Review: Amethyst Quintessence

Nam0ewly released by Dias Ex Machina is Amethyst Quintessence, designed for the 5th Edition of the world’s oldest role-playing game (aka Dungeons & Dragons). Amethyst Quintessence is published under the Open Game Licence at Drive-Thru RPG, as both a PDF and print-on-demand book.

The Amethyst setting is technically Earth, albeit a future Earth that is divided between technology and magic. It’s a setting where law wars with order, as magic returned to our world and caused an apocalypse. It’s somewhat similar to Palladium Game’s RIFTs setting in that you can have wizards fighting alongside people with railguns against giant mechs and dragons. Amethyst was originally published for the 3.5 Edition of D&D, but was quickly updated to 4th Edition. This update was funded by a Kickstarter,  and its success means the setting will eventually be supported by six different game systems, including Savage Worlds, FATE, and 13th Age.This review focuses solely on the 5th Edition product.

Disclaimer: I received a free PDF review copy of the product.

What Is It?

Amethyst Quintessence is a 413-page full colour PDF and print-on-demand hardcover book. The book is described as a “labour of love”, with only a handful of writers, editors, and artists involved in the product. The whole book looks professional, with a textured background that doesn’t detract or interfere with the reading.

The book is filled with artwork, a surprising amount given the limited number of contributing artists. The art is excellent. A few pieces are repeated, but as these are repositioned and cropped to highlight different aspects this is mostly inoffensive (and I’m not going to fault a smaller publisher for maximizing use of their art budget). I imagine much of the art is recycled from past versions of Amethyst and shared between the various versions of the setting, but since I only have this one book (and imagine few people will buy multiples), this is a non-issue.

Included in Amethyst Quintessence are 10 new races, which include 8 new fae races along with kodiaks (bear men) and half-fae. Humans are also described but have no racial rules. Included are 32 backgrounds for characters, and 14 “Organizations”, which are basically a group background. There are a number of new options for existing 5e classes, including 8 fighter martial archetypes, 4 rogue roguish archetypes, and 3 wizard schools. And there are 8 new classes unique to the setting: grounder, gunslinger, heavy, marshal, martial artist, medic, sniper, and techie. These eight are supplemented with 15 archetypes shared between them. The equipment section is filled with gear, more than I really want to summarize, including weapons, mechs, and vehicles. Lastly, the book has 30-odd new monster statblocks.

The Good

am1The book is filled with flavour. As the setting is really a baby of the writer, the tone is strong and consistent. It’s a singular vision. Each chapter begins with a few pages of fiction helping to establish tone and introduce the concepts and feeling of the world. There’s more fiction than I would normally like, but because the setting is so unique the extra fluff is beneficial. The product is equal parts sourcebook and campaign setting – albeit significantly broader in scope than something like Sword Coast Legends. Even with the continental view, there’s a lot of detail on the key areas of future North America.

Despite being a campaign setting, there’s a lot of new crunch, making this product somewhat desirable for someone looking for new mechanics, especially for someone planning on using the 5th Edition ruleset for a modern or near-present science fiction/fantasy. For a campaign adapting or expanding Keep on the Borderlands or the 2nd Edition Boxed Set Tale of the Comet this book would be incredibly useful.

Gear is divided into tech levels, which is pretty standard for science fiction games, but Amethyst Quintessence equates tech level with magic item rarity, which is a pretty elegant way of distinguishing common technology and more exotic tech. Some more advanced tech is treated as being multiple magic items, which is a little odd, but keeps things simple.

The class design is funky, as all the “modern” classes draw from the same pool of shared archetypes. But this allows some neat synergizing of abilities or playing against type. It’s a neat way of being flexible and adding a wide variety of different options without adding too much bloat. A few of the new classes might even work in a regular D&D campaign. Some class features and options might require a little work to strip out the assumed tech or reflavour chemistry as alchemy or herbalism, but this would be significantly less work than attempting to design one’s own class. The gunslinger could work in any setting with emerging guns, such as Ravenloft or Azeroth. The marshal is an alternative to the warlord for those who like that style of class and are unsatisifed by the Purple Dragon Knight. The martial artist is a good alternative to the more mystical monk, fitting the role of a brawler or pugilist. And the techie could be tweaked to be a gadgeteer or engineer, like the archetypal Dragonlance gnomish tinkerer.

The new backgrounds are broke as heck. 5e backgrounds give a very, very minor bonus that is mostly flavour, while the Amethyst actually have a mechanical and even combat impact. However, I actually like this; Amethyst backgrounds are very world-centric and would not translate to other settings, so they don’t need to be balanced against the generic backgrounds. These backgrounds occupy a similar design space as standard backgrounds, but are less generic (having prerequisites) while also informing players of their character’s role in the world. They’re a micro-player’s guide in a class choice. It’s actually a nice way to impart necessary world lore to players. There’s a little power creep, but it’s spread across all players and won’t likely break the system.

