This massive hardcover clocks in at a whopping 271 pages, though 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC and 1/3rd of a page decrease that down to 267 2/3 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Well, before we do, let me deal with the confusion for a second that this review undoubtedly will cause. Yes, I usually only do 3pp material. This has several reasons: For one, I want to showcase the fringe of gaming, the evocative books that push the envelope. Secondly, I’m not particularly affluent, to say the least and want to reward the publishers that do send me their books. Well, I obviously *HAVE* to get the Paizo books anyways, but for the most part nowadays, that means pdf or waiting until they’re open sourced – I just can’t afford them all. Then again, I do have a policy of covering all books I receive…and I got this book on gencon.
That would be the justification I provide from an intellectual point of view. There is another reason. I *WANT* to write this review and, since I have the hardcover now, have absolutely no reason not to.
Now usually, I provide the respective breakdowns of classes and crunch, but frankly, there are whole guides devoted to that out there, which is why I have elected to pursue a different path this time around. (Different path…that’ll be a leitmotif, as you’ll see…) In order to properly be able to contextualize my take on this book, I will have to embark on a little recap of Paizo’s hardcovers and my history with them, so if you’re not interested in that, please skip ahead.
When I got my hands on the core rules hardcover for Pathfinder, I was generally positively surprised – it represents a tightening of 3.X’s engine and some sensible, smart tweaks to the mechanics. Still, it didn’t manage to elicit cheers or particular excitement at my table – that only came with the APG. The Advanced Player’s Guide, in spite of its minor flaws, would represent, at least to me, the truly identity-constituting moment of Pathfinder. It is here, with the alchemist, witch, oracle, etc. that the game set out to truly distinguish itself from its roots and transcend basically anything 3.X ever offered. To this day, the APG classes rank among the favorites at my table, which only bespeaks their staying power and coolness. Next up were Ultimate Magic and Combat and with them, alas, came the power creep.
While, much like many out there, I did enjoy the magus, not much else from Ultimate Magic sees regular use in my games and I went through the book with a fine-toothed comb and ban-hammered/restricted material. Ultimate Combat is a more complex story – on one hand, I did like the new classes and e.g. the emphasis on the narrative aspect the gunslinger entailed; alas, for said class, player agenda suffered and mathematically, it would have been served better with a slightly different chassis. So while I like what it represents and quite a few pieces of UC’s options, many aren’t used in my games. Mythic Adventures is peculiar – I like mythic gameplay, but only when supported by the ton of Legendary Games material I own – I tried running vanilla WotR and it was PCs curbstomping through everything. Still, I do like this book – just not as a stand-alone. I adore Ultimate Campaign. Its downtime and kingdom building make sense to me, are used a lot at my table and story feats are a good idea as well – there’s nothing I don’t like about that book and what it has brought to my table.
Well, and the less I say about the ARG and ACG, the better. My stance on both books is well known. (Hint: To say I don’t like them would be a gross understatement.)
Fast forward to Occult Adventures. For one, this book’s class design represents an organic development that benefits the game. An easy way to look at a class would be to examine it regarding player agenda and character agenda. Character agenda, in this instance, would pertain the ability to contribute meaningfully to various situations. It’s why I think that skill unlocks are a good idea and 2 + Int skills for all but Int-based casters, generally, is not a good idea. It’s just not as fun to play a fighter who can only kill things and excels at one non-combat thing…unless, of course, that’s how you roll, but in general, I have observed players gravitate to classes that provide more skill-use and versatility. Player agenda would be just as important: Can the player make meaningful choices that alter the playstyle? The higher the player agenda is, the more rules-knowledge is required; true. But at the same time, it does help immensely in the long run to generate a unique being from a mechanics point of view – if you don’t get to choose, you’ll sooner, rather than later, run into a character on distinguished from you by his skills, equipment and feats. Pathfinder, as a system, has covered the base classes for a while; it has advanced players that demand unique concepts. As such and at this point in the system’s life, the occult classes with their plethora of meaningful choices are very much appreciated – and if you need some proof of players loving choices, look no further than the modularity of the “Talented” classes invented by Owen K.C. Stephens.
