It’s no secret that I’ve invested a lot of my gaming efforts to Kobold Press’ Midgard in recent years. I ran a campaign set in Zobeck, and am almost finished running the Tales of the Old Margreve adventure anthology. Because of that, it’s probably not a surprise that I backed the Kickstarter for the Empire of the Ghouls adventure, and my pledge included the Underworld Player’s Guide.
I’ve got a semi-strange disclaimer, in that I backed this Kickstarter, but then received a review copy from Kobold Press.
Before I get into the review proper, I wanted to put a content warning here. This content warning is as much because I want warnings and safety discussions normalized, and there is no reason that material produced for the World’s Most Obliquely Referenced Roleplaying Game to be exempted.
The material in this book addresses violence, slavery, mental illness, cannibalism, blood, dismemberment, seduction, and the removal of personal agency.
A few of the spells granted by race or subclass give certain options that are also listed as granting options in Kobold Press products instead, if those sources are available. Some of the spells default to summoning creatures from the Tome of Beasts, rather than any of the core D&D products, so you may need to reference similar CR “official” monsters if you don’t have that resource.
Book of the (Nearly) Dead
This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is what I currently have available at the time of this writing. The PDF is 70 pages long, with a credits page, a table of contents/legal text page, and a full-page ad for other Kobold Press products on the final page.
The formatting of this book is two-column, and has a similar look to many other Kobold Press books. The pages are a light cream color, with a watermark like skull behind the text (which is similar, but different, than the Margreve books). There is a skull and bones red border and red headers throughout the book.
The artwork is attractive and full color. In some places this is artwork that has appeared elsewhere in Kobold Press books, but some of the new options presented in the book, like the Dark Trollkin, Drow, and Mushroomfolk, have new illustrations.
The opening chapter details several organizations that are tied to either the Ghoul Imperium or the Blood Kingdom of Morgau. That means many of the ins and outs of these organizations will be casting them in contrast to the status quo of the ghouls and vampires of the Midgard setting.
The Order of the Ebon Star is an organization of dissidents from the Ghoul Imperium that have embraced Sarastra, the Queen of Night and Magic. For her own reasons, the fey queen is aiding these rebels in their efforts against their former domain, granting the ghouls pledged to her the ability to resist the daylight.
The Red Winter is an organization within the church of Marena, the blood goddess, who believe that vampires shouldn’t be in a position of authority over living priests of Marena, and secretly work to undermine the efforts of the vampires.
Both organizations have notes on how they are structured, how they interact with other organizations, what the goals of the organizations are, and advice on how to play a member of the organization.
I wasn’t expecting new organizations at the start of a player facing book, but I love both of these. There feels like just enough wiggle room to not play either organization as fully evil, and both of them give characters a reason to be close to vampires and ghouls. It might even allow for some double agent action that could be very compelling for campaigns centered around the Imperium or Morgau.
This section introduces player character options for playing Darkhul (ghouls), Dark Trollkin, Derro, Dhampir, Drow, Mushroomfolk, Satarre (kind of like Dragonborn affiliated with Nidhogg, so more nihilistic in tone), and Shade (mostly dead people).
Darakhul have what are effectively subraces for several different Midgard people from whom they may have sprung. Dark Trollkin are presented as a subrace of the main Trollkin races presented in the Midgard Heroes Handbook. Derro, Dhampir, Drow, and Mushroomfolk all have subraces presented for them as well.
Darakhul, Derro, and Dhampir have appeared in other products, but get a revision for this book. The changes to Darakhul lowers the ability bonus gained from being a ghoul, and shifts the +2 bonus as part of the subrace heritage that the character gains. Additionally, the heritage now adds a twisted version of a past racial ability. For example, halflings now inflict bad luck on enemies instead of having good luck themselves, forcing the adversary to reroll 20s against the former halfling.
Derro have been changed to having three subraces, based on how they were affected by being exposed to cosmic forces mortals were not meant to encounter. One subrace is affected mentally, another physically, and the final version are Derro that have managed to avoid any effect from exposure to the wrongness of the multiverse. This also shifts the +1 that the Derro used to have assigned for the base race to a different +1 for each subrace.
The Dhampir in the Midgard Heroes Handbook had a Predatory Charm ability that was specifically magical, and once it was no longer active, characters effected were automatically hostile towards the Dhampir. The new version isn’t noted as expressly magical, and doesn’t leave targets hostile afterward. Additionally, there is an option to play Feral Dhampir, which don’t have Predatory Charm, but have a better bite attack option.