The setting itself is decent. It’s not quite my cup of tea but there’s a fair amount of information. I’m not sure I’d want to run the setting with just this product, but I imagine it could be done. For a combination setting/rule update, this book does contain a fair amount of world lore. There’s more than enough to work on, and more than most players will be able to absorb. Because a lot of the information is repeated in backgrounds and racial entries, it should be possible to show those sections to players as a rough overview.

The monsters of the setting also have a singular origin. Not every monster in the 5e game system “fits” the world, but enough do; there’s a fairly lengthy list of monsters that are found in the world, along with a keyword denoting their place and history. The setting doesn’t require a unique bestiary to run, or require you to toss out your Monster Manual.

Culture is a huge focus of the setting, which is a little different from the geographical and location focus of many other campaign settings. The various fae races each have a LOT of great cultural information, including body language, taboos, gestures, and the like. There’s an entire chapter on culture, including religion, worldview, and languages. This really makes the assorted fae races feel like they’re part of another culture that is unrelated to humanity and not just humans that live longer or have pointed ears and a nature fetish. It’s frankly amazing work, and great inspiration for any game, including home games and even other campaign settings.

The setting also has the neat wrinkle that magic and technology don’t play nice together, with spells and even the presence of supernatural beings disrupting technology. This reminds me of the Dresden Files series but is an old idea. It’s well implemented and a big part of the setting, although it sadly means you won’t have mechaknights riding on dragons who have laser cannons mounted underneath them. I like the conflict this brings to the world, with the world being divided not between good and evil but order and chaos, fantasy and science. Although, there’s still a pretty evil Big Bad force at play, that almost seems at odds with the general grey tone of much of the rest of the morality.

The Bad

am2The setting and its lore is very… unique. This isn’t a world where the myths and legends of the past were all real, but one where magic died before humanity even existed yet somehow influenced our psyche so we have a race memory (or something) of dragons and elves. It’s odd, and not what one might expect.

Related to the setting lore are the wide number of assorted fae, with all non-human races effectively being a variety of “fae”. Amethyst dumps all the existing “civilized” races from elves and dwarves to kobolds and goblins, and replaces them with races unique to the setting. Instead of goblins (and kobolds) there are the puggs, bogs, and skeggs. Some of this works, but sometimes it seems unnecessary given how differently you can present something like a “goblin” with some variant art and culture (see Pathfinder for an example). Dropping the common names feels unnecessary, and requires a tonne of new memorization for players and DMs. It’s pretty easy to map the fae into their existing archetypes, albeit not their appearance (chaparrans fill the role of wood elves, damaskans are high elves, gimfen are halfling/gnomes, laudenians narros are dwarves, pagus are orcs, tenenbri are drow, and tilen are vampires. Only the laudenians don’t easily map, but are pretty much another high elf variant). Having run a few Dragonlance campaigns, it was difficult getting players to recall the subtle differences between kagonesti, silvanesti, and qualinesti – which were just different names for wood, grey, and high elves. However, if the players are Bastion humans and unfamiliar with the fae, the uncommon names and different abilities will help the alien tone, taking players out of their comfort zone

The new race names are just the most ready example of the wealth of new proper names. There’s a lot of other new terms and jargon thrown at you. Even the place names have changed, which strips away a little of the usability of setting the book in the “real” world. The book includes a glossary, but this is spread out over several (non-consecutive) pages. A glossary cheat-sheet as a separate hand-out would be awesome.

With the amount of new mechanical content added, it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of it is so-so. There’s only so much one designer can do, especially without heavy playtesters; it’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of each option without playing, but some outliers stood out. Most notable is the fighter archetype designed to operate as part of a shield phalanx. This should be a desirable subclass to purchase, as a shield-based fighter build is otherwise absent from the game. However, this option relies on fighting beside allies with shields, which isn’t particularly likely to happen: PCs seldom share a role and class. Having multiple front line tanks that use shields is going to be unusually in terms of party composition, let alone the three needed for the fighter to use a key class feature. Theoretically, this could be more useful for an NPCs, but 5th Editions NPCs don’t use PC abilities by default, and are designed as monsters.

There’s also a lot of new feats, including racial and background feats. Most of these feel pretty small and generic, often having a stat boost to bring the feat’s power level closer to the 5e baseline, and several have other feats as prerequisites. I wonder if combining the feats into fewer larger and more interesting feats would have been superior design. A character might only choose three or four feats during their entire adventuring career, and focusing just on racial feats seems unlikely. Many also bend bounded accuracy, allowing characters to raise their ability score cap, which might make some DMs leery.  

Piloting vehicles and using electronics are also treated as skills. However, 5e skills seldom require an item to use the skill. Object using talents are instead proficiency with an object’s use being tool or kit proficiencies in 5e. Admittedly something like using computers or tinkering could go either way – either a tool proficiency or a skill – but since it’s not the call I’d personally make I’m putting it in with the “Bad”. Reviewer’s fiat.

The Ugly

am3Curiously, the book doesn’t include human racial traits. This is likely because it was written before the 5e SRD was released, and they opted not to re-do the layout to add a couple pages. (Similarly, the legal notice in the book also didn’t include either the 3e or 5e SRD in the OGL text.)

