This massive pdf is 172 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 4 pages SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 163 pages of content, so let's check out the first PFRPG-product by Magic Skull Games!
After a background story focusing on the battle between serpentine hordes and an army of light that saw the defeat of the snake-like demon god Sarkuroth, the pdf kicks off with the new base classes, first of which would be the shapeshifter: The class gets d8, 3/4 BAB progression, 4+Int skills per level and good fort-and ref-saves and no spellcasting prowess. Essentially, the shapeshifter gains improving capabilities to turn into at first animals like beast shape and slowly gains access to improving options - starting at 5th level, for example, the shapeshifter can turn into flying creatures. Additionally, when in natural form, they can enhance themselves via e.g. bear's endurance etc. Shapeshifters may also choose a variety of favored forms over the levels, enabling the shapeshifter to get bonuses when in these forms. He can also have his natural attacks count as magic, good, evil, lawful or chaotic. AT higher levels, shapeshifters may also change into e.g. centaurs, lamias, winter wolves etc. and monster feats like flying-related ones, improved natural attacks etc. are added to the classes roster of bonus feats. Finally, at 5th level and every 3 after that, the shapeshifter can choose from up to 15 powers, including classics like uncanny dodge, but also granting access to e.g. knockback. Finally, at higher levels, the class can turn into dragons and giants and change shape as swift actions at 19th level. The class has no true capstone ability, though, which is slightly disappointing. The class is an interesting, non-casting take on the iconic shapechanger and works well in its intended niche. What somehow disappoints me about this class is that e.g. there is no option to grant the shapeshifter truly unique bonuses like e.g. adding an eidolon's evolutions to its forms, extract-like powers etc. As written, the class serves its niche, but I'm not sure its changing-capabilities combine with its non-full-BAB to its full advantage - a druid might be the stronger choice in direct comparison.
The second new base-class would be the Pyro, a class that also gets 3/4 BAB progression, d8, 6+Int skills per level, goof fort and ref saves and are proficient with torches and light armors, learning to utilize their torches to deal additional damage and choose from a total of 14 different torch-related talents, some of which, though, enable the Pyro to create special torches that add effects of e.g. thunderstones, smokesticks with an added minor debuff effect. 14 talents and 7 advanced talents are also available to the Pyro, though generally, I have a problem with this class: Essentially, this is a rogue variant with a gimmick weapon, including abilities that are dependent on catching foes off guard. The class lacks the full BAB to make up for the lack of spells and several of its abilities are taken straight from the rogue, while lacking the additional damage-output of sneak attack. And then there's the problem of the class carrying a TORCH. a) This makes stealth all but impossible. b) It could blow you up if you go into dungeons and encounter pockets of gas. c) The class is utterly useless under water or in massive storms. Wanna cripple a Pyro? Douse him. This class feels like a good idea that just hasn't been thought through to its logical implementation. As an NPC it might work, but as a player-class? Not so much. And I haven't even begun elaborating how ridiculously useless the class becomes if it encounters any creature immune to fire...
After that, we delve into chapter 2, which deals with PrCs. And there are a lot of them, 33 if I haven't miscounted, out there. However, there is also something rather evident from looking at them - several of the PrCs require you to have x class levels in a specific class, something not conform with PFRPG design-standards are worse, often illogical, but more on that later. The PrCs also have extremely steep attribute requirements. A total of 6 different prestige classes deal with warchiefs of different tribes: Bear, Eagle, Horse, Panther, Wolf and Snake. The classes all provide abilities you'd expect from a totem-focused class like wild empathy and e.g. improved grappling capabilities for the Bear Chief, but also all have problems:
The Bear chief has to endure the massive prerequisites and can take the class at 5th level in theory, but if he advances in the class, he gets access to greater rage a whopping 5 levels after the regular barbarian without offering any ability that makes up for the catastrophic power-loss incurred in comparison with the base-class. The Eagle Chief's abilities are even worse with the notable exception of the 7th level, which provides a chance for an auto-crit on a hit - one compelling ability does not a good PrC make, though. The Horse Chief makes for an interesting mounted barbarian, but also has a problem - the class has the balls to offer a terrible greater endurance ability as capstone. Useless and boring. Panther Chiefs have to use cat's claws to use their best abilities, which happen to be that they can add a second attack to a charge at -3 and later another one at -5, making this class a rather boring one-trick pony. Charge, attack, repeat. Again, no offset for the relative powerloss when compared to the base-class. The Snake Chief can use poisons and is good at ambushing, but again gains access to greater rage 5 levels later. The Wolf Chief gains pack tactics, which add bonuses, but ignore the new mechanics of teamwork feats, solo-tactics etc., something I would not only have expected, but demanded of the class. And then there's something wrong with all of the classes: They don't grant you rage rounds when progressing, but instead 1/rage per day. Unfortunately, THAT'S NOT HOW BARBARIAN RAGE WORKS IN PFRPG. I'm sad to say, but ranging from design-remnants of the 3.5-days to boring concepts that have been done to death and predictable, weak abilities, these chiefs all FAIL.
