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Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary 2 Review: 2 Beast, Or Not 2 Beast?

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Lost Omens: World Guide, Character Guide, Gods & Magic, and Gamemastery Guide.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure and our Tales from the Black Lodge Podcast.

Think about the average college career for a second. Freshman year, you pretty much have to take what your school tells you to take – you have so many required classes, your first year or two is about banging out those pre-reqs so you stay on track to graduate in four years. But eventually, things loosen up, and by the time you’re in your senior year, it’s all electives and you’ve arranged your schedule to sleeping in until 10 am and having Fridays off.

I mean… so I’ve heard.

I tend to look at the Second Edition Bestiary books in the same light. Bestiary 1 was all about getting Second Edition off the ground properly, so a large chunk of it was nailing the basics, and including the monsters everyone would expect to be in the system on launch day. If you’re running your first campaign in a new system and didn’t have access to staples like goblins and orcs and dragons… the game designers did something horribly wrong (of which, of course, they didn’t with Bestiary 1).

With Bestiary 2, Paizo’s newest supplement for Second Edition, our analogy/college student has made it to the second semester of sophomore year. There are still a lot of what one could consider the “classics” of the genre, but we’re starting to see a little freedom crop in around the edges. But you’re still going to see a number of familiar faces, if for no other reason than Paizo already has six First Edition Bestiary books to choose from. Also, if they’d put EVERY staple creature in the first Bestiary, it would’ve been as thick as Webster’s Dictionary.

(Dictionary? A book people used to look up words they didn’t recognize before they could Google them? No? OK… moving on.)

The format will be fairly similar to anyone who bought the first Bestiary book. There seem to be two main types of entries. The majority of the entries are the fairly straightforward standalone monster: one page long, statblock, picture. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. I think I saw one or two standalone monsters that were complex enough to merit a second page, but the vast majority are one-pagers.

The multi-page monsters break the mold a bit to allow for additional details and more complex systems. As an example of a multi-pager (four pages in this case), let’s look at the Ravener. It’s oversimplifying it to say “what if a dragon decided it wanted to be a lich?”, but it’s not that far off the mark either. It’s basically a dragon that undergoes a ritual to become undead rather than embracing its death, and it’s as nasty as it sounds. Among other things, when it kills someone, it has a chance to eat their soul to heal itself; if it succeeds, that person can’t be reanimated by anything less than a Wish or Miracle spell while the ravener remains “alive”. The Ravener also comes with a statblock for a sample version, a process for creating your own from an existing dragon, as well as the details for the ritual it takes to create one. Oh, and if a Ravener doesn’t consume enough souls, it “starves” and becomes a Ravener Husk – more of a mindless feral version of its former self — and there’s a statblock for that creature too. Needless to say, they couldn’t fit all of that on a single page.

Then there are the “families” of monsters with subtypes, where they’ll have a brief introduction to the overarching concept, and then roll out the statblocks for the different subtypes over the next few pages. For an example of the latter, think “oozes” – they introduce you to the general concept of the ooze, list some general properties common to all oozes, and then introduce the individual oozes and their statblocks. In a group entry, each individual entry may not get its own page and artwork, but the family as a whole is well-covered.

The “family” concept is a bit of a delicate balance. If you make the creatures in a family too similar, it starts to feel like Creature 2 is just Creature 1 wearing those glasses with the fake Groucho Marx mustache. In the other direction, it runs the risk of becoming weird for the sake of weirdness. You know… were-penguins. I do think Paizo did a good job staying in the middle of the lane here. Take elementals this time around, they gave us elemental-themed creatures like a stone turtle or a fox with a flaming tail. So it’s not just a BIGGER walking blob of flame, it actually expands the line in a way that makes sense and adds flavor. For a different example: the Psychopomps, the entities that guard the Boneyard in the afterlife, are an eclectic mix of creatures ranging from a skeletal grief counselor who attempts to calm people who can’t accept their deaths to a platypus-looking “guard dog” to… basically a dragon… but the accompanying lore ties it all together. I’ll admit some of the giants start to feel a little “same-y” but for the most part, Paizo hit the mark here.

And in all cases, the tactical information is supplemented by flavor text presented in the sidebars – this flavor text can run the gamut from tactical advice on how a GM should run an encounter with the creature, to more general “world-building” flavor and lore.

Confession time. One of the first things I do when I get a book like this is to go looking for the most powerful creatures. I’m a sucker for that wow factor. Thanks to the index in the back (creatures arranged by level), the nastiest creatures check in at Level 23 – the Solar and the Jabberwock. Now… the Solar is actually a good guy (a member of the Angel family), but with a +44 holy greatsword and a list of INNATE spells that would put most Level 20 casters to shame, you probably don’t want to get on his bad side. The Jabberwock, on the other hand, is both a nasty dragon and an impressive literary nod, since it folds the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky” into the statblock at several points. Including, true to the Carroll poem, a special relationship with vorpal blades. Your party will probably hate fighting it… unless your party is comprised entirely of English majors, in which case… well, they’ll probably still die, but they’ll feel like they learned something in the process.

Another thing I tend to look for is over-arching themes. One of the Starfinder Alien Archives, for instance, was REALLY heavy on undead; another seemed to want to encourage outdoor adventuring by including a lot of sci-fi versions of wild animals. I’ll grant it could be just me looking for patterns that aren’t really there, but if there are two that stand out, it’s probably extra-planars (angels, devils, demons… even elementals kinda qualify) and monstrous and/or enlarged versions of wild animals (typically big things like bears and elephants, but also upsized versions of flies and ants). In the latter category, I’d like to point out that even though a normal hippopotamus could easily kill a human, Paizo felt we needed a “behemoth hippo” that can capsize boats, just to inflict more pain.

If you’re looking for RPG classics that didn’t make the cut the first time, we’ve got plenty of choices there as well. Everyone’s favorite stone-fed beef, the gorgon, is here. Remember the intellect devourer, the brain that walks around on stumpy little legs? He’s in here too, ready to hijack the nearest recently-deceased body. The froghemeth also puts in an appearance, because a giant frog wasn’t really complete until someone also gave it freaky tentacles. If you want to get crazy and take your campaign underwater, tritons and hippocampi are here for you.

Maybe it’s because I come at this mostly from a player perspective and I’m always looking for what might become a player or NPC race down the road, but if there’s one thing the book feels a little light on, it’s humanoids. I didn’t break the book down by page count in an Excel spreadsheet or anything, so don’t come at me with a bunch of numbers, but it felt like there weren’t that many compared to other things. That’s not to say none: just at first glance, I saw grippli (frog people), geniekin (elemental-themed planar types), and serpentfolk, and I imagine there were others. But seemed like there was more of… other stuff.

I don’t want to totally Farley this review (“remember Creature X?… that was cool”), but I did want to mention a few that jumped out at me for whatever reason. The Spiral Centurion looks like something out of the Final Fantasy series (or for a deeper cut, Lost Odyssey) – construct soldiers with circular sawblade torsos. The velstrac are a collection of fiends that are all about the infliction of pain, so lots of blades, spikes, chains… very Clive Barker. The glass golem initially struck me as silly – who makes a golem out of one of the most brittle materials available? – but they have some neat powers related to re-focusing light that make them interesting. And you gotta love that Paizo put a stake in the sand by offering their interpretation of the real-world boogeyman, the Chupacabra.

What else is there to report? The artwork, as always, is top-notch. Focused on delivering the basic look of the creatures, so no big sweeping two-page panoramas, but works on a functional level. “You want to know what that creature looks like? Here you go!” Then again, if you’re old enough to have grown up in the Gygax days of this hobby, you remember when the first Monster Manual was basically slapping a cover on a bunch of monsters compiled from newsletters, which meant the art was hand-drawn sketches. The appendices are slim but functional – quick-references of creature abilities and traits, a few ritual spells related to creatures, a quick table of creatures by type, and then a full index of creatures, sorted by level.

Is it a worthy addition to your gaming table? I think so. Pass-fail, who’s gonna say “no” to 300-ish more monsters, but more than that: it does a nice job filling in some gaps in the roster, it brings in a few more classics from RPG days of yore, and it avoids the trap of weirdness for weirdness’ sake.  Bestiary 1 is a little more essential if you’re looking for the “classics” of the genre, but this one isn’t too far off the mark and has enough stuff to keep your gaming table entertained. Definitely consider giving it a look.

Behind The GM Screen: The Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide Review

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Lost Omens: World Guide Review, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Character Guide Review, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Gods & Magic Review.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure and our Tales from the Black Lodge Podcast.

As a kid growing up, there was always a hint of “forbidden knowledge” about the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. There were books for the players, and books for the DM and ne’er the twain shall meet. Or maybe my older brother wanted me to believe that because he didn’t want his potato-head younger sibling to get peanut butter on the pages of his book.

Today, I take a broader view of gaming, and it’s not the worst thing in the world if the players understand how the moving parts work as well as the GM does. And besides, if I get peanut butter on my computer keyboard, that’s my own damn problem. So let’s delve into the not-so-forbidden world of the Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide.

The Gamemastery Guide (which I’m going to be lazy and shorten to “GM Guide” for most of this) is, at its heart, a resource for the GM of your group, and I think the guiding force of the book is taking your game experience to the next level, whatever that level might be. At some level, it’s not that hard to run an adventure path from A to Z off the Core Rulebook. However, at some point, you’re going to run into challenges that aren’t on those printed pages. For the novice GM, it might be how to deal with a problem player, or social encounters that aren’t resonating with your party, or how you can rebound from a TPK without throwing out weeks of gaming and just starting over. For the advanced GM, maybe you want to go off the printed page entirely and create your own additional content. The GM Guide has you covered either way.

The first chapter, “Gamemastery Basics”, is your classic “GM 101” stuff, the sort of things Steve talks about in his “GM Tips” section on the show. It’s going to be most interesting to the novice GM who’s maybe GM’ed a couple of times and wants to improve, or intends to triage a specific issue they’re having in their campaign. An experienced GM might get a little bit of terminology refresher out of this section – “that concept you’ve been doing for 20 years… here’s what we call it in this system” – but has probably already seen most of this stuff before in the wild. And there are almost no hard rules contained in this section – the most “meaty” thing I remember seeing at first pass was a sidebar that amounted to “well, whether you treat all diagonals as 5’ or alternate between 5’ and 10’ is up to you”. To be clear, I’m not disrespecting that content or the need to include it. Roleplaying games are having a bit of a cultural moment, and that means new players are going to showing up on our doorstep, and they need that information too. But experienced players can PROBABLY just give this a quick skim and move on to Chapter 2.

Chapter 2, entitled “Tools”, is where GM 101 ends, and the real meat of the book begins. (And at almost 100 pages, it represents the single largest part of the book in terms of page-count). The thrust of this section is “how to roll your own”: creatures, hazards, magic items… even settings and deity pantheons if you want to homebrew your own content that leaves Golarion behind. If you’re a homebrewer, this is “The Good Shit”. And unlike Chapter 1, which floated along at an abstract level, this content is VERY rubber-meets-the-road.

We start with how to design new creatures (RPG Superstar contestants, take note). The level of detail is really solid here. If you’re going to give your creature regeneration, you’ll want to take off X hit points to compensate. If the encounter level is this, the level of the optimal magic item to have it drop is this. It even contains a section on designing your own creature abilities – how much damage they should do, what saves they should have, how to slot them appropriately into the three-action economy, and such. There’s still room for GM discretion and artistic interpretation – but this gives you a real sense of how to build creatures the Paizo Way, so they’ll fit into the existing system, both holistically, and when it comes to making the math work during encounters, so they don’t break your game. In either direction – you don’t want your fancy new critter to be a TPK OR an easy ATM run for your party.

Next is a similar section on creating hazards. I have to admit – I knew hazards were more complicated than in First Edition, but I didn’t realize THIS much went into creating them. They’re almost like stationary monsters in their level of detail – you define the mechanism, the sequence of actions, how and if it can be disabled, hit points hardness in case you need to destroy it rather than disabling it, and so on.

The next few sections are near and dear to my heart as a player – rules for creating customized loot. The first section is just a basic ruleset for creating simple magic items of your own device. The meaty stuff comes in when you get to armor and weapons, where you can forego rune slots in exchange for specific abilities to create truly customized gear. We then get into ways you can tweak your basic items to give them flavor – from the mostly cosmetic (quirks: your +1 sword can smell of fresh-cut pine), to things like intelligent items and cursed items.  We finish the section on magic items with relics and artifacts – relics are items that, to oversimplify, level and gain new abilities along with you; artifacts are generally end-game level items with extra abilities, for when you want to create your equivalent of Grabthar’s Hammer. (WHAT A SAVINGS!)

After a few smaller sections that flesh out “artwork and gems” and give the GM a lot more status afflictions to play around with (including addictive drugs), we get into the last “major” theme of the Tools chapter – the sections on worldbuilding. This part actually pulls back out from the concrete to the abstract and takes the shape mostly of questions you should be thinking about if you try to create your own content. It starts at the macro level and works inward, so we go from “let’s say you want to mess around with gravity on your planet; what ramifications does that have?” to “how many local cops should a hamlet of pig-farmers have?”. Though it does use examples from Golarion to illustrate the various concepts, so you do get some “crunch” by example.

