Sep 182017
 

Dragon Companion HandbookDragon Companion Handbook clocks in at 32 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 33 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

So, this is another pdf that puts dragons in the hands of players. My dislike for this very concept is by now probably widely known, so rest assured that I am not a fan of the very concept this book is based. My first thought here was simply that I did not want to do the vast amounts of math – but hey, I guess I’m pretty much a pro regarding reviews, so I swallowed my own inclinations like a man and opened the pdf. On the first page, the pdf immediately alleviated my very first concern – overlap. Rogue Genius Games has provided the Dragonrider and Dracomancer base classes, Rite Publishing the option to play a dragon as a player-race with In the Company of Dragons – all of which are excellent products ad this pdf acknowledges this and does NOT try to wilder in their areas of expertise – plus, pointing them out to potential customers is a great example of 3pp-camraderie.

A quick glance at the pdf’s pages does show that the dragon race as used herein clocks in at 33 RP – and even though the RP-value from the ARG is anything but reliable, more than thrice the RP of humans should drive home the notion that yes, even small dragons are powerful and as presented herein, only should be used as PCs in the most high-powered of games.

So what, if not that, does this pdf cover? Well, dragon companions. Dragons as cohorts (including synergy with the glorious leadership handbook.). Dragons receive the following racial traits: +2 Str and Cha, 30 ft. speed, 30 ft. fly speed (average), start off as small, get darkvision and low-light vision, +2 natural armor and a bite and 2 claw attacks at 1d4 and 1d3, respectively. As a nitpick, I would have liked them to specify whether these are primary or secondary natural weapons – and yes, I am aware of the default-rulings here, but not having to look it up is always better than searching for the info. Breath weapons are either 60-ft. lines or 30 ft. cones and have a save DC of 10 + level + con-mod. Per default, the breath weapon can be used 1/day. Now why would dragons accompany those puny, squishy, scale-less murder hobos? Simple: Power-gain. The rationale is genius: Dragons doze all the time, slowly gaining power. The issue is that young dragons will have a hard to impossible time to defeat older dragons – so some opt to become “sleepless.” These dragons may scorn the traditions of their ancestors (thus coming with built-in reasons for dragons to try to take the PCs and their cohorts out…) and thus accompany e.g. PCs for power and protection. Dragons, as detailed here, are organized in septs, something chosen at 1st level.

Each sept modifies the racial traits – from subtypes to movement rate modification to the breath weapon and the additional qualities, these septs provide surprisingly well-balanced ability-modifications – Brass dragon septs get, for example fire immunity…but also cold vulnerability. And yes, I could break them down, sept by sept – but know what? That would bloat this review beyond compare. Why? Because they ALL are covered. Chromatics and metallics are obviously covered – but so are brine and cloud dragons, lunar dragons, magma dragons, time dragons, vortex dragons – honestly, I had forgotten about the existence of some of the more esoteric among these. Beyond these, favored class options, including the ACG-classes, the Occultist, the superb technician (from Age of Electrotech) and e.g. the mystic from Amora’s Liber Influxus Communis yes, an age, height and weight-table.

There also is a dragon racial paragon-class – which receives d12, 6+Int skills per level,  no proficiencies beyond natural weapons (but do not take arcane spell failure when wearing light armor once you become proficient in it), all good saves, good BAB-progression, spontaneous sorc/wiz-spells via Cha of up to 4th level, natural armor +1 at 4th level, +1 at 9th, 13th and 18th level and, of course, attribute and size modifications throughout the levels obtained. Draconic powers not gained via the chosen sept are instead gained via the draconic heritage class feature at 1st, 3rd and every 6 levels thereafter. Frightful presence is its separate entity and need not be chosen. At 2nd level and every 3 levels thereafter, the draconic paragon also receives a bonus-feat, one to be chosen from those with the [dragon]-descriptor. Finally, the class receives scaling DR, blindsense etc. It should be noted that the heritages themselves can be approximately likened to bloodlines, orders etc. in that they offer bonus spells, modifications of abilities and linear ability-progressions over the levels – as well as a unique capstone for each heritage, often in the guise of very powerful SPs. And yes, unique effects can be found herein – the red dragon paragon for example, learns to melt stone at 15th level – with different effects when e.g. targeting the floor or the ceiling, potentially grounding e.g. flyers hit by the lava. And yes, the complex wordings such abilities require are delivered with the trademark, almost Zen ease I have come to enjoy from Alexander Augunas’ writing.

