Faces of the Tarnished Souk - An NPC Collection

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Jun 26 2015 - 08:21

This massive book clocks in at no less than 323 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 314 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This review was moved ahead in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
Well, first of all, I will deviate from my usual take on detailed analysis of the individual pieces of content herein  -why? Because that would take AGES and bloat this review beyond the page-count where this would have any semblance of help for anyone of my readers. Beyond that, there is another factor - I have written detailed reviews for each and every NPC (apart from the new one) sported in this massive compilation - combining them would result in more than 30 pages, so there you go. If you're interested in one particular NPC, you can have a detailed analysis of said build in my individual review of the respective pdfs. If you have read them, here's a general summation of what sets the NPCs apart.
Fluff-wise, the Tarnished Souk can be considered an interplanar nexus situated on the plane of dreams, right outside the legendary Coliseum Morpheuon, where the most powerful mortals and immortals duke it out under the auspice of the khan of nightmares, all hoping to gain the cusp of desires. Oh, and yes, the tarrasque is actually part of the competition's challenges, to give you an inkling of the level of expertise required in this competition. Dreams are a vaulable currency in Coliseum Morpheuon and thus, they actually carry relevance beyond the story's basic requirements for the characters in question. As such, they may actually be found by PCs and provide a level of background information one regularly does not expect. Dreams are more, though - they are power. While dreamburning rules from Coliseum Morpheuon are not required for this book, it does add a nice further dimension and honestly, Coliseum Morpheuon is the best high-level module available for Pathfinder, so you definitely should have that beast anyways.
So what is special about the NPCs herein? Well, regarding crunch they are special to me because they don't suck. There. I said it. Pathfinder's high-level gameplay and the general experience of many a DM that high-level gameplay comes apart, at least partially, is due to just about all published books simply having an impossible job at their hands: The directive is to create adversaries that a casual gaming group can vanquish and the more the levels pile up, the bigger the discrepancy becomes between people that exhibit a high degree of system mastery and those who don't. At high levels, this ultimately leads to whining I've seen on boards about ACs of 36 in high level-ranges where that is not an insurmountable defense. At the same time, posts complain about 1-round curb-stomping BBeGs, a problem exacerbated by the mythic rules, famously being quoted by Alexander Augunas as the Rocket-launcher-standoff.
In my main campaign, I run next to no unmodified published modules - why? Because, if I took Karzoug against half my group, they'd mop the floor with him. Yes, I'm talking about the enhanced Anniversary Edition. Playtesting published modules only VERY rarely results in any PC deaths at my table, even in Frog God Games killer beasts. And I'm not alone in this issue. While my group may be an extreme example, it is a trend that is exacerbated with each new release, with each slight power-creep. In 3.X that resulted in me wearing down my Advanced Bestiary and templating EVERYTHING. In PFRPG, I follow a similar modus operandi, though one supplemented with many, many base classes, archetypes etc. So that would be problem No.1.
Problem number 2 is a more pleasant one to have - ultimately, there are MANY awesome 3pp-products out there -glorious base-classes, exceedingly fun subsystems etc. - and yes, I'm using more 3pp material than Paizo material at this point. Alack and alas, there is no big 3pp NPC Codex and that means making A LOT of NPCs and monsters from scratch. Faces of the Tarnished Souk did something rather unique - it provides a vast array of templates,. both original and from the best of sources and combines them with unique classes - taskshapers and time thieves, malefactors - whatever your heart desires, there is a good chance you'll find some of the unmitigated stars within these pages. Add to that unique, custom-tailored magic items and you get an array of NPCs that is ACTUALLY CHALLENGING.
Now that would be awesome in and of itself, but it becomes even better when you take into account the vast imaginative potential that lies at the roots of the characters provided herein - you won't find "Human Paladin 20" herein - instead, you'll find, for example, Nameless Nil, the Beggar of Self. An imaginary friend turned killer turned beggar, whose wonderful class/template line reads "Bloody Maw Half-construct horrifically overpowered hungry nightmare unfettered eidolon savant 10." This is, as the back cover proudly proclaims, NOT your pappy's NPC book. Nameless Nil's prose and background story ranks among the best pieces of character writing I have seen in ANY roleplaying product, btw. - this guy is my favorite NPC for Pathfinder. Yes, I'm talking about all-out number 1 spot. Oh, and have I mentioned that, for example the legendary bulwark Ahnkar-Kosh has an AC of 64? This should put an end to the smirk on your level 20 min-maxers face...
But wait, before you put away this review - no, not all NPCs in this book exist only in the CR ~20-range - instead, each of the NPCs herein comes with a build for low levels, mid levels and high levels, allowing you to introduce the NPCs at any level you like and depict their progression to greatness- or utilize the statblocks of the lower iterations for servants, creatures or whatever you like. Another issue you may expect to face would lie in the aforementioned presence of a lot of 3pp-content utilized in the truly beautiful builds created herein. Well, approximately the last 100 pages of the book are used to provide all rules used in the builds of this massive cadre of glorious CHARACTERS. For, thanks to the interplay of glorious prose and superb crunch, the NPCs become more than the sum of their respective parts.
If you are not inspired by the glorious write-ups of the respective NPCs, many of which can spawn multiple adventures (or even campaigns!), boxes with pieces of advice further help using the NPCs and integrating them into the mythos of your campaign. Have I btw. mentioned Smiles-Under-teh-Bed, the legendary Cheshire cat that is pretty much a psychotic, playful killer that clocks in at CR 19 in its most powerful iteration? The eidolon that is the summoner that wants to be mortal? The goblin time thief convinced that things between the seconds are gearing up to tear time and reality asunder? If you have ANY joy contemplating high-stakes games, personal tragedies, captivating NPCs and a level of imagination I have not seen since the heyday of Planescape, and there only in its better products, then this compilation should be considered a ridiculously glorious must-buy.
How can this be further enhanced? well, the original pdfs sported some artwork which has since been used by other supplements as well - this has been expanded by new pieces that seamlessly fit with the respective character portrayals, with Juan Diego Dianderas and Kamil Jadczak delivering great pieces in the fitting b/w-standard this book offers and adding to the talents of illustrators that not only include master of the creepy Mark Hyzer, but also Tamás Baranya and Hugo Solis and many, many more. How can this be made better on a content-level, you ask? Well, what about adding a brand new NPC by none other than legendary, Ennie-award-winning design Ben McFarland? This would be Strai Tkossirk, the whispered word of dream. This would be, in his highest CR-iteration, a psychic (telekinetic) vrock oracle (aetherurgist) - and the level of imaginative potential of this NPC in no way falls back behind the ridiculously high standard of the series, utilizing for example a magical drug-addiction in the mid-level version. And yes, as per the tradition with this series, vivid prose, GM-advice and tactics combine to create a creature that is more than the sum of its myriad parts. On a nitpicky side - I think it would have made more sense to include him in the NPC-roster instead of in the appendix, but that is ultimately one design in a huge book....and remains the only true gripe I can muster against this tome.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good, especially for a massive tome of this size. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard with elegant borders and the artworks provided, as mentioned above, are thematically fitting and, in many cases, awesome. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
I have all individual pdfs printed out. I want this book in dead-tree. This is not "an" NPC collection - to me, this is THE NPC collection. Faces of the Tarnished Souk epitomizes what made me a fan of Rite Publishing in the first place: The combination of awesome prose and imaginative fluff that goes one step further. I guarantee that the vast majority of characters herein, once encountered, will remain the talk of your gaming groups for years to come. Beyond the cool mechanics, this series has pretty much defined what I consider apex-level NPC-crafting and remains my point of reference for any such book. It should be noted that exactly ONE pdf can claim to adhere to this level of awesomeness beyond the series - LPJr Design's Cyrix. That's pretty much it. When anyone asks me for challenging or simply evocative NPC builds, this book immediately comes to mind. When someone asks me for the spirit of truly uncommon fantasy, this book is what I think about. Whether as antagonists, allies or both, the characters herein pretty much define my campaigns in subtle ways - by the legends they have crafted, by the guidance they provide, by the growth my PCs can witness. Matt Banach, Justin Sluder, Steven D. Russell and Ben McFarland have quite simply created THE NPC collection for the discerning game-master, the remedy for players bored with standard builds and, via the builds herein, a great toolkit for GMs to use themselves.
Even if you never plan to run any of the characters herein and are not interested in Coliseum Morpheuon, this book provides so many iconic characters that it remains my honest belief that this book can serve as an inspiration for other settings as well. If my gushing diatribe before was not ample clue, I consider this quite frankly the best NPC collection out there, one distinguished by excellence in the beautiful statblocks AND the prose that draws vivid pictures of truly unique characters that deserve the moniker while epitomizing the key strengths of Rite Publishing as a publisher. This book, unsurprisingly, receives a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval as well as being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015.

You can get this legendary compilation here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Liber Influxus Communis: The Book of Collective Influence

