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The Malefactor Base Class
Publisher: Total Party Kill Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/07/2012 18:57:39
Bad luck is part and parcel of RPGs, particularly dice-based ones like Pathfinder. Whether it’s your fiendishly-clever plan suddenly going belly-up, or rolling the dreaded natural 1, sometimes things just turn against you. But what if that wasn’t just an uncontrollable aspect of the game, but rather a character theme? What if your PC was somehow who had a measure of control over ill luck, and could actually use it to their advantage? What sort of character build is like that?

The answer is the Malefactor Base Class, from Total Party Kill Games.

Right off the bat, I have to give TPK Games credit for their files – not only does the PDF come with a printer-friendly version (though said version lacked PDF bookmarks, but that’s a minor nitpick), but it also came with two Hero Lab files; one for the class itself, and another for the sample NPC made with it. A helpful readme text file on how to install the Hero Lab files is a nice little extra. I was going to note little things that weren’t here like a mac-compatible or epublishing version, but that seems nitpicky in light of just how much is here already.

The main PDF is also to be commended for hitting the highlights of its format. Copy-and-paste is enabled, and full nested bookmarks are included. The artwork featured two full-page full-color interior pieces. The first is a clean version of the cover image, and is truly excellent – I can see why they used it as the basis for their sample character. The second image was of similar quality, but there was a slightly “blurred” look about it; not much, just slightly enough that I wasn’t sure if the picture was drawn that way, or if the resolution needed to be tightened up a little.

I had mixed feelings about the page backgrounds. Each page is set against a sort of slate-gray background, reminiscent of a tombstone. This included an ornate black border near the edge of each page. Ironically (or perhaps on purpose) this formed a sort of natural border for the text, but whenever the text got close enough that the black lettering hit the border, I felt like it was being obscured slightly. Certainly that didn’t happen too much, but enough to be worth mentioning.

The Malefactor Base Class opens with a short bit of fiction told from the perspective of the sample character, after which we’re taken to the class itself. The Malefactor is fairly strong, having medium BAB and the corresponding d8 Hit Dice, along with only one bad save (Fortitude). It’s also pretty good skill monkey, having a dozen class skills and 6 Int bonus skill points per level. I was also pleased to see that the TPK guys remembered to add in the malefactor’s level 1 starting gold.

In regards to the design of the class’s special abilities, I was pleasantly surprised at just how strong the design was. This manages to perfectly capture the innovation that a new class should have with the design philosophy of a Pathfinder base class.

The malefactor’s main abilities revolve around a pool of strife points, and its malediction powers. There are certainly more powers than these, of course, but these two help to form the core identity of the class. Maledictions are somewhat like a witch’s hex powers, in that the player selects one every so often as they level up, and can be used at will. Unlike witch hexes, which have a hierarchy of the normal ones, the stronger ones, and the strongest, all maledictions are equal. However, roughly midway through the malefactor’s progression, it gains the ability to spend strife points on its maledictions to increase their power. Each malediction has an expanded paragraph describing what it does when used in this manner.

Strife points have other uses, of course. So long as the malefactor has at least one, it’s protected from its own aura of unluck, which penalizes saving throws for everyone around it. It also has a great deal of curse-related powers (a helpful sidebar describes what game effects constitute a “curse” for this purpose), such as spending strife points to cause greater damage to those operating under a curse, detecting curses, being able to remove them or even ignore them, and quite a bit more. The class is incredibly versatile within its theme.

In regards to its flavor, the malefactor is based around the idea that some children, when they’re born, are the permanent host of chaos-spirits known as “yla” who attract bad luck to them. The malefactor has learned how to channel this bad luck into its powers. I was somewhat unimpressed with the flavor text, if only because it gave a fairly concrete flavor to a class that allowed for a greater range of in-game interpretations of how its powers worked. Having said that, I do have to give the writers props for keeping the flavor firmly married to the mechanics – it mentions how various powers, for example, are because of the yla’s spiritual attacks or influence.

That alone would have been enough, but in another move that shows that they know what Pathfinder players want, the book continues on with a set of expanded options for malefactors. We’re initially given five class archetypes, such as the moirae (who pronounce fate to make their allies succeed on tasks) or the kismet (who try and focus their powers on good luck, rather than bad).

I was slightly less impressed with the archetypes, as the fluff often felt thinnest here. Does a kismet still have an yla spirit, for example? Moreover, more than one of these archetypes just traded in a single class feature – I’m personally of the opinion that archetypes should always have at least two or more to be worthwhile, otherwise the difference between them and the normal class is, to me, too small. Worst, however, were the instances where the replacement power didn’t say what class feature that it was replacing (I’m looking at you, Curse-Eater archetype).

A short, surprising section on what you know about malefactors at various DCs leads us into a dozen malefactor-specific feats. While these did have the ubiquitous single line of flavor text before giving us their mechanics, most of these felt utilitarian in nature – you had the requisite feat for increasing a specific malediction’s save DC, or use one as a move action (rather than a standard), or gain further points of strife, etc. These were good, but felt obligatory.

Pleasantly, this wasn’t the case for malefactor favored class bonuses. A whopping fourteen races have entries here, including (naturally) a number of races from later monster/race books, such as the dhampir, drow, and fetchlings. Each has a short bit of flavor text describing how malefactor members of that race look at their powers. My only complaint here is that some entries note that their possibilities include a 1 skill point or 1 hit point, which goes without saying since those are the default favored class bonuses, and so didn’t need to be reiterated here.

There’s a short but insightful section on malefactors in your game (they make great debuffers) before we’re given the sample NPC from the cover. I wasn’t quite sure if I missed something when it noted that not only was she a demon-spawn tiefling, but that she was of the succubus bloodline – I know there are rules for tieflings from different kinds of evil outsiders, but I’m unaware of any sort of rules for making them be from a specific kind of monster (and since the character is a single-classed malefactor, the “bloodline” thing isn’t of the sorcerer ability of the same name).

The character stat block is fairly straightforward, but could have used some minor touch-ups (you don’t need to list an attack’s critical multiplier if it’s x2) and had a number of things set as hyperlinks to the d20PFSRD. What was fairly ugly, however, was after the stat block it listed out, in alphabetical order, expanded text on everything the character had. Literally everything; her class abilities, racial abilities, magic items, traits, etc. are all summarized there. It was more than a bit overwhelming, and certainly unnecessary. If something in her stat block is from a different book, a hyperlink (or at least a parenthetical note of which book) is sufficient.

Overall, these little flaws are easily ignored in favor of just how much is here. The malefactor base class is incredibly well-constructed both in terms of its theme and its mechanical execution. While there are a few places, mostly in the expanded material, where one or the other falls a little flat, as a whole this book offers an incredibly innovative new class for your Pathfinder game. It’s deserving of each and every one of its five stars. The malefactor may be a class that deals with bad luck, but you’ll feel anything but unlucky if you pick this up.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Malefactor Base Class
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The Ebon Vault: Power of the Ring
Publisher: Necromancers of the Northwest
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/24/2012 13:53:01
I needn’t talk about the archetypal nature of magic rings in fantasy. From the Ring of Gyges to Green Lantern, magic rings that grant their wielder great power are timeless. This continues to be the case in Pathfinder, which allows for all sorts of magic rings. All too often, however, these are minor things easily forgotten about (e.g. a ring of swimming) or are so standard as to be assumed for treasure (e.g. rings of protection). The Ebon Vault: Power of the Ring, from Necromancers of the Northwest, seeks to shake things up a bit.

Power of the Ring weighs in at forty-seven pages, and does most of what a PDF should. It has full, nested bookmarks, for example. However, copy-and-paste has not been enabled, so if you’re looking to copy something onto an electronic character sheet, you’ll need to retype it by hand. The book has no printer-friendly option, which might be a bit of a problem for those looking for a hard copy; while the book’s only interior illustrations are stock art of various rings, all of the pages are set against a cream-colored “parchment” background.

The book opens with a bit of fiction, which was actually much more intriguing than I thought it would be. Showing the exchange between a thief and one of the book’s intelligent rings, the banter between the two (particularly the bombastic ring, which kept giving the thief cutesy pet names) was quite fun, enough so that I wouldn’t have minded reading more about their exploits.

The book quickly moves onto a more proper introduction before giving us twenty descriptions of ring appearances. These aren’t tied to any particular magic rings, and so can be used for whatever rings your characters happen to find. Each description is a paragraph long, and doesn’t want for details; indeed, there’s so much detail to each description that you may find it might not be quite right for the magic you’re attaching to it (e.g. a stylized carving of two serpents about to swallow a gemstone might be a bit off for a ring of jumping).

The bulk of the book is devoted to new magic rings a la those in the Core Rules. More than fifty are presented (though a few of these are variants on the same kind of ring, e.g. the ring of bowmanship and its lesser and greater variants; this sort of thing doesn’t happen often, though) and they run quite the gamut. Unlike in the Core Rules, these rings tend to have a wide range of costs, from just a few hundred GP to three hundred thousand!

