Copies provided by Fat Goblin Games.
Bloody, Gross, and I'm digging it.
So, before I begin this I have a confession to make. I love the Occult Ritual system. Presented in Occult Adventures about 2 years ago, the ritual system has in my mind helped go a long way toward solving one of the greatest problems the magical system has in the OGL/3.5/Pathfinder system, that is, making magic feel well... magical again. As it stands, magic really doesn't have any unknown elements, there's no mystery or surprise inherent in casting a spell like magic missle or dumping a bag of diamonds on the floor and trying to raise your friend from the dead. Everything does exactly what it says on the can, nothing inherent to the spell causes a change, and everyone goes on about their lives. Now, this might be nice for new players but in my mind that makes it math, not magic. Magic needs chaos, it needs uncertainty, and it needs risk for it to FEEL like the spellcasting we all know from myths and stories. Magic missles need a chance to explode to life with more power than that neophyte expected and raise deads need to be able to fail spectacularly as demonic enemies take the opportunity to use this freshly prepared corpse to crawl into the lands of the living. This is part of what makes "magic" as a concept compelling to introduce in mechanics, and it is in part what makes the system we have often been saddled with so uninspiring after a while, it becomes routine.
And magic should never feel routine.
Now though, with the Ritual system in Occult Adventures we, the consumer have finally got a REALLY solid system for presenting increadibly powerful magic, both new ideas and spins on old, as something strange and fantastic again. Something that I as a GM could give to ANY PLAYER and watch as the party now looks for an opportunity to literally call on the Gods of old to smite their enemies while simultaneously dreading what happens to them if they succeed, or worse, if they fail. That makes me as a GM and a player giddy.
Now, with that in mind lets dig into this piece.
Presented as a 15 odd page folio of new occult rituals wrapped around a specific theme, Occult Rituals of the Necronomicon Vol. 1: Undead focuses on rituals aimed at, well you guessed it, Undead. Filled with about a dozen new occult rituals, Undead Volume 1 presents a rotting smorgusboard of fun, bloody, creepy, and spiteful new rituals for you to scatter amongst the musty tomes and crammed shelves of some spiteful necromancer or ancient nosferatu's library and just leave players reeling over.
And spiteful might be the keyword here, because if their is one theme that runs through these rituals more than anything it's spite. Spite for the caster's enemies, spite for the dead, spite for time, nearly every single ritual in this thing feels like something you cast to spit in the face of the forces the caster rallies himself against. Unnatural Appetite has you cooking a person into a meat pie and serving it to someone to turn them into an insatiable cannibal that can't enjoy the taste of anything but the flesh of his own kind, Worm Feast gives the target freaking piles of tapeworms that wreak all kinds of hell on their innards until they somehow... remove them through either magic or a lot of traditional medicine, and Curse of Binding Rot raises the target corpse as a Juju Zombie with all of its skills and abilities it had in life and completely under your control.
Again, spite seems the apt descriptor for this thing, and with that bloody, squirming, and gross.
But that's not all. You also get rituals like Flesh of Sand, which takes the Mummy Lord and gives you a ritual to transform yourself into one a la Occult Realms Eternal Apotheosis and the 90's classic The Mummy. Unfortunately it doesn't go into as much nitty gritty detail as either of those sources do, which is a shame as having to have your party collect swarms of scarabs and/or remove their organs and embalm them as part of the casting would be super cool, but having another ritual to create super undead added to the list is a nice bonus and one I'm happy to get on my shelf. We also get Under the Skin, which has the caster painting a portrait of the person they are wishing to target that with paints made from crushed up spiders and a brush made of the victim's likely stolen hair. When completed, the painting turns hellish and the victim has an experince that literally makes their skin crawl and reads like something from a medieval Kronenburg film and an arachnaphobic alien remake that is best left to them to describe. Suffice it to say, it's the beginning of your grossest Halloween special game encounter and you'll be looking for an excuse to do it. Land of the Damned basically drops a necromantic nuke on wherever the hell you put the focus and makes sure that EVERYTHING that dies or is buried there rises as a walking corpse set to wreak havoc on whatever poor sods live within sight of the damn thing, and Walk of Ages literally DECOUPLES YOUR SOUL FROM THE CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH and just lets you return to life over and over again, being reborn to different, unnoticable parents of whatever race you want as whatever sex you want and do it all over again.
The stories I want to build around whoever's stupid enough to try that last one are freakin' epic.
Now, amid these horrors of necromantic spite and bloody, wriggling awesome we also have some options that are far less... evil? Maybe the better word is maliciously spiteful. Anyways, among all these great balls of Ewwsome we also get stuff like Eternal Slumber, which lets you annoint a corpse so that it doesn't rot and can be transported to wherever you need to take it in order to raise it from the dead or perform last rights (and makes it smell good). We also get things like Rise from the Grave, which lets you bring back people a la Raise Dead but turns them into Undead if the ritual is failed or Vampire's Flesh, which, for the simple price of a drink of wine, going a little Ozzy on some ground up bat, and having to gnaw through some zombie fingers grants you the defenses and healing powers of a vampire for a limited time. Finally, we get Ward of Pain, which lets the casters draw an intricate ward that causes a constant ball of damage on anyone who tries to stay within the warded area without having been cleared. All of these make fine rewards for any white necromancer or pious follower of a church looking to get access to any of those great secrets of the faith that might deal with life & death without having to worry about whether or not it fills their friends full of worms.
All that said, this book still has some problems. Walk of Ages has some DCs so incredibly low they make me think they have to be a misprint. Even with 9 saves across a wide array of skill checks a DC 12 feels waay too low for what this spell is going to give, and with the relativley innocent nature of most of the checks (like having someone pen a geneology and make it into a book) the chances of a caster passing this with just a bookbinder and geneologist he hired in town are way too high. Second, a lot of these rituals NEED the evil subtype. Now, don't get me wrong, I like unaligned spells of dubious moral use but some of these like the aforementioned Unnatural Appetite, Under the Skin, Curse of Binding Rot, and Flesh of Sand just scream to have that [evil] subtype tacked onto them right beside their necromantic school and not having it just seems like a rookie mistake that shouldn't be made by a dev house who's now on their 4th or 5th book of rituals like this. My final real complaint comes with the Crafted Companion ritual. A rather standard rit, Crafted Companion lets you upgrade a construct by 1 CR and give it all the commiseruate parts therein, including a new universal monster ability. It sounds cool, but the idea of giving just ANY universal monster ability feels a bit too powerful on its own and what's more there's this giant text block that explains the Bezerk rule but really doesn't make sense within the context of the book. It doesn't make sense as a support text to go along with the Failure state of the ritual since anyone who's casting a ritual to upgrade a construct/golem should already have access to a source that explains Berzerk and as something that only happens on a failure just clutters the page. By sticking it on the page it makes me assume that it's supposed to be something that any construct gains as part of undergoing this ritual rather than a side effect of things going horribly awry, and that busying of the page is the kind of stuff that just creates unnessecary confusion at the table.
These complaints aside, this is truly a stellar, if not perfect, addition to the rituals system and something any table that uses the ritual system would be happy to have, both as rewards for players and dark weapons for the vilest of villains. I know that at least 3 of these feel like something that would totally fit into any church as sacred mysteries and having that side by side with a bunch of awful curses gets me excited to crack these open and look for ways to add them into my home game.