Welcome to Scarthey (almost system neutral)
This setting supplement clocks in at 64 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page acknowledgements, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 53 pages of content – at least in the single-page version. If you prefer e-readers and the like, there is a double-page version of the pdf included as well.
This review was added and moved up in my reviewing queue because I was tasked to review a module set in this setting, and it makes no sense and violates my OCD-tendencies to cover a module without first talking about its backdrop.
Okay, so Scarthey is a magical university, one that sports 4 different Houses that you’re assigned to; there is an orientation, and courses are assigned based on the things you wish to learn. Anyone wishing to study magic can enroll in Scarthey, and among the staff, there are rectors – basically the sanctioned adventurers of the university, which also contain non-casters. As such, this can create an interesting dynamic, as a adventuring group is assumed to consist of a mix of rectors and students.
Archchancellor Gwydion Ambrosius gets a full-page artwork, one that makes him, aptly, look like a cross between Gandalf and Dumbledore – it’s a pretty damn gorgeous piece, and indeed, this is something you realize once you open the pdf for the first time: This is one beautiful book. The pdf sports a parchment-like background with blue highlights and headers and a ton of baroque graphic elements that don’t detract from the text, but rather enhance it – the layout is absolutely stunning and deserves some serious applause.
Scarthey is properly mapped in a solid, if slightly less impressive two-page spread map (one page for the double-page version, obviously), which I’d usually applaud. However, it would have been nice to a) get a player-friendly, unlabeled map (though I can, for once, stomach its absence, considering that campus-maps will be present) and b), the map lacks a scale. As provided, it’s hard to glean how sprawling or cluttered those grounds are supposed to be. The map also, obviously, lacks a grid, so it remains pretty much abstract. Scarthey also seems to have only one means of getting there by land (as noted in the description of the gatehouse), but unfortunately the exact dimensions of where the university is can’t be gleaned from the map.
The description of the individual keyed locales that follows is written in a semi-IC-prose style, reminiscent of the pamphlets you’re handed when enrolling in a new university – “friendly librarian staff under the direction of Professor Raama Tuko” will gladly assist you, though some levels are obviously off-limits for new students – you get the idea. I enjoyed the implementation of this particular narrative conceit. From a prestigious healing house to a bardic school, there are quite a few different components here – at this point, it’s also worth mentioning that quite a few perfectly-chosen pieces of public domain drawings supplement the academy – there are a lot of those inside, and from alchemy tower to artificer’s hall, this section covered a lot of ground – with curious absences: None of the occult classes seem to receive instruction in Scarthey.
Speaking of which: While e.g. stabling is covered with costs for flying mounts and the like per semester, the book, as befitting of its tone, does make mention of e.g. the phantom chariot spell and similar components. This brings me to a crucial thing you need to know:
This supplement, while nominally declared PFRPG-compatible, makes many of Raging Swan Press’ offerings look positively crunchy. It is basically almost bereft of actual rules-relevant material in all but cursory references. No settlement statblock is provided for Scarthey, no feats, traits, spells – nothing in that regard. This also becomes pretty obvious with the staff: A total of 13 different NPCs are presented with a gorgeous artwork, a brief introduction, and a sample quote. The artworks deserve mention, as I did not expect to see so many gorgeous pieces herein. However, we don’t even get an inkling about their alignment and chosen classes – not even a brief “N male human transmuter 14” or the like. This is a bit puzzling to me, considering that the pdf for example does present the structure of the university in a handy two-page spread chart. Speaking of gorgeous two-page spreads – there is a rather impressive two-page artwork that depicts Scarthey, which made me think of Neuschwanstein – just with waterfalls and a gothic architecture hall (that seems weirdly out of place in contrast to the rest of the architecture) added – but that may just be me being a Bavarian.
Rules for conduct in Scarthey are presented alongside a variety of punishments for breaking said rules – these, fyi, remain pretty lenient and enlightened. A total of 4 pages is devoted to the chronology of Scarthey, with banner like headers denoting the respective year – I mention this, because the banners, while gorgeous, take up quite a bunch of space, and some people are irked by the like.
After this, we are guided through the process of choosing a house – and oddly, here we do get stats for the chancellor’s crown of casting, which only enhances your Intelligence by +2 and nets you a bonus equal to your HD to concentration checks. It comes with construction notes – and as you could glean, is just a reskin of the headband of vast intelligence +2, one that fails to note the skill-component correctly, and one that is mispriced rather severely, as its additional benefit should have increased its base price – it costs the same as a headband. It also kinda made me think that it’s weird that a school of magic can’t afford a better item for its most prestigious positions.
Anyway, we do get information on the 4 houses, which all feature their own absolutely stunning crests, with house master, motto, alignment, values, beliefs and mascot briefly noted – but we don’t get to know about total strength of the like. Each house comes with its own campaign trait; these are okay, but e.g. ignoring up to 3 rounds of staggered is probably preferable to +1 Diplomacy and getting it as a class skill. As an aside, in the latter case, the trait is missing its bonus type.