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Thu, Jun 04 2015 - 01:55

 Liber Influxus Communis: The Book of Collective Influence

This massive book clocks in at 184 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page KS-thanks-list, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 177 pages of content, so let's take a look!
Disclaimer: I was a backer of the kickstarter for this project, but was in no other way involved with the creation of this book.
After a brief introduction and one pages summing up the starting gold, we dive into the massive array of classes herein - the reason why this review took forever to get done. So expect one epic-length monster of a review here!
The first class would be Michael Sayre's Battle Lord, who gets d10, 4+Int skills, proficiency with simple and martial weapons, shields and light and medium armor as well as full BAB-progression and  good ref- and will-saves. The battle lord receives a 10-ft aura that scales up by +5 ft at 3rd level, +5 every other level thereafter. Drills can be envisioned as such auras, only not centered on the Battle Lord himself; instead, they can originate anywhere within line of sight and require audible or visual components to execute; however, since the drills themselves are pretty easy to understand, even language-barriers can be overcome with some time and training (properly codified), thus rendering this kind-of, but not really a language-dependent extraordinary ability. A battle lord begins play with 2 drills and adds +1 at 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter, which conversely is also when the skill-bonuses conferred by drills, if any, scale up by +1. Initiating a drill is a move action, switching them is a swift action - neither of which provoke AoOs, so yes, front-line commander-style here. Drills can be, in their benefits, be summed up as teamwork feats that do not suck - essentially, some of the most useful teamwork feats (like Stealth Synergy) are granted to the targets for as long as the drill persists, while also granting additional bonuses to skills, damage rolls or minor enhancements to movement speed. The array of drills is expanded at 12th level, when the Battle Lord may choose to learn greater combat drills for mass bonus-fire damage to attacks, for example. Healing allies via fast healing up to 50% of their health, but with a daily cap, also works rather well. It should be noted that Int governs, if applicable, the Battle Lord's drills. At 8th and 16th level, a battle lord may maintain up to two (or three) auras and drills at the same time, changing all in one fell swoop, should he elect to do so.
At 3rd level, the Battle Lord receives a Noble Aura - this can be considered a non-combat exclusive buff that helps with investigations, social interaction, etc., depending on which auras are chosen - interestingly, this achieves what no other class of this type had managed to this point - render the Battle Lord relevant in contexts that are NOT fighting. At 15th level, these auras are expanded by an array of Imperial Auras, which can also be used in combat and have some SPs mixed in - the wording is solid here. At 20th level, one of some exclusive auras also doubles as a capstone. A battle lord also has a specialty, which can be considered a bloodline-like progression of abilities that modifies the class skill list. At 2nd level and every 4 levels thereafter, the specialty unlocks a new part of a linear ability-progression. A total of 4 such specialties are provided - from artillerist to mundane healing via the medic and to the more stealthy scout, the options here are nice. The class also sports 3 archetypes - the aquatic marine,  the sword and pistol mounted specialist cavalryman and the eldritch chevalier, who gets a very limited selection of spells. All are okay. It should be noted that the Battle Lord also receives Bravery, which would be unremarkable, were it not for Michael Sayre's glorious Bravery Feats, released by Rogue Genius Games, for which the Battle Lord coincidentally qualifies...
The second class herein would be the Conduit, written by Mike Myler. The class gets d8, 4+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, 3/4 BAB-progression and good will-saves. The conduit can be envisioned as a magical battery - they have a conduct pool that begins at 3 and scales up to 35 - each point of said pool representing a spell-level the conduit can absorb. Conduits may also absorb spell-like abilities, but they need to be the targets of said spells and execute an immediate action, with the pool's max size and 1/2 class level as restrictions, the latter denoting the maximum amount of points he can expend per ability. On the nitpicky side, the latter should specify a minimum of 1, otherwise the conduit can't absorb anything but cantrips and orisons at first level - said spells do btw. NOT grant conduct pool points; instead, the conduit has SR against them equal to 11+ class level. Nice catch here! A conduit can only absorb a spell if its level does not surpass the level-dependant cap and when she has enough conduct pool points available - no excess point. 
The conduit may unleash said energy as a standard action as a ranged touch attack with a range of 25 ft. that deals 2d6 points of FORCE damage, +1 per additional point spent. The range increases by +5 feet per conduit level at 2nd level. Now, you may have guessed it  -I am NOT a fan of force damage here; I have bashed classes in the past for warlocky blasting via force and Interjection Games' ethermagic wisely handled that differently. However, the conduit's blasts must be envisioned as a limited resource and thus, be compared to spells - and indeed, in practice, this provided no issues. Kudos. Now nothing sucks more than being stranded sans resources and thus, the conduit receives options over the levels to inflict damage (and attribute damage etc.) on herself to generate a limited amount of points - thankfully, both with a daily limit and sans means to cheese the regain abilities.
At 3rd level, the conduit may select one of several conduit powers, +1 every 3 levels thereafter. Conduit powers provoke AoOs and are SUs with DCs, if applicable, scaling via the 10 + 1/2 class level + cha-mod formula. The activation of these powers tends to also be powered by conduit points and as such, vary in the precise effects - from bonuses to skill-checks to passive abilities that allow the conduit to deliver mystic bolts as melee touch attacks to invisibility that scales up to its improved version, we have a significant array of choices, including duplicating low level spells, 1 1st level spell per power taken. The pool may also be used to generate weapons and shields with enhancement bonuses and movement can also be powered by the resource. Higher levels net SR and potential for AoE-spell absorption via  will-save versus spellcaster level-check. At 11th level, the conduit receives a +2 enhancement bonus to an attribute whenever she expends points, lasting 1 hour per point expended and scaling up to +6 at 19th level. It should be noted that this is not bonus times points expended, as I first read the ability, but that the per-point-caveat only extends to duration. Here, the wording could have been slightly clearer. High level abilities also include leeching spell levels from foes, redirecting spells and forcing rerolls and the capstone is a magic-immune apotheosis.
The class also sports two archetypes. The Arrhythmic conduit bleeds points over time and, once empty, has a harder time regaining them and deals sonic damage instead of force damage. However, the archetype receives superior action economy, allowing for some nasty combos that allow for multiple abilities to be activated as once, or to have them interact in fluid ways - dismiss mystical protection for a free mystical bolt, for example. I really liked this archetype since it actually plays pretty much different! The Cyclic channeler is brilliant - it adds a cooldown period for abilities, but increases their potency and as a bonus, we also get a nice alchemical item - however, the price of said item is high - it costs 50 Gp and can be created by a conduit with a spellcaster ad infinitum; selling it could break an economy, so DM-discretion is advised here.
The third class featured herein would be Will McCardell and Linda Zayas-Palmer's Demiurge had me, conceptually, grin from here to ear - it's essentially Plato's Theory of Forms, the class. And yes, I'm aware that being excited about this pretty much makes me a total nerd. The class receives d8, 6+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons, light armor and shields, 3/4 BAB-progression and good will-saves. This class is complex, so bear with me as I try to explain it to you - and no, once you get it, it's not that bad. First of all, the demiurge chooses an enlightenment. Enlightenments can be likened to bloodlines or mysteries in that they provide a conceptual focus as well as a linear progression of abilities - these change the basic means of facsimile creation and provide beyond their base abilities, new ones at 2nd, 8th and 15th level - think of them akin to how a cavalier's order modifies challenge and the options of the class. I will return to this concept later with examples.
Among the "small" abilities, social and perception-focused abilities can be found in the progression of the class. The true signature ability of the class, though, would be the facsimile. A facsimile is a creature born from the ideals of the world of perfect, ideal forms - despite their autonomy, much like tinker automata, facsimiles are dependent on a demiurge's commands - he may issue a number of commands equal to his Charisma modifier as a move action, though not all need to be issued to the same facsimile. The creation of one facsimile  (which manifests within 30 ft.)is a full-round action that can be hastened by additional quintessence expenditure (+0.5 total cost) to a standard action. Cost is not equal to cost, though - establishing a basic facsimile entails a maintenance cost, which becomes relevant upon facsimile destruction or dismissal (which can be executed as a standard action) - an array of said points, usually half, can be regained. The aforementioned additional cost thus is not refunded. Facsimiles have no duration and a demiurge can have up to half his class level (min 1) in facsimiles at a given time.
In order to create facsimiles, a demiurge has to expend quintessence points, a minimum of 6 are required for each facsimile. A demiurge has quintessence equal to  Int-mod times two plus a fixed array of bonus points determined by the class level - this begins at +15 at 1st level and scales up to +155 at 20th level. Quintessence regaining requires 1 hour of contemplation and at least 4 hours of sleep - it should be noted that increases of Int-mod do not increase the quintessence pool. If a demiurge wishes to keep facsimiles around, he must pay the maintenance cost and deduct it from the total of his quintessence pool.
Facsimiles are based on one of two base forms - jack or brute. They have fixed ability scores that are either good or poor and the same holds true for saves. Attributes and saves scale up each level, with handy tables listing them. The different base-forms have different base size categories and skills available that you can assign. Their sizes can be enhanced by the expenditure of additional quintessence. They receive default magic slam attacks and a deflection bonus equal to the demiurge's Int-mod, but do not gain feats or magic items and they count as having HD equal to the demiurge's class level. A facsimile is treated as a construct for the purposes of spells and effects, but not for the purposes of base qualities. Now as ideas, facsimiles are somewhat more ephemeral than your average summoned creature - every time the facsimile receives damage, it has to make a dissipation check, with d20 +1/3 demiurge class level + facsimile's Cha-mod versus DC 10 + 1 per 2 points of damage taken, with natural 20s and 1s constituting automatic successes and failures, respectively. Some ideals and class abilities allow a facsimile to ignore some chances of dissipation and at 9th level and every 4 levels thereafter, the demiurge's facsimiles receive +1 chance to ignore dissipation. Upon destruction that is not an intended dismissal, a demiurge only receives 1/4 of a facsimile's maintenance cost back, as opposed to 1/2 of it. And yes, facsimiles, as ideal, do not have hit points.
Now each facsimile has 5 ideals that are drawn from 4 categories: Locomotion, Manipulative, Sensorial and Special. Each facsimile has one slot per category, 2 in the special category. However, each ideal's quintessence cost (or augmentation) can be doubled so it instead can be applied to occupy another category's slot. Facsimiles can thus be enhanced to have a massive array of different abilities and shapes, from humanoid ones that disrupt the terrain to those that can  grant senses - want to make a tripedal moving facsimile that can share senses  and dissipate itself to heal  adjacent creatures? Possible. 
