RPG review – It Came from the Stars Campaign Guide
Full disclosure: I was a patron of this kickstarter, but I did not contribute anything to this book. When this review refers to the dead tree version, I mean by that the limited edition full color hard-cover. It should also be mentioned that this kickstarter massively over-delivered, providing MUCH more content than was promised.
The pdf of It Came from the Stars Campaign Guide is a massive book with 135 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a whopping 131 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
We kick this pdf off with player-races that set an appropriately weird theme for the whole book, first of which would be Amoebians. Yes. Humanoid one-cell protoplasm amoebians. As a player race. Awesome! Mechanically, they get +2 to Str and Con, -2 to Dex and Wis, slow speed, low-light vision, have a reach of 10 feet due to their elastic membranes, can squeeze through very small spaces, +2 to grapple-CMB and escape artist checks and DR 1/-. They do pay these powerful basic abilities with a vulnerability versus slashing damage, though, which deals an additional +50% damage – OUCH! Overall these should make for weird, yet balanced options – kudos!
The second new race would be the enlightened – essentially the book’s take on the Grey. They get +2 to Dex and Int, -2 to Con and Cha, normal speed, low-light vision, +2 to a knowledge-skill of their choice, are mute (and thus cast spells as if modified by the silent spell feat sans level increase), telepathy of 5ft. per level and may 1/day enter a state of hyper-evolution, turning into incorporeal pure thought for int-mod rounds. While in this state, they get +2 to Int and may 1/round cast levitate and mage hand at CL equal to class level, adding fly and telekinesis to this arsenal at 10th level.
The Star-touched are the descendants of one of the conquests of the aggressive interstellar magnetar-race (more on that one later) and have since developed a highly militaristic society under the auspice of their creators/masters. They get +2 to Cha, -2 to Int and Wis, darkvision 60 ft. +2 to Craft (armor) or Profession (soldier), a magnetic deflection-shield of +2 to AC versus metal weaponry, resistance 5 against either fire, cold or electricity and may 1/day unleash a 30 ft-ranged-touch plasma bolt dealing 1d6+1 for every 2 character levels damage which consists half of fire and half of electricity. Generally, plasma always deals half electricity and half fire damage, should you be not familiar with this convention – hence, while the book always specifies this, I won’t – when this review from here on refers to “plasma”, you’ll know what I mean.
The final “regular” (as if this term could be applied to any race herein) new race would be the Tachoid: These beings are alien self-replicating robots that have travelled back through time to escape the heat-death of the universe, hence experiencing time in a nonlinear fashion, making for truly interesting challenges for dedicated roleplayers out there. Tachoids get +2 to Int and Wis, – 2 Cha and Str, darkvision 60 ft., can’t be flanked, get +2 to Knowledge (history), +2 to initiative and Tachoids of Wis 11 or higher, they also may use augury 1/day as a spell-like ability. They also get resistance 5 and whenever you take cold damage, you get +2 to Int and Dex for 1d3 rounds, but take +50% damage from electricity attacks. Again – balanced race with interesting mechanics to back them up – but speaking of interesting mechanics. Next up would be the most complex options.
