The Trickster’s Handbook
This installment of the Spheres of Power-expansions clocks in at 33 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 28 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of one of my readers.
Let’s start with clarifications and errata: Create Reality receives a modified (shadow) descriptor and all effects are designated as illusion sphere effects, save the Disguise boost; Illusion sphere effects may modify this. Shadowmark is designated as (figment, shadow) and is obviously an Illusion effect. Manipulate aura may be used on areas to create or conceal ambient remnants/evidence of sphere or spell use. The Trick bestowed can only create or hide auras of a CL that is not greater than twice your CL. Manipulate aura is also a (sensory) talent that allows you to change the auras of your illusions, with the same restrictions. Manipulate aura is observed by opposed magic, and as such, a magic skill check is required to negate the effect, though the bonuses True Sight and the like add, also apply to this check.
Okay, this out of the way, let us check out the new archetypes, the first of which would be the operative for the symbiat class, who replaces Knowledge (religion) and Fly with Bluff and Disguise as class skills, and proficiency-wise, the operative gets the chakram, garrote, shuriken and all crossbows in exchange for longsword, shortbow and shields. Instead of mental powers, we get Illusion and War as bonus magical talents (curiously, without the usual caveat wherein preexisting spheres allow for other choices/modified effects), and instead of psionics, we get the logistics ability at 1st level. At 1st level and every 3 levels thereafter, the operative (erroneously called “operator” here) with a bonus magical talent from the Illusion or War spheres, a teamwork feat, a squadron feat or any feat with an Illusion or War sphere talent as a prerequisite. ESP is replaced with ½ class level as a bonus to Perception and Stealth. Pushed movement is modified to become high speed, which is extraordinary and halved, granting only +5 ft per 3 class levels. I assume the maximum value to be still in place, but since it doesn’t come up within the 20-level progression of regular gameplay, no issue. Two minds is replaced at 5th level with always ready which once per round lets the operative use an illusion, trick, totem or mandate as a move action. Additionally, the symbiat may spend 2 spell points as an immediate action, even when flat-footed, to use an Illusion or War effect; during a surprise round, doing so limits you to free actions. Effects thus created, however, only have a maximum duration of 1 round. Instead of greater psionics, we 1/round may use a trick, totem or mandate as a free action, though these still only have a maximum duration of 1 round.
The second archetype within would be the solipsist fey adept, who gets Knowledge (dungeoneering, engineering, history and planes) as class skills, replacing Appraise, Intimidate, Knowledge (local) and Knowledge (nature); Intelligence is used instead of Charisma as governing casting ability modifier. Instead of shadowmark, the solipsist gets introspection, which allows for the expenditure of a shadow point to add a +1d6 surge skill and ability checks, including those where the character takes 10 or 20. Only one use of the ability may affect a given check; introspection for Bluff, Knowledge and Stealth is possible without expending a shadow point, provided the solipsist is trained in the skill. This should probably specify that Bluff checks made to feint are not supposed to be included. Introspection may also be used on attack rolls and saving throws, at the cost of 2 spell points per instance, with the latter being an immediate action. This does come with inspiration synergy. Truesight at 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter net an investigator talent, using shadow points instead of the inspiration pool as resources. The archetype gets a custom capstone, an aberration apotheosis and save bonus plus SR vs. divinations. It’s somewhat ironic that the solipsist doesn’t do anything for me.
The pdf also includes a new hedgewitch tradition, umbral. This one nets Disguise, Intimidate and Knowledge (planes) and +172 class level to Stealth and Disguise as the tradition benefit. The tradition power nets a fey adept’s shadowstuff, with casting ability modifier + ½ class level points; this is added to fey adept pool for multiclass characters, which is overkill for multiclass characters. Additionally, this ability does net a surreal feat. So yeah, too dippable in my book. The tradition secrets include a surreal feat, Shadow Magic sans having to meet prerequisites, scaling darkvision that may be enhanced via shadow points to penetrate magical darkness temporarily, or the Extra Shadowstuff feat. Grand secrets include hide in plain sight and a +1 CL for Shadow Magic; the capstone nets a permanent illusion, but fails to specify the action it takes to designate an illusion as such. There is a secret to gain the umbral tradition benefit (skill bonuses) and count as umbral. There is an arsenal trick to add shadow walk and invisible to the weapon enhancement list. There also are 6 new mystic combats: There is one that nets you Shadow Armament (and misses an italicization reference to a weapon property – something that extends to the others as well); one nets you Pierce the Veil and skeptical for a weapon. Another nets you mage Feint and Weirding motion, treating mageknight levels as high-caster levels for Mage Feint. Another nets you Weirding Defense sans prerequisites. Another nets you Weirding Assault and Decoy; you don’t have to meet their prerequisites if you got the aforementioned Mage Feint-granting mystic combat. There also are 5 rogue talents that may also be taken by slayers, unchained rogues, investigators et al. “Dim Mak” (typo?) lets you deal nonlethal damage when a target is denied Dex-mod; being treated as High-caster for glamer concentration, a surreal feat, and another Shadowstuff Armament option may be found. There also is a talent that helps maintain glamers and shapeshifts.