Want to know what’s even cooler? These heritages double as bloodlines for the purposes of qualifying for certain abilities, PRCs, feats, etc. – but only, obviously, for the draconic bloodline. As a drawback, a heritage locks you out of certain options – like non-dragon bloodlines. So this massive section covers the cohort option – but this is, after all, the COMPANION handbook – and as such, the handbook also provides a companion-like treatment – with level-based advancement stats for every one of the huge amount of dragons provided, including, of course, the massive 20-level table for your convenience’s sake. Now a handy table explaining subtypes is nice – a table that handles ageing and even age regression and the effects on dragons? That is one-step-beyond level of care.

Now I have already talked about there being a significant array of (dragon)-feats to modify your draconic companion. Speaking of which – how do you get one? Easy, via a concisely defined feat that acts as a tax for the obviously superior power of a dragon companion over a non-dragon companion – and before you ask: Yes, the feat has a rank-based limit that prevents a character from achieving easy dragon-based flight at 1st level – as mentioned in the beginning, there are classes for that and sticking to its guns is pretty smart for the book, as it allows for a proper balancing that e.g. dragonrider etc. achieve via other means. Now, if you are playing e.g. a kobold or a dragon sans the paragon class and still want to benefit from a heritage, that s covered as well. Faster movement rates, breath weapons, camouflage – the feats are numerous and provide ample of choices. Wanna go dragons…in SPACE? There’s a feat for that. Petrifying foes dropped to 0 hp? Superb ambush predator tricks? Yup, all there.

Conclusion:

editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches apart from e.g. a Special-line not bolded and similar cosmetic hiccups – those are few and far in-between, though. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The original pieces of art by Jacob Blackmon are beautiful, with especially the dragonrider battling cthulhoid creatures IN SPACE being fantastic.

Alexander Augunas’ Dragon Companion Handbook is one of those pdfs I dread – so much math, so many numbers. Making such a book must have been capital “W” work – and yet, this book breathes a very fresh and light spirit – surprisingly, this book feels very much easy to use, easy to grasp and balanced in an almost uncanny way. The companions herein work, mainly because they do not claim to be anything else – The dragonrider and dracomancer balanced the dragon via action economy; In the company of dragons did so via essentially radically redesigning the whole concept. Both succeeded in interesting ways. The Dragon Companion Handbook also succeeds in this endeavor by focusing on its design-goal. And yes, the book goes a step beyond and theoretically does allow for the full-blown super-high-power gameplay of these as characters, if that’s the campaign you are going for; heck, even for low-level games, the linear codification of draconic abilities may allow for a finer grained way of balancing draconic adversaries to make them viable adversaries when vanilla bestiary dragons would be too much; one could conceivably even use the rules herein to create dragon/class/race-hybrids for adversaries.

Let me state that flat-out – I can’t find fault with this book. For me, as a person, this book is 4 stars due to the reason that I just can’t get myself to like the very concept this book caters to – dragons, to me, are the big, bad movers and shakers, not the adventuring pets, no matter how good or organic the rationale may be. As a reviewer, though, I have to admit the elegance of the design herein, the smooth flow of…everything and of course, the fact that this book triumphantly succeeds at what it sets out to do, including taking the intangible, non-math benefits into account, which I elaborated upon in “In the Company of Dragons”‘s review. Which brings me to the point – the synergy is the final, shining star here, the last viable means of complaint I could have offered – and it is eliminated on the very first page. As a reviewer, I have to rate this 5 stars -and even if you’re like me and loathe the concept, the scavenging of mechanics still renders this an excellent purchase, well-worth of your hard-earned bucks.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Sep 122017
 

5E Mini-Dungeon - The Aura of Profit (5e).jpg5E Mini-Dungeon – The Aura of Profit clocks in at 2 pages and is a mini-dungeon. This means we get 2 pages content, including a solid map and all item/monster-stats hyperlinked and thus, absent from the pdf, with only deviations from the statblocks being noted for the GM. Unlike most 5E Mini-Dungeons, this one does not come with VTT-maps or player-friendly iterations, which is a bit of a bummer.

Since this product line’s goal is providing short diversions, side-quest dungeons etc., I will not expect mind-shattering revelations, massive plots or particularly smart or detailed depictions, instead tackling the line for what it is. Got that? Great!

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.

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Still here?

All right!

So, in the poor section of town, Fritz has an underground alchemist’s laboratory – so why would the PCs try to stop Fitz? Well, his alchemist laboratory creates waste that makes people more susceptible to alcohol, which directly influences the profits of innkeepers all around. So, the PCs will have to stop Fritz – if only to prevent alcoholism skyrocketing. The dungeon as presented is surprisingly varied – we have an engineer-wizard, minor constructs (short-hand statblocks included) and some neat traps, some of which are obviously nonlethal. Big plus for the 5e-version: We get full stats for Fritz! Two thumbs up for going the extra mile there!