Speaking of FAIL: The Black Lord, a gish that focuses on darkness-and necromancy-related spells gets only 3+Int skills, 5 levels of spell progression over 10 levels and can turn darkness into e.g. a gibbering mouther. Sounds cool? Yeah. It also gets its own spell-list (of up to 9th level) - why not prohibit e.g. simply all [good] and[light]-spells? Generally, this class has potential. But: It has dead levels with only 1 level of existing spell-progression, something thankfully mostly absent in PFRPG-design. It also completely and totally IGNORES THE MAGUS. This class is made for fighter/wizards/sorcerors, when the niche has been filled by a more appropriate class. Worse, due to its stunted spell-progression, its upper echelons of magic as mentioned in the spell-list are useless, seeing that the progressed level of a level 10 Black lord will be 9 - 4 levels of wizard prereq 5 levels of spell-progression over 10 levels. The character will be level 17 by then. Ridiculously weak and not up to design-standards, in spite of the cool ideas. Worse, the Earth Lord and Fire Lord PrCs follow the same structure and add the insult of being boring elemental classes (we've had enough of these!) to the design injury. The Storm Knight is also victim of these design choices, though at least they can summon a cool storm chariot, though its capstone is again insultingly bland and weak - an aid spell 2 caster levels for some spells when in a storm.
The Champion of Light is a class focused on light-related effects and the countering fof darkness effects as well as gaining a small selection of spellcasting powers. What I don't get is - why not play a paladin? Why doesn't this class get to choose from abilities like mercies? With the relatively few darkness effects out there, the class feels like a cripplingly over-specialized poor man's paladin that doesn't even get full BAB-progression. Also weird: Since the class must already be able to cast divine spells to enter it, why doesn't it offer a spell progression for its existent casting capabilities, instead providing a new and rather limited list?
The Dread Crusher is essentially a version of the breaking barbarian archetype at higher levels, a class centered on sundering equipment. Ok, I guess, though again, not particularly versatile. The Faceted Conjurer, a PrC centered on permanently conjuring figurines of power and ioun stones is another PrC that leaves me cold, again coming at a paltry 1/2 spell-progression. Better, at least concept-wise, is the cobra master, one of multiple serpent-themed classes in the pages of this book, this one being focused on providing a monk with some rogue talents and the option to poison your unarmed attacks. However, a capstone ability that grants 1d6 sneak attack, better slow falling and a bonus feat feels not adequate, nor does the BAB-progression - a monk's melee abilities are bad enough as is, this class only provides 1/2 BAB-progression. The class offers continuous monk-power progression - with the exception of AC. Yeah. No improving AC-bonus for this PrC. Whether that's an omission or a design-choice, I don't know. It does feel like an unnecessary impediment of an already not too strong class.
