Necromancy is one of those areas where a lot of people want to play one, but it’s always something of an awkward fit. Under the basic Pathfinder rules, the basic aspects of necromancy tend towards undead- and evil-focused material enough that you’re either not evil and doing it wrong, or doing it right but are evil as a consequence. It is, quite simply, hard to reconcile those two extremes.
No more! Zombie Sky Press’s Mysteries of the Dead Side: Sacred Necromancer threads the difficult strands between offering necromantic powers without (necessarily) being a servant of darkness. Let’s take a closer look and see how it pulls it off.
The book conforms to the minimum material necessary for a quality PDF product: copy-and-paste is enabled, and full nested bookmarks are present. No printer-friendly version is presented, but that’s not really a concern because (save for the front cover) there’s very little artwork here; just three color pieces.
The book opens with its new base class, the sacred necromancer. On its face, this class looks a lot like an oracle – same BAB and Hit Dice, same skill points per level – but the differences quickly become clear. While the sacred necromancer is a spontaneous spellcaster, each day it gets to change what spells are on its Spells Known list, but with a catch – they can only choose necromancy spells, off of any list (with a necessary exception for 0-level spells). Further, their spells are considered both divine and arcane at the same time; the sacred necromancer’s study of death crosses conventional limitations. Being able to channel energy is also a valuable ability, but in this case it’s limited by the sacred necromancer’s calling.
A calling is similar to an oracle’s mystery, in that it’s a theme that grants some basic powers, and then presents a suite of abilities, of which you choose one every so many levels. In this case, a calling decides what sort of channel energy you can use and how you use it (e.g. channel negative energy, only for harming the living), has a “connection” (a signature ability that is automatically gained), and a set of whispers to choose from.
There are six callings presented (counting the Journeyman as two). The chirurgeon is obsessed with the physical aspects of death. Like Doctor Frankenstein, he can construct a golem-like “monster” that’s somewhere between an animal companion and an eidolon. More interesting, at least to me, was his whisper that lets him remove the “evil” descriptor from spells that raise the undead – I know so many players who will want this just for that.
The Exorcist is focused around trapping, dispelling, and otherwise countering the effects of outsiders and undead. There are a lot of abilities here that are defensive in nature, as well as some battlefield-control ones (e.g. seal an outsider in a protected area for a short time). The Journeyman of the Pale Path, by contrast, is simply an expert at manipulating negative energy, to the tune of things like taking an immediate action to reduce healing with a tightly-focused channel energy, or create undead that share teamwork feats. Nicely, there’s a sidebar that talks about reversing this class to be positive-energy focused instead, and each ability has a short section saying how it would work in reverse.
The Psychopomp is concerned with the state of the soul. It struck me as the weakest of the themes here, but it still had several interesting abilities, such as summoning a spirit to be able to be the focus point of channeling energy, or being able to summon ancient spirits of great heroes into your allies to boost their abilities. The final calling, the Revenant, is much more fun – you get to play an undead creature! Limited only in that you’re not flatly immune to mind-affecting effects, this calling has some fairly tightly-focused powers relating to your former life, such as focusing your hatred against certain kinds of creatures (presumably the same sort that killed you) or even against specific individuals.
Beyond these callings, sacred necromancers also gain “fields.” Fields are like mini-callings, adding additional thematic flavor to what your sacred necromancer can do. Most don’t inherently grant any powers, but rather expand what whispers you can take. For example, the self-experimentation field allows access to four whispers based around augmenting your body to gain.
There’s also a brief sidebar which says it lists “all necromancy spells for the Pathfinder role-playing game.” That’s great, particularly since most (though it seems like it should be all) of them are linked to the d20 PF SRD, but I do wish that those spells not from the Core Rulebook were tagged with an indicator to show what book they are from.
Nearing its end, the book presents a sample sacred necromancer named Ren. Ren, who is a shout-out to a previous ZSP book, has a full stat block, but has no flavor or expository text of any kind, which is a shame considering her background. She’s also fox-blooded, which is a new +0 CR simple template, which denotes that you have kitsune ancestry – I liked this, even if it was slightly out of place in the book, because it lets you delve into taking kitsune-specific abilities. Speaking of which, the book has three new feats, one of which allows you to have an extra fox tail. The other two are more necromantic in focus, granting an extra whisper or allowing you to turn the living (a la turn undead).
One thing I haven’t mentioned up until now are the book’s weaknesses. Remember how I noted that the spell list was linked to d20pfsrd.com? So are lots of other parts in the book…but there’s no visual indicator of what words are links and which aren’t. While this does make for a more consistent (and prettier) visual display, it can be surprising when you click to scroll the PDF and find that you’ve clicked on a link to open something on d20pfsrd.
There’s also the occasionally-unclear ability. A high-level exorcist, for example, is protected from bodily contact with outsiders and the undead as a supernatural ability…unless they have spell resistance. So he has to make a caster level check with a supernatural ability against their SR? What bonus does he have for that? Presumably it’s equal to his character level, but it’s unclear. There are a few instances of that kind of uncertainty throughout the book, though only a few (e.g. is Extra Whisper limited to just whispers you can take, or any whisper in any calling or field?).
Overall though, I think the book was not only mechanically sound in what it prevented, but highly evocative as well. This is the sort of book where, as you read it, you can’t help but think about how much fun it would be to play this class. To me, that’s really the best mark of quality an RPG supplement can have. Delving into death was never so much fun as the sacred necromancer makes it.
[5 of 5 Stars!]