Oh, and know what’s kinda cool? Fritz is not a bad guy – he can actually be convinced to make modifications that negate the detrimental effects of his alchemical refuse.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes sans bookmarks, but needs none at this length. Cartography is full color and surprisingly good for such an inexpensive pdf, but there is no key-less version of the map to print out and hand to your players. The pdf does sport one nice piece of original full-color art – kudos!

This makes me happy, it really does – Rory Toma delivers a captivating, fun mini-dungeon herein – with things to do beyond killing everything, a mix of traps and roleplaying and an interesting “adversary.” The topical background story also makes sense and opens potential for further adventuring – what if an evil character gets wind of Fritz’ mixture? Kyle Crider thankfully has gone above and beyond in conversion: Diverse challenges, sample stats, hyperlinks all in order – no complaints on my part!

Seriously, what more can you ask for from a small, humble 2-page module? My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars plus seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.

You can listen to this podcast in iTunes and Stitcher too. You can download the episode from here.

Please support Endzeitgeist’s work by visiting his website or sponsoring his Patreon.

5E Mini-Dungeon #034: Mysteries of the Endless Maze, please visit DriveThruRPG

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Sep 112017
 

shadows_of_madness_5eThis pdf clocks in at 2 pages and is a mini-dungeon. This means we get 2 pages content, including a solid map and all item/monster-stats hyperlinked and thus, absent from the pdf, with only deviations from the statblocks being noted for the GM. Oh, and the series now comes in an archive that also contains…*drumroll* a .jpg-version and a .tif-version of the map! Yeah, that’s pretty amazing! The dungeon’s number-less version of the map doesn’t sport any deceptive trap icons or traps – kudos, though the place where the secret doors are can still be gleaned by proximity…but if you conceal that part, it works well. In short: Full, proper VTT-support and help for guys like yours truly that can’t draw maps.

Since this product line’s goal is providing short diversions, side-quest dungeons etc., I will not expect mind-shattering revelations, massive plots or particularly smart or detailed depictions, instead tackling the line for what it is. Got that? Great!

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.

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Still here?

All right!

Wizards strive as wizards are wont to do, for knowledge – and much like dwarves digging too deep, they are prone to being destroyed by this thirst for knowledge. Exactly that has, alas, happened to a wizard names Tibor – and now the PCs have found a stair amid the rubble of his former tower.

In this small dungeon, the PCs will fight undead foes and ultimately, save a woman  -who was kidnapped by ogres to facilitate the planned retribution of said aforementioned wizard . This guy, now, driven mad by gibbering mouthers, constitutes the boss of this dungeon.

Loot-wise, there is a mirror of life-trapping to be found here, and skill-wise, you’ll find the usual: Doors to break down or crack…and no social interaction, which highlights a weakness of this module

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches apart from the hyperlinks – there are quite a few that don’t work, which is a bit annoying. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes sans bookmarks, but needs none at this length. Cartography is full color and surprisingly good for such an inexpensive pdf. The pdf does sport one nice piece of original full-color art – which I’d applaud, were it not for the fact that it depicts a bugbear, which was present in the PFRPG-version…but doesn’t show up in the 5E-iteration. The cartography, with player and GM-VTT-maps, is nice.

Michael Smith delivered a nice mini-dungeon in its original iteration. Alas, Kyle Crider has done better conversions in the past. You see, this mini-dungeon, in the original, was pretty much defined by its strong shadow-leitmotif, with templated foes, rare enemies and a medium to save – all of this has been lost in translation, when a couple of minor modifications could have retained that feeling. In short, this leaves the mini-dungeon very much bereft of its soul and renders it much more generic in its 5E-iteration. The damsel to save, relevant in the original, is relegated to commoner status and once again, there is no social skill component here. While not bad per se, this is also a long shot from what I’d consider great. My final verdict will clock in at 2.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.

Endzeitgeist out.

You can listen to this podcast in iTunes and Stitcher too. You can download the episode from here.

Please support Endzeitgeist’s work by visiting his website or sponsoring his Patreon.

5E Mini-Dungeon #034: Mysteries of the Endless Maze, please visit DriveThruRPG

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Sep 082017
 

Mysteries of the Endless MazeMysteries of the Endless MazeThis pdf clocks in at 2 pages and is a mini-dungeon. This means we get 2 pages content, including a solid map and all item/monster-stats hyperlinked and thus, absent from the pdf, with only deviations from the statblocks being noted for the GM. Unlike most 5E Mini-Dungeons, this one does not come with VTT-maps or player-friendly iterations, which is a bit of a bummer.

