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Starfinder Starship Operations Manual Review: Set Phasers To “Incremental Improvement”

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, Gamemastery Guide, and Bestiary 2.

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.

No, we haven’t forgotten about Starfinder here at Roll For Combat. We’ve been on a bit of a Second Edition Pathfinder kick lately, but Starfinder is still near and dear to our hearts and may make a comeback at some point when we can clone enough versions of Steve to run more than two or three shows at a time. In the meantime, we haven’t forgotten that there are still new Starfinder rulebooks to review, and we’ll be taking a look at the Starfinder Starship Operations Manual, which has crossed our desks.

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with starship combat in Starfinder if we’re being perfectly honest. Certainly, starship combat is an iconic component of most science fiction – Scotty telling us how much more the Enterprise canna take, cap’n; the trench run from Star Wars; Vipers and Cylons duking it out in Battlestar Galactica, even more, rooted-in-reality ship combat like the fights in The Expanse. Other than maybe Doctor Who, where the TARDIS is not a traditional ship, ship combat is pretty much a staple of the genre.

Starfinder’s first pass at implementing starship combat was a mixed bag. It was about two-thirds of a good idea and definitely showed some promise, but it also had some issues that needed to be worked out. First and foremost, roles were uneven – certain roles gave players lots of interesting choices; other roles were kind of dull. The other side of that coin was that certain classes/builds weren’t very useful in ship combat – some player types had lots flexibility in the roles they could fill, other players (beefy fighter types) were mostly relegated to firing guns. Also, I noticed a lack of “disruptive” events in starship combat. One of the most fun moments of party-based combat tends to be when a boss busts out an ability you’ve never seen before and you have to adapt to that. There wasn’t really an equivalent of that with starship combat — no ships dropping out of cloak, no anomaly forming off the port bow… you basically just hammered away with guns until someone couldn’t go anymore. Mechanically, sometimes it almost felt more like the era of wooden sailing ships than sci-fi.

Now, the Character Operations Manual started to make some in-roads on this. They added two new roles – the Magic Officer and the Chief Mate – that emphasized different talents and created some new roles for people to fill, and they also introduced “open actions” as a sort of compromise – actions that weren’t as effective as formally filing a station, but better than standing around doing nothing for a round. But now we get an entire rulebook where starship combat is THE focus, so let’s take a look at what they did.

The first section emphasizes new ship upgrades, starting with weapons, armor, and propulsion systems. I’m not going to spend too much time on propulsion systems because it feels like those choices are more for storytelling flavor – in case the GM wants (or need) a way to get around that doesn’t involve the Drift. Lots of punching holes through the planes to arrive somewhere much quicker. (Did nobody see Event Horizon? This doesn’t end well!)

The weapons and armor were a little more interesting to me because you start to see an attempt to make combat more dynamic. It doesn’t really change the core equation of lining up and plonking shots at each other, but the book adds new weapon types with different effects, so combat can be more tactical and give you more options for how to deal with a situation.

To give one example, there’s the Buster weapon. It only does half damage when going against hull points, but is extra-effective against shields – when it depletes the shields on a quadrant, it does remaining damage to the adjacent sections. And if the defender tries to divert power to the shields on their next round, the DC of the Engineering check is more difficult. For another example, there’s a gravity-based weapon that generates an artificial gravity well that doesn’t do damage but saps the defender’s speed. There are also “embrace the weird” weapons like a teleport weapon that moves the enemy ship in space, or a low-fi harpoon, which basically tethers the two ships together so the defender can’t run away easily. They even have options for ramming weapons, just in case you want to play chicken with your enemies and see what happens.

The choices aren’t as robust on the defensive side, but there are a few new introductions. First, there’s ablative armor – why have shields when you can just have a stronger hull? Ablative armor serves as a source of additional Hull Points, but they come at the cost of maneuverability – your target lock goes down and your turning radius goes up the more ablative armor you add – and of course, they don’t regenerate like shields. Deflector shields serve as an either/or replacement for conventional shielding: they serve a similar function to damage resistance in party-based combat, so they reduce each hit by a certain amount, and the rest goes directly against the hull. But they offset that by raising AC and TL, making it a little harder for the enemies to hit you in the first place. There are also options to fortify the hull or reinforce bulkheads, which provide a higher critical threshold or a chance to negate the critical entirely, respectively.

There’s a brief section on starship materials – build your hull out of material X, you’re more resistant to radiation, but the next section is the one that interests me most… the one that covers new starship systems. Because here’s where we start to get into those “disruptive events” that will make combat a little more unpredictable. Consider the Ghost Drive – it lets you turn your ship insubstantial briefly, at the cost of a slower speed: the rubber-meets-the-road effect is that it allows you to move through a hex containing another ship without provoking an attack. Another interesting one is the Quantum Defender: if it’s active when you’re hit by an attack, the opponent has to roll the attack again and take the lower result. (Yep, you can potentially turn a hit into a miss… pretty cool.) They also have something called the Emergency Accelerator, which gives you a chance to avoid a fight entirely – your ship basically goes defenseless for a round because it has to draw power from the other systems to power the escape attempt; if you survive the round without taking critical damage, you engage the engines and move out of combat (officially 100 hexes).

