Shadows over Vathak: Player’s Guide to Vathak
This Vathak-book clocks in at…436 pages. No, NOT kidding. 436. 1 page of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 427 pages of content. HOLY MOLY.
This massive book was moved up in my review queue as a prioritized review. Additionally, it was moved further up due to me getting a print copy. Finally, the reason you see this now, so shortly after release, is simple: I’ve had the WIP-version for more than a month and had sufficient time to tinker and analyze this book.
Vathak. Before we take a look at the content, a brief history lesson: Vathak’s original iteration was born out of a design challenge…and while the setting had promise, it didn’t grasp horror or its peculiarities. It had great ideas, but their execution was problematic. The Fat Goblin crew did not give up – instead, they brought John Bennett on board – and he *knows* horror. Under his line development, the series of supplements releases has continuously scored rather good reviews and a couple of the books, frankly, are maazing…but this is the big one, the tome…so does Vathak work now?
Well, let’s first begin with the basics: In the beginning of this book, leitmotifs are established: Vathak is a stricken world, a battlefield between the believers of the One True God (cue any fanatics of our religion as ample horror fodder there) and the Great Old Ones…or rather, their servants. Morality is the thin line drawn by a character and the story written by the victor, as petty tyrants rule with iron fists, superstitions and xenophobia hold sway and ruined villages, lost ruins and otherworldly threats abound.
To give you a general idea of the social demographics: We have the Vindari as dominant human ethnicity: Originally, they were conquerors from across the sea and have pretty much colonized the continent; a resonance with themes of the American enterprise can be found here (and thus also a synergy in themes with SagaRPG’s excellent Darkwood-modules) – including a blending of Puritan beliefs and the less savory chapters of the history of Christianity. The native humans of the continent belong to one of two ethnicities, the first of which would be the Romni, which could best be pictured as a nod towards the Vistani of Ravenloft and their ties to Strahd von Zarovich, for they once were enslaved by the vampiric dynasties of the continent…and many claim that they still are. The third race, then, would be the Bhriota, who once were the true natives of the continent and provide an intriguing cultural blend of Native American aesthetics and some voodoo influences…oh, and these once noble clans have since suffered mightily from the Great Old Ones, often falling thrall to the madness. Add to that a plethora of secret societies and cults, religious infighting in the church and political issues and we have a powder kegs teetering on the edge of the abyss, with a wick lit and ablaze. The brief history and sketches on the diverse regions provide knowledge that is considered to be common and thus readily available, providing a more than fitting introduction for the intrigued player to deal with political issues and the looming threats that abound, for Vathak is a darkened world…in short: A setting in desperate need of heroes.
Speaking of heroes – this is a player’s guide, so how does the character generation aspect work? The short reply would be: Excellent. The longer and more complex reply is as follows: If you have run any sort of horror-themed game or consumed any sort of media that deals with the darker aspects of the fantasy genre, you will have, at least subconsciously, relaized something: Horror does not happen to shining, one-dimensional beacons of light. “Because they’re evil.” is never a valid justification for slaying a foe (unless you’re actually the evil guy) and the general resonance such tales have are directly aligned with the way in which characters are relatable – and that means both detailed and not perfect. If you understand character creation as purely an exercise in number-optimization, you may be missing some of the fun associated with playing such games. It is my experience that it takes a while for players to grasp the mindset, but once they have, even hardcore optimizers actually benefit from the experience of making rounded characters in a sense that pertains their respective (in-) humanity. Horror requires, to a certain degree, more investment than just killing orcs and as such, the extensive guidelines that provide ideas from the archetypical to the circumstance of the birth etc. help create a deep immersion from the get-go. Similarly, notes on creating/establishing your character’s familial ties and a massive table of no less than 100 potentially personality-defining childhood events add further depth. Similarly, social status and education are given consideration.