Since this product line’s goal is providing short diversions, side-quest dungeons etc., I will not expect mind-shattering revelations, massive plots or particularly smart or detailed depictions, instead tackling the line for what it is. Got that? Great!

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.

..

.

Still here?

All right!

This is a ready to use portal-maze, but one with a twist: Upon entering one of the segments, you roll 1d4; on a 1, the segment’s challenge is a riddle; #2 is a trap (4 of which are presented), #3 is a random monster (6 of which are available) and if a riddle is solved, the PCs can get one of 4 prizes. The riddles presented are brief, but not the lame old classics you will have seen before…unless you’re really, really into riddles. If a segment of the maze has been completed, its portals activate. Critters defeated carry keystones and ultimately, these can be used to access the vault, where the nasty boss of the complex is awaiting alongside the sizable treasure. As a minor complaint, only the defeat of monsters will actually net keystones, which could have been handled slightly more flexibly. As a minor nitpick, I did notice a line of text missing blank spaces.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes sans bookmarks, but needs none at this length. Cartography is full color and surprisingly good for such an inexpensive pdf, but there is no key-less version of the map to print out and hand to your players. The pdf does sport one nice piece of original full-color art – kudos!

Justin Andrew Mason’s Mysteries of the Endless Maze is an amazing little puzzle-dungeon; it is not one of the annoying mazes that just frustrates players and has a smooth, nice progression rate, at least in my game it had. That being said, one minor nitpick is that you should carefully read how the dungeon works; due to the limited word-count available, its precise functions require a slight bit more observation on part of the GM. Not that it’s opaque, mind you. The dungeon also has a nice replay value and whether as a maze in Sigil, as a sub-level, as the BBEG effing with the players – the complex has a ton of uses and can be inserted literally at any time and any place.

Kyle Crider’s conversion to 5E manages to retain the cool nature of this dungeon and the foes are chosen well – though the massive loot the PCs can gain may be a bit overkill for the more conservative 5E-GMs out there…but that is cut down easily enough.

All in all, a well-crafted mini-dungeon worth of a final verdict of 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform.

Endzeitgeist out.

Please support Endzeitgeist’s work by visiting his website or sponsoring his Patreon.

5E Mini-Dungeon #034: Mysteries of the Endless Maze, please visit DriveThruRPG

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Sep 072017
 

Grimoire of Lost Souls.jpgThe massive hardcover Ultimate-style book for Pact magic clocks in at 387 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page KS-thanks, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 376 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

I was a KS-backer for this book and as such, I have received the massive hardcover. My review is mostly based on the print version, though I have also consulted my pdf-iteration for it.

So, what is this book? The short tl;dr-version would be that it is for Pact Magic, what Ultimate Psionics was for psionics. A more detailed response would also note that this book is not simply a compilation of previously-released material; in fact, this massive grimoire does feature a lot of new material, material previously not seen for PFRPG and some massive tweaks to existing options.

So, what is pact magic? Well, the short reply would be that it was the original Pact Magic. First conceived in 3.5’s Tome of Magic, the system had some serious hiccups and balance-issues in its initial iteration, but at the same time, it was a revelation for me: The idea was that named spirits exist; said spirits have fallen past the usual confines implied by D&D cosmology and, from their in-between status, they hunger for the chance to interact with the realms of mortals. From legends to archetypical beings to strange demons, all kinds of weird spirits, some of which were influenced by the key of Solomon, were thus presented.

This system was greatly expanded in two massive hardcovers back in 3.X, “Secrets of Pact magic” and “Villains of Pact Magic”, both of which are undeservedly obscure and have a place of honor on my bookshelf. They tweaked the balance of the system, expanded it and made it more unique – and, more importantly for me, they rank as some of my favorite rule-books of that age – the spirits came with HUGE short stories depicting their legends, adding a vast amount of flavor to each of the options herein. Then, two stand-alone updates/expansions for PFRPG were released, expanding the concept and translating it to PFRPG, though these did cut back on the beloved legends I enjoyed so much. This book once again features a lot of legends, though some have been externalized to a short-story collection.

Fast-forward to this book, which presents basically the latest and most refined iteration of the concept. At the heart of this system lies the pactmaker class, which gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and good Fort- and Will-saves. The class adds +1/2 class level, minimum 1, to Knowledge (arcane), Knowledge (history), Knowledge (religion) and Knowledge (planes) and gains a bonus on these to research a spirit’s knowledge tasks, instead gains a bonus equal to full character level.

So, what are knowledge tasks? Each spirit has a specific, occult seal that is drawn by the binder: This seal and the spirit need to be researched via knowledge tasks – basically, these represent the effort to learn a spirit. This is important, in that there is no limit otherwise on spirits known, if you will: While a pactmaker can only bind spirits of 1st level in the beginning, he may learn all of them. New spirit levels are unlocked at 3rd level and every 2 levels thereafter and spirits are organized by levels, much like spells; the 9th level spirits being obviously the most potent. A pactmaker may bind multiple spirits at higher levels – 2 at 4th level, +1 one spirit every 6 levels thereafter. 7th level and every 6 levels thereafter allow a pact maker to replenish an expended spirit ability 1/day and the capstone makes spirit abilities count as extraordinary and allows for the ignoring of personality influences and also nets the class automatically the capstone empowerment. Bear with me for a second – those are spirit terms. 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter provide a choice of bonuses while bound to a spirit. Saves against abilities, generally, are determined by Charisma as a governing attribute.

And that is already pretty much the basic chassis of the class. Let’s move on to the basics of pact magic, shall we?

The term to denote a character using pact magic is “binder”; a binder level is the equivalent of the caster level, for the purpose of governing the spirit’s abilities. A binding check is a d0 + ½ binder level + Charisma modifier, and it is made upon summoning a spirit to determine the power of the pact. This requires a ceremony and a binder check versus the binding DC of the spirit in question – rushing the ceremony is possible, but results in massive penalties to the check. On a success of the check, the binder gets a good pact. A binder that makes a good pact can freely suppress the physical sign or minor granted abilities of being inhabited by the spirit (like horns, tentacles, weird voices, etc.) and suffers no penalty when acting against the spirit’s influence – basically, the personality of the spirit. If failing the check, he still gets the spirit, but makes a poor pact; the binder must exhibit the physical sign and suffers cumulative penalties when disobeying the spirit’s influence, lasting for 24 hours, even if the spirit if exorcised before that duration has elapsed. Suppressing a spirit eliminates all benefits, but also all penalties that may be incurred by having a spirit inhabit you. The process of making a good pact can be improved by using totems – basically optional material components or terrain components. Additionally, some spirits are more well or ill–disposed towards some races (favored allies and enemies), beings with certain alignments, class features, etc., while others reward those that call them in dark places, while stricken by illness, etc. the possibilities here are endless and tie in very well with the flavor of the spirits in question, rewarding players for caring about the story of their spirits.

Here is the catch: Spirits have three types of abilities: Minor abilities, which are always granted; major abilities, which are expended for 5 rounds after being used unless otherwise noted, and capstone empowerments, which are only gained when the spirit’s DC is beaten by 10 or more, making even low-level spirits retain their usefulness at higher levels.

It is not in the chassis of the pact-maker class or one of the numerous pact magic based class options that the system’s appeal lies; it is within the massive, colossal array of spirits. It should also be noted that most spirits are assigned to a constellation – upon binding them, the binder gains constellation aspects and these general affiliations double as thematic restrictions and schools of spirits if you will; you can focus on binding nature spirits…or fiendish ones…or those that hearken from the dark beyond. Whether you want to focus on slenderman-like entities or strange fey or on any combination of them, the spirits are here and allow for a wide variety of different types of character. And yes, benevolent spirits like cynical detectives that have fallen through the cracks of reality or basically saints can also be found – this is important to note, for pact magic, requiring less study thanb comparable magic and no divine oversight either, does carry with it the flavor of the forbidden, of the occult. And yes, there are starless, more obscure spirits.

As you may have gleaned by now, a strength of spirits lies in the way in which many of their abilities operate on a cool-down mechanic…and frankly, I went through this massive tome with my analysis, and rules-wise, there are precious few hiccups: To note two remarkable ones: The spirit Sevnoir, for example, heals you when inflicting damage to a creature suffering from a fear-effect. If you have a character with a fear-aura on hand, the 1/round caveat doesn’t prevent cheesing this via kitten slaughter.

At the same time, this book does predate the release of Occult Adventure regarding when it was worked on, and as such, unfortunately does not provide synergy with that glorious tome. Prestige classes, magic items, feats, special binder secrets (talents), spells, races, planes and organizations (apocryphal desert…nightmare weald…need I say more?) – the book has a ton to offer in crunch and I could bloat this review to 14, 20 pages even – easily, and still scratch the surface of what the book offers in terms of sheer content. There are some minor formatting inconsistencies to be found, with abilities that should be red showing up in black instead and the like.

