Today, I'm going to take a look at Alluria Publishing's critically-acclaimed and ennie-nominated campaign setting, which should be considered the definite resource for underwater adventuring for any kind of d20-based system! Without further ado:
This massive full-color campaign setting/sourcebook is 290 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 4 pages of index, 1 page inside back cover and 1 page back cover, leaving a staggering 279 pages of content for this campaign setting, but what exactly are in for?
What if the world saw an age of peace above the waves, an era of enlightenment overseen by a powerful nation? What if said force of goodness and equilibrium suddenly vanished and the surface-dwellers, in their despair and ignorance initiated a cataclysm that sees most of the world flooded, leaving only sparse patches of land unsubmerged? What if the surface-dwellers went extinct and yet, the world would continue spinning? The action and eternal war between good and evil would continue, but beneath the waves. These are the Cerulean Seas, a world flooded and in the grip of tidal waves, where new races have claimed dominance after vanquishing the dreaded sahuagin and this book follows an ambitious goal - Not only do the people from Alluria Publishing try to offer you an original setting, but also provide all the necessary rules for all instances of underwater adventuring.
Let's see whether they've succeeded in that endeavor, shall we? There's a lot to consider, believe me. Seeing I converted the monstrous arcana Sahuagin-trilogy from the 2nd edition days of old to 3.5 and ran the campaign, I do know that even if you prepare a LOT of magical items/spells etc., there are a LOT of additional concerns to address and this book is wasting no space and jumps in to introduce us to some of the peculiarities of underwater adventuring:
From an introduction to the different light zones, to mechanics to determine tides and even very extensive terrain information, we get a lot of cool new rules, favorite of which for me would be buoyancy -natural air bladders from races to items: The rules presented for buoyancy should be standard - they are elegant and easy to implement: Essentially buoyancy comes in positive and negative values, either dragging you down or pushing you upwards - including acceleration and drag. Str determines what you can carry until you fight against buoyancy. Combine that with water pressure and currents (which also get their easy and yet extensive rules) and we get a wholly unique experience: Seeing that until I read this, underwater combat felt mostly like flying underwater, this is just awesome - 3d exploration and combat that opens a whole array of new tactics and combat options. Combat will never be the same under the waves and even if you're only planning on having 1 or 2 adventures under the waves, this chapter (especially when combined with OD's Sunken Empires), is absolutely the best resource you can imagine. It also includes extensive information on underwater hazards ranging from poisons, whirlpools etc. A new condition replaces prone (disoriented) and thrown weapons are replaced with plunge weapons - be aware, though, that not a simple name-substitution has been made: E.g. the splash weapons work in some key-aspects different from their dryland-counterparts.
After this chapter on terrain and the basics, we are introduced to the new playable races, all of which come with their own natural buoyancy, information on their depth tolerance as well as the information on attributes. I'd usually sum up the racial modifiers etc., but in the interest of finishing this review this century, I'll just go on to give you a general overview. Generally, the races of the Cerulean Sea can be divided into three general categories: Anthromorphs (4 races), which include cool races like the crab-like Karkanaks and the crocodile-humanoid Sebek-Ka, the Feykith (4 races), which contain Sea-elves, Selkies and Viridian Naiads, the latter being plant-like in life-cycle and mentality. The final category is the Merfolk, which includes the mysterious and alien, deep-dwelling Nommo, the poison-spined Cindarians and the proud, mount-like Kai-Lios. 11 merfolk-halfbreeds are also provided along tables for age, height/length, buoyancy and depth-tolerance. I expected to get lame aquatic variants of regular races and instead found a plethora of well-written, balanced, cool races that ooze unique flavor and thus lend themselves to truly ingenious plots.
Chapter 3 deals with classes and how they work under water and some interesting components and rationalizations/modifications have been made to them: Alchemists for example have invented aqua gravis, a substance to make bombs and potions with and its discovery, manufacture and usage lends a whole new dimension/other was the items work to the whole class. Wait, Alchemist? Yep, Cerulean Seas comes with full-blown APG-support. While all classes get their respective treatment, the two new domains for the cleric (Flora and Steam, replacing Plant and Fire) as well as an one-page domains/deities-list deserve special mention, as do the 18 aquatic animal companions and the new eidolon evolutions. Conversion notes for e.g. Infernal bloodlines etc. are provided as well.