Moving on, Chapter Three is “Subsystems”. There’s a theme here of fleshing out the non-combat parts of the game by creating mini-games with their own separate victory conditions. So to pick one example, instead of making a single Diplomacy roll to decide whether the Duke will let you use his personal boat to get to the island, you use the Influence subsystem and play through a sequence of interactions with points assigned to each one, and the players succeed if they reach whatever the target point value is. I would classify Influence, Research, Infiltration, and Chases as variations on this basic theme – take something that might otherwise be summarized by one or two rolls and make it its own mini-game.

In the second half of the chapter, there are more niche systems. There’s a leadership subsystem if the players run their own organization and want to play more of a “management” role in running things. There’s a system for conducting one-vs.-one duels. There’s “hexploration”, which amounts to a system for structuring “let’s go off in the woods for a week and fight stuff” play sessions. And there’s even an MMO-like Reputation system, where – to go back to that earlier example — maybe you can’t even get an audience with that Duke unless you’ve reached a point where people know who you are and what you’re about.

If Subsystems was about helping the GM run an otherwise normal game, Chapter 4 (“Variant Rules”) is more character-oriented and focuses more on changing the underlying assumptions of the game. These run the gamut from pretty minor to fairly major paradigm shifts. Want that point-buy system you’re missing from First Edition? We’ve got rules for bringing it forward into Second Edition and making the math work close to the same. Or maybe everyone starts as an unpowered Level 0 beet farmer and does an “origin story” where they feel the call to adventure and decide what kind of character they actually want to be. Tired of the old nine-box alignment? We can go either way with that: we have options to make more gradual spectrums that you can move along as you play, or you can do away with formal alignments entirely and switch everyone to high-level guiding beliefs. There are also instructions for using a “stamina point” system, which anyone who’s played Starfinder will recognize – stamina points come back after each rest, hit points have to be healed. At the crazier end of the pool, there are systems for untying skill proficiency from character level, or for creating FULL two-class characters (as in… all the abilities of both, not a main class with archetype dabbling in Class #2).

The last section is the NPC Gallery. It is precisely what it says it is – it’s a selection of common NPCs one might run into in adventure settings. Palace guards, back-alley thieves, apothecaries and such. These can either be used directly and dropped right into your campaign, or you can use them more as an idea factory or starting point for making your own more unique creations. Or maybe you make your own creations entirely and just use these to “check your work”. It’s not as groundbreaking as the rest of the material, but it’s a handy piece of the toolbox to have.

So there you have it… the Gamemastery Guide. If you’re into this hobby at all, it’s going to be an indispensable reference book for your table. There’s a TON of good information for novice GMs to grow their game, and even veterans can probably use a little help grooming their own homebrew content for the new system. If you’re out of the evaluation stage and making any sort of serious commitment to Second Edition, you’re gonna want to pick this one up.

Pathfinder Lost Omens Gods & Magic Review: A Fine Time With The Divine

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Lost Omens: World Guide Review and Pathfinder Lost Omens: Character Guide Review.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

I feel like I should start with a bit of confession that maybe I’m not the best person to be reviewing this book. I’ve always had an indifferent relationship with the gods when it comes to roleplaying games. As far as I’m concerned, they serve as the plot engine for how divine magic works; you pick one that sort of fits with whatever alignment you’ve decided to play, and then it’s time to roll dice and fight stuff. Even my clerics and paladins sometimes make more references to Grabthar’s Hammer (what a savings!) than they do to the actual deity they’re supposed to be worshiping.

On the other hand, for better or worse, I do represent a certain type of player that exists within the RPG landscape, so my opinion is no less valid than anyone else’s; it’s just a filter you’ll have to read through. I figure as long as I acknowledge my biases in advance, I can still give you a look that’ll help you decide whether this book is right for your gaming table.

Let me acknowledge that writing a book about the gods is a tricky tightrope to walk. The challenge that presents itself is that the gods are supposed to be mysterious and unknowable. So if you write them as TOO mysterious and unknowable, you write a book full of fluff that doesn’t provide any actual gaming value. If you write with too much specificity, you make the gods an ordinary part of the world and undermine some of the mystique that makes them… well… gods. If you need an example of how wrong the latter approach can go, go back and look at the original AD&D Deities And Demigods… also known informally as “Hey, Let’s Give The Gods Stat-Blocks So We Can Kill Them”.

I suppose that’s where the “And Magic” part of the book comes in. The large majority of the book is about the gods themselves, and…. not gonna lie, it gets a little esoteric and detached in places. But there are about 20 pages toward the end – feats, spells, deity-themed magic items – where things get very rubber-meets-road.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the gods since they represent the majority of the book.

First, we have the main 20 gods that were introduced in the Core Rulebook (and the gods you’re going to be most familiar with coming from First Edition). Desna, Cayden Cailean, Pharasma… the whole crew. If you’re already playing this game, I would assume you have at least passing familiarity with them, but Gods & Magic gives you a deeper dive. Each god gets a two-page writeup that starts with a summary block – which gods are allies and enemies, who worships them and where they do so, and other such “quick-hit” information. (Including favored colors, in case you need help painting your miniature!) This is generally followed by a high-school civics breakdown of the god and their place in the Pathfinder universe, a sidebar that gives you some common aphorisms, and perhaps the most interesting part of the write-up: rules for divine intercessions.

Divine intercessions attempt to answer the question of “how would each god choose to reward or punish their followers?” This is handled through the mechanisms of boons and curses, with mild, moderate, and major options given for each. (To quote Sesame Street, this section of the book was clearly brought to us by the letter “M”). A mild boon or curse might be something as simple as a re-roll of a skill or saving throw. Major boons and curses can be character altering effects that might seriously change how a character plays. The Moderate curses and boons fall in between those two extremes – some of them are pretty close to minor effects, while others could almost be major effects.

To give an example, let’s look at Pharasma. Her minor boon is a single +2 to a skill check. Eh… whatever. Her moderate boon is an increased mastery of life and death magic – +1 positive energy damage against undead on melee attacks, +1 damage per spell level on damage spells, and/or +1 point per level on heals – not overpowering, but a nice little bonus. Her major boon, though, is pretty crazy. Pharasma decides on a fate you must fulfill (in game mechanics, the GM decides on a task you must complete). Until you fulfill that fate, you cannot die – anything that would kill you gets converted to a non-lethal misfortune of some sort. However, if you should’ve died and the boon saved you, you die peacefully in your sleep once the fate-quest has been completed. Crazy, huh? (Meanwhile, her major curse is that your family line is destined to end and you can’t have kids or otherwise procreate.) Pharasma does NOT screw around.

After the main 20 are fully fleshed out, we get introductions to 20 newer gods. These seem like the up-and-comers of the Pathfinder universe (and eyeballing it, may represent gods that were introduced during First Edition adventure paths). In terms of coverage, these gods split the difference – they don’t get as much detail as the main 20 get here (no boons and curses, one page instead of two), but they do get more ink than the main 20 got in the Core Rulebook. For these gods, we get an information block that covers the basics – domains, favored weapon, anathemas, etc. – followed by a few paragraphs about the god and then statistics for that god’s version of the Avatar spell.

The next couple of sections are a little more geared toward GM world-building, though some could also have player character applications. First, there’s an extensive lore dump on demigods and other supernatural entities that aren’t gods but can still have followers: demons, elemental lords, and such. These guys are pretty much entirely world-building material for GMs, since they’re monster-oriented and almost all toward the evil end of the spectrum. After that, the book introduces the concepts of pantheons and philosophies. Pantheons are a group of gods one can worship as a collective – for example; a dwarf can worship Torag (one of the Big 20) individually or can worship the whole family of dwarven gods in their entirety. Philosophies are religious organizations that aren’t connected to any god or divine origin – Religion Unplugged. My personal favorite of these is the Prophecies of Kalistrade: the basis of their religion is the accumulation of wealth through trade, but amongst their anathemas are giving to charity and wasting money on extravagances such as food and drink. So they basically rack up a bunch of money and then don’t spend it on anything fun. Cool plan!

After all of this – roughly the first 100 pages of the book – we get into options for player characters. Feats, spells, magic items and other equipment… the fun stuff, from a player perspective. I’m going to spend most of my time here on the magic, which is a combination of standalone spells and domain spells for 18 new cleric domains. The feats and magic items… there’s less than a dozen of each.

The standalone spells are an interesting mix. I assumed they’d be a) mostly divine spells, and b) possibly be tied to the worship of specific gods. Neither of those turns out to be true, though – there are plenty of arcane, occult, and primal spells, and if there’s a connection to specific gods, it’s conceptual rather than explicit.

Just to hit a few examples, one of my favorites is Time Beacon, a single-action spell which basically gives you a chance to rewind your turn if things don’t go well. So you’d cast Time Beacon, do the Dangerous Thing You Plan To Do, and then reset if things don’t go well. Some effects get a saving throw, but it’s still a pretty neat concept. Animus Mine booby-traps your brain against spells with mental effects – if someone tries to cast a mind-affecting spell on you, they get a save against 4d8 (or more if heightened) damage. Toward the weird end of the spectrum, you have something like Iron Gut, which lets you use your stomach as a limited-use backpack – you can store and retrieve a single item of light or negligible bulk in your stomach.

And then there’s also Slough Skin, which causes you to shed and regenerate your skin constantly over the duration of the spell. The good news is if you take any persistent damage based on skin contact – acid, contact poisons, and such – the DC to remove the damage becomes easier because you’re basically shedding the skin that’s in contact with the bad effect. The bad news is if anyone is tracking you, they have an easier time doing it because… well… you’re leaving a trail of dead skin wherever you go. It’s not a huge collection of spells, but there’s some interesting stuff here.

The cleric domains each come with a regular (Level 1) and advanced (Level 4) domain spell, and as mentioned, there are 18 new ones to choose from. My eye was immediately drawn to the Swarm domain: at Level 1, you get Swarmsense, which lets you summon a swarm for scouting purposes (no attack, but has various movement and sight properties), and the advanced spell is Swarm Form, which… you guessed it… lets you turn into a swarm of Tiny creatures. The Soul domain has an interesting advanced spell, Ectoplasmic Interstice, which creates a zone where the material and incorporeal worlds merge – incorporeal creatures can interact with physical objects, and players can hit ghosts as if they have ghost touch weapons. And OK, although it’s Necromancy, I kinda dig Foul Miasma from the Plague domain: if a creature is infected with a disease, Foul Miasma lets you pull it out of the creature’s body and create a 15’ cloud of the disease. Evil… but cool.

The magic items are an interesting mix, but there aren’t a lot of them – only about a dozen. Personally I would’ve liked to see a few more. I’m just marveling in slack-jawed awe at Torag’s Silver Anvil. It’s a Level 18 item, so it’s SUPPOSED to be powerful but… “+3 holy greater flaming greater striking silver meteor hammer”… damn, that’s a lot of keywords. Oh, and it can also be used as an actual anvil in crafting, where it confers bonuses to craft checks or adds additional hit points on Repair checks. MORE PLEASE.

At the tail end of the book, there’s a handy appendix that gives you a comprehensive chart for all the gods – alignments, favored weapons, edicts and anathemas, etc. It’s absolutely a useful reference, but if I have a minor quibble, it’s that its formatted span facing pages in a physical book, so in the PDF, you have to page up and down one page to read all the columns for a particular deity. If you’re going to use it regularly, you’ll almost have to print it out and mount it on something.

So, final verdict time. Overall, I found it a little bit disjointed, like they smushed two books with different purposes together. Yeah, it evens out to something that satisfies multiple audiences, but I’m not sure it feels like one cohesive entity. I think the need for the book is largely dependent on what kind of game your table plays. If you’re playing a “low theology” game where all you’re doing is running around bopping orcs on the head, 100 pages of doesn’t really offer anything you didn’t get in the Core Rulebook and there’s not enough of the “other” stuff to make this book a high priority. But if you’re playing a “high theology” or heavy roleplay campaign that really leans into the religious material – heralds of the gods showing up to challenge your players actions, different religious factions using the world as a chessboard to battle for power, and such – this book becomes a pretty fertile source for world-building and for understanding that landscape better.

Starfinder Character Operations Manual Review: Classing Up The Joint

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path, as well as our Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast.

It’s been over two years since the launch of the Starfinder game system. In that time, Paizo has released a lot of supplemental material – three bestiaries, a world lore book, a loot compendium – but the one thing we haven’t gotten yet are new character classes.

Well, get ready, because the Starfinder Character Operations Manual is here, and it’s bringing three brand new character classes with it. To be fair, that’s not ALL it’s bringing, but by general importance and page count, the new classes do tend to hog the spotlight. Also, since the classes also had a formal playtest, it’s the part of the book players may also have some existing familiarity with. So… we’ll get to the other stuff, but classes are where we start.

At first glance, there’s going to be a tendency to view these new classes through a Pathfinder lens and say we got an alchemist, a paladin, and a sorcerer. And look, that’s a convenient shorthand, especially when talking to people who have played both systems, and the similarities are there. But that also does these classes a disservice because if there’s some common DNA in there, the folks at Paizo have done a lot to make sure these new classes definitely have a sci-fi feel that’s different than their swords-and-sorcery counterparts.

