Heroes of the Waves (A Polynesian Sourcebook)
This pdf clocks in at 45 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1.5 pages of SRD, leaving us with 41.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
The review was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
So, what is this? In one sentence, it is basically a toolkit to play a fantasy campaign based on Polynesian culture. This in itself already adds some value to the book for me. Beyond Tolkienesque fantasy and mostly Japanese-inspired Anime or Chinese WuXia, it is pretty jarring that we don’t make half as much use of those fantastic cultures and mythologies our diverse species has spawned in our games.
We begin with a two page introduction (though parts of the second page are blank space and then beginw ith basically a cultural primer: We learn about “Mana”, which constitutes as a term the equivalent of Gottesgnadentum, the divinely-ordained right to rule; “Tapu” would be the origin of the word “taboo”, while “hara” denotes errors in the eyes of gods. “Pono” is the term for atonement for transgressions. Similarly, there was a profession-based, loose caste-system that is explained here; while not as rigid as that of the Indian culture which we nowadays mostly associate with it. Something I wasn’t aware of: Kahuna can mean different things – when added to a word like a profession, it can denote expertise in that field, while its second use is basically somewhat akin to “priest”. If that sounds confusing, you can use the Maori term “Tohunga” instead.
Now, a specific cultural circle will result, ultimately in a changed array of assumptions and the pdf guides you through these. First would be the absence of metal; there were no land mammals, which obviously meant no farming and significantly different domesticated animals. Similarly, there would not be one culture, but rather an extensive pluralism. All magic is considered to be divine and the vast amount of islands mean that each can easily serve as a self-contained module – and the closed ecosystems there are fragile, which allows for an interesting angle, should you choose to pursue it. Armor was, considering temperatures and the omni-presence of the sea, pretty much non-existent and impractical and as such, the pdf provides a nice AC bonus by level, which is dubbed mana – three such progressions are provided, beginning at +6, +4 and +2, respectively, and scaling up to +34, +30 and +25 at 20th level. The adaption of this system to other classes is dead simple: You look at armor proficiency and then, depending on the default proficiency, you determine the scaling AC. It is pretty obvious that characters sans armor proficiency don’t get Mana at all, but from a didactic point of view, it would have made sense to explicitly spell that out.
In the absence of horses etc., Ride (Dex) is replaced with Seafaring (Wis). This new skill is used to handle ocean travel, faster travel, etc. – and similarly, the skill may be used to prevent capsizing when fighting e.g. in a canoe; and yes, Acrobatics may be used for that one as well. Judging depth and determining underwater obstacles, fishing etc. – the skill is concisely presented.
Okay, the basics out of the way, we look next towards the respective classes: Paizo-classes (excluding the ACG, OA, etc.-classes) and LRGG-classes are discussed and categorized in 4 groups: Classes that require no work to fit a Polynesian setting, ones that require some work to make them fit, those that need some serious explanation and those that are simply inappropriate – they’d require mechanical tweaks as opposed to thematic modification. Similarly, races are appropriately codified: With some tweaks, the genasi-style elemental races make sense in a Polynesian context. Similarly, gnomes are thematically appropriate, but the classic Tolkien-races are not. Merfolk and Gillmen fit the bill as well and LRGG-races are discussed similarly.
Speaking of races: The samebito would be an aquatic humanoid with slow speed (never modified by armor or encumbrance) and they gain +2 Str and Cha, -2 Wis, gain a swim speed of 49 ft., are amphibious. They gain fast healing when completely submerged in water, up to a maximum of 2 x character level per day. They also have a 1d3 primary natural bite attack. As a whole, they are appropriate for every game and should not unbalance even gritty games. Well done. The menehune gnome subrace, replace gnome weapon training with an untyped +4 to Swim and Seafaring. (Personally, I would have preferred racial bonuses here.) They also replace the hatred trait with double carrying capacity.
The Nawao (Wild Men), weirdly, come with RP-values when the other races did not, but that’s a cosmetic inconsistency. Similarly, the racial modifications of ability scores (+2 Con and Wis, -2 Int) are not properly formatted, but otherwise functional. They are monstrous humanoids, gain +2 to Intimidate, +4 to Stealth and +2 to Survival (all proper racial bonuses) and have darkvision. They also gain +1 to damage rolls with simple weapons and may 1/day fly into a frenzy upon taking damage, gaining +2 Str and Con, -2 to AC for 1 minute. The bonuses to Stealth and Survival may be replaced with Stealth and Knowledge (local).