The chapter does not stop there, though: We get the new Kahuna-base-class, a druid-like ally of the spirits of the sea with neat spirit aspect powers of 8 different totems - mechanically one of the most interesting spirit shaman-like classes I've seen. Speaking of interesting - the 20-lvl Mariner base-class, focusing on supreme 3d-movement and agility makes for an interesting melee-choice and the substitute for the bard, the siren-class, also makes for a neat design, though the latter could have used more options to choose from with regards to her songs. The base-PrCs are also covered along 3 new PrCs - The Beach Comber, a ranger-like elite, the Glimmerkeeper, legendary rogues and possibly mutants fighting for the downtrodden and the Sea Witch, who is a rather evil and dark PrC for the siren - think Ursula from Ariel in mature and you'll get these nice fellows.
The next chapter deals with skills and feats - jumping from the waves, diving perception beneath the waves and coverage of existing feats help adapting them to the world beneath the waves. The chapter does not stop there, though: 45 new feats expand upon racial qualities (enhancing Cindarian spines and Karanak-claws for example) as well as dealing with the new environment, improving e.g. Air Bladder class. Surprisingly, I did not find a single feat that felt overpowered or useless - quite a feat! (Pardon the pun!)
The next chapter deals with underwater currency: Seeing that copper and silver tend to rust, the currency of the seas is based on shell, gold and pearls. Tarde and new goods like the aforementioned aqua gravis as well as alloys for weapons are covered. The new weapons cover both weaponized harnesses for awakened animals and a vast array of thrusting weapons - the tables alone cover 2 whole pages, ensuring that you don't have to arm all your characters/NPCs with piercing weapons. The aquatic armors are also interesting, including for example jellyfish armors as well as clamshell plates. 11 new ships are introduced for traveling on the waves (which seems to be a bit more secure than under the waves) and a huge array of conversions are provided for all the regular items and obsolete ones are mentioned as well. Kelp ropes e.g. replacing regular ones. Extensive lists including buoyancy information for these items have been provided for your convenience as well, as have buoyancy-control items that help you combat updraft. Have I mentioned the phosphorescent jelly-fish lanterns? This chapter, with all the small details and minuscule meticulously pieced together components makes underwater adventuring and societies that much more believable - excellent!
Chapter 6 deals with new magic as well as old one: After introducing some exceptions, we are introduced to a huge list of aquatic spell components, replacing drylander components - I love this list. While it seems to be a small and unnecessary component, I really consider going this extra-mile in detail and depth of coverage makes the approach stand out. APG-fans can rejoice, by the way: Undersea spell lists are provided for all the core and APG-classes and modifications to the spells have also been included in the lists. Over 100 spells are either entirely new or have been heavily modified to work beneath the waves and the two new casting base classes Kahuna and Siren also get their respective spell-lists. Surprisingly, the spells ranging from acidic red algae to black maelstroms are surprisingly well-crafted and none felt like overpowered or a story/game-breaker to me - indeed, some do expand the tactical options provided by 3d-fighting and currents - awesome! The new magic item-section comes with 2 armor and 4 weapon qualities as well as 1 new specific armor as well as 8 specific items, all of which (with one exception) come with their own high-quality artworks.
The 7th chapter deals with the Cerulean Seas campaign setting and can be considered a primer/gazetteer of the setting: This section contains racial histories, short NPC-write ups of famous NPCs as well as detailed information on the respective languages spoken beneath the waves. Religion is covered as well, but in a different way from what you'd expect: The council of nine, 9 deities seeking to absorb all other faiths, make for the mainstream religions and uphold the verdicts of "There shall be only 9" - but where there's persecution, there will also be cults, ranging from variations of the 9 teachings to more heretical positions. Two sanctioned cults per deity are included in the respective write-ups, lending further diversity to the pantheon. A vast array of short city-write-ups as well as a page chronicling current events provide ample hooks for the DM to craft adventures around.
Chapter 8 offers advice for Dming adventures under the sea and does a great job - extensive tables to help you convert both items and creatures to the Cerulean Seas are provided along guidelines for buoyancy and then there's the battlemat-problem: If you've been stacking dice, this pdf has a page of depth-cubes you can print-out and use instead, providing more stability -quick and doesn't take too much time. If you're going for the recommended solution (after discussing some alternatives), we get actually some cool DIY-information: Tracker trees! Templates for the trees are provided both in full-color and B/w at the end of the pdf and the assembly instructions are comprehensive and easy and most importantly: Affordable, relatively easy to contruct and also a nice alternative if you're shooting for a solution for aerial combat as well.