The vast array of customizations here are impressive indeed, though not all augmentations feel like they are perfectly balanced, something that especially comes to mind when thinking about the ray ideal:  This is an SP untyped ray that deals 1d4 + Cha-mod damage, with a base cost of 2. For +4 quintessence, the facsimile receives +1 ray attack and per 1 point of quintessence spent on this augmentation, the damage dice increases by +1d4, to a maximum of half the demiurge's class level. Now, if you're taking notes, you'll realize how this can be used to make one devastating laser battery at higher levels - if you ever wanted to make a final fantasy-summon style kill-all laser battery, well, there you go. Do the math. Even with *only* Int 18, one would get163 quintessence. Then take minimum cost for all ideals apart from rays, for 4 points beyond the base costs, one would be left with 151 points, which would translate to more than 30 ray attacks (37.75) à 10d4+Cha-mod damage. With Dex = 29 and full BAB, this laser battery can evaporate just about anything. This one component of the facsimile-building system is what doesn't work and honestly, I would have been somewhat confused, but I'm not the only one reading it this way. I believe the ability has undergone a layout glitch or oversight, since the rays also lack a range. My advice, at least for now, is to simply apply the cap on the augmentation that also applies to damage dice increase - 3 rays à 10d4+Cha-mod for a total of 10 quintessence seems like the more reasonable and probably, intended, cap - a minor rephrasing of the ideal would work here. Now do NOT let this one hiccup in this impressive class get in the way of appreciation of this glorious class, for that's not where things end!
The demiurge also sports a linear sequence of abilities, from 4th level on, which is called rhetoric. When using these abilities, one determines one facsimile designated as an argument facsimile and one as an arguer facsimile. The argument facsimile is considered the origin, the arguer the beneficiary. The argument facsimile's maintenance cost must be equal to or exceed that of the arguer. Performing the like is a full-round action and unless otherwise noted, the facsimiles need to be adjacent to one another. Rhetorics have a duration of 1 round per 2 demiurge levels and some may cause the argument facsimile to become disoriented, allowing them to only perform either a move action or a standard action and may still perform swift, immediate or free actions. A demiurge begins with 3 rhetorics and learns more as the levels progress. These rhetorics are what renders the facsimiles EVEN MORE interesting - they allow, for example, for the addition of the argument's locomotion ideals to the arguer while the rhetoric persists. Other options include making the facsimiles a wall and combining reaches of the facsimiles involved. It should be noted that the abilities themselves also sport some nice easter-eggs in the nomenclature.
The 7th level also nets the demiurge the option to create a thesis facsimile, a facsimile with a limited free will and a buffing aura and yes, they may heal allies via reclaimed quintessence.
Now to get back to the enlightenments I mentioned in the beginning? Take Agathon - this enlightenment has the final quintessence cost of facsimiles reduced by 1/4 class level and get a 6th slot, which costs half as much. At 2nd level, one can have one free facsimile with only 4 slots and a significantly-reduced effective level of class level -3, while also allowing for some on the fly modification. Artifice demiurges can create objects, while befuddlement allows for the creation of shadow facsimiles - in case you haven't noticed - each of the 6 enlightenments provided radically changes the way in which the class plays. The capstone is an interesting apotheosis, at least as far as that type of capstone goes. The bonus content covers 11 sample facsimiles. I adore the demiurge class - it is a thing of mechanical beauty, vast options and is utterly, completely unique. With all those pet-classes out there, it still is more unique and interesting and while it only belongs into the hands of experienced players, it is GLORIOUS. Any fan of classes with customization options and complex tricks needs to take a good luck at this class - a piece of advice: Just mae a sample character. It makes *getting* the class rather easy and seriously, I don't get what the hassle is regarding the complexity of this class. It's not simple, sure, but it is damn rewarding and I can't bring myself to bash it for one ability with a wonky exploit due to a wording ambiguity. I adore this class and playtest showed it works in awesome ways - though, as a piece of advice, much like summoners et al., one should make sure the player can run it quickly and doesn't hog the spotlight. Still, probably my favorite class in ages and one that will be very hard to top!
After this complexity beast, the medium is rather simple: At d8, 2+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, good will-saves and 3/4 BAB-progression, the class looks a bit bare-bones. As a full-round action, the medium may channel spirits and let herself be possessed by her spirit companion as a full-round action, the duration clocking in at 4 hours, starting at 5th level instead for 1 hours per medium level. Interaction with being killed etc. is covered aptly by the wording, including memories etc. A medium can channel spirits equal to Cha-mod timer per day and the effect cannot be blocked by regular possession-preventing magic. The medium can use a standard action to provide minor bonuses and she may use séances to duplicate augury. At 3rd level and every 4 levels thereafter, the class receives a revelation chosen from a limited list, interacting with their ability to channel spirits and utilize séances - here, an alternate nomenclature to make them deviate from the oracle's revelations would probably have been in order. So, the spirit companion...this is the defining class feature of the medium and shares your ability modifiers and hit points; however, the spirit does have class levels - yes, this class can be essentially summed up as gestalt, the character - you can essentially shift between forms and from leadership to spellcasting and psionic powers and feats, the spirit companion is handled pretty neatly - and the capstone allows for a true fusion of the two. Btw.: Yes, the revelations interact with the class choices you make for the spirit companion.
Archetype-wise, there would be one with less powerful spirits, but who receives more spirit companions, one that can be considered an oracle-crossover as well as one that specializes in revelations that interact with the physical world. And yes, there would also be one psionic medium archetype. Eric Morton's Medium is a solid, fun class that especially will be a boon to tables with less players that need to cover more roles. Two thumbs up!
The Metamorph-class  with d8, 4+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and natural attacks, but no armor, good 3/4 BAB-progression, good fort- and ref-saves and begin play with a maximum number of 3 attacks and an evolution pool of 3 that scales up to 26 at 20th level. Metamorphs also have a built-in natural armor bonus that increases over the levels and ability-increases dispersed over the levels. 2nd level and every 4 levels thereafter see bonus feats. 1st level metamorphs may choose their genesis, determining the key-ability modifier for the class and modifying the class skill list. Now unlike some other takes on the evolution-based class framework, a list of phenotypes, which determine ultimately the evolutions that become available for the class - a total of 8 phenotypes are provided and a massive table helps the player determine which evolutions are eligible for the phenotype chosen. Only fey and undying may for example choose the basic magic evolution, whereas only bestial, monstrous or reconstructed metamorphs may learn the trample evolution. A metamorph has 2+class level evolution points, +1 at 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter. Evolutions can be reassigned upon gaining a level. The class also sports 3 archetypes - one that wilders amid sorceror bloodlines/eldritch heritages, while metamorphic abominations may wilder in racial heritages. Finally, the Transmogrifist may wilder in the alchemist's toolbox. We also get a sample level 13 character here.
I honestly was NOT looking forward to yet another evolution-based class - after masquerade reveler, underterror and iron titan, I was simply burned out on them. However, Wojciech Gruchala's metamorph ultimately may be one of the most user-friendly and easy to balance takes on the concept - while I prefer the fluff of the masquerade reveler still, the metamorph may be the most user-friendly take on the concept - with the handy table and restrictions that prevent abuse as well as thanks to the cap of maximum attack and the lack of flexible changes of the basic evolutions chosen. All in all, a solid take on the concept I can't really complain about.
The Mnemonic gets d8, 6+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and one weapon of choice, full unarmed strike progression as a monk, 3/4 BAB-progression and good ref- and will-saves. Menomincs may execute a standard action to identify one or more feats a target creature possesses by making an Int-check versus 10 + CR, with creatures of a CR greater than the mnemonic's HD further increasing the DC by +3, revealing a scaling amount of feats a target has - the better the check, the more feats are revealed. Why would he waste an action like this beyond the tactical information? Thought Strikes. A mnemonic may execute class level + Int-mod of those per day and they can be executed as part of an attack action - somewhat akin to stunning fist, the targets receive a save, which may see them impeded by escalating negative conditions. Instead, a mnemonic may forego said detrimental conditions and execute a memory theft, to steal a skill bonus or feat for class level rounds.
A mnemonic still has to fulfill the prerequisites of a stolen feat to make use of it and stolen feats only lock down feats that build on the original feat, not those that only have it as a prerequisite. The amount of skill bonuses, feats, etc. a mnemonic can steal at a given time is handled via a nifty table and starting at 5th level, the mnemonic may eliminate spells as well, though without being able to cast them himself. Finally, it should be noted that mnemonics may expend throught strike uses to retain a given stolen feat for  24 hours, though future maintenance of this stolen knowledge progressively erodes the mnemonic's thought theft capacity further, preventing the infinite storing of a stolen feat. now granted, this can be cheesed simply by passing the feat from mnemonic to mnemonic, but in that case, I'd consider it a somewhat interesting plot-point/narrative device and, more importantly, not something that would in itself break the game - so yeah.
Beyond this theft component, a mnemonic of 3rd level may also copy extraordinary abilities and combat feats he has seen in the last 24 hours, with an effective class level decreased by -4, though, thankfully, only for 4+Int-mod rounds per day. High levels allow for the recalling of abilities and even sharing of them, thanks to the nice addition of telepathy-style abilities to the fray. It should also be noted that they may imprint part of their mind into objects, making them essentially intelligent with all the consequences - which is a kind of awesome additional twist for the class. Essentially, this is the brainy monk we know from Anime and WuXia who copies your moves and uses your own tricks against you - and it is more efficient than the woefully underpowered base class thanks to its tricks. Speaking of which - the amnesiac archetype, with its battle trance, hearkens also back to these media and provides a pretty cool alternative to the base concept. Hungry Minds would be evil mnemonics that may heal themselves via thought strikes (limited resource, so kitten-proof), while thought rippers replace the detrimental conditions of regular thought strikes with scaling non-lethal damage. Solid and nice- overall, a fun class - designer Mike Myler did a neat job here!
Next up would be the momenta, pitched by Erik Ottosen and written by the Amor Game-staff, and I am not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that I haven't seen a class like this before. We all have seen the trope in literature - the faithful, loyal companion that makes the heroes excel, the squire that does the grunt-work - that is the momenta. The class gets 6+Int skills per level (with 2 to be freely chosen as class skills), d, proficiency with simple and martial weapons and light armor plus shields, 1/2 BAB-progression and good will-saves as well as prepared arcane casting via Int of up to 4th level, from their own spell-list, with the caveat that they can ignore "somatic components of up to 50 gold in value" while holding the book in their hands- I assume that should be material components. Additionally, as written, the momenta incurs spell failure chance for casting in light armor, which she probably shouldn't, seeing how she can only cast spells outside of combat in the first place (but only has a 6 hour required rest for spell memorization). It should be noted that limited spellcasting in combat can be achieved via the class's talents. Momenta of 4th level may cast cure light woundsas an arcane spell by either spending a motivation point or by spontaneously converting one of her spells. And these would be the momenta's central resource: A momenta receives Cha-mod motivation points in the beginning of a battle, +1 per ally that acts before an opponent.
