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A Dozen Armor and Shield Magical Properties (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/26/2011 14:17:15
Magic armor and shield properties tend, in my opinion, to be favored less than magic weapon properties. In my experience, this is because players prefer to be proactive rather than reactive. After all, a flaming longsword will deal extra damage every time it hits, while a breastplate of fortification only comes into play when a critical hit lands on you, and even then there’s only a chance of it working. The best defense, as they say, is a good offense.

Rite Publishing’s A Dozen Armor and Shield Magical Properties helps to even the score there, providing twelve new magic abilities for your defensive array.

The book is seven pages long, with multiple interior illustrations and ornate page borders which make it feel much more substantial. The new defensive properties here are nicely innovative, such as the anathema property, which makes an item more defensive against certain types of creatures (including damaging them if they hit the wearer), or the pilots ability, which lets the wearer of the armor literally enter and control a construct. In fact, this last ability is based on the new spell that’s included, Pilot Shell, making a nice bonus for arcane spellcasters.

Good things often come in small packages, and that’s the case here. Whether you want to gain bonuses for fighting defensively or have your armor automatically pour a healing potion down your throat when you’re dying, A Dozen Armor and Shield Magical Properties offers several new ways for your armor and shield to save your life.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
A Dozen Armor and Shield Magical Properties (PFRPG)
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Publisher Reply:
I wanted to thank you for taking the time to do a review of our product! Steve Russell Rite Publsihing
The Flux
Publisher: John Wick Presents
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/08/2011 15:16:22
Back in the day, I always wanted to come up with some set of rules or guidelines that would let me move my old D&D group across multiple campaign worlds. I still can’t tell you exactly why the thought of moving them from one world to another was so exciting, but it was. I never got around to it, and in all honesty the entire thing seemed to be more trouble than it was worth – after all, give the PCs ways to move between worlds and they’ll quickly start abusing it. So I shelved the idea and eventually forgot about it.

…until I saw John Wick’s The Flux. This short book, in less than twenty pages, not only rekindled my excitement for a campaign that moves between worlds, but expands the scope of those worlds dramatically, fixes the problems I was encountering, and adds some fun new rules to it all. Let’s take a closer look and see what The Flux is all about.

From a technical standpoint, The Flux presents itself very professionally. It has full, nested bookmarks, and leaves copy-and-pasting enabled. Further, it comes with the necessary formatting to read it on a Mac or as an ePub document. The book is entirely black and white, and save for an alternating page border of a chain and pendant, is devoid of illustrations. And yet, I liked the minimalist approach of its visual design. It really gives a sense that we’re looking at something innocuous, or even deliberately downplayed, which fits with the tone of the book – fluxing is portrayed as a secret only some people are aware of.

But what exactly is a “flux” and what does this book offer?

Described as a “meta-RPG,” The Flux introduces an in-game rationale for changing RPG systems and translating characters between them, as well as offering a few additional rules based around the idea that characters remember their previous incarnations from past games. For example, your character may be a wizard in D&D, but then there’s a flux and the GM pulls out Call of Cthulhu instead, and your character is now a private investigator…who remembers some of the D&D spells he knew before.

Fluxing is nominally described as what happens when the world “dies” and is instantly “reborn.” It’s a cool description for why this phenomenon happens, but I’m not sure how well that works as a concept considering that fluxes seem to happen fairly often (in the author’s examples and from the in-game writing) and because the author talks about cycling through the same select few game systems for fluxes.

But let’s go through the book piece by piece.

There’s a fairly strong piece of opening fiction where a character is describing fluxing to another character before we move on to the rules. The author keeps a very conversational writing style throughout the book, often referring to himself in the first person, which was more entertaining than I thought it’d be. There’s no chapters, but the book is broken down into a number of sections and subsections.

The Flux tells us that when a flux happens the Game Master translates the PCs into their new incarnations – that is, he literally makes the PCs’ stats for the new game system they’ve fluxed to. All PCs also use the new ability score presented here, Memory, which determines how many of their previous incarnations they recall and correspondingly how many changes they can make to their GM-written PCs.

I personally shook my head a little at this section. Character creation is one of the areas where the players have near-absolute, if not total, control over how things turn out. Having the GM write up their new characters while letting them make only a static number of alterations certainly made sense – in a new incarnation, you don’t get to choose who you’ll be – but I know that if I did this my players would likely rebel. Personally speaking, I’d invert this rule; I’d let the PCs write up their own new characters (with some guidelines about how powerful they should be apropos to the game system) and then the GM gets to make a number of changes equal to each PC’s Memory score.

Of course, your Memory isn’t a static number. You can, in fact, fail to remember who you were before a flux, though there is a way to be awakened to your previous selves’ memories. Likewise, your Memory score can be increased by certain things.

The major aspect of Memory, however, is what the next section of the book covers: that you remember your previous lives’ skills and abilities, and can try and use them in your current world – these are known as Recall. Like the private eye with the memories of a mage, you can have a character use those powers even if they don’t necessarily fit with the genre/game system you’re currently using. Of course, you might fail to translate that ability to your current world, and even if you do use it there’s no guarantee it’ll work the same (different world, different rules).

It should be noted that bringing in powers from the old world(s) isn’t something your characters get freely. The more they do this, the more likely they are for the world to notice that something’s happening that shouldn’t be. If the world does notice, then there’s Whiplash, where the world tries to deal with the problems that your character is causing. This usually ends badly for the character. And then there’s a brief note about Slippage; rarely, something more than just memories will make the transition to the new world…

Roughly the last third of the book is meant for Narrators; that is, people who run the game (e.g. Game Masters, etc.). This covers some of the basic questions about fluxing, along with presenting some ideas for how things could work in various fluxed worlds. Finally, we get the resolution to the opening fiction, which I quite enjoyed.

Ultimately, I found myself highly impressed with The Flux. The idea it presents is exciting and offers simple yet novel way of easily transitioning from game to game while keeping continuity for flux characters. The few rules it introduces are simple, yet serve to highlight what makes fluxing an addition to a game, rather than just an excuse to start using a different system. The remaining guidelines are helpful without being restrictive, letting you go your own way where you differ from the author’s presentation (as I did in a few places). Finally, the writing is top-notch, being all the more intriguing for its casual tone.

If you and your players want to transition game systems without having to start everything over, if you love the idea of characters and plotlines that span worlds, if you want to see a little more of one game take place in another, then pick up The Flux. New worlds are just a flux away.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Flux
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The Faerie Ring: Along the Twisting Way Prelude
Publisher: Zombie Sky Press
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/02/2011 13:53:46
I’ve said before that the fey have lost virtually all of their mystique in Pathfinder; a holdover from their D&D roots. This is partially due to many features that were considered “fey” in folklore having been poached by other creature types, and partially due to the fact that such mysterious creatures suffer from being so rigidly defined by game terminology. But really, the biggest reason the fey are so inconsequential (and have lost most of their thematic identity) is simply because they’ve been ignored.

Compare this to, say, demons and devils in the game. There are entire books devoted specifically to those particular creatures. They get an entire plane of existence devoted to them; various locales endlessly detailed and many different rulers examined deeply. We have an excellent sense of who demons and devils ARE as creatures, and that gets built on accordingly.

The fey have never had that, and so Zombie Sky Press has taken it upon themselves to correct this oversight in their new series The Faerie Ring. It begins in the first book, Along the Twisting Way.

First, let’s examine the file itself. Along the Twisting Way is a fourteen page PDF, which despite its brevity has full bookmarks (something I was thankful for). Copy-and-past is fully enabled. Likewise, the book is resplendent with artwork. The pages themselves are colord a bluish-gray, and given a light but intricate border on all sides. That alone would make it pleasant to view, but beyond this are the various full color pieces sprinkled throughout, which depict various fey denizens. It’s truly impressive what these artists have wrought, and I look forward to seeing these creatures detailed in later volumes.

The book opens with a foreword from Jeff Grubb, which I was impressed by – I’ve been seeing his name in D&D books ever since I started playing the game. Jeff goes over the history of the fey down through our own mythology, and then transitions to their place in the D&D game, or rather, their lack of a coherent place in the (Great Wheel) D&D mythos, before telling us how now we’re finally giving the fey a place of prominence in that same arena, and bidding us to read on…

Following this, the book’s authors speak to us directly, telling us what their goals are and what this project is supposed to be. Namely, they want to give the fey the same depth and definition that demons got over the course of James Jacob’s Demonomicon series (for those who don’t know, this was a series of article in the now-defunct Dragon magazine, with each article detailing a particular demon lord in great detail – giving us their history, goals, stat block, servitors (oftentimes with new monsters), a prestige class for their mortal servants, and realm, among other things). To that end, this series will apparently take a similar tack, showcasing powerful fey rulers to use them as a way of presenting the fey as a whole.

Of course, the author does acknowledge that the fey need some background first. It’s in that spirit that the book moves on to its next section, which is written in-character from a fey scholar corresponding with a mortal counterpart on the nature of the fey themselves.

This part begins by discussing the planar cosmology of the multiverse in relation to the fey. The Outer and Inner Planes are touched upon only briefly, with the Material Plane given greater attention. It’s when we come to the Transitive Planes, however, that things start to get interesting. The author here catalogs the Transitive Planes as merely a sub-grouping of several planes from the much more diverse Preternatural Planes.

The Preternatural Planes are a complex series of planes that share some sort of relationship with the Material Plane (indeed, it’s hinted at that the Material Plane itself may be one of the Preternatural Planes). Like the Inner and Outer Planes, the Preternatural Planes are of a theme, but that theme isn’t alignment or energy, bur their theme is much more subtle and defies easy classification. It’s here that the Plane of Dreams, Sheol, and similar planes of existence fall that aren’t Outer or Inner Planes.

Several specific Preternatural Planes are discussed, but most get no more than a paragraph, and certainly no listing of planar traits is given for any of them. Still, I did appreciate the sidebar discussing why it was necessary from a design standpoint to create multiple new planes of existence (which I think was a gutsy move, and certainly a brilliant one; it’s been a long time since the concept of D&D’s planar structure was so heavily expanded without just reinventing it altogether).

The author then turns his attention to the fey themselves, talking about their uncertain origins and their characteristics. This latter point is a bit of a tightrope walk; the previous section reinforces that fey don’t operate according to mortal standpoints of ethics and morals, drawing an interesting parallel between them and the beings of the Lovecraft Mythos in terms of understanding how they think. I’m not sure how well the in-character description here does, but it’s still a great idea that deserves more exploration.

