Artifacts & Artifice Volume II
This massive hardcover clocks in at 378 pages of content, already disregarding front-end matter and the like – that’s the content.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a hardcover print copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased, critical review. My review is based on the hardcopy – I do not own the pdf-iteration.
This book shares a lot of its basic assumptions with the first volume, but there are also plenty of differences. We’ll begin with recapping the components that are the same. Feel free to skip ahead below, if you’re already familiar with the general set-up of these tomes.
The first 11 pages are there to explain the peculiarities of Infinium Game Studios’ unique approach to game design. These include house rules like using reward stars, but extend beyond that: The book explains its color-coded boxes and icons, and, more importantly, the FlexTale concept of scaling: Statblocks are quadded in 4 categories: Low level (level 1 -4), moderate level (5-8), advanced (10-15) and elite (15+). The notion of quadding applies to statblocks, of course, but also to the respective individual items. This section also presents a random treasure table for use with the book.
The massive book contains a total of 47 different magic items – which does not seem like an awful lot; however, essentially, there are 4 versions for each of the items contained within; picture that like lesser, moderate, mighty and greater iterations, for example. These items sometimes adhere to linear progressions, but the respective items do not necessarily just adhere to just being a sequence of straight increases in bonuses. Each of the items also comes with a so-called “wielder” – that would be a NPC Codex-style NPC that comes with a quadded statblock as well. If the NPC sports a mount or the like, quadded statblocks for said entity are also included. As always with Infinium Game Studios, the NPCs come with cut-copy-pasted rules-texts of class features and the like to reduce page-flipping. The consequence of these inclusions is that you have a ready-made NPC to introduce the item, but on average, that’s also 3 pages, more if familiars etc. are present. The builds themselves tend to fall on the valid side of things, but do not expect to get builds that will challenge groups consisting of power-gamers or ones with a high degree of system- and optimization- mastery. Archetypes are used, but no classes from ACG (not too sad there, admittedly), Occult Adventures, Ultimate Intrigue or Wilderness are included – in short, the builds are pre-ACG.
The amount of detail featured by the items in the book goes beyond the inclusion of NPCs. We have descriptions, effects explained, and each item notes a line of whether it’s part of a synergy set…and while the book doesn’t do much with this aspect, there are items like the magister runes, which can be chained, so there is a bit more going on here than in volume 1. Quirks of ownership are also noted, though in the absence of intelligent items, these sections are not necessarily universally useful, and are included due to consistence.
On the more useful side of things, there are notes for the discovery of the respective item, a section that comments on the ubiquity of the item in question, and text that contextualizes the item in-game regarding its notoriety. The items also include oftentimes interesting notes on how the item was developed – we get brief background stories about all items. One of the most useful components of the book is the section on rumors and lore, for there are no less than 4 tables: One is the default context, the second is information gained from key NPCs, one for townsfolk with names, and one for blindly trying to obtain information. These tables further help ground and contextualize the items n the context of the game-world. The book goes beyond that: Each item also comes with VERY detailed notes on hooks for the items in relation to classes, with general hooks included as well. Furthermore, the items come with mini-quests, which are essentially quest-structure outlines. These tend to be better than most adventure sketches one can find in comparable publications.
As for the formatting of the items, the book does an above-average job at properly formatting e.g. the construction notes and the like, but in the run-on-text, the book tends to be less consistent with formatting item- or spell-references, particularly if these do not refer to the respective item in question. It should be evident at this point, that the selling proposition, and the focus of this book, is different from the usual magic item books you’d see in PFRPG or 5e.
Instead of a focus on pure rules, the majority of the content herein is devoted to the context of the item within the framework of the game world; it’s not just about the items, it’s also about how they interact with the world. The default here is Infinium’s Aquilae setting, though there are absolutely no issues integrating them into the frame of fantasy settings. In a way, the aesthetics often can apply to the context of slightly grittier settings as well, focusing on a sense of plausibility. This focus on the context and ease of integration of an item into the game changes, thus, the central focus of the book’s appeal and makes it behave differently than most comparable item-supplements regarding where the value of this supplement comes from.
