Death: Guardian at the Gate
Guiding Light Series Volume I
Written by Darren Pearce, with Michael Hammes, Patrick Lawinger, Neal Levin and David Woodrum
Illustrated by Gillian Pearce
Published by Dark Quest Games
72 page PDF
Once in a while, I'll come across a product I absolutely loathe, but can't really bring myself to utterly crush in a review that rates items on style, art, layout, content, substance, reviewer bias, what have you. Death: Guardian at the Gate (DGaG for short) is one such product, and it's days like these that I'm thankful I write for OgreCave. Here, I don't have to provide an absolute numerical rating for a product I review.
DGaG is a 72-page PDF file available through RPGnow. I purchased it on a whim, more or less, along with Elements of Magic and Four-Color to Fantasy. All three of these d20 products were discounted to $2.50 each in celebration of "GM day" a while back. EoM, a modular point-based magic system, and FC2F, a superpower overlay system, were worth more than the $2.50 I paid, but DGaG, sadly, was not even worth that. I'll explain why.
Unlocking the Gate
The book is tolerably well-written, adequately edited, includes both fluff (stories/flavor text) and crunchy bits (the nearly universally expected Prestige Classes and magic doodads). It even kicks off with author's design notes, includes closing notes, and has respectable but monotonous artwork. Where did it go wrong?
A simple answer, really: audience. The all-encompassing title of the publication belies the narrow audience it actually serves. There is also the matter of the atrocious writing voice -- the attempt at multiple noble, cultured voices fails for me -- but that's a whole 'nother squirming mass of maggots (an image of death conspicuously absent in this publication). Writing in the first person is a deplorable way to excuse poor grammar and factual errors, and both occurred frequently enough in this product to catch my attention. To provide just one example, from page 7: "To be the Progenitor of Pale’s religion upon the mortal world was going to be a hard fight I surmised – still I was ready for it and hoped in all my hearts that I would do this great woman justice." It's fortunate that the Lady Pale doesn't govern the English language. None of her penitents do it justice.
I picked up this PDF expecting a treatise on death and how it played a part in one's D&D game. The generic Death, capital "D," with perhaps a variety of perspectives towards it and from it. What might different populations think of different types of death and afterlives? What kinds of death were actually possible? How would having different personalities/alignments of Death affect the management/function of the Death religion, supplicants and servants, and the Death domain? Additional Death-related mundane and magical items and artifacts/relics, as well as PrCs would simply be icing on the cake.
You actually get most of this; the catch is that it is only relevant to ONE version of Death -- and a pretty simpering one at that. I get the feeling that the author overdosed on Neil Gaiman before writing DGaG.
Everybody, Meet Death
In DGaG, Death is a woman. Not just any woman, but a kindly, genteel, prude of a woman who endured a difficult life and possessed no sense of humor before or after ascending to godhood. Simply put: a boring Death. She possesses only one faint curiosity: pointy ears drawn on all her pictures with no evidence of her elven or Vulcan heritage -- now there's a mystery. Anyway, this boredom pervades her followers, proponents, and church. I was extraordinarily disappointed that this publication, which could have touched on so much with the rich topic, does so very little.
However, for those of you who do enjoy the personality behind this particular version of Death, I must recommend this book.
DGaG begins with a brief story/parable, with many others sprinkled throughout. I tired of these stories very quickly. The first chapter settles into the sob story of how the Lady Pale acquired her station. Basic tenets of the religion -- its views towards age, gender, appearance, housing, staff, clergy, marriage, and so on -- are covered in chapter two, entitled "The Priesthood". Chapter three, "Mental Attitudes," seems better suited to inclusion in chapters one and two, especially when you consider that chapter four is also entitled, "The Priesthood". *sigh*
Both Priesthood chapters contain Prestige Classes. Chapter two contains two PrCs requiring 7th level characters with specific feats: the Chosen (anti-undead clerics) and Shade Wardens (soul collectors/grim spectres of Death). Chapter four includes a number of 10-level PrCs with various requirements. They are interesting, and creative, but I question whether they're actually balanced. A summary of the PrCs is below, with minimum/level requirements:
The fifth chapter, entitled "Objects" does not cover the conventional accoutrements of Death: the pale horse, the scythe and the hourglass. Actually, it doesn't even cover the symbol and staff possessed by the Lady Pale herself, hinted at in the early pages of the book. Instead, it covers a collection of magic items the church and its followers rely on, as well as the mortal derivatives of the Raven's Staff and the Lady Pale's holy symbols. Comprised largely of jewels and jewelry, the devices are stated as reserved (by design) for Death's servants and followers. An easy restriction to remove, so I'm not sure why they included it.