First, there’s the biohacker. If mechanics make the world safer through building things, biohackers make the world safer by injecting people with weird chemicals. The class has the spirit, if not the exact functionality, of the alchemist from Pathfinder – you have the ability to craft chemical compounds on the fly that you can inject into a friend (boosters) or foe (inhibitors). The bad news is that like spells, there’s a daily limit for how big a batch of raw ingredients you can brew up each day; the good news is you don’t have to choose your toys in advance, you can whip up what you need in the heat of the moment. There are both general-purpose buffs and debuffs, but a biohacker also gets access to “fields of study” at 1st, 7th, and 13th level that come with more specialized effects. There are also “theorems”: more general class abilities, such as the ability to do limited healing, a poison skin that sickens enemies that hit you, and so on.

If there’s a caveat to this class, it’s that the inhibitors, at least, are pretty dependent on being good at combat in general. If you miss with a ranged attack, you waste the biohack that you had equipped, and if you don’t do enough damage to overcome any resistances, the biohack fails as well (assume it didn’t break the skin or something). If a melee attack misses, you still have the biohack for your next attack, but I’m not sure how much of a front-line melee class this is supposed to be. Boosters don’t suffer the same problem because there are mechanisms to hit your allies without even having to perform an attack roll.

Here’s the one thing that concerns me. I love the idea of the biohacker. I love the general concept of a guy who runs around and shoots weird chemicals and nanites into friend and foe alike. It’s definitely got a sci-fi feel – arguably it fits a sci-fi setting better than the alchemist fits in Pathfinder. Now here comes the “BUT”. It’s a low-offense support character, and while it’s got great lore and storytelling possibilities I’m not sure I see the “hook” on the gameplay side. Envoys have low offense but you’re a master of social situations. Mechanics have low offense, but you have a drone to play around with. (Or an exocortex… if you missed the point of the whole class.) Biohacker? I’m not sure what the gameplay “thing” is that makes you want to roll one. “Nice robotic sidekick, Mr. Mechanic. You think that’s cool? I can… (checks character sheet) cure the dazzled condition (stares at the camera like Jim Halpert in The Office).”

The next class is the vanguard. At first glance, it feels like Starfinder’s attempt to create a true defensive “tank” class, but it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s definitely a melee class – a vanguard gets access to both heavy armor and shields; one of its key powers, the Entropic Strike, only operates at melee range; and a lot of the defensive abilities assume you’re upfront taking hits for your team. Many of the class powers operate on “Entropy Points” which are generated largely by giving or RECEIVING damage, so while yes, there are damage mitigation and damage avoidance abilities in the vanguard toolkit, there are times when it will be strategically advantageous to actually take some damage to power your abilities. So this is NOT an “in the rear with the gear class”. I mean, the name “vanguard” gives it away.

It does seem like a class that’s going to require some subtlety to really get the most out of. Yes, one can go the easy route and play it for full offense, just storing up points and then releasing Entropic Strike “lather-rinse-repeat” style. At that point, it starts to feel like a Solarian that’s trying to compromise between the armor and weapon builds at the same time. But the total toolkit does allow for some pretty versatile stuff – you can pump Entropy Points into your movement, use them to reduce the damage, take damage intended for an ally… all sorts of things. I particularly like “Dampen” which lets you spend an entropy point to halve the damage of an area effect if you’re in the blast radius – a one-man grenade disposal unit. It also has “aspects” which teach you bonus combat maneuvers and let you get entropy points from additional sources such as receiving healing or doing damage to multiple foes. My general vibe from this is “easy to learn, hard to master” but definitely something new and unique to the Starfinder setting.

The last of the three classes is the witchwarper. I have to admit I’m rather fond of this one – at first it comes across as kind of randomly thrown together until you realize that’s the point: it has a flavor, and the flavor is harnessing chaos.

At a nuts and bolts level, if you’re looking for a Pathfinder analogy to frame the discussion, the witchwarper is to the technomancer what the sorcerer is to the wizard: the spontaneous caster vs. the book-smart one. Compared to the technomancer, a witchwarper gets fewer total spells, but they don’t have to prepare them beforehand and can cast anything in their arsenal at any time. However, there is more to it than that, which comes with the “warper” part of the name. The witchwarper has the ability to tweak reality itself to create unexpected effects.

There are generally two main mechanisms for this. First, all witchwarpers have the “Infinite Worlds” ability where they can drop a spell slot of a given level to create a bubble of an alternative universe; mechanically, either an environmental or an instant effect for that level (or multiple effects, if they use a higher-level spell to do lower-level effects). For example, dropping a level 1 spell can be used to either create a patch of difficult terrain (environmental) or a flash of light (instant) that can inflict the dazzled condition (or even blinded on a critical failure).

The other main mechanism is through class abilities called “paradigm shifts”. The bad news is these tend to either be limited use or cost a resolve point to use; the good news is you can get some pretty powerful effects from them. The general themes tend to be movement (speed enhancement, teleports, etc.), inflicting or removing mind-altering effects, or messing around with damage types (increasing or decreasing resistances, or even changing the damage type of an attack – “surprise, your acid attack is now fire, which I am immune to… sucks to be you”). I think my personal favorite is Substitute Mind, which lets you free an ally of mind-altering effects by (essentially) copying part of their mind from an alternate reality where they weren’t affected.

So those are the new classes, and I recognize that some portion of you will stop reading here. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

Going back to a more “order of the book” view, the book starts with new themes (can we go back and retroactively give Rusty the “Grifter” theme?) and racial abilities. Most of the core Starfinder races now have a few alternate stat setups (vesk that get a bonus to Dexterity from extended time acclimating to low gravity, “mind forward” lashunta who give up Constitution to improve their Intelligence) and there is now a selection of race-based feats to take. The surprise here is that in addition to the Starfinder core races, the Pathfinder core races (elves, dwarves, etc.) get semi-equal billing in a way they hadn’t before. In the Core Rulebook, they were kind of buried in the back in a section about converting Pathfinder characters, right before the glossary. They still don’t get a LOT of real estate compared to Starfinder races, but at least they’re invited to the party. Start rolling that halfling solarian, I guess!

After we hop over the new classes, the book presents some additional options for the existing Core Rulebook classes. I’m not going to be exhaustive, but there were a few that jumped out at me. First, there was a new “Advanced Prototype” mechanic build that lets the mechanic use a weapon or armor as the vehicle for his upgrades (the idea that instead of developing a drone or exocortex, he or she just builds a BFG). Solarians get a little more versatile with options for a ranged weapon or shield as their solar manifestation instead of just weapon or armor; also, higher-level solarians can give up one of their zenith powers to be able to have a second manifestation. Also, I’m not as familiar with the soldier, but it looked like the soldier had an unarmed combat build, almost like a monk.

Next up, we have archetypes, of which there are ten. These represent ways to add a little bit of flavor to your character without a fundamental overhaul, as well as a way to add some roleplay feel. One thing I noticed is that in Pathfinder they tend to be formal well-defined organizations, while in Starfinder they tend to be more generic roles like “medic” or “instructor”: that’s neither good nor bad, just an observation. The level of definition also varies a little bit – something like the Esotericist (casters who reject technology and seek out the purer roots of magic) is a fairly well-defined set of modifications for caster classes, whereas the Free Trader is “well, you get some bonuses to skill checks when it comes to buying and selling things”. I think my personal favorite is the Fixer archetype, which gives you class skills such as cleaning a crime scene of evidence and maintaining a network of contacts in the criminal underworld. Just in case you want to be the Pact Worlds version of Winston Wolfe.

I’m going to gloss over a few sections because they’re fairly “list-y” and I’m not sure what people would find interesting, but I’ll mention their existence. New general feats. Cool. New gear, but a lot of it seems oriented toward injection weapons and shields, to create some biohacker and vanguard loot drops. And spell lists; again, most of the chapter features the new witchwarper spells, though there are also some new mystic and technomancer spells as well.

The part I wanted to get to is the “New Rules” section because there’s a couple of potentially interesting things here.

The first is that they seem to have heard some of the frustrations with starship combat and tried to create a few more ways for players to participate. Primarily, this was through the creation of two new roles, though they’ve also added “open actions”, which we’ll come back to. The first of the new roles is the Chief Mate – think of this is a dedicated generalist that can give bonuses to any other station. So, they can help coax more speed out of the engines to get more speed or help the science officer execute scans to get more information, or they can poke around in an access panel to enhance an engineer’s attempt to divert power to a system. Interestingly, the chief mate’s checks run on Acrobatics or Athletics, which gives a more combat-oriented/low-skill character something to do.

The other role is the Magic Officer, which I like because of the open-ended possibilities. A Magic Officer can do things like performing the Science Officer’s scan activity with magic instead of computers, obscure the enemy’s targeting computers to increase your armor class, add magical damage to weapons, fold space to decrease the turning radius of the ship, and things like that. The Magic Officer abilities run off Mysticism. In addition to liking the flavor of the Magic Officer, I think it’s a smart thing that they’ve given a role to characters and skills that didn’t really fit into the existing Pilot/Captain/Sci-Eng/Gunner framework.

They’ve also added “open actions” which feel like responses to the problem of either having too many people in the party, or circumstance-based inactivity (the battle changed in such a way that manning my current station is unproductive, leaving me nothing meaningful to do). Open actions require a single skill rank to perform and don’t require being at a particular station, but they also have pretty limited benefits – for example, you can perform “Range Finding” which gives a +1 to a single attack roll. They tend to be summarized as “not very exciting, but better than sitting around doing nothing”. They also added a few additional “minor” crew actions, which already existed in the Core Rulebook and solve the opposite problem of too few people to man all the stations.

I’ll say this. I don’t know if these are the right specific changes, I but I respect that they’re listening to the player base on this. One of the persistent complaints about starship combat is that a) all roles aren’t created equal, and b) some character builds get left behind with not much to do. This feels like it TRIES to address that, which I’ll give them credit for.

The final section of the Character Operation Manual provides some fleshed-out rules for downtime activities. We’ve all had games where the party gets a couple of days off, and sometimes it’s unclear what people should be doing. Or even if they do have an idea what to do, there aren’t really any rules for how to do it. Well… now there are. Some of the activities are very rubber-meets-the-road, such as Convalesce: if you do LITERALLY nothing for 24 hours, you regain 2 hit points per level (and reduce two points of ability score damage). Others are more situational and esoteric, such as Work Out, which (if successful) lets you bank a free re-roll on a failed Athletics or Acrobatics for up to a week. It’s not earth-shattering stuff, but it’s nice to have both some suggestions for things to do, and some mechanisms for actually doing them.

So that’s the Starfinder Character Operations Manual in a nutshell. Ultimately, it’s going to sink or swim based on the new character classes, and I’m pretty pleased with what we got. I love the witchwarper and I’m probably rolling one as my next character (though at least one other member of our group feels the same way, so it may be pistols at dawn for the honor of doing so). The vanguard seems like a cool and unique and interesting concept, but I’m a little worried about the learning curve. The biohacker is the only one that leaves me a little less enthused – I love the lore and the general idea of a space alchemist; I’m still stuck on finding the hook that makes me want to roll one. (If you’re wanting to play one, don’t let me stop you.) The rest of the content isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s what you’d expect from a player-oriented volume, and the starship combat in particular shows they’ve been listening to the player base. If you’re playing Starfinder, this one’s a keeper, so off to the local gaming store with you. Or maybe just the Internet; that works too.

Pathfinder Lost Omens Character Guide Review: Leshy Hellknights Galore!

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Bestiary.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

As Pathfinder Second Edition has picked up steam, we’ve covered the release of three hardcover books for the new system so far – the Core Rulebook, the Bestiary, and the Lost Omens World Guide. Now comes Paizo’s newest, release, the Lost Omens Character Guide, which was released just a week-and-change ago. Second Edition’s moved into the neighborhood and unpacked all the boxes; now it’s time to throw a party and invite the weird neighbors down the street!

You can almost think of the World Guide and Character Guide a matched set – the World Guide exists mostly to flesh out the setting and give GMs ideas on how to flesh out their games, while the Character Guide delves deep into options for the players to incorporate into their creations. Not that there’s NO crossover, but it’s an interesting way to break the content up. In some ways, it’s almost like the World Guide and Character Guide exist more as Book 3A and Book 3B.

When looking at character-building, I tend to mentally sort players into one of three broad buckets – you’ve got Min-Maxers, Roleplayers, and Dice-Rollers. The Min-Maxers are all about creating crazy powerful character concepts that have a trick for every fight and are singlehandedly pounding dragons into the ground. They’re the ones who find every little edge in the system, and often (at least in First Edition) had dips into two or three different classes to get EXACTLY the character they want. Roleplayers, obviously, tend to focus on the “story” of their character – sometimes they’ll also be fairly optimized, but other times they’ll be off in the weeds and building weird, quirky characters that may be sub-optimal, but tell exactly the story they want to tell. And then there are the Dice-Rollers – people who approach it primarily from a standpoint of attacking the game goals; it’s usually about having a fairly straightforward character that plays easily, does a few things well, has no glaring weaknesses.

As an aside for those of you who listen to our Dead Suns podcast, Chris is definitely a Min-Maxer (he’s been known to plan his character build out all the way from level 1 to 20 before the adventure begins), Bob is a Roleplayer (he’ll often send Steve entire paragraphs of backstory and character motivations he doesn’t even want the rest of the party to know), and John and I are Dice-Rollers – we’re mostly there to get from point A to point Z without getting anyone killed or dying ourselves.

