The Celestial Host
This massive book contains 150 pages of content if you disregard the materials like ToC/editorial, etc. Not included in this tally would be the 2-page bibliography in the book that I considered to be rather helpful.
I have received a physical copy of this book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. It has thus been moved up in my reviewing queue; it was also requested to be moved up in my queue by my patreon supporters.
This book was made as the first big product of RPG Design Camp – an enterprise that seeks to fill the hole that kickstarter left in the RPG-scene. You see, while kickstarter is great and all, at one point, patron-funded projects by Kobold Press (then known as Open Design) and trailblazers like Rite Publishing used a sort of crowdfunding before that; a type of making books that integrated feedback and ideas provided by the patrons funding the books in a rather direct manner. In a way, the dazzling creativity of this time left a huge mark on me, and it was also then that I got my first design-chops in published books. As an institution, RPG Design Camp is pure amazing, and I sincerely hope that it’ll continue to provide the means to have amateurs having their material critiqued and refined by veteran authors and designers. Now, don’t get me wrong – this is not intended to bash kickstarter! The kickstarter-funds for these projects do allow publishers to make high-quality books with stunning layout, professional editing and great artwork, and indeed, this very book was funded by kickstarter. However, compared to current projects, many of those early patron-powered books may almost seem quaint, sporting few artworks, less stunning cartography, etc. These books, for the most part, had to stand on the strength of their ideas alone. They may have been less refined, but they had this creative spark of jamais-vu that really excited me.
What does that have to do with this tome? Well, “The Celestial Host” was originally conceived as an offering that was supposed to provide about 20,000 words on each pantheon featured within. You don’t have to be a math savant to note that this book’s page-count vastly exceeds this projection. It is a testament to the RPG Design Camp and Storm Bunny Studios-crew that this massive tome came together in this shape, going indubitably vastly over the projected budget. In spite of going over wordcount in such an excessive manner, the massive book features a ton of original and rather impressive high quality full-color artwork. Why do I mention that? Well, because there are a couple of instances where this book is a bit rough around the edges, much like many of the old patron-funded projects of yore, though in a somewhat different manner. You’ll see what I mean by this below. This is clearly a labor of love for those involved, and I applaud the commitment to presenting this book in its current form – not only is it vastly bigger than anticipated, it also has A LOT of content per page. This is a busy book that seeks to cram into its pages as much information as possible. I can easily picture certain layout-choices with broad borders etc. bloating the page-count to over 250 pages. No, I’m not kidding. This is a VERY dense book.
Okay, so, theme-wise, this is a kind of heir of “Deities & Demigods”, at least in a way. WAIT. If that elicited groans from you, then please continue reading nonetheless; if that sounded interesting, then by all means, do go on. First of all: I wasn’t a big fan of 3.X’s Deities & Demigods-book. Having had the old-school books on gods inspired by real-world myth, at one point, I started being more interested in fantastic cosmologies and novel mythologies, in part due to my frustration with how real-world mythologies tend to be handled in many gaming supplements. They are often grossly inaccurate or so “authentic” that they lose any direct applicability to the game, relegating the PCs to mere sidekicks for cosmic forces that tell a story we’re all familiar with. This may be a spoiler of sorts, but this book handles this aspect with more grace than I expected it to.
Three mythologies are covered: The Arthurian myth, the Tuatha Dé Danan, and the Norse mythology. From the get-go, this includes two of my favorite mythologies, so that is a plus. It should also be noted that this makes ample use of Rogue Genius Games’ Feat Reference-file, which unlocks PFRPG’s Golarion IP-flavored feats for a broader audience, providing the means to ensure compatibility with the Obedience-engine from the Inner Sea Gods-hardcover. Additionally, it should be noted that the builds included make use of Mythic Adventures-rules, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. This book also does not commit the cardinal sin of statting deities (which would then just end up being slain by some power-gamer) – instead, the book goes a different route.
What route? Well, that takes some time to explain, so please bear with me. So, both the Deific Obedience feat, and the new Deific Reverence feat, allow for devout characters to gain a benefit for fulfilling an obedience. The new feat allows any character to gain these benefits once every 8 –minus character level, minimum 1 days. As such, obediences for e.g. Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain are provided to illustrate how not just deities, but also mythic individuals that represent certain character traits, flaws and virtues may inspire such obediences. Indeed, in the Arthurian context, this makes more sense than having obediences for e.g. the Christian God, the lady of the lake or the grail – which do get a brief, rudimentary deity-write-up, but which are, obviously, more removed from mortal affairs. Thus, one could speak about a thematically fitting and sound re-contextualization of what obediences and their powers apply to. This is not necessarily something you consciously and immediately notice, but a subtle design decision that can slightly alter the way you think about these mechanics.