In terms of effect, most of these rings avoid more prosaic effects, focusing instead on a broader set of powers not easily replicated by spells or feats. For every ring of flying (which grants a 5 to Fly checks) there are things like the ring of branding (dealing fire damage to put a magic brand on the target, which requires powerful magic to remove and once a day can let you teleport them to you) or the ring of infernal wishes (putting you in contact with a powerful devil, and the more wishes it grants you the more closely you tie yourself to the infernal ones) or the ring of the body (you no longer suffer from aging, poisons, or diseases…but they catch up to you when you remove the ring). There’s a lot here for GMs and players to be inspired by.

Several rings are segregated into separate sections near the end of the book. The Five Legendary Rings of Matthias the Mad, for example, showcase four (the fifth is in the following section) rings with a hefty back-story, as well as unique powers. The Intelligent Rings section likewise presents a half-dozen living rings that gives us not only their appearance and powers, but also their origins and personalities (including, I was glad to see, the ring from the opening fiction).

The book closes out with a table of one hundred magic command words. These don’t appear to be based on any real-world language, consisting of nonsense words that can be assigned as necessary. Needless to say, this is quite valuable for any sort of command-activated magic item, not just rings. Although only a page long, this table has usefulness beyond the product it’s found in.

Overall, I was quite taken with what this book offers. The rings it presents range from weak but versatile (the key ring, which can copy a small set of keys to instantly unlock their matching locks) to the supremely powerful (the ring of dragon command, which grants great powers and defenses against dragons, as well as dragon-themed abilities). There was the occasional typo (the bookmarks, for example, list that last one as the “ding of dragon command”), but these were too rare for me to take off points for that. I do wish that they had taken care of the copy-and-paste issues, and had a printer-friendly version, but again I find that these aren’t so bad that I can lower the book’s final score.

Were I able, I’d give this book four-and-a-half stars, mostly do to the minor technical complaints. I‘ll round up though, as these are all issues that won’t come up unless you want to try and manipulate the book’s format. If you want to expand the nature of the magic rings in your game, glance inside The Ebon Vault: Power of the Ring. What you find will be…precious.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Ebon Vault: Power of the Ring
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Faces of the Tarnished Souk: Smiles-Under-the-Bed (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/17/2012 13:31:56
Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur…happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr purr purr.

It’s easy sometimes to forget that the Tarnished Souk is set on the Plane of Dreams, as many of its characters have little to do with dreaming specifically. Smiles-Under-the-Bed, by contrast, has everything to do with being a creature of dreams, and exploits the nature of the Dream Plane in numerous ways…as she herself has been exploited.

Smiles’ opening does a surprisingly good job of describing her character in a single page. Not ironically, she comes across as exactly what she is – a fierce creature that has been hardened from an eternity of rejection. An exceptionally dangerous ambush predator, Smiles devours the dreams (and the physical forms) of those she preys upon, being a literal nightmare herself. However, she is also a dream-scarred creature, having lost almost all of her Hope (her dearest dream). Portrayed properly, Smiles-Under-the-Bed is the embodiment of a tragic villain.

Like all members of the Faces of the Tarnished Souk line, Smiles is an advanced creature with several templates stacked onto her, along with a mish-mash of other new materials. A tribute to the triumph of the Open Game License, Smiles weighs in at a heavy CR 19 with four different templates, along with two traits and a new magic item. Two additional stat blocks, showing Smiles at CRs 13 and 8, make her useful against lower-level parties.

The materials used to construct Smiles are given separately for your ease of use. The two traits (one of which is from Coliseum Morpheuon) showcase her nature as both a creature that has lost her Hope, and which gains strength from frightening others. Likewise, her new magic item allows her to make herself invisible in Cheshire cat-like ways. The four new templates round out the book.

Overall, I quite liked Smiles-Under-the-Bed, both for her tragic but villainous nature as well as how well she plays to the dreaming rules. Whereas most members of the Tarnished Souk can be fairly easy to use anywhere, Smiles may take a bit more effort to convert to a different location; it’s still easily done, but her emphasis on attacking dreams (both literal and metaphorical) could require some tweaking. She’s perfect for the Coliseum Morpheuon, however. This is a kitty with nine lives’ worth of torment to inflict.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Faces of the Tarnished Souk: Smiles-Under-the-Bed (PFRPG)
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The Gods of Porphyra [PFRPG]
Publisher: Purple Duck Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/17/2012 12:23:29
The raison d’etre of the Open Game License is to allow others to reuse that which a publisher declares Open Game Content; 99% of the time, this allows for various game mechanics to be shared. But what about sharing various non-mechanical aspects of game design? In that area, most publishers are highly conservative, apparently afraid that someone will take their characters and settings and make a twisted mockery of them. Every so often, however, you’ll find an RPG book that allows for something like its settings, characters, or even deities to be Open.

The Gods of Porphyra (aka The Open Faiths Project) is one of those books.

A forty-five page book featuring twenty-seven new deities and some associated new game crunch, Gods of Porphyra’s technical presentation makes a good showing of itself. Full nested bookmarks are present for every section and subsection and copy and paste is enabled. In regards to artwork, the book appears more spartan than it actually is, lacking in page borders. However, each god has an image on the center of the page of their holy symbol, and the two new monsters in the book each have a full-page, full-color image. This strikes a very nice balance between being overloaded with graphic design and being utterly utilitarian; other PDF publishers could learn from the presentation here.

The book opens with a brief note from the publisher and some information about the Porphyra setting. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the Open Game nature of the setting takes the in-game stance of having the OGC materials come from other realities and dimensions. Hence how the gods here are all non-native deities that arrived to what was previously a godless world. Two new clerical domains, Art and Time, are presented, each having two new subdomains as well.

The book helpfully opens its main section on the new gods with a two-page chart, listing all of the deities and their pertinent information for at-a-glance reference. Each deity is given a single-page write-up, beginning with their “statistical” information in terms of their alignment, domains, favored weapon, etc. I do commend Purple Duck Games for remembering to give us subdomains here, though they did forget to include inquisitions (though to be fair, that’s an easy oversight to make). The majority of the one-page information presents us with the “Legend” section, which tells us of how that deity came to be, and the “Church” section, discussing how that god’s followers conduct themselves in terms of organization and activities.

Interestingly, each also has a paragraph dedicated to “Spell Preparation Ritual” which is the rite by which divine spellcasters of that god regain their spells each day. I enjoyed this section, since it’s little bits of flavor text like this that help to differentiate between clerics of various deities. There’s a mechanical flipside to this in that each deity also has two new religion traits presented, each specific to what it means to be a followers of that particular god.

I had somewhat mixed feelings about the presentation of the various deities. On the one hand, there were some story elements I disagreed with, as some of the legends about where these deities came from seemed off for how deities are usually portrayed in a game world. However, perhaps ironically, that actually makes the in-game mythological nature of these legends more “realistic” in terms of presentation – after all, to the residents of the campaign setting, there probably are no “rules” for how gods function.

Two new monsters are presented, being the creatures of a specific deity. The first is a template with an associated sample creature, while the second is a new monster unto itself. About a dozen spells, all of which are granted from the aforementioned new domains and subdomains, are the book’s final presentation. Some of these may seem familiar if you’re a wider reader of Pathfinder-compatible products, as they all seem to come from other third-party materials, though most likely the majority of them will seem new to you.

Overall, I quite liked what The Gods of Porphyra presents. Knowing the book’s Open nature gives it a feeling of utility, that the publisher is not only making these allowable for re-use, but is actively encouraging us to do so. That’s a feeling that I think should be more prevalent among OGL publishers, especially where setting-based elements of campaign worlds are concerned. Beyond that, the crunch is without any flaws that I saw, and the flavor text is good, though focusing on the Patchwork World of Porphyra more than I suspect most other publishers will want to carry over. Still, it’s good to see some deities presented under the OGL. With any luck, we’ll be seeing them again soon.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Gods of Porphyra [PFRPG]
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The Invoker
Publisher: Little Red Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/03/2012 11:14:09
There are some concepts in role-playing games that are too good to let go of. Most of the time, these are broad ones that have become nigh-universal, like hit points or magical healing. But sometimes they become more specific, being a single character class with iconic abilities. Case in point is the warlock class, from the Third Edition of the world’s most popular fantasy RPG. While it’s technically closed content, and so can’t be reprinted, the class is popular enough that it can be recreated under the existing rules.

Which brings us to The Invoker, from Little Red Goblin Games. This thirty-page PDF presents us with their take on bringing the warlock into your Pathfinder game. Let’s see how it works out.

From a technical perspective, the product does alright, but there’s room for improvement. The PDF is set on a grayish-tan background, with slight whorls on alternating sides acting as page borders. There is a hyperlinked table of contents, which is a good thing, but the bookmarks look like they were set as placeholders that were forgotten. Copy and paste is thankfully enabled.

