Ultimate NPCs: Skulduggery
The book Ultimate NPCs: Skulduggery is slowly hitting mailboxes, the PDF having hit inboxes a few weeks back. It is part of publisher Nord Games’ “Gamemaster’s Toolbox” line of products, the first book that I’m aware of from the fledgling publisher, whose previous experiences were bookmarks and cards.
The book was funded by a successful Kickstarter where 1,335 people pledged over $60,000, shattering the $10,000 goal. The book was released for both 5th Edition and the Pathfinder RPG, and is available as PDF, softcover, and hardcover.
My physical copy has not arrived and I wanted to judge that in my review, especially as the company is new and an unknown to me. However, Nord Games just launched its second Kickstarter for an adversary book – Ultimate Bestiary: Revenge of the Horde and I thought a review of the first would be informative for people considering backing the second who might still unfamiliar with the publisher.
–edit 08/10/16 —
My physical book arrived and review was added to reflect this.
Ultimate NPCs: Skulduggery is a 232 page PDF with the last nine pages including two blank pages (?), two pages of legal, and five pages of backer names, for roughly 223 pages are content. Included are thirty different NPCs, each given statistics for level 1, 4, 8, 12, 16, and 20. These are evenly divided between good, neutral, and evil alignments. After the unique named NPCs, the book provides several generic NPCs, like those at the back of the Monster Manual, with five each of brigands, ruffians, swindlers, assassins, and bandits, while three each of the brigand, ruffian, thief, bandit, and assassin bosses. Wrapping up the book are over thirty new items that are a combination of magic and mundane, and a dozen new spells.
The art is excellent. I’ll reiterate this again at the end in the “Awesome” category, because it is more awesome that merely good, but I wanted to start off with the product’s biggest strength: the whole book looks amazing. The art, the textured backgrounds, the ink splatters and little flourishes… it’s easily one of the prettier RPG books I’ve seen by a 3rd Party publisher. Heck, there’s a lot of first party books that are less impressive looking.
Each named NPC has a unique background. Typically around half a column. The NPCs all make use of the personal characteristics that were added to 5e, and come complete with personality traits, bonds, flaws, and ideals. Many of these are even unique to the NPC rather than just being traits previously published. These backgrounds try their best to be generic, and should be able to fit into most any setting. While these will not be universally valid (most won’t fit my world), they should work with the vast majority of campaigns.
Each named NPC is also provided with roleplaying notes with suggestions for how the character will act. Many have adventure hooks as well. Filling out some of the page space is a small little story or short narrative, further fleshing the backstory and motivations of the character.
At the start of each section are several roguish organizations, such as thieves’ or assassins’ guilds, with four for each of the moral alignment: good, neutral, evil. Most of these are decent and diverse, they’re not just variations on the same theme. It’s nice to have some less than honest groups that are technically good and noble. Most of the guilds are also tied to one or two of the named NPCS, perhaps being a member or ever the leader/founder. This provides a nice, elegant way to introduce either the group or the NPC in a campaign.
Following the groups, each of the three sections has a table of its ten associated NPCs, listed with their class, alignment, background, occupation, and page. This is handy for quickly rolling an NPC randomly, or for when you need a scoundrel fighter.
While a book of non-player characters, the assorted good and neutral NPCs are very useful as quick PCs, replacing a dead character for a session or serving as the character for a guest player. This makes the book more broadly useful, if you as a DM don’t mind a guest reading the backgrounds.
The generic NPCs at the back are all pretty decent. I can see using these, and it’s fairly handy that they’re all similar in build and abilities, so running a group of mixed CRs is easy. Plus, at the start of the chapter are some pre-built encounter groups, so you can easily produce a random encounter with some bandits or thieves.
Each NPC’s entry expands on their assorted personality traits, turning what should be a quick tag or sound bite into a lengthier paragraph. This feels unnecessary; this extra detail should have just been worked into the background or roleplaying notes. If you need to explain an ideal or bond, then that trait should be rephrased. This is especially noteworthy as each NPC only has a single personality trait: an oft overlooked rule is that each character is meant to have two personality traits (see p123 of the PHB). Not a huge error, but sadly it is probably the least significant rules errors in the book.