Alas, this mechanic is utterly broken. First of all, it utilizes the nonsense per-encounter mechanic, which makes in-game no sense whatsoever. I've been VERY vocal about that not working, so I'll spare you my usual rant regarding this topic and just point you towards them. Tl; DR: Makes no sense since it is based on a fluid measurement of time rather than a concrete one. Secondly, the system can be gamed due to a lack of definition as to what constitutes an ally - master summoner conjures a lot of creatures with good initiative, momenta doesn't know what to do with this huge amount of points. A clearer definition is definitely in order here. A similar complaint can be fielded about how motivation is used - as a free action, the momenta can add 1d6 to the result of any one of her checks or that of an ally. One, there is some ongoing disparity which type of free action we're talking about - while some free actions can be used out of turn, this does not apply to all free actions - so yes, we have an issue with the base system here the class fails to address. Secondly, shouldn't the ability have some kind of range, audible or visual component? As written, it does not require the like, which feels odd to me. 2 Motivation points can also be used to reroll saving throws or attack rolls as an immediate action - no action-economy complaints here on my part.
A momenta also can utilize motivation via so-called stimuli, essentially the talents of the class, which are either extraordinary or spell-like abilities. These include being able to pay for metamagic with motivation, spell recall and the like - most importantly, though, the stimuli allow for the switching of initiative orders and allows the momenta to let allies act out of turn - an ability that can also be used offensively, by the way. So yes, the momenta per se is very powerful - even before non-stimulus abilities that include tactician and the like. However, the infinite resource of motivations also radiates into the stimuli - with an infinite capacity for encounters (versus infernal kittens, for example), the momenta can use infinite healing by utilizing motivation. So yes, this frame needs a daily cap for healing and a proper, codified time-frame instead of per-encounter. Now all of this sounds pretty negative and it ultimately, alas, is. However, the basic premise of the class is awesome and while the framework looks weak, a momenta can provide a significant power-boost to a group  -even as a cohort, the class excels pretty much. So let me emphasize this: I absolutely adore the concept and the unique tricks the momenta has, but I wished the Amora staff had slightly polished it more; as written, it can easily be fixed, but without fixes, I wouldn't use it. Still - the concept is so unique, so awesome that it is actually one of my favorite classes herein! Yeah, who would have thought?  The pdf also provides 2 archetypes, one with less spellcasting and an option to knock out foes a limited amount of times per day and a second one that has limited bardic performances. Solid.
Next up would be the Mystic, who receives d8, 4+Int skills per level and either improved unarmed strikes or weapon focus at 1st level; proficiencies are determined by the elemental path chosen and the class gets 3/4 BAB-progression as well as all good saves. They also receive a ki-powered elemental strike (class level + wis-mod) and while they have at least one point of ki, they add wis-mod to AC. Elemental Strikes use the class level as BAB and damage scales up over the levels from 1d6 to 2d8. Ki can also be used for skill-boosts, adding additional attacks to full attacks. The class also receives a mystic talent at 2nd level, +1 every even level thereafter. There would be a higher-level option to make elemental strikes not cost ki anymore, evasions, finesse and the like - a solid kind-of-monkish array, with 10th level expanding the list by advanced talents. The capstone also sports choices, which is nice to see.
Now I mentioned elemental paths - these do not only influence class skills and proficiencies, they also net a basic ability associated with the element. Furthermore, each path provides a significant array of unique talents and 3rd level and every odd level thereafter nets an elemental technique from a list determined by the path, granting either a feat or a ki-powered spell, with DCs, if applicable, being governed by Wis. A total of 4 elemental paths plus the force path are provided, with each of them feeling utterly distinct.
While the force path has a force-blast and ranged combat maneuver-option, the limited range makes that one steer clear of my rant regarding that. The book also sports 3 archetypes - the ancient gets a reflexive reincarnate and sooner access to elemental techniques, but pays more for elemental strikes. Crossroads Mystics receive decreased damage dice for elemental strikes, but gets more ki and can select elemental techniques from all paths, but at higher costs. The final archetype, the kenjin, has more expensive elemental strikes, but gains access to ninja tricks.  Alexander Augunas' Mystic has a bit of a flavor-issue with me - I'm utterly burned out on anything elemental-themed and this class is essentially the elemental bender-style character...or the Jedi. I don't like Star Wars. That being said, mechanically, the class is honestly beautiful - I prefer it over qinggong monk and the like and it executes its concept admirably well, with Alex's zen-like ease. At the same time, it has a cool idea - a sidebox talks about retooling the flavor to correspond to the alchemical humors - and the fluff I pretty much adore, which leaves me without any valid gripes to field - making me like a class whose concepts left me with disdain is a huge feat - congratulations!
Sasha Hall pitched the Pauper class, which was then developed by the Amora staff. The pauper gets d8, 4+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, 3/4 BAB-progression and good will-saves. Paupers are defined by their two pools - hope and despair. Hope begins play  with a maximu of 1 and scales up to 11, with despair beginning play with3 points, scaling up to 13. A pauper can execute a full-round action to turn despair points into hope points. Despair is gained whenever the pauper witnesses an act of strife or desperation, seeing an ally suffer a lethal wound and when witnessing cruel acts. Hope is conversely gained when seeing an enemy fall, acts of kindness etc. When one pool contains more points than the other, the pauper benefits from a unique effect. Paupers may execute nonlethal attacks versus allies to grant the ally a morale bonus. Pretty odd - the pauper can get all "morale, sacred and profane" penalties of allies and draw them upon herself. Only thing is - penalties are untyped, so the ability does not work as intended. Fr each penalty chosen to take upon himself, the pauper gains wis-mod temporary despair points.
The pauper's abilities, alas, at least to me, feel somewhat unfocused - they establish an empathic bond with a limited array of people (somewhat akin to how Dreamscarred Press' psionic networks work). The class also allows for minor healing as well as an aura that can either act as a buffer or a debuffer, depending on which pool is dominant. High-level paupers may transfer abilities from one ally to another, but thankfully with numerical and limited resources being subject to relatively stringent limitations. Strangely, supernatural abilities are not covered by the ability transference. All in all, the pauper has many makings of an interesting class, but it ultimately feels odd in many of its choices - aid another as a move/swift action for points may sound okay...but at 11th level, that's pretty late. The class also is completely linear - there is NO choice to be made here - not even the cavalier has such a small array of player agenda - the abilities, all unique ones, no groups, fall in line as a linear progression, making all paupers essentially the same. Beyond that, the class is dependent on two resources, which, in spite of a side-box, ultimately are highly circumstantial ad thus can only hardly be quantified - and thus, as feared by yours truly, the result will be a lot of arguments about hope and despair. Some tighter definitions would have imho helped here. The pauper gets an archetype with only one pool. Overall, the first class I really didn't like - conceptually, it feels not focused enough and mechanically, I've seen the interaction of fluid pool done better in some Interjection Games-releases. The class is not necessarily bad, mind you, but it's not up to the others.
The commander in chief of Little Red Goblin Games, Scott Gladstein, provides us with the Survivor, who gets d12, 6+Int skills per level, simple and martial weapon as well as light and medium armor proficiency, full BAB-progression and good fort-saves. Survivors not only can live off the land and can provide some of his class features with allies via the safe passage class feature, which provides a bonus to allies, usable Con-mod + 1/2 class level times per day. Bonus feats at 2nd level and 6th and every 4 levels thereafter are also there Beyond uncanny dodge, evasion et al., 3rd level, 7th and every 4 thereafter allow for DR, natural armor or elemental resistance, with each quality being selectable more than once. 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter provides a survival tactic, a unique, mostly defensive trick that can be considered the talent-array of the class - many of which can also be granted to allies. Level 13 nets essentially mettle (evasion for will- and fort-saves), called stalwart here, and at that level, this is okay. 
The survivor has been my absolute surprise here - while not particularly complex on paper, this class works superbly in play  -straightforward, fun and ultimately, it does just what you want: A ranger-y class sans all the mystic mumbo-jumbo, but who can make his allies so much better and harder to kill. This class is a great example why playtests of the complex classes herein was required - it fared much better in actual gameplay than I expected - the survivor is exceedingly fun to play, so kudos! 4 Archetypes are provided for the class - the feralist with simple weapon-exclusive vital strikes and modified feat/tactics-list, the seething survivor (with full barbarian synergy), the parkour specialist thrill seeker and the kind-of-rogueish urban survivor. A Synergist/survivor level 20 multiclass makes for a cool NPC.
Morgan Boehringer, the mastermind of Forest Guardian Press, presents the Synergist, who gets d8, 4+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons, light and medium armor and shields and gets 3/4 BAB-progression as well as good fort- and will-saves. Synergists establish a kind of network akin to psionic networks equal to Cha-mod allies, with her being required to be part of the so-called "cast." The more creatures in the cast, the higher the shield bonus granted to the synergist. Via swift actions, members of the cast can coordinate, making firing into melee easier and teamwork feat granting is obviously part of the deal as well. Better aid another among the cast is also part of the scaling progression. At 1st level, synergists may create a synergy 1+Cha-mod times per day, +1 per 3 class levels. A synergist gets "+1 bonus synergy counters" for each successful attack, save or skill check, +2 for confirmed crits or nat 20s on non-attack-rolls. A synergist may store class level + Cha-mod counters. Synergy counters may be bestowed upon members of the cast, with a duration of Cha-mod+ 1/4 class level rounds. The counters can be used to enhance skill checks, temporary hit points, concentration, CMD, AC, etc. - this ability is glorious and fun.
At 1st level, the synergist may select a technique from a selection of 3, with 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter providing an additional array of new techniques, continuously expending the pool of options to choose from - NICE! Now where things become even more interesting is with the gaining of passive abilities and the collective bestowing of Lunge - a synergist can also negate critical hits and even enhance at higher levels the action tax required by a given action - the synergist pretty much, when played right, can radically change the way in which a unit of adventurers works - and it is awesome. Ultimately, the synergist can literally be the glue that holds a group together in combat and plays surprisingly efficient and different from classes with a similar concept - when to see something ridiculously flexible? Synergist plus Battle Lord. Add in a Tactician and cackle with glee. The archetype for the class falls somewhat behind the main class in coolness, with minor debuffs being just not that interesting - especially seeing the direlock by Morgan, I would have expected something a tad bit more special, but don't let that detract from the coolness of the class.
The Umbra (unfortunately named in my book - it has nothing to do with shadows...) would be a class by Interjection Games' mastermind Bradley Crouch and as such, it is complex: As a basic frame, it gets d8, 2+Int skills per level, proficiency in light armor and shields and weapon proficiency according to the primary embrace chosen. In heavier armor, planar powers suffers from arcane spell failure chance. The umbra gets 3/4 BAB-progression and good will-saves.
So what are those embraces?  Well, they signify the heritage of the Umbra, with the primary being the dominant one and chosen at 1st level, the secondary embrace being unlocked at 5th level. Each embrace is assigned a pool of points - the primary embrace has primary points (PP), the secondary embrace secondary points (SP) - collectively, both are called embrace points (EP). Ep scale up from 2 PP to 12 and 1 SP (at 5th level) to 8. Umbra gain resistance to the energy of the primary plane equal to their class level, 1/2 class level for the secondary embrace and each plane has an assigned skill, which receives minor bonuses. At 6th level, the umbra may, as a swift action, generate a temporary EP to assign to a planar power or trait, which lasts for Cha-mod rounds, +1 point granted at 10th level and every 4 levels thereafter. This can be used Cha-mod times per day. There is an unfortunate error in one of the abilities, which specified that an ubiquitous power is gained at 3rd level, +1 at 5th and then +1 at every 4 levels thereafter, when the tables puts that at second level instead. Either that, or quickswap needs to be moved to second level. What does quickswap do? it allows for the reassignment of planar powers 1/day, scaling up by +1/day every 4 levels thereafter, making me belief that the first ubiquitous power ought to be gained at 2nd level.