The artwork for the book subscribes to the “less is more” theory. There are, in total, maybe a half-dozen interior illustrations; however, these are of a surprisingly high quality, being not only in full color, but having a stylistic “weight” to them that draws attention, whether the image is an invoker gathering red energy in a fist, or a simple goblet. Hat’s off to interior art guy Carl Potter!

The invoker class itself is presented in the stylistic manner of a typical Pathfinder base class. We’re given the requisite material on their role and alignment before moving into the crunch (though their starting gold is missing, to which I say boo). The class itself is quite solid, being a medium BAB, d8 Hit Die class with one good save and fairly restricted weapon and armor proficiencies.

I need to mention right away that the invoker loses fair amount of class abilities, overall, compared to the warlock. It’s true the invoker gets more of the warlock’s invocations thanks to this class separating blast abilities from incantations, plus the invoker has pacts that it makes, but overall the original warlock does seem slightly more versatile – the invoker can’t detect magic, gets no bonus to Use Magic Device, and can’t creature magic items on their own. The class feels, unto itself, more stripped-down – take from that what you will.

The invoker’s main weapon is their mystic blast, which to those of you who are familiar with the original warlock class will recognize this right away. It has all of the hallmarks of the classic – a ranged touch attack out to 60 feet, untyped damage that goes up by one damage die per two levels. No biggie there, though I frowned at noticing the lack of an ability tag here (e.g. Ex, Sp, or Su), something that was a recurring theme throughout the book. Smart GMs will know that this should be a spell-like ability equal to one-half the invoker’s level (minimum 1, maximum 9).

Helpfully, this class separates out the ability to alter the mystic blast from other abilities that mimic spells, something the original warlock made players choose between. At every fourth level you can choose from either “blast traits” or “blast forms” that modify their mystic blast. These two categories are separate, something which I think wasn’t really necessary, since the distinction between the two types of alterations doesn’t seem to serve much purpose; what bothered me more was that the abilities listed for each seemed to be in no particular order, alphabetical or otherwise (and you can forget about any sort of summary table here).

Most of the classic alterations were here though, such as a flaming blast that can set creatures on fire, one that sickens for a round, etc. I was a bit leery of some of the new, more powerful additions, such as the ability to have your blast do 1d2 Constitution damage (that stacks with itself!). Admittedly, most of these do say that you need to be able to use X-level of incantations (more on those in a minute) to select, but even at the upper levels that’s just asking for abuse (or more construct and undead enemies).

After this, the book takes a sharp turn into more original territory as it presents four different “pacts” that each invoker chooses when the character is created. Much like wizard schools or sorcerer bloodlines (though these have an alignment prerequisite, not inappropriately), these modify your initial class skills while also letting you have your blasts deal a certain type of energy damage (or be typeless, your choice), and provide a small bonus to the blast damage (e.g. -2 to Will saves…presumably for that round only).

The biggest addition these pacts bring to the table is that each has a list of boons and taboos that they bring to the table, with the invoker picking one of each. It’s here that I was most impressed with The Invoker, because these offer some very colorful and inspired material to choose from. If you’re a fey pact invoker, you can give up a cherished memory to apply a metamagic feat to one use of an incantation. Or perhaps you’ll want to be able to call upon a “fairy godmother” (the sort of creature this is is further described) when in need of aid. But you have to pick from taboos like not being able to lie when asked a question thrice, or not accepting a gift without providing equal compensation. It’s worth noting that not all of the taboos are things you have a choice about (e.g. cold iron weapons deal an additional 2d6 to you), but there is a discussion of what happens if you break a taboo. Oh, and lest I forget, each pact offers a hefty end-cap power at 20th level.

My biggest complaint about this section was that there were only four taboos here – demon, devil, fey, and star (the last one of which is Lovecraftian in theme). Hopefully we’ll quickly see some supplementary pacts released, because these are far too few for the book’s highlight feature.

A quick half-dozen or so feats are presented (with one letting a non-warlock earn a boon and a taboo, in what I think was the best feat of them all), before we move onto the incantations.

This section is by far the longest of the book, taking up roughly forty percent of its total page count. Incantations (though I wish they’d gone with a different name since we sort of still have rules for “incantations” – something like “exhortations” would have been better) are spell-like abilities (albeit with verbal and somatic components, and in heavier armors they have a chance of failure) that invokers can learn as they level up. They never get more than eleven of these altogether, and they’re divided into four levels a la spell levels, but they can use them at will.

About fifty incantations are presented altogether, and I was surprised at how good a job was done presenting these as all being some sort of “corrupted” form of magic – some of them require bloodletting (a sidebar describes it in more detail, but it never takes more than one point of damage), for example. Many if not most are based on existing spells with twisted descriptions, like the Borrowed Eyes, Stolen Hands incantation, which allows for scrying (as per the spell) on a creature if you have some possession or body part of theirs, which is lost as part of the casting…but you can implant a suggestion (also as per the spell) into them when you scry on them. It’s like that, all the way through.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that a read-through of this book showed some places where the editing fell down. The Fey Spit boon, for example, cuts off at the end of page eleven and doesn’t conclude. Likewise, the star pact end-cap boon seems to contain the text of what I’m guessing was a (slightly overpowered) feat right after the text for the boon ends.

The worst offender though was the listing for the incantations themselves, which (beyond the occasional issue with text being bold or not bold in the wrong places) listed the “school” of each incantation as simply being “incantation.” This was grating because listing a spell school, along with sub-school and descriptor, govern a lot of how spells are utilized in regards to creatures. Presumably, where these incantations referred to existing spells, you use the existing spell’s information, but that’s needless page-flipping. The Borrowed Eyes, Stolen Hands incantation, for example, should have listed that it was divination and enchantment with the scrying and mind-affecting descriptors. That would have helped a lot for quickly and easily adjudicating some of their effects.

Also, and I can’t hold this against the book itself, there were no expanded class options. By that I mean, I keenly felt the absence of things like new favored class abilities and class archetypes. This isn’t a repudation of the invoker itself; rather, the base idea is well done enough that it cries out for more options. With any luck, we’ll soon have a follow-up supplement that adds both these, some new pacts, and hopefully more.

Overall though, these issues were bothersome but never came close to being deal-breakers. As it is, they’re the primary reason I’m giving this book four instead of five stars, because other than those this did a great job at bringing the warlock into Pathfinder. The Invoker brings all of the good parts of the warlock into your game, while also smoothing over some rough spots (remember how the warlock’s eldritch blast damage dice progression got wonky at higher levels?) and presenting some great new options in the form of pacts. True, the loss of some of the warlock’s signature class abilities does weaken the invoker somewhat, but considering what it gains in return this isn’t a terrible loss. If you want a class like the warlock, but with more options and no Pathfinder conversion necessary, invoke The Invoker at your game table.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Invoker
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Fursona IV -Fur of the Yokai
Publisher: Skortched Urf' Studios
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/28/2012 15:11:41
There’s a careful balance that needs to be walked when making RPG sourcebooks that build on earlier sourcebooks. If your book requires the use of too many previous books, you severely limit its potential audience. If it tries to shy away from utilizing previous books too much, then it can end up reinventing the wheel in an effort to be self-contained; even reprinting earlier material is fraught with peril, as you can end up irking readers who feel like they’ve paid for the same material twice.

There’s ultimately no right answer to this particular conundrum, and it’s ultimately a hard line to walk no matter how you choose to walk it. That was the thought I had in mind as I read through Fursona IV: Fur of the Yokai from Skortched Urf’ Studios.

Fursona IV is (self-evidently) a supplement for the Fursona sourcebook on anthropomorphic character creation. Despite what the numerical suffix suggests, it is not necessary to own Fursona II or III to use this supplement; though Fursona II does get a few references for some of the new racial orders’ favored traits, that’s the extent of the references to the previous two books.

Fursona IV is fairly forthright in stating that its goal of bringing material from the Races of the Tatakama sourcebook into the Fursona system of character creation. I should note that I haven’t read the latter sourcebook, but it does seem to bring a fair amount of material over. The book does reference some material from Black Tokyo, but fairly obliquely, and it is possible to use this book with Fursona without Black Tokyo, though some places will need to be glossed over.

The book opens with a quick suggestion on mechanical alterations to make if you want the characters generated with this book to be more spiritual creatures than just funny animal-people, before it moves onto several new racial orders based on races from Races of the Tatakama. Three (the daughters of kirin, the kitsune, and the tanuki) are given before a further seven new orders, based on Japanese folklore (though the “slime” order seemed inspired from contemporary video games and art books).

After a quick examining of how these seven new racial types fit into the Tatakama’s feudal-Japan-esque society, we’re taken to new racial traits, first the minor ones (about twenty) and then the major (about ten). Perhaps surprisingly for a Black Tokyo product, these aren’t all explicitly sexual or otherwise perverse in nature…though make no mistake, a fair number of them still are.

