Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Blood of the Elements

In my recent Pathfinder reviews, I’ve commented quite a bit on the sheer volume of options that are now available for the game, and how many of those options tend to end up forgotten because they don’t stand out and there’s just too much to remember. However, when I’ve brought this up, it’s generally been to praise new material for managing to stand out from the crowd. Several recent books in both the Pathfinder Player Companion and Pathfinder Campaign Setting lines have achieved this. Books like the Alchemy Manual and The Harrow Handbook blend together flavour and mechanics to create truly memorable and interesting concepts. Unfortunately, the new Blood of the Elements fails to continue that trend.

The book looks at the geniekin races (ifrits, oreads, sulis, sylphs, and undines), providing background and character options for each. It also goes beyond this and looks at the four elemental planes, as well as the famed City of Brass on the Plane of Fire—and this is part of where the book goes wrong. There have been a number of Blood of... books and the best ones (Blood of Angels, Blood of Fiends) have had tight focuses, while the weaker ones (Blood of the Night) have tried to do too much. Thirty-two pages really isn’t enough space to adequately cover five races and include a gazetteer of the elemental planes, making Blood of the Elements one of the ones that tries to do too much.

But unfortunately, doing too much isn’t its only problem. Many of the new game options introduced just don’t stand out as particularly interesting or as particularly fitting the theme they are meant to be supporting, and the background information is bland and generic. The book opens, like most Player Companion books, with a general introduction to geniekin, along with definitions of terminology and a discussion on the origins of geniekin. This is one of the best parts of the book as it lays a strong foundation and creates interest in what is to come. I will admit to some surprise, however, that it states that the majority of geniekin are conceived from the coupling of humans and genies. I always previously thought they were more like tieflings and aasimars, having genie and/or elemental blood somewhere in their ancestry but not being a child of a direct coupling between human and elemental. Indeed, taking a quick look through other sources, such as the Advanced Race Guide (a generic book and not actually a Golarion book, I realize) seems to support my original thoughts. Indeed, Qadira, Gateway to the East even contains a half-janni template as well as being the first book to introduce sulis, the geniekin descended from jann—which Blood of the Elements now claims are usually the children of humans and jann. So where exactly does that put that half-janni? What is the difference between half-jann and sulis (other than mechanical differences) if both are the produced the same way?

Following the introduction, the book looks at each of the five geniekin races individually, with two pages on each. Each section gives some background about the race and then some new game options players can choose for their characters. One difficulty that this book has to deal with (and unfortunately, doesn’t do very successfully) is the fact that the geniekin races don’t really have societies of their own (undines do to a certain extent, but they’re the exception). In general, they are born to human societies and grow up amongst them. This makes it difficult to provide anything other than very generic background information about them—but it’s not impossible. Aasimars and tieflings also don’t have societies of their own, but Blood of Angels and Blood of Fiends both do superb jobs of developing their respective races. After reading the two-page sections on geniekin in Blood of the Elements, people will come away not having learned much, if anything about them. Even people who have never heard of, say, an ifrit before will come away with no more knowledge than that they are related to elemental fire (usually from the union of a human and efreeti) and that they tend towards tempestuousness.

The game options for the geniekin races also tend towards the uninspiring and do little to expand these races. There are two race traits provided for each, and these are generally the best part of these sections, as they do provide some interesting new options. There is also a regional trait for each race, but most of these have little to do with the race and more to do with one particular region where the race is a little more common. Nightstall Escapee, a Katapesh regional trait in the ifrit section, could be equally useful to anyone from Katapesh. It’s not that it’s a bad trait—and indeed, it could be a really interesting trait in a book about Katapesh—it’s that it doesn’t add anything to ifrits in particular.

Of the various other options provided for the geniekin races, most of them don’t particularly develop the race in any way either. There is a new cavalier order, the Order of the Flame, in the ifrit section. As is so often the case with cavalier orders, there is no information on the role it actually plays in the setting other than a mention that it’s popular with ifrits. It’s just a list of game mechanics that blend into the background of all the other numerous cavalier orders. Two new spells in the sylph section likewise have little to do with sylphs other than a (for one, somewhat tenuous) connection to air. Oreads and undines get new abilities that are specific to their race and these are among the better and more interesting options in the book. Oread gem magic is probably my favourite ability in the book. It is an alternate racial ability that lets oreads use gems to enhance certain spell effects.

The second half of the book looks at each of the four elemental planes, again spending two pages on each, and also provides two pages on the City of Brass. Each section has a bit of background about the plane, along with some new equipment and regional traits. While there are some interesting things to be found in these pages, these sections really don’t seem to fit in this book. Yes, there’s a thematic link of sorts: geniekin have links to elemental forces and thus to the elemental planes. However, unless a GM is running a campaign set on the planes rather than Golarion, most geniekin are not from the elemental planes and have probably never even been there. They were born on the Prime Plane (on Golarion, presumably) and have lived their entire lives there. The information in these sections would do much better in a dedicated book about the elemental planes, allowing Blood of the Elements to focus on the five kinds of geniekin and actually develop them somewhat. Instead, the book ends up trying to squeeze two different books into one and it just doesn’t work.

The final two sections of the book spend two pages each on “Elemental Magic” and “Magic Items”. The “Elemental Magic” section is made up almost entirely of a single new feat, Elemental Commixture. This is a fairly interesting teamwork feat that allows two spellcasters to blend together two elemental spells for heightened effects.

The best part of the book, by far, is the centrefold, which presents an absolutely beautiful map of the elemental planes. Admittedly, this map probably ought to be in that dedicated book about the planes that I mentioned, rather than this one; however, there’s no denying how gorgeous this map is. Of course, given that planes are huge and essentially infinite, you can’t truly map them. Rather, much like the map of the Abyss in the Wrath of the Righteous Poster Map Folio, this is more a conceptual map, showing the relative positions of the elemental planes and the River of Souls running through them.

But a gorgeous map and a couple of somewhat interesting character options aside, there is not much in Blood of the Elements that is all that inspiring. Admittedly, perhaps with recent books like The Harrow Handbook utterly wowing me with flavourful content, I am expecting too much of this book and judging it too harshly. However, one major criterion I use when judging books like this is how many new ideas they give me for new adventures and campaigns. Blood of the Elements hasn’t inspired me with any new ideas at all. Everything within it will likely fade away, drowned out by the plethora of other options out there, rarely, if ever, to be used—and that’s rather disappointing.

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