Friday, July 19, 2013

Reflecting on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda is a series that means a lot to me. I honestly think that, without Zelda - specifically, the classic Nintendo 64 entry The Ocarina of Time - I would not be the person I am today. That might sound dramatic, but it’s true; before Ocarina, games were just a hobby for me, not a passion. I had played a lot of games on Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Nintendo 64 before I got Ocarina, but they were just fun ways to pass the time. They didn’t speak to me on a deeper level; they didn’t excite my imagination. They were always lacking some crucial spark. Then, Ocarina came along and completely changed how I felt about games.

First of all, I had never played a true adventure game before. For whatever reason, we didn’t have A Link to the Past on our SNES (or if we did, I don’t remember playing it). Everything I had experience with up to that point had been Mario or something similar. I thought of games as things with discrete levels. You beat level one, then moved on to level two, and so on until the end of the game. Super Mario 64 had a hub world, sure, but at the end of the day it still adhered to the level formula - you beat a world, got a star, and moved on to the next one. Ocarina of Time was different. Yes, there was a linear set of dungeons that you had to beat to progress, but there was so much to do outside of that. You could win a horse at Lon Lon Ranch; you could play your ocarina for the Skull Kid in the Lost Woods; you could shop for masks in Castle Town. There were Pieces of Heart to collect and Gold Skulltulas to kill. The world was enormous (at least compared to what I was used to), and it seemed like there was an infinite number of things to see and do. Leaving the Kokiri Forest for the first time and seeing the vast expanse of Hyrule Field in front of me was a powerful moment in my childhood. I really felt like I was on an incredible adventure, with a world of possibilities to explore. To this day, I treasure that feeling of adventure and exploration in any game that can provide it.

Another aspect of Ocarina that changed the way I saw games was the plot. I suppose that a modern audience might not be as wowed by it as I was in 1998, but back then, it blew my mind. It probably helps that the games I had played before were pretty thin in the plot department. As I said, I had mostly played Mario games, which rarely deviate much from the old standard of ‘Bowser has Peach, go save her.’ Ocarina, on the other hand, is an epic clash of good and evil that spans almost a decade. It has everything a kid could want: plot twists, magic swords, a rich mythology, fantastic creatures, time travel - and all this from a medium that I didn‘t even associate with storytelling. There were a lot of elements of Ocarina that I had never experienced in a story before; for instance, it was probably my earliest exposure to the idea of time travel. It was also my first major foray into fantasy, and I’m certain it’s the reason I became such a big fan of the genre. While books like Harry Potter clearly influenced me as well, Ocarina is the reason I love classic Sword & Sorcery tales more than anything else.

Ocarina was also one of my first brushes with the idea of tragedy in storytelling. I recognize that I’m in the minority there, but keep in mind, I was only six years old when this game was released. Most of things I had been exposed to at that age were pretty cheery. About the saddest thing I had seen or read by that point was Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and even that was tempered by my confidence that he would be okay because he was, after all, magic. Ocarina has some truly sad scenes, though. One of the most powerful moments in the game comes right after you finally obtain the last Spiritual Stone and open the Door of Time. This should be a triumphant moment; you’ve fought hard, gathered the stones, and now you’re getting the Master Sword! Surely, you have everything you need to defeat Ganondorf, right? Wrong. It is revealed that this is, in fact, exactly what Ganondorf had planned for all along, and by opening the door you’ve brought his evil plot to fruition. Not only that, but the Master Sword has sealed you away for seven years, allowing Ganondorf to reign over Hyrule unopposed. This showed me, for the first time in my life, that heroes could be fallible, and that they might not always win. It was a fairly new concept to me. Yes, I had seen heroes make mistakes, but never like this. It’s one thing for Edmund to be temporarily seduced by Turkish Delight; it’s quite another for Link to unwittingly doom an entire kingdom. Sure, everything is fixed in the end, but the finale is still bittersweet: Link loses his closest friend, and even as a kid I understood that his life would never be the same after what he had been through. For a child who is used to unambiguously happy endings, such a bittersweet denouement certainly came as a surprise. Overall, I learned a lot about the way stories are told from Ocarina of Time; more importantly, I learned how effective games are at telling stories.

Ocarina also has an incredible soundtrack. Although it was limited by the hardware of the N64, it had some very impressive tunes, and I still enjoy listening to it. The Song of Storms has to be one of the catchiest songs in any game; and then there’s the Gerudo Valley theme. If you haven’t heard the orchestral version of Gerudo Valley, go listen to it right now. It’s on YouTube, and it is incredible.