Since we’ve been talking about of these, let’s skip ahead to the rather massive feat-chapter in this one, shall we? The (Surreal) feats introduced herein do require the use of shadowstuff, and all effects generated are (figment, shadow) illusions. Shadow Infusion or create reality uses may be used to pay for their benefits instead of their usual shadow point cost. The first time you take such a featm you gaina shadow pool as a fey adept, equal to the number of surreal feats you have, which stacks with other sources of shadow points. Shadowstuff Armament lets you spend shadow points to create and instantaneously equip items made of shadow stuff. Shadow Magic lets you spend shadow points to grant yourself magic sphere or talents you don’t possess, choosing from a list of spheres, and for every 5 surreal feats you have, you gain an additional talent from the chosen sphere. The effects count as Illusion sphere effects, and use your CL for the sphere minus 2, minimum 1. Only one such effect may be in effect at a given time. The verbiage could be a bit tighter here – while it is clear from the context, the first ability probably should specify requiring prerequisites, since the follow up talents/effects granted for multiple surreal feats does specify the option to stack the new talent/effect on another one bestowed by this feat. There also is an option to grant close-range swift action temporary hit points and scaling DR, and this may be enhanced further. There also is an option for an increased shadowmark range, a feat that lets you make it possible to have a target be attacked versus touch AC. This requires a shadow point and hitting the target with an illusion. Surreal Strike erroneously calls the shadowmark ability shadow mark, and nets you the ability at -4 character level, minimum 1.
Aforementioned Weirding feats? They’re not in the book – instead, “Weird” feats may be found – this should have been caught by a consistency check. These feats build on mage Feint and Decoy; Mage Feint is a basic talent that lets you get three tricks: Use aid another in conjunction with attack and defense regarding targets within illusion range. As a trick, you may force a target to make a Will-save or lose Dexterity modifier to AC, with said trick being treated as a feint for triggering purposes. Thirdly, you can trigger readied actions on a failed Will save. I think the second trick should have a range noted. Decoy, the second talent these feats build on, and is designated as (figment, glamer) and is pretty strong and fun – once more, we have 3 tricks that include 50% miss chance due to a mirror image like double, dispersing doubles and a mirror image like effect, and as a plus, if you have Complex Illusions, you can make these guys move independently. Weird Motion nets you casting ability modifier as a circumstance bonus to AC vs. AoOs when charging or making ranged attacks, and you may combo such an attack with Mage Feint versus the target. Weird Defense allows you to use a swift action to grant you a scaling miss chance as an SP, and Weird Assault nets you the option to suppress copies from Decoy to get temporary spell points that may be used for Mage Feint, and this does interact with Weird Defense. We also get a feat that treats you as interacting with figments and making e.g. shadowmark work as a 10 ft.-reach melee touch that also works for AoOs is interesting.
Not all feats are good. Take Psychosomatic Suffering. “Any damage you deal that is prevented by damage reduction, energy resistance or immunity is instead converted to nonlethal damage.“ WHAT THE F…. This is utterly broken and wrecks the few defenses that work in PF. This needs to die in a fire. Aforementioned Pierce the Veil feat is cool: It lets you incur a penalty to attack to ignore increasing miss chances, though I am not happy with how the math comes out here; I’ll be tweaking that one. The book also contains a variety of Dual Sphere feats, like one that makes your light become a spread that behaves like a gas and may pierce holes, get around corners, etc. On the cool side: You can get an Invisible Friend. Better counterspelling and the like – there are some gems herein as well.