/End of BASICS
Okay, now let’s discuss the content herein! We begin this book with miscellaneous items, and one in particular that I consider to be a genuinely useful and pretty darn awesome one, the concoctarium. This item is essentially a portable alchemist’s lab. Not a kit, mind you, a lab. It also provides increasing decreases of Crafting costs for items, and the higher-level iterations net you the equivalent of Master Alchemist, and, in the highest level iteration, the Instant Alchemy feat. The item is heavy (20 lbs.), but seriously, from the padded suitcase containing it? I can see characters from Van Richten to similar folks carrying these around. As a relatively affordable option, this is a true boon to e.g. alchemists in mega-dungeon campaigns, or far from civilization. This is pure gold, and I love it. The fetish of the Insali that follows, then, would exemplify perhaps the most annoying item in the entire book, bracing you rather well regarding the ups and downs of the tome. This wand is essentially the annoying detect x item. Know how divinations have a bad reputation with many GMs for being annoying, as the PCs constantly detect, like those get in the way of nuanced storytelling? Well, what about a wand that covers them ALL, with between 20 and 100 charges per day, and some of the detect spells having daily caps? The low level iteration starts off as kinda okay: At will detect magic and detect aberrations, +3/day read magic. The high level version can detect magic, aberrations, good, evil, chaos, law, poison, secret doors, undead, demons, scrying, snares and pits, thoughts. And read magic, obviously. I like the concept behind these, as a kind of magical representation of paranoid tendencies, but in actual play, you’d have to be a pretty masochistic GM to throw one of these at your players. Design-wise, it is also less interesting, being essentially an accumulation of a lot of spells in a can. Mind you, there are lots-of-spells-in-a-can items herein that are imho better – hell’s bells, for example, have quite a massive assortment of “evil” options – from inflict wounds to dispel good and mass suggestion, these offer quite a bunch of thematically-consistent tricks. Do I like them from a design perspective? Not exactly, but I can see the value these might have for some games, and the bell weighs 140 frickin’ pounds! That is genuinely interesting. I mean, I can see PCs and adversaries alike thinking about how to carry these around, and I can picture an evil “bell warden” barbarian carrying one around for his overlord. It’s a small touch, but it is an interesting one that elevates the item.
Thankfully, the book has more to offer – what about the harp of infinite melodies, which nets you more bard spells known and more bard spells per day, as well as some properly codified bonuses? As a whole, I enjoy this one, though the additional spells require a Performance check versus DC 15 + spell’s level to access, which is just busywork rolling. I mean, come on, which bard beyond the lowest levels won’t be able to make this check every damn time? I can see this work at low levels, but the higher level iterations make this check busywork. The beautifully-drawn harp of sorrows is another instrument enhancing your bardic prowess, and features scaling sonic-based abilities, as well as a damage-increase for sonic effects. Magister runes are runes captured in crystal, which allow you to duplicate a variety of symbols, and which, as mentioned before, can theoretically be combined with each other.
So, all cool? Not always. Take the razor crystal – this item per se is interesting, in that it is an ingredient for e.g. alchemist bombs and other alchemical processes – a consumable, an additive, though this could be spelled out more explicitly. (Btw.: It should be handled with protective gear – it *is* sharp!) I like the item per se, with one exception: They note: “+30% radius of area of effect results from all Alchemy creations.” Does this extend to Craft (alchemy)? Rounded up or down to the next 5-foot-increment? No real clue. This does not render the item unusable, mind you – it just feels a bit clunky. On the plus side, an amulet that helps you stabilize and nets you diagnostic spell uses? Yeah, sure, why not. Some of these items also, theme-wise, tie into being kinda akin to components – like the stone/earth/petrification-themed abilities bestowed by gorgon teeth. These might not be necessarily super interesting regarding their abilities, but the context makes them stand out. What do I mean by this? The lore of the item makes their genesis founded in a kind of magical freezing of ailing people, like a strange variant of cryogenic freezing. That’s a genuinely interesting angle right there.
There are also items here that leave me kind of ambivalent: Dreadslime webs are one-use items that duplicate the web spell and add negative energy damage and debuffs to the fray. I like them, though their debuffing can be brutal. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that these would have made sense as weapons, instead of their current iteration. This, however, is admittedly a personal preference. Still, as a whole, this section delivered more consistently and in a more interesting manner than the entirety of the first book.
I fully admit to not exactly looking forward to the weapons covered in this book, as the first volume had many of its more pronounced design issues in the armor section; thankfully, the weapon-section *is* much better than the armor-section in the previous book. For one, the categorization of items regarding their enhancement bonuses is more consistent. On the other hand, the items also tend to do more interesting things. Not all of them, mind you, but to give you an example: Bludgeondarts not only deal more damage, they also add essentially the good ole’ Bigby hand spells (minus the WotC-iP, obviously – we’re talking Pathfinder here). This makes the dart (!!) actually useful, and there is a chance they may be reused. Nice. The focus on lore an in-game context can also be seen rather well with the bonespike – a cool-looking spear that increases its damage and adds debuffs, particularly on critical hits, versus vertebrate enemies.