Ocarina has always held a special place in my heart. I recently began playing it again (on my original gold cartridge, which remains one of my most prized possessions), and it’s every bit as good as I remember. That’s why I wanted to write this post. Reflecting on what this game means to me has also got me thinking about a lot of other games that are important to me - games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. I might write about those sometime, too. In a society that still largely views video games as toys for children, I think it’s good to sit down and analyze the deeper impact a game can make. Games are a lot more than just simple entertainment for me. While entertainment is certainly a part of games, they also have educational, emotional, and creative components that I feel elevates them above the status of ‘toy’ and into the realm of art. That’s certainly something I want to talk about more in the future.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Writing Again

A few years ago, I decided to start this blog. It was supposed to be my way of getting myself out there. What I really wanted to do at the time was write reviews; the blog seemed like an ideal way of putting those reviews out in the open where I might get noticed. I decided that I would focus my writing on tabletop role-playing games, like Pathfinder, and wrote a few reviews for different supplements. Then, I just sort of… stopped. I’d like to say that I had a good excuse; that I was busy, that I didn’t buy any new books to review, something like that. That’s not the case, though. I did have reasons, but they weren’t good ones. First of all, I was lazy. I just didn’t want to take the time to review every new book I read. Secondly, I was uncomfortable with my writing. I’ve always been pretty critical of myself, especially when it comes to my writing, and posting things for all the world to see was unnerving (even though I didn‘t have many readers). Mostly, though, I just gave up. I felt like this wasn’t going anywhere. Each entry only got a couple of views, and most (or all) of those were from friends and family. I got discouraged, and I stopped writing.

I’m very disappointed in myself for that.

I’ve been making sure to write a little bit at least once a month for most of this year. As a result, I’ve grown much more comfortable with the way I write. I’ve also started to gain the confidence I need to share my work with others. That is a major reason why I’m starting to blog again. There’s another reason, too: games are important to me. Very important. Games are a huge part of my life, and that isn’t going to change. Games connect me to other people. They tell me incredible stories, and let me invent my own. I love games, and I want to talk about them. That’s what I want this blog to be about.

I don’t want this to be like last time. I don’t want to set out with the intent of getting discovered by some big game journalism site and launching a career. Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if that were to happen, but that isn’t my focus any more. I just want this to be a place where I can talk about games and gaming. Not just tabletop RPGs, either; video games, too. Maybe even some war games and card games.

I’m not sure how things will turn out this time around. It’s entirely possible that I’ll write for a week or two and then stop again. I’d like to think not, though. I feel passionate about this in a way I never did the first time. There are a lot of people out there having some great, thought-provoking conversations about gaming. I feel like it’s finally time for me to join that dialogue, in my own small way. If you’re reading this, I’d like to thank you for your time. Hopefully, I’ll be updating regularly. I’ve certainly got a lot to say.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Undead Revisited

As I've mentioned several times, I really love undead monsters, so when Paizo released Classic Undead Revisited, I knew I'd have to buy it and review it. For those of you unfamiliar with the “Revisited” line, it’s a series of books that aims to give you a closer look a select few monsters (or, in one case, magic items) by detailing aspects of them that there was no room for in other books. Although none of the things in the “Revisited” books are new (they can all be found in previous Paizo publications), the information is. Therefore, if you’re just looking for lots of fluff and some new ideas on how to use old monsters or items, these books are for you. If, on the other hand, you just want new mechanics, new items, and new monsters, these books will probably disappoint you. Now, those of you who are familiar with the “Revisited” books, you probably know that there has already been a Classic Horrors Revisited book which discussed such undead monsters as vampires, zombies, and skeletons. That being the case, you might be thinking, “What makes this book so different? Haven’t they already covered the important undead?” You’ve certainly got a point; when most people think of the word ‘undead,’ vampires and zombies are probably the first things to come to mind. Undead Revisited, however, is quick to point out the difference between the two books: Classic Horrors focused on traditional creature-feature monsters such as Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein (i.e. vampires, werewolves, and flesh golems), whereas this book focuses on some of the monsters more common to tabletop gaming: bodaks, devourers, and (of course) liches. As someone who likes using a lot of undead, I think this is a great idea. Sure, zombies and skeletons are cool, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve been done to death (no pun intended). At this point, are people even surprised when a decaying corpse rises from its grave to feast on the flesh of the innocent? My players certainly aren’t. I need to spice up my necromantic nemeses, and this book has given me some great ideas on how to do that.

The book starts off with the incredibly creepy bodak. In addition to looking fairly menacing, it has a pretty awful backstory: bodaks are created when someone sees something so horrifying that it literally destroys their soul. They like to turn other people into bodaks, but, failing that, they’ll settle for just ripping out people’s eyes. There’s a lot of interesting information presented here (this chapter, along with all the others, is divided into multiple sections: basic description, ecology, habitat & society, campaign role, treasure, variants, and where you can expect to find them on Golarion), as well as stats for a bodak with a few class levels in Antipaladin. These terrifying yet tragic monsters are a great way to kick off the book, and I’ve already found a place for them in my current campaign.

