Review: Stormwrack

Copyright Robert J Defendi © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"This is the chapter that made me want to toss the book."

All right. I've been looking forward to this book for a long time. I've heard great things about Frostburn. I had a positive reaction to Sandstorm. This is the third book in the environment series and it deals with one of my great loves . . . the sea.

So how did Richard Baker, Joseph D. Carriker, Jr., and Jennifer Clarke Wilkes do? Did this Wizards of the Coast book meet my (admittedly high) expectations?

Well, no.

I can't recommend this book. I wouldn't have bought it but that's because it fell woefully short on the only areas I'm likely to use. Your game might differ, so lets discuss what the book actually contains.

Chapter One discusses the uses of this book and the type of adventures a GM might run. This includes aquatic adventures, planar adventures and the like. The chapter ends with a discussion of a stripped down narrative way of handling naval combat, under the premise that in a D&D campaign, naval combat won't be exciting for the players (this is the first time I disagreed with a premise of the book).

Chapter Two contains four "new" aquatic races. Now, the Aquatic Elf is an old D&D standby, but please, WotC, enough already. I've got more sapient races in my D&D games than I know what to do with. I've got enough. Stop deluging me. Races are getting as bad as Prestige Classes.

The second half of the chapter deals with existing races and their interaction with the seas. This is more in line with what I wanted.

Chapter Three is classes. The first half deals with class variations, such as how to handle a sea-based druid. This is what these books should be about. The second half deals with Prestige classes.

Sigh. Those who follow my reviews know my deep hatred of Prestige Class proliferation. Now this book had a shot of getting a pass from me like Waterdeep. I mean, the sea is an alien environment. A few new prestige classes might be a must, especially dealing with characters that actually live or work underwater.

They had seven. Seven!

I think I'm going to swallow my tongue.

Chapter 4 has the same problem as the previous two. It begins with some expansions to skill rulings, which is delightful. Then it moves on to continue Feat proliferation. Twenty-three new feats by my count. Really, isn't there a Betty Ford program for these people? A few, like sea legs, I can see. Now stop it.

Chapter 5 deals with ships and equipment. This is the chapter that made me want to toss the book. I'll get back to it later.

Chapter 6, Spells and Magic Items. You guessed it. Spell proliferation. Has anyone explained to these people that there's a point where "crunchy bits" become "soggy bits?" They also have new psionic powers, which was novel enough for me to be charmed (I don't have a psionic proliferation issue, but I have faith WotC will get me there eventually). New magic items are good. I think my favorite part here was the new Epic spells. Hey, high-level campaigns don't get a lot of love from game companies.

Chapter 7 is monsters. New monsters don't dilute or unbalance a game (yet) and this is a new environment, so huzzah. Some of the monsters, like the hippocampus, are a bit familiar as well, and I welcome them back.

Chapter 8 is adventure locales. I've enjoyed this chapter in the previous books, and this one is no exception. Hear that? I liked the last two chapters.

So, let's discuss the book overall.

Half of it is filled with stuff (Chapters 2-4, plus 6), for which I frankly have no use. What are the odds of one of these prestige classes ever making it into one of my games? Compare to the hundreds of prestige classes out there and honestly tell me why I'd be willing to pay for that paper and ink. The same is true for races and feats and spells. WotC needs to learn to pick their battles. If these chapters were focused, like a laser, instead of this scattershot approach, drowning us in game mechanics, I would have liked them. They aren't. So half the book is all but useless to me.

Now we get to two deeper issues, however.

First of all, research. I felt like a lot of research went into this product, there was all sorts of things that I didn't know, and I'm a bit of a nautical buff. Still, the things I did know often have glaring omissions. It's as if they wrote rules without thinking them through, or as if they didn't fully understand the implications of what they wrote.

Let me give you a couple examples.

First of all, there's the sinking ship. Now they have rules based on such facts as how much damage the ship has taken, and a ship can sink very fast with these rules. Still, they never mentioned that ships are made out of wood (at least most ships a PC will see). A real age of sail ship couldn't sink quickly. They'd sink until their deck was a foot or two below the surface and stay that way for an hour or more, until the wood became water-logged enough that it went down the rest of the way (they might sink fast if they were very heavily laden, but the book doesn't address that). Now, this is an extremely important fact, one that would radically change the way a sinking ship is handled by the players, but it's never mentioned at all. If they had just spent one sentence on that fact then the DM could have used those rules to model it and this would have been a usable rule. Either they didn't research enough to understand this or they didn't think it important to tell the reader. Either way, the book doesn't get you the information you need. Since I found one important fact missing in an area I knew about, I now doubt the stuff I didn't know.

A second example. They use age of sail ships and they have some cannons, but they also have much older ship weaponry, the kind that you can't use from an age of sail ship. I don't see where they ever mentioned that you can't use a catapult from most of the ships in this book without damaging the rigging. They discuss that there might not be gunpowder on some worlds, ruling out cannons, but they never give an alternative. The ships on this book are designed based on a level of ship technology that can't evolve without cannons. If you are going to say that they might not have cannons, a reasonable alternative is needed, and in a game with little one-shot alchemist items in the PH, it would seem they could produce something. Heck, Wizards, back when it was TSR, actually published an article in Dragon where they discussed this problem (They owned Dragon back then if I have the time line correct). Someone at the company should know their intellectual property better than I do. Again, it's like they didn't follow through.

But this isn't the biggest problem for me. I'm used to companies screwing up ships.

No, the biggest problem is you have a book built around water adventures. Your game might vary, but in my game 90% of the time I'd use that book I'd be dealing with a ship. The book has perhaps 20-30 pages that directly relates to ships. I don't see anything in there what would improve my nautical game. I see very little in there that would improve anyone's nautical game. Instead of giving better rules for ship combat, they give sketchier ones. Instead of sprinkling the book with boxes describing details of ship life, they discuss world-building logistics that are more likely to make your world more improbable. Instead of giving us useful ship data, they skimp over it with a minuscule treatment. They could have taken that old Dragon article, updated it straight to 3.5 and had a more useful book (and that article had a lot of problems of its own).

So you have to look and decide if this book is right for you. Maybe you need more aquatic races because you are starting an exclusively underwater campaign. Maybe you want skimpier ship combat because you know your players will hate it. Maybe you don't intend to use the ships from this book (or don't need them, or only need one or two). If that's the case, this might be the book for you. It's not that it was poorly written, I've had this many problems with books and given them a recommendation. It's that this book's entire focus seems to be geared toward a different type of game than I would ever run.

Maybe you're the one it's focused at. If that's the case, buy it. If not, let it be.