#5 of my Top Ten of 2017
The massive hardcover Ultimate-style book for Pact magic clocks in at 387 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page KS-thanks, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 376 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
I was a KS-backer for this book and as such, I have received the massive hardcover. My review is mostly based on the print version, though I have also consulted my pdf-iteration for it.
So, what is this book? The short tl;dr-version would be that it is for Pact Magic, what Ultimate Psionics was for psionics. A more detailed response would also note that this book is not simply a compilation of previously-released material; in fact, this massive grimoire does feature a lot of new material, material previously not seen for PFRPG and some massive tweaks to existing options.
So, what is pact magic? Well, the short reply would be that it was the original Pact Magic. First conceived in 3.5’s Tome of Magic, the system had some serious hiccups and balance-issues in its initial iteration, but at the same time, it was a revelation for me: The idea was that named spirits exist; said spirits have fallen past the usual confines implied by D&D cosmology and, from their in-between status, they hunger for the chance to interact with the realms of mortals. From legends to archetypical beings to strange demons, all kinds of weird spirits, some of which were influenced by the key of Solomon, were thus presented.
This system was greatly expanded in two massive hardcovers back in 3.X, “Secrets of Pact magic” and “Villains of Pact Magic”, both of which are undeservedly obscure and have a place of honor on my bookshelf. They tweaked the balance of the system, expanded it and made it more unique – and, more importantly for me, they rank as some of my favorite rule-books of that age – the spirits came with HUGE short stories depicting their legends, adding a vast amount of flavor to each of the options herein. Then, two stand-alone updates/expansions for PFRPG were released, expanding the concept and translating it to PFRPG, though these did cut back on the beloved legends I enjoyed so much. This book once again features a lot of legends, though some have been externalized to a short-story collection.
Fast-forward to this book, which presents basically the latest and most refined iteration of the concept. At the heart of this system lies the pactmaker class, which gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and good Fort- and Will-saves. The class adds +1/2 class level, minimum 1, to Knowledge (arcane), Knowledge (history), Knowledge (religion) and Knowledge (planes) and gains a bonus on these to research a spirit’s knowledge tasks, instead gains a bonus equal to full character level.
So, what are knowledge tasks? Each spirit has a specific, occult seal that is drawn by the binder: This seal and the spirit need to be researched via knowledge tasks – basically, these represent the effort to learn a spirit. This is important, in that there is no limit otherwise on spirits known, if you will: While a pactmaker can only bind spirits of 1st level in the beginning, he may learn all of them. New spirit levels are unlocked at 3rd level and every 2 levels thereafter and spirits are organized by levels, much like spells; the 9th level spirits being obviously the most potent. A pactmaker may bind multiple spirits at higher levels – 2 at 4th level, +1 one spirit every 6 levels thereafter. 7th level and every 6 levels thereafter allow a pact maker to replenish an expended spirit ability 1/day and the capstone makes spirit abilities count as extraordinary and allows for the ignoring of personality influences and also nets the class automatically the capstone empowerment. Bear with me for a second – those are spirit terms. 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter provide a choice of bonuses while bound to a spirit. Saves against abilities, generally, are determined by Charisma as a governing attribute.
And that is already pretty much the basic chassis of the class. Let’s move on to the basics of pact magic, shall we?
The term to denote a character using pact magic is “binder”; a binder level is the equivalent of the caster level, for the purpose of governing the spirit’s abilities. A binding check is a d0 + ½ binder level + Charisma modifier, and it is made upon summoning a spirit to determine the power of the pact. This requires a ceremony and a binder check versus the binding DC of the spirit in question – rushing the ceremony is possible, but results in massive penalties to the check. On a success of the check, the binder gets a good pact. A binder that makes a good pact can freely suppress the physical sign or minor granted abilities of being inhabited by the spirit (like horns, tentacles, weird voices, etc.) and suffers no penalty when acting against the spirit’s influence – basically, the personality of the spirit. If failing the check, he still gets the spirit, but makes a poor pact; the binder must exhibit the physical sign and suffers cumulative penalties when disobeying the spirit’s influence, lasting for 24 hours, even if the spirit if exorcised before that duration has elapsed. Suppressing a spirit eliminates all benefits, but also all penalties that may be incurred by having a spirit inhabit you. The process of making a good pact can be improved by using totems – basically optional material components or terrain components. Additionally, some spirits are more well or ill–disposed towards some races (favored allies and enemies), beings with certain alignments, class features, etc., while others reward those that call them in dark places, while stricken by illness, etc. the possibilities here are endless and tie in very well with the flavor of the spirits in question, rewarding players for caring about the story of their spirits.