Coalescent characters get no modifications to any of their attributes in humanoid form – and then there’s the second form: The swarm. Yes, this race allows you to play a sentient, hive-mind-swarm of diminutive creatures. In swarm-form, str is decreased by -12 to a minimum of 3. Coalescent characters have slow speed, are aberrations and, since swarms are rather unique and powerful, also get a 10-level racial paragon class to properly develop their abilities. At 1st level, this class is mandatory, offering basic swarm abilities like distraction (with the dazzled condition) and learn to switch into your humanoid form, netting you 30 ft. speed and at least the option to pass off as something akin to a humanoid. Coalescing requires a check of d20+character level+ con-mod versus DC 10, with each consecutive minute requiring a DC 10+1 per number of previous checks coalesce-check to maintain the illusion of (relative) normalcy – while this may seem beneficial at first or like a minor thing, it actually makes for a very powerful limiting factor to the coalescent character’s power. The racial paragon-class get 3/4 BAB-progression, good will-saves, d8, 4+Int skills per level, no proficiency in armor and shields (which you may only use in humanoid form) and only proficiency with simple weapons. They get 1d6 swarm damage at 1st level and increase said damage by +1d6 on every odd level. Conversely, on every even level, starting with the second, they get +2 to Dex. Also on every odd level, the distraction ability increases in power, increasing the negative condition imparted of up to “stunned” at 9th level. Now unlike regular diminutive swarms, coalescent characters are not immune to weapon damage, instead gaining DR equal to level, up to DR 10/- instead when in swarm form. Now over the levels, the coalescent swarm may learn new modes of movement, learn to exclude allies from your swarm damage or similar defensive tricks and increase your swarm damage via energy damage, make your attacks count as magical and even heal via your attacks. And yes, learning to cast while in swarm-form is also one of the options the coalescent may learn. Highly complex and yet balanced, this race is perhaps my favorite among the cool new ones, offering for a thoroughly unique playing experience indeed – how can this one be balanced, you ask? Well, as a swarm, the coalescent is never treated as one creature as a target – this excludes them from receiving most forms of magical healing and buff-spells, requiring wholly new tactics – a unique drawback and one that will provide a complex change of pace.
Next up would be the new classes, starting off with the Moon Child. The Moon Child gets d6, 2+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons, 1/2 BAB-progression, good will-saves and full prepared int-based spellcasting of up to 9th level. Unlike wizards, though, spellcasting for moon children is less flexible and not determined by spellbooks, but instead by so-called houses. These net access to a list of spells that become available to the moon child upon choosing it. At 4th level and every 4 levels after that, moon children get an additional house. Each house also allows moon children to learn sorc/wiz-spells of certain descriptors. 5 sample houses are provided, with the final two one being in the extra-pdf – something to be aware of. Each house also nets access to a so-called sign, which offers a passive bonus that scales up over the levels. Each house also nets access to 4 different so-called aspects – an aspect is chosen at 2nd level and at every even level after that from among the houses available to the moon child. At 10th level, these lists are expanded by 4 advanced aspects per house and finally, at 20th level, each house offers one exalted aspect as a kind of capstone to choose from. Bestowing false bravado (the target thinks it receives only half damage) to adding cold damage to your spells or creating singularity shield (which may increase encumbrance of targets – cool mechanic!), the respective aspects are rather cool – and yes, there is the house of the Starry Eye, which allows you to impart random insanities on foes or strike foes with a mutating curse that changes each day… The moon child also gets a so-called hungry shadow as a familiar and an additional such shadow at 9th and 17th level – essentially, your shadows are weaker familiars, but you get more of them. All in all, a more than solid base-class with some delightfully lovecraftian/weird options. It should also be noted that a sidebox in one of the adventures mentions that aspects can be influenced via feats as if they were hexes.