Next up, we’ve got devourers. Devourers are great, aren’t they? They’ve really got it all, even before you see their fluff. They’ve got that classic undead look, with rotting flesh and exposed bones; they’re physically intimidating, being very tall and often covered in spikes; and they eat souls. You don’t get much more evil than devouring souls, right? The only way to make them more sinister would be to give them a species-wide affinity for kicking puppies. However, rather than making devourers the vengeful spirits of people who really hate dogs, Paizo made them the twisted pawns of unfathomable eldritch gods from beyond the farthest reaches of the multiverse. Now, I know some people aren’t really into cosmic horror, but… well, as I’m typing this, I’m staring at my giant copy of The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft, so that ought to tell you how I feel about the matter. Much like the bodaks, I hadn’t intended to use devourers in my current campaign, but after reading this chapter I think they’ll fit right in.

The next chapter focuses on graveknights. These are powerful warriors who have been reanimated by an unknown force. They are, as the book points out, essentially the combat version of liches. The main difference is that whereas liches actively seek undeath, graveknights just sort of… chance into it. Basically, if you’re really, really evil and really, really strong, there’s a chance that you’ll turn into a graveknight when you die. Of course, there’s also a complex ritual that you could go through to try to become one, but there’s no guarantee it will work. Graveknights act as a good counterbalance to liches; they’re the Sword to a lich’s Sorcery, and I think the game needs that. While their fluff isn’t particularly enticing, there are a few cool things you can do with graveknights; they’d make good generals in an undead army, because they’re very hard to kill and can regenerate. Plus, their armor would make for some very interesting loot.

A book of the undead wouldn’t be complete without liches. They’re pretty much the most iconic undead in tabletop games. However, because they’re so well-known, most readers will probably already know the information in this section. The highlights of this chapter are a short but interesting section describing how liches interact with each other and a tiny preview of the demilich monster that will be appearing in the upcoming Bestiary 3.

Following liches, we’ve got mohrgs. Although they look like simple skeletons with purple entrails, mohrgs are far more sinister: they’re the reanimated bodies of murderers, seeking to continue the grisly deeds they perpetrated in life. There’s some good info in this section, including how different kinds of mohrgs are formed, as well as their motivations for killing. The book also presents a cool variant, the demonic mohrg.

Next, we have a chapter on nightshades. Nightshades are basically the exact opposite of living creatures. They are the embodiment of undeath. They are negative energy, cranked up to eleven. They are creatures formed when immortal beings (specifically, demons and devils) fall into the void that exists where the Negative Energy Plane meets the Shadow Plane. That’s right, they are created by tossing an immortal demon into a black hole formed at the point where a world fueled by death combines with a world fueled by darkness. There is no possible way to be more evil than that. Asmodeus, King of the Nine Hells, lookslike a saint next to these guys. This chapter really helps flesh them out, too; it goes into detail about their actions on not only the Material Plane, but the Shadow Plane and Negative Energy Plane as well. Plus, it vaguely hints at the existence of a nightshade god, which I find very intriguing. Oh, and there’s a new kind of nightshade included, too; a spider-like one that kind of reminds of Pennywise’s true form in IT. The scary-sounding version from the book, that is, not horrible special effects failure from the movie. This was a very good chapter, and I’m definitely much more interested in these monsters after reading it.

Raveners are the subject of the next chapter. Raveners are basically dracoliches: very powerful undead dragons. They didn’t get a lot of fluff in Bestiary 2, where they first appeared, but this chapter certainly makes up for it; there’s a lot of good fluff dealing with ravener lairs, treasure, and special abilities. Also, they’re constantly surrounded by the souls of people they’ve eaten, and use those souls to fuel their magic. Which is kind of awesome. All in all, a pretty solid chapter for a pretty cool monster.

This chapter focuses on shadows (pretty self-explanatory name). I have to admit, I didn’t think I’d care much for this chapter, but it surprised me. It has some decent fluff, and there’s a nifty sidebar about shadow lairs that was very spooky. There are also some very good tips on using shadows in the ‘Campaign Role’ section. They’re certainly more interesting than I was expecting them to be, and I’m glad they got a place in this book, because the tiny bit of description they got in the Bestiary really didn’t do them justice.

