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Superior Synergy Fantasy PFRPG Edition
Publisher: Misfit Studios
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/18/2012 19:59:35
One of the ways in which Pathfinder (nee Third Edition) is different from previous editions of the world’s most popular fantasy role-playing game is in the proliferation of mechanical character abilities. Whereas before your PC had comparatively little stats, nowadays they have many different mechanics that serve to define what they can and cannot do, from skills to feats to class abilities and more. However, most of these exist largely in a vacuum – while some may be prerequisites to others, few actually build off of each other, and they can form a collection that’s quite disparate in what they offer (particularly for multiclass characters).

It’s in that spirit of tying a character’s abilities more closely together that Misfit Studios has released Superior Synergy: Fantasy for the Pathfinder RPG. Let’s examine it and see how well it ties things together.

Superior Synergy comes as three PDFs, those being the main file, a printer-friendly version thereof, and a short checklist file for the various synergies. Ostensibly, this checklist (which uses a very handy alternating grey-and-white set of rows for each item, making them easily distinguishable) is used to chart which synergies your character qualifies for. However, it should be noted that GMs can make good use of this as a tool for denoting which synergies he allows in his campaign to begin with.

The main file is just over seventy pages in length, and has the technical aspects that a good PDF product should – it comes with full, nested bookmarks, a hyperlinked table of contents, and has the copy-and-paste enabled. These go for the printer-friendly version also, which eliminates the cover, the page backgrounds and borders (those being an off-white and a muddy brownish, respectively), and turns the few interior illustrations from being full color to black and white. I’m personally of the opinion that printer-friendly file should eliminate the illustrations altogether, though that’d usually require a new layout.

So what exactly does Superior Synergy present for your Pathfinder game? Simply put, this book posits that if you have certain prerequisites – be they of skills, feats, class abilities or whatnot – then you can gain an extra benefit. This is usually automatic, but some times will require a check.

The book’s first chapter deals with skill synergies. I need to take a moment to state, in the plainest terms possible, that these are NOT the same as the skill synergies from 3.5. For that matter, these are not even the same as the material from the 3.5 version of Superior Synergy. Rather, these skill synergies function off of making a check with a certain skill, and the check result modifying another skill check.

There’s no ambiguity here regarding what skills affect what, or how long the synergy check takes, etc. as the book goes into very specific detail on the mechanics (as well as the flavor of exactly how) these synergies use. For example, you can make an Acrobatics check which modifies (depending on the check result) a subsequent Climb check made to catch yourself or someone else on a fall, as you’re good at twisting and teetering enough to give yourself a bit of an edge…if you’re lucky. If you’re not, you’ve actually made things worse.

Feat synergy is, perhaps ironically, very similar to a section of new feats (and indeed, the book notes that if you think giving these synergy effects out automatically once the prerequisites are met, you can turn these into new feats). As a Pathfinder aficionado, I was quite happy to note that these prerequisites took into account the materials from the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic, and Ultimate Combat. So for example, if you have Bludgeoner (UC), Dazing Assault (APG), and Weapon Focus, you qualify for the Staggering Blow synergy, which lets you attempt to attempt to stagger a foe for a round. There’s a lot of great material here that lets you put forward a lot of feats that might otherwise be totally ignored (such as some skill-boosters).

For all of that, though, it was the next chapter that was my favorite: class synergies. Simply put, this section is (as I read it) one big love-letter to multiclassing, as it grants synergy abilities from having different class features. If you have the track class ability from being a ranger or inquisitor, and the detect evil power of a paladin, you gain the Track Evil synergy, which grants a bonus to tracking evil creatures. I really enjoyed this section, as it did a lot to make multiclassing sexy again.

The spell synergy section is the only part of the book that doesn’t offer several dozen synergies. Having only a half-dozen synergies, these are the result of using certain types of spells within one round of each other. Perhaps surprisingly, these are written with a more generic stroke, mostly combining types of spells that mostly lend themselves to fairly obvious combinations – here you’ll find rules for using fire and ice to weaken items, electricity conducted by metal or water, and similar things, though at least one (several mental effects at once can confuse a creature) takes a more innovative leap.

The last section of the book is crafting synergy, and basically allows for characters with a nuanced background to craft weapons with built-in non-magical abilities. If you can rage and have Skill Focus for Craft (armor) for example, you can build armor that’s painful to wear but as a result increases how long you can rage (slightly)...but only on a successful Craft check, otherwise you’ve essentially created an item with a slight (non-magical) curse.

The book ends with several pages of the checklist I mentioned at the beginning, something that seems redundant, as the file is already included separately.

Overall, I found Superior Synergy: Fantasy PFRPG Edition to be an expansive book of great options for your characters. Having said that, there are some concerns that I’d want to thoroughly weigh before I used it in my game. For one thing, the synergies that require an extra roll can slow down game-play, though I do appreciate that these are the synergies that aren’t guaranteed to be an extra boost for characters. By contrast, the always-active synergies are faster, but mean that PCs will automatically receive a power bump…though even that’s controllable if you decide to make some of these into feats, or just disallow certain synergies altogether.

It’s that modularity that, I think, really puts this book over the top. There are so many options here, which can be easily added, tweaked, or disallowed, that there’s really no way you can’t find a happy medium in terms of figuring out what parts of this book to allow and what not to. Taking that into account, there are still a few minor problems (a synergy for a paladin’s smite evil and a barbarian’s rage…alignment compatibility issues there), and the occasional spelling and grammar error, but nothing that’s a deal-breaker. I say, start using Superior Synergy, and make your characters more than just the sum of their parts.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Superior Synergy Fantasy PFRPG Edition
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Publisher Reply:
To address the rage/smite contradiction, note that this is a matter of forward compatibility with future Misfit Studios products. Without going into greater detail, some character options in future products will make the Synergy Effect possible. I threw it in here to keep it in context, as putting a single Synergy Effect in a later book that has no other synergy info in it would seem too out of place.
Wicked Fantasy: Haffuns: Seeming Servants
Publisher: John Wick Presents
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/17/2012 20:48:08
One of the most critical, and most accurate, critiques of the standard races in Pathfinder is that they’re prosaic. They have little identity to them, and what identity they do have is so broad and shallow as to be little more than caricature. One of the worst offenders in this regard are the halflings, which with the revisions of the last few editions of the game, tend to lack any real racial definition whatsoever.

That’s what John Wick sets out to change in Wicked Fantasy: Haffuns: Seeming Servants.

Haffuns: Seeming Servants is twenty-eight pages long, and hits most of the high-water marks for a PDF product. Copy and paste is enabled, and the file is quite easy to navigate having full, nested bookmarks and a hyperlinked table of contents. I did frown slightly, however, at the file having no printer-friendly version (or, for those that prefer it, an epublishing version).

The lack of a printer-friendly file isn’t too big a deal given the book’s size, but it’s not something I can write off, either. The entire book is set against a cream-colored background, as though the text were written on parchment. Moreover, this background has some very lightly-drawn designs on it; in some places these designs actually fade the text laid over them, causing the lettering to appear to change its shading, which is slightly bothersome to the eye. There are only two illustrations in the book, both full-page color pieces (though one is done in a very muted style). I quite enjoyed the artwork here, and do wish that there’d been more of it, but what’s here is quite impressive given the space of each picture.

Haffuns: Seeming Servants gives us a very different version of halflings than has been seen before. While halflings in contemporary RPGs seem to be something of an adjunct to human culture, Seeming Servants takes this to a more literal degree. Haffuns, a name the race adopted from the humans, appeared two centuries ago, fleeing an unknown terror from below the earth. Since then, they’ve ingratiated themselves into human society as a servitor race; they’re the “support staff” to affluent human households, serving as the porters, maids, cooks, and other servants of humans. This, however, is more than it seems…

The book can be roughly divided into two parts. The first half of the book focuses entirely on establishing the flavor of haffuns. While I was expecting this to focus on fairly broad overviews of their psychology and physique, I was pleasantly surprised that instead, there are several smaller sections that discuss particular aspects of what make haffuns unique. We’re told about things like taunken, their secret language that can be used in front of others without anyone knowing it’s being used at all, or tatura, the agenda and motivation of those haffuns that serve human families.

It’s only in the second half of the book that these concepts are finally put into Pathfinder mechanics. Following an initial overview of haffun racial traits, we’re then given an overview of a haffun family (though oddly, a few paragraphs of text seem to repeat themselves here). Not just a designation of relatives, a haffun family affects their stats, as does the number of family members present. For all this, I do wish that there had been more of the recent “Pathfinder-isms” regarding new races here; alternate racial traits and favored class abilities would have been a nice extra.

Several new haffun feats are present which help to flesh out their previously-described abilities, along with a final mechanic that helps to quantify what it is that haffuns are hiding from humans, before we move into classes.

The first part of this section is a new cleric archetype, the jorsha, which has a close affinity with the dead. This is not your classical necromancer, as a jorsha’s powers are largely focused around detection and expulsion. Interestingly, a jorsha’s focus of worship is not a deity, but their ancestors – given that this affects their domain choices, I wish that we’d gotten some sample ancestors, as it seems like this is a large enough thematic change to the cleric that some additional material would have been helpful.

The final part of the book deals with the new haffun base class: the butler. While I can imagine some jokes being made at the class name, the concept that it provides is quite interesting in its execution. While this is obviously a “support” class, it goes about it in ways that are, for the most part, unique. I say “for the most part” because it does include an unavoidable nod towards combat utility in that it can sneak attack. But the rest of its abilities are quite innovative (though some of them are essentially some of the feats presented earlier); while it can (like a rogue) pick from a list of abilities every few levels – a list that expands as it gains levels – these are not rogue talents. The number of abilities here is quite interesting in what it offers, such as marking a person to know when they’re in danger, even if the person doesn’t know it herself; or being able to make an item hidden on someone’s person completely undetectable. This is a class whose utility extends further than just combat.

Overall, Haffuns: Seeming Servants is a product that does a great job giving a fairly uninspired race a new identity. Rather than try to radically reinvent halflings, this book plays up their post-modern identity, and in the process makes them something that looks familiar, but becomes more and more new as you peel back the surface. If not for a few minor technical issues, and that certain areas could have been fleshed out more, this book would be perfect. As it is, the book’s problem areas are deficiencies more than errors, don’t detract from what is here. Double your halflings’ utility in your game with Wicked Fantasy: Haffuns: Seeming Servants.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Wicked Fantasy: Haffuns: Seeming Servants
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[PFRPG] Storage Vault of Alantes
Publisher: Headless Hydra Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/03/2012 19:57:59
I’ve always been on the proverbial fence about “set pieces” – small locations that are written apart from any greater context, allowing them to be dropped into a campaign as a sort of mini-adventure location. In some instances they’re a lot of fun; a quick little adventure that’s easy for the GM and fun for the players. That can be difficult to pull off, however, as they need to have enough context to make sense unto themselves but not so much that they feel too “heavy” to be dropped into an ongoing game. Likewise, they need to have enough of a challenge to be worthwhile, but not so much that they become a killer encounter.

