This massive book clocks in at 226 pages, 1 page front cover, 3 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page backer-thanks, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page of back cover, leaving us with 216 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
So, after a short introductory text, we kick off this massive tome with a treatise on the core-races in the context of the Pure Steam Campaign setting, which translates to each of the core races receiving different ethnicities – usually, this would be one or two distinct sub-species, all with distinct look, culture etc. -and rules-wise, studded with a selection of alternate racial traits to choose from to represent the unique roles they have within the context of the Pure Steam world – did you, for example, know that amber elves tend to be accomplished martial artists? Or that the orcs (here known as Jonnish), are actually accomplished metallurgists and much more civilized? Over all, this chapter provides a neat array of balanced options and enough cultural information for the respective ethnicities, including those of the humans, to make a character feel distinct in the racial choice.
The next chapter then would deal with class options, explaining in detail the roles of the established pathfinder classes within the context of Pure Steam, before delving into the two new base classes, first of which would be the Chaplain, who fluff-wise is much more common in the secular Ulleran nation than clerics. Chaplains get d8, 4+Int skills per level, 1/” BAB-progression, good fort- and will-saves, proficiency with simple weapons and light armors and they may cast divine spells spontaneously via charisma, of up to 6th level. It should be noted that chaplains do not require the F or DF-components when casting spells and they also receive Eschew Materials at 1st level, rendering them just about autonomous from material foci for spellcasting. But what is the chaplain’s role? Well, first of all, they are the agents of organizations – from a illuminati/freemason/skull-n-bones-style elitist secret order to the botanist red-cross like Treefoil Laurels and the academic agents of the magistracy, tasked to keep society in check and afloat, these organizations could be understood as a kind of chaplain’s bloodline – they net class skills, organization spells and specific abilities for the organizations as well. My only gripe with these organizations would be that the class could have used more – this is definitely the point to expand the class.
Being the class of masters of rhetoric, the chaplains are the people who maintain the ideals of civilization and enlightenment – and as such, their very personality and mien carry power – gravitas. Gravitas can be used 1/2 class level + cha-mod times per day – the words inspiring one target who can hear the chaplain, +1 creature for every two class levels. Using gravitas is a supernatural ability that can be activated as a standard action and does not provoke AoOs. Gravitas nets its recipients 1d6+cha-mod temporary hit points, or can be used to inflict the same amount of nonlethal damage to foes on a failed will-save, half on a successful save- these guys can literally talk you into oblivion! Gravitas cannot become lethal damage and temporary hit points do not stack, their interaction working rather fine.
Gravitas scales upwards and increases in potency at 3rd level by +1d6 and continues to scale upwards every 2nd level thereafter. Furthermore, at 3rd level and every 3 levels after that, the class learns one of 25 elocutionary talents – while some are passive and increase the capabilities of the chaplain in various fields, the majority allows the chaplain to modify the gravitas ability – to provide an example, instead receiving class-level + cha-mod temporary hit points, but also a scaling bonus to atk and weapon damage. Increased ref-saves and AC, the corresponding debuff – generally, the gravitas effects are rather neat. Two of these talents deserve special mention – Interdiction and Subjugate. Both have in common that they have an array of options, with interdiction allowing the prevention of readying items, weapons, etc., autonomous movement, spells or spell-like abilities or attacks/hostile actions on a failed save. If this list has not been an indicator – these interdictions are VERY powerful, even though they allow for repeated saves on subsequent rounds. The subjugate talent has a similar array of very powerful options, and both have one thing in common – they’re out of touch with the balancing of the other elocutionary talents – they are vastly superior to them. Now I’m not a fan of save-or-suck abilities and these both somewhat qualify for that…though the limited range of gravitas keep me from screaming OP. It’s weird, really – the versatility and power of these two options feel somewhat out of line with the other talents Interdiction is a worse offender here, with subjugate being powerful, but still in line. Now this is not enough to break the class, but it does stick out due to the whole rest of the chaplain being pure awesomesauce and one of the coolest classes I’ve seen in quite a while.
