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An excellent take on bringing MLP into Pathfinder, but there could've been more

4/5

Crossovers are something I’ve always enjoyed, and that’s doubly true for bringing characters from my favorite media into role-playing games. There’s an undeniable joy in being able to represent your favorite characters from comics, movies, and television in your campaign.

Said characters usually tend to be superheroes or the cast of various anime, in my experience. While I knew that there were plenty of fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic who fell outside of the show’s target demographic, I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be many Pathfinder fans among them, let alone enough to warrant an attempt to bring the former into the latter.

The existence of Silver Games’s Ponyfinder Campaign Setting is a testament to just how wrong I was. While unofficial (in that it doesn’t reference any of MLP:FiM’s intellectual property), this is still THE book for playing ponies in Pathfinder. Let’s take a look and see how well it brings the show to your tabletop.

Before we go any further though, a disclaimer: at the time of this writing, I’ve seen just over a dozen episodes of MLP:FiM (and read the show’s Wikipedia entry). As such, while I have a basic grasp on what it is this book is trying to showcase, there’s a good chance that I’m missing some of the finer points; if you’re a hardcore pony fan, then keep in mind that I may be overlooking something notable from later in the show.

I also need to take a moment to talk about the book’s artwork. I’ve seen plenty of first-offerings from new companies that were clearly operating on a shoe-string art budget, and wow was that not the case here. Ponyfinder is a book that’s resplendent with full-color art! Immediately after the colorful covers is a two-page map of the Everglow campaign world, drawn in a very bright style that makes it pop off the page. Moreover, the interior pages are all set on backgrounds reminiscent of the main Pathfinder books, being lightly-colored in the center of each page but slightly darkening towards the edges, where there are subtle designs in the background.

But far more notable than that are the character illustrations. The book is absolutely stuffed with colorful images of ponies (and other races). These illustrations are remarkably talented, and more than once I found myself smiling at the adorable pictures. Visually, this book knows exactly what to show to its fans.

Of course, all of this art means that the book is about 80 megabytes in size for 120 pages. Personally, my computer had no issues with displaying the images or scrolling through, but that might be an issue for some readers. Moreover, that makes the lack of a printer-friendly version all the more notable. This is similarly true with the book’s lack of search options – the table of contents isn’t hyperlinked, for example, nor are there any PDF bookmarks for ease of navigation. Still, the text is copy-and-paste enabled, so overall the book’s technical achievements are something of a mixed bag.

But enough about that, what about the ponies? Very cogently, the book opens with the first thing most readers will want to see: rules for pony characters.

Presented as a type of fey, full PC racial information is given for standard earth ponies. Smartly, the book doesn’t retread the same ground for other pony types, presenting breeds such as unicorns and pegasi with alternate racial traits, rather than presenting full stat racial stat blocks again and again.

If it had stopped with just the basic three types of ponies, that probably would have been enough for many, if not most, fans. But I have to give Ponyfinder props here – it went the extra mile and then some: there are over a half-dozen other pony breeds presented next, ranging from gem ponies to sea horses to zebras and more!

It doesn’t stop at just mechanics either, there’s a good page and a half of descriptive text regarding the pony race, and each breed has several paragraphs of description. Humorously, the book also discusses the mechanics of a race that can use their forelegs in a somewhat arm-like manner, but lacks fingers (hint: it’s not nearly as burdensome as it sounds – after all, the ponies on the show get along without fingers just fine). There’s also several paragraphs given to describing pony members of each class (although sub-classes such as ninja and samurai are ignored, as is the inquisitor, rather oddly).

A series of pony-specific mechanics follow, including two bloodlines (e.g. Unification, which is focused around bringing the pony tribes together), several class archetypes (ever wondered how a pony would be a gunslinger?), pony-specific evolutions for an eidolon, and quite a few feats for ponies. The last section is of specific note, as it’s here that we see a lot of the more notable aspects of the show brought into game form: a unicorn levitating items with her horn, for example, is a short feat-chain here, as is the way pegasi physically push clouds around, etc.

That’s not the end of it, as the book then moves on to seven other non-pony races that live in the world, such as griffons, sun cats, phoenix wolves, and others. Again, full racial information is presented alongside a discussion of their society, alignment, relationships, etc. Each even has a few (usually just under a half-dozen) race-specific feats presented.

That was the book’s first major section. While it was largely mechanics with a generous dose of expository writing, the second takes a more balanced approach between fluff and crunch. It opens, for example, with the eight gods of the pony pantheon. Deities such as the Sun Queen, the Night Mare, and Princess Luminance are all familiar shout-outs here. We also receive the height/weight and aging tables for the races in the previous chapter (information that I thought for sure would have been overlooked – kudos to the authors there).

I was quite pleased to see rules for ponies as animal companions and familiars presented next. That’s because having ponies as prominent, PC-focused NPCs like these is a great gateway to seeing how well ponies can work in your party if your group is unsure about the idea. Finally, a few optional rules (mostly in regards to how much realism you want regarding how well ponies can manipulate objects) are given.

Everything so far has been high-quality work, but it was the next chapter that truly sold me on Ponyfinder. This section, which highlights the timeline of Everglow, the campaign world, is where the book truly comes into its own.

A relatively young world (it’s entire recorded history spans less than 750 years), Everglow’s history is covered in three broad sections. These are the early days when the Pony Empire was just beginning, the height of the Empire, and after its fall (the latter presented as the default option). After giving us a timeline, each era’s major events are overviewed. Interestingly, the book then presents major factions active in each era (including faction traits) and several era-exclusive rules, such as breeds that are found primarily during that era and no other.

What grabbed me about this section was the tone that it presented. Rather than rigidly sticking to the (almost naively) optimistic tenor of the show, Ponyfinder does a truly excellent job of presenting the ponies as living in a more nuanced world. This isn’t a setting that pretends that everything can be solved with friendship – there are differences of opinion with no clear resolution (e.g. was the early expansion of the Empire the work of a unifier or a conqueror?), wars with evil ponies, and an overall sense of poignancy as the ponies have realized that their best days are behind them with the death of their great Empire, with no clear idea about what that means for them or what they should do about it.

For that alone, I admit that I’m very impressed with Ponyfinder. It’s can be tough to admit that the tenor of the source material needs to changed when changing how it’s presented; actually pulling off such a change without completely alienating the original feeling it evoked is even trickier. But this book pulled it off. I think that the best example of this is the Denial of Destiny feat found in this chapter, which represents a pony that has voluntarily scarred her Brand of Destiny (e.g. her cutie mark) off of her flank, representing her rejection of the role in life that the gods have chosen for her in favor of one she’s chosen for herself. That’s the sort of mature take on a familiar subject that elevates Ponyfinder above simply aping the conventions of MLP:FiM.

Following this are roughly twenty pages that outline the various locations of Everglow, along with several ponies (and groups of ponies) of note. I do wish we’d seen some stat blocks here, as there are no NPC listings to be found, and this would have been a perfect place for them. While I can see the advantage of not setting levels for specific NPCs (such as the Imperial Queen), it’s better to have them and decide not to use them, than to want them and find that you need to make them from scratch.

Several pages of adventure hooks (covering each of the world’s eras) are presented before we are given a chapter full of new mechanics. Here’s where you’ll find equipment meant specifically to be held in the mouth, for example, along with things like the “elements of destiny” magic items, a spell to make hooves sticky (and so grip things better), and quite a few starting traits (including ones specific to certain times and locations).

The book closes out with a bestiary, and while nothing here was bad it felt like something of an afterthought. The deeptide horse has no descriptive text, for instance, and the vanguard inevitable, with its emphasis on punishing liars and oathbreakers, doesn’t feel like its breaking any new ground. It’s a slightly weak ending for the book, though one that’s easy enough to overlook.

I should also take a moment to mention that a few errors did crop up throughout the book, though they were rarely anything more than minor. For example, the alternate racial traits for zebra ponies didn’t have a -2 ability modifier (which every other race had and so I assume was an oversight), or that the deity entries had their domains and subdomains all listed in the same line, rather than separating them.

What was more notable were several areas that a Pathfinder aficionado would likely look at as a missed opportunity. While nothing was lost, per se, by not doing so, there were several areas that could have benefited from additional Pathfinder rules. The various pony racial stats don’t have costs in Race Points (from the Advanced Race Guide) for example, nor do the gods have inquisitions listed (from Ultimate Magic). While the factions do have faction traits, I wonder if they could have benefited from full faction rules (from the Faction Guide), or if the towns listed could have had – rather than just their alignment, government type, and population breakdown – full community stat blocks (from the GameMastery Guide or Ultimate Campaign). Certainly, the fact that the Imperial Queen was an earth pony who became an alicorn is reason enough to create an alicorn mythic path (from Mythic Adventures).

I want to reiterate that I don’t hold any of these exclusions against the book; it’s just that I’m cognizant that it could have presented more than it did. Still, when the worst thing you can say about a book is that it left you wanting more, that’s not too bad a criticism.

The material that is in here though is excellent for what it presents; enough so that I’d call this a 4.5-star book (rounded down). The coverage of the source material is not only thorough, but is evocative of what’s presented in MLP:FiM while still being suitable for a Pathfinder campaign setting. While it seems like a stretch to bridge that gap, Ponyfinder successfully straddles the divide and keeps one hoof planted firmly in each world. That’s something that anypony, er, anybody can appreciate.


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A plethora of details for potions, but with no discussion of wider uses for this

4/5

When gamers think of crafting an excellent campaign, we tend to think of grand sweeping epics that strike major archetypes and tell compelling stories. While that’s not untrue, it misses out on the fact that excellence is often found in details; that the little things are often what bring a game world to life. One of the aspects of these little things are the nature of “mundane” magic items – anyone, for example, can chug a healing potion and move on to the next encounter. But it’s something else again to have any details about that potion, what it smells like or what sort of container it’s in.

That’s an area that Ennead Games fills in with its Potion Details Generator.

Sixteen pages long, the Potion Details Generator is just what it sounds like, providing you with various details for your game’s magic potions (and, as the book notes, these apply just as well to oils too). It does this through a series of tables you can roll randomly on, allowing you to generate everything from the color of a potion to the details of its label (if any) and quite a bit more.

The book divides itself into roughly four sections – the first two being the details of the potion’s container, and then the details of the potion itself (not the game effect, but the sensory descriptions of it). Each of these has several sub-sections with tables for rolling up various aspects of the section in question. The container section, for example, has you roll for the material it’s made of, the shape of it, the size, the label, any marking or decorations it might have, and the cap. The potion itself has similar tables for things like the color, smell, taste, thickness, etc.

It’s not stated outright, but the implication that you should just skip a particular table if that aspect of the potion isn’t applicable (e.g. it has no label) is fairly clear.

It’s after these sections that we start getting into the purely optional materials; here we get things that actually affect the game mechanics of the potion. The first of these are two optional details: the potion’s freshness (e.g. the older it is, the less effective it is) and any lag time it may have before the effects kick in.

Side effects come next. A huge table of a hundred possible effects, these mix together mechanical effects with flavor effects. You could have a potion that causes the drinker’s eyes to glow as easily as you could have one that gives you a +2 to initiative. There’s no real rhyme or reason here.

Quirks follow this. The major difference between a quirk and a side effect is explained in the book’s introduction, and tells us that whereas the latter affects the drinker, the former is an odd quality of the potion itself, and has no real effect on the drinker. So here, for example, we’ll find results (on another table with a hundred possibilities) such as the potion container shakes and vibrates until it’s opened, or that the potion turns to dust when drunk (but still has its effect).

The book closes out with an appendix containing three expanded tables for colors, smells, and tastes – each put into a d100 table rather than a d20 from the preceding section.

Overall, the Potion Details Generator is a book that offers quite a bit of development for such an easily-overlooked area. Everything that’s here is useful, and indeed can quite stimulate the imagination of an innovative GM…which sort of leads me to my major complaint about the book, that being what’s not here.

Leaving aside a few technical details (the book has no declaration of Open Game Content nor Product Identity, and the Section 15 of the OGL has no statement for the Potion Details Generator itself), and that the materials for the potion container could have at least suggested a GP value for them (along with a multiplier for the size of the container), the book’s major issue is the omission of the ideas that spring to mind from what’s here.

While it’s tempting to just assume that magic is chaotic enough that every potion will have its details determined randomly, there’s a lot of potential here for fleshing out the game world by making certain details be consistent with certain criteria. Maybe all of the potions produced by a famous archmage are colored deep red, for example. Or maybe all healing potions smell like lilacs. Ideas like these aren’t discussed, and that’s a shame, because that’s where the greatest potential for world-building is to be found – not in the random details of a single potion, but in the consistent details for particular categories of them. That’s where, I think, the book’s offerings are strongest, but this strength is muted because it doesn’t bring this idea up at all.

That said, if a book’s greatest weakness is that it doesn’t take full advantage of its strength, that’s still a comparatively minor weakness. An enterprising GM will still pick up on this immediately, and use what’s here to help generate details for categories of potions, rather than singular ones. The Potion Details Generator is a great tool for helping to flesh out an easily-overlooked area of your campaign. I just wish it told you how to get the most use out of it.


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The guide that makes selling your soul finally seem worthwhile in Pathfinder.

5/5

The nature of power is that it’s hard to obtain, particularly if you don’t already have it. Because of that, the idea of finding a shortcut to gaining the things you want without having to put in the requisite effort required is a tempting one. If such a measure can be found (and if it works), it’s also virtually always incredibly dangerous.

Occult lore has long stated that such a shortcut is to summon and bind spirits to do your bidding. Pathfinder has similar traditions, though unlike the real world ones these actually function (within the context of the game world). Of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually effective in their function.

The problem is that game balance defeats the concept of a quick and easy path to power. Worse, since only spellcasters can summon outsiders to begin with, the fact that they can already use powerful spells sort of defeats the purpose…especially when said outsiders can’t seem to offer anything except “service.” What good is that if they’re just offering to kill things for you (as though adventurers aren’t already well-versed in killing things) or use their spell-like abilities (when spellcasters can already use comparable magic)?

In other words, the entire idea of the Faustian bargain is one that, simply put, doesn’t work in Pathfinder. That’s the problem that the Necromancers of the Northwest set out to fix.

Having just read The Deluxe Guide to Fiend Summoning and Faustian Bargains, I can tell you that they succeeded wildly. Let’s look further and see what this book conjures up.

The book opens, in true Necromancers of the Northwest style, with a few pages of fiction that sets the tone for what’s to come. Following this is an introduction that lays out some of the problems with bargaining with fiends in Pathfinder, such as the balance issues mentioned above, and the general lack of details regarding exactly what the fiend wants in return (e.g. “so why did the vrock want 7,200 gp anyway?” “No idea, maybe he wants to make a sword +2 back home?”).