- Harrowed (morticians), 1st level
- Accounters (eulogizers/speakers for the dead), 1st level
- Master/Mistress of the Eternal Flame (death slaves/devotees), 5th level
- Melancholy (bards vs. undead), 3rd level performer
- Guardians (warriors vs. undead), 2nd level fighter-type
- Mysteries (wizards for death), 6th level spellcaster
- Seals (protectors of church secrets), 2nd level monk
- Shields (undead hunters), worshipper of Lady Pale
- Sisters (a paladin-type), 3rd level female Lady Pale worshipper
Many of the items in the "Objects" chapter lack relevant spell prerequisites. For example, Raven Effigies (page 39) lacks the required Major Creation spell prerequisite. Some of the items, such as the Raven's Eye (page 38) do not seem to be properly priced. This particular item confers the ability to see through all illusions and illusory effects, and grants the wielder a +2 vs. blinding effects -- all for the low, low price of 4000gp. Additionally, there are no spell prerequisites for this fantastic device.
The sixth chapter, "Rituals, Myths, and Legends," is almost a continuation of chapter two, but it deals more with lay perspectives towards death. While certainly unique, and worthwhile in the sense that you can see just how much detail can be included in your fantasy game, for just as many of us, it is simply overkill. The text includes actual handling processes for and/or transcripts of birth, death, and marriage ceremonies (complete with spells for each occasion), a brief calendar translation, and a couple of poorly-written legends.
Chapter seven, "Personas and Magic," includes another set of vignettes, as well as a collection of spells. By virtue of their descriptions, they're primarily intended for the spellcasting classes described in chapter four. (Note to self: never write spell descriptions in the first person -- it annoys my gentle readers to an extraordinary degree.) The spells are all interesting, though they are vaguely derivative of existing spells: Cutting the Cord is essentially Power Word: Kill; Headache of the Foe is an enhanced version of Detect Undead; Healing Breath is a limited version of Heal; and Raven's Solace is a crippled version of Shield.
The spell list goes on, and for the most part, each seems accurately done. The spells are relatively appropriate for the genre and other book content, and they contain sufficient, correct detail. However, I have no idea why Raven's Solace is a spell at all, considering that it seems to do less than Shield, but is the same level as that spell. It seems to be included simply to give clerics access to the Shield spell. The spell Know Lineage provides the caster with images and names of the subject's parents. I think it could have been a zero-level spell, but it's labeled a first level spell.
The tail chapters of the book contain three stories and a poem/hymn. I cannot offer comment on the latter since I know I struggle with poetry in general. Of the three stories, one is the typical plodder, one is obtuse and comes with an explanation and adventure hook for advanced DMs, and the last is interminably long (three pages!?), overly descriptive, and while not necessarily predictable, is decidedly unsatisfying.
So, dear reader, for this reviewer, Death is dull. Alas, no one goes screaming into that good nightmare. The near-indescribable calm and beauty of the Lady Pale embraces all who reach the end, easing their suffering and their passage into the afterlife without fail, and providing them with the peace they have always sought, even when they didn't know they were looking for it. The undead are the only abomination against our Lady -- at least when we're not combatting adulterers and otherwise fulfilling our bureaucratic duties as bean counters of the deceased.
Seriously, if you liked the style of writing and the content of that last paragraph, you'll probably get along with DGaG better than I did. Personally, this PDF's a three-pointer into my Recycle Bin. *SWISH*