A bit on fey anatomy is given before the writer begins to talk about various sub-types of fey. Again devoid of game stats, this goes over sub-categories of fey creatures in terms of their general themes. Yokai, for instance, are those fey with a strong connection to nature, the devata are spirit guardians, the peri are fey with a connection to the Outer Planes, etc. There’s quite a few terms here, and I was glad to see that the book works so hard to expand fey beyond their Celtic-Germanic origins (something that was also mentioned upfront in the initial section of the book).

The final section of the book talks about the hierarchy among the fey, which is really an premise to lay down some basic information about the fey lords we’ll be seeing in future volumes. We’re told how fey lords come to be, the relationship they have with their demesnes, their servitors and heralds, and strange quasi-lords known as quiddities.

There’s no reference of game mechanics here either, save for a single sidebar that talks about how the fey lords will have Challenge Ratings either at 20 or just below it. It makes a pre-emptive attempt to justify these comparatively lower CR’s (compared to, say, demon lords) on a two-fold front: the in-game reason is that all fey lords can draw on extra power, thus possessing a second form that’s epic-level. The metagame reason for this is because Pathfinder’s epic-level rules haven’t been released yet, and once they are Zombie Sky will details these epic-level fey lords.

I personally found this sidebar to be somewhat disingenuous, simply because the metagame reason for keeping the fey lords’ CRs so (comparatively) low seemed flimsy. Pathfinder has already had epic-level monsters printed for it (albeit a small handful), and even looking back at the Demonomicon series for 3.5, it didn’t use any material from the Epic Level Handbook for the demon lords’ stats. Just advance their Hit Dice and give them some truly impressive, original special powers, and you can easily make a CR 20+ creature for your Pathfinder game.

That aside, Along the Twisting Way is a great prelude for what to expect in further volumes of The Faerie Ring. It lays down an impressive set of goals, but also presents the foundational elements necessary to meet them. In fact, this is the book’s only weakness; it sets goals that will be met in later volumes, making this one feel somewhat incomplete. That can’t be helped, of course – this book is the introduction to the series, but it’s still a weakness of the book as a stand-alone product (which is how it’s for sale). Still, it presents a rich tapestry, and makes for a very exciting picture of what we’ll be presented with soon. Pick up Along the Twisting Way and begin down the path that’ll lead you to the fey like you’ve never seen them!

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Faerie Ring: Along the Twisting Way Prelude
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Psionics Unleashed
Publisher: Dreamscarred Press
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/28/2010 15:02:20
Oh psionics…you had me at “psi.” The powers of the mind are one of those things that people have either loved dearly or hated passionately every since they were introduced to D&D, and now thanks to the efforts of Dreamscarred Press, they live again in Pathfinder in the form of Psionics Unleashed. But will this repository of psionic material blow your mind, or just give you a walloping migraine? Let’s take a look.

Weighing in at just under 250 pages, Psionics Unleashed handles itself admirably on the technical details. A single PDF file has full, nested bookmarks and has copy and paste enabled. The book’s artwork is somewhat sparse, usually manifesting as illustrations (usually black and white, but with the occasional color piece) set in the center of the page, letting two columns of text flow around them. Interestingly, most have a caption beneath them.

The major thing that needs to be made clear about Psionics Unleashed is that this is the Pathfinder version of the 3.5 psionics rules. This cannot be overstated. Dreamscarred Press went out of their way to emulate the design principles and philosophies that Paizo Publishing adopted when creating Pathfinder – from having an open playtest to removing XP costs for powers, the changes here are pervasive, but many of them are subtle.

The biggest not-so-subtle changes are among the various races and the classes. All of the familiar psionic races are here (save for those protected by WotC’s PI), alongside the blue, now treated as a PC race in its own right, and the serpentine ophidians. Similarly, the four psionic base classes have gotten a fairly significant overhaul. Psions now choose a particular discipline to specialize in, or simply be a generalist, with each discipline having a number of additional powers and bonus abilities (much like wizard schools). The psychic warrior now selects various warrior paths that add skills, powers, and abilities as they level. Similarly, wilders can select various types of wild surges, which can also be utilized in different manners.

The biggest class to be changed, however, is the soulknife. Fans of Dreamscarred will know that they’ve been applying ways to fix this sub-optimal class for a long time, and here they put that history to good use. Finally upgraded to a full-BAB progression class, the soulknife now can take various blade skills at every even level to improve or alter his mind blade in various ways, alongside simply increasing its power as he gains levels. It’s nice to see such a thematic class finally be made strong enough to hold its own.

The remaining changes are somewhat harder to spot, but as with the Pathfinder Core Rules, tend to add up. The Psicraft and Use Psionic Device skills, for example, are now gone; folded into their magic counterparts. A number of feats – oftentimes ones that relied on maintaining psionic focus – now have additional functionality, usually being based around expending your psionic focus for a short-lived greater boost. Psionic powers no longer have XP costs (instead requiring expensive crystalline components to act as a sort of focusing device), and in many cases have had their names changed. These nomenclature alterations are reserved to those that were called “[magic spell], psionic” so as to stop with the impression that these are second fiddle to magic. Want to control someone else’s actions? Use “mind control” rather than “dominate, psionic.”

It should also be noted that virtually none of the expanded options from the Advanced Player’s Guide are reproduced here. Most psionic races do have a favored class option to take an additional psionic power point instead of a skill rank or hit point, but that’s about it. No new racial options, class archetypes, etc. are to be found. This isn’t something I held against the book; that will most certainly come in time. Rather, it should be made clear that Psionics Unleashed is what you get when you merge the PF Core Rules with the old Expanded Psionics Handbook.

Ultimately, this book won’t win over anyone who wasn’t already a fan of psionics, but then again, it’s not meant to change the whole dynamic. What it’s meant to do is give the people who want psionics in their Pathfinder game a means of having them. And in that regard, Psionics Unleashed delivers in spades. Fixing what needs it and leaving alone what doesn’t, this book is a true Pathfinder upgrade to 3.5’s psionic legacy. So, if you’ve been waiting for a chance to dust off your old telepath, or have your soulknife power up his mind blade again, or want to attack your PCs with some unexpected mental powers, pick up this book, convert your character, and unleash the power of the mind in your Pathfinder game!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Psionics Unleashed
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Cerulean Seas Campaign Setting
Publisher: Alluria Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/27/2010 11:56:14
Underwater adventuring has always been, insofar as Pathfinder is concerned, one of those ideas that seem great in theory but difficult in practice. After all, taking your adventuring party underwater means that everyone’s aware that one good dispel magic will take away whatever spells or magic items they’re using to keep breathing. Add in penalties for how melee and ranged attacks work, changes to spellcasting, and even the continual Swim checks to keep moving, and it’s not only a headache for everyone involved, but quite likely a TPK waiting to happen. And don’t even get me started on the logistics of fighting across three dimensions of movement.

And so, underwater adventuring was quietly pushed off to the side. Just enough rules were provided to make it theoretically possible, without anyone worrying about how practical it actually was. Few adventures were published that dealt with characters going into the waves, and those that were kept it to the shallow end of the pool, with dry land always being close by. Finding new paths under the sea seemed like it’d always be resigned the realm of pipe-dreams and a few die-hards, never to be accessible to the mainstream Pathfinder gamers.

All of that changed when Alluria Publishing released Cerulean Seas, a massive campaign setting-slash-sourcebook that not only takes Pathfinder underwater, but actually makes such a game doable. Let’s take a look at what the book offers so that you’ll know this isn’t just a fish story I’m telling you.

As a PDF file, Cerulean Seas hits all of the high-water marks. It has full, nested bookmarks (an absolute necessity in a book that’s nearly 300 pages long), and allows for copy-and-pasting without problems. And of course, the artwork – oh wow, the artwork! Alluria has always had a reputation for their lavish illustrations, and they certainly live up to it here. An entire team of interior artists have lovingly portrayed myriad aspects of the book’s material, from new races and monsters to new equipment, to spell effects, to a map of the Cerulean Seas area, and so much more, (almost) all of it in lush full color. Alluria is perhaps the only company that can compete with Paizo on an even footing for how gorgeous their books look.

Of course, this (and the subtle but ornate page borders) means that this book is far from printer-friendly. At the time of this writing, a print version of the book is still in the works, but isn’t yet available. If you want a hardcopy of Cerulean Seas, you might be better to wait for that, as this PDF would likely send your printer to Davy Jones’ Locker.

The book’s opening chapter dives right in, opening with framing fiction that defines the game world. The Cerulean Seas campaign setting used to be a normal game world, but had a great flood that covered the world with ninety-nine percent water. There’s more to it than this, of course, including a recently-won genocidal war against the sahuagin, the role the gods played in the great flood, and more, but this is the main thrust of the story, and sets the stage for this water world.

The chapter takes us through some basic terms and definitions before we start to get into the specifics of living under the sea. It’s here that the book might start to scare away some of the more casual-type gamers, because this chapter pulls no punches in what it presents. We’re given an introduction to how things like buoyancy, hydraulic pressure, ambient sunlight, and more work underwater. The first chapter is basically a primer for things to be aware of regarding life underwater, and how these translate into game terms. This is especially true for underwater combat, which has its own section here.

I’ll take a moment to say that while this section can be off-putting for how dry (ironically) its listing of various undersea features can be, as well as how complicated the rules for buoyancy and the accompany combat changes are, it’s worth persevering through. The book deals with this more in the Game Mastering section, but these are the changes that really make an undersea game feel different; and as with all parts of a complex table-top game, they’ll become more familiar (to the point of being second-nature) over time.

The second chapter returns to more familiar territory where PF sourcebooks are concerned, presenting twelve new undersea races (though one or two, such as sea elves or the mogogols, may seem familiar). Cleverly, these are sub-divided into three groups: the anthromorphs (who have humanoid bodies), the feykith (fey-related sea-dwellers), and merfolk (who are humanoid from the waist up, and fish from the waist down). Interestingly, the human-equivalent race is presented as the “seafolk,” a merfolk race. They not only have the human’s “floating” +2 ability bonus that can be applied everywhere, but are the only race to have various cross-breeds listed, with alternate racial traits presented.

