This book clocks in at 74 pages, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC/Ks-thanks, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 71 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a honest and critical review. The review is based on the hardcover and I do not have the pdf, so unfortunately, I can’t speak of the virtues or lack thereof of that format, so please take that into account!
This book is called “The Elves of Uteria”, so we should perhaps recapitulate what exactly the setting of Uteria is: Uteria is a low-magic campaign world not unlike our own – you see, for hundreds of years, the fantastic and magical was gone from the world, only to suddenly return. How and why this happened can be partially gleaned in the narratives and metaplots, but ultimately, it remains a mystery for now. Rules-wise, Uteria is assumed to be an E8 setting, though the rules herein provide options beyond that.
Suffice to say, the return of magic has also brought back the more uncommon races, namely the sub-species of elf, to which this book is devoted. Now, if you’re like me and have read too many racial supplements, this may still be interesting – why? Because it is dauntingly old-school in a rather refreshing way. 3rd edition sported many great design decisions, but also many sucky ones. If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll know about my seething hatred for environmental races that basically invalidate the harsh climates, for races that are nothing but a lame accumulation of stats intended for power-gamers. In order to illustrate what this book is about, I have to tell you where this loathing comes from.
Back when I started gaming, I scrounged together the hard-earned bucks I got from paper delivery and masked lawn-mowing (thanks to my allergy, a rather unpleasant task) and invested them in books – and when I read, I was taken away to other places: I read about elven mourning songs so beautiful, they could literally break a man’s heart; of dwarven ale that sends any human snoring to the floor; of gnomish inventions and halfling community. Not as part of a setting, but as general racial write-ups. These books sported details – a lot of them, and by virtue of these details, the values, the small pieces, the races came alive. It’s the reason I enjoy Alexander Augunas’ current takes on races – the books make them feel alive.
We begin this book with a solid map…and then letters – these letters, written in captivating prose, tell of the journey of Jarin Plainswalker, agent of arch-druid Erlwyn, who set out to collect data on the cultures of the elven people. His correspondence and replies, detailed in gorgeous graphics, provides what can work as either handouts or simply as a means of depicting the journey the reader undertakes while reading these pages.
From the get-go, once that premise is out of the way, we begin with perhaps the most uncommon elven race, the Alfiren, or elfling – 3-4 feet high, thin and goat-eyed with antlers, these children of chaos exist on a whim, heeding the calling of the chaos instilled in their very hearts. And no, this is not about the stats – unlike most racial supplements, this one is about culture, about the uncommon. The captivating prose introduces us to the creation myth and the deities of the elves – and yes, the book manages to actually weave a creation myth that resounds with central themes sans being a carbon copy of a real world myth – and yes, the narrative is depicted herein.
From this basic set-up, Jarin and the reader embark on their journey to the more conventional elven people, the first of which would be the nomadic Anarvari, the steppe-dwelling wilde elves that live in concert with their harsh environments, with the Kyzk, a new creature introduced herein, providing an analogue of native Americans/buffalo, though through a lens wholly fantastic. From the wild steppes, the journey of Jarin took him to the reclusive Kaelvari – which are most akin to what we think when we hear “elf” – they are reclusive champions that retreated to their forested domain after the dread Great War, with a legend of the love between Orum and Kala and the star of lost love lending a sense of deep-seated melancholy to the chapter.
When the elves were still enslaved by the eldar, the Alostrovari, the lorekeepers and seafarers of the elves, were the chroniclers – and while their forest-dwelling cousins may be less magically potent, they also are not subject to the harsh world as much – the massive changes of the world and the constant battle between waves and earth have instilled a somewhat bleak sense of memento mori and an expectation of betrayal among them.
The Evantari, the high elves, secluded on their plateau in the midst of a titanic forest, these people are perhaps the most aesthetically unique: The one-page full-color artwork depicts them as wearing red and golden armor with demonic-looking masks, haughty looks and the severed heads of mortals on sticks, a grim promise for trespassers. The Evantari may well be considered the elitist and dangerous component of elven culture…but they are not the only one.
All journeys must end, after all – and Jarin’s ended when he met the Orovari, the dark elves that have been exiled to the frozen north, exiled to these harsh environs after both the defeat of Kaldrath and the warlock king – proud warriors and dangerous adversaries, they face winters growing ever longer and will be forced, sooner or later, to test the mettle they acquired by bleeding for the elven peoples against any that dare stand in their way.
Beyond these write-ups, the book also sports several excerpts from the well-written journals of Jarin. While certainly a rules-light book, the pdf does sport 4 pages that explain spellcasting in Uteria: Every spellcaster has spell points per day based on class level and attribute. Full casters start with 2 spell points as a base, while bards get their first at 3rd level, with bonus spell points being governed by maximum spell level available and ability score. Spellcasters may regain 1/4 spell points (no minimum) for 1 hour rest, 1/2 for 2 hours rest – but that’s it. Beyond that, 8 hours of rest are required. Spells cost a fixed amount of points. An interesting rules-variant. Spells dealing damage based on dice-number deal the minimum dice-number damage – to use the full potency of the spell, you need to expend +1 point per die. Metamagic follows a similar way. Magic in Uteria takes a cue from Dark Sun – there are two base ways of spellcasting: Warding and Ravaging. Casters using their own lifeforce are warders. You see, you can cast spells even when you don’t have enough spellpoints, but it eats at your life. Upon casting such a spell, you must make a concentration check versus DC 20 + spell level. If you fail, you take mental fatigue damage, which is treated as nonlethal damage. When it exceeds hit points, you drop unconscious. Mental Fatigue cannot be healed via healing magic. It should also be noted that, unlike nonlethal damage, it doesn’t heal on its own – instead, brief rests can heal 1/4 and 1/2 of mental fatigue, respectively. Once you are suffering from mental fatigue, resting does not regain spell points unless you’re taking a full 8 hours of rest.
