The Player’s Guide to Kaidan clocks in at 61 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page patron list, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 55 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.
Before we begin, it should also be noted that I am somewhat of a Japanophile and love the Japanese horror tradition that this setting’s down to earth, gritty themes evoke. I was a backer of the Kickstarter that created this book, and, back in the day, I bugged Steven D. Russell (Rest In Peace) relentlessly about a good horror Player’s Guide sans spoilers for the setting. I was not, however, involved in the creation of this book in any way, shape or form.
All right, got that? Great! We begin with introductions by none other than F. Wesley Schenider and the man that first envisioned Kaidan, Michael K. Tumey. This section is a bit more interesting than usual, so I’m going to elaborate on it for a bit: You see, asian fantasy settings tend to gravitate to lumping all literary traditions and aesthetic conventions into one bucket; there is nothing wrong about that, in that we do the same for Western-themed RPGs: There is a style that hearkens to old-world aesthetics, some distinctly American settings – it happens and more often than not, the pot-pourri that is the result works. At the same time, this tendency has a consequence that few ever talk about, namely that the “loud” and flashy concepts override the nuanced ones, that mythology becomes this weird conglomerate. I’ve heard more than once someone remarking that e.g. “hero” would be a good “Samurai-movie” – which made me facepalm. In our globalized world, cross-pollination of aesthetics and concepts is a good thing as a whole, but at the same time, aesthetics cultivated in e.g. anime (and I’m a huge otaku!) can actually overlay and replace narrative traditions that are more subdued, but no less, perhaps even more, engaging. While I am, for example, a huge fan of Uzumaki (the manga!) or some of the grim horror-mangas out there, they do represent a different take onnarrative structure and employ different tropes than what you’ll see herein.
You see, Kaidan is based on the tradition of the Japanese ghost story, which has greatly influenced western sensibilities (most famously via the Ring and Ju-On franchises), but from Lafcadio Hearn’s traditions to Masaki Kobayashi’s classic movie adaption of these stories (Kwaidan, 1964), there is a lesser known, and, as one may argue, more humane type of horror that can be found – it is on said genre that Kaidan is based. The setting is horrific because of its deeply psychological nuances that remain relevant to this day, and because of the delightfully twisted cosmology that represents the backbone of the setting. The more subdued nuances of the setting allow you to tell different stories, and for that, I love it.
Now, if all of this sounds like a glowing recommendation before we get to the book, then you’d be right – I adore the setting. That being said, as always, this adoration also makes me rather stern regarding what I expect to see from this book, so can it withstand proper scrutiny? Let’s take a look!
Okay, so the first chapter here begins in a smart way – it explains to the player’s the social structure, caste system and environments found in Kaidan, including a nice b/w-map of the whole setting. Here is a crucial difference, though: The section does not pull back the veil regarding the central leitmotifs of the setting – it describes what PCs can learn and experience without spoilers, allowing the revelations, once they begin, to hit harder. It also helps players to feel embedded in the setting without explaining away the horrors at the root of the setting. That is a big plus and represents a central task I expect to fulfill from a player’s guide, so the section, in that way, achieves its lore goal.
Now, I know players, so I’m expecting that lore alone won’t cut it – the pdf knows as much as well and presents the races up next, starting with the Anu, one of the human ethnicities. Instead of the human bonus feat, these folks get +2 to Craft (poison) and Craft (trapmaking). They also get +2 to notice traps in forest settings – and yes, the bonus types are correctly codified. They replace the skilled racial trait with +1 hit point per HD. They also get 3 alternate racial traits that make sense and work. The henge come with 7 arrays of different ability-score modifiers for the respective clans (which include tanuki, hare, etc.), all of which are evenly dispersed between physical and mental scores and they get keen senses, +1 skill point or hp per level and are shapechangers, obviously. They also get Stealth and Survival as class skills and treat club and great club, long bow and spear as familiar weapons, gaining proficiency in them regardless of class. However, they also take a bit more damage from cold iron. The alternate racial traits include more bestial hengeyokai, who pay for natural weapons with decreased Intelligence. Aesthetic nitpick: Natural weapons are not codified, requiring the player to default to the standards regarding primary/natural and damage-types, but that is a minor complaint. Small and mixed marriage henge or those with priest or tengu training can also be found.