The next chapter, entitled ‘Spectral Dead,’ actually covers four different types of undead: allips (spirits of insane people who committed suicide), banshees (the ghosts of murdered elven women), spectres (ghosts who are bound to the mortal world by rage or arrogance), and wraiths (similar to spectres, but weaker and more eager to kill random people). Since this chapter is divided amongst four spirits, none of them get as much attention as the other monsters in this book, but there is still good info regarding them, including tips on how to give incorporeal creatures equipment and treasure. If you like running ghost stories, this section ought to be helpful.

The final chapter is all about wights. There are various kinds of wights, but regardless of origin, they all share a few traits: they’re very angry and very tough. There’s a lot of interesting information on them, too; this book describes at least five different ways a wight can be created, as well as fleshing out their tactics in a fight. Plus, come on. They’re wights! Anyone who's read Fellowship should have some affection for wights. Just seeing the title of the chapter made want to run a one-shot session for an all-Halfling party…

So, that concludes Classic Undead Revisited. All in all, a solid book that gave me quite a few ideas. As someone who really enjoys undead (and fluff books in general), I certainly feel like I got my money’s worth. If my brief descriptions (or the ones found in the Bestiary) got you interested in some of these monsters, I’d recommend this book, as it has lots of interesting information on each creature. If you like using, or plan to use, the monsters in this book, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy it; even if you don’t care about fluff, each chapter has a section marked ‘Campaign Role’ that’s filled with good tips and advice for GMs, and there are variant characteristics and a sample monster included in each chapter as well. However, it’s not a book that you need to run out and get; missing out on this one isn’t a huge deal. Oh, and of course, if you’re not big on undead/horror campaigns, it’s not going to be of much help to you.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Ultimate Magic

I've finally finished perusing the newest Pathfinder book, the much anticipated (by me, at least) Ultimate Magic, so it's review time! Let's dive right in, shall we? The first chapter, Spellcasters, is a very strong start to the book. It kicks off with an introduction to a brand new class: the Magus. It's your classic Magic Knight class: you've got weapon training and casting ability in the same class; a fireball in one hand and a sword in the other. It sounds cool; it's got an arcane pool, much like the Monk's ki pool, that allows you to trigger some pretty nice abilities. I'm definitely looking forward to playing one. After showing off the new class, the chapter moves on to new options for pre-existing classes, starting with Alchemist.

Some of the new Alchemist discoveries are insane: you want to grow some tentacles? Now you can! How about wings? Yep, those too! And have you ever wanted your very own creepy, malformed, parasitic twin growing out of your chest, like that guy in Total Recall? If you answered yes, this book is for you! There are also some new Alchemist archetypes, my favorite of which is the Preservationist. Their specialty? Bottling animals to use against their foes. Yes, bottling them. They can prepare summon nature's ally as an extract, which creates a tiny replica of an animal inside a glass bottle. Then, when they open the bottle, the animal grows to normal size and puts the smackdown on whoever's giving you trouble. Thank you, Paizo; now I can finally play my dream character: a tentacled flying man who is controlled by a terrifying parasite that throws bottled rhinos at people.

After the awesome Alchemist options, the next section, options for Bards, seems lackluster; it introduces Bardic Masterpieces, which are special performances that act like spells. I've never played a Bard, sadly, so I don't know how useful these would be. However, flavor-wise, it seems appropriate to have Bards learn musical masterpieces that rock so hard they alter the world around them. As for archetypes, they were decent. The Demagogue archetype is good at inciting riots, so it's probably fun to mess around with.

Next up, we have Clerics, who get new channeled energy variations; each domain has a different way to use channeled energy, most of which involve giving you bonuses instead of healing you (or giving enemies penalties rather than harming them). They could probably be useful, although I'd imagine most of them are far more situational than the traditional "pull me from the icy clutches of death" approach. However, they do add good flavor to Clerics and the gods they serve. There are also some new Cleric archetypes as well, my favorite of which is the Undead Lord, which is essentially a divine Necromancer.

Moving on to Druids: they get new domains. That doesn't particularly excite me, seeing as how I prefer animal companions anyway, but I can't complain; new options are new options, after all. As with the other classes, some new archetypes get introduced. Menhir Savant and Saurian Shaman are both pretty appealing. Menhir Savants gain their power from ley lines, which is kind of a neat twist on regular Druids, and Saurian Shamans are automatically awesome because they have dinosaurs.

Inquisitors get some love, too: they get their own special domains (or, as the book calls them, domainlike class features) called inquisitions. In addition, they get some neat archetypes like Exorcist and Sin Eater. Now, I just need to play an Exorcist in a campaign where the Big Bad is Pazuzu... but that's neither here nor there.

