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Thursday, 8 September 2011

Inner Sea Magic

Inner Sea Magic, the latest release in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line, takes an in-depth look at how magic is used in the Inner Sea Region of Golarion and, in turn, a bit of how that magic affects the setting. Unlike many other Campaign Setting products, Inner Sea Magic has a quite large amount of “crunch”, i.e. game mechanics information such as new rules systems, archetypes, spells, etc., instead of “fluff”, which is story and descriptive material. This makes it a product more in the style of a book like Ultimate Magic than most books in this line. However, whereas Ultimate Magic is a generic look at magic in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Inner Sea Magic looks at magic with a very Golarion-specific spin.

In general, I really like that most Campaign Setting books are fluff-heavy, as that’s the kind of thing I most enjoy reading when learning about a game world. There’s enough crunch in the generic books that, unless it’s very specific to the setting, more is not really needed in a world book. As such, I had a few reservations going into this book. Most of those reservations, however, quickly subsided. This is not just a book with a gazillion new feats and spells that the game doesn’t really need. There are full details on variant magic styles that other Campaign Setting books have only hinted at, new class archetypes that explore these styles, an overview of prominent spellcasters across the Inner Sea, and details on the most prominent magical schools and academies. They are all things that can enrich any game set in Golarion.

My favourite inclusion in the “Variant Magic” chapter is false divine magic. This presents a means that has helped the false-god Razmir maintain the image that he really is a god. One of the criticisms of Golarion I most often hear is that it’s ridiculous that Razmir could ever fool anyone, let alone a whole nation, into believing he’s a god since his clerics can’t cast spells. False divine magic takes care of that little problem. Riffle scrolls and shadowcasting are flavourful additions to the game. Primal magic is basically a take on the wild magic of earlier editions of D&D. Of the variant magic systems presented, it is the least interesting, but it does have an important place in the world in the Mana Wastes between Geb and Nex.

I love the inclusion of prominent spellcasters of the Inner Sea. Each one is given a brief, one-sentence description along with race, alignment, level, and a picture. All of these NPCs have been mentioned in other products at some point or other, but it’s nice to have them all gathered in one place for reference, and at last, we have an idea just how powerful (or in some cases, how not powerful) these characters are.

Oddly, my favourite chapter is also my least favourite. “Magic Schools” provides details on the most prominent academies, guilds, monasteries, and secret societies of the Inner Sea region. This is my favourite chapter because I love details on these kinds of groups. It’s my least favourite because this is the one chapter I wish had much more fluff and much less crunch. The chapter presents a system (based on the prestige system introduced in The Faction Guide) for gaining fame and prestige within each school. Using accumulated prestige points, a character can “purchase” various educational boons while attending that school. Unfortunately, this is not a system I can see getting much use. I would have much preferred more information on what daily life and class structure is like at these places, what teaching philosophies they employ, and so on. Those are the sorts of details I like injecting into my game, and I’m far less interested in what kinds of awards can be “bought” with abstract game points. The sidebar about semesters also adds a bit of confusion to the system. It specifies that characters can make only one education check per semester and that characters should be able to make from 4 to 6 checks per character level. It then suggests altering the length of semesters, if necessary, to make this work. The problem here is that characters gain levels very fast in this game. Golarion products generally make the default assumption that games are using the medium advancement chart, and while that is slower than the rate used in 3.5, it’s still quite fast. The shortest semester for any of the example schools is 3 months. In that much game time, characters can generally gain several levels in a typical game. Just a single adventure will usually boost characters 2 or 3 levels. So you either need to have incredibly short semesters (lasting a few days at most) or accept that characters will not be making 4 to 6 education checks per character level. The sidebar suggest that you can hand-wave a semester to be equal to a the length of a game session, but this then destroys internal logic since (unless every game session miraculously lasts the same amount of in-game time) every semester will be a different length. I think a great deal more thought regarding internal consistency was needed here.

There are quite a few new archetypes in the book. Many of these archetypes will be far more useful than those in books like the Advanced Player’s Guide or Ultimate Magic as these ones fit seamlessly into the setting and bring with them the flavour of the setting. To use archetypes from generic sources, you either need to use very generic archetypes (which are less flavourful) or shoehorn them into a setting they don’t quite fit in. I love the tattooed sorcerer, in particular. We’ve heard about Varisian tattoo magic in previous books, but until now, it’s been represented by nothing more than a single feat that only grants a bonus spell and a boosted caster level to a specific school. Now, tattooed sorcerers gain a familiar that can transform itself into a tattoo and hide out on their bodies. They can create tattoos that are magical items or can store spells in their tattoos. There is actually a point to Varisian tattoos now.

Inner Sea Magic does, of course, have a selection of new spells. While this is perhaps one of the least exciting chapters of the book (the game has so many spells in it already, it’s impossible to keep track of them all), there are some very flavourful options here. Most notably, there are a number of “named” spells in this chapter, i.e. spells that contain their creator’s name in the spell name, such as Aroden’s spellbane and Geb’s hammer. There have been very few such spells in Golarion so far (indeed, I can’t think of any offhand, although there might have been one or two). Named spells help to make the setting a living, vibrant place.

Overall, Inner Sea Magic is a very good book that finally fleshes out a lot of things that have only been hinted at in previous products. People expecting the usual amount of “fluff” in a Pathfinder Campaign Setting book, however, may be a bit surprised by the very high amount of “crunch”. However, it’s mostly useful and flavourful crunch that enhances and expands the setting. It will be an indispensable book for most games set in Golarion.

As an aside, since it doesn’t really concern the content of the book, Inner Sea Magic has one of the worst covers of recent Paizo products. In general, the Campaign Setting line has tended to have weak covers that rarely manage to evoke the feel of the material inside the book, but this cover goes even farther. Yes, it shows people flinging spells, but it doesn’t tell me that I’m going to be learning about magic in the Inner Sea. It looks more like a scene from an adventure (and I think this is why Campaign Setting products tend to have weak covers, as they try to incorporate too much action, making them look like story events, rather than descriptive of the content, but I digress). Worse than that, it’s cheesecake art taken to the extreme: three scantily clad women in sexy poses. We have the two most scantily clad iconics (and I’m still trying to figure out how exactly Alahazra, the iconic oracle at the bottom centre of the picture, has even managed to get into that pose) and a strange, fiery, ghost-like woman in a chain mail bikini. Okay, it’s not actually chain mail, but it is most definitely some sort of armoured bikini. Really, Paizo? You’re capable of far better than this, as is evident from most Adventure Path covers or the truly stunning covers of Humans of Golarion and Faiths of Balance (admittedly those last two, pictured below, don’t evoke the contents of their respective books particularly well, either, but they are magnificent pieces of art nonetheless). I do a lot of my reading of these books sitting on a subway or bus, and Inner Sea Magic is one book I felt I had to hold in such a way that other people couldn’t see what I was reading. I don’t like that feeling.

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