Tyranny and Manipulation – A GM’s Secret Weapon
This massive toolkit/grab-bag clocks in at 134 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 131 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Okay, so let me state one thing: I never expected to see this book. Way back when Pathfinder was young, there was a 3pp called 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming. The company released several much-beloved books and then went belly under, alas. Purple Duck Games took over, fulfilled the outstanding KS-obligations, and proceeded to make things right, something for which the master of the Purple Duck, Mark Gedak, has my gratitude.
Anyways, back in the day, one of my favorite 4WFG-books was “Strategists & Tacticians”, which pioneered several aspects of the game that we’d later see represented in various ways in the game. In that book and the associated interviews etc., a sequel that would be more GM-facing was teased time and again – this book would be Tyranny and Manipulation, a devil’s grab-bag of GM-tricks and tools. That being said, the material herein is designed to NOT be used by players.
Beyond rules, though, this is, to a degree, a GM-advice book, which is evident from the get-go, as the book proceeds to provide guidance regarding so-called Overlord-campaigns/villains. What does that mean? Well, there is, in essence, a variety Leadership feat for minions, called Overlord, presumably in a nod to the videogame franchise. The interesting component here, as the pdf notes, is that the Overlord feats, minions, etc. are all ways to create back-door tactics and increase villain survivability – in a sense, the design paradigm here is similar as the one of using Legendary Games’s mythic rules, but focuses more on the behavior of the adversary and the resource available, as opposed to individual capacity. As such, responses and mindset are explained for the GM, helping you craft sensible plots in that regard. Motivations and NPC roles and how they can be thought about also help – and while expert GMs are probably cognizant of quite a few of these strategies, it always helps to see them spelled out in a clear and concise manner.
The theme of tyranny is also represented in two new base classes, which primarily focus on being representations of classic NPC-tropes: A shepherd is basically the evil preacher – 6th level spellcasting, physically feeble, but with several abilities to draw power from the flock, these folks are the evil, religious firebrands, the nasty fire-and-brimstone preachers, the corrupt leaders of their flocks of fanatics. The warmonger, in comparison, would be the full BAB-equivalent of the trope, focusing on the cruel captain of mercenaries as one of the central leitmotifs. While I would not use these classes as a PC-class due to their linearity, they are a great foundation as a NPC-class to represents their respective tropes.
Now, the book also sports a massive array of different archetypes and class options, which cover base classes as well as those featured in the Advanced Player’s Guide. Here, the age of the original concept does show a bit – I somewhat bemoan that Occult Adventure’s amazing classes, Vigilante, etc. do not get support here, but considering the history of the book, that was expected. I couldn’t help but chuckle when the alchemist-section noted that the alchemist would be one of the most complex of base classes, when nowadays, it probably wouldn’t even rank as mid-tier complexity. Anyways, all of these classes get a special archetype of sorts that should be helpful for GMs who have problems making characters: There is a simplified version of the respective class features to be found for all of the classes. I am a bit “challenged” here regarding my ability to see the necessity for these options, seeing how I frankly consider the classes all to be rather simple and easy to work with, but I am not a good way of measuring system mastery and GM prowess in that regard. So yeah, these simplified class options will probably find their fans out there.
Now, if I go into my usual level of detail regarding the archetypes and options, the review will easily blast past 10+ pages, so I’ll remain brief in my discussion of the respective concepts. Now, the alchemist gets a ton of new discoveries, many of which interact with Overlord (making minions explosive) and also with mutations. Mutations? Yep, the 4th chapter is actually completely devoted to mutations. Approximately 30 pages classify mutations as frameshifts or lobos and talks about the risks and tribulations of mutation; how it can happen is also noted – from exposure to magic, rituals, oozes and their deliberate creation (Craft (mutation) is a thing now!), the pdf covers quite a few angles there, talking about their use in the game as well as use in conjunction with PCs. They have slots, come with descriptions and a total of 3 stages, as well as Tuner’s notes, commenting on how mutation would be seen in context. Now, as far as natural weaponry is concerned, they classify primary/secondary and take size categories into account, but require defaulting to standards regarding damage types inflicted. Becoming centaurian creatures, bowed frames, swelled skulls – the classics are provided, and as a whole, I found myself very much enjoying the mutation chapter, even though I did bemoan the lack of occult synergy here – psychic magic (or psionics) and mutation go together like peanut butter and jelly, as far as I’m concerned. Well. Or so I’ve heard. I’m allergic to peanuts. Anyways, back to the class options.
