This massive hardcover clocks in at 255 pages – if you take away editorial, index, etc., you still arrive at 249 pages of content, which is A LOT.
I was gifted a copy of this book for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review. My review is based on the hardcover of this book.
Now, the first thing I’d ask you to do, is to read the series of Miscellaneous Musings I wrote on horror gaming in general. Or least the last one. Why? Because it is my firm conviction that one has to establish realistic expectations in order to review a book such as this.
Alternatively, if you already own it, there is a sentence in the advice chapter on running horror games that should be taken to heart: “Pathfinder is not designed with horror in mind.” I’d like to elaborate on this, at least briefly. As I have established in my long, long rants on the subject matter, it is my firm conviction that you can run horror in PFRPG, even purist horror, but that the base system per se is more conductive towards playing the angle of pitting horror against the angle of heroism, of allowing PCs to have a shot against the darkness. While you can modify PFRPG to play akin to CoC, the game is simply more conductive towards the heroic angle.
It is a testament to PFRPG’s versatility that horror of any way works in the first place, in spite of the focus of the game. Now secondly, I’d like to address two aspects of the game and what we can expect, with the first being character options. We are all aware of the vast array of built-options available for PFRPG and thus, it should come as no surprise that yes, we do receive a significant array of player- (or at least character-)centric options. Which would bring me to the first observation: It is my firm convictions that players should stay out of this book.
No, really. You see, quite a lot of the new class options, like the blood alchemist, elder mythos cultist, hexenhammer or medium spirit-variants like the butcher or lich (for champion and archmage, to give two examples) scream “NPC” for me. I know, it is perhaps not what you’d expect me to do, but ultimately, I consider the material here to be mostly intended for the GM. Yes, we have martyr paladins with stigmata and bloody jake slayers and serial killer vigilantes. Yes, some players will want to play these…but from my experience as a horror-GM, it may actually make sense restricting these…or simply not telling the players about the rules. Before you’re asking, btw.: From a min-maxing perspective, you’ll probably find better options anyways…but if that’s a consideration for you when playing in a horror game, I’d strongly suggest thinking about priorities and of what makes for a fun game for everyone – see my long, long posts on the necessary contract/gentlemen’s agreement between the GM and player.
That being said, there is one aspect I am holding against this book, in spite of the aforementioned previous considerations, and that would be that there is no dividing line between content obviously designed for players/good guys and that for villains – it does show in the archetype-section and, more than that, in the feat-section, where we can find REALLY cool Story-feats alongside a bunch of feats intended for evil characters or monsters – in the latter case often enhancing universal monster abilities and providing further numerical escalation – which would be less of an issue, if PFRPG didn’t have this many options to gain access to precisely these abilities. In short, we are catering to a mindset here that kinda undermines the horror premise the rest of the book is trying hard to set up. In short: We also get a lot of alternate racial traits for the core races, which generally fit with the themes of horror, though the fortification they offer against these challenges don’t really fit my personal vision of what I like to play in the context of such a campaign, but your mileage here may obviously vary. These are my least favorite aspects of the book.
But let’s move back to the very beginning: The advice given for players when making characters for horror adventures is extremely sound and should most certainly be read carefully – the book spells pretty much out what I did, minus the advice on Achilles heels, but I guess you can’t have everything. The notes on making a compelling personality etc. makes sense, and so does the advice of roleplaying fear. I am a big fan of the note that the book emphasizes conspiration and communication with the GM here.
One of my favorite parts herein would be the more diversified take on Fear: We are introduced to a 7-step progression tree of various states of fear, including rules on immunity to fear and how it should be used in conjunction with this system. It works pretty seamlessly, though I honestly wished the already widely in use cowering condition had been implemented here as well – considering the effects of the highest fear-level “horrified”, the differences are not that pronounced. And yes, I am aware that this adds a bit of potential complexity to some options, but here at least, I consider the trade off worth it.