Ubiquitous powers can be considered the "general" talents of the class, whereas the embraces cover the specialist tricks - the basic elemental planes and both positive and negative energy planes are available for the umbra to choose from, with each having assigned proficiencies. But the choice is more relevant than that - each plane has powers and traits associated. traits require an investiture of 1 point to use and then are static and passive. Powers, on the other hand, allow for more customization - the more points you invest in a given power, the longer you can activate it/the bigger its potency. Now, as you might expect, the benefits are pretty unique - what about a weak reflexive shield that can be dismissed to execute a smite?  Yes, the benefits tend towards the unique side of things and some abilities utilize a cooldown mechanic I pretty much enjoy.
Now I'm an old-school Planescape fanboy, and thus, the further tricks of the class brought a smile to my face - yup, at 10th level, the umbra becomes a kind of embodied demiplane-intersection of  his primary and secondary embrace. When assigning EP, an umbra can elect to convert either PP or SP into demiplance emergence points (abbreviated DE), but her SP pool must remain larger than the DE pool. Now the interesting part here would be that each demiplane's powers tend to work differently - some reward stockpiling DE-points. Some require their expenditure. Some ignore them mostly in favor of other counters, which are gained in means pertaining to the elemental condition in question and instead make for the resource of the demiplane: Cinders nets, for example, 1 "sputtering charge" whenever the umbra utilizes a power, but does not bypass the cooldown - this charge can be used as an additional invested point in an ability for a short while or expelled as a blast of negative energy and flame, with DE governing the damage output of the sputtering charge-powered blast. Have I mentioned the capstone that lets you make your own plane? Yeah......Damn, LIC, what are you doing here? Here I am rambling about how bored I am by elemental classes and themes and now I have a second class with such a theme I actually like. Damn. Kidding aside, the umbra is an interesting class with essentially a highly customizable array of tricks that makes it surpass the one-trick pony component inherent in most elemental-themed classes. I generally like it, though I still don't get where the name comes from.
The penultimate class herein would be Wayne Canepa's Warloghe, who gets d8, 4+Int skills,  custom weapon proficiency and no armor or shield proficiencies. The class is built on a 3/4 BAB-progression good fort- and will-save chassis and their bond with a twisted spirit provides prepared arcane spellcasting from a custom list of up to 6th level, based on Wis -uncommon. However, alternatively, instead of spellcasting, a warloghe may select a binding pact with a spirit, gaining a linear, bloodline-like array of abilities, but more on those later. 2nd level warloghes get an essence pool equal to 4 + 1/2 class level + wis-mod, with a passive benefit and the option to expend points to inflict negative-energy based touch attacks, with higher levels allowing for AoE emanations and debuff conditions. At second level and every two levels thereafter, the warloghe selects a taboo - essentially the talents of the class, governed by Wis, with some being exclusive to certain twisted spirits chosen.  These include SPs, upgrades to the vortex, dabbling in necromancy, familiars at -5 class levels - quite an array. The 5th level class feature, though, would be one of my favorites - warloghes may leave their soul behind as haunts, moving forward as a soulless shell! Damn cool! However I really wished the pdf sported a kind of instant-haunt-generator for warloghes that does not require handing GM-books to players. Taboos are expanded at 10th level to include more powerful choices. The taboos, when active, more often than not require the expenditure of essence points, which also powers a linear array of spell-like abilities granted over the class's level-progression.
A total of 5 twisted spirits, each with a custom spell-list and custom binding abilities, are provided - it should be noted, though, that each of them also results in a tainted soul, which translates to a continuous, negative effect on the warloghe that denotes his sinister dealings - however, they also provide a unique base benefit. The individual benefits are pretty unique and include stacking bleed damage, placing marks of vengeance, etc. The warloghe class gets a pretty lame capstone, but 3 archetypes: One gets binding pact and spellcasting, but no taboos, while another can craft totem-constructs instead of getting the haunted ability. the final one may channel spirit strikes through his weapon and not waste points on misses, but loses the vortex AoE-control. Unremarkable, as far as archetypes go. The warloghe is pretty much a sinister glass cannon that feels a bit like a more damage-focused take on the witch-fluffed gish - now the class isn't bad and its damage output is balanced by being VERY squishy (more so than the magus) and I like the fluff, but I really think it would have benefited from significantly more spirits - those that are here are solid, though ultimately, the class suffers from me having years upon years of Pact Magic as a frame of reference and the latter just feels more versatile to me.
The final class is a new iteration of an old acquaintance of mine, the Warsmith, written by the Amora crew - at d8, 4+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons, hammer, picks and pilums, light armors and shields as well as 3/4 BAB-progression and good fort-saves, the warsmith is a retool of Amora Game's tinker - can it hold up? Well, first of all, beyond the craftsman bonuses and the significant bonuses to sundering via edifice recognition, the warsmith now may grant bonuses to armors and weapons, even duplicating special abilities at higher levels. At 2nd level and every even level thereafter, the warsmith receives a talent, here called design, which allows him to modify class features, expand crafting capabilities and even poach in alchemist/rogue territory with bombs or rogue talents. While not particularly complex, that ultimately is the strength of the class-  it is a straightforward craft/sunder-specialist who is really good at what he does. Now personally, I'm not  a big fan of e.g. a prone-knocking fissure having a fixed save-DC instead of a scaling one, but still, this remains the best iteration of the concept so far.
Since I have already covered the class options and archetypes above, I will only glance over the feats provided, all right? All in all, many of the feats here have a teamwork aspect and +x uses/+ longer uses of abilities for classes are provided alongside some interesting teamwork feats (since they don't suck for many classes herein) - unarmed fighting for non-monks, a style that makes combat maneuvers work sans improved-feats (and that while remaining balanced!) and some unique tricks, like playing switcheroo with magic item abilities, overall, this section can be considered well-crafted. In the cases where one may be familiar with some feats from previous publications of Amora Game, they tend to have undergone a streamlining of their wording - so yeah, while not 100% perfect, the vast majority of this chapter proved to be a fun read! Kudos!
Okay, so only one chapter to go - Adapt, Overcome, Survive - and it is GLORIOUS. Evocative haunts with nice flavor text ranging from CR 1 to 9 are complemented by environmental hazards... like exploding rats. Yes. You read it. Awesome! Two quick templates for magically-contaminated/infused creatures can also be found herein before we get rules for magical pollution of varying severity - think of them as the magical equivalent of radioactivity (and yes, just as deadly) - but with the nice added benefit of also coming with a ton of spellblights, of which we also get a quite significant array.
The pdf closes with a handy facsimile-sheet.
Editing and formatting are not perfect, but still pretty good - in a book of this size, with so much crunch, it is testament to the quality of the authors and editors/developers that almost no significant errors have crept into the complex matrixes of the class-crunch. Layout adheres to a crisp two-column full-color standard with a blending of stock and original artworks. the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The print-copy, which I urge you to get, is well worth the price - I got mine from being a supporter of the KS and it sports a solid frame and high quality., glossy paper. This book has seen quite some use and it does not show. As a note for 3pps: Amora Game sent me the best-packaged book I have to date received from any 3pp - with significant amounts of bubble-wrap and a big package, the book has made it past the transition across the ocean and the careless hands of the postal service without even a dent. Kudos for gong the extra mile - a creaseless book is a definitely nice change of pace to receive!
The Liber Influxus Communis grew from the PFRPG-community, the community of which I consider myself a part of and for which I ultimately write my reviews. While Amora Game took a beating from me in the past, they never gave up and when their KS ran, I *think* I may have been the first backer - I wanted to believe in them. This was the reason I decided to make this my 2000th review - and I was hoping that my hopes would not be unjustified.
Now what Greg LaRose did was smart - he got essentially all 3pp top crunch-designers not too involved with their own projects: Alexander Augunas, Bradley Crouch, Daron Woodson, Eric Morton, Mike Myler, Scott Gladstein, Wayne Canepa, Will McCardell, Wojciech Gruchala, Kevin Bond, Linda Zayas-Palmer, Michael Sayre, Morgan Boehringer. Realize something? This is pretty much an all-stars-list and the content of this book shows it - each designer herein has brought his/her strengths to the table - from relatively simple to exceedingly complex, the classes provided herein all breathe a spirit of cooperation, of being unique and run the gamut of providing simple plug and play as well as highly complex tinkering classes that require significant planning to get right. The classes herein have one thing in common that transcends the differences in design: They are not boring. I consider no single class herein bland, no single concept to be redundant. In fact, I loved most of the classes, and I mean *loved* - when a book makes me enjoy two classes that sport a theme I loathe, you'll know you have something awesome at your fingertips.
Now this book is not perfect - I wasn't blown away by all archetypes; the momenta, which I love to death as one of my favorite classes herein, imho requires a second editing pass/a capable DM to streamline and take the rough edges off. The Demiurge's laser battery needs a nerf-whack. And the pauper left me singularly unimpressed, having seen the interacting pools done more in a precise and organic way. Heck, I even made a class with two fluid pools interacting with one another. That aside, the pauper also feels oddly linear and as if it were part of another book. Similarly, not all feats blew me away, but if I broke that down for you, the review would go on for even longer. And I honestly am not sure whether anyone will read this monstrosity as it stands.
Ultimately, though, none of the gripes I could muster, whether they be typos or the above, can stand before a superb appendix and no less than 13 classes I will definitely use in my games - this is pretty much the highest density of classes I have ever allowed a single book to contribute to any game of mine and that is a significant achievement. Now as you all know, I'm a stickler for the more complex classes, but even the simple ones herein have something unique going for them, a playing experience that deviates from what other classes can offer - and what more can you expect from a new base class? In the end, the Liber Influxus Communis may not be a perfect book, but it is still an excellent and inexpensive way to add a vast array of pure innovation to your game - a smörgåsbord of unique mechanics and things no other class can do. And I love it for exactly that. This book exemplifies the work of some of the finest designers in the field and I have, ultimately, always valued innovation and slight rough edges higher than bland mechanical perfection - and, as such, the few mechanical bumps that are herein could in no way stand in relation to the awesomeness that this book brings to the table, they simply pale and fade when seen in relation with the vast array of cool tricks the content herein makes possible. My final verdict thus will be 5 stars + seal of approval and I nominate this book as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015.
You can get this awesome, massive book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
And if you're still reading that, let me extend my heartfelt thank-you to you for sticking with my ramblings and reading my 2000th review. 