Many of the the names of feats and features (both racial & class) are slightly humorous, being winking and referential. I think this lacks subtlety and find it offputting. I don’t need a class feature to literally be called “gun fu” to know that the feature allows the character to mix martial arts and firearms.

The monsters of the setting seem very “4e” in presentation. 5e focused on generic NPCs that could become any of the common civilized races, so a bandit can become a goblin bandit or a elf bandit with a small tweak. The system moved away from multiple statblocks for each race, with a goblin statblock for each level range. Amethyst Quintessence doesn’t do this, so we have four pagus statblocks and three skeggs. And all three skeggs are roughly the same CR, as if designed for a single encounter rather than spread out over multiple levels.

I was disappointed by the absence of a full world map. One of the neats things in a post-apocalyptic setting is comparing our Earth to the altered cartography. There is a continental map, but this map is a little detail sparse; I would have liked some more points of interest and odd details that serve as adventure hooks.

The character sheet is just the official 5e character sheet with a hue shift and the Amethyst logo added. I wonder at the legality of reprinting that in the book (i.e. for non-personal use).

The Awesome

am4Each of the racial entries tells why that race is “the best”. This reminds me of the alignment section of the 3e PHB, which I found fun. So points for positive association. But I do like how that sold the races: it told you why each race was cool, encouraging you to play it while presenting their strengths and roleplaying hooks.

The book has bear folk! This is pretty cool and different, not being a typical fantasy race. The Kodiaks would be a fun addition to any setting (potentially with a Slavic in tone/accent), being different than the typical half-orc or goliath big brute. Kodiaks are distinguished by sexually dimorphism rather than a cultural subrace with the men being societally dominant. So trigger warning. (Male bears are potentially twice the size of females, so some dimorphism isn’t a deal breaker for me. But your mileage may vary.) As a nitpick though, female kodiaks are also incorrectly called “sloths”: female bears are sows, while “sloths” is the term for groups of bears.

The book introduces “Organizations”, which are a secondary background with a singular benefit. This is a pretty cool idea and I kinda want to steal the concept. It’s a neat way to build a party and award a large purchase that might not otherwise be attainable at 1st level.

There’s a lovely global feel to the book despite the setting details focusing on the former North America. The future isn’t a monoculture and non-Western ideas exist and survive. I love that the book gives almost equal attention to Chinese folk religions and Shinto as it does to Christianity and Islam.  

The Campaign chapter of the book really focuses on the themes of the setting. It doesn’t just explain the setting but the feel of the setting and an Amethyst campaign.

Final Thoughts

am5It’s hard to quantify how I feel about Amethyst Quintessence.

It’s a beautiful book that looks far better than it has any right to based on the size of the publisher. The crunch ranges from decent to sub-par, but never veers into outright “bad”. The sheer amount of new content written by so few people is itself an accomplishment. (Especially since 5e system mastery was unlikely given the number of other game systems the same people were developing products for. I know from experience that trying to design for Pathfinder and 5e at the same time and keeping the rules separate in your head is difficult.) So kudos are deserved.

However, the setting didn’t grip me. I love me a good campaign setting product, but Amethyst just didn’t grab my attention or make me want to keep reading. But this is a super-personal taste issue, as post-apocalyptic science fantasy really isn’t the type of game I want to run. Amethyst Quintessence was always going to be a book that had to work extra hard for my interest. The flavour of the races was excellent, but I just couldn’t get interested and found the number of new names frustrating; without a basis in myth there was no mnemonic or association I could make between the names and what they represented. Learning the race names is just rote learning, which isn’t particularly engaging.

For someone who does wants a little science fantasy in their RPG, Amethyst Quintessence might be exactly what you want in a setting. It’s a good product for someone who likes the 5e ruleset but is tired of generic swords & sorcery fantasy worlds or wants a drastic change of pace for their game. It’s also a good book for fans of the d20 Modern Urban Arcana campaign. I imagine you could adapt Amethyst Quintessence for a Titansgrave or Numenera d20 campaign, and maybe even a Shadowrun game. It’d even work as the basis for a science fiction 5e campaign, dumping the magic for tech.

Even for someone just sticking to standard generic fantasy, there’s plenty enough mechanical options between the new races, classes, and subclasses in the book. It’d be a worthwhile purchase, even if you plan to dump all the tech and world lore. Some customization would be necessary, but that’s easier than making your own content.

But the above are a lot of conditionals. The $20 price tag of the PDF (which is fair given the size of the book and work involved) makes it a little harder to justify if you just want a warlord and engineer, so some desire to have new races and tech – if not the world itself – might be necessary to  justify the purchase.
Unless you’re already an Amethyst fan from the past and like 5th Edition. In which case, buy this book right now. It’s does everything you’d want it to, and does it well.

 

 

Shameless Plug

Heroes-of-the-Mists-1

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website including the Ravenloft product Heroes of the Mists and a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is available for purchase. The electronic copy is available on Kindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspaceand Amazon. Purchases from DriveThru especially allow me to purchase new PDFs for review purposes.

The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, and all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded. The final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.