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Pre-Release Review of Amethyst: Foundations by Dias Ex Machina (Part 2)

If technology worked, the science behind it also had to.  Science declared magic as myth.  You can’t throw fire from your hands.  You can’t fly without proper wings.  You can’t be succumbed by the temptations of an elvish princess.  “There’s nothing out there,” his brother said.  He lied. There were dragons.”  ~ Amethyst: Foundations

On Monday of this week, I began my Two Part pre-release review of Dias Ex Machina’s Amethyst: Foundations.  This ground-breaking new setting and rules system is being distributed by Goodman Games and is due to hit store shelves in the next couple weeks.  Amethyst is a modern setting, with some post-apocalyptic elements, in which high tech cities and fantasy kingdoms rub elbows (and sometimes downright head-butt each other) on a world teeming with threats from creatures of dark magic.
Amethyst Cover
In Part 1 of the Review, I discussed the basic premise of the world of Amethyst, and on the nature of the races, both fae and human that inhabit it.  I also mentioned that certain fantasy-based Classes from the D&D 4E Player’s Handbook are used with little or no alteration in the game setting.  But the Author of Amethyst does introduce four new Classes in the setting which are based around the use of technology, as opposed to using magic.

The Classes of Amethyst

Fantasy Classes

For Players wanting to run fantasy Characters, who have decided to embrace the enchantment of the world, Amethyst: Foundations recommends using the Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, Warlord, and Wizard straight from the 4E Player’s Handbook.  Clerics and Paladins do not really fit the world perspective, drawing from divine sources, and the resurgence of magic did not suddenly reintroduce Asgard or Olympus onto planet Earth.  Nor are Warlocks recommended, due to their dark or infernal pacts, which are permanently corrupting given the nature of the dark magic gate of Ixindar.

While I understand the Author’s decision, particularly in light of the extensive sections on how human and fae religions have evolved in proximity to each other.  But personally, I think the Author might have missed a trick here.  While there is no doubt that a Warlock making a pact with the dark forces of Ixindar would be profoundly evil and corrupted, unable to act in a heroic capacity, given what has been revealed about the dark gate, they could have easily been Fey Pact, and still fit with the setting.  Likewise, Clerics and Paladins could have been designed to have a bond with the magic of “light” from the gate of Attricana, channeling not so much the power of deity, but the blessings of a “realm of light”.  But that’s just an opinion, and Amethyst: Foundations does not seem hurt by the absence of those three Classes.

There is one minor, but fairly important change, to Wizards with the need for a totem to cast spells.  A totem is chosen at first level, and changing it later is very expensive.  Totems are usually books, but it could be a shield, staff, or other weapon, inscribed with words of power which the Wizard uses to cast his spells.  If a totem is taken during combat, the Wizard cannot cast spells!  So this change makes a totem rather like a Fighter’s sword or a Ranger’s bow, which if removed from play, weakens the Characters’ effectiveness on the battlefield.

I have to admit, from a DMs perspective, I like this rule variant, but I also see it a cause for Player concern as well.  The Player’s Handbook has great rules for improvised weapons, so if a Fighter is disarmed, he can pick up a tree branch and still keep swinging, while a bowless Ranger can throw rocks with decent efficacy.  I think that an improvised casting rule would be recommended here, so that a Wizard has some chance in combat if he is disarmed of his totem.

Technological Classes

There are four new Character Classes introduced in Amethyst: Foundations, for use with Techan Humans who utilize high-tech devices instead of the ambient magic in the world.  The new Classes, in some respect, resemble hybrids in the way that they combine elements from two party roles into one Character.  However, I have it on authority from the Author that the dual role nature of the Techan Classes has little to do with hybridization, and more a function of designing them to match a concept.

The four new Techan Classes are:

Grounder
Role: Defender/Controller
Builds: Front grounder & Heavy grounder
The grounder is a highly trained weapons and armor experts, who use their arsenal to protect their team while harassing the enemy.

Marshall
Role: Defender/Leader
Builds: Faceman & Officer
The marshall is capable of both defending teammates and coordinating their actions to maximum effect on the battlefield

Operator
Role: Leader/Striker
Builds: Medic & Mechanic
The operator is the technician of the group, capable of repairing both technological devices and wounded comrades

Stalker
Role: Defender/Striker
Builds: Sniper & Deadeye
The stalker is designed to kill from stealth at long range or up close, scouting the enemy and protecting his team from danger.

Obviously, the Techan classes have a military sound to them, and this is further enhanced by the names of their Class abilities and powers such as the Marshall’s class features Command Presence and For the Good of the Team.  Even reading through the class powers with names like Double-Tap and On Your Feet, Soldier brought to mind movies such as Aliens and Avatar, with their human military-type commandos blasting away at unearthly targets.  These definitely give the right “feel” to the Techan Classes and make them very unique and different from the fantasy classes.