It’s also here where I feel that I need to restate the ubiquitous caveat about Chris Field’s works – you need to keep an eye on the power level of what’s written here. While most of what’s here isn’t dramatically out of line, there are some things that are more powerful than I know I’d be comfortable with at my game (and, for some of the disadvantages, more crippling). Now, this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, as I think “balance” is more about how the GM and players conduct themselves than about game rules…but it remains true that some of these issues can be swingy, at the very least (though no less interesting for it). The Masterful Performer major trait, for example, lets you once per day make a d20 roll when making a Perform check – on a 15 or better, roll a d100; if you get more than a 15 on that, that’s your Perform check result! By the book, that’s overpowered, but as for your home game…maybe.

Following the traits is a section on converted feats from Races of the Tatakama into racial Fursona racial traits. Now this I just flat-out didn’t like. Why? Because the author lists the conversion material only, and not the game effect of the feat in question, making this section fairly useless unless you also have Races of the Tatakama. You know how many points the Blood Breeds Monsters trait costs, what orders treat it as a favored trait, and have a quick description of what it does, but not the actual game mechanics. If you’re going to reprint these here, then you should reprint enough to make them useful on their own.

About a dozen disadvantages end the book, and what I said about the traits applies here. For example, a holy-inscribed boulder can become impassible to your characters for a half-mile in every direction. Is that crippling or an opportunity for more role-playing a solution than roll-playing? I think that this is another area where it depends on the group.

Ultimately, Fursona IV is perhaps best judged on how well it achieved the goals it set for itself. As a sourcebook designed to allow for more specific options for flavoring your Fursona characters with a mythological-Japanese theme, including the erotica therein, this book handles itself fairly well. Of course, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the options you want to allow, and be prepared to adjudicate for builds that are stronger, or weaker, than you were expecting. But overall, it does exactly what it sets out to do, no more and no less.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Fursona IV -Fur of the Yokai
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Creature Monthly
Publisher: Fat Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/28/2012 13:37:13
Ever feel like every day is another challenge to be overcome? Not in that “it’s a new adventure today!” feeling, but more of a “what awful thing is going to happen today?” sorta way. I imagine that PCs must feel that way a lot, and if so then the endless parade of monsters probably has quite a bit to do with it. Sometimes it must seem like there’s a new monster every day. Speaking of which…

Creature Monthly is the aptly-named monthly compendium of creatures from the Creature Daily website, which delivers a new monster for your Pathfinder game every weekday. This first compilation presents the monsters for April, 2012. Let’s flip through the pages and see what creatures lie in store.

This product comes with two different PDF files, one called April12CDweb and another called April12CDpdf. I’m not sure what the technical difference between the two is, but there’s clearly some sort of difference, because my computer can view the former file smoothly, but the latter one has persistent viewing problems. To be more specific, whenever I try to look through the “April12CDpdf” file, my Acrobat Reader X (on Windows XP Home, if that helps) informs me that it’s having a problem viewing the file (error code 40), and refuses to display the artwork – the text comes through just fine, it’s only the artwork that refuses to display.

Of course, it’s something of a moot point, though a disturbing one, as the April12CDweb file displays just fine. From what I can make out, the two files are meant to be identical in terms of their visual presentation, so there’s no loss of content for the error. Hence, the rest of this review will deal exclusively with what’s in the “…web” file.

The April ’12 Creature Monthly is a forty-seven page PDF that contains exactly twenty monsters, something that always seemed slightly off to me, as there were twenty-one weekdays in April. I know that one missing monster is a small thing, but I can’t help but wonder what happened to the twenty-first creature.

Unfortunately, the book irked me from the get-go, as it lacked the ease-of-navigation tools I’ve come to expect both for PDF files and for bestiaries. To be clear, the book does have a table of contents, listing each monster alphabetically by name. That’s it. No hyperlinks in the table of contents, no bookmarks, no index of monsters by CR or creature type or even terrain. The only way to get an overview of what’s here is to read through the entire book and use the table of contents as a refresher. Hopefully future months will be more forthcoming with the GM aids.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the artwork here, however. Each monster has a full color illustration, and the quality for the picture if exceptionally high. In each case the picture fairly leaps off the page, and will definitely wow your players. Given that the book it set on a light grey background, with borders of darker grey and slight whorl patterns on them, the presentation element of the book is strong. It’s so strong, however, that the lack of a printer-friendly version is notable in its absence. Likewise, size-specific counters to represent the creatures on the battlemat aren’t to be found either.

But after all of these technical issues, what about the monsters themselves, you ask?

The twenty monsters to be found here run a range of CRs, from ½ to 16, and surprisingly there’s an underlying theme to the monsters here – the majority of them are from a cold environment. Now, there are plenty of monsters for whom that’s not so, but a significant number of them are monsters with a wintery theme.

I should mention that most of these monsters could have stood to go a few more rounds of editing. In reading over what’s here, I found creatures with typographical errors (e.g. an opening parenthesis one space too soon for the Blood Shadow’s Ability Focus feat), stylistic errors (the storm angel is a Chaotic Neutral creature with the angel subtype, for instance, or how the Storm Wraith has the electricity subtype…which doesn’t exist), and errors in stat blocks (e.g. the Storm Wraith’s AC bonuses are +1 dodge, +4 deflection, and +7 Dex, giving it an AC of…24? What?). Little errors like these peppered the vast majority of the monsters here, and that’s just on a casual inspection.

Overall, this is a monster book with good intentions but flawed execution. The monsters here are, for the most part, very good in terms of their underlying idea, and in how they want to stat those ideas up. It’s a host of technical problems, from the PDF format to the stat blocks themselves that are holding the book back. Hopefully, these will be a learning experience for the publisher, and next month’s creatures will be easier to use to terrify your players.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Creature Monthly
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Tentacle Madness
Publisher: Dakkar Unlimited
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/12/2012 14:39:24
In a role-playing game like Hot Chicks, where sex and violence sit side-by-side (and are oftentimes the same thing), the use of tentacle adversaries was most likely inevitable. However, that doesn’t make them any less compelling, or disturbing, as antagonists. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to make them MORE disturbing as well. Which brings us to their set-piece Tentacle Madness.

I call this a “set piece” because this product sits halfway between being a supplement and an adventure. While it thoroughly describes a single location and its inhabitants, it’s also quite clearly meant to be an adventure locale, which your heroes can invade to beat the bad guys and get some glory. Tentacle Madness gives you the tools you need to thoroughly build up what’s here so that your PCs can tear it down.

The book is fairly substantial at being a forty-two page PDF. The book has copy-and-past enabled, and comes with full (albeit non-nested) bookmarks. Of course, it hits the regular high bar for Dakkar Unlimited products, having almost all of its interior art be full-color CG images, alongside the odd black-and-white line-scale art. There’s no printer-friendly version, which is something of a loss not because you’d likely want a version without the pictures (after all, this is a game called “Hot Chicks”), but rather because this is likely to put at least a moderate strain on your printer as it is.

Tentacle Madness sets itself up as something out of a horror movie (albeit one of the porny ones). We’re introduced to the Sunny Rest Mental Care Facility through a combination of an in-character narrative revolving around a new inmate named Trishia, and metagame prose directed at the Game Master (helpfully, the in-character material is in italics while the metagame text is in a normal font). The book has no chapters per se, instead being divided into various sections by a series of headers.

Ostensibly a sanitarium, we’re quickly shown that Sunny Rest is a “normal” mental health care facility only insofar as outside appearances are concerned. The veneer quickly falls away as the book progresses – the only “treatment” that patients receive at Sunny Rest is a combination of strange drugs being injected into them and being manually masturbated to orgasm a large number of times a day. If right now you’re rolling your eyes or snickering that that doesn’t sound so bad, the book does a good job of making it clear that this is rape, and not something the inmates enjoy.

The situation grows steadily more horrifying from there. Slowly, we’re introduced to how the nurses there aren’t so much health care workers as they are tentacle monsters, maintaining their (and the facility’s) normal appearances with powerful illusions. Likewise, the drugs and forced sex aren’t just their idea of a good time – they all serve to prepare their victims for their “final procedure,” after which time they’re allowed to leave the facility. Of course, this last treatment presents the full reason why this book has “madness” in its title.

Roughly a third of the book is character sheets for the various people at Sunny Rest, including the so-called staff as well as poor Tricia. Full maps are given, though there are no room-by-room descriptions beyond a general overview of the facility’s defenses (e.g. how tough the walls are, the locks on the windows, etc. Adventure seeds that could get your PCs involved are provided. And of course, the book makes sure to end with a full-page picture of the “staff” in their human guises, completely naked (unlike the picture on the RPGNow storefront, there are no tentacles obscuring the naughty bits) – fan service at its finest.

If there’s a flaw in Tentacle Madness, it’s that it isn’t quite sure what sort of book it wants to be, straddling the line awkwardly between being, as mentioned before, a supplement and an adventure. The back-story, for example, is interesting, but there’s virtually no way to present it to the PCs (though the manner of showing how the threat extends beyond Sunny Rest is very artfully handled). Similarly, the abbreviated description of the actual rooms of the facility (and standard adventure tropes like boxed read-aloud text) make this less than an actual adventure, per se.