But – maybe this is Tuttle speaking through me – arguably the coolest thing is the Consciousness Uplink Drive. It’s what it sounds like: if your character has a datajack, you can directly interface with the ship. The good thing about this is you get a lot of pluses on tasks, and some things become minor actions because of the more immediate interface. The bad news… when the ship takes damage, so does your character. Now THAT’S cool.

One more thing kinda sneaks in at the end of the upgrades section, but feels like an attempt to address the issue of different classes/builds being more useful than others: the Training Interface Module. Basically, it’s a starship mod that you add that can let you use a class skill or feat in a starship combat situation. For a class example, Healing Touch lets an Engineer with healing spells use a spell to heal the ship (once per combat, and there’s also a UPB cost). For a feat example, a gunner with the Deadly Aim feat can use it in starship combat: they get a -2 to hit but deal extra damage if they do hit.

The last couple of pages of the first chapter introduce the Supercolossal size category (think the ship from the finale of Dead Suns). It’s unlikely a player group is ever going to own such a ship, but a) you never know, and b) they still need to exist for larger storytelling reasons.

The next major chapter deals with starship combat itself. I would broadly characterize this as follows: they haven’t changed the core dynamic of starship combat, but a lot of the sub-topics in this chapter encourage GMs to reimagine how it fits into a story. At the end of the day, you’re probably still going to line up and plonk away at each other for a while, but this chapter offers different ways of looking at why you’re doing it – what are some other victory conditions than just reducing the opponent to zero hit points?

Think of some of the topics they cover here. First up is how to handle boarding parties – what if one side’s goal is to take the other side’s ship (or the people on board) instead of just destroying it? How should that be handled? Another example here is the set of rules for starship chases – what if one side’s goal is just to get away and they don’t even want to try and fight? It doesn’t necessarily change the core combat mechanics, but it creates different victory conditions and allows the party to approach the problem a different way than just lining up for “ion cannons at 10 parsecs”.

There are also a couple of sections that reframe starship combat for different styles of fights. Think of this as making the Starfinder system fit different classic sci-fi genres.

First, there’s squadron combat – the Death Star fight from Star Wars will always be the gold standard for this one, though Vipers and Cylons squaring off in Battlestar Galactica isn’t bad either. Instead of the players running one ship as a team, they’re each controlling a small single-person vessel as part of a squad. This creates some additional rules to handle that, like how much damage the player character takes if they lose their dogfight and get shot down, a few new actions to make the team-based system functional for a one-person crew, and so on. They even have a system called the Unification Matrix where the individual squad ships can combine into a larger ship that lets you return to the more conventional team-based single ship combat. (I’ll say it. VOLTRON. You can make freakin’ Voltron. AND I’LL FORM THE HEAD!)

On the other side of the coin, instead of zooming into the scale of a single fighter, you can zoom out to the scale of armada combat, where your characters are supervising fleets of vessels, and moving battle groups around Ender’s Game-style. This is a little more abstract – you’re still filling the roles like Captain, Engineer, etc. but instead of performing those actions on your one ship, you’re giving orders to the battle group under your control. And the attack rolls, instead of representing hull points on an individual ship, might represent how many vessels you lose in a given round.

There are also a few more nuts-and-bolts sections that just fine-tune and fill gaps in the existing rules. One such section creates expanded options for critical successes. It always felt a little frustrating to have to those 20s go to waste – now you might get a slightly better result or some secondary benefit. Consider the Scan action: now a critical success on Scan reveals a vulnerability – the next time your shot gets through the shields and hits the hull points, it has a chance to crit, even if the damage doesn’t pass the crit threshold. Another section deals with starships in planetary atmospheres – we usually assume we’re just flying through deep space (ala most Star Trek shows) but what if you actually want to land or even go down into the atmosphere to get a closer look? What happens then? Well… now we have some rules for that.

The third main chapter – by far the largest by page count – is the section that introduces new starships. In terms of game mechanics, Paizo made sure to cover the entire spectrum of ship sizes and uses – from single-person racers to cargo haulers, warships, and massive supercolossal base ships. The ships are interesting and well-designed, but what I really appreciate here is the stealth world-building that you get from reading about different ships. Little details that flesh out the Pact Worlds and the folks that live in them. Like the Inheritorworks Javelin, a warship of the Knights of Golarion that keeps all its front weapons behind a ramming prow because running into other ships, boarding, and fighting hand-to-hand is pretty much their preferred battle tactic. Or the Sanjaval Redsun – a cargo ship that’s mostly popular with ysoki because almost the entire ship is dedicated to cargo space and the crew quarters are too small for just about every other race. And then there’s the Driftmaven… a supercolossal Level 20 ship that’s a vessel of Triune run almost entirely by AI, and pretty much has no amenities for biological types. You get a featureless alcove and you’ll like it. (On the other hand, its engine serves as a Drift beacon, so if you have the drive signature, you can always find it and travel to it, just like Absalom Station). Everyone’s going to have their own personal favorites, so there’s ironically not a lot to say, except that there’s plenty of fun stuff to check out.