Using this as my lens, I feel like the Lost Omens Character Guide has a little something for everyone, but it’s really going to be most useful for the roleplaying types who really want to immerse themselves in the world more deeply. Yes, Min-Maxers will be able to find some moderately more effective combinations of feats that will squeeze a bit more out of a character than the tools in the Core Rulebook. Yes, Dice-Rollers may want to try a few of the new ancestries or join one of the organizations to grab a fringe benefit or dabble in the shallow end of the roleplaying pool. But this book is showing its best side when it comes to building colorful characters that fit well into the Inner Sea campaign setting.

The book is unofficially divided, almost equally, into two main parts. The first half focuses on ancestries, both by providing three new (to Second Edition) ancestries, as well as by deepening the options for the existing Core Rulebook choices. The second expands on some of the organizations and societies that exist throughout the world, such as the Hellknights and the Pathfinder Society. Where the rubber meets the road, all of the core ancestries get one or more new heritages and several new ancestry feats, while the organizations tend to be a combination of feats, benefits every member of the organization gets, and magic items that are unique to the organization. The section on organizations also includes some more GM-friendly tools – a gallery of sample NPCs, as well as a template system that would allow GMs to add monster NPCs to these organizations. So if you want your story to have a socially well-adjusted ogre who’s been recruited into the Pathfinder Society, there’s a way to do that.

As a player, my immediate first question is always “what are the NEW ancestries?” I’m a sucker for the new toys; it is what it is. As mentioned, we’ve got three to choose from – hobgoblins, leshies, and lizardfolk. Veteran Pathfinder players will already be familiar with these, but for players arriving new to Pathfinder with Second Edition, allow me to introduce you. Hobgoblins are basically the goblins’ big brother that will beat up your big brother. They’ve got a similar look and characteristics to goblins – but they’re the size of normal humanoids. Leshies are plant-people that are created by druids. I’m sure it wasn’t a Groot Thing when they were originally created, but now the comparisons are inevitable. (Also, as a little factoid, tucked away in one of Steve’s interviews is the fact that leshies were the most requested new ancestry when Paizo was fishing for user feedback.) Lizardfolk are, well, walking talking lizards. No big mystery there. Lizardfolk are strength-based so they feel like they’re geared toward fighter builds; hobgoblins are (surprisingly) INT-based, so they’d make pretty good arcane casters; with leshies, CON and WIS suggest they’d make excellent druids, though the nature theme could also create roleplay synergy with the ranger or even a primal-themed sorcerer.

Lizardfolk are a pretty fundamental race to have in a fantasy RPG, and leshies are interesting and cool, but personally, I could’ve done without hobgoblins. Just being honest. I already wasn’t all that interested in goblins as a core ancestry, and now we have… what… the Goblin S Plus? I realize I might be in the minority here and I’m just having an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” moment, but I would’ve liked a different third ancestry.

Perhaps something DEX-based? Perhaps something that has feathers and squawks? OK… tengu. Should’ve been tengu. (Damnit, I was trying to be subtle here…)

The leshies actually come with a wonderful (in a science-nerd way) racial ability – leshies generally get nourishment through photosynthesis and therefore don’t need conventional food. So if you’re adventuring in the outdoors… you’re good. However, if they spend more than a week in darkness (hint: exploring dungeons), they would actually start to starve. UNLESS… they can buy bottled liquid sunlight at 10 times the price of normal rations. Would that be… wait for it… SPARKLING WATER?

For the Core Rulebook ancestries, the gains tend to be a new heritage and about maybe a dozen ancestry feats scattered over the different tiers. I think what’s interesting here is the choice they made with humans, where they added “ethnicity” feats and “nationality” feats. Ethnicity feats are more classic racial abilities – the Nidalese can gain low-light vision from living in gloomy undead lands; one of the subtypes of Tian Xia, the Tian-Dan, have JUUUUUST enough dragon blood that you can choose to have a pocket-sized breath weapon. “Nationality” feats come from living within a particular area, but you don’t have to be of the home-town ethnicity. An example of this is the Taldan ability “Keep Up Appearances”: since Taldans pride themselves on their bravery, when you’re affected by an emotional effect like fear, you can take a roll to try and trick the caster into thinking you weren’t affected. I think the thing I like about this system is it can cut both ways – you can either lean into your home region or you can use these same feats to make yourself different from the rest of the locals. It feels like it will open up roleplaying possibilities.

Next up, we have the organizations. At first glance, it’s a little confusing to the novice player where the distinctions of class leave off and organization begin, but think of a modern military. You have a package of skills everyone learns (basic training) but there are still specialties within that structure. So putting the Pathfinder class model in modern terms, a sniper might represent a rogue or ranger and a medic might represent a cleric, but they still have SOME of the same skills. (Heck, the Marines have the Marine Corps Band, so… BARDS!) Those “SOME of the same skills” are what the organizations represent.

The Lost Omens Character Guide formally presents five organizations, though scattered through the pages are references to other organizations that might appear in future volumes.

  • The Firebrands are “go big or go home” adventurers – they dress flamboyantly; they strive to do epic deeds; if they’re gonna die, they intend to leave a good-looking corpse. If you dare a Firebrand to punch a dragon in the face, they just might try it. If you’re listening to our Plaguestone podcast, Brixley seems like a Firebrand in the making; he’s already got the foppish fashion sense!
  • The Hellknights are all about law-and-order. And pointy bits on their armor. In some towns, they even serve as local law enforcement. That sounds good until you realize they’re indifferent on the good-evil spectrum.
  • The Knights of Lastwall are a band of warriors who are known for fighting against the undead, so a lot of their perks are dedicated toward that cause.
  • The Magaambya Academy is a school of magic that seeks get in touch with the roots of both arcane and primal magic. They’ve got STEM AND liberal arts programs!
  • The Pathfinder Society are also cut from that “gentlemen adventurer” cloth that the Firebrands are, but unlike the Firebrands, they’re more about either uncovering knowledge or putting that knowledge to use to solve problems in the world. Almost more of an Indiana Jones vibe. (And nothing about a dress code.)

The one thing that stands out at first glance is they’ve made membership in organizations much more flexible and story-driven than it was in First Edition. Organizations tended to be very stat-driven in First Edition: to create a hypothetical society around the Marvel character Daredevil (the Acolytes of Murdoch), you’d have to have a level in Monk or Rogue, Stealth +8, Perception +10, and take the Blind-Fight feat before you could even consider joining. So joining many of these organizations, it was a long drawn-out process spanning multiple levels to even get your character ready, a process that almost overshadowed whatever your other campaign goals might be. Furthermore, by the time you got all the stats up to the necessary level, belonging to the organization was something of an anti-climax because it took so many levels to get there.

If these organizations are a representative sample, organization membership is going to be simpler and more story-driven. Other than a general alignment requirement, most of these (except the Firebrands, which are open to all) tend to have fairly flexible “earn the trust of someone who’s already in the organization” entry requirements that a GM could easily fold into an existing adventure – you run the campaign you were already going to run and impress, say, a Knight of Lastwall in the process. Heck, if you really felt strongly about it and your GM agreed, you could assume the requirements as part of your pre-Level-1 origin story and just start as a member of the organization, though that would spoil the fun of playing through a good origin story. (And in the case of the Hellknights, trial by combat against a devil.)

In addition to a few extra feat selections, some of the organizations have access to interesting magical items that might be fun to play around with. And sometimes non-magical – Hellknight plate is functionally the same as normal plate, but it just looks cool and has lore to it (for example, Hellknights take it VERY seriously when non-members wear their plate). But on the magic item front, there are some neat items. The Magaambya have something called the Scrollstaff, a staff that can basically be inscribed with a spell exactly like a scroll – so it can be used as a normal weapon but can also be used to cast the spell. The Knights of Lastwall offer us the Serrating Rune which creates vibrating shards of metal on the edge of a bladed weapon: yes, it basically turns a bladed weapon into the magical equivalent of a chainsaw. I think my favorite is the Firebrands’ Insistent Door Knocker. This has two main functions. If you put it on an existing locked door, it will give you suggestions on how to pick the lock and give you a bonus on your check to pick the lock. Even cooler, if you put it on a section of wall, it actually attempts to create a door that works as long as the wall isn’t too thick, or as long as the construction materials don’t include metal.

The remaining sections are more for the benefit of the GM. There are a few pages of organization-associated NPC characters, which… I guess they’d be handy if you need to whip up an encounter involving members of that organization. Slightly more interesting, the book also offers templates you can use to add organization affiliation to monsters and other NPCs. Just in case your GM wants the Hellknights to go on a recruiting drive amongst the local kobolds or something. I should mention these templates are for not just the five organizations detailed earlier in the book, but 13 organizations in total that have been mentioned at some point in this book OR the World Guide. Those kobolds can also be Red Mantis Assassins, Aldori Swordlords, or even members of the Whispering Way.

As with all these books, the production values are top-notch. Information is laid out in a way that’s logical and easy to understand and artwork is fantastic. If I have a minor complaint, it would be that the brown color they use for the sidebar text can sometimes be a little hard to read in lower light, which one sometimes encounters in gaming rooms where the GM is trying to set a particular mood. But then again, I also have Old Man Eyes and started having to wear reading glasses about a year ago, so Your Mileage May Vary on that one.

So that’s the skinny on the Lost Worlds Character Guide. Definitely another worthwhile addition to the Second Edition foundation, but one that’s probably a little more tailored to the roleplayers. (Or the surprisingly large number of leshy fans out there, apparently.) It’s not that there’s not something for everyone – there is. There’s just MORE for the people who really sink their teeth into the lore of the world since the options presented here are tailor-made to deepen a character’s connection to that lore. If that sounds like it’s up to your gaming group’s alley, get online or to your local gaming store and we’ll see all you lizardfolk Hellknights out there in the world soon.

Starfinder Alien Archive 3 Review – Now With 100% More Space Otters

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path, as well as our Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast.

Sorry if we’re a little late getting around to it because of the release of Pathfinder Second Edition, but let’s not forget Starfinder, which has been our bread and butter these past two years at Roll For Combat. In fact, Paizo just recently released another truck-load of creatures in the form of the Alien Archive 3.

First things first. PAIZO GAVE ME MY SCIENCE OTTERS. To paraphrase Teri Hatcher in Seinfeld: they’re the Brenneri and they’re fabulous!

Review over. Great book. Must buy. 10/10. Thanks for reading.

OK, got that out of my system. But seriously… back in my review of Alien Archive 2, I asked for otters as a playable race, and Paizo delivered. I’m not going to be so egotistical as to think they did that specifically FOR me (lots of people think otters are cute), but I certainly know what my next character is going to be. The real question is whether that’ll be next adventure, or whether I’ll get reckless and get Tuttle semi-intentionally killed coming down the backstretch of Dead Suns so a heretofore unmentioned Brenneri colleague can finish his research.

Back to the review. There’s something about this book that’s a little… esoteric?… this time around. The first Alien Archive was the bootstrap for the game system… there were certain monsters that kinda HAD to be there. Staples of sci-fi, carryovers from Pathfinder, playable races that filled holes in the world-building. The second book had a couple of broad themes that tied the book together – it was heavy on sci-fi versions of common beasts and it also put a lot of pages into fleshing out (pun intended) the world of undead creatures.

With Alien Archive 3, it’s a bit more of a free-for-all, for better and for worse. This collection of creatures feels a little more improvisational and… weird. It doesn’t really have an overarching “theme” or anything like that. It’s not like “we’re gonna focus on this one Pact Worlds planet” or “we’re doing fire creatures this time; tell the printer to stock up on red and orange ink”. So… my internal grump feels like it’s a little haphazard and thrown together. On the other hand, it’s more fun and weird – they let their freak flag fly a little more on this one.

As someone who rarely GMs, playable races tend to draw my eye first. I already mentioned the otters, but we’ve also got camelfolk (Dromada), birdfolk (Espraksa – not to be confused with Bird-Person from Rick and Morty), turtlefolk (Telia) and walrusfolk (the Morlamaw – where they first appeared in a Society adventure and were available as a boon). Getting out into the weirder end of the pool, we also have the Raxilites, little radish-people that look like Pokemon and will give the skittermanders a run for their money in a Cute-Off; there’s also sentient squids (the Ijtikri) and sentient velociraptors (Hanakan), complete with short little arms. I think my favorite just on a “how would that even work” level is the Spathinae: a “humanoid” race that’s basically a swarm of insects that can take humanoid form. Not only that but they supply us with our second Rick and Morty reference of the piece – It’s One-Million Ants!

There’s good stuff in the non-playable category as well. There’s a Stridermander, which is a natural predator of the Skittermanders – imagine a larger, meaner, centaur version of the Skittermander and you’re in the ballpark. There’s a high-level entity called the Time Dimensional that can play all sorts of weird tricks with time – always has a Nat-20 during initiative, can Dimension Door mid-round and resume its actions in the new place, and it has powers where it can either freeze an individual creature or stop time on the entire battlefield (but it can’t take offensive actions during the freeze). The Oracle of Oras is a giant tree which doesn’t sound all that imposing, except that has followers that live in treehouses in its branches, and it can cast a lot of crazy buffs on those followers. And ohbytheway, it’s also a travel mechanic because an Oracle of Oras can teleport up to six creatures to any OTHER Oracle of Oras in the same star system. Also, you know tardigrades, right? Those little microscopic critters that have been around since the dawn of time? Well, AA3 gives us the Giant Space Tardigrade, which a) is exactly what it sounds like and b) can be used as a spaceship.