Happily, as far as set pieces go, Headless Hydra Games’s Storage Vaults of Alantes is one of the better ones.

The book’s technical presentation is strong. Having only ten pages (really just over seven, given the cover, credits page, and OGL), you’d think the book wouldn’t be too concerned with how it’s put together – not so. Full nested bookmarks are here, a pleasant surprise, and copy and paste is enabled.

The book has borders along the top and bottom, along with alternating sides, of each page. There’s only a single interior illustration, a black and white image of the new monster found here. The preceding statement is notwithstanding the map, which was actually quite a treat, visually. Done in full color, it’s presented in an unusual, but not unpleasant, isometric style. I’m quite surprised by how well it makes this sort of map work – for a larger area, this perspective would quickly become cumbersome, but here it’s actually very nice to look at. I should also mention that it takes the details of the area descriptions into account; images described as being on the walls can be seen here, which only contribute to the map’s charm.

For a dungeon with only three rooms (more like two, in all honesty), there’s a surprising amount of flavor text here. There’s a background given for why this particular vault was constructed and why it holds the treasures it does. There’s also a motivation given for the PCs to go looking for it (although I found it slightly silly, as well as a bit too vague for my tastes – if the Sultan’s son has been cursed by a witch, why aren’t normal magical remedies working? Perhaps I’m over-thinking such a minor background detail, however), and a sidebar covers what the PCs know about this vault’s particular treasure. The sidebar struck me as slightly odd, as it segues into why the treasure is here in the first place – given that there’s nothing to lead the PCs to this being the treasure’s location in the first place (the scenario makes a lot more sense, I think, if it’s something you have the PCs just happen to stumble onto), this seems somewhat unnecessary.

For a location that has only three rooms – or, more specifically, one hidden entrance and two underground chambers – the more specificity each location has, the better. For the most part, this book does a good job of presenting a large number of details for each location, particularly as the two doors between the three rooms are each set with a puzzle-lock and trap combination.

It’s in regards to these traps where I felt that the book fell down the most. The issue isn’t that the traps are bad; quite the contrary, they’re quite good. The problem is that this is really the same trap, done twice. In the first case, there’s really no good way besides guessing to solve it, which strikes me as slightly unfair. The second iteration of the trap is somewhat less punishing, as there’s a clue given.

There were also some additional details that I felt could have been provided. For example, the last door notes its break DC, but what about simple hardness and hit points? There’s no description of light sources in the main underground chamber, so is it pitch black? A lot was done here to approach these challenges in multiple ways, but while it covered a lot of ground, it could have provided us with more.

My last complaint about the book is with the new monster found at the dungeon’s end. The author made the critical mistake of giving it a movement rate of 0 feet, something that insofar as I’m aware most plant monsters don’t have in the Pathfinder RPG – this is because it encourages the PCs to (once they realize the nature of the threat) back up and pepper it with ranged weapons and spells until it dies. It’s a critical flaw in an otherwise excellently-designed monster.

Of course, there are a few other surprises to be found in the vault, as it houses more than just one treasure. There’s also a suggestion for what to do if you want to have this be the first part of a larger series of adventures, but that, to paraphrase an old axiom, is a tale for another product…

Overall, I thought that this was a very well-done set piece. It had its flaws, both in design (a knock spell can bypass a significant portion of the challenges here) and in presentation (the same trap twice), but it hits far more often than it misses. The traps are designed to be more than just stat blocks, and the manner of overcoming them requires intuitive thinking by the players, and not just their PCs. Likewise, the creature encounters look like a lot of fun (just give the last monster a movement rate), and nicely counterbalance the use of traps. And of course, the treasure at the end makes it all worthwhile. Whether you want to start a new chapter in your campaign, or just want to take a side trek for an evening, you’ll have fun looting the Storage Vault of Alantes.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
[PFRPG] Storage Vault of Alantes
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Way of the Wicked Book Two: Call Forth Darkness
Publisher: Fire Mountain Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/25/2012 16:31:14
One of the defining characteristics of PCs in most role-playing games is that they’re proactive rather than reactive. It’s what comes from being the one raiding dungeons, while the denizens are dealing with your raid. But what would it be like if that paradigm was turned on its head, and you were the one trying to defend your lair from some do-gooders that had suddenly kicked in the door? That’s the primary question your group faces in the second book of the Way of the Wicked campaign: Call Forth Darkness.

Continuing this adventure path for evil characters, Call Forth Darkness is aptly named. Tasked to summon back a banished daemon lord and have him give you a powerful item, your group must first find, conquer, and hold the fortress that the fiendish cult used to inhabit while attempting to stop the forces of good – as well as meddlesome adventurers – from putting the kibosh on your plans.

From a technical standpoint, Call Forth Darkness is a good product, but could have used a few more tweaks. Weighing in at one-hundred-six pages altogether, it has bookmarks to each of the book’s major sections, but I had hoped there would be nested bookmarks to the various sub-sections as well. It does have copy-and-pasted enabled, which is always a good thing.

The book’s graphical presentation is quite strong. The pages are set on a dark tan background, as though the file were an old tome, with black borders along three sides. Michael Clarke continues to impress with his full-color interior illustrations, largely of various personages that your group will encounter throughout the adventure.

I did have a few problems with the pictorial aspects of the book, however. First, I can’t really hold this against the artist, but the maps continue to be done as one square equaling ten feet. This makes it difficult to reproduce these in battle-mat size, but as I said, this isn’t really Fire Mountain Games’ fault – there’s only so much you can tweak the scale you want to set things at. Secondly, it should be noted that the book comes with three files – the main PDF, a printer-friendly version, and a book of players’ handouts.

The printer-friendly version was something of a disappointment. It’s only changes were to remove the tan background and set the page borders to being line-scaling rather than a full color border. That’s good, but it’s not enough – not when the full-color cover and interior illustrations remain. These should have been removed entirely (requiring an adjusted layout) or at least set to grayscale. That they weren’t makes this not nearly as printer-friendly as it should have been.

Similarly, the players’ handouts consist of four pages. One is a wilderness map, two are the two pages of maps of the Horn of Abaddon (the evil fortress), and the final one is an illustration of one of the dungeon denizens.

But enough about that, let’s look at the meat of the adventure and see what new evil your group is doing!

After the ubiquitous introduction and adventure background, things are broken up into four “acts” each of which is sub-divided into various “events.”

The first act covers everything prior to the arrival at the dungeon. Herein, the PCs receive their next assignment, taking them to the frontier town of Farholde and meeting with their support (a local baron, as well as another of the nine groups helping to overthrow the current order), before setting out to locate the Horn of Abaddon.

Taking up less than ten percent of the book’s total page-count, this section of the adventure wasn’t bad, but was clearly the book’s weak point. I say that not because there’s a dearth of action here (though there is), but rather than there’s not enough exposition on what can really be done at this stage. For example, it’s helpful (though not necessarily expected) that the PCs start to develop a minion organization during the adventure, with the unspoken assumption that some part of it will be set up in Farholde; however, there’s little here that really helps to put that part of the adventure forward.

Now, to be fair, there is some support for this part of the adventure at this stage – just not enough. Meeting with the local baron and securing his aid is helpful, and having another “knot” of evil-doers backing you up from the town is a mixed blessing, but notwithstanding the gazetteer of Farholde itself, that’s really all that there is. While the section on running an evil organization does talk a little about finding minions in Farholde, I’d have preferred that there were a few events placed here to let the PCs work their way into the town’s seedy underbelly and set up the beginnings of a network before they went into the wild.

Speaking of the wild, the book somewhat glosses over the task of finding the Horn. Even presuming that they find the map to it, the book rather oddly sets finding the location as a Perception, rather than Survival skill. Moreover, it seems like there’s some wasted potential for further encounters here – the few spots that are marked on the GMs map receive extremely little coverage (said coverage is given in their events later in the book, rather than having an overview in act one). There could have been a lot more here to help round out the environment – at the very least it would have been nice to have had a table of random encounters!

It’s at the second act, however, that the book really begins to shine. Here, the PCs discover the Horn, and at first it’s not too dissimilar from any other dungeon crawl, as the PCs have to explore the place, deal with some of the creatures that have already moved in, and figure out their next move. While the adventure doesn’t expressly spell out that they need to try and dominate, rather than eradicate, most of the local monsters, the encounters are somewhat slanted in that direction – a smart group will quickly figure it out. This is particularly true since, if the PCs root out all of the Horn’s secrets (and the adventure assumes they do, to the point of having a sidebar saying what to do if some critical information slips by them), they’ll realize that they’ll need to conduct a ritual that takes months to complete in order to complete their mission.

As I mentioned, this is where the adventure really takes off. The PCs start to interact with various creatures that require longer-term thinking on their part. What monsters should be slain, and which should be subjugated? Can the first line of good-aligned defenders be manipulated, or should you destroy them on sight? The adventure sometimes tilts things subtly in one direction, but by and large it’s refreshing how it lets the party make their own decisions, and reap the rewards or consequences therein. The author makes sure to say what various creatures do over time.

The book also notes certain things that can increase the local security, earning “Security Points.” Oddly, the points have no particular effect save to earn bonus XP for the party – while the individual defenses do make a difference in and of themselves, I’d have thought that there’d be more of an effect in terms of what the Security Points do to potential invaders – a missed opportunity there, albeit a slight one.

The book’s third act is where the PCs need to shift from offense to defense. Because the ritual they’re performing takes months, the book outlines things week by week, and various interlopers start in from the very beginning. The book does a truly remarkable job of blending in layers of plot here, as the PCs’ “allies” will send them varying degrees of advanced notice (though how these notices are sent is left frustratingly vague), all in accordance with their own plans, as they learn about adventurers and crusaders heading towards the Horn.

This is where the book also starts to introduce monsters from beyond the first Pathfinder Bestiary. It’s a small but refreshing change to see creatures from the Bestiary 2 or Tome of Horrors being used here, and helps to keep the PCs on their toes. This is also when the PCs are most likely to have their own group of minions that they can command, both in terms of the subjugated monsters and in their organization in Farholde.

I also really have to compliment the author on the structure of the various groups the PCs face. The composition of enemies here is something that only a gamer would think of. You have groups ranging from uber-good crusaders who strike hard and fast, to the all-neutral party who isn’t vulnerable to anti-good measures. Some groups come with plenty of advanced warning and just walk in the front door; some do their homework beforehand and (likely) get the drop on the PCs. All are written with a battle strategy (as part of their stat block), and many discuss what they do if they manage to flee. Several even have some ties to the previous adventure, building a strong sense of continuity beyond the usual “sequence of events” that most adventure paths have.

The book’s final act takes place during the last five days of the months-long ritual, and its here that the heat is really turned up on the PCs. With their summoning almost done, there’s a lot of attention focused on them, and the adversaries come hard and fast. From other evils that want to hijack the ritual to desperate defenders of goodness, and more, the PCs are effectively under siege, both from without and from within. The denouement of the adventure is exceptional in its crafting, so much so that I honestly think your players will likely remember this as one of the best adventures they’ve ever played.