The dominant human ethnicity of the setting, the Kaidanese, come with a neat array of alternate racial options, with e.g. unclean and unwanted or being tengu raised as examples – they are mechanically sound and feature a strong narrative impetus, which is a big plus. Kappa are Small with +2 Strength, get a swim speed of 40 ft. and suffer no size penalties for grappling, gaining +1 to CMB and CMD instead. They treat Stealth and Survival as class skills and get a non-codified (this extends to all natural attacks and I won’t mention it from here on out) claw attack at 1d3 as well as kappa weapon familiarity. Sounds a bit stronger? Well, if you’re familiar with the legend of the water on top of the kappa’s head, you’ll grin when reading the racial weakness pertaining it. Kitsune can also be found – and in kaidan, they are significantly different from the standard race, gaining 40 ft. speed. They also are Small, have -4 Str, +2 Dex and Cha, are quadrupeds in their fox form and get a 1d4 bite. They have yokai traits, i.e. Stealth and Survival as class skills and may assume a specific, alternate shape. They get a single cantrip that can be sued 3/day for each use of Fox Magic – they are treated as 1/3 of a fox magic use. Fox magic? Well, that would be supernatural effects that can be used 1/day per tail of the kitsune. Save DCs scale based on Cha and fox tails. Oh, and guess what? If they fail a Will-save, their alternate forms may slip, revealing fox tells. They also can speak with foxes at will. I love this more subdued take on the kitsune. If you’d rather play a more martial kitsune, the alternate racial traits do allow for the use of fox magic as an attack-buff and nocturnal foxes and thieving specialists can be found here as well. The korobokuru are next at +2 Str and Wis, -2 Str. They are Small and have a slow speed, but get +2 to Stealth and Perception as well as +1 to saves to resist mind-affecting effects. They get +1 to Climb, Perception, Survival and Stealth in forests and their own array of weapon familiarities. They loathe conflict, though, and thus get -2 to atk versus non-animals, which is reduced to -1 in forests. Finally, the take on the tengu envisions them as +2 Dex and Wis, -2 Con, with yokai traits and a 1d3 bite attack (properly codified regarding types!). They are sword-experts and as such get quite a few racial proficiencies as well as +4 to Linguistics and receive 2 languages per skill point invested in them. They also have low-light vision…and an alternate racial trait that is called “Boar Rider.” Yes, there are dire boar-riding tengus. Come on. That’s damn cool. The races come with proper age, height and weight tables.
Now, next up, we take a look at forming an adventure party – whether you’re playing gaijin, yokai or samurai, there will be somewhat different things to consider, and the pdf helpfully states that “samurai” in the setting does not necessarily indicate having levels in the class. The roles of classes in Kaidan are explained, though, alas, the Occult classes or the ACG classes are not covered. The former is a bit of a pity, since e.g. spiritualist, medium and occultist imho would have made perfect fits for Kaidan. The pdf then proceeds to provide a selection of some of the cooler class options from the various Kaidan supplements: The blind Moso bard from Way of the Yakuza, the tengukensei from In the Company of Tengus, the yamabushi and yabusame from Way of the Samurai all have found their way here. The formatting of these has been improved. We also receive the kannushi priest cleric archetype, who gets 4 + Int skills and proficiency with light and medium armor and simple weapons. They only have access to one domain, chosen from a limited list and do not require a divine focus. Their channel-based healing is slightly less efficient, while their channeling versus undead is slightly more potent: +/- 1 per die, with 12th level allowing for full-round channeling for +2 damage per die. The rules-language here is slightly awkward, but remains functional and sans ambiguities. They gain spirit empathy as well as a bond to a shrine and may bless large structures and areas, very much emphasizing the priest aspect, which is something I enjoyed. Theme-wise concise, rules-wise less mind-blowing.
The miko shrine maiden is an oracle with a modified class skill list and proficiency in simple weapons and light armors and shields, expect tower shields, replacing Medium Armor Proficiency with Skill Focus (Perform [dance]). The pdf suggests curses and mysteries and proceeds to introduce the kami mystery, which yields Knowledge (nature) and (planes), Stealth and Survival as class skills. The bonus spells range from pass without trace to object/plant animation and summon nature’s ally spells. The spell array is okay, but nothing mind-blowing. The revelations include scaling energy resistance, a bonded animal, walking on water (later also on air) and the option to summon a kami into you for warrior-prowess. Minor complaint there: The ability is active and doesn’t sport an activation action. While it being SU lets you default to standard action, I think this one would actually warrant swift/immediate as activation. Making nature strike down targets is cool and we get nature sight, knowledge, talking with animals and elements – so nice, flavorful tricks here. The capstone lets you meld with any natural objects as well as 1/day elemental body IV.
The second new mystery would be the shrine mystery, which nets you Bluff, Knowledge (local) and Perception and pretty classic cleric spells. Here, we can find the nature mystery’s friend to animals, a shrine bond, fortune telling and a bunch of nice ones that thematically expand upon the concept of the bonded shrine. That being said, the mystery also loses a big chance: One revelation sports the option to make limited elemental bursts. …Come on! That practically DEMANDS some kineticist engine-action! The bonded shrine plus kineticist tricks would be perfect, natural fits for the setting! It’d explain why the flashy kineticist blasting isn’t found everywhere in the setting!