There are some great traits across all of these player options. Dark Trolls have malleable bodies and can make their skin slimy. Drow and Mushroomfolk have subraces that are based on different cultural positions within their communities. Sartarre can cause opponents to start rotting. Shades become more ghostly the more injured they are, or the less they remember their mortal life.
I love the change to the drow origin in the Midgard setting. They are nearly extinct, as the ghouls have ravaged their underground communities. However, instead of being an evil empire of matriarchal demon worshipers, they have always lived underground, and have always placed a high value on studying arthropods in their environment to learn how to contribute to society.
The “evil banished elves” origin is mentioned as a false rumor about the drow, and notes that drow may be related to elves, but aren’t an evil offshoot that was cursed. Their subclasses are split between Delvers (physical labor background), Fever-Bit (survivors of ghoul attacks), and Purified (spellcasters). The “fey that always lived underground” reimagining reminds me of the drow lore in Spire, without the explicit marginalization by high elves.
There are still a few areas I wish were a little less absolute in these entries. There isn’t really much of a discussion about actual mental health issues with the Derro, and being insane is their primary trait. I do like the expanded lore that the Derro feel that something apocalyptic is coming, and they expose their children to something “beyond” to prepare them.
I also appreciate that there are options to lean into physical mutations, or without any traits gained from outsider exposure. There is also an odd reference to the relationship between the Derro and the Drow where Derro are mentioned as long ago serving as the Drow’s slave keepers, but nothing in the Drow entry bears this out, and it almost feels like it might be an artifact of creating a relationship that made sense for “standard” D&D drow.
The Dhampir are noted as being almost unconsciously good at the things that vampires excel at, so their charming ability is just kind of a reflexive thing. Since so much of the entry is talking about how the Dhampir can resist the vampire traits of their undead parent, I wish Predatory Charm had been named almost anything else. It’s a more loaded name for an ability that isn’t nearly as sinister as it sounds. I am glad that the Feral Dhampir is included as an option.
I’m kind of fascinated by the Sartarre, but there is a heavy push towards them being drawn to evil due to their connection to Nidhogg and the end of the world. So much so that most standard Sartarre are born into serving evil cults. Given that some of the Sartarre are mentioned as not being especially drawn to accelerating the end of the world, I almost wish the emphasis had been more on entropy rather than malevolent cults.
Regardless, I like the imagination on display here, and I appreciate that some of the mechanical things done here aren’t likely to be seen in a WOTC book (i.e. creating subraces for all the common races in the game for the Darakhul), but are great for making content for campaigns dealing with specific topics and themes.
The next section adds several subclasses to the standard classes available to characters, including:
- Barbarian (Path of the Ebon Star)
- Bard (College of Echoes)
- Monk (Way of Sated Hunger)
- Paladin (Oath of Consumption, Oath of the Plaguetouched)
- Ranger (Imperial Hunter)
- Rogue (Herald of the Ebon Star, Soulspy)
- Sorcerer (Hungering Origin, Spore Sorcery)
- Wizard (Gravebinding, White Necromancy)
All of these class options tie into the themes of the Empire of the Ghouls adventure in one way or another, whether it’s through a connection to the undead or underground locations. Many of these have restrictions, so that only Darakhul or Dhampir can access them, or Darakhul cannot take a given option. One thing I wasn’t thrilled with is that the White Necromancer is mentioned as being “non-evil,” and that’s a restriction 5e has removed from class-related mechanics.
The Path of the Ebon Star is touched by The Queen of Night and Magic, which grants them the ability to blind opponents with their strikes, gives them resistance to necrotic energy and adds force damage to their attacks, makes them immune to disease, and lets them charge undead enemies.
The College of Echoes can use abilities like echolocation, enhancing, dampening, and distorting sounds, and adding thunder damage to ally’s attacks. They also gain the ability to disrupt enemy spellcasters by altering sound to force them to make a concentration check to successfully cast their spell. This doesn’t mention using a reaction, just a use of bardic inspiration, so in theory, they could disrupt multiple spellcasters in the same round.
The Way of Sated Hunger is a monk tradition that allows you to add necrotic damage to unarmed bite attacks in exchange for ki, can heal others with ki as well as remove their hunger, and at 17th levels grants them the ability to incapacitate opponents for a round by inflicting hunger on them. I really like the . . . um . . . flavor of basing this monastic tradition on Darakhul and Dhampir that have mastered and harnessed their hunger, and I like how the story of this subclass can play into a heroic portrayal of those people.