The second new base-class would be the gearhead, who receives, d6, 4+Int skilsl per level, good ref- and will-saves, 1/2 BAB-progression, proficiency with light armors, simple weapons, firearms, exotic crossbows and repeating/hand crossbows as well as any weapon he crafts. Gearhaead also learn contraptions from level 0 to 9, with the amount per day being in line with prepared spellcasting. So what are contraptions? First of all, they require schematics, which can be written into a draft book, akin to book-based spellcasting. Learning new schematics follows guidelines similar to that of wizards learning new spells and generally, they are tied to int as a governing attribute. Now the interesting thing here would be that, unlike spellcasting, a gearhead prepares a limited amount of contraptions per day and then powers them via charges – they receive separate charges for every level, though, making the system a combination of prepared spellcasting and spontaneous spellcasting – while they have to prepare contraptions from their selection, the actual activation adheres to spontaneous spellcasting rules. While complex, the gearhead may hand his contraptions to allies, who can activate them via successful knowledge (engineering)-checks, adding a further level of uniqueness to what otherwise would be a relatively conservative system in its components – the reconfiguration of the systems, though, is nice, unique, and well-explained.
Now you should not be surprise to hear that the Gearhead receives bonuses to Knowledge (engineering) or that he learns to jury-rig items, receives faster crafting/repairing etc. At 5th level and every 5 levels thereafter, the class receives one innovation from a selection of 5, allowing for the allocation of higher-level activation charges to lower level contraptions, miniaturized contraptions etc. – essentially, the arcane discoveries of the class.
At 1st level, the gearhead also needs to select a scientific specialty (or opt out of that in favor of the physicist specialty) – this specialty nets an additional contraption slot of each contraption level that needs to be filled with a contraption that only utilizes this specialties’ schematic sources. The specialties also net unique benefits over the levels. Once again, this is probably where expansion will be easy – only 3 such specialties are provided, though they are cool: Steam blasts and penumatic armors? Now you should be aware that one specialty allows the gearhead to regain charges via electricity resistance, so if a druid or other class receives and eel or similar minor electricity-damage-dealing creature, that means unlimited activations. The pdf mentions “only one charge per encounter”, which is bad design – see example, see all my rants à la “Per-encounter makes NO SENSE.” Easily cheesed, that one – needs tighter wording.
Now how do contraptions work? Well, essentially it’s a relatively simple DiY-system – up to 3 schematics can be combined at higher levels and the more schematics you use for a contraption, the lower is the maximum level – a 4th level contraption could e.g. feature one 4th level schematic or a 3rd +1st level schematic or 3 1st level schematics or a 2nd level +2 0-level schematics – a concise table delivers possible combinations at one glance. You then choose schematics (which have sciences assigned – essentially, the spell schools of the contraption) and saves are 8+ contraption level + int-mod, with save-interaction etc. being explained in easily grasped and concise terms. Special note should be given to the dice-maximum of damage, which prevents cheesing the system while maintaining flexibility. Target schematics allow you to generate cones, bursts, etc., essentially allowing you to modify the “target”-line – augments that increase the level of the contraption are also part of the deal here – bigger bursts, higher levels. It should be noted that both burst and line augments have been errata’d up by +1 level, which the pdf does not yet sport – adding in the errata should be done soonish -having to look for it online is not good customer service. Apart from this grumpy guy complaining here, the amount of effect schematics, which include acceleration, elemental damage, homing beacons, detect-effects, mind-control and the like, make for delightfully twisted ways to tinker and combine the various effects – and yes, teleporting, flight and at the highest level, even time stop, are possible. Over all, a nice, cool system that works better than words of power and similar DiY-systems I’ve seen. Kudos!
Now of course, a pathfinder book of this magnitude also offers new archetypes, which range from glorious (the poison-gas using fumigant-alchemist with his toxin bombs et al and the moonshiner, to note two) to the okay unarmed pugilist fighter. The barbarian civil bedlamite, driven insane by society and prone to shooting sprees should also be explicitly mentioned not only for the cool fluff, but also for the simply awesome concept. The non-lethal monk-police widowmen also deserve accolades for being so awesome in concept I would wnat to play one, even if the actual rules, while good, could use more unique ki-tricks. I won’t go into details here, mainly because otherwise this review will never be done. What I do need to mention is the table of optional class AC-bonus by level based on proficiencies the base class receives, which is generally a nice way to keep classes relevant in settings that sport firearms – the bonus is retained regarding touch AC. Now after doing the math, though, I felt the bonuses too conservative myself, but your mileage may vary.