The second engine presented would pertain Regency. As all of you know, medieval Europe’s social strata were justified in much parts by the notion of “Gottesgandentum” – the idea that social standing and the right to rule were based on the divine grace of god, and as such, raising your hand against a noble when you’re only a peasant, was considered to be not only an affront, but an upsetting of the divinely ordained balance of the world, an act that may well endanger your very soul. It comes as no surprise, then, that the prominence of rulers with quasi-magical abilities, protected by god’s grace, have become pretty much a staple in legends. Even before that, there were plenty of societies and cultures were the right to rule was justified with a direct claim towards some sort of deific mandate of stewardship over mortals.
In fantasy gaming, this notion has found traction in the rather cool concept of regency and rulership providing genuine power – and in this book, we have this concept codified via the Regency point engine. When you gain a territory, you receive 3 + your Charisma modifier, and may spend these points for an untyped bonus equal of twice the number of regency points spent, with the amount of points spent per round capped at the character’s level. As a minor complaint, while it is evident that these points are intended to apply to all types of rolls, this is not explicitly specified, and neither is whether you can spend them retroactively after results are made known. The focus here lies clearly on the narrative implications, suggesting e.g. mythic power to be available within the respective Territory claimed, and while I love this as a concept, the engine is a bit threadbare and only features 7 mythic feats. It also mentions the ability to perform specific acts of mythic power, and doesn’t really codify the regency-gain within the frame of mythic adventures’ rules – is it a universal ability? If so, of what tier? The section also misses quite a few spell-references, failing to put them properly in italics. So yeah, the execution is rough and somewhat rudimentary here, probably courtesy of the limited space available in the tome, but its idea, its concept, is by no means unsalvageable. My personal suggestion would be to graft regency points atop Legendary Games’ excellent Mythic Marvels system, using them as an alternate resource.
The next section deals with something rather crucial – it discusses the means of divine ascension, and how it should be handled, how deities should be handled. Indeed, this section could be seen as the reason for the absence of deity stats: The book champions an approach, where only VERY specific weapons and circumstances can result in the slaying of a deity and in divine ascension, and I applaud that. It also talks about some rather interesting notions regarding the interactions with mythology – if you slay Thor by exploiting the notions of his foreordained doom, what happens? The book does offer some exceedingly clever angles there, and indeed, from notions like fated masks, to ascended mortals, different means of thinking about divinity are provided…and before you ask, yes, this does include the notion of gods being aliens so widely spread among the more far out. esoteric circles. The book does not fall into the common trap of prescribing any solution, and instead presents the individual concepts in a broad term, establishing a common ground of ideas, which is later elaborated upon in individual story- and campaign-seeds.
Speaking of which: You do not have to consult the bibliography presented (though I personally do recommend you do!) to use this book. The core legends and beliefs are explained in a rather intriguing manner for the respective three chapters. My one complaint on a thematic level here would be that both Tuatha Dé Danan and Norse mythology draw a lot of their individual appeal for me as a person from the curious absence of binary thinking that, in Derrida’s terms, values presence over absence, that conceives of the world in stark good/evil contrasts, but this may just be me. And yes, I get it. Many of our roleplaying games are burdened by a morality system that thinks in binaries along one or two axes – Pathfinder on the good-evil and law-chaos axes, but I’d still have loved to see the difference of thinking about the world and a brief primer on the morality stemming from it as a breath of fresh air. Then again, I may be alone with this desire, and thus will not penalize a book that already overdelivers, content-wise, in an exemplary manner. For the Arthurian myth, the rendition of the Fisher King story most deeply steeped in Christian lore, though, this very much works perfectly.
Speaking of which, we do get quite a lot of sample builds here: Arthur Pendragon, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, Mordred, and even King Pelles the Fisher King and Morien, the Moorish knight, receive stats herein. The builds of the statblocks rank among the upper echelons of complexity, employing a nice combination of archetypes, class-combos and mythic paths to render the builds, complexity-wise, above average. With notes on heraldic crests, secrets, character traits and the like provided, these legends indeed are not just simple builds, but feel like proper characters. The vast majority of them also get stunning, original full-color artworks, with only two of them using well-chosen artworks I’ve seen before. While I did find a couple of minor hiccups, their general integrity is above average. More than that, though, the book contains an impressive amount of different artifacts and magic items: From Excalibur to the blades of the other knights, to Lancelot’s ring bestowed onto him by the Lady of the Lake, the respective items deserve special mentioning – it is in these that we can find quite a few rather interesting rules: We, for example, have exploding dice (roll highest damage number again, and add results) with Lancelot’s sword and similar ideas that make them feel rather creative.