The Oath of Consumption feels like it would be a hard sell for unproblematic play, as their tenets are Devour, Debase, Demoralize, and Despoil. You may have a really intense person on your side, but some of those tenets are leaning heavily into “but my character” facilitation. On the flip side, the Oath of the Plaguetouched is all about someone surviving darakhul fever and being driven to mitigate the harm caused by the undead. They gain a channel divinity that effectively “marks” undead, making you the most optimal target, and you radiate resistance to necrotic damage. You also get really good at curing disease with your lay on hands, and at 20th level you can shed sunlight for a minute, adding advantage and extra damage to your attacks against undead.
Imperial Hunter rangers are, by default, scouts for the Imperium, but can be deserters or rangers that happened to learn similar skills. They gain bonus spells based on the general undead theme, and can have an undead animal companion. At 7th level, your companion can attack as a reaction and do extra necrotic damage, and can share regained hit points and eventually share damage from non-radiant attacks.
The Herald of the Ebon Star rogue can summon a special weapon from the Queen of Night and Magic, can turn invisible in dim light as a reaction once per rest, can save against critical hits at higher levels, and eventually can add force damage against undead when sneak attacking. The soulspy is a divine spellcasting progression rogue that also gains a holy symbol that can morph to a multi-tool of sorts. They also gain a ranged “touch” ability to target others at 13th level, and can channel healing into an ally when you harm something with your spells once per rest at 17th level.
The Hungering sorcerous origin gives you the ability to know how injured others are, gain hit points when you drop opponents to 0 hit points, regain sorcery points when dropping opponents, regain sorcery points for intentionally failing saves against hostile spells, and reduce the cost in sorcery points for metamagic or spell slots. Spore sorcerers can pick up some druidic spells, use spores to communicate telepathically, modify metamagic with released spores, release spores that hinder enemies and add temporary hit points to allies, and finally as a capstone, assume spore form.
In addition to the sorcerous origins, there are five new metamagic options. These allow characters to do things like gaining hit points for dropping someone to 0 hit points with spells, bypass immunities, or cast a concentration spell without requiring concentration. I imagine that one might be popular (it will cost you 3 sorcery points and changes concentration duration to 10 minutes, and you can’t have more than one spell modified this way at a time).
Gravebinding wizards lose the ability to animate, conjure, or create any undead, but can inscribe runes on corpses to keep them from rising as undead. They gain special spells geared towards fighting undead automatically in their spellbooks, and can ward their allies to impose disadvantage on undead opponents. At higher level, they gain bonus radiant damage to spells against the undead, and eventually can generate a radiant nimbus that can frighten undead and cause damage to undead attacking you once per long rest. White necromancers get spare the dying, and have a limited ability to heal. When they animate or summon the undead, they actually bargain with them to perform tasks, which then allows them to move on to their final rest. Eventually you emit a field around you at high level that grants advantage to effects that reduce hit point maximums.
Whew, that’s a lot going on in the classes chapter. Much like the races chapter, this allows for some very custom-tailored class options for the campaign at hand, for example with the Ebon Star related classes. I appreciate the thematic strength of all of the classes, and there are several that I couldn’t help thinking “I want to play one of these.”
There are some specific little touches that I love. I want to be a wizard drawing a little rune on a fallen ally to keep them from coming back from the dead. I want to be a monk that has transcended the need to eat flesh or drink blood, so I can focus on being a heroic character. One thing that I wish were easier to address is that many subclass options hit at 2nd or 3rd level, so a character may need to have their “story” in mind before they pick up the subclass that supports that story, and I would hate for some of these stories to not be affecting the character until they took their subclass.
Really not sure I can wrap my head around a non-party disruptive Oath of Consumption character. I’m also interested to see how a bard spending bardic inspiration to counter spells will feel in a campaign, and I’m curious to see what making a metamagic ability to ignore concentration will do as far as other sorcerous options.
Backgrounds and Trinkets
The backgrounds presented in this section include Ghoul Imperium Deserters, Red Winter Adherents, and Diwali Embalmers. I like the features of these backgrounds. Deserters have alternate identities set up, Adherents can call on help in Morgau from their coconspirators, and Embalmers are really good at researching burial locations and making history checks about people whose gravesites they have visited. These remind me that I wish people would remember and play into their background features more.