Where there are archetypes, there are feats, introducing a new subtype with calibration feats – essentially metamagic for contraptions. The default setting assuming a scarcity of clerics and divine healing, the feats herein that improve mundane healing (and even allow for raising the recently deceased, CPR-style) should be considered a godsend for grittier campaign settings (or those where the gods are gone…). Feats increasing prowess in specific fighting styles and class features are also nice, though the absence of a concise feat-table proves to be somewhat of a comfort detriment.
Now the equipment section deserves special mention – while prices are in $, the currency of Pure Steam (with an artwork of said currency, btw.), the prices can easily be converted to gold on a 1 by 1 basis. And the items are awesome – quarterstaffs with gunpowder-blasts generating eds? Check. Elven fragmentation grenade-style arrwos? Check. Gnome rocket pistols? Yeah. Special materials like asbestos and stainless steel or vulcanized rubber are provided alongside one damn cool innovation – manufacturing signatures: Essentially, special manufacturers modify the hardiness, efficiency etc. of the base items purchased, making these a kind of simple templates that can be applied to mundane items – the idea is simple, elegant and downright brilliant, with 6 sample manufacturers provided – to give you an example – you can get cutting edge versions that net bonuses, yes, but at the price of the item breaking on natural 1s. Ferrotype cameras, daguerrotypes (read “House of the 7 Gables”, if you haven’t…), gas masks, wing backpacks… from telegraphs to penny dreadfuls, this chapter is truly glorious as an idea-mine for any post-medieval setting.
Now there would also be technology -essentially, this chapter provides examples galore to convert magical items of just about every nature and their properties into equivalent technological items, before introducing us to specific examples of technological items like automatic lock picks, dark-vision granting goggles etc. The general ideas here are simple and range from copies of the magic items with a slight twist to new ones. Where I’m a bit stumped here would be in the interaction with magical crafting and magic in general – can they be enchanted etc.? Now don’t get me wrong, I get that these are supposed to replace magic, but in a world that sports both, questions of whether these work in e.g. anti-magic fields, can be used to counterspells etc. should be addressed.
Now the next chapter provides vehicles…and had me grin from ear to ear – Gyrocopters and bikes? Valkyria Chronicles-style steam-tanks, war zeppelins… Glorious, I want more! Now personally, I think a house-rule that decreases the imho-too-high driving DCs established in Ultimate Combat makes sense for such a world and I encourage Pure Steam groups to decreaseit to make the most out of these great vessels.
Now the next chapter would be devoted to Ullera, the allotopia of an early America, if one will – flavor-wise between pulp novels, wild west and industrial revolution, rights wise after the civil war, Ullera and its overall flair produce a thoroughly American vision of steampunk surprisingly fresh and captivating to read The continent and its ethnicities, the nations and races in conflict and the overall aesthetics are surprisingly fresh, especially when compared to many a European steampunk-world as crafted, as they often tend to resort to name and event-dropping for the reader to establish a sense of cohesion. Ullera does not require this, painting a sensible, smart political landscape, providing interesting factions (alas, sans prestige-benefits or the like) and even quite an assortment of settlements (with full statblocks) and sample NPCs – enough to kick off a campaign, surely, but the thing is – I’d want seriously more. The setting material is compelling and interesting, yes, but due to the vast amount of pages devoted to the crunch, there simply isn’t that much space to develop the setting, leaving us with a great first look, but one that cannot be considered deeper than a broad gazetteer’s panorama.
Bestiary-wise, we are introduced to unique flora and fauna and recieve a somewhat eidolonish, very complex and rewarding system to create constructs of various kinds, so-called armatures – this toolkit is fun and well-worth a look for the DM, with cool effects like positive and negative polarity, net-launchers…you name it.
The book also contains the introductory adventure “Trouble in Grassy Spur” for 1st level characters, which I’ll give a VERY brief run-down of now, so potential players, please jump down to teh conclusion. From here on reign SPOILERS.