Following this, the book still has more in store. Several pages are dedicated to the running of an evil organization. Surprisingly, this is fairly simple in terms of mechanics. While I was initially suspicious of it being based around the Leadership feat, I did like that it makes it so that Leadership gives you the usual cohort, but the followers are instead set up as an organization. The organization is treated as a single entity, and can perform so many actions per week (more if multiple PCs throw in as co-leaders), presuming a successful check. A list of about two dozen actions is given, followed by a series of possible events that can happen, and some further discussion.

The town of Farholde is given roughly a half-dozen pages of examination, including a map of the town. There’s quite a lot here, and an enterprising GM will use the information to help personalize the townsfolk while the PCs are here – the information here seems almost excessive given how the PCs will likely spend most of the their time holed up in the Horn.

The book’s final section talks about modifying the campaign depending on the composition of the party. To be more clear, it discusses running the campaign if you have party members that are of the same type of class (e.g. all clerics), or of the same race (e.g. all goblins). In practice, this section mostly lays down background for why such a group would have existed in the first place. There is some discussion regarding modifying the feel of the campaign, but nothing too specific is given for even major game-changers (e.g. if your entire party lacks spellcasters). There is, however, a single new feat given for creatures that are sensitive to light.

I was personally hoping for a section on what to do for replacement PCs should some die over the course of the campaign. Given the importance of the back-story, and the group’s secretive nature (plus how they’re operating under the oversight of their master), it seems like new characters would be very hard to come by. Hopefully a future book will address this.

Overall, this is a book that starts slowly and builds its way up to a truly epic crescendo. While there are some parts that could have been fleshed out better, what’s here is massive in scale and breathtaking in scope. From the all-too-short sections that deal with Farholde (a much more interesting town that it had a right to be) to clearing and refurbishing the dungeon to the incredible dungeon-defense sections to the harrowing conclusion, this is an adventure of grandeur. Throw in the formation of your own evil organization to lord over, and I have to wonder if this campaign hasn’t already hit its high point; certainly this will be a hard act to follow.

If you haven’t already started to walk the Way of the Wicked, then let this be the reason to begin doing so – you’ll never have so much fun as when you Call Forth Darkness.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Way of the Wicked Book Two: Call Forth Darkness
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Legendary Races: Cyclops (PFRPG)
Publisher: Purple Duck Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/20/2012 14:52:15
I’ve long been of the opinion that one of the strengths of the d20 system, of which Pathfinder is the primary inheritor, is its unified mechanics. Few are the places I appreciate this more than the transparency between PC and NPC rules, particularly for monsters and races. True, they don’t always match up 100% perfectly, but as someone who remembers what a headache it was trying to add class levels to monsters in previous editions, what we have now is by far better.

Purple Duck Games supplement Legendary Races: The Cyclops is a testament to this facet of game design. Because while I’ve never personally had a player ask to play a cyclops, I’ve now got that angle covered should it ever come up (plus some cool options in the meanwhile).

The book is a short one, being a sixteen-page PDF. Pleasantly, there’s also a second PDF of counters; small squares with images of various creatures from the book that can be easily placed on your battlemat. Several different sizes are available here, reflecting the various sizes of the cyclopes and cyclopes-kin that the book presents. Likewise, the primary PDF has full nested bookmarks and has copy and pasting enabled.

Several black and white illustrations break up the book, roughly a half-dozen all told. There is no printer-friendly version of the book available, but in all honesty your printer should be able to handle what’s here anyway. There’s also no epublishing file, so if you don’t like how PDFs display on an ereader or tablet, you’re going to be out of luck.

I usually talk about my overall impression of a book at the end of my review, saving it for after I’ve discussed all of the different sections, but in this case it seems more apropos to mention up front how much I enjoyed this book. I really feel like a standard was set here in terms of presenting a truly holistic amount of information regarding presenting a race for use in the Pathfinder RPG.

For example, the book opens with a few pages talking about the cyclopes’ racial history, society, and physiology before moving into game stats. From there we get a new weapon (a shuriken-like throwing weapon called the gieve), before moving into how to play a cyclops PC. This is handled by breaking the Bestiary cyclops down into a racial class. This harkens back slightly to Third Edition, being a class that essentially must be taken, and cannot be multiclassed out of until it’s complete, but the class is only six levels long, so it doesn’t seem particularly cumbersome.

If you can’t stand racial levels, however, the book has you covered with its new half-cyclops race. A human-cyclops mix, this race is equivalent to the standard races in power. It’s not simply tossed out without any support either – the book presents a good deal of flavor information before presenting the racial mechanics. Moreover, it then gives expanded descriptions for how half-cyclops do in each PC class (not including the UM and UC classes, as this book predates them), and has both alternate racial traits and several new favored class options. More than anything else, these extras helped give the entire book a very comprehensive scope.

A single new legendary weapon is presented next, a shout-out to those using Purple Duck Games’s Legendary Weapon supplements. If you don’t have those, it may be of more limited use. Interestingly, one of the weapon’s powers is a psionic one, with the particular power reprinted here in its entirety. A sidebar converts the power into a divine spell for those who hate psionics.

A couple new feats are presented next, and this is one of the areas where I felt the book could have been tightened up a little more. For example, Intimidating Orb gives a cyclops (of half-cyclops) a +4 to Intimidate checks. Fair enough, but with ten or more ranks in the skill, the Persuasive feat in the Core Rulebook will give you that, and a +4 bonus to Diplomacy to boot (and you don’t need to be a cyclops to take it). Likewise, the Otherworldly Gaze feat lets you gain a +2 to gaze and blindness attacks…but feats like Great Fortitude add a +2 save bonus to a much wider set of saves.

A new oracle mystery comes next, along with a sample 1st-level NPC. After this, we receive two new templates, the man-eater and the god-scored (which, oddly, do not have sample NPCs of their own). I quite enjoyed these templates, as they both play into the theme of degenerate cyclopes, but remain broad enough that they can be applied to most creatures (there were a few nitpicks that I had, like the man-eaters bite being a secondary natural attack, or the god-scorned’s punish the prideful attack deal a whopping 4 points of ability drain on a failed strike – ouch!).

The book ends with a new monster, the chthonic cyclops, a huge creature weighing in at a hefty CR 16! Presumably these are meant to represent the cyclopes as they once were.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. While it had a few rough patches (where are the half-cyclops’ height/weight and age tables? And does the gieve count for the half-cyclops’ weapon familiarity, since “cyclops throwing star” is a parenthetical name for the weapon?), it seriously went the extra mile in rounding out what could have been a very terse racial presentation, while still keeping a very tight focus. Small errors notwithstanding, this is a great resource for those who want to show that a one-eyed character can be king even beyond the land of the blind.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Legendary Races: Cyclops (PFRPG)
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1001 Spells (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/11/2012 18:36:08
Supplements that add new spells are, more than anything else in Pathfinder, risky for a GM. While feats are fairly tame in how powerful they are, and magic items can be destroyed or stolen in-game, a new spell that wreaks havoc tends to be difficult to extract. So adding even a few new spells to your campaign can be a cautious exercise.

Taking a look at Rite Publishing’s 1001 Spells, however, will make you want to throw caution to the wind.

A compilation of Rite Publishing’s series of 101 X-Level Spells, this puts all of the previous material in one place (strictly speaking, it also means that there should be 1,010 spells here; I confess that I haven’t counted). I haven’t confirmed that any previous errata or fixes are present here, but given that my PDF copy has “v4” at the end of its file-name, there are likely some changes that have been made.

In terms of the books technical presentation, I was actually a little surprised by how minimalist its approach was. To be fair, it does have full bookmarks to each section and the beginning of each alphabetical listing of spells (e.g. you can click to go to the beginning of all the spells that start with “B”), and copy-and-pasting is enabled. No printer-friendly version (or epublishing version) is present, however.

Moreover, there’s no introduction or discussion of what’s here. The book goes straight from the credits page to the spell lists. These lists are initially only given for the Core Rulebook spellcasting classes. The APG and Ultimate Magic class spell lists are presented as appendices at the end of the book, something that found to be an oddly artificial distinction; why not just list them in the beginning with all of the other classes?

I suspect that the answer to this one may be in how none of the original spells were written with these additional classes in mind. Each spell’s listing, for example, deals only with the Core classes; if you want to know if a given spells can be cast by an alchemist or an inquisitor, you won’t be able to tell just by reading its entry – you’ll have to go check its spell list.

If it sounds like I have only bad things to say about this book, rest assured that these are merely footnotes. I’d much prefer that these issues were tended to, but it doesn’t change the fact that what’s here are over a thousand spells which are as innovative as they are imaginative. It’s unfortunate that I can’t go into any significant detail in this review, simply because there are so many spells of such a diverse nature, but when you have spells like Minor Miracle (a cleric’s Limited Wish), Steal the Painful Memory (remove the memory of an event from a large group of people), Counter Silence (a somatic-only spell that dispels magical silence), or Giant Boulder (guess what you’re throwing now), how can you not want to see more?

I should note that I’ve personally used some of these spells (albeit not a lot) in my game, so I speak from experience when I say that the book’s tagline is true – this really will make it more agonizing to pick what spells you learn throughout the campaign, simply because there are so many great ones here that you won’t be able to easily pick.

I also have to commend the book for coming with a dataset for Hero Lab. I don’t use the program myself, but I know a lot of people who do, and I suspect that this will make the book into a “must have” for them.

Overall, I’d give this book four and a half stars were I able, due to the class listing thing; as it is, I’m rounding this up to a full five stars simply because what’s here is so plentiful that I can’t really hold such a comparatively minor problem against it. 1001 Spells will give you more new magic than you could possibly use in a campaign, but you’ll have a lot of fun trying.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
1001 Spells (PFRPG)
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Advanced Arcana Volume II
Publisher: Necromancers of the Northwest
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/11/2012 13:08:15
I generally don’t agree with the sentiment that spellcasters, particularly wizards, are overpowered. To me, that’s something that’s true more on paper than in actual game-play. However, it’s undeniable that contemporary spell-design does think this way. Simply put, spells are designed to have one specific effect and no other; indeed, many spells will devote considerable space to telling you what they can’t do. That’s understandable, but ironically it takes some of the magic away from spellcasting. What’s happened to spells that have wide and creative applications?

The answer is simple: they’ve all migrated to Advanced Arcana II, by Necromancers of the Northwest.

Okay, the above sentiment is an exaggeration, but only slightly. Whereas most supplements that introduce new spells are just a hodge-podge collection of spells thrown together, Advanced Arcana II, like its predecessor volume, has several new themes to what it presents. We’ll go over these, but first let’s take a look at the book’s technical construction.

