I really wanted to like this book. The author was real anxious for a review, and as I started read it, I thought it was just barely over the line needed to make it a Game of the Week
, but several issues, most of which were arguably not the author's fault, conspired against the book. These issues meant that I am unsure I would be pleased with the book if I hadn't gotten it for free for the review...
In short, the book is poorly laid out and haphazardly edited at best. We're not talking Werewolf: the Apocalypse 1st Edition bad, but pretty close. It greatly detracts from the comprehensibility of the book when sidebars and columns of text seem to have been placed more or less at random. This, combined with some omissions and balance issue which I will go into later, made the final issue, one which is not normally fatal, the last nail in the coffin: Price. Now, I know that gaming books are very much underpriced, and that the price of the book is in part because of the weak dollar (Pelgrane Press being an outfit out of the UK), but thirty dollars is too much to pay for 138 pages, especially with the quality issues I already mentioned.
Which is a shame, because I was really excited about this book. Why? Well, as most of you know, the infamous "fire and forget" spell theory from D&D was originally stolen from Jack Vance's Dying Earth series of novels. When Pelgrane Press, the outfit that had gotten the long-awaited license to create the Dying Earth RPG, decided to do a d20 supplement on spells and magic based on magic from the Dying Earth, this meant that the original D&D magic system had finally gone full circle. Also, given that the Dying Earth is more, well, "roguish" than the average D&D world, this meant the spells would have less of a "back to the dungeon" element to them, which pleased me, given I feel a lot of d20's potential is squandered in the dungeon. (Not to say some of the combat spells aren't useful...)
Before I get any further, please note that while I like what I've seen of the flavor of the Dying Earth, in the Dying Earth RPG, in The Primer of Practical Magic, and elsewhere, I would like to note that I haven't read the original Dying Earth novels, so my perspective on the book is very much that of someone examining the usefulness of the book in terms of a "standard" D&D campaign, albeit, perhaps, a game that doesn't have a lot of dungeoneering to it.
All of that said, what do you get with this book?
Well, the book gets to a promising start, hitting the ground running with a short essay on magic in the Dying Earth, comparing and contrasting the mindset of the Dying Earth with a "typical" D&D world in terms of magic, so one can understand the direction the spells in the book are tinted. Also, this section presents an optional set of rules, based on the Dying Earth RPG, where spells do not automatically work, having a chance of failure. These rules, despite being derived from another RPG, are very well written and are very much in the spirit of d20, i.e. no odd rolls, high rolls are better than low rolls, etc. In fact, they integrate well with the standard d20 idea of armor causing arcane spell failure, and they are, indeed, as the author states, "a more elegant solution than using the secondary percentile system". (Normally such pronouncements, even if true, would put me off, but as such bragging is very much in the spirit of the Dying Earth as I understand it, I was inclined to forgive the author.) The utility of the system is dampened somewhat in that we only have suggestions for "Dismal Failure" and "Illustrious Success" for the spells presented in the book (obviously cribbed from the Dying Earth RPG), but the guidelines presented and a little DM creativity easily make the system quite usable.
The next section focuses on cantrips, which have a special significance on the Dying Earth. Regardless, we're starting to get to the meat of this book: Arcane Spells. All of the cantrips are interesting, useful, practical, balanced, and well thought out. I only wished this section were longer -- it was the sort of thing that makes playing a 1st level wizard something to look forward to. Plus, the cantrips have wonderfully embellished names like "The Vulgar Interruption" and "Auditory Embellishment" in addition to more prosaically named cantrips like "Douse Flame", bringing a certain amount of flavor back to d20 that hasn't been in strong evidence since 1st Edition AD&D. As I mentioned earlier, many of them have a sort of roguish flavor to them, from "Fashionable Attire" to my favorite, "The Recumbent Form", which makes it look like a bed is occupied when it isn't.