The final major chapter heading is “Running Starship Campaigns”, and this is – to put it another way – GM Tips. The first half is fairly crunchy, and then it gets softer as it goes. The section kicks off with rules for creating starship creatures – very nuts-and-bolts – and even shows a few sample starship creatures to show you how it all fits together in a finished statblock. Next is a section on space hazards you could add to your battlefield to make combat a little more interesting – gravity wells, pockets of radiation, debris fields, and so on. But then it takes a softer turn, and the rest of the chapter is about how to work all of this into a campaign – a discussion on creating memorable villains, a section on alternate win conditions to think outside the pew-pew-pew box, and several pages of different sample story hooks. Some GMs will find these sections useful, others will probably “yeah-yeah-yeah” their way through it.

So that’s the Starship Operations Manual in a slightly-expanded nutshell. It’ll take playing with it in a game setting to be sure, but in general, I like what they’ve done here. It’s kind of a two-pronged approach – certainly, Core Rulebook starship combat had some areas that were in need of a freshen-up, and the changes here seem like they address those. But another major focus of the book helps GMs reflect on the role starship combat plays in a campaign, encouraging GMs to think of it less as just another type of encounter and explore its possibilities as a storytelling device a little more deeply. And it’s got all the wonderful world-building and artwork goodness Paizo always brings to the table. If you’ve got the room on the gaming bookshelf, I’d add this one to the collection. (And if not… you don’t really need all those non-gaming books. That’s what Netflix is for.)

Pathfinder Lost Omens Legends Review: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

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, Gamemastery Guide, and Bestiary 2.

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.

Paizo’s new hardcover, Lost Omens Legends, hits the streets in time for GenCon, and I have to admit it presents a bit of a challenge for me as a reviewer.

Let’s start with the basics of what it is: Lost Omens Legends is an introductory guide to many of the major NPC luminaries of the Golarion setting – political leaders, world heroes, wise scholars, and powerful mages, and so on. If Lost Omens Gods & Magic introduced us to the gods themselves, this book introduces us to the movers and shakers of the material world. Furthermore, there are several overarching stories going on in the current world of Golarion’s Inner Sea, and many of the characters in this book are the central figures of those over-arching stories. The aftermath of the wizard war between Geb and Nex. The ongoing undead threat posed by the Whispering Tyrant, Tar-Baphon. The general society-wide battle over the future of slavery in the Inner Sea region. Lost Omens Legends offers up deeper portraits of the people at the heart of these stories.

So here’s the dilemma…

With any book, there’s always going to be a trade-off between lore and mechanics. Imagine a 1-to-10 scale: a 1 would be all lore and no rules content (“we converted the entire Beatles’ catalog to Elvish so you can use them as bard songs!”) while a 10 would be all rules content and no lore – basically a professionally bound set of Excel spreadsheets.

Generally, my sweet spot tends to be in the 6-7 range. Don’t get me wrong… I like adventuring in a world that feels authentic and lived-in and appreciate the creativity Paizo puts into the campaign setting. But at the end of the day, I like it when my rulebooks have… well… rules. When I look to add stuff to my collection; I want to know what tangible impacts it’s going to add to the game – new monsters to fight, new abilities for my characters to try, cool treasure to find, and so on.

Lost Omens Legends? We’re talking maybe a 2-and-a-half. Yes, they throw in a feat here and a magic item there associated with the various luminaries detailed in the book, but the vast majority of it is roleplay flavor.

Not that that’s a bad thing per se. For GMs, it’s probably a great tool. If you create your own content, there’s a lot of fertile material for generating stories here; even if you’re “just” running existing Paizo adventure paths, a GM can roleplay situations better if they know who the players are and how all the parts fit together at the macro level. And, OK, there’s a subset of players who get into the lore far more than I do and will really enjoy this content for what it is. In short, it probably belongs on someone’s shelf. But if I’m being totally honest, it’s not something I would feel a strong need to own.

Let’s dig into the content a little deeper by using an example: the abolition movement. Slavery was outlawed in the city of Absalom by the acting primarch, Wynsal Starborn. Starborn is acting primarch, but actually wants his bro Ulthun II (previously the Watcher-Lord of Lastwall until it was overrun by the Whispering Tyrant) to take the job, while Ulthun thinks Wynsal should just take the job permanently. The pro-slavery forces are primarily represented by Abrogail Thrune II, ruler of Cheliax, and she’s got the Hellknights in her corner enforcing order. The leader of the most distinguished order of the Hellknights is Toulon Vidoc, who is mostly an ally, but sometimes he and Thrune butt heads because he believes in punishing ALL crime, including some of Thrune’s corrupt underlings. There’s also an underground abolition group, the Bellflower Network, run by halfling siblings Magdalene and Martum Fallows; and there’s even a masked pro-abolition vigilante called the Sapphire Butterfly, a former actress who now attempts to assist the Bellflower Network and overthrow Thrune. One of her gambits is to leave evidence against Thrune for Vidoc to find, so… we’ve even got the beginnings of a “Commissioner Gordon and Batman” frenemies thing going here. Lost Omens Legends gives us character sketches of all these dramatis personae – who they are, what they believe, who their allies and enemies are, and so on.