Each race received a generous focus, listing not only their statistics but also plenty of flavor text regarding their society, alignment, possible names, etc. However, ardent Pathfinder fans may be somewhat disappointed that the expanded racial options from the Advanced Player’s Guide aren’t reproduced here. That is, there are no alternate racial features available (seafolk crossbreeds notwithstanding) nor are there alternate favored class options.

I’m of two minds about this, as it seems somewhat unfair that these have suddenly been assumed to be default necessities for third-party contributions to the Pathfinder RPG. At the same time, those bring a hefty level of customization to the table that are very helpful in making your character’s race be of greater importance. That said, twelve colorful new races here certainly make that notable in and of themselves. It’s also worth noting that the book doesn’t forget to bring us the various vital statistics for these races (one of those little things that are nevertheless important).

Subsequent to the races chapter is the chapter on classes, and it’s here where things get truly interesting. The book makes some generalized notes about changes to existing classes before dealing with how to alter each base class specifically for an undersea game. This part of the book does deal with the APG classes, so you alchemists and oracles and such can all breathe a sigh a relief.

The changes made in this regard are absolutes, rather than the optional class archetypes presented in the APG. Interestingly, a few classes are recommended to be discarded entirely in favor of three new base classes presented here. Bards are passed over in favor of sirens, druids are replaced with kahunas, and rangers are given the boot in favor of mariners.

These new classes do a great job presenting their own twist on the niche that their replaced classes fill. The Kahuna, for example, is a full-progression divine spellcaster, but selects a single animal spirit that, as she gains levels, is able to utilize greater and greater spirit powers to bolster herself and her allies (or alternately harm her enemies).

This chapter also deals with prestige classes, listing which ones from the Core Rulebook and APG are useable without any changes, which need some changes, and which aren’t available at all. There are also three new prestige classes presented here, the each comber (those who venture into the wilds of the remaining dry land), glimmerkeeper (fast-moving undersea hero), and sea witch (an aquatic necromancer).

Skills and feats are the subject of the fourth chapter. As with many things, the skills section offers a series of new interpretations of existing skills, though there are no new skills added (something I was grateful for, as adding new skills often feels contrived). The feats section got a similar examination for several existing feats, but here we’re given almost four-dozen new underwater feats as well.

The chapter on money and equipment was interesting for how much stayed the same, though quite a bit changed in appearance. Most precious metals have been replaced by things like shells or pearls, though the measurements of currency are largely the same. New equipment helps there be a greater selection of viable weapons and armor underwater, not to mention various items that are unique to undersea adventuring, such as holy sand to replace holy water. Oddly, ships are presented here also, reinforcing that some aquatic races still spend a lot of their time above the waves.

The magic chapter presents some very imaginative alterations to not only existing spells, but also existing material components and foci before it moves into new spells and magic items. Some of what’s here deals with the change from fire damage to boiling-water damage, while others present alternate ways of harnessing electrical spells, or various utility spells such as defeating undersea pressure, or even breathing air for characters who want to go top-side.

It’s at the seventh chapter of the book that we take a look at the Cerulean Seas campaign world. This chapter takes a surprisingly light tone with the campaign, presenting many different facets of it but not going too deep with any of them, letting you fill in a lot of the blanks to make the game world your own. It does cover the recent histories and major NPCs of all of the major races, presents a number of major cities, a brief overview of the spoken languages, and an overview of the world’s recent history. My favorite, however, was the presentation of the Cerulean Seas religions. The undersea races uniformly decided to prevent religious strife by allowing only nine deities to be worshipped, one for each alignment. However, in order to sweep everyone under this umbrella, there are various “cults” that worship different aspects of these deities (each deity has two cults presented, with their own alignments, domains, etc.). These cults may only operate with the blessing of the parent faith, and it was engrossing to read about how various races merged their native religions with that of a more dominant faith, often resulting in the major god literally consuming the smaller one as a consequence.

I don’t mind saying that chapter eight, the Game Mastering Chapter, was perhaps the most friendly and helpful such section I’ve ever read. It speaks frankly, and almost familiarly, about the problems with running an undersea game, and what to do about them. Remember those scary new rules from chapter one? It goes over what the most important are to get down pat and how to ease into them. We get general guidelines on converting other materials for an undersea game, whether in terms of buoyancy or pressure tolerance. But my favorite section here was the unabashed look at the problem of 3D combat.

The book outlines roughly a half-dozen options for what to do about this issue, ranging from buying commercial elevation trackers to ordering a pizza and using those little plastic things that keep the cheese off of the box to elevate your minis. But by far the most favored option it presents is the one where it walks you, step by step, through creating your own adjustable boards for elevation. These are basically a few square inches of hard foam boarding that are moved up and down a standing rod; add a half-dozen of them to your game table and you can easily simulate characters moving across every dimension. It’s a fun little project, and works great for any tabletop game that needs a 3D combat solution.

There’s also a fascinating section on the planar arrangement (or perhaps just the widespread belief in the arrangement) of this campaign world. After all, an undersea culture hardly believes in a plane of fire, especially one that stands equal to the plane of water! Likewise, the oceans of the outer planes are considered much more prominent than the dry areas of such realms.

The final full chapter of the book presents almost a hundred new monsters to help populate your undersea game. From aquatic familiars to a large selection of new giants and true dragons (which are given their own grouping, rather than being chromatic or metallic), there’s plenty here to round out an underwater bestiary. New selections of simple templates and guidelines on how the major creature types work underwater provide further options and guidelines.

The book closes out with a number of helpful aids, such as a consolidated list of undersea monsters from this book, the Pathfinder Bestiary, and Alluria’s other Pathfinder books. Add in a pronunciation guide, cardstock minis, a character sheet, and more, and there’s everything you’ll need to get started on your Cerulean Seas game right away.

And if you’re not already excited about using this book to run an underwater game after reading this review, then trust me: it’s more due to my descriptions lacking enough fidelity to the book’s accomplishments than anything else. Cerulean Seas not only looks at every aspect of running a game in an underwater world – from what it means to be submerged to the logistics of it at the game table – but presents holistic options and alterations for setting a Pathfinder game there. The new material is expansive and the campaign setting covers a wide range of topics while still leaving room for customization. And of course, the artwork is beautiful and prominent. This is easily one of the best Pathfinder books to come out of the third-party market, and the absolute best for the topic it covers.

Don’t be afraid to make your game better by taking it down where it’s wetter. Bring your characters to the Cerulean Seas; it’ll make a big splash amongst your gaming group.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Cerulean Seas Campaign Setting
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[PFRPG]The Genius Guide to Divination Magic
Publisher: Rogue Genius Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/05/2010 19:35:20
Divinations are one of those parts of the game that people either love or hate. More specifically, players love them for all of the additional lore they can gain about a given adventure’s plot, while GM’s hate that players can do that. Of course, that’s really a stereotyping of the impact of divination spells, but it does have an element of truth. Beyond that, however, divination is also one of the smaller schools of magic, having only a comparative handful of spells to its name and an equally small number of magic items and abilities that allow for information-gathering. It’s this dearth that gets addressed in the Genius Guide to Divination Magic.

Thirteen pages long, the Genius Guide to Divination Magic has no bookmarks, but lets you copy-and-paste easily. Though there aren’t many illustrations, the stock art is scattered about to maximum effect, broken up widely enough so that the book never feels barren. Additionally, borders across the top of each page and blue headers for new materials make the book seem colorful.

The book opens with a discussion of how to use divination magic in the game, noting its major problems (e.g. how they can bypass plot elements) and how to deal with them. There’s some fairly good advice here, though the topic is one that an entire product could have been written just expanding on the guidelines mentioned in this introduction. Following this, we get a brief overview on the difference between lies and misdirection.

After this, we move into the new materials of the book, starting with some new spells (and their attendant spell lists). Unfortunately, fans of the Advanced Player’s Guide should note that none of these spells appear on the class spell lists for any of the spellcasting classes from that book. In regards to the spells themselves, there’s a dozen present here. These weren’t bad, but didn’t wow me like I was expecting them to. Divinations spells, more than any other type of spells in the Pathfinder game, go beyond mere numerical bonuses and effects. Several of the spells here did that, such as a spell to speak with inanimate objects, or one to look through a target’s repressed memories; but others were little more than gaining a bonus to a knowledge check or to your armor class in advance of an attack. Given how few spells are here, more of these should have been focused on esoteric divinatory effects.

After this, we’re treated to some additional new materials. Among these are two new subdomains (from the APG) and a new oracle mystery (Ibid). These were much better in terms of stepping outside of the proverbial box, and make for great knowledge-seeking powers.

Nine new feats follow, and it was here that the book ventured furthest afield. Ostensibly related to information-gathering, these range from giving you a bonus on disabling traps to gaining a bonus against favored enemies to overcoming an object’s hardness. The best of the bunch were focused around enhancing the magical sensor created by scrying spells. These could potentially make a dedicated scryer notably more effective.

The book closes out with some new rules regarding crystal balls. Two lesser variants of the standard magic item are presented, allowing such an iconic item to be brought into the PCs’ hands earlier, something I personally thought was great. But even better were the lists of additional effects that can be added to a crystal ball. These came in two varieties – additional magical sensing capabilities (e.g. a crystal ball with detect evil) and physical adornments that increased some aspect of its power (e.g. adorn it with diamonds and its visual range doubles).

Overall, this is a good supplement, but one that didn’t quite live up to its full potential. The major problem here was with the spells – whether it’s the relatively scarce amount of new spells, the lack of use with APG classes, or that some of them seem fairly mundane in nature, these just didn’t do it for me. Luckily the smorgasbord of new related material made up for it, with great new options for class abilities, feats, and crystal balls. Like an indistinct vision of the future, this book will help your game’s divinations, but not as much as it could were it more focused.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
[PFRPG]The Genius Guide to Divination Magic
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Grittier Magic
Publisher: Eridanus Books
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/04/2010 19:04:54
In Pathfinder, magic seems fairly mutable. After all, there’s a plethora of spells already, and if you start looking at PF-compatible products, that amount skyrockets dramatically; surely whatever magical effect you’re looking for is easily found somewhere, right? Well yes, if you’re looking for a given spell effect…but not so much if you want the actual method of casting to be different. In that case, your options shrink dramatically. If you want magic to be a rare, dangerous thing that’s corruptive and unpredictable, then there isn’t much out there for you…until Eridanus Books came along with Grittier Magic, a sourcebook that puts the risk back into your magic. Let’s take a look inside.