The gaunt, blue-skinned and red-haired Turehu follow the same formatting-choices and gain +2 Cha and Dex, -2 Wis and always treat Perform (wind instrument) as a class skill. They have a 20 ft climb speed and gain +2 to saving throws. Nice: They are afraid of fire and take a penalty when near one. They also gain this penalty when eating “cook food” – an “-ed” is missing here, but I like the flavor here. They may also cast bane and bless at will, with Cha governing the save-DC. Problem: The ability is not properly codified as SP or SU; the presence of a codified caster level (equal to character level) does retain functionality, though. All in all, apart from cosmetic hiccups, a well-crafted racial chapter.
The pdf also features 2 base classes, the first of which would be the Kahuna. The class receives d6 HD, 8+ Int skills per level, 1/2 BAB-progression, good Will-saves, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor and prepared divine spellcasting governed by Wis of up to 9th level.To prepare spells, the kahuna creates a makeshift prayer hut (or uses an existing one) to communicate with the spirits. Now, kahuna begin play with an interesting ability – they may cast forbid action (reprinted here for your convenience) as a swift action a number of times per day equal to 3 + class level + Wis-mod. A creature may, however, ignore the tapu pronounced by the kahuna, even on a failed save – this, however, results in a penalty that scales over the levels to ALL d20 rolls as well as auto-failure of critical hit confirmation rolls. This allows the kahuna to deal with crit-fishing characters, which is pretty neat. At 5th level, the kahuna may instead employ greater forbid action for 2 uses. 10th level adds a confusion-effect to the breaking of a tapu. AT 15th level, all enemies within 10 ft. per class level can be affected by a tapu, though this use of the ability costs 4 daily uses.
3rd level and every 5 levels thereafter, the kahuna chooses a Craft, Profession or otherwise skill-represented talent of vital importance to the community, gaining the skill unlock powers for the chosen skill, with skill ranks still being required to determine the effects. The capstone makes the kahuna count as having at least 1/2 class level ranks in every skill. Nice: If you’re not plaiyng with skill unlocks, alternate benefits are provided. The class also comes with its own spell-list and favored class options for the races featured here + Oread and Undine as well as LRGG’s Lun’la.
The second class may be familiar to those of you who have LRGG’s Alternate Path: Martial-pdf. The Tataued Warrior gets d10, 2 +Int skills per level, full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves, proficiency with simple weapons, light armor and shields and prepared divine spellcasting guided by Cha, drawn from the ranger’s list with certain modifications. These spells are unlocked at 4th level, analogue to the ranger. At 5th level, spellcasting is modified via the option to blood cast: As a swift action, the tataued warrior may cause spell level nonlethal damage to himself to change a prepared spell to another spell he knows. Minor complaint: Does this require concentration-checks/count as receiving damage for the purpose of concentration? I assume so, but I am not sure.
One of the coolest aspects here would be that following battle protocol is written into the class with ritual weapon: Upon commencing battle, a swift action sign of respect nets first a defensive bonus, with 6th level unlocking the option to use Cha-mod instead of Str for damage rolls and 10th adding both attributes to damage with the ritual weapon. I am not the biggest fan of dual attributes to anything, but as a whole, the execution here is solid. I mentioned the ritual weapon: This is a ritualistic object that may be empowered to act as a +1 weapon, with the state of empowerment lasting class level + Con-mod round. 4th level unlocks a variant form and allows for the changing of said forms via a ceremony, with every 4 levels thereafter increasing the potency of the weapon. That being said, the flexibility regarding enchantments and their scaling benefits is offset by a fatigue cool-down after use, similar to barbarian-rages. The scaling here is pretty conservative, just fyi, so even low-powered groups should be able to use this one. For high-powered groups; I’d suggest improving the enhancement-bonus granting-progression of the ritual weapon.