Ravagers draw on the life-force of the lands and others: When casting ravager-spells, all creatures within 10 feet take spell level damage or all creature within 10 x spell level feet take 1 point of damage. Ravaging is an evil act. Warders can also suffer from this: If a warden rolls a natural 1 on his Concentration check and has “a skill less than 10” he will accidentally ravage. *sigh* Concentration is no skill in PFRPG. Does this mean “below 10th level?” Rolled below 10? No idea.
The book continues to provide several nice sketches of artwork before providing some help regarding the playing of alfiren and elves, a glossary, calendar and a pretty extensive bestiary, which covers creatures from CR 1/4 to CR 11 – the bestiary is pretty interesting in that its creatures are uncommon – filthy armadillo-people, herd-animal lizards, a goblin variant proficient in climbing, massive slugs, armored mammals – the creatures herein do not universally have unique abilities (though many do) – but they add an interesting dimension to the proceedings, they enhance the world with a sense of quasi-realism. There would also be a fungal infection that kills the host, turning head and hands into claws and forcing the victim to shamble onwards, propagating the infection. The creatures herein may not always be mechanically interesting, but they do feel realistic to some extent – which fits perfectly for the focus of this book.
Editing and formatting are top-notch – no significant glitches impeded my enjoyment of this book. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard and the massive hardcover’s thick covers and thick, matte paper are high-quality and certainly make the book excel regarding the formal qualities. The art-direction of this book is phenomenal – the artworks hearken to a classic, slightly Elmore-ish style, but add a twist to the aesthetics – from whole-page full-color illustrations to just as superb b/w-artworks, this book is absolutely gorgeous -if you like classic art-styles of fantasy and superb pencil-drawings, this will work for you. E.g. the sketchbook highlights stages in the disturbing infection of aforementioned fungi and the artwork here actually manages to convey a lot of intriguing details, conveys and enhances the text.
Michael Bielaczyc and Dane Clark Collins have written a racial supplement I enjoyed far, far more than I ever would have imagined: “So we get a book on elves? And it has the ole’ wild/wood/grey/high/dark-guys covered? How exciting.” Imagine me thinking this, with my mind dripping with maximum cynicism. Well, I’m happy to report that I was wrong.
Now, one note: If you’re looking for even more elven crunch. age, height and weight and the like – then this book probably won’t do it for you. Then again – there are already a gazillion of books covering those bases out there, right? Right.
So, to be frank, I shouldn’t like this book. The crunch is, at best, a 3.5 to 4 and there frnkaly could be more room for each race. The point-based casting system, while relatively functional, isn’t as concisely presented as it could and should be. The monsters contained will win, for the most part, no originality prize regarding their abilities (or lack thereof). I should be much harsher on this book. But I can’t.
The fact is, you see – I enjoyed myself thoroughly while reading this. The legends, myths and cultures and yes, even the bland, ability-less herd animals touched something inside my cold and cynical reviewer’s heart. This book resonates with me on an almost overwhelming emotional level – like playing “Out of this World” for the first time when I was a little child, like reading the race books of old, this book managed to send my mind wandering to this other world and I could see it – I could see the armored orillots carrying their masters in caravans across the world; I could see the lone, thirsty wanderer fighting the fungal infection, I could see the spider-y goblins tumbling around, the hourglass-eyed elflings frolicking. It’s odd, really, but each and every chapter, each letter of the journey documented herein. I found myself longing for more, wanting to read more about this strange world and its cultures, a world familiar in some tropes, but still, inexplicably, novel to me. This book instilled in me a sense of wanderlust, a deep-seated longing for information about this fantastical world I haven’t experienced in a long, long time.
Perhaps, this is just me. But I loved this book. The prose is captivating and compelling and I find myself often checking back to the respective vendor pages, looking for more material. I certainly hope to learn more of this world. To me, this book resonated with a sense of denied homecoming, a feeling of magical realism that made the cultures depicted come alive. I wished this was longer. I hope we’ll see more.
Now as for a final verdict – well, my readers. I’m usually the bastard that complains, picks apart. I quite frankly don’t want to do this here. I thought long and hard – and ultimately, our beloved games, when we take the math out of the equation for a second, boils down to the story, to what those words we weave in the hearts and minds of readers and players and GMs do. And surprisingly, this book proved to be excellent exercise in the power of the right words, the right artworks, the right presentation – it weaves images and a picture of a world that transcends the rough numbers and minor shortcomings that exist in the addition of bonuses and multipliers, in the dry language of the rules. Ultimately, to me, Elves of Uteria weaves a wondrous, captivating narrative – the craftsmanship may not be perfect…but the artistry, to me, is. For me, this book is worthy of 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform, + my seal of approval.
You can get this captivating journey and glimpse at wondrous cultures here on OBS!