The Knight Heretic is essentially a poor man's antipaladin as a PrC - no cruelties, lame abilities etc. Antipaladin and SGG's Death Knights are vastly superior options and less linear. Dispel good as a capstone ability would be neat, but it can only be used 1/week. Weak. puts 2 bucks into the bad pun jar The Knight Inexorable is a more interesting class: If you can meet its steep feat-requirements, it makes for a will-strong knight that can affix special insignias to his equipment. A nice alternative to the cavalier, though I probably would have preferred it to be designed along the lines of said established base class, perhaps improving order powers or challenges. The class lacks a unique signature ability. Knights of the Black Glade represent a cool concept: Druidic knights. Unfortunately, the restriction of a set amount of druid PLUS ranger or fighter levels restricts the class. Worse, the class, a knight centered on the idea of druids, only comes with a horse companion advancement, when it should take all kinds of possible mounts into accounts. The class also gets access to some nice spell-like abilities and an acclimation to metal armors - depending on your setting/take on druids, the latter might upset some basic tenets of the faith. Knights of Entropy grow to large size, get minor spell-access and the option to mutate and also get a changed mount. Per se a good class including a nice capstone (earthquake), were it not for the dead level and one fact - this has been done, and done better: Malhavoc Press's Mutation rules from the Chaositech book for 3.5, alone or combined with Green Ronin's Unholy Warrior's Handbook's Knights of Bedlam PrC constitute the vastly superior options - both in style and execution.
The Knight of the Death Angel is a concept that is rather cool - a sorceror/fighter multiclass (again, class-level restrictions - beh) serving the angel of death with both martial and arcane might. The class gets an excellent ghostly intangible plate, spectral warhorses etc. Again, though, this gish-class only offers us 5 levels of spell-progression - at least it gets 9/10 BAB-progression. As a Magus, this design would have been vastly superior - as written, it remains an ok class. The Knight of the Lion Rampant is a paladin-exclusive PrC that offers fighter bonus feats and worse lay on hands and smiting capabilities. While he can negate one crit per day and at 9th level make his shield a lion's shield, that does not offset the knight's lack of full BAB (only getting 3/4-progression) AND the lack of any spell-progression. This class is essentially a PrC that is worse in any conceivable way than the base class.
The Master of the Flamberge is a true paragon of two-handed weapon fighting (though not only of the flamberge) and can be considered a powerful, cool class - were it not for the fact that there's already the two-handed fighter archetype - combine both and balance leaves the building. Masters of the Handaxe are actually a cool class that hasn't been done before in PFRPG, centering on both dual hand fighting AND on improved throwing capabilities. There is an unclear wording here, though: Dual Axe Wielder reduces the penalties for dual wielding hand-axes by 1, but the class does not require the two-weapon fighting feat and yet this ability seems to presume it does/or is supposed to grant it: The ability only mentions a penalty of -1, when without the feat the newly modified penalty should be -7. The Final Master Class is a specialist of the Razor Scourge that combines his mastery of the whip with sneak attack progression and some improved intimidation. This PrC would not be bad, were it not for the fact that both Above Average Creation's Scourger Variant Class and Abandoned Arts' Lasher Archetype do the better job.
And after that, the reign of serpentine classes begins: The Serpentine Necromancer is essentially a regular necromancer that can utilize the 3 undead templates later in the book. Ok, I guess, though I don't get why it takes a PrC to command what usually would be commandable by ANY NECROMANCER or why we needed a "Vampiric Serpent Template" when we could easily apply such a template to a base-creature. Superfluous. The Serpentine Temple Warrior with its minor sneak, mystical powers and poison use can be considered a good flavor class with nothing to complain about apart from the weird save-progression of 1/2 fort and 2/5 ref and will. The Serpent Warlock would be a nice caster-class, gaining a transfixing gaze, shapechanging, scales, poison etc., were it not for, again, the stunted spell-progression and the fact that e.g. serpent- and snake-themed bloodlines and revelations have done similar things without nerfing a character that hard. The Silent Adder is a serpent-themed assassin (again, with annoying class-level prerequisites) that could be cool in concept - were it not a strikingly boring monk/rogue mishmash. Especially strange that fast movement, something that would greatly benefit such a class, does not advance. The Snake Cult Leader is a cleric that gains wild empathy and some serpent-themed abilities, again being stumped by its crippled spell-progression and the fact that its new abilities in no way make up for the trade off in power and versatility. The final snake-themed PrC would be the Viper Assassin, an extremely fast class that grants the user truly deadly bleeding criticals and the option to hide in plain sight at higher levels. I don't have anything to complain here.
The Temple Assassin is another combo-class, this time cleric/rogue gain limited spell-progression, further sneak attacks (though the gained dice are only d4, not the regular d6) and can, by divine favor, gain temporary access to rogue talents. Grab your seats, fellows: I really like this PrC's basic concept! It's balanced, feels distinct and its benefits are sufficient. Its capstone is holy word, blasphemy, word of chaos or dictum, depending on alignment - ok for such a class! It still suffers from the weird class-level design choices, though, as well as from a ridiculously low 1/2 BAB as well as a weird save-progression. The final prestige class is the Winter Warlock, an ice-themed arcane caster. Design-wise, this class is not bad either, though it is also not too exciting.
