I admit it: thus far I’ve been very impressed with what 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming has offered. Their line of Player’s and GM’s sheets have been exemplary for eliminating page-flipping and putting tidbits that’d otherwise be lost in convenient card form. But it’s another altogether to offer up a full-fledged sourcebook. After all, even if it is for the new Pathfinder RPG, those are something that we’ve seen quite often before. As such, let’s take a look at The Book of Arcane Magic and see if 4 Winds continues to live up to their usual high standards.
From a technical standpoint, the product does fairly well for itself. There are two copies of the book, one being the full product and the other being a printer-friendly version, which is always good to have for a PDF release. However, while the printer-friendly version does eliminate the front and back covers, as well as the page borders (a stylized set of interlocking rings), all of the interior art is still there. Now, that’s not too bad, as the interior art is all black and white, and spread rather thin, but it still sort of defeats the purpose. Presumably, this was left in there since otherwise the layout would have been changed, but it’s still not completely printer-friendly if you’ve kept the illustrations. Beyond that though, everything else that a PDF should do is here. Both versions have full bookmarks with nesting, and copy-and-pasting is enabled.
The first chapter of the book dives right into the spells, of which there are over a hundred. While I recognized a few from some other third-party books, the vast majority were new to me. Delightfully, even those that I thought I recognized often had some new changes made, and all of them conformed to the design philosophies in Pathfinder (such as no spells with XP components). Rarely, there’s a sidebar alongside a spell talking about an adventure idea, or part of the design that went into the spell, but this doesn’t happen very often.
The second chapter focuses on new colleges of magic (including bardic colleges) and I was a bit surprised at the brevity in this regard. While it describes what its like to study at a college of magic, and then eleven such colleges (eight for sorcerers and wizards – one for each school of magic – and three for bards), the schools only get a few paragraphs of description each. As such, there are no maps, not even abbreviated ones of the school grounds, no descriptions of particular teachers or students, or really much at all besides an overview and maybe some description for a hook or two should you place them in your setting. Instead, following this is a brief description of post-graduate studying before the section suddenly focuses on new feats that you gain for being a (post-)graduate of the various schools.
If that sounds like a complaint, it’s not meant to be. Rather, I was expecting a fair bit of fluff text here, and felt rather surprised as how that was given such a deft touch in exchange for the new crunch. That said, while the feats weren’t bad, the “graduate” feat for each of the eight colleges was functionally the same (an extra spell known, and an extra spell per spell level per day), except that it applied to a different school of magic; that felt like a waste of space, as they could have made that simply a single feat, tailoring it so that it specified that it applied to one school of magic depending on what college you attended. Luckily, the “post-graduate” feats all had different effects.
Chapter three debuted ten new sorcerer bloodlines, and I have to admit that this section really did it for me. I’m a very big fan of the new bloodline mechanics for sorcerers, so with this section effectively doubling the number of bloodlines available (as the PF RPG Core Rulebook has ten also), I poured over this section. Each of the ten new bloodlines was interesting in execution, having such choices as Feline or Mixed. In fact, the only bad thing I can say about this section was that it was tightly focused on, well, actual creatures that could be in a sorcerer’s family tree. That seems natural, since these are bloodlines after all, but the PF RPG had ones like Arcane or Destined that served to let you know that it didn’t have to be about having an exotic ancestor, per se. I kind of wish there’d been something like that here, even though what was here was great.
The fourth chapter didn’t wow me quite as much, however. It focused on familiars, something that Pathfinder as a whole seems to put less emphasis on (as sorcerers don’t gain them, and wizards can choose a bonded object instead). Still, it was useful in that it introduced a number of new animals as familiar choices, as well as four new clockwork familiars – constructs in the shape of an animal. That said, I noticed a minor issue with this section, in that it’s somewhere between Pathfinder and 3.5. It uses things like Pathfinder skills, but the stat blocks have no XP listing for the monsters, and still have a line for Advancement which PF monsters don’t have. And the Space and Reach entries for the creatures are simply missing altogether. Some feats for clockwork familiars round out the section, but I was a bit put off by how most of them focus around increasing the clockwork familiars’ hit points – so those don’t scale as being one-half of their master’s hit points?
The final chapter of the book focuses on magic items, and unfortunately I wasn’t too thrilled with this one either. The magic items were of four varieties: weapons, rings, staves, and wondrous items. However, there was only one weapon (a specific weapon, not a new magic weapon quality) and one staff. Moreover, while there were a decent handful of rings and quite a number of wondrous items, it was disheartening just how often these simply granted a specific spell effect (from a spell in the first chapter) rather than offering anything new. To be sure, a few magic items did this, but most were just ways to use a spell from the beginning of the book. The book then closed out with spell lists for divine spellcasting classes with the spells from the first chapter, which I thought was a nice extra, and some ads for 4 Winds upcoming products.
So, does The Book of Arcane Magic manage to live up to the high marks that 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming usually cultivates? In all honesty, not quite…but it does manage to come close. The book started off undeniably strong with all the new spells if offered, but stumbled a bit with the fluff/crunch mix (and repetitious feats) in the second chapter. The new bloodlines were truly excellent, but the familiars stats needed some polish, and the magic items seemed rather mundane. Add into that a printer-friendly file that had illustrations, and this was a book that was good, but had room for improvement. Of course, those are all minor problems in a book that offers some great new crunch for your Pathfinder game.