It’s not ALL Game of Thrones levels of palace intrigue, though. You also have a case like master alchemist Artokus Kirran. Kirran is the inventor of something called the Sun Orchid Elixir, which is basically a potion of immortality. In his story, we learn that he basically produces only six vials of it every year, that each vial sells for 60-80 THOUSAND gold pieces, and that the sun orchids that fuel the thing are fairly rare. He’s not explicitly tied to any particular nation or story, but on the other hand, who wouldn’t want an immortality potion? (Possibly even including really rich high-level players?) So on some level, he can be relevant to any story.

You can see how these pieces can be wielded in the hands of a GM who knows what they’re doing. If your characters are low level, these are probably just abstract names you hear talked about at the local tavern, but as the characters become more formidable, they might actually interact directly with some of these folks. Maybe the Sapphire Butterfly enlists the players to go on a mission to dig up some evidence against Thrune. Maybe there’s rumors of a new source of sun orchids and the players have to go investigate whether it’s true or not – if not directly for Kirran, maybe for a competitor who’s trying to develop their own version of the Sun Orchid Elixir or to corner the sun orchid market and force Kirran to give them a vial. There’s a lot of raw material that can be turned into viable stories by the enterprising GM.

Some of my favorite parts aren’t the people themselves but the little nuggets of “flavor” within a character description. In one of the sidebars for Abrogail Thrune, it mentions that she has a pit fiend named Gorthoklek as an advisor. OK, that’s kinda cool, but where it gets amusing is the rumors that it’s the pit fiend that has to talk Thrune out of HER more extreme impulses. Similarly, there’s Jakalyn, the Blood Mistress of the Red Mantis Assassins. An anonymous messenger turned up requesting a contract on Tar-Baphon himself – you know: a lich and the next closest thing to a god. She imprisoned the messenger and eventually found out the request came from Razmir, so she’s currently deciding between killing Razmir in retaliation, or maybe going through with the contract and killing Tar-Baphon anyway. Gotta respect that level of professionalism.

What sort of hard content is available, you might ask?

First, I will warn you: no stat blocks. It’s pretty clear Paizo doesn’t intend for you to actually fight any of these people. Though, if your party goes full murder-hobo, most of them do come with a class designation, so a forward-thinking GM could probably just assume them to be Level 20 and whip up a character sheet of the appropriate flavor. But if you’re playing official Paizo content, it might be awkward to get a mission from someone you killed six months ago. So maybe just don’t do that, mkaaaaaay?

Abrograil Thrune II has the ability to grant demonic “Thrune contracts”; basically, she’s a mortal who’s entrusted to make contracts on Asmodeus’ behalf. They function as an innate magic item with both a passive and an activated effect. BUT, there’s a few drawbacks. First, Thrune has the ability to override the contract (usually once per day): for example, the Infernal Healing contract triples the healing you normally get from resting, but Thrune can override and prevent any healing from rests for one day. The other is that if you die while under the effects of a Thrune contract, your soul goes to Hell. ALWAYS READ THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS.

There’s an alchemist, Kassi Aziril, who’s a “scientific healer”, who has lots of interesting healing gear and feats associated with her. From her, you can get access to vaccines (immunity to a disease from a specific source/creature, +2 to saves against the same disease from different source/creature) and addiction suppressants. You can also get a feat that lets you use Medicine instead of Crafting to craft medical gear and an expansion of Battle Medicine which removes status effects as well as healing damage. The barbarians of Numeria, as represented by Kevoth-Kul, have access to a crafting material called sovereign steel (an alloy of cold iron and skymetal) that has magical resistance properties. There’s also a spy named Avarneus, who has a bunch of medieval non-magical Q-Branch gear: invisible ink, a recording device that etches sound into wax cylinders and can be hidden in a book, a bracelet that can either shoot a single dart or can be expanded into a hand crossbow, and my favorite – a pair of goggles that can pick up the fumes of a particular brand of incense (which you would presumably mark a person you wanted to track with). So it’s not that there’s nothing there: it’s just scattered around and there’s not as much of it as some of us would like.