Finally, if you enjoyed it, please consider joining my patreon - this review (and a lot others) wouldn't exist without the support of the community.

I write them for you and remain yours,
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Path of Shadows

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, May 08 2015 - 10:37
Path of Shadows

This freshman offering of Ascension Games clocks in at 81 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 75 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?                                                                   Disclaimer: This book went up in my review-queue do to me receiving a dead tree copy and not having to print everything out. My review's verdict was in no way influenced by receiving this copy.
Ah, shadow magic - scarcely a concept in 3.X has been so prominent and yet so utterly ill-defined and mechanically sucky. Thankfully, 3pps have a knack for singling out such systems and then developing them  -take a look at Radiance House's Pact Magic, Interjection Games' Truenaming or Dreamscarred Press' Akashic Mysteries, for examples. In the meanwhile, Interjection Games has provided us with two classes, which, in theme, oscillate between light and darkness, the edgewalker and the antipodist, but that's it, to my knowledge. One massive issue of the original shadowmagic was its exceedingly restrictive nature and the balancing just...well. Not working, at all.
So can this pdf remedy this much maligned, but utterly stylish power-source? The pdf kicks off with a massive introduction, including explanations for the reference abbreviations used and then dives into the Nightblade base class - the nightblade receives d8, 6+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons, longsword, scythe, rapier, short sword, shortbow and spiked chain and light armors, but not shields. Shields and armor heavier than light incurs arcane spell failure chances. Nightblades also receive spontaneous spellcasting via Charisma of up to 6th level, drawn from their own spell-list. The class also receives 3/4 BAB-progression and good ref- and will-saves. Evasion is gained at second level and this level also provides access to the so-called shadow surge - this is an expendable resource that can be gained as a standard action that provokes attacks of opportunity. Several nightblade abilities require the expenditure of a shadow surge - think of it as the class's analog of the psionic focus. with the additional caveat that a nightblade may expend shadow surges to reroll Stealth checks - for actually competent sneaking. At 8th and 17th level, the nightblade can store +1 surge, so that's a deviation from psionic focus. Abilities like increasing darkvision (with worthwhile alternate benefits if you already have it!), hide in plain sight at 8th level (where I can stomach it!) and yes, dimension doorhopping - with caveats for feat-qualification etc. High level nightblades may see perfectly in the dark and when they cast shadow conjurations etc., they increase the real component of their shadows.
At 3rd level, the nightblade receives a nightblade art, +1 every three levels thereafter - think of these as the nightblade's talents; when applicable, the save scales via the plus half level + cha-mod-formula. Now while you can get combat and metamagic feats via these talents, they actually provide very unique benefits for the discerning gamer  -benefits that significantly deviate from rogue talents etc. and help enforce a unique identity - while effects like full speed stealth plus miss chance upgrade for concealment gained from darkness to total concealment-levels, increases to touch attack AC and higher level options to expend shadow surges to attack against touch AC would pretty much all be options I'd somewhat expect a shadow-themed character to be able to pull off. On paper, attacking versus touch attack by expending shadow surges may look pretty nasty, but the 1/round limit imposed by action economy and the need to regain shadow surges means that this option is powerful, but thanks to the level-prereq and the requirement for set-up, in game actually worked rather well. It should be noted that tank-y creatures, dragons and similar creatures with bad touch ACs should take heed around nightblades, but that is something that is just as true for magi and similar characters, so no balance complaints there.
However, beyond these more conservative ones, there are some talents that can be considered ambitious from a mechanical point of view: Take force teleporting foes or shifting shadow/darkness-related spells from target to target - these are not simply concepts to translate into crunch, much less crunch that is concise enough to withstand my nitpicking of terminology and looking for loop-holes. Kudos where kudos are due - I consider tackling such complex options in a freshman offering, with this level of competence, nonetheless, an impressive feat!
Obviously, now, the defining feature of shadow magic back in the day was the structure of paths, which required some planning, yes, but also provided a feeling of organic development. Nightblades must select a path at 1st level - but within each path techniques loom: One is gained at first level, one at 5th and every 5 levels thereafter -these can be likened to the linear gain of order or bloodline abilities. They are also more than just the addition of techniques - each path comes with a path power, modifies the shadow surge to sport additional options AND modifies the list of available nightblade arts by adding exclusive arts to the list available, providing an element of player agenda that is absent from the linear ability progressions of cavaliers, sorcerors etc.. So yes, the choice of one of the 5 paths is the most important one for the nightblade and radically changes the way in which the given classes play - this extends to the point where the paths offer a more distinct variety in playing experience than most archetypes offer over the base classes they modify. It should also be noted that e.g. path powers scale in their potency and the paths also determine the capstone ability gained.
So what are the paths about? The path of the Bloodied Chain offers the option to conjure forth umbral shackles that entangle creatures, while also adding fear-based effects at higher levels - i.e. you receive some rather powerful and unique terrain-control options. The theme of fear-based debuffs also is represented in the shadow surge ability, which allows you to extend the fear-based conditions on your adversaries. This and the fear-themed techniques gained render this path a good friend to Dreamscarred Press's Dread-class; in my playtests, the two worked together as a nasty double-team that could actually offset the lack of a primary melee class. And no, I do not consider this one to be broken, though combining the dread's immunity-breaker with the nightblade proved to be very efficient. It should also be noted that intimidate can cause full-blown "frightened" as a condition for this path. The exclusive arts here provide for some awesome visuals - beyond detecting fear, adding bleed damage to the umbral chains at 9th level or centering the chains on the nightblade, rendering the effect mobile at 15th level.
The second path, the path of the darkened fortress, can be likened to shadow magic's kind-of-but-not-really magus, blended with duelist-tricks: For example, weapons can be conjured forth and enhanced with special abilities, but they remain shadowy. The shadow surge can be used as an immediate action for a significant self-buff that starts as being applied only to a single attack (GOOD!) and then scales up to lasting a turn at 10th level. The path abilities net you arcane bond, but with a variant - both object and familiar-choices can be blended with your form - which can be rather significant in the context of infiltrations. The path also helps with the crafting of magic items, allowing the nightblade to ignore progressing amounts of spell prerequisites. Fortification-style effects are also part of the deal and high level nightblades with this path receive their own pocket dimension in the plane of shadows. The arts available allow for the extension of weapon qualities and also sport e.g. the option to enhance the bonded object/familiar with unique benefits. Extending the ability to create shadow armament to ranged and dual weapons should also be considered pretty interesting, especially since the latter (one playtest candidate, btw.) sport a balancing mechanic that is simple, yet efficient.
The path of eternal night provides you with a means of creating a short-range energy vortex of negative energy that may not heal, but frighten undead. The shadow surge use here requires a standard action to enforce a reroll of a d20, but can only target a creature once per 24 hours. The path abilities of this rather sinister path allows the nightblade to destroy creatures that are dying and use them to power himself - think of it as a powerful, death knell like effect. This ability would be very strong, especially since the action economy scales and goes down from standard action to swift action - however, the smart choice of a daily limite rendered this a viable ability in game. Interesting would be an immunity not gained by most classes - the path renders immune to negative energy damage, which renders these folks exceedingly effective at killing hostile clerics - interesting! The path also sports an option to make a foe's shadow rise up against the adversary. The arts allow for additional means of enhancing corruption, with e.g. damage upon leaving the aura etc. All in all, an interesting path as well.
The path of the ravaging void gets a very interesting path power, which allows you to change the energy type of energy spells - which is pretty much an awesome trick and though it extends to supernatural abilities, the wording covers those. So far, this has been pretty much a homerun, but alas, the shadow surge herein imho can require a more distinct scaling mechanism - the shadow surge is a ranged touch attack with a range of 30 ft. that deals 1d6 cold damage, +1d6 per 2 levels +cha-mod. While the damage itself is not impressive when thinking about the fact how shadow surges etc. eat actions, the scaling feels a bit off still - perhaps I'm spoiled by Interjection Games' ethermagic, but as far as warlock-y blasts go, this, while not bad or broken due to the limited range, could have imho used some more versatility. The path techniques provide elemental resistances and allow you to suffuse your elemental spells with shadow energy, adding debuff effect insults to the elemental injury - I really like this idea-wise! Now where things become very interesting would be the option to expend spell-slots to duplicate elemental energy damage dealing spells, which, however, only remain partially real. A handy table spares you making calculations or the like, so kudos. All in all, this can be considered the battle mage among the paths, with severe distortion effects that play well with damage-casters and psionics.
The final path would be the path of the twilight veil and I LOVE the path power - based on HD of the target, the spatial distortions caused by the shadows can provide devastating debuffs to the target creatures and 2nd level nightblades of this path can additionally turn invisible via shadow surges. Where the ravaging void is the sledgehammer, the twilight veil would be the scalpel - several illusion-themed techniques and arts allow for serious customization of illusion tricks. Furthermore, the power-enhancing arts are pretty cool here, allowing you to affect creatures usually immune to your distortions. This is kind of the oddball, the one among the paths that imho requires the most investment, but in the hands of a capable player, it may very well be the most rewarding - the exceedingly nasty distortion power can cover somewhat the terrain control and the almost unlimited invisibility are powerful indeed when handled correctly. Why am I not shrieking for the nerfbat? Easy - the invisibility can't be stacked/prolonged, keeping the character from staying out of sight ALL the time. Still, this enables a nasty guerilla style gameplay that has found its fans at my table. The class also sports FCOs for aasimar, dhampir, drow, fetchling, tiefling, wayang and core races.
The next chapter is devoted to a plethora of archetypes and new class options with shadow magic, obviously, as a unifying theme. Alchemists can e.g. modify their body to benefit from the nightblade's enhanced concealment efficiency or craft bombs that duplicate effects of darkness and better sight etc. are part of the deal. There is also an antipaladin who receives a potent, scaling aura of darkness that allows himself and his allies to see through the, later damaging blackness. Barbarians can choose from two totem power trees (and an unaligned one), wherein an already existing bite is enhanced or add str-damage to her attacks while also receiving defenses versus certain conditions. Both have in common that they require certain build types and enhance them and both, to me, feel a bit on the strong end - dice increase + crit x3 for a bite via one rage power is a tad bit too nasty in my book, especially seeing how this also nets full Str-bonus when using bites in conjunction with other natural attacks...And yes, I do have such a claw/bite-barbarian in my game and if they do not need one thing, then it's a way to deal even more damage...
Shadow priests channeling darkness instead of regular energy, bloodragers with a new custom bloodline, anti-disease lunar guardian druids - all pretty solid. The stygian striker magus can be envisioned as the nightblade crossover - less frontlines, for skirmishing (with evasion etc. and modified saves to back this up) and the monk archetype provided is also one that should be considered relatively solid, with ki allowing for more flurry attacks. Oracles can suffer from a curse that makes people forget them and choose a new mystery, while paladins can opt to channel light to dispel and suppress all those nasty effects. Rogues may wilder in nightblade arts and shamans may choose the new darkness spirit.
Nightblades, thankfully, also can join the archetype-fun: Caster/summon-themed Dark Conjurors, a more martially-inclined one (thankfully with path restriction to avoid warlock-y abuse),a  rogue-crossover with sneak attack et. al and an infiltration-specialist can also be found. Finally, there is an archetype that pays for the access to two paths at once with a crippled progression of the shadow surges, paying for an increased array of options with less on-the-fly-flexibility and spells.
Fans of shadow-themed races like fetchlings and wayangs may enjoy the feat-section particularly - there are quite a few racial feats for them to set them apart, with generally a fitting theme of shadows, darkness-enhancing, etc. - modifying a summon-list's half-celestial/fiendish creatures to instead be shadow creatures would be an example here. Overall, these feats felt solid, but didn't blow me away per se. Good craftsmanship.
The spell-chapter does provide a cool rules-clarification for spells utilizing the shadow of the caster and provide, obviously, a significant means of providing shadow/light-control. Interesting for other classes - there are spells herein which interact with e.g. shadow surges, making the latter not just an isolated class feature. Interesting would be terrain control spells to confine targets in e.g. areas of darkness, while shadowy wings that can also be used to attack foes and furthermore, allows for channeling 1/cast - nasty and versatile, but I like it. From the ageing capstone, there are other interesting effects - for example, a complex spell which alters an illusion to allow for the execution of quasi-real attacks via the infusion of shadow stuff - as such area attacks, attacks, energy etc. are covered with unique benefits. There are also lunar prophecies or the option to conjure forth the all-consuming maw of the nightwave. Ways to suppress extraordinary senses would also be an interesting move for spells. However, there also are minor modifications/improved versions, like e.g. a darkness/cold-based variant of flaming sphere. Shadow-based necromancy spell-duplication is also covered, as are chaotic overlaps between planes. I also like the concise definition of shadow length for attacks on a shadow, which reflects its damage to the origin of the caster. A new spell-class to summon evil, horrific creatures also can be found herein. There is also a highly complex class of spells that allows for the conjuration of umbral servants for the nightblades, which essentially act on their own after a nightblade's turn  -these are fun, allowing e.g. a called magician to freely apply metamagic to certain spells cast close to it, etc.
The final chapter provides ample new magical weapon/armor qualities and specific items - with artworks depicting them that are downright inspired and rank among the best such I have ever seen in any given supplement - WOW. The twilight reaver scythe looks so badass, I just NEED to show this picture to my players, even without knowing that it's a +2 cold iron keen greater umbral scythe that allows for surge storage on crits...
The pdf also sports a handy two-page index and artist-credits.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are excellent - I noticed no significant issues while reading this - none. The 2-column full-color layout used in this book is GORGEOUS. I mean it. This is one of the most beautiful roleplaying book I've seen any 3pp produce, an impression also underlined by the GLORIOUS original full-color artwork by Jasmine Mackey, Bryon Oshihiro, Danielle Sands, Al Savell, Nicoleta Stavarache and Trevor Verges - the artworks, from vistas to spells to characters adhere to a glorious style that is uniform and concise. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that this book, in visual, aesthetic quality, could have been a Paizo-book. It's that beautiful. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, but I'd sincerely advise you to get this in print - unlike quite a few PODs, there is no big chance of an errata invalidating this book. This book looks better than quite a few kickstarted books I could name. Yes, THAT beautiful.
What a furious first offering! This is quite frankly the best first offering of crunch I've seen a novice designer produce in ages. Last year saw plenty of adventures of newcomers providing an extremely high quality, but new crunch tends to require most designers some time to get right. Well, this is Ascension Games' first product and it does NOT require any leniency on my part. Author (and layout/editor!) Christopher Moore seems to not only be able to edit his own texts, quite a feat, imho, he also provides a level of professionalism with regards to rules-language one sees scarcely, almost never among novices. The language is so precise, it can be considered on par with the errata'd, good Paizo-books. Beyond that, this pdf offered a level of system-mastery and a level of awareness of obscurer rules I quite frankly almost never get to see. While I have some personal gripes against one component or another herein, none really hold up on a professional level and boil down to personal preferences; number-wise, including extensive playtests, this book held up admiringly well. Few books can claim to withstand this level of deep scrutiny to such an extent, especially considering the level of interaction with obscure and complex elements among the design elements. I was positively surprised to see all of this - but where the book shines most is with the material that takes chances and provides things to do that no other spell or system can achieve - it is the unique effects, which stand out and while I absolutely adore the coverage of just about anything one could ask for in sucha  context, I still would have loved to see even more of the inspired, unique effects that can be found herein.
Remember, this is just me being an utterly spoiled bastard of a reviewer - this book is, without engaging in hyperbole, up to the level of crunch-mastery exhibited usually only by established, experienced crunch-masters and blends this with production-values out of this world, visually more on par with Paizo than what you'd expect from a 3pp, much less a new one sans a KS providing the funds. This is a hugely impressive book that catapulted Ascension Games to the landscape of my table and to my radar; I can't help but be excited about the things to come and more such supplements and I certainly hope we'll see more material for the Nightblade - the class is inspired and fun and clearly, its potential is not yet tapped. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, given without the slightest hesitation, falling short of becoming a  candidate for my top ten of 2015 only by a tiny margin. Still, this is thoroughly, exceedingly, impressive. Congratulations to the Ascension Games-team - you have impressed a jaded reviewer.
You can get this impressive book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Cyclopen Deeps Vol. I

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Apr 24 2015 - 06:51
Cyclopean Deeps Vol. I

