Bloodlines & Black Magic
#1 of my Top Ten of 2018
This massive campaign setting/supplement clocks in at 258 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page KS-thanks, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 252 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Okay, so first of all, it’s pretty evident that, with a book of this size, a detailed analysis of every piece of mechanical content within would bloat this review beyond any utility (and probably drive me stark, raving bonkers), so please be aware that I’m interested in the big picture regarding this game/supplement.
So, Bloodlines & Black Magic isn’t simply a campaign setting for PFPRG – it is, in the parlance of old-school games, a so-called “hack”; i.e. a heavy modification of the base engine and its assumptions. The requirement of these heavy modifications is predicated on the setting, which assumes our own modern world, as seen through a glass darkly. Setting and rules are entwined in this game/setting to a degree that is rarely seen, and no concept encompasses this notion more than the underlying “O7”, Occult 7 assumption. Bloodlines and Black Magic assumes a maximum character level for the PCs of 7th, building on the tradition of E6-based games that began to spring up during the heyday of the d20-era.
This obviously has a couple of mechanic repercussions; for one, it means that the game takes place exclusively within the frame of what most people consider to be the “sweet spot” of PFRPG, i.e. where the math and rules work best. Important to note, though, would be the fact that this cap does not apply to adversaries and supernatural beings, which means that the playing experience remains one of danger throughout. The emphasis of the game is centered more on a narrative angle, and on the use of brains over brawn. This change of focus is also represented in a variety of different assumptions regarding the game itself – for example, the book explicitly states that the vast majority of humans in the world only are 1st level commoners or experts, establishing a generally low power-level. Similarly, the game focuses not on grinding for XP – every encounter is supposed to have meaningful repercussions, and in a world, where many of us are time-starved, I most certainly can get behind this general notion. This also means that prep-time for the GM remains pretty manageable – and if you’re like me and had to redesign a whole AP’s monsters time and again to make them challenging for your players and PCs, you’ll most assuredly appreciate this.
Rules-wise, there is progression beyond 7th level – when you’d attain the 8th level, you’d get a bonus feat or the option to a class feature, though such features must be taken in sequential order that you’d usually gain them. These changes of durability obviously require some knowledge from the GM, but thankfully, the book does contain an assortment of different pieces of advice regarding the implementation of the rules within, which e.g. also extend to how magic items are handled, feasible caps for gold and CRs and the like. With “only” 7 levels of play, level 1 – 2 are called “novice”, 3-4 expert, 5-6 “veteran” and level 7…? Well, these are legends.
Character base power-level assumes either 4d6, rolled 6 times, dropping the lowest result, or point-buy, which ranges from 10m to 14 and 21. Ability scores cap at 19 at the start of the game, and at 21 later – this is the maximum your character can attain. Ability score increases are awarded at 3rd and 7th level.
So that would be the mechanical foundation – but you’re probably asking yourself at this point where the whole “occult” angle comes into play. Well, let me get to that: You see, the assumption of the setting is pretty classic, in that it assumes a hidden, magical reality. Our perceived subjective reality is deemed to be an illusion, one crafted by the so-called Archons – who are basically the supernatural masters of the world. These individuals are NOT kind, they are NOT caring, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They rule via essentially institutionalized and culturally perpetuated control mechanisms, and as such, a selection of global elites act as potential agents for the agenda of Archons, willing or ignorant. The notion of elites controlling the world is very much real herein. The Archons have instigated the current order in part as a response to the Goetic Spirits from Christian mythology, which, while mostly banished from the civilized and established order of the Archon’s society, these spirits still retain their power, and haunt the natural world, allowing you to potentially explore the notions of civilization vs. nature on a supernatural level. These entities are also not benevolent, in case you were wondering.
The inability of most humans to perceive the truth is based on the “Veil” – if that reminded you of Pelgrane Press’ excellent Ocean Game settings, you’d be partially correct. The Veil establishes a combination of mundane and supernatural membrane of sorts; the combination of talent and cultural conditioning in association with very real power simply makes a majority of supernatural occurrences not something that may be properly processed – at least not without being deemed as insane by the current cultural paradigm. In a way, this makes Bloodlines and Black magic more plausible to me than Ocean Game, for the setting’s core tenets do assume that, you know, the majority of people and their world-view shape what is deemed to be “truth” regarding a world, its laws and what may or may not happen. With magic potentially eliminating the cold and hard facts of reliable empirical evidence, the notion of the supernatural becomes essentially impossible to prove or disprove, and even the notion of its existence becomes fraught with peril.