The pdf continues to talk about wizard supplies and takes another cue from the Harry Potter franchise, in that it presents a variant of wand-based casting – personalized wands can allow you to ignore up to 25 gp worth of material components, and casting without one makes you increase spell failure chance. This is per se a cool notion, but one that would have needed to be supplemented by rules that explain how metamagic, options that ignore somatic casting and the like are balanced within the context of the modified wand-engine. It is a nice notion, but one that will not survive contact with an experienced group of rules-savvy players.
After very brief write-ups of a tavern and some extracurricular activities (like dragon boat rowing!) that could have used more crunchy representations to make them engaging mini-games, the pdf closes. The rowing game does have a touch of crunch sprinkled in, but to me, remained somewhat opaque.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level they are solid regarding the presentation, but less exciting regarding the underlying design. Layout, as noted, is GORGEOUS and provides a unique identity to the supplement. I really enjoyed this quasi-baroque aesthetic employed within, and a surprising amount of gorgeous full-color artworks and well-chosen public-domain art, initials and the like make this one beautiful book. Seriously. The cartography’s utility does not live up to the beauty of the artwork or layout, alas, and no unlabeled version is included. Unfortunately, there are two components here that must be mentioned. Neither of the two versions has any bookmarks, which makes navigation a colossal pain. Additionally, printing this, in the absence of a printer-friendly version, will be a massive drain on your ink and toner-resources.
More important, and jarring: This book takes the same grating approach as Wayward Rogues Publishing: You can’t highlight or search ANY TEXT in this file. Every page is basically an artwork. Combined with the lack of bookmarks, this renders the pdf a huge pain to navigate, and if you want to create a GM-cheat-sheet, you’ll be copying text by hand. URGHH. Particularly for a setting supplement that provides an overview of a region/organization/etc., this is utterly grating.
Bob Storrar and Rodney Sloan provide a very vanilla experience regarding a wizard school here – if you expected intricate notes on courses, an engine to acquire spells or feats or the like, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Then again, considering the gripes I had with the few pieces of crunch within, this may have been a wise decision. Depending on how you look at it, the fact that this book doesn’t really integrate the rich lore of PFRPG and casting traditions into its framework may be a bug or a feature – if you expected to see truly unique and potent faculty members with stats, well, then I’d probably recommend Drop Dead Studios’ “Wizard’s School” sandbox/mega-adventure/bestiary instead.
If you, however, wanted a Harry Potter-style wizard’s academy with very enlightened tenets and an overall wholesome appeal, then Scarthey may be more up your alley.
To make that abundantly clear: Scarthey’s main problem is not the fact that it’s so fluff-centric; my main gripe, apart from the atrociously grating experience of actually trying to use the pdf, is that it remains solely concerned with the surface level. So, necromancy’s heavily sanctioned. Okay, how? No idea. You can’t cast death magic. There is a great hospital, got ya- how do they research these afflictions that are not easily curable with magic? Quarantine measures? The book never dives beyond a surface level – “this is here.”
Okay, understood – how does it work? Well you won’t find the answers within.
While beautiful, the layout, at times, with its copious artworks, almost felt like it attempted to make up for the lack of depth regarding the information provided. Ultimately, the text probably could have been jammed into a book half the size of this one. This would be fine as well – but in the end, I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t comfortable running this as written. The supplement lacks so much information regarding depth that I can’t help but feel that I simply don’t know enough about Scarthey to run it for a prolonged time.
And this is a genuine pity, for this book, in spite of its shortcomings, does not feel phoned in. It is a book into which, when all is said and done, showcases energy, time and genuine passion. For me as a person, this represents a failure – while I admired the aesthetics (I really did!), I want more depth from my supplements. At the same time, I can understand and easily conceive of people for whom this would be amazing. There hence are two opposing points of view that can be contrasted with one another, and there’s no reconciliation between them. Do you want mechanical and narrative depth? Then this doesn’t have much to offer. Do you want a stylish pdf that executes its notion of being basically a “start of the semester pamphlet” rather well? Then this may well be fun for you and yours!
Usually, this’d mean that the book ends up somewhere in the middle of my rating system, probably on the upper end – however, this also is one of the most inconvenient, asinine pdfs to actually use I’ve seen in quite a while. The combination of the lack of any form of bookmarks AND the fact that you can’t even cut-copy-paste text together renders this pretty much unusable without an e-reader. And that is a huge no-go for me. Hence, my final verdict can’t exceed 2.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo and the impressive work that went into the overall presentation. If rated for its content alone, you should probably detract at least another star.
You can get this absolutely gorgeous, but not necessarily detailed pdf here on OBS!
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