Before we begin, I want to provide some context. A few months ago, I had this review ready to go, but I became concerned over some of the artwork and the representation in this product. I decided not to do the review, and I even wrote a pretty heartfelt piece that I never published anywhere. I contacted Jetpack 7 to talk to them about it.
I wasn’t wrong in that the book could fewer women showing more skin, and a better range of people in the artwork. But instead of just noting that as part of the review, it struck me hard that I wanted to FIX the issue immediately. It was pointed out to me that one of the limitations of the book is that what went into the book was partially dictated by the Kickstarter backers. In addition to this, two things helped me to put things in perspective.
- My review of the Isle of Dread Reincarnated highlighted what actual regressive issues look like
- The number of bad actors and abusers in the industry that have been publicly addressed recently helped to put some of these issues in perspective
That’s not to say the examples in this book aren’t noteworthy. It’s more a matter that they aren’t egregious. They could be better, but they aren’t the height of exploitative RPG artwork that we had in the 80s and 90s, and even in situations where characters have any kind of revealing appearance, the context and composition of the image is often far better than “the good old days.”
Mastering the Dimensions
Masters and Minions is a 100-page supplement. This review is based on both the PDF and the physical copy of the book. The book is filled with glossy pages of full-color art. Stunning full-color artwork. There are two pages of Kickstarter backers to start the book, and a one-page index at the end.
Many of the villains have full-page illustrations, while some have a two-page spread. There are various sidebars to call out special items and rules, and bolded headers for all the main villains in the book. One odd bit of formatting is that all the sections after the chapter on major villains have a band at the bottom of the page to denote sections, so if you aren’t looking at the bottom of the page, you may be surprised when you wander from one chapter to another.
It is also worth noting that the art for Patious, The Dryad is portrayed in an exaggerated, sexualized way that regular 5th edition art has avoided to this point. Grael’s mechanical form, while artificial, is a stylized form that suggests minimal clothing. Grissek’k wears a bare midriff outfit that highlights her abs, and while she still looks intimidating, it’s also a form of battle gear none of the male characters (except, perhaps the goblin kennel master) share. While there are far more exploitative works of RPG or fantasy artwork in the world, Patious, in particular, feels like a throwback to less sensitive artwork.
The first section of the book presents various master villains that can be plugged into campaigns at various levels, as well as the statistics for various monsters and NPCs that serve that master. The primary villains presented in this section are:
- Patious, The Dryad (CR 1)
- Thalin, The Forest Master (CR 2)
- The Child (CR 2)
- Yumog, The Cave Master (CR 6)
- Ettiene, The Ringleader (CR 5)
- Ishmael, the Slaver (CR 5)
- Grael, The Tinkerer (CR 7)
- The Created (CR 7)
- Grissek’k, The Orc Queen (CR 9)
- Mauugh, the Troll (CR 7)
- Lord Sebastian (CR 14)
- Balleg, the Ravaged Wyrm (CR 17)
- Kynikk, the Debauched (CR 20)
- Colossus of Charnax (CR 30)
- Nezzeroth, the Undying (CR 20)
Most of these villains have specific monsters or NPCs that are designed to go with the theme of the villain. For example, Patious has plant servitors that grow in the corpses of her victims. Lord Sebastian has specialized vampiric undead loyal to him. The Colossus of Charnax has animated fragments of itself. Thalin has the animated aspects of his own personality to keep him company.
Each one of the masters presented in this section has a basic scenario spelling out what the villain wants, how their plans might progress, and how the players might get entangled in their plans. Some of these scenarios, especially the lower CR villains, are events that could play out in a session or two of play. The Colossus of Charnax is part of the lore of a lost city that might take several levels of play to track down. The raids from Lord Sebastian’s forces could be a long-term framing device for a campaign.
One of my favorite villains, from a thematic standpoint is Nezzeroth, who is a classic villain that doesn’t even realize they are a villain, as their actions have potentially disastrous ramifications for the way reality functions in the game world.
In addition to having customized minions, several of the villains presented in this chapter have specific mechanics that reinforce the “theme” of that villain. As an example, Ishmael has a special attack that allows him to potentially lock an opponent in chains as one of his actions. Grael can rebuild minions from available scrap. One of my favorite villain mechanics is Lord Sebastian’s Blood Pool, an ability that lets him actively spend a resource to do “super vampire moves.” Additionally, several of the villains in this chapter have unique lairs, that either have their own mechanics, or have special effects that trigger on the villains Lair Action entry.
While it is probably not surprising, this section covers more than 50 pages of the 100-page supplement, and it’s the strongest section of the book. Many of the villains can easily be used in a variety of D&D settings, and the descriptions provide enough information to throw together a night’s adventure with very little work.
If I have any real complaints about this section, it’s that I wish a few more of the higher CR villains had sections on seeding information about the villain earlier in a campaign. As they stand, it is easy to see how the higher CR villains can dominate what PCs are confronting at a particular tier of play, but I would love to have more discussion on how to start casting the villains shadow all the way at level one, for a slow burn.