Here is the catch: Spirits have three types of abilities: Minor abilities, which are always granted; major abilities, which are expended for 5 rounds after being used unless otherwise noted, and capstone empowerments, which are only gained when the spirit’s DC is beaten by 10 or more, making even low-level spirits retain their usefulness at higher levels.
It is not in the chassis of the pact-maker class or one of the numerous pact magic based class options that the system’s appeal lies; it is within the massive, colossal array of spirits. It should also be noted that most spirits are assigned to a constellation – upon binding them, the binder gains constellation aspects and these general affiliations double as thematic restrictions and schools of spirits if you will; you can focus on binding nature spirits…or fiendish ones…or those that hearken from the dark beyond. Whether you want to focus on slenderman-like entities or strange fey or on any combination of them, the spirits are here and allow for a wide variety of different types of character. And yes, benevolent spirits like cynical detectives that have fallen through the cracks of reality or basically saints can also be found – this is important to note, for pact magic, requiring less study thanb comparable magic and no divine oversight either, does carry with it the flavor of the forbidden, of the occult. And yes, there are starless, more obscure spirits.
As you may have gleaned by now, a strength of spirits lies in the way in which many of their abilities operate on a cool-down mechanic…and frankly, I went through this massive tome with my analysis, and rules-wise, there are precious few hiccups: To note two remarkable ones: The spirit Sevnoir, for example, heals you when inflicting damage to a creature suffering from a fear-effect. If you have a character with a fear-aura on hand, the 1/round caveat doesn’t prevent cheesing this via kitten slaughter.
At the same time, this book does predate the release of Occult Adventure regarding when it was worked on, and as such, unfortunately does not provide synergy with that glorious tome. Prestige classes, magic items, feats, special binder secrets (talents), spells, races, planes and organizations (apocryphal desert…nightmare weald…need I say more?) – the book has a ton to offer in crunch and I could bloat this review to 14, 20 pages even – easily, and still scratch the surface of what the book offers in terms of sheer content. There are some minor formatting inconsistencies to be found, with abilities that should be red showing up in black instead and the like.
There is one more thing you should be aware of: RAW, binders do NOT gain new spirits upon reaching new levels. While *personally*, I require downtime training to gain the benefits of a level up (I really dislike just *pling*, getting level-ups mid-dungeon…), I know that many groups do just that – in such cases, I’d suggest automatically gaining a spirit upon reaching a new level. So yes, this may be, for some groups, a drawback of the RAW engine, though one that can be houseruled away with ease. System-immanently, groups that do not engage in a lot of roleplaying as opposed to rollplaying will have a bit less fun with this, though please do take a look at my conclusion for what I mean by this.
I have to break my usual system of presentation here a bit in order to convey what this book provides, so let me prematurely interject my
Editing and formatting are good, but not perfect – I noticed a couple of hiccups here and there, some formatting glitches and the like; less than in many books of this crunch-density, but enough to notice. Layout adheres to a gorgeous 2-column full-color standard and the book comes with a TON of absolutely phenomenal full-color art; some of which was previously used and colored, but most is new. Each spirit has his/her/its own seal as a visual representation, so yeah, you can actually draw the seal, if that’s how you roll! The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks for your convenience and thankfully, the book has a massive, multi-page index that helps navigating this tome. The hardcover is a beauty to behold and well worth getting.
You know, as a person and as a reviewer, I generally tend to gravitate towards complex options; beautiful mathy constructs and subsystems that provide an interesting playing experience. I can honestly appreciate it when math works out, when some abilities do something utterly unique with complex rules operations. While certainly not simple in these regards, pact magic never reaches the complexity of akashic mysteries, ethermagic or similar systems. And still, it is one of my favorite systems ever.
I am not a sentimental man, so nostalgia is not the culprit here and it took me quite a while to deduce why pact magic works so well for me. There is no simple answer. One, though, would be that much like psionics, I can see it completely replacing the standard spellcasting classes for a completely different campaign experience, one steeped in occult lore, research…and one that makes magic more dangerous, feel more forbidden, medieval. In fact, I’m regularly stealing spirits from this book when playing OSR-games, breaking them down to the simpler rules of such systems. LotFP, LL, S&W – it works and fits thematically perfectly will the often more gritty aesthetics there. This has literally transcended the bounds of its system, at least for me – something only precious few books in my vast library achieve.
At the same time, the strength of the system, its appeal, does not lie wholly in its mechanics; pact magic, to a degree, is the original occult magic, prior to Occult Adventures. In my review of Paizo’s phenomenal hardcover, I commented on the fact that I love how player agenda AND character agenda are emphasized, and how the classes have ROLEplaying potential hardcoded into their respective rules. This is, ultimately, why I adore this massive tome; I adore tactical combat and I’m the first to appreciate a well-made combat-encounter with strategically-interesting hazards etc. – I love these. I love the tactical, complex combat aspects of PFRPG. But I also adore the storytelling aspect of the game; I love good roleplaying between characters, between PCs and NPCs; I use story-rewards a lot. To me, the beauty of roleplaying games with a high rules-density lies in the blending of strategy and story-telling, in the fusion of stories and tactics. Ultimately, for me the best rules let me do either unique things in the strategy department, in the roleplaying department, or both.