Believe it or not, it gets weirder. Someone decided to create the concept of the Weaponized Toy. The lore plays around with the idea of arms dealers disguising combat drones as toys to get them past Pact Worlds security, so… it’s basically killer jack-in-the-boxes or killer game systems. Also, there’s the kami – spirits that merge with objects and become anthropomorphic versions of that object. Think Transformers. There’s a diminutive version (the tsukumogami) which is a kind of cute nuisance and the gargantuan version (the chinjugami) which will wreck your day.

As with previous volumes, the creature descriptions also intermingle general world-building, and also provide items, feats, spells, and other player-relevant features. The Yithians are a good example on both fronts – in one of the more dark-but-cool pieces of world-building, the Yithians escaped their dying homeworld by mindswapping with other creatures in the galaxy, leaving random strangers trapped in their former bodies on their about-to-be-dead planet. The Yithians also come with a spell-block for a spell called Mind Swap, which lets you… well… swap minds with a target for an hour per caster level.

It seems to be a staple that every book has a “crunch” part where they introduce some sort of extension to the ruleset, and AA3 is no exception. For this volume, Paizo is introducing companion creatures to the Starfinder system. Starfinder didn’t really have to deal with this out of the box since they don’t have a Druid or Ranger class, but I suppose it’s natural that eventually, people would want to have pets. So Alien Archive 3 has an appendix which sets up a rules framework and gives some sample pets you can add to your games. The good news is it’s not class-specific; anyone can have a companion creature as long as you have ranks in Survival. And one of the options is a pet ooze, and… come on, who wouldn’t want that? The bad news that pets are fairly limited, functionally. It looks like it operates on similar principles as a mechanic-drone dynamic – you have to give up some of your actions to give a companion creature the ability to do things – but you pretty much have to take feats to unlock anything but the most basic interactions. (Example: it requires a separate feat just to enable the companion creature to take an attack of opportunity.)

The remaining appendixes are the “usual” stuff – creatures by CR, creatures by type, creatures by terrain. The one new entry here is a breakdown by Pact World planet, so if you’re planning an adventure on, say, Verces, you can immediately grab a list of some of the most common creatures on that planet.

In closing, I’m not sure what to make of the Alien Archive 3. My reaction is generally positive – it certainly delivers another volume that follows a fairly successful recipe; “more of the same” is fine when “the same” is already pretty good. But the specific creature selection is maybe a little on the goofy side and might not fit equally well in every game. If you’re cool with that – and particularly if you feel a strong need to make an otter PC who wanders around with an ooze buddy – definitely check it out. If you’re just getting started, it’s probably okay to start your game with the first Alien Archive and work your way up to this one.

And just in case Paizo IS listening: three words for Alien Archive 4. “Red Panda Solarian”.

Pathfinder Lost Omens World Guide Review: The Brand New Same Old, Same Old

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Bestiary.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

The Lost Omens World Guide is a bit of a late arrival to the Pathfinder Second Edition party. It was originally supposed to launch at GenCon alongside the same time as the Core Rulebook and the Bestiary, but it was unfortunately delayed at the printer. But much like Wonder Woman showing up for the last 10 minutes of Batman v. Superman, it’s finally arrived on the scene to complete the launch-day trinity. (Unlike Batman v. Superman, you’ll be pleased to hear that the word “Martha” is nowhere within its pages.)

So, what IS the Lost Omens World Guide? Well, at its simplest, it’s “the setting book” for Pathfinder Second Edition. It’s a means of introducing the world of Golarion (or at least the portion of it where most of the fun stuff happens) to new players and re-introducing it to players who are making the jump from First Edition.

I don’t know how K-12 education is structured these days, but back in 10th grade, I had a class called “World Cultures” that took a 2-3 week survey-level look at many of the main areas other than the United States. How many people live here? What are their religions and languages? What are some of the biggest cities? This book is a lot like that, but for the Inner Sea region. Aside from getting from Point A to Point B and knowing where to buy more rations, it lets you know things like whether elves are commonplace or if you’re going to be regarded as weirdo in the town you’re about to enter. It might also stop you from… ohhh I don’t know… creating an entire party of characters who don’t speak the dominant language of the area you’re visiting. Hypothetically. LIKE THAT WOULD EVER HAPP… (sigh).

Perhaps most importantly, it’s a sourcebook for the ambitious and creative GM, to help them design homebrew content for their gaming tables that would still fit within the Inner Sea setting. Much like the Pact Worlds book from Starfinder, the Lost Omens World Guide is teeming with “jumping-off points” – people, locations, important landmarks, and so on – that an aspiring GM can use as the foundation for telling his or her own stories. If you want to do an undead or horror-themed adventure, the Eye of Dread region is basically the backyard of the Whispering Tyrant, a lich-king who’s caused all manner of trouble over the years. The Impossible Lands are where a battle between two wizards has warped the very land itself, so if you’ve got a mind for weird, trippy, high-magic shenanigans… there you go. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to things afoot on (and under) the high seas.

There is, however, a bit of an elephant in the room. Doesn’t the first edition Inner Sea World Guide already cover a lot of the same ground? And the answer to that is “yes, but…”.

Look. The broad strokes of Golarion remain the same. The city of Absalom still serves as a one-stop hub for adventuring. Most of the “themed” regions still exist; if you want a campaign with a desert flavor or a jungle flavor or an arctic theme, all of those are right where you left them. There are going to be long-time First Edition players who already know most of this, and that’s cool.

So what’s truly new here? That’s the question, isn’t it?

First, as a reference manual, it’s organized a little more intuitively than its predecessor. The Inner Sea World Guide was broken down by topic, using straight alphabetical order within each topic. Straightforward in a way, but not necessarily easy to use – two locations that were just down the road from each other on the map could be on opposite sides of the book, and different pieces of information about a place might be scattered across the book. Much like the Starfinder Pact Worlds book, the Lost Omens World Guide takes more of a geographical focus, organizing itself into 10 meta-regions, and tackling each region separately. It’s the difference between having to flip 200 pages to get from Montreal to Toronto rather than them both being in the chapter about Canada. To me, the latter feels more rooted in common sense. Furthermore, the book presents a nice simple one-sheet “flashcard” for each region that includes all the important details an easy-to-digest format. Very handy – something that can very easily be printed off and given to the players at the table.

The next thing is that on a lore level, the Pathfinder world has undergone changes. The fates of different nations have risen and fallen, and some of the formerly dominant powers are less so, with new players taking their places. But here’s the cool thing. It’s not simply “Oceania and Eastasia are enemies now… 30 dollars, please”. The changes that happen as a result of the time-skip are often directly or indirectly tied to the last 10 years of official First Edition adventures – adventure paths, individual adventures, even Society play. Our online game proceeds at somewhat of a slower pace, so we haven’t done all of the adventure paths, but at first glance, I recognized hooks to both the Iron Gods and Carrion Crown adventure paths in the “timeline” running along the sides of the pages. The takeaway is that this isn’t just change-for-change’s-sake; there’s a decent amount of thought put into HOW the world would have changed if one assumed the outcomes of the various adventures as fact. While I admit my knowledge of prior adventure paths isn’t deep enough to totally appreciate it, I think it’s pretty neat, conceptually.

Lastly – and here’s where players’ ears will perk up – there are region-specific backgrounds, archetype feats, and sometimes even little extras (items, non-archetype feats, etc.) interspersed within the lore dump. That’s right kids, it’s not ALL fun for the GM; we players get in on the action too.

On one level, the backgrounds are nothing game-changing, it’s still just a couple ability scores and a couple of skill bumps. What they do represent is a means of integrating your character more tightly with the setting and world lore. Just to pick an example, instead of just being a “sailor”, the High Seas section gives you the option to be a storm survivor, an aspiring captain, a member of a press-gang, an undersea enthusiast, or other options… each with their own flavor, and yes… their own stat bumps.

The archetype feats tend to be related to key organizations (formal and informal) within the Inner Sea realms. The most likely (from a player perspective) would be the Pathfinder Agent – if you join the Pathfinder Society (and are from Absalom), you’d gain access to additional feats you can take as you level. On the “formal organization” side, there are several old standbys like the Hellknights and Red Mantis Assassins. For an example of a more informal grouping, there are the Runescarred, residents of the Saga Lands whose exposure to magic over time has left… well… scars. In general terms, there’s one archetype for each region – access to these archetypes generally has a skill requirement and you have to be from the region to take it. The skill needs vary from fairly straightforward (“ability to cast focus spells” for the Magic Warrior of Mwangi Expanse) to fairly specific (the Red Mantis Assassin requires the right alignment, the right weapon proficiency, the right deity, AND membership in the Red Mantis Assassins). So some of these, you may be able to train into fairly easily; others will require a pretty specific build (or a pretty lenient GM) to even get in the vicinity.

As far as the “toys”… it’s a little more hit-and-miss here, both in terms of the number of extras and the presentation thereof, but there is some fun stuff here. It’s a little wonky, presentation-wise: sometimes they’re in the flow of the main text, sometimes they’re tucked off in a corner or on the sidebar, so it can be a little difficult going back to find them later. Some sections have three or four; other sections won’t have any. But you do have some fun choices. There’s the Aldori Dueling Sword: the sword itself is nothing special, but training in it and being from that part of the world lets you potentially take the Aldori Duelist archetype and get access to some interesting feats. The High Seas area offers the Jellyfish Lamp, a lamp made of bioluminescent jellyfish, but it loses its potency if it’s removed from water for an extended period of time. I think my personal favorite is the Eye of the Arclords feat – it basically creates a temporary third eye in your forehead that gives darkvision, detect magic, and a bonus to Perception checks. WHO DOESN’T LOVE EXTRA EYES?

So, is this something your gaming group is going to need? At a 30-thousand foot level, it’s a book that’s heavy on lore and light on nuts-and-bolts rules content, and some portion of that lore – fresh coat of paint notwithstanding – is stuff that’s been out there for a while. But it does have new wrinkles to offer in terms of world lore and gameplay that, pass-fail, make it worth a look. I certainly think anyone who’s brand new to Pathfinder with Second Edition probably ought to pick this one up, and GMs who want to do a lot of homebrewing that would still fit in with published material would find this book useful as well. If someone’s a First Edition lifer who already has this committed to memory or if you’re a GM who’s more about the ruleset and don’t really use the Golarion setting as much… maybe it’s OK to wait a bit and see how your Second Edition experience goes before taking the plunge. Having said all of that, it’s a worthy successor to the Inner Sea World Guide and a solid platform to launch a new era of Second Edition gaming.

Pathfinder Second Edition Review: What’s Old Is New Again

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Second Edition Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast. Also, make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Bestiary.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

It feels like it’s been on our radar for a while, but with a formal release scheduled for GenCon 2019, Pathfinder Second Edition is finally being released into the RPG wilderness. Our secret operatives have managed to get our hands on the new Core Rulebook and wanted to share our first impressions on the next chapter in Pathfinder gaming.

If you think about it, Pathfinder First Edition is a decade old and was itself a revision of an existing system (Dungeons and Dragons 3.5), so there are a lot of miles on that odometer. The flip side of 15 years of depth, is 15 years of kludges, conflicts, workarounds, and other annoyances. New Class X is better than Class Y in every way, so much so that no one bothers playing Class Y anymore. Something written in sourcebook A directly conflicts with thing written five years ago in sourcebook B but nobody caught it until it was already in print. A new book comes up with a better mechanic for something that really should’ve been The Way It Was Done all along. Game design as a discipline is more of a formal thing now; we simply understand the inner workings of these games better than we did 15 years ago.

The other elephant in the room that we long-time players have to acknowledge is that we’re at a time when new players are kicking the tires on this hobby, and 15 years of complexity equals 15 years of “holy crap, this is complicated!” when a new player sits down at the table for the first time. Those of us who have been playing all these years may live and breathe and even love that complexity, but at a time when roleplaying games are receiving newfound mainstream acceptance (thanks, Stranger Things!) and people who never threw dice before are giving this hobby a fresh look, rolling a forklift stacked with books up to their doorstep is a bit daunting.

So you can see the needle Paizo has to thread here. Second Edition needs to preserve what was best about First Edition, and deliver something that still feels like the Pathfinder we know and love. It also needs to take advantage of everything they’ve learned about their product over the last 15 years and condense it down to a new “best” version of the game. And while they’re doing all of that, make it simpler and more accessible to new players without making us lifers feel like it’s been dumbed down past the point of recognition.

Oh, is that all?

After sitting down with these rules for a while, I feel like they did a pretty good job of hitting the mark. While it’s still recognizable as Pathfinder, it does some things differently in ways that will hopefully make for more interesting gaming. I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect – there are some things I not that crazy about and would want to see in a live game before I make a final decision. But all in all, it’s a good first step and our gaming group is definitely going to give it a look. I’m going to roughly follow the structure of the book since that seems like a logical way to tackle this.

Getting To Know You (Ancestries and Backgrounds)

The first few chapters deal with character creation, for which Paizo has helpfully supplied us with a mnemonic of “ABC” – Ancestry, Background, Class. If you’ve been following Starfinder at all, it’s very similar to the character creation in Starfinder: you choose these three aspects of your character, and those choices do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of shaping your ability scores, hit points, languages, and so on.

Ancestry is what we longtime players have heretofore been calling race, but “RBC” doesn’t really work. All of your usual fantasy roleplaying classics are here – elf, dwarf, halfling, etc. – with a few minor caveats. First, half-elf and half-orc are no longer considered separate entities but are considered variants (“heritage” is the official terminology) of humans. Second, Paizo’s official mascot – the goblin – is now one of the base playable ancestries. Me, I’m not a goblin guy (sorry… please, no hate mail), but I know a lot of people love the little guys.

