This supplement of options/sketches of campaign settings for Spheres of Power clocks in at 45 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 41 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
We begin with the chapter “Grimorie”, which depicts the world of Athanasia…no, it does not have anything to do with Samsas Traum’s by now legendary underground song. The world as depicted is a young one – semi-divine beings only known as “strangers” nowadays entered the world and proceeded to guide evolution by virtue of transfiguration via the Alteration sphere. Animals tough this power sought to model themselves somewhat after the strangers, becoming anthropomorphic in many a case (or taking on at least partially qualities of the imitated species). The most successful were to become the dominant humans. A cataclysm happened and ripped part of the world from its body, creating the massive eye of the world and also provided access to the magic-absorbing Pirium: When cold-forged, this rare metal can be used to hamper spell-point based casters and it also stores light which it can then give off when in dark – sans impeding light-blind/sensitive creatures.
The rules for the setting provide a very generic and not very helpful general array of considerations and a chapter-based level-advancement-system – which is based on chapters: Basically, you decide in advance on how much levels you’ll play, take 20, divide it by the decided upon chapter number and thus get level increment; after a given chapter, you multiply the # of chapters completed with LI to get the new level, which basically lets you skip levels. This system is, as much as I’m loathe to say it, pretty much overly complicated and basically useless, unless you want chapters that all have the same length – but even when that’s your goal, why not just say “You level up to level X” and use the less complicated “level up when the story calls for it”-approach? Which also allows you to adjust chapter length to fit your campaign. I can’t think of a single scenario when this one would be superior to a simpler story-based progression…or its opposite, the XP-tracking default.
On the positive side, the pdf does discuss which spheres are stigmatized/limited and which races favor which spherecasting. Technology level for humans is assumed to be iron age, potentially more primitive for other races. Race-wise, the mole people Bóreans are duergar with burrow speed 20 ft instead of SPs (pretty strong), Córeans get fly speed 60 ft. (average) and exchange the tengu’s Swordtrained and Skill Bonus (Stealth) for Hatred versus the Seraphim race. Draconians are lizardfolk that lose Swim and gain Vestigial Wings, Breath Weapon and Terrain Stride. Fenrir are werewolves minus lycanthropy and see humans as blights upon the world – think old WoD’s Werewolf-extremists. They use kitsune base stats and replace them with +2 Str and Wis, -2 Cha and gain Fast Shifter instead of Kitsune magic. Leonians are catfolk, rules-wise. Merrows and Sirens use merfolk stats. Rania use grippli stats. The seraphim use the stats of strix and change hatred from humans to córeans as well as gaining light sensitivity – they also are batfolk.
There also are the feyfolk: Dwarves lose defensive training and become fey; elves are tiny and lose elven magic. Fairies use gathlain stats and are tiny; gnomes use svirfneblin rules. Goblins and hobgoblins are not fey like the other fey races here and hobgoblins are small. The race-selection here is a total mess regarding internal balancing – from powerful fly speed at 1st level or burrow speed at level 1, there are huge discrepancies in relative race strength and the introduction of tiny characters exacerbates this. Gripplis are less than 10 RP; contrast that with the strix. And that is before taking into account the unmitigated mess that is ARPG’s RP-balancing. Whether gnomes use favored class options of gnomes or svirfneblin – no idea. This chapter was utterly useless to me, also due to none of the races truly receiving anything interesting pertaining culture or the like.
The world of grimoire assumes 5 alternate classes for the basic spherecasting classes, the first of which would be the Mage, based on the Incanter. The Mage needs to cast with Int and requires a grimoire to consult to use sphere talents and abilities – it must be held in one hand and “can become tiresome if the mage is wearing anything heavier than light armor.” – a needlessly confusing way to refer to the somatic casting and focus casting drawbacks – “tiresome” usually refers to something different and implies that you *CAN* cast it, but it may incur fatigue. Yes, it’s just fluff, but it irked me still. All mages get the Metamagic Expert boon. Mages are locked into Counterspell at 1st level. The mage gets a bonus sphere at 1st level at +1 CL bonus and between 2nd and 14th level, instead of a bonus feat, the mage may elect to undergo guild training, which is identical to specialization abilities of the incanter- these are codified as minor, less, greater and master by sphere.