The second new class provided herein would be the Starseed, who gets d10, 6+Int skills per level, full BAB-progression, good fort and will-saves, proficiency with simple and martial weapons and small and medium armor and 4 levels of prepared spellcasting via Int at 4th level. Now the central mechanics would be Psychic Tendril – this is treated as a melee weapon with a range of 60 ft (!!!) that deals 1d6+cha-mod, crit-range 20/x2. Psychic Tendrils may be used versus adjacent foes and are treated as ranged weapons when determining cover and it requires somatic components to be wielded and is treated as a light weapon. When using these tendrils, starseeds use cha instead of str to determine atk and damage and may even undertake str-checks via cha instead. Manifesting one or two of the tendrils takes a standard action – if two are manifested, two-weapon fighting rules apply and tendrils can be wielded as either primary or secondary weapons in addition to regular ones. They also utilize cha to calculate CMB when attacking, but (and that is important!) NOT CMD. Furthermore, the tendrils do have a weakness – sundering. With only 5 hp and a 20% miss chance, but no hardness and a reform duration of 1 minute, one well-versed in sundering can easily take them down. What’s a bit of a pity is that the ability does not specify whether tendrils can eb disarmed, though logically I assume they can’t be. Now where things get even more interesting regarding this very unique class feature would be at 2nd level – starting then, they qualify for both being treated as ranged and melee weapons for the purpose of feats, but not as a specific weapon – which would preclude you from taking e.g. Weapon Focus, Rapid Reload or any form of unarmed attack with them. Now it is here I expected the rules-language to stumble and it didn’t – you either can make them benefit from feats based on melee weapons OR from feats based on ranged weapons, but not both – interesting indeed, since it allows for very distinct, different fighting styles. Deadly Dance also offers bonus feats throughout the levels, but only as long as you wear light or medium armor or none.
Starseeds also get a Void Pool (and no, it’s not the 3.X L5R Void Pool) at 3rd level equal to 1/2 class level + cha-mod. These points can be used to make your tendrils invisible for a round, enhance will-saves, negate temporarily being flanked and also provide passive benefits as long as you at least have one left. (There also is an instance of two blank spaces missing between words in the text, but the glitch shouldn’t deter from understanding the rules.) Void Pools stack, if multiple pools are available (e.g. via the extra pdf’s Untouchable), though having no points left should be avoided (haha) – the repercussion would be a negative level that can only be removed via rest. Now where my OP-radar first went off with a loud bang would be at 4th level – starting this level, tendrils can be used to execute combat maneuvers. Ranged combat maneuvers. Now usually I’d be breaking off on a tangent how broken they are – but here, that doesn’t really apply. Why? Because the balancing factor of maneuvers would be AoOs – and since most maneuvers require melee attacks, tendrils are treated as melee weapons for maneuvers – I.e. they still provoke AoOs and the tendrils are fragile – making for an interesting balancing factor in addition to the limited 60 ft. range. At 5th level
At 7th level and every two levels after that, starseeds may choose from 12 different talents (called Void Insights here), which allow you to either use void points to negate fire or cold damage or increase e.g. tendril damage to 1d12 damage. Also interesting mechanics-wise – there is a talent that allows you to rerolls of mind-affecting effects when your void pool is empty. Another talent allows you to utilize disable device and sleight of hand via your tendrils – sans cost. There is quite some variability here and the respective talents are rather cool – though pressure wave is a bit overpowered – for 1 void point, it can prevent all foes within tendril range. from closing any distance toward you – no save, no CMD-check, no scaling, flat-out, no save. That particular insight requires a hard hitting with the nerfbat. Worse, for 3 points, you can execute a combat maneuver versus all foes within range – and that makes for an even more broken and jarring ability in an otherwise more than solid execution of a complex, cool and highly imaginative class.
We also get new archetypes, first of which would be the Manyskins Dancer for the Druid (or any other wildshaping class): These druids gain 5 times the allotment of wild shapes, but the wildshape lasts only 10 min/level. As a further balancing feature of the archetype, failure to spend time in your base form may result in the temporary loss of proficiencies, languages and penalized skills – a cool archetype that can be easily used to supplement other archetypes for a more fluid shapechanging experience with a cool balancing factor. The second archetype would be the Symbiote-Synthesist for the summoner. The name is already a hint – this archetype endeavors to refine and modify the Synthesist-summoner – which introduces some balancing factors to the otherwise OP archetype that introduces a separate alignment (of the player’s choosing) to the eidolon and makes the fused amalgam of both count as both outsider and aberration – a subtle, not crippling weakness and increased roleplaying potential make this take on the archetype superior, if not 100% fixed, then vastly improved version of the archetype.