Under the umbrella of ancestry, additional flavor is available through the selection of a “heritage” (say, the difference between a wood elf and high elf; half-elf and half-orc are technically human heritages), and ancestry feats. Ancestry feats are talents you can take to customize even further – you might take Nimble Elf and take an extra five feet of movement speed; I might take “Otherworldly Magic” and take a cantrip I can cast whether I’m a caster or not. Furthermore, you get additional ancestry feats as you level, so the customization grows over time. So your elf and mine already have subtle differences before we even get into classes.

Background is a one-time, static choice – what was your character doing before they became an adventurer? Nuts and bolts, background gives you a few ability increases, a Lore skill (like Knowledge skills from Pathfinder 1, but can literally be ANYTHING), and another skill. At a roleplaying level, it can help shape the story of your character. Were you a noble? A prisoner? A merchant? There are a lot of choices, so roleplayers and min-maxer types should be able to find something that makes their character work.

A Touch of Class (Classes)

Of course, class is the meat and potatoes of character creation. As with ancestry, all your old RPG favorites are here (joined by Alchemist as a core class). But within the familiar, there are wrinkles. The bard is no longer a hobo caster and has been upgraded to a full caster class with a full spell list. A sorcerer can choose a bloodline associated with any of the four magical sources – primal, arcane, divine, and occult – so yes, you can have a sorcerer that heals. The position that used to be occupied by the Paladin is now the Champion – the Paladin still exists as the lawful good variant, but Neutral Good and Chaotic Good champions can also exist.

One thing that’s neat is that each class has multiple different specializations available from a fairly early level. With some classes, the choice can be more of a subtle flavor; others look like they could play dramatically differently. For example, if you’re playing an Alchemist, you can play a Bomber (‘splodey direct-damage), a Mutagenist (buffs for yourself, debuffs for enemies), or a Chirurgeon (healing). Champion feels like a class where it’s more flavor – they all play as divine-inspired fighters, but some of their supporting powers are tweaked based on the variant – the lawful paladin gets more powerful when getting revenge for damage already done, the neutral redeemer applies debuffs to enemies (YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES!), and the chaotic liberator’s powers focus on freedom of movement and action.

One thing that’s very noticeable across all classes is the “feat-ification” of class abilities. In First Edition, a lot of core class abilities were static – every character of a particular class gets the same tools at the same levels. In Second Edition, there’s still some of that, but a much larger portion of class abilities are distributed in the form of class feats, and you have multiple choices available at any given level. To take one example, a second-level cleric can choose (among other things) Turn Undead, Communal Heal, or grab additional cantrips with Cantrip Expansion. It’s going to take running some characters up to higher levels, but it feels like this could lead to interesting character choices, where your Level 10 ranger and my Level 10 ranger could end up playing a LOT different from each other.

Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (Feats)

I’m actually going to go out of order in the book and stay with feats for a bit. (Skipping over the chapter on Skills, but we’ll come back). One thing you might have picked up on by now is that Second Edition puts feats in silos quite a bit. In First Edition, pretty much everything was just a feat – as long as you meet the prereqs, you could take anything you liked. Wizard with heavy armor and Cleave? Have at it, if you can make it work. Now, we have Ancestry Feats, Class Feats, Skill Feats (we haven’t discussed them yet, but they exist), and they’re all on separate tracks. There are a few general feats anyone can take, but it’s a much smaller number than before.

I will acknowledge that this might be a mixed bag to some players. The downside is that people who are into creating really niche character concepts might struggle to do that with all the tools walled off in different places. If you just want to steal one or two abilities, there are ways to do that – most notably, there are multiclass feats that let you grab something from another class. But there are probably going to be some builds from PF1 that just aren’t going to be possible in Second Edition.

If there’s an upside, it’s that they’ve basically eliminated the so-called “feat tax”. In PF1, you could tie up three or four feat slots laying the groundwork to get the destination feat you really want. In PF2, character level is the single biggest gatekeeper to taking a feat: if you’re high enough level to take the feat, you’re good to go. The difference is not so much the destination feat itself – in both systems, you might not be able to take the feat you really want until level 12 – but what you’re doing in the meantime. In PF2, you’re taking other feats that make your character more interesting whereas, in PF1, you often ended up checking boxes instead of taking the things you really wanted. (On the other hand, I know there are going to be a few players who are gonna be pissed because they had a meticulously crafted build that got them that feat by Level 9 and think it’s arbitrary they have to wait for Level 12 now.)

The one sort-of exception is skill feats, where you need to have a specific character level, and in some cases, need to be trained to a certain level in a skill. There are some surprisingly useful things hidden in the skill feats. Treat Wounds is a heal you can get through the Medicine skill that doesn’t require magic. Trick Magic Item gives you a chance to use a magic item even if it’s not normally something you could use. There’s also Recognize Spell, which lets you identify a spell as a reaction as it’s being cast.

The real intriguing ones are the high-level Legendary skill feats. They don’t kick in until you reach Level 15 and achieve Legendary in a particular skill, but… whoo, boy. Legendary Linguist in the Society skill lets you come up with a pidgin language in real-time. For ANY language. Legendary Sneak, in Stealth, literally gives you a chance to hide in plain sight. But the best has to be Scare To Death, for the Intimidation skill. As the title says, you have a chance to scare an enemy so bad it just up and dies.

A View To A Skill (Skills)

Technically, we’re now going back a chapter, but let’s talk about skills. I’m not going to spend a lot of time about the skills themselves – they’re mostly the same ones that have been around since First Edition and even before: OK, what used to be called “Knowledge” is now “Lore”, Climb and Swim are now lumped under “Athletics”, and “Handle Animal” is now a specific action you can take under “Nature”, but the  broad strokes won’t be surprising to anyone. I should mention that Lore is more open-ended than Knowledge was – Knowledge had specific categories; Lore can literally be anything. (OK, not motorcycles, because they haven’t been invented yet. But you know what I mean.)

I wanted to spend my time talking about some of the surrounding logistics of the skill system.

First, the math associated with skills has gotten a whole simpler. The days where you put ranks into skills every level are gone. Now skills only have five levels (or, four plus “untrained”) – Trained, Expert, Master, and Legendary – and the bonuses associated with those levels are simply +2, +4, +6, and +8 respectively. You also get your character level IF you’re trained in the skill, but not if it’s untrained. Additionally, instead of getting a certain number of skill ranks every level, you just get skill advancements at certain points during character leveling.

This is one of those areas that at first, I thought it was TOO simple, but then I thought about it, and this may actually work out better in the long run.

First, it represents the difference between choice in name only, versus engaging, interesting choice. In First Edition Pathfinder (or Starfinder for that matter), it was feast or famine – you were either a low-skill character who only got enough skill points to put points in a few core skills and nothing else; or you were a skill monkey and had so many choices it became silly once you put a few points in INT. I just leveled Tuttle in our Starfinder game, and he gets something like 10 or 12 skill choices per level and… if I’m being honest, choosing his skills isn’t that interesting. “Here are the seven skills I take every level, here is the cluster of skills where I round-robin between them, and then I have one or two points to be stupid and bump up against things I’m never going to be good at anyway”. It’s choice in name only.

Second, the math is a little flatter. The highest skill bonus you can get is 8 plus your ability score modifier, so there’s no more “I roll a +32 for 44”. With the math being flatter, the GM doesn’t have to ratchet up skill challenges to stay ahead of the players who can roll highest, which means the lower-skill players don’t get left as far behind. You’re still out of luck if you’re TOTALLY untrained in a skill, but maybe that’s as it should be.

The other thing that’s new and neat is that there’s now a formal means of using skills to make money during downtime. It was always supposed one could make money with a skill, but mostly left to the imagination. Pathfinder 2 formalizes it. Officially, it’s most commonly associated with Craft, Lore, or Perform, but if you and your GM can come up with a job you could perform to earn money with another skill (e.g. use Nature to work as a stable-hand), it’s within the GM’s discretion to allow it. You work with the GM to determine what jobs are available, the GM sets a DC for the work you’re doing, and you roll to see how well you do the work. You still get paid SOMETHING even if you fail your check, but passing the check and being more proficient in the skill let you earn more.

One more thing I feel is worth mentioning is that the concept of “Take 10” and “Take 20” – saying “we’re going to do XYZ until it works” – is basically gone. On one hand, Take 10/20 was sometimes a really convenient short-hand and moved action along, but it was arguably prone to abuse and sometimes broke the immersion of storytelling – yes, there’s a creature on the other side of the next door, but he’s going to ignore us while we search for twenty minutes.

The main reason it has to go away is because of critical successes and critical failures, which now apply to many skill checks. This is a little bit oversimplified, but a natural 20 or making a skill roll by 10 or greater is a critical success and a natural 1 or missing by 10 or more is a critical failure. Since there’s always a possibility of a negative outcome, the system can’t really accommodate the Take 10/20 like it used to. Having said that, it can still exist in the GM’s mind – if there’s enough time to perform a skill in a leisurely fashion, he or she can give a bonus to the roll that accomplishes most of the same thing.

Don’t Forget Your Spare Underwear (Equipment)

As with skills, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the charts of equipment themselves. You don’t need to read 300 characters on the fact that yes, “50 feet of rope” is still a thing. I’ll more talk about the systems that exist around equipment, and particularly those that have changed from First Edition.

One of the biggest shifts is a small one, but I’ll mention it – the silver piece has basically replaced the gold piece as (pun semi-intended) the coin of the realm. Things don’t really cost any more – starter gear, in particular, is the same once you move the decimal. But it does mean that find a few gold pieces is more of a big deal than it was before.

Let’s also talk about encumbrance. If you’ve been following Starfinder, Pathfinder 2 makes use of the “Bulk” system from that game. There’s no more “I’m carrying 230gp of weight”. Most items have a bulk value – either a number, L (for “light”, with 10 light items counting as 1 bulk) or some items are light enough to have no bulk. Your carrying capacity is really simple: 5 + (strength modifier) to be encumbered; 10 + (strength modifier) and you can’t carry anymore.

I will discuss ONE specific class of item here: shields. In Second Edition, shields go from a passive bonus to an active defense system. It used to be that if a shield was equipped you got the bonus to your AC automatically. Your abstract tin can gets a little stronger. Now you have to actually raise your shield to get the bonus; however, if you do, not only do you get the AC bonus, but even if you get hit, the shield can take the damage. Up to a point… shields do have hardness and enough damage will eventually break a shield. I have to admit this part worries me a little – at one point we were joking about fighters having to carry a wagon of extra shields through dungeons with them. It’ll be interesting to see how often shields actually break and need to be replaced “in the wild”.

There’s also a revamped crafting system, but I don’t think a lot of people are going to be crafting off-the-rack stuff so we’ll come back to that when we reach the part of the book that deals with magic items.

Watch Me Pull A Rabbit Out Of My Hat (Spells)

Again, I’m not going to spend time on individual spells for the most part. I’d rather talk about the ways magic has changed in Second Edition. I feel like “flexibility” is the theme here; casters can now get more out of spells and use them in more interesting ways.

One example is scalable cantrips. In prior editions, low-level casters would eventually reach a point where they’d run out of “good” spells and would be left with either cantrips that didn’t scale (that Level 8 creature laughs at your 1d3 Ray of Frost) or abandoning their core skills and using melee or ranged weapons. With Second Edition, cantrips scale, so a caster always has SOMETHING he or she can do. A cantrip’s never going to be your BEST spell, but it’ll at least keep you in the fight.

Another nice change is the concept of heightening. A lot of spells – particularly, but not exclusively direct-damage spells – can be more powerful by putting them in a higher spell slot. Note that this can be either +N levels, or a spell might have specific tiers (2nd, 5th, 8th). Let’s look at healing, for example, there’s no more Cure Light, Cure Moderate, Cure Serious where you have to learn each one. Now you have “Heal” and it’s 1d8 per level of the spell slot you put it in. I’ve oversimplified this a LITTLE –  there are some circumstances where a caster would have to learn both the regular and heightened version of the spell – but for the moment, know that it’s there and it can be a pretty powerful tool for expanding a caster’s arsenal.

Heal also demonstrates another way in which magic can be more flexible through the use of actions. Some spells can have different effects depending on how many actions you spend on them. With one action, Heal is single-target and has a range of touch. With two actions, it’s a ranged single-target heal. With three actions, it becomes an area-effect channel. For another example: Magic Missile – more actions simply means more projectiles.

My hope is that this will actually lead to more interesting caster characters because the flexibility will free up spell slots for other things. Now, you don’t have to spend half your spell slots just to keep your best damage or healing spells current; that should leave players with more spell slots for utility choices.

There are two other small things I wanted to mention. Burying the lede a little, we also have Level 10 spells! Now, there aren’t a LOT of Level 10 spells – only four or five per magical source. That’s partly because they’re really powerful, but partly because heightening reduces the need somewhat: some of your Level 10 spells are just going to be heightened lower-level spells. But there are some cool things here. Each source gets a catch-all that amounts to “any lower-level spell, whether you know it or not”. Arcane casters can stop time. Primal casters can turn themselves into a kaiju or turn their party-mates into a herd of mammoths. Divine casters can turn themselves into an avatar of their god or raise the dead. Like I said… cool stuff.

