Friday, 8 January 2016

Occult Realms

One of the key things about the occult in Occult Adventures is that it is mysterious and different from everything else in Pathfinder campaigns. This is not easy to achieve when there are already scores of different kinds of creatures, abilities, and magic in the game. Yet Occult Adventures pulls it off pretty well. Since publication of that book, other books have also dealt with the occult, including Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary. Plus, Occult Mysteries, from awhile back, ties into it all as well. With each new book published, there is a danger of it losing that sense of difference.

Occult Realms is the latest book published to tie in with Occult Adventures, and thankfully, it manages to maintain that sense of mystery and the unknown. While Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary are tied to the world of Golarion, they are primarily books of mechanics. Occult Realms does have some new mechanics in it as well, but its focus is much more on descriptive detail that brings the occult fully into the campaign setting. And the mechanics it does have exist entirely to support the flavour and feel of the setting.

I have to say that I hugely enjoyed reading Occult Realms. It offers wonderful glimpses and insights into areas of Golarion that have only received a small amount of attention previously, even a place or two where you might not expect the occult, such as Razmiran. Some of the places are quite small, sometimes just a single building, but the small areas mean that the details can actually be more specific. There is a better sense of a lived-in world from this book than from some other Pathfinder Campaign Setting books, which tend to focus more on providing a list of locations than on what it's like to live there. The approach here is still on listing locations, but there is more room for detail about those locations.

The book is divided into four main chapters plus a brief in-world introduction. Entitled “Fragments of a Truth”, the introduction is a collection of surviving fragments from the journal of a investigator uncovering secrets in Razmiran just before her disappearance. This story does a great job of setting the feel for the remainder of the book—one of uncertainty and even fear. I really like how this book as a whole presents a rather sinister tone to the occult. There really isn't anything about the material in Occult Adventures or this book that makes it inherently evil or sinister. It can certainly be employed by good-aligned characters. Yet it's that sense of the unknown that adds the sinister feel to it and Occult Realms does a great job of developing this.

The first chapter, “Occult Power”, is the more crunch-heavy portion of the book, although even here, it is still brimming with campaign flavour. The chapter looks at six new sets of options, one for each of the six occult classes in Occult Adventures, each two pages long. First up is the Collection Esoterica from the Blakros Museum in Absalom. This contains magical items that can be used as implements by occultists. Four example items, each with a detailed history, are presented. I love seeing magic items with histories and a place in the world. They are far more interesting than a generic +1 longsword.

For kineticists, the book presents elemental saturations, places where high concentrations of elemental energy have seeped into the area. Kinteticists can attune themselves to and gain access to new abilities from them. A sample saturation for each element is included. Each contains the method of attunement and the abilities (in the case of these samples, they are all additional wild talents) that can be gained. While the saturations are very flavourful, it's a bit unclear whether kineticists immediately learn the new abilities upon completing attunement or whether they need to have an open talent slot available. Most of the abilities say something along the lines of “She can then learn the … wild talent.” However, the Crystal Womb earth saