Mysteries of Arena
of Arena is the latest sourcebook for the Oathbound
d20 setting from Bastion
Press. If you're not familiar with Oathbound, you might read
my earlier reviews of it, but basically, it's set in a world that
is essentially a prison for a god and its 7 head minions (angels,
really). While it's a prison, the 7 angels can escape it, if they
can find someone strong enough (and gullible enough) to beat them
in a fight. So they came transformed the prison world into a
world that would build strong people, a la Darwin, and called it
Arena is the domain of Barbello, one of the least sophisticated
(and youngest) of the imprisoned god's minions. She's essentially
very petulant and warlike for the sake of being warlike. So her
domain, Arena, is essentially one great big eternal battlefield.
It was detailed pretty well in last years (November of 2003, I
think) release, "Oathbound: Arena".
Despite the name, "Mysteries of Arena", this book is
really sort of a companion volume to that book, Arena. It can
roughly be broken up into 3 parts: new crunchy stuff (races,
classes, feats, spells, critters, etc), the Mysteries themselves,
and lastly an adventure. With the crunchy stuff filling up most
of the book (say 100 pages of it or so). So to a certain extent,
this book can be used for any fantasy d20/D&D game, since
much of it, while tailored to Arena's environs, isn't exclusive
The new races are pretty alien, pretty much what you expect from
an Oathbound product. You have a rock eating species of Dwarves
(called Rockbiters); Karnos, which look suspiciously like the bad
aliens from Star Trek Deep Space 9 (not what the guy from Benson
was, their lackeys); Ramzadi, who are basically Wookiees, except
instead of being really tall and hairy monkeys, are really tall
and hairless lizard people (But they have the same personality
and live in trees and such - even have something like bowcasters,
kinda); Sythiss, which you might guess are snake people; and
Ok'weel, which are really weird - they look like
If you have Torn Asunder, you might remember the Ramzadi from it,
but in that, they were just a monster race, in this they are
statted up for players. The Sythiss seem a bit too silly - they
have clans, and each clan name happens to be one of a real world
snake species. Only like it were spoken by a snake person (or
person with a lisp). Aspiz, Cobriss, Viperiss, Gartiss, etc. Too
cute by far. Also, all of the races have level adjustments,
ranging from +1 (for the Rockbiters) to +3. Personally, I think
once you get that far (+3), you should do a "monster
class", a la Savage Species (or before that, the Second
World Sourcebook), because otherwise, these don't work all that
well as player characters.
So honestly, the races didn't do all that much for me. Though
they do fit in pretty well in the world of Oathbound.
The class section is interesting, as while there is an assortment
of prestige classes, we also get 3 new core/base classes. I love
those. There's the Duneslayer, which is a fighter type, only
specialized for desert warfare (presumably we'll see a dessert
warfare class in Oathbound: Candyland); the Operative, which is a
rogue like class that is basically a spy or espionage type; and
the Sand Mystic, which is a sort of arcane spellcaster similar to
a wizard but only occurs in Arena. Essentially, they use magic
crystals made from the sand of Arena, instead of spell books.
On the prestige class side, we get 5 of them. The Spellbinder,
which is a prestige class for arcane casters that lets them cast
spells in co-ordination with other casters. It's meant for army
units of spell casters. It's kinda neat how they work - when 2 or
more Spellbinders cast the same spell together, it works as that
many number of spells, plus various other improvements (depending
on level in the class). This is the best of the bunch, I thought.
There's also the Forest Slayer, which is sort of a sniper/archer
type. The Legionnaire, which doesn't sound like it's name -
rather than being a Roman army type, they bond with special
mounts, like giant scorpions, dire bears, or enormous penguins.
Though just to have the name make sense, apparently they dress
like Roman soldiers.
The last two are pretty much tied into the setting. First off is
the Shadow Assassin, which are agents of the dreaded Shadow Mage.
They are sort of a cross between the regular Assassin prestige
class (sans the spellcasting) and the Shadowdancer. They not only
work for a specific NPC/Faction in the world of Oathbound, they
have to take a couple prestige races as requirements.
Lastly is the Wellspringer. This is essentially a Druid prestige
class. But instead of the annoying, smelly, hippie sort of Druid,
these are my sort - capitalist Druids. Basically, instead of
hugging trees and such for fun and mother nature and all that
junk, they do it for money. Because Arena is a desert, it's very
dependent on Oases. These Druids can create and maintain Oases
and do so for cash. A Druid with a job - amazing!
So for the most part, the classes are pretty good. I'm not sure
how appealing they would be for players, but definitely most
useful for NPCs.
There's a grab-bag of other Oathbound stuff. For instance, there
are a couple Prestige Races (basically, where a character pays XP
to "evolve" into a sort of advanced critter), Focus of
the Gloom, Focus of the Grave and breaking the goth theme, Focus
of the Lodes. I can't easily describe the last, but Focus of the
Gloom is about adapting to an underground environment. (As an
aside, Bastion should consider gathering all of these Pathes into
one book or PDF and putting them out)
The Mass Combat system gets a short but major improvement.
Basically, units can now gain feats. There's a huge list of them.
There's a range of feats and spells. One of the feats lets a
character have a glowing nose (or other organ/appendage), so you
can finally play Rudolph in d20. One of the spells is like the
portrait of Dorian Grey, basically the spellcaster makes a
portrait of himself, and the portrait takes the damage, not the
caster. But it's a lot more limited than the one in the
A few new skills are introduced, and I think probably shouldn't
have. "Sand Surf" at least. While it's a neat idea,
it's probably a bit too specific for a d20 skill. Same with
The Mysteries of Arena section is actually pretty short. Maybe
38 pages. Much of this is actually tied into the other parts of
the book, for instance, one of the secrets is that the Sythiss
There are some problems, for instance, the text doesn't really
agree with the rules elsewhere (or what is in Arena). For
instance, the Sythiss are supposed to be fairly powerful, maybe
soon being more powerful than the Grand Asherake (but not yet),
and it mentions they can field an army of 6,000. But that's not
many at all. That's 6 units in the mass combat system in Arena.
It mentions that the rest of Arena fields 5x as many units,
total, as the Sythiss, but that's definitely not true. 500x
maybe. In the adventure in this book, the PCs are presumed to be
the rulers of a very small holding, and have an army of 8 units.
The real trouble is, most of the mysteries just aren't very
mysterious. Usually they are just sort of out of the way towns or
places. Usually just isolationists, not something wild or exotic,
like say, Shangra-La or Brigadoon or Atlantis or the 7 Cities of
Gold, or even Branson.
You do get some dirt on Barbello's past fights that went badly.
While she can only lose for good while she's in her citadel,
she's been beaten in a fight a few times and you learn who and
what she did to them when she reformed. I would have liked more
on her personal history. I mean, surely she has some sort of love
life or something.
Lastly, there is an adventure. It's basically a follow-up to the
one in Arena. In that adventure, the PCs ended up (hopefully)
with the control of a 'holding' or basically the rulers of a
small city-state. It's a direct follow-up, and in many ways
strikes me as something of an unfair adventure, from the PCs
point of view (based on lots of experience being griped at,
Basically, it assumes that in-between the adventure in Arena,
nothing has happened except what it has said. That could be the
case if you just happen to now buy Arena and this book, or just
now plan on running the two adventures. But Arena came out almost
a year ago, in mid October of 2003 I believe, so if you ran it
then, well, presumably your PCs have done a lot of stuff, and you
the DM have no double flesh out the area of their holding pretty
well. The adventure actually sort of admits this at the
It also springs on the PCs some stuff from this book. Which is
unfair. I mean, the PCs should have knowledge of the area they
are in, ie, the Arena portion of the book. Rather than be
surprised by new enemies that just pop up in the this book.
(Though the adventure does do a good job of showing how the
material in this book integrates into Arena).
Actually, that's part of a problem with the book itself. It adds
some completely new stuff to Arena, which your game didn't have
before. Integrating new stuff out of the blue is always tricky,
but is harder when it's fairly big, which some of the stuff in
this book is. Including the villains of this adventure. I mean,
they are based in a gigantic canyon not far from the PCs town.
Surely someone would have noticed the canyon?
This isn't a problem if you are just getting into the Oathbound
setting, or Arena in particular, but for long time fans with
ongoing games this could be tricky.
But I do like the idea of the adventure. I just think it should
have been presented in a more non-linear manner. Maybe sketchier.
Because when the PCs are the rulers of a place, they should be
fairly pro-active - searching out the area for potential problems
and such, so they should run into conflict with the enemies in
this book. The first module for the old D&D Companion Rules,
CM1, was a good example of how to do a module like this right.
I also think if you have adventures like this, you need some sort
of rules for running a domain/city-state/kingdom, etc. d20 has
some of those, but none that I've found that were very good. I
was enamored with Fields of Blood when I first got it (to the
point of writing something of a hex mapping program in visual
basic for it), but once I actually started using the rules, I
found them to be unsatisfactory. It also doesn't mesh very well,
scale wise, with Arena. I would like to see Bastion someday come
up with a book on this subject (they already have a pretty good
mass combat system, after all).
Woops, almost forgot about the Appendices, which are stats and
writeups. The first is just the NPCs from the adventure, but the
second are all sorts of new creatures that were mentioned all
over the course of the book, plus some extra.
Most of the new critters are fairly grotesque or alien (again,
sort of fitting Oathbound's theme). There are a couple rock
creatures (including one called the Cryshma, which harasses
people at airports), a Lovecraftian thingie (a
"Glebe'marl") that looks like something Cthulhu sneezed
out, a few lizards, an evil dwarf race with cat whiskers, a
really angry super-Treant, a sand worm out of Star Wars: Return
of the Jedi (the thing that ate Boba Fett). Each critter has an
adventure hook or three associated with it, which is something
Bastion usually does, and is a nice touch.
Arena was probably Bastion Press's best looking book. This is
something of a step down from that, but is a lot better quality
than their last two releases in terms of readability of the print
and clarity of the art, though the art is still be bit spottier
than it should ideally be. The art is excellent - a lot of the
interior art is done by Christopher Pickrell, who did the cover
of Arena, and whose work is very very good. (All of the art is
good, but his stuff was notably excellent). Another artist's
style reminds me a lot of Jim Holloway's, which IMHO, is good.
And like pretty much all Bastion products, the layout is
excellent. Typos seem to be pretty rare, too, I haven't spotted
All in all, it's a good book, even though it's more of a grab bag
of stuff than detailed mysteries. It goes a long way towards
fleshing out Arena. It's actually the same size, but $2 cheaper
than Arena was, so it's a good value. A solid if unspectacular B
They've got a
small preview of it on their website.