Magus archetypes comprise the next section, and there are some interesting ones. I'm particularly eager to roll up a Bladebound Magus - a Magus in possession of an ancient, sentient weapon called a Black Blade. Naturally, my character will be named Revya and his Black Blade will be called Gig (I'm being awfully referential today, aren't I?).

Monks are next, with the introduction of Monk Vows. I like them; they add flavor to a character, and flavor is always good. The only new archetype for Monks is Qinggong, which, if I understand it correctly, is a very customizable kind of Monk; I'm interested in it, but I want to try it before I judge it.

After that, Oracles get new options. I'm not too big on Oracles myself, but I did see a new Mystery that one of the villains in my current campaign will have. There are a few new Oracle archetypes, but nothing that caught my eye.

Paladins, on the other hand, had a new archetype that I really like: the Oathbound Paladin, who utilizes Paladin Oaths. Oaths are a lot like Monk Vows, but instead of promising to not speak or whatever, the Paladin promises to murder certain types of monsters whenever possible. Well, okay, there are a few Oaths that don't revolve around bashing in monster faces, but all the cool ones are violent. Obviously.

Ranger get one new archetype, the Trapper, who utilizes magical traps. It could be fun if it gets more support; right now, there aren't a whole lot of traps available for them.

Next up is the Sorcerer section, which is probably the only part of the book I'm really disappointed in. There are a handful of new bloodlines, but most of them are genie-based. If that's your thing, cool, but I don't particularly care for them; I've always liked regular elementals better. The new Wildblooded archetype, which represents a 'mutation' of a standard bloodline, is fairly neat, but overall I was hoping for better Sorc options.

Summoners, on the other hand, get some nice new things. Eidolon Models, for instance make me very happy. They aren't actually new options; they're guidelines for how to build particular types of Eidolons, like angels or hydras. I'm positive that this is going to be a huge timesaver if any of my players want to roll up Summoners in the future. There's also a new Eidolon base form (aquatic) and several new evolutions.

Following the Summoner is easily the most grisly section of the entire book: Witch options. Some of these are just downright disturbing. For instance, two of the new hexes are child-scent (which lets you sniff out children) and cook people (yeah, three guesses what that one does). Equally creepy is the Gravewalker archetype, which is like a necromancer, except you carry around a voodoo doll made out of human skin and filled with hair and fingernails.

Moving on (thankfully), we have some new Wizard stuff: the arcane schools of Metal and Wood. They both seem fairly decent. The new Wizard archetype, however, is just... bizarre. It's called the Scrollmaster, and it treats scrolls as weapons (shortswords, to be exact). So, instead of casting spells off of scrolls, you just run around the battlefield slapping people in the face with them. I can't decide if that idea is hilarious or just dumb.

The next section is titled Mastering Magic. It starts off by introducing spellblights - diseases that only casters can contract. They seem decent, but not spectacular; I doubt I'll use them very often. Rules for magic duels are also included. Duels don't differ too much from a standard battle, but they could be fun plot devices; I could see my players watching one in an arena, or perhaps playing a haughty Wizard PC who challenges NPC casters to duels out of pride. This chapter also has a section about binding outsiders. A lot of it is just descriptions of what different outsiders like and dislike, so you know how to bribe them into helping you. While a lot of this information isn't new, it's very handy to have it all in one place. After that, there's a couple of pages on how to customize constructs by giving them organs, wearing them as armor, and a host of other things. Then there's a brief section introducing new types of familiars, followed by the introduction of premade spellbooks. In addition to the spells within, most of them contain something unique, like a few pages of information on demons or what have you. I don't think I'll use them as actual loot, but I could see one becoming an important plot device. Plus, they might be useful to new players who have no idea what spells to prepare. The chapter finishes with a section on how to create your own spells without making them over (or under) powered, which I thought was very in-depth.

Chapter three is all about new feats. There's quite a few new ones, including several that improve summoning, auras, and Eidolons. There's also a slew of new metamagic feats, most of which enhance spells based on descriptors (for instance, Rime Spell, which allows spells with the cold descriptor to entangle enemies).

The fourth chapter is called Words of Power, and it introduces a new spell system. Using the Words of Power system, casters don't learn spells as they level up; instead, they learn new words, which they can string together to make wordspells. Each wordspell consists of a target word (which determines what the spell hits) and an effect word (which determines what the spell does). Depending on the level of the wordspell, more than one effect word may be used. Meta words (which enhance effect words) may also be used. Using this system, a caster can design a custom spell out of the words he or she knows. It seems very flexible and easy-to-use (if it sounds complex, it's only because I'm explaining it poorly). I think Sorcerers in particular could do some very cool things with the system; since they don't have to prepare spells in advance, they could come up with customized wordspells on the fly, which would be incredibly useful.