Speaking of classes – let us talk a bit about them and begin with the least “occult” class herein and the most popular one. That would, obviously, be the kineticist…and while I kinda like Avatar, I’m not a rabid fan of this franchise, though I get its appeal. This does not change the fact that the class, as presented, is very niche in focus. Then again, thankfully the 3pp-circuit has since expanded the kineticist’s appeal far beyond its thematic confines. (A cheers to N. Jolly for that, even if I don’t always agree with all balancing…) So, flavor-wise and regarding base-options, I am not the biggest fan of this class…but at the same time, I absolutely ADORE it. Why? Because it is an engine that would be daring for a small publisher, much more so for Paizo as the industry leader. The rules-engine employed by the kineticist is inspiring and complex and its success is well warranted. Were I to nitpick this class, then my complaints would pertain the fact that its power-curve could be a little better distributed; 17th level plus in particular can be an issue…but that extends to more than just this class and is, to an extent, system-inherent. That being said, I still love this class, though for completely different reasons than probably 99% of its fans and players. It remains a great addition to the class roster and I’m glad it exists.
Now, let us talk a bit about the classes that are designated as occult not only by inclusion in the book, but also by their themes…but for that, we need to talk a bit about genre conventions. It is a general truism that Pathfinder, as a game, is indebted by proxy of D&D to Tolkienesque fantasy and a society structured very much akin to the Early Modern period in history due to the advances of magic. Kobold Press’ Midgard is closer to the beginning of the Early Modern period and features a more feudal, medieval flair. Golarion and Pathfinder’s default, due to the influences of the weird that made me enjoy the setting in the first place, can be roughly situated at the end of the Early Modern period, with overlaps with the Edwardian and Victorian age – once China Miéville (one of my favorite authors – read the Bas-Lag books!!!)-like aesthetics come into play, you’re definitely looking at a society that is bordering a magical industrial revolution. This suits me well, for I come from a Ravenloft background (don’t ever get me started on 4th and 5th edition Ravenloft and what I think of those…for all of our sakes…) as such, have always been in love with the fantastic aesthetics of Penny Dreadfuls, early weird fiction, Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet…you get the idea. I enjoy these somewhat less standardized, less covered aspects that have been an organic part of the old school aesthetic back in the day, but fell by the wayside somewhere along the lines. Anyways, the classes herein very much support this slightly advanced aesthetic; they resonate well with both the ancient and the more modern themes evoked in their resurgence in aforementioned timeframes. The more subtle magic psychic magic represents and the emotional component inherent in the variant spell system works well in the context of more magic-hostile environments as well as in less fantastic settings with more subdued themes than all out fireball-slinging. The marriage of the aesthetics associated with occultism and their relevant mechanical representations are what makes the classes interesting for me.
Take the medium – while I prefer spirits with names and unique identities, the need to offer the general mechanical framework for the defining spirits of the medium is obvious for such a book and in this context, employing the nomenclature of the mythic paths does make sense and can generate some pretty fun tricks. Had a mythic campaign? Use the PC-names when acting as a vessel for the respective spirit – it’s simple, but incredibly rewarding. The general notion of taboos and the influence mechanic similarly can make for some great roleplaying. The mesmerist class tends to be called unfocused by some reviews I’ve read…and frankly, I have no idea why. The mesmerist, from the cool concept to the execution, makes for a very rewarding playing experience and has some serious optimization potential to boot -the implanting of tricks, the skill-array…both from the perspective of the stories you can tell with this class and the options available for the enterprising player, this class is absolutely amazing and allows for some neat, diverse characters. The stare-mechanic is also something that can be employed to rather great effect. The occultist is a similarly evocative concept – the focus on implements and fact that each can make for an unique item on its own is a lot of roleplaying potential and the respective focus powers provide a similarly interesting playing experience. The psychic, as the full caster, ranks as one of the more intriguing full casters in my book, with magical amplification and disciplines providing a nice array of diverse builds. The spiritualist, finally, would basically be a balanced take on the summoner with a fluff that I consider amazing.
