This FREE player’s guide to the world of Xoth clocks in at 60 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 55 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Wait, before we do…a couple of notes – this uses the PFRPG-rules, but, as the cover should make abundantly clear, this setting is one indebted to Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, etc. – in short, this is Sword & Sorcery and not Tolkienesque high-fantasy.
*GASP* I know, I know. I’ve read the rants and ramblings…plenty of them, in fact. So let me dispel these flawed pre-conceptions from the get-go: Yes, you *CAN* play a rewarding Sword & Sorcery game in PFRPG…it just takes a bit of tweaking and this is, among other things, where this pdf comes into play.
It should also be noted that this genre obviously does away with a lot of the assumptions and themes of PFRPG – this is a mature setting and tastefully-rendered temple-courtesans and eunuchs, drug-consuming, mad cultists and worse are a staple in the genre and the reason you don’t see this advertized more openly, lies in these mature themes. Don’t get me wrong – this is not gratuitous or grim-dark in any way, shape or form – but exposed breasts, sex and partying the loot away are all tropes this employs.
Now, before you’re asking: This is the world of none other than Morten Braten, the man who created one of 3.X’s best Necromancer Games-books, namely “Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia” – the World of Xoth would be, at least to my mind, one step beyond and can be easily extrapolated to other rule-sets, so flavor-wise, this may be worth getting if you’re preferring other systems.
All right, that out of the way, the book begins with several steps that radically change PFRPG as we know it. Firstly, alignment is gone. Everyone is neutral…unless an entity is CE – that stands for Cosmic Evil and certain spells retain their effects versus such beings. Monsters are rare and monstrous and as such, even oversized animals and the like gain Frightful Presence. Magic is rare, magic items are not for sale and combat is DEADLY. A character is assumed to have a massive damage threshold of his Constitution score + 1/2 level. When this threshold is exceeded, a DC 15 Fort-save is required, with every 10 points increasing the DC by 2. An interesting effect of this would be that min-maxing damage…doesn’t really make as much sense…and there is obviously no returning the dead properly to life. HOWEVER, at the same time, one attack cannot kill you. Much like Conan, Sonja, etc. get knocked out rather often, being subject to massive damage knocks you to -1 hit points and puts you in risk of bleeding to death. This allows for a rather cinematic structure with highs and low and easier means of having PCs potentially being captured.
The scarcity of magical healing within the setting also means that wounds heal quicker naturally +3 level + Constitution bonus per night and a Heal skill use versus DC 15 can, 1/day, restore an equal amount of hit points, making the skill matter for once. Ability damage heals at a rate of 1 per hour, unless inflicted by a disease – in such a case, you need to cure the disease before that.
The pdf also sports quick and dirty training rules that work surprisingly well – in an absence of common magic items, AC-bonuses, ability score increases and bonuses to saving throws can actually be purchased from the loot recovered…but it should be noted that training bonuses and enhancement bonuses do NOT stack. The pdf explains this process rather well and, throughout its pages, provides a guiding hand for players and PCs alike, allowing for an easy an immersive contextualizing within the world of xoth.
Now, in absence of the Tolkienesque fantasy races, we instead get no less than 20 unique ethnicities, all coming with information on appearance, culture, religion and language…and each of them sports an amazing b/w-artwork. Not all of these cultures have racial traits, though – instead, e.g. an urban population could be deemed enlightened or decadent, while the rural population are nomads or savages. What does this mean? Well, culture is extremely important. The culture of the character’s background determines the racial traits of the respective human, not their “race” – this retains the spirit of the classic tropes perfectly, while getting rid of the slightly racist angle implied in the classics – elegant indeed.
Savages, whether they be vikings or people from the jungle, all have the same abilities and the same goes for nomads. And, before you’re asking – yes, these make quite a lot of difference. Savages gain, for example, among other things the constant benefit of endure elements for a climate, while nomads have to reduce their land speed, but gain a wild-card feat to represent their unpredictability. Decadent folks are superbly charismatic and better casters, but their Will-saves are penalized. The arrogant enlightened may transcend the usual life-span, but their haughty heritage breeds overconfidence and a penalty to intuitive checks – and yes – all of these cultures come with their own amazing artworks as well.
Now, not all classes are suitable for this world. The first thing you’ll note is that there are no clerics, oracles, paladins, inquisitors or summoners, wizards or sorcerors…though there VERY RARELY are witches and alchemists…and there are class tweaks to prevent favored enemy (human) from being too good, druids lose wild shape…etc. – however, to make that clear: This section actually also provides advice to play a character of the respective allowed classes that properly fits in within the context of the world.
“But wait!” I hear you say “The oracle kinda does fit, theme-wise…right” Well, instead of oracle, we employ the cultist archetype, which is basically compulsory within the setting: This bakes a cult ( and a LOT of them are included) into the hard framework of the class and thus replaces mysteries. The cult has a linear progression and the (often) grisly things done in an initiation rite replace the curse. Amazon and Slaver rangers, Spymaster and temptress bards, torturer rogues and witchdoctor druids complement the archetype array – while none of these really does something exceedingly smart, they all have in common that they fit the themes of the setting really well. And yes, this is not the campaign setting you want to use if your primary motivation is min-maxing.
