What Do I Know About Reviews? Forbidden Knowledge (5e OGL)
Hot on the heels of the review that I posted for Schwalb Entertainment’s first Max Press release, The Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch, their second release has already come out. In contrast to the first release, which was a collection of darker themed spells, some of which translated aspects of the magic system from Shadow of the Demon Lord, Forbidden Knowledge introduces new wizard subclasses to Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition (or the 5th edition of the world’s most popular RPG, if you will).
Remaining on brand, the subclasses in this supplement are darker and play with some creepier and more overly sinister themes. While some of the spells in the previous supplement had some disturbing aspects to them, for whatever reason I feel like it’s almost more important to provide a content warning for this product:
Forbidden Knowledge contains elements of body horror, loss of free will, mental illness, slavery, self-harm, and suicide. If any of those topics go beyond what you want to see in the game, you may want to skip this product, and if even a passing discussion of those topics related to game elements and mechanics would bother you, you may want to skip this review.
The Container of Forbidden Knowledge
Forbidden Knowledge is a 14-page PDF supplement, with one page dedicated to a Shadow of the Demon Lord ad, and another to the OGL statement for the product. The remaining twelve pages have parchment backgrounds, illustrated borders, tables, headers, and ornamented side bars.
The artwork is high quality, and compared to the last Max Press release, fewer mutilated and scarred characters depicted, just some ominous symbols, lighting, imps, and quasits, and some gorgeous colors.
The product spends a little bit of time explaining that the subclasses contained in this product are sometimes collectively called the Dark Arts, and that they are branches of wizard tradition that are often suppressed in polite society. In some cases, they take more widely available traditions, such as conjuration or enchantment, and push them towards more specialized and sinister directions.
The traditions included in this product include the following:
- Mind Bondage
Alienism is all about studying what lies beyond the traditional structure of the world’s cosmology, and, as you might expect, delves into cosmic horror themes. You pick up an indefinite madness from the DMG early on, and by 6th level, you can start giving yourself bonuses to attack rolls, ability checks, and saves by taking on a short-term madness. You automatically gain one of the new spells from this supplement at 10th level, and at 14th level, you can add 1d12/level of spell slot used in psychic damage to any spell of 1-5th level that you cast.
If you do this more than once before a long rest, you must make a Wisdom save or pick up a long-term madness. I saved my favorite part of the class for last—right off the bat when you take this subclass, you grow a sentient tumor with a face, and instead of a spellbook, you feed it pages to teach it spells that you can prepare.
I love the flavor of this class, and I’m not sure what is says about me that a lot of that is due to the sentient tumor spellbook. Trading class abilities for picking up insanity effects is an interesting alternate mechanic, but at lower level, the picking up lots of short-term madnesses seem like they can cause a lot of trouble, and there is a limit to the amount of time you can do it. While I tend to look at 14th level plus abilities as things that can get crazy, 5d12 psychic damage in exchange for a save that you might get lucky and make multiple times feels a little overly powerful.
Demonology essentially gives you the ability to summon a quasit familiar without jumping through any special hoops, and for each demon’s name you learn, you can summon it once every 1d10 days to make a bargain with it to get it to do you a favor. Wrack the spirit lets you lock down a celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead with pain for a while. Master of Demons gives you more demonic names and some better leverage for negotiating with more powerful demons.
Overall, demonology doesn’t send up any red flags (that sentence just sent waves of concern rippling backward towards the 1980s). I really like the idea that your truename summoned demon still requires negotiation, instead of just acting as an automatic feature.
Mind Bondage is one of the traditions where I started feeling a little uncomfortable. There aren’t a lot of uncomfortable details about the application of the powers extended by the tradition, but the last paragraph that describes the degree of control the wizard has over victims had a lot of uncomfortable implications, without going into detail.
The powers granted by the tradition include inflicting psychic damage on a victim that makes its save to break a charmed effect, extended effects of charmed effects on the wizard’s victims, the ability to establish a psychic link to a charmed creature over a distance as well as upgrading that charm to a compulsion, and the ability to burn out the memories of being charmed from a target at the end of a spell, as well as dealing psychic damage.
The mechanical effects of all the above work great for a nastier sort of enchanter, I just could really have done without that last paragraph of description of how thoroughly an abusive wizard can control their victim.
Wizards that pick up occultism as their tradition gain the ability to add 1d8 necrotic damage to their spells for a set number of times per long rest. You get a reserve of points you can spend to add a d4 to various rolls based on recalling obscure information you researched. At 6th level, you learn an occult secret that can grant you proficiency in an ability save that you don’t already have, and grants you extra languages, hit points, better senses, etc., based on the secret that you pick. At 10th level your occult recall die gets bumped up and you can contact other plane with some benefits. At 14th level, you can pick a celestial, fiend, or undead and spend your occult recall die to make that creature friendly if they fail their save.
I’m a little concerned to see the extra necrotic damage in play, although the rest of the abilities seem interesting. I think the biggest problem I have with this class is that it doesn’t seem all that sinister, other than flavoring the bonus damage as necrotic. The theme is “this wizard learns the secrets of the universe so that can bend the rules!” But that’s kind of what wizards do. This subclass just leans into it a little more explicitly.
Shadowmancy is all about studying the Plane of Shadow and infusing its magic into spells. At low levels, wizards that have shadowmancy as their discipline can gather shadows to give themselves heavy obscurement, and they can see in the dark. At 6th level, they can use shadows to teleport short distances, and at 10th level, they can summon up to three shadow monster pets before a long rest. The 14th level ability of the subclass allows you to expend a spellslot to cast any wizard spell up to half the level of the spell slot expended.