If all of this sounds wishy-washy to you and you’re craving crunch, rest assured that the tome offers a selection of traits – including two new types: Basic traits, which can be exchanged for other types and occupation traits, which represent the “proper” job you actually learned. Occupation traits allow you to select one of two different types of benefits, representing different specializations. The traits universally are relevant, come with a bit of flavor and employ the respective bonus types correctly. Now one thing I mentioned before is represented here as well – the fun of horror characters often comes from them being flawed (not only in horror, think of Raistlin…) – so yep, you have to also take a drawback, kind of like an anti-trait, if you will. These range from being a condescending prick to being in chronic pain, dangerously curious, forlorn…a wide array of options here and ultimately a selection that yields itself to actually emphasizing the rolpeplaying game aspects in nice ways. This basic array of considerations helps immensely in generating a biography towards the days when the PCs start adventuring.
Now race-wise, the usual core-races are pretty much a rarity in Vathak, though notes on their impact are given. Instead, the race chapter provides mechanical racial traits for the respective races like the Bhriota, the Old One-touched cambion with their disfigurements, the dhampir, the ghost-touched hauntlings, the xenophobic svirfneblin, the romni (with different clans) and the vindari. Oh, and there are the shapechanging witchwolf romni and the half-construct wretched. All of the races have in common that they receive detailed information on their respective culture, background and the like. I will not kid you: In particular the non human-ethnicity races herein are basically half monsters of their own and lend themselves to higher powered games than what I’d prefer in the setting and the races are not balanced among themselves: These half-breed/tainted races are universally stronger than the default human ethnicities. If they stood alone, outside the context of Vathak as a setting, I’d frankly complain about them…but this is one of the beauties of settings as opposed to standalone books…you need to take the totality into account and the tainted legacies of these individuals will mark them as targets and make their life significantly harder. Trust me, I’ve done that in Ravenloft for years. So, in the context of this setting, the book very much maintains a solid social tapestry. As a design complaint, I’m not the biggest fan of the Bhriota’s ability score bonuses being only on the physical side, but that remains the only lopsided race. As a whole, the races should not unbalance any game. EDIT: Now with age, height and weight tables! The favored class options and alternate racial options generally can be considered to be well-crafted and allow for a diversity of different, interesting tricks.
The book also contains class options and begins with the disciple base class, which gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapon, light and medium armors, shields and the favored weapon of their deity. They cast prepared divine spells from their own spell list, with Wisdom as governing attribute and up to 6th level. They get 3/4 BAB-progression and good Ref- and Will-saves. They choose a patron saint at first level and gain domains and domain spells as well as a Wis-based Favor that can be used to power graces or a grace-like-based flurry and may be regained via appropriately devout acts – in short, this is a more refined and better balanced version of the Saint-class originally introduced in the CLASSifieds-series. As a specialist of the dead and consecration, the dustman archetype provides a flavorful option.
The fortune-teller is a full, spontaneous psychic spellcaster (Wisdom as governing attribute) at d6 HD, 2 + Int skillsper level, 1/2 BAB-progression and good Will-saves that focuses on tarot-like readings, premonitions and divination – nice and once again, with a solid archetype.
The d6 HD, 1/2 BAB-progression reanimator would make Herbert West proud, with 4 + Int skills per level and simple weapons as well as light armor. They get a variation of alchemy that is based on injections (based on Int, prepared, up to 6th level). These guys get a grotesque homunculus ally and have a surgical pool they may refresh by harvesting body parts. The grotesque can be customized somewhat akin to a more streamlined eidolon. Beyond that, though, they get emergence solution, powered by aforementioned pool, allowing for the healing of others via SCIENCE – including the undead, mind you. Still, finally a non-divine healing option ina viable class. Pretty nice one! Oh, have I mentioned the grotesque bomber that basically makes living, short-lived bombs?