Grittier Magic is a sixteen-page PDF file, including a page for the cover and a page for the OGL. It has no bookmarks, which I frown on but isn’t a big deal given its page-count and that it has a table of contents. It also has very little artwork to speak of; while the cover image is quite cool, the only other piece of work is a black-and-white version of the cover character about halfway through the book.

It should also be noted that Grittier Magic is complementary to Eridanus Books’ other supplement, Grittier, but does not reference it. The two are separate sourcebooks that don’t reference each other at all, letting you use them independently, though they do work very well together. Like its predecessor, Grittier Magic is broken down into various sub-sections that each cover a different idea, being fairly modular in design. You can take what’s in one section and ignore the next, for the most part.

The book’s first section covers changes to actually casting a given spell. This introduces a Spellcraft check in order to successfully cast a given spell. I liked this, but I wasn’t sure about the method used for calculating the DC – I couldn’t think of a better way to set it up, but really it’s going to be pretty much a foregone conclusion that you’ll succeed at the roll when you hit the higher levels.

Beyond that, you can have a critical or fumble on this check, despite it being a skill check, if you roll a respective natural 20 or 1, with accompanying tables for the randomly-determined effect of the crit or fumble. Finally, there’s a table of actions you can take to increase your chances of making a successful Spellcraft check, which range from the innocuous (spend a full round casting it) to the rather brutal (make a human sacrifice). Again, I did like this, but the options to sacrifice your own hit points or ability points were too easily overcome; saying they can’t be cured until after the spell is cast isn’t so much a restriction as it is a speed bump, since “after the spell is cast” will generally mean after your turn in the initiative count.

It should also be noted that, much to my enjoyment, the book is peppered with sidebars offering commentary on various parts of the work here. I quite enjoy those, as these “behind the curtain” sidebars are always interesting. Knowing why the author did what he did lends greater insight into the book.

The next section of the book deals with magical areas – these are various “power spots” where a certain school of magic has bonuses to Spellcraft or Use Magic Device checks on spells/magic items associated with it (such as for spellcasting as detailed in the previous section), and all other schools take a matching penalty. The level of power these bestow is also measured in charges; you can use up a power spot, though they may recharge over time.

Of course, if that’s all there was to magical areas, they’d be rather boring. Following this are various rituals that can be done in certain spots. These are all long (taking hours to enact) and have various costs to invoke them, along with requiring a successful Spellcraft check, but success can have various effects depending on what ritual is used. You can enhance your own spellcasting powers or suppress another creature’s, for example, or even drain someone’s life force to recharge an area. There are only a few rituals described here, but they’re nicely evocative.

The section on schools of magic is notably short, being only a page long. It basically lays down that arcane spellcasters only gain access to one school of magic starting out, adding another every so often as they gain levels (it treats Universal as a separate school, which I disagree with since Universal has so few spells). If you don’t have access to a given school, you can’t cast spells from it, simple as that (though you can use magic items from them, albeit with a penalty). There’s also alternate rules for selecting the same school of magic multiple times to gain bonuses to it, and being able to take penalties to keep casting spells from known schools even after running out of spells for the day.

The spell poisoning section follows, and offers an interesting idea. Basically, magic is treated similarly to radiation – the more of it you’re exposed to, the more it clings to you, and can even infect the people around you. Carrying magic items or being the subject of a spell will cause you to have higher spell poisoning (expressed in an escalating spell radiation score) and casting spells will quickly make this shoot through the roof, though you can let it dwindle away over time.

Handy charts note what magical effects (e.g. spells, magic items, etc.) cause what level of spell poisoning, while another lists the effects of it. And it was here that the system went off the rails…the chart listing spell poisoning effects were all beneficial, contrary to the flavor text. Yes, some of the listed effects could conceivably be bad, such as having a detectable aura of magic, or having your type change to aberration, but being able to use a random low-level spell and gaining bonuses to saving throws against magic aren’t bad things. I can understand why the table has these effects, but as listed nothing on it is bad or even harmful…spell poison isn’t a poison so much as a series of minor boons to a character. This table needs some reworking so that characters will actually be afraid of raising their spell poison score instead of deliberately trying to ratchet it up.

The penultimate section of the book deals with the new scholar base class. This class is, as the name suggests, meant for characters who want to focus on various forms of skill mastery. In fact, the scholar gains a truly sick amount of skill points per level, spread across a fairly wide array of class skills (not as many as the rogue, but still quite a lot). The scholar also gains a vast array of skill-based class abilities, and in particular at every even-numbered level can take a secret lore ability, which like a rogue talent is a list of various abilities which can be chosen by the character. Here, they’re broken up into various disciplines (such as alchemy, engineering, occult, etc.) but there’s nothing to say you can’t dabble across multiple fields so long as you meet the prerequisites.

While I liked the scholar, there were some parts of it that could have used some tightening up. For example, the Skill Expertise ability, which lets you reroll a skill check as a free action, is ambiguously worded about how often you can use it; if you can use it every round then it’s pretty damn powerful (and makes some secret lore abilities somewhat redundant). Likewise, having the DC for secret lore abilities be Wisdom-based when this class seems Intelligence-based is also a little odd (though maybe the author did that on purpose to keep the class from being too narrow).

But what’s really going to make people think twice about using this class is that it has the lowest base attack bonus EVAR. This guy won’t get to make multiple attacks per round unless you lay him to the absolutely highest levels, it’s that low. A sidebar addresses this, and I personally applaud Eridanus Books for departing from the standard fare here, even if it does pigeonhole the class somewhat as the skill monkey and nothing else. Still, that’s quite clearly on purpose, as the flavor text and sidebar make it clear that this is the guy who does the research that no one else can, but stays the heck away from a fight unless he’s already got it all planned out beforehand.

The book closes out with five new feats, four of which are based around slowly the accumulation of spell poison, and the last one is meant for the scholar. These are perfunctory, but still nice that they round things out a little more.

Overall, Grittier Magic does introduce some good options for spelcasting that’s narrower, more dangerous, and more subject to outside forces than standard Pathfinder fare. The addition of the scholar helps to reinforce the idea of having occult knowledge without being a spellslinger, though they may have dabbled a tiny bit. Campaigns that introduce all of these options will see their spellcasters being more akin to mortals tampering with forces that they have to wrestle for control, rather than executing a precise science. That said, I do wish the spell poison effects were revised to make them far more harmful than they are now – that’s the book’s only major flaw at this point, and largely the reason why I knocked a star off. Still, if you overlook that, Grittier Magic may be just what you need if you want magic to be something used cautiously rather than as a tool.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Grittier Magic
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A Tome of Wicked Things
Publisher: Little Red Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/04/2010 15:00:21
I can’t quite recall where, but I once heard a joke regarding wrapping presents that you intend to give others: “Gifts are like fish – you wrap them badly and they stink.” While it’s not exactly the same for PDFs, there’s something of a truism there; you can have the best idea in the world, but if it’s presented poorly, it won’t catch on. That’s the thought I had in mind while I read A Tome of Wicked Things, from Little Red Goblin Games.

A Tome of Wicked Things major problem is that it typifies the home-made product that’s put together without professional design. What does that mean? Well, for one thing it means that the book is eleven pages long, yet forty megabytes in size. That’s a huge ratio, and can slow down how well your PDF reader processes each page. This may have something to do with the fact that the file is viewed (at least on my Acrobat Reader) as a PDF/A file – I looked it up; this means that the file was originally some other sort of file that was converted to PDF.

Beyond that, there are no bookmarks to be found here, though that’s not too bad in an eleven-page file. Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised to find that word-searching and cut-and-paste were both available in this file. The text edges right up against the left edge of the page though, literally having no indentation at all, which is rather odd to see.

I won’t even mention how it doesn’t clearly identify its Product Identity or Open Game Content, nor reprints the Open Game License, which it’s required to do as an OGL product.

Visually, the book isn’t too terrible. The pages are all given a dark gray background, and the black text seems blocky and emboldened, which actually makes it stand out quite nicely. There are a scant few illustrations, being pictures of individual characters, through the book, and there of respectable quality. However, they serve to emphasize the times when large amounts of blank space are left open, such as between sections – this is wasted space that should be filled with something.

But enough with the harping on the technical details, what does this book actually present? To summarize, it’s a very short supplement for antipaladins, from the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide.

More specifically, this book presents new favored class options for antipaladins of the core races, five archetypes – themed sets of alternate class abilities which must be taken as a package deal, along with a half-dozen new feats.

I enjoyed the new favored class options, but some of them seemed better than others. For example, Half-orc antipaladins just add Intimidate as a class skill, which runs counter to the idea that a favored class bonus adds a little something extra at each level. Likewise, the human favored class bonus of being able to use an additional touch of corruption per day was flat-out better than the dwarven favored class bonus of +1/2 per level on Knowledge checks against people you have a grudge against. Oh, and lest I forget, gnomes and halflings weren’t represented here at all.

The five class archetypes the book presents are the black knight (who fights dirty and mocks chivalry), wrath reaper (using negative energy to damage the living, even as it corrupts you), disciple of discord (chaotic neutral warrior who revels in anarchy), red sword (berserker who lives for bloodshed), and infernal champion (devoted servant of evil gods and powers). Some of these struck me as being quite well-done, such as the black knight with its sneak attack and poison use replacing more straight-forward abilities like smiting good, or how the wrath reaper can inflict status conditions upon their enemies but undergo some sort of corruption, like needing to eat flesh to survive. Others, like the disciple of discord, left me a little cold. Why have a chaotic-but-not-evil version of the more traditionally evil antipaladin? It seemed a bit unnecessary.

The half-dozen feats presented at the end of the book were more prosaic than the class archetypes, offering things like a +4 to confirm critical threats, or exchange the negative energy damage of the antipaladin’s touch of corruption ability for unholy damage. Oddly, most of the feats were named “Vassal of…” with the names of traditional evil powers (e.g. Astaroth, Xaphan, etc.).

