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Pathfinder Secrets of Magic Review: Some Secrets Are Worth Sharing

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They say introspection is part of a healthy lifestyle, so let me start by dropping a bit of self-evaluation.

The Magus was my favorite class in Pathfinder First Edition, so I’ve been looking forward to Secrets Of Magic since the day I heard the Magus was going to be included. If I’m being totally honest, Secrets Of Magic could have been The Magus And Here’s 70-Some Blank Pages To Scribble In, and I probably still would have been pretty happy with it. Just being honest with all of you.

But Secrets of Magic – Paizo’s newest hardcover release – has ZERO pages to scribble in because it’s chock full of new magical toys for the Second Edition system, and that’s definitely an improvement over my idea. I can only really draw stick figures anyway. What strikes me at first glance is that it’s a book that both broadens and deepens the world of magic in Second Edition. What I mean is that it gives you more of what’s already there – new classes, new backgrounds, a whole lot of new spells, more magic items – but it’s also got a lot of content that expands the system in new directions, including a bunch of different variant rules you can play around with if you want your entire campaign setting to get a little weird.

But let’s start with the big news up front… the Magus and Summoner classes finally make their way to Second Edition. If you’ve played First Edition, you already know what these are likely to look like; but I’ll assume we have some people who skipped First Edition and may not know what to expect.

The Magus is a hybrid blend of warrior and arcane caster. At a Cliff’s Notes glance: you give up some of the spell slots you’d get as a full caster, but you get back armor, weapons, more hit points, and overall survivability. And, you’re your own walking, talking property rune because you channel magic through your weapon. Now… it’s true that up until now, you could get something in the ballpark of that by playing around with multiclass archetypes, but it’s kind of like that one meme – “Mom says we have the Magus at home”. You can create a character that both fights on the front lines and casts spells, but it’s missing the special sauce that holds it all together.

In this case, the “special sauce” of the Magus comes in the form of the Spellstrike class ability, which lets a Magus cast a spell and channel it into their weapon as part of a combined attack. Your first reaction might be “but wait, I only get one chance to hit and if I miss, my whole round is a waste! That sucks!”. But consider this – you get a one-action attack and a two-action spell as a two-action Spellstrike (so you’re immediately saving an action). So yes, there’s a lot more riding on each individual die roll, but overall the math and action economy are on your side. You also get “conflux spells” which are Magus specific spells that run off focus points (and therefore recharge after 10-minute rests), and you can obtain additional special abilities based on your specialization – there are builds for two-handed weapons, one-handed weapons, shields, ranged weapons, and staves.

If there’s a downside to this, it’s what you’d expect – you don’t have as many spell slots as a full caster, and your feats are all geared toward combat effectiveness, so good luck trying to make a “utility Magus” – you’re here to kill stuff, just with extra magic ‘splodeys. (Though now I’m sure SOMEONE will try to prove me wrong by building one.)

The Summoner? That’s more like half caster, half Pokemon trainer. You have a repertoire of spells, but most of your abilities come from forging a connection to an eidolon, a magical creature who serves as your sidekick and does most of your fighting for you. Unlike a normal summoning spell where the creature lasts for a few rounds and then disappears, your eidolon can be summoned as needed (though it’s a three-action ability) and sticks around as long as you need it to.

More importantly, the eidolon is a permanent creation that you design, and it grows as you level. When it comes to creating an eidolon, you start by choosing an origin (fey, beast, construct, demon, etc.) and choosing whether you want a warrior (STR) or scout (DEX) based build, but the specific look of your eidolon is whatever you choose it to be. So if you want your eidolon to physically manifest as, say, a golem made of Dippin’ Dots, you can do that. (And really, who WOULDN’T want that?)

The eidolon-summoner relationship admittedly starts out a little clunky – you basically have to share one turn between you when you first start. In fact, there’s a Level 1 feat called “Meld Into Eidolon” where you just acknowledge the early-level futility, use your eidolon as a battle suit, and hide behind its hit points. But as you level, you can take different feats that improve your eidolon, including feats that improve action efficiency. Though where’s the fun in that when you can also add far more interesting abilities? Spellcasting, different movement types, weapon proficiency… you know… in case the aforementioned Dippin’ Dots golem needs to wield a katana. (And again, I ask… who WOULDN’T want that?)

The Summoner does have a repertoire of spells, but again, fewer than a true caster. The good news is they can auto-heighten any spell they have, and they also have a secondary synergy with (wait for it) summoning spells: there are feats that let you take additional spell slots IF you use them on summon spells. But obviously, those feats will mean fewer feats to develop your eidolon, so it’s a trade-off one has to manage.

Now, in getting to the two new classes, I kinda skipped over Chapter 1… and I feel a little guilty doing that because there’s still good work and creativity that went into that as well. The first chapter starts with in-character world-building, with academic treatises written by various luminaries about the four traditions (arcane, primal, divine, occult), as well as a similar piece about magical “essences”. It then offers “The Eight Arches Of Incantation”, which summarizes the eight major magic fields – what makes something conjuration vs. illusion vs. transmutation? This one is meant to be in character as well, but written for a more general audience, so it’s closer to general GM info.

Then we have a few pages of magical backgrounds, both normal and rare. The “normal” backgrounds just expand backgrounds in a magical direction, as one can be an “academy dropout”, “magical merchant”, or a “plant whisperer”, but they’re still the standard “here’s some ability boosts and skills”. The RARE ones get pretty interesting because they offer special abilities (sometimes at a price). My favorite here is probably the “anti-magical” background where you’re resistant to magic: any spell cast on you (friend or foe) has to pass a DC3 flat check or it fails to affect you. So there’s a 10% chance that you shrug off an enemy mage’s fireball, but then again, the same could happen to that heal spell your ally casts on you.

Chapter 3, the largest by page count, gives us a WHOLE lot of new spells. Granted, this also includes the focus spells for the magus and summoner classes, as well as a few rituals, but that still leaves a LOT of new options for casters to take. I could sit here and list random cool spells I liked, but if there are a few recurring themes that keep popping up, they are battle forms and contingency spells.

Battle forms are spells that clarify the mechanics and expand the options for changing into another creature to fight – because hey, sometimes you’re either low on spell slots, or the enemy creature is resistant to magical damage and you just have to slap it around the old-fashioned way. The various battle form spells (aberrant form, angel form, OOZE form, and so on) let you change into that type of creature for a duration (usually a minute) and they specify all the stats and attacks you have available to you while in that form. (You also have a few options per spell, just so you can play around with different movement/damage/etc. options.) The druid’s Wild Shape ability did something like this for more common creatures; the new spells in Secrets of Magic expand that to the more esoteric options.

It should also be mentioned that most of these spells come with heightened versions where the creature gets bigger, you get more temporary hit points, and its attack hit harder. I’m not saying you should try being a gargantuan gelatinous cube, but… you should try being a gargantuan gelatinous cube.

Contingency spells are spells that you cast now, but take full effect later, when certain conditions are met. The basic concept already sort of exists with things like protective runes and magical traps, but Secrets of Magic expands on the concept. One of my favorites here is Instant Armor (and no, not just because I can sing John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” when casting it). It basically stores your armor in an extra-dimensional space, and it’s summoned to your body when you issue the activation command. Aside from having big Tony Stark energy, it’s got solid practical uses: imagine infiltrating an enemy’s stronghold where you have to get in through the front door politely – maybe a fancy-dress ball – but might get into a scrap once you’re in the building. (It’s not a contingency spell, but Juvenile Companion has a similar vibe – you can basically turn your animal companion into the cute non-threatening baby version of itself if you have to sneak it in somewhere.)

Oh, and hey, if you’ve got a spare thousand gold per level, and no morals about killing people, Secrets of Magic also offers the “Bathe In Blood” ritual which lets you either pause aging or grow younger. (Though if you critically fail the ritual, you die.) Golarion’s Ra’s al Ghul Lazarus Pits are open for business!

In Chapter 4, we tackle magical items. As with other parts of the book, there’s more of what we already know and love, and we also expand into some new territories.

Fulus are a hybrid of scroll and talisman, usually associated with the Tian Xia region. They’re paper charms affixed to weapons, armor, or sometimes locations. They mostly work as talismans, except since they’re designed as wards, they’re more commonly automated/defensive rather than activated by the user – the condition is met and the fulu activates.

A grimoire is a spellbook that has additional magical effects, usually an affinity for certain types of spells that makes those spells more effective. To use a specific example: let’s look at the Book of Lingering Blaze. If you cast a fire spell that was prepared from the book (but not, say, from a staff or wand), the flames are extra-hot and ignore up to 10 fire resistance.

Secrets of Magic also now lets you be your own rune with the addition of magical tattoos. (Including a skill feat to have your character become a magical tattoo artist.) There are only a few sample tattoos to introduce the concept, but I kind of liked the wave warding tattoo, which gives you a cast of air bubble if you ever find yourself in a spot where you can’t breathe.