Not all items are suitable for all campaigns: The blackhatch sabre would, for example, be an item that should be kept out of the hands of players with a more pronounced degree of system mastery. The weapon enhances bull rushes greatly, which is still fine and dandy. Up to +8 to critical hit confirmation rolls, though? OUCH. That being said, for each such instance, I can also point to e.g. a dagger made from an outsider’s pseudopod, with acid and poisonous abilities. I like this. A scythe with plenty of death related abilities on crits? Ouch! There are some neat angles here. A formal issue that may or may not be relevant to you: The write-up of the weapons does not classify them as the weapon type, which is relevant for proficiencies. Let’s take the pseudopod item – you’ll have to read the text and check the “additional ingredients” list to deduce the weapon type. The latter is btw. worth mentioning, for these can act in a way as ingredient lists. I really like that, as it grounds the items somewhat. And still “Counts as a +4 weapon” is technically not PFRPG rules-syntax, and is kinda bass-ackwards. This is particularly weird, considering that e.g. fingerblades (you know, those hardcore edgelord goth/black metal finger-rings, with a blade added to the front – and yes, I own a whole array of those, minus blades, obviously) are actually properly classified. I really like these, and there is more than one of these included in the book.
Potent bows and arrows for evil snipers can be found alongside lethal bone garrotes, which provide not only the required feats, but also suffocate you and may animate you from the dead, adding insult to injury for foes vanquished. These are btw. also correctly typified as mundane weaponry. Indeed, GMs and antiheroes will have quite a few potent items herein that tie in strongly with Aquilae’s lore – several items herein are based on the Dark Obelisks – from ioun stone like shards to obelisk mote bolts or obelisk shard swords. The latter force you to take the worse of the Fort- or Will-saves when hit, or be subject to an increasing array of crippling negative conditions. In the highest power-level, that’d be shaken, exhausted, staggered and frightened. Yep, that’s 4 saves, using, quite possibly, your bad save. Ouch. (This also contradicts the item’s text, which notes that the target gets to choose the saving throw used – which is it?) The item’s highest level iteration is also a longsword +4, inflicts an additional +4d8 negative energy damage to lawful targets, and 5/day, you can affect targets struck by chaos hammer, 3/day by bestow curse, and 1/day harm. These should specify their actions. And yes, that’s in addition to the previous save array. Priced at? 102,000 GP. There is no limit to the conditions caused, just for the added spell-like effects. You don’t have to be super familiar with PFRPG to note that this is an insanely strong item. A single hit can seriously neuter a target with bad luck for several rounds, and comparable items and effects usually have a “once you’ve saved, you’re immune to the effects for 24 hours”-caveat. These swords are essentially artifacts and, in Aquilae, they are associated with the devastating Dark Obelisks; the way they’re presented, though, and their pricing? Those are not ideal, to say the least. I challenge you to find a non-artifact weapon that is more powerful for the price. While pricing throughout the book is better than in the first one, these obelisk items tend to be seriously off.
Want another example of pricing being seriously off, one not based on something with serious in-game lore ramifications/context? Let’s take the scytheknife. It is essentially a dagger-like weapon, that starts off as a +1 weapon [sic!] that inflicts +1d6 bleed damage per hit, +2d6 bleed damage on critical hits 1/day, and that is returning. Returning is the equivalent of a +1 enhancement. As for bleed damage, there is a convenient special weapon property that’ll allow for comparison, namely wounding. Wounding is the equivalent of a +2 enhancement, and adds 1 bleed damage, which stacks with itself, and may be quenched with a Heal check. A +1 returning wounding dagger would hence be the equivalent of a +4 weapon, right? That’d clock in at 32,000 gp. Compare the scytheknife: Rules-wise, the item does not specify a DC to end the bleed effect. Its minimum bleed damage is equal to the effect of wounding. Its maximum effect is equal to the effects of 6 (!!) hits with a wounding weapon, not accounting for critical hits. Granted, the bleed caused by the scytheknife does not stack with itself, but it is still vastly superior to a regular item, right? Right. So, guess what the cost to purchase this one is? 9,400 gp.