This is a leitmotif of sorts, for while most characters receive the Pierce the Veil feat at 1st level, which allows them to see this world’s equivalent of the Real, or at least a higher-level symbolic order in terms of Lacanian psychosemiotics, this is not a trait shared by the common populace – and as such, the explanation of the maintenance of ignorance and Veil is ultimately very plausible without requiring elaborate conspiracies to maintain: There is no competence required by a shadowy cabal, as the conventionalized and preconceived notions of reality act as a control mechanism in and of themselves. This is, as far as I’m concerned, an incredibly clever way of dealing with the very concept underlying the book…and, in a clever further take, this, as most scholars will know, is also something that pretty much represents the notions of pretty much every occult world-view perpetuated throughout the ages: the hidden world, and how it is closer to a divine “truth” that helps transcending the limits of mortality and our day to day condition humana.
Those would be central leitmotifs, and at this point, you probably do get what this book is about; to dive more into the respective details:
Bloodlines and Black Magic has a smart trait system, with each trait representing the type of awakening to the truth of the world, and each of them has been associated with one of the tarot deck’s arcana, once more tying mechanics to in-and out-game practice – you can literally “draw” your trait, if you’re so inclined. These also are studded with actual flavor that serves to further underline the depth and integrity of the subject matter. “What is the smell of the number 7, or the taste of the color orange, or the wisdom in the hummingbird’s song? You saw some sliver of this enlightenment…” to quote one of the different flavor-texts. Much to my pleasure, the rules-integrity of these traits is pretty impressive, using untyped bonuses only in instances where highly circumstantial applications make stacking very much intentional, and otherwise, with pinpoint precision, choosing bonus types rather well. Okay, there is one instance of a capitalized “Dodge” in a “dodge bonus”, but other than that, this is a pretty impressive engine tweak that serves to cohesively highlight the distinct nature of the game.
The game also knows a threshold score – a value that reflects how well the PC can cope with supernatural weirdness. If the Cr or spell level is equal to or less than your level, you can seamlessly process it as part of your reality; anything higher requires a so-called Paradigm check, a Will save vs. DC 10 + level or CR + situational modifiers. Failing this check sees a paradigm shift in the world-view of the character, and this is more than just a type of sanity; since the “sane” world is an arbitrarily-defined and contextualized concept, perception or reality and indeed, how the world interacts with the character, may be influenced. This is, in short, a kind of Entfremdung (estrangement) from the natural order that may manifest in a plethora of different and exciting ways that can range from the paranoia-inducing to the wondrous, but weird. The fact that the book chooses to go this way is exceedingly smart, as it sets the game apart from all other sanity-based systems, instead proposing a world-view once more in line with several Gnostic models. A failure in a Paradigm check also nets you Paradigm Points. Resting 8 hours lets you reduce these by up to character level, and whenever Paradigm points reach a total of threshold times 5,m the maximum threshold increases by 1, resets to 0 and at every odd threshold score, you gain an oddity – a semi-supernatural effect that represents one of the positive results stemming from estrangement from the perceived and conventionalized reality – like being loved by birds, having tattoos seemingly move once in a while and the like. In a way, this score could be seen as a dual representation of how far you may see beyond the conventionalized reality, but also as a means to determine how estranged from the lived in world of a majority of the populace you have become. In short: It is very clever.
In the absence of fantastic races, the eponymous bloodlines take the place of what we usually would associate with racial features. 7 such bloodlines are provided, and they adheres to the usual +2/+2 to an ability score paradigm. While there are instances here where bloodlines tend to be e.g. more suitable for certain classes (due to e.g. a focus on two boosts to ability scores), the changed paradigms resulting from O7-gameplay and the lack of escalation regarding stats actually mean that these lopsided racial traits matter less and thus are exempt, for once, from my usual derision regarding such a focus. The book also does not present a unified race for each bloodline, instead opting to provide a BP-budget (7, of course!) that you can spend for individualized racial abilities granted by your magical bloodline. It should also be noted that trauma, saving a life and the like may all result, in a way, in you exhibiting a bloodline or activating your latent powers. It should also be noted that this section mentions magical diseases that affect said bloodlines…
But how does that work with weirdos curing wounds left and right? It doesn’t. Bloodlines and Black Magic does something I’m a huge fan of – it limits the available character classes to prevent a sense of suspension of disbelief-breaking assumptions implicit in many classes. The 7 classes available for play are brawler, investigator, mesmerist, occultist, psychic, slayer and spiritualist. These choices, to me, are smart, and modified class tables for the classes are provided, with all the relevant features – you don’t need e.g. ACG or Occult Adventures to make use of this game. Skills have also been expanded and adapted, with Computers, Craft (chemicals) (which includes rules to make drugs, explosives and poisons and the like),l Craft (electronics) or Craft (mechanical) tightly codified. Street replaces Knowledge (local) and Knowledge skills have been tightly redefined. Drive, obviously, also is included.