The last thing I wanted to mention is focus spells and rituals.

Focus spells are the way non-casters like Monks and Champions get their powers, but they’re also available to regular casters through feats, for which they’re almost like a cantrip on steroids. It’s a spell that can be cast with a separate set of points (focus points) instead of spell slots, and you can get back at least one point by taking a 10-minute rest. So it’s another way to get a scalable (it always casts at half your level) repeatable spell without using spell slots.

Rituals are spells that are powered by skills rather than magical power (and also have a cost in material components). Rituals are non-combat activities, lasting hours or days, but the requirement to perform a ritual is usually a primary skill and one or more secondary skills. Magic is not strictly required, though, for a lot of rituals, the primary skill might require ranks in one of the magical arts. To give an example: a Resurrect ritual requires Expert-level Religion as the primary skill, with Society and Medicine as the secondary skills. So a group of fighters who happened to have the right skills could perform a resurrect ritual, but a Cleric is far more likely to have Religion trained to the right level.

Golarion For Dummies (The Age of Lost Omens)

This is the base-level world-building chapter – it introduces you to the places, factions, gods, etc. Not that this stuff isn’t interesting, but a) except for deity restrictions for divine-flavored characters, it doesn’t really impact gameplay, and b) spoiler alert – there’s also going to be a whole sourcebook on this stuff (The Lost Omens World Guide), so I’ll spend my review energy there. Moving on.

Everyone Was D20 Fighting (Playing The Game)

This chapter is mostly, but not entirely, How Combat Works.

Let’s start with the single biggest and possibly most polarizing change. One thing that immediately leaps out what Paizo has done with the action economy. In First Edition, you had a Batman Rogue’s Gallery of actions – full-round, standard, move, swift, free, Clayface – and figuring out the basics of what you could do each round got a little convoluted. Now, pretty much everything is just an action, and you get three of them. (I say “pretty much” because Reactions are still a thing and the free action still exists for REALLY simple interactions, but everything else is an action.)

Now, I know that sounds overly simplistic at first glance. I’ll go ahead and concede the point because that’s how I felt when I first heard it. But here’s the dirty little secret. They didn’t really lose the complexity, they just moved it to the other side of the equation. Everything’s an action, and you get three of them, but some spells and attacks can have different effects depending on how many actions you put into them. As I mentioned in the chapter on spells, a spell can do different things based on how many actions you pump into it. Yes, you can take three attacks, but you get a -5 to hit for each extra attack you make (or -4 with finesse weapons), so there’s some cost-benefit there. Raising your shield is an action, so if you want to get that extra attack in, you lose the AC bonus from your shield. You still have interesting choices, you just lose the sometimes-tedious terminology. Where the rubber meets the road, I’ll say that 90% of the time, it’s a wash and the other 10% of the time feels like you’re making tactical choices that matter rather than figuring out how tightly you can pack a suitcase.

Another thing that could be a bit of a game-changer is that the Attack of Opportunity seems like it’s going to be a lot less of a dominating force. In First Edition, EVERYONE could do attacks of opportunity and combat generally devolved into a dance of five-foot steps because nobody wants to eat an attack of opportunity. In Second Edition, Attack of Opportunity is a specific skill, and not everyone has it. On the player side, fighters get it automatically as a class skill at creation, a couple of the other melees can take it as a class feat (Level 6 seems common), but other classes would have to get really creative with multi-class feats to get there. I haven’t had a chance to inspect the monster lists in great detail, but anecdotally, it seems like the same goes for enemies too – there might be a few enemies who have the ability, but it won’t be universal. I feel like this could open up the battlefield in interesting ways and make combat a little less “line up and take swings until someone drops”.

I mentioned it in the skills chapter, but I’ll bring it back again here – the role of critical successes and critical failures has expanded. Now the definition of a critical success is exceeding a DC by 10 or more, and a critical fail is defined by failing by 10 or more, and a natural 20 or natural 1 just adjusts the degree of success up or down one level.

It may seem like it’s a small semantic difference, but it does have some implications for combat. First, it puts a lid on crit-farming because if a natural 20 would be a miss, it doesn’t generate an automatic crit anymore, it just generates a regular hit. Similarly, it should better capture the flavor of (to use a wrestling term) “squash matches” where one side is way overpowered. Now, the more powerful side will get a lot more crits and end the fight more quickly. Fun if you’re the Level 10 party fighting Level 1 kobolds and can crit on a 13 or 14. Not so fun if the party runs across an adult dragon and they’re the ones getting critted over and over.

Hero Points also become a formal thing in Second Edition. I know this was already pretty popular as a house rule – if you roleplay well or come up with something clever, you get a re-roll in the bank for when you need it – but Pathfinder Second Edition formalizes it. Now you get one Hero Point at the beginning of each session and can earn more through interesting play choices (but can only hold 3 at a time). As far as spending them, you can spend one point to re-roll (but you HAVE to use the new roll), or you can spend all your points to stabilize from dying. Moral of the story: ALWAYS keep a spare Hero Point around, just in case.

Shall We Play A Game? (Game Mastering)

This is another chapter I have to admit I glossed over a little because it’s mostly information for novice GMs sitting down at a table for the first time. There are a few useful nuggets in here, including a lot of sample hazards (aka traps), but most of it is 30,000-foot “how do I start a game” information. The trap stuff is kind of cool – traps get increasingly difficult to both spot and deactivate, so only trained people can even do it, and some traps even require multiple steps to deactivate safely.

Medieval Q-Branch (Crafting & Treasure)

I feel like this is a chapter that’s going to be one of the most polarizing ones. Basically what we’ve got here is all your old favorite magic items (yay!) along with a bunch of restrictions about how you can use them (boo!). GMs who saw the weak spots in the system and know magic items had the potential to break the game will probably either outright like these, or AT LEAST understand the necessity of them. Players will mostly be annoyed at the new levels of inconvenience; it’s really just a question of how much.

Take the concept of investing. Most magic items other than consumables need to be “invested” once per day – think of it as bonding with the character. Weapons and armor are in the middle – if you don’t invest, you still get the pluses, but you lose any special abilities. However, you can only invest 10 items per day, and if you take one off, it loses its investment and you have to do it again to re-use it. GMs will see it on a check on players bringing the perfect magic item for EVERY situation; players might see it as a hoop to jump through.

Similarly wands. Wands don’t have to be invested, but you can only use the wand once per day. You can use it a second time (and the spell will go through), but you have to roll a DC10 “flat check” (i.e. no modifiers, just the die roll), where failure overloads the wand and it’s destroyed. I get why wands had to be checked a little – our group was notorious for buying Cure Moderate Wounds wands in bulk at the Golarion equivalent of Costco (Who is this powerful mage, “Kirkland”?) to the point where out-of-combat healing became trivial, so… I GET it intellectually, but I can’t say I’m thrilled by the idea.

On the other hand, they’ve also added a new consumable class of magic item: the talisman. Talismans are cheaper, one-shot magic items that can be affixed to weapons or armor but disintegrate after use. And they can be affixed to a piece of gear with a single action, so it would appear you can add a talisman in combat. Scrolls for fighters, sorta? A fairly straightforward example of this is a Potency Crystal, which makes your weapon a magical weapon, but only for one turn. The single-use makes them kind of underwhelming, but they’re flexible and also fairly cheap, which might play well with the new crafting system.

Told you I’d come back to it.

Crafting is a little more of a process in Second Edition than First. You don’t just roll out of bed and say “I’m making Baba Yaga’s Hut today”. First, you have a recipe, and recipes for rare items are just that… rare. They won’t be available in every hardware store in Golarion; they might be treasure prizes on par with wizards’ spellbooks. If you’re a crafter, your other option would be to figure out how to make one through reverse-engineering. Yes, you have to disassemble a perfectly-good magic item in working order, hope you learn how to make it, at which point you could then reassemble it. Except if you fail, you don’t learn the recipe AND you might lose some of the materials in the process. There are higher-level skill feats that help with some of this, but it’s still a non-trivial thing. So making magic items is going to be harder to do, but more of an event when you do succeed.

Weapons and armor are interesting because magical enhancements now operate on an almost MMO-ish system of runes. There are “fundamental runes” and “property runes”. Fundamental runes include the potency rune, which represents the plus, and either a striking rune for weapons which grants extra damage dice or a resiliency rune for armor that grants bonuses to saving throws). Property runes are things like adding typed damage to weapons or adding charges of invisibility to a piece of armor. You can only have one of each fundamental rune; the number of property runes is determined by the potency rune (aka you can have as many properties as pluses).

The neat thing is the runes can be upgraded or transferred, which… I don’t know how people feel about it as a game mechanic, but as a storytelling thing, I like a lot. One of fantasy’s great tropes is of named weapons (particularly swords) that go through their wielder’s journey with them, and this rune system makes that a more viable path. Gandalf didn’t sell Glamdring to a vendor because he found a better sword in the next dungeon.

I’d also note just in passing that the highest “plus” I see on a magic item is +3… the days of +4 and +5 weapons seem to be gone. Then again, if you can get a +3 AND additional damage die, maybe that’s better overall. I feel like weapons and armor will be versatile enough we won’t miss the pluses all that much.

In Conclusion

Well, that’s a wrap on this first look at the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook. I recognize everyone wants something different from their gaming table, so I’m not going to get too carried away telling you whether you “should” or “shouldn’t” make the switch. I know some people have a lot of time invested in their number-crunchy First Edition games, and if that’s what floats your boat… cool.

Having said that, I’ll give you a quick “here’s where I stand” to sum things up.

Here’s what excites me about Second Edition:

  • Magic seems far more flexible and casters are probably going to be more fun to play. Yes, a lot of that centers on damage and being more effective at blowing stuff up, but I feel like it’s going to free up spell slots to use on utility spells as well, so casters will be more dynamic in general. But also… blowing stuff up.
  • So far I’ve really liked the three-action economy. We haven’t played a LOT of Second Edition yet, but it feels like it adds interesting choices to the game, and it’s a lot easier to remember.
  • Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with it from Starfinder, but I like the ABC character creation system. It’s flexible while being fairly simple, while still helping to define the “story” of your character. I actually think that’s pretty neat.
  • I like the fact that two people can create two different characters that might be the same race and class but might play remarkably differently. I appreciate a system that can accommodate different playstyles like that.
  • It’s a small thing, but bringing some structure to downtime by being able to work at a skill is a welcome change. Right now, downtime just amounts to milling about aimlessly.

Things that… I won’t say I “hate”, but the jury’s still out:

  • The rules on magic items. I get why they need to exist – I’ve seen and sometimes been guilty of the excesses they were attempting to curb – but they still might end up being a little heavy-handed. It’s discouraging to get a shiny new toy and not be able to use it. It’s the one piece that overtly reeks of micromanagement.
  • It’s a small thing, but shields being an active defense is a mixed bag. It adds a tactical element, but it’s also easy to forget to do, and the issue of shields breaking is something that needs data from the field. If you lose a shield every 3-4 sessions, whatever; if you lose one every other fight, that could get tedious.
  • Is the feat-ification going to be TOO silo’ed? This will probably affect my group-mates more than it will affect me (I tend to play fairly simple character concepts), but I do wonder what’s going to happen when someone wants to create a really customized build that was possible under First Edition but is impossible in the new system.
  • Talismans aren’t really doing it for me at first glance. I don’t know that it’s a bad idea – I just don’t like consumables in general (beyond healing potions) and another class of consumable is kinda shrug-worthy to me.

What I will say is it feels like they preserved most of what was appealing about the Pathfinder experience, while still performing some cleanup and making it more inviting to new players in the process. If a gaming system like that sounds appealing to you, Pathfinder Second Edition is probably worth checking out.

Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary Review: Back-to-Basics Beasties!

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Second Edition Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast! Also, make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

Dragons and demons and orcs… oh my! It’s the Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary! We here at Roll For Combat got our hands on an advance copy and we’re here to give you some first impressions now that we’ve had a chance to take a look.

It’s funny because part of me is writing this review under protest. There’s the book I knew Paizo would make, and frankly, the book they HAD to make. But there’s also the book I secretly hoped it would be, even though it was unrealistic.

Let me spend a few lines howling at the moon lamenting The Path Not Taken. As I was waiting to get my hands on this, I’ve been thinking back to last year’s Starfinder Alien Archive, and I have to admit that book was one of the most refreshing RPG supplements I’ve seen in recent memory. I thought it was a beautiful balance of still being a bestiary book while still throwing in interesting nuggets of other stuff. Oh look, here’s stat-blocks for making this creature into a player character! Here’s an inset that gives you a set of goggles you can make from the eyes of this creature! Here’s a couple of paragraphs of world-building talking about the planet where they hunt this creature for sport! It stuck to its core mission and never forgot it had to deliver a package of creatures, but it also ended up being a lot of other things in an entertaining way. I love that book.

Truth be told, part of me was hoping the Pathfinder 2 Bestiary would be a swords-and-sorcery version of that book. But… snapping back to reality, I knew it wasn’t going to be, and I know there are valid reasons it had to be that way. I won’t say there’s NONE of that content (for instance, I did see a poison associated with an underworld race called the Caligni), but it’s pretty rare.