Now, the next thing the pdf presents is a new class – the necrotic warriors, elite agents of the Shogun, infused with the powers of dark arts. Oh, and guess what? No alignment restrictions! Thankfully! The class gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and light weapons as well as kama, nunchaku, sai, shuriken, siangham and light armors + bucklers. The class gets full BAB-progression and good Ref-saves. They also get limited Charisma-based spontaneous spellcasting at 4th level, with the spells limited by necrology chosen, which is btw. the most important class feature of the class, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.
The class begins with necromantic strike, which is basically a negative energy-based smite that adds Cha-mod to atk and twice class level to damage, usable 1/day, +1/day for every 3 class levels thereafter. Unfortunately, the ability fails to specify its activation action. 2nd level yields divine focus less channel negative energy as a cleric of ½ his class level. 3rd level lets the warrior add Cha-mod to Will-saves, but not if it’s negative. At 11th level, the same applies to initiative, which can be pretty strong. These wording constructs could have been phrased more elegantly by just noting that only the Charisma bonus is added. 5th level makes the necrotic warrior take damage from positive energy, be healed by negative energy, and also provides immunity to mundane diseases, +4 to saves versus magical ones. 9th level yields evasion, 15th level improved evasion and 17th hide in plain sight. 20th level is the undead apotheosis.
Now, as far as necrologies are concerned, we get 5 of them. As mentioned before, these define the spell selection and 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter, the list of bonus feats from which the warrior gets to choose. 2nd level and every 4 levels thereafter yield a special necrology power defined by the necrology in question. There is no choice here after choosing the necrology, which means that all such beings with the same necrology will be VERY similar. The class really could have used some player agenda there. The necrologies are blood, bone, brawn, poison and shadow. They…sport some weird design decisions. Blood, for example, lets you fling blood at nearby enemies – as a secondary attack, making the whole thing work as a natural attack, when that is NOT how such things are usually handled. Indeed, the material here is uncharacteristically rough for Rite Publishing. We, for example, fail to specify the save DCs of necrology powers. Some of the abilities specify the save DCs, but usually, that sort of thing is determined globally. There are also instances where damage type hasn’t been properly noted – bone darts should, for example, inflict piercing damage and later be treated as magical etc. for purposes of overcoming DR. Doubling Strength-bonuses (brawn necrology, level 18) gained from items is also a really bad idea and further skews PFRPG’s offense focus and high-level rocket-launcher tag syndrome. Yeah, not a big fan. The class, as an NPC-exclusive, could perhaps fly, but as a player-class, it’s too limited, has too few choices and while I love the visuals evoked by the abilities, the issues in the details make this one problematic.
The next chapter deals with Kaidanese weapons and armor as well as other equipment, which is neat to see. We conclude with a handy glossary of kaidanese terms.
Editing and formatting on a formal level are very good; on a rules-language level, the book isn’t bad, but it is also not as good as usual for Rite Publishing, with the new class sporting serious flaws in some of its components. Layout adheres to a two-column standard that is mostly b/w, apart from headers. The book is GORGEOUS: Ian Greenlee, Mark Bulahao, Mark Hyzer, Patricia Smith and Kamil Jadczak provide a ton of amazing, original b/w-artworks that manage to gel together into a consistent style. The pdf comes with bookmarks, but oddly, only for the appendices and the first chapter – the race and class chapters lack bookmarks!
Now, my long-winded introduction should make clear that I love the Kaidan Michal K. Tumey and Jonathan McAnulty created, with additional design by Steven D. Russell. And indeed, I like that the race and class options focus on flavorful choices that are suitable for more low-key playing experiences, for grittier games. I really applaud the consistency of the vision here. That being said, I also found myself slightly disappointed that we don’t get any occult materials herein, that no favored class options are provided for the races. That would be something I can live with, though. However, the serious issues in the new class, which takes up a ton of real estate, are somewhat jarring after the cool, spoiler-less gazetteer and neat race-section. If I were to rate this as a crunch-book, I’d probably settle in at something around the 3-star region. However, this is a Player’s Guide, and the gazetteer-section and flavor is amazing. Still, as a whole, I can’t go higher than 3.5 stars for this one. If you like grittier gameplay and the idea of Kaidan, round up; if you’re looking for primarily crunchy components, round down. My official final verdict will round up.
You can get this Player’s Guide here on OBS!
Missed the GM’s Guide? You can get it here!
There also is a massive Kaidan-bundle here!