Ultimate Spheres of Power
This massive, colossal doorstopper of a tome clocks in at 626 pages of content. No, I am not kidding. This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to one of my readers actually sending me a print copy of the book with a request to review it.
Beyond the challenges 2020 held for all of us, this book proved to be a challenge to review in a couple of additional ways for me, ways which I simply had not anticipated. As a consequence, this review will be structurally a bit different from what I usually write.
First of all: What is this? It is important to note that Ultimate Spheres of Power is not (only) a compilation of the original book and supplemental material presented in the various expansion books (up to and including the Wraith, Fallen Fey sphere and Blood sphere are included); unlike many minimum effort compilation books, this tome actually did change some material and integrate feedback gathered during the original file’s circulation. It also does not include every bit of content from the expansion books for the spheres, which means it does not (completely) invalidate all those supplements—if you’re playing without that much regard to internal/external balancing anyways. If you do, then, and let me make that abundantly clear, then this book mops the floor with the previous incarnations of the books.
If you’re new to Spheres of Power, you can read reviews of the system and all books/pdfs compiled and refined in this book on my site. This book contains a ton of classes, spheres, feats, favored class options, items, incantations, etc.—this is one of the books with the highest rules-density I’ve ever covered.
Which brings me to the two ways one could look at this, and these require a brief look at the history of the system; please bear with me, this is going somewhere.
When Spheres of Power was originally released, it represented a widely-popular tome – and deservedly so. The Vancian spellcasting system with its spell-blocks is certainly charming and useful, but there always was a desire out there for casting to a) behave more in line with what we experience in books and the like, and b) spellcasting to behave in a way that is less overbearing. In short, Spheres of Power wanted to rebalance magic and make it feel more magical at the same time. The point-based spellcasting system made more sense to many people than the Vancian spellslots. And in the eyes of many, me included, it delivered on these promises. For the most part.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t clearly state that, to me, these benefits outweighed some of the issues that even the original book had, for example how dippable it was, the lack of power-parity between the various spheres, and quite a few more. I should have been harder on the original book, but the freshness of its design, and its vast amount of options outweighed the rough patches for me. That, and I didn’t yet have the same amount of experience with the rather intricate system…and how it changed. Still, even back then, I should have been harsher on e.g. the Dark and Light spheres being somewhat limited when compared to, let’s say…Telekinesis, Conjuring or Creation.
It’s not hard to see e.g. the Destruction sphere outperforming the Light sphere in damage; that was intentional. But the lack of parity also extends to utility, and some spheres that really needed an upgrade didn’t exactly get it. Compare e.g. Alteration and Weather, and you’ll notice that these are not equal in utility; perhaps more obvious would be the comparison of Divination vs. Fate.
That being said, the original Spheres of Power book had this very pronounced notion, this design goal, of allowing us to play mid-tier/low-fantasy, or choose those high-powered advanced options for high fantasy; this division was not consequently maintained throughout the run of all those expansion handbooks. Indeed, one of the issues that only slowly materialized in my tests, was that there was no real guiding oversight regarding the power-levels of the expansion handbooks; strong spheres became even stronger, while weaker spheres were upgraded to parity with the original spheres. This inconsistency in power-levels was rather insidious, in that it happened gradually. And it’s understandable: You design for one sphere, do cool stuff—it works, nice. But the line of where, if at all, to draw the high-fantasy/optional line became ever blurrier, and in later supplements, often primarily was employed solely for high-impact abilities with serious potential for incisions into planned narratives.
And frankly, in hindsight, I can say that I’ve failed as a reviewer for quite a few of these expansion books was seen within the context of this system; the perspective I assumed became too much inundated with mainstream PFRPG or higher power-level material that didn’t care about balancing as much (speaking of which: the Path of War content has btw. not been reproduced herein); I lost sight of the original promise of Spheres of Power, the original vision of a more even caster-martial approach, of optional, more powerful tricks that were clearly categorized. Throughout the series, it transformed to provide a power-level roughly on par with regular casters, in some cases exceeding them in numerical depth and action economy, if not in breadth.
This being said, the following points should be taken in the context of someone genuinely loving this massive doorstopper of a tome: These issues may or may not come up in your game, but since they apply globally, I considered them worth mentioning.
If you expected a return to this original promise of the Spheres of Power system, alongside a streamlining of the material released since, and the implementation of this material in a stringent regular play/advanced play-paradigm, then this book, in spite of its changes, will be a resounding disappointment for you. While Ultimate Spheres of Power does a lot right in these regards, it does not manage to reign in the power-increase due to synergies and the increase of options available, nor does it really establish a clearer baseline of power among spheres.
That being said, it should be emphasized that Ultimate Spheres of Power is a much smoother experience than using the original Spheres of Power alongside all of the expansion books; it is evident in quite a few cases that the system has indeed been playtested more thoroughly, not simply jammed together, with some of the more powerful options eliminated. The by now notorious incanter dip has been nerfed slightly, for example, though the paradigm of “giving up stuff later to gain power now” can, unfortunately, still be found. And you can still multiclass out of having to pay out.