After that, we're introduced to 16 sample NPCs using the new classes, but no fluff, mannerisms or the like - in fact, not a single word of crunch is provided for them - lame. Chapter 4 details so-called eldritch Path feats: These feats require a specific caster level as well as access to specific spells. The feats then enable you to modify the spells they apply to in various ways, for example to move walls you have cast, enable walls of thorns to grapple foes or detonate walls of flame. The basic ability the feats provide can usually be used once per round or day, while the more specialized appliances that modify specific spells can only be used 1/week. The eldritch path feats are a truly cool and interesting innovation in my book that a resourceful GM can easily use to enhance the flavor of arcane societies and traditions - while these big brothers of SGG's spell-modifying feats could be considered strong and I would never make them available freely to PCs, if used sparingly, they are a true winner of a concept and an innovation of which I'd love to see more. The new magic items, most of which are serpent-themed, can also be considered well-crafted and include a plethora of Sword & Sorcery style, pulpy items like enchanted warpaint. Nice!
After that, we delve into the massive spell-section with spell-lists by class -lacking spell-lists for all APG classes and the Magus as well as a reprint of the spell-lists for all the new classes, making this section much harder to navigate than it should be. The Omission of the APG and UM-classes is an inexcusable oversight at this point. How are the spells? Does a spell that makes your weapon get the brilliant quality elicit any excitement from you? What about separate spells to call the new amphisbaena monsters? What about a slightly improved chilling grasp that leeches life-force? Oh wait. That already exists. There also are good spells herein, like the blade barrier's mobile little brother, the dagger swarm. There are problems, though: The 3rd level spell explosive meteor deals up to 8d6 bludgeoning damage - less than a fireball, but damage that cannot be countered by magic- making this spell much stronger. Magnetizing spells are cool, yeah, but their rules should enforce this and when compared to others, the one herein just does not feel like it is up to the task. The variations of the phantom horse spells, providing draught or war horses, are nice ideas, though Dire Destiny Press' "The very last book about mounted combat" also does that one better. And honestly, do you consider a sor/wiz spell at 3rd level that shoots a ray of coldness dealing 1d6 damage of cold damage, up to 10d6 innovative? Yeah, me neither. This spell-section is FILLER and has nothing truly ingenious to offer - when compared to Rite Publishing's 101-spell-series, Dreadfox Games' Grimoires or Necromancers of the Northwest's stellar Advanced Arcana-books, this section falls by the wayside -HARD.
Chapter 7 introduces us to another new mechanic, so-called signs: Signs are essentially constellations and marks that represent a being destined for greatness - they can be considered quite powerful, raising the CR by at least 2 and mechanically can be likened to what one would consider templates. Signs can duplicate whole domain-suites, bloodlines and arcane school powers, grant access to a paladin's mercies and aura of courage, among other things. From the Grand Cross to the fleur-de-lis and the phoenix to evil signs like the black goat, the sign of insanity or the sign of slaughter or vile serpents, these new mechanics...are actually really, really cool! Think about how much superstitions of signs and omens have shaped the course of our own societies and still does. Then think about the heavenly constellations and other symbols that represent these beliefs, granting them inherent power. Add the versatile options and the unpredictability-angle these templates provide and we have a great basic stock to create not only bonuses for destined heroes (it's important to keep the players balanced in group, though), but also a neat system of representation by the respective signs. Better yet, we get little b/w-renditions of all of the signs. I honestly would have wished this chapter were longer. This idea could definitely need some expansion, perhaps with neutral and ambivalent signs etc. Kudos!