The Guide lays out a four-step process by which making a deal with a fiend is done. First, the fiend in question must be researched. While it’s easy enough to say that this could be boiled down to a few Knowledge checks, this section denotes the different aspects that the research can cover. Just the fiends name alone isn’t enough, you also need its sigil, and after that you can research various lore about the fiend that will be helpful when summoning and binding it (e.g. it’s tempted by lamb’s blood, but repulsed by roses that bloomed under full moonlight, for example). Of course, this is assuming you didn’t make a mistake in your research…

This leads directly to the summoning part of the process. The summons is fairly difficult to do, as you not only have to beat the DC to summon the fiend, but here is where your efforts to make your ritual elaborate can really help or hurt you, as extra steps made to attract the fiend’s attention translate into bonuses on the attempt.

One thing I quite enjoyed about this part was the repeated notation that the effort expended by the summoner in acquiring and performing these additional steps is a very important part of the process. For example, a summons that requires a human sacrifice would provide a negligible bonus if you kidnapped some 0-level drunk off the streets and killed him in his sleep (or killed a mook in combat that you were going to kill anyway). Whereas going out alone at night and single-handedly defeating a foe who is your fighting equal, without killing him, so that you can drag him back and sacrifice him in a ritual manner is going to earn you a much bigger bonus.

This was a recurring theme throughout the book; various actions can get you specific numerical modifiers, but it’s the effort behind them (and, in some cases, the intent) that make these actions qualify. Trying to cheat the fiend by fulfilling the letter of a bargain without really working at it (or using a loophole) will at best get you nothing, and at worst have dire consequences.

Assuming you manage to perform the summoning (and it’s possible to not only fail, but fail with a severe backlash), then you need to bind the fiend. This is essentially a flipside to the summoning, and is presumed to be researched alongside the summons. If the fiend fails its save against your binding check, then it’s bound (and, interestingly, can’t directly lie, though it tries to bend the truth), and you can now start the bargaining.

The actual process of bargaining is given more of an overview than anything else; instead of focusing on the mechanics for cutting a deal, the book takes a surprisingly in-depth look at the things that a fiend can do for a summoner, and methods of payment that fiends will accept in exchange.

This is where it gets interesting. Fiendish “boons” are quantified into seven categories (such as war, magic, lust, death, etc.) each with three tiers, and each tier having two or three specific boons. Different fiends have access to different categories at different tiers that they can grant, alongside a “universal” category that all fiends can grant. (Helpfully, the book notes that fiends can only use these in service to another, and not at will, as they’re powered by the efforts of the summoner; it’s little things like this that made me really enjoy the book.)

These boons run quite the gamut in terms of what’s offered. Virtually all of them avoid being simple retreads of spells (though some refer to spell effects as a shorthand for what they can do). For example, the death 1 boon Attract Accident makes it so that the next time a specific creature is threatened with a critical hit, the crit is automatically confirmed and the multiplier is increased by 1…or, if the target doesn’t get into combat within a week, he’ll somehow run afoul of an accident (e.g. a trap) with a CR equal to one-fourth of the fiend’s. Likewise, the Knowledge 3 boon Pierce the Veil of Secrecy allows the fiend and its summoner to (make a check to) defeat ANY sort of magical or supernatural concealment effects on a specific target.

Boons are, needless to say, powerful. But they have a cost associated with them…literally, as there are point values for each boon. These values come into play in the next section: Payment.

Payment can take many forms (the book says that most fiends would accept most of the forms listed there, though I’d recommend that GMs determine that fiends prefer some much more than others), but all of them are fairly painful for the summoner to part with. Each payment has a cost associated with it, from wealth (the least accepted form of payment, and which has strict guidelines for how much can be used) to your memories (e.g. feats and skill) to human sacrifice, to your own soul. Reneging on these is also discussed, but usually to say it’s exceptionally difficult to pull off. Let the buyer beware, here.

Of course, this wouldn’t be very helpful without some delineation of what fiends could grant what boons. The book briefly discusses using existing creatures here, talking about the differences between using specific creatures versus generic ones (e.g. researching a particular succubus versus one in particular), leaving that largely up to the GM. It then presents two long tables of virtually all of the evil outsiders in the three Pathfinder Bestiaries, one for the calling DC for each outsider, and one for the types of boons they can grant.

All of this takes up about a fourth of the book.

The remaining three-quarters of the Guide is where the authors really outdid themselves. Presented there are seventy-two “new” fiends that can be summoned. I put “new” in quotation marks here because these fiends are actually drawn from the Lesser Key of Solomon, a real occult book of demon summoning which also had seventy-two demons described. Each of them is not only given a unique stat block here (with Challenge Ratings ranging from 5 to 25) complete with unique abilities, but also unique boons that only they can grant (in addition to the boons presented earlier). That’s in addition to a description of their background, their home realm, and specifics that can be found in researching them.

The authors even take the time to talk about these entities in contrast with existing planar conventions, discussing various options that can be used to make these fit in with or stand apart from “traditional” demons and devils, etc. The fact that they all have a new subtype with new abilities certainly helps.

Overall, The Deluxe Guide to Fiend Summoning and Faustian Bargains is one of those books that sets itself into the “required” category of game supplements. Not only does this book set a standard in an area of the game that’s always been glossed over, but it pulls double-duty by presenting a plethora of new monsters, which can be used specifically for summonings or otherwise presented as new fiendish antagonists. I didn’t even get to some of the book’s smaller offerings, like the handy one-page sidebar that condenses the rules for research, calling, binding, and bargaining, or the rules on fiendish possession (it’s a form of payment), using planar binding spells in conjunction with these summons, and quite a few more.

The Deluxe Guide to Fiend Summoning and Faustian Bargains brings a fiendish amount of great new material to your game. And you don’t even have to sell your soul for it.


A prestige class with a very specific implementation...perhaps too specific

4/5

Despite some greater focus than its predecessor gave it, mounted combat is still something of an underrepresented aspect of Pathfinder. Part of this is due to simple issues of logistics, e.g. it’s hard to take your horse down a set of steps and into a dungeon. That said, little attention is also given to areas like tracking enemies over long distances, or having groups of mounted characters who fight together.

Prestigious Roles: Long Striders, from Amora Games, attempts to put some greater focus back on those latter options.

The long strider is a five-level prestige class, meant to be taken at about 7th-level, based on the skill requirements. I personally would have lowered this to about 5th, since the +5 BAB requirement assures that druids and similar characters would lag slightly behind while rewarding mount-focused martial characters (e.g. cavaliers) that wanted to become long striders.

The class requires that you already have an animal companion or mount of some sort, though it need not be one that can be ridden. This latter point is solved in the first level of the prestige class, as it says that you discard an existing animal companion if it can’t be ridden, gaining a more appropriate one.

The long strider (which refers to the character; confusingly, the mount is referred to simply as “strider”), gains a number of abilities – two per level, and three at 1st-level – that enable him and his mount to focus on, as a theme, hunting. Being able to run for hours at a time without tiring, using their Reflex saves for each other, moving at full speed with no Stealth penalty, the long strider is fairly tight in its focus, and players who want to play a sort of “mounted bounty hunter” will find this prestige class very much to their liking.

The major drawback of the class is that its narrow focus cuts both ways; several of the abilities here make very specific presumptions about the type of mount and the type of character being played. For example, one class ability gives the mount the scent ability – if it already had that ability, you gain nothing. Another ability grants a bonus to range when using thrown weapons while mounted. Don’t use thrown weapons? Too bad, you gain nothing then. Being able to do a quick (dis)mount when you and your mount are very different sizes is nice, but doesn’t help you if you and your mount are only one size category apart to begin with.

It’s these limitations that present the greatest hindrance to the class. If you work within the scope it already presents, there’s a lot here for you; deviate even slightly, however, and you’ll start to lose out. It’s a shame that the class didn’t present some alternate options for those characters who had slightly different abilities than the ones outlined above – saying that if your mount already had scent then the range of its scent doubled, for example, would have seriously widened the versatility of what’s here.

That said, the class is still a good one for those who want what it offers. It eschews bland bonus feat options, for example, and each level offers a comparatively great amount of abilities, something wise since few of them contribute to combat directly. As it is, the long strider sets a great pace, but only if you can follow in its footsteps.


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Despite a few areas that could be tightened up, these are good drow options

4/5

The drow have been archetypal ever since they were introduced back in First Edition, and it’s easy to see why. They took the mystique of that most captivating race, elves, and removed all restraints and inhibitions. Whereas we still think of elves as being Tolkien-esque beings of peace and harmony, drow put that stature towards selfish and violent ends. It’s hard not to be captivated by seeing what such a lack of restraint can do.

That’s a theme that’s served surprisingly well in Abandoned Arts’ Amazing Races: Drow.

The PDF here is a very short one, being four pages long with two pages of content, which is split between new feats, traits, alternate racial abilities, and a new archetype.

The four new feats are something of a mixed bag. I liked the teamwork feat, which grants you a bonus on attacks of opportunity for using aid another actions (since aid another actions desperately need more incentive), and the feat to allow characters with wild empathy to influence spiders was a nice touch also. However, the metamagic feat that let you add a dose of poison to a spell seemed a bit too highly-priced, increasing the spell level by two; I’d recommend changing that to one, since it specifically says the poison DC is reduced for every additional creature affected. Likewise, the Demonic Consular feat had a penalty in addition to its comparatively modest bonuses, which made it seem to be lacking, overall.

The drow traits were much the same. I did like the trait that granted a bonus specifically to convince a charmed creature to do something it didn’t want to, but even for traits that seemed specific. The trait that let you add hit points to demons that you summoned was better, though not nearly as much so as the one that granted you a bonus to attack other drow, simply because of how much of a traitor you are. But by far is the Wicked Pleasures trait, which lets you drag out a coup-de-grace against a creature, and in doing so earn bonuses to attack for a time (presumably for how much you enjoyed it).

The two alternate racial traits are better in presenting a very drow-specific theme. One bumps up your use of Stealth (a bonus and a re-roll), while the other grants two feats that are highly suited for treachery (though the Betrayer feat is incorrectly labeled as being in the APG; it’s actually in Ultimate Combat).

The malus is, as the name suggests, a wicked magus. It adds two new magus arcana abilities, one for inflicting bleeding wounds that resist magical healing, and another to use antipaladin cruelties. It trades its bonus feats for new spells that are anti-good in nature, which seems equitable, but it also gives away medium and heavy armor proficiency for once-per-day use of normal and major hexes. This is where I felt that the archetype fell down, since the use of armor (and being able to cast spells in it) is a pretty big benefit. A once-per-day ability is not worth the trade-off; I’d recommend allowing these to be used at will to make it more equitable.

Overall, the drow options here are quite flavorful for what they offer, though there are a few areas where things don’t quite hit the level they’re aiming for. Still, the ideas are clearly in the right place, even if the execution is imperfect. Nonetheless, those looking to make their drow a little more wicked should find some good options here.


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These archetypes trade in the cavalier's horse, but not the attendant baggage

3/5

The raison d’etre of Third Edition, and by extension Pathfinder, is “options, not restrictions.” That is, you shouldn’t be bound by (relatively) narrow design ideologies when trying to make the character you want to make. So if your character necessarily uses a certain type of animal, it flies in the face of that credo, making the Pathfinder cavalier something of a design throwback.

That’s the reasoning put forth by Class Expansions: The Unhorsed Cavalier, by Interjection Games.

The book offers four cavalier-specific archetypes that break the dependence a cavalier has on its horse (or similar animal). Unfortunately, the book stumbles almost immediately out of the gate on its quest to make the cavalier mount-free, largely due to not taking complete advantage of the nature of class archetypes.

This is fairly explicitly showcased in the first such archetype, the attended knight. This archetype trades in the cavalier’s mount for a squire, a low-level commoner who acts as the personal valet for the cavalier. I did admire how the nature of the squire was very well fleshed-out, insofar as saying what its class and levels are, what gear it has, what special abilities it gains by virtue of being a squire, and even how this interacts with the Leadership feat. Indeed, virtually everything was covered here, with one notable exception.

That exception is everything else that’s mount-based about the cavalier class. That is, while this trades in the class-based mount that the cavalier gains, the cavalier still has the class’s Expert Trainer ability, which is a lot less useful now. That can also be said for the cavalier’s charge abilities (Cavalier’s Charge, Mighty Charge, and Supreme Charge), which are still part of the class under this archetype, and yet have far less relevance when there’s no inherent mount granted to the character.

This is an issue that plagues virtually every archetype in this book. The longshanks, for example, gains a few level-based abilities that make using armor easier (though holding off Endurance until 11th level struck me as a fairly late time to gain such a minor benefit), all for trading in the mount. More could have been done in recognition of the need to also trade in the aforementioned class abilities.

The seeker of all knowledge archetype is perhaps the one archetype here that doesn’t fall prey to this. Indeed, this archetype doesn’t mandate giving up the mount at all, because it’s focused entirely around altering the benefits gained from a specific cavalier order (the Order of the Tome). This is an intriguing idea, as orders necessarily have an in-game presence, and so alterations to the benefits have built-in flavor changes, and likely could have been the basis for its own product (albeit with more such archetypes). Why it’s here is a bit of a head-scratcher, save for it being cavalier-focused.

The wind-kissed knight archetype is the last one, focused on the equally intriguing idea of reining in excessive use of magic. The focus of the class admits that there’s no real agreement on what exactly constitutes that, which offers more role-playing potential than I think is covered here. That said, it falls into the same trap, giving two abilities (staggered across a few levels) in exchange for the mount…abilities that I think are slightly too weak for what they give up (e.g. wind-kissed blade offering only a single spell that can be used once per day, changed only when gaining a level? Not very much at all).

Overall, there’s a great idea here that simply isn’t being executed as fully as it could be. This product’s heart is in the right place, but in trying to dismount from its horse, it ends up falling off the saddle.


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Little grey aliens make a surprisingly welcome addition to your Pathfinder game

4/5

Sometimes there’s an idea so awesome in its simplicity, you find yourself saying “now why didn’t I think of that?” That was the reaction I had to Little Red Goblin Games’s Grey Alien Racial Guide, a free mini-supplement for adding the “classic” grey alien to your Pathfinder game.

While the idea might initially seem like an odd one – after all, the Greys are usually thought of as the province of science fiction, travelling in technological spaceships and performing scientific experiments – it’s not that hard to see them in a fantasy setting. Leaving aside the issues that come with spaceships in a fantasy game, your average Pathfinder world has so many sentient species, many of them with origins in other planes of existence, that it’s not really disruptive to add the Greys into the mix.

The book is only four pages long (with one page for the OGL, though there’s no declaration of OGC or PI), it does a fairly good job of explaining why there might be Greys on your world. For example, many of them are colonists there to explore and study the world for several generations. Likewise, they’ve visited enough world and gathered enough data to know about the existence of gods and magic, so there’s no real issue with Grey clerics or wizards.