This would bring me to what sets the classes apart more so than their mechanical validity – the fact that, to me, they represent, universally a great blending of providing player and character agenda, but this also means that they have things they can do beyond the confines of combat – there is a significant emphasis on the ROLEplaying aspect of the game we all know and love, with a wide variety of diverse tricks associated with actual roleplaying; the classes have means of depicting interesting characters; a player can really make each class its own: The implements, phantoms and all the components of the classes and their structure almost demand, organically, to be used by the player to make something that exceeds the totality of the mathematical components. In short, as far I’m concerned, these are the best player-focused options since the APG and as a whole, I consider the roster to be superior to even that gem of a book.
However, the customization options similarly provide some seriously cool tricks: Want to play Scarecrow from Batman? Yup. Cultist leader? Yep. Eat books and draw strength from it? Yeah. Amnesiac psychic? Yup. As a whole, covering archetypes and feats would obviously bloat the book beyond compare – but one crucial point as opposed to most books of this size lies in the big C-word – consistency. There are no overpowered options here…and neither are there options that you’d consider to be subpar traps sans value – there is some character concept, some specific thing that makes sense from a build and/or flavor perspective. (The options that I won’t use will be the onmyoji, elemental annihilator, psychic duelist and kami medium – the Eastern-themed ones mainly since I prefer Interjection Games’ take on the Onmyoji and its themes; the psychic duelist is a nice specialist, but doesn’t blow me away. Finally, the annihilator…well, I have 3pp options that are more versatile.) – notice something? My criticism here pertains mostly taste.
Now this alone does make the book shine very much for me; at the same time, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have complaints, right? So there we go: The book contains various pieces of advice and alternate rules/subsystems of the material and one would by psychic duels…which are generally an awesome idea and provide for cool, creative minigames when handled right. Alas, the spell used to start them, instigate psychic duel, pretty much is a save-or-suck option, since the affected target has the save…and while the duel is in process, the target cannot move…which allows allies to stab the foe to bits. Oddly, the instigator of such a duel can end it via a Will-save as per the spell, when the psychic duel-rules do not mention such an option for the affected character – this is intended, undoubtedly, since those caught in a duel can be shaken out of it. At the same time, I think that pretty basic modifications could have prevented that little lockdown-aspect: For example, taking a penalty on MP to be capable of at least utilizing a fraction of the action array available…you know, moving slowly towards the instigator while battling him in the duel, maintaining at least defenses…the like. Granted, the system is optional and can be modified rather easily, but I’m still somewhat astonished that this very basic strategy was not used, particularly after the complaints the slumber hex etc. received. Still, this represents a relatively minor issue when seen in relation to the number of things that *do* work pretty perfectly…and the fact that psychic duels work infinitely better than 3.X’s mindscapes and similar tricks.
Once again, the storytelling potential is what sells this on me. Beyond the copious GM-advice, the book contains some information on esoteric planes like the akashic record, the positive/negative energy plane and the like – which I generally enjoyed. At the same time, I did feel like the book could have done a little bit more with unique planar features for some of them, since not all receive this component in detail. Of course gear, both mundane and magical, can be found in this tome – from the phrenologist’s kit (phrenology being the by now debunked belief that the size and shape of the skull influences personality etc. – and yes, there’s a feat inspired by it here!) to the Dorian Gray-ish pictures, we notice one thing – the items, much like a ton of material herein, is steeped in a sense of the real, in the occult traditions and pseudo-science of days gone by.