There is one more thing you should be aware of: RAW, binders do NOT gain new spirits upon reaching new levels. While *personally*, I require downtime training to gain the benefits of a level up (I really dislike just *pling*, getting level-ups mid-dungeon…), I know that many groups do just that – in such cases, I’d suggest automatically gaining a spirit upon reaching a new level. So yes, this may be, for some groups, a drawback of the RAW engine, though one that can be houseruled away with ease. System-immanently, groups that do not engage in a lot of roleplaying as opposed to rollplaying will have a bit less fun with this, though please do take a look at my conclusion for what I mean by this.

I have to break my usual system of presentation here a bit in order to convey what this book provides, so let me prematurely interject my

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good, but not perfect – I noticed a couple of hiccups here and there, some formatting glitches and the like; less than in many books of this crunch-density, but enough to notice. Layout adheres to a gorgeous 2-column full-color standard and the book comes with a TON of absolutely phenomenal full-color art; some of which was previously used and colored, but most is new. Each spirit has his/her/its own seal as a visual representation, so yeah, you can actually draw the seal, if that’s how you roll! The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks for your convenience and thankfully, the book has a massive, multi-page index that helps navigating this tome. The hardcover is a beauty to behold and well worth getting.

You know, as a person and as a reviewer, I generally tend to gravitate towards complex options; beautiful mathy constructs and subsystems that provide an interesting playing experience. I can honestly appreciate it when math works out, when some abilities do something utterly unique with complex rules operations. While certainly not simple in these regards, pact magic never reaches the complexity of akashic mysteries, ethermagic or similar systems. And still, it is one of my favorite systems ever.

I am not a sentimental man, so nostalgia is not the culprit here and it took me quite a while to deduce why pact magic works so well for me. There is no simple answer. One, though, would be that much like psionics, I can see it completely replacing the standard spellcasting classes for a completely different campaign experience, one steeped in occult lore, research…and one that makes magic more dangerous, feel more forbidden, medieval. In fact, I’m regularly stealing spirits from this book when playing OSR-games, breaking them down to the simpler rules of such systems. LotFP, LL, S&W – it works and fits thematically perfectly will the often more gritty aesthetics there. This has literally transcended the bounds of its system, at least for me – something only precious few books in my vast library achieve.

At the same time, the strength of the system, its appeal, does not lie wholly in its mechanics; pact magic, to a degree, is the original occult magic, prior to Occult Adventures. In my review of Paizo’s phenomenal hardcover, I commented on the fact that I love how player agenda AND character agenda are emphasized, and how the classes have ROLEplaying potential hardcoded into their respective rules. This is, ultimately, why I adore this massive tome; I adore tactical combat and I’m the first to appreciate a well-made combat-encounter with strategically-interesting hazards etc. – I love these. I love the tactical, complex combat aspects of PFRPG. But I also adore the storytelling aspect of the game; I love good roleplaying between characters, between PCs and NPCs; I use story-rewards a lot. To me, the beauty of roleplaying games with a high rules-density lies in the blending of strategy and story-telling, in the fusion of stories and tactics. Ultimately, for me the best rules let me do either unique things in the strategy department, in the roleplaying department, or both.

Every single spirit is a bit like an unruly character that influences the PC or NPC; they all have personalities, quirks and goals, enemies – and they may grow with your PCs. When a spirit helps vanquish a certain foe after being bested by him, you have your work cut out for you as a good roleplayer; you can tweak your character with spirits and keep them perpetually fresh and interesting; perhaps your character is a teetotaler, so binding some spirits may be something he’d be loathe to do; perhaps bidning one spirit and succumbing to the spirit’s influence nets you some complications…or new allies – it’s small, organically happening constellations (haha! – sorry, I’ll punch myself for that later) that make this shine as brightly for me.

There is another aspect to this book. One that perhaps bears no importance for you…but then again, I think it does.

No other system I have used has made me write this much custom material.

When, for example, Aldern Foxglove was a very popular character in my RotRL-game back in the day and then died (trying to be SPOILER-less), I promptly had him come back as a spirit with peculiar personalities, fluid constellations and abilities depending on the dominant personality; when my PCs liberated the ghost lions from the Ghostlord in Red Hand of Doom, I made the pack return as a spirit to be bound; When Kyuss fell, he became the master of the Worm constellation. The Crimson King is a spirit in my game. So is the Dark Tower.

And yes, you can use the spirits herein as guidance, tweak and reskin them for a lot of purposes. Don’t like a legend or a particular spirit? Chances are that you won’t have to do a lot of writing, just replace an ability and come up with a new legend. Done. When one of my players happened upon notes on a blood-drinking lizardfolk thing from ages long past, I took N’aylia the first vampire, tweaked her abilities a bit more towards the lizardfolk-esque and there we go. I actually improvised that reskin on the fly while GMing and nobody noticed.