The Grey racial write-up is nicely balanced, giving them no greater or worse penalties than other standard races while still preserving a unique flavor for them, such as denoting how they’re used to fighting space-born monstrosities, and so gain a bonus to damaging aberrations. As a bonus, this notes their Race Point total (from the Advanced Race Guide).

Several favored class bonuses are presented, and while most of them were quite good (e.g. fractional bonuses to alchemist discoveries known) others were odd. For example, why gain fractional bonuses to conjuration (teleportation) spells for the wizard class? Given how few of those spells there are, I’m not sure that’s the best choice for a favored class bonus. Or how the fighter gains a bonus to damage with firearms…and yet there’s no favored class listing for gunslingers.

Two new class archetypes round out the book. The first is the cleric of the Supreme Ideal. This is mentioned in the flavor text as being the Grey version of the standard cleric; since they can’t quite bring themselves to worship deities, the closest they can come is to worship an idea, which is what this archetype represents. However, there’s little actual text regarding what this means in a practical context – as it is, the major changes are a restriction on their domains, and that their channeling grants a short-lived untyped bonus (or penalty) to an ability score(!). I’m not sure if that’s too powerful or not, though I suspect that the severe limit on its duration, and that it has to be the same score for everyone, will help out there.

The Star Explorer ranger archetype doesn’t have quite as much exposition, sadly. In fact, it’s little more than its mechanical changes, which require taking the planes as a favored terrain, and switching medium armor proficiency for firearms proficiency. Needless to say, much more could have been done here.

Overall, the central idea of this product, bringing the Greys into your high fantasy Pathfinder campaign, is one that’s handled surprisingly well. The exposition stumbles a little, and the mechanics could use some tightening, but overall this is an excellent starting point for bringing a well-known but rarely-used race into your game. Given that it’s free, there’s really no reason not to pick this up and add these bug-eyed little guys to your game world.


Not so much an adventure as some ideas and mechanics thrown together

2/5

It’s a truism that heroes are only as great as the monsters they overcome. The reverse of this, that monsters are only as monstrous as the heroes they face, isn’t quite as elegant an idea. Nevertheless, it does communicate the more elemental principle – for RPGs at least – that monsters are meant to be used in the course of a game.

To that end, the Tome of Monstrous Encounters series is an attempt to do just that for the creatures from the eponymous Tome of Monsters from 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming. This first entry in that series, As Likely As A Goat Herding Fish, from Purple Duck Games, showcases a simple encounter for a 1st-level party. It’s an interesting encounter, and simultaneously manages to showcase both the strengths and, at least in this first product, the weaknesses of the idea.

The adventure here is fairly straightforward, with roughly a page of text laying out the entirety of the premise and setup. A farming village sends the PCs to investigate the ramblings of their local “the end is night” doomsayer when the town cleric finds that his current prediction – that some sort of evil will descend on the town from a nearby forest – stands up to her divinations.

In the forest, the PCs find a group of caprians (goat-people; if you need help imagining that, think of catfolk, but with goats instead), herding a school of flying fish to a distant city for sale. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but they’re taking them right through the village’s farmland, and the voracious fish will devastate the town’s crops, something that the Chaotic Neutral goat-people don’t care about.

As noted above, all of this is laid out over roughly a page. The rest of the page count is devoted to giving stat blocks. The adventure is surprisingly forthcoming with these; there’s a settlement stat block given for the town (though oddly, it has no name, unless its inhabitants named it “Quiet Small Farming Village”), stats for the local doomsayer and the town cleric, as well as for the flying fish and the goat-people (including PC and NPC stats). While I’m fairly certain that they’re reprinted from other sources, there are also several new spells and even a new settlement quality to be found here as well.

It’s interesting to note that this adventure is nominally set on the Purple Duck Games campaign setting of Porphyra. I say “nominally” here because the game world uses neutral language in describing the setting – a single paragraph is dedicated to where this would be on their campaign world. At a casual glance, that’s all there is, but there’s more here that suggests their campaign world’s touch, such as how the human NPCs have a special racial trait (which is annoyingly referenced, but not expounded upon), and the eclectic nature of little things that the NPCs have, such as the caprians having a dictionary for the catfolk language, or the cleric having a “living steel heavy shield.”

While I can appreciate these little touches – they certainly give the adventure a very distinctive aspect that is completely in line with what I know of Porphyra – they fly in the face of the adventure’s apparent desire to remain setting-neutral. If the adventure is set on Porphyra, eliminate the “On Porphyra” sidebar and let it be set there, but if it’s not meant to be, then campaign-specific elements should be scrubbed from every place except that section. Splitting the difference like this only muddles things.

Another muddling element is the lack of notations for game elements that aren’t from the Core Rulebook. The town stat block, for instance, notes that one of the medium magic items for sale there is an aquatic cumberbund. That’s from Ultimate Equipment, but you’d never know it here, since there’s no superscript with an abbreviation to help figure it out. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if there was a link to the d20PFSRD, perhaps, but there isn’t. Why certain spells were reprinted in full while other materials weren’t even hyperlinked is beyond me.

Ironically, certain other words are hyperlinked to the d20PFSRD, despite having no particular relevance in doing so. The word “wish” appears in the middle of a sentence, for example, having no relevance to the spell of the same name, and yet it’s a hyperlink to that spell in the d20 PFSRD, for no reason that I can tell. Worse, there’s no visual indicator that this is a hyperlink, so you’ll likely click on it by accident.

I should also mention that there are some issues with the layout that I didn’t care for too much. I’m not a fan of having all of the relevant stat blocks for an adventure at the end of the adventure, for instance. That’s not quite a big deal here, given that the adventure proper is a page long, but it’s a preview of coming attractions for the TOME series that made me frown. There are also no maps of any kind. Again, that’s not such a big deal, but it really keeps things on the simple side – there’s a village, and a forest, and that’s it. You start in the village and go to the forest and immediately find what you’re looking for. Much more could have been done here, with additional forest encounters, random encounters, etc. I understand that it’s natural to keep a free product bare-bones, but this is certainly an effort most minimal.

By far the element I liked the least, however, was how the adventure lacks any sort of clear victory conditions. To be clear, it’s obvious that the goal is to stop the caprians from letting their flying fish eat the town’s crops, but the adventure is silent on specifically HOW the PCs are supposed to do that! It does say that killing them is an option, though a poor one, but then completely fails to lay out what the other options are. Presumably a single good Diplomacy check could pull it off, which makes this quite possibly the shortest adventure ever, and also one of the most anticlimactic.

This isn’t some sort of mistake in the adventure so much as it is a complete oversight on the part of the writer. There’s no listing of XP awards, which follows perfectly since there’s no suggestions for how the PCs are supposed to accomplish their goal (short of butchering the goat-people shepherds), and even the monetary rewards that the PCs gain from the village are food and a few rations. Ironically, the PCs will be rewarded by the caprians also (why?) by teaching them a phrase in their language that earns them, when they use it, a permanent +4 bonus to Diplomacy checks with their kind – this has all kinds of narrative problems, such as how exactly do people who already speak that language not have this permanent bonus?

Ultimately, the first adventure in the TOME series isn’t so much bad as it is incomplete. All of the pieces are here, but they seem to have been simply plunked down, with only an outline to connect them, rather than a full scenario. This encounter needs to be fleshed out, have its layout tweaked, and its technical issues tightened before the rest of the series debuts, lest we all decide to close the book on the TOME.


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Flavor text that matches the mechanics of sorcerer bloodlines at last!

5/5

One of my favorite changes that Pathfinder made over 3.5 was the inclusion of sorcerer bloodlines. While this was an interesting mechanical way of distinguishing sorcerers from each other depending on what bloodline they chose, it also had the effect of building in a back-story for the character. Now there were character backgrounds about how your sorcerer was the descendent of a demon, was chosen by destiny, or some other compelling in-game reason for his magic.

The problem is that the flavor text never quite lived up to the crunch. While it certainly preserved the freedom to embellish on the scant information provided, sometimes you want the fluff to be provided also, which the small amount of flavor text never did. That’s the position of A Necromancer’s Grimoire: Sorcerous Lineages from Necromancers of the Northwest.

Just over three dozen pages long, Sorcerous Lineages presents ten new sorcerer bloodlines. While each of these has all of the requisite mechanical information, it matches it with a high degree of flavor text. Each bloodline is treated as more than just its point of origin; rather, each one has blossomed into some sort of organization that is (at least partially) focused on the circumstances that also granted their sorcerous powers.

Take, for instance, the Zartol Consortium bloodline. This is based around the eponymous Consortium, which was originally a mundane mercantile empire, until hard times made one of its less scrupulous heads cut a deal with a devil. Now, the mercantile empire is one built on human (and humanoid) trafficking, and the members of the family that run it are all “baptized” into a contract with that devil shortly after birth, granting them their unique sorcerer bloodline.

Isn’t that far and away more interesting than simply having the boilerplate Infernal bloodline from the Core Rulebook?

Each of the ten organizations here are given roughly one-and-a-half pages of background material on their origins, current sketch, notable traits, and how a character might be found outside their structure, in addition to their bloodline. While many are political or dynastic entities, not all are. The Sivix Conspiracy, for example, is a group of individuals dedicated to justice in a very Batman-esque way (e.g. give up everything except working to punish the guilty). They gain their bloodline by having it imbued by a powerful (and undetailed) artifact.

The bloodlines themselves are notably well done, and offer some interesting options. Those with the Descendents of Ho’Lah bloodline, for instance, have a horse as a bonded mount, and gain a number of enhancements that make them formidable mounted spellcasters. Those with the bloodline of House Faulkhor, on the other hand, are skilled torturers, being able to inflict terrible pain, with the ability to skin creatures alive at higher levels (and the capstone power of remaking those that they’ve skinned into servants, all the while keeping them alive).

Overall, A Necromancer’s Grimoire: Sorcerous Lineages is one of the less common kinds of sourcebooks that pays equal attention to the flavor and the mechanics. Indeed, it melds them together in a way that’s much more tightly integrated than many other parts of the game. Sorcerer bloodlines have long held the promise of being a hook to a greater back-story, but it’s only here that that potential is fully realized.

My one complaint about the book is that its tight focus kept it from branching out even a little – these days, some “extras,” such as a sidebar with a new spell or a new cavalier order about a group mentioned (such as the Knights of Lumina, for the Church of Lumina bloodline), but I can’t fault the book for not going that far abroad – easter eggs are extras, after all. This book presents sorcerer bloodlines as more than a set of rules with a label slapped on them, and that’s something quite sorcerous indeed.


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A thematic collection of crunch about bony foes, but where's the heart?

4/5

Ah, the skeleton. One of the classic monsters, it occupies a sort of polar opposite to the mighty dragon or other monsters whose iconic status is (at least partially) concurrent with their great power. Indeed, skeletons are most notable for being the lowest-level undead most PCs will ever face, if not the weakest of any sort of threats. True, the skeleton template does allow for some upward scaling, but by and large these are lesser enemies, and little more.

That’s not nearly good enough for such an iconic monster, and so Minotaur Games brings us Monster Focus: Skeleton, to try and flesh out (not literally) not just skeletons themselves, but related materials to allow for greater command or destruction of these bony beings. Let’s take a look.

Monster Focus: Skeletons is a fairly short book, being a grand total of a half-dozen pages in length, including the cover. Several black and white illustrations liven up the presentation. These all seem to be hand-drawn; interestingly, these pictures are rough, but not quite so much that I’d call them of poor quality. Rather, their unpolished nature seems to capture the rough feeling of an undead skeleton, chipped and imperfect but still whole and functional. I’m not certain if Jason Bulmahn did that on purpose or not, but it works to surprisingly good effect.

As a supplement themed around a specific type of monster, the book basically presents a selection of new crunch related to that monster. The book opens with a set of escalating skill DCs for what knowledge checks reveal about skeletons; this is nice, if somewhat expected, since most PCs are likely to know pretty much everything your basic skeleton has. More helpful is the note that for stronger skeletons, the DCs should be increased on a 1:1 scale with the CR. This is good advice, though it should be noted that the information should be tailored slightly in that case, since it’s possible to make creatures of varying CRs using the basic skeleton template.

Three feats are next, two of which go towards damaging skeletons (though at their narrowest these feats still deal with undead made primarily of bones, e.g. liches, as well), and one towards commanding greater numbers of them. I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the Bone Breaker feat, as it allows for slashing weapons to beat DR X/bludgeoning, something that always seemed like a no-brainer to me.

A half-dozen alchemical items are next. Roughly half of these are essentially power components, in that they’re used with certain specific spells to enhance the spell’s effects. This is sensible, since Craft (alchemy) has long been the province of magic-users.

Five new spells follow. I wasn’t particularly impressed several of these, but some of the other spells here did, I must admit, wow me. Corpse Rebellion is a creative way to attack an undead creature – by allowing its departed spirit to reach back and try and confound, if not destroy, its defiled body. That does rub up against the whole “no unwilling resurrection” prohibition, but only slightly. It also calls up interesting questions for undead who are presumed to be still in possession of their warped souls, such as mummies, vampires, and liches, but that’s the sort of grey area that cunning GMs will love.

Seven magic items are present, each of which is a specific item rather than a magic weapon or armor quality. These weren’t bad, but as with the spells nothing seemed too innovative, something I suspect comes from most of them simply regurgitating specific spell effects. A few go beyond this, such as the Skull of Fangs, which can independently attack creatures on command.

The book ends with three new skeleton templates, getting back to the monsters that are at the heart of this book. The decrepit skeleton is one of the rare kinds of templates that makes a creature weaker, rather than more powerful. The monstrous skeleton template exists solely to allow creatures that had powerful abilities in life to retain them as skeletons. The skeletal lord is an enhanced version of the skeletal champion, being layered on top of that template. It was here that I wish a sample NPC had been included, not so much because it was necessary as because it would have been really cool to have had a pre-made skeletal lord NPC on hand. Three skeleton-based adventure ideas round out the book.

Overall, Monster Focus: Skeletons isn’t a bad book, but while it does have the occasional gem of an idea, there’s little here that reaches out and demands that you buy it. There’s no insightful ecology or game-changing idea found herein, nothing that makes you think that this is “Skeletons Revisited”-level inspiring. That’s a shame because such iconic monsters really need something on that level to do them justice. That said, what’s here is certainly viable for your game, and you likely won’t regret picking this book up. It is, ultimately, a bare bones product that needed some more meat on it to make it truly substantive.


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Another high-water mark for simple spell variations with innovation

5/5

There’s something of an implicit understanding to the Pathfinder rules; we all take it for granted that the rules are finely-tuned for game balance. Now, certainly it’s true that the game does make an effort to maintain balance, but there’s a corollary that if we mess with things too much, what balance the game has achieved will begin to fall apart. What I enjoy about The Genius Guide to Spell Variants Volume 4, from Super Genius Games, is that it helps to remind us that that assumption isn’t true (or at least, isn’t as severe as we sometimes think).