Next up we have the concept of personal staves – it’s basically a system for designing your own staff and loading it with spells, including rules for making it more powerful and adding new spells as you level. Now, it’s not a total free-for-all – there has to be a uniting trait for all spells on the staff – so you can’t just make the Staff Of Spells That RAWK. But if you wanted to make a staff of water spells, or spells focused on movement abilities, or something like that… there’s now a way for you to do it.

Spell Catalysts are basically talismans for spells – single-use items that increase the effectiveness of a certain spell. For example, Firestarter Pellets add persistent fire damage to a fireball spell. Shimmering Dust added to glitterdust not only negates invisibility, but the affected creatures give off dim light. Now, here’s where Science Nerd Me points out that “catalysts” enable a reaction without themselves being altered or consumed, and then here’s where you should feel free to shove Science Nerd Me into a locker. (Hey, it’s kinda dark in here.)

Then there are Spellhearts. Think of them as permanent, and more powerful, versions of talismans. They generally have a passive effect if affixed to armor, and an active effect when affixed to a weapon; and in either case, activation casts a specific spell (generally, a once-per-day thing). So the lowest version of a Five-Feather Wreath contains the spell gale blast. Attaching it to armor gives a +1 to Acrobatics and negates 2 falling damage. But if you put it on a weapon, then when you cast the gale blast spell from the spellheart, you can take an action to fly five feet. (Not surprisingly, most spellhearts have multiple versions of different power levels – the highest level version of that five-feather wreath lets you fly 40 feet.)

Finally, at the end of this chapter, we still do have an expansion of more “traditional” magical items and consumables. There’s a lot of fun stuff here, but I’d just like to call out a couple of my favorites. First, one that has no combat use but could lead to fun roleplay is the Deck of Mischief – it’s a deck of playing cards that allows you to activate it to know where all the aces and face cards are, and make an illusory swap. However, the deck itself has a mind of its own, and if neglected or poorly maintained, may choose to malfunction of its own accord. More in the combat mindset, I’m a big fan of battlefield movement effects, so I love the Gloaming Shard. It’s a dagger that allows you to throw it tethered to a filament of your own shadow, and then teleport yourself to the location/enemy you threw it at (once per hour). Cool Nightcrawler vibes abound!

And now… we get to Chapter 5. Here’s where things get interesting… and maybe a little weird. It’s an entire chapter of variant rules if you want to play around with different magical concepts. Some of these apply concepts from one part of the game to another part of the game, some very much feel like homages to other fantasy settings, but some are just kinda doing their own thing. Keep in mind ALL of these are optional systems. You can use a few that sound cool, none at all… OK, trying to use all of them at the same time might end up kind of a mess, but there’s nothing to stop you from trying.

 

Now, I realize in advance this is going to get kinda laundry-list-y, but it seemed like presenting a little high-level information about each ruleset was better than either a) trying to jam it into one or two paragraphs and really telling you nothing or b) going deep-dive with examples on each one, and then you’re still reading this review when Guns And Gears comes out. I played around a little and this felt like the “right” amount of info.

  • We start with cathartic magic – magic driven by emotion. It’s kind of like combining barbarian rage (but with more emotional flexibility) and spell casting. There’s a trigger event, which is usually a specific game mechanic. That puts the cathartic caster into catharsis, which gives them benefits for three rounds including a spell they only have access to while in that state. But at the end of the three rounds, they have an “emotional fallout” that confers some sort of negative status. All of this is then cleared by “settling your emotions” over a ten-minute rest.
  • Elementalism builds around the four traditional elements of water, earth, fire, and air (FLAMEO, HOTMAN!). We get some formal feats for druids and monks to flesh out the parts of the elemental spectrum that were a little weak in their previous rules, and then we get the elementalist class archetype that allows ANY character to become an expert in the traditional forces. Of course, if you’re a caster, you have to give up your normal spell list and choose ONLY from the elementalist spell list, but you get other benefits in trade.
  • Flexible preparation is a system for adjusting the prepared caster classes if you want to let everyone just cast spells spontaneously like a sorcerer does. The gist… you get a few fewer spell slots, but you can cast any spell you know in a slot. There’s also a single-feat archetype that makes the wheels on the bus go ‘round.
  • Geomancy is another archetype; one that feels like it brings the idea of rangers’ “favored terrain” to the casting world. You basically “attune” to the terrain you’re in, at which point you can get movement bonuses, draw power from the land to heal, things like that.
  • Ley lines play around with the idea that there are invisible streams of magic in the air around us. This ruleset lets a caster tap into those lines and use them to enhance their magic… or they might blow up if they fail their save. But if they succeed, they can do things like add persistent damage to spells, perform some of the metamagic feats like adding reach, and so on.

  • Pervasive magic… this is the “what if EVERYBODY had access to at least a little bit of magic?” ruleset. (See also: Piers Anthony’s Xanth setting without all the perviness or the Black Cloveranime without Asta proclaiming someone or something cool every five minutes.) The town guards have magic missile! The barmaid can knock out unruly patrons with sleep! It’s ANARCHY! But if you want to go there, Paizo has you covered. You’ve got rules for assigning additional spells based on the entity’s level (friend OR foe… those kobolds you’re fighting get magic too!), a few feats to make the system work, and interestingly, a section that reviews the map of the Inner Sea and recommends magical hot spots where you could implement this if you were so inclined.
  • Shadow Magic provides us with an archetype for the gothiest caster you could ever hope to create. You basically sacrifice a little piece of your soul to get access to all sorts of neat shadow spells, but you also completely lose the ability to cast spells dealing with light. Bad poetry and trips to Hot Topic may or may also be involved. (OK, I’m deflecting… I want to roll one.)
  • Soul Seeds border on something out of a JRPG… not an insult, just an observation. They’re relic-level items you harvest from powerful enemies, that provide a soul gift: a new ability. Obvious example: kill a red dragon, and its soul seed grants the ability to breathe fire.
  • Soulforged armaments are armor and weapons where you create a special supernatural bond based on an oath – “seek justice”, “protect the downtrodden”, even something more specific like “rid the world of undead”. The benefit of the bond is that it grants the gear additional magical powers (including the ability to store it extradimensionally and summon it when needed); the danger is that if you don’t honor whatever oath you made to the gear, it can become corrupted and lose effectiveness until the corruption is cleansed. So if you promised to help the downtrodden and then go to work as a mercenary for a rich nobleman, you might have a problem. Note that there is still an underlying physical weapon that can be upgraded, replaced, or engraved with runes, so you’re not locked into your Level 1 Pointy Stick forever.
  • Runelords? These guys are pretty well-known within the lore of Pathfinder. They were mostly bad guys in First Edition – a society of esoteric mages who were corrupted by sin — but here in Second Edition, a Thassilonian city from 10,000 years just plunked itself down in the modern world, and half the Thassilonians are trying to move on and return to the Runelords’ more noble origins. Which, I suppose, opens up the possibility of Good Guy Runelords. Among their interesting little tricks are fighting with polearms – something you don’t usually expect of wizards – and embedding aeon stones in their skin. (There’s a Bedazzler joke begging to be made, but I’m gonna leave that for someone else.) I particularly like that they can make a magic staff the shaft of a polearm, thereby having access to a melee weapon AND the spells on the staff… that’s pretty neat.
  • True Names embrace the idea that most entities (particularly the evil ones) have multiple names, and learning a creature’s true name gives you power over it. This ruleset gives you feats and spells for identifying a creature’s true name and exploiting that either through compelling (making it perform actions) and invoking (doing more damage). You can also make an amulet that makes the invoke effect against that creature permanent.
  • Lastly, we have Wellspring Magic and the Wellspring Mage archetype, which in some ways saves the best for last. The general idea of wellspring magic plays around with unstable magical ability, and it kicks in every time you roll initiative or are in a high-stress situation. If things go well, you recover spell slots without having to rest; if things go badly, you generate a “wellspring surge” which is a random effect – could create a protective shield, could allow everyone to read your thoughts, could just go boom. The min-maxer in me would NEVER play a character with such random outcomes, but the STORIES such a character would create… “yeah, we almost had the dragon beat, and then Zolgar went and HEALED it”.

And that… in a larger-than-normal nutshell… is Secrets of Magic. As you can see, there’s a LOT of stuff in there, and some of it takes the game in unexpected directions. You certainly can’t go wrong with two new classes and a bunch of new spells; adding more of what people already love can’t really go wrong. As far as the variant rules, I feel like the sheer variety is what impresses me – sure, nobody’s going to want to use ALL of them, but it’s hard to imagine any Second Edition player looking at those rules and not finding at least a couple that sound fun and worth incorporating into their game. (Me, it’s soulforged weapons and the wellspring mage. And OK, might want to roll up a Runelord.) In short, it does feel like they’ve cast their nets in enough different directions that there’s something for everyone. So if you want your Second Edition campaign to get a little weirder and paint with bolder colors, definitely add Secrets of Magic to your gaming library.

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Legends, Pathfinder World Guide, Character Guide, Gods & Magic, The Mwangi Expanse, Gamemastery Guide, Bestiary 2, and Bestiary 3.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Agents of Edgewatch Podcast and our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure.