Now almost all crunch-books add new feats to the fray – It came from the Stars also has new feats, but goes a very interesting way by introducing [Symbiote]-feats. Symbiote feats are broken down in 3 categories, minor, medium and major symbiote feats. An unlimited amount of minor symbiote feats can be taken without any adverse effects and they are required to gain access to the more powerful medium and major symbiote feats. Taking medium symbiote-feats might result in temporary blackouts and major symbiote feats offer the most significant benefits, but also the most pronounced effects regarding the symbiote’s power. Now, I’ve mentioned blackouts: Each Symbiote-feat comes with a symbiote point score. Once per month, a character need to make a will-save versus 10+ number of symbiote points acquired to prevent a blackout that lasts for 1d8 hours – somewhat akin to experiencing lycanthropy. Those that take major symbiote feats instead need to make such a save once per week. Due to the VERY limited amount of time lost and the storytelling potential, these symbiotes work not only mechanically well, but also fluff-wise. Whether for NPCs or players who enjoy a slew of the bizarre – poisonous sprays, tentacles, clusters of eyeballs on the major side and subtle bonuses (or e.g. green photosynthetic skin!) on the minor side – symbiotes work for everyone and )I hope we’ll get more symbiote-feats in future installments/pdfs. We also get 6 new spells, some of which use gravity and temporary increases of encumbrance to their benefits. We also get a void suit as a “vehicle”, which can be used to navigate the airless, soundless void and upgraded with gravity boots and similar enhancements – and if you need some ideas on what to do with suits like this, take a look at the Dead Space-series…
We also are introduced to 9 so-called void-tech items – thankfully in line with magic item creation allow you to bend space to threat spaces, improve your psychic tendrils or utilize gloves for gravitation manipulation, negate some falling distance or reposition foes with gravitational whips, store void points or unleash plasma bursts.
Thus end the Player’s section of the book – hence, with the gamemaster-section following now, the SPOILERS reign. potential players should definitely skip to the conclusion.
All right, still here?
We kick off this chapter with the one resource that, at least in my opinion, trumps any other component in roleplaying games and fiction-writing per se: Ideas. To be more precise: Prospective DMs are introduced to a veritable treasure-trove of ideas for planets that could have come from science-fiction literature (with silicate-based lifeforms, for example!) up to those simply WEIRD: What about a planet with sentient clouds following you around, for example? Narrow habitable zones due to multiple suns/slow rotation (Hello, Twinsun! Anyone played that one?) go hand in hand with morgueworlds and from aficionados of hard scifi to those just embracing the concept-wise weird, we get more ideas in a scarce few pages than one usually encounters in whole campaign settings. Yes, that enriching. For me, this small section proved to be more inspiring than just about every other book I’ve read this year so far. What about e.g. monochromatic planets that feature a caste or predators that prey on colors? There are WHOLE CAMPAIGNS worth of ideas contained within these pages – even before we are introduced to hazards like crystal storms, semi-sentient and deadly solar flare birds and yes…time warps. Let’s do the time warp again -and go!
Now as some of you may know, the disaster-book “When the Sky Falls” is probably my favorite 3.X-book – and thankfully, we get full-blown disasters here as well, all of which could spark whole campaigns or books: From varied Auroras to Lunar Changes, Space Debris, Radiation (yes, including gamma radiation sickness) to solar changes and solar flares (which may greatly influence how magic works via a large table), the disasters here are GLORIOUS. My only gripe is that they all demand to be used, nay, expanded into massive books of their own- This section, once again, had me glued to each and every page.