A crucial difference in Bloodlines and Black Magic would btw. be that e.g. learning about how guns are used actually reduces your nonproficiency penalty – the system allows for the learning of skills and character growth via roleplaying as a hard-coded components of its intrinsic assumptions – something I wholeheartedly applaud. Beyond the race and class, a character in Bloodlines and Black Magic has a career, distinguishing between 6 general career groups, and denoting salary by one of 4 tiers within the respective career – PCs are assumed to range in the 1 – 3 tier region, but the table does note the tier 4 information as well. These come with monthly income modifiers, associated skill groups and a selection of talents grouped by tier, which represent a meaningful second array of character features – almost like you had gestalted lite. Each career also has associated ability score modifiers, in case you were wondering. There also are non-path careers, which are more suitable for NPCs or as secondary careers – these only have 1 tier.
The chapter that deals with feats not only presents a massive amount, it also clearly places the control in the hands of the GM, but also provides guidelines for the players, emphasizing once more conceptual and setting integrity over the sheer mechanical aspects of the game. Some feats, like Improved Dodge, just list their modified prerequisites. And you’ll love your dodge bonuses, for Bloodlines and Black Magic does not assume there to be a wide availability and use of armors, instead focusing on what we would consider a more “!realistic” approach. Drawbacks and flaws are also ingrained within the system, and the book champions something I very much enjoyed, namely degrees of proficiency with regards to language – it takes 3 ranks to truly master a language, getting rid of one of the most aggravating aspects of core PFRPG.
Of course, a modern context also requires a proper gear-chapter, which include covering fire, burst fire, automatic fire, spray and pray attacks, aiming and easy to implement recoil mechanics. While guns are great and all…they once more interact with the core assumptions of the game in unique ways: If you can Pierce the Veil, you also become known to the respective entities, and gunsmoke-blessed creatures, which are immune to firearms, may well be attracted to characters under the delusion of being Rambo or Ahnooold. This is not a game of mowing down legions of mooks.
Armor, in case you were wondering, does btw. have a DR and a damage total they can absorb before requiring repair/replacement – this is clever, in that it helps well-equipped teams to prepare – it emphasizes brains over brawn, preparation and smarts and legwork over murder-hoboing.
Magic btw. is influenced by potent sites and holy days, and in-game, there are 7 occult schools (with traditional spell schools noted in brackets) – and magic must be handled carefully. The base assumption is that, normal people just snap when confronted with irrefutable proof of magic. Lobbing that fireball in the crowd? It’ll seriously frenzy the targets, as their worldview can’t cope properly, making your situation much more dire. Once more, the application of magic isn’t nerfed explicitly, it instead uses implicit restrictions that reward engaging with the setting within the internal logic it presents, while punishing behavior that would contradict the internal assumptions. It does so in a way, though, that is very much not punitive, but rather an extension of risk-.reward ratio calculations that PCs and NPCs both need to be aware of. Spells include means to broadcast visions, glitch mechanical or technological items, and with sing the tenfold song of essential names, the target is forced to sing the names of their ancestors, in the process revealing their true name… Speak with the soul of the city allows you to contact the genius loci of a city and ask it questions, and rituals are handled with the much-beloved incantation-engine, which folks will know from Kobold Press, zombie Sky Press, Storm Bunny Studios, Drop Dead Studios, etc.. A couple of cantrips for pseudo-awakened commoners are also included.