What do I mean by this? Take alchemy, an established concept in our fantasy games. If you have the stamina to power through them, I’d sincerely suggest getting a copy of the writings of real world alchemists, sit down with the cool alchemy recipes and start – I guarantee you’ll come up with new and evocative material. A similar observation can be made here – the tying into concepts and ideas established in our world generates basically the largest hand-out you could fathom and some research will almost assuredly provide a vast selection of truly evocative concepts to represent, while also teaching something new along the way. You do not have to be interested in masons, OTO, etc. to enjoy this book – but you can draw upon esoteric and occult knowledge to enrich the game tremendously. Heck, I’m pretty much a nihilistic atheist and my fascination with the subject matter stems from a purely intellectual point of view, but I still appreciate all the ideas and their impact on the genesis of our mode of thought. Similarly, the idea of locus spirits, of tapping into ley lines and similar high-concept tricks complement an implied world-building and -conception that goes beyond the surface, that extends into a level of depth beyond the superficial pushing of numbers.
I’m rambling, I know. I’ll break my format for a second here, mainly since it’s Paizo we’re talking about – on a formal level, the one thing that haunted some previous books, namely editing, is excellent herein. The fact that the artworks are AMAZING and copious, that the binding’s nice, the paper good, the layout awesome – you all already knew that. Production-value-wise, this is a glorious tome and yes, index-wise, it leaves nothing to be desired.
Designers Logan Bonner, Mark Seifter and Stephen Radney-MacFarland, under the auspice of Jason Bulmahn, with authors John Bennett, Robert Brookes, Ross Byers, Adam Daigle, John Compton, Jim Groves, Thurston Hillman, Eric Hindley, Brandon Hodge, Ben McFarland, Erik Mona, Jason Nelson, Tom Philips, Thomas M. Reid, Alex Riggs, F. Wesley Schneider, Robert Schwalb, Ross Taylor and Steven Townshend have created an awesome, amazing to me that represents a development in PFRPG I wholeheartedly support.
You see, from the very beginning, there always were weird and occult themes in Pathfinder adventures; it’s what drew me to the game. That being said, I sometimes have the impression that my own playstyle, particularly for my campaigns, is a bit more cerebral and roleplaying focused than that of many groups and I do believe and understand that Paizo needs to cater to that demographic. In fact, I do have players that itch for fights when there’s too much talking involved. I get the wargame-aspect and appeal of the game and enjoy it tremendously…but at the same time, making room for the ROLEplaying aspect of the game is very important to me.
An example (ROTRL-spoilers ahead!):
When I ran RotRL, my pathfinders were agents of the lodge and had the task to prepare Sandpoint for becoming a halfway-station for agents. Each faction had a representative in town and PCs had to juggle adventuring, faction duties and a political balance, while I slowly seeded hints for them to pick up and slowly meld together. I created a rune-language for Thassillion for them to find and decipher, a task which would bring them to the frigid North as well and had them establish a frontier outpost against the bitter cold and dire threats looming at the top of the world, all while having them research the strange languages and customs of various tribes, from Shoanti to Vikmordere to ultimately, slowly put the pieces together that the war with the sudden influx of green-skins and the sieges were due to the machinations of the BBEG rune lord. Alas, I redesigned their magic to be an intentionally OP version of truename magic, coupled with soul magic and in order to have a fighting chance, the PCs would need to decipher the esoteric rules that govern this evil and radically different way of using magic. It is only via similarly involved contemplation that a certain dungeon could be found…and I’ll stop rambling here. What I tried to illustrate was that, while the AP itself can be run as pretty straight-forward, its concepts and themes are already steeped in the occult. In fact, I only extrapolated concepts that were already there – whether it’s the Shamballah/Eldorado-aspect of the finale of the AP, the notion of there being power in strange writing, even in characters…or any other component. The seeds are already here and just require watering to grow into a fully developed thing of eldritch beauty.