The fifth and final chapter is simply called Spells and, as the name implies, it contains lots and lots of new spells. I hate to be so vague about this chapter, as I'm sure that this section is why most people want the book, but that's really all I can say about it; there are a bunch of new spells. There are so many casting classes, and so many different ways to play each one, that it would be unfair of me to say the spells were generally good or bad. All I can really say is that I was satisfied with the selection, and honestly, there's enough new stuff here that you're bound to find some things you like, regardless of what you're looking for. Plus, one of the new spells is called Rain of Frogs. So that's pretty awesome.

Overall, I'm really glad I got this book. New spells, new feats, a new system of magic... good stuff. I think that the first chapter is absolutely the strongest section of the book, with some really stellar options for each class as well as a brand new (and pretty awesome) class. If you like casters (or have players that do), then I definitely think you should grab this book.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pathfinder Player Companion: Faiths of Purity

Paizo has released a new book, Faiths of Purity, about the Good-aligned deities your character can follow in the Inner Sea. Naturally, I downloaded the PDF as soon as I could, and I just finished reading through it.

The first section of the book deals with the main Good gods and goddesses of the Inner Sea region: Cayden Cailean, the Drunken Hero; Desna, the Song of the Spheres; Erastil, Old Deadeye; Iomedae, the Inheritor; Sarenrae, the Dawnflower; Shelyn, the Eternal Rose; and Torag, the Father of Creation. Each one is given two pages that detail what kinds of adventurers might follow them, what classes most commonly venerate them, their goals, ways of identifying followers, ways your character can show devotion, how other faiths view them, things each god considers taboo, optional traits for worshippers, and a description of the church of each god. This chapter is pretty useful; as I mentioned in the Inner Sea Guide review, I like knowing how gods might react to what my players do, and this section gives me a lot of that information. I also enjoyed the church sections; it'll come in handy if someone in my group wants to roll up a Cleric or Paladin.

The next section discusses minor deities. They're given less attention than the core gods, obviously, but there's still a decent amount of information on them. My personal favorite is Apsu, the dragon god, because I have an affinity for anyone who is both a giant fire-breathing lizard and an all-powerful master of creation (Bahamut, I'm looking at you). The racial gods of Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, and Halflings also get some attention, as do Empyreal Lords (essentially incredibly powerful angels). The section had enough information to warrant worshipping any one of these beings, and the inclusion of Apsu alone is enough to make me like it. The only thing that slightly bothers me is that some Elven holy symbols appear on the Empyreal Lords page, rather than with the Elven gods, but that's not really a big deal.

Next up is a a few pages about religious organizations. I thought these were pretty nifty. There is one organization per god, and each one could easily fit into a campaign; they would serve well both as character backgrounds and NPC allies. I'm especially excited about the Knights of Ozem, a small army of undead-hunting Paladins of Iomedae. Granted, that might just be because I love undead. There's just something about zombies that just never gets old, you know?

After that, there are a couple of pages of new feats. A few of them are decent, but there isn't much to write home about. The two that caught my eye were Butterfly's Sting, which lets you transfer one of your crits to an ally, and Bullseye Shot, which lets you sacrifice your movement action to get a bonus on a ranged attack roll.

The following section offers up codes that Paladins of each god must follow to maintain their holy abilities. I think it's a great idea; it eliminates a lot of the grey area in determining what could make a Paladin fall, and it should come in handy when roleplaying your Paladin. In addition, it reveals that Torag is a very, very angry god; one of his tenets is, I quote, "Against my people's enemies I will show no mercy. I will not allow their surrender, except to extract information. I will defeat them, and I will scatter their families."

The penultimate section has some new spells for faithful casters. Most of them seemed more useful for out-of-combat situations, such as Trail of the Rose, which leaves a trail of mist in your wake, making it much easier to retrace your steps (plus, only allies can see it, so enemies can't follow it to find and eviscerate you). There are also some combat spells, though, like Haze of Dreams (slows your enemies by distracting them with dreamlike visions). My personal favorite is Hairline Fractures, which is primarily used to weaken stone, but can also be applied to golems to mess up their AC.

Last but not least (well, okay, maybe least), there's a short section about religious holidays. There aren't a whole lot of them, but the ones that do exist could add some flavor to campaigns. After all, it might be a fun breather in between all the monster-decapitating to have a party walk into town on the day of Archerfeast and participate in several random contests to win a magical bow. Plus, if you're super nerdy like me, you can use the calendar in the Inner Sea Guide to keep track of the in-game date, and accurately determine if the party is in town during one of these festivals.