Weighing in at just over a hundred pages in length, Advanced Arcana II hits all of the checkboxes that a PDF should. It contains full, nested bookmarks. It allows for copying and pasting (I’m pleased to say that there are virtually no errors with pasting copied text here). Moreover, there’s a printer-friendly version of the book, which is always a plus. That said, the printer-friendly version eliminates the page backgrounds, removes one page of ads near the end of the book, and sets the remaining colors to grey – however, it does keep the interior illustrations, simply graying them. I’d have preferred removing the artwork altogether, something I’m presuming they didn’t do because it’d require a ne layout.

In terms of artwork, the book makes a fairly good showing for itself. All of the pages are set on a cream-colored “parchment” background, which makes it look as though the book is an actual tome. Periodic full-color illustrations break up the text, all of which are CG stock art pieces (oddly, each piece is captioned with a copyright notice for the original creator – I’d have thought it’d be enough to note them in the credits page).

The book opens with a one-page in-character introduction, and then a four-page opening (which is also in-character). It’s after this that we’re given an introduction by the actual game designers. Advanced Arcana II, they tell us, is different from its predecessor volume in that it wants to deal with the mutable nature of spells. To this end, its largely concerning itself with three “types” of spells – the first of these are “modal” spells, which allow for spells to have different effects, but you can only choose one when you cast it (a la fire shield). The second are conditional spells, where the local conditions determine how effective a spell is (e.g. a spell that causes fear is more effective in dim light). Finally, we see the return of segmented spells here; spells that have to be cast multiple times in rapid succession to have their effect take place.

This is last idea is turned on its head, however, as it puts two new variations on that theme: the first are segmented spells that can be cast a differing (instead of a set) number of times, with the number of casting affecting the spell’s efficacy. The variation allows for layering effects to manifest with each casting of a segmented spell, allowing for stacking effects per casting.

Interestingly, the book then goes on to detail another theme that many of its spells deal with: age. Specifically, there are a number of spells here that deal with adding or draining age from a creature – it should be noted though that none of these spells have aging as a “cost” of casting the spell (something from older editions of the game, which I sort of miss). I have to commend the designers here, as they delve into the mechanics of aging in Pathfinder and make sure no aspect of this is overlooked. They deal with questions of aging modifiers to mental ability scores and physical ones, with how different sorts of creatures age (e.g. what to do if you’re uncertain of how a monster lives).

While it doesn’t call it out as its own section, per se, the book then delves into a series of optional rules, mostly in regards to adding new spells to your game. The book cogently notes that it can be awkward to have new spells just suddenly appear in your campaign, particularly for divine spellcasters who have access to the whole of their spell lists. To that end, the book presents several ideas, such as having rare spells costing more or being harder to scribe, to having a “spells known” like ability for divine spellcasters using non-Core spells, to just having an in-game Advanced Arcana II be available to peruse. There are a lot of good ideas here that are worth exploring.

Full spell lists are presented next, which make sure to cover all of the spellcasting classes in the Core Rulebook, APG, and Ultimate Magic, before we finally move on to the spells themselves. I should mention here that while most of the spells fall under the themes described above, there are still a handful that are presented that don’t match with any of them, something I thought was great for rounding out the material in the book.

If Advanced Arcana II had ended there, that would still have been a lot. Instead, however, the book has several appendices where we’re actually given even more material to work with. The book’s first appendix is another in-game treatise describing several of the spellcasters whose names appear the spells given earlier. It’s a slight shame that this section is entirely in-character, as I would have preferred a stat block, or at the very least an abbreviated line detailing their race, class, and levels.

The second appendix, however, was much more fun. Here we’re given a truly expansive section on customized spellbook designs. These allow for three basic parts: customized binding (the hardness), customized paper (the hit points), and customized inks. Customized ink represents changing the spells scribed in the spellbook, so that there are altered effects whenever such a spell is prepared. For example, if you scribe a spell in alchemical mercury, when you cast that specific spell after preparing it from that spellbook, you get a +2 bonus to beating spell resistance. I should also note that the sections on binding and pages also have several special abilities depending on the material used, in addition to altering hardness and hit points. The balancing mechanism here, of course, is that these are all expensive, all the moreso if you use multiple options.

The book’s third appendix presents a half-dozen new familiars. I have to admit that I really enjoy new familiars, so I was tickled by what was here. Some of these were mundane animals that were rather oddly overlooked until now (a dog, for example), while others were creatures you wouldn’t ordinarily think of (a goldfish), and others were outlandish (a swarm of magical flies). Each has a full stat block, an expansive description, and a notation on what their familiar benefit is (as these are all standard familiars, and not improved familiars).

Appendix four presents four new arcane bonds for wizards. These are an elemental bond (sub-typed by what element is chosen), a bond to a location (which can be changed, though not quickly), a bond with a particular spirit, and a bond to your spellbook. This last one, in particular, seemed apropos – I’m amazed it wasn’t offered in the Core Rulebook.

The book closes out with a final appendix of thirty optional material components that can be added to a spell to lend it some extra power. Most of these come from specific creatures, and likewise only affect certain groups of spells. For example, a kraken’s eye allows for any conjuration spell, affecting it as per the Widen Spell metamagic feat. A handy chart lists how much these can be purchased for.

Overall, Advanced Arcana II actually managed to top the high bar set by its predecessor, something I didn’t think was possible. While the book presents so many new spells, its innovations come from the fact that it stretches the boundaries of what its spells can do, from being augmented by local conditions to packing variable options into its effects to the sheer brilliance that are segmented spells. Add in things like the variant spellbook construction rules and the new familiars and arcane bonds, and there’s so much great stuff in here that it’s hard to justify not using this book in your game. I say, five stars to this book – it deserves every one of them. Pick it up and advance your game’s spellcasters!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Advanced Arcana Volume II
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AoV: Fantasy Art (Reflections of Voldaria)
Publisher: Stainless Steel Dragon
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/04/2012 16:17:21
I’ve always been a fan of cheesecake fantasy artwork. Of course, that’s to be expected, as I’m pretty well the target demographic for such material. For better or for worse, images of scantily-clad sex-fantasies go hand in hand with fantasy (and, to be fair, other genres as well) and I appreciate it when such artwork is released. I suspect that it’s in that spirit that Stainless Steel Dragon released Reflections of Voldaria, a collection of fantasy-themed pictures of sexy women.

Just over a dozen pictures make up Reflections of Voldaria. I was tempted to abbreviate the title as RoV, which is the file name of the PDF of these images; I’m not sure that’s correct, however, as the storefront calls it “AoV,” which was slightly confusing. Which is it?

As I said, the pictures are released as a single PDF, which while not bad is still somewhat inconvenient if you want to manipulate these pictures in any way. Sure, you still can, but it would have been much easier if there had been a collection of individual JPG or PNG files. Still, I have to give the book credit for having full, nested bookmarks so that you can at least easily zip to each page.

The book is surprisingly forthcoming regarding the mechanics of these pictures, telling you the best way to print them out and the dimensions of the images. This is the text that you see on the book’s storefront, but it’s actually the bulk of the introduction.

The bulk of the twenty-five photos here have some sort of photo-manipulation, usually of the background. In this area, there is some slight room for improvement; while the artist clearly tried to minimize a sense of disconnect between the foreground and background images, it still comes through. The scenes feel flat in most cases, as small things that you couldn’t name but still register reinforce a sense of disconnectedness…I imagine this is due to an intrinsic understanding that we all have about how lighting and shadows should look were people actually in the areas depicted.

Each picture has a full-page lead-in, which is an entire page that gives the picture’s title and a two-stanza rhyme describing the picture. This was my biggest complaint about the book – not that the rhymes weren’t very good (though there were some real groaners), but that so much space was wasted with these intro pages. What’s here could easily have been tacked on as a caption to each image, rather than being set in the middle of a huge expanse of white space. There’s just so much more that could have been done to fill it. Personally, I would have loved to have gotten game stats in these pages, as this would have (more than) doubled the book’s practical usefulness; now you have fully-illustrated NPCs!

In regards to the subjects of the photographs, virtually all of them are beautiful women. The rare male does show up, but it’s always in conjunction with a girl, and the guy is always dressed in practical outfits. By contrast, most of the women are nearly-naked, save for the occasional girl in a chain shirt. Personally, I had no problem with this whatsoever, not only because I like sexy women, but also because I find it impossible to complain about “realism” and “verisimilitude” when most fantasy has magic and other perfectly viable explanations for why an adventurer could go around wearing almost nothing and still have a high degree of bodily protection. If you could have a magic spell that protects you as well as a full suit of armor, without the weight or maintenance that the latter requires, then why not?

Having said all of that, there are still some legitimate critiques to be made here. For one, all of the characters are clearly posing for the camera; there are no “action shots” of people engaged in adventuring. A few of these take this to an extreme example, as there’s a close-up of one woman’s face, while a different picture offers us a close-up of a girl’s thong-clad ass. Again, not a big deal, but there’s not even a pretense of this being anything other than blatant sexiness.

Overall, I enjoyed Reflections of Voldaria, but that’s because, as I noted at the beginning, I’m the sort of person who’ll forgive a lot if it means I get to look at sexy, scantily-clad girls. If examined in a technical sense, there is a lot of merit here – the photographs are fairly professional in the sense of the shots conveying what they’re meant to. It’s when you move beyond the technical aspects of the actual photographs of the girls that we see the need for improvement. From the photoshopping to the lack of image files to the huge tracts of white space, there’s more that could have been done in how these images were packaged.