So big suggested rule #1 for using this book: Limit multiclassing.
Big rule #2: I’d strongly suggest limiting, or at least very carefully vetting content from the Player Companion line by Paizo when using this book; the player’s companions, while often interesting, are also not balanced in a tight manner, and I found quite a few combos of the materials in this series and Ultimate Spheres of Power that allowed for really nasty tricks. This is not necessarily the fault of Ultimate Spheres of Power, but it’s something to bear in mind; the book hasn’t accounted for some of the more broken combos that can stem from interacting with these.
Another difference of Ultimate Spheres of Power in contrast to its predecessor would be partially due to its increased amount of material, and that would be action economy, and its system-inherent consistency: Quicken Spell in spheres costs a whopping 4 spell points; but casting is not either a standard or an immediate/swift action – it is much easier to gain casting for standard, move, swift, and free action going in spheres; there is a lot to optimize, and that is generally something I enjoy. However, I do believe that the system would benefit from global guidelines regarding spell point cost and casting action economy, because a decently-optimized caster does have a higher nova-capability than necessary, performing on par (or beyond) with save-or-sucks of Vancian casters. An easy way to mitigate that would have been an introducing of something like the martial focus employed in Spheres of Might – that way, combos would still be possible, but needed to be deliberate. As such, I do, particularly if a campaign’s supposed to reach the mid-to high-levels, recommend introducing such a mechanic…or at the very least, to impose a hard cap on benefits attainable via free actions.
In absence of these, let me propose big rule #3: Cap bonuses and debuffs at +/-5. It’s no surprise that PFRPG’s math becomes a bit wobbly at higher levels, but with Spheres of Power, some of these number-escalations can hurt a bit more; if you want to really make sure to maintain something akin to the series’ original promise, carefully vet all increases to caster level in particular, and cap those numbers.
The other, similarly subtle issue that can still be found herein, would be that the spheres are not consistent in how they value bonuses and bonus types; it is no secret that I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to those, and there are a few instances where the types don’t make sense regarding their value or type to me. It’s also worth noting that it’s pretty common to have buffs and debuffs scale up to +7/8 at higher levels, which is farther than most class options go; again, strongly suggest capping those.
That being said, these issues, while very much indisputable and present, are by NO MEANS dealbreakers.
Indeed, after going through this huge tome with a relatively fine-toothed comb, I can comfortably ascertain that the tome clearly works better than the collective of expansion books; and that is an achievement; indeed, I think the Drop Dead Studios crew must be lauded for it, lauded for the streamlining and improvements that went into this book. It should also be noted that the implementation of italics in this book is much smoother and more consistent than before.
Which brings me to the layout, which is more important for such massive tomes of content: On the plus-side, we have color-coded chapters, and one glyph for each sphere; if you flip through the massive spheres-chapter, you’ll have this glyph on the border of the page as well, allowing you to quickly skim through the physical book and find the proper sphere’s information – two thumbs up for that. It made navigating this huge tome much easier. That being said, I kinda wish the glyphs had also been used in the feat-chapter, which is GINORMOUS. We’re talking about slightly more than 50 pages of feats. Yes, that’s FIFTY, as in 5-0. Granted, this might be me having a visual mind, but I think it’d have been helpful to have each sphere-specific feat have the associated sphere-glyph, with dual-sphere feats having two glyphs. The feat-chapter also uses yellow as its header-color; granted, not the eye-hurting yellow of the original Illuminator’s Handbook, but it’s still yellow text on a background that’s not that much darker; having the letters sport a black outline would have significantly enhanced the readability of the chapter as far as I’m concerned.
On a rules side of things, the book has taken a more stringently-curated approach than the individual handbooks, with uses of e.g. Everybody Games’ excellent antagonize mechanics (which should have been core) and Spheres of Might, as well as psionics, taken into account, among other aspects.
…and honestly, without going into a level of detail that would render this review all but useless to most people, that’s as much as I can say about this.
Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level; while there are still aspects of the book where the rules can become problematic, I was pretty surprised by the degree of improvements that went into this book. Layout adheres to a functional 2-column standard with color highlights and artworks of various styles and aesthetic quality. As noted, I do think that information-design wise, the book does a couple of things right, but could have gone further. I still hate yellow as the feat chapter’s header text color; it doesn’t have enough contrast for my liking, but that’s an aesthetic nitpick. The PoD hardcover is a massive tome, dwarfing the Core Rulebook; it is glued, though, so if my other huge RPG-books are an indicator, it will suffer over the years. I can’t comment on the pdf-version, since I do not own it.
Adam Meyers, Darren Smith, Amber Underwood, Michael Uhland, Michael Sayre, Andrew Stoeckle, Andrew J. Gibson, Derfael Oliviera, John Little, Johannes Luber, Steven Loftus, Jeff Collins—that’s quite a bunch of designers, and considering that, it’s surprising to see how unified this book feels as a whole.
