusion shit) others are somewhat underwhelming (just another evil artifact sword) but what is truly lacking is a bunch of drawbacks for when the PC’s get their hands on them and attempt to use them in self defense or to kill some asshole. In addition, I feel that there is a bit too much reliance on effects that replicate arcane or divine spells, but then again this was the style at the time.
Places of power are where you do your bossfights/endgame. When the apocalypse clock strikes 5 to midnight and only a giant smackdown with your Artifact equipped emissary (nemissary?) will prevent the world from falling to Nephandum, these nightmarish locations are both a target for destruction and a hideous foreshadowing of the fate of the world should you fail. As is only right and proper, each sample location is helpfully provided with a random encounter table so we have an idea of the type of things one is likely to encounter there. In an exciting turn of events, you are not required to level up all the fucking way to 20 before you tackle yourself a Place of Power, 10 should be sufficient (a good design choice that permeates throughout the whole book). Instead of describing all five locations I will leave you only with the names. The Bog of Incubation. The Cathedral of Blades. The Wasteland of Entrails. The Mausoleum of Twilight. The Dungeon of Tetragona (think MC Escher on meth does In Search of the Unknown or RaPL at 150% intensity with even more obsessions with mirrors). Detail is sparse but enough to INSPIRE. Curiously, the flowery prose works to amazing effect here, making one want to run this and conjuring fond memories of C.L Moore’s Palace of the Plague Lord.
The use of even a few standard monsters here is occasionally jarring, but nothing that cannot be fixed by using CREATURE DEL TERRORE instead or adjusting the description somewhat.
Chapter III: You didn’t think there weren’t any prestige classes did you?
This is a d20 campaign supplement and each d20 supplement is contractually obligated to give us prestige classes so we might as well get on with it. Fortunately for us, they are flavorful as hell without being mechanically useless (several useless feat-tax entry requirements notwithstanding, t’is a price well worth paying). The majority of the prestige classes are focused around either the gritty anti-heroes teetering on the brink of corruption one would expect in a dark fantasy world or the more traditional wholesome heroes and terrifying villains.
Turn your rogue into a shape-shifting weirdo that can fade from memory! Toughen up your wizard with unwholesome thaumaturgical experimentation at the cheap price of your Diplomacy skill! Get more out of your Scythe specialized fighter! Play that guy from The Darkness (the comic not the band)! Beef up your divine spellcaster or paladin with some nice anti-undead abilities and attack bonus progression at the cost of spell progression! Annoy your players with a creepy priest that voluntarily invites possession for kool powers! Peer beyond the flimsy veil of reality and through illusion rewrite the real! Turn your bard into a terrifying puppet master with living puppets! Play as Solomon Kane with cleric spells! Turn your druid into a horrific, disease carrying mutant monster! With Nephandum, You Can!
Hardly any explanation of where your pc got his super special awesome powers is given, as is only right and proper, since that would depend on your campaign world and the GM. Nice and frequent use of rituals to gain certain abilities too. No prestige class is explicitly connected with one of the Ancestral Terrors, though it is easy to see which class goes where if you feel like connecting the dots.
Great section overall.
Chapter IV: As prestige classes so feats.
The Feat section also manages to strike a balance between mechanically interesting and in keeping with the overall atmosphere of the book. One feat allows you to escape death once, but it will mark you for death and you can never regain more then 75% of your hit points. That’s bitching and could be straight out of Berserk (I’ll cut down on the references y’all have enough to read as it is). It’s nice to see some feats devoted to investigation but given that this is 3e there will be some squawking as to who gets to take them. Some of the feats manage to be both atmospheric and mechanically interesting, and I don’t know quite how they pull it off. The Thin Hope feat allows you to reroll a failed save a number of times equal to your charisma modifier, but with a -4 penalty. The Last Blow allows you to make a single last attack of opportunity when you are reduced to 0 hit points. How many times has a player whined that he wanted 1 last action before he passed out?
Consistently useful and sometimes stellar feats, very few stinkers.
Chapter V: The prestidigitation of trepiditation
70 new spells. Hooooo boy. As one would expect, a nice balance between the utilitarian, the horror themed and the odd counter magic. The horror themed spells are gruesome but do not go so far as the ones described in, for example, the Book of Vile Darkness, never straying beyond the boundaries of good taste. As with the feat and prestige class section, there is no reason you could not salvage this section and import it into any other sort of d20 game that has wizards, particularly any other horror or dark fantasy game, as there is no direct connection with the unique aspects of Nephandum beyond a thematic resemblance. Spells that disfigure, require the caster to inflict harm upon himself, cause eternal slumber, pain or fear are recurring elements, as are spells that fuck around with dreams.
Solid work overall, with some nice additions that should prove useful in more investigatory horror type games Nephandum seems to be going for. I’d say combine ’em with BoVD and have yourself a ball (of terror!).
Chapter VI: Stuff.
So far the d20 format is followed with admirable or perhaps annoying fastidiousness. Equipment and Magic Items for our occult investigators, which means a plethora of concealed weaponry, cloaks with secret compartments, grease that protects you from touch poisons, strange alchemical mixtures that alter your voice, pigments that can only be read at night, dust that changes color when it comes into contact with magic, blood or poison and so on. The alchemical items are a nice touch, and again, no reason you cannot import this into any dnd game. Also rules for adjusting your armor so it looks super badass and scary for Intimidation bonuses. Nice.