A fourteen page book, the fourth volume of Spell Variants opens with a discussion of making variant spells, and the formatting used herein. Class spell lists are given, before we move to the variants themselves. Fans of the previous books will find the same style of presentation used here, as each spell is numbered for where it appears among the 110 given in this volume. The variant spells themselves are presented only in terms of how they differ from the original spells (which are always referenced in the descriptive text).

If this makes the book sound prosaic, then it’s only because I’m not doing the contents justice. When you have a spell like Wall of Molten Tar, a sixth-level sorcerer/wizard spell that acts as a Wall of Iron that deals damage as per a Wall of Fire, there’s some great innovation going on. Of course, a few seem to be questionable in their utility, such as Antijuju Field, which only blocks hexes and the magic of hags…but apparently witches are okay.

The occasional error also managed to creep in, mostly in the form of some spell names being unitalicized, and the rare grammatical error. For the most part though, the book is fairly free of technical issues.

Overall, the fourth volume in the Spell Variants line lives up to the high bar set by its predecessors, giving us dozens and dozens of new spells, all without the huge presentation that would normally come from making full descriptive blocks for each; by referencing existing spells and making the necessary changes, class spell lists can be massively expanded without nearly as much effort, or text. See how a few small changes can go a long way in The Genius Guide to Spell Variants Volume 4.


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A few sour notes in an otherwise-excellent horn.

4/5

There are certain magic items in Pathfinder that are classics. These aren’t your typical +1 longswords, but rather the magic items with iconic names and powers that everyone knows about, even if they’ve never gotten one themselves. Things like the staff of the magi, the apparatus of the crab, or the cubic gate. And of course, the horn of Valhalla. This last one, though, carries with it a bit of bookkeeping, as it requires you to have stat blocks for the combatants summoned – there’s also a bit of an oddity in having a horn named after a plane of existence that might not exist in your game.

It’s issues like these that Raging Swan Press aims to take care of with their eponymous Horns of Valhalla supplement. Let’s see how well they do.

On the technical side of things, there are two versions of the supplement, one for screen viewing and the other for printing. That’s what the file names indicate, at least, because I didn’t see any difference between them. Both have the same illustrations, layout, page count, etc. The sole exception was that some of the illustrations are slightly sharper in the print file, but I had to do a side-by-side comparison to notice this.

The product did otherwise hit all of the technical checkmarks that it’s supposed to as a PDF; copy-and-paste is enabled and there are full, nested bookmarks for each section and subsection. In terms of artwork, the book is fairly sparse. There are no backgrounds or page borders, for example. There are enough illustrations that the book never feels visually boring, though, with a black and white illustration, usually of the creatures summoned by various horns, found every few pages.

The book opens by going over the basics of how horns of Valhalla work. Right away, the book presents useful material by giving us additional information (e.g. its armor class, hit points, etc.) and small variants (horns that summon different types of warriors with each use) for the horn. I quite liked this, as these are the sorts of things that nobody cares about until you need them (e.g. somebody tries to sunder a horn), at which point they’re impossible to find. Likewise, I quite enjoy randomized variations on classic things, finding them to be very old school in feeling.

The book suggests a few thematic variants for horns (e.g. a horn of the dwarvish lords), each receiving just a sentence of two of description, before moving on to additional powers and variants. For the most part, these are a large table of additional powers that a horn could have, and how that modifies its caster level and price, along with some additional information regarding horns that are aligned, cursed, and/or intelligent.

This section was quite good, but it was a situation where I felt like it didn’t take a good idea far enough. For example, the table of additional powers didn’t have a percentage, so you can’t (easily) roll randomly on it. Likewise, I would have loved if there had been a table for variant prerequisites for activating a horn (because remember, you need the proper prerequisite to make a horn work correctly, or its summoned warriors attack you).

It’s after this that we’re given full material on six horns: the classic horn of Valhalla and five variants. I say “full material” here because we’re given not only the standard magic item information, but also a visual description, overview of who (or rather, what) typically uses such a horn, and its legend. Oh, and of course, full stat blocks for the creatures it summons.

These five variants are based around themes, with Arachne’s horn, for example, summoning spiders, whereas the horn of the dead summons skeletal warriors. While each horn is detailed nicely, it’s the stat blocks that are the real meat of each item, as having the types of warriors summoned is very convenient. For the most part, the stats themselves seemed fairly consistent, but I did notice the occasional error (for example, the fighters summoned using the horn of the bow have the archer archetype, from the APG. However, they’ve only had the first alternate class ability of that archetype swapped in; the others, such as having trick shot replace armor training, aren’t there.

It’s also worth noting that Raging Swan Press uses a slightly modified version of the typical Pathfinder stat block. Each section, for example, doesn’t have its own header, and one or two things are different, such as a listing for how much a creature’s armor check penalty (or ACP) is. For the most part it’s not a big deal, but it might cause some confusion initially; luckily the book breaks down how it organizes its stat blocks in an appendix, but I still think it might have been better to stick to the standard Pathfinder presentation.

Finally, I question the decision to make all of the creatures listed here be of the construct creature type. I know this follows with what’s listed for the horn of Valhalla in the Core Rulebook, but I suspect that the designers made this change to avoid the thematic problem of summoning actual spirits, not realizing that this creates a more practical problem instead. You see, in addition to having a wide swath of immunities, these creatures also get a fairly hefty bump in hit points – constructs don’t get Constitution bonuses to their Hit Dice, but they get bonus hit points based on size. Since most of these constructs have few Hit Dice, but are man-sized, that means that their hit points have heavily inflated. For example, a typical giant spider is a CR 1 creature with 16 hit points. One summoned with Arachne’s horn, on the other hand, is a CR 1 creature with 33 hit points, and construct immunities. Admittedly, this won’t be a problem since most groups of PCs will likely be higher level than this, but it still seems off to me.

Had it been up to me, I’d have kicked that whole “they’re really constructs” idea to the curb, and just treated all of the combatants summoned by any horn as creatures of the appropriate type; is that really much different from how summoning spells work now? I’m aware that it’s ironic of me to take Raging Swan to task for not hewing closely enough to “traditional” Pathfinder in terms of stat block presentation, while then turning around and saying they shouldn’t have conformed quite so much in the kinds of creature summoned, but there it is.

Overall, Horns of Valhalla is definitely useful to a player, or a GM, who has such a horn. Having the relevant stat blocks at hand is not just useful, but almost necessary for including such an item. The extras and variants are just the icing on the cake. That said, it’s the little things that made me knock a star off of my final rating; the errors with the horn of the bow’s archers, the issues with all of the summons being constructs, etc. were sour notes in the otherwise-clear call of these horns. Still, I recommend this book to those who have or want a horn of Valhalla in their game; without this book, using that horn really blows.


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Awesome anachronisms for your Pathfinder characters

5/5

A lot of gamers forget (or quite often never knew in the first place) that the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction used to be far more permeable than it’s generally considered to be today. Indeed, high-tech-versus-magic remains a sub-genre of its own today, though usually moreso in fiction than in role-playing games. However, we do still see technology creeping into our fantasy in tabletop RPGs, with all of the results that come from getting peanut butter in our chocolate.

#1 With a Bullet Point: 6 Anachronistic Armors, by Super Genius Games, is a product that dives directly, albeit briefly, into this genre mashup. As the title suggests, it provides Pathfinder statistics for six kinds of armor (actually four kinds of armor and two shields) from contemporary Earth.

I had some reservations about this product before I looked at it. I was dubious that the author would simply assign statistics to these armors and shields that would put them on an even keel with standard Pathfinder defensive equipment. That would, in my mind, have defeated the entire point of making these anachronistic armors different – after all, contemporary armor and shields are supposed to be better than older ones, usually in terms of their level of protection versus their weight and bulk, and so just making them have parity with their “medieval” counterparts would have defeated the purpose of statting them at all.

Of course, these guys are called the Super Geniuses for a reason. Author Owen K. C. Stephens saw right through my initial concerns, and did indeed make these armors different, in a way that made them unique and desirable without being overpowering.

The key here is that, for the armors, the bonuses they grant against firearms are much greater than against other kinds of weapons. Indeed, not only does its AC bonus increase, but it makes the attack roll be normal, rather than a touch attach. That’s a HUGE benefit! One of the shields (the tactical shield) offers similar benefits; only the riot shield is not as effective against firearms, but does gain modest benefits against improvised weapons (as well as attacking with it).

That said, there were a few minor quibbles I had with the product. The ceramic armor, for example, apparently has an error in it in that, despite being medium armor, it doesn’t seem to reduce the wearer’s speed rating; there’s no text about that, so I presume it’s in error. Moreover, the armor has a drawback in that its ceramic plates can lose their protective value when damaged; I don’t disapprove of this level of simulationism, but rather wish that there was even a single sentence about what sort of Craft check it would be to make new plates – presumably it’s Craft (armorsmithing), but the DC would presumably be different (since you’re not remaking the entire armor).

That said, some small issues with one armor out of the six here is still a very high bar! Given that the product surprised me by dealing with the issues I was concerned about, and how small its few problems are, I can’t give this less than five out of five stars. If there’s any sort of way your PCs can get access to equipment from other times and places, they’d do far worse than to pick up some anachronistic armors.


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The PCs have finally become true masters of evil...but to what end?

5/5

It is said that all evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing. That may be true, but what about when good men (and women…and dragons, celestials, and so many more) do, in fact, do something? Can evil still be triumphant then? That’s the question that has been posed throughout the Way of the Wicked adventure path, from Fire Mountain Games, and the final answer is presented in the sixth and final book in the series, The Wages of Sin.

The Wages of Sin is presented in three files: the main book, a printer-friendly version thereof, and a set of player handouts. The player handouts are, for the most part, maps with the GM-only information removed, though one illustration is there too. The counterparts, with the GM information added, are found in the main book.

The printer-friendly file is the main file down to a “T,” save for turning the page borders into grayscale and removing the page backgrounds. This may sound like a lot, but it still preserves all of the interior illustrations, all in full color. I maintain that this detracts from the “printer-friendly” part of the equation, especially since several of these illustrations take up an entire page (though, to be fair, that does mean you can skip over those pages altogether).

It’s on that note that I do need to talk about the illustrations again. Michael Clarke’s talent is on full display once again, with a large number of full-color illustrations, many of which, as noted, take up an entire page. The artwork here is gorgeous, enough so that I wish that there was a separate file of just the art so that it could be shown to the players without needing to let them see the accompanying text (on the non-full-page illustrations, I mean). Heck, I just wish that there was an artbook of this material for its own sake.

The main file is just over a hundred pages long. While it does allow for copy-and-pasting the text, and there are bookmarks present, said bookmarks are to each of the book’s major sections only; there are no nested bookmarks to go to sub-sections, which is a shame.

The Wages of Sin opens with the usual introduction from the author, which is noteworthy this time because he talks about the issue of how to end the campaign; specifically, he calls into question whether you want to end on a note of evil victorious or evil undone, and discusses, albeit briefly, the pros and cons of each, insofar as what your players would like. I was actually somewhat impressed with this, since it brings up what I think is an interesting distinction in how the campaign ending can be approached – whether from a more personal point of view (e.g. “I don’t want my character to be defeated while on the cusp of total victory!”) or from a more poetic, narrative standpoint (e.g. “and so our PCs’ evil finally catches up to them, and they earn their just deserts.”). It’s an interesting dichotomy to consider.

The adventure background presents, well…the background for the adventure. More specifically, it goes over some of the things that have been happening outside the PCs knowledge to set things into motion, which isn’t unbelievable despite having five books’ worth of material behind them at this point. More specifically, we get the background on what Princess Bellinda (the last, best hope for Talinguarde) has been up to, and the information about the here-to-fore unknown Sixth Knot.

We then move on to the first major section of the book, which takes place shortly after the PCs successfully overthrew their master at end of the previous adventure. Now, the PCs are in charge…or are they? In fact, being in command is more than just having thrown off the shackles of servitude; it means actually taking control of the existing operation, enforcing their will on their comrades in evil, and keeping the late Cardinal Thorn’s plans on track.

Several events in this section focus on just that, as the PCs need to deal with the various factions remaining in the service of Hell, ending the “threat” of the humanoid army marching towards the capital, and then formally assuming control of the nation. Several of the events here revolve around existing NPCs that the PCs have dealt with before, and the author does a fairly good job of noting not only how these scenarios could play out based on what the PCs have done before now, but how they still could depending on what the PCs do.

My major complaint about this section was the sidebar near the end on why Princess Bellinda can’t be discovered and hunted down prematurely by the PCs. It’s not necessarily that she has a mcguffin item that makes her impossible to find, it’s that this is plainly acknowledged by the text, rather than giving her mcguffin stats. While all adventure paths are railroads to some degree, the major draw of this last adventure is that after so long being under the command of another, the PCs are now free to do what they want. This freedom is, for the most part, celebrated in this adventure…except where Bellinda is concerned. The text about her artifact makes it clear that there’s nothing the PCs can do to find her, and so the endgame can’t be tampered with (very much). It strikes me as a bit of a cop-out; at least give the thing game mechanics so that it’s conceivable, if unlikely, that the player-characters could have a chance of overcoming it.

Act two is the real meat of the book, being fully half of its page-count. It’s here that the PCs are at their pinnacle of glory. They are now in command of the nation that once condemned them; this section is given to all of the things that they can do – and that they must do – now that Talinguard is theirs. While various points in the campaign have been fairly open-ended in what the PCs could do, this is the largest the sandbox has ever been in the Way of the Wicked.

For one thing, the PCs are given several years of game time to indulge themselves. Over this, thirty different events are presented. Some of these are things that the PCs can do for themselves (do you want to legalize prostitution? How about the slave trade?), while others are things that happen during the course of their reign (e.g. assassins!). Insightfully, these events are set to take up set blocks of time, making them easy to adjudicate during the PCs’ rule over Talinguarde.

What really makes these events stand out is their scope. While some of these are issues of domestic policy, such as whether or not to erect temples to Asmodeus, others are much more grand. Do the PCs want to send their army to the north and wipe out the remaining humanoids (and other creatures) there, conquering the whole island? What about opening trade with foreign nations? There are many things the PCs can do to reshape the political and social lay of the land as they desire. As a bonus, there are almost two dozen additional actions that are specifically meant for the PCs minions (using the rules first introduced in the second adventure).

Event three is where it all starts to fall apart. Bellinda is back, and depending on how the PCs ran things, the degree to which the domestic populace flocks to her banner can vary wildly. Only a half-dozen events are here, and some of these are fairly low-key events like tallying up the respective sizes of the PCs army versus the Princess’s. Several individuals play out their last scenes, and the stage is pretty well set by the time things are ended here.