Pathfinder Lost Omens The Mwangi Expanse Review: The World Gets A Little Wider

When we started this podcast and I took on the task of writing our product reviews, I have to admit I didn’t always have the best handle on things. I’m a player at heart; I rarely sit on the GM side of the screen. So if a book didn’t have obvious “toys” for players, it left me a little stumped. Well, we’ve been at this for a few years now, and I like to think I’ve evolved and matured, and I have a better handle on things now.

I say all of this as backdrop as we step into the world of The Mwangi Expanse… both the setting within the Pathfinder world, as well as the newest Paizo hardcover release that tells us all about it. As a setting book, it’s mostly designed as an “idea factory” for GMs to build adventures around, and as such, you don’t tend to have as much player-facing content. And you know what… that’s OK. Not everything HAS to be for the players. Sometimes your GM needs a little love too, and players reap the benefits later in the form of the adventures they get to go on.

I feel like the first thing that leaps out is the sheer scope of the book itself. Think about it: this is a full hardcover release, on par with the Bestiaries and the Inner Seas World Guide itself, just dedicated to one area of the map. Paizo certainly never did anything of this magnitude in First Edition; maybe you could argue that the Starfinder Pact Worlds book was in the ballpark of this effort, but that’s like… 10 or 11 planets compared to one relatively small corner of the map. That level of commitment allows them to really go on a deep dive, as you’ll see when I get into the content in more detail.

Another thing I feel like I want to mention is Paizo’s commitment to doing inclusivity the right way with this book. When you’re mining real-world cultures for ideas for a fantasy setting, it’s a delicate balance. On the one hand, you don’t want the treatment to be so shallow that it comes across as meaningless façade, but you also want to use those cultural elements respectfully and not indulge in cheap stereotypes or otherwise make it awkward. (And in any scenario, casting Tilda Swinton as an Asian man is off the table. Circulate a memo.) I wanted to specifically give Paizo credit for bringing in writers of color to participate in every phase of the book’s creation, using their perspectives to inform this book in a meaningful and respectful way.

As a setting within the Pathfinder game, the Mwangi Expanse is a jungle biome to the south of the Inner Sea region; if you want to compare it to a real-world setting, sub-Saharan Africa wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It’s a region teeming with exotic wildlife and magical forces; even the established cities of the Mwangi Expanse have to contend with primal and magical forces knocking at their back door as a fact of everyday life. It’s also a region with its own people, history, and culture, distinct from the goings-on up north in the Inner Sea region. It’s a land that manages to be familiar in some ways but drastically different in other ways.

Let’s start with what I’m sure is a vastly oversimplified history of the Expanse. It may be helpful to set the table for some of the things we’ll be discussing later.

In the wake of Earthfall, the Mualijae elves were the dominant power in the region, but they expended most of their power battling a dragon god named Dahak. They were able to defeat and imprison Dahak, but their numbers were reduced, and those who remained splintered into three main factions. This gave humanity a foothold and an opportunity to grow, led by Old-Mage Jatembe and his Ten Magic Warriors. The town of Nantambu, originally a place for the Ten Magic Warriors to meet and exchange knowledge, became a full-fledged city where the warriors started the Maagambya school of magic. Both exist to this day as a beacon of magical knowledge in the region. For a while, the leadership of the Magic Warriors allowed humanity’s influence across the Expanse to grow, and new cities and nations were created. Eventually, a threat arose in the form of the demon lord Angazhan and his corrupted human leader, the Gorilla King. Angazhan and his demon-worshipping followers created the city of Usaro as a base of operation and began to expand across the expanse until they were eventually fought and defeated by the orcs of the region, the Matanji, with the assistance of one of the remaining elf factions. In more modern days, the Expanse faced attempts at colonization from foreign powers (most notably Cheliax), and more recently (when Aroden died), a never-ending storm called the Eye of Abendego flooded the northwestern countries of Lirgen and Yamasa and drove those people out of their homelands.

Like I said: vastly oversimplified. And don’t worry… there will not be a quiz. But it gives you some of the highlights of how the region was shaped, and I’ll probably reference pieces of it as I discuss other parts of the book.

One thing that’s interesting is the mix of ancestries you’ll find in the Mwangi Expanse, whether it’s journeying there as an existing character or starting a new campaign there. Some ancestries that are fairly exotic for the Inner Sea, such as lizardfolk and kobolds, are much more common, while some of the Inner Sea staples (gnomes and goblins, to pick two examples) are hardly seen. Even amongst some of the shared ancestries, such as elves and orcs, there are differences in their evolutions; and of course, there are also ancestries that are unique to the Mwangi Expanse.

To use elves as an example, there are three different flavors of elves. All three are descended from the original Mualijae elves that came to the region thousands of years ago. They were presented a prophecy of fighting against great evil, but chose different interpretations of what that meant, and they fractured into factions over their different interpretations. The first are the scholarly Alijae elves who chose to gather as much knowledge as possible, so they moved their base of operations to the outskirts of Nagisa, a demon-corrupted elf city, so they can try to reclaim its secrets. There are also the warrior Ekujae who are taking it literally and developing their military prowess to fight any threat that arises (including helping the Matanji orcs fight the demons). Lastly, there are the Kallijae who think the real evil they have to fight is within, so they’re all about keeping to a rigid code of ethics and personal discipline.

Similarly, the Matanji orcs are a combination of familiar and new. Yes, they’re still a people known for their strength and military prowess, but they’re not treated like warlike savages; the people of the Expanse respect the orcs for protecting everyone else from the demons and their worshipers. As such, Matanji are generally well-regarded and welcome in polite society, and some even rise to leadership positions. Heck, remember the Yamasan people (one of the two countries I mentioned that got flooded by the giant storm)? They’re mostly farmers, and a lot of them now live under the protection of the Matanji and grow their food for them. A demon-hunting army travels on its stomach, after all…

And just think…. I haven’t even mentioned the dwarves (Mbe’ke) who gave up living underground, befriended cloud dragons, and decided beards weren’t fashionable! There are also nomadic jungle dwarves (Taralu) and halflings (Song’o), so most of the “classics” are available here in some form.

As far as ancestries that are brand-new to the Mwangi Expanse, we have six (and yes, I realize I’m falling back on my fascination with “toys for players” here):

  • The Anadi are spider-people, though they can have both spider and humanoid forms, they can shift between. As you’d expect, most of their ancestry feats have a spidery theme: shooting webs, wall-crawling, etc.
  • The Conrasu is a bit of an oddball – it’s a shard of energy that grows an exoskeleton out of wood to serve as a body. It has some similar powers to a leshy, but something distinctly otherworldly and non-humanoid about it. So… “leshy construct” is kind of in the ballpark for what it feels like?
  • Gnolls are familiar to old-school players and fairly easy to describe for newcomers – hyena-based humanoids. Most gnolls are traditionally evil, but when the largest gnoll tribes were defeated, some moved to the human settlements and began their lives there. I love the footnote here that some gnolls eat their own dead and fallen enemies. WHAT’S A LITTLE CANNIBALISM AMONG FRIENDS?
  • Golomas don’t have an existing real-world comparison, so I’ll just describe the artwork: they’re bipeds with a horse-like face, but their face looks like a mask with eight gelatinous eyes. The most interesting thing about the goloma is it LITERALLY has eyes in the back of its head as well, which gives it benefits to perception and such.
  • LITTLE FROGGIES. Again, long-time players should know what to expect here. Certainly the cutest entry of the bunch. Sign me up for the feat that lets you deliver touch-attack spells with your tongue!
  • Human-adjacent, but their bodies have little quills, like a porcupine. At low levels, can be used for defense (attack me, you get poked back), but later feats let them be used as melee weapons or even shot at an enemy at range.

I feel like although they’re not a character ancestry, I should mention the Charau-Ka as well. They’re humanoids based on…. baboons, mandrills, maybe?… and they tended to be the footsoldiers of the demon-worshiping armies. So while you can’t be a Charau-Ka character (for now?), I suspect you’ll be running into a lot of them as adversaries if you go on adventures in the Expanse.

Once ancestries are dispensed with, we also get to meet a few of the gods worshiped in the Mwangi Expanse, although many of the more traditional Pathfinder gods have also made their way to the Expanse. One of the most interesting here is Walkena, the raised undead corpse of a former child ruler of the city of Mzali. The book itself diligently avoids using the word “lich”, but he’s kinda “lich-esque”. On the one hand, he’s evil and a bit of a tyrant, but on the other hand, he preaches a message of uniting the people of the Expanse and throwing out foreigners, so despite his cruelty, he’s got a certain popularity amongst the people. So there are some interesting layers there. I also personally like Lubaiko, a fire god who’s a bit of a practical joker and not above giving her own followers a hotfoot for a laugh. My kind of deity.

The next section of the book is the largest and covers the geography of the Mwangi Expanse. Let’s just say there’s just too much of it to go into ALL of it in detail, or we’d be here all day. This is where the deep dive starts REALLY paying off.

