Game: The Avatar’s Handbook
Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 13th, April 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Don’t try this at home (or in your local store). If you rip every page out of a copy of The Avatar’s Handbook, shuffle them and pick one at random then it would be very unlikely you be holding anything about the avatar class. That doesn’t bode well.
The front cover illustration is great piece of gamer art and a good summary of the book as a whole. On the front cover you’ll see a celestial from the upper planes giving a wretched demon the smiting it deserves. If you drag your gaze away from the illustration’s centrepiece and look upwards you’ll see a silhouette of a man standing in a pillar of light. That’s the avatar. He’s there all right but he’s tucked away in the background. If you have torn pages out of this Handbook and picked one at random then the chances are that you’re holding stats for either Celestial or a creature from the Upper Planes.
This 80-paged Handbook introduces the avatar class, a class that has 5 pages spent on it before we roll onto the new magic and then new celestials, planar creatures and even archangels. The single most important thing a RPG supplement needs to achieve is to do what it sets out to do. It needs to do what it says on the tin. The Avatar’s Handbook doesn’t quite hit this target. There’s absolutely no reason to rip the Handbook up though, the book makes all its Saving Throws, climbs back up through the ranks and reaches the title of “Worthwhile Purchase”. If you’re looking for a supplement to bring angelic creatures and the Forces of Good into your game then the Avatar’s Handbook is a great buy.
The Avatar is a divine summoner. He has a number of spells per day that he can cast and his own spell list, in addition there’s access to a specially crafted set of summon spells. It’s this ability – or rather, divinely bestowed gift – to summon celestials and creatures from the Upper Planes that defines the Avatar class. I like it. The class works for me. Author Jesse Decker (who penned on of Green Ronin‘s all time top five books; Hammer & Helm) does well in helping the reader over the looming pit trap where an army of summoned support becomes too cumbersome to bounce dice for. The Avatar archetypes, ways to play the class, inject depth into character right from the start. There are a small handful of new feats. There are no Avatar-styled Prestige Classes, not in the Avatar’s Handbook anyway.
There are new spells. I adore the new Banner Spells. Banner spells are only active while the caster is holding the magically summoned banner; this means disarming the caster can dispel them but it also means that cancelling the spell is a free action. Most banners can be used as a weapon (there’s nothing like smacking that demon in the face with your divinely summoned holy icon) and most banners have an area effect too. The list of new spells kicks off with a Banner spell so I’ll use it as an example. The Banner of Perdition is a translucent white banner with a moving, shifting flame in the centre. The spell caster picks an energy type as he casts the spell and then creatures caught within the banner’s emanation (depends on level) will find that their resistance to that type of energy attack start to decline. Additionally a touch attack with the banner does 1d6 of holy damage per level (up to 10d6) to all evil creatures in a 20-foot radius. Reflex saves help. It’s a 5th level Avatar spell and 7th level Wiz/Sor spell. Not all the spells in the 5-paged New Spells chapter are banner spells but there are enough of them to turn this great idea into a campaign feature.
At page 20 the book starts its 60-page beastiary of celestials, upper plane creatures, angels and templates. The templates make an appearance in the book’s large appendix section and I think are one of the strong points in the book. The templates are another example of Decker’s ability to inject some sugar-coated originality into a high fantasy core. I like the whole idea of a Sublime template for a good creature favoured with a certain nobility of purpose. I tend to not to notice small rules hiccups because they don’t really alarm me but when I found myself checking to see whether the example Sublime Mind Flayer was a valid example or not I had to admit that I was enjoying the crunchy bits of the book. It’s not a valid example by the way; Aberrations aren’t included in the list of creatures suitable for the Sublime template. Oh, I can hear the “Should Mind Flayers be aberrations or not debate” in the background. You’ll find a template for a good aligned undead in here too.
The Celestials introduced in the book have a really clever shtick. Each one is something of the embodiment of a good trait. The Lathar, a large six-legged hound (a great riding animal), is the embodiment of loyalty for example. The Lathar is fanatically loyal. It can teleport out of battle but if its companion refuses to leave the fray, if its companion insists on fighting to the death then so will the Lathar. If its companion turns evil then the Lathar still remains loyal. The Lathar is loyalty. The very next creature in the chapter is the Martrym and you can guess already that these little things are the embodiment of sacrifice, of martyrdom. When the going gets tough or even when it seems right these creatures do sacrifice themselves and has it happens this can be used as a supernatural ability that bestows a gift on an ally. This approach really does help explain the rather alien concept of Good that D&D seems to have at time. I’m not sure why Generic Celestial A would slaughter whole tribes of helpless goblins because goblins are nasty but I can just see an Arimrawthi, a celestial of Righteous Wrath, doing it. Very Old Testament. A Hallowed Penitent from the Avatar’s Handbook wouldn’t lay waste to the Goblins either; it represents punishment but also forgiveness. In just a few examples from the Celestials I’ve mentioned loyalty, self-sacrifice and forgiveness. You can find entire supplements devoted to supporting the Good alignment set that don’t mention these qualities once. The flipside, of course, is that this is supposed to be a book about the Avatar summoners; perhaps we should have had Avatars of loyalty, self-sacrifice and forgiveness.
Chapter Four presents the Creatures of the Upper Planes and these are powerful Good aligned creatures without the embodiment shitck. There’s a whole bunch of dragons in here and that will please many; Dream Dragons, Glory Dragons and Radiant Dragons. There are less powerful creatures too. The Watcher Scarab is only a CR 3 construct (so it’s neutral rather than good, and it’s not native to the Upper Planes either… er, but, creatures from the Upper Planes do make them!).
I don’t have Legions of Hell or Armies of the Abyss so I can’t see how nicely the text on the Revolt of the Divs or the Fall of Iblis ties in with what’s been written before. I do have enough at hand to know just how tempting it is to go buy those two books and find out. The two sample Archangels in the Avatar’s Handbook are Mika’il the Archangel of Righteousness and Gabrel the Archangel of Revelation. Beings of this power (CR 36, 35) need two pages or so for their stats, equipment and spells.
The only real problem with the Avatar’s Handbook is the lack of information on Avatars! I’d gladly trade in the pages on archangels for some Avatar suitable Prestige Classes – and I think Prestige Classes are ten a penny. Although it’s up to the GM to determine the exact role of Avatars in any given campaign world I’d have liked to have had more suggestions and observations on the relationships between Avatars and Clerics and Avatars and Paladins. Avatars and Druids is an interesting relationship; is it natural to call a Living Flamestrike to save you from a Gnoll ambush in the dark woods? Is it wise? What happens to Avatars who use their powers irresponsibly? Why can’t Clerics simply perform the Avatar role? Perhaps there are special rites and rituals an Avatar can perform to summon a more powerful ally than usual? It wouldn’t take much more text specifically on the Avatar class to appease me, just a little more. Despite this hiccup there is more than enough in the Handbook to justify its purchase. The Handbooks will help introduce the “Host of the Heavens” to your game; the Avatar just happens to be the one you can play as a core class. I’m being harsh but fair. The Avatar’s Handbook struggles to do what it says on the tin. The Avatar’s Handbook does inspire me; I want to use the book anyway.