All right, let's get to the final section of this massive review, the bestiary. Let's face it. Snakes in D&D used to suck. In fact, all poisons SUCK in derivatives of d20. In my home game, I amp up their lethality. Always. And I require caster checks against the DC to cure them via magic. Failure means the particular caster can't cure this poisoning. This bestiary introduces the so-called deadly snakes, which have the design-goal of no longer sucking - do they succeed? Well, first of all, summon nature's ally spells can now also conjure these neat critters. Good. Better: THEIR POISONS DON'T SUCK!!! Heureka, baby! Let me give you an example: The Deadly Dire Black Mamba's poison deals 1d3 Con for 6 rounds, cure 2 consecutive saves. The cool thing here is that if the victim botches a save by 5 or more, he is further impeded by the poison via one of 7 (!!) random effects: From blurry vision (granting concealment to all beyond 50 ft. in daylight or halved viewing distance in dim light), over joint pains and dex damage to swollen tongues that impede casting, these toxins are gold. Seriously. And looking at the deadly dire snake king cobra made me cackle with glee - especially DMs of Serpent Skull should consider checking these out! A total of 12 such snakes are presented and we also get other beings - the serpentine medusa, for example and some minor modifications for existing creatures like the Trog Ettin (yep, smelly) or the vile Xocouatl, a corrupted counterpart to the iconic winged serpents. We also get a total of 10 templates, from the primal chaos creature (what you'd expect - icky mutations and cthulhoid flair) to a lot of serpentine templates. I already commented on the undead serpent templates, which in my opinion are mostly superfluous. Not all belong into this category of lazy templates, though: From the half-serpent to the amphisbaena-template to the hydran-serpent template, most of them are actually rather cool. And the snake-vomiting template for undead s also rather fun. You can even create dragons with poisonous snake-heads now!
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn't notice any significant glitches. Layout adheres to a full-color 2-column standard with a yellowish parchment like background. The artworks range from b/w to full color, don't adhere to a unifying style, but have in common that they illustrate nicely the represented concepts and can be considered nice. Not all monsters and templates are illustrated, though. The pdf comes fully bookmarked, but without a printer-friendly b/w-version. The pdf is fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks that allow easy navigation.
Reviewing this pdf has been a dual blast from the past for me: On the one hand, slithering, serpentine monsters have always fascinated me and are closely tied to Conan, my childhood hero and the kind of sword and sorcery fantasy that brought me to the game in the first place. Much like Xoth Publishing's offerings, this pdf contains options that feel steeped in antiquity and a world before the chivalrous age. Mostly. If you've read this far, you can probably glean that there's a big, big catch. And said catch is that this pdf is also steeped in rules-antiquity. The two base-classes feel weak when compared to the core-classes, the Pyro almost superfluous, since its unique torch abilities have no way of keeping up with the usefulness of just about ANY other character in utility and damage. And then there are the PrCs.
I'm not going to mince words here: These 63 pages of PrCs almost universally SUCK. They fail due to multiple reasons: First would be the decision to deviate from Paizo's established standards that makes PrCs open for more than obscure class combos. Secondly, they feature dead levels, uneven skill modifiers per level and similar weird decisions that are odd in PFRPG - from strange save and BAB-progressions to a terribly stunted spell progression for just about ALL CASTING CLASSES, these PRCs manage to contradict efficient and trusted ways of making PrCs not suck. Thirdly, they completely ignore the new classes beyond the core material. Who plays an obscure multiclass gish when we have SGG's excellent Archon AND Vanguard as well as Paizo's own Magus, who has gotten a fair share of cool options? Worse, many of the PrCs have perhaps one good mechanic and recycle all the bland and trite clichés you've seen a dozen of times. Warrior of light with radiant weapon, good against darkness and undead? Check. Etc. Most of these PrCs feel like they hail from the beginning of PrC-writing, when in the 3.0-days the classes were so terribly off it hurt. Also due to their multiclass restrictions and insane attribute requirements. None of these classes felt special to me. None felt like a prestigious class to me. There is no way around it - were it for the PrCs alone, I'd rip this pdf to virtual shreds.
But there is also some good in these pages - while the magic items can be considered ok, I really like the chapters in which the pdf offers NEW RULES like the signs and the eldritch Path feats. Heck, I may even expand these concepts and use them myself. The snakes in the bestiary with their innovative poisons are also sheer awesomeness and the bestiary section is only hampered by some parts like the serpentine undead that feel like someone took an existing template and cut-copy-replaced the word serpentine into them.