Sanity…is a bit more clunky. We get a relatively simple system: Add mental attributes together and you have the sanity score; half of that is the sanity edge. This determines the severity of the madness incurred when something exceeds your sanity threshold – which is equal to the bonus of the highest mental attribute bonus. When you incur a sanity attack and its damage exceeds the threshold, you gain a madness – simple, yes…but it does ultimately reward characters that are SAD on a mental attribute, whereas in my opinion, sanity-shattering effects often are made worse by understanding them properly, perceiving them properly, etc. The system is not bad per se, but it requires managing three scores and for that, it doesn’t deliver the results I’m personally looking for in such a system. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but yeah.
The star-subsystem here would be basically PFRPG’s take on dark powers-checks, so-called corruptions. These tie in with character flaws of the PC and represent a dark and malevolent stain on the character that slowly mutates them, granting benefits, while at the same time driving them further down the dark path. Where previously, in Ravenloft, you ultimately became a darklord, corruptions now have 3 stages, with the final stage usually turning you NPC. Progression along this path is via a variety of actions and they generally have a catalyst to first spring them on a character. These corruptions also feature tempting powers, so-called manifestations, which also come with a stain, a drawback, that is in relation to the behavior in question.
Now, first things first: At one point, I wrote a pretty long essay on how to tempt both players and PCs at the same time with horrific power and the psychological reasons to do so – while it has been cut and never been published, let me summarize: I argued that a weakness of the monster-transformation aspect championed by Ravenloft was, that on the one hand, the PC should be horrified by what he does, while craving the power in question. Similarly, the player should feel the same.
If there is a disjoint between player and PC, roleplaying suffers. The corruptions, when looking at them, are surprisingly tame – not in their visuals, mind you: The hive, for example, is really icky. Still, it is somewhat surprising to see the heavy penalty of corruption stage 3…and at the same time, the significant array of manifestations each corruption offers. Now, some folks have complained about the risk of being turned NPC being too high (it’s a sort of game over, after all), but from a meta-design perspective it can be a motivator for munchkins to take heed.
There is another aspect to the system pretty much every review I read did not pick up on – and I don’t get why. In my third essay on horror gaming, I talked about the realities of being a big publisher and not one of the underground one-man operations. I also talked briefly about the witch hunts our hobby is subject to, one that continues in some regions and circles. More than that, moral and aesthetic limitations vary within persons – more so between folks. As the big dog that Paizo is, it is pretty hard to sell “play a monstrously vile thing and the descent into evil” to a part of their demographic – though, in particularly the hardcore horror fans will want exactly that, the teetering on the edge of damnation experience, for from this precipice, the best redemption stories are woven.
Here’s the beautiful thing about the corruption system: The increase of manifestations is not tied to the corruption stage progression. At all. You can retain the whole save mechanics, variants and the whole rest and just throw out the three stages. You can introduce as many stages as you’d like (perhaps 7 or 5, as previous editions of the game did – perhaps 13, if you want to go an occult angle…) – the system’s validity remains. And yes, I’ll confess, my kneejerk response was like that of many out there, to complain and curse about the 3 stages – but know what? This is by far the best and most detailed (and balanced) such system I have seen for a d20-based game. It covers the company and at the same time, easily allows for PCs and NPCs, for GMs and players alike, to enjoy a system I never expected to see in this shape or form from a big publisher. Now personally, I would have actually increased the potency of the corruptions if you’re running with the stage-limit and NPC-threat…but, once again, that is if you’re planning on playing a relatively tame campaign. The fact that each manifestation has its custom gifts and stains, completely divorced from the stages, means that you retain maximum control when tweaking the system to your needs. The fact that the save to resist progression is tied to compulsive behavior means that even it, as an aspect, remains valid, its tie to further manifestations in the save-calculation providing a roleplaying catalyst even without the presence of the threat of NPCdom.
The chapter on magic provides a wide array of thematically fitting spells that range from the subtle to the in-your-face blunt – sleepwalking suggestions, massive, gory blood effects and cursed terrain generally make sense and even otherwise pretty standard damage spells included herein sport nice visuals: Screaming flames? Yes, I can see that working. I am honestly more in love with the fact that we get a 5 pretty neat occult rituals here that all are amazing in their own way, with each having the potential to act as a proper plot-cornerstone. I wished we got more of them!