Still, if you’d like to reflect on some lovely ladies, you could do much worse than to check out the Reflections of Voldaria.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
AoV: Fantasy Art (Reflections of Voldaria)
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Publisher Reply:
Thank you for you feedback. I appreciate any constructive thoughts that might help me produce a better fantasy photo ebook, I am new at this, and totally open to constructive criticism. You know, for a 4 star review, you seemed to have lot more negative things to say about this ebook then positive, so I am guessing it had some redeeming value, that some how got left out of your review. Just a few quick notes to address your concerns. First, I think this book is exactly as described. I should not that 11 of the 25 pics presented here are “pure” photos. No photoshopped backgrounds, thus any flatness/wrongness you see or think you see, is what you would actually see if you actually took a picture of woman on rock with her reflection and the sky behind her in the water. (As I did, with the Lady of the Lake picture and ten others pictures.) Also, most of other shots have clouds or mist for their backgrounds, which by their very nature seem impossible to make flat. However in future works, perhaps I can try to bleed the fog into the foreground more, but then it looks more like smoke then fog. (This is something most other photographers don’t do, but I will consider it, if it makes my work better then theirs.) Second, yes, as describe, there are lots of woman who are scantly clad, and yes, it may mean they are wearing magical armor as you suggest, (My thought sometimes.) or it could mean you are seeing them, as if across a campfire or in a leisure moment. (Perhaps pausing to make a decision which in many cases was my intent.) Anyone, who has worn real armor, even just chainmail, knows it is heavy and uncomfortable, and generally only those people engaged in actual combat would be caught wearing it for more than hour. Please note, action shots may come when I release a book called the fighting women/men of Voldaria.) This book, was about “reflections,” and thought, hence its name. “Reflections of Voldaria,” or moments of introspection - if you will. I am sorry if you didn’t get it. After your insightful review of my 2012 Calendar, I would have guessed you would have seen it. (It is about art, not action, not sex nor about adventuring,) But your not alone, the first reviewer of this work didn’t get it either. Which saddens me, because that was my primary objective when creating this work, and it seems like everybody missed it. FYI, AoV stands for Age of Volondor, of which RoV, Reflections of Voldaria is the world that surrounds Volondor, and is a much overdue visual supplement. Hence, the 2 names depending upon where you see them, those familiar with AoV would not be confused. Third, in regards too white-space, this is, after all an ebook, thus no trees were killed in its creation, and the white space can easily be skipped by anyone who wants to see just pictures. It should be noted some photographers, consider the use of white space as a way to understate their work in an artistic way. (There is a big difference in fluffing up a page count in a game book by adding too much white space, and showing artwork with no distractions on the opposing page. Modeled somewhat after a Boris Vallejo coffee table book I once bought.) FYI, I did consider labeling each title on or under the work, but thought that it distracts from the quality and feeling of the picture, and I am somewhat sure some other critics would find fault with that.) Yes, the poetry was as campy as anything Stan Lee might say to introduce people to his Marvel universe, and I am sorry for that. (And it was described as such.) I meant simply to put each picture in the context of Voldaria. (My world and game system, and these are just the first of many images I am offering to give my gamers their first look upon the terrain and denizens of my world.) Still, I appreciate the thought, and in my next book, (Which will have 100+Pics) I will probably just cram the pictures in back to back, and leave the title of pictures to those who seek to find them in the index, Easter egg fashion. Finally, I do think providing these images in JPG format as opposed to PDF format is a great idea. (I was recently thinking that myself, for my CD releases.) The one problem I have is that I am not sure if RPGnow can support that, except maybe as zip file or a bundle of separated jpg images. Hmmm, maybe I should do that? Offer Poster sized JPGs individually for .50 cent each? What do you think? Then I can bundle them for those who want a volume discount? I guess I should ask them if that okay, It seems like spamming to me, but I am game, if they are. It would mean bigger and better pictures for those people who like my work, and they could buy only what they like. So dear critic, thanks for keeping me honest with this review, hopefully someday my work will evolve into something more praise worthy, or at least without enough fault as to merit such a critical review.
The Little Grey Book
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/29/2012 12:55:59
It’s been said that “simple is best.” This is a fairly universal axiom that can apply to almost anything, including games. Of course, it can also be fairly ironic in that it’s also easy to take too far, in which case the simplicity is no longer what’s best. It’s in this vein that Postmortem Studios has released their game – I’m not sure if I should call it a role-playing game or not – The Little Grey Book.

The Little Grey Book is a two-page PDF file. Each page is divided into three columns, with the first column of the first page being the cover image, and the last column of the second page being a “character sheet,” as it were.

I keep equivocating about whether or not this is a role-playing game because, as a game, it lacks a lot of the traditional trappings of most RPGs. There is no randomizer, for instance (e.g. dice, drawing cards, etc.) nor is there any sort of referee or Game Master. The Little Grey Book is more of a storytelling game than anything else, and the quality of the stories are…well, read below for more on that.

The premise of The Little Grey Book is that it takes place in a utopian society. Everyone is equal in every way, and society is run by the Consensus. All permutations of sex and sexual identity are accepted, all ages are accepted, and even names have not only had surnames removed entirely, but the remaining personal names are all gender-neutral.

The game-play here involves each player (of which there need to be at least three) creating a character based on choosing a name, age, and gender/sex. Each player then describes one typical day in their character’s life, from waking up until going to bed. The remaining players collectively play the role of the Consensus; each Consensus member can describe a troubled situation that happens during the day (e.g. someone flirts with you), and the player needs to describe how they resolve it before continuing on with their day.

The rub here is that the (non-Consensus) player gets a black mark from the other members of the Consensus each time he does anything that violates the equality of someone else. This is incredibly easy to do. Frowning at someone is passing judgment on them, for instance. Using a gender-specific pronoun is making an assumption on their sexual identity. Offering a tip to a waiter is a comparative insult to other waiters. In other words, differences (both real and perceived) still exist between people, but every time you fail to pretend that such differences don’t exist, you get a black mark. Hence, virtually every time a Consensus member introduces a troubled situation into your day, you’re going to screw up somehow; it’s a given.

Each player takes a turn as the person describing their day, and all of the other players operate as members of the Consensus, until everyone has had a turn. Consensus members tell the player why they got the black marks they did, but there’s no arguing these judgments. The explanations are final. The game ends when the person with the most black marks is taken away for “adjustment” (which isn’t defined, though you can probably guess) and the person with the least black marks gets off with a warning…making them the de facto winner.

That’s literally the entire game.

It’s clear that The Little Grey Book is presenting us with a minimalist critique of political correctness. However, how much of fun you’ll get out of playing this game is debatable – like all instances of minimal presentation, what’s here is so little that it invites you to fill it in with your own interpretations; you can’t help but imbue this game with your own thoughts and prejudices on the exaggerated premise that it lays down. Likewise, the real fun also comes from just how bastard-ly your friends feel like being when they come up with troubles for you, and how try to wriggle out of the situations they invent.

I do think that there could have been some greater emphasis on some of the unique aspects of the setting, such as noting how the Consensus seems to be a borg-like collective governance, or that the troubles that arise during your day are caused deliberately by the Consensus as a test of a random citizen’s perception of social equality (though how they caused such issues to happen would be a bit tricky to answer).

Ultimately, there’s little to do here, which is sort of the point. Nobody will get through a day without a black mark, but the real fun is in trying. The game here is a very basic framework, and the play style is similarly basic. It’s a simple game, but as they say, sometimes simple is best.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Little Grey Book
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2012 Fantasy Female Calendar & Print Set
Publisher: Stainless Steel Dragon
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/21/2012 20:17:11
Calendars are one of those projects where they seem like a no-brainer. After all, you just make twelve pages, one for each month of the year, and have each page list the dates for that month. No big deal, right? However, calendars are one of those areas where the devil is in the details. What holidays do you list? What about other events, such as the phases of the moon? Perhaps the biggest detail, however, is what theme will your calendar have?

In the case of Stainless Steel Dragon’s 2012 Fantasy Female Calendar & Print Set, the theme is beautiful, scantily-clad women.

At twenty-eight pages long, this calendar’s basic construction is pretty much what you’d expect. Given in PDF format, there are twelve sets of calendar listings and an equal number of photos; the array listed is in the standard one photo followed by one month arrangement.

The file opens with an introduction which is the product page information, telling us how these pictures were configured and giving us the default methods of printing out this calendar should we want a hard-copy. It’s fairly boilerplate, but it was nice to have the information listed just to be on the safe side; I doubt I’ll be printing out this calendar, but for those who are interested in doing so, there’s some good, albeit basic, advice here in that regard.

The pictures are, as mentioned, all of beautiful girls in skimpy outfits. The pictures all have a fantasy theme to them, with the outfits having a fantasy-medieval theme, and many of the pictures feature the girls wielding various medieval weapons (e.g. mace, crossbow, etc.). The artwork here is all tasteful, and while titillating doesn’t ever rise to the level of softcore porn – a few pictures are slightly risqué though, such as how Ms. February has most of her ass uncovered, and Ms. August seems to be naked (though positioned in such a way that nothing naughty can be seen).

I should note that full bookmarks are given for this PDF, which makes it very easy if you’re using the file as a calendar for your computer. Interestingly, the bookmark for each month has a nested entry to that month’s picture; it’s here and only here that you’ll find the name of the picture, something I thought was a very fun easter egg.

Likewise, my mention of using this file as your computer calendar was no off-hand remark. As the introduction notes, each day’s entry has been formatted to allow you to post a sticky note there, giving this product an edge of practicality. The calendar days also note the phases of the moon, the solstices and equinoxes, and most major holidays as well.

A few extras are here that should be noted. Each calendar page has small, abbreviated listings for the previous and next month at the top, which is convenient. A fun addition is that, while the days of the week are listed along the top of each calendar’s dates table, it also lists the corresponding deities each day of the week is named for along the bottom.

Overall, I quite liked the 2012 Fantasy Female Calendar. Beyond the delicious cheesecake, the ways in which this product took advantage of the digital format, rather than being held hostage by it, were quite refreshing. From the picture titles in the bookmarks to the sticky notes when you right-click a day, there was comparatively a lot here to enjoy. From sexy images to functionality, this calendar makes 2012 look like it’s going to be a great year.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
2012 Fantasy Female Calendar & Print Set
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Racial Ecologies: Guide to Catfolk
Publisher: Fat Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/15/2012 09:51:12
I’m always impressed when something new proliferates quickly. As ideas and concepts are around longer, the successful ones tend to spread around and gain general acceptance, but that usually takes time. It’s when something spreads rapidly that it becomes notable. Such is the case with the catfolk, who only recently made their Pathfinder debut in the Bestiary 3, now having their own supplement in Racial Ecologies: Guide to Catfolk.

Nine pages long, with one page for the OGL and other legal information, the Guide to Catfolk is PC-oriented in the options and information it presents, though nothing stops an enterprising GM from using it for NPCs and world-building as well. The book has no PDF bookmarks, but as its page count remains in the single digits this is forgivable. Similarly, there’s no printer-friendly version, but this can be overlooked for the aforementioned reason.

In terms of its presentation, for such a short book this is fairly graphics-heavy. I was surprised that a nine-page book was over eleven megabytes in size, but looking at the page styles I can see why this was so. The light grey shading on the back of each page is subtle, but impressively detailed, and there are red borders (in a “smear” style) along the top and bottom of each page. There are several full-color illustrations in the book of various catfolk, which were impressively detailed, but which I thought were also slightly off-putting. Partially this was because in most of them their heads seems slightly too large for their bodies.

The opening sections of the book detail the “soft” portions of catfolk; that is, it covers things that aren’t defined by game terms – their history, psychology, society, and so on. The picture this section paints is about what you’d expect, in regards to them being mercurial but loyal, having a nomadic culture that is being assimilated by its neighbors, etc. Much like the artwork, this section presents itself ably, but I found it slightly off-putting; in this case, the writing didn’t present itself as clearly as it could have – while it’s hard to articulate, the text seems to be written in a style wherein the information it delivers is already known, and merely being synopsized for the reader. I suspect that this is due to the author, naturally, already knowing what he wants to say, and so unintentionally not presenting things in a style for someone who isn’t already as familiar with the material. It’s things like this that an editor, which this book didn’t have, would have caught.

The book’s second half deals more directly with new crunch for catfolk, opening with two new mundane weapons that they (or anyone else) can use, and, much to my amusement, presenting catnip as a drug. This last one alone makes me want to run a catfolk character just so I can have him getting high while smoking some ‘nip.