Or, you know, you can pretty much write infinite amounts of new ones, based on your campaign. I have psionic spirits, akashic spirits, ethermagic-spirits…you name the subsystem and I pretty much have a spirit for it. Why? Because the engine per se is simple. You can easily complicate it in a vast variety of ways by grafting pretty much anything on top of it, with only your own skills as the limit – and the glue that holds all together is this basic system, one that is defined by choice, yes…but more than that, it is defined by the stories you tell with it.

A haunt put to rest? Potential spirit. An outsider slain? Potential spirit? Anything weird, from mages that fell through space and time to sentient constructs? Potential spirits. Fey kicked out of their courts/dethroned fey queens? Potential spirits. Defeated campaign endbosses? Potential spirits in the next one. Paladin PC that sacrificed his soul to seal the demon-lord in an artifact? Potential spirit. Endzeitgeist, a zeitgeist-like spirit of the end-times? Potential spirit. In fact, the book does an amazing job at showcasing the sheer infinite breadth of themes that you can cover with these spirits.

Pact magic is a nice, well-made system on its own – probably one that deserves, when divorced from all flavor, a verdict of 4.5 to 5 stars, somewhere in that vicinity. But this would not do the system the least bit of justice. Dario Nardi and Alexander Agunuas deliver with pact magic perhaps the most literally inspiring system I have ever encountered for a d20-based game. Its genius does not necessarily lie within its rules, but within how it is an incredibly potent narrative instrument, how it can change the depiction of a fantasy world to make magic feel more magical, how it rewards customization and making the system your own more than any comparable system I know. I guarantee that, when using the system thus, you will have perhaps the most impactful alternate system ever on your hands.

In case you haven’t noticed by now: I absolutely LOVE this system. Even my reviewer-bot-persona can’t really adequately complain about it, mainly because separating the fluff from the crunch divests the system of its core principle – it is, frankly, impossible to rate this fairly as anything but the sum of its parts, and that sum is a thing of absolute, inspiring beauty. This book will grace my shelves for years to come; it has already spawned more ideas than I’m ever likely to put to paper. It is, in short, the streamlined, improved heir of the old system; tighter and more concise, yet without losing any component of its uniqueness.

This is one of the most inspiring books, quite literally, that you can purchase for PFRPG. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This is also, big surprise there, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017. It also receives the EZG Essentials tag as a book I consider a must-own expansion for the system.

Now, can we have an Occult Adventures/Horror Adventures-crossover sequel or do I have to write the spirits myself? Who am I kidding – I’m going to write them either way!

Endzeitgeist out.

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Sep 042017
 

monster_movie_MatineeThis bestiary clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 22 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

So, as the introduction (accompanied by a ToC with CRs) specifies, this book constitutes a love-letter to monsters that pay homage to classic horror flicks – not the silver screen of old, but rather to the more recent creatures featured. The advice to let them build up momentum is something I, indeed, with years upon years of horror gaming under my belt, would also advise in favor of. So let’s take a look, shall we?

The first creature herein would be the CR 5 Aquamonstrosity, which is interesting in that it obviously is a fish-man creature, yes – but one with a powerful ability: By burning some hit points, these beasts can execute either an additional attack or an additional move action. Alas, the wording stumbles here – the example specifies that the creature can perform a full-round action and a standard action, when this directly contradicts the previous assertion that the creature can only get an additional move action or an additional attack: There are more full-round actions that full attacks. A rather annoying factor that unfortunately can be seen throughout the pdf, would be the fact that the racial modifiers for the respective monsters are not listed, which renders the question whether the skills are correctly calculated an educated guessing game. Granted, not in this instance, but still. At the same time, it is nice to see that the changed action economy’s impact on rend has been taken into account regarding the wording of the latter – kudos there!

The carnivorous mantrap with its domination-capability should also ring true as a classic, with the monster’s ability to understand languages – in spite of a lack of an Int-score, though I’m not sure I get the omission thereof. Somewhat problematic – the blood drain additional effect does not specify whether it applies to bite and tentacles or only one of these attacks. At CR 3, Grey Invaders get death rays and nitrogen dependency, making their suits important for their efficient functioning. An okay critter, if not a special one.