What about the spells? Lacking lists for the PrCs and the new Paizo-classes from APG; Um etc., this 31-page strong chapter is PrCs all over again. I've said it once and I'll say it again: We don't need boring bad spells, we need original, creative, smart ones. We already have more than 1500 excellent spells released from companies like RiP, SGG and Dreadfox Games - we need stellar ones that push the envelope, that do unique, new things. These feats feel like SGG's spell variant line - "like fireball only bludgeoning, minus2d6". There. That's one spell. This is not original, it's BORING. And every DM worth his/her salt can make these him/herself. Worse, again, they don't take spells into account that do similar things at the same level, but better. PrCs all over.
This might look unfair, me harping on the PrCs and spells. But they make up over 90 pages of this book. This pdf reminded me of the bad old D&D-days. When you had to comb through crap to find gems in many 3pp publications. You did find gems, sure, but the expense of nerves was immense for me. In PFRPG, the standard of 3pps is VERY HIGH. In fact, I could name some Paizo publications I'd consider worse than comparable 3pp-books, Ultimate Magic and the recent equipment book springing to mind. This pdf has a great bang-for-buck ratio, yes, but at the expense of a lot of obviously unplaytested garbage. There is another thing obvious about this pdf: Either, the content is from a home game or some other rules system, at least in inspiration, for the rules herein feel like they belong rather in a low or rare magic world, not a standard PFRPG-setting. That would be the benevolent interpretation. The more malicious would be the following: It is evident that these PrCs were not balanced against their core counterparts. They are universally weaker, have less options and feel blander than their core versions. They don' get a lot of new powers or talents to choose from. They are very linear. They mention mechanics like "additional rages per day" instead of rage rounds per day. They represent concepts that Paizo archetypes and CLASSES LIKE THE ANTIPALADIN have already covered. Sound familiar? Weaker abilities? Less versatility? Outdated mechanics? These classes were designed for 3.5 (or even 3.0) and hastily and exceedingly sloppily converted and then jammed into this pdf without taking archetypes, solo-tactics, teamwork feats or even new base classes that have become PFRPG-staples into account.
Which makes me doubly angry, since the new mechanics could have used the space: We could have used more snakes, any archetypes, class options for all the existing classes... and for example guidance. As DMs. On awarding eldritch Path feats, since they obviously are much more powerful than regular feats. Or on the signs and how to balance handing out signs to player characters. Or more signs. Some class options for the new Shapeshifter and Pyro-class to enhance their respective capabilities. Especially the Pyro is desperately in need of a windshield and some alchemical tools to stop him from being the group's laughingstock once a gale hits. What about personalities and hooks for the sample NPCs? We know NOTHING about them and they are packed in rather short...wait. double-checks Yup. The bestiary adheres to PFRPG's statblocks with neatly separated defense, offense etc.-sections. The NPC-blocks don't. They are the old, crammed, ugly D&D-blocks. Further evidence for my suspicions. Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against conversions, but they have to be done with care - see Misfit Studios' "Superior Fantasy Synergy" for an example of a great conversion.
This pdf feels like some completely unrelated pdfs were hastily cobbled together, thrown in the blender and much like the frog, the result is less tasty than the ingredients would have made it. The pdf also lacks a leitmotif - less than half of the total content is related to snakes and in contrast to e.g. the Sword & Sorcery low magic setting of Xoth, there is no alternate/limited spellcasting system to justify or mitigate the catastrophic powerloss many of these PrCs entail. Which is a pity, for, again, the snakes are awesome and the paths and signs have potential.
This is a prime example why I have started reviewing. To keep blunders like the ones herein from tarnishing otherwise great content - be it in the pages of the same book or in competing publications. In PFRPG, Magic Skull Games will have to do much better than that. And I believe they can. If you're only looking for the signs, path-feats and the snakes, this pdf might be 3 stars for you - unfortunately, they constitute only 39 pages of the pdf in total. The whole package though...ouch. We get a good amount of content for the asking price, it's true, but most of the content- well, just isn't good. As much as it pains me to do so, I have rated down better pdfs for less and I have established a 0-tolerance policy for pdfs with conversion errors and obviously sloppy balance and design-choices. As such, If I want to keep my own frame of reference intact and not become guilty of a double standard in favor of a small margin of ideas I really liked, which still need some guidance and balancing guidelines and thus could also be considered flawed.
I have no choice - my final verdict will be 1 star,