Ultimately, A Tome of Wicked Things has some good ideas, alongside some that aren’t so good. Its contents are a decidedly mixed bag, but what kills it is how poor the technical presentation is. The book feels very homegrown and it shows, and that’s a shame because it’s killing the finer parts of what’s here. A Tome of Wicked Things is just as wicked as it wants to be, but it punishes you for reading it almost as much as it will the players who face off against antipaladins using its material.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
A Tome of Wicked Things
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Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building (PFRPG)
Publisher: Jon Brazer Enterprises
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/04/2010 12:09:55
When reviewing an RPG book, there are different aspects to consider. How professional is the layout? Is the art of good quality? Can the author and editor deliver a text that’s free of typos and grammatical errors? And, of course, how well does it play in your game? This last question can be one of the most difficult to judge, because there’s no better way to judge how well a supplement or adventure works than playtesting – unfortunately, if you want to make regular reviews, playtesting is next to impossible; there’s just not enough time to thoroughly dig into a book.

That’s why, for me at least, it’s special when I’m able to review a book that I have gotten the chance to playtest, as I did with Jon Brazer Enterprises’ Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building.

Now, to be clear, what I playtested wasn’t this book per se, but rather the material that it’s drawing from…which segues nicely into noting this particular elephant in the room: virtually all of this book is reproduced Open Game Content. More specifically, this book takes the exploration rules from Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 and the kingdom-building rules from Pathfinder Adventure Path #32 and merges them into a single file. Now, there’s more here than just a cut-and-paste job; new events and new buildings are the most obvious, but I also noted some subtler additional material, like a few new terrain types listed in the costs/time expended for preparing a city in different terrains, or how there’s a sidebar that gives an abbreviated flowchart for how the kingdom-building turns progress.

To be entirely fair, the new material here may not be enough to entice you into picking up this product if you already have the aforementioned Pathfinder products. Having a few extra buildings like an apiary, a butcher, or a keep – along with a few new events such as rowdy adventurers coming to town, or holding a public execution – is nice, but extra. You can get along just fine without them.

Having said that, I’ve been running a Kingmaker (the Pathfinder Adventure Path that makes use of these rules) game for the last several months, and I think that this product is a godsend. First, it’s much easier having the exploration and kingdom building rules all in one place instead of having to flip back and forth between two different books whenever I want to use them again. Secondly, this product changes the layout regarding how the information is presented – unlike the original files, this book presents the kingdom-building turn first, and then gets into the specifics of what you do on each turn. This makes it far easier to understand the rules for those who haven’t read them before, and easier to reference for those who have.

But enough with the comparison to the original material, let’s go over this fresh.

Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building is a twenty-page PDF for the Pathfinder RPG. The file has full, nested bookmarks and allows copy-and-pasting, which are standard for professional PDF publications. The book has several black and white pieces of interior art shuffled throughout it, and has fairly ornate borders on alternating sides of each page. Having a single page for the cover, and another for the OGL and credits, there’s also four pages of graphs and charts, allowing you to draw the layout of your kingdom, its cities, and records the various statistics for both. This leaves a full fourteen pages of rules and material.

The first two pages cover the mechanics of exploring land. Overland areas are charted in a hex map, with each hex covering 144 square miles of land (the text characterizes this as being “just over 100 square miles”). Rules are given for how quickly a party can cross a hex based on their speed and the kind of terrain it is, followed by rules for actually exploring that area based on those same two factors. A helpful flowchart is given here for determining the order in which events occur (e.g. when you find something obvious versus when you find something hidden versus when wandering monsters attack, etc.).

The remainder of the book deals with the mechanics of building a kingdom, and it’s here that things start to get truly interesting. A kingdom has its own set of mechanics that are created and kept track of over time. It measures things like Stability, Loyalty, and Economy as measures for tracking the health of the realm, Unrest (which is a penalty to the aforementioned three scores), and Consumption, which is the cost of maintaining your kingdom and building new things. This cost is measured in Build Points, or just BP. The more BP your kingdom has, the richer it is and the more you can expand it; lose BP, and you’ll become poorer and even go broke (which can eventually lead to your kingdom collapsing).

Because these rules are written under the assumption that the PCs are the ones who not only explored the land, but are the founders and active rulers of their kingdom, there are eleven political positions in a kingdom for characters to occupy, from the Ruler to the General, Treasurer, High Priest, and more. All of these allow for some sort of benefit to the kingdom (and most have a penalty if there isn’t someone acting in these roles), meaning that you’ll likely need some trustworthy NPCs to fill some posts. There are also various edicts you can declare, such as raising or lowering taxes, running campaigns to promote goodwill amongst the public, or throwing festivals.

The main thrust of running a kingdom, however, lies in building cities. Cities are the heart of your kingdom, and occupy a significant position in the kingdom-building rules. These largely revolve around having a “city grid” that represents (a district in) your city, and which can be filled with various buildings, of which several dozen are listed. Each has a given cost to construct it, and has some statistical effect such as helping or hurting your Economy, Loyalty, Stability, or Unrest, and possibly affecting the cost of other buildings. It’s a very detailed system for managing how your cities grow, and is surprisingly fun (my players quickly grew to love it).

Finally, there are also random events that can happen. In this book, these are expanded from the original material and sub-categorized into good events, bad events, adventurer events, and leadership events. Events don’t always happen, but they’re fairly likely from month to month (as a note, each turn of kingdom-building represents a month of game time).

Personally, I love this system, and my players and I are having a blast using it. Hence, I’m overjoyed to have this new incarnation from Jon Brazer Enterprises, since it nicely consolidates all of the material and expands on it.

My only real complaint about the book, however, is that it didn’t correct several of the smaller mistakes that crept in to the original rules. None of these were major, nor was there ever a formal errata sheet for them, but if you read the Paizo message boards you were told what they were. Barracks and Watchtowers should have their costs reversed, for example (since otherwise the latter is cheaper than the former), and Graveyards should not give a bump to your kingdom’s Economy. Add in to this minor errors that cropped up here – such as some buildings not having their mechanical effects properly emboldened and italicized, or the occasional “+1” somehow being a “-1” instead, and the book could probably stand to go through one more round of editing, just to iron these kinks out.

Having said that, however, I just can’t bring myself to give this book anything less than five out of five stars. I have no problem with this material originating elsewhere, since I’ve used the source material and I still prefer this take on it – consolidated exploration and kingdom-building rules, revised layout, new mechanics, and helpful flowcharts all ensure that this will be the version I have in hand the next time I sit down to my Kingmaker game (after making a few manual fixes). And that’s overlooking the sheer convenience of having these rules available as a cheap stand-alone product, something that’s very convenient for those who don’t have the original materials.

If you’ve always wanted to run a Pathfinder game of exploration and nation-founding but never got the original books, or if you have the original books but just wanted something more, pick up Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building and send your characters forth to create a new empire!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building (PFRPG)
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Evocative City Sites: Clockwork Tower (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/18/2010 13:25:05
I’m always wary of playing with issues of time in my campaign, largely because when you start messing around with ways to subvert cause-and-effect relationships, things can get messy fast. Ironically, I’m also not sure that my Pathfinder game has clockwork mechanics either, let alone giant clock towers. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the urge to take a look at Rite Publishing’s Evocative City Sites: Clockwork Tower. Let’s look behind the face of this clock and see if I was cuckoo to do so.

The book’s sales page says that it has ten pages. This isn’t wrong per se, but it’s more accurate to say that the PDF file is forty-one pages long, with two pages of ads, a page for the OGL, the front cover, the credits page, twelve pages of descriptive text, and twenty-four pages of the maps for the area in large enough pages to be printed off and used directly. It should be noted that there’s also a zipped file with PDFs containing these same enlarged maps suited for printing on A4-size paper (the European standard). Finally, the book hits all of the other technical marks that a professional PDF should, having full nested bookmarks and allowing for copying and pasting.

In terms of artwork, there’s an amount here that might surprise you if you’re not familiar with Rite Publishing’s works. Each page has a full borders of mystic runes (notwithstanding the map pages) and each level of the tower that’s described has a smaller version of the map on that page, showing the level map as a single image. A series of black and white sketches also dot the interior, largely denoting various denizens of the tower.

Of course, like any good clock, a book shouldn’t be judged purely based on its construction and technical details. What sort of place is this Clockwork Tower, and how well is it described?

The book’s text is, for the most part, told in the first-person by recurring Evocative City Sites narrator Owain Northway. While I’ve found some of his previous narratives to be a tad dry or even confusing, the author did a great job here of making the character have a stronger personal voice without making it overbearing. Reading statements like “I am only now beginning to understand what I must will have been thinking,” are a great way to express Owain’s attempts to describe past events that, due to the Tower’s time-magic, haven’t happened for him yet.

The author also wisely juxtaposes this with shaded boxes, written from an omniscient narrator point of view, to discuss things that Owain misses or gets wrong. While Owain himself does occasionally slip into game terms, these boxes are where you’ll get a large part of the “crunch” for how things work inside the Tower. It’s somewhat akin to the structure of the old Van Richten’s Guides back in Second Edition.

The Clockwork Tower itself is an experiment in chronomancy gone wrong. The long story short is that it’s moving backwards through time (notwithstanding the areas where time has slowed down inside it) and is on a collision course with the beginning of time, which will destroy it. This can be fixed, but only by someone else – such as the PCs – righting what’s made wrong and dealing with forces that don’t want the Tower’s self-destructive trip aborted.

Four characters are described, stat blocks and all, after Owain’s descriptive tour comes to a close. While one of these seems to be a generic new creature, others are specific individuals with templates and/or class levels. It’s here that I thought the book was weakest, not because the character write-ups are poor (they’re not), but because these characters seem to draw on existing third-party sources without telling us what they are. Make no mistake, I like seeing Open Game Content reused among publishers, but I like it more when they let us know where it came from so that we can make personal adjustments as necessary. For example, if I wanted to give The Spinning Duchess another level or two of the inspired maker prestige class, where would I look to find the rules on that? It’s a minor thing, so there’s no reason not to have it here.

Beyond that, I found myself liking the Clockwork Tower, as it’s a ready-made adventure site with the plot built right in. From the doomsday nature of the tower’s journey, to its mysterious nature (moving back through time), to the hazards and monsters present inside it, this is an adventure hook in and of itself.