The CR 7 Jungle Predator obviously would be a  direct quote of the beloved scifi-franchise, including at-will fire blasts and invisibility. Oddly, I think there is something missing regarding the iterative attacks – at +11, +4 of which are due to Strength, they should have iterative attacks. Furthermore, the line seems to assume two-weapon fighting, which is dandy with me; alas, then the -2 penalty is missing. At the plus-side, I love the lethal self-destruct upon death. The Killer Clown, at CR 11, obviously is a call out to IT, with an ability to let it “not sink” (why not simply go the water walk-route? As written, the ability makes e.g. interaction with magma and slimes less than obvious – sink or no sink?) and a cool idea – the first kill a day increases the fear points of the creature, granting it bonuses; at 7 fear points, it becomes dormant. This essentially puts a nice timer on the creature and makes its actions make more sense, while also explaining the actions of the beast. It also heals whenever someone fails a Will save against its spells and abilities. Okay, the final form-giant spider (stats in appendix for your convenience) is a bit lame, but the blood-filled balloons…nice touch! And yes, this is a potential TPK for PCs acting less than smart.

Night terrors are manta-ray-like creatures with a barbed tail -and they can decrease lighting conditions, with more abilities overlapping, bringing darkness and a sneak attack that works even when foes have concealment. Interesting one – and +1 point if you can name the inspiration here! AT CR 9, Nightmare Stalkers would be the representation of Freddy et al., with the ability to shake off ongoing effects, change shape and have hallucinatory terrain. At CR 10, the Shark Tornado is odd – it does share several traits with swarms, but does sport deviations from it – due to the creatures in question being medium, the type is “animal”, subtyped as swarm. Over all, I really liked this take on the shgarknado-concept from a mechanical perspective – why? Granted, mechanically, the troop-subtype may have been the better choice than building a swarm with medium-sized animals. At the same time, the mindless destructive potential of the swarm *DOES* feel like a swarm – so yeah, good with it. The formatting has failed to use the correct font and style for the second half of the statblock’s tornado-ability explanation in a slightly annoying formatting glitch, though.

The Snatchoid, obviously, would be a nod to the cult-franchise Tremors – including improves damage on surprise-round grabs – pity we do not get the evolved versions of the life-cycle, though. The Unstoppable Maniac, with the machete as the weapon of choice, would be a nice rendition of Jason etc. – with some resistances, DR and SR, these guys are tough. They can also rise again at 1d8 HP (which is NOT much) upon being killed and yes, they can dimension door. Additionally, they may not be able to run, but they ignore difficult terrain, making it very possible that they catch up to players…sooner or later. Their damage-potential, though, is pitiful at only 1d6+6.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are okay – while I did notice some minor hiccups, I also noticed quite a few statblocks that sport no grievous issues and in total, this is the most refined monster-book I’ve seen from Fat Goblin Games so far. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes with one downright beautiful original artwork for each creature – absolutely awesome, especially at this low price-point. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Author Eric Hindley provides quite a nice array of monsters here – though beyond the minor hiccups, I think this pdf does have a bit of an issue in theme: See, as any Ravenloft or horror-GM can attest, the creature is EVERYTHING in a well-crafted story in the genre; the same holds true for the monster movie genre. We do not cheer for the obnoxious stereotypes that are slaughtered – we like the monster.

The cultural ramifications for this are not as simple as one would think and lead far into the path of analysis – beyond the coming-of-age-imagery, the symbolism of sexual awakening inherent in the narrative is a complex one. And one, quite a few of the beasts herein can support.

At the same time, though, what we have here are arguably center-stage adversaries – bosses. BBEGs. And for that, there’s no two ways around it, they sorely lack staying power.

With the notable exception of the Killer Clown, the creatures herein do not have pronounced defense capabilities that would stand in the face of PCs of the respective CR. Additionally, the damage-output of some of them undermines the horror they generate – the Jason and Freddy-iterations especially simply don’t do that much damage, with the former lacking the regenerative feed-on-fear capabilities. While this may be me wanting “story”-monsters worthy of their inspirations, my playtest confirmed my suspicions – the creatures are not pitted versus hapless teenagers, but seasoned adventurers and these guys, alas, can make short process of most of the adversaries herein.

Thus, the issue of this pdf lies in a somewhat schizoid focus – on one hand, the creatures should be stars, creature-features if you will; on the other hand, they lack the staying power and capability to deliver on said promise.

The issue in horror roleplaying, especially with d20-rules, is that hit point loss alone is not creepy – it happens all the time. You need the threat of death, of crippling afflictions, of lethal attacks to transport fear to not only the characters, but also to the players. And here, this does not deliver. When some of the creatures in this book attacked, my players lost all respect for them. While in no way a bad supplement, this discrepancy does mar it for me.

Do not treat the monsters herein as though they can carry the final boss fight – instead, I’d suggest a modified appropriation of the concepts and statblocks and enhancing them, should you expect to truly frighten your PCs.

What remains, is a nice little bestiary with gorgeous artworks and a mixed bag of adversaries – not bad, but also short of its potential. My final verdict will hence clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 for the purpose of this platform.

Endzeitgeist out.

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