But up close, I will admit that I did notice a few design irregularities with the Techan Classes that bothered me.  From a class balance point of view, the Techan Classes all have +4 total Non-AC Defensive Bonuses, whereas the standard PHB fantasy class has only a maximum of +2.  On face value, this seems a bit unbalanced, but I must assume that this was done to balance out the effects of EDF, the Echa-Disruption Field, which can cause weapons and gear to malfunction during combats when fighting in the wild areas and/or near fae-enchanted creatures.  This is not an unreasonable compensation for the risk of suddenly finding your gun jammed because some fae-creature is casting magic at you.

Overall, the Author created some really fascinating Classes, and I think most D&D 4E gamers would enjoy playing them.  And while the party role assignments of the classes was fairly spot-on, there were still a few deviations which were worth mentioning.

For instance, the Grounder, Marshall, and Stalker are defined as Defenders, but only the Marshall has an ability to mark his target.  The Grounder does have a class ability called Area Denial, which allows an immediate interrupt ranged basic attack whenever an enemy moves into it, and can encompass an ally. The Stalker, on the other hand, has no power which really defines it as a Defender, however several powers were definitely Controller-based, particularly the Marksman Talent class feature, which adds combat condition onto certain powers depending on how high the hit roll was over the enemies defenses.  Adding slows, ongoing damage, weakens, and dazes are quite potent, but more in the realm of a Controller than a Defender.

That’s not to suggest that the Stalker is a broken class, however, quite far from it in fact.  And I loved the fact that the Author gave the class a minor action at-will called Passing Kill which inflicts 1 hp of damage, which is perfect to eliminate those pesky minions that get in the Stalker’s way.  It’s just that Players expecting the Stalker to fulfill a Defender role might find the class lacking, but as a Striker/Controller it has some great moves.

As far as Leaders go, the Marshall and Operator definitely fulfill those roles, although only the Operator has the traditional two-use encounter power to cause a healing surge.  The Marshall has a class feature called Encouraging Support which allows an adjacent ally to take a healing surge if the Marshall takes a second wind.  This is an immediate interrupt for the ally and does not burn its second wind, which makes it a fairly nice power, but usable only once per encounter.  The other Marshall powers are similar to those of a “tac-lord”, which is about what I expected to see from the class description.

The Operator, on the other hand, has tons of healing abilities and powers which grant saves to allies, remove ongoing damage effects, and move allies out of harm’s way.  But I saw little Striker in the Operator, with nothing to recommend it for the extreme DPR that we see in Rangers, Rogues, and Warlocks.  But what I did see was a number of abilities which, frankly, defy role and play specifically off of the technological weapons of the setting and the threat posed by EDF.  Being able to fix disrupted weapons on the fly is an amazing talent, and a few of the Operator’s attacks even require that they have a disrupted malfunctioning weapon to perform!  Incidentally, these attacks typically return the weapon to working condition, while dishing out damage.  Operators also have the ability to modify weapons to increase their efficacy, which can be done in the field.  So while these powers are not exactly Striker in role, they are exceptionally handy to have and makes Operators an invaluable part of a team.

Character Development

Amethyst: Foundations has a number of ways to develop a Character in the setting, and make each one a unique experience.  There are 29 Lifepaths, 5 new skills, and well over 100 new feats to help create unique Characters.  Obviously, many of the new feats are Techan-based, as the fantasy-based Characters still have access to many of the feats in the Player’s Handbook to utilize.  But there are a number of feats which are new for the fantasy-based Characters, and a few that can be used by either side.

Lifepath

The mechanic of the Lifepath is very similar to “backgrounds”, and provide additional background information, some new powers, and in some cases, new penalties!  They represent the character’s life before reaching their class and becoming heroes, and fall into categories of Discipline, Regional, and Supernatural.

Lifepaths also qualify Characters for certain Paragon Paths and Feats, which makes choosing a lifepath a fairly important character-creation decision.  In many respects, Lifepaths are tied to a particular race, such as the Bottled Beast, which allows a Tilen to draw upon the “dark side” of their natures to become feral berserkers.  Or it can be tied to a particular location, such as the Knight of the Wall which places the Characters origin in the walled city of Abidan.

I found the lifepaths to be well-written and containing a decent amount of “fluff” in addition to their “crunch” abilities, and made them a nice way of assisting Players in defining their Character’s backgrounds and possible motivations.

Skills

The new skills in Amethyst: Foundations are pretty necessary, given the technological nature of the world, and the old fantasy-based skills would not apply in all cases.  Of the five, the Regional History skill is probably the only questionable addition, being a combination of Streewise and History, but applying to only a specific geographical area.  The other skills of Demolitions, Engineering, Sciences, and Vehicle Operations have no PHB equivalent, and are necessary additions for the setting.  The Author also wrote an expansion on the Athletics skill to include a +2 proficiency bonus to thrown weapons like knives and grenades, which applies to both techan and echan (enchantment/fantasy) characters.