The fourth event is the finale to everything, as the two major armies clash. The PCs’ main opponents here are Bellinda and her immediate retinue, set against the backdrop of the battle. The bulk of this section discusses the battlefield itself, and the hefty stat blocks for the good guys, each one taking up about a page.

Somewhat disappointingly, what’s here doesn’t quite seem to tie together as strongly as I would have liked. For example, there’s several paragraphs of discussion given to the nature of the terrain on the battlefield, but the practical context of this (e.g. what happens if the PCs try to march their army through disadvantageous terrain) isn’t discussed. Likewise, the book uses a numerical score as a shorthand for determining the strength of the PCs’ army versus Bellinda’s…but while the results of this score are indicated clearly, it’s only in terms of how the setup looks, and not the actual outcome (e.g. you can read that score X means that your army outnumbers Bellinda’s four to one…but that doesn’t mean that you win).

The outcome appears to be entirely predicated on whether or not the PCs can kill Bellinda and her retinue, the lynchpin of the final battle. Hence, this seems to make the preceding sections somewhat superfluous. Whether the PCs have their army avoid the rough terrain, or whether or not their forces are a match for Bellinda’s army…all seems to come to naught, regardless of the final outcomes. What matters is this one last fight, and as that goes, so does the final battle. It’s a very poor integration of the wider implications for the PCs large-scale tactical knowledge, and the practical ramifications of how they conducted themselves as rulers of the nation.

A single-page epilogue is given next. It’s surprisingly poignant, allowing each player a turn to write their character’s final impact on the campaign, before the GM brings the curtain down. I was slightly surprised at the tone of finality here; I’m much more used to how Paizo gives us an entire section at the end of each of their adventure paths devoted to what you can do to continue the campaign, if you and your players are so inclined. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by that, but I find the absence of such a section here to be somewhat disappointing. Three or four meaty adventure hooks, and a CR 20+ stat block for some future foe, could have made for some very interesting material for enterprising GMs.

Several new evil spells and magic items appear next, courtesy of Jason Bulmahn. A sidebar addresses the irony of virtually none of these (save for one item) appearing in the adventure itself; of course, that’s somewhat expected, since the PCs are likely to be the one using these. What’s far more interesting, however, is the campaign timeline that’s presented as the last item in the book. This walks us through a chronological reading of the entire campaign, denoting which book the various events occur in, and what the PCs’ levels are, alongside dates and years. This really helps to lay down the feeling that this is a campaign that takes some time, as by the end of it over five years have passed. This chronology was far more interesting than I’d have suspected.

One thing I haven’t noted thus far is that the book does have some errors that crop up periodically, which is irking. For example, I noticed several spelling and grammatical errors throughout the book; not many, but enough. Likewise, some stat blocks had errors in them. While this can’t be helped much when you’re facing such high-level creatures, things like incorrect CRs were a recurring problem.

Of course, these don’t detract from the adventure very much at all. It’s here that wickedness reaches its fullest flower, and your PCs get to enjoy it greatly. They’ve become not only mover and shakers, but at last have reached their full potential as conquerors and tyrants, and they get to enjoy all that comes with it. This is the payoff that they’ve been working towards from the beginning of the campaign, and it’s in spades. If you and your group manage to get this far, you’ll have a great deal of fun reveling in The Wages of Sin.


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High on crunch, but with little flavor

3/5

Adding new races to an existing game world is a proposition that’s tricky at best. It requires an in-game explanation for why a particular race was never seen before, and is suddenly there now. One of the standard tropes is that a new land has been discovered, with that race being one of the more common inhabitants of said new place. This is the implicit assumption behind Caged Dragon Games’ Races of the New World: Coyotel.

A twelve-page book, RotNW: Coyotel takes a very minimalist presentation. It has no bookmarks (to which I say boo), and while the copy-and-paste option is enabled, every time I pasted the material it put each word on its own line, instead of preserving the paragraph formatting.

The graphic presentation is similarly stark. Other than the (admittedly somewhat evocative) image on the cover, and a small picture of a coyotel howling on the second page, there are no illustrations here. Each page has a single, plain black border surrounding the text on all four sides.

The book’s presentation is brief and somewhat workmanlike. We get a brief author’s foreword in which he tells us that this race is based off of the Coyote of Native American legend, followed by three paragraphs of descriptive text about the coyotel as a people, before we move towards the stats.

This, right here, is my major complaint about the book: there’s far too little exposition about the coyotel as a race. Leaving aside the implications that this race is from a “new world” (something which is likely to be campaign-specific), there three paragraphs we’re given don’t do nearly enough to tell us about the coyotel. We know that they’re chaotic, live in small groups on the edges of settlements of other races, and love playing pranks. There’s nothing about their religion, their psychology, their relations with other races in particular. It would have been cool, I think, if there had been a write-up on Coyote as their racial god, along with some information on his religion amongst other races, but that’s far beyond what’s here.

The racial write-up for the coyotel is fairly well-balanced, albeit on the stronger side. There’s no write-up given using the Advanced Race Guide point-buy rules, but if there were this race would be roughly on the same level as gnomes (their closest equivalent, in terms of their powers and abilities).

The book does present a fairly well-rounded set of alternate coyotel racial traits, several feats (many of which build on those racial traits, which is pretty cool), and favored class bonuses. Unfortunately, the tables regarding their height, weight, and age are all eschewed, which again deprives us of some of the flavor surrounding this race.

It’s here that we see another slight oddity in the book, which is the occasional presence of words that are in blue print (rather than black) and underlined. These have, in other words, the appearance of hyperlinks, except that they aren’t. Clicking on them produces nothing – insofar as I can tell, these were copy-and-pasted into the document from elsewhere, and the hyperlink imaging was preserved even though the links themselves weren’t. It’s slightly sloppy presentation.

The book ends with two coyotel-specific archetypes, the hashtaa (a bard archetype) and the wild druid (a druid archetype, naturally). Both are presented rather well, and have a paragraph of flavor text that nicely, if briefly, helps to tell us how these are the coyotel-versions of these classes, e.g. a racial spin on the bards and druids of other races (it would have been better, I think, if there’d been a sidebar expressly stating that these are the “standard” versions of these classes for coyotels, and that barring some deviants, they always use these archetypes for those classes).

All of this brings us to page seven of the book; the last five pages are taken up by the OGL, due to a huge list of Section 15 declarations. I’m frankly surprised by just how much is here, though I suspect that it’s copied wholesale from the d20pfsrd website. This is not incorrect, though I suspect that the author could have saved a few pages by going to the source for his material instead of citing the website as a whole – if nothing else, that would have saved people from expecting twelve pages of usable content when there’s really about half that much.

Overall, Races of the New World: Coyotel is a book that has potential, but needs some polishing to reach it. Hopefully an improved version will be released at some point in the future. As it is, the technical issues, combined with the sparse presentation make this a book about a race that can be inspirational and evocative, but only if the GM is willing to put some work in to fill in the gaps left here.


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A year's worth of great new content

5/5

A year is a long time insofar as RPG’s are concerned. You can run an entire campaign with time to spare, or if you’re a content-creator, then you can produce quite a lot of new material in a year. How much new material? Well, if A Necromancer’s Almanac: 2012, by Necromancers of the Northwest is any indication, about three hundred pages’ worth.

Some background information: Necromancers of the Northwest produce free content each weekday for the Pathfinder RPG. All of this content is (last I checked) is still there, but as anyone who spends a lot of time online knows, there are times when you want to have offline repositories of online content. Moreover, there’s no real index of quick-reference for the online material – you need to have it memorized, or you’re out of luck.

That’s where this almanac comes in. It collects the sum total of the free (mechanical) content produced for 2012, and puts it all in one place. It should be noted that there is no overarching theme to the content here. While the content of a given week was often produced around a specific theme, the aggregate of 2012 material has no such thematic commonality. What’s here is essentially a grab-bag of content.

The technical aspects of the PDF are what they should be. I didn’t encounter any trouble using copy-and-paste (though be warned that tables, such as for the feats, seem to be images rather than text), and full nested bookmarks are present, which is good since this PDF would be a nightmare to navigate without them.

The book is divided up into four major sections, as per how the content was originally presented. First are classes, then feats, then magic items, and lastly spells. Let’s go over more in detail.

The section on classes presents a header for each class alphabetically, and then gives the new content under that. For most classes, these are new archetypes, though several classes that have suites of “selectable” powers (such as barbarian rage powers, rogue talents, etc.) there are plenty of new abilities to choose from. There are also several specific features like a new cavalier order, a new witch patron, new sorcerer bloodlines, etc. A few new prestige classes round things out.

This section does, unfortunately, highlight one aspect of the PDF that was slightly weak: rarely, you’ll run into new material that seems like it should reference other new material, but doesn’t. For example, there’s a witch archetype that gives the witch a summoned companion based on her patron, with a table showing what companion is given for what patron. Immediately after this, there’s a new witch patron listed…who isn’t on the proceeding table for companions granted to that witch archetype.

Now, to be fair, this sort of situation is, as noted above, rare. It’s not often that the new material presented here will end up referencing other new material, but the odd case like the above does pop up.

The feats section is massive in scope, which isn’t surprising since it’s around sixty pages or so long. Thankfully, there is a table summarizing the various feats at the beginning, though this takes several pages to fully present. Interestingly, in addition to metamagic feats, there’s also a separate table for monster feats, and short sections on Leadership feats and wrestling feats. By far though, generic feats take up the majority of what’s here.

The magic items section is notable for its eclectic variety. For example, there are new magic properties for magic armor and shields, but no specific magic items. The magic weapons, by contrast, are all specific magic weapons, with no new generic magic properties. Beyond this, there are new magic rings, staves, and quite a few wondrous items, but (for example) no rods or artifacts. Oddly (though not in a bad way), there’s also a short section on intelligent magic items (three new specific ones) and some magical beverages…apparently these needed to be noted separately.

The book’s final section is new magic spells. Just the section on spell lists for the various spellcasting classes takes over twenty pages, so you can imagine how many spells are here. Again, I did notice the occasional error (e.g. an illusion spell with no subschool), but for the most part these are eminently usable in your game – it’s notable that I didn’t seem to notice any of the new kinds of spells from the Advanced Arcana series that Necromancers of the Northwest produces; there were, for example, no segmented spells to be found here.

Taken holistically, the Necromancer’s Almanac is notable for the sheer variety of what’s available here. The sheer amount of new material for classes, feats, magic items, and spells is, in a word, daunting. While it may be off-putting to be charged for material that the designers admit is still out there for free, the usability of having it all in one indexed, offline, searchable location is, to my mind, worth the price. This is especially true when the result is three hundred pages of quality new material. Take a look back at what a necromantic year 2012 was, with A Necromancer’s Almanac.


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An excellent example of new powers that fit with a class's theme

5/5

The witch is one of those rare Pathfinder classes that follows a very clear thematic element without being necessarily bound to specifics. Yes, we all know witches ride broomsticks, and chant “bubble bubble toil and trouble” over cauldrons, but beyond that it’s less about concrete actions and more about the theme of those actions.

For Pathfinder, that usually takes the form of the witch class’s hex ability. While very expansive, there are still many different hex abilities that a witch can use to cause wrack and ruin for her foes…such as those written in Abandoned Arts’ Class Acts: Witches book.

Four pages long, with a page for the cover and another for the OGL, the book nevertheless packs eighteen new hexes into its remaining two pages. Of these, thirteen are normal hexes, and five are major hexes – I was slightly surprised to find no new grand hexes here, but c’est la vie.

The hexes themselves are surprisingly evocative, without sacrificing playability. The abeyance hex, for instance, curses a specific area, damaging everything within it; the heartstone hex grants a witch greater defenses (on their saves) and protection from disease; the last laugh major hex allows a dying witch to lay a debilitating (but not necessarily unbeatable) curse on an enemy, etc. There are many hexes here that, while not necessarily “signature” abilities of classical witches, are highly reminiscent of their powers – who but a witch could not only scry a creature through a cauldron, but affect it by pouring in magic potions (via the scrying cauldron hex)?

Sometimes great things come in small packages; if you want to give your witch character some new abilities that seem like they should have been there from the beginning, pick up Class Acts: Witches!


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What's the bonus for being in love? Find out within!

4/5

Love is like oxygen. Love is a many splendid thing. All you need is love…unless you’re a Pathfinder PC, in which case all you need is greed and bloodlust. To be sure, love can be a part of your game, but where’s the mechanical incentive for it? Purely role-playing rewards can be nice to, but they’re somehow less concrete than something that gives a numerical bonus. Love may be something that can’t be quantified, but that can certainly help.

It’s in that spirit that Lost Spheres Publishing presents Transcendent 10 – Feats of Synergy – Heartbound Heroes.

A short PDF at six pages long (with one page set aside for the title and credits, and another for the OGL), the book presents itself quite adeptly. While there are no bookmarks or table of contents, I can’t complain about that in a book with a half-dozen pages. Likewise, copy-and-paste is enabled, which is always pleasant.

The book has no artwork to speak of, but does have a simple-yet-stylish set of borders around every page. Between this and the red headers, it manages to avoid feeling entirely spartan presentation, something that’s usually difficult to pull off – props to the designers there.

The book gives us a brief introduction (which was slightly hard to follow; there’s an odd flow to the syntax), discussing the use of love as a motivator in your game (and warning to make sure that the group is interested and invested in doing so) before presenting ten new feats. Interestingly, these feats have a new descriptor: heartbound. A heartbound feat is a feat that grants you power based on the strength of your love for someone, hence the feat requirement you have a “partner” – a specific person who is the focus of the feat. What’s notable here is that the partner also needs to have a heartbound feat as well (suggesting that they genuinely do love you back), but it need not be the exact same feat; any heartbound feat will do.

It’s an intriguing mechanic, and certainly a more colorful one than simply giving us new feats with a mere thematic resemblance. The feats themselves are also slightly more expressive than you’d expect. Each one opens with a relevant quote (though the person making the quote seems to be a fictitious character, robbing this part of some of its impact), and after the usual feat presentation, has a paragraph of “GM Advice.” This “advice” is often the author explaining or expounding upon something rather than actual help in using the feat, but I still quite enjoyed the insights.

Many of the heartbound feats are surprisingly innovative. For example, the Heartbinding Spell feat makes it so that when you use a mind-affecting effect on someone, you enchant them so thoroughly that you feel some of those phantom feelings yourself, letting you use them as your “heartbound partner” (though I’d have appreciated a note here that this didn’t work for things like fear effects). Wordless Bond lets you and your partner share telepathy when close, and give vague sensory/emotional impressions further apart. All’s Fair lets you treat a target as flat-footed for a round (notably, this feat requires that you have sneak attack) if you’ve seen them harm your beloved. And of course, there’s a feat called Polyamorous, so that you can have more than one heartbound partner.