There are numerous small formatting errors. Such as one NPC referring to “Dark Vision” as two words, and both capitalized when it should be lowercase. Similarly, it’s written as “Passive Perception” while only the skill should be capitalized, and spell names in stat blocks are also capitalized. Spells and magic items are italicized, as has been the format since 3e (magic is in italics) but mundane items are also italicized making them appear magic. In contrast, there is no italicization in attacks, such as “Longsword. Melee Weapon Attack”.
Unique magic items and equipment is not referenced in the stat blocks but contained in a small text box following the stat blocks. Full details are only included in the item’s description at the end of the book, requiring flipping at the table. This is annoying since there’s usually plenty of room to have included unique personal as a small sidebar in the character’s entry.
Mentioning one item quickly, I found it odd that “poppy milk vial” is treated as a magic potion rather than a poison. Also, it is described as an “elixir”, which is not a type of magic item: the term is “potion”.
The math is off in places. Dice averages are wrong throughout the book, as the author rounded up for weapon damage (1d6 becomes 4 instead of 3.5), but for some reason in the generic NPCs it was always rounded down reducing their hit points. In the named NPCs I noticed a couple instances of inaccurate hit points.
There are other small errors in the stat blocks. For example, one NPC has a Con of 20 but the bonus given is +3… across three different levels (they changed the number with a stat boost but forgot to change the bonus then cut-and-pasted twice). Another doesn’t include the bonuses from the Dueling Fighting Style in their attacks, while a similar NPC includes the bonus damage to both one and two-handed attacks with the weapon.
A potentially divisive complaint now: the NPCs just use the PC rules. This isn’t a book of NPCs so much as pregenerated PCs who are formatted like NPCs. This is very Pathfinder RPG design, making this very much a Pathfinder RPG product that is simply formatted like 5e.
I say this is “divisive” as not everyone believes NPCs should be designed like monster and have abilities different than PCs. Which is fair, as humanoid creatures shouldn’t have spells or cool abilities that players cannot learn. But these NPCs could have been heavily inspired by PC class options without just being classed characters, abilities that *seem* like PC players at the table but work differently from the DM’s perspective.
Related to copying PC powers, there are almost no custom rules traits in any of the NPCs, and they very much are just characters right out of the book, and when changes are made these are small. A character was lamed in their backstory (so much so they had to retire as an assassin) but doesn’t have related traits, just a slower speed. Given the character can still Dash as a bonus action, they don’t feel particularly slow or ineffective. These are not individuals, but generic pregenerated PCs with solid backgrounds. The book does not even make use of multiclassing or feats to vary the characters.
Arguably, using the full PC rules does allow a guest player to be as effective as any other character, and these characters to more easily port from NPC to PC status. However, the greater complexity of the characters makes them more difficult to run on the fly, both for the DM and a player grabbing one cold. This is undesirable. NPCs simply do not require the same level of complexity or breadth of abilities as Player Characters, especially in terms of background features, non-combat options, skills, saving throws and abilities usable with a bonus actions abilities.
For example the named NPC all lack the multiattack option, instead having “Extra Attack”, occasionally supplemented with a summary of the two-weapon fighting rules in their traits. It would have been easier to make this multiattack and include the reference to the bonus action offhand attack there. Or omit other bonus action features and just include a single offhand attack in multiattack. Similarly, you don’t need to include both the Cunning Action feature AND the Fast Hands Thief subclass feature: just include the benefits of the latter in the former.
While complaining about the formatting using class features, two named NPCs use superiority dice. They’re Battle Masters (which is super important in a way I’ll get back to at the end of this section). In the traits section of the stat block, each maneuver is listed as a trait rather than being indented under the Combat Superiority feature (like spells typically are… even if they aren’t in this product), which would make them significantly easier to locate and use. It’s hard to know where their maneuvers end and new abilities begin.
