Review: Ultimate Equipment Guide Volume II
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Type of Product: Game rules/reference
The Ultimate Equipment Guide Volume II (UEG2), written by Greg Lynch and JC Alvarez, was supplied to me for review by the publisher, Mongoose Publishing. It's a self-contained reference book for players and GMs that consists entirely of equipment and special items for PCs and NPCs in your campaigns. Volume I is not required, and I have not read Volume I. The book is based on the Open Gaming and D20 licenses, which means it's 100% compatible for your D&D 3.x game and highly compatible with any of your OGL games.
The book is hardcover with 256 black and white pages, and has what I believe is called Case Binding, which means UEG2 is solid and durable, but won't lay flat on a table while open. The margin art is fairly narrow and unobstructive. There is a table of contents and a good index to help you find items by name or type quickly. Interior art is black and white and consists of small illustrations of all items ranging from basic sketches to more complex shaded illustrations. I don't have an exact item count, but my estimate is that there's an average of 1.5 products per page, so roughly 500+ items are defined.
Thoughts For GMs To Consider
A great, wide range of equipment types
Equipment is divided into 14 categories, each of which forms a chapter in the book:
- Adroit Arms Store (armour, shields, melee and ranged weapons, ammunition, new crafting materials)
- The Alchemist's Pestle (various substances and items)
- Beauty and Truth (art, books, music)
- The Beast Within (beasts, eggs, beast equipment, bombs)
- For Every Occasion (clothing, ornaments)
- Faella's Fabulous Foodstuffs (food, ingredients, special crops)
- Gulbold's Clever Contraptions (combat equipment, machines, adventuring equipment)
- Hidden Home (furnishings, fittings, traps)
- The Pilgrim's Saintly Sundries (holy symbols, religious items)
- The Prudent Traveller (PC and NPC equipment)
- By Sail and Wain (land vehicles and accessories, water vehicles and accessories)
- The Siegemaster's Workshop (siege defenses and weapons)
- Treasures From Afar (strange items, poisons, perfumes, weapons)
- Treasures From Beyond (items and equipment from the planes)
With such a large array of equipment, there's guaranteed to be at least an item or twelve that'll be applicable to your current and future campaigns. This means the book has great re-use potential for your fantasy gaming, whether it's high-fantasy oe low, steampunk or Tolkien.
It doubles as a pre-fabricated marketplace
The authors wrote the book so that it could serve double-duty as a ready-made marketplace. For example, if the PCs travel to a city and decide to shop for weapons, you would turn to chapter one and use it as the basis for an arms and armour store and its wares. Each chapter profiles a shopkeeper, provides some read-aloud text, and describes the shop in some detail. In addition, many of the items have flavour text that reference back to the merchant theme, which is a nice touch.
Overall, I like this approach but feel that it was executed with only partial success. The main deficiency lies in the lack of tables as mentioned in more detail later in this review. Some PCs will hit a store looking for something specific, but many will ask, "So, what's for sale?" and there are no tables, lists, or charts providing a summary of what's available. It's still possible to flip through a chapter though and give an inventory that way, but it's not as convenient and can break a GM's pacing.
Another wishlist item would be statblocks for NPCs described in each chapter. Technically speaking, combat could break out between a merchant and the PCs, but I'm thinking more along the lines of attribute scores, and social and knowledge skill ranks for use in adjudicating roleplaying and bartering. This is a minor point, however.
I would view UEG2 primarily as a planning and reference guide and consider the instant-merchant idea as a useful bonus. A little time and planning on the GM's part though, would succeed in making the marketplace idea a fully realized GMing tool.
Interesting reading and a good roleplaying aid
At a minimum, each item is given a descriptive name, a gold piece cost, a weight, and a description. Some items provide other rules-related material. What makes this book even more useful to GMs is the paragraph or more of descriptive text that goes into an item's history, development, society context, or other interesting tid bits. This transforms equipment text from dry entries about functionality into roleplaying aids (such as to help with descriptive bartering), sources of plot hooks, and GM design aids.