The attention to detail stretches btw. to the weaponry: Since steel is rare and not all swords are common, taking a good look at the equipment chapter can prove to be rather intriguing. There also are nice alchemical items and herbal drugs to be found. (Though the rules-language of the silver lotus leaves much up for GM-interpretation – how it boosts magical power is not clear from this write-up…but there actually is a reason for that…one we’ll explore in a future review.)
Now, obviously, in such a world, spellcasting also has to follow its own rules – as such, say good bye to artillery spells, teleportations, low level divinations, shapeshifting and traditional superhero spells – the precise way in which you enforce these restrictions is up to the GM, but having the list is intriguing. Summoning spells may btw. only call forth animals, vermin or elementals and are contingent on climate and availability of the elements. But fret not – there are new spells herein, including spells that do inflict damage – breaking bones via the incantation of the broken limb or causing heart attacks via the black fist of Ptahaana are suitably visceral and devious casters may pronounce the curse of green decay, the curse of double death…or enhance the fertility of the target. These spells breathe the spirit of the classics in more way than one and, as a whole, can be considered to be superb additions to the world.
Now, I mentioned cults, right? Al-Tawir, the sleeper beneath the sands requires initiates to gouge their eyes out, while the cult of Belet-lil, the moon-goddess, demands your virginity, given freely to a member of the cult. Elephant-headed Yaathra Yok needs you to solve a sacred riddle before your head is crushed underfoot of an elephant and fetching eggs from devil-bird (pteranodons) nests, surviving ritual drowning or the like – there are a lot of different cults in tone and style – all 6 major cults have in common, though, that they sport amazing b/w-artworks…and a wide selection of lesser known cults is also touched upon.
A player-friendly, brief gazetteer of the known world of xoth allows players to get a feeling for the lay of the land, while the legends (lavishly illustrated) speak of the dwellers below, the sons of giant-kings of old, the dread serpent-people…and yes, the longskulls of sunken Ptahaana, beholden to their weird, otherworldly masters. The final two pages contain helpful random tables, from names to random loot/events, races, cities, punishments, hit locations for monsters and humanoids to trade goods and occupations.
Editing and formatting are very good on both a formal and rules-language level – the balance between cultures is also tighter than it was back in the 3.X iteration of these concepts. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports a nice full-color map of the known world. The artworks deserve special mention: I have RARELY seen a book with this many amazing original b/w-pieces. Big kudos! The pdf has no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort-detriment…but then again…IT’S FREE. It’s the single most lavishly-illustrated free file I have seen in YEARS. I mean it. And the PoD-version is btw. a really nice softcover that can be purchased at cost – i.e. it’s ridiculously inexpensive.
See, if I had a say in this matter, I’d pay Morten Braten a significant wage, just to write Xoth stuff full time. I am not kidding you. As mayn of you know, I am sucker for good Sword & Sorcery. The problem with the genre, though, is interesting to discuss with literature scientists. Frankly, the genre shouldn’t work as well as it does. Intellectually, there is better prose out there, but there is something visceral, immediate that bypasses my analysis-mode and pulls my lips apart in a devilish smile whenever I read good sword & sorcery. Here’s the issue: At least from what I’ve seen, an author either gets it…or not. Even the most neutrally-viewed mediocre of Howard’s tales has this resonance, this consistency, this illusion of authenticity.
The issue for me, regarding roleplaying games and the theme, is that they try, often enough, to make sword & sorcery “family-friendly” – you know, get rid of the disturbing stuff, the sex and the drugs. At least for me, that defeats the whole purpose and central tone of the genre. You do not have to be explicit – this book showcases that beautifully, but these themes are as important to the genre as hobbits are for middle-earth’s mythology.
When I first found Morten Braten’s writing, it frankly blew my mind – I felt like I had finally found someone who *gets* it. His prose is phenomenal; his nomenclature and naming conventions brilliant and his world is actually fresh – it’s not Conan’s world, nor the slightly more fantastic interpretation of Red Sonja, burdened with a gazillion of stories that are over the top – this setting is basically, to me, how I would canonize the good, down-to-earth, slightly more realistic stories. It is a world rife for stories and adventure, and having played all Xoth-books released so far, I find myself returning to this place with every new release, always a smile on my face.
How much do I like this setting? Well, enough to actually get all books in print. If you are even remotely interested in Sword & Sorcery, if you have even the tiniest bit of love for the genre, then please, do me a favor, and check this out. It’s FREE and the love that went into this book and the adventures in this world drips from every single page. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this gem of a pdf here for FREE!
Want it in print? You can find that version, ridiculously cheap, here!