The general arrangement of traits in the stat blocks is awkward. Few monsters have more than a half-dozen traits (see the flesh golem for a trait heavy monster), but those that do then to have their biggest traits at the top (generally the active ones), and the rest sorted alphabetically. The NPCs in this book have their traits sorted by race, background, and the class features in level order. This can bury important traits in the middle of the stat block.
Using PC rules for the NPCs also means they bend the monster design rules: NPCs use proficiency based on the CR not their class levels, so these classed NPCs have a higher than expected hit rate, which will skew their damage and, based on the monster design rules, should also have increased their CR, which does not seem to be taken into account. So CRs for all the NPCs above level 12 are wrong.
Thankfully, the generic NPCs in the back of the book are better, being closer in design to the NPCs at the back of the Monster Manual. I say “closer” because the NPCs are just less overtly fully classed PCs, and for the most part the abilities still copy player character abilities. It’s less obvious but still awkward in places: the thieves all copy the full text of the rogue’s Sneak Attack feature (rather than the abridged version featured in the Monster Manual‘s spy NPC). If you’re only giving the NPCs a dagger as a weapon, you don’t need to mention sneak attack only works with finesse or ranged weapons!
There are even some unique traits in the generic NPCs, such as three bandit boss’ Commander feature, which is a variant of Leadership action. Only for the bandits it’s a bonus action rather than an action, is usable at-will rather than recharging on a short rest, and affects allies within 120 feet rather than 30. Oh, at the intermediate bandit boss’ goes up to a d6 while the advanced goes to a d8. Yeah… with bounded accuracy, the d4 to attacks is always good and didn’t need to increase.
Moving on from PC/NPC symmetry, the 30 named NPCs are all given the exact same range of level. However, not all the characters are suited to all levels. The master assassin that co-founded a guild of assassins probably doesn’t need a level 1 or level 4 stat block. In contrast, the abandoned youth living on the streets works fine as a level 1 and 4 rogue but less so as level 16 and 20. When you’re a level 20 thief, you shouldn’t be making your living picking pockets in the streets with your gear being “Tattered Clothes, Shank…”. (But, it *is* capitalized, so it must be a proper name. I guess “Tattered Clothes” is an expensive brand name like “Calvin Klein”.)
The new spells lack class spell lists. So they exist but no characters can select them. Some of the spells are just poor. Fade is the same level as invisibility but just grants “advantage on stealth checks” (which, I imagine, is meant to mean Dexterity (Stealth) checks) and only for 1 minute rather than the hour of invisibility. And unlock is just knock but a level lower and less noisy. Both go directly against the design of 5e where they didn’t want a wizard with the right spells to replace the rogue.
The PDF has no hyperlinks either – which feels like a bigger deal coming straight off of the heavily hyperlinked Tome of Beasts – but really isn’t that uncommon in the industry. However, the PDF has no bookmarks, which is pretty basic formatting to include and makes the PDF much harder to use at the table. The PDF I received is also missing the covers.
Edit: I was informed that the PDF had been quickly updated to include both covers and bookmarks. Apparently within a couple days. So good on Nord Games for that.
Despite not having registered an account, I was able to quickly sign-up and require the updated file, which does indeed have a cover and bookmarks.
The random encounter table on page 5 is useful, but asks for a d30, which is just plain weird. (I would have gone with a d00 and ended with “roll twice” and “roll three times” to round out the extra numbers.)
The assorted items include prices even if they’re magic, which goes against the standard 5e magic item design.
The formatting is inconsistent. In some instances paragraphs are indented, in others there’s simply a wider space between paragraphs (which is slightly harder to read). But it varies from section to section, with at several instances of the short fiction having some paragraphs indented and some not indented.
The NPC, Ka’laera, is ostensibly a doppelganger. Or something. It’s not at all clear. Of course, since she uses straight PC rules, she lacks the innate Hit Dice of a doppelganger and its darkvision. But for some reason Read Thoughts is a trait not an action.