Now, I mentioned that I consider this to be a GM-book and indeed, the GM-section is a bit of a treasure trove in some aspects: We get a couple of new curses and advice on making more, as well as notes on cursed lands and items – if the topic interests you: Both Legendary games and Rite Publishing have released whole supplements dealing with curses, often in really creative ways, but that as an aside. Curse templates allow for the customization of curses herein. Now, the disease chapter gets my full-blown applause for disease templates – and e.g. the one named “incurable.” It actually does what it says on the tin! (minus the usual wish/miracle-caveat) – this is amazing. I mean it. Diseases have, in pretty much every d20-based system, been afterthoughts, crippled, lame and ultimately were the lame brothers of poison. This changes that. The sample diseases like “brain moss” or “gore worms” also make me tingle and twitch in a good way.
Speaking of things I like: We get a vast number of cool terrain hazards, haunted spots and the like to add to encounters, allowing for quick and easy eerie customizations. Domains of Evil can also be found. You know. Domains. With dread fog. That modify how magic works. With hazards and potentially different flow of time. That are haunted. Yeah, let’s stop teh pretense here: If you’re like me and a sucker for Ravenloft, then this chapter will have you smile from ear to ear, even before the rules on nightmares and the couple of traps. These, btw., unfortunately are the roll to see and disable kind – particularly in a horror game, team effort, complex traps that require multiple tasks make for the more compelling option, but I digress.
Now, the next section of rules is something that I was looking forward to, since it had been featured, but never codified properly in rules at least not by Paizo (there are a couple of 3pp-forays into that territory)- fleshwarping! And yes, it is cool. It sports a ton of nice effects, but the system is, to a degree, a double-edged sword: On one hand, fleshwarping works really well and on the other, its price is perhaps a bit too high: Let me elaborate: Fleshcrafts can either be permanent grafts or temporary mutations, instilled by an elixir that requires succeeding a Fort-save to gain the benefits. The temporary prices and benefits and being keyed to slots etc. makes sense for the elixirs, but since the effects also sport a penalty, the price for the respective fleshcraft grafts is still pretty high when compared to magic items – baseline for the grafts seems to have been 1/2 of a comparable item’s base price to make up for the drawback. Considering the disfiguring nature of these options, that may still be pretty high, though. It depends a bit. Chaotic fleshwarping mutations can also be found – and unlike the chaositech mutations of yore, these generally are detrimental.
The extensive section on haunts that follows includes templates for them (called haunt elements) as well as variants like dimensional instabilities, maddening influence, magical scars and psychic haunts. The array presented ranges from humble Cr 1/4 to CR 20, including classics like being buried alive or the twisted wish. Madnesses are codified in lesser and greater madnesses – big plus here: For once, a supplement does not confuse schizophrenia with dissociated identities. (Seriously, if I had a buck whenever I saw that being confused…)
Now, one of the most useful sections regarding GM-considerations would be the massive chapter that deals with running horror games – which not only classifies and quantifies horror sub.genres, their tropes, etc., but also mentions all the classics like lighting, music, creating an undisturbed environment, etc. – tricks for dealing with various snags, how to encourage horror roleplaying etc. – and it is sad, but obviously necessary that, beyond talking about what does and does not fly with individual players, overdoing it does not work. HOWEVER, I do actually disagree with one aspect – involving outside people. To have an unrelated accomplice like a spouse play with the light on e.g. a stormy evening – not all the time, but once or twice, can be rather effective…but I generally get why these disclaimers are here. This section, obviously, is targeted at less experienced GMs in the genre – and in particular such GMs will also appreciate the section on improvising rules for e.g. being buried alive, crumbling structures, etc.