The fact that Occult Adventures hardwires serious roleplaying, research, investigative tools, the mystical and the non-combat-centric into the very mechanics of most options herein, on its own, is a huge deal for me. I get the fun behind optimizing, mind you – but in the end, a character is more than a sum of his numbers. As a publisher, you can go the power-creep route and do just fine; heck, for ages, that was the business model of MTG…but it also was what disenfranchised me from that game. The story and game took a step back. Similarly, one can play Pathfinder pretty much as a wargame and there’s nothing wrong with that; you can do so with occult adventures material and still have fun…but to me, this book reads like a rebuttal to the claim, often posed by rules-light advocates, that crunch-heavy games can’t tell a good story and get in the way of roleplaying. Don’t get me wrong – I love rules-light games just as much as crunch-intense monsters and each exist for a reason. But I do believe that their individual iteration is what makes the difference – it’s not the system that hampers the story – it’s the story-teller. Rules-light systems empower the GM and players by leaving blanks; rules-heavy systems empower them by providing new means or direct inspiration – it’s leadership by leading or by omission – both have their pros and cons…but neither are responsible, provided their rules are solid, for getting in the way of a story set within their intended field of reference.
Pathfinder does tactical combat exceedingly well; with the advent of this book, we can see a focus in design on breadth, rather than depth. Instead of generating escalation, the focus here lies in making a more holistic array of class options that allow for the depiction of unique and rewarding heroes – whether from a roleplaying or rollplaying perspective. You can still optimize here and it is a rewarding experience…but it’s not the sole goal of this book. It’s about the story – of the campaign, of the world, of the characters, of their tools, tricks and allies.
Let me emphasize that: After I had almost given up on Paizo’s non-bestiary hardcovers, occult adventures has risen to become my favorite book of such options they ever made. At a point where I thought that the golem may have lost his mojo regarding such options, the talented cadre of excellent writers has proven me false without any doubt. For me, as a person, this is better than Ultimate Magic and Combat and ARG and ACG combined. There is more I not only use, but love within the pages of this book. There is more storytelling potential here. And if you like the subdued, the strange, then this will be a revelation for you as well. I’m going even so far as to say that the design-paradigm shift this represents is very healthy for the game we all know and love…and that this book surpasses the Advanced Player’s Guide. There. I said it. If I had to choose one Paizo hardcover for Pathfinder and get rid of all else, I’d choose this one. From the haunt-expansion to the classes, feats, skill unlocks – you name it. I adore this book. It may not be perfect, as no book of this size is bound to be perfect – but it gets as close as I haven’t seen any rule-book get in ages. Heck, quite frankly, I want to see occult-only or mainly occult APs that give justice to the awesome framework we’ve been granted here.
At a time and place where I did not expect anything in that department from the golem anymore, but almost exclusively focused on the options/expansions brought forth by 3pps, this book has renewed my faith in the system and its potential…and it, honestly, is a courageous move from Paizo: This represents an expansion of themes regarding the type of game you play with Pathfinder beyond the confines of the Tolkienesque, towards shores of the imagination where fresh ideas, modules and campaigns loom, towards a type of cooperative storytelling that does not necessarily rely exclusively on the rolling of the dice – it’s still important and won’t go away – this is Pathfinder, after all – but the book, as a whole, dares to tread new paths to an extent you would never expect to see from an industry leader.
Dear authors – feel hugged for this book. Dear readers: If you were starting to feel disenfranchised with the system or have, like I did, mostly moved on towards the creative and fresh impulses of the 3pp-circuit, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out this tome. This provides the customization, cool classes you want, the novel themes you crave and the design-cohesion you require. In short, this is a resounding affirmation of the system’s strengths and an utilization of its better aspects in a truly masterful fashion.
To spell it out for you: I consider this book a masterpiece, 5 stars + seal of approval…oh, and make that an EZG Essential, if you will – this book is absolutely required for any campaign I will ever run with PFRPG.
If you don’t have it already, you can get this gem right here on Paizo!
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