Ultimately, what’s here will largely depend on the strength of an individual GM’s presentation. The most obvious way to go about this is to have the PCs be inmates here, but that’s seriously stacking the deck against them, considering how much of a disadvantage the inmates are kept at. Still, these aren’t problems that an experienced GM can’t overcome; it’s just going to take some deftness. Otherwise, your PCs will have their work cut out for them in overcoming the Tentacle Madness.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tentacle Madness
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Way of the Wicked Book Three: Tears of the Blessed
Publisher: Fire Mountain Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/06/2012 20:39:13
It’s difficult to say just what the draw is of playing evil characters. There’s an ineffable quality to being the bad guy, a sense that, if evil is something that tempts people to fall, then those who have fallen have no further moral failings that can be used against them. All that’s left is to make use of the certitude that comes from damnation and bring ruin to the champions of light. It’s in that spirit that we look at the third adventure in the Way of the Wicked adventure path: Tears of the Blessed.

Tears of the Blessed comes as two PDF files – the main file and a printer-friendly version thereof. The latter’s differences from the main file being that it removes the page backgrounds as well as the coloration from the page borders. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for me to give this particular area a pass, as it retains the full color interior illustrations (and even the page borders are kept in line-scale). True printer-friendly material removes all of the interior artwork, even though that means doing the layout again.

That said, the main file presents itself quite well. Bookmarks are present at each major section of the book, though save for one part there were no nested sub-section bookmarks (though the last bookmark took me to the front of the book). Copy and paste was fully enabled, which is always good. I do have to give props to Michael Clarke for keeping the high quality of the art coming. All of the pieces here are full-color, and while I wouldn’t put this at the highest tier of RPG art, what’s here is damn good (devil pun!).

I’m also going to cover up-front that there were some errors in this book. Nothing was major, but small problems crept in. I noticed several typos, several of which a quick spell-check could have caught. Likewise, the odd stat block error is present also, though never so much as to make a creature unusable (no aasimar, for example, has the humanoid type).

Tears of the Blessed follows hot on the heels of the previous adventure, Call Forth Darkness. It’s in this adventure, ironically enough, that we get stats for the magical disease which was the prize of the prior installment in the adventure path. Following achieving this, the PCs are immediately whisked off to the port city of Ghastenhall, settling in for a month to cool their heels before getting started on their next assignment…to raise an army and assault the faith of Mitra’s holiest temple!

I initially had mixed feelings about this section of the adventure, as it seemed like something of a carbon copy of how the previous adventure progressed. As in Call Forth Darkness, the first part of the adventure is a fairly short presentation on the town that the PCs are setting up in before going off and performing their real assignment. However, I quickly remembered that, although this portion of the adventure is short and somewhat underdeveloped, it’s still promising in what it offers, though as with Farholde this is because the gazetteer at the end really helps to make the town come alive.

Part of the reason why Ghastenhall feels so short is that its presented largely as potential adventuring opportunities, which make it feel almost like a series of side-quests waiting to happen – depending on how you present them, and how much your PCs invest in the town, there can be a lot to do here, or it can be quickly bypassed.

The second “act” of the adventure is concerned with the actual formation of the army of evil. As with the section on Ghastenhall, this is one core scenario around which more can be done if the PCs want to go out of their way. After an initial meeting with Sakkarot Fire-Axe in which he lends your PCs a few hundred bugbears to command, there are also several other avenues to explore. Most of these are to find new individuals to fight by the PCs’ sides, but a few do present possibilities for enlarging their overall force. Helpfully, the author does make mention of the PCs existing forces (e.g. Grumblejack the ogre, from the first adventure, or their custom-built evil organization from the second) and how they can play into the overall force.

This section also includes some very cogent advice on what to do if the PCs start to balk at being ordered around. This is wise, as by this point the PCs will likely start to chafe at having to do someone else’s bidding. Of course, this ultimately comes down to various ways to snap them back into line, but it’s good that the author anticipated something like this.

The third act of the book is the initial assault on the valley of Mitra’s holiest temple. This part of the book was interesting for the various tactical possibilities it presents the PCs – up until now, the adventures have lacked a certain degree of freedom in what the PCs could do; what latitude they had was presented in terms of operational discretion…that’s the case here, but the amount of discretion has grown quite a bit.

The Vale of Valtaerna is the valley in which Mitra’s holiest temple is guarded. This is no building constructed in a crevasse either. The entrance to the valley has a watch-tower built into it, and down in the valley is a lakeside small town, a mountain-temple, and finally the cathedral itself. The PCs attack is set to take place at the beginning of winter, when deep snows cut the valley off from the outside world for three months. For those three months, when communication is cut off and reinforcements are near-impossible, the PCs have to conquer the valley and slaughter every single living thing there.

That’s where the operational freedom comes in. This section gives a detailed overview of the watchtower itself, and follows it up with the ensuing battle as the PCs’ army fights its way past various defensive points to finally conquer the defenders. Needless to say, there are various things that the PCs can do in their initial assault what will greatly affect how the initial siege goes, which in turn affects the flow of the rest of the battle.

The author says that this section should keep up the pressure on the PCs, as the entire battle takes place in one night. That means that the PCs need to conquer the watchtower and then fight their way through encounter after encounter. Forget about the fifteen-minute adventuring day here! Be prepared to go through over a half-dozen encounters, and be warned that you can’t just send your army in for these – the battle takes the format of specific encounters that the PCs need to face in the midst of the chaos of battle. Various actions allow the PCs to acquire or lose Victory Points (making a return from the first adventure), with their point total determining the end result of the battle.

With the defenders crushed and the small town now firmly in their grasp, the book’s fourth act deals with everything else in the valley, save for the cathedral. It’s here that the book takes a decidedly darker turn as you immediately need to deal with what to do with the survivors…the elderly, the women, and the children (remember, your assignment is to kill everything). This part is something of a delicate balancing act, as the bugbear commanders have some suggestions about what to do with the prisoners (all of which are awful). In accordance with the advice in the first adventure, this book assumes that one of the bugbears commanders “deals” with the survivors, though your group can step in (for better or for worse) if they wish.

This section allows for three months of time in which to root out the remaining holy areas, and it’s important to note that the book doesn’t presume that it’s entirely quiet during that time. There is one event that does happen here, but after the initial scenes of setting up and dealing with the prisoners, it’s the only one. I do wish that the book had seen fit to give us further events.

The major parts of act four, however, deal with the mountain temple, and the garden in front of the cathedral. These are comparatively short encounters, having about ten areas between them both. They’re still fairly challenging, and aren’t optional (nor can you send your army to these places, as they require competence) – to permanently extinguish Mitra’s light, you must destroy the heart of each holy locale.

With the first two down, it’s the cathedral that holds the last of the religion’s heart. It should be noted that there have been plenty of good-aligned monsters in the adventure prior to this. Lammasus, blink dogs, kirin, all the monsters from the bestiaries that you never usually get to fight. The big one, however, is celestials. There are plenty of celestials throughout the adventure, and that doesn’t change here. Once the PCs manage to overcome the potent holy defenses and slay the cathedral’s final defenders, they can extinguish the central pillar of Mitra’s religion…just in time for the plague they received from the previous adventure to hit the nation’s populace hard.

Following the adventure, the book presents a gazetteer of Ghastenhall. I honestly expected to be bored by this, but was pleasantly surprised by just how alive the city felt. A port town, Ghastenhall is naturally not quite the bastion of righteousness that you’d expect for a country that has a single, Lawful Good religion. Moreover, the city’s history and colorful neighborhoods give it a distinctive quality that is not only likely to fire your creativity for what can be done here, but presents itself perfectly for your evil PCs as well.

The last section of the book gives us an long-overdue overview of your enemy religion: that of Mitra, the Lord of Light. This section surprised me, as I was expecting something more akin to Paizo’s style of deity write-ups; that wasn’t this. First, Mitra is a triune deity, having three simultaneous aspects – this gives him three deity entries, which presents an interesting set of options for those who worship him.

This section also doesn’t deal much with Mitra as an individual. There’s nothing here about what Mitra’s divine exploits, or how he feels about other gods. Instead, the section largely discusses his religion, specifically as it appears in Talingarde (since Mitra has no universal church, something I found odd for a primarily Lawful deity). There was some important information here, such as how spellcasters in Talingarde are comparatively rare – the head of the church, for example, can’t cast divine spells. This is an inversion of the usual assumptions in a Pathfinder game, and is likely something a GM should know when setting the stage for the beginning of this adventure path.