The book also contains an alternate fighter, the soldier – while still hamstrung by 2 + Int skills, but focuses on the military aspect, assigning a regiment from a significant array: Archers, guerilla fighters, bombers…there are some nice tricks here, though the linear power progression could use a bit more player agenda. The archetype here would be the drill-sergeant, who does what you’d expect. Oh, and there are class options. The *LIST* of them spans two frickin’ pages. Anti-aberration alchemists. War medic alchemists. Cannibal arcanists. Insane Assailant barbarians; church sparrow bards that ferret out cults and heretics. Bloodragers chosen by WAR. Gladiator slave brawlers. Veiled handmaidens of the One True God; plague-employing Host druids. Negative energy channeling fighters. Curse-slinging gunslingers (with modified firearm-rules, for these are more common in Vathak); Rat Slave vindari; Investigators that delve in forbidden lore; kineticists that can wrap themselves in plat-based exoskeletons; gunslinging magi; séance celebrity mediums; alienist and regressionist mesmerists (who can poach a lot of class features by dabbling into past incarnations), scientists of the lost, oracles with the ancients mystery, espionage specialist psychics, agents of the hand of twilight, the divine killers of the church; skaldic chanters of the codex or mad fiddlers, sorcerors with the 6-clan bloodlines of the romni; spiritualists that generate an ectoplasmic double; summoners that believe in a profane evolution and even the vigilante (Fool) archetype, with nods towards Tarot, is included…or perhaps the vigilante would rather be a ritual killer? Yeah…nasty..in a good way. Also: Vampire servant witches? Yup.
The massive tome also covers Linguistics in the setting and presents, as mentioned before, modified firearm rules that allow for a significant level of customization and a vast assortment of feats can similarly be found to further customize characters in the setting. Wait, before we get there: if you expect basics, the book goes beyond that: There is a whole chapter devoted to firearms! We get a metric TON of firearms, bullets and rules – optional misfires, customization, bullets…oh boy, this chapter is amazing…and it better should be, considering Fat Goblin Games’ experience with the subject matter! Rifled bullets of pure gold required? Rules are here. This is amazing and extends to supplemental equipment like powder horns or percussion caps.
The book also features a massive equipment chapter – which even goes into the names (and look!) of coins and their exchange rates, tool grade weapons and weaponry by group…and here you get to drool a bit: Weapon artworks. In color. For all of them. Not kidding. Amazing! A vast array of kits and mundane/alchemical items, from dhampir neck guards to filth bombs and plaguemasks, prices for horses, lodging and services…the pdf is amazing in its detail: Deathveil war paint. Necrobane formaldehyde. Garlic tablets. Magical incense. Magical romni smoking weed (jep, ton of mechanically relevant drugs) and a variety of poisons and yes, even vehicles with full stats complement a massive chapter.
Now, extremely important would be religion as one of the driving forces of Vathak’s life and hence the dogma of the One True God, including the deadly sins, forms of address for the clergy, holy texts and the saints of the church – the level of detail provided here is excessive in a good way, bringing the belief to life for the reader. Similarly, the take on the Old Ones is presented in a relatively SPOILER-free manner that provides a similar level of detail – and, better yet, manages to explain rather well how/why the players can/should worship these things…and leaves a level of insecurity…so yeah…you ultimately do not know. Disturbing cults are mentioned alongside the 4 best known of the dread elder entities. Utterly unique: The romni court of signs, which could be considered to be the deification of some cards of the Tarot, tying resonant folk tales, astrological signs and the divine together in a neat, thematic knot. The attention to detail and narrative quality here is excellent…and yes, even ancestor worship is properly explained. Alternate divine domains, blessings, inquisitions and patrons add mechanical relevance to the respective divine choices. The massive chapter of spells provides a variety of [reading] spells that employ focus items and establishes, for the players in the very beginning, the fact that magic may not always be reliable and/or dangerous. The dark themes evoked by the spells emphasize well the themes of Vathak. Transplant Visage. Sequestering Thoughts. The themes of the spells focus on the occult, the weird and the investigative and that is a good thing here.
Oh, and guess what – the book is actually easy to navigate. The final chapter is devoted to a truly massive index that helps navigating the confines of this colossal tome.
Editing and formatting are very good on both a formal and a rules-language level and the latest pass improved that further. While there are minor hiccups here and there, as a whole, the book is impressively well edited for a tome of its size. This huge beast of a book is similarly a beautiful tome: 2-page full-color in the style of an ancient grimoire; tons of flavorful letters, mad scribblings and the like inserted…oh, and from an aesthetic point of view, the vast array of original full-color artworks actually adhere to a unified style, lending a concise visual identity to the book. The pdf comes with bookmarks, but for a tome of this size, I kind of would have expected nested bookmarks and more of them – there are a lot, mind you…but there could be slightly more.