Of course, not all of these feats can be winners. Heart’s Vengeance is just like All’s Fair, save that it gives you a rather prosaic +1 BAB. Love’s Resolve seems somewhat too powerful, in that it lets you re-roll a failed save multiple times per day. Still, there are more hits than misses.

The book closes out with a new spell and a new psionic power. Interestingly, these are both essentially the same spell, with the latter being a psionic version; the spell allows you to quickly call out to your beloved, no matter where they are, and not only lets them know that you need them but gives them bonuses to track you down. It’s an interesting effect, though I’d have set the duration to “instantaneous” and noting that it lasts for so many days, rather than having an (easily-dispelled) duration of one day per level. Moreover, having a uniquely psionic version (which does take into account new Pathfinder-compatible classes like the tactician and the vitalist), with augmentations, is nice.

Overall, Heartbound Heroes does a good job of presenting feats that not only have a fairly substantial role-playing angle, but also present some interesting and balanced mechanical effects. There are some rough spots, but overall these feats can be a fun way to put your PCs’ love lives back into the forefront of the game…or at least, make them care about something other than gold and glory.


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For such a silly race, there's surprising substance to them!

5/5

There’s that one gamer at every table that seems to approach the game with the idea that irreverence is the soul of fun; that is, they draw joy from taking nothing seriously, regardless of the circumstances or consequences of doing so. The challenge for the GM, and often the other players, is usually to find a way to make that PC function within the boundaries of the game, where the player can be true to what they want, without being disruptive.

I mention this because Jon Brazer Enterprises’ Book of Heroic Races: Half-Faerie Dragons, seems to be aimed squarely at this middle route. Shockingly, it actually seems to manage to walk it. Let’s take a closer look.

The book comes with the requisite aspects of a PDF product, in that it has full nested bookmarks and copy-and-paste is enabled. More striking, however, is the book’s spartan visual presentation. Now, to be clear, there is artwork here, having several color and black-and-white pieces, usually set in the center of the page with the two columns of text flowing around them. The issue here is that that isn’t enough.

The nature of half-faerie dragons is that they’re Chaotic Outgoing, possessing a manic nature with a focus on pranks and illusions. It’s therefore something of an irony that, save for the aforementioned art, the book presents itself with stark austerity. There are no page borders here, nor are there any backgrounds; just black text on white pages. Normally I’m glad for printer-friendly materials in a PDF product, but here the contrast is sharp enough with the subject matter that I can’t help but find it somewhat ironic.

The heavy text itself has an off-putting effect, albeit a very slight one. While most of the pages have their visual design enhanced with bullet points, tables, sidebars, or the aforementioned art, you will run across the occasional page with densely-packed text and little else. It’s somewhat fitting that these sections tend to be the flavor text for half-faerie dragons, as it pretty well encapsulates the idea of them fluttering around you and chattering at you nonstop.

The book opens with roughly a page-and-a-quarter of framing fiction which very clearly encapsulates not only the mania but the magical nature that are archetypal among half-faerie dragons, after which we’re presented with their racial stats. I frowned just a little to see that they didn’t have the Advanced Race Guide-style racial point breakdown for their race’s abilities; this isn’t a big deal, but it references the ARG for one or two other things (such as alternate racial abilities, though it notes that are also found in the Advanced Player’s Guide), so their lack of inclusion is somewhat notable. Also, half-faerie dragons have the “draconic” subtype?

The book doesn’t dive into the crunch straight away, however, as we’re given several more pages of the flavor text, Core Rulebook-style, about things like half-faerie dragons appearance, alignment, why they advanture, etc. The surprising length of each section is characteristic of the book where non-mechanical aspects of the race are concerned, and is something I’m of two minds about. One the one hand, all too often we’re given a new race without any real idea of what makes them different – they’re given a few broad (and often predictable) strokes regarding the roles they fall into, and that’s that. Here, at least, the author is trying to give us more than just a few sweeping statements about half-faerie dragons; he’s clearly got a very specific idea in mind and wants to communicate that.

The drawback to this strong authorial voice is that, in addition to simply being daunting at times, it can also start to feel something like a straitjacket. The idea of half-faerie dragons as giddy magical pranksters is hammered home quite often throughout the book, to the point where you have a hard time seeing a half-faerie dragon character any other way. If a new race can be typecast right out of the gate, the half-faerie dragon surely has been.

I also can’t help but bring up the book’s stance that, yes while the occasional half-faerie dragon is the result of a faerie-dragon/humanoid pairing, most are born to existing half-faerie dragons. In other words, that there’s already a stable population of these half-breeds so that they now breed true. While not quite as disingenuous as Paizo’s “most half-dragons are the results of magical experiments, and not that dragons are kinky…honest,” it still smacks of a taking the easy way out regarding the thorny issue of half-faerie dragons being prevalent enough to get their own sourcebook to begin with. It’s not an issue of practicality, but it was still mildly irking regardless.

Beyond this, the book (quite wisely) switches back and forth between fluff and crunch as it progresses. We’re given a suite of half-faerie dragon-specific traits, alternate racial abilities, and favored class bonuses, after which is a large section on their psychology and lands, before dealing with their vital statistics tables (for which I give props for remembering an oft-forgotten part of including a new race). Following this are new archetypes and prestige classes, feats, and equipment.

The above new crunch is good, but nothing that sets a new standard, with one exception. Early in the book the flavor text tries to paint the picture that half-faerie dragons are drawn to arcane magic holistically, that they trend towards preparatory and spontaneous arcane spellcasting, rather than one or the other. If that seems odd, it struck me that way too, until I saw the new prestige class here: the dappled theurge. I was quite struck by this, because it’s essentially a mystic theurge prestige class for preparatory and spontaneous arcane spellcasters. On paper, this may sound like a silly idea, but it works…or at least, it works as well as the normal mystic theurge PrC does, which meanst hat, at the very least, it puts the idea of a multiclass preparatory/spontaneous character in the realm of something feasible – it’s something genuinely new, and given that it’s done by using such a small yet artful twist on an existing PrC, it’s truly notable for that.

Three new faerie dragon deities are presented, forming their own mini-pantheon for religiously-inclined half-faerie dragons. The deities themselves are presented in something of an abstract way, denoting their relationship to each other more than how they interact with mortals, though they do note how mortals tend to view them. I appreciate that these write-ups included subdomains and oracle mysteries, but it was slightly vexing that their holy symbols weren’t listed (nor, to be exceptionally picky, are inquisitions, a minor game mechanic introduced in Ultimate Magic for the inquisitor class).

Several new spells, magic items, and even artifacts follow, before the book takes a long look at several half-faerie dragon communities (no community stats given) and how to use the race in your game, finally closing out with three NPCs.

That’s the entire book in a nutshell. Overall, how much you take away from this is likely to depend strongly on to what degree the author’s intent for the race influences you. Without a doubt, there’s enough new mechanics here that you could do a great deal with half-faerie dragon PCs and NPCs for quite a while. It’s the flavor text, however, that will likely make or break your enthusiasm for what’s here – if you agree with and like the idea of this as a race of merry magic pranksters, but still want to really role-play them, then you’ll likely find this book to be made out of solid gold. On the other hand, if you find preconceived notions and attitudes for the race your playing to be obstacles more than springboards, then you’ll probably feel like you’re swimming upstream against the author’s writing.

Having said that, I do appreciate that having more to work with, even if you don’t agree with what’s here, is far better than lacking material to work with at all. When it comes to new races, less is not more. Given that, and that the other issues I had with the book were small omissions and stylistic disagreements, I can’t find any reason to give the Book of Heroic Races: Half-Faerie Dragons full marks. Five out of five fluttery butterfly wings.


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Making death much more exciting

5/5

Necromancy is one of those areas where a lot of people want to play one, but it’s always something of an awkward fit. Under the basic Pathfinder rules, the basic aspects of necromancy tend towards undead- and evil-focused material enough that you’re either not evil and doing it wrong, or doing it right but are evil as a consequence. It is, quite simply, hard to reconcile those two extremes.

No more! Zombie Sky Press’s Mysteries of the Dead Side: Sacred Necromancer threads the difficult strands between offering necromantic powers without (necessarily) being a servant of darkness. Let’s take a closer look and see how it pulls it off.

The book conforms to the minimum material necessary for a quality PDF product: copy-and-paste is enabled, and full nested bookmarks are present. No printer-friendly version is presented, but that’s not really a concern because (save for the front cover) there’s very little artwork here; just three color pieces.

The book opens with its new base class, the sacred necromancer. On its face, this class looks a lot like an oracle – same BAB and Hit Dice, same skill points per level – but the differences quickly become clear. While the sacred necromancer is a spontaneous spellcaster, each day it gets to change what spells are on its Spells Known list, but with a catch – they can only choose necromancy spells, off of any list (with a necessary exception for 0-level spells). Further, their spells are considered both divine and arcane at the same time; the sacred necromancer’s study of death crosses conventional limitations. Being able to channel energy is also a valuable ability, but in this case it’s limited by the sacred necromancer’s calling.

A calling is similar to an oracle’s mystery, in that it’s a theme that grants some basic powers, and then presents a suite of abilities, of which you choose one every so many levels. In this case, a calling decides what sort of channel energy you can use and how you use it (e.g. channel negative energy, only for harming the living), has a “connection” (a signature ability that is automatically gained), and a set of whispers to choose from.

There are six callings presented (counting the Journeyman as two). The chirurgeon is obsessed with the physical aspects of death. Like Doctor Frankenstein, he can construct a golem-like “monster” that’s somewhere between an animal companion and an eidolon. More interesting, at least to me, was his whisper that lets him remove the “evil” descriptor from spells that raise the undead – I know so many players who will want this just for that.

The Exorcist is focused around trapping, dispelling, and otherwise countering the effects of outsiders and undead. There are a lot of abilities here that are defensive in nature, as well as some battlefield-control ones (e.g. seal an outsider in a protected area for a short time). The Journeyman of the Pale Path, by contrast, is simply an expert at manipulating negative energy, to the tune of things like taking an immediate action to reduce healing with a tightly-focused channel energy, or create undead that share teamwork feats. Nicely, there’s a sidebar that talks about reversing this class to be positive-energy focused instead, and each ability has a short section saying how it would work in reverse.

The Psychopomp is concerned with the state of the soul. It struck me as the weakest of the themes here, but it still had several interesting abilities, such as summoning a spirit to be able to be the focus point of channeling energy, or being able to summon ancient spirits of great heroes into your allies to boost their abilities. The final calling, the Revenant, is much more fun – you get to play an undead creature! Limited only in that you’re not flatly immune to mind-affecting effects, this calling has some fairly tightly-focused powers relating to your former life, such as focusing your hatred against certain kinds of creatures (presumably the same sort that killed you) or even against specific individuals.

Beyond these callings, sacred necromancers also gain “fields.” Fields are like mini-callings, adding additional thematic flavor to what your sacred necromancer can do. Most don’t inherently grant any powers, but rather expand what whispers you can take. For example, the self-experimentation field allows access to four whispers based around augmenting your body to gain.

There’s also a brief sidebar which says it lists “all necromancy spells for the Pathfinder role-playing game.” That’s great, particularly since most (though it seems like it should be all) of them are linked to the d20 PF SRD, but I do wish that those spells not from the Core Rulebook were tagged with an indicator to show what book they are from.

Nearing its end, the book presents a sample sacred necromancer named Ren. Ren, who is a shout-out to a previous ZSP book, has a full stat block, but has no flavor or expository text of any kind, which is a shame considering her background. She’s also fox-blooded, which is a new +0 CR simple template, which denotes that you have kitsune ancestry – I liked this, even if it was slightly out of place in the book, because it lets you delve into taking kitsune-specific abilities. Speaking of which, the book has three new feats, one of which allows you to have an extra fox tail. The other two are more necromantic in focus, granting an extra whisper or allowing you to turn the living (a la turn undead).

One thing I haven’t mentioned up until now are the book’s weaknesses. Remember how I noted that the spell list was linked to d20pfsrd.com? So are lots of other parts in the book…but there’s no visual indicator of what words are links and which aren’t. While this does make for a more consistent (and prettier) visual display, it can be surprising when you click to scroll the PDF and find that you’ve clicked on a link to open something on d20pfsrd.

There’s also the occasionally-unclear ability. A high-level exorcist, for example, is protected from bodily contact with outsiders and the undead as a supernatural ability…unless they have spell resistance. So he has to make a caster level check with a supernatural ability against their SR? What bonus does he have for that? Presumably it’s equal to his character level, but it’s unclear. There are a few instances of that kind of uncertainty throughout the book, though only a few (e.g. is Extra Whisper limited to just whispers you can take, or any whisper in any calling or field?).

Overall though, I think the book was not only mechanically sound in what it prevented, but highly evocative as well. This is the sort of book where, as you read it, you can’t help but think about how much fun it would be to play this class. To me, that’s really the best mark of quality an RPG supplement can have. Delving into death was never so much fun as the sacred necromancer makes it.


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Some small blemishes on an otherwise good, utilitarian product

4/5

It’s hard to deny that the intense mathematical aspect of Pathfinder is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for a great deal of customization and mechanical creativity; endless combinations are possible to help define the sort of character you want. On the other hand, it can also be a lot to handle, particularly if you’re a GM trying to generate NPCs of a higher level (and if they can cast spells).

Raging Swan Press’s new book, 100% Crunch: Liches, looks to take some of the work out of this process, at least insofar as liches, those pinnacles of undeath, are concerned.

100% Crunch: Liches comes with a print version and a screen-reading version. Usually I’m a fan of printer-friendly versions of products, but in this case I honestly had a hard time determining any practical difference between the two; the only one that I saw was that the print version was set to display two pages at a time, something which you can easily toggle with the “View” setting on your PDF reader. Both versions have full nested bookmarks, and have copy-and-paste enabled, to their credit.

The book has a minimalist presentation on design. The illustrations here are extremely few, and there’s some white space on the pages – the author actually speaks to this latter point, noting (wisely, in my opinion) that it’s better to have each NPC on its own page for easy printing, rather than having the stat blocks sprawling across multiple pages in a jumbled mess.

The book features an expanded table of contents, which is a nice addition to its bookmarks, as the TOC shows the alignment/race/class breakdown for each entry, sorted by Challenge Ratings. It also reproduces the templates for not only the basic lich, but also the forsaken lich and the demilich, which is a nice touch.

The book further introduces three new archetypes for sentient undead bards, druids, and rangers. This was something of a disappointment because, while I like the idea of introducing undead-specific archetypes for these classes, what’s here didn’t go far enough. The archetypes are mostly concerned with deleting and replacing spells on the listed classes’ spell lists, though the undead bard also gets an ability to use its spells and abilities to bolster undead creatures, rather than living ones. There should be more here – what about the animal companions or druids and rangers, for example (should they have them)? More could have been done with these.