Lastly and most egregiously, the book includes subclass content that was not released in the SRD, such as the Arcane Trickster, the Assassin, and the aforementioned Battle Master. This book is in flagrant violation of the Open Game Licence and, by extension, copyright laws.
As I mentioned at the start, the book looks amazeballs. This goes so much beyond just the page background and character art. There are lots of small details in the background of pages: ink blots, cards, notes, sketches and the like. These are often specific to the character, and every page looks just slightly different. This is excellent and whomever did the layout of this product did a fantastic job.
The book starts with a two-page spread atop the legal, credits, and table of contents. This is not only beautiful but crams in over a half-dozen characters from the book in a single scene. It’s a very nice piece.
The generic NPC swindlers contain a list of sample cons. And the start of the section has a random table of preferred scams. These are a pretty cool addition.
Each generic NPC section begins with a table of random possessions, which is handy and makes these NPCs potentially more than just a random encounter.
There’s a lot of neat accessories on the website if desired, including bookmarks, character cards, and even filled-in character sheets (although, at $5 the latter seems pricey for what amounts to a time saving web enhancement type product). I’m a sucker for small game aids, and having face cards for the NPCs is useful, providing a nice visual reminder.
Having received the physical book, it’s actually quite good quality. Despite the small size on the PDF, the picture pop nicely in the physical book, diminishing my complaint regarding the size of the art. The pages have some nice heft, the glue seems sturdy, and the cover is a good thick stock but not too stiff. The paper is a nice, professional glossy paper. Overall, the presentation is really good and makes for a very impressive product.
Sadly, I cannot recommend this product.
On the surface it looks amazing. It is a very pretty book. But like the rogues that populate it, looks can be deceiving.
There’s enough generic NPCs and useful content in this book that I imagine my hard copy will see some use, but as I’ll have to check the math, CR, and dodge errors I’m thankful I opted to only get the softcover rather than splurge on the hardcover (I’m honestly wondering if just getting the PDF would not have been better). But even if I ignore the mechanics, having NPCs (with names and backstories) can be extremely useful, so I do not regret my purchase.
My big nitpick is the NPCs designed like PCs. If you don’t have a problem with that, then this book will certainly have more appeal to you. However, even ignoring that issue there are other complaints: the formatting and attention to detail is sloppy; there are a number of mathematical and editing errors; it regularly doesn’t always follow the 5th edition design; and the limited new mechanics include numerous flaws. But all that is before getting to the fact this product violates the Open Gaming Licence by copying Closed Content not found in the 5.0 SRD.
To be brutally honest… this product feels like an early Third Edition 3rd Party Product released during the OGL glut, an amateur product by untested designers and writers, albeit one with modern layout and slick production values. I’m sorry to say this about the folk at Nord Games – who undoubtedly worked their collective asses off for this product – but I’m not going to self-censor my review to spare their feelings.
Nord Games’ next product is 5th Edition specific, and does not include a Pathfinder option. As this is their second product, it *possible* they may have learned more about the formatting and the design of 5e (and hopefully the Open Game Licence). The numerous other formatting errors and mathematical mistakes show a lack of attention to detail that is still extremely worrisome. However, they also won’t be trying to write two books at the same time. More time and dedicated focus will almost certainly yield a superior product. And it might allow the product to follow 5e design tenets more tightly, not feeling obligated to match the Pathfinder version as closely.
I am uncertain if I will end up backing Revenge of the Horde and if I do it is unlikely I’ll pledge higher than the PDF level. However, my interactions with individuals at Nord Games has been uniformly positive, and they do seem to have an honest desire to make good RPG products, being active on forums and addressing complaints on Kickstarter. Plus, while this was their third Kickstarter it was their first book Kickstarter, and they managed to get the rewards close to their estimated date (comparable to more seasoned publishers like Kobold Press). So while I am extremely critical of this product, I’m hopeful that this time next year, I can write a review of Revenge of the Horde that includes the phrase “most improved publisher of the year”.
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