Overall, Tears of the Blessed represents a turning point in the Way of the Wicked. While before, the PCs were operating in secrecy just to survive, and having to defend themselves against those who’d do them harm, here they get to be the ones doing harm to others. In this book, the PCs take the offensive against the light, and get to snuff out the heart of it. There are some problems with the finer points of the product, but these are easily dealt with, and the overall adventure is one which will likely be extremely satisfying to your players. Never has causing so much sorrow been so much fun as it is in Tears of the Blessed.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Way of the Wicked Book Three: Tears of the Blessed
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The Bestiary of GOP, Grand Ol' Predators
Publisher: Misfit Studios
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/21/2012 18:19:38
I’ve always been fond of the idea that material for RPGs could be drawn from existing sources. Usually this means from a given movie, book, video game, etc. But more there’s something to be said for caricature as well; where you put in an NPC or monster equivalent of someone your players will recognize. While it can be fun to have this homage be of someone benevolent, there’s a lot more fun to be had in making a mockery of a bad person in this manner.

Enter The Bestiary of GOP, Grand Ol’ Predators, from Misfit Studios.

A short Pathfinder monster book, the Bestiary of GOP presents monsters out of four real-life conservative candidates for the American presidency (some among you may be wondering why I’d even bother saying that, since it seems so obvious. Well, there are more countries than America which have Pathfinder fans, and it won’t be 2012 forever). Each is given write-up that satirizes its inspiration in the form of some sort of awful monster.

The product is ten pages long, and does everything a PDF should do. Copy and paste is enabled, and bookmarks to each of the creatures is present. Moreover, a printer-friendly version is here as well. While it does keep the interior illustrations, it removes all of the coloring, rendering them as line-versions of the finished artwork.

The books four monsters need little introduction if you pay attention to politics. The Ron’Pol devil is an infernal creature able to debate you into confusion (an act which empowers it) and can sell you a wish for your soul. The mitt is actually a new race (with PC stats!) that is obsessed with money and has the ability to adapt itself to any particular social situation. The gingrich newt is a hideous creature that poisons everything around it, and yet has the ability to charm you nonetheless. Finally, the santorum is an undead creature so obsessed with pushing its foul dogma (and misogyny) that it comes back to do its god’s work, regardless of its god’s feelings on the subject. Just watch out for its, er, “santorum” attack.

In terms of mechanical utility, all of these creatures hold up fairly well. None of them are, with their base stats, powerful monsters – the highest is CR 5. I did notice one or two things that were off, however; the sample mitt should be CR 1/3, not ½, since it has one level in an NPC class. Similarly, the santorum’s aura of anachronism (science doesn’t work on it!) is in the wrong place in its stat block. The errors are like this – never anything wrong so much as in need of a slight clean-up. But then, having things be wrong somehow seems appropriate for these evil things.

Overall, minus the potential ramifications from your group, depending on their political beliefs, what’s here is a perfectly viable micro-bestiary of new monsters for your Pathfinder game. Strip out the real-world context (which, in most cases, is as simple as a change of names) and you have monsters that stand alongside any of the others that you’d use at your table. Of course, if you aren’t worried about anyone being offended, then there’s no reason why you can’t leave the subtext in, and let your players really go to town on hack ‘n’ slashing some of the most vile creatures they’re ever likely to encounter.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Bestiary of GOP, Grand Ol' Predators
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Publisher Reply:
Glad you liked it, and good eye on the two errors. Now they're fixed!
Adventure Quarterly #1 (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/15/2012 20:48:51
Some Game Masters take great pleasure in writing their own adventures; for them, it’s a joy, something they throw themselves into eagerly. Personally, I don’t know how they do it, as I’m always strapped for adventures. Given the sheer amount of work that goes into crafting an adventure, structuring the plot, making maps, constructing stat blocks, it seems like a truckload of work. Hence, I’m always on the lookout for a reliable source of adventures. Sometimes Adventure Paths are good, but other times I want stand-alone adventures that can be used as-is in my game, without worrying about how it plays if removed from a larger context.

Rite Publishing’s new periodical, Adventure Quarterly, seems right up that alley. Let’s take a closer look at the first issue and see what it’s like.

Adventure Quarterly #1 is a weighty affair. Not only is the main magazine just over seventy-five pages in length, but the main PDF file is accompanies by a series of separate map files. These color map files are a combination of JPGs and PNGs of the various maps, in various configurations, such as the maps and keys together, and the maps separately and the keys separately. The quality of these cannot be understated – the files are high resolution, and you can zoom in to a great degree on them. Altogether, the maps are a whopping two hundred megabytes!

The PDF of the magazine is similarly high-quality in its presentation. It has full copy and paste enabled, and full nested bookmarks are to be found. Unfortunately, there’s no printer-friendly version, though there is a printed copy available if you need this on paper. The interior artwork ranges in styles, from detailed black and white to a “washed out”-style full color. None of the pieces were particularly bad, and several of them were quite arresting.

Every publication goes through a few growing pains at first, and right away I noticed one for Adventure Quarterly: the table of contents, while it lists the adventures and their authors, doesn’t list the level it’s intended for. When you look at these adventures, there’s no way to tell whether they’re meant for 1st-level or 20th-level PCs. This alone wouldn’t be so bad, but this information is also not to be found in the adventures themselves. I consider this to be fairly critical information, and so marked off points for this.

The adventures themselves are three in number. The first one, “Too Many Cooks,” appears to be for first-level characters. Set in the city Somnal, for which a full city stat block is helpfully included, this deals with the problem of several chefs suddenly going missing. The author writes that this adventure will likely overwhelm PCs if they go from one encounter to the next in rapid order, and suggests that these scenarios can be broken up across a longer period, and even intermixed with another adventure if you remove the time pressure, something that I felt was good advice.

Structure-wise, Too Many Cooks is something of a mystery adventure, as the PCs are meant to follow a trail of clues from one encounter to the next, until they’re ultimately led to the culprit behind the disappearances. I had some initial misgivings about how this would work, as mysteries have their own problems. The adventure’s answer to this is two-fold – each of the encounters starts with combat, after which there’s a clue that is, in all honesty, too obvious to be missed. That may be a slight overstatement, but the clues are not that difficult to find, and are fairly obvious in where they point. There are still places where things could go off the rails, of course, but the adventure is not so subtle in its workings that getting things back on track would be hard.

I have to mention the final encounter for the adventure, which takes place in a kitchen. Author Adam Diagle did a great job here of playing up the unorthodox nature of how a kitchen can contribute to a battlefield. Between the villain having the feats necessary to use all sorts of improvised weaponry (and a helpful chart of what improvised weapons are available and what their damage is), your PCs will have to deal with everything from being attacked with hot skillets to exploding boilers and vicious meat grinders! I can easily say that this adventure was the highlight of the magazine.

The second adventure, unfortunately, was its polar opposite in terms of quality. “The Book of Promises” is an adventure that wants to be many different things, and in trying to achieve them all ends up completing very few of them.

The premise of the Book of Promises is that a werejackal cult of Asmodeus is trying to make people sign away their souls to the Devil God, which is done in the eponymous Book of Promises. To this end, they’ve created a natural disaster, a flood, in the town of Vestage, so that they can try force people to sign in exchange for being saved from the floodwaters. Rather oddly, the Book is stored in a place in town called the Counter’s Depository, which acts as a private bank – people pay to have them store their valuables. With the Depository also flooded by the town, several of its customers are planning to “steal” back their valuables from the location, and want the PCs to do it for them…which also puts them in position to find the Book of Promises.

The scenario, needless to say, has problems right from the outset. Why would the Asmodean werejackal cult (which sounds like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon) create a flood that would also hit the place where they keep their artifact? Why do the people who have their valuables stored in the Depository feel the need to have them stolen back instead of just going there and retrieving them normally?

It unfortunately doesn’t get any better. The adventure is much too fond of saying that certain effects just happen, giving little specification. When going to the meeting for the thieving job, for example, there’s a magic effect that detects all weapons on the PCs. What is this effect? I don’t know…there’s nothing that says. We don’t know what it is or how to beat it, save for the text saying gloves of storing will work. Similarly, the Depository has magic on it that only allows its customers, or their representatives, inside…something that seems forgotten when we have hags, doppelgangers, and other adventurers in it later. Note that characters that aren’t intended to be fought, such as the PCs competitors for the job and the other adventuring party inside, don’t have a stat block either, which I consider to be somewhat poor, since you never know how your PCs will cause things to go down.

The last adventure, which sadly has its first paragraph as the last paragraph of the previous adventure, is The Soul Siphon. Unlike the previous adventure, The Soul Siphon is fairly well constructed, but comes with some baggage. For one thing, it’s a psionic adventure – now, I personally enjoy psionics quite a bit, but I know there are plenty of Pathfinder gamers for whom that’s a deal-breaker (oddly, the author notes that this uses 3.5 OGL psionics…but from what I saw, the characters seem to use the Psionics Unbound rules). Moreover, the adventure, which is meant for 12th-level characters, comes with four pre-generated characters, and the initial adventure hook is built around those pre-existing ties. That’s just bad design, to me, as it essentially argues that the players shouldn’t have their own characters going into this, which most will. On the other hand, this is perfect if you want to make it as a psionic one-shot.

