Game: Hollowfaust : City of Necromancers
Publisher: Sword and Sorcery Studio
Review Dated: 4th, March 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 14
Average Score: 7.00
The preface in Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers announces that it wants to do away with the stereotypes. Hollowfaust is a city where undead minions prowl and protect the expansive sewer system, where the necromancers wear black robes and claim, by right of law, the bodies of all who die in the city. Okay, so I’m rather cruel there. The Scarred Lands, where mankind and their allies face a daily struggle for survival in a world all but destroyed in a war between the Gods and Titans, were never going to be the home of fluffy wizards that would be content to keep animated bunny skeletons.
In fact, to be honest, I think the Scarred Lands has over taken Ravenloft has my favourite world setting… and there isn’t even a Scarred Lands world book out yet. Instead, the people at Sword and Sorcery Studio have released a string of quality and detailed source books. Although none of the source books have been absolutely perfect but all the ones I have read have been very good indeed. I think you need at least one of the other source books to get the best out of Hollowfaust. I recommend the Divine and the Defeated so you can follow the important history of the city but you’ll need others too if you want to be able to explore each and every reference in the book.
The bulk of the reading in Hollowfaust is about the city’s strange history and about it’s even stranger laws. The city is built over the remains of the pre-war Sumara. Sumara was a city that was destroyed in a great volcanic eruption and buried in ash. That fate is a rather nice touch for a game that borrows so clearly from Greek and Roman history, the parallel with Pompeii is clear. Since the city known as Hollowfaust has been in existence it has resisted a number of sieges, battles against the sutak from the Ukrudan desert and one against a combination of gorgons and renegade necromancers known as the Glivid-Autel. Hollowfaust is a lawful city and illustrates its antitheses to chaos in many ways. The undead that are used in the city are mindless automatons (there are some sentient undead but they’re rare and discouraged) and the restless spirits of those who have died are always laid to rest. The city is extremely autocratic; the city guard, the blackshields, patrol the city carefully and even their arrests are double checked by an independent bailiff. The book contains a short table of suitable sentences for different crimes in the city. You’ll quickly grow fed up of the phrase “final forfeiture” even though the Necromancers rarely employ the death penalty.
I liked Hollowfaust despite the minutia of detail that is presented in some chapters; the book flows well. After you’ve read through the history of the sieges and the destruction before that in the war against the Titans you have a good understanding of why the Necromancers are the way they are, in many ways you’re almost rooting for them. The set up in the city is extremely good for a roleplaying game. That is to say there’s plenty of scope for adventure, politics, romance, drama and horror. Different Guilds work towards slightly different agendas – towards the same over all target but with different emphases on things and that might very well mirror a well constructed group of player characters. The different levels of the city also map nicely to different ranks of heroes. If your group is low levelled the there is plenty to do in Hollowfaust; it becomes a possible shelter and source of interesting and useful items. If your group is high levelled then there is still plenty to get involved in. Even a high level group might never gain access to Underfaust, the hollowed out volcano where the Necromancers live.
The book is written well. The mixture of ambience and hard facts is nicely balanced, the blend of world information suits the amount of game mechanics and this is all written clearly and succulently. The layout is especially good, it managed to squeeze a whole lot of information into the pages and it does so in such a way that you don’t notice the scarcity of pictures quite as soon as you might. There’s even a rundown of notable buildings in the city, presented in something of a guidebook style and then linked clearly to the simple map you’ll find near the end of the book. One interesting twist is that the OGL license is stuck onto the inside of the back cover; I don’t know whether they forgot to include the license in the book at first or whether they decided they didn’t want to loose a page to the legal stuff. It’s a 128-page book and the cover price is $19.95. That’s cheap; all Sword and Sorcery Studio books seem to be fairly priced. Compare that to Song and Silence which also claims a $19.95 asking price but only has 96 pages. (Mind you, it seems easier to find a bigger discount on the latter.)
There are some nice touches in the book too. For example, due to the “death energy” that haunts the city there are modifications to resist necromantic magic, healing does not work as well and undead have a greater number of HP. Unfortunately all these little bonuses become victim to their own success and lack of index page. If you want to find the death energy chart, the crime and sentence chart or, say, the Icy Clam feat again then you’ll have to start flicking through the pages.
For those gamers who like to get a mouthful of new mechanics and resources for the setting whenever they buy any new source book there is plenty here too. Once the history and current state of the city is dealt with there are then 32 pages full of new spells, magic items, character classes and undead critters like Ash Golems and Bonewrack Dragons. Well. One Bonewrack Dragon (CR: 22). This is one of the rare examples of where new prestige classes are fully justified. Hollowfaust is a huge collection of necromantic lore, schooling and expertise. If you graduate as an Animator, for example, then you’re more than just a “similar-to-a-necromancer-but-better”, you’re a member of a prestigious guild, have access to special libraries and servants. The new spells in chapter five are important too. In the basic Dungeons and Dragons rules the abilities of Clerics to deal with dead and undead far outmatched even Wizards who specialised in Necromancy. The new spells aren’t a blatant power up, though, many of the spells are low levelled – the aim, I’m sure, being to provide practical and useful necromantic spells to the trainee necromancers. Some of the new spells, like Soul Exchange (Lv 9) are just scary though. If you want to add even more necromantic magic to your list then the Encyclopaedia Arcane: Nercomancy (Mongoose Publishing) might have a few surprises for your players.
Over all, I highly recommend Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers to all established Scarred Lands players. If you’re interested in the setting then don’t buy Hollowfaust first (buy it along with another, for example) since it comes to the fore only as a part of the wider setting in Scarn.