Overall, I think this was a pretty good buy. It's short (only 32 pages), but it was only $8 for the PDF, so I'm not complaining. It's primarily fluff, so if that's your thing, go for it; however, if you're looking for a boatload of new options for your Cleric or Paladin, you'll probably be disappointed. Unless two pages of feats and two pages of spells constitutes a boatload. I'm honestly not sure; I'm not that familiar with boats.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: The Inner Sea World Guide

About a week ago, I picked up Paizo's newest Pathfinder product: The Inner Sea World Guide, a revamped version of their first (and thus far, only) official campaign setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. I've spent the last few days reading through it, and I wanted to share my thoughts on it.

The first chapter is entitled Races and, obviously, details the various races available to players in the Inner Sea. Anyone familiar with Pathfinder, or fantasy in general, will recognize them: Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, and Humans. However, the Inner Sea World Guide goes a little bit further than just introducing these basic races; it also details a host of human ethnicities to choose from. A dozen different ethnicities are detailed, each hailing from a different region of the Inner Sea. This is a fantastic addition, as it gives players a wide variety of backgrounds to choose from when creating a character.

Chapter two, The Inner Sea, discusses the various nations in the setting. The chapter is easily the longest in the book, taking up almost two hundred of the three-hundred-and-twenty pages. It starts off with a brief history of the Inner Sea, including details of the major bodies of water in the area, which I found helpful as my group is rather fond of seafaring adventures. Although the seas and lakes aren't given abundant detail, there is certainly enough information to bring some intriguing nautical elements into a game, such as mysterious ghost ships, underwater ruins, and a mysterious, unending hurricane. This section is followed by a truly massive timeline, spanning over ten thousand years of the Inner Sea's history. After that, we come to the real meat of the chapter: the myriad nations of the Inner Sea. Over forty nations are described; each one has a section detailing the history and government of the area, along with a gazetteer that provides interesting locations for adventure. It's a staggering amount of information to take in; as I read through each nation's gazetteer, I would take notes, writing down plot hooks that were presented that I wanted to use. By the time I had gone through every nation, I had well over one hundred hooks for future campaigns. In addition to all this information, each area has a small stat block that reveals the general alignment of the inhabitants, the capital city and other major settlements (including the population of each), the ruler of the region, what kind of government is in effect, and common languages and religions. In addition, each nation has a half-page map that you can use to determine distances between areas of interest. Overall, I was very impressed with how thorough Paizo was in this chapter. I was also impressed with the sheer variety presented. Jungles and deserts, evil empires and fledgling democracies, and a whole lot more. There's something for every kind of campaign.

Chapter three is about Religion. Paizo continues to amaze me with the detail poured into this chapter. The twenty core gods of the Inner Sea are each given a half-page description which describes pretty much everything you'd want to know about them: what they represent, what their temples and holy texts are like, even what garb their clergy are expected to wear. Of particular interest to me were the descriptions of how each god shows pleasure or displeasure; now, if a player goes out of their way to appease or disrespect a deity, I can reward or punish them appropriately. For instance, if one of my players is about to sail across the ocean, he may wish to pay tribute to Gozreh, god of the sea. If he does so, I know to reward him by having a warm breeze fill his sails, moving his ship faster than usual. However, if the player does something to displease Gozreh, I know to instead have a localized raincloud follow him wherever he goes. This will add a lot more flavor to the campaign than simply saying, "You have made Gozreh angry. The seas become stormy and the water gets choppy." In addition to the core gods, several smaller cults and les popular gods are described. They are given less detail, about a paragraph apiece, but there is still enough there to bring them into a campaign. There are also brief descriptions given to some Demon Lords, Archdevils, The Eldest (powerful fey from The First World), Elemental Lords, Empyreal Lords, and the Four Horsemen. Following this is an interesting section discussing lost, forgotten, and dead gods, inclduing Lovecraft's famous Great Old Ones. In the next section, philosophies are introduced, which can be used in conjunction with religion. Philosophies grant no extra bonuses, but they could certainly serve to augment roleplay. The chapter ends with a description of the Inner Sea's cosmology, complete with details on each plane. I'm pretty happy to see that, because I like sending my players into the elemental planes, the Abyss, and every other dimension available.