A few magic items are presented before we’re given the standard catfolk racial traits. I was quite glad for this last one, since without the base stats for catfolk, you’re pretty well unable to use this product’s spotlight race unless you already have the Bestiary 3. I commend the book’s author for including this here. Following are a few alternate racial abilities, some traits, and feats (though, in what was perhaps an oversight, no new favored class options).

A surprisingly-detailed adventure outline comes next, and I have to admit I didn’t suspect it to be quite so intricate. No level guidelines are given, but it seems to assume that the PCs’ levels are in the high single-digits. Slightly oddly, it gives stats for a dire tiger that features in the adventure; I say “oddly” here because the base stats for a dire tiger are in the Bestiary 1, which is to say that they’re in the SRD now; a reprinting here wasn’t strictly necessary. Following this we get a full stat block and description for a catfolk NPC, one with double-digit levels.

Overall, the Guide to Catfolk is an adequate expansion for those who want to play a catfolk PC. If you’re looking to play a catfolk in your Pathfinder game, this will scratch that itch. The book doesn’t break any new ground in terms of its presentation, but it’s still commendable for offering options that Paizo (as of this writing) has not. The problems with the book are largely stylistic, and more in terms of tightening up the presentation moreso than anything being truly lacking (save only for the aforementioned favored class options). Had I the option of giving this book three-and-a-half stars, I would have, but I’ll round up to 4. This book may not quite be the cat’s meow, but it’s certainly worth a look.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Racial Ecologies: Guide to Catfolk
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Veil of Truth - Space Opera Rules and Setting
Publisher: Eridanus Books
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/08/2012 17:46:04
In over two years since its debut, Pathfinder hasn’t tried to stretch its wings very much where the genre of the game is concerned; it’s all high-fantasy, all the time. While many gamers may not miss this, those looking to take their favorite rules into another style of game likely feel that they’re missing out. It’s with those gamers in mind that Eridanus Books presents their sci-fi Pathfinder RPG, Veil of Truth. Let’s peek behind the veil and see what’s waiting there.

At twenty-eight pages long, Veil of Truth’s presentation is something of an exercise in minimalism. There are no bookmarks here, nor hyperlinks. The interior art is all black and white, and is passable, though a few of the illustrations of the alien races were slightly pixilated. All of the pages have plain white backgrounds, with no borders of any kind, making the book mostly printer-friendly as a default.

The text here is notably dense. While I wasn’t sure if the word font here was smaller than in other books, it may be that a lot of the visual presentation is helped by the pictures, tables, and sidebars that frequently pop up. It was only in the book’s last section, when most of these went away, that I felt like I was being shown a thick wall of text.

Veil of Truth takes the design principle that Pathfinder is, as far as a sci-fi RPG goes, mostly complete save only for some additions, subtractions, and re-skinning certain things. The first chapter reminds us of this in regards to races, even as it presents seven new ones. These races are presented with full Core Rulebook-style treatment, and do a good job of describing them. In terms of how they “feel,” six out of seven are humanoid in body type (though they’re apparently all of the humanoid creature type), so there’s little here that is too far removed from the old “humans with funny hats” meme.

It’s at the classes chapter that we start to see just how much Veil of Truth acts as a supplement to Pathfinder. There are six classes available, all of which are essentially archetypes of existing classes. The engineer, for example, is a variant of the Advanced Player’s Guide’s summoner, while the psion is a sorcerer, etc.

By itself, this is a pretty good idea. However, these go a bit further than most archetypes, to the point where it’s almost more worthwhile to call them alternate classes, a la the ninja and samurai. Unfortunately, given that this is the case, the book’s minimalist style works against it here, as there are no class tables to codify what class features are earned when; it’s all descriptions. It’s also notable that the relative power of the classes is altered somewhat in these new presentations, largely because “spellcasting” (which is really the use of psionic powers, nanites, and retroviruses) is devalued here – a lot of the more blatant attack spells (e.g. fireball, lightning bolt) simply aren’t available. The default assumption seems to be that because of this, classes that give away their spellcasting altogether (e.g. the aforementioned engineer), need less-powerful alternates to replace them. As such, while only the psion is a true caster class, you may appreciate the reduced overall power a lot of the classes have here.

Unfortunately, the book seems to be missing a section or two, and it’s in this chapter that we first get a clue as to that. The psion’s psychic manifestion abilities make reference to spending psionic power points, for example, but while it says it refers to these more in the book’s “third chapter” (and even references a table found there) said chapter is nowhere to be found; it doesn’t help that there are no chapter numbers here anyway. I also took issue with how the psion is supposed to gain a discipline power every odd level, but some of the disciplines had less than ten powers to select to begin with – that’s just poor design.

The book’s third section is a one-page coverage of skills in Veil of Truth. There’s no discussion of what skills are deleted here, save for noting the alternate applications of a few skills (e.g. Fly, Ride, etc.) and bringing in a few alternate skills (e.g. Psionics rather than Spellcraft). I should mention that the Psionics skill, which is barred from use by characters that don’t have it as a class skill (there’s a feat for that, by the way), actually lets you pull off some abilities that replicate actual spells (e.g. detect thoughts, cure light wounds) though only a few times per day. This is a notable bump in power, enough so that even with a feat-tax on most characters, it’s a must-have skill (especially since all of its uses are against static DCs).

Feats are similarly single-paged in their display, and while several are replacements for normal Pathfinder feats, a number are specific to the new races presented earlier.

The equipment chapter may be the most fun part of the book, simply because it’s cool to see a bunch of high-tech guns, and other items, in Pathfinder. These all fall into one of three new types of weapon proficiency, and all have a description, but there’s no listing as to whether they’re one- or two-handed, which is an oversight. There are also notably few armors, simply because most guns attack your touch AC at closer ranges anyway (a la the gunslinger).

It’s after these that the book begins to show some real innovation, as it then introduces us to ultratech items. It may sound odd to call these innovative, as they’re essentially re-skinned magic items, but there are some interesting spins on them here. For example, the armors here all have various spells that can be used on the wearer, but only so many before they have to be recharged; other ultratechs also need recharging, but are so large that they can only be mounted on a vehicle or be found as part of a building.

The last section of the book presents the Veil of Truth campaign setting proper. I found it to be a nice change of pace from the typical campaigns where humans are a dominant power. The gist of this is that Earth was basically treated as a nature preserve by aliens that were already aware of us, and gave us time to develop not out of altruism, but simply because they knew that most races that managed to make contact with galactic society tended to self-destruct from the extreme culture shock. Humans nearly did, but have managed to avoid total self-annihilation, and are slowly coming back from the brink. There’s more nuance than that, of course, and more information on the greater backdrop, but it’s still a pretty minimalist presentation – all the better for GMs to fill things in as they go along.

Overall, I found Veil of Truth to be a book that was defined almost as much by what isn’t here as what is. There’s nothing regarding starships or starship combat, for example, let alone things like planet-busting weapons, robots and cyborgs, genetic engineering, etc. I can respect that they stuck to adapting the Pathfinder rules as much as possible, but there are some things that aren’t so easily brought into a sci-fi game by just re-flavor-texting something from a fantasy genre. The fact that there are also problems with some missing things (mostly related to the psion’s use of psychic powers and abilities), and this book seems to serve more as a template for a sci-fi Pathfinder game than a fully-fledged game unto itself. Ultimately, there are a lot of ways to do sci-fi, but I wish there was a little more truth behind the Veil.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Veil of Truth - Space Opera Rules and Setting
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Legendary Levels
Publisher: Little Red Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/07/2012 15:25:23
Epic level gameplay – that is, advancing beyond twenty class levels – has long been the sticky wicket of Pathfinder. Ever since Third Edition’s attempt at epic-level gaming turned out so underwhelming, Pathfinder has been unwilling to venture beyond 20th level, and while many are fine with never going back to such heights, there are still plenty of players who want to take their game beyond this final boundary.

Now Little Red Goblin Games has answered that desire, presenting Legendary Levels as the first product for the Pathfinder RPG to allow for characters to continue advancing beyond the 20th-level barrier. Let’s crack the covers and see just how legendary this book is.

Exactly seventy pages long, Legendary Levels hits most of the technical specifications that we hold for an RPG PDF. It presents full, nested bookmarks, as well as a hyperlinked table of contents. It does lack a printer-friendly version, however, which may be an issue for your printer given that the pages are set on a grayish-tan background. I didn’t care much for the book’s interior artwork, which has both black and white and color pieces; I found it to have too much of a “rough” or “unfinished” look about it, as though more clean-up could have been done. It’s a minor point though, as there’s comparatively little art here.

It’s also worth noting that the book didn’t clearly identify its Open Game Content and Product Identity, something the OGL requires it to do (and the Section 15 was barren, too). I mention this only because this becomes a problem if anyone else wants to use what’s here in their own Pathfinder-compatible products down the road. Hopefully there’ll be an update fixing these issues.

After a brief introduction to “legendary levels” (as a note, I liked that the book’s authors decided to rename the entire concept of post-20th-level as “legendary” rather than “epic”), the book’s first section acts as an overview of some of the major game mechanics that legendary game-play utilizes. Of particular importance are divinity scores and legendary damage.

The divinity score represents the character actually manifesting a divine spark that can, if grown, transform them into an actual deity. I personally applaud this integration of legendary levels and gaining godhood, since I think that once you’ve reached such a high-level of gaming, having your characters start to become divinities is a natural progression. However, you don’t HAVE to increase your divinity score…some classes, mostly the spellcasters, have this increase incrementally as they level. However, you can also boost it with specific feats, or by gaining followers (that is, people who revere/worship you).

It should be noted that this is very different from Third Edition’s divinity rules, in that having a divinity score has little mechanical impact on your character, something I think a lot of players will appreciate. Interestingly, an accompanying chart shows how much your divinity score increases based on how many followers you have, and what sort of gods are found with what scores (e.g. a low score is like a regional deity, a higher one is like a primal force, etc.). Having said all of that, I noticed that it’s hard to get your divinity score high enough to start earning followers if you don’t have legendary levels in a spellcasting class.

Legendary damage, by contrast, is essentially damage so powerful that it can be instantly fatal. Dealing legendary damage to a creature is the same as damaging it normally, but the damage includes a Fort save which, if failed, reduces the target to 0 hp. There’s no single way to gain the ability to inflict legendary damage, but rather it’s found in the abilities of various legendary classes and prestige classes.

The book introduces a few concepts here that it goes into more detail on later (such as true dweomers), but there are a few other aspects to this first chapter that I wanted to touch on. For instance, it also reintroduces legendary uses of skills. This is, much like the old epic level rules, a table with various skills listing very high DCs for greater effects. It’s also the first part of the book that rubbed me the wrong way. I can recognize the problems with super-high skill DCs to achieve effects that magic can pull off at very low levels (e.g. a very high Acrobatics check allows you to be effectively weightless…which I suppose is okay if you can’t just fly), but I consider that to be a problem inherent to the mechanics of Pathfinder, and so can’t really be helped very much.