The general construction is that it breaks the Expanse down into smaller regions (nine in total), and then lists specific story hooks and points of interest that a GM could use to build an adventure around. So for example, the Sodden Lands are a rainy, marshy area to the far northwest (including the lands wiped out by the Eye of Abendego), and one sample of the locations a GM can play around with is Fliptown, a floating casino run by a grippli named Flip The Lucky. Or if you’re feeling more ambitious, Ng’s Well is a gateway to the First World that’s large enough to sail a ship through. The story elements can be anything from a whole city, to a specific building, sometimes even a specific NPC who might give the players a mission to take care of. Add it all up and there’s NO shortage of interesting content here.

I do think the Lake Ocota region is going to be a place that’s going to be featured prominently in adventure paths. It’s pretty close to the center of the Mwangi Expanse, and several rivers feed the lake, so you can get there from pretty much any starting point. There’s a direct water route to the magic city of Nantambu, and the demon city of Usaro is right on the southern banks of the lake. In short, Lake Ocota just FEELS like a place where history is happening (why yes, I do use “Hamilton” references even when it’s kind of forced and awkward). Also, there’s a 300-foot tower of white rock called the Spire Of Destiny in the center of the lake. I mean… come on… you don’t call something the “Spire of Destiny” and then NOT invite players to start snooping around it. Of course, every boat that’s gone out there has disappeared or come back empty, so… snoop carefully, is all I’m saying.

In the next section, after the geographic regions, the major cities of the Mwangi Expanse are given similar treatment. These writeups start with a one-page quick-reference (population, trade goods, etc.), another one-pager with a map, and then each city gets a similar treatment to the region level, where the book describes life in the city, the leadership structure, and again… points of interest in each city that could feed into an adventure.

We have Bloodcove and Senghor, which are two sides of the same ocean-faring coin – they’re both major ports, but Bloodcove is a safe haven for Free Captains (aka pirates), while Senghor is zero-tolerance in that respect and home to most of the “legitimate” trade with the outside world. Kibwe is a trading town that sits at a major crossroads toward the eastern side of the region; life pretty much revolves around the central market there. Nantambu is the center for all magical activity in the region and the home of the Maagaymba. One of my favorites is Jaha, a city where the residents just vanished a few years ago… so displaced Lirgeni and lizardfolk moved in. So you’ve got this city where there’s a mystery about the locals disappearing, you also have an interesting dynamic where the Lirgeni and lizardfolk have to make peace with the fact that the lizardfolk were formerly kept as slaves. Also, there’s some weird spirit activity going on that makes it impossible to sleep at night without having bad dreams, so the city’s entire sleep schedule is inverted, with people sleeping during the day and city life being mostly nocturnal. (THAT CAN’T BE ANYTHING BAD.)

Then again, the jungle city of Osibu is the home of Dimari-Diji, an ancient arboreal who LITERALLY survived Earthfall and is currently guarding the Nemesis Well, a portal to… nobody really knows what. You want a quest-giver who Knows Some Things, I suspect he’s your huckleberry.

One of the most interesting areas is the southern colony of Vidrian. It’s a place where one is forced to reckon with issues of our own real-world colonialism through the prism of gaming. Until recently, Vidrian was Sargava, a Chelaxian colony — one that was OK with using slave labor, BTW — but the ruler of Sargava backed the wrong horse in Cheliax’s civil war, so all their support from home dried up. The Sargavans tried to maintain their hold by allying with pirates, but a resistance movement eventually broke through and won independence to create the new nation of Vidrian. So now you have this country trying to figure out what the new normal is. You have the Vidric people, many of whom were former slaves, taking over as the ruling class, and the Sargava, the descendants of the Chelaxians existing as a minority who is anywhere from seriously mistrusted to outright hated. There are laws that protect them from violence, but the Sargavans are adapting to a new life where they’re persona non grata in many places… across ALL of the Expanse, not just within Vidrian.

Pretty heady stuff for a game where you’re usually bashing skeletons on the noggin.

And look… maybe you don’t want to play around with those issues because they make you uncomfortable or just don’t resonate with you, and… that’s cool. Play around one of the dozens of OTHER story hooks available in this book. I’m sure the frog casino will be a pretty light-hearted romp. The point is that others might WANT to play within those themes and tell those stories, and I’m glad the tools exist for them to do so.

The last section is a mini-bestiary… maybe a dozen or so creatures unique to the Mwangi Expanse. Some of these are antagonist humanoids, such as the aforementioned Charau-Ka, but you also have some wild animals here as well. Because, you know… in case a giant hippopotamus wasn’t enough, here’s a giant hippo that can cast fire spells (the maliadi). And if you live in a state where weed is legal, check out the grootslang… it’s got an elephant head, but its body quickly gives way to a snake’s body. Is it gargantuan? Of course. Can it swallow you whole? Need you even ask?

As I sit down to write a final analysis of this book, I have to admit I was really impressed. And this is coming from someone who’s usually indifferent toward the Paizo books that aren’t player-facing. Even so, I found myself drawn into this new corner of the world, far more than I expected to be. I think they managed to strike a nice balance between something that’s still familiar as Pathfinder while offering all sorts of new mysteries to explore that don’t automatically circle back to the same old lore we’ve been kicking around since First Edition. Our group doesn’t do a lot of homebrew content, so we probably won’t visit the Mwangi Expanse until there’s an adventure path that takes us there, but after reading over The Mwangi Expanse, I’m definitely looking forward to taking that journey.

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Legends, Pathfinder World Guide, Character Guide, Gods & Magic, Gamemastery Guide, Bestiary 2, and Bestiary 3.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Agents of Edgewatch Podcast and our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure.

Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary 3 Review: Saves The Beast For Last

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Legends, Pathfinder 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: Agents of Edgewatch Podcast and our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure.

Reviewing the Pathfinder Bestiary 3 is a surprisingly challenging task because it’s like a trip to the zoo. You never know which animals people are going to find interesting. You can arm yourself with all sorts of interesting facts about giraffes and anteaters and then your nephew wants to do nothing but stare at the meerkats all day because they’re “cute”. And then when you insist on moving on, he starts crying and then you have to buy him Dippin’ Dots to restore the peace, and that’s like… six bucks for half a scoop of ice cream when you take all the air out. Complete ripoff if you ask me. And it’s not like otters and red pandas aren’t ALSO cute, so would you just trust me on this?…

Sorry… what was I talking about?

Oh right. Pathfinder’s Bestiary 3.

In a previous review, I likened the flow of the Bestiary books to choosing classes in college. Bestiary 1 was the equivalent of freshman year, where everyone’s job is to knock out as many required classes as possible. In game system terms, it contained the creatures you really HAD to have in a roleplaying game system rooted in Tolkien and/or Gygax. You’re getting a centaur because your father had a centaur, and his father before him. Bestiary 2 was junior year… a nice mix of shoring up your required material, but a little bit of leeway around the edges. Your advisor said you need a few more elementals to graduate, but if you want to sneak in that clockwork soldier that looks like a refugee from a Final Fantasy game, we can fit it in. Bestiary 3 firmly plants us in senior year now, kids. MAYBE we have one or two required classes we forgot to pick up along the way, but at this point, it’s mostly about what’s fun and what lets us sleep in the latest. And no class on Fridays. In monster terms… it’s time to let the freak flag fly.

On a stylistic level, Bestiary 3 follows the blueprint laid down by its predecessors. Almost all of the entries are self-contained within a single page; the exception tends to be the entries for “families” of creatures (giants, nymphs, etc.) where they’ll give the family a certain number of pages but the page breaks might not line up evenly with the individual creatures. As before, additional information is presented in sidebars on each page: sometimes it’s general world-building, sometimes there’s an explanation on how to run the creature in battle or information on the treasure a creature may have in its lair. As always, almost every creature gets individual artwork, and it’s beautiful stuff. (Well the artwork is beautifully executed… let’s be honest that some of the creatures themselves are kinda horrific to look at.)

One of the first things I do when looking at a book like this is look for themes. Now, there’s always going to be a desire to spread things around and offer variety – that each book contains monsters of different levels, and of different types. But within that, you can usually pick up one or two areas that got a little extra attention.

I sense at least three themes, two of which are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

The first is giving some love to the Tian Xia region. There’s a LOT of material in this book that’s either EXPLICITLY tied to the Tian Xia region, or at least bears east Asian influences and flavor in its design. All of the dragons are explicitly of Tian Xia, as is a multi-page entry on kami, divine nature spirits that guard places of importance. But you also see it in something like the terra-cotta warrior – not explicitly defined as being of Tian Xia (by definition, it’s “just” a stone soldier), but certainly bears the influences design-wise. Or the locathah… a humanoid that bears the visual stylings of a lionfish, which are indigenous to the Indo-Pacific in real life.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have mundane creatures. You’ve got moose and squirrels (“hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!”), multiple pages of crabs… camels, for goodness’ sake. I think this gets more into how Paizo views their books – they consider Bestiary 3 to be the end of the “core” rulebooks, so it feels like they’re tying up loose ends. You can also see this thinking in sections that flesh out a few more hags, giants, and titans.

