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Review of Urban Adversaries by Escape Velocity Gaming

It’s survival in the city / When you live from day to day / City streets don’t have much pity / When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay…” ~ In the City (Joe Walsh, Warriors Soundtrack, 1979)

For some Dungeon Masters, city-based adventures are a real challenge.  Cities and urban centers, even in fantasy worlds, present a much more complex setting in which to write and run encounters, let alone entire quests.  Often in the past, “official” adventure modules used to deal with only “small town” areas, such as The Village of Hommlet or The Sinister Secret of Saltmarch, where the sparse populations would allow greater detail and their rustic setting is only slightly more “urbanized” than a wilderness setting.
urban adversaries cover
Personally, I relish city adventures, and the last 3.5 campaign I ran prior to switching over to 4E was set in the Forgotten Realms’ Shining South seedy trade city of Delzimmer.  Sampling a series of essays on Delzimmer, which Ed Greenwood penned years ago, I used this crossroad town as both base of operations for my heroes, and a major backdrop for dozens of adventures, creating a setting which was both a haven for the Characters.  Delzimmer also acted as a major adversary in its own right, with corrupt guards, cut-throat political leaders, and the occasional monster incursion from the surrounding African-like savanna, the Shaar.

But in 4E, many “official” monsters are more likely to be found in the wilds than prowling a big city’s mean streets, often leaving urban centers feeling a little too safe.  But there is a new “monster manual” from Escape Velocity Gaming, entitled Urban Adversaries, which offers a variety of new 4E creatures who stalk their prey in the dark alleys and lonely avenues of even the most bustling fantasy metropolis.

Urban Adversaries
  • Designers: William C. Pfaff
  • Illustrators: Gary Cramer (cover), Jason Morgan, William C. Pfaff, Pawel Dobosz, Maciej, Zagorski (interior)
  • Publisher: Escape Velocity Gaming
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: PDF (56 pages)
  • Cost: $4.99

Urban Adversaries is a monster manual supplement of creatures which live in town and city environments, and is usable in almost any 4E setting.  There are twenty-four new monster entries, ranging from Level 1 to Level 15, and come with a stats, description text, and creature lore.  Each monster entry is also accompanied by a sample encounter group, and two “adventure hook” ideas for creating a side trek or a full blown urban adventure, featuring the creature and its allies.

The Production Quality of Urban Adversaries is fair to average, with entries in simple text formats which lack the structure of the expected “stat block” which one would find in an “official” release.  However, the creatures’ stats and powers do, generally, conform to the “stat block” in all other ways, so most Dungeon Masters should be able to muddle through the entry in order to utilize it in an encounter.  The lack of bookmarks in a PDF of this size was also a bit troubling, but at least the Author provided a table of contents at the beginning of the ebook, and a table at the end of the ebook, listing the monsters by level with their respective page numbers.  The black and white illustrations in Urban Adversaries range from amateurish to quite good, and give a decent impression of the appearance of the monsters which will be attacking the heroes.

The Author begins Urban Adversaries with an incredibly extensive Foreword and Designer’s Notes section, explaining the theory behind the artwork and design of each creature entry, as well as the general philosophy under which this monster manual supplement was written:

Why Urban Adversaries?  Well, as a gamemaster, I’ve always loved city based adventures.  The problem is the city or town starts to become just a home base and the “real adventure” tends to take place outside the “friendly confines.”  Fourth edition seems to even encourage this viewpoint with the whole “Points of Light” idea where safe havens are few and far between and menacing wilderness is where the action is.

With only a few exceptions, the Author does a very good job of creating monsters which can exist in a bustling cityscape.  By adding the “adventure hook” ideas with each monster entry, Urban Adversaries provides some solid material for making a quick encounter believable urban encounter, or a small side trek adventure, or even the seeds a longer and more detailed adventure.

I really enjoyed some of the more inventive monsters in Urban Adversaries, and even without the adventure hook text, I found the “internal DM” ticking off possible uses for these nasty town-dwelling beasties.  For instance, a blacksmith might find himself cursed, or perhaps by experimenting with some strange arcane materials, could spawn a sadistic little elemental called a Forgejinx (Level 5 Skirmisher).  This fiery critter can run amok hurling hot metal at metal-workers and citizens, generally being a menace until passing adventurers deal with the threat.   Bleak moths (Level 1 Minion) flutter about, drawn toward death and dying rather than open flame, their necrotic aura hastening the demise of expiring creatures on a battlefield.  A pesky Lantern Spider (Level 2 Lurker) might be drawn to adventurers’ light sources, their strange shadowy auras masking them and creating a more hazardous combat condition for those heroes lacking low-light vision.  And Varagaunts (Level 1 Brute) are undead panhandlers and beggars which have died in their poverty, but return to punish the wealthy of the city, and others who had ignored them in life.