Starfinder was being built completely new from the ground up. They could afford to take risks and do things differently. With Pathfinder, they’re doing a refresh on an existing game system with a decade of inertia and an existing fanbase with prior expectations – most of the risk-taking is already baked into the core rulebook, so there’s something to be said for making the REST of the content familiar and reassuring. For making their Bestiary look like the six other Bestiaries they did for the original game. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel; they already reinvented the CAR, and the wheel just needs to fit on it.

Here’s what this book REALLY needed to be. A cross-section of what most people would consider the “essential” creatures, revamped so they’ll work with the new system. Period. End of story. On that front, the Second Edition Bestiary delivers EXACTLY the book most players are going to want it to be – around 350 pages of what amount to Pathfinder’s Greatest Hits, with a few deep cuts and some new material sprinkled in. And grousing aside, mostly the book I want it to be too. Because at the end of the day, what we really want is to be able to drop classic monsters into Second Edition games and have them play like they’re supposed to play. If that means I have to take my dreams of 20 playable races and weird creature-eye goggles later… that’s what it means.

My first big concern was what creatures would make the cut for the first Bestiary since original Pathfinder had so much to choose from. It’s odd that a 40-year-old book holds such influence over me, but personally, I’ve always come back to the AD&D Monster Manual as the gold standard – that weird mix of old-school mythology, Tolkien, and whatever late-night bong rips gave us the Mimic. That was the book that defined the hobby for me, so if those creatures (minus the TSR Product Identity, of course) aren’t front and center on day one, the whole enterprise feels like it’s on shaky footing. I was a little worried that Paizo might get a little weird out of the gates and we might end up with the Well-It’s-Mostly-Blue-But-When-It-Rains-It’s-More-Purple Dragon and Werepenguins. But I’m pleased to report an initial glance at the table of contents seems like they had a good finger on the pulse here. If they put this book in a quantum-tunnel and sent it back to Teenage Me, Teenage Me would approve of this book. (Though OK… Teenage Me would have also been disappointed at the relative paucity of scantily-clad ladies – I wasn’t the most sophisticated teenager.)

But if you’re looking for a book that passes the Traditionalist Test, this book delivers the goods. Chromatic dragons of all conventional hues. Orcs, goblins, gnolls and other cannon-fodder humanoids. A healthy supply of undead. (Or is that an unhealthy supply?) Giants! Hydras! Even the horribly impractical yet somehow-fantastic gelatinous cube is here. I don’t necessarily want to go line-by-line, but it looks like they hit on most of the big names of fantasy gaming. If any of the weirder stuff made the cut, it’s just a mild sprinkling.

(One caveat: if they had wanted to consign the Rust Monster to Bestiary #934, they wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me.)

That’s not to say there’s NOTHING new in here. I kinda like the Nilith, which is basically a demonic tree sloth – except that it moves at normal speeds and has mind-affecting powers. Then there’s the Quelaunt, which looks like someone decided your average Area 51 Gray Alien needed an extra arm and leg, claws, and lack of facial features to be even more creepy. Its power-set revolves around fear powers. And claws. I think my personal favorite at first pass is the Skulltaker, which is an undead that one would describe as a sentient tornado of bones. As a neat flavor thing, it also can draw on the memories and experiences of all the bones that comprise it, so it has perfect Lore knowledge. Not a were-penguin, but cool stuff.

(Note: I did searches on the online Bestiaries and didn’t see any references to these three. If they’re buried in an adventure path or sourcebook and I didn’t see them… my bad.)

The artwork is top-notch, as it always is in Paizo books. In fact, I feel bad that I sometimes take it for granted. One of my low-key favorite things about the resurgence of fantasy-themed gaming as a hobby – when you add Pathfinder, D&D, Magic The Gathering – it’s a wonderful time for fantasy art. We’ve come a long way from getting one Dragon Magazine cover a month. This book is no exception, though by necessity it’s a more functional art style focusing on just images of the creatures rather than action scenes or panoramas. If there’s not a picture of EVERY creature, it’s certainly a large majority of them.

The creature information is organized in a nice, clean, familiar fashion. In general, a low-level or simple creature’s stat block may be about the size of a long paragraph; a complicated high-level creature may take up the majority of a page. You can almost think of the first part as a creature’s non-combat stats – perception and vision, languages, skills, bonuses to ability scores. This is usually followed by any passive abilities – auras, attack of opportunity, things like that. Next come the basic combat stats – hit points, armor class, any weaknesses or immunities. They’re almost set off as a dividing line in the middle of the block. Then we’re into the combat info. The creature’s speed is listed, followed by all the creature’s attacks and combat abilities – number of actions they require, damage dice and type, any other effects. My only minor logistical complaint is that some reactions are listed up top amongst the passive effects while others are listed amongst the combat moves. I’m not sure if there’s a distinction I’m missing that makes it all make sense, or if it’s just an inconsistency that snuck into the final product.

Some pages have sidebars with additional content, but the content of those sidebars is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s very rubber-meets-the-road stuff like a creature’s spell list or how to manage a particular power as GM. Other times – particularly with the humanoid races – I’ll give it credit for approaching the world-building that I liked in the Alien Archive. There are times where it’s precariously close to filler text – there was some blurb that mentioned that a particular creature (one of the giants, I think) might have exotic treasure. I SHOULD HOPE SO.

One of my ongoing concerns about Pathfinder Second Edition has been attacks of opportunity – I’m worried that we won’t have ‘em and the critters will. For my own personal curiosity, I wanted to see how many creatures get attacks of opportunity, and… it’s actually not that many, and they’re mostly high-level creatures. I didn’t do anything scientific; just a quick scan. Giants get them. Dragons get them though they tend to only get them for their bite. A few lower-level creatures get them, but it’s far fewer than I expected. So at least at low levels, one should be able to operate without a lot of fear of attack of opportunity.

On the other hand, I have noticed that the powerful high-end creatures seem to have ways to push the edges of the three-action limit. The first isn’t really a way “around” – they just tend to have a lot of passive auras and reaction abilities, which don’t technically violate the three-action rule; it’s just a pain in the ass. At the more dodgy end of the spectrum, I’ve seen a few creatures that have abilities that amount to “hey, these three things count as a single action; sucks to be you”. But again, this is the stuff in the deep end of the pool that’s really SUPPOSED to push a party to its limits, so maybe it’s OK.

In conclusion, Pathfinder Second Edition is a bit of a grand experiment, but if you’re going to take that leap, the Bestiary is pretty much an essential book to have. While I realize everyone’s going to have their pet favorite from Bestiary 4 that didn’t make the cut, Paizo packed most of the Fantasy RPG All-Stars into one book to make this easy on us. So let’s go roll some characters and kick their asses, shall we?

Starfinder Alien Archive 2 Review – Scions, Tigers, and Bears – Oh My!

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

Normally when someone says “more of the same”, it comes across as a bit of a pejorative. “More of the same” sounds like “boring” or “uninventive”.

But what if the “same” was already really good? What if the “same” was the Alien Archive, which delivered a nice batch of monsters for GMs to play around with, but also sprinkled in playable races for your players, new tech and magic items to stock your treasure hoards, and general world-building lore? Why would you reinvent the wheel if you got it right the first time?

That’s where I feel like we are with Starfinder’s Alien Archive 2. I thought Paizo came up with a really good formula for the first book because I thought they made a nice reference book that gave GMs everything they needed to run their campaigns AND threw in some content for the players too. So they’ve basically done the same thing this time: the “mix” is a little different because there’s maybe a little less world-building to do and slightly fewer playable races (only 16 this time as opposed to 20-some last time), but overall they stuck with what worked.

In terms of nuts and bolts, the table of contents lists 65 entries, though sometimes an entry is a single creature; other times, an entry might be multiple examples of the type, or a more general category of creature (“herd animals”, to pick an example). For those of you who are compulsive re-rollers, 16 of those are identified as playable races. Slightly fewer than last time, but still a healthy chunk of new choices.  In terms of sourcing, most of the material is original, but there are some Pathfinder holdovers that have been converted to the new system, and they also imported a few creatures from adventure paths or Society games (I noticed the akatas and garaggakal from Dead Suns, off the top of my head).

This time, whether it was intentional or not, the book feels like it has a few broad “themes”.

The first theme is animals. There are several “beasts of the forest” type critters, category entries for things like “predators” and “herd animals”, and several of the playables are animal humanoids. The Pahtra and Vlaka have you covered on cat and dog/wolf humanoids, respectively, but the one our Discord channel was raving about (and rightfully so!) was the Uplifted Bear. I mean, you get to be a bear with humanoid intelligence who can wear armor and wield weapons (though, damn right, you also have claws that serve as natural weapons). The supporting text for the Uplifted Bear also gives us this gem:

Uplifted bears are sometimes rumored to have violent temperaments, but their personalities are as varied as those of any sapient species. Some uplifted bears take great pleasure in playing to this stereotype when they meet other people, drawing out the biased assumptions of the ill-informed, and then mocking them.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t muster a smile at the idea of a sentient bear that threatens to eat people before giving them a wink and a big hug, I don’t know what to say to you.

I would also observe that the “Uplifted” concept feels like it could be applied to pretty much any animal. So… (taps microphone for benefit of Paizo people who might be reading) two words for Alien Archive 3: “Science Otters”. The judges would also accept a team of Uplifted red panda commandos.

The other broad theme of Alien Archive 2 is a deeper dive into the world of the undead. It feels like Starfinder wiped the chalkboard clean as far as what we know about the world of the undead, and Alien Archive 2 starts to drill into that a bit more. So you have some classics like the Ghost and the Ghoul, but you also have newcomers like Corpsefolk (think of them as worker-class undead in Eoxian society – not quite zombies, but “real” undead look down on them), Bone Troopers (Corpse Fleet soldiers: they look like the aliens from Mars Attacks after a few months of Crossfit), and the Emotivores (undead that died under circumstances of strong emotion, so they have psychic abilities tied to emotion). For those of us who found the initial treatment of undead in Starfinder to be a bit of a blank slate, it’s nice to see them… (wait for it)… put some flesh on those bones.

A few other random highlights that leap to mind: Lovecraft fans will cheer the arrival of the Colour Out Of Space – a malevolent cloud of shifting color that will do all sorts of bad things to you. It makes an appearance in a Pathfinder adventure path but gets brought into the future here. The velstrac are an extraplanar race who think religious enlightenment can be achieved by inflicting pain on themselves AND others, so they’re a weird combination of brutal and masochistic. And then there’s the CR20 Living Apocalypse. It’s a cloud of evil radioactive energy that’s the byproduct of large-scale destructive forces (power reactor meltdowns, firing of doomsday-level weapons), and it pretty much just destroys everything living in its path. And when it can’t find anything to destroy, it can search for wireless communications to find new targets. Or… send out fake distress signals.

Turning our attention to playables, obviously the uplifted bear is the talk of the town, but there are several interesting choices. People feeling nostalgic for Pathfinder get orcs, hobgoblins, aasimars and tieflings (the latter two listed under the more generic “Planar Scion”). As I mentioned, the Pahtra and Vlaka have dog and cat lovers covered. My two personal favorites are the Ghoran and the Osharu.

The Osharu – they’re slug people. Right down to the ability to secrete slime to create difficult terrain. That’s self-explanatory: who wouldn’t love that? With the Ghorans, I’m drawn to the lore – they’re plant people that started out as Pre-Gap creations of a druid, and they looked more like Swamp Thing. The druid designed them to be “perfect” but that included TASTING perfect, so humans hunted them almost to extinction to eat them. “NATURE’S PERFECT SNACK”, quite literally. The surviving Ghorans went into hiding, survived, and eventually evolved into a more conventional humanoid form with two subraces. They also founded their own planet where they went full Genesis Device (minus the explodey part) and converted a barren rock to a floral paradise. Now THAT’S a backstory.

As with Alien Archive 1, the Alien Archive 2 has a sprinkling of creature-themed “extras” scattered throughout its pages. Weapons and armor, technological devices, ships, feats, etc. About half the creatures come with some form of add-on content – sometimes it’s a tool or weapon used by the creature, sometimes it’s something that can be made from the remains, other times it’s just “scientists tried to figure out how the ability works and came up with this gadget that does a similar thing”. The one thing I appreciated is that AA2 puts these into an index in the back – something AA1 did not do – so you can look up the page an item is on with minimal fuss.

Speaking of “the stuff in the back”, whereas Alien Archive 1 felt like vital reading because it explained the system for creating creatures and gave rules for how to do it, Alien Archive 2 is more standard “back of the book” stuff that mostly just expands that system to account for this new content – as such, it’s probably only essential for the homebrew GM. There is a useful appendix that gives detailed rules for polymorph – in addition to formalizing polymorph as a spell (self or mass) and feat, it answers the questions of “how much of the polymorphed character is still you, how much is the critter you’re turning into” through the mechanism of “forms” – the GM and player work to create a “form” for the combined character. The rest of the appendices are mostly just lists and indexes: creatures by CR, creatures by terrain/environment, index of where the “extras” are, index of the playable races, etc. Not new content, but does make it a LOT easier to navigate the book. In comparison, AA1 only had a single table for creatures by CR.

All in all, I’d consider Alien Archive 2 to be a successful addition to the Starfinder line. If my praise seems a little more subdued, it’s probably just because it’s the first follow-up book – Alien Archive, Pact Worlds, and Armory were the first books of their kind, and Alien Archive 2 is just going back to the buffet for another plate. But if you feel like the Alien Archive model represents a winning formula – and I do – then it’s just a question of how big an appetite for new monsters you have. To that, I say “keep ‘em coming!”