An Endzeitgeist.com review
This installment of the Four Horsemen present-series clocks in at 29 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page SRD, 1/2 a page of editorial, leaving us with 26.5 pages of content, so let's take a look!
So, what are living items? Well, for one, they are one step beyond intelligent magic items: They are potentially complex personalities beyond the confines of the purpose-driven aspects we usually associate with them; personality-wise, they are ultimately alive as such, they are prone to switching outlooks over the course of their existence. From a roleplaying perspective, the question of identity and its representation becomes particularly intriguing. For balance purposes, living items are treated as constructs, not objects and begin play with a clumsy fly speed of 20 ft., which increases at 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter by +10 ft. and one maneuverability class, culminating in 60 ft. + perfect maneuverability at 16th level. Living items begin play with only mental attributes and as such, concise guidelines for various attribute generation methods are provided. They are always masterwork and don't get starting gold, but do gain WBL.
Each living item, obviously, represents an item given life and thus, you choose an item definition, which collates the item to a respective slot or a category of item to be wielded. Living items heal naturally, but otherwise have the healing restrictions imposed upon constructs, which serves to balance out their impressive array of immunities. Wisdom acts in lieu of Constitution to determine negative hit points. Yeah, realize something? This pretty much opens a vast, colossal can of worms - after all, PFRPG's engine employs a significant array of values that derivate from the physical abilities...and the pdf goes on to systematically define them: CMB and CMD, initiative, AC, atk, HP - it is pretty hard to picture a more excessive incision into the core character-constituting aspects of the engine...and surprisingly, the living item engine presented here retains its functionality in spite of this significant modification.
Living items are either Small or Medium and are capable of speech - so that would be the basic engine. From here on out, we categorize living items by type: Body, Charged, Egoist (usually a ring, amulet, etc. that is too small to work on its own, acting by proxy via hijacking wielders), Protector, Weapon or Wondrous would be the subtypes available and all have different properties - whether you want to play the floating sword or the criminal ring-mastermind that switches from possessed underling to possessed underling, chances are that you'll find your particular concept represented here.
Living items do gain levels akin to regular characters and it is with the class provided that these stand and fall: Chassis-wise, we get d8 HD, 2 + Int skills per level and convey proficiency of themselves to their wielders. They have auras, all good saves and 3/4 BAB-progression. They also get their choice of either spontaneous arcane or divine spellcasting based on Charisma of up to 6th level, with spells drawn from either the sorceror/wizard or cleric spell-list and they may fulfill somatic components with weird movements. They also choose a school which then further defines the item, granting bonus spells over the levels as well as school powers at 2nd level and every even level thereafter. 5th level and every 5 levels thereafter allow for the taking of school powers from any school, not just the one chosen. They may eschew materials and absorb other magical items and their properties, effectively wielding them with concise and elegant rules. Living items increase their senses and natural AC over the levels and the capstone would be the attaining of a special purpose alongside one of 3 powerful abilities.
If all of that does sound pretty nasty, then because it is - living items are pretty strong...but they have a HUGE Achilles heel: Anything that hampers magic can render them unconscious. Considering the widespread use of dispel magic etc., this actually rendered them manageable even in the context of grittier games. Now obviously, the school powers are on tantamount interest in a context where they pretty define the living item, as they can be pictured as pretty much revelation-like sequences of abilities which sometimes build upon one another. Abjuration specialists can e.g. learn to suppress items or store alternate slotted items for further use; conjuration items can come to the aid of bonded creatures or banish adversaries, heal their wielder...and even summon a wielder to them. Yeah, that can be really hilarious, also from a narrative point of view. "Okay, living item - you suppress your magic and hide among the weapon shipments to evil fortress of doom. Once in, you summon your wielder and we'll crack open those gates." That actually happened in my game.
Spotting traps, forming a group connection, calming the bearer, controlling wielders, breaking the sanity of those in contact, faster flight, causing strange illusions...what about items that can animate the undead to wield them, that hex foes or store poison...or ones that can be healed (but also become susceptible to negative energy?) or mimic properties? Yeah, this engine provides a ridiculous amount of amazing customization options.
The pdf also provides notes on how to create living items, how to use them as cohorts (they are awesome cohorts, but only available for mythic character per default) - the pdf is pretty extensive here. Wait, mythic? Yep, mythic living items are covered as well, providing full 10-tier progression notes for them...including 9th tier artifact apotheosis!
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no hiccups. Layout adheres to Rogue Genius Games' two-column full-color standard with a blend of new and stock art in both full color and b/w. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience.
I pride myself after this many books on having a pretty precise radar when it comes to an author phoning in content. This is the antithesis. Stephen Rowe's living items are so lovingly WEIRD, so magical and frankly ODD that I never expected to see a book like this, much less review it. More importantly, I never expected to find an engine this robust, this well-crafted. Now newsflash, rare magic games with few spellcasters and items may not need this; the magic item interaction and peculiarities assume pretty much a standard level of fantasy for PFRPG as a balancing guideline. D'UH. That being said, it is absolutely impressive to witness a concept this mechanically radical to actually succeed in presenting a balanced and diverse toolkit that basically can be summed up as a resounding success. It is the level of consideration for the small aspects, whether it is the minutiae of attribute-substitution or character generation, that make this stand out above and beyond its already impressively difficult design-goal.
It is a true joy to report that Stephen Rowe delivers in spades. The engine depicted herein is exceedingly versatile and allows you to play anything - from the sage staff to the xenophobic chalice to the schizoid double sword. The level of abstraction and care required to create this framework is impressive; the attention to detail heart-warming and the narrative potential vast. Beyond its obvious oddity and novelty, reading this book made me come up with at least 10 kinds of plots wherein living items are culprits, masterminds or otherwise involved without even trying.
In short: This is worth its asking price tenfold for all but the most gritty of low-magic games (seriously, not the target demographic for a book of talking, floating magic items - unless you want a really nasty villain the PCs never saw coming; for that purpose, this'll do the trick in a particularly nasty and, dare I say, perfect manner in such a context!) and represents one of the most mechanically impressive feats the horsemen have crafted so far - 5 stars + seal of approval...and because I really dig how this enhances my games and how it can be used in pretty much any game in one capacity or another whether it'll be NPC or PC, I'll also nominate this creative supplement for my top ten of 2016.