If there’s a third theme to be found, I noticed there’s some synergy with the material contained in the Lost Omens Ancestry Guide. A lot of the ancestries and heritages that were added in the Ancestry Guide are also given “monster” treatment in Bestiary 3. That doesn’t feel like a coincidence and it makes a certain sense – if you’re going to add a bunch of new “good guy” options, you probably want GMs to have the option to have “bad guy” versions of them as well.

There is also one new-to-Second-Edition game mechanic introduced in Bestiary 3 (as far as I can tell, unless it was introduced in an adventure path or something) – troop creatures. This existed in First Edition (Bestiary 6) and is finally making its appearance in Second Edition. There are certain “creatures” that are actually a group of weaker creatures: you can almost think of them as a swarm of humanoids. So instead of keeping track of hit points and attacks for 20 or 30 individual creatures (as well as having a round of combat take 8 years), the troop takes up a certain number of squares (starts at 16), has ONE set of hit points and one set of abilities for the troop. As the troop is damaged, it breaks up and takes fewer squares and its abilities decrease, and “killing” the troop causes its remaining members to disperse. And like regular swarms, most troop creatures are more vulnerable to splash and area damage.

Let’s use the “City Guard Squadron” as a real example. A city guard squad starts with 75 hit points and takes up 16 squares (20’x20’). They can do a group crossbow volley that does 3d8 damage in a 10-foot burst up to 120 feet away, or they can do a massed halberd attack at a closer range where the damage is dictated by how many actions they use. When they’re reduced to 50 HP, they shrink to 15’x15’, and at 25 HP not only do they shrink to 10’x’10’, but the radius of their crossbow volley is reduced to a 5’ burst.

Personally, I LOVE the idea of the troop creature. One thing that Second Edition has been missing is that certain “cinematic” niche in fantasy battles – in most books and movies, there’s almost always a scene where our heroes fight waves of faceless grunts to demonstrate their heroic awesomeness. Helm’s Deep is probably the gold standard here. Representing that as individual tokens would pose two problems. First, just by the law of large numbers, the mob would eventually generate enough crits to overwhelm our heroes: if you roll 100 individual attacks, and even only 10 or 15 get through, that still might be enough to kill a PC. Second (and perhaps more importantly), even if our heroes won, it would take FOREVER to run a combat like that and be a nightmare to administrate, leaving our GM with the age-old philosopher’s question of how many angels can fit in a 5-foot square. Representing a mob of weaker creatures as a single token solves both those issues quite nicely, and lets you bring those more “epic” battles to your table. I’m looking forward to fighting one of these.

So at one end, we’ve got bundling up a bunch of weaklings into a single unit. At the polar opposite end, what are the most powerful creatures in this book? For some reason, that’s ALWAYS one of the things I’m curious about. What’s waiting out there to give even the most seasoned Level 20 PC nightmares? Fortunately, thanks to one of the multiple indexes in the back (creatures sorted by level), we can get an easy answer.

One choice is the Green Men, checking in at Level 24. The good news is they’re guardians of nature, so most of them are neutral (though you can have good or evil-aligned ones). The bad news is… just about everything else. Including the “Green Caress” ability which slows you each time you fail a save, and if you’re ever slowed to zero actions, you turn into a plant. Permanently.

We also have the Ouroboros. It is what you’d expect it to be – a snake that eats its own tail, though technically it’s a giant snake made up of slightly-smaller snakes. Let’s start with the math: it has a regeneration of 50, which is enough to offset the damage of its own bite, so its bite has to average 50 to break even. If you wound it, it drops its smaller snakes all over the place, causing difficult terrain that also bites at you. And ohbytheway, its blood is fun too. On first contact, it’s “just” a really powerful acid. Then it turns around and starts regenerating you (which is actually nice) but inflicting other status ailments while it does so. And then at the end, it turns you into a pile of snakes.

And hey, if you’re running a holiday-themed campaign, you can fight Krampus! In addition to being a generally nasty warrior and getting general bonuses against anyone he’s deemed to be “naughty”, Krampus can grab someone and stuff them into his basket, at which point that character starts regressing to childhood – they get smaller physically, their skills regress, etc. Oh, and Krampus is immortal and holds grudges, so even if you “kill” him one Christmas season, watch your back next year.

And OK… it’s not Level 20, but it’s got enough other cool features I have to mention it: the Level 18 Bone Ship. It’s an undead pirate ship, basically. It’s made entirely of bones, can spawn skeletal “sailors” from its own bones to defend the vessel if people try to board, and it’s got a blood-red wake that drives people mad if they fall in the water. And if you get killed by it, your soul is absorbed into the “crew”. The cool part is if you manage to beat it and bend it to your will, you can use it as a vehicle. ARRRRRR!

Now that we’ve covered the heavy hitters, I usually like to go through a bit of a grab bag and just point out a few monsters I found to be cool/interesting/whatever adjective you want to use. Sometimes it’s the concept, sometimes it’s the artwork, whatever happens to stand out about it.

  • First up, there’s the Amalgamite, which is a mage who’s become warped through a mistake involving teleportation magic. It’s BrundleFly without the fly – humanoid, with lots of body-horror vibes.
  • The Swordkeeper is a self-protecting magic safe that feels like a fantasy-world version of General Grievous. It has a central sword that it keeps housed in its body, which it can create copies of in its (four) arms. If you can disable all the locks, you can steal the sword which neutralizes most of its powers, but good luck doing that while it’s stabbing you repeatedly.
  • The Hyakume feels like something out of Doctor Who. Visually, they have hundreds of eyes and a very “alien humanoid” appearance. In terms of concept, they’re hoarders of knowledge: they gather rare knowledge and then destroy any copies of it so they’re the only ones who possess it. This includes the power to erase people’s memories.
  • Mostly for the benefit of John Staats, our resident otter-lover, I present the Kushtaka. On the surface, they’re otter-humanoids, but they’ve actually been separated from their souls, so anything involving the undead world (ghosts, haunts, etc.) mostly leaves them unaffected.
  • Just in terms of generally cool concepts, there’s Living Graffiti – a painting or drawing come to life. Yes, you’re allowed to make the mental connection to DoodleBob.

Now, I could probably name another 20 monsters and you’d like some of them and maybe have others you think I should’ve put higher on my list, but I think that gets you an idea of the feel of this book. It’s a little more exotic than the other two Bestiaries, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Familiarity is comfortable, but familiarity also runs the risk of becoming routine. Why settle for another 20 fights against orcs when you can tussle with something you’ve never seen before?

Is it a must-buy? Well, I personally would put the Lost Omens Ancestry Guide a little higher on my personal list, but I’m a player, so I’m all about giving myself options for that next re-roll. On the GM side of the screen, the core monster selection is a little “out there” but I think there’s still good stuff here. The troop creature mechanic is a good tool and something that looks like it could be easily extended by the imaginative GM to other creatures not initially covered by the book.

As I said, it’s something that could bring a more cinematic feel to your campaign, if that’s something you’re looking for. Also, if you’re going to be exploring Tian Xia in your campaign, there’s a lot of new options for that part of the map. OR… let’s be blunt. At some point, it’s like Pokemon… gotta catch ‘em all. You play long enough, you’re going to need all the monsters. If any of that sounds compelling and you want to give your campaign a few fresh faces, absolutely drag yourself to your local gaming store and grab a copy of this book. Maybe even grab some Dippin’ Dots while you’re out.

Pathfinder Lost Omens Ancestry Guide Review: You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Character Binder

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Legends, Pathfinder 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: Agents of Edgewatch Podcast and our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure.

I’ll start this review with a personal confession: I am an alt-aholic.

Yes, I leveled one of every class to max level in World of Warcraft. I may have even done so for Alliance and Horde.

Yes, I have an entire SuperFriends-level roster of standard character builds I make in pretty much every game system I encounter. If you run across a (usually-human) mage named “Jerryx” or a dwarf named “Gryzba” in any random system, even money says it’s me. Full disclosure: Gryz has been known to be a fighter or a paladin, depending on my mood.

So when it came time to sit down with the Lost Omens Ancestry Guide, it’s really kind of a slam dunk: the question isn’t whether I’ll like it, but how much I’ll like it, and which things I’ll turn into character concepts first. Because this is one of Paizo’s most straightforward supplements in that it’s just new ancestry and heritage options to use when building characters. Cover to cover.

First, let’s do a brief rules primer on the difference between “ancestry” and “heritage”, just in case you’ve stumbled onto this review while missing some of the intervening books. An ancestry is a core group of people; a heritage represents more of a subtype of people. In the Core Rulebook, most heritages were fairly minor flavor tweaks – to pick an example, a cavern elf would get darkvision while a woodland elf could climb (trees) faster. The one interesting exception was that half-elves and half-orcs were considered human heritages rather than full ancestries, and could take ancestry feats from either of their core ancestries. (Although when Second Edition first came out, the “orc” ancestry wasn’t yet a separate entity.)

It turns out the half-elf and half-orc were a sneak preview of bigger, better things to come for heritages. Paizo expanded on them in later rulebooks with the concept of the “versatile heritage”. Versatile heritages were much more well-defined variants that offered almost as many choices as full ancestries and weren’t restricted to a particular ancestry the way half-elves and half-orcs were. At the risk of oversimplifying, a versatile heritage was a way of representing “half-X” where the other half of the X could be ANYTHING, not just human. So to use a real example from our Edgewatch campaign, Chris Beemer plays an orc (ancestry) tiefling (demonic heritage).