Really, the one flaw I can find with the Clockwork Tower as a whole is that it lacks a clear way of dealing with it after the PCs save the day. I’m not sure, for example, that I’d like the PCs to have control of (or even be allies with an NPC who has control of) a tower that can manipulate the flow of time to their advantage. A way to remove the entire place from being easily accessed/utilized would have been appreciated. That said, what is here is a great place for the PCs to spend some time adventuring, though how much time that is may be hard to judge – pit them against the Clockwork Tower and have them find out.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Evocative City Sites: Clockwork Tower (PFRPG)
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Publisher Reply:
I wanted to thank Shane for taking the time to do a review of our product, I will point out that the OGL prohibits me from naming what part comes from which book as the title of a product is product identity, and I waive the right of fair use by using the OGL, it was not a matter of not wanting to, it was a matter of not being allowed to. Steve Russell Rite Publishing
Grittier
Publisher: Eridanus Books
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/13/2010 22:43:41
They say that the worst vice is advice. I don’t think that’s true; it’s more accurate to say that the worst vice is unsolicited advice – after all, when you’re looking for someone to counsel you, advice can be a much-needed boon…depending on the quality of the advice you receive. In regards to Eridanus Books’ Grittier, the advice that it presents is how to make your Pathfinder game feel more “gritty” in feel.

From a technical stance, Grittier is fairly clean in its presentation. Beyond the cover graphic, there are no illustrations or page borders to be found; the entire product is simply black text on a white background (save for the rare grey sidebar). There are no bookmarks, though that’s not so bad in a thirteen-page PDF, and there is a table of contents. Likewise, copy and pasting are enabled.

What was more bothersome, however, was how often grammar errors came up throughout the book. With troubling regularity, sentence after sentence has some error of tense or syntax or conjugation; it’s never anything that inhibits understanding, but it highlights the book’s lack of an editor.

While it doesn’t explicitly use the term, Grittier’s introduction makes it immediately clear that what it’s concerned with doing is providing suggestions and mechanics to allow you to make a Pathfinder game that is – for lack of a better word – Tolkien-esque in feeling. That is, its “gritty” factor is a low-magic world where the PCs might be better than average people, but are far from being the demi-gods they are at higher levels.

This is an impulse I can certainly understand; after all, a more down-to-earth feeling for a game can encourage players to invest more in their characters’ actions (in other words, role-play better), since doing so can help to keep them alive and successful. When hack-and-slashing carries a real risk of getting you killed, particularly since there’s a lack of healing magic to go around, you tend to put a little more thought into what you do.

The first section of the book talks about leveling in a Grittier game, which basically boils down to “use E6.” For those who don’t know, E6 (aka “Epic 6”) is a fan-made document put together several years ago that basically champions a campaign model where no one (including and especially the PCs) can gain more than six character levels. After hitting that sixth level, you only advance by gaining a feat per five thousand experience points. Grittier recaps this information, but directs you to this document to get into further details of this campaign model.

This part of the book made me look askance at Grittier. It’s not because this section is wrong, per se, to adopt this model – quite frankly I agree with the advice here – but rather how it so casually makes such a major change and then directs you elsewhere for more on it. Even leaving aside that I think the E6 document itself could use some tightening up, the relevant sections and materials should have been reprinted here since E6 is Open Game Content. Directing your audience to another book, which they may never have heard of and aren’t sure where to find, is poor design.

Character classes are the subject of the next section, and it’s a pleasant surprise that it covers not only the eleven core classes, but also the six new base classes from the Advanced Player’s Guide as well. Several classes have changes recommended, while others are simply tossed out altogether as being inappropriate for a Grittier campaign (something which I applaud, since sometimes certain classes are just wrong for a campaign, and should be thrown out rather than caving to post-modern ideas of tweaking everything to fit, no matter how inappropriate it is).

Of course, this section had some problems too. Some readers may want more explanation for why certain changes or disallowances were made; you can say that the paladin doesn’t fit a Grittier game “conceptually and mechanically,” but that isn’t self-evident. I wish the book would explain how it reached that conclusion. Is it the divine spellcasting? The class abilities? Something else altogether? I don’t know, because it hasn’t told me.

Likewise, this section can be slightly punishing if you don’t have access to the Advanced Player’s Guide (and even then, certain aspects can be unclear). For example, the bard several levels of class abilities replaced with alternate abilities – at 2nd level it gains Lore Master and “Magic Lore,” which (it doesn’t tell us) is from the Archivist archetype in the APG.

Spells gets a very short section outlining some broad types of spells that you might want to remove from a Grittier game, such as summoning and alignment-based spells. Personally, I would also have put the Rituals section here, but we’ll come to that later.

The Items section is where the most alternate rules are given. The existing idea of “masterwork” weapons and armor is thrown out, and instead there’s a listing of item properties that can be added to items when they’re created (which do things like increase hardness, add +1 to AC, etc.). The more properties an item has, the more it costs, the longer and more difficult it is to make, and the more valuable it is – a table charts gradations of weapon quality by how many of craft points’ worth of properties are added.

That last sentence should have made you perk up; this section measures these item properties in terms of craft points. What exactly craft points are, how they’re used, and other important information isn’t given. It was only with some research that I realized these were alternate crafting rules from Unearthed Arcana (available over at the Hypertext SRD). Since the table still indicates the increases to cost and crafting DCs per craft points spent, it’s still possible to use these item special qualities without using craft points in your game…rather, the major problem here is that, once again, the book is referencing external material and not seeing fit to tell us where this material is coming from and how to find it.

Magic items get a page with some fairly solid guidelines for limiting their impact on a Grittier campaign. The book smartly uses GP values of items to judge how rarely they should appear, also noting that magic shops shouldn’t exist at all. It then talks about ways to limit permanent magic items so that they don’t become over-exposed (or over-powering in the campaign) and the use of one-shot magic items to help address problems should you find the lack of magic to be too stark in your game.

This part of the book was exemplary in how to provide guidance for running a low-magic game, giving clear suggestions on multiple aspects of a given topic while making the reasoning clear. There could have been a little polishing here, to be sure, but for the most part this is some great advice on how to handle the presence of magic items in a low-magic campaign.

The Rituals section is one that I had mixed feelings on. Rituals are really incantations (from Unearthed Arcana again) made simple. They’re all high-level spells that require a Spellcraft check to pull off. However, they have lengthy casting times, require hours of preparation before you can even begin casting, and have penalties for failing the Spellcraft check. Really, except possibly lifting the idea for lengthy pre-casting setup, there’s not much here that hasn’t already been done by incantations. The sole exception here is a table with things you can do to earn a bonus to your Spellcraft check, which admittedly provides for some nice ideas – a human sacrifice for a +5 bonus, hm?

The book’s last section talks about changes to combat, and notwithstanding classes gets more discussion than anything else. Several changes are made, with the big one being dealing damage – a minor tweak to the nonlethal damage rules now makes being staggered come into play a lot sooner. I liked this idea, since it is a simple way to have characters lose effectiveness as they grow progressively more injured. Further rules deal with having ambushes be extremely deadly (though this seemed suspiciously similar to the bushwhacking rules in Green Ronin’s Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide), slightly bumping up the effectiveness of the Heal skill, tweaking magic healing for the revised lethal/nonlethal damage rule, making damage reduction slightly less effective (to compensate for the lack of magic weapons), and making resurrections more grim when they’re brought into play.

My one big problem with this section wasn’t with what it did, but rather with what it didn’t do; I was really hoping that it’d have mechanics for combat fatigue. As it stands now, Pathfinder characters in melee combat can effectively fight forever, without ever worrying about growing tired from constant battle. This makes it impossible for characters to ever be overcome by sheer numbers of lower-level enemies, and is a major weakness in Grittier games. Having no mechanics or suggestions for combat fatigue was a missed opportunity here.

Ultimately, Grittier is a book that, while it delivers on its promises, does so in a manner that is, well, gritty. The book does have some good advice, suggestions, and alternate rules for making a grim, low-magic Pathfinder campaign. Unfortunately, that often gets lost between the bad grammar, off-the-cuff references to mechanics from other products, and lack of context for many of the changes it recommends. Add in to that the simplistic layout, lack of artwork, and that much more could have been done in various sections (notice how there’s no advice on monsters, beyond a single change to damage reduction), and you have a book that’s far from perfect.

Still, if you can navigate these flaws, you’ll find a book with some genuinely good ideas for a Pathfinder campaign that won’t star magic-laden superheroes, but rather proficient-but-mortal characters that will find magic to be a mysterious force, and must face it with little more than their wits and mundane weapons. If you want a game where having less to work with evokes more fun from your players, take a look at making your campaign Grittier.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Grittier
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Publisher Reply:
Hello, Shane. I really appreciate your feedback. Especially since this the first product on Eridanus Books return to RPG publishing. For this reason, we have just update our product 'Grittier' to answer some of its shortcomings. We have done extra work on explaining design decisions and also expanded on Masterwork Items, Rituals and Combat rules. I believe you will be happy to know we added rules on exhaustion due to long combat. It was a mechanic we ultimatelly decided to leave out of this product believing it was too much. Your review made me see in the end it was best to include it and let game masters decide what to use. On the subject of grammar, we will work on improving it. Despite its name, Eridanus Books is a brazilian company and, while of course that does not justify the lack of better knowledge on this particular subject, I hope it shows it is not a matter of negligence, but a reflection of an erroneous decision to reduce production cost and time. We will look into it so that this does not affect our future products. Thank you for your review! - JMBeraldo
Horrors of the GOW (PFRPG)
Publisher: Purple Duck Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/05/2010 13:52:07
When I first started trick-or-treating, I enjoyed reaching into my bag to draw out random pieces of candy. It was fun not knowing what I’d get, so much so that I think I enjoyed the surprise almost as much as the candy itself. As I got older, however, I came to enjoy this game less and less – I knew what specific candy I wanted, and so picking out whatever I happened to close my hand around wasn’t as appealing; ultimately, I dumped out my candy bag at home to sort out what was what. Reading through Horrors of the GOW, by Purple Duck Games, I’m reminded of why I stopped caring for randomly fishing for candy.

A full twenty-eight page PDF, I found myself wondering how many people were scratching their heads at the “GOW” in the title. While I suspect that it’s meant to have an in-game meaning also, it really stands for Grand OGL Wiki, the project from which Purple Duck Games sprung from. The artwork here is entirely credited to Sade, and consists of several full-color pieces, a number of which are photographed images that have a sort of dark, gothic bent to them.

Unfortunately, the book’s construction falls down when it comes to the bookmarks. Clearly, the publisher was trying to make them work, since there’s a number that go to various places in the book. However, their success is limited, in that a number of sections are skipped, and several of the nested bookmarks oddly have full paragraphs of text from the section they lead to.