The first book of the two-part Cyclopean Deeps-Saga clocks in at 198 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 192 pages of content, so let's check this out, shall we?
So, let's, for now, process as spoiler-free as possible: Do you remember the Dungeoneer'sSurvival Guide released for 2nd edition (1e AD&D, if you count that way...)? It's a timeless classic indeed and showcases a significant component of what I consider flawed with most modern underdark/underworld modules. Let me describe it from this venue - have you ever been spelunking? There is an appeal to the hobby that is hard to describe, but I'll try - at the same time, you feel like you have entered a new world, a place where your civilization and all of its comforts do not stretch to. You enter a place wondrous that differs significantly, via all of your senses, from the tactile to the olfactory, from what we are used to - reaching the surface once again can feel a bit like a shock after some time - loud, bright...all those smells. However, accompanying this general sensation, one is (or at least I am!) constantly and keenly aware of insane amounts of solid rock, balancing precariously above one's head - whether as a sense of foreboding or respect, caves and caverns elicit a different perspective. Now, recently AAW Games has captured the proper sense of wonder rather perfectly with their Rise of theDrow saga.
In Rise of the Drow, we saw an unprecedented sense of realism applied to the section of the underdark that is kind of akin to the surface world, if not in environment, then in its social structures - we have dangerous animals, humanoid cultures (most evil) vying for dominance - it's the surface world on crack and the RotD-saga can be counted among the few that managed to instill this sense of wonder in the vivid pictures painted. However, there is another underdark - a place where neither light, nor surface-dwellers usually tread. If you're familiar with the Dark Souls games, think of this as the place that would have come below the lowest, blackest gulch. A place, where even the underworld-denizens fear to tread, a place forlorn and forsaken by the light. Below even Rappan Athuk, thus extends this place, one that can easily be transplanted to any setting - courtesy of there simply being no comparable supplement or module that goes quite that deep - usually, places like this are hinted at in the equivalent of telling the PCs "Don't go there!" So there the fools go - here dwell the things no man has ever laid eyes on, here is the Deep Horizon, here are the Cyclopean Deeps.
If the hex-sporting map is not ample clue - this constitutes a sandbox in the truest sense - that is, this a player-driven, old-school module with ample sample random encounters. Also: Know how old-school sometimes is used as a buzzword? Well, not so here. Indeed, this place is defiantly old-school and LETHAL. Even when compared to Rappan Athuk, the Cyclopean Deeps are deadly - very deadly. So yeah, if your group is looking for a challenge, a module worth winning - this is what you want. How nasty can this place be? Brutal enough to actually require no work on my part to make the module more challenging. 
Want an example? All right, but to provide you with one, I'll have to go into SPOILERS. Players should jump to the conclusion.......Still here? All right! If you were one of the lucky ones, Rappan Athuk's KS back in the day provided two teasers of this massive module - and one detailed Ques Querax, gateway to the Cyclopean Deeps, wherein strange minotaur golems guard the premises. The local temple sports 3 priests, always in the same position, unmoving, catering to the whims of a strange head - only if you resist the unearthly fear of this place do you receive healing - but you never actually see it cast - upon leaving the temple, the effects suddenly...happen. Curiosity, alas, much like in CoC, may kill the cat, though - and like in the old truism, turn it into a multidimensional horror with puckered tentacles that is coming right for YOU! (Yes, actually trying to find out *how* these guys cast spells may shatter your sanity and provide a neat new career choice as a terrible servant of the mythos. A tavern owned by a denizen of Leng, an intelligent giant slug slaver, a dog-headed perfume-creating alchemist - not only are plenty of these folk EVIL, they also are WEIRD in a rather uncanny, horrific way. And the interesting thing is - this is civilization in these parts. It literally does not become better than this, so the PCs better figure out means of making this place work for them - a dangerous, but moderately secure base is better than none! Have I btw. mentioned the living eye of Gaaros-Uaazath, arguably one of the most powerful and odd entities herein, secretly creating a mind-bending, centipede-like war-machine?
But beyond the gates of Ques Querax, beautiful and precious wonders await - finding e.g. gems worth thousands of gold may be a reason for joy - until you read the entry of said random treasure - it reads "kidney stone." I am not kidding. The book *brims* with these little tidbits - and each and every one is tailor-made to come together in a vista exceedingly tantalizing and disturbing. From chain-bound jack-in-irons giants to mists of concealing, detection-blocking darkmist and the dark stalker/creeper enclave of Izanne, there are politics to be found, and yes, civilization - however, each veneer is distorted and odd, a threat underlying just about every step, every interaction - while never losing the evoked, profound sense of wonder that oozes from each and every encounter - and yes, some purists may scoff at decisions to smack down truly wondrous effects that lie beyond the capacity of spells here and there - but as for me, I love this decision - it drives home the need for care, the sense of magic...well, being truly magical. What level of detail am I referring to? well, what about a whole array of options, should the PCs elect to run across the rooftops of the fully-mapped Izanne? Or perhaps the PC's friendly nigh-ghoul guide wants to sell them some slaves and palanquins from his third cousin - the resounding themes of civilization can be found herein, though they are twisted in a grotesque way - a fact that also is reflected by the copious missions provided - and in the messages, that partially are traps, partially are odd - but ultimately, are different. Unique aberrations and strange folk abound, demons trod the streets and even here, a sense of decrepitude, of civilizations most vile, fallen to magics even worse, suffuses the paragraphs, with details upon details drawing a picture of a world that could be another, a place so wildly different, yet familiar, that it could be considered an escalation of the concept of the uncanny.
What about spellbooks that have been folded into the fourth dimension, pods that may transmit memories, odd, singing crystals - there is a lot of wonderful, enigmatic stuff to be found; and if your players prefer making an impact, the nasty and inscrutable people, from serpentfolk to aboleths, are all actually playing their own games, with subquests, goals and the like handily organized for your convenience. Now if you're not familiar with some old-school rules, you might be surprised to see e.g. a reference to percentile rolls and chances to decipher a lost language - this is a remnant of old-school gaming and should have been updated to PFRPG using the Linguistics-skill. And yes, some remnants like this can be found herein. However, in which other supplement are the players tasked (on an optional basis, of course!) to awaken a death god? Eat energy-bars of strange fungus or find out that the nice magic items they found are powered by energy infusions generated by constant sacrifice of sentient beings? It should also be noted that the NPC-builds, while sporting some straightforward ones, also feature some more complex ones.
But honestly, I don't love this book for its mechanics - but where else can you find human-faced, giant ants, unearthly flowers and air, spatial distortions and ways of thinking (properly explained for the DM) that may seem starkly in contrast to our logic...and have I mentioned the importance of the Leng rubies?
Now if the nomenclature and overall array of options seemed confusing to you, a massive glossary should help. The new monsters herein are copious and weird, as are the short, fluff-only write-ups of the elder things. The appendices also contain the numerous unique items - though, much like in the crunch, there are some examples of old-school mechanics to be found herein - e.g. an artifact that requires you to roll multiple d6s and score below your attribute score. The pdf contains various, cool maps, all of which receive player-friendly versions - and there are hand-outs.

Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to FGG's printer-friendly, two-column b/w-standard and the module comes with A LOT of awesome, unique original b/w-art. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and the cartography in b/w is neat.
Author Matthew J. Finch delivers quite frankly one of the most imaginative, awesome books in the whole Frog God/Necromancer Games-canon; much like the stellar Dunes of Desolation, this book constitutes a prime example of why I want to see as many new FGG modules as possible. I own all Necromancer Games modules, even the boxed sets, and yes, even the rarities. That being said, I do think that FGG's modules surpass those of NG. Cyclopean Deeps Volume I is such a monument - this book reached a level of imaginative detail, of sheer creativity, that one only finds perhaps once in a blue moon. The literally only comparisons I could draw in that regard would be to the best of FGG-modules or to the 4 Dollar Dungeons-modules by Richard Develyn - and you probably by now realize how much I adore them. That being said, this book is far from perfect; the remnants of the conversion not being carried out properly in all cases do stick out like sore thumbs to me and formally, constitute a blemish that you should be aware of.
Then again, this massive book is intended for experienced DMs and experienced groups - beyond the lethality of the module, the sheer amount of sandboxing, of entwined things going on, means that A DM has to have some experience under the belt to run this. But know what? The complexity doesn't faze me and neither do the conversion relics matter to me - for one, in some cases, one could chalk them up to mechanics simply working differently here as well. On the other, capable DMs can easily fix these minor problems. And none of those minor hiccups matter to me in this case - what would singularly break the neck of lesser books just falls under the rag here - the writing is THIS good. Beyond a level of detail that can only be described as excruciating, there simply is no other module, no other environmental supplement tackling anything like this; the only other underworld sandboxes that approach this in terms of complexity would be the second Act of RotD or the classic Open Design "Empire of Ghouls" and both have a wildly different focus, completely different themes.
This manages to elicit a sense of cultural wonder akin to the writings of the classic titans like Gygax, a breath of the magical and uncanny, while also breathing the spirit of the mythos and classic pulp fiction akin to Howard or Haggard. Cyclopean Deeps managed to evoke something I almost never feel anymore these days - a sense of jamais-vu. This is not yet another rendition of some tired old, much rehearsed tropes - this is the antithesis of exceedingly tired level 1 module with goblins and an ogre or shadow as the final boss. This massive tome breathes more unique ideas in a chapter than some whole series of books. Even when compared to Rappan Athuk et al., this tome dabbles in themes and topics far beyond the focus on demonic entities, creates a sense of wonder and, paradoxically, realism. As odd and alien the vistas portrayed herein are, they still feel uncannily organic, realistic and alive - which drives further home the point of this book being not only unique, but inspired in the very best way.
The formal hiccups here and there might annoy you, but if you are missing out on this monumentally inspired world/setting-building due to them, you are depriving yourself of perhaps one of the most captivating reads I've had in any iteration of a d20-based system. And if you don't mind some old-school remnants or perhaps even enjoy them, then this should be considered a true milestone. I've been struggling with myself for quite a long time on how to rate this book, but as far as I'm concerned, the vast imaginative potential this book offers trumps just about any minor blemish or criticism you could field against it; to the point, where complaining would seem disingenuous and downright petty-minded. There are few books of this size that have managed to captivate me to this extent during the whole lecture of them and this massive sandbox should be considered a must-have addition to any DM looking for the deep below - even as disparate encounters and for the purposes of scavenging elements, this book is well worth the asking price. I thus remain with a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval, a nomination for the Top Ten of 2014, a longing for Vol. 2 and the regret that I am too poor to get this glorious tome in print.

You can get this awesome book here on OBS or here on d20pfsrd-com's shop!
Prefer the S&W-old-school version? That one can be found here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Want to get this and its sequel for a reduced price? The current KS by FGG offers just that - I know I'd buy them and Dunes in a heartbeat as add-ons if I could afford it! Here's the link!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Dance Macabre

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Apr 17 2015 - 05:15
Dance Macabre