There are a few options under the traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws that make me a little concerned. For example, the deserter has a “revenge against my spouse for taking my kids” motivation that makes me really uncomfortable, and the Adherent has an “I like the seduction part of Marena’s portfolio a little too much” that is just open-ended enough to make me worry about how that plays out.
Speaking of things I wish people (including me) remembered, I love the Underworld Trinkets table. There are so many creepy, gross, or just subtly haunting items on this chart. Also, in-world political commentary items. I now want to think of other items that might be made from hardened gelatinous cube. I am also upset with myself for not making or looking for a custom trinket table for my last two campaigns.
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that most of the spells included have themes of necromancy, blood magic, or warding against the same. For what it’s worth, not all blood magic is sinister, although even the more utilitarian spells are still creepy.
There are blood magic spells that allow you to physically control a target whose blood you have, inflict extra damage on them by injuring them through their blood, and cutting them with magic to make them bleed. There is also a divination spell that lets you learn about a target whose blood you have secured.
Some of the necromancy spells mimic undead abilities, like a necromantic wail or the paralyzing claws of a ghoul. Others allow the caster to tuck their consciousness into a dead body and animate it, or to summon specifically spectral undead.
In some cases, the spells allow you to bolster a linked ally, letting you split regained hit points or stabilize one another through the link. There is also a spell that protects against any ability drain or maximum hit point loss.
has an interesting “At High Levels” effect. It’s an 8th level spell with a duration of Concentration, but when cast at 9th level, the spell duration changes to 10 minutes and is no longer a concentration spell. I don’t remember seeing that “upcast” effect before. In this case, 8th to 9th level isn’t too dramatic, but I wouldn’t want to see that on too many lower-level concentration spells. That said, I actually would like it amended to some things like Hunter’s Mark or Stoneskin.
Before we look at what beasts are included, I just want to point out that I really want to see more beasts. I think there should be a lot more beasts that are just animals we don’t have in the real world, but still in that niche. I think more beasts should have flashy recharge abilities or special abilities that reflect how actual animals hunt, to make them more interesting.
Many of the creatures we get here exist to provide more familiar or animal companion options. We get the bilby, cave goat, fennec fox, ghoul bat (the only non-beast here), giant armadillo, lantern beetle, and sniffer beetle.
Ghoul bats are often used as messengers by the Imperium, and lantern beetles and sniffer beetles are also used by the ghouls as light sources and to use as guides or to search for contraband, respectively. I’m not sure why the giant armadillo was included (in this case, that makes them small), but I love them and you can’t take them away from me ever again. They get a special ability to tuck into a ball and gain resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing attacks. But you shouldn’t attack them, because they are precious.
I may have wanted a few more “niche filling” creatures for an underworld game, but there are also lots of options in the enormous monster books published by Kobold Press, so I’m not going to complain too much. I’m also making a drow ranger with a giant armadillo companion because I need to do it, and you can’t stop me.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
There are some wonderfully imaginative options in this book, and while they are tailored to an underground/undead themed campaign, that’s not as restrictive as some other themes might be. I love the support for the organizations introduced, and I love the various subclasses that help reinforce a heroic narrative for some of the people with grimmer reputations.
There is a strong element of customization with the subraces, and allowing for a less narrow narrative of some of the people presented because of those subraces. I like that many of them seem to exist less because of divergent branches and more along the lines of societal backgrounds within the same society. I love what was done with the drow, and if a background like this, that completely removes the intrinsic evil/curse elements while still adding a strong underground/insectile narrative could be worked into the core assumptions of drow, I would love it.
I wish there were more discussion about safety in general, and specific topics like mental health and avoiding stigmatization with the derro, as an example. While the sidebar on Derro is more open-minded, the core discussion of the race still hews a little too close to mental illness = evil. I understand thematic naming conventions, but the implications of the Dhampir’s abilities tell a story that a player may not be fond of implying, and as an aside, why is the human parent for the Dhampir implied to be female?
There is a lot of good, solid, imaginative material that still occasionally falls back into well-trodden tropes that may cause more harm than good.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
There are a lot of reasons to recommend this. It’s a great resource if you are already into the Midgard setting. It’s still a great resource if you want to run an underground/underdark/undead themed campaign. It’s an even better resource if you want to see how you can reimagine a race like the drow and remove the harmful tropes attached to it, while still keeping some of the aspects that have been associated with them in the past.
There are imaginative subclasses and trinkets, and reading this just reinforces that I want to use these elements in a game. But the most compelling thing I can say is, it has a giant armadillo in it.