There were also some really nifty monsters which sadly lack “replayability”, and would have difficulty showing up more than once in a long term campaign without a distinct feeling of déjà-vu.  For instance, Humboldt’s Hound (Level 10 Soldier) really cannot be used more than once, as it has a very involved back-story as either the ghost of a faithful hound, or the shade of a long-abused street cur.  And the Phantom Hangman (Level 15 Solo Controller) is another example of an urban haunting that is an excellent one-shot monster, capable of a solid adventure where the ghost of the local executioner metes out its own form of “street justice”, but not really usable more than once in a campaign.  Certainly, there are “official” monsters which fall into this category too, and I definitely cannot fault the Author for wanting to include a couple in his work, particularly as well-designed as these two examples were.

However, not all the creatures in Urban Adversaries were as well designed as Bleak Moths and Phantom Hangmen. There are definitely a few monsters which would not be recommended for use in any campaign without some serious retooling.

For example, some creatures were designed with unusually high damage expressions for their level, such as the Flamebelly Fly (Level 3 Skirmisher).  This urban insect pest is part fire elemental, and will explode when slain for 3d6 +3 in a burst 3 – and even a miss still causes half damage!  The Author recommends a Level 3 Encounter with FOUR of these creatures in it, which would almost certainly wipe out a 1st to 3rd Level adventuring party unless they played very, very carefully.  Given the nature of materials in most medieval towns, a few Flamebelly Flies would spell an almost certain doom for whole neighborhoods of a city.

Other monsters in Urban Adversaries have not only dangerously high damage, but have powers that impose brutal condition effects far beyond their Level.  For instance, Gorger Rats are psionic intelligent rodents that come in varieties which include a Level 2 Minion, a Level 2 Artillery, and a Level 2 Elite Artillery.  Both of the two non-minion forms have a close burst 3 attack which targets Will Defense, and does massive damage – and stuns its victims (save ends)!  Thankfully, this burst is only an encounter power which does not refresh!  But even still, stuns are rarely seen in monsters of the heroic tier, and area of effect stuns can be devastating, if not fatal, to young heroes.  This burst damage and stun effect, when coupled with an at-will ranged attack that can also daze, and then to added to a damaging bite that can be used against stunned or dazed foes as a minor action, you’ve created a monster which has a better than average ability to cause a full-blownTPK!  The Author recommended Level 2 encounter contains 3 gorge rats capable of delivering this incapacitating attack, and given the area that these creatures can cover with their encounter powers (7×7 squares!), I simply cannot imagine how a Level 2 adventuring band could survive a fight of that lethality.

Certainly creating new monsters can sometimes be difficult, and the powers for various combat roles are often open to interpretation.  There were a couple instances where the Author did assign powers which seemed unusual for the combat role.  For instance, there is a creature called a Portent Toad (Level 4 Controller), which is presented in both an evil and good form to make for two diverse types of encounters.  However, I was a bit surprised to find the Author had assigned the evil version of the Portent Toad a “mark” at-will power, which one would expect from a Soldier, and not a Controller, which does not typically deal with attackers head on.  Likewise, there was a Rotbat Swarm (Level 11 Soldier) with no abilities for interposing or stopping attackers from reaching allies as a soldier would have, but instead seemed decidedly controller-ish, with it swarm defenses and an offensive aura.

Overall Grade: B-

Urban Adversaries has some good monster concepts in it, with some solid writing, and some inventive lore and adventure hooks which make most of these monsters readily usable in almost any campaign’s city or town.  However, the “no-frills” layout, lack of stat block frames, bookmarks, and other niceties, would make using this monster manual supplement a chore at times, and even potentially frustrating for some Dungeon Masters who want something with a bit more pizzazz for their gaming bucks.  Due to way the PDF was designed, each page is, in essence, a picture, and the text cannot even be copied into a word document or into DDI Adventure Tools to be formatted for easier use – unless the purchaser wants to do a lot of typing.  Overall, Urban Adversaries might be a decent buy for DMs willing to do a little work to get the most out of this ebook, such as a few monster tweaks and their own re-formatting, but for those DMs looking for a more polished work, this monster supplement might not be up their alley.

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.

Grade Card

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

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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