This module clocks in at 90 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 86 pages of content, so let's take a look!
Now the first thing, before anything else, you should know that this literally is the only book you need to run the module - no switching to thousands of different books, not a full bag of supplemental material - this module provides more supplemental material than you can shake a stick at: First, we get all spells used in the book; then, there would be the rules-reference section, which includes  all those handy special abilities, from ability drain to breath weapons, handily explained for your convenience. The same goes for magical items, btw. And yes, there even is a nice array of animal tricks explained for your convenience, rendering this module exceedingly comfortable to run. Beyond even that, though, we get something you can use even when not running the module - the bestiary-section does provide ample Knowledge DC-checks to deduce information on the respective creatures featured in the module. Oh, and the module does sport all artwork handily collated at the back of the book in the form of a collated appendix, allowing you to print it out as a kind of look-see-artwork-booklet. 
Think that takes up too much space? Let me assure you, it doesn't - the module, even after that, clocks in at a massive 52 pages - there is *A LOT* of content to be covered. It should also be noted that this module, like all 4$D-modules, does provide handy lists of CR, adversary, XP and treasure for each relevant encounter, including options for extra treasure, depending on your playstyle (and extra PCs - up to +2 PCs are thus supported without you having to do ANYTHING). You should also be aware of the vast amounts of maps - while not necessarily beauties, I've seen worse and EVERY relevant location is covered - the sheer amount of maps provided deserves applause, especially since they also come with high-res jpegs and player-friendly iterations.
It should also be noted that the unique town herein does sport an extra mini-gazetteer for the players and that a clue-flow-chart helps running the module.
So far for the formal criteria, now let's take a look at the module itself, shall we?
Now before we dive in, this is the SPOILER-WARNING. Potential players should immediately jump to the conclusion. Seriously, you will be so sorry if you spoil this one for yourself.......All right, so this module begins common enough - a drunk father and ratcatcher, bereft of his daughters (who have chosen the adventurer-lifestyle) have recently taken off and the grief-stricken father immediately tries to pick a fight with the PCs. However that works, in the end, the PCs will have been tasked by the man to track down his daughters and ensure their safety - and the trail leads into the aptly-named twisted moorland. Now if you have played the supreme "Journey to Cathreay", you'll immediately realize the sheer massive amount of detail you can expect from 4$D wilderness trips - and this module does feature just that - random weather-tables (with all relevant rules), random encounter chances by time - the level of detail is staggering and from lone guest-houses to the farm where the two adventurers hang out (sans the daughters, mind you, and very much hostile...), the level of detail provided is interesting indeed - take e.g. a druidic stone circle, where the devout PC may acquire a temporary elemental servant - not required by the story in any way, but it does add the sense of cohesiveness and realism to the magical world depicted herein.
Now whether on friendly or hostile terms with aforementioned adventurers, the PCs sooner of later will make the acquaintance of a dryad of a forest most dilapidated and desolate, who ahs struck a deal to ensure her survival - and in case you haven't noticed, yes, there is a subtle theme at work here, but more on that later. Her combat tactics come with a level of detail scarcely seen and from TPKing to less lethal failure scenarios and the like, the encounter with the pragmatic, corrupt dryad offers quite an array of different options. Now, alternatively, the PCs may have found among the adventurer's belongings a call for help in clearing out an evil temple or have been bluffed by them - in either way, the temple is just another elaborate anti-adventurer trap, much like the dryad's gambit. If this does not look to exciting so far, rest assured that the way in which this is handled is superb - and the level of detail provided here is staggering as well - take a skeleton with a foreign pterodactyl bone rattling in its rip cage - and yes, this is a curious and intriguing foreshadowing of the things to come.
Either way, the investigation sooner or later will bring the PCs to the aptly-named town of Twisted Bridge, where a special kind of evil flourishes. The town is not a poor place; in fact, it is quite wealthy (and fully statted). However, it is a town rules by egotism and passivity-  we have a macabre blending of gillmen working menial labor and a kind of aristocratic upper class, sneering at the irrelevant, marginalized people that do not belong to the illustrious crowd of the village's people - here, everyone is in only for themselves and their immediate friends and family. Mind you, this is not a depiction of a town that is suppressed or "kill 'em all"-vile - it can be considered almost a subtle satire of a mentality that is all too real in our very world. Sounds too dreary? Players not into subtle, unobtrusive social commentary? No problem, just spring on them the top-hat wearing deinonychus currently running a errand for his master and they'll be right back in the fold. And yes, this is one of the colorful sight &sound-style random encounters form the table. On a mechanical level, the mentality that considers "evil" behavior a matter of discussion and the townsfolk's fun when looking at paladins whirling from all the evil they can detect is not only rationale and concise, it makes surprising sense and adds a whole new spin on the black-white-morality conundrums.
Twisted bridge itself is not only mapped, but also sports what essentially amounts to a lavishly-detailed gazetteer-section that had me reminisce about the weird cities in 3.X's Scarred Lands, though, obviously, in less depth, Twisted Bridge definitely can be considered a town so unique and dripping with flavor and tangible magic, it exudes an allure that is difficult to describe - from undine sorcerors to lizardmen, from chocolatiers to female-only hair-saloons (aptly and humorously named "Rapunzel"), twisted bridge equally breathes a sense of decadence and wonder, of despicable passivity and carelessness and intoxicating wonders - and allows one to easily see how one can be sucked into the moral choices such a lifestyle may engender. The massive investigation-potential and related clues definitely allow for one glorious free-form investigation, set against one of the most compelling backdrops I've seen in quite a while.
The trail of the girl's horses, though, can sooner or later be tracked to a farm - where matrons grow narcotics to allow the people in town to sedate their children, should they act up - have I mentioned, that, much like many a good fantasy or scifi novel, this module can be enjoyed on a consumerist perspective and still has some serious social commentary going for, should you be so inclined as to delve into it, all without shoving an ideology down your throat? Among the narcotics-inducing plants, though, jack-o-lanterns loom, including a moderately intelligent one, with whom the PCs can talk, alternating quickly between settings of potentially psychedelic horror and abject comedy - oh and then there is a level of detail that borders on the ridiculous, the ridiculously awesome, that is - the fields actually note which plants are grown where: From chai to chilies, the handout provides the detailed notes on this. Yes. *That* is a realism that can only be described as staggering  -and whether you use it or not, it does add immensely to the sense of immersion. The trail, then, leads to the cathedral of bone, the macabre abode of the town's de facto dhampir-ruler and aforementioned, top-hat wearing dinosaur companion. There *is* a macabre axe-beak skeleton to be found here, but whether or not hostilities break out depends very much on the PC's actions - and yes, the reason *why* a friggin' axe-beak skeleton is here, is also given - and the pterodactyl bone mentioned before may give the PCs away, so let's hope their investigation skills are on par.
Among the weird places to be found (potentially via the nasty adventurers), an alchemist (vivisectionist) and the way golem he created as an automaton to sate the depraved desires of the townsfolk can also make for interesting encounters, the latter even for a potential cohort of the oddest kind. Tzitzimitle, the main antagonist of the module, currently resides in a clock tower most unusual - in that e.g. it sports a pool that is inhabited by piranha-level voracious, bad-tempered killer-goldfish. No, I'm not kidding. This is a thing - and it is glorious. My players actually started laughing as their PCs started to be chomped by the little buggers. The exploration of the tower, alas, yields no satisfactory results (apart from further leads and the satisfaction of destroying clockwork creatures and braving the traps with which the place has been laden) - and so, a further stop along the way may be the massive Necropolis of the town, where the bored, amoral gargoyle Gabriel, a picturebook sociopath, awaits - alongside Enya, one of the kidnapped girls, who is currently trapped within a mausoleum that is both warded and dangerously unstable - and hence, rescuing her will prove to be difficult.
Have I mentioned, that her statements (or the alchemist's investigation) can lead them to essentially the same goals, namely the sewers, where the whispers of the dead abound and a worm-that-walks, the gaoler of Enya, provide further evidence of the horrible things to come: And it is at the very latest here that the pieces will *click* together - Tzitzimitl, an exceedingly powerful oracle (level 10) who has gleaned the circumstances of his death, but not the particulars, has entered an unholy alliance with a powerful wraith named Yetaxa - with combined efforts, they have not only engineered all those nasty anti-adventurer traps the PCs had to face; they have also introduced a truly decadent festival to the town, wherein the living dance with the wraiths under the control of Yetaxa - at the low price of just one innocent to be wraithified per festival - and who cares about strangers? Hence, the first of the daughters, alas has already been transformed by Yetaxa in the general rehearsal of the last festival  -for today, shall be different. Wraiths cannot endure the sunlight, but a total eclipse renders a festival today possible - and also the only way in which Tzitzimitl's prophecy of his own doom could come to pass - hence, he has engineered this rather elaborate plot to prevent just that. Alas, the festival, detailed with a concise timeline and hearkening to a carnival, through a glass darkly, proceeds - and provides the PCs with an option to save Enya - provided they have been smart enough to provide her with an amulet they can acquire, which renders her impervious to Yetaxa's cruel attempts of transferring her to undeath - so, in a finale both decadent and epic, the PCs will have to destroy Yetaxa in the catacombs - success frees the wraith and spawn from his control, resulting in a massacre and the prophesized death of Yetaxa, while also putting the PCs in dire peril, as they are shepherded into a dead end by now free, vast amounts of undead - only to be saved alongside Enya by the rays of the sun emerging from beyond the eclipse - and yes, if played right, this *is* one hell of a finale that also sees a town made uninhabitable by the undead - as well as killing the powerful Tzitzimitl and setting him up for potential sequels as a new undead threat to face!
Editing and formatting are very good, though I noticed a couple of minor typos - "intimation" instead of "intimidation" can be found once, as can be "wont" instead of "won't." The language-geek in me also cringed whenever I read "coup-de-gras" instead of "coup-de-grâce" - that has nothing to do with fat, greasy or the like, but refers to the deathblow. Layout adheres to 4$D's printer-friendly two-column standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The pdf comes in two versions, one for the US-paper-format, one in A4 for Europeans like yours truly - love that! The artwork provided is copious and I have seen none of the neat, old-school B/w-art before - really nice! The cover, as always, is also breathing the spirit of old-school awesomeness. The cartography is functional, as are the handouts, and make up for not being the most beautiful being provided for just about EVERYTHING.
Okay, let me get one thing out of the way - my complaint about the typos above? That is the only negative thing I can say about this module. At this point, all of the following things are a given: 1) Whenever Richard Develyn releases a module, my players want to play it asap, even if it means putting the main-campaign on hold. 2) I actually go to these modules when I require a break from reviewing; when I'm frustrated and need a reminder of why I actually do it. 3) Every module has a radically different style.
All of these hold true with Dance Macabre - even though formally, like the Key to Marina, it can be considered an investigation module. Alas, the way in which it works is pretty much radically different - less of a scavenger hunt, more of a detective tale, it reminded me in the best of ways of the first Gabriel Knight game in the atmosphere it evokes - what we have here can be called a blending of far-out fantasy with the underrepresented panache of proper, fantastic Southern Gothic. From the themes provided to the imagery evoked, the glorious sense of decadence oozes from each and every pore of the module - you can play this as pure entertainment...or emphasize the striking themes it evokes: If you want it to, this module can serve as a social commentary and a rallying cry against indifference and cold-heartedness. 
The absurd amount of details provided help running the module immensely, and so does the flow-chart, though novice DMs still should read the whole module before trying to run it - this one is very much free-form in its flow. The true genius here, at least in my onion, would be the blending of the horrific and the absurd, of horror and comedy - and the optional nature of either. A competent DM can easily ramp up the comedy factor and make this module genuinely funny. Or utterly horrific. I ran this module twice prior to writing this review; the first time emphasizing a Ravenloftesque sense of horror for my mature players - and it worked perfectly. The second time around, I mastered this with a mixed group that contained some kids - and emphasized the fun and odd parts. Yes, there are some dark elements here, but nothing kids (talking about the 8 - 12-range) can't handle - make e.g. the courtesan a menial laborer à la Cinderella and we maintain the message, but make the theme child-friendly - cosmetic reskin and that's it. One of them surprised me when she mentioned that she had understood that fear of death can lead one to horrible choices, that one should instead do good and that the town exhibited traits of our own society - and that payback for such a behavior might come in some guise or another. Subtle themes, clearly understood - yes, this can actually be played as a morality play with some educational value.
Southern Gothic horror, absurd, but still exciting comedy or a means of teaching about the world - the module provides a lot of playstyles - and it ran completely differently both times I ran it, so it has replay value to boot! I *ADORE* this module. It is unique in every sense of the word and sports yet another facet of Richard's capacity that sets him apart as one of the few authors who push the boundaries and raise the level in the art of adventure writing. And yes, this module, in my opinion, can be called art...or proper literature. It is excellent and while the odd typo here and there may be slightly annoying; it is mainly due to the exceedingly high level of quality of the whole book this catches one's eye. Still, I implore you to get this awesome piece of adventure-writing. It is unique in all the right ways and acts as one glorious example of what adventures could be beyond rolling dice and slaying monsters. Highly modular, versatile and with replay-vale, oozing with details, this module once again receives my highest honors - 5 stars + seal of approval and since this was released in 2014, candidate for my Top ten of 2014-status.
Do NOT let this one slip by!
You can get this awesome module for just 4 bucks here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
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