All right, so let’s get one thing straight from the get-go: The crunch in this book, partially has premiered before – quite often in books I trashed. Instead of just reprinting these components, their rough edges have been filed off, the respective components improved in an interesting manner. Not all required this, mind you – but taking e.g. the Call to Arms-books on explosives/firearms/etc. and modifying them, Vathakizing them, if you will, actually added to their appeal. The racial and class-write ups and massive array of crunchy options herein generally are significantly more solid than I expected…but judging this book only as the totality of the crunchy options herein would be a grand disservice to the book.
You see, this is a player’s guide and as such, it manages to portray the panorama of races, classes and lands in a captivating and SPOILER-free manner. Moreover, it manages to convey a mindset and the mechanical tools to back up it up; after reading this book, it is pretty much impossible to not have a HUGE amount of character concepts at one’s back and call. The massive selection of options is amazing – though I was kinda surprised to not find any of the glorious lineage feats in this book. It should be noted that crunch-fetishists will not find Interjection Games/Everyman Gaming/Dreamscarred Press level of complex classes here, but the options that are here sport evocative themes and some of them have the spark of amazing I am looking for in design. The most important factor, though, is that the cadre of authors (Ismael Alvarez, Tyler Beck, John Bennett, Troy Daniels, J Gray, Rick Hershey, Taylor Hubler, Lucus Palosaari, Jennifer Povey, Michael Ritter and Matt Roth) have managed to craft Vathak’s tones into one concise whole. Where before, the tones seemed to clash, we now get a setting that feels concise and surprisingly medieval in its themes and the flavor conveyed; the excellent prose suffusing the book make it an actual neat read, in spite of the density of material provided…and frankly, it makes it the most ambitious player’s guide I have read so far. It is testament to the talent of line developer John Bennett’s talent that Vathak has matured from its original iteration to a setting I actually really want to play. Handing this tome to players and telling them to go wild with it certainly is an experience I very much look forward to…and this book makes me exceedingly excited about the GM-book, hopefully to come.
In short: This book manages to elevate Vathak far beyond the confines of what it once was; the book also represents a massive step forward for Fat Goblin Games as a company, providing more internal consistency than I expected a book of this size to have. This Player’s Guide is a fantastic tome and has an excellent bang for buck ratio. If you are remotely intrigued in the setting or horror gaming in general, then this is most definitely something you need to get.
There is another reason to get this. The resonance of themes of our world and relatively conceptual proximity (One True God, different ethnicities, plagues…) allow for significantly easier insertion of the evocative horror modules and supplements available in the OSR-scene: I could literally, just with a name-replace, insert Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Kort’thalis Publishing (Liberation of the Demon Slayer or Purple-Haunted Putrescence, for example) material in Vathak, do some NPC/monster crunching and be done with it – no annoying rewriting of plots or the like. Similarly, Cthulhu Dark Ages and similar settings allow for perfect thematic scavenging…oh, and quite a few of the Ravenloft classics or horrific Frog God Games-modules (Cyclopean Deeps I and II) could similarly easily be dropped in. Vathak, in short, offers a fantastic place to drop in the type of module that is hard to run in Midgard, Golarion or similar settings, adding yet another reason to get this tome. You can splice in Obsidian Apocalypse…or just about anything horror-themed else.
We finally have a worthy horror-setting for PFRPG that provides a thematically concise set-up, a vast array of character options and considerations that help making unique and intriguing characters and situate them in a world full of exquisite detail…I can’t wait to peer behind the curtain of the already suitably tentacle-studded exterior and see the grand GM-y insanity behind the veil of what constitutes for as normalcy in Vathak. How to rate this? Well, I really enjoyed reading this tome and while it may not be a perfect tome, it is one massive, inspiring toolbox full of intriguing prose and captivating concepts.
If you are a horror fan and want a setting that is tailor-made to cater to your preferred gaming style…get this immediately!
This is well worth the more than fair asking price and thus receives a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval.
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