First, let me take a deep breath and remember that I should not let my reflexive dislike of anything shadow magic related after dealing with 3rd edition Forgotten Realms lore color my analysis of this subclass. Okay, that aside—I really like this one. I can understand how it would have a negative reputation but is still usable by “uncorrupted” spellcasters. The class features all play into the theme well. The only issue I think it may have is the ability to cast “any” wizard spell, as the DM and player may really want to work out what sources the player is going to be rummaging through on the fly to come up with these spells.
Summoners pick up the ability to choose three creatures that they can summon on a regular basis, and can summon them each, once per long rest. Summoned creatures get a bonus to initiative, and your summoned creatures, if they are within 30 feet of you, can aid in your defense if you are 6th level or higher. At 10th level, if you lose concentration on your summoned creature, it goes hostile, but doesn’t go away, and you can attempt to reestablish control later. At 14th level, you add a bonus to your summoned creature’s damage rolls and grant them temporary hit points.
None of these abilities get as crazy as, say, allowing a class to have a ton of summoned creatures active at once, or to have a point-based companion with its own set of crazy abilities. I really like the flavor of losing control and being able to reassert it later. I’m not sure I quite get why your summons can help you from 30 feet away with your defenses, but It’s not a deal breaker.
The weirdest thing about this whole class, and the thing that flavors it as sinister, is that they spend a lot of time in the description talking about how difficult life is for the bonded, summoned creature, and how they may be driven to take their own lives rather than being constantly summoned and controlled by the summoner. If you wonder at how this description of being a bonded, summoned servant interacts with the list of creatures available, commoner is one of the listed options.
Witchcraft is like two traditions in one. Wizards that follow the tradition of witchcraft practice an ancient arcane tradition that leans heavily on nature and a few set ways of performing magic. A character that picks this tradition chooses to go with either Black Magic or White Magic, and either way, they construct a special spellbook called a Book of Shadows.
Black magic practitioners add bane and inflict wounds to their spellbook, and gain the ability to hex opponents as a bonus action. This hex ability gets upgraded at 6th level, granting the witch a “kicker” ability they can inflict when they first hex a target. At 14th level, practitioners of black magic can turn into smoke as a reaction once per short or long rest.
White magic practitioners add bless and cure wounds to their spellbooks, can use the help action at a range of 10 feet as a reaction, and at 6th level, they can countercharm to end the charmed or frightened condition. At 14th level, they can make a Sign Against Evil, and either use this ability to dispel magic, or to turn an aberration, fiend, undead, or possessed creature, once per short or long rest.
Both branches of the tradition learn how to take an animal shape at 10th level.
I think this may be my favorite tradition out of this entire product. I really want to play a witch in a game at some point. I enjoy the D&D spin of witches being a more nature based arcane tradition, and while I like the idea that, in general, arcane spellcasters don’t heal, I like that you can use this subclass to expand the exception to that rule past bards and into a logical additional wizard subclass. Also, it’s worth noting that black and white magic may have certain connotations, there are no alignment restrictions on the black or white choice for the tradition.
New Wizard Spells
There are two new spells added to the wizard spell list in this product, summon monster (1st), and summon alien (5th). Summon monster has a set list of what shows up when the spell is cast, and clearly states that it is up to the GM, based on the spell slot used. Summon alien summons a creature whose stat-block is detailed after the spell description.
The most number of creatures you can summon with Summon Alien is three, while some options for Summon Monster allow for up to eight creatures (but with options at that same level of spell slot used for one, two, or four creatures). Given that the GM gets final say on this one, you have only yourself to blame if you suddenly have eight giant centipedes running around performing multiple tasks.
Like the shadow monsters detailed in the Shadowmancy section, aliens are more of a “general” monster. They don’t have a set appearance, other than stating that it’s appearance can cause fear, and they have an ability to shriek and cause psychic damage.
Overall, these spells retain the more controlled concept of summoning that 5th edition D&D has espoused, even if they do widen the available summoning options in the game.
Ancient Lore Reclaimed
Several of these traditions do a wonderful job of introducing mechanics that reinforce the theme of the subclass. The classes dealing with summoning still do so within the bounds of how summoning has been established in the game. Shadowmancy plays with the concept of drawing in power from the shadows to shift location, obscure, and create more flexibility. The flavor of the witch and the alienist make me want to beg someone to let me in their game and to use this supplement for the campaign. None of the traditions feel like the “break” how arcane magic works in 5th edition D&D lore, from a logic standpoint.
Ancient Lore Amuck
I’m a little concerned about the damage kicker abilities that some of the classes have, especially with how they scale with the level of the spell slot used. Even with the limit per day imposed on them, potentially doubling (or more) the potency of a spell could radically shift how an encounter plays out. I’m not entirely sure I have a good feel for the occultist tradition.
I also have a very strange reaction to tone in the tradition descriptions. I’d be more inclined to allow player characters to run with alienists or demonologists rather than mind bondage practitioners or summoners, just based on how the subclass is described. No, I wouldn’t game with someone I didn’t trust at the table, but I’m not sure I can fully divorce those subclasses from the creepier implications set forth in their descriptions.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
There is some great, evocative design work at play in this product, and it’s worth looking at just to see how some of the traditions are formulated. Some of the traditions represent some classic fantasy tropes, realized in a mechanically sound and satisfying way for 5th edition D&D.
That said, depending on how you feel about class features that add a lot of damage variability into combat, and depending on how comfortable you are with some of the implications of the class descriptions, you may want to consider if you are willing to pick and choose content before picking this product up and adding it to your game.
It’s also not so much a shortcoming of this product, but I would really love NPC stat blocks that created simplified NPC versions of spellcasters of each of these traditions as a future product, so I don’t need to fully stat out my potential future villains with PC level details.