What Do I Know About Reviews? Fantastic Lairs (5e OGL)
Ready to creep into the deepest chamber of the dungeon, where the most dangerous of all denizens is lurking, plotting and sending out their tendrils to degrade the world around it? Have a good idea how to design that deepest chamber? That’s what Fantastic Lairs is attempting to solve for D&D 5e game masters.
Fantastic Lairs is a product that provides capstone “boss” encounters. There are lairs that range from 1st to 20th level in scope. These provide not only notable villains, but also their environs and minions. Now that we’ve established that, let’s check our light sources and head in.
The review copies I received included maps that can be used for VTTs, the main product PDF, as well as a supplementary PDF that has the statistics for all of the creatures that appear in the product. The main product is 147 pages long, including a title page, table of contents, a team detail page, play testers, and a one-page Open Game License page.
This book looks great. It has the “faux parchment” backgrounds standard to many fantasy RPG products. The pages have big reddish-brown headers, call out boxes, and many bullet points calling out specific details within an encounter. The artwork is full color and specific to this product, with many half or third page images, including maps of the various lairs.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the Fantastic Adventures products have some of the best D&D pre-gens I have ever seen, as well as a great “generic” tool for providing background information. This continues the trend of providing strong support material.
One of the best things about D&D 5e is that even the official products have been very quick to point out where reskinning stat blocks is appropriate. This is a good thing to teach DMs. It’s great to have a customized stat block, but sometimes you don’t need to invest the work in recreating the wheel.
That said, reskinning tweaks can get messy if there are too many changes to the base creature. While the individual lairs make use of 5e’s “reskin friendly” method, it also provides a document that makes the changes laid out in the text, for quick reference.
The Expectations that Lurk in my Brain
I wanted to briefly touch on what I was thinking this project would be, versus what it is. Lairs, as a product, have existed for a long time in D&D. In general, lairs are usually short dungeons focused on a particular type of monster that can be dropped into an existing campaign without much work.
When I read “boss monsters” I was picturing something more like a cross between a rogues gallery and a monster manual for primary villains. For example, non-Legendary monsters made into legendary monsters, unique named villains that have customized legendary actions and lair actions. You will find some of that in here, but primarily, this is a lairs product in the traditional sense of the word.
Please don’t take any of that as a criticism. I post this just to frame the disconnect between what I was thinking about when focusing on “boss monsters,” versus what this product is providing. Also, I kind of wanted to slide that in there because I would love to see a Rogues Gallery/Boss Bestiary with the things I mentioned above.
There are 23 different lairs presented in this product, as well as an essay at the end of the book describing best practices for designing lairs and boss battles. In addition to the lairs, there are various side bars from the three project leads, Mike Shea, James Introcaso, and Scott Fitzgerald Gray.
I love sidebars that directly address the GM in products like this. I think there is a weird holdover from the earliest days of D&D where adventures are presented “as is” without breaking “narrator’s voice” to address that this is a product that is designed to be used at a table. Directly explaining what an encounter is trying to convey can make things easier for everyone playing the game.
There is also a standardized structure to how each lair is introduced. The following topics are always addressed in the adventure:
- Integrating this Lair
- Approaching the Lair
- Lair Features
- Lair Areas
- Encounter Difficulty
- Expanding this Lair
These lairs can be hard framed as short adventures but provide some suggestions for tacking them on to existing campaigns, providing some hooks to get adventurers to explore the lair, and provide long term hooks that might allow the themes of the lair to be revisited in an ongoing campaign.
The following lairs are presented in this book:
- Caves of the Cockatrice (1st Level)
- Temple of the Centipede Cult (2nd Level)
- The Lair of Lord Whiskers (3rd Level)
- Last Call at Nevermind (3rd Level)
- Nature’s Rage (4th Level)
- Ashhnarl’s Secrets (5th Level)
- Sticky Toffee (5th Level)
- Bumpy Ride (6th Level)
- The Lamia Job (6th Level)
- Ithrix Blackbile (7th Level)
- Those Who Are About to Die (7th Level)
- Zengran’s Game (7th Level)
- The Blood Palace (8th Level)
- Curse of Black Ice (8th Level)
- Korrington Academy (9th Level)
- The Remembered God (10th Level)
- Dragon Mummy’s Rage (12th Level)
- Valentyne’s Legacy (14th Level)
- The World Eater (14th Level)
- The Forge of Sizzle Death (16th Level)
- Blade Queen’s Throne (17th Level)
- Hell’s Heart (20th Level)
- Put the Monster Back (20th Level)
Many of these work very easily as short adventures without much work. The boss of the given lair has an active plan, and as soon as that plan is discovered, and the lair is identified, the adventure writes itself. In a few cases, even with the adventure hooks, it’s a little harder to connect the lair to the PCs in the campaign, as the boss is a bit more of a slow burn when it comes to their overall threat level.
Caves of the Cockatrice works great as a 1st level adventure all on its own. In many cases, like Nature’s Rage or Ashnarl’s Secret, the villain is actively doing something that is going to garner attention. Other adventures, like Sticky Toffee, just involve finding out that someone is advancing a plan that does something, which then needs to be resolved.
There are a lot of memorable lairs in this product that are very evocative. Running into a frost giant werewolf that turns into a winter wolf makes an impression. A cloud giant vampire that rains necrotic blood down from their floating fortress is going to make an impression. So will extra planar pylons siphoning the life force from a planet, or a literal Mecha-Tarrasque. There is some truly great imagery being thrown around in this book.
Where there are mechanics to adjudicate the special circumstances of a lair, these mechanics are presented in a very clear manner. The bullet points help. I’m a fan of bullet points.
The stakes vary widely in these lairs. For example, finding a word left over from creation that can change reality, the potential for someone to gain control of the tarrasque, stopping undead spawning rain, or destroying magical life stealing artifacts all communicate their stakes very clearly.
In other cases, monsters testing the PCs to see if they are worthy of future jobs, or monsters that have taken over an existing business, may not generate as much natural momentum for the PCs to desire their resolutions. That doesn’t mean they don’t work, but they are less likely to be something you can drop in as a short adventure and require more connective tissue to the campaign.
Fully Armed and Operational Imagination
I can say that through most of my read through, I was thinking of the types of campaign and campaign settings where I would insert these lairs. For example, both Curse of Black Ice and Valentyne’s Legacy are encounters I would love to work into Storm King’s Thunder. In fact, instead of a random rain of boulders, I would love to work Delekan’s fortress into the opening act of the adventure.
The Blood Palace feels like a location that could be dropped into Tomb of Annihilation, and I can picture expanding Bumpy Ride into a plot where a wizard is attempting to create an association of arcanists in Eberron, bombing unaffiliated wizards and House holdings alike.
Return to the Sunlight
The text is so clear and well presented in this product. The supplementary stat blocks are great from a functionality standpoint. So many of these adventures function as short adventures without much work, and there is a lot of very strong, imaginative imagery at play in the adventures. I also like that in several of the adventures, “minions” aren’t framed as being wholly on the villain’s side, offering some prime roleplaying opportunities.
There were a few lairs that feel a little less plug and play, and a few villains whose motivation aren’t strong enough to make them feel like an active threat. For example, playing multiple games before running into a Rakshasa that may or may not be evil feels like more of a preamble to a good Rakshasa story instead of the culmination.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase
If you play D&D 5e, this is a very useful toolkit, both for providing short adventures, and jogging your imagination for the inclusion of some memorable villains. Because of the very evocative imagery and the massive stakes of some of the villainous plans, even people playing other fantasy games may get some value from the overall structure and plots, if not the exact mechanics.