The book also provides, fyi, stats for so-called “shades” of the mighty swords – lesser versions of the mighty artifact-level weaponry for those that follow the tenets and ideals of the respective knights. It should also be noted that we e.g. get dismembering weapons – a lesser form of vorpal weaponry that can sever limbs. The fisher king build reflects the mythic vulnerability to spears and makes the character take damage for moving fully. It’s in the small aspects like this that veterans of PFRPG can plainly see truly novel components, where we can perceive that the authors really did care – there is not a single item that’s phoned in herein. While the rules language of a few of them could be more elegant, they still have this tangible sense of new voices coming into their own.
Beyond this, we have influence-rules (from Ultimate Intrigue) represented with the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the cult of the Children of Logres. As one of the “rough” patches I mentioned before, the “-uence” of “influence from the knight’s table has been partially obscured by a sidebar. A couple of sample spells (including lance-throwing and making a shield grow and fall atop a target) may be found here as well, and the section concludes with basically an extended hook that is centered on a fey ritual lampooning the Knights of the Round.
The second chapter, that pertaining the Tuatha Dé Danan, is slightly less crunchy, but not in a bad way: As a generally lesser-known mythological cosmos, the book acknowledges their obscure history and the nature of the rather diverse pantheon that seems to feature a surprising amount of overlap. The section mentions the Door or Dor’Eld, and we do get rules for the blood-craving dozen idols of Crom Cruach; as before, we do receive a ton of artifacts and magic items – from Nuada’s Silver Hand to the Spear of Light and the fabled Golden Gwyddbwyll, which also includes rules for the two games you can play with it, this section follows a different paradigm and theme, as befitting of the mythology. Indeed, much to my pleasant surprise, Celtic practices like the importance of poetry, sacred groves and wells or the tradition of sacred marriages may be found. The book also features 4 sample traits suitable for Celtic-inspired campaigns. We get 12 full write-ups for various Celtic deities, with plenty of surprisingly inspiring story seeds included, and flavor-centric notes on planar allies and religious heroes noted. Heck, we even get a sample poem in the Brigid write-up, penned by Kimberly A. Murphy, has been provided here. On the downside, Goibniu does lack the “deity statblock” that list epithets, alignment, domains, favored weapons and centers of worship that usually start off the write-ups. As far as statblocks are concerned, we do get Maidens of Morrígan (leanan sidhe bloodragers) and Sreng, the slayer of Nuada, we receive quite a few interesting statblocks here as well.
The third chapter presented within deals with the Norse gods – and fittingly, we do get a fully depicted Incantation of Gods’ Blot as a ritual representation. Freyr’s war antler gets weapon stats (so does, btw., the sling-staff in the Celtic chapter), and 7 deities receive their full write-up, with associated omens, cults and manifestations noted; valkyries do receive their own entry here as well, and while this obviously does not include all of the deities, much to my pleasant surprise, often neglected deities like Forseti do receive their due on a smaller scale as well. Nice: Instead of providing the oomphteenth take on stats for the get of Loki, we instead get fearsome and fully statted iterations of both Surtur and Thrym, the most famous giants from Norse myth. The chapter includes the evil Røkkr Niðr-cult – seeking to hasten Ragnarok’s arrival, with 3 cult-specific traits provided. Traits to represent the high value of oaths and a feat that provides rune-themed alternate channeling options may be found here, including a cleric archetype, the Vitki, which is rather cool, in that it blends Kobold Press’ Northlands-runes with the engine from Rhûne.
As far as items are concerned, we do get Muninn’s feather, Thor’s Mjolnir and the like. And yep, alas, the names have been Anglicized, but on an interesting note, the mighty hammer of Thor actually, in its mechanic execution, may not be 100% smooth, but is rather creative in that it clearly is a homage to how the item worked back in 2nd edition. Its rules are a bit tougher to understand due to the missing formatting of spells and the like herein, though. On the plus-side, some truly creative spells, notes on a couple of cults and holy sites and plenty of story seeds that often go beyond the ones we expect from RPG-adaptations of the mythology, is a pretty big plus.
The final chapter of the book is devoted to the “Ode of the Crimson Eagle”, an adventure for 7th level characters penned by Andrew Christian. Its premise is rather unique: Every summer when the sun reaches its highest peaks, Sir Avon of the Knights of the Round, Thane Fjolmod Ulfhedin and the Celtic priestess Rhoswen gather at the Grand Moot – this time on Harolde Island. A surprisingly nice rendition of the isle as a player-friendly handout is included, and NPCs/factions provide proper intrigue-stats for verbal contests. 4 different small handouts have been included. The module does not sport read-aloud text.