The Wunderkind is an alternate fey adept whose table lacks the plusses in front of saves and BAB in a jarring formatting oversight. The alternate class has a good Will-save and 1/2 BAB-progression, full CL-progression and full talent-progression. They get d8, 4+Int skills and simple weapon/light armor proficiency. Wunderkinder use Cha as casting ability modifier and start play with Wild Magic and Magical Signs as drawbacks, but get the Easy Focus boon. They are considered to be high casters and gain class level + Charisma modifier spell points. At character creation, a wunderkind chooses one emotion: Serenity, Courage, Enmity, Fear, Grief, Joy, Love or Rage. Whenever a wunderkind spends a spellpoint, there is a 10% chance to have wild magic manifest – this takes the fey aura and adds effects depending on the emotion chosen, which apply before a given effect of the spent spell point begins. Save versus these effects s based on 10+1/2 class level+ Cha mod. Potency of the respective wild magic effects vary greatly – +/- of attitude can be rather weak…while e.g. AoE stuns and staggers can pretty much end a combat in one round…for better or worse. Illusions created by the wunderkind remain in effect for 1/2 class level round after ceasing concentration on it and they are pretty good at resisting the effects of the Mind-sphere.
3rd level provides a reality pool of 1/2 class level + Cha-mod, which can be used to utilize the progressing array of eliciter emotion powers – including means to extend reach, which can be rather brutal, but each time this class feature is gained, the character also further increases the chance of wild magic. The class also receives a very powerful sight-ability to pierce magics and may expend reality points in conjunction with Illusion talents to use the Create Reality fey adept ability. High-levels provide Extradimensional Room, DR and free choice of emotion/wild magic at 19th level and e.g. a permanent illusion at 20th level.
The shaman, an alternate soulweaver, uses Wis instead of Cha as casting ability modifier and e.g. channel-basis and get Skilled Casting and Painful magic drawbacks as well as Deathful magic as a boon. Profession (medicine) (never saw THAT one before…) or Craft or Perform must be chosen as governing skills. These guys can use summon spirit bound to call NPCs with the ghost template and increasing amounts of randomly determined class levels…which is rather work-intense- you have to generate basically a whole roster of random ghost creatures to summon, which takes a lot of work. Additionally, the ability fails to specify whether the shaman has any control over the specific CR-based ghost abilities his called ghosts have or not.
Dendrites are hedgewitches with a druidic flair – they use Con as casting ability modifier and gain the fortified casting boon, but also the draining casting drawback. They get the Green magic and Herbology traditions, but are limited in their secret- and grand secret-selection, both of which sport +1 new option that pertains looking into the past – basically meditating to reroll Knowledge-checks, gain a bonus on them etc. – okay, I guess.
The Exemplar is an alternate incanter with d6 HD, 2+Int skills, simple weapon proficiency and is a high caster, with min 2 drawbacks as determined by either patron or chosen in cases where not 2 are predetermined. Exemplars gain class level + casting ability modifier (may be any mental attribute) spell points and gain a bonus feat at 4th level and every 4 thereafter up to 16th to gain an extra magic talent or casting-prerequisite bonus feat. I mentioned eldritch patrons before here – this choice defines casting ability class skills, bonus sphere, domain and bloodline gained and requires an oath – breaking this oath has dire consequences. The section closes with fluff-only, brief paragraphs on a couple of NPCs.
The second world herein would be Erda -a grim world, where a nigh-god prophet has used undead armies to crush basically all resistance…or rather, is in the process of annihilating what’s left: Only the broodmother’s orc-realm provides succor and arms itself for the final fight against the mad prophet of Truth. The world is ravaged by war and “wealth should be linearized by level” – whatever that’s supposed to mean. Guidelines would have been appreciated here. The world sports next to no magic items bar those PCs craft themselves – no capes, no belts +X, etc. – but as a defining characteristic, there are paragons – these individuals are the only ones that can progress beyond 5th level. Paragons receive ability score increases at fixed levels, bonus feats on every odd level and at 6th level (+1 every 3 thereafter), they gain +1 to atk, damage rolls, armor class (including flat-footed and touch), CMB and CMD as well as saves.
Now here’s the interesting part: Three skills, Craft (Armament), Craft (Alchemy) and Craft (Occult) are used to make just about all those items you need – from alchemist’s bombs to potions that can restore limited resource class mechanics like ki or rage rounds – these items are based on AP (alchemical power), augmentation levels or the like – the system basically breaks down class features and codifies them via these progressing sections, including using paragon bonuses as limiting factors that prevent cheesing via feat min-maxing. Considering the rarity of magic items implied, this worked rather surprisingly well in my playtests and may be a valid system for darker/rare magic-settings – kudos! Similarly, the classic races features here (including different racial ability modifiers for male and female orcs) are generally well-balanced, though male orcs are lopsided on the physical end of the spectrum. The pdf provides 4 solid traditions: Latent Magic can be gained via either two feats (Lycanthrope or Shadow Dancer) or ki powers intended for the unchained monk – on a nitpicky side, the prereqs sport a formatting glitch and don’t properly bold the prerequisite-line. The chapter closes with 4 sample NPCs – and left me wanting to know more about the world.