No environment-focused book would be complete without a bestiary and thus, Alluria Publishing provides us with a smattering of new creatures in chapter 9: From Algoids (underwater shambling mounds) to degenerate merfolk, coral shephards (treant-like guardians of coral reefs) to a vast array of fishes, dinosaurs to 9 new kinds of deep-sea song dragons, we get a lot of cool critters. Have I mentioned the sound and steam elementals as well as 12 new familiar animals, creatures like dire lampreys to seacats and several species of sea-titans (e.g. with kraken-tentacles as lower parts of the torso) to original creatures like the mind-controlling, arcane static-producing mysterious slug-humanoids Slurgs and the awakened animal species of animals, the so-called trueforms? The creatures herein add a lot to a given campaign, even if it only skirts the water's surface. 4 simple templates also help you adjusting other creatures to the Cerulean Seas.
We also get appendices: Creatures by CR, a pronunciation guide, an index of tables, an art-index, 2 pages of char-sheet, 4 pages of card-stock minis,2 tracker tree templates, 1 page of depth cubes and 1 page-map of the Cerulean Seas. Finally, as I've mentioned in the beginning of this review, we get an index.
Editing is very good - I noticed only about 10 glitches over 290 pages and all of them were minor hyphen- or punctuation errors. Formatting is top-notch and layout adheres to the two-column standard. The layout. Oh my god, it's beautiful. The slightly blue-tinged full-color pages are accentuated with gold and offer for a cool, unified look. The pdf comes with more than extensive bookmarks, greatly facilitating usage of the book and it should be noted, that size and art notwithstanding, the setting only takes up about 18 mbs, making it still a viable candidate for e-readers. Let me talk about the art: The artwork herein is GORGEOUS. I mean Paizo-level GORGEOUS. In fact, the interior artwork is probably at a level of quality I've rarely, if ever, seen before in a 3pp-book. In spite of having a lot of different artists creating these pieces, the book nevertheless maintains an unified look that is beyond what one would expect from most publications. Have I mentioned that a lot of weapons, ships etc. also get their artworks?
Let's get to the content: The attention to even the most minuscule detail and peculiarity is STAGGERING. Just about everything has been taken into consideration and lists like the spell-components and their underwater equivalents, the item conversions, the idea of aqua gravis etc. ensure that this pdf does not only provide a blue-tinged dryland equivalent of a setting, but rather an astonishing world that feels distinctively different. Underwater economics, travel etc. - all the aspects of underwater adventuring that had been handwaved at best until now have been covered in a consistent, intelligent and concise manner. Have I mentioned that the amount of letters f the respective alphabets are mentioned in the language write-ups? The sheer amount of fluffy details complementing the crunch is awesome. The new content is almost universally killer, ranging from the new races and their more unique representatives to the new classes. I didn't have a balance-concern with a single spell or feat. An then there's the setting-primer, which provides for a nice political landscape to spring upon your players. Proving that they know how to go above and beyond, the folks over at Alluria have also covered the 3d-combat an its representation with tracker trees to an extent that I did not expect to see. Conversion hellp for the GM ensures that this book will not be limited to single uses or just the material herein, but make it easy to expand the setting with more content. The buoyancy, deep pressure etc.-rules are plain awesome and the bestiary-section alone, with the resplendent artworks and huge variety enables you to genuinely portray an underwater world. Even if you choose to utterly ignore all setting-specific information, you'll still be left with over 200 pages of top-quality content that makes this book the ultimate resource on underwater adventuring - be it for an extensive period or just a couple of adventures. If you combine this book with e.g. OD's Sunken Empires, you'll be in for a fresh gaming environment that by its rules and premises alone evokes non-conventional tactics, environments and twists of tried and true tropes as well as opening whole new revenues for adventurers. I am rarely blown out of the water (bad pun, I know), but this epic tome managed not only to surprise me with all-around stellar quality, but also with its imaginative potential, its attention to details and the fresh approach to the world beneath the waves. If your campaign world has even one ocean, you need to have this. in fact, I maintain that this book belongs to the rare pdf that should grace just about any shelf of PFRPG-material, as it easily surpasses e.g. D&D 3.5's Sandstorm and Frostburn - it's that good.
If all books were like this, I could stop reviewing right now. If I could give this pdf 6 stars, I would. Seriously. The 20 bucks they charge for the pdf are a steal and while the pdf will extort a brutal drain on your printer, the downright beautiful end-result will be worth it as this is one of the instances where craft and art of deigning RPG-products go hand in hand. Seeing that I can't give this pdf 6 stars, I'll settle for my highest possible verdict of 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval - this belongs to your shelf and I guarantee that you won't regret your purchase.
All right, that's it for now! As always, thanks for reading my ramblings!