What I really didn’t like about these legendary skill uses was that, as with normal skill uses, a lot of these present static DCs which, once you can meet them, allow for abuse. You know how Diplomacy has the old problem of, once you’ve got a high bonus, you can make anyone your friend? Well, hit a DC of 40 plus the other guy’s Charisma modifier, and you can make him literally worship you. I can tell you that I’d never allow that in my game.

Beyond this, Legendary Levels does keep presence of mind enough to give us the necessary (but easily-overlooked) basics for leveling our characters beyond 20th level. We get XP progressions to 30th level with the fast, medium, and slow advancements, as well as a listing of GP values by level, and iterative attack values (which, interestingly, allow for more than four attacks if your bonus is high enough to gain more iterative attacks).

Note that all of these expansions stop at 30th level. The book never actually says this is as high as PCs can possibly go, but it seems to be the default assumption (it also briefly mentions gestalt play, but this seems like an extended sidebar more than anything else). Likewise, there’s nothing said about advancing existing classes. Even the basic eleven classes aren’t advanced so much as they’re given a ten-level supplementary class…

It’s on that note that we move into the second section of the book, which presents the legendary classes. These eleven classes are legendary mirrors of the eleven classes from the Core Rulebook. Somewhat oddly, as I mentioned before, these are considered separate classes from their non-legendary counterparts, but they go out of their way to make sure they function as extensions of them (e.g. levels in legendary barbarian are treated as levels in barbarian for all barbarian class features). Once again, the book breaks from Third Edition’s epic level conventions as these all present standard (for their class) progressions for BAB and saves.

The classes themselves are too many to go into detail here, but some major themes are notable. A big one is that legendary damage is a major facet of class advancement, both in terms of dealing it and being able to protect yourself against it. Some of its uses seem better than others, but not egregiously so. There’s also a very clear attempt to increase the power of martial characters versus their spellcasting counterparts; these characters seem to get more over the course of their levels, and have greater emphasis on legendary damage.

To be clear, there are no legendary classes specific to the new classes from the APG, UM, or UC (though those classes are occasionally referenced in areas like the new spells). Likewise, there’s no mention of archetypes here. The book does present legendary classes to the three new base classes given in other Little Red Goblin Games’ supplements, though, which will be of limited use to anyone not owning those books. Five new prestige classes, which seem to be for those who can’t take legendary class levels, are also given; these cover a broad enough array to be fairly generic (e.g. juggernaut or lord of war for martial characters, archmage for arcane spellcasters, etc.) in terms of what classes they’ll appeal to. I do wish there’d been something built more towards multiclass characters here, but at least those characters get a nod in the feats section.

The feats section (which was annoyingly lacking in a summary table) did present a fairly robust set of feats to round out what can be done at legendary levels. The aforementioned multiclass characters are noted in that there are feats that grant limited access to some of the class abilities from the legendary classes. The bulk of the spellcasting feats are impressive for what they offer (High Magic puts an automatic Intensify Spell effect on all spells below 5th level that you cast, for instance, to keep low-level spells relevant), but once again, the combat-focused feats get the most emphasis, though it’s more equitable. It’s a bit of an easter egg that we’re given summary charts for the bonuses and penalties given by Power Attack, Combat Expertise, and Deadly Aim at the end of the section.

True Dweomers are presented next. Most of the basic information on them is presented earlier, in the book’s first section where it goes over legendary spells; in this case, spell levels top out at 12th, and full-progression spellcasting classes automatically gain access to those slots as they level up. However, for true dweomers (which don’t have a spell level per se) you can only use one per day, and learning EACH ONE requires taking a feat! The Sacred Spells presented next are slightly more generous, not having the once-per-day restriction, nor requiring feats; moreover, they have spell levels, and so can be prepared by legendary clerics and oracles. Both types of spells only have about a half-dozen examples presented, however, which I thought was rather limited.

Legendary encounters is presented next, and this short section of the book was also disappointing for how sparse it was. Leaving aside the possibility of legendary NPCs, this section had far too little for characters that have surpassed 20th-level. There are four templates here: the legendary creature template (which, ironically, is a simple template; though for all its bonuses it doesn’t seem to live up to its +20 CR adjustment), the deity template, the godspawn template, and the colossus template (which can only be applied to constructs, and is where the rules for colossal+ creature sizes are found). Unfortunately, the authors’ diligence from before isn’t to be found here, as not only do these latter three templates not have CR adjustments, but there’s no listing of the XP values of creatures with a CR of higher than 25.

The book’s final section covers legendary magic items. Not artifacts, these are magic items (specifically armor and weapon properties, rings, rods, and wondrous items) taken to legendary levels. To its credit, the book does talk about the rules for crafting these (and even legendary mundane weapons), and does present us with bonus pricing for legendary weapons and armor. The magic items themselves aren’t bad, but I found some (though not all) of the weapon and armor properties a bit dull – a crushing weapon does double damage, and enemies take a -2 on attacks and damage for 1 round on a critical hit. Much more fun is a volcanic weapon, which is a flaming weapon that spews frickin’ lava on a critical hit!

The rings, rods, and wondrous items are where the real fun is at. Rings of Immortality, the Trident of Pressure, the Godly Vessel (trap the soul of a dead god inside, and when you wear it, you can grant spells and answer prayers as that god!) are all very fun items that are more what I think of when it comes to legendary gear. A brief section on scaling up normal magic items with varying bonuses (e.g. bracers of armor, cloaks of resistance, etc.) ends the section.

Overall, Legendary Levels is a good book, though not without its flaws. Its strength is clearly focused on the mechanics of taking the PCs above 20th level, and it does a surprisingly good job of it. From the de facto level thirty limit to the prestige classes and feats to help out multiclass and non-Core-class characters to its attempts to rein in spellcasters as it boosts martial characters, there’s a lot to admire here. However, the book does have some problems (overlooking the occasional spelling or grammar error), such as a lackluster skills section and an anemic section on legendary-level enemies.

Still, possibly notwithstanding the need for an expanded CR-to-XP table, none of its problems can’t be taken care of by an enterprising GM that knows what to exclude and what to prepare beforehand. Likewise, for players that want to extend their game beyond 20th-level, what’s here is invaluable, simply because it presents a framework that’s workable and fun. Legendary Levels gives you what you need to take your game into truly legendary territory. Just be sure to keep a close eye what needs to be tweaked, and you’ll have a lot of fun with what you find here.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Legendary Levels
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Way of the Wicked Book One: Knot of Thorns
Publisher: Fire Mountain Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/25/2011 13:36:22
I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this.

I think that at some point, every GM (and quite possibly every player too) has entertained the thought of running an evil campaign, or at least playing an evil character. After all, who could resist the temptation of being the uber-cool arch-villain, unbound by moral codes and social niceties, doing what you please and may the gods have mercy on those who cross you? Of course, this flight of fancy tends to run headfirst into some very real problems when put into practice, and so no one’s every really marketed an adventure – let alone an adventure path – for Pathinder (or its ancestor game).

That’s all changed with Fire Mountain Games’ new adventure path, Way of the Wicked. It all begins here with book one, Knot of Thorns.

Let’s cover some of the technical aspects of the book first. The single PDF file is exactly one hundred pages long, making it a fairly substantial work. Bookmarks are present, but only to each of the book’s major sections; you won’t find nested bookmarks to more specific parts of each section, so you may need to do a bit of scrolling.

The artwork in the book is notable for its quality; something all the more impressive for the book having had but a single artist. Each piece is a full-color illustration that is clearly professional in its detail; this is especially true for the maps, which I found to be quite pretty (and wished that there was a map pack available as well). My only complaint about the maps was that they use a scale of having one square equal 10 feet, which I always find slightly off-putting, since Pathfinder uses a default 5-foot square assumption. If you’re redrawing these, make sure to scale the locations appropriately.

The pages themselves are nicely decorated, being set against a dark background and having page borders on three sides. Having said that, there is no printer-friendly version of the book available (nor, for that matter, an epublishing version), so this may be a strain on your printer.

Following a single-page introduction where the author exhorts conquering the world rather than saving it, the adventure opens with a background for the course of the campaign. Set in the island nation of Talingarde, where the faith of the sun-god Mitra has become the state religion, a deposed prince turned worshipper of Asmodeus seeks to subvert the current order and have the Devil God’s faith ascend to become the religion of the kingdom, complete with a new king on the throne. For this, he has crafted a diabolical plan utilizing nine teams to create unrest and thwart attempts to solve the problems he’ll create. It’s with these teams in mind that he turns to your PCs.

The adventure starts out with your characters already being the bad guys. You’ve been found guilty of committing major crimes (not wrongly, either; your PCs being criminals is a major part of the backstory; see below) and sentenced to prison to be executed or sent to a life of hard labor. However, thanks to a mysterious benefactor, and a lax administration, you have a chance to escape.

This first part of the adventure is a fun prison break, not only for the heightened tension in that you’re working from a disadvantage (you don’t get to keep your gear in prison), but also due to the different angles from which this scenario can be run. Are you just trying to make for the exit as fast as you can, or do you take bloody revenge on everyone around you and arm yourself with their equipment?

Following their escape, the PCs make their way to their patron and are given the choice to swear themselves to Asmodeus (which, perhaps appropriately for a devil god, isn’t much of a choice at all) and begin their training. This part of the adventure is heavier on the role-playing, as this part introduces a lot of key NPCs and the chance to build relationships with them, along with internalizing the fact that they’re now serving the forces of Hell.

The adventure’s third act consists of a journey to their first assignment. A long sea voyage, this scenario is broken up by a number of encounters, which are broken up into three groups of making the voyage, completing their task, and after the trip. This is also the most open part of the adventure, as not only can the order of events be shuffled quite a bit, but new encounters can be added or deleted as necessary; this is where a lot of the restrictions on the PCs come off.

The fourth and final part of the adventure is a mission of infiltration and destruction. Outmatched and outnumbered, the PCs have to bring down a fortress filled with soldiers of the forces of goodness. Very cogently, the adventure adopts a method of granting “Victory Points” for various actions, with the end results of their mayhem being tabulated by how many points they’ve achieved via their acts of disruption.

That’s the end of the adventure, and if it sounds short, then it’s only because I’m doing it a disservice. There’s a lot that happens throughout Knot of Thorns, so much so that your characters are supposed to end the adventure when they’ve just reached 6th level. Interestingly, while there’s plenty of bloodshed going on throughout the book, a great deal of the XP the PCs are supposed to gain comes from story-based XP awards for accomplishing various tasks. I’d go so far as to say that I’ve never seen an adventure that relied so much on story awards. This is comforting, as it makes it easy to arbitrarily increase or decrease the XP the PCs are given as they move through the series of unfortunate events they’re causing.