As the title suggests, the book is dedicated to material of a dark, spooky nature for your Pathfinder game. What the title doesn’t tell you is just how much of a grab-bag this book is. While everything in here falls under the same theme of being Halloween-y, it bounces back and forth from one topic to another. For example, it opens with several monsters inspired from the Phantasm series of movies, and then later on comes back to several monsters from older 3.X companies that are updated to Pathfinder. Still later it deals with several specific creatures and NPCs.

The kicker here is that the book’s contents are quite good. From an intriguing new patron and new hexes for the (Advanced Player’s Guide) witch class, to fair selection of new monsters, to several magic items, and more, the book presents a rather nice grouping of new materials to use when you want to darken the atmosphere. The problem is how they’re presented; this book really feels like the author just took a random collection of material he’d written – checking only to make sure they felt appropriately “spooky” – and then dumped them all here in the order he thought of them.

Ultimately, Horrors of the GOW is an object lesson in that, while it may seem like quality writing is the most important thing for a book, layout is king. I’d have rated this book a full star higher had it organized itself better and fixed its bookmarks. Thank heavens it at least had a table of contents. Otherwise, you’d be rooting around in this file, trying to stumble onto that one specific item you want…just like a piece of candy at the bottom of your Halloween bag.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Horrors of the GOW (PFRPG)
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Publisher Reply:
Thank you for the review. I did not realize that the bookmarks were messed up and the are a couple of other layout pieces I need to fix. I hope to update this release this weekend (Nov 13-14) and reload it then.
Alien Files #2: The Fema Su
Publisher: Dakkar Unlimited
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/03/2010 13:56:11
You know, I’m surprised that it took them as long as it did to get here. In a game called “Hot Chicks” that also features space aliens, you’d think that it’d be natural to assume that there’s some sort of race out there that fills the “alien girlfriend” niche. After all, that idea has been around since the era of pulp novels; it’s been showcased in songs, movies, anime, and more. And now, we finally have that idea in the Hot Chicks RPG in the form of Alien Files #2: The Fema Su.

A thirty-page PDF, the second Alien Files product is fairly light fare from the guys at Dakkar. There’s no bookmarks, which I frown on in anything but the very shortest of PDF files, but copy and pasting is still enabled. The artwork is mostly in Dakkar’s signature style of 3D computer graphics, though a few pencil drawings and a traditional illustration do show up. There’s really no nudity here, per se; we do see the Fema Su naked plenty of times, but while they have a humanoid shape, it’s not really the same as seeing a naked human woman.

The Fema Su are a race of aliens who, realizing they’ve hit an “evolutionary dead end” have come to Earth to mingle human DNA into their gene pool to revitalize their race. It’s comic book science to be sure, but who really cares? Almost all female, they pick a man to breed with, shapeshift into whatever form will best get him into bed, and hopefully get pregnant, retreating to their hidden bases to carry the baby to term, and the process starts all over again. There’s no malice involved regarding the humans they pick – they don’t kidnap, force, or otherwise try to do anything harmful to the people they breed with – but they maintain their deception fiercely, since their survival as a race is at stake.

The book spends a fair amount of pages telling us the Fema Su’s history in greater detail, and their current sketch and personal traits, before talking about what this really means for a Hot Chicks game. Basically, while the Fema Su aren’t antagonists (which seems rare in a world where most of the aliens are evil, alongside demons and corrupt humans, among other malign entities), they’re walking adventure hooks. Most of them, for example, know that adventurers are not only great breeding stock, but also a convenient source of help if they need it. One of the pieces of framing fiction deals with a hero who finds the girl he slept with six months ago on his doorstep, needing shelter from the alien hunters chasing her. Add in other possibilities, like finding out the girl you had a fling with had your baby and never told you about it, and the Fema Su can actually lead to some fairly interesting scenarios.

On a more mechanical side of things, the book showcases a few new pieces of Fema Su “technology” – I include the quotes since these aliens are life-shapers, and all of their inventions are biological in nature. We get sample characters sheets for a few Fema Su (and one of their living spaceships), before moving into the GM section. This largely consists of telling us how various groups and organizations think of the Fema Su, and a bunch of adventure hooks.

Alien Files #2: The Fema Su is a surprisingly hands-off supplement for the Hot Chicks RPG, overall. The book gives you a very good idea of who these aliens are, but largely leaves what to do with them in your hands. The adventure possibilities present a good sampling of ways to use them in your game, but beyond that the book really is more concerned with retrofitting them into the game world than how you’ll fit them into your campaign. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re a GM who prefers pre-made encounters and scenarios, you’re out of luck here. Still, if you prefer to make your own adventures, and they involve some shades of gray (without any actual Greys), these might be just what you’re looking for. Whether as damsels to be defended, or deceivers to be defeated, take a look and see what the Fema Su can do for your Hot Chicks game.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Alien Files #2: The Fema Su
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[PFRPG] Forgotten Foes
Publisher: Fat Goblin Games
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/01/2010 21:48:45
Riddle me this, dear reader: what’s the difference between something old, and something classic? I can’t quite describe it, but I suspect it’s one of those things where you know it when you see it. It’s that principle that makes Forgotten Foes, from Tricky Owlbear Publishing, such a great monster book – it’s a book of classic monsters brought up-to-date for the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game.

Of course, looking at the book’s pedigree, it’s kind of hard to imagine this book not being totally awesome. Written by Mark Gedak and Stefen Styrsky of the Grand OGL Wiki, with a stable of artists from Headless Hydra Games, and of course published through Tricky Owlbear, this book is at the center of a perfect storm of talent. It quite literally had to be just this good.

Just shy of two hundred pages long, Forgotten Foes brings over a hundred monsters to your Pathfinder game. I can’t quite say “new” monsters, because a significant majority of these creatures are ones who were mainstays of 3.5 who were subsequently abandoned during the Pathfinder changeover. Not all of these fall under that category, however, as there’s a handful that are from third-party 3.5 sources, also updated here. And I’m sure that a few totally new monsters are in here as well, though it’s difficult to be totally sure.

The book’s technical aspects do what they’re supposed to do. Full bookmarks are here, and the text allows for copying and pasting. Besides the front and back covers (which display some truly stunning pieces. I don’t know what that monster is on the front cover, but he’s one intimidating bastard), each monster has a black and white illustration (though shading is used far more often than not), something I was grateful for, since illustrations are very important for showcasing monsters. There’s also an alternating border on the side of the pages.

Most of the monsters in the book are given a single page all to themselves, though sometimes this rule is broken. Each has the usual combination of stat block and descriptive text, but as an added bonus there’s also a box showing what you learn about the creature on a specific Knowledge check; it’s one of those little extras that really make a difference. I should mention that the flavor text for the monsters is original, since in most cases the original source didn’t make that part Open Game Content to begin with.

One of the things that might not be obvious on the first read-through, it should be noted, is that the authors sometimes slipped in new additions or other changes to some monsters during the update to Pathfinder. The ravid, for example, now has some variants listed, in case you want a ravid that is more in tune with the life of nature and animates plants, for instance. Titans are mostly the same, but have the ability to assume the form of an elemental; an aspect of how, as near-divine beings, they’re connected to the primal elements of the universe. Little things like that are all over the place.

Of course, some things didn’t make the transition. The tojanida, for example, only has a single stat block, rather than three for younger and older incarnations of the creature. Similarly, it would have been nice to have seen variants on the half-dragon template for the sin dragons.

The book has several appendices, and while these cover the usual ways of breaking down the monsters (by type, by CR, etc.) there’s also a bit of new rules here as well. A new planar trait is given, in reference to a particular monster’s entry. Several new spells are presented, mostly because some monsters use them as spell-like abilities. Interestingly, ten pages are given reprinting the universal monster rules from the Pathfinder Bestiary. Presumably this was done for ease of reference.

Forgotten Foes is one of those books where, having read it, I’m honestly not sure how I was running a Pathfinder game without it. There’s so many monsters in here that were staples of 3.5, it’s shocking they haven’t been brought to Pathfinder before now – the bodak, the hellcat, the formians; it’s past due for them to make a comeback. Pick up Forgotten Foes and let your PCs know that the monsters that they once feared have followed them to Pathfinder.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
[PFRPG] Forgotten Foes
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Coliseum Morpheuon (PFRPG)
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Shane O. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/01/2010 08:31:08
One of the most disappointing things has to be retiring a character that you’re not done with yet. I don’t mean because they died or were affected by some condition that made them unplayable – those at least have some hope of being rectified. I mean what a letdown it is when the GM announces that the campaign has reached its conclusion, and there’s no more adventuring in your character’s future.

In fact, its quite likely a letdown for the GM too – after all, the odds are good that, if you’ve reached the mid-teens or so, then there just aren’t any adventures of the appropriate level he can run for you anymore. It’s fairly common knowledge, after all, that Pathfinder campaigns rarely go the entire distance, leaving those last few levels untouched just as that sweet capstone power, or those potent 9th-level spells, seem within reach.

I like to think that it was for those disappointed players, and GMs, that Rite Publishing created Coliseum Morpheuon, a mini-campaign and setting designed specifically for taking characters from 16th to 20th level. Let’s look at what’s to be found inside.

The first thing that should be noted is that Coliseum Morpheuon is actually a bundle of seven specific products. Five of these are Rite Publishing’s Fantastic Maps – more specifically, the Clockwork Maze, the Arena of Fire, the Ruined Library, the Glass Ships, and the Stepped Pyramid. There are also two PDFs – the first being a copy of the Paper Minis Coliseum Morpheuon product, and the final one being the actual Coliseum Morpheuon book itself (which will be the primary focus of this review).

For those who aren’t familiar with the Fantastic Maps format, I’ll recap what’s to be found in those. Each map is presented with as many tools as possible to facilitate ease of use. There are two JPEGs, each showing the map at a small enough size to fit onto a single page – one with the grid map and one without. There are also two PDF files; each one shows the entire map, and then has it broken down into a series of pages appropriately sized so that each grid is one square inch; easy printing at its finest. Moreover, these map pages are presented in color and then black and white. The reason there are two is that one is meant for US-letter size, whereas the second is meant for A4 paper (a European standard). The entire thing also has Mac-accessible files as well, plus files to import the maps into Maptools.

And you get five of those with this product – something that should start make clear just how much value this package really offers.