In general terms, the book is organized alphabetically, though some entries end up being a two or three-for-one: sometimes there’s a secondary character who’s so closely aligned with the primary character that they get included in the entry. The halfling siblings who run the Bellflower Network are an obvious example of this; another would be the aforementioned barbarian Kevoth-Kul, and his sometimes-girlfriend/second-in-command Kul-Inkit. However, there are tools to help navigate. First, each person’s write-up has a little block at the end where they mention what other people you might want to read up on. Furthermore, the end of the book has a very useful mini-index where the relationships of the major storylines are represented visually as flowcharts: Person A is battling Person B; C and D are helping A; E is thinking about joining B; F is waiting to see who wins so they can sweep in and approach the winner with an offer, etc. So if you’re a GM working with a particular story, you can see at a glance which NPCs would make sense to include in your shenanigans and which would be coming out of left field if they made an appearance.

So that’s Lost Omens Legends in a nutshell. It’s certainly not a bad book, I just think its appeal is a little more selective than most Paizo official releases. GMs who roll their own content and people who really get deep into the lore of the Pathfinder world will find this book a welcome addition to their collection; others (like myself) are going to find it a little light on practical application.

Pathfinder Second Edition Advanced Player’s Guide Review: Choose Your Own Adventurer

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, Gamemastery Guide, and Bestiary 2.

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.

Confession time. As someone who almost always sits on the player side of the table, I’ve grumbled my way through the Gamemaster’s Guide and two Bestiaries muttering “what’s in it for me?” under my breath.

The Advanced Player’s Guide for Pathfinder Second Edition does NOT present that problem. It’s ALL about the players. Five new ancestries, four new classes, a vastly expanded archetype system… for those of us who get so distracted making new characters that they forget to actually play the game – this book’s definitely not going to help that problem at all; in fact, it’ll just make it worse. Now when I say “new”, I suppose we can be honest and say that a veteran of First Edition will recognize most of what’s in here from First Edition, but I’m going to mostly write about everything as if it’s “new”-new since you never know who decided to take the plunge with Second Edition and doesn’t have that background to fall back on.

It’s tempting to skip ahead and start with the new classes since that’s probably the “big deal” to many players, but I’m going to maintain sanity and follow the flow of the book for now. So let’s talk ancestries. I should start by saying two things. First, I’m trying to break old habits and not just reflexively write off ancestries I don’t personally think I’d like (cough-kobolds-cough). We can thank Starfinder for that: I decided to play a ysoki largely as a goof, and Dr. Tuttle Blacktail turned out to be one of my favorite characters ever. But I’m also gonna say that on the POSITIVE side, I can barely contain my excitement that the tengu made the cut here – I LOVED my Bird Buddies in First Edition and can’t wait to roll one. Not so much that I’d get reckless and suicidal with my current Society character (among other things: Steve would probably kill me if he had to get new artwork done), but the gears are definitely turning.

At any rate… let’s take a quick look at each of these.

PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE (ANCESTRIES)

Cat folk (as opposed to “Cat People” which is a more obscure and VERY 80’s David Bowie track) have DEX and CHA as bonus stats and WIS as a flaw, so they’re going to make good rogues, bards, and such. Stature-wise, they’re not a “small” race, but more like elves – on the small, lean side of human norms. One thing that amused me is that they worked the old “cats always land on their feet” adage into the fabric of the character and catfolk take reduced damage from falling. I also like that they have catfolk names and names they use with outsiders that loosely correspond to pet names – so if you want to call your catfolk “Mr. Mittens”… well, that’s just their public name, and they still have a more dignified one for polite catfolk society.

Kobolds are dragonfolk, but runty ones – they actually ARE a small race. Like catfolk, DEX and CHA are their bonus stats, but their negative is CON, so you want to be a little more careful about putting them on the front lines. One thing I noticed about these guys is that some of their feats revolve around people underestimating them or not taking them seriously – for example, there’s a feat called Cringe where you can make an enemy feel sorry for you and pull back on an attack, doing less damage. On the more formidable side, they do have to end up getting access to a lot of dragon-y things – bite attacks, a poison tail, innate magical ability, even a scaled-back breath weapon – as either heritages or ancestry feats. And there’s also a path to be oddly good with snares.

Orcs are… orcs. I suppose once the half-orc heritage existed, it was inevitable that a whole-orc would come along to fill out the roster. Their main ability score is STR, and they (along with tengu) trade not having a second stat bump in exchange for having no flaw. Most of their feats are geared toward toe-to-toe combat, though there’s also a subset of feats that pertain to training beasts, so they might play well as rangers or druids too.

Ratfolk, also know as ysoki, are smart and nimble (DEX and INT), but STR is their flaw stat. They make good casters, rogue-likes, and such. Their feats are an interesting grab bag – some underground/dungeoneering type skills, a lot of skills that take advantage of kinship with regular rats (able to speak with normal rats, the animal messenger spell, even an ability to disguise one’s self as a regular rat, etc.). And then there’s the cheek pouches: ysoki can store items in their cheeks for easy access, which is moderately useful (it’s generally only an item of Light Bulk unless you take additional feats) but it’s GREAT roleplaying flavor to be able to, say, stash a wand in your mouth to sneak it past guards.