The hermetic alchemist can designate a creature to be the one for which the extracts work – that may be him or a patron, which is interesting indeed. The angle is further enhanced with extract capsules. The tuner, as hinted at before, would be the mutation specialist. Barbarians get the caged barbarian, basically a side-kick/beta-type of barbarian, and the screaming chief, who is a representation of the barbarian leader. We get rage powers here as well, which once more tie in with the mutation engine. Bards of the dictator archetype cause Wisdom damage on successful saves versus their bardic performances, which is pretty nasty; jesters are a take on the anti-bard trope, but did not age too well in comparison with other takes on the trope. The cavalier of the order of the monarch is a ruler-feat specialist and the mounted guard is pretty much what it says on the tin. The privileged leader is a cavalier who gets into battle atop a lectica, a portable throne carried by underlings, and as such, is the overlord-y specialist of the archetypes for the class.
The cleric gets the disciple as the underling-representation, and the theocrat as the villain/overlord archetype, which is pretty potent: Channel rapture deals damage to non-believers and heals believers and is untyped. So yeah, would strongly suggest to limit this fellow to NPCs only, just in case you wanted that spelled out. The druid feral master is, bingo, the druid leader, while the mutant avenger makes use of the mutation engine featured herein instead of wildshape. Fighters that are comrades-in-arms would be the underling archetype, while the foot general represents, bingo, the fighter leader. Inquisitors can become cult leaders or sleepers, who get a telepathic link with their patrons – the latter is surprisingly cool for its relative simplicity. The Bakmei monk would be the leader, while the student of the basilisk gets a stunning fist flurry touch attack…which is somewhat dubious, in spite of the 1 save per round caveat. The black knight can self-atone and either rules or serves, which is a surprisingly interesting take on the concept. Farsighted palas are sunder specialists and get to channel force damage. Weird? What about mercies? What does the channel (which also gets combat maneuvers etc.) replace?
Rangers get a new whip-based combat style and a new terrain, which is designated as “hazardous” and encapsulates a wide open plethora of terrain hazards. Yeah, that’s not a good idea. The hazardmaster builds on this. The urban infiltrator is an urban ranger. The guild leader is the rogue lord, the wetworks rogue the killer minion for the rough stuff, who gets a surprisingly interesting variant of sneak, with a lot of different, unique tricks. We get a mutant bloodline for sorcerers and a really cool mini-archetype: The suppressed sorcerer needs his master’s approval to cast. I can see whole societies build on that. Summoners can become mutant masters, replacing summoning with causing mutations and the evolution engine with mutations. Sliders can move allies around the battlefield, which is, once again, pretty interesting for such a small archetype. The gifter witch can bestow boons or banes (doesn’t specify what that ability replaces) and tempt foes; the coven mother is the leader-style archetype. The patsy wizard is the minion archetype, the wizard lord the leader.
Okay, that out of the way, we take a look at suggestions for simplified feats, skills and spells for the purpose of NPCs. If you’re looking for means to simplify, this will be worth checking out.
After this, we get a massive feat chapter, in which, obviously, the theme based on Overlord, is pretty strong. And yes, unlike Leadership, Overlord does not penalize cruelty or sucky behavior/NPC-casualties. Feat-wise, the dichotomy between roles is represented here as well: Ruler and Minion feats are introduced, with obvious uses. These…are brutal. I mean it. Keep them out of PC hands at all costs and use them with care. There is a prerequisite-less feat that doubles the numeric bonuses you gain from allied minions, and the ones allied minions gain from you. Using a full-round action to make the CL of all your minions equal to your own is similarly something that even a halfway capable player can abuse to smithereens. What about a full-round action that nets you an untyped AC-bonus equal to the number of minions of the same ruler within line of sight? Yeah, this does what it should: It fortifies the AC of villains to reflect the minions – but the claim of player-facing transparency should be, quite frankly, just ignored. Think of this as a GM-only book. Now, the feat and spell-chapter spans 29 pages, so no, I’m not going to pick them apart individually. The spells btw. interact in cool ways with the ruler/minion-dynamic. Clone minion. Just sayin’. There also are undead-curing options and spells that make use of aforementioned mutation-engine.
