Review of Aerial Adventure Guide: Sky Captain's Handbook

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

June 4, 2004

by: Andrew Hind

Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

Not quite the comprehensive book on the subject of aerial campaigns, but as balanced and inspiring as you're likely to find.

Andrew Hind has written 52 reviews, with average style of 4.00 and average substance of 4.04 The reviewer's previous review was of d20 Modern GM Screen.

This review has been read 7878 times.

Product Summary
Name: Aerial Adventure Guide: Sky Captain's Handbook
Publisher: Goodman Games
Line: d20 sourcebooks
Author: Michael Mearls
Category: RPG

Cost: $27.99
Pages: 144
Year: 2004

SKU: GMG2004
ISBN: 0-9728738-8-0

Review of Aerial Adventure Guide: Sky Captain's Handbook

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The Aerial Adventure Guide: Sky Captain’s Companion is a setting and rules companion devoted to airborne adventuring. It should be noted that much of the material contained within this 144-page hardbound book originally saw print in a trilogy of 32-page books from Goodman Games called the Aerial Adventure Guides, though new material has been added and the entire volume updated to 3.5 edition rules.

From the very beginning, one gets a favorable impression of this book. Michael Mearls, a talented and prolific writer, is the main author (with lesser contributions from Joseph Goodman, Timothy Grubb, and Gannar Hultgren), so immediately I suspected---and was proven correct---that the text would be engaging and the rules balanced. The cover by Michael Erickson is beautiful, and captures the escapist fun that makes aerial adventuring so enticing. Most of the b+w interior illustrations are excellent as well.

After reading a short introduction chapter, which includes some suggestions as to how to incorporate aerial adventuring into a standard campaign, we jump immediately into the heart of the matter.

Of immediate interest to players are the new races, feats, and prestige classes…..the so-called “crunch”. The three new races include the deliciously evil Arachial (spider-people, doing for the skies what the Drow did for the Underdark), the aloof Sky Elves, and the barbarian Avians (humanoids with distinctive bird of prey features and traits). There are also three prestige classes: The Air Knight (which is pretty much self-explanatory), the Battle Captain (swashbuckling aerial ship captains), and my personal favorite, the refreshingly original Elemental Convert (characters infused with, and therefore able to control, elemental air magic). All are well-conceived and balanced.

A total of thirty new feats are similarly provided. While many are simply aerial versions of feats found in previous books (fly-by cleave, for example), they are nonetheless valuable. Among them are, however, are several of particular note. The feats are briefly summarized in chart form as in the Players Handbook, something I wish all d20 publishers would do.

There’s also a selection of feats, known as Heroic Legacies, which are similar to the regional feats featured in the Forgotten Realms setting from Wizards of the Coast. Heroic Legacies can only be purchased at character generation, and go a long way to increasing a players’ survivability in an otherwise unforgiving environment (such as by providing a flying mount, or perhaps the ability to use feather fall).

I was, however, quite disappointed by the rules for aerial combat, which is explored in a mere four pages. This is far too short to discuss all the facets of three-dimensional fighting and aerial naval warfare. In fact, in regards to the latter, it almost presupposes one has access to detailed ship-to-ship rules, because otherwise a prospective GM is almost entirely on his own. The one innovation of note is the system for abstract movement, almost a necessity in a three-dimensional environment where miniatures and hex grids are of little use, and which helps create rapid, slashing dog-fight style encounters.

Similarly, the outline for designing sky-ships was elementary at best, especially when juxtaposed with the extensive and excellent rules found in Bastion Press’ Skyships. That said, the system does work and may appeal to those who wish to avoid minutiae. On the plus side of the ledger, we find eighteen sample ship classes, ranging from halfling village ships (a way cool concept) and autogyros to dwarven zeppelins and the undead horde ships crafted from the bones of rocs, griffons, and other flying beasts.

This is followed by a very appealing chapter that details a selection of sky realms, the most significant of which is the elven cloud city of Sellaine. At 10-pages in length, there’s enough information on Sellaine to make it the base for an entire campaign, and thankfully it’s interesting enough to make such a prospect entirely pleasurable. Perhaps even more interesting, but only briefly touched upon, is Dreadfall, a floating island of undeath and evil that could serve as the site for numerous memorable adventures.

Chapter Five details Denizens of the Air, essentially a mini-aerial Monster Manual. It takes up 43-pages, or almost a third of the book, which admittedly seems like a lot. However, most of the creatures provided are inspiring additions to game session, and the section is comprehensive it that it provides all the enemies a GM is likely to require for an aerial campaign. Some of the more notable additions include the invisible and very deadly Mist Golem, the undead plague vulture, ornery storm elementals known as Thunder Clouds, and the Winged Creature template, from which one can create an avian version of any existing monster. There are also several air-borne humanoid races designed to take the niche filled by orcs and goblinoids in standard campaigns.

Finally, we find a brief chapter for GMs that offers advice on running aerial adventures, either as part of a novelty in a traditional land-based game or as a campaign in its own right.

Much of this is information is extremely instructive, and when combined together provides a prospective GM with the foundations for a truly unique and textured campaign. We even find trading rules, for those who wish to ply the skies for profit. It’s this chapter, more than anything else in the book, which makes you stand up and take notice of the potential of aerial adventuring.

The Aerial Adventure Guide is a solid sourcebook. Not quite the comprehensive say on the subject, but pretty close. The excellent and extensive assortment of monsters, the imaginative sky-realms, the evocative tips for running aerial campaigns, and the well-conceived character creation rules are only undermined by weaknesses in ship design and aerial combat rules. In my mind, the balance weighs heavily towards the favorable.

Thanks to The Aerial Adventure Guide I’m inclined---for the first time in almost two decades of gaming---to run a D&D campaign amongst the clouds. I was inspired. And isn't that, after-all, what a good sourcebook is supposed to do?

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