Lastly, we have my personal favorite, the tengu. I don’t know… I’m just attracted to the idea of bird-based humanoids. Their bonus stat is DEX, and like orcs, they trade lack of a flaw for their second bonus stat. Now, tengu are generally flightless, but you can take the Skyborn Tengu heritage that gets them the equivalent of a feather fall ability, and there are feats you can take to get more of a full flying form at higher levels. They also have a smattering of electricity-based feats and have an affinity for swords, such that normally-exotic swords like katanas and temple swords are familiar to them. Annnnd… oh dear… I’d better move along before Nella starts wandering precariously close to cliffs.

Now, when I say there are five new ancestries… that wasn’t quite the whole story.

SWISS-ARMY SCIONS (VERSATILE HERITAGES)

The Advanced Player’s Guide also introduces us to the concept of Versatile Heritages. You know how half-elf and half-orc sneak in the side door as human heritages? Well, imagine heritages that can be applied to ANY ancestry in place of a “normal” heritage, and that’s what a Versatile Heritage is. Now, veterans of First Edition will recognize these as additional First Edition races, so by a First Edition measuring stick, there are five more choices we didn’t have before. We’ve got Changelings (part hag; also usually but not exclusively female), Dhampir (mortal spawn of vampires), and Planar Scions (aasimar, tieflings, and duskwalkers – half-angel, half-devil, and… we’ll come back to what duskwalkers are). So instead of just being “a Tiefling” you can be a “tiefling human” or a “dhampir catfolk”.

At first glance, I’ll admit I was a little thrown by this. Over the years, I had a Tiefling rogue I was kind of fond of (though he mostly appeared in computer-based games like Neverwinter Nights), and my immediate knee-jerk reaction was “why is Noem being reduced to a second-class citizen”? But then I thought about it, and as a roleplaying mechanism, it may actually be more powerful this way. Those separate ancestries like aasimar and tiefling have always kind of been “half-something”, so acknowledging that a) lets you be more flexible about what the other “half” is and b) lets roleplayers really dig into how they wish to identify. One Changeling might want to deny their hag side and blend in as an elf; another may proudly be “yeah, my mom was a hag, catch these hands… errr… claws!”; a third may not really be in touch with either “side” of themselves and just feel like some oddity set loose in the world. In some ways, I feel like it’s a more versatile roleplay tool than just saying “if you’re part vampire you’re cut off the other half of what you are and the vampire-ness becomes your entire identity”.

I also wanted to stay on Duskwalkers for a second because of the lore: they’re the one entry here that’s not “half-something”. Their background gets into the mythology of Pharasma and The Boneyard. Sometimes the guardians of The Boneyard (psychopomps) can’t decide what to do with a soul after death: reincarnate it into a new form or send it on to its final destination. In a select few cases, they basically punt the decision and bring it back as a Duskwalker. Think of it as an earthly enforcer of the cycle of life and death – they’ve got lots of little perks that make them effective against undead. But of course, they’re also outsiders, including gray or blue skin that makes them look half-dead, so you’re giving up “fitting in with society” to make that happen.

OK, we’re almost up to the new classes, but before we get there, there are a few smaller sections to cover. I hate glossing over, but we have a lot to cover. We have a few new ancestry feats for the Core Rulebook ancestries, a few new common backgrounds (in a very Sweeney Todd twist, the “Barber” background gives you Surgery Lore and the Risky Surgery skill feat), and perhaps the most interesting concept: Rare Backgrounds. These are backgrounds that are a little more exotic and require a GM consult before taking. Some of them have more powerful benefits than your normal skill bumps, but some also come with drawbacks as well. The most intriguing one I saw here was the Amnesiac – where you don’t actually know your character’s own backstory but the GM does. That’s evil, and I love it.

WELCOME TO THE CLASSY CLUB (CLASSES)

OK… we’re here. New classes. Obviously these aren’t TOTALLY new because they conducted a playtest, and even within our show, we’re actually using the playtest version of two of those classes. But here they are… the final versions, released into the wild.

First, we have the Investigator. I’d describe it as a little bit of rogue, a little bit of alchemist, and a LOT of stuff that is skills-based that doesn’t really fit ANY of the other classes. Everything flows off the concept of Investigations and the core skill “Pursue A Lead”: think of it as an intellectual Smite target. Once the Investigator is on an active case, they start getting bonuses to rolls if it’s related to the investigation. On the combat side, it can make the Investigator’s attacks more effective in fights related to the investigation; in skill challenges, the Investigator becomes more effective at things like Sense Motive, Perception, and other “detective-y” skills. In combat, they’re never going to be mistaken for a front-line fighter, but they do have some alchemy skills and they have class tools (“Devise a Stratagem” and the “Strategic Strike”) that they use their Intelligence to attack with precision damage that increases as they level. But let’s be blunt: the Investigator is context-heavy and depends on your table’s campaign style. If your campaign style is primarily straight-up dungeon crawls, the soft skills mostly go to waste and it’s hard to see it filling much of a role unless your GM is REALLY generous about what constitutes an “investigation”. But if you’re doing campaigns that get into roleplay and palace intrigue and solving mysteries, an Investigator has a GREAT flavor and a really interesting toolkit for those.