Paragon Paths

Like the new skills, Amethyst: Foundations needed to add a number of new Paragon Paths which would fill the void for techan Characters.  Echan Characters can draw upon the PHB and a number of Regional-based Paragon Paths, which are often linked to a particular lifepath.

I found the Techan Paragon Paths to be very intriguing, particularly the Sierra Madre Gunslinger and the York Gun Dancer.  The powers of these two Paragon Paths were very evocative, and reminded me a lot of movies like Desperado and The Matrix in the descriptions of the combat style with guns.

Overall the Paragon Paths seemed pretty balanced, and are very much flavored for the world setting of Amethyst.  They make both techan and echan Characters potent adversaries, and it would be tough to decide which side one would want to play on.

Setting Mechanics and Conventions

Amethyst: Foundations has almost one-hundred pages of material to round out the world setting, including techan Equipment Tables, Vehicles, the history of the world, current events, monsters, and adventure design.  The Author makes sure that owners of Amethyst: Foundations will have a solid start in creating a campaign which can last a good long time.

The section on techan weapons and vehicles is extensive, and covers major modern weapons and vehicles right up to science-fiction gadgets, such as plasma rifles, laser cannons, and grenades.  All these techan weapons, however, are subject to the EDF, and can stop working in the middle of a fire-fight.

The EDF rules are fairly straight forward.  Each round, there is a chance of an EDF malfunction to affect one or more members of the team.  This renders a particular weapon or device currently used inoperative, so having back-up gear is almost essential.  The EDF affects high tech gear most, so having low TL 0 gear on hand, which is almost never affected is sometimes advisable.

It should be noted that the TL or tech level of a piece of gear is often synonymous to the “plus enchantment” on magic items, so that EDF tends to affect your “+5” item more often than a mundane one.

The world-setting information and maps are really nicely written and designed, and there are plenty of hooks in the material for any DM to begin planning a wide range of adventures.  The section on Monsters was a bit disappointingly slim, although the Author does list a number of creatures from the Monster Manual that have their counterparts on the world of Amethyst.  There are 42 monster types from the Monster Manual that are declared as “canon” for Amethyst, and another 38 that are “not canon” but declared as not likely to break the setting.  There are 15 new monster types that are specific to Amethyst: Foundations, and I have to say they are nicely designed.  But I would certainly hope that the Author considers a monster manual for Amethyst, as I felt that the list did not reflect all the possibilities that the world settinghad to offer.

The section on adventuring in the world gave a lot of compelling reasons why a mixed party of techan and echan is not really canon to the Amethyst: Foundations setting.  It can be done however, but it does make things awkward for the DM and the players.  Rewarding techan Characters can be problematic, as many “magical” treasures from outside the Bastions are sellable only to echan communities.  But the Author stresses that Characters should be adventuring to be heroes, and not for a fat paycheck, which is something I strongly believe in as well, and so a campaign of techan mercenaries will probably not be very long-lived.

The Author does provide a very nice introductory adventure, called “A Single Stone”, which can be played by either a techan or echan party, and can be the start of a very nice adventure arc.  The adventure is well-designed and written, and I will use it myself if I ever start a Amethyst: Foundations campaign.

The Author also provides an Appendix for discussing variations to an Amethyst: Foundations game, which can include ignoring EDF, which would make the campaign setting more “Shadowrun-ish”, to creating a setting which is more low-tech or high-tech than expected.  The latter conforms to those DMs that would normally employ a “magic-lite” or “magic-heavy” campaign style.  The section is short, but definitely worth a read for a DM to determine how to employ Amethyst: Foundations for their Players.

Overall Grade: A-

Overall, I found Amethyst: Foundations to be an absolutely ground-breaking setting.  While some would argue that there are similar settings available, none of those come ready-made to be used with D&D 4E.  The writing was excellent and created a very unique setting, and was coupled with superb illustrations and design work.  While I did find a few anomalies in the techan Character Classes, they were solidly balanced, and perfectly designed for the setting.  The price of Amethyst: Foundations is about what I would expect for a hardbound manual these days, but given its size and scope of the materials, is a real bargain if you’re in the market for a new setting.  Amethyst: Foundations definitely shows off the flexibility of the 4E, and opens up a whole new world of gaming possibilities for Players and DMs who are looking for more than a typical fantasy role-playing game.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Blog’s Author received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

On a personal note, I want to thank the Author and Goodman Games for providing me an advanced copy to use while I wrote this review.  I certainly wish them the best of luck with their release, and for the future of the Amethyst product line!

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A
  • - Design: A
  • - Illustrations: A+
  • Content: A
  • - Crunch: B+
  • - Fluff: A+
  • Value: A

About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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