The second defining class feature beyond that, though, would be tataus, gained at 1st level and every even level thereafter, codified by level – and being awesome. New tataus are unlocked at 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th level and their benefits cover a wide range: Beyond the usual suspects like skill bonuses and bonus feats, there also are some unique benefits: Being able to use Stunning Fist in conjunction with the ritual weapon constitutes, for example, one such benefit. Starting with the options unlocked at 3rd level, the tataus gained also feature a drawback that often make for great roleplaying catalysts – the tatau of the goat, for example, requires that you frequently add a goat sound to the end of your sentences. Another tatau may make octopi consider you an attractive food source and draw them to you. What about gaining proficiency with all martial weapons and 3 exotic ones and being able to treat all manufactured weapons as ritual weapons? Yeah, that allows for the true master of arms playstyle…but it also makes all non-simple weapons wielded fragile… These drawbacks add a nice roleplaying component to the class and provide justifications for the spirit-suffused and superstitious cultural context. Really cool!
6th level unlocks the battle chant, which translates to +1 attack at the highest BAB as part of full-round actions and +2 to Intimidate checks, with a duration of Con-mod rounds and a swift action activation. 10th level and every 4 levels thereafter provides +1 daily use. The capstone of the class allows you to choose from up to 5 super-tataus that include a free true ressurection the first time you die each day and SR, or auto-confirming crits, for example. Pretty cool! The class comes with favored class options for the respective races featured herein, plus ifrit and merfolk.
Now, the next component of the pdf is particularly suitable for less high fantasy games and would pertain the condition introduced herein: Broken Bones, which can render the target shaken and produce penalties. As a minor formatting hiccup, two spell references are not properly italicized here. The pdf also provides a total of 6 new feats, three of which represent a new style, Kapu Kuialua, the art of bone breaking – the base feat allows you to break bones with each damage-causing attack; the follow-up extends that to weapon critical hits and the third, to grapple checks. Adding broken bones via stunning fist use expenditure to trips is also included. The final feat nets you the option to ceremoniously sacrifice a spell slot to increase your Mana-AC-bonus. There is also a “barbarian talent” (should be “rage power”) and a bone-breaking antipaladin cruelty. A total of 7 mundane weapons (including two-handed martial finesse weapons) can be found as well.
The pdf sports 4 magic items: two types of tooth to call forth sharks, a hook that generates islands (in 3 levels of potency) and an enchanted surfboard. All have in common, that their spell-references are improperly formatted and lack italicization, though they otherwise are pretty cool. We conclude this pdf with 6 Hawaiian and 6 Maori deity-write-ups. These remain pretty basic, with one paragraph per deity, and unfortunately sport discrepancies in the domain selection: Kane, for example, sports 7 domains, while Ku only has 5. If that was intended to balance domains of different potency, I couldn’t really make out the reasons for the choices made.
Editing is pretty good on both a formal and rules-language level, but formatting is less consistent: From the presentation of races to the missing italicizations, there are a couple of avoidable glitches here. Layout adheres, apart from the 1-column intro, to a 2-column full-color standard that is pretty printer-friendly. The full color artworks are solid. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with detailed, nested bookmarks.
From the cultural notes to the concepts herein, there is a lot to love about this book. The Seafaring skill, bone breaking mechanic and class array generally are nice, with the tataued warrior being a rather cool character and the kahuna representing a powerful option indeed that has some cool crowd-control tricks. More importantly, this represents a great first step towards making your own Polynesian inspired campaign (come on, folks – write that campaign setting) – or to simply add material to a certain ethnicity that’s pretty prominent in the Razor Coast. So yes, this is a good book and a fun offering I enjoyed reading.
At the same time, it could have been a tad bit more refined – the glitches that are herein make it unfortunately impossible for me to rate this as highly as I, as a person, would like to. Scott Gladstein, Dayton Johnson, Ian Sisson and Christos Gurd have, however, crafted a toolkit I can recommend for anyone looking for a great first step into Polynesian culture – even if you’re just looking for ideas to scavenge, this has something to offer. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, though I cannot round up. I do encourage you to pick this up -we need to send a sign that non-WuXia, non-Tolkienesque fantasy does exist and does have fans and people that want something different.
You can get this nice rules-toolkit here on OBS!