All right, still here? After a short gazetteer of the fully mapped Grassy Spur (which includes a half-pneumatic cat with a nasty temper -who receives a great artwork, that is unfortunately slightly blurry), the PCs are contacted by Mayor Wyatt to foil an anarchist’s plan and after a short investigation and a stand-off at the cathedral, the PCs will have to flex their investigative muscles to prevent the bombing if a railroad bridge and a steam wagon finishing the job. Worse, the anarchists have a second team inside the train, so the PCs will have to navigate the train and defeat the remaining bombers on the train, as it hurtles slowly, but steadily towards oblivion…. As a nice mechanical innovation, there are so-called exploits provided – these represent temporary buffs for achievements that are just cool or bonus XP – neat!
Editing and formatting is surprisingly good – especially for a book of this size, by a new company, the relative lack of rules-ambiguities, punctuation errors etc. is astounding – the editors did a good job. Layout (by Jameson McMaster)adheres to a drop-dead-gorgeous, two-column standard with full color-borders, but not background. The tome features a vast array of different artworks in b/w – Mates Laurentiu, Alejandro Lee and Chris DeHart have all managed to adhere to one uniform style that provides a unique and cohesive look for the book. It should be noted that almost all NPCs, archetypes, vehicles, etc. and beyond receive their own artworks, all original. That’s impressive indeed and rest assured that only one of the artworks (in the module) is a bit blurry – all other artworks are crisp indeed. Speaking of which, cartography goddess Alyssa Faden (& Robert Altbauer)’s maps are awesome as well and fit in perfectly with the tone set by layout and artworks, though I wished there was a key-less version of the adventure’s map. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The hardcover is a solid book crammed full of content to the brim – the spine feels a tad bit small for the book, but binding is solid and the paper is thick and high-quality – nothing to complain there.
When I backed this book as a KS back in the day, I never expected to see the book. A new publisher, sans new work, asking for a significant sum? Pff. Yeah right. And then, suddenly, this hit shelves. I postponed reading it, admittedly, mainly because crunch-intense books are a huge workload at this length and because I didn’t think the inexperienced ICOSA Entertainment company had much to offer. I am glad to have been proven wrong.
Adam Crockett, Brennan Ashby, Davin Perry and L. James Wright have crafted an array of options I consider truly impressive – the Chaplain in particular hitting my soft spots VERY hard – I’d love to see expansions of that one. The Gearhead’s contraptions and class design also proved to be much more watertight than I anticipated and the system introduced there is fun indeed. The setting itself is compelling, intriguing, and offers inspiration and fodder galore as well. That being said, once one takes to analyzing the content, here and there some rough edges show up, some of which I highlighted in the review. While these are in the minority and their scarcity being impressive at a book of this length, they still are there. Aloe, though, they would have not been enough to be considered a true detriment, which should be considered a testament to how utterly professional this tome is crafted in all regards. That being said, personally, I think the interaction magic/technology and the conversion of magical into technological items could have used more room, more peculiarities to grow – the touched upon “batteries” of these items, codified in rules or a direct opposition à la Amethyst Renaissance would have been cool to see – as written, that chapter proved to be a relatively conservative reskin.
The crucial, one issue of Pure Steam is a different one – the book does not really know whether it wants to be a core-book or a campaign setting. Much like Alluria Publishing’s Cerulean Seas, the setting-information feels more like a tack-on than it should, especially since here, the focus on the setting is much more pronounced. It is my firm conviction, that separating this into two books, one for all the crunch (and more than 3 paltry chaplain organizations, more than 3 gearhead specialties) and one containing a full-blown, detailed campaign setting, would have benefitted both components of the book – on their own, the respective parts are awesome, but both leave you feeling that you only have an incomplete picture of what is going on, of not getting the whole. It should be at once deemed a testament to the virtues of this book that both crunch and setting left me wanting more, and as the crux of it trying a bit too hard to be both massive core tome and setting-supplement, landing somewhat between the chairs.
It is more this, than the relatively scarce glitches, that keep Pure Steam from receiving my highest honors – this book is currently THE definite steampunk resource for pathfinder, with production values of the higher echelons and great ideas galore. It should also be considered a first step into the captivating world woven, one that hopefully will see supplemental material in the years to come. My final verdict will clock in at a heartfelt 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 and a must-buy recommendation for all fans of steampunk.