Game: Friends & Familiars
Publisher: Bastion Press
Review Dated: 6th, June 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Friends and Familiars is a very pretty book. It’s a luxury. I suppose it’s a bit like an extra generous slice of chocolate cake at the end of a meal; it’ll cost you extra, you can skip it without ruining the meal, it might not be worth it if you’re not fond of rich chocolate but if you’re a connoisseur then you’ll appreciate the quality, it might just be enough to add that special something to your meal and its hard to go wrong with chocolate.
It’s hard to go wrong with illustrations of this quality. Friends and Familiars is, for me, a book of fifteen wonderful illustrations that have been bundled with some stats and brief background blurb so that they can be published as a roleplaying supplement. If you’re looking for a mix of NPCs that includes traditional intelligent humanoids and smart animals/magical beasts then Friends and Familiars will appeal strongly to you. If you’re looking for a no frills, budget or even quantity over quality supplement then you’re unlikely to look twice as the book.
The blurb promises “Ready to use characters, monsters and animal companions, suitable for any fantasy campaign” and that’s pretty much true. Let’s not be anal about the phrase “any fantasy campaign” and so let’s not point out that there will be fantasy campaigns without animal companions, imps, golems or even monsters. Its safe to say that the races in Friends and Familiars are safe enough for virtually all D&D style d20 campaign worlds and yet interesting enough to be worthwhile having in a book. I don’t think it’s being anal to question the promise “Setting neutral material” though. Okay. Fair enough, Friends and Familiars isn’t an Oathbound expansion and there aren’t any assumptions you’re using D&D gods either. The book clearly struggles to do backgrounds for the NPCs which setting neutral. There has been no Plague of Black Harvests in my campaign world, nor are there any western plains and so I couldn’t use Shae, the level 2 human cleric, without re-writing that part of her background. Most of the NPCs have backgrounds that refer to somewhere (the Great Forest) or something (Great War) specific. It’s very hard to write backgrounds without tying them into key locations, armies or events but that’s why “World neutral” is a selling point. Oddly, by being liberal with the prefix “Great” Bastion Press seem to make this challenge harder. There’s more than one reference to the Great Forest, the Great Savannah and a Great War. It’s easy enough to insert any-old forest, savannah or war into most games but its rather harder to sly scribble a Great Savannah on to the map.
There are two types of backgrounds; there’s the style that define the character solely through one important event in their life and the style that presents a quick summary of the NPC’s life so far. I much prefer the latter but others will prefer the former; it’s good that there are both. I’d go as far as saying that I don’t like to see backgrounds focused around a single event – even if it’s the undeath of the character or his transformation into an intelligent stone golem, I advise my players to do better. This dislike of the style doesn’t impede my enjoyment of Friends and Familiars; there is more than enough between the illustration, the background and the crunchy bits to suggest a personality for the NPC.
There are plot hooks too – always handy. I don’t like the way the plot hooks share the page with the illustration. I’d buy the book for the illustrations and be able to show the players “It looks like this!” but that’s going to be awkward if I’m trying to cover up the plot hooks too.
The table of contents is squeezed into the very first page and this saves valuable space in the 32-paged book. 32 pages at $14.95 means that page space is very expensive – I did tell you it was a luxury purchase. The contents include bracketed text for the NPC’s class and race. Class and race are far more important than the NPC’s name if you’re looking for something in a hurry. It would have been better still if they’d pushed in a challenge rating note there too.
It’s easy to nit-pick at Friends and Familiars. There’s no shortage of nits. It doesn’t seem right though, the book’s better than that. Friends and Familiars is one of those books that can lift a struggling GM out of a rut. It is like that slice of rich chocolate cake, it is easy to come up with reasons to avoid it but if you’re willing and able to sit back and enjoy the bigger picture – then it’s well worth it.