I am so not kidding you. That is btw. the version for the lowest power-level. In short: The items herein tend to be SIGNIFICANTLY better than their brethren. To the point where the construction costs and values are glaringly off. They are not just subjectively too strong, but objectively, when seen in the context of PFRPG’s well-defined rules for making magic items. The consequence is a serious drawback of the book as a whole, and one that genuinely breaks my heart: It is VERY tough to determine for which groups the items would make for valid rewards. This may be less of an issue for experienced GMs, particularly if they prohibit making these items, but it doesn’t change the fact that the items, in the context of WBL-assumptions, are often simply overpowered as all hell. It also puts a burden of serious system mastery on the shoulders of the GM when determining when and how to award the items herein. Unless you think you’re up to this task, I can’t recommend this book to you.
The book btw. closes with 4 different “artifacts”, all of which are super-powerful (and not particularly interesting) spell-in-can-items, which only behave as high-end versions of other such items. These artifacts do not adhere to Pathfinder’s usual formatting for artifacts, lacking means to destroy them, and also coming with prices and construction notes, which is generally not a notion deemed to be an option. The artifact-wielders do get proper names and full-color artworks.
Editing and formatting are significantly better in this book than in the first tome on a rules-language level. On a formal level, the book does a good job, particularly for a one-man outfit. Layout adheres to Infinium Game Studios’ two-column full-color standard with color-coded boxes and icons – the book is easy to peruse. I can’t comment on the electronic version, but the sturdy hardcover is a pretty brutal book. The artworks for the items deserve special mentioning – gorgeous full-color artworks are provided for each and every one of them.
J. Evans Payne’s second Artifacts & Artifice book is better than the first one; there are less issues with items grafted together, weird bonus type stacking, and the like…and plenty of items herein are genuinely evocative and interesting. While I don’t like spell-in-a-can items, the sheer amount of lore and context does enhance some of them beyond their mechanics, and the book sports quite a bunch of items that genuinely made me smile.
And then there’s the elephant in the room, with the consistently botched pricing and associated power-levels. A GM not as profoundly familiar with PFRPG that introduces the items without prior checking will be pretty flabbergasted by how much they exceed the power-levels of comparable options. This, in and of itself, is a dealbreaker for many, and can seriously impact your campaigns.
And yet, I personally got some serious mileage out of the book.
And yet, I can see plenty of experienced GMs out there feel the same way. If you are careful about crafting, about how accessible you make these items, you’ll get a genuinely interesting book that benefits greatly from the significant lore aspects and details provided for the items.
Whether or not this is for you thus hinges on where you place your values, your emphasis. This objectively breaks the crafting engine, big time. Like its predecessor, it has a few odd glitches…but it also sports a genuinely interesting and versatile array of items. There are less issues in this one than in the first book regarding the details, and if you disregard the pricing-issue, you won’t find an item herein you can’t use. Whether and how you use them, however, is highly contingent on your campaign and GM-style.
…and, to be perfectly frank, this is my favorite objectively broken book in quite a few years. If this had focused a bit less on spells in cans, got the pricing right, you’d see me singing unmitigated praises here. There is a singularly interesting vision underlying this tome, and even the spell-in-a-can-like items never, not once, feel phoned in or entirely unremarkable – there always is that aspect of lore, that little twist, that makes them feel more interesting than they by all accounts should.
Which puts me as a reviewer in a weird place. Mechanically, I probably should rate this 3 stars, at BEST.
But as a person, I do genuinely feel that this deserves better; that, in spite of its glaring flaws, it doesn’t deserve to be called mediocre.
IF, and ONLY if you can stomach the issue regarding power-levels, if you believe you can judge them, contextualize them properly, price them and finetune their mechanics, or if you’d just disregard the whole construction/pricing-angle, then you should consider this to be a 4 stars book. That’s what this book is for ME as a person.
However, if you want consistence with established PFRPG items, if you are particular about power-levels in your campaign, then tread very carefully – for you, this is, at best, a 2.5 stars tome.
As a reviewer, though? As a reviewer, I can’t well say” I like the items, screw the rules, love some of this.” I was seriously tempted to do that, but it’d be unfair towards all the magic item books I’ve reviewed over the years. Which is why my official verdict can’t exceed 3.5 stars, rounded down.
You can get this massive tome here on OBS.
While my review is based on the PFRPG-version, there is also a 5e-iteration available here!
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