The Oracle, at its heart, is a Charisma-based divine caster. Lore-wise, it’s a divine caster that doesn’t serve a particular god, but rather serves universal “Mysteries” like Battle or Flames. In addition to a general repertoire of divine spells, an Oracle has specialized “revelation spells” related to their Mystery which they can cast from a separate pool of focus points. The good news is those focus points regenerate every short rest, so you have almost-constant access to some pretty powerful tools. The bad news is you have to manage the downside effects of those spells, which can get pretty severe, and never totally go away until you take a full 8-hour rest. Just to pick an example, your Flames oracle starts with a “vision” of flames that just makes it hard to see past 30 feet, but if their curse gets all the way to the Major level, they generate a 4d6 flame aura (actual fire, not “holographic” flames) that damages friend and foe alike, and also damages themselves for 1d6 per round… unless they use one action each turn to actively suppress it. In addition to all of that, they also have a package of class feats that focuses on ties to mystical knowledge – some of the classic metamagic feats like Reach Spell and Widen Spell, things like a premonition that lets a party member roll twice for initiative and take the better result, or an always-on Detect Magic ability.

Next up we have the Swashbuckler, which Vanessa Hoskins is playing in our Extinction Curse show. How best to characterize this? Half rogue, half bard? A rogue with 38 pieces of flair? Essentially it’s a nimble DEX-based fighter that uses skill-based moves to generate “panache”, that both has passive benefits and can also be used to power other abilities and finishing maneuvers. Mechanically, it’s reminiscent of the rogue in World Of Warcraft, except that panache is binary – you either have panache or you don’t. The default finisher you get at Level 1 applies precision damage, but you can also use finishers that stun, apply bleed damage, or other effects. The class also has a general focus on movement – Acrobatics is a core skill and several feats combine movement and attack into a single action – and a lesser focus on luck, where you have abilities that let you roll twice and taking the higher result.

Lastly, we have the Witch, which is also represented in our Extinction Curse show by Rob Pontius’ Ateran. Like the Sorcerer, the Witch can originate from any of the sources of magic – you’d think occult would be a natural fit, but Witch backgrounds are varied enough that you can have a Witch of any of the four magical traditions. The Witch has a couple of interesting features. First, the Witch’s familiar is basically a living spellbook – it holds the Witch’s full array of spells, from which the Witch selects the day’s specific choices, and it can learn new spells from reading scrolls or talking to other familiars. There are also several class feats that allow Witches to “beef up” their familiar in interesting ways. Second, the Witch’s main class feature is the Hex spell: these are usually (but not always) sustained spells that the Witch can cast and sustain over multiple rounds to enact various effects on friends and enemies. Less “Big-N-Boomy”, more “stand there and watch the bad guys melt away”, though they can certainly still have a few big bombs in their conventional spell arsenal. Like some of the other caster classes, Hexes run off a pool of focus points instead of spell slots, so they can be replenished through short rests.

The section on character classes closes with a brief revisit to the classes of the Core Rulebook. Most of this is just adding a few extra class feats, and… everyone’s going to have their own favorites. I personally kind of like the Druid’s Verdant Weapon, which is a seed that can grow into a weapon of the Druid’s choosing and then shrink back down. That’s pretty damn cool, flavor-wise. But two things stand out. First, sorcerers get a few new bloodlines – genie, nymph, psychopomp, and shadow. But perhaps more interesting, the Champion class finally puts a stake in the ground on evil champions – the Tyrant (Lawful), Desecrator (Neutral), and Anti-Paladin (Chaotic). Obviously evil characters should be used with caution in general and can’t be used in Society play at all, but it’s a welcome and necessary addition to the overall fabric of Second Edition.

There’s also a very brief section that adds a few new familiars. Not much to say here except that a “Spellslime” is now an option. If you don’t think my next caster is having a slime familiar, you don’t know me very well. I SHALL CALL HIM “SQUISHY”, AND HE SHALL BE MY SQUISHY!

But look, we’ve arrived at the stealth star of this book – a dramatic expansion of Archetypes.

WELCOME TO INNER COAST CUSTOMS (ARCHETYPES)

Up until now, “archetype” in Second Edition had mostly been synonymous with “multiclassing”. There were a few fairly specialized archetypes in the Lost Omens World Guide (Hellknight, Red Mantis Assassin, etc.), but most of those had fairly specific entry criteria. But with the Advanced Player’s Guide, the world of archetypes is DRAMATICALLY expanded and takes it in all sorts of interesting and flavorful directions. (Though in fairness, four of the entries are the multiclass archetypes for the new classes we just discussed above.)

The Beastmaster, for instance, provides an easy way to bolt an animal companion onto any character. Is it going to be as dynamic as a ranger that specializes in the bond? Of course not. But if you want a monk who happens to have befriended a giant toad (guess whose kid is re-watching Naruto at the moment?), it’s an option.