And this, alas, is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, after some politicking and establishing the scene, there will be an attack threatening the Moot – unbeknown to the factions, the Crimson Eagles, seeking to claim the mighty spear Ascalon, have infiltrated the island, and once the PCs have rebuffed the initial assault, they will be faced with something rather interesting – clues that represent basically a riddle that will allow them to hopefully claim the magic weapon before their adversaries, and before hostilities erupt. The main part of the module is all about a free-form sandboxy treasure-hunt – gathering clues, traveling to and fro – and yes, traveling speeds from locale to locale are provided in a handy table. The challenges faces, with giants, dragons and fey, tie in with the respective mythological themes, and the Crimson Eagles are nasty adversaries. The module features various degrees of success and failure and provides a surprising amount of material for its wordcount. I usually am disappointed by “back of the book”-modules like this; they are often phoned in. This is not – it actually managed to blend the mythologies and themes in a surprisingly sensible way. Kudos!
Editing and formatting are okay on a formal and rules-language level. There are quite a bunch of glitches herein, ranging from typos like “Excaliber”, hyphenation mid-sentence sans linebreaks, to inconsistencies à la “Harold” vs “Harolde;” rules-language adherence to the verbiage structures we’d consider standard also fluctuates somewhat, with a couple of components being exceedingly precise, while in other instances, there are some issues in the verbiage. Spells and magic items are often properly formatted, while in other instances, the italics are missing. Generally, functionality is maintained, though. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard that jams a ridiculous amount of content into these pages, and artworks, for the most part, are exceedingly impressive original full-color pieces. The respective chapters are color-coded, allowing you to quickly flip to the relevant chapter – nice touch there. The softcover is a nice book.
Ben McFarland, Brian Suskind and Jaye Sonia, with contributions by Darren Belisle, Craig Campbell, Andrew Christian, Andrew Durston, Robert Fairbanks, Jeffrey Hersh, Les Hostetler, Chad Middleton, Christen N. Sowards and Kimberley Murphy Watson, provide an impressive book here. Granted, in an ideal world, this would have received a strict editing pass to get rid of the sheer number of minor glitches, which do accumulate. However, between that, and having a page-count so far above what the project initially promised? Heck, I’ll take the additional content every single time! Particularly since this book, its formal glitches notwithstanding, manages to evoke a sense of wonder that I frankly did not expect. I expected to be at least partially bored; after all, I’ve seen the concepts done multiple times, am thoroughly familiar with the mythologies provided, and have read plenty of RPG-supplements on the respective topics. Picture my pleasant surprise when, in the small details, from nuanced explanations of characters to a plethora of magic items, we, time and again, get rules that often do genuinely creative things.
In that way, this book is truly a rightful heir to the concepts pioneered back then by Open Design; it manages to capture that spirit of creativity, and infuses old themes that have been, by all accounts, done to death, and instill them with a sense of the novel and genuinely interesting. Heck, even the “back-of-the-book”-module actually manages to pull off a blend of the three mythologies and add something beyond what you’d expect. This book may be formally rather flawed, but it oozes passion and a sense of joy that is hard to convey. It provides fresh voices, and while e.g. formal editing is not up to the standards we expect nowadays, I am, in spite of my repeated annoyance, glad that I have this book.
“The Celestial Host” brims with creative story hooks, unique items, cultural tidbits – it brims with ideas, both on a narrative and rules level. It is rough around the edges, yes. And if you’re very nitpicky regarding editing, then this will annoy you. However, passing on this book would also deprive you of a book that is more creative than Deities & Demigods for 3.X ever was. As noted, I genuinely did not expect to like this book enough to write this, but in spite of the numerous formal flaws, I consider this book to be very much worth getting. It is, in spite of the age of PFRPG, a book that feels fresh, a book that hearkens back to the glory days of Open Design, where fresh and creative ideas revolutionized what we expected from d20-based supplements and adventures. We need more books of this caliber. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars + seal of approval, with the caveat of a tolerance for formal glitches being required to enjoy this to its fullest; if you don’t have that tolerance, then do detract a star. Personally, I found myself enjoying this more than I imagined, and while, as a person, I will consider this to be a rounding up candidate, as a reviewer, I have to round down. Still, if you harbor even the remotest bit of love for the mythologies covered, do take a look – I bet that you’ll find material herein that will indeed make you smile.
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