Review: Echoes of Heaven

Copyright Andrew Branstad © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"Echoes of Heaven is a well-written, fantastically interesting campaign setting"

"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning?For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north?Yet thou shalt be brought down to Hell, to the sides of the pit."
- Isaiah 14:12-15

Untold ages ago, angels and mortals lived side by side in the realm of heaven. Then the archangel Lareniel succumbed to the sin of pride and led 1/3 of the angels in rebellion against God. After 1,000 years of war, the forces of heaven were poised to defeat the rebels when a second rebellion sprung up, turning the loyal angels against one another.

In the ensuing chaos, heaven itself nearly fell. Five mortal prophets, one of each race, foresaw the fall of heaven undertook a great ritual to save it. They sundered the world into three: heaven, hell, and the mortal realms. Now, many ages later, the war between heaven and hell rages, the church is split into warring factions, good and evil vie for the hearts and minds of the mortal races, and the mortal realm is the great stage upon which all of history will be decided.

Echoes of Heaven is a well-written, fantastically interesting campaign setting. While downloads are available for four game systems (d20, HERO, H.A.R.P., and Rolemaster), the bulk of the book is system-neutral. The setting itself is well wrought, with a level of detail on par with Wizards of the Coast's official campaign settings.

Religion, being a major part of the setting, gets more attention than it typically receives in a d20 fantasy setting. The major churches (which are actually competing divisions of the same religion) are described along with their dogma, structure, and history. While Echoes of Heaven was obviously inspired by judaeo-christian ideas, the author has done a good job separating the fantasy churches of the mortal realm from any real world religions. There are echoes to be sure, but no more so than what already exists in standard D&D.

Other setting aspects receive a similar level of attention. The various nations of the mortal realm are described, complete with some nice looking Campaign Cartographer 3 maps. There's an interesting section of feudalism, which I thought contained just enough information to give the game a medieval feel without getting too bogged down in intricacies. Overall, Echoes of Heaven contains all the information a DM should need to run an effective campaign in the mortal realm.

One innovation that I really liked was the book's clear definition of what plot hooks will and won't be advanced in future books. That way, a DM can create his own adventures without worrying about being trumped by some future development of the setting's metaplot. I thought this was a nice idea that I'd like to see implemented in other campaign books.

While Echoes of Heaven contains the typical trappings of a fantasy setting, it uses them in clever ways. For instance, in the world's early history, a group of fiends took the form of dwarf-wives and seduced the returning dwarven warriors. The resulting union gave birth to the first giants, who then waged war against their mortal fathers. Thus was born the racial animosity between dwarves and giants. There are many other examples of common fantasy ideas applied in unique ways to the setting's history. From the cambion origins of the various evil humanoid races, to the incorporation of deadly sins into the personalities of the mortal races, there is good stuff here.

While I appreciate the non-system aspects of the book, some of the d20 aspects are vague and underdeveloped. There are no prestige classes, no spells, and no feats to speak of. In addition, several campaign details have system implications that are glossed over or difficult to find. For example, alignment-detecting magic and spells that are used to divine the true nature of creatures aren't as effective in Echoes of Heaven. The book gives some advice on dealing with this, but it doesn't ever come out and give any hard and fast rules. If detect evil doesn't actually detect evil, what does it do? There are other examples like this. The book gives lots of suggestions, but it's very light on actual rules content.

As a bonus, the download comes with an adventure and a series of Campaign Cartographer files. The inclusion of the Campaign Cartographer files allows anyone with that program to access to the setting's maps. This is a nice addition, as CC maps can be zoomed, cropped, and otherwise altered for adventure design and other purposes. The adventure, called The Throne of God, is the first in a series meant to take PCs from 2nd to 20th level over the course of a campaign. It's well-written, and it does a good job incorporating various elements of the setting into an interesting plot. DMs not planning to run the entire adventure series can probably use Throne of God as inspiration when setting the tone of their own adventures in the Echoes of Heaven Setting.

LIKED: Echoes of Heaven is a campaign setting with a neat hook and a lot of detail. This book contains a level of information comparable to Wizards of the Coast's official campaign setting books, which I think is a high compliment for a small press, third party product like this one. The authors have done a fantastic job taking the idea of a war in heaven and turning it into a D&D campaign. The art is good, the layout is professional, and the writing is fairly solid. Bonuses like the CC map files and the free adventure make this a great bargain for the price.

DISLIKED: While Echoes of Heaven is great when it's being system-generic, it falls a bit short when its trying to be d20. There are interesting knightly orders, but no feats or prestige classes to reflect them. There are notes on changes to the magic system, but the actual work on editing and altering spells is up to the DM. I think the authors have a great setting on their hands, but the actual rules mechanics just aren't there.

If Echoes of Heaven had a simple and clear set of d20 rules to back up its detailed and inspired setting, this would be a five star product. As it stands, I'm calling it 4.5 stars and rounding down.

QUALITY: Very Good

VALUE: Very Satisfied

RATING: 4 of 5 Stars!

Editor's Note

This review was originally published on RPGNow and is reprinted here with permission.