Now, the final chapter of this massive tome would once more be something that holds universal and timeless appeal: 10 pages of hazardous environments, from sentient areas to ones where things fall out of the sky, where leaves rustle to leave, where springs seek to charm you – this section is pure gold, with advanced effects allowing you to exacerbate the severity of the challenge posed. These environments are presented somewhat akin to traps and haunts, with DCs to note them, ACs, damage thresholds required to overcome to damage them, etc. Now, there also is a template/subtype somewhat akin to troops, namely hordes – while one could argue that this would be redundant, the rules are different enough to generate a sense of unease and make it harder for the PCs to know what they’re up against – which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
The pdf also comes with a bonus-file penned by Mark Gedak, the CR 3 Darlith critter – an adamantine-shelled tentacle-snail-thing, whose adhesive glands can be harvested.
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are surprisingly good for a book of this size. I noticed no undue accumulations of glitches – an “e” missing from “morale” and similar hiccups are what can be found here and there. On a rules-language level, the pdf is per se precise, but has an unfortunate propensity for not always specifying which abilities are modified/replaced by archetypes and the like. Interior artworks are full-color and plentiful, though some may be familiar to PDG-fans, and the pdf adheres toa 2-column standard with purple highlights, one that is, as a whole printer-friendly. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with shiny, nested bookmarks.
Ryan Costello Jr., with additional content by Matt Belanger, delivers an interesting tome here. Tyranny and Manipulation, when seen as a grab-bag of the GM, makes for a book that is well worth the asking price. As a reviewer, I am in a bit of a conundrum, though: You see, whether it’s the new classes, the archetypes or the feats – the age shows in quite a few of them, and I thought more than once that it would have been amazing to see this with Occult Adventures/Ultimate Intrigue-contexts. The balancing decisions of quite a few of the options also is dubious at best…which makes sense. This book, as a whole, is intended to increase the survivability of villains, and it does that job admirably. My issues here stem from the insistence of a semblance of player-GM-transparency, which, frankly, isn’t there. A lot of the options feel, here and there, as though they kind of could have been intended for players.
I’m not going to mice words here: As a player-facing book, I’d, at best, consider this to be a mixed bag and a far cry from what I’d consider to be excellence. Beyond the (intentional) balance-issues I’ve found, both archetypes and new classes fall short of the customization options I’d nowadays expect to see – while the two classes do what they’re supposed to do, they are very linear and, compared to current classes, not exactly PC-material.
Here’s the thing: They don’t have to be. As a GM’s toolkit, this is damn amazing and provides something for everyone. While, for example, I don’t like, want or need the simplified classes, someone out there will love them. Similar things can be observed regarding several of the archetypes and feats – quite a few of the tricks herein can, in one swoop, make the difference between a recurring villain and maggot food, courtesy of their power. The mutation and hazard-sections hold universal appeal, though, and may be well worth getting the book on their own.
As a whole, I found myself stupefied by how much I liked this book, in spite of the apparent age of some components; there is a timeless quality to many of the options, at least from a GM-perspective.
You know, I gotta hand it to Purple Duck Games – polishing the material towards the ends of being a GM-toolkit makes a ton of sense and, ultimately, this is what makes the book worthy of recommendation as far as I’m concerned. I did struggle with myself quite a bit, trying to decide whether to rate this as both a player and GM book or as only a GM book. Not finding an easy answer per se, I looked at how the book is advertized: “A GM’s secret weapon”? Okay, that pretty much makes the decision clear.
Because, honestly? It succeeds in that discipline admirably.
So, to sum up my struggles: This is NOT a player’s book. It is not billed as such, nor intended as such. Thus, I will not rate it as such.
It is neither perfect, nor is every component of the book relevant for every game. But chances are that you’ll, even when using only ¾ths or 2/3rds of the book, get more than your money’s worth. The hazard-section alone is gold; the mutations are interesting as well…and you WILL find an archetype that inspires you (enslaved suppressed sorcerer is imho gold…), a couple of feats that’ll help your BBEG survive to fight another day. We have more than 130 pages of material, advice, tricks and options, and while it may be unlikely that you’ll love all of these pages, I’m pretty confident in my prediction that there will be quite a lot that you will love. The bang for buck ratio is pretty damn good here.
You know, I actually did not expect to arrive here. At all. I saw this and thought: “Oh great, obsolete book.” …and got ready for a slog through an outdated splatbook. Color me surprised. It’s not obsolete. It retains its relevance; and while it falls short of the highest echelons of my rating system due to the system having evolved, I still consider it to be a very good book, one that can help enrich pretty much any GM’s campaign in one way or another. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars.
You can get this cool toolkit here on OBS!
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