The paper minis PDF is something of a misnomer, because it features a lot more than just paper minis. Specifically, it features the entirety of the first two appendices from the Coliseum Morpheuon PDF; the ones dedicated to the two opposing adventuring parties that your characters face during their challenges, the Dirges and the Grey Feathers. This section is word-for-word the same, so I won’t go over it here – just skip down to where I go over those in more detail if you want to know more about the content found there. It’s after this that we get the actual paper minis. These cover both adventuring teams, as well as presenting a number of minis for the guards of the Coliseum, known as the Hounds of Ill-Prophecy. I wish there’d been a recap of the instructions regarding how you properly construct the paper minis once you print them out, but maybe that’s intuitive for people who’re more used to using paper minis than I am.

Having covered all of that (and to be fair, that was light coverage – I’m not giving Ashton Sperry and James Hazelett (of the Paper Minis) nor Jonathan Roberts (of the Fantastic Maps) enough credit for the level of talent they’re bringing here. Alas, doing so with such a massive series would mean that this review would be significantly longer) let’s move on to the main Coliseum Morpheuon book.

Weighing in at ten chapters and three appendices, Coliseum Morpheuon is well over a hundred pages long. The cover makes it very clear that this book is meant for the big boys of Pathfinder – not only does it boldly announce that it’s for characters of 16th-20th level, but the artwork displays a gargantuan winged woman with clawed digitigrade feet about to spear a similarly-sized fellow in classical gladiator garb as he swings a mace at her head. The rest of the picture sets the scope for these figures, as we can see a broken moon in the background and, in the foreground, a series of tiny figures standing along the top of the Coliseum, cheering at the spectacle.

Epic.

The book has full, nested bookmarks (which are necessary given its size) and is quite rich in artwork. Indeed, full-color art appears with regularity, showcasing locations, monsters, and people of all sorts. Rite Publishing assembled quite a talented team for this, and I was quite impressed at the visuals they consistently released.

But enough technical materials, what’s Coliseum Morpheuon actually about?

The entire adventure takes place on the Plane of Dreams. Here, an enigmatic being known only as the Khan of Nightmares has raised a great coliseum (the eponymous Coliseum Morpheoun) and raised a city around it. Matches and contests of all sorts constantly take place at the Coliseum, but the greatest of these is held just once every century: the Damnation Epoch. Only the mightiest of teams (including your high-level characters) are invited to participate in the Epoch, and they compete for a grand prize that even 20th-level characters would salivate over – I won’t spoil the surprise for what this mysterious prize is, but trust me; it’s something your character would want. Badly.

Of course, that just scratches the surface, as there’s much else to do in the City of the Coliseum. In fact, there’s a number of potential sub-plots that can be used to take the adventure in different directions, depending on which one your GM uses.

Let’s go over the book chapter by chapter.

The first chapter covers the Plane of Dreams. Going over its planar traits, it then talks about some of the regions found in this mutable realm, going over them in broad strokes. There’s little specificity given to the areas described, largely giving them as backdrop to the locality where the adventure largely takes place. Hence, there’s no maps here (a commonality throughout the book – the only maps found herein are small reproductions of the smaller maps from the Fantastic Maps).

Initially, I was somewhat skeptical of setting things in the Plane of Dreams, largely because dreams seem too ephemeral for high-level characters, who are forces to be reckoned with on a regional, if not global, scale. However, as the book went on, I realized that setting the adventure here serves a twofold purpose: it allows for the GM to have relative freedom in designing the finer details of the City and the surrounding areas (since dreams are so mutable and ever-changing), and it allows for the adventure to easily pickup where a terrestrial campaign leaves off, since the PCs are unlikely to have had much adventuring in dreams before this arc starts.

The second chapter gets into the finer details of what it means to actually be physically present on the Plane of Dreams. Specifically, this chapter deals with the rules for “dreamburning.”

Dreamburning is based around the ideas that your dreams aren’t just things you see when you’re asleep. They’re also the culmination of your most personal hopes, goals, and aspirations. In fact, each player must write down a hope, a goal, and an aspiration for their PC while on the plane, since these take on physical substance there. A character is able to “burn” these substances for power, but doing so erodes their dreams. Worse, these dreams can be bought or stolen by those who’d rather burn the dreams of others than their own. There are even dreamburning-specific traits and alternate rules to let you customize how to implement this facet of the setting in your game.

Needless to say, after a first chapter that (initially) left me somewhat cold, this chapter really did it for me. The new mechanics here are, I think, an example of rules at their best: helping to role-play who your character actually is. Having a set of mechanics based around things that are intensely personal to your characters is a great opportunity to make things very character-based, something that’s very helpful at the higher levels, where what a character can do often overshadows who they are.

The third chapter is a short monster listing, giving four dream creatures. This section wasn’t bad, but could have done more. For all the art in the book, only one of these creatures has an illustration, something that’s very important for new monsters. Also, the oneirobound, the dreamers who’ve become trapped in the dream realm and are usually taken as slaves, should have been presented as a template rather than a singular type of creature with a short “creating” section that just listed their traits.

The fourth chapter covers the environment of the island where the City of the Coliseum stands. The history of the place is given (the propaganda and the real version) as well as overviews of the surrounding lands, how the society functions (which is largely a town of very few laws, mostly surviving by its trading and entertainment industries, with the Coliseum at the center of it all), and a very large table of rumors, plus potential adventure seeds.

Given that the nature of dream realms is their level of mutability, the lack of a hard map for this area is somewhat excusable – the City can look like whatever the GM wants it to look like. What’s more noteworthy here is that, by this chapter, you start to get a sense of how the entire product is structured. Settings, backgrounds, and descriptions are given in very broad strokes, often without many details – almost like you’re being given a series of outlines.

My natural inclination would be to deduct points for a book formatted that way. I much prefer that things be excessively detailed; after all, it’s far easier to ignore and change existing details that I don’t like than to need to flesh out the specifics of the details that I do. However, that philosophy breaks down at higher levels; there are just too many possibilities with characters that have such great abilities and resources. Far better to present the basics, giving the GM ideas and information that can be tailored to a given group. I was surprised to find myself thinking that way, but it became more and more clear as I read through the book – Coliseum Morpheuon gives you as much as it can for such a high-level setting; filling in the details is up to you.

Of course, for all my talk about a lack of details, chapter five is overflowing with them. Perhaps the most important chapter in the book (notwithstanding the actual adventures), this covers over a dozen influential figures of the City. While some of these are for types of people (such as the aforementioned Hounds of Ill-Prophecy), most are specific characters. All have no only full stats, but artwork as well as a discussion of who they are as characters, complete with a listing of their own dreams, aspirations, and goals (with the potential to be stolen or dreamburned). Plenty of sidebars cover some new crunch that several of these characters have, which is as it should be – a series of high-level characters should bring new powers to the table.

I should stress that this rogues’ gallery is one of the best parts of the book, showcasing NPCs who could easily become major staples of any campaign. From Auberyon the Solstice King, to the Dragon of the Ghostdance, to the Jack of Diamonds, these characters are fully-formed NPCs, with stats that often dip into other d20 materials to lend them a truly alien feel. This chapter is the book at its best.

It’s only at chapter six that the book starts to focus on the actual adventure that your PCs will be running through, a tournament called the Damnation Epoch. An overview of the adventures, this chapter summarizes what the PCs will be facing, who their possible patrons (since competing teams need benefactors) are, possible sub-plots that can be set as a backdrop to the events of the tournament, and a quick overview of the major possible patrons for the PCs and who some of the noteworthy opposing teams are.

And lest I forget, it’s here that the prize of the tournament is discussed in all its glory also. I’m still not going to tell you what it is, though…but trust me, it’s EPIC.

Chapter seven begins the actual adventure itself. It’s here that the PCs receive their actual invitation to the Damnation Epoch, and face several qualifying rounds to actually gain admittance to the tournament. I was quite happy to note that this section had advice for what to do with groups that are larger than just four PCs; having a group of six PCs myself, I was glad for it.

Chapter eight seems like something of an odd duck at first glance. It’s roughly three dozen short descriptions of possible encounters throughout the City. Note that these aren’t combat encounters – rather, they’re various things going on with various people. Much like adventure seeds, these are obviously meant to be fleshed out by the GM, and quite often involve more character-building and role-playing than combat. The presentation, however, seems almost random until you get to chapter ten.

Finally, in the book’s ninth chapter, we come to the ten tests of the Damnation Epoch. Each one increasingly difficult, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in true gladiatorial fashion, not all of the tests are combat-focused. In fact, many of them involve competing by accomplishing a given task before another team does, to earn the most points. Of course, combat is usually an acceptable method for competing as well, but as an auxiliary way to compete – rarely will the singular goal be to simply kill things.

The tests themselves are grand in scope; as appropriate for a planar series of games. From raiding a ruined library on a dying world as it falls toward the sun, to navigating atop positive energy “icebergs” as they float on a sea of negative energy, these are contests appropriate to your high-level characters. Through in opposing teams of comparable power, as well as insidiously deadly traps and ferocious monsters, and the competitions will be something your group will talk about for a long time to come.

The tenth and final chapter is dedicated to the half-dozen possible subplots that can be run against the backdrop of the Damnation Epoch. From trying to free the oneirobound slaves to playing matchmaker for an exotic planar dragon, this section describes how to get each subplot rolling, what specific events from chapter eight it utilizes and when, and how it turns out.

The first two of the book’s three appendices cover two of the opposing teams in specific detail. The first is an evil team known as the Dirges, while the second is a team of former villains-turned-heroes called the Grey Feathers. Each has full stats, a discussion of who they are as people, their battle tactics, and what their dreams are, as well as full-color illustration. The final appendix includes pre-gen characters, all given just a quick description of their looks and personality before we get to their stats – the rest of these characters are up to the GM to decide.

Overall, Coliseum Morpheuon is not only one of the few options for GM’s who want a pre-made adventure for high-level characters, it’s also one of the best. Presenting not only a series of adventures that offer exciting and dangerous challenges for your PCs, it also covers a new setting with interesting new rules, variable backdrops for the adventure, and a diverse cast of characters to interact with. The details are enough to provide you with all of the salient material for running a game set around the Coliseum, while still being hands-off enough that you can make it what you need for your high-level PCs.

If you’re not ready to retire your campaign when your adventure path ends, and want to give them a chance to try and make it all the way to 20th level and claim the power, prestige, and fabulous prize that comes with doing so, then send them to Coliseum Morpheuon.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Coliseum Morpheuon (PFRPG)
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