Every single spirit is a bit like an unruly character that influences the PC or NPC; they all have personalities, quirks and goals, enemies – and they may grow with your PCs. When a spirit helps vanquish a certain foe after being bested by him, you have your work cut out for you as a good roleplayer; you can tweak your character with spirits and keep them perpetually fresh and interesting; perhaps your character is a teetotaler, so binding some spirits may be something he’d be loathe to do; perhaps bidning one spirit and succumbing to the spirit’s influence nets you some complications…or new allies – it’s small, organically happening constellations (haha! – sorry, I’ll punch myself for that later) that make this shine as brightly for me.
There is another aspect to this book. One that perhaps bears no importance for you…but then again, I think it does.
No other system I have used has made me write this much custom material.
When, for example, Aldern Foxglove was a very popular character in my RotRL-game back in the day and then died (trying to be SPOILER-less), I promptly had him come back as a spirit with peculiar personalities, fluid constellations and abilities depending on the dominant personality; when my PCs liberated the ghost lions from the Ghostlord in Red Hand of Doom, I made the pack return as a spirit to be bound; When Kyuss fell, he became the master of the Worm constellation. The Crimson King is a spirit in my game. So is the Dark Tower.
And yes, you can use the spirits herein as guidance, tweak and reskin them for a lot of purposes. Don’t like a legend or a particular spirit? Chances are that you won’t have to do a lot of writing, just replace an ability and come up with a new legend. Done. When one of my players happened upon notes on a blood-drinking lizardfolk thing from ages long past, I took N’aylia the first vampire, tweaked her abilities a bit more towards the lizardfolk-esque and there we go. I actually improvised that reskin on the fly while GMing and nobody noticed.
Or, you know, you can pretty much write infinite amounts of new ones, based on your campaign. I have psionic spirits, akashic spirits, ethermagic-spirits…you name the subsystem and I pretty much have a spirit for it. Why? Because the engine per se is simple. You can easily complicate it in a vast variety of ways by grafting pretty much anything on top of it, with only your own skills as the limit – and the glue that holds all together is this basic system, one that is defined by choice, yes…but more than that, it is defined by the stories you tell with it.
A haunt put to rest? Potential spirit. An outsider slain? Potential spirit? Anything weird, from mages that fell through space and time to sentient constructs? Potential spirits. Fey kicked out of their courts/dethroned fey queens? Potential spirits. Defeated campaign endbosses? Potential spirits in the next one. Paladin PC that sacrificed his soul to seal the demon-lord in an artifact? Potential spirit. Endzeitgeist, a zeitgeist-like spirit of the end-times? Potential spirit. In fact, the book does an amazing job at showcasing the sheer infinite breadth of themes that you can cover with these spirits.
Pact magic is a nice, well-made system on its own – probably one that deserves, when divorced from all flavor, a verdict of 4.5 to 5 stars, somewhere in that vicinity. But this would not do the system the least bit of justice. Dario Nardi and Alexander Agunuas deliver with pact magic perhaps the most literally inspiring system I have ever encountered for a d20-based game. Its genius does not necessarily lie within its rules, but within how it is an incredibly potent narrative instrument, how it can change the depiction of a fantasy world to make magic feel more magical, how it rewards customization and making the system your own more than any comparable system I know. I guarantee that, when using the system thus, you will have perhaps the most impactful alternate system ever on your hands.
In case you haven’t noticed by now: I absolutely LOVE this system. Even my reviewer-bot-persona can’t really adequately complain about it, mainly because separating the fluff from the crunch divests the system of its core principle – it is, frankly, impossible to rate this fairly as anything but the sum of its parts, and that sum is a thing of absolute, inspiring beauty. This book will grace my shelves for years to come; it has already spawned more ideas than I’m ever likely to put to paper. It is, in short, the streamlined, improved heir of the old system; tighter and more concise, yet without losing any component of its uniqueness.
This is one of the most inspiring books, quite literally, that you can purchase for PFRPG. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This is also, big surprise there, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017. It also receives the EZG Essentials tag as a book I consider a must-own expansion for the system.
Now, can we have an Occult Adventures/Horror Adventures-crossover sequel or do I have to write the spirits myself? Who am I kidding – I’m going to write them either way!
You can get this phenomenal tome here on OBS!
You can get the complementary short-story collection here on OBS!