The Soul Siphon’s premise is that a tyrannical ruler, who lives in a tower that’s slowly sinking into a bog, is terrorizing the local populace, punishing them for a lone dissenter in their ranks. The PCs meet this dissenter (who is connected to one of them via their back-story), and give them the keys to enter a sunken level of the tower, wherein they can fight their way up and confront not only the tyrant, but also locate the artifact that has gifted him with apparent immortality, and put and end to both.

The adventure is fairly well-constructed, and seems to presume that the PCs will level up over the course of it. Two appendices provide both a new monster, and the four pregen PCs.

Following the final adventure, two short articles are given. The first, by Raging Swan Press mastermind Creighton Broadhurst, is a short set of tables to determine the name of a tribe. The article basically uses a series of combinations from different tables to come up with a colorful moniker (though a quick table at the beginning is available if you want to restrict things to one roll). Following this is an overview of the werejackal cult of Asmodeus, giving their structure, base of operations, allies and enemies, and other general information about them. As its own thing, this wasn’t bad, though I do wish that Paizo’s organization rules had been imported here. Still, the group does make a passable, if somewhat odd, villainous organization.

Overall, the first issue of Adventure Quarterly hits a few bumps in the road, but does show promise. The level listing for adventures is something that absolutely has to be fixed for the second issue, as at-a-glance information about what sort of PCs each adventure is intended for is an absolute must. Beyond that, the first adventure is clearly the cream of the crop, providing a fun little “mystery-lite” for low-level PCs. The second adventure, however, is as much a mess as the flooded town it takes place in, and a Game Master will likely need to give it a polish to make it workable as-is. The last adventure is good but carries several caveats for prospective GMs – if you take it as a trial run for psionics, it’s not bad, but if you want it to be more than a one-shot, or hate psionics, be prepared to start changing things.

Given that what’s good here outnumbers that which isn’t, my overall score for the debut issue of Adventure Quarterly is 3.5 stars, but I’m rounding it up to four since even the bad material can be saved or altered with a little elbow grease. What’s here is three-quarters good, and that’s not bad for the first Adventure Quarterly.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Adventure Quarterly #1 (PFRPG)
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Publisher Reply:
First I wanted to thank Shane O' Connor for taking the time to do a review of our product, We have uploaded a new version to deal with a number of the issues pointed out in this review, Steven Russell, Rite Publishing
[PFRPG] Player's Options: Flaws
Publisher: Purple Duck Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/14/2012 14:07:47
Sometimes the most defining characteristic of a hero, or villain, isn’t their strengths, but their weaknesses. In Pathfinder, however, that’s not something easily modeled under the rules – while there are plenty of ways to showcase a character’s areas of expertise, mainly through feats and class powers, there are few methods for mechanically portraying a character’s poorer abilities.

4 Winds Fantasy Gaming fixes that by making your characters worse with Player’s Option: Flaws.

Flaws is a short book, having less than a dozen pages. Despite this, it has full bookmarks, and the copy-and-paste is enabled. The book’s visual presentation is minimalistic in tone, having no page borders and only two black and white interior illustrations.

Flaws opens with a brief discussion about giving your characters the flaws assigned here. While some of this seems boilerplate, with such caveats as characters normally only being allowed to take two flaws, and only at character creation, there are a few twists here from what you’re expecting. For example, while one flaw can grant a feat, the second one grants exactly three skill points. It’s interesting that this particular route was chosen, in what I can only assume was the idea that granting two feats was too much.

A bigger surprise is the idea that flaws can be bought off – and this doesn’t mean simply giving up a corresponding feat or skill points. Rather, each flaw has a certain, specific manner in which its penalty can be permanently negated, while you get to keep the corresponding feat or skill points. It’s an intriguing idea, and lends much more credence to why the system doesn’t let you get more than one feat, since you can effectively end up with something for nothing once the flaw is bought off. These buy-offs tend to have a minimum level that they can occur at, however, so you do have to spend at least some time dealing with the flaw itself.

Almost fifty flaws are given, each of which is formatted in a manner similar to a feat in terms of presentation style. I do wish that a summary table had been presented so that the flaws could have been looked over at a glance, however. The flaws run the gamut from physical problems with your character (e.g. Flatulent) to mental problems (e.g. Foul-Mouthed) to social issues (e.g. Excommunicated). While some of these present problems as mild as skill penalties, others can have profound role-playing consequences. Similarly, for most of them, lifting the flaw is fairly simple: If you want to stop being Miserly, for example, just spend more than 1,000 gp on a single purchase. Others are harder, however, and being a Wanted Fugitive will require you to find the right person and succeed on a tough skill check and cost you some money.

Overall, I found Player’s Option: Flaws to present a good range of possibilities for what it offers your characters. The selection of flaws is wide, and what you get for them is good without being overpowering. The method of buying the flaws off is also innovative, though I’m slightly wary of how it results in an overall net gain for characters. Between that and the need for a summary table, this is an altogether 4.5-star product, but I’m rounding it up to 5-stars overall. Some minor issues don’t detract from these Flaws.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
[PFRPG] Player's Options: Flaws
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A Necromancer's Grimoire: The Book of Faith
Publisher: Necromancers of the Northwest
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/08/2012 15:53:55
There’s an irony in the fact that the cleric, as a class, relies very little on religious devotion. If you’ve ever made a joke about clerics with no ranks in Knowledge (religion), you’re aware of the all-too-appropriate label of them being just another kind of wizard; after all, there’s no way to build faith into the class mechanics, right?

Enter Necromancer Games’ Necromancer’s Grimoire: The Book of Faith.

From a technical perspective, the Book of Faith isn’t bad. Just over three dozen pages long, it has full nested bookmarks, which is a plus. However, there’s no way to copy and paste the file (or the printer-friendly file), which is a bit of a drag. I do give it props for having a printer-friendly file, which eliminates the background and one page of ads at the end, but unfortunately it not only retains all of the interior illustrations, but still has them in color as well – if you have to leave the pictures in a printer-friendly file, you should at least make them grayscale.

It’s worth mentioning that the artwork is all of a single type here, being pictures of stained glass windows. As those are universal symbols of churches, it’s a pretty good fit for the book, though some other kind of imagery would have helped as well. The pages themselves are set on a tan background, so as to look more like actual pages from a tome.

After some opening fiction and a quick foreword, we’re taken straight into the book’s main offering – the priest, a new base class. Initially, the priest looks something like a divine wizard, having the lowest BAB and Hit Die progression, as well as being proficient with very few weapons and no armor. Things get more interesting, however, when you look at the priest’s spellcasting ability.

Unlike normal slot-based spellcasters, the priest has something called favor (points). Each day, they can choose a number of spells from the cleric spell list to ready – the readied list of spells then becomes roughly the equivalent of a sorcerer’s spells known list. A readied spell can be cast over and over…but each casting has a point cost in terms of favor, and once their favor is gone, the priest cannot cast anything else until they rest and regain their favor again.

There’s more to the class than this, of course. As the priest levels up it gains the ability to intrinsically know what will and will not please their god, gains the ability to work miracles, cast spells not readied (for greater favor cost), hold confessions, and more. The class is very tightly focused, and its class features serve to give it a much more religiously-minded bent than the “casting, channeling, and bashing” cleric.

While I think that would have been enough, the class then gets an expansive flavor section of flavor text, talking about things such as what’s known about priests on a knowledge check, how they get along with other classes and organizations, and a lot more. While I thought this was good, I wish at least some portion of this had devoted more space to expanded mechanical options – the lack of any archetypes or favored class options were noticeable in their absence.

It’s after this that we come to a section on measuring favor and piety. Like favor, piety is a new point-based system for the priest. Whereas favor is gained routinely and the amount of it rapidly swells by level, piety is gained much more rarely. The section here discusses how piety points are gained, and doing so is no small feat – basically, you need to make a positive advancement in your religion in order to gain piety. This isn’t something you can write off either, as piety has game mechanical effects; for example, you get bonus favor per day if you have a high piety score. There’s more that it effects, as several of the priest’s class features deal with piety as well.

Favor is also covered. While favor is gained as part of the status quo, a priest can gain (or lose) favor depending on how they act, with the threshold here generally being a bit lower than for piety. This is quite different than for most spellcasting classes, as being devout can have immediate impact (gaining favor) on your combat efficacy (using the gained favor to cast spells). A table summarizes how much favor is what degree of a reward at what level.

The book’s third section covers miracles – miracles are a class ability of the priest (categorized as spell-like, which I think was a mistake; I didn’t see anything about their effective spell level, for instance, and I don’t like the idea of these being subject to dispel magic) that are similar to spellcasting. Only so many miracles can be known at once, and they have some fairly strongest costs to use.

The major difference between miracles and spells is that the former are often very large in their area of effect (though the exact area tends to depend on the priest’s piety). A priest with a high piety score, for example, can use the Affect Crops miracle in a five-mile radius. Most miracles tend to have a correspondingly high duration as well. Of course, with a high casting time and a prohibition on how often they can be used, virtually none of the listed miracles (just under twenty) are useful in combat.