The final world would be Irhardt, a world wherein humans have begun slaughtering divinities, with now a stalemate between the divinity dragon guarded Atonia (I did cringe here a bit) and the conquering Zethian empire of god-slayers providing a tension-filled status-quo. in Atonia, each person seems to develop an elemental affinity over time – air, land, fire, water, light or darkness, with an opposing element. Affinities extend to creatures, items and stretches of land, providing minor bonuses or penalties accordingly. “Divinities” pertain mythic rules – even the least of them has 10 HD and 1 mythic rank. Creatures that die turn to the associated element pretty quickly, making burial highly uncommon. Affinity also determines spheres available. The affinity also provides resistance to the element that scales with character level and, at higher level, you may forego resistance as an immediate action to instead gain immunity to the associated element. Additionally, the element may be imbued at higher levels into weapons. The destruction sphere is re-codified to apply to the affinity element as well – which misses the chance to make it as one of the few slightly problematic spheres more balanced, but oh well. Instead, it allows for the Cl-based spell-point damage-increase. Somewhat annoying from a rules-language perspective – the write up continuously mentions “elemental damage” for the associated affinity element – which is not clearly defined. While one can certainly assume e.g. lightning for air, things become more complex regarding land, which now can e.g. cause piercing damage as well. The interaction, while not broken per se, RAW does require further clarification to make it less ambiguous. Tradition-wise, the world sports Verbal Casting and Magical Signs as well as Overcharge and channel energy is element-based instead, with light and dark providing the heal all/harm all options.
Kudos regarding the racial section here – the Ailerai get the gliding wing -> feats to gain flight progression right, while grimori use the rules of Rite Publishing’s tanimin from “In the Company of Dragons“; merfolk and Zethian androids, while the Ama draw upon Little Red Goblin Games’ “Racial Guide 4: Nontraditional Races.” Infused are an interesting take on the planetouched, codifying aasimar, tieflings etc. as citizens of the Zethian empire. Finally, Zethian kobolds have no light sensitivity and get a prehensile tail. Overall, this array of races is sound and looks pretty well-rounded regarding power-levels. The section ends with notes on restrictions of races/options by region. The setting assumes a removal of alignment and substituting affinity, which partially works…but only partially. If you plan on pulling that off, you’ll need a lot of work…but less than with a non Spheres-of-Power-setting, granted. Still, this does leave quite a few questions open.
Editing and formatting are good, though by far not perfect – I noticed a couple of formal glitches as well as some that extend to the rules-language. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard and the pdf sports an okay world-map of the first world. Artwork-wise, this is mostly stock-art which you may have seen before; in an odd choice, some of the pieces are blown up to a whole page, which seems odd, considering that they are not that nice and get slightly pixelated at that size.
Okay, so before we go into the respective realms contained herein: All of them suffer from the brevity of their respective entries. I don’t expect a full-blown gazetteer of a world, but as presented, they, by requirement, are somewhat sketchy, not full-blown worlds.
As for the worlds…well, they kinda fluctuate in their appeal to me: I can’t really find anything compelling to say about Wm Jay Carter III’s Grimoire – racial balancing is all over the place, some class features of alternate classes are somewhat problematic and the bit of fluff we get…isn’t that interesting. Anthropomorphic races as a draw don’t work that well for me either, since Eric Morton’s Animal Races-series provides better balanced options there.
Richard Cramer’s Erda is very much up my alley and the codification of magic items and DIY-approach combined with the idea of exceptionalism provide an interesting setting I wished had more space to shine.
Finally, I expected to hate Alexander Corrin’s Irhardt, but in the end considered it more interesting than its basic set-up (which looks like evil science vs. good magic/somewhat avatar-like) would have made me believe: Overall balancing is solid and while there are some components that RAW could be more refined, I can see this one working.
In the end, all three settings could have simply used more space to shine – they are examples that highlight what you can do with Spheres of Power and have some nifty ideas to scavenge, but ultimately don’t provide enough to work as full-blown settings. There is something to take from these pages for most groups, but I wager that only a rare few groups will elect to play in the sketches as provided. Grimoire, as mentioned, fell flat for me, with Irhardt being good, but with brevity-induced issues and Erda being perhaps the most compelling7unique of the rules/worlds herein – considering these, I will ultimately settle on a final verdict of 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3 – a mixed bag that does suffer from its self-imposed limitations.
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