Of course, we also get a bestiary of new creatures, each of which comes with a glorious full color artwork – from the organized, warlike stellar fey, the Astreid to Space Remoras and 6 variants of elder ooze (which can absorb creatures and grow, becoming much more deadly – best take on the space-blob I’ve seen so far since it comes with a significant amount of absorbed special abilities depending on its prey…) to the Magnetars, which probably are one of the true signature enemies of this book: Magnetars are militaristic, intelligent elementals that get their own subcategory and armor training as well as the option to add plasma damage to their attacks and manipulate gravity. Magnetars are extremely dense fragments of stars that clad themselves in armored shells of various forms, allowing for maximum customizability in their aesthetic depiction. The Magnetars offered range from CR 1 to 9 and come with two statblocks each, one for the armored and one for the unarmored version – and all are awesome and on par with classic, iconic monsters like beholders or illithids. Yes, I consider them that cool. But even the other monsters rock – take the memory-consuming mnemovores, clad in illusions, which make for deadly kidnappers that keep their prey alive while draining their very personalities away. Or the mockings – intelligent interstellar mushrooms that can create duplicates of the creature sin contact with their spores, generating deadly mockeries of what they consumed, all obsessed with spreading their brand of life – until they encompass all. And then there are the Star Beasts – interstellar dragons (like the one you can see on the cover) bred on dead stars and accompanying supernovas and the like, each of them has unique properties and personalities, though all are frightening indeed – from the CR 12 Betelgeuse to the CR 20 Wormwood, all have different unique qualities and ideas for 7 others are given. I love their concept, though personally, I’ll upgrade them – as written, their crunch doesn’t live up in deadliness to their awe-inspiring background. Still – one glorious bestiary!
And then we’re off to new adventures, first of which would be Colin McComb’s “Hearts and Minds”. Yes. the Colin McComb. And you’ll see FAST upon reading this adventure why he is gushed about. Now the basic premise has been seen in CoC, for example: A particularly fertile area (lavishly mapped with and without keys in gorgeous full color in Paizo-level quality) has recently seen archeological activity and cattle disappearances. And that is about all the PCs need to know to kick off – they are depicted in STAGGERING detail, not regarding statblocks, but regarding personalities, developments and characters. As a true investigative sandbox, structure-wise, the whole area goes through escalating stages of weirdness that can be implemented by the DM as s/he sees fit: The archeologists have become thrall to a world-devouring crystalline entity seeking to expand its consciousness into the world by drinking the lifeblood of sentient beings via an immobile crystalline array. With each sacrifice, the strange influence and mind-control the entity exerts grows through the vale, with more and more falling under the being’s control. The local sect of weirdoes make for a thankful red herring and in the end, player characters may even succeed in this module without killing a single being – as they should. Slaying enslaved innocents is not a heroic thing to do. This module is, in one word Extraordinary. Detailed, legendary, awesome and not only fun in PFRPG, but also awesome in just about every other rule-set, this intelligent investigation is simply glorious both to read and run – and sets the bar extremely high, proving that intelligent horror works just as well in Pathfinder as in other rules-systems.
Well, let’s just say that master of the macabre Richard Pett takes up the gauntlet and delivers with his very own blend of horror: Journeying to an island, the PCs are confronted with a mocking enclave seeking to utilize the PCs to spread beyond the confines of their island and exterminate an insane mutant of their kind. The mocking have completely subjugated and replaced – with the exception of a loner hermit and a faithful dog. Defeating the dread mutant only kicks off the inevitable, l0ooming and subtle build-up towards a wickerman (the classic one)-like struggle for survival on an island that is strange and disquieting in more than a couple of ways – disturbing, creepy and thoroughly estranging, this module is more action-packed than the first, but also oh so glorious – even among Richard Pett’s oeuvre, this one stands out as one of his best. Yes. That good.
John Pingo’s offering, the third herein, thus has some insane standards to follow – can it live up to them? Well, let’s just say that it’s a different breed – contacted by one Zephyr Star-caller, an oracle, the PCs are introduced to an order of secretive beings, the Empyrean Bulwark. The founder of these beings has stumbled across a crashed prison-ship that held terrible entities and created the order as a safe-guard versus the otherwise unopposed threats from beyond the stars, trying to safe-guard the wounded algae-like intelligence that suffuses the ship. As soon as the PCs settle in the monastery, things start getting ugly – fast. Alerts are sounded and the PCs will have to contend with sabotaged teleporting platforms and alien prisoners (both of the malign and deadly and of the desperate, but talkative), hopefully not botching: Not stopping escaped fugitives from releasing magnetar might e.g. result in the initiation of the ship’s self-destruct sequence. Navigating Zero-G-areas, featuring void suits and finally culminating in the PCs trying to keep a dread creature from the Dark tapestry contained, this module is essentially a weird, fast-paced dungeon-crawl that is a free-for all and introduces A LOT of content from this book, all for the DM to cherry-pick for staying in the setting and including content from the extra-pdf. Different and more conventional than the first two modules, but full of style nevertheless.
Even on the SRD-page, we get some adventure hooks and aforementioned beautiful maps for all 3 modules are included in both a version with letters and a key-less one to be handed out to players.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect. While significant glitches are absent from this book, small ones like a “#” for a CR, missing blank spaces etc. can be found here and there – not many, mind you, but they stick out due to the overall quality of this book. Layout adheres to a two-column portrait standard in the print-version and to a 3-column landscape-standard in the pdf-version, both of which come in GORGEOUS full-color, or at least my hardcover (no 21 of 100, btw.) does. The pdf comes excessively bookmarked and the hardcover comes with thick, high-quality paper and good binding. Layout adheres to a glorious full-color standard and the book is FULL of original pieces of full color artwork – more so than in almost any comparable book I’ve seen and while I admit to at first needing to get accustomed to the unique graphic vision here, it grew from “jarring” to “wouldn’t want it any other way” over my lecture of the book. More impressively than the distinct and courageous graphic vision, “It came from the Stars” massively over-delivered regarding page-count and actually…well. Delivers.
The player’s section manages to astound me with unique races that actually offer intriguing balancing-mechanisms for their distinct and lien abilities that set them apart beyond fluff and mirror their alien powers in their crunch. The two new classes follow this lead: Whereas the Moon Child is relatively conservative, the Starseed is ambitious in the extreme and while it does have its own minor issues and rough edges, it is an iconic concept that in my playtest proved to be rather exciting, yet not overpowered to play – thanks to the distinct Achilles heel integrated into the design. The symbiote-feats are glorious and the archetypes offered provide great roleplaying experiences.
Indeed, that’s what this book is all about – wonder, excitement, roleplaying. This is about flirting with the Other, with the Uncanny, the Alien. It came from the Stars” could have taken ideas from other more out there supplements and e.g. expand meteorite impact-rules, as updated by Rite publishing or take ideas from Louis Porter Jr. Design’s NeoExodus-setting (LPJr joined this book by the way…) – instead, the creative team around Zombie Sky/Broken Eye mastermind Scott Gable went one step further – when I was done with the Player’s section, my mind was abask with possibilities, to quote Garth Marenghi (kudos if you get the reference), reeling with ideas to integrate this content into my campaign.
And then the DM-section hit – the ideas herein are mind-boggling, versatile and quite simply superb. The bestiary offers various signature abilities and features not a single filler beastie. The hazards and planet-ideas contain literally years of campaign-ideas and the 3 modules…are stellar, one and all, excellent offerings, each in their own distinct way. I feel like I’ve been launched into outer space. And yes, there are minor glitches here and there -but you know what? I don’t care. I have almost NEVER, in my whole career, not only as a reviewer, but as a roleplayer, read a book that blew me away like this one did. Roleplaying is a game of ideas supplemented by math and a codified language to me and this book is so rich in ideas it boggles the mind. This book (get it in hardcover if you can!) may be a small step forward for the designers, but for the cosmos of a reader’s ideas, it’s a huge step forward. If I could, I’d immediately rate this 6 stars, but since I can’t, I’ll instead settle on a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval – this will feature on my top ten-list of 2013!
One final note, if I may: Get the extra-pdf as well – the Moon Child practically requires it, which is a slightly unfortunate caveat.
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