Or maybe you want to be a cleric that just happens to be REALLY good with a shield. The Bastion archetype has you covered – it’s JUST shield-related skills, such as adding block to characters that wouldn’t normally have it, the ability to treat a shield hand as a free hand for the purposes of casting spells and retrieving items, and so on. One of my favorites is the Medic: it gives you things like increased healing on Treat Wounds, the ability to use Battle Medicine a second time on the same ally, the ability to combine a Stride and a Battle Medicine into a combined action, and at Level 16 you can even try to raise a recently-dead (three rounds) teammate solely with healer’s tools.

It’s not all optimized for combat, though. You can also be an Archeologist, where you can get access to a few information-gathering spells even if you’re not a caster, you can use Society to decipher writing, and various Knowledge and Lore bonuses are available. Or you can be a Celebrity (Golarion has Instagram influencers?) – which can give you benefits earning income, can modify certain persuasion-based checks because people are drawn to you, and such.

I should mention that some of these are gated in one way or another so that it doesn’t turn into a free-for-all. For Eldritch Archer, for example, you have to already be an Expert with some sort of bow, and it isn’t even an option until Level 6. Dragon Disciple doesn’t have a level gate but does require some sort of draconic influence – a draconic sorcerer, a dragon instinct barbarian, or a kobold with the dragonscaled or spellscaled heritage. So this isn’t just “everyone can be whatever they want” anarchy – there’s some degree of thought about who should be walking around with some of these abilities. There’s a general restriction that if you go into one archetype, you have to put at least two additional skills into it before you can do another, so you can’t do some ridiculous thing where you mix-and-match from six different archetypes to make a complete Franken-character.

It also feels like a system that’s really easy to extend as needed. Want to make… I dunno…. a blitzball player from Final Fantasy X? Create an archetype that has some water-breathing and swimming skills, maybe a few ranged attack bonuses, and you’re basically an honorary member of the Besaid Aurochs. Minus the Tidus Laugh, which you have to supply yourself.

YOU’RE THE REST… AROUND (THE REST OF THE BOOK)

The remaining chapters are comparatively short, but we’ll take a brief look at them. First, we have some new Feats for the taking, and I’ll just toss you a couple of quick favorites to give some of the flavor. First, there’s Lead Climber, which allows a good climber to basically use their skill to make it easier for people that follow them – set ropes, point out handholds, etc. Pilgrim’s Token is a nice simple Level 1 Religion feat that gives you a token that breaks initiative ties in your favor. But my favorite is Risky Surgery, a diabolically amazing Medicine skill – you do an additional 1d8 slashing damage to the patient, but then you get a +2 on the Treat Wounds, and if you succeed, it becomes a critical success.

The next chapter is spells, and there’s really two parts to this. There’s a solid 14 pages of new additions to the main spell lists, and there’s some fun stuff there. I will say it’s mostly lower-level additions – just skimming, I saw ONE 7th level spell, and only a handful higher than 5th. My personal favorite here is “Vomit Swarm” where you basically shoot a cone of bugs out of your mouth that sting people in its path for 2d8 of damage. The other half of the spell chapter contains the focus spells which is almost entirely the new content presented in this book – Oracle revelations, Witch hexes, spells for the evil champions, and the new sorcerer bloodlines. Other than that, there’s a HANDFUL of monk, bard, ranger spells, but the vast majority of this part is enabling the new classes. At the end of the chapter, we add a surprising number of rituals – from a fairly low-level ritual called Heartbond, which allows two people to know each other’s rough location (distance and direction) through a two action concentrate; to Clone, which basically prepares a clone of a character’s body which the character’s soul can use as a new home if the original character dies. (Annnnnd… we’ve officially crossed the streams with Altered Carbon.)

Last, we have a brief section on items, magical and otherwise. The non-magical items seem mostly like they exist to enable the new content of this book – lots of detective tools and a few exotic swords for tengu to play around with. Though… I gotta say… two magical words: “sword cane”. The magic items were a nice mix: personally I liked the Earthsight Box. It’s a box full of sand with dwarven runes, but if you activate it, the sand forms into a 3-D tunnel map of everything in 60 feet in any direction. It’s not explicitly stated, but since it reveals tunnels and “voids in the earth” when underground, it sounds like it might also be a decent secret passage detector.

But anyway… that’s the Advanced Player’s Guide. I just gotta say I really loved this book. Not just in a superficial “I’m a player, give me toys to play with” way… though, yeah, also that. But I think what really leaps out to me is that the things I appreciated most are NOT the things I expected to like going in. New classes, new ancestries… of course it’s going to be fun to play around with those. But things like Versatile Heritages and the expansion of Archetypes really made the light bulb turn on and started to really show where Second Edition is going as a system. I think you’re definitely gonna want to add this one to your bookshelf. That aasimar tengu pirate isn’t just gonna roll itself!

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.