The fourth chapter, Life, is about the basics of living in the Inner Sea. Days, months, and important celebrations are all outlined, as well as weather patterns and the general climate. There's also a section on popular trade routes over both land and sea, which will come in handy whenever a party needs to protect a caravan or trading vessel. A short section on the fauna of the the Inner Sea gives a few monster variations, which are all just regular monsters from the Bestiary with some basic templates slapped on, but I found them interesting nonetheless (mostly because I'm bigger on fluff than crunch). There's also a section about unique flora, but the only plant that stuck with me was a special cactus that could be used as a narcotic. The chapter ends with a couple pages on technology. It introduces firearms (which is great, since the gunslinger class is going to be released later this year), as well clockwork golems. Clockwork golems are, as the name implies, golems that are purely mechanical, rather than being animated by magic. You can apply the clockwork template to any regular golem. Personally, I love this idea; if you toss some clockwork golems into the Mana Wastes (a nation devoid of magic that relies wholly on technology), you're on your way to a steampunk campaign. In addition, this section introduces Numerian Technology: highly advanced tech like nanomachines, laser pistols, and giant robotic laser scorpions. I probably won't use it very often (I'm much more into fantasy than sci-fi), but it's nice to know it's there if the mood ever strikes me. Also, that robot scorpion thing looks pretty sweet.

The next chapter is Factions. There are a few smaller ones detailed to start off with, and they all add a lot of flavor to the world of the Inner Sea. They each provide some interesting plot hooks, and I'd like to see how my players interact with them. There are five "major" factions, each with a couple pages of description, and they range from multinational corporations to secretive leagues of assassins. Information on each of these major factions includes their history, power structure, and goals, making them easy to fit into a campaign, whether as allies or enemies.

The penultimate chapter is called Adventuring. It begins with a short description of each class's general role in the Inner Sea, which I didn't find particularly useful. From there, it jumps into prestige classes, starting with the Harrower. Harrowers are fortune tellers; in order to play as one, it's recommended that you own a Harrow deck (available at However, if you don't feel like buying one, that's fine too; you can simply roll dice to see what card you would've drawn. Harrowers seem like they might be something of a hassle to play as (there's a lot of extra rolls/cards to draw, and it might become tiresome to keep track of each card's effect), but if you can get past that, it seems like a solid class: they can see glimpses of the future, and their Harrow powers can grant some nice bonuses to attacks and defense. Next up is the Hellknight class. Let me just put this out there: regardless of how useful it might be, the Hellknight is cool. Remember the Judges from Final Fantasy XII? Hellknights are like that, but cooler. I already have a player who's planning on being one, and he's only seen the art for it. They have a variety of powers inteneded to punish lawbreakers, and more importantly, they get access to some awesome armor that resists fire. The next prestige class presented is the Low Templar. Flavor-wise, Low Templars are based on an old cliche: the rough warrior who's grown all cynical and tormented inside from fighting so long, etc. Crunch-wise, they're basically Fighters who fight dirty. They get a few abilities that help them withdraw from a fight, as well as some bonuses to improvised weapons and the Leadership feat. They also eventually gain the ability to hide their alignment from spells that would detect it, which could be fun. Finally, there's the Red Mantis Assassin class. Much like the Hellknights, Red Mantis Assassins are just plain cool. One of their class features turns your character into a big red praying mantis! Do you even need to hear anything else? I mean, come on. Once you can do that, you don't even need other class features. Next up, the book introduces some new feats, which range from basic combat feats to the ability to train falcons to magically growing a third eye. A few new weapons are introduced as well, including a few goblin-made blades and a bladed scarf. There are also a handful of new armor types, the most important of which is the Hellknight armor. Statistics for the different kinds of firearms are presented. Some new adventuring gear has been added; of particular note are the Tears of Razmir, a highly addictive narcotic from the nation of Razmiran, and cologne (yes, I realize most people don't find that nearly as interesting as I do). There are some new spells that look like fun; their abilities range from polymorphing you into a rat to summoning an army of ghostly horsemen to trample your opponents. There are also several new magic items. Some, like the Mask of the Red Mantis, help add flavor to different elements of the game (in this case, the Red Mantis Assassins) while others are purely for utility. A small number of new artifacts are introduced as well, any of which could play major roles in (or form the basis of) several campaigns.

The final chapter is entitled Monsters. It opens with several short paragraphs detailing where major monster types (such as demons, troll, giants, and the like) dwell before launching into descriptions of several new types of monster. Included (among other things) are a new type of dragon, a race of bizarre monkey-men, and two new playable races: the aquatic gillmen and the winged strix. My favorite new monster, however, is the aluum: a special kind of golem fueled by human souls.

In summary, this book is excellent. It introduced an incredible world, with enough information available to keep me exploring it for years to come. With such a wide variety of nations to visit, I know that I can turn to the Inner Sea for any campaign I want to run, be it horror, high fantasy, steampunk, or cyberpunk. It gave me a much better understanding of religion and everyday in Pathfinder, as well as introducing me to several factions that I can guarantee will be showing up in my campaigns in the future. And on top of all that, it included some very cool new player options and monsters. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the art in this book is beautiful, so that's a major bonus. Overall, this book was well worth the money and I highly recommend it to any Pathfinder GM.