I really don’t know how I’ve gone this long without reviewing this book. I’ve known about it for quite some time, and have been using it for the last several weeks in my home game, yet somehow writing a review didn’t occur to me. That oversight ends now.
I think that for everyone who plays a d20 System game, be it Pathfinder, d20 Modern, 3.5, d20 Future or whatnot, that there’s a sense of frustration with how patchwork the system’s exception-based rules are. That is, if you have an idea for a character, you can try to design an appropriate facsimile, but unless it happens to fall within some very specific parameters, there’ll be some aspect of the character creation mechanics that doesn’t quite fit with what you had in mind.
This, of course, leads to one of two things. Either you modify your expectations to fit within what the “class level” structure allows, or you go on a never-ending hunt for splatbooks and third-party supplements in hopes of finding new rules that will let you build exactly what it is you’re looking for.
Have you ever wanted to build a character that can shapeshift into different forms, but isn’t a druid, or even a spellcaster? What about a character that is able to manipulate fire via dancing? Or one whose spellcasting ability is limited by physical ability, rather than “prepared” spells? How many supplements and sourcebooks would you have to comb through to find rules that could let you play those characters? For that matter, how many would have rules to make ALL of those characters, and whatever others you can imagine?
The correct answer is: one. That being Eclipse: The Codex Persona, from Distant Horizons Games.
Weighing in at just over two hundred pages, Eclipse is an OGL supplement that has generously been made available for free. There’s also a page for a pay-for version of the book, which is completely the same as the free version in every way. In essence, the pay-for version is a tip jar, allowing you to pay for the book if you feel so inclined. Given that this book is essentially the same as every other character book ever released, that’s a staggering level of generosity.
The book hits the technical high marks for what’s expected of a PDF: copy-and-paste is enabled, and there are full, nested bookmarks present. Most helpfully, there is a link to the authors’ blog – I’ll mention why this is helpful shortly.
I should take a moment to mention the artwork. Entirely black and white, the artwork seems to be a mixture of stock art and works from the public domain. Moreover, most pieces are given a humorous caption. I say “humorous” because these captions tend to be of the Monty Python variety (in terms of how they read, rather than any specific quotations). For example, the illustration in the section on shapeshifting is of a woman with inhuman hands licking at her fingers. The caption? “Is it cannibalism if I wasn’t human when I ate him?” They’re pretty much all like that, though some are real groaners. As someone who loves making bad jokes (especially puns) I was tickled by these, but they might induce strain due to excessive eye-rolling in other readers. Be warned.
So now, having said all of that, just what IS Eclipse: The Codex Persona?
Simply put, Eclipse is a point-buy method of character generation for the d20 System. It wasn’t the first book to release a point-buy system, nor was it the most popular (thus far), but it is by far the most successful. Let’s get to why.
The book’s first section introduces the fundamentals. Basically, characters get twenty-four Character Points (CP) at each level. These points can be spent on a variety of things, ranging from the basics (Hit Dice, weapon/armor proficiencies, base attack bonuses, save bonuses, and skill points), to spellcasting abilities, to the much more colorful powers in chapter two, with things like damage reduction, the ability to actively block incoming attacks, esoteric means of communication, and so much more.
A review must, of course, gloss over some details, which is a shame since the first two chapter that detail these myriad abilities take up roughly a third of the book. But there’s something more fundamental that must be taken into account. While a large list of abilities that can be purchased is absolutely necessary to any point-buy system, it’s ultimately going to be limited – it has to be, since no single book can possibly list every ability that will ever be thought of in every other sourcebook, right?
Well, not exactly, no.
What makes Eclipse unique is that it gives a method for tailoring EVERYTHING that can be bought with Character Points, allowing you to alter them as necessary to fit with your idea for how they should work. How does it do this, you ask? By utilizing two related concepts: corruption, and specialization.
To be clear, both of these terms are referring to the same basic idea: that by placing some sort of limitation on an ability, you can give it a corresponding increase in another manner OR you can reduce the amount of Character Points the ability costs. The terms “corruption” is used to refer to a comparatively mild limitation, while the term “specialization” refers to a more severe one. It’s by using these abilities to modify the existing powers that you can create virtually limitless abilities.