The book doesn’t end with the adventure, however. The last twenty pages or so are devoted to what’s essentially a player’s primer. We’re given an overview of Talingarde’s history, some of its more notable locales, and a quick overview of some of its major organizations. It’s in this last section that I think we come to the book’s single biggest oversight – there’s no information on the sun god Mitra. To be fair, the church of Mitra is covered (albeit briefly), but that’s not enough. What are Mitra’s domains and sub-domains? What is his holy symbol and favored weapon? We don’t know, because the book doesn’t tell us. True, none of that information is directly pertinent, but if GMs want to deviate from the material here and make up their own Mitran clerics (or inquisitors or similar divine spellcasters), the missing information becomes more pertinent. Hopefully we’ll see something on this from Fire Mountain Games soon.

The author then includes a section on how to run a villainous campaign. Specifically, he outlines five problem areas, and how this campaign attempts to avoid them (where possible; otherwise he includes advice for making things go smoothly). This section was, to my mind, very cogent in its reasoning. I’d always held that the major problems of an evil game were PvP conflicts, and someone being so evil that it squicked out the other players. All of these, as well as other problems (“why can’t we just send minions to do our evil for us?”) are covered, with sound reasoning given for why and how to handle them.

Subsequently there’s a short guide on PCs in a Way of the Wicked campaign. Interestingly, goes through the character creation guidelines and recommends specific changes, the sum total of which are to make the PCs more powerful, since they’re evil outcasts in a good nation. I’m not sure that this is necessary, but then I’m slightly biased against increasing the level power the PCs have, since my group includes a couple power-gamers.

What’s most interesting here are the new campaign traits. Remember how the game starts with your PCs being condemned criminals? There are twenty campaign traits here, each of which is a crime – which trait you pick is the crime that you performed, and were caught and lawfully sentenced for. I was really impressed with this simple yet elegant way of bringing the characters background, and evil nature, into the spotlight. This serves as a brilliant method for highlighting what the PCs did to start them on the road to villainy, and why they throw in with the powers of darkness.

The book closes out with a two-page synopsis of the entire adventure path, outlining what happens in each of the six adventures.

Overall, I found myself very impressed with the opening act for Way of the Wicked; this promises to be an adventure path as epic as anything by Paizo. The campaign’s themes are tightly focused, and the tenor of the adventure steers away from the problems that usually come from having a group of evil characters. The challenges are diverse, from infiltration to puzzles to deception to combat. You’ve never seen such a good job of being the bad guy.

Of course, the book isn’t without its flaws. The CR for the triton oracle seems to be off, for example, and the tactics section of Father Donnagan’s stat block seems to be an incorrect cut-and-paste. But the major problem that I think people might have with this campaign is that, even more than other adventure paths, this one is an exercise in railroading.

The first two acts of the adventure basically force the PCs to go in the specified directions, and while the third act – as mentioned above – starts to loosen the tight grip around the characters, it’s never truly removed (though in many cases it’s less visible). The PCs are bound by the goals that are set for them; their only freedoms lie in how to accomplish them – to put it another way, they’re free to do what they want, so long as they want to do what their patron says. In theory they can go their own way, but the adventure talks about what to do if the PCs go off the rails at various points, and its never good (in some cases, it flat-out says that they get slaughtered).

Of course, that may very well be a necessary evil (pun intended) for an evil game, as it’s much easier for an evil game to fall apart. I certainly don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, as the adventure offers a great “us against the world” scenario that’s a great inversion of the usual “points of light” backdrop. Follow the Way of the Wicked, and be the darkness that snuffs out the light.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Way of the Wicked Book One: Knot of Thorns
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Van Graaf's Journal of Adventuring
Publisher: Mongoose
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/23/2011 19:18:05
I really didn’t know what to expect when I downloaded this book. Usually a product goes out of its way to describe what you’re paying for, but the product description page didn’t really present much to go on. Curious, I checked out what Van Graaf’s Journal of Adventuring had to say about what your PC should be doing when he’s raiding dungeons and fighting dragons. The results were an interesting mix of insightful and obvious. Let’s take a closer look.

Before anything else is said, one thing must be pointed out: the page count given in the product description is wrong. This PDF has 142 pages, not 256. Worse, there are no bookmarks here, which I consider to be unforgivable in a book this size. With any luck, these problems will be quickly corrected.

Van Graaf’s Journal of Adventuring takes a somewhat simplistic tone in its visual presentation. The pages have a plain white background, with small borders along the top and bottom. Some black and white illustrations break things up every couple of pages. This isn’t anything that would break your printer, so there’s no fuss there.

The first of the book’s four sections is dedicated to (non-magical) gear. I personally found this section of the book to be the best, as there was a lot of great ideas and new materials here. The book talks about what sort of equipment you’ll likely have/need in various environments and situations, presents a system where you can make a check to determine if you have some incidental item on you (that is, it’s an answer for when your player says “oh come on, I’m sure I’d have an extra bowstring! I’m a ranger! Do I really need to writing EVERYTHING on my character sheet?!”), along with a list of some of the more likely items and what their game effects, if any, are.

Some space is then given over to what classes (from the Core Rulebook only) would use what equipment, how to transport equipment and under what circumstances (e.g. are you going for speed and stealth? Or is this a long trip where you can be weighed down with a lot of gear?), various containers, and how items are carried on the body. This last one deserves special mention, as it’s my favorite part of the book. The authors cogently note that very little attention is paid to how a character stores the gear they’re carrying, and there’s only a basic rule for how long it takes to draw things. To rectify that, they present a system of charting exactly where a character’s items are stored on the body, including how many items can be carried and where, and how long it thus takes to draw various stowed gear. It’s a slightly more complex system than standard Pathfinder, but only slightly, and it adds a level of verisimilitude to the game that I quite liked.

This first part of the book was, as I said, the best part of it, at least for me. Here we got a lot of down-to-earth overviews of things that aren’t usually thought of in the abstracted world of an RPG, even one as relatively-intricate as Pathfinder. The new uses for equipment, along with systems for checking for mundane equipment and personal storage, where very innovative. Groups that enjoy a low-magic, more gritty style of play will adore what’s here.

The book’s second section is where things become disappointingly prosaic. It analyzes the various party roles (e.g. healer, face man, magic offense, etc.) and the various classes in terms of their combat and non-combat roles and how they relate to other classes. Issues of party leadership (not the feat) are discussed, and then things start to get a little better where issues of marching order and party movement are discussed. Keeping watch is given some coverage, along with combat tactics. It’s after this that “tactical templates” are presented, which are various team-based moves that can grant a minor bonus in combat. These take time to learn, but once trained in them a group can pull off some interesting maneuvers. For example, training for 2 weeks in the Flash-Bang maneuver lets you, if you get the drop on an enemy with a bright and loud attack in an enclosed space, keep them flat-footed until the round after the surprise round, instead of just the surprise round.

A fairly lengthy assessment of various terrain types and battlefield condition follows, along with new rules for various party synergies – little bonuses that PCs can gain for using complementary tactics (e.g. if you have 5 ranks in Bluff and are flanking a target, your ally gains a bonus to feinting Bluff checks). The section closes out with a hard look at identifying enemies, defeating them, and dealing with them once they’re defeated (e.g. the logistics of taking prisoners).

This section wasn’t quite as inspirational as the first one, mostly because the beginning part dealing with combat roles and the strengths and weaknesses of various classes is fairly intuitive, and veteran players will automatically know what’s here. A refresher never hurt anyone, of course, but it still comes across as something that everyone already knows. Conversely, the elements covering more tactical aspects, such as marching order, setting up watches, keeping prisoners, etc. were much more inspired, because they take place in the parts of the game that – in my experience – tend to be glossed over; these put elements that are typically background parts of the game firmly in the foreground. I had mixed feelings about the new tactical templates and synergies, however, as while they’re a great way to make the group a more cohesive entity rather than a collection of individuals, I wasn’t sure I liked how these were another way to pile on bonuses (something I don’t think PCs need any more of).

The third section is called “Intelligent Spellcasting” and takes up just over a third of the book. It opens with discussions of spells in broad themes (e.g. healing spells, direct harm combat spells, transportation spells, etc.) and includes lists of the Core Rulebook spells that fall into each category. It then discusses the party roles that spellcasters can play (e.g. defender, spy, booster) and – and this is the biggest space-eater in the book – presents spell lists for each of the spellcasting classes in the Core Rulebook based on each of these party roles.

How much you value this chapter will depend on how you view pre-packaged spell lists by (non-)combat role. This chapter is, unfortunately, weakened simply by the fact that a lot of Pathfinder’s magical utility has been expanded, both in terms of spells and spellcasting classes, by the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic, and even Ultimate Combat. Even considering the Core Rulebook-only presentation here, if you’re not interested in the best way to make a healing-focused druid, for example, you won’t have much use for this section.

The last section of the book is “The Home Base,” and primarily focuses on where the adventurers hang their hats. This doesn’t need to be a permanent place to set up kip, but rather is where the party will be resting and generally storing their gear, licking their wounds, and operating out of for a period of time.

This section cogently starts off by noting that the first thing to be considered for a base of operations is provisions, for which it introduces the new Provision Rating, along with various modifiers for said rating. Rules then cover stockpiling provisions, what happens when your provisions are cut off, and rationing food and water.

The book then talks about how to conceal your base, how to erect various defenses (e.g. trenches, fences, etc.), how to guard the entrances, and storage and alarms. A larger section is given for guards and sentries, as the book wisely details the various issues that come with employing such people (e.g. supplying them, paying them, modifiers to their discipline and priorities, patrol routes, etc.).

Temporary settlements are given several pages, examining the different types (such as a gathering of tents, abandoned buildings, basic shelters in the wild), along with permanent bases ranging from manor houses to ships to castles to underground fortresses and more. It’s worth noting that none of these cover costs of construction (it keeps referring the reader to Van Graaf’s Journal of Strongholds and Dynasties, which at the time of this writing doesn’t seem to have been released yet) but rather focuses on the practical implications that such domiciles entail. The book then closes with several pages dedicated to running an institution wherein you handle training students (e.g. if you’re running a thieves’ guild or bardic college).

This last section was much more to my liking than its predecessor, simply because it again focuses on taking some of the elements of the game that are assumed and puts them front and center. The practical considerations food and water, keeping your guards paid and disciplined, choosing where to set up a base and more are all smartly discussed and commented on, with various mechanics given as needed. This is another part of the book that will be irresistible to those who want to delve into the nitty-gritty details, rather than cast a spell to create a personal demiplane and magically bind a few planar creatures as guards.

Overall, I found Van Graaf’s Journal of Adventuring to be a mixed bag, but one which hit more often than it missed. The book does have some not-inconsiderable strikes against it, such as its lack of bookmarks or how it sometimes belabors the obvious of the various class roles. But the considerations it places on the all-too-often ignored practical aspects of adventuring are highly evocative, and make the details of a campaign seem exciting for how fleshed out they are. Sometimes given game mechanics and sometimes discussed solely in terms of the impact on the game world, there’s a lot here for those who want to paint a very holistic, vivid picture of what goes into adventuring beyond the raiding and killing. As the title says, this is a journal of adventuring, with all that that entails.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Van Graaf's Journal of Adventuring
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