The next section, titled simply "Arcane Spells", is the biggest section of the book, and is filled with interesting spells from 1st to 9th level. The spells have a similarly grand feel to them -- if you wanted to know where 1st Edition AD&D got names like "Tenser's Floating Disk", one has to look no further than spells like "Alberlin's Discontinuity Determiner" and "Javanne's Enervation of Will", and even the spells that aren't named after a wizard have titles like "Evocation of Blue Havoc". Now, I would like to say these spells are as good as the cantrips, as they make up the bulk of the book, but this is where the problems start to crop up. While many of the spells are, indeed, balanced, many of them aren't, or have serious implications that aren't explored. Consider "Temporal Projection", which, while admittedly a 9th level spell, can throw someone up to a million years into the past with no costly material components, no XP penalty, and seemingly no concerns about paradox, which isn't even mentioned in the spell. The spell screams "DM headache" for even a high-level campaign, if the DM isn't paying close attention. Or, for another example, consider "Radl's Pervasion of the Incorrect Chord", a second-level spell which can cancel ANY other spell if the caster can beat another spellcaster in an "Initiative check" (the mechanics for using this spell are rather muzzy). Spells which summon something are particularly bad in this respect, either making vague reference to a monster from the Monster Manual or providing a simple stats block for a given creature in a (often oddly placed) sidebar/text box, usually without so much as a physical description of the otherworldly creature in question. And don't even get me started on "Phandall's Inside Out and Over", which is supposed to free someone from the underground, but in two paragraphs manages to beg so many questions about the exact effect on the terrain in question (e.g. "Do ceilings come with you?") as to make the spell description incomprehensible. Many of the spells are like this -- an interesting idea, but too poorly defined to be usable in a d20 context, with no exploration of their implications, or what happens when people try to interact in odd ways with the spell, as PCs will inevitably do.
More so than any other third-party spell anthology I've read, this book requires the DM to examine each spell in painstaking detail and perhaps modify it before even attempting to use it in a campaign. It's almost not worth the effort. Which is a shame, really, because this section also contains well-written and balanced gems like "The Amatory Bounty" (which summons a willing bed partner for the caster, though like all summoning spells in this book, it's a little vague on details), "Phalajun's Perfection of Manners" (which allows one to instantly know the most polite thing to do in a given social situation even when one is unfamiliar with local customs), and "The Agonizing Immolation" (a devastating yet balanced combat spell that also destroys clothing and armor during its operation, adding embarrassment to injury), not to mention the hilarious yet useful "Spell of the Macroid Toe." (The latter spell causes the target's right big toe to swell, over the course of ten rounds, to the size of a house, making it difficult to chase the caster, among other things. It might be a bit overbalanced, being a fourth-level spell, though again, some of the possible consequences are under-examined, albeit not as much as some of the other spells...)
The next section is on "Rare and Magical Items of the Dying Earth". It opens with a section on ioun stones, which were originally stolen from the Dying Earth novels in the first place, and adds a full page of new ioun stones! After this is a droll list of "Non-Magical Artifacts", in essence some very interesting unique (and often alchemical) items, followed by several unique magic items. Many of these are interesting, though all of them, even ones that should be possible to manufacture under the d20 rules, fail to list the spells needed to make them, giving only a market price instead. Again, in terms of balance, I have to wonder a little at some of the market prices, but that's an issue that is somewhat subjective, tho I suspect more attention to Tome and Blood and some of the other excellent books Wizards has put out regarding magic items might have been useful. One nice thing is there seems to be some attempt to make this section useful to both D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 DMs, though the success is mixed, I think...
Following this is "Appendix I", which is about using the Dying Earth as a d20 campaign setting. This section is a five pages long, but it's some of the better-written parts of the book. Combined with the essay at the start of the book, it's more than enough information for budding DMs interested in the Dying Earth, particularly if one has read the novels, I suspect. But speaking as someone who hasn't read the novels, there's enough material here to understand the feel of the Dying Earth and run a game set in it. There's also some interesting ideas regarding using the Dying Earth as "someplace to visit" for a more "vanilla" D&D campaign.
This is followed by "Appendix II: Vat Creatures". It seems that in the Dying Earth, great archmages often "grow" their own servants from scratch. This section goes into detail for the process in d20 terms. In essence, you "buy" the attributes, powers, feats, etc. of the creature you want on a chart, which determines how hard the creature is to make, and then go through a process that makes becoming a lich in 1st edition AD&D look like a cakewalk. However, the bad editing is a big problem here, and the rules themselves have a lot of problems.