For example, the Empowerment special ability lets you use your own ability score modifiers and caster level when activating a magic item, up to (3 + Int mod) times per day (sort of like how magic staves are normally). That costs 6 CP. But you could specialize that ability by limiting it to just, say, magic wands. By accepting that degree of limitation, you can choose to either cut the price in half (3 CP), or keep the full price, but remove the “per day” modifier. So when you make a character that’s a self-styled “Master of Wands” – with little actual spellcasting power, but is able to use magic wands far better than most fully-fledged wizards – you can easily distinguish him from other run-of-the-mill wizards and sorcerers.
The third chapter of the book builds on this, exploring what it calls “paths and powers.” These are, largely, more of the same, but where the first two chapters presented individual abilities that were largely unconnected, the various sections in chapter three showcase powers that have various sub-abilities. For example, channeling is the basic “turn/rebuke undead” power that clerics have. Here, however, not only can you manipulate how powerfully and how often you can channel positive or negative energy, you can do so much more. Beyond things like not needing a holy symbol, you can convert the energy into spell effects, turn or rebuke other types of creatures, grant bonuses to magic weapons, animate corpses, and so much more.
Many of the new abilities presented in chapter three are different systems for using magic. Skill-based magic systems, for example, have multiple different presentations here. So are low-level psychic powers, high-level direct manipulations of magic, mystical artistry, eldritch connections to a land you rule, and even divine ascension, among others.
Chapter four concerns itself solely with epic-level magic. This may seem very specific, but with the various ways to manipulate spellcasting (did I mention the metamagic theorems in chapter two?), it becomes something of a practical concern…depending on the sort of campaign you run. The spells here don’t use, surprisingly, any kind of new system of magic. Rather, they still use spell levels, ranging from level ten spells all the way up through level twenty-four.
It’s in chapter five that we move away from mechanics and more towards how to utilize what’s in the book. There’s a section for players here, and a section for GMs. The player section largely discusses the type of character you want to build, which is more helpful than it sounds when you can build pretty much anything you want. For GMs, the advice is even more practical – any role-playing game system can be abused by problem players, and in an open system like Eclipse, this requires a more proactive GM. Issues of deciding ahead of time what powers (and combinations of powers) should be disallowed are dealt with, in addition to suggestions and advice for what to do if a character goes out of control. Some templates and sample epic-level monsters help to round out the GMs tools.
A few appendices close out the book. There’s a quick example of chakras, presented as an in-game reason for disallowing certain power combinations. The second and third appendix take standard 3.5 and d20 Modern classes and show how they’d be built in Eclipse, along with how to take standard feats using Eclipse abilities. Some helpful worksheets are the last thing given.
If you’ve read this far, you probably have a pretty good sense that I’m a big fan of Eclipse. The author says in the foreword that none of his players want to use any other character-building options besides what’s here, and having gotten a chance to use the book in my own game, I can completely understand why. Why go back to digging through various books to hodge-podge together a character that resembles what you wanted to make, when you can use one book to put together exactly the PC you really want to play?
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Eclipse is a book against which no criticism can be leveled. The biggest critique that can be said of the book is that it’s horribly lacking where examples are concerned. This is no small complaint, as the system is a fairly complex one to understand, especially if you’re expecting more of the fairly rigid class-level structure from standard d20 games. There are numerous points where a helpful example would go a long way towards making things clearer.
To be fair, the book does have examples for some sections, but these are few and far between. The system is, I believe, fairly intuitive…but only after you’ve made a significant investment in understanding exactly what it’s offering and how it goes about doing it. Luckily, there’s a remedy for this: remember the authors’ blog that I mentioned earlier? It has a plethora of sample characters and items built with Eclipse (including my favorite articles on how to build 100% Pathfinder-compatible characters using the book), and more than fills the need for examples of what can be done with Eclipse.
It’s also important to keep Eclipse’s limits in mind. The book allows for many options in building characters, and while this often brushes up against many other parts of the d20 System, there are some that it doesn’t replace. For example, there are many different ways to manipulate the skill system with the powers here, but the system itself is independent of Eclipse (which is why it works with d20 Modern skills, 3.5 skills, Pathfinder skills, etc.). There are different ways to build magic items, but magic items themselves aren’t dealt with here (though relics, which are similar, are). Eclipse is a powerful character generator, but it’s not a complete replacement for your d20 game of choice.
My understanding is that Eclipse is so named because it “eclipses” all other character-building options in the d20 System, and I can honestly say that it does. Think of every fictional character you’ve ever read, watched, or heard about; you can make them all here. You may still need to increase the amount of levels necessary to do it, but it can be done. The Codex Persona is exactly what it promises, and is still completely compatible with whatever d20 game you’re playing, to boot. So put on your protective eyewear and look into the Eclipse.