The magic weapon section is alright. First up is a list of qualities to support DnD’s make your own flavor of icecream magic weapon system, all thematically appropriate. Weapons that sap your strength, arrows that burrow into the target unless they are removed, weapons that emit thick smoke or blind the target temporarily etc. The BoVD had a better section. It’s all a bit too tame. The unique weapon section is similarly lukewarm, though I liked the sword that becomes better in moonlight (draw parallels with the Midnight Sword from the Book of Vile Darkness in 3…2…1…). Its about up to standard with what you’d find in your average DnD supplement.
The Wondrous Item section is short but sweet. An amulet that allows you to tell how a person died, a black nail that you can use to lock someone’s shadow to a wall, a glove that allows you to touch ethereal creatures, a heart that gives you animal-like features. Nice. All low-level items too, no CL 20th bullshit. Wicked.
Chapter VII: Bow down to Monster Mash and pledge your loyalty to the graveyard smash.
Nephandum is quick to generously provide you with 40 pages of monsters appropriate to a horror campaign, most of them tied to the theme of blood, savagery, madness, darkness or disease in some way. These are, on the whole, very solid entries without having to resort to tits or gore for cheap shock value in the manner of Lusus Naturae.
We are introduced to the concept of Baleful Scourges, and immediately I swoon in a most ungentlemanly fashion. 4 Unique High CR monsters that represent ancient elemental forces that have been slumbering for millennia and are awakened by the growing influence of Nephandum or because the GM is angry? Are they classic? Immune to all divination magic? True seeing? No bullshit nine hundred spell like abilities to make them tough?
A giant black serpent born from the heart of a volcano that burns everything in its wake? A great maw in the sky that eats everything in order to understand it and spits lightning? A giant octopus monster that slumbers for eons and poisons the very water it lives in? A titanic monster made of rock that can glide through solid stone, attacks by ripping off chunks of its rock body and hurling it at people and causes earthquakes? I love you Nephandum.
The rest of the Bestiary presents us with an astonishing variety (with the exception of a palette swapped Winter Wight) of deformed abberations (a dream-eating humanoid that reproduces by emotion-draining pregnant women), gruesome undead creatures (a legless skinless undead creature that can steal skins and imitate the voice of its prey to pass as a leper), creepy humanoids (a race of regenerating humanoids that graft weaponry into their bodies, mothmen), horror staples (mirror images that come alive and murder you) or hideous plant monsters. Most of the monsters have some sort of modus operandi that differs from “it attacks” or some sort of motivation, ensuring there are plenty of hooks. You read the entries and can immediately conceive of an adventure or encounter around them. Those are good monsters. A giant plant monster of vines that grafts humans into itself so it can use them to get enough carbon dioxide from the air as long as they remain alive. I cannot even. That is great. The CRs are okay, most are around the 6-12 level. I would have preferred some more low CR monsters but this is a minor gripe. The section finishes with a template for the servants of each of the Ancestral Terrors.
Chapter VIII: Campaigning
A good measure of quality is asking yourself if you would run something right after you read it if they had the time and players. My answer is yes, I want to run this. A lot.
The book closes off with a chapter on running Nephandum. It is handled intelligently and very useful, making a distinction between 3 different styles of play; Investigative, Epic and Apocalyptic, depending on the Influence level of the bad guys. Each is provided with a list of elements to help you evoke the type of play, along with very useful examples, a list of plot hooks, and enough information to make you want to run it. This section bumps up the book by a full point, focusing on exactly the information you need. The plot hooks are genuinely unsettling and speak to the imagination. There is a paragraph on using the Baleful Scourges properly. All in all, an entire chapter filled with useful advice that helps you to turn the previous chapters into an actual campaign. Bravo Sirs! Bravo a hundredfold!
Nephandum is an excellent sourcebook that should serve as the gold standard for what a 3rd party supplement is supposed to do. It is general enough to be customizable yet specific enough to have something distinctive and unique. I think you could get a pretty bitching campaign out of this one, especially if you throw in Libris Mortis, Heroes of Horror and of course the well-known Book of Vile Darkness. Make a nice campaign world, stat up some NPCs, translate Creature del Terrores or use other MM manuals, ask your players if they want to play some nice “DnD” and let the terror begin. It feels like a 3e sourcebook, just more mature and written by and for smarter people. Absolutely recommend for anyone wanting to run a bitching Dark Fantasy campaign in the vein of Warhammer. Even for more generic horror games it may be mined for spells, equipment, monsters and disturbing prestige classes.
Pros: Great resource for dark fantasy games of any kind. Nice take on the Cosmic Horror genre. Abundant creativity and atmosphere. Terrific monsters. Excellent advice for implementation.
Cons: Flowery prose might induce nausea. Sample villains are too tame. Artifacts could have used more drawbacks.
Final Verdict: Intelligent, useful, well-written, atmospheric and brimming with good ideas. The flowery prose has an acclimation factor of 30 pages. One of the best 3rd party d20 products I have seen thus far. 8.5 out of 10.
So much old 3e shit gets a new edition for pathfinder. Why not Nephandum? Get working on it Mongoose. Creature Del Terrore needs a translation. What is stopping you? Do you hate money? Do you hate Dnd? Get on it!