This massive supplement clocks in at 90 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 85 pages of content. It should be noted that the pages adhere to a 1-column standard and the pdf is formatted for an 6” by 9” (A4)-booklet size-standard – if you print this out, you could potentially try to fit multiple pages on one sheet of paper, but I would not recommend that here, due to some elements of the layout. Instead, I’d suggest going for the PoD-softcover. My review is primarily based on the print version of this supplement, which was kindly provided by one of my patreons, with the task of finishing a review of this pdf at my earliest convenience.
All right, so the default OSR-rules-set for this supplement would be Labyrinth Lord, though conversion to other rules systems is pretty simple. The vivimancer class gets d4 HD, 9-level spell progression and behaves basically like a magic user specialist. In basic games, only humans may be vivimancers, while in advanced games, elves and half-elves also qualify, capping at 11th and 10th level, respectively. For our convenience, the level-progression and save-tables have been reproduced.
Magical research is unlocked at 9th level, and 11th level usually provides a stronghold. House-rule options for the transparency between vivimancer and magic-user tricks are included. Some vivimancer spells reference a save vs. polymorph, which is treated as the petrify/paralysis save.
But what is a vivimancer? Something absolutely awesome. I mean, everyone, at this point, knows necromancers. Well, vivimancers are just as creepy, if not more creepy: Scientists of life, often disturbing and amoral, who can twist the very forces of life to their very whims. Existing in the borderland between science and magic, they allow you to blend the weird and icky; or add science-fantasy to the game…or add some other thematic ideas. The magic per se can be reskinned in a variety of ways…but before we get to the magic per se, let me mention something I adore here:
You see, the spells the vivimancer gets reward planning and consideration – but they often require a bit of forethought: The concise rules for laboratories and their constructions is a dream. They fit on one page, are crisp and can easily be tied into e.g. LotFP’s magic-user lab-rules. They also present a resounding rebuttal to the notion that OSR-supplements don’t need or require precise rules or that they restrict imagination – this page is beautiful. Similarly, the concise rules for experimental subjects and tissue samples taken are BEAUTIFUL. Oh, and guess what? All rules fit on 3 pages, 4 with the table. And they can’t be misread. Old-school designers, take a cue here. This is how it’s done.
Now, the beauty of this crisp, extremely professional presentation continues with the spells:On the left-hand side of each page, you have the spell-name, duration and range, and if applicable, suggested houserules. Better yet: Houserules do actually include observations in how they impact game-balance, allowing the referee to make informed decisions about their inclusion. Now the spells are organized by spell level first, alphabetically second, and they are not only creative, their balance with regular magic-user options is pretty much impeccable as well: From the utility tricks like a not 100% reliable means of detecting poison (so no, it doesn’t wreck any plots) to binding familiars; from conjuring forth creeping homunculi to warp the bones of your victims, the spells evoke a very powerful leitmotif of biomancy: The manipulation of flesh to form pockets, to control hormones, to enhance senses or meld the flesh of victims all evoke a sense of the delightfully uncanny, with a tint of body horror thrown in for good measure. Surges of temporary life, accelerated bodily functions, absorbing faces (!!!), using insects as messengers – the classic tropes of witches etc. are blended with the strange and evocative for spells that fit perfectly and that feel somewhat…real, in lack of a better term. The magic generally feels like it could work as a strange form of pseudo-science, adding a sense of almost occult legitimacy to the spellcasting tradition.
Staunching or speeding up the flow of blood, reversible anthropomorphism, growing new appendages…have I mentioned the spell to decode the genome of a target? Artificial creatures can thus yield the name of their creator from their genome, while enhancements thereafter provide a similarly cool angle to pursue Reverting biology can be pictured as a means to offset the power of the vivimantic arts – with a sole focus on preparation and the modification of living tissue, vivimancy is potent, but ultimately, it is balanced ingeniously and perfectly via its limited focus and the means to undo its radical incisions into nature. And yes, dear fans of Jack Vance, the vats of creation, to a degree, represent the backbone and heart of this tradition. Need I honestly gush more about how amazing these spells are? I do? All right: When I read this book, I immediately felt compelled to convert the spells to ALL of the rules systems I play in. I absolutely adore this tradition and its superbly creative spells. Have I mentioned the 9th level option to create an artificial intelligence? The CONCISELY-presented psionic awakening? Have I mentioned how much I love how PRECISE and yet open the crunch herein is? And yes, if you don’t have a preferred psionics system, an option for the like is included among the appendices.
The book is not just the vivimancer and his spell-list, though: We also get a wide array of thematically-concise “magic items” – which may well be creatures in this case. Let me mention some names – they’re pretty much all you need to know: Assassin bug. Brain leech. Lockroaches. The latter are btw. stick insects that you can use to open locks. This could be straight out of a China Miéville novel. Lab equipment. Seeds that grow huts. A whole class of magical lenses. Let me quote something here: “This […] tree […] looks like a normal tree, bedecked in exotic yellow flowers. It is only upon closer inspection that one may notice that the tree is actually covered in a network of blood vessels. Indeed, if the tree’s flesh is cut, it will bleed…” And yes, they produce healing fruit…though eating that is a rather gruesome, bloody affair…Mandrake types, philters that prevent or enhance the fertility of the target creature (allowing for those delightful interspecies crossbreeds…), solvents that reduce to essential salts… these items are amazing in their creativity, their focus, their themes. Wands that instill spasms can also be found.
Oh, and yes, animal and plant mutations all get their own page of tables for randomly determining them, and we get a basic spell-list with 12 spells per level as well.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant hiccups. Layout adheres to a crisp and cleanly-presented 1-column b/w-standard with nice sidebars. The b/w-artworks sport the same style as the cover and can sometimes contain a bit disturbing visuals – but that lies within the nature of this magic. The pdf has no bookmarks, which constitutes a major comfort detriment that costs the electronic version 1 star – I’d strongly suggest going for the print version. The softcover has the name on the spine and is well-made, so yeah, get that one.
Gavin Norman’s “The Complete Vivimancer” is a joy to behold: Precise and to the point, it provides the glorious innovation that you can find in OSR-gaming and supplements it with tight, crisp and precise rules. The balancing of the spells makes sense; the spells are glorious and the magic items chapter is similarly glorious. In short, this supplement is FANTASTIC. This book is worth getting. Heck, even if you don’t like OSR-gaming, this should be worth its asking price: The material is inspired and warrants conversion. Yes, that good. Fans of dark fantasy or weird fantasy, LotFP, DCC, etc. should definitely consider getting this gem. In fact, if what I mentioned even remotely strikes a chord with you, then get this. I know that NONE of my campaign settings will ever lack the art of vivimancy. As an aside: A conversion of these guys may actually make running a cleric-less/divine magic less setting easier.
This is absolutely fantastic and one of my all-time favorite old-school rule-supplements. It should be part of the library of any self-respecting OSR-referee. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this inspired, amazing and evocative class/spellcasting tradition here on OBS!