The last part of the book introduces the devoted apostle prestige class, which I found myself not caring for too much. The problem here is that this class has, as part of its prerequisites, that you have some piety already, so on the surface only priests can take this prestige class. At the same time, however, it increases your caster level, but not your favor per level, which means that a priest’s spellcasting ability takes a hit. The prestige class has several functions that are based around piety, both gaining it have having certain thresholds of it activate class abilities, so I’m inclined to think that it’s meant for multiclass priests (as it has a cleric’s BAB and Hit Dice), but I’m less than certain. It does have a nice flavor text section, however.

Overall, the Book of Faith does a fairly good job of presenting a new sort of character that has a closer tie to their religion than the existing divine spellcasting classes. While it requires a greater sense of their in-game religion, and requires the GM to play an active role as their god (in terms of awarding piety and favor), the priest much more easily fills the role of a character with a close relationship with their god, which has a direct impact on how well they can tend to their community. It’s unfortunate that the prestige class doesn’t do quite as good a job at finding its niche, but even then it’s not a total write-off. Altogether, this is a book that provides some concrete facts towards finding faith in your game.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
A Necromancer's Grimoire: The Book of Faith
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Faces of the Tarnished Souk: Gobseck Vaultwright, Meister of the Golden Anvil (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/31/2012 16:10:36
It’s easy to overlook the importance of money in Pathfinder. While many quests are centered around lofty ideals of saving worlds and defeating evil, the immediate focus of typical sessions tends to revolve around acquisition, usually right after having killed the monstrous former owners. Indeed, some creatures may establish a fortune of wealth so vast that they have other creatures specifically to guard it. In the Tarnished Souk, the Khan of Nightmares has such a creature overlooking his own vast finances: Gobseck Vaultwright, Meister of the Golden Anvil.

A seventeen-page book, this product hits most of the technical benchmarks we’ve come to expect from quality PDFs. Full nested bookmarks are present, and cop-and-paste is enabled. Ornate borders are on all sides of every page, and several black and white illustrations break up the text every few pages or so. I do wonder if there should be a printer-friendly version, as the heavy borders combined with the periodic artwork may be tougher for some printers, but in a PDF this short it’s probably not a huge deal.

Gobseck is, as a character, perhaps best characterized as Ebenezer Scrooge before he met the three ghosts – that is, he’s a cold and heartless money-grubber who has a romantic tragedy in his past. The nature of this tragedy, or more aptly, the identity of the woman in question, is never revealed, though a sidebar on using Gobseck in your campaign does include some pointers on who she should be in a Coliseum Morpheuon campaign. As with other characters from the Faces of the Tarnished Souk, Gobseck’s stat block is an impressive collection of first- and third-party content. While some of his levels use a fighter archetype from Ultimate Combat, the majority of them are magister levels, from the Super Genius Guide of the same name (though take note, those with older files may remember it as the Genius Guide to the Magus instead).

Several of Gobseck’s feats are reprinted here for ease of reference, even those that can be found in the PFSRD already, which I found helpful. A pair of spells from Rite’s own 1001 Spells book are given next before we move into a number of magic weapon and armor abilities – these are quickly put into context as we then get Gobseck’s individual magic items broken down, and I have to say, he’s as equipped as a CR 20 encounter should be! His hammer, in particular, is not something you want to be on the receiving end of.

Gobseck’s vault is statted up next – not just a thing, it’s actually a living vault, albeit a unique one. Not only does it have powers unlike other living vaults, it’s also a monstrously powerful thing, weighing in at CR 33! I actually snickered at the listing for its XP rating, as I strongly suspect very few groups will ever be able to earn experience points for destroying it.

Slightly oddly, two quick variants are then given for Gobseck – specifically, there are two sections listing what changes should be made to his stat block if you add the Divine or Exemplar templates to him. I wish there had been more context to why these were here – are these versions of Gobseck from parallel universes? Things that could happen to him in the future? Just dumping alternate materials on us without talking about what they mean in the game gives us numbers, not a character.

This is a lesson driven home in the two alternate stat blocks for Gobseck that follow, lowering his power down to CR 13, and CR 6. His title changes with each stat block, which I take to mean that these represent Gobseck at earlier stages in his life (ironically, each also has a note on what to change if those templates are used with him).

The book closes with four templates presented – these are the two templates that Gobseck does have (Smoke and Element-Infused, with him having the air version of the latter), and the two that he could potentially have. Oddly, there’s a small section (two or three paragraphs) of “bonus content” that talk about the one sentimental item that Gobseck keeps in his vault. I did like this bonus bit of exposition, but I found that it actually highlighted what would have been a far better bonus – a listing of what’s to be found in the Vault; while this will obviously vary between campaigns, even a guideline of what sort of fortune of treasures and magic is to be found in the vault would have been useful – I consider it a missed opportunity.

Overall, however, the book is still a good one, and like all of the Faces of the Tarnished Souk, it’s a case-study in how to use OGL materials to great effect. While the aspect of character development is somewhat overshadowed by the game mechanics here, that’s the natural consequence of (rightly) including the reused material for reference purposes. The result is that you have a very strong character with an understated but potentially engaging backstory, to say nothing of his massively-powerful living vault. Use Gobseck in your game, and see why money is the root of all evil.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Faces of the Tarnished Souk: Gobseck Vaultwright, Meister of the Golden Anvil (PFRPG)
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Annals of the Archfiends: Phosonith the Cruel Charmer
Publisher: Rogue Genius Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/25/2012 09:44:42
There’s just something about evil outsiders that makes them perfect for an individual spotlight. As the strongest among them have not only a unique form and powers, but also influence on the mortal world, makes them easy to customize in terms of what they can do and what influence they have on your campaign. Hence, it’s no surprise that Super Genius Games has started a new series of products based around them: the Annals of the Archfiends.

The opening product in this line gives us Phosonith the Cruel Charmer, a devil prince.

A relatively short product at just under ten pages, the book opens with a quick overview of Phosonith’s personality – beneficent in public and wrathful in private – before delving into his history. This was somewhat more expansive than I’d expected, as it took two pages to describe Phosonith’s genesis and rise to power to rule the Stygian city of Ess, along with his current sketch. I suspect I’m in the minority in thinking that what was here was a bit much; while I appreciate back-story as much as anyone, this felt somewhat excessive in how much of Phosonith’s history we’re given. This is particularly true as there were other sections I wish were expanded.

Speaking of which, the next section covers some of the influence that Phosonith has. This opens with a section regarding Phosonith in the real world, which cogently notes that he has no real-world equivalent, but rather was inspired by several duplicitous men in real life (though I confess I was rather irked by its noting of Machiavelli’s The Prince as a source – apparently the author, like most people, didn’t realize that that entire work was sarcastic on Machiavelli’s part, and not meant to be taken quite so literally).

Ahem. The book then covers Phosonith’s cult, including the new Duplicity domain, and is a good example of where the book doesn’t nearly go far enough in what it offers. Let’s leave aside the fact that at no point are we told what other domains (or holy symbol, favored weapon, etc.) you receive for worshipping Phosonith, the information on his cult is quite sparse. We’re given a quick overview of the sorts of people who make up his cult, and paragraph of what they do and don’t do, and that’s it. There’s nothing about their tactics, their current plots, not even an abbreviated stat block for a single example cultist that your PCs can interact with. There’s just very little here, and it’s disappointing.

A page is given to how to portray Phosonith personally, and it does a good job in outlining his appearance and methodology, except in combat. True, a character that focuses on a benign façade shouldn’t get into combat very much, but throw the PCs into the mix and it’s likely to happen, so it would have been nice if the author had talked about how to run Phosonith in the event of a fight. As it is, his stat block is fairly impressive (though his SR should be a few points higher), but I was disappointed that the deception-based powers of the Duplicity domain, which help you negate truth- and alignment-based effects, weren’t mirrored in his stat block. It’s hard to believe the flavor text about how Phosonith goes to great lengths to hide that he’s evil when he can’t even defeat a simple detect evil spell.

The book closes out with an overview of the city of Ess, describing twelve locations within its locale. The locations are fairly interesting, but that they’re numbered is a reminder of the fact that there’s no map of the city itself, which is a shame. I can see the practical reason for this, as a custom map costs money, but it’s still a shame. Equally so is the lack of a city stat block (a la the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide) which would be very helpful here as Ess is supposed to be a planar trade town where all sorts of creatures of all alignments are welcome in Hell. There really should be some city stats here, and the lack of them is a weakness in the product.

Overall, the first book in the Annals of the Archfiends line makes some stumbles out of the gate. Having too much material in some areas and not enough in others, this first book shows that it has potential but needs to realign its focus somewhat. There’s some good material here, which makes it easy to see how it could have been great with a bit more tweaking in some areas. Phosonith the Cruel Charmer presents a nice façade, but an ultimately imperfect one.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Annals of the Archfiends: Phosonith the Cruel Charmer
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