One example of the problems: I know that only the most amazing archmages are supposed to be able to do this, but creating a kobold requires a DC 48 Spellcraft check. And that's just the start, in terms of the sample vat creatures: a hobgoblin requires a DC 81 spellcraft check, and a creature functionally identical to a wolf is a DC 96 Spellcraft check! Now, I will note that the sample 30th level wizard in the Epic Level Handbook has a Spellcraft bonus of +42, making the maximum possible roll 62, barely enough to make the kobold, and certainly not enough for the high-end example vat creatures, like the hippogriff (DC 171) and the Troll (DC 292). One wonders why mention such creatures at all, if they're out of the reach of 30th-level wizards. And this is not considering all the different points at which the process can go wrong, and the XP and GP cost. Again, I know it's supposed to be hard, but I should think it should be possible for powerful archmages, and it's barely possible, maybe, for a 30th level wizard, unless all you want to do is make cats (DC 12).
The third appendix is "Prestige Classes". There are three of these.
The first is the Sharper, which is a sort of arcane confidence trickster. It's reasonably balanced, if a touch bland, not to mention the odd assumption in its sneak attack progression that you'll take the class as soon as you're able to and not later. The only really annoying bit about it is they introduce a new skill for this class, Gambling, which is "an alternative to that found in the 3.5 Player's Handbook". First of all, someone can correct me in the forum, but I can't find a Gambling skill in the 3.5 Player's Handbook. Also, there is no reason to invent this skill: There is nothing the skill does that can't be covered with an appropriate Knowledge skill, the Bluff skill, or the Slight of Hand skill, all of which are in-class for this prestige class.
The second class is the Diabolist, which is a class where you summon and bind Outsiders, mainly demons. It's reasonably balanced, though it could use errata (I have no idea how many ranks of Knowledge (The Planes) you need, tho I assume 8) and I've seen it done better elsewhere. The coolest thing about it is it includes the possibility of being a good Diabolist who uses his powers to oppose evil Diabolists -- you can take this class if you're any alignment besides Lawful Good.
Finally there is the "Arch-Magician", which is a very Dying Earth take on the concept, being very concerned with ioun stones and mysterious creatures known as Sandestins. Particularly mysterious, in fact: aside from an illustration on p.124 which I assume shows one, I have no idea what they look like, tho we have plenty of game information on them, albeit scattered in bits and pieces throughout the entry. This class, which could have been the hilight of the book, is the biggest disappointment. The rules on Sandestin seem rushed, and the spell list is limited to spells from the book, oddly not including the "Dying Earth spells with D20 twins" that are not listed later.
The fourth appendix is "Feats", most of which are interesting if nothing to write home about. Notable is the "Vat Creature Mastery Feat", which gives a mere +4 to the skill checks need, but also gives a +2 to the Animation and Personality table die rolls, each of which uses a 1d6, making this Feat a must-have if you want non-crippled, loyal vat creations, given the nature of the tables in question. Also there are some excellent -- if somewhat out-of-place -- combat feats, which seem balanced and useful, particularly the "Sidestep" feat that allows you to move when you would normally be given an attack of opportunity.
The book ends with several more short appendixes. There is "Appendix V: Dying Earth spells with D20 twins," which is exactly what it says on the tin, "Appendix VI: Spell Components and Poisons", which is also exactly what it sounds like, arranged in a gigantic table. The very last section in the book should probably be called an appendix as well, but is simply labeled "Selected Poisons and Diseases of the Dying Earth" and consists of two diseases and one poison. Selected, indeed... Regardless, all of these sections are workmanlike and usable, tho hardly exciting.
And that's it. There's a lot of rough potential in this book, but it's going to take a lot of work on the DM's part to make the most out of it, and given the amount of work required, I'm not sure if it's worth the money without some serious errata. This is a book I very much suggest one flip through before purchasing, even if one is a fan of the Dying Earth. Which, as I said, is a shame, because there is good material here, even if it's buried in mediocre and bad material and poor editing.
The style and substance ratings are literally an average -- there's brilliant (substance and style 4) stuff here mixed with a lot of bad stuff (substance and style 2). Arguably, it should probably be Style 2.9 and Substance 3.1...