Annie Oakley’s Silver, Cortana, the shortsword of Ogier the Dane, the cards of Crowley – the book contextualizes magic items and implements and the like in a way that makes them feel more relevant. As an aside – yes, the book does have a planar model: The ethereal world represents the ghost world, the astral is the realm of ideas, and both celestial and infernal planes are places you really don’t want to end up. Trust me. To facilitate integration of PFRPG content, there is a magical currency introduced, one called “dosh”, and the book presents a surprisingly concise array of pieces of advice that allow the Gm to better implement the game’s assumptions and craft plots. NPC classes, notes on the Archons and their suspected abilities…oh and did I mention the secret societies? They not only come with flavorful write-ups, they also provide feat unlocks, and several signature abilities. From the order of St. Cyprian to Umbra Dei to the Omeag Association, there are plenty of unique and fun ones here – and it is pretty obvious what the real life inspirations for many of them are. Why not use the proper names? Well, if you’re even remotely familiar with the occult community(ies), you’ll know that some of these lodges and orders don’t take kindly to having them made more public – or to have their names used in certain contexts, so it’s also a means to avoid litigation. The book also provides a serious array of brief fluff-only sample personalities, several templates, and the final chapter is devoted to powerful sovereigns – agents of higher power, who come with full stats. This chapter also provides stats for a Goetic Spirit, which makes it pretty evident that it’s a bad, bad idea for PCs to attempt to tackle these guys sans a serious plan.
It should also be noted that the book contains a very unique character sheet that is aesthetically-pleasing, pretty round, and while book (smartly) devotes a couple of pages to explain how to use it, it actually works rather well.
Editing and formatting are very good on a rules language level, good on a formal level – I noticed e.g. one of the NPCs missing half a sentence among the section talking about associates and similar minor hiccups, but less of them than in previous Storm Bunny Studios books. Layout adheres to a surprisingly elegant 2-column b/w-standard, and the game comes with a unified aesthetic regarding its copious original b/w-artworks. This is an aesthetically-pleasing book, with, paradoxically, the cover being one of my least favorite pieces within. The book comes fully bookmarked with a plethora of nested bookmarks, making navigation simple. I unfortunately can’t comment on the virtues or lack thereof of the print version, since I do not own it. I really wish I did.
Okay, so first things first: This book did not get the attention it deserved during its kickstarter phase, and how it managed to come out this way, with such a shoestring budget, it seriously beyond me. In contrast to many such projects, the creators believed and continue to believe in the game, and continue to put out content – which I am btw. sure to cover. Seriously, though: It’s perhaps due to the pitch. O7 modern sounds pretty niche, when it really isn’t, at least once you grasp the appeal.
This is not yet another half-baked attempt to jam d20-based rules into a modern context not made for it; instead, Bloodlines and Black Magic ultimately represents a serious deviation from pathfinder’s core assumptions in playstyle, structure, power-level and underlying assumptions regarding power – all while retaining full compatibility with the system. This is a pretty impressive feat and means that you get to play a radically different game without learning new rules.
Clinton Boomer, Jaye Sonia, with development and design by Matt Banach, Stephen M. DiPesa, Erik Frankhouse, Tim Hitchcock, Ben McFarland, Justin Sluder, Brian Suskind, Bri A., and Mark R. Lesniewski, have created a book that knows one thing: “The Devil is in the Details” – both regarding what makes sense, and what can bring down a book; the previous weaknesses of Storm Bunny’s exciting settings often could be chalked up to small stumbling stones, and in this book, it is my pleasure to report that, while there are editing glitches herein, while not all feats may be exciting, the entirety of the book works in a way that no other modern d20-based game has for me.
It is detail-oriented in the right way; the focus away from super-heroic antics to the occult is smart; the implementation of the concept of the Veil and its repercussions on the world, from how the classes and their restrictions interact, from the gear to the magic, this entire book is very deliberately constructed by a cadre of inspired authors who obviously knew what they were doing. This works so well, because it doesn’t try to divorce setting from system, because it makes the correct incisions and expansions, and because all those design decisions are ultimately informed by one central demand, one core paradigm, namely the requirement to make the game feel concise and unique. In short: This game (and I consciously call it “game” and not “campaign setting”) is ultimately an impressive achievement that showcases how true passion can transcend limitations. How good is this? Well, it genuinely made me regret not being more excited about this before.
And here lies the crux – even with all my ruminations herein, you’ll only have touched upon the collective of small and concise design decisions that ultimately make up the collective appeal of this book, something that vastly transcends the sum of its parts, courtesy of a focused and smart vision that knows exactly what it wants to be and executes its vision without compromise. This may not have a “sexy” elevator pitch, but if modern dark fantasy or horror, if the occult or modern gaming even hold the remotest appeal for you, then please check out this book. This may genuinely be the best thing Storm Bunny Studios has released so far, a compelling vision like no other. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, and this also receives a nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018.
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