05 June 2024

Review: Where Evil Lives

tl;dr: MCDM action-oriented monsters in their lairs - 22 lairs with neat set-piece battles for a range from level 2 to 20.

"Where Evil Lives: The MCDM book of boss battles" - does what it says on the tin. I got this because I went in on the Flee, Mortals! kickstarter and they succeeded so hard the project blew out to create another book. So I more or less got this at cost of postage only - and despite that being ridiculous rates to Europe, at that point as per Shakespeare "I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er." So this one landed with next to no expectations on my side and from looking at Flee, Mortals! this is cool stuff but not the style I am taking to my fluffier tables just now. Seeing that it is being sold on D&D Beyond I thought it might be good to take a second look and get it reviewed.

Cover art by Grace Cheung

First impression - as with Flee, Mortals! very glossy and impressive, a chunky book with nice binding. The first of the MCDM books to forgo the dust-jacket and become more like the usual 5e format. The art is, as ever gorgeous - but somewhat familiar in that there is a fair amount of duplication between this and Flee, Mortals! This makes the book either usefully standalone or annoyingly duplicative, depending on how you get to it. I will assume you do not have Flee, Mortals! for the purposes of the rest of this. The art itself is very nice and we have the interesting choice to completely abandon descriptions of monsters in favour of the illustrations - with lesser art this might be an issue but the work in here is just great for that.

So what is all this stuff you get in the book?
Intro - 16 pages covering the setting, stat blocks and rules.
The Lairs - 22 lairs with bosses ranking from 2nd level up to 20th, each 10-14 pages
Psionic Powers - two pages at the end collating psionics from throughout the book

So what is in here chunk by chunk?

Introduction give us a bunch of new tags and conditions which clarify or modify base 5e things. We also get creature roles - skirmisher, brute, solo, artillery - that indicate how they are supposed to operate in a fight. Also support critters - minions for the NPCs, companions and mounts for players and allies.

The main block of the book is all the lairs, each one opening with some story hooks, a list of location specific features and then a keyed map with the locations detailed out room by room. Descriptions for the location are delived in a couple of bullets - a decent balance of pithy and descriptive. We get the treasure found and the stat blocks for everything found in one of these lairs is at the end of each section. Little quotes from the villain are scattered through the section to give you something of their personality.

Information presentation is good, split out into "read this" or gated behind a check of some kind or clearly flagged secret for the DM.

The stat blocks are done in the MCDM 'action oriented monster' style with the standard 5e block followed by continual effects, actions, bonus actions and reactions. This makes for quite a lot of 'buttons and dials' for the DM to operate but they are blocked out usefully and designed to help monsters survive long enough to be interesting in an unfavourable action economy. 'Action Oriented Monsters' are good for those who like crunchy tactical combat and 'moar!'- more actions, reactions, bonus actions, more in the stat block, more specific monsters to do specific things. If that complexity sounds fun to you, where you and your table are comfortable enough with 5e that you could happily layer on what is effectively a big block of combat house rules, then this could be for you.

Most of these lairs are not huge - six to eight rooms being typical - with a few larger, a few smaller though some of the 'smaller' ones are structurally larger with big underground lakes or grand vaults or the like. These are focussed locations, a few have potential to truly explore and find different routes but most are relatively linear with maybe one 'side-alley' - designed to got more quickly to the big set piece combat encounters, like it says on the cover.

For useablility, while these are all set within the Timescape, MCDMs house setting, they are sufficiently generic and adaptable that they can be dropped into any standard D&D campaign. There are some nice tips for scaling up if you want to expande around a given lair - e.g. grabbing other lairs within the book to become secondary locations around this primary one.

New Psionic Powers - 2 pages of psionic powers collected from throughout the book - from villains like the Overmind and Voiceless Talkers. More of a teaser for the future psionics expansion MCDM are planning that sufficient to really see use in my view.

To wrap up - good locations, nice to have scaled lair, particularly up to the high levels that are often tricky to find content for. The 'just enough for each lair' approach is going to be something not everyone will love as you have to do the work to situate it in your world and get people pointed at it but for otherse this is great as you can drop it into any campaign with a little twiddling.

Flee, Mortals! and Where Evil Lives side-by-side

When I got the two books - Flee, Mortals! and Where Evil Lives - I was initially a bit put out by the repetition of content. All the demon entries are also present in Where Evil Lives, 12/14 orc entries are present, etc. however they do both standalone to different purposes. Where Evil Lives is going to be the location/map book you will have open as the party makes their way through it and a copy of Flee, Mortals! will be handy then because you will be able to also have your relevant monsters open at the same time.

I am not sure which I would recommend you get first or if you only want to get one - Flee, Mortals! is the more universal toolkit, Where Evil Lives is the closer to 'ready-to-go' adventures. Certainly there is enough in Where Evil Lives that you could use it as an impromptu bestiary if needed.

For other reviews see Tribality

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