It’s following these that we come to the NPC stat blocks themselves. These NPCs are, as the book’s title says, 100% crunch – other than the brief visual description, these are all statistics shorn of any flavor or descriptive text. The stat blocks are, for the most part, fairly well done, but errors and poor designs do creep in every now and then. For example, the CR 12 halfling clerical lich has its domain powers and domain spells in its stat block, but the domains themselves (Charm and Trickery, by the way) aren’t listed. Likewise, the CR 20 succubus lich has, as one of its highest-level spells, teleport without error. Leaving aside that this should be called “greater teleport,” why would she have this as a spell when she can use it as a spell-like ability at will? Little things like these pepper the book, though somewhat infrequently.

Beyond that, I do have to give credit to the book’s author for really mixing it up with his choices. While it’s obvious in theory that there are so many combinations of races, classes, and lich templates to apply, it’s something to see some of them here. A human ranger forsaken lich, an ancient green dragon lich, a dwarf oracle lich, and others are here – though for you purists, there are plenty of more down-to-earth liches here as well, including the basic human wizard lich.

Overall, the book is a good one if you’re worried about sitting down and making a lich character from scratch. It also doesn’t range too far afield; none of the spells here go beyond what’s in the Core Rules. While some small blemishes are present, virtually all of them are easily spotted and fixed if you look over your stat block of choice with a critical eye. Otherwise, your only problem is which lich to pitch at your PCs.


More legendary classes take you beyond the Core Rulebook

4/5

There’s a particular aspect with post-twentieth-level gaming that doesn’t get discussed very much: that the outliers tend to get screwed. What that means is that, for the usual reasons that level 20+ material doesn’t get supported, what support is given is usually to the baseline classes of the game. If you’re playing some sort of exotic class, you had better hope that you can find some generic options that fit your character, otherwise you’re just out of luck.

It’s that sort of problem that Legendary Levels II, from Little Red Goblin Games, seeks to address.

Before going any further, there’s one thing that should be made absolutely clear regarding this book. You need to have the first Legendary Levels book in order to use this one. While the legendary classes and feats are fairly self-explanatory in what they offer, there are some fairly important aspects of this book, such as legendary damage or divinity scores, that are introduced in the first book that aren’t explained herein; you’ll need the first Legendary Levels book for that.

With that said, let’s move on to the book’s technical presentation. This book was rather awkward in that it included a separate JPG file for each of the book’s interior illustrations (with one being presented twice), and a composite work of all of those illustrations together and in color. Why do I call this awkward? Well, beyond having almost twenty additional files included with the book, these pictures are large. The file size on most of them is around five megabytes, but that composite I mentioned before? That one weighs in at over sixty-five megabytes! The PDF of the book itself is just over a dozen megabytes in size.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that LRGG decided to include separate files for the pictures, but the size of these is somewhat prohibitive; maybe my computer is showing its age, but opening these files seemed to strain my CPU. Moreover, it seemed to me that it called attention to this book not having a printer-friendly version, something I still think all PDF products should offer. The book itself is presented against a light tan “parchment” background. It does what a PDF should in that it allows for copy-and-paste, and has full nested bookmarks.

Moving away from the technical presentation, let’s take a look at what’s in Legendary Levels II. As with its predecessor, this book offers a series of legendary classes designed to take your game from 21st to 30th level. Whereas the first book covered the core classes, this one covers all of the base and alternate classes from the APG, UM, and UC, along with one of Little Red Goblin Games’s own original classes from their book Tome of the Bizarre.

These classes aren’t presented as “extensions” of the original class so much as they are as special prestige classes; I say “special” here because they have no prerequisites – obviously you can take the corresponding legendary class if you’ve hit 20th level in the base class (e.g. if you’re a 20th level witch your next class level would be 1st-level legendary witch), and that these levels stack with the base class’s level for numerical purposes (e.g. most class abilities). The book also notes that you can allow for these classes to be taken by a character that’s thematically near the legendary class (giving an example of a rogue 15/assassin 5 could still take levels in legendary rogue).

The classes themselves are all ten levels in length, and for the most part offer a parcel of original powers and abilities, though a few (such as the oracle) are based around expanding lower-level class abilities; e.g. more mysteries and revelations. It’s worth noting that quite a few of these powers are based around dealing or protecting yourself from legendary damage (e.g. being reduced instantly to 0 hit points), though there are still plenty that do not.

The new mechanics themselves are something of a mixed bag. While I generally liked what was here, minor errors cropped up with disappointing regularity. Some of these were issues of formatting, such as something that should have been indented or emboldened but wasn’t. Still others were small errors that were easily fixed (e.g. an ability that says it works on a 3-in-6 chance, and then says it works if you get a 3, 4, 5, or 6 on a d6 roll).

Still, if you can get past the fact that this book should have been through editorial polishing a bit more, there’s a lot to like here. Many of the class abilities are quite fun; I particularly loved the gunslinger’s Russian Roulette deed – blindly loading your revolver, or other firearm, you point it at yourself or your enemy, and have a 50% chance of firing or not, with a special result each way; or the legendary summoner evolutions, such as being able to get a gargantuan eidolon. There’s a lot to like here if you want to take your character beyond what 20th level can give you.

Two prestige classes are also offered, with the designers flat-out telling you that these are for multiclass characters who can’t otherwise take a legendary class, something which I consider to be a big plus. The first is the artificer, which is a spellcaster that deals primarily with magical technology – in this case, the class is based around having a pool of “spark of life” points, as this is the spark within both living things and magic, and being able to choose discoveries (e.g. class abilities) to spend spark points on. I’ll confess I’m not entirely sure what multiclass mix this is supposed to support, particularly as it offers full spellcasting progression. That said, it is quite cool, particularly since it supports “super heavy armor” which is essentially a suit of mecha.

The other prestige class is the dragonlord, which is meant for characters with some sort of animal companion; you basically give up the animal companion in order to get a dragon instead. It’s pretty badass, and the class is a mixture of set class abilities and getting to pick from a suite of abilities (a la rogue talents).

The book closes out with a section of new legendary feats, which means that they can only be taken by 21st-level and above characters. The feats are, rather interestingly, divided into two groups. The first group is roughly what you’d expect of new feats, offering (again, a very mixed bag) of new abilities. Some of these are what you’d expect at this stage of play, such as being able to make a full attack action during a spring attack, while others (particularly the metamagic feats) don’t seem to quite keep pace – I suspect that in the case of the magic-focused feats, this lack of greater ability is by design (as I recall it being in the first book), since legendary spellcasting is already such an advantage, it’s appropriate that feats should play more towards the martial-oriented characters.

The second set of feats are called scion feats, and these are another love letter to multiclass characters. In this case, the feats are designed to allow access to the less powerful abilities of the base legendary classes for characters that, due to multiclassing, wouldn’t otherwise ever be able to reach them. For example, so long as you’re a 21st-level character, with at least 10 levels in samurai, you can take the Bushi of Susanoo scion feat, which gives you the legendary samurai’s death before dishonor class ability. It’s a very elegant way to make sure that the multiclassed characters aren’t left behind.

Ultimately, this book is the necessary follow-up to the first Legendary Levels, covering those classes that were excluded. In that sense, it’s a very apropos sequel, as it has both the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. The flaws are primarily based around some necessary editing (Legendary Mounted Combat is printed twice, for instance), and some options seem, at least on their face, better than some others, but none of this ever drastically undercuts the value of what’s here. If you desire to return to the realm of gaming beyond 20th level, and you’ve long since left the core classes behind, lok to Legendary Levels II to dial your character all the way up to 30.


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Evil turns against evil as your PCs seek to overthrow their earthly patron

5/5

Adventurers of any stripe are independent types; that’s a truism that goes back to the beginning of gaming. Few are the adventurers who care to have someone telling them how to take the risks they take, let alone telling them where to go and what to do. This is doubly so for those characters who are evil in nature…and yet that’s exactly what the PCs of the Way of the Wicked adventure path have had to endure. Until now.

Now, in the penultimate adventure, The Devil My Only Master, the PCs finally throw off the shackles of their earthly patron and take control of the plot to conquer the nation of Talingarde. But their master is not willing to go quietly. Let’s take a look and see how the adventure plays out.

The adventure comes with three PDFs. The first is the adventure itself, the second is the printer-friendly version thereof, and the third is a set of player handouts. Let’s look at these in reverse order. The player handouts largely consists of the adventure maps with the various keys and descriptors removed, which is a good thing to have; only one is an actual handout for the players to peruse. I had mixed feelings about these only being available in full color, as you’re most likely going to want to print these out – still, there aren’t that many (a grand total of six single-page items), so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

The critique about color artwork follows us to the printer-friendly version of the adventure. The printer-friendly version of the adventure has the same layout and artwork as the full-color version; what’s changed is that the page backgrounds (a parchment-color tan) and borders (a mixture of black and deep grey) are removed, with the borders being denoted only in grayscale lines. All of the other artwork and maps are present, color included.

I’ve mentioned before that I can understand leaving the artwork and illustrations in a printer-friendly PDF, as removing them requires redoing the layout. However, I’m less sympathetic to not finding a way to set the artwork to black-and-white at the very least. Would that really have been so hard to do?

Of course, the artwork is gorgeous – Michael Clark continues to live up to his high standards from previous works here, with artwork that seems to leap off the page, most in gorgeous full-color. Notwithstanding the maps, the bulk of the artwork goes to various NPCs introduced throughout the adventure, and the pictures do a marvelous job of showcasing just who it is your PCs are electing to go up against.

The PDF itself hits most of the technical marks you’d expect of it, having copy-and-paste enabled, and having bookmarks to each major section, though it’s still worth a frown that there are no nested bookmarks to sub-sections. I’d also like to see things like Mac-compatible files and epublishing versions available, but the lack of these certainly isn’t a deal-breaker. I should also note that there are some points of errata throughout the adventure as well – Cardinal Thorn’s CR, for example, is one point higher than it should be (unless it was bumped up to account for his gear, in which case that should be mentioned). Again, nothing that’s worth taking points off over, but if you have the time you may want to double-check a few things.

The book’s first act begins immediately where the last one ended, with the PCs now ready to turn against their patron, Cardinal Thorn. Indeed, at this point Thorn is already making preemptive strikes against them, whether the PCs have antagonized him or not, as his paranoia (and failure to act in accordance with the strict dogma of Hell) has already pushed him to the edge. The first act is therefore a mixture of dealing with Thorn’s agents as they attempt to kill the PCs and bargaining with his former associates to usurp his position. It’s here that the PCs manage to deal with the contract they signed way back in Book One, and the manner in which a particular loophole is exploited is quite diabolical indeed.

This part of the book features a sidebar wherein the author admits to this act’s repetitive nature – roughly a half-dozen encounters with outsiders teleporting in to either talk or fight. He mentions, wisely in my opinion, that you might want to consider spacing at least some of these out – this is good advice, but may be hard to put into practice; as I read it, only the last section can really bet set later in the adventure. Virtually all of the rest are required for setting things up. Also, the third section struck me as somewhat awkward, as it’s incumbent on a character from the previous Book having escaped alive – this is a bit tenuous for me; something should have been put in there to make this more definitive.

The book’s second act takes a detour, as the PCs now regroup and meet up with the Fifth Knot to gain some new intelligence on another old foe. The paladin Sir Richard has his story detailed here in full (something that takes a surprising three pages, and brings up another small complaint I have – at this point the PCs will only have met Sir Richard in combat once. There are supposed to be other instances where they come near each other, but these are easily downplayed unless the GM takes steps to play up the paladin’s accomplishments. This section, which covers his story in one place, makes it easier to do that; I just wish this had been highlighted earlier).

Of more pressing concern is that the paladin is currently on the Isle of Chargammon, attempting to secure funds for the army Princess Bellinda is trying to raise. The PCs must race there, overcome him and his company of knights, and make a decision as to whether they can try and kill their righteous foe once and for all, or something far more sinister.

This second act is the built-in “downtime” between the first act and the rest of the adventure. While it does have some combat, only the last part (with Richard and his fellows) is truly a threat to the PCs; far more important is what they do with the intelligence they gain, and what they do with Richard after his defeat. This islargely setting the direction for where to go next.

In this case, that’ll likely lead to the book’s third act; now that the PCs know that Cardinal Thorn is a lich, it’s time to go after his phylactery. Of course, this is no easy win – the phylactery is hidden in the lair of a truly terrible linnorm that dwells in a lonely cairn filled with undead. Contrasting to the previous section, there’s little politicking to do here; this is purely a smash-and-grab, and it’s likely to be a tough one. Of course, smart PCs will know better than to go charging in blindly (indeed, there are multiple notes in the book about one particular encounter being a likely TPK if the PCs don’t play it smart). Of course, once the PCs have the phylactery, it isn’t quite over, and then there’s the question of what to do with it.

I didn’t have any major complaints with this areas, as the book’s sole choke-point in terms of difficulty is addressed directly in a sidebar. I do wish that some discussion had been given to groups who try to employ the “fifteen-minute adventuring day” schtick, as this part of the book seems to lend itself to the PCs resting for a day after a difficult encounter, as most of the creatures are location-based.

The book’s final act is the assault on Thorn’s sanctum sanctorum, the Agathium. This two-level temple to Asmodeus is the final showdown with their old master and his few remaining servants. This last act is a mixture of the second and third, as there are multiple opportunities to make deals with some of the NPCs here, but at the same time there are plenty who won’t be willing to negotiate. Ultimately, this makes it something of a straightforward dungeon-crawl.

I quite enjoyed this section for its mixture of bloodlust and diplomacy, as it invites the kind of role-playing that I think Pathfinder does best. I do wish that there had been a larger section on the threats on the journey to the Agathium, but this is a small complaint as it does cover at least one obstacle on the way there, and by this time the PCs are likely using magical travel anyway, so it’s something of a moot point.

Far better is that this last section lends itself much more easily to scaling. The NPCs are largely divided by this point, thanks to Thorn’s paranoia and mismanagement of his resources; this can easily be changed if the PCs seem like they’re having too easy a time of it. I also don’t think this section suffers from the same “fifteen-minute” problem as the previous one, not because it necessarily goes out of its way to work around it, but because it’s somewhat self-evident that the PCs can’t stop halfway through a major assault on Thorn’s base of operations and then just pick up where they left off. Any GM who lets them get away with that is being far too lenient.

Once the PCs have settled the score, the stage is set for the final conquest, but unfortunately that will have to wait until the final book.

Luckily, this one doesn’t end here. A two-page FAQ is given on various areas where the PCs could go off the rails. In previous books, this was helpful – here, it is an absolute necessity. I’m frankly amazed that this section is only two pages long and yet manages to cover virtually all of the major deviations that the PCs could take; GMs would be well advised to pay close attention to this.