The book is about special, fantasy equipment
Another aspect of the book that I quite liked was that nearly of all the equipment seems special and unusual, and sometimes fantastical. This is not a book for finding out the cost of a bag of nails, a pair of leather boots, or a drawer full of cutlery. Instead, it's a book of unusual and interesting items well-suited for most fantasy campaigns. Some items might feel too exotic, mechanical, or ill-suited to your campaign, but many others will fight right in.
I would not recommend adding equipment in without reading and thinking about it first. I would also consider treating most of the items as special in nature and not available at every stall and shop. Also recommended is keeping the book away from your players. Half the fun of cool stuff for characters is discovering it, figuring it out, and being the only ones on the block with it. If players read the book and memorize every entry, much of the wonder drains away just as when gamers master all the monsters.
Some equipment could pose game balance issues as well. Many of the melee weapons provided, for example, offer reach (heads-up to GMs who've banned spiked chains), and a lot of the equipment provides small buffs. Powergamers could abuse this through tactical item combos and tweaks--another reason for doling out UEG2 equipment only a little at a time and with some forethought.
However, the specialness and uniqueness of items in UEG2 is inspiring and can breathe new life into various parts of your game. Keep a notebook handy when reading UEG2, as I found lots of ideas coming to mind for encounters, NPCs, and gameworld design.
A lack of tables
My primary criticism is a lack of table, list, and chart support. As the book is primarily a reference tool, I feel it should have had a number of tables to increase its usefulness and useability:
- A summary chart of items by category listing cost, weight, and a notes column summarizing functionality.
- Marketplace worksheet(s). If the book is intended to be used as a marketplace, it would be great to have photocopiable worksheets to track availability and inventory.
- Campaign management. Which items have you approved for gameplay? Have you made any modifications to the suggested pricing? Have you made any modifications to item functionality or rules? A listing of items and some columns to record which ones you've decided to allow and any customization would be awesome.
- A buffs chart. One of the great potential uses of a book like UEG2 is as a rewards system. Due to the uniqueness, usefulness, and specialness of many of the items, they make for wonderful PC rewards through discovering treasure piles or winning from defeated foes. The best rewards are those that are relevant and specifically picked for the particular characters in the party. Having a chart that would let you scan what skill, attribute, or combat buffs items provide would give an excellent reverse look-up to pick the best rewards for your group.
This quibble is minor and does not reduce the game value of individual items in any way, but I'd like to put forth the above chart ideas as requests for a Mongoose download or community development. If you know of any links to charts like these for UEG2, please send them to me and I'll add them to this review.
Here is a brief list of some example items from UEG2:
- Darkvision Ink: allows those with darkvision to read the ink in the dark. What an awesome design device. Villains could use this by writing in darkvision ink first, then writing over in regular ink. Imagine your players' delight when they make this discovery in-game. It would be a cool underdark campaign feature as well--adds a nice touch to your drow societies.
- Shambler Soup: made from shambling mounds, it provides those with strong stomachs +2 CON and +4 FORT vs. disease for 60 minutes. Lots of possibilities here. It would make a great signature dish for a restaurant you're designing. Its temporary effects also make it easy to control game balance. It can serve as the basis for a quest--a chef hires the PCs to track down more ingredients, or the PCs are hired to discover the recipe. The recipe could be given to a PC as a reward.
- Dueling Cape: Woven with metal threads, this velvet garment can serve as a temporary buckler with a hardness of 5 and 5 hit points. It is usually trashed after a battle, so campaign balance is maintained. This item would be a good reward for duelist PCs or for PCs to use in roleplaying situations where wearing armour is not appropriate (such as at a ballroom dance or party). It is also a neat piece of equipment to give a villain or foe to make them a bit more distinct.
This is a sturdy, well-written, and very useful book for GMs. If you employ it to be more than just an extension of the standard equipment list, you'll get a lot of mileage from this tool in terms of designing encounters, rewards, clues, hooks, shops, world details, and NPCs. UEG2 inspired the Roleplaying Tips Issue #268: Special Equipment Tips, in fact, and I'm currently using it in my bi-weekly Birthright campaign.
Final score: Thumbs Up