Open Game Content
The next section of the book is simply called Open Game Content. It’s about five pages of NPC statistics, covering the following characters:
- Kyrtelmuk the Intelligent (with Mindless Goblins) (CR 5)
- Jesset Woebringer (with Cultists of the Lady) (CR 5)
- Ardi’Tik’Chok (CR 10)
- Isidora, the Night Hag (CR 8)
This section contains “mini masters,” for lack of a better term, contributed by Kickstarter backers. Each section has a description, tactics, and a summary, but because these are shorter entries, there isn’t art (except for Isidora and her labyrinth), and while several of the creatures have recharge abilities, there are the unique mechanics found in some of the more memorable villains from the previous section.
The next section takes up about 16 pages and covers various creatures that are likely to be minions of more powerful monsters or NPCs in a campaign. The entries generally follow the format as follows:
Creatures the monster is likely to serve
Additionally, some entries include a “non-combat resolution” entry as well.
I like the concept of this section. I really enjoy reading how monsters behave in the context of working for a more powerful character. Unfortunately, some of the tactics stop short of giving specific details, which might have been more useful, especially for DMs that haven’t used the creature in this capacity before.
As an example, one of the tactics mentioned for duergar is to “leverage their . . . advantage on saves vs poison.” This might have been a great opportunity to introduce a poison that characters with advantage are immune to, but still affects those without advantage normally—while the Duergar and potentially any party dwarves won’t be in any danger, numerically, that weak poison might slow down a few PC party members while not posing any danger to the duergar.
An interesting aspect of this chapter is that tactics are included for some non-OGL creatures, by coming up with alternative names for those creatures. For example, the q’kogoth are furry, clawed creatures that serve the drow in the underdark, and kooatalla are underdark dwelling fish people.
The next six pages of the book are filled with new monsters. Those monsters include the following:
- Unfettered Familiar (CR 7)
- Living Golem (CR 5)
- Alkonost (CR 1)
- Hag Spawn (CR 2)
- Devil Binder (CR 13)
- Goblin Kennel Master (CR 3)
It’s a short monster section, but I really like how many of these monsters interact with existing monsters or fill useful niches in the game. The unfettered familiar is a nasty “feral” familiar that has outlived its master. The devil binder is a spellcaster NPC summoner, and I love thematic “caster” NPCs like this whenever they appear in 5th edition product. Not only do they have spells, but they can summon a devil and enhance it with their special actions. The goblin kennel master is a tough goblin that makes those worgs that hang out with goblins even more dangerous.
I enjoy the possibilities of the hag spawn as monsters, but it is worth noting that it plays with the trope of child endangerment, which may not sit well with all players, and you may want to make sure you drop clues that you can save these children, because if your PCs find out after they have . . . dealt with them in other ways, they may be very upset that they could have saved them.
This section presents three more NPCs. One of them is an unlikely master assassin, another is an unreliable hireling, and the final one is a retired adventure that is a font of useful information about his adventuring days and potentially serves as a contact between PCs and various important organizations.
Jaella, the unlikely assassin with a retinue of orphans, is my favorite of this group. I wish she had been fleshed out as a full “master” in a previous chapter, because I think she would have made a great morally ambiguous antagonist.
A single page at the end of the book introduces the Canister of the Captive Mind, the Doppelganger’s Cowl, and the Lash of the Master. While all these items would be dangerous in the hands of a villainous character, none of them are especially evil on their own. The canister casts dominate person and allows long-range communication, the cloak is a handy disguise tool, and the whip can turn enemies against one another for a single attack.
All of them see like useful magic items, but I wish they had been tied more directly to other aspects of the book.
I Love It When A Plan Comes Together
The art in this book is gorgeous. The two-page spread of Lord Sebastian is 100% pure gothic vampire glory, with the vampire lord standing in the mists with his soldiers and a pack of wolves. Just about all the main villains in the book manage to straddle the line between having an interesting backstory and still being vague enough to fit into multiple game settings. I love the special attacks and sub-systems that several of the villains use. It makes them actively fun to utilize in game and sets them apart from similar “generic” NPCs or monsters that already exist in other books.
There are also several good “support” monsters and NPCs presented, that are useful even beyond serving the specific villains in this book.
Curses, Foiled Again
While it’s not bad content, the Open Game Content, NPCs, and Magic Items section feels a little unfocused given the rest of the book. The Minion Tactics section was a great idea, but it feels like it needs a few more specific examples to reach its full potential. I would have been happier without some of the NPCs and the magic items if I could have gotten a few more long-term campaign ideas and a fully formed version of Jaella as a villain. While the art is gorgeous, there are a few female characters that play on older tropes in fantasy art that may not be as forward thinking as they could have been. There also could have been a better representation of people included in the book.
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 are some great adventure ideas in this book, and a lot of amazing artwork. The concept of a “monster manual” for villains is a good idea, especially with suggested adventure or story arcs included, but a little more detail added to long term villain arcs might have given them even wider appeal. If you are playing a long-term D&D campaign, and you like playing with custom subsystems, this should be a solid purchase for you, but if you favor fully fleshed out adventures or more straightforward D&D content, there may be less for you to sink your teeth into.