Following this is a section titled “Children of the Night,” a continuation of the same section from the previous book that deals more with vampire and lich PCs; whereas that was focused on the flavor of running an undead PC, this article focuses on the mechanics.

For vampires, the balancing mechanism for a vampire PC is largely handled as a feat tax. Specifically, becoming a vampire is set as a five-feat tree; only three feats are necessary to become a vampire, but gaining the full powers and benefits of the template from the Bestiary takes all five. This works well, I think, to balance the panoply of powers that vampires get (particularly since the vampiric weaknesses are not that difficult to ameliorate for smart PCs).

Liches are treated somewhat differently. Lichdom requires only a single feat, but crafting a phylactery takes months of constant effort. While some may find this lopsided compared to the degree of feats a vampire needs to pay, I think that it’s important to recall that vampires gain much greater utility and offensive powers than liches do, so I found this to be a comparatively equitable price to pay.

Of course, these aren’t the only feats in the book, as over a dozen new feats, and a half-dozen new spells and magic items each, all specific to the undead, follow. With spells such as “restore the destroyed” (a “resurrection” for the undead) and magic items like “the false heart” (so that a vampire may remove their real heart from their body, protecting it), these will definitely enable undead PCs to stretch their rotting wings to the fullest.

The book’s final section is similarly crunchy in what it offers. Titled “Hellbound” and written by Jason Bulmahn, here we’re given four new Asmodeus-specific class archetypes and nine new feats; most of the latter revolve specifically around striking deals with agents of Hell in exchange for power, albeit at the cost of your soul. Most of these were quite good, though I wish the antipaladin archetype had explicitly called out that changes the class alignment to Lawful Evil.

There’s one other aspect of the book that was disappointing in its exclusion; the PCs minions (a la the minion rules from Book Two). There’s simply very little for their minions to do here, as the book focuses almost exclusively on the PCs’ tactical actions against their enemies; while it can’t be helped given the nature of things coming to a head, it’s a shame that there are no opportunities for greater villainy undertaken on a wider scale here. Hopefully the evil followers of the PCs will play a greater role in the final book.

Having said that, the fifth book of the Way of the Wicked is a different beast than its predecessors, but not a lesser one. Here, there are extremely few good-aligned creatures to fight; instead, this is a battle against other villains to crown yourselves as the undisputed master of evil. This adventure is the first part of the dark reward your PCs will have been yearning for since the campaign’s start, and they’ll surely reap it with relish. From now on, each PC will bow exclusively to The Devil My Only Master.


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The dark lord is described in detail, but what of his empire?

4/5

Heroes, it’s said, are made, not born. What’s left unsaid is what it is that makes them: villains. Heroes are only as great as the villains they overcome, and so the darker, more powerful, more iconic the villain, the greater the hero. As such, it’s almost surprising that we don’t see more products devoted specifically to villains. One such book, however, is Urizen the Bleak Lord, part of the Infamous Adversaries line from Total Party Kill Games.

Before we examine this new paragon of evil, let’s look at the book itself. The product comes as two PDF files, and a set of Hero Lab files. Unfortunately, not using Hero Lab myself I can’t review that aspect of the product, other than to commend TPK Games for using Hero Lab in the first place; I’ve heard enough to know that there are probably a lot of gamers who’ll appreciate it.

The two PDFs are the main file and a printer-friendly version thereof. The printer-friendly version is notably shorter, in terms of pages, than the main file, eliminating the cover and several pages of ads in the back. More dramatic is that it completely eschews the gray page backgrounds and dark borders. I did frown a bit at it keeping the interior illustrations – this is clearly to keep the layout from needing to be redone, and it’s not a major issue since the three interior illustrations are in black and white, but it’s still not quite as printer-friendly as it could be.

Of course, there is more to the book’s illustrations than those three pictures. Dustan Kostic’s cover is reproduced inside the book, along with another picture, and the full-page pictures are visually arresting. Having no artistic background, it’s hard for me to describe, but there’s a sense of a slight blurriness there that contrasts sharply with the amount of detail in the pictures – those two aspects of the pictures sound like they should clash, but they don’t; instead, there’s a blend of details even as there’s an overall sense that you’re still not seeing the character clearly, making them even more menacing. It’s truly impressive.

Similarly impressive is the character of Urizen himself. The book, after the intro by Owen K. C. Stephens, opens with the narrative of Urizen’s genesis. The story itself is captivating, but seems to end prematurely, stopping as Urizen hits his zenith of power, but not going on to lay out his current state.

It’s after this that we’re given the first of three stat blocks for Urizen, and it’s also here that my first critique of the book comes – the layout needs to be tweaked. To be clear, I don’t mean that the book’s text layout is flawed (it keeps to the familiar two-column style), but rather the various sections of the book should have been placed in a different order. For example, the first stat block for Urizen is at his weakest, and is given far earlier than his later, more powerful incarnations.

That, to my mind, was a mistake. Rather, his stat blocks should have been either placed altogether, or had one (ideally the most powerful) up front and the others in an appendix, or (in what I think would have been the most poetic option) to have his narrative broken up by showing his stat block as it displays him at various points in the story. Now that would have been impressive.

I should also take some time to talk about his stat blocks as well. Other than the occasional problem (e.g. no XP listings, a fly spell-like ability saying it’s for “0 minutes/day,” etc., these are quite well constructed. Hyperlinks to various parts of the d20 PF SRD are used liberally, which is not only nice but absolutely necessary, since Urizen’s stats range from beyond what the Core Rulebook offers. Indeed, his base class is a death knight, from a third-party supplement (have no fear though, for his special powers are described in full).

Several pages are devoted to Urizen as a character, by which I mean describing him as a person – his goals, his personality, his lair, etc. These are fairly good, but are painted in fairly broad strokes; Urizen is a larger-than-life figure, and so there doesn’t seem to be any real degree of specificity or notable quirks that make him an individual, as opposed to a manifest archetype. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Urizen is a BBEG in every sense of the word, but it’s more about what he is, rather than who.

There are several additional stat blocks devoted to his servitors; one is his terrestrial mount, another is his aerial mount, and the third is his lieutenant. This last one is the only one to have two stat blocks, which makes sense given her importance in Urizen’s back-story (though it makes me wish she’d been illustrated). These are helpful, but I’m of two minds about them being the sole degree of mechanical support which Urizen receives – on the one hand, adding too much else can be seen as restrictive in regards to GMs who want to really customize Urizen’s set up…but on the other hand, most GMs won’t feel bound by what’s here anyway, so why not give us some more specifics?

These don’t need to be full stat blocks, of course, but there’s a lot more that could have been done here. What’s a rough approximation of the forces loyal to Urizen, in terms of what creatures follow him and their numbers? Who are the power players in his court, and what’s their motivations in doing so? Does he take advantage of the cold environment to the point where living characters are likely to suffer environmental penalties? Maybe some of these could even take utilize of some of the expanded Pathfinder rules – does Urizen’s horde constitute having faction rules? Is his kingdom large enough to use the kingdom-building rules?

Ultimately, the major problem with presenting Urizen as a bad guy of campaign-ending proportions is that such characters aren’t enough by themselves; they exist at the top of a power structure of villainy that challenges the PCs – showing us only the ruler themselves is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; there’s still a lot more below that that’s quite important, and we’re only seeing a little of it here. Imagine if Star Wars had focused solely on Emperor Palpatine, and shoved Darth Vader, the storm troopers, the Death Star, etc. into the far background…that’s the major problem here.

Overall, what’s here about Urizen himself is very well done; it’s just not enough. Sometimes a product is defined as much by what it doesn’t do as what it does, and this is an example of that. Hence, I wouldn’t really call this an error on the book’s part, so much as it’s a case of its vision being too narrow. There’s a lot to like about Urizen, and I have no doubt that you’ll be able to get a lot of use out of pitting him against your PCs. But be prepared to flesh out a lot of the forces sitting between him and the PCs; that’s the bleakest aspect of the Bleak Lord.


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Three very different styles of adventure, none without their flaws, but all fun.

5/5

While it’s common for sourcebooks to get the glory in tabletop role-playing games, it’s adventures that are their lifeblood. After all, while it can be fun to create various characters and tweak builds, all of that effort is just a prelude to really putting your character through his or her paces in an adventure, seeing if they can survive, and thrive, in the adventures that the GM has in store for them, adventures such as those of Rite Publishing’s Adventure Quarterly #2.

A ninety-page adventure, AQ2 has three adventures, wisely split among the low, mid, and high levels. Insightfully, the table of contents tells you this without preamble, giving you a brief description of the adventures and letting you know that they’re for parties of 1st, 9th, and 18th-level characters.

We’ll go over the adventures, but before we do some technical aspects of the book must be addressed. For one thing, AQ2 is not just a PDF file. A half-dozen files, a mixture of PINGs and JPEGs, display the maps for the adventures. Each adventure has one map with the labels, and one without any labels, something that I was particularly pleased by. Made with Dundjinni, the maps aren’t anything to write home about, but at the same time aren’t slap-dash quality either – rather, they look like what they are: a pro-am production made with mapping software.

The PDF which is the bulk of the product hits the technical marks you’d expect it to; copy-and-paste is enabled, and full nested bookmarks are present. The book is set against a white background, and has only a thin border around the pages. Several pieces of full-color art break up the text in various places – including the maps, which are placed into the body of each adventure (something I found helpful, rather than redundant) – but overall the illustrations are sparse enough to strike a nice balance between being relatively printer-friendly while still featuring pictures.

After the editorial for this issue, we’re sent directly to the first adventure, “The Ruins Perilous.” Meant for 1st-level characters, the Ruins Perilous has something of an odd plot, in that it expects the characters to be heading to a dungeon that’s set up strictly as a proving ground for adventurers – those who can overcome the dungeon’s obstacle can join the adventurer’s society that sponsors the dungeon.

I personally found this particular back-story to be a bit thin, partially because it leans on Rite Publishing’s only-vaguely-described Questhaven setting, and partially because having the PCs run through a “training” dungeon feels somehow of less import than if they were going through a “real” one.

That’s really the major critique for the first adventure, because the rest of the dungeon is fairly well designed. I particularly liked, for example, the bit about who keeps the dungeon in ready shape for adventurers, and it wouldn’t take much to set this up as a “legit” dungeon unto itself.

In terms of the dungeon itself, it’s actually an above-ground set of ruins, in which the PCs need to survive while finding specific methods to get to the end. It includes a fairly diverse set of traps and monsters, and covers the largest amount of territory (at least in terms of tactical maps) of the three adventures. There’s an excellent mixture of opportunities here for different ways to go about “beating” the dungeon – from simply hack ‘n’ slashing everything in sight to trying to sneak through with minimal contact with the locals to trying to get through with diplomacy. None of these will work in every situation of course, but you may be surprised by just how different this dungeon can play out depending on how the PCs approach it.

This is also the adventure with the most support material in the book; by support material I mean that this adventure features multiple new magic items, new monsters, and even a set of pregenerated PCs. There’s a lot to recommend The Ruins Perilous, and it opens AQ2 with a great start.

The second adventure, “Into the Land of Tombs,” doesn’t manage to live up to its preceding adventure, unfortunately. For one thing, it’s fairly heavy on its backstory, to the point where the reasons behind the adventure feel burdensome in what they lay on the PCs. Moreover, there’s a strong overtone of the cultural norms of the desert society in which the adventure takes place (as the adventure revolves around those norms being violated), which means that there’s a large table for the PCs to know what those cultural practices are to begin with. Be prepared to read a lot of text to the characters at the start of the adventure.

The adventure itself is essentially a journey to a tomb and the recovery of a missing item held therein. It’s fairly brief overall, which isn’t a bad thing; it’s fairly intense, however, as there are a number of encounters beyond what you’d expect for the duration of the adventure. This is a good thing, as it ablates my biggest gripe with this adventure – it doesn’t quite live up to its listed level for the characters.

“Into the Land of Tombs” is meant to be for 9th-level characters. However, while a few of the encounters are collectively that threat level, none of the individual creatures (save for the BBEG at the end) have a CR that high. To be fair, a few do almost get there with a Challenge Rating of 8. But for the most part, the adventure’s strategy is to wear the PCs down over time, making it very important that the GM reinforce that the fifteen-minute adventuring day not apply here. The PCs are meant to expend resources fighting waves of weaker monsters so that when they come to the end, the “final boss” can adequately challenge them. With that said, be prepared to scale things up if your party is larger than normal.

The final adventure, meant for 18th-level characters, is “The Dungeon of No Return.” As with the other adventures, it has an odd back-story, but it’s nicely abbreviated; moreover, the adventure hooks are varied, and presented as bullet points that quickly describe reasons why the PCs would get involved at all, something that shouldn’t be too hard to determine when your PCs are this high-level.

One thing that needs to be said about this adventure up-front is that the GM will need to sink some serious time into preparation. It’s common knowledge that running a high-level game takes some work, and that’s on display here. While the eponymous dungeon is only five rooms long, the creatures and traps in those five rooms require a full thirty pages to properly lay out. A GM who tries to run this one off the cuff is asking for a lot of frustration.

That said, a GM who does familiarize himself with this dungeon will find that it can present quite the challenge to his group…though some tweaking may be necessary. Several of the rooms in the dungeon are based around the idea of the PCs taking bait and bringing the resulting consequences down on themselves. I personally find most groups, particularly at high levels, to be highly suspicious in nature, and certainly not prone to repeating behaviors that previously brought them to bad ends. It’s not that big a deal, as the dungeon doesn’t rely solely on this gimmick, but it is in there more than once. Be prepared to rethink a room or two on this premise.

The book closes with a pair of quick articles; the first gives us a table of one hundred random features that can be part of a dungeon room. The second is a brief but interesting take on using a mechanical shorthand to indicate how an NPC’s primary (and secondary) motivation can affect their behavior in the course of game-play – something like a morale score, but for something besides determining if the characters duck and run from combat. Both are interesting articles, but I confess that it was the second one that really captured my imagination; I’m a big fan of using brief mechanics as springboards to determine NPC behaviors, so I quite enjoyed this one.

Overall, Adventure Quarterly #2 presents an imperfect but strong selection of adventures. Each is thoughtfully set around different styles of game-play – a dungeon with a widely-varied cast of monsters and traps, a dungeon that relies on attrition, and a dungeon with a short but highly-complex set of challenges – that cover a wide range of styles. Some of the details weren’t to my liking, but these were never anything game-breaking, and in fact were quite easy to change. The pair of articles at the end helped to round things out, even if they weren’t completely germane to the materials at hand. Still, if you’re looking for some new challenges to run your group through, you’d be well-served by what you’ll find in Adventure Quarterly #2.


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