As you could glean from the review’s text so far, this book does codify an array of new descriptors for the Illusion sphere – figment, glamer, sensory, shadow and suppression are tightly defined here. I have a few issues here, though: Shadow effects that cause damage are untyped, which is problematic regarding the global balance of the game. Additionally, disbelieving a (shadow) illusion only has its effectiveness halved in comparison to the regular iteration of an illusion. The book does btw. change a design paradigm in that miss chances can and do stack, with a sidebar explaining the like – which does make sense. As an aside: Hit-chances, the inverse of miss chances, invented by Steven D. Russell back in the day (Rest in Peace, my friend) would have made for a welcome addition to the trickster’s arsenal, but I digress. The talents allow the Illusion users to increase illusion casting time by one step to reduce spell point cost by 1, minimum 0. Hijacking figments, outsourcing concentration to the target, blurring squares, using tricks to reposition – the talents here do feature a ton of cool things that the sphere really, really needed. Did I mention sensory overload? Annoying: There is a talent that causes damage via figments that happens even if the figment is disbelieved and bypasses energy resistance or damage reduction. This should die or get the nerf bat.
The advanced magic section allows for aura suppression via Silence; enhancement of UMD, increase the range of your illusion to VAST distances…and there is one that makes a target save when nonlethal damage you cause is reduced, negated, etc. – and on a successful save, the target is stunned for 1 round, more on a failed save. This allows for stun-locking and even bypasses immunity to the stunned condition. Blergh. Give this one the axe. There also is an option that requires a second save vs. Silence to notice that you’re even under its effects – see, this one is cool. Bypassing line of sight re spell point expenditure when directing your figments? Heck yeah. Adding a spell failure to Blur is nice, but the name is a bit unfortunate: Spell Jamming usually means something else in the context of (A)D&D. The pdf also sports 6 nice new traits and the witchmarked general drawback. 7 sphere-specific drawbacks are provided, and the pdf includes two alternate racial traits for gnomes, tieflings, kitsune and wayangs. The book also features rules for shadow cords that enhance glamers placed on the target, and for stable and unstable shadowstuff. 5 different weapon enhancements can also be found.
Really helpful, and one of the highlights of the book: The “Playing an Illusionist”-section, which gives specific pointers regarding the investigation and interaction with illusions, the interaction with exotic senses (including color blindness, echolocation, etc.). It does something sorely needed, and concisely defines what illusions are. Why do we need that? Well, over the years, we all have been operating under a variety of implicit assumptions that may well generate some dissonance in interpretations etc.. While I may well be mistaken, this is the first time I’ve seen a section in a book really do the work and define what illusions can and can’t do in a holistic manner. The explanation of illusions that create cover or concealment, etc. is, for example, super helpful. This section also provides seriously helpful advice for players and GMs alike. This chapter is a godsend, brilliant and fun, and it certainly should be considered to be required reading for Illusion sphere users, and probably, beyond that. It represents my personal highlight of the book, which I certainly did not expect, and elevates the book from a mixed bag to being one of the handbooks that you definitely must own if you’re using Spheres of Power.
Editing and formatting are okay on a formal and rules-language level; this one feels a bit rushed regarding internal balance and formatting. Layout adheres to the 2-column full-color standard of the series, and artworks are a combination of new and stock full-color pieces. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
I do not begrudge Darren Smith his task here; the Illusion sphere is one of the hardest to design for, one of the ones that really needed this expansion, and honestly, the expansions regarding descriptors etc. were all overdue and unlock a lot of the things that we all expect from illusions. The focus here on creativity is pretty neat to see, and the book contains an array of creative and fun options, including quite a bunch of highly complex rules-operations. On the same side, however, this does have a couple of rather underwhelming class options/archetypes, and a few options that seriously need a nerf-bat whacking, as there are some options herein that do make illusions better than the real thing; better than any other magic as far as damage is concerned, in fact. The immunity-bypassing and stuff like that should go in a game as strongly geared towards offense as PF, particularly since illusions are some of the best defensive options out there. Emphasizing that aspect further imho would go a long way refining this one. But I’m rambling. All in all, I consider this, mechanically, to be one of the weaker spheres-books regarding its overall formal components. At the same time, it excels in quite a few areas above and beyond what was expected here; there are plenty of talents and feats that I’d consider to be godsends indeed; this has all the tools to be one of the best spheres-expansions in the whole product line, but it needs some careful finetuning to shine as brightly as it should. There are several instances where balancing and details should get some attention, and consistency etc. should also be checked once more. My final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, and while I’d usually round down, the sheer difficulty of the task at hand, and how this often manages to achieve its goals with panache, makes me round up instead; this may be flawed, but what’s here shines brightly indeed.
You can get this handbook here on OBS!
You can directly support Drop Dead Studios making Spheres of Power material here on patreon!
There currently is a kickstarter going on for a massive Spheres of Power compilation – you can check it out here on kickstarter!