The next section of the book covers a variety of tools- mundane torture devices, reanimating fluid, plague powder, enchanted hangman’s nooses, Jason-style machetes, dark altars and artifacts like the elder sign. Oh, and we get item possession rules. After these fitting items, we move on to a brief, mostly template-based bestiary – which features the dark lo…äh, “dread lord”-template, who is all-seeing in the land, landlocked, draws strength from the very land…but he’s mortal!” Boo! Oh, wait. Cursed lord, template: Trapped, but immortal. There we go! Yeah, this is basically the Darklord template Ravenloft fans wanted.3 sample hive creatures and the impeccable stalker (basically “unstoppable slasher – the monster template” is included; corrupted mortals that have turned kyton are next (with one amazingly creepy artwork!) and we have a template for creatures that can emerge from paintings, the unknown, a slenderman-like being, rules for waxwork creatures…and a whole slew of simple and variant templates.
The book concludes with a nice appendix depicting inspiration by horror-sub-genre in the classic appendix tradition.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, as befitting of Paizo. Layout adheres to the nice two-column full-color standard their books use and the artworks are absolutely fantastic – this is a gorgeous book. The hardcover is well-made, as always, and has so far taken quite a beating in my various bags without being impacted in the slightest.
Lead-designer Jason Bulmahn, with Logan Bonner, Stephen Radney-MacFarland and Mark Seifter as designers and authors John Bennett, Clinton J. Boomer, Robert Brooks, Ross Byers, Jim Groves, Steven Helt, Thurston Hillman, Eric Hindley, Brandon Hodge, Mikko Kallio, Jason Nelson, Tom Phillips, Alistair Rigg, David N. Ross, F Wesley Schneider, David Schwartz and Linda Zayas-Palmer have created a massive book that, at least in my opinion, is severely underrated.
I first wrote this review, and then realized that a lot of the issues this book faces stems from the wildly divergent expectations: This book was never intended to be a PC powerup. Neither was it supposed to be a toolkit to PFRPG suddenly an ultra-gritty, mega-lethal horror-game à la CoC.
This is a toolkit to run horror-themed campaigns and adventures in PFRPG – nothing more, nothing less. And know what? I think it does a very good job at what it sets out to do. It most certainly blows 3.X’s Heroes of Horror and Ravenloft crunch books so far out of the water, they do the Team Rocket. (Seriously, I dare you to defend those, their sucky, sucky options and their asinine “At level 10, I challenge a dark lord who is then summoned to me!”-facepalm-abilities.)
Let me reiterate: While I am not 100% sold on every aspect of this book, I put this back to back with said tomes and combed through them – I am not prone to nostalgia, but I wanted to really make sure that all these years using these books have not left a wrong impression. I can very much state one thing: I honestly wished I had had this book much sooner. What we have here is a great toolkit, in particularly for less experienced GMs, that covers the bases. The corruption system can easily be tweaked, the archetypes tell villain-stories and the vast amount of hazards, haunt-modifications etc. makes this the toolkit that the aforementioned books should have imho been. Combined with the phenomenal Occult Adventures (Still my favorite Paizo-hardcover-book ever!), this allows for the creation of the atmosphere fans of Ravenloft wanted – and honestly, with some restrictions and tweaks, these two books (and perhaps the APG for the alchemist), are all you need for a truly distinct and different take on pathfinder, to experience the game in a radically different way and tone.
I am emphasizing that true veterans here will probably find less to blow them away – in a way, this is a core book, the book for the core horror experience and it succeeds at its task admirably. That being said, it is not perfect – personally, I think it would have benefited from having the player-centric material extracted to a separate book, with the villainous archetypes and options left herein. I get why this wasn’t done, considering the product-line, but yeah. Secondly, the sanity system feels like an afterthought and isn’t particularly rewarding. I can literally list a couple that work smoother.
That being said, this book till provides an impressive array of options and, as mentioned, represents a gateway to a playstyle that is distinct, interesting and rewarding -and, much like all iterations of Ravenloft or a similar horror-game, it can and should be modified; that’s part of the challenge of running horror games. In the end, my final verdict for this book will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform. If you’re a truly advanced horror-GM with plenty of experience running the genre for d20-based games, you may want to round down, since you’ll know a lot of the tropes…but then again, you may not want to. Why? Because, frankly, it depicts all those things you want to have…and a whole world of 3pps caters to the more specialized aspects of horror gaming.
All in all: Well done – for me, this represents the new reference for the category of a d20-based horror toolkit.
You can get this cool tome here on Paizo!