Crossing genres, another way to look at it would be the difference between Data and the Borg. On the surface, they both represent people with technological components, right? Data (or more generically, a “Soong-type android”) would represent an ancestry. He was designed from the ground up as a synthetic lifeform; it’s what he is. The Borg, on the other hand, would be more like a heritage. Borg come from a lot of different underlying species, but the Borgification process adds the common technological elements that make them a people. But under the hood, you could have a Klingon Borg or a Romulan Borg.

So that’s ancestries and heritages in a nutshell. I wanted to make sure everyone has the terminology down before we continue. Now let’s take a look at the Lost Omens Ancestry Guide in more detail.

At a high level, the book has two major sections that are about the same size. The first section presents expanded choices for the ancestries and heritages that have already been added since the Core Rulebook: primarily the Advanced Players’ Guide, but there are other sources as well. The second half of the book presents 14 new ancestries and heritages that are completely new to Second Edition. There’s also a VERY small section of ancestral gear, but it’s literally just two pages.

Now…. I’m going to cheat a little and go out of order and do the new stuff first. Why? Because new stuff is more fun, of course! And there’s generally more to say about them. That’s not to say that it’s not fun to speculate about duck-based tengus, which are now A Thing, but let’s embrace the new, shall we? Within that, I’ll probably talk about ancestries first and heritages second, so we’re staying in general areas.

We have six new ancestries to unpack here:

First, we have Androids, which are half-organic, half-machine beings introduced to Golarion by the crash of a starship back in the First Edition timeline. As a physical “look” thing, they tend to have circuitry patterns on their skin that resemble tattoos. They tend to be fairly flexible people, as their technological components can confer various physical or mental benefits. Most have a reduced understanding of humanoid emotions, which is reflected by Charisma being their flaw stat. (Also, I’ll say it… if you’ve been playing any Starfinder, you’ll see some similarities to the Starfinder Android here.)

Fetchlings are creatures from the Shadow Plane whose feats revolve around manipulating shadows. To pick a few sample feats, Clever Shadow lets you interact with objects using your shadow (like opening a door) while Hefting Shadow lets you store up to 2 bulk of gear in your shadow as if it were a container. Also… their look is about as goth as it gets.

Fleshwarps are the result of magical mutation and are probably the most unusual ancestry in the book. The specific origin can be anything from a magical accident to deliberate torture (the drow are reportedly fond of turning captured enemies into fleshwarps), but the general theme is “magic does weird crap to your body”. The feats tend to be a grab bag of limb alterations and augmentation of senses. And yes, at higher levels, tentacles are in play.

Kitsune are shapechanging fox-people who tend to have two forms: a fox form and a humanoid form. They can be in either form indefinitely, but the fox form counts as their true form and the humanoid form is considered a disguise in social situations. Kitsune feats tend to revolve around animal attacks, limited magical abilities, or an emphasis on disguises (using their own AND seeing through others’) and navigating social situations.

Sprites give us something we’ve never had in Second Edition. A TINY character ancestry. That’s right, your gear scales down, and you use the combat rules for Tiny creatures, which means your weapons have zero reach and you have to enter the same square as an enemy to attack them. And needless to say, Strength is ABSOLUTELY your flaw stat. On the bright side, you can use your fellow PCs as a mount, or – in the statement that will launch a thousand pieces of adorable fan-art – take a feat to ride a corgi mount. (Technically, you can take the Pixie heritage and remain Small-sized, but why on earth would you spoil the moment like that? DID I NOT MENTION THE BATTLE CORGI?)

And lastly, we have the Strix. I tend to think of them as the inverse of tengu… tengu are avian humanoids who are mostly bird; strix are avian humanoids who are mostly human, though they tend to have bird-claw feet and wings. A lot of their feats tend to revolve around using their wings more effectively; they start using their wings to leap more effectively but can add attacks and other status effects, and eventually gain full flight.

On the heritage side, there are basically eight, but five of them are the geniekin, which share a lot of common elements (pun semi-intended).

The aphorite (law) and ganzi (chaos) are entities of law and chaos the same way aasimars and tieflings represent good and evil. Aphorites have a metallic complexion, and a lot of their feats increase skills or make combat more effective by “understanding the workings of the universe”. Ganzi go the opposite direction and emphasize their uniqueness… many have distinct coloration patterns or feathers, some even have tails or vestigial wings. One of the interesting features of a ganzi is energy resistance which is determined randomly at the start of each day, so one day it might be fire and the next day it might be acid.

The beastkin are humanoids who had a werecreature somewhere in their family tree, so they have a mix of their original ancestry and beast traits. They usually have a “normal” humanoid form and a hybrid form that is still humanoid but the beast features become more prominent. The really interesting thing here is the choice of “inherent animal” (i.e. the animal you’re crossed with) is pretty much up to the player – the rules recommend six or seven forms, but they’re just examples. So if you want your inherent animal to be a poodle or a giant ant or a panda… it’s all good. (Also, it dawns on me that since this is a heritage, you could apply it over top of a catfolk or tengu, so you could have an animal that turns into a different animal. It’s a furry’s paradise!)

Now we get to the geniekin, which are humanoids with some sort of elemental ancestry. We have the Ifrit (fire), Oread (earth), Slyph (air), and Undine (water), and then there’s the Suli, a geniekin that has a mix of all four elements (which I’m dubbing the “Quad-Core Geniekin”). There are a few common feats available to all geniekin (darkvision, familiarity with geniekin weapons, a tail), and then each “flavor” of geniekin has specific feats that tie into their source element. Well, most of them do. The Suli, by being a mix of all four, get powers that are less about raw power and more about flexibility. For example, “Elemental Bulwark”… it’s “only” DR5 protection, but it can be ANY of the four primary elements and can be declared when the attack is made. An Ifrit might get a more powerful equivalent ability, but it’s ONLY good for fire.

I’ve tended to focus on what sort of cool tricks these new options offer, but I should mention that it’s not all focused on combat. As with previous books, there’s also a fair chunk of world-building for each ancestry or heritage, explaining things like what parts of Golarion they live in, how they structure their societies, their interactions with other various humanoids, and things like that. I know I get lost in “look at the cool toys” mode at times, but I did want to acknowledge and appreciate the level of detail that Paizo puts into making these various new people part of the larger world.

On the pre-existing side, I’ll probably not dive as deep, but just give some of the highlights. On the ancestry side, we get new options for the azerketi, catfolk, hobgoblin, kobold, leshy, lizardfolk, orc, ratfolk, and tengu. On the heritage side, it covers the aasimar, changeling, dhampir, duskwalker, and tiefling.

Now there’s one oddball here. I’m not looking to kick anyone in the jimmies, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out something that could be confusing in the short term. You’ll note that one of the “expanded” ancestries is the azerketi, an aquatic people with ties to the Azlanti empire. They’ve got kind of the full Aquaman feat package – water-based spells, water movement and combat feats, communication with sea beasties… all that good stuff. The problem is, they were supposed to debut in the Absalom, City of Lost Omens sourcebook… which isn’t out yet. So the “good” news is that they feel more like a new ancestry than an “updated” one, BUT as I’m reviewing this, their base information (hit points, bonus and flaw attributes, etc.) doesn’t exist anywhere. We reached out to Paizo, and they will be making that content available on the web, but I wanted to be honest about it in case readers find it confusing. Not a show-stopper, but it’s something you might need to be aware of.

Looking at the updated content, I’m just going to skim a few favorites. Since I’m already playing a tengu, I’m excited about the fact that tengu get a chain of feats that involve creating a magical tengu feather fan out of their own feathers. They can then imbue it with magic consisting of progressively more powerful storm-themed spells. Similarly, orcs gain a similar feat chain built around the concept of a “warmask” that can provide various combat and a few non-combat benefits. But it’s orcs so… let’s be honest… mostly combat. One of my favorites that I want to run out and try is a new leshy heritage… the Fruit Leshy. It’s a leshy that creates some sort of berry or other fruit every day that can be plucked and eaten to serve as a healing potion based on the character’s level. (The fruit only lasts for a day, so no, you can’t store them up.) The dhampir gain an undead companion option (yes… I’m singing “My Little Zombie” to the “My Little Pony” theme song), and as I hinted at earlier, tengu can now be waterfowl-based. (The endgame here inevitably being a Darkwing Duck build. Just Sayin’.) There’s lots of interesting little things here, but I figure you can discover those at your own pace.

As I mentioned, there’s a very short gear section, but it’s mostly just weapons for the new ancestries and heritages contained in this book. They do also have an interesting mechanism for a “resonant” weapon trait. If you have a resonant weapon and can also cast spells or take other actions with elemental typing, you can use a reaction to channel a little bit of that energy into your weapon as bonus damage. From there, there’s also a “Conducting” rune that can take that small bit of damage and make it a full damage die of typed damage. This feels like it’s tailor-made for the quad-core geniekin (the Suli)… give your weapon typed damage, on the fly!… but could be useful to other character builds as well.