But is it good?
This depends very much on what you wanted out of it.
If you wanted a return to the vision of the original Spheres of Power and the power-levels it gunned for, then you’ll consider it OP.
If you don’t care about balance, and just wanted a compilation of the handbooks, then the improvements made here in that regard might rub you the wrong way.
However, if you wanted an update of spheres of power and all of its content, with some of its rough edges sanded off, then this book does deliver EXACTLY what you wanted. If you’re looking for a system that plays more like magic from novels and movies, then spheres is a breath of fresh air.
Similarly, if your group enjoys optimization and combos, then Spheres of Power adds more strategy to the whole realm of magic than simply casting the best spell; in that way it’s a resounding success.
…but in those aspects, it’s also where one can genuinely criticize the book. I am inordinately fond of particularly the Blood and Time spheres, to call out two of my favorite parts of the book. Ultimate Spheres of Power is a gigantic toolbox of options that allow you to make magic more magical. When I love this book, I REALLY love it, and I adore the system.
…and yet, as much as I adore the way in which this rewards optimization, combos and the like, I can’t help but feel that I shouldn’t have had to spell out that bonuses should cap to not further exacerbate the issues of PFRPG’s math falling apart. Or that, if your group consists of hardcore powergamers (like mine), this wonderful magic system can make them tax the assumptions of PFRPG to the breaking point; the latter is not as big of an issue if everyone’s on board, but in mixed groups, with some less crunch-savvy players, the differences in power-levels can be rather significant; more so than in many comparable contexts.
I would love to unanimously recommend this book and its inspired, awesome concepts and ideas, slap 5 stars + seal on it and smile from ear to ear, but I ultimately can’t do that. If you and your group can reach an agreement to not push the system to its breaking points, then it will provide literally years of fun for you; courtesy of the new system, the entirety of PFRPG’s first edition can feel radically different, fresh, exciting. For you, this book may well be one of the most important in your entire library.
I love a lot in this book. Heck, I loved a ton of the individual spheres-handbooks. But, in many ways, this book to me represents the end of a honeymooning phase, the point where the system should ideally have no aspects that creak anymore.
The best way to think about this, would be to think about it as an alternate caster-system that results in more focused, themed, casters reminiscent of those we know from fiction; who can theoretically perform in a devastating manner on par with Vancian casters; depending on player-expertise, beyond them in their focused areas of expertise.
It’s also a book that lets you drastically change how PFRPG feels, with incantation engine and items etc. allowing you to make use of pretty much the majority of the entire PFRPG array of options.
Damn, how should I rate this? I am genuinely torn on this one, as I adore how it operates, but am somewhat disappointed by how easily the system can still be strained, and in spite of the name, I don’t think it makes for the best version of the content it could have been. I am, somewhat, in the camp of the people who wanted a realization of the original vision behind Spheres of Power; I wanted something more akin to a second edition, and I can understand anyone who’d consider this a 3-star tome.
But then again, I pride myself on reviewing books for what they are, and not for what I’d want them to be. Granted, this approach made me fall prey to the whole power-level escalation in the individual handbooks, as there was no clear power-level as a baseline for the entire series. Handbook A pushes envelope; handbook B doesn’t; C pushes further – you get the idea; when the individual frame of reference is the sphere in question in combination with an as-of-yet unfinished entire series as baseline, it’s hard to judge anything but the context of the sphere and a potential overall power-level guesstimate.
And there’s the factor that this book was billed as a compilation, with some improvements to (content) editing – and it delivers in that regard.
In fact, it delivers more than I thought it would, but less than I hoped for.
The key to rating this in a fair manner I can live with turned out to be a weird one: Eliminate the “Spheres of Power” from the title; try to block out what came before; try to block out the original, the handbooks. Assume a position of a person who doesn’t have very specific expectations of what the book should be but retain my hard-won knowledge of how its intricate and rather complex systems can be manipulated, tweaked and pushed.
If this were a new book of its own, what would my response be? I’d celebrate this book for all of its genuinely amazing components, and for the streamlining and rules-changes that it *DOES* implement. But I’d also caution against its not-as-streamlined components, and I stand by the big rules suggestions above; implementing them will make the system operate in a much smoother manner.
I thought long and hard about the verdict, and ultimately, I’ll settle on a verdict that will probably annoy everyone, but which I consider to be fair: In the end, I think this is a 4.5 stars book, rounded down.
If you are new to spheres of power and have no experience with the system, consider my verdict for the original book to still be valid: For you, this very much will a radical and awesome paradigm chances that breathes life into an old system, and may be worth 5 stars + seal based on that alone. Just, if you do, consider implementing the limits I outlined above; you’ll thank me at the very latest when your characters reach 10th level. Unless, of course, that’s what you and yours enjoy! There is no wrong way to game, after all!
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