In closing, if you’re someone who loves playing around with new characters like I do, you’re going to want to make a Kool-Aid man-sized hole in the wall of your gaming shop grabbing this book. It offers TONS of new character ideas to play around with. I probably started rolling four or five new alts in my head just during the process of writing this review. Obviously, everyone’s got different tastes of what their favorite might be, and maybe there’s even the odd build or two you just don’t care about, but taken as a whole, there’s so much in here that I feel pretty confident saying “there’s something for everyone”.  So there it is… the Lost Omens Ancestry Guide. Please Alt Responsibly.

Pathfinder Beginner Box Review: Roll Out The Welcome Mat

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Legends, Pathfinder 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: Agents of Edgewatch Podcast and our Pathfinder Adventure Path: Three Ring Adventure.

It kinda got lost in the shuffle, but I received a copy of the Pathfinder Beginner Box under my Christmas tree this year. Now, a week of that “shuffle” was it getting physically lost, as my son snuck it off to his room for a week so he could decide whether to play it with his 5E friends; the rest was more metaphorically lost, between getting back to work after the holidays and the near-meltdown of democracy. But now that things have settled down and my possessions have been returned, let’s open this thing up and see what we’ve got.

I don’t think it’s going to be any big surprise what to expect from a Beginner Box at a high level: it’s an introduction to the game that’s not going to break the bank and in single-box packaging that can sit on a shelf in a gaming store next to Ticket To Ride and Settlers Of Catan. (First action, I pick up a brick. Second action, I throw a brick at your sheep. Third action, Perception check to spot the Robber). It’s designed to draw the interest of the person who has never tried a roleplaying game before and goes to their gaming store asking for “a cup of D&D” because that Matt Mercer fellow is a charming rapscallion.

So even prior to opening the box, I assume you’d get a truncated version of the rules, a (basic) adventure to run, dice, minis, or creature tokens, and I assume pre-gen characters because you’d want to place an emphasis on getting started QUICKLY. Well… there’s that, plus nothing kills enthusiasm for a new game as quickly as the party dying on the second encounter because everyone wanted to be Gandalf.

Oh, and with just enough hint of what the full system could do, to try and encourage players to graduate to the “real” thing if they liked their first experience.

“So how did I do?” he said, opening the box to take a look…

The characters are EXACTLY what I expected. The Beginner Box goes back to Gygaxian basics, providing Level 1 character sheets for the most fundamental Pathfinder iconics: you get a choice of fighter (Valeros), wizard (Ezren), cleric (Kyra), and rogue (Merisel). Their equipment is already bought, the casters’ spells are picked, and the character sheets have a half-page of annotations to help players navigate the sheet (“Hit points? That’s section E”). To be fair, they do also include six blank character sheets in case you have a player feeling bold enough to roll their own (or if you have more than four players), but the pre-gens let you dive in immediately if you like.

The rules are mostly a subset tailored to running the provided adventure, plus a little extra to hint at the possibilities if one chooses to take it further. When I say that – don’t get me wrong. Nothing is changed or simplified… these are the real Pathfinder Second Edition rules. If there’s slimming down, it comes in the form of narrowing the number of choices to make getting started a little less daunting. These are the real Second EditionSpecifically, the Beginner Box divides this into two slimmed-down rulebooks – the Hero’s Handbook for the players and the Game Master’s Guide for (big surprise here) the GM. They’re both in the 70-90 page range (72 for the players, 88 for the GM).

The player book only covers the four Gygaxian classes (fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue) and only as far as Level 3. So, sorry, but no gnome monks on your maiden voyage. Even within that space, they slimmed down the choices so as not to overwhelm the new player, so you don’t get the WHOLE rulebook – there are fewer ancestries, backgrounds, spells, etc. On the GM side, MOST of the book is geared toward running the adventure – 30 or so pages are running the adventure itself and then there’s an equally large section dedicated to monster stat blocks. I didn’t do a one-for-one, but I assume most of these creatures were used directly in the adventure, but again, there’s probably also a few “extras” for the GM who wants to try and create their own content. There’s also a little bit of content about how to adjudicate the rules and even a few pages about how to design your own content, but I feel like they’re MOSTLY expecting people to graduate to the full rules for that.

The adventure itself (“Menace Under Otari”) is a fairly basic starter adventure: just a generic two-level cave complex full of stuff to fight and treasure to find. Kinda reminiscent of the classic Keep On The Borderlands, but on a smaller scale. And yes, the Beginner Box includes a two-sided flip-mat AND cardboard creature tokens for running it. There is some general setting information about Otari, but it’s largely optional: a GM could just drop players off at the mouth of the cave and be playing inside of five minutes if they wanted. On the other hand, not only is the setting information for Otari there; if you DO continue on to full Pathfinder, there’s a 4th level adventure called “The Troubles In Otari” where you can level up and use your characters from the Beginner’s Box directly in the next adventure.

Something that I have to admit I didn’t expect: the Hero’s Handbook has a section that basically amounts to GM-less play for the starter adventure. It gives a solo player the option to run the adventure in the style of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. You go to a numbered entry, read the description (which is the text the GM would normally read), possibly fight a monster, and then choose from available options that send you to the next entry in the chain. “Open the chest, go to #32. Put the amulet on the altar, go to #41.” I didn’t have time to do it for the purposes of this review, but at some point, I might try and run through it just to see how it goes.

One thing I found kinda handy – and may steal for our regular game – is a set of reference cards for the players. The front contains information that an experienced player would already know (what the symbols for the various actions look like, rules reminders of the consequences for rolling a 1 or a 20, etc.) but the back contains descriptions for many of the most common statuses, which is pretty evergreen stuff. My only complaint is the text on the back is kinda small because they had to fit a lot of info, but Paizo is not responsible for my Old Man Eyes.

And yes, you get a starter set of dice. Not much to say here, except that they eliminated the d100 (which I’ve noticed rarely gets used in 2E anyway), and they’re mercifully color-coded. As someone who even now occasionally reaches for a d8 instead of a d10 or vice versa, being able to tell your novice player “no, the BLUE one” makes things a lot easier. In fact, a little bird told me this is one of those “why did no one think of this before?” moves, as dice confusion is cited fairly often as a complaint of new players.

There was one extra-credit question I asked myself. The default assumption here is that the “beginner” is someone who has never played a roleplaying game before. But I also asked myself whether “beginner” would be useful for people who had played other role-playing games but this was their first exposure to Second Edition. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I think someone who was already into roleplaying games and knew the basics would rather have the full set of rules available to them out of the gate. My feeling is that they’d find playing three levels of four classes limiting and start bumping their head on the ceiling pretty quickly. The Beginner Box is a LITTLE cheaper than a Core Rulebook, but you’d get more longevity out of the latter.

Let’s briefly be gauche and talk price. I normally don’t dwell on this sort of thing, but since the Beginner Box competes in a broader space as a gaming product, I figured I’d mention it. The Beginner Box retails on Paizo’s website for $40. Personally, I think that’s tremendous value when compared to some of these hardcore German board games that are running $100 or more. You’re going to be able to squeeze multiple multi-hour play sessions out of it, and that’s before you get into its value as a gateway to a whole new style of gaming. It’s even pretty good value just evaluated as a Paizo product – you’re getting pieces of the Core Rulebook AND Bestiary 1; and the flipmat, creature tokens, and such are all reusable. It’s really just a question of how quickly you’d bump your head on the ceiling. Which is why I go back to what I said earlier: if you KNOW you’re committing to 2E for the long haul, or if you’re going to play a LOT and burn through the content in a few weeks, skip it and go straight to the full rulebooks. But if you’re dipping your toes or are likely to play at a more casual pace, it’s a pretty good way to start.

In closing, if you’re a longtime fan of tabletop roleplaying games, how could you NOT love the Beginner Box? I mean, if you think back to old-school red box D&D in the 80s, that was basically a beginner’s box before we had the terminology, and it drove people like me into a lifelong appreciation for this game. If the Second Edition Beginner’s Box captures even a fraction of that energy and bring some new faces to the table, it’s a worthy addition to Paizo’s product line.

Pathfinder Lost Omens Pathfinder Society Guide Review: Would You Like To Learn More?

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well as his review of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Lost Omens: Legends, Pathfinder World Guide, Character Guide, Gods & Magic, Gamemastery Guide, and Bestiary 2.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our new Pathfinder Adventure Path: Agents of Edgewatch Podcast and our Tales from the Black Lodge Podcast.

You never know who’s reading this stuff for the first time, so I’ll start with the basics: what IS Pathfinder Society?

And the answer is it’s actually TWO things.

First, there’s “Pathfinder Society”, the game mechanic, which I’ll introduce, and then we won’t talk about much anymore. Pathfinder Society Organized Play (the formal title) is primarily a way to create a level playing field for when people from different gaming groups sit down at a new table together – think conventions, game days at local gaming stores, and so on. In your home game, you might be a Level 7 with magic items in every slot; while I might be a Level 7 with the set of armor I started the game with, going without food to afford my first +1 weapon rune because my GM likes inflicting pain. Society Play creates a set of rules that keep everyone’s characters at ROUGHLY the same power level so that our Level 7s will be about equivalent if we ever play together. It also provides a really loose story glue for strangers to go on an adventure together – the Society picked you as a team and gave you this mission. And for some players, that’s all it is – the reason for the orc-slaying season.

But there’s also the “Pathfinder Society” as a story element and roleplaying entity within the Pathfinder game setting. In THAT context the Pathfinder Society is an organization of adventurers, knowledge seekers, and general do-gooders who band together to go on adventures. The Society is organized physically in the form of “lodges” (think: branch offices) scattered throughout Golarion, each one run by a “Venture-Captain”. Within the Society there are different factions that may have different goals, much like different majors at a university – one group might be adventuring to get rich, another might want to preserve knowledge, still, another might want to prove themselves in combat against the toughest opponents. And sitting atop all of that is the Decemvirate – a council of 10 masked individuals who run the Society as a whole.

But how does it fit into the actual world of Pathfinder? What are these factions? Where are these lodges? How much morally ambiguous grave desecration is involved? To ask the immortal question of Starship Troopers, “Would you like to learn more?”. If the answer to that last question is yes, Paizo has the book for you: the Lost Omens Pathfinder Society Guide. It’s actually completely indifferent to the first of those two definitions. There’s nothing in this book that explicitly mentions the rules of Society play. The focus of this book is more about applying the storytelling elements of the Society to regular non-Society games.

In terms of book logistics, it’s about 130 pages long. There are two primary sections – Factions and Lodges – with small sections at either end serving as the bread of the Society Sandwich. So let’s get into it, shall we?

The opening section (notwithstanding one page of new character backgrounds) is the history of the Pathfinder Society itself. The Society starts humbly enough, with a bunch of adventurers BS’ing about their deeds at a bar, and ends up as a worldwide organization that’s curiously meddlesome about what gear you can take out into the field with you. (Sorry… game mechanic creeping in again.) Among other things, this section serves as a stealth “catch-up” for First Edition players, outlining what’s been going on with the Society between editions. Along with the history, we also get a high-level description of the organization and its place in the world – their leadership structure and rules, who likes them, who mistrusts them, the means of joining and leaving, and so on.

The next chapter, and the first of the two big ones, covers factions within the Society. If you’ve never played a Society game, there are shades of the Hogwarts “houses” in Pathfinder Society, where you choose a faction aligned with your goals as a character. Only there’s no “evil one” and no “other one” where they put the kids who aren’t brave, smart, or evil.

Over the course of a decade of First Edition, there was a bit of “faction creep” and there are currently 14 different First Edition factions to choose from. In Second Edition, they scaled that back a bit – there are now four “official” factions that represent the core values of the Society and two secondary factions. (The in-story reason is that the Society had to re-evaluate things after the Whispering Tyrant wiped out a huge chunk of their agents.) The in-game factions are:

  • The Envoy’s Alliance emphasizes teamwork and diplomacy, building relationships within the Society and with the larger world. They arguably have the best backstory – their original faction was left to die by the rest of the Pathfinders not mounting a rescue operation for one of their missions; their leader survived and founded the “we’re not doing that again” faction.
  • The Grand Archive is all about seeking out and preserving knowledge. Their motto is probably “IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!” in Elvish runes.
  • The Horizon Hunters want to travel to unexplored places. They see gray on the mini-map, they want to fill it in.
  • The Vigilant Seal is the muscle of the Society, focused on protecting the book-nerds and diplomats, or just wanting to perfect their own combat skills. Action 1: me hitting you. Action 2: you hitting the floor. Third action reserved for drinking ale.
  • There are also two “lesser” factions – they have official recognition, but not on the same level as the Big 4. These are the Verdant Wheel (protectors of nature) and Radiant Oath (general “do good in the world”).

In terms of content, each of the Big 4 factions gets a few pages of general information (history, goals, and such), a profile of the faction’s leader, some gear unique to that faction, and a list of notable faction NPCs in the sidebar. The lesser factions… they just get acknowledged as existing. “S’up, Verdant Wheel!” I think my favorite piece of gear here is the “Bookthief Brew” – an item associated with the Grand Archive. You pour it over a scroll or two pages of a book, wait for it to dry, and then pull it off and it preserves the text (though not any magical effects). The Young People may not get it, but people my age will recognize this as Silly Putty. NOW STRETCH IT TO MAKE DICK TRACY’S CHIN EVEN MORE RIDICULOUSLY LARGE!

Along with the factions, we get sections on the other major structures of the Pathfinder Society.

First up are the three schools that offer training within the Society – Scrolls (pursuit and preservation of knowledge), Spells (magic), and Swords (combat). In formal Society Play, these are most useful as a source of consumable items at the start of each adventure, but in this book, we get additional character feats associated with each school (and spells for the magical ones) that can be added with the appropriate archetype. To pick an example, the Scrollmaster can take “Foolproof Instructions”, which allows them to create a scroll that an ally (even one not trained in magic) can use as part of their daily preparations. Or there’s the Spellmaster’s “Communal Sustain” which lets the caster transfer the ability to Sustain a spell to the person it was cast on for one round (presumably freeing the caster up to do other things). There are also some feats that can be taken by ANY Pathfinder Agent as well.

Next is a section on the Decemvirate – aka “the Ten”, the council of 10 that run the Society – and short sketches of about 30 NPC’s, some formal members of the Society, others just powerful allies, who are “people of influence” within Society circles. The Decemvirate themselves wear masks that both physically and magically conceal their identities, so their section is more about their leadership in general; the list of NPCs is more of a hard lore-dump a GM can use to create touchpoints for incorporating the Society into adventures that aren’t formally written with Society hooks.

Though OK… I can’t be the only one thinking it… you’ve got 20-some NPCs on that list. Wouldn’t be a total stretch to think some of those are actually members of the Decemivrate. JUST SAYIN’.

Moving on, we come to the next of the two BIG sections: Lodges. As mentioned above, think of these as the branch offices of the Pathfinder Society and local bases of operations where your characters can get missions, buy and sell gear, rest and recover between fights, and so on. The Grand Lodge in Absalom is the biggest and most prominent lodge, and where the Ten occasionally meet to conduct Society-wide business, but this section lays out 11 prominent lodges and a two-pager at the end lays out the basics of another baker’s dozen “lesser” lodges.

At a nuts and bolts level, the write-ups for the major lodges give you a history of the lodge itself and information on the sort of local affairs the lodge tends to get involved in, details about the Venture-Captain and other significant NPCs you might meet there, often a piece of equipment or two associated with that lodge, and a few other pieces of trivia. One of the most interesting things about the different lodges is the degree of local flavor they incorporate – it’s not like the equivalent of a big-box store where all the lodges are basically the same. The Exalted Lodge in Razmiran, which is mere miles from the Whispering Tyrant’s forces is basically a defensible fortress. The Lantern Lodge in the Chinese-influenced Tian Xia region is similarly influenced in its architecture. The Iceferry Lodge in the frozen north is more of a Viking longhall (and they have a pair of magic snowshoes as a gear option). And that doesn’t even get into the Grinning Pixie – a “lodge” that’s an actual pirate ship. The write-up for the minor lodges just gives you a brief description (repurposed cathedral, bait and tackle shop, mental hospital) and the name of a Venture-Captain.

(I should also mention there’s also a nice little callback here for people who have been listening to our Tales from the Black Lodge Podcast show, as the Exalted Lodge featured prominently in one of the adventures we played through.)

The last section (about 10 or so pages) is “Pathfinder Society Options”. This is a bit of a grab bag of other “stuff” you can get by involving yourself with the Pathfinder Society. There are selections of both non-magical and magical gear, services that can be hired through a lodge (“fixer” and “researcher” being the two introduced here), even a selection of NPC trainers that can teach a character feats they likely can’t learn anywhere else and a few familiars. To pick a few examples of “generally cool stuff”: Pathfinder agent and pirate captain Stella Fane can teach you how to throw playing cards as weapons, turning you into Gambit from the X-Men, while Meleeka Sanvara is a monk who can teach other monks a fire-oriented stance which gives both fire damage and imparts fire resistance. The Society-themed magic items tend to be either wayfinders that have different effects from the basic wayfinder, or aeon stones to slot into them, though there are a few other choices as well.

In conclusion, the question I always come down to: do you need this book at your table? It’s funny. Going in, I assumed my answer was going to be “not unless you play a whole lot of Pathfinder Society Organized Play”, but I have to admit my preconception going in was completely wrong. This book doesn’t CARE if you play formal Society play or not; in fact, quite the opposite. It deals almost entirely with the Society as one of the dominant adventuring entities in the Golarion setting. Since Society adventures sometimes treat the Society itself as a black box (put mission parameters in, money and experience come out the other end), it’s actually nice to have a book that fills in those gaps. And it’s got some decent options for player characters as well. As a softer “lore” book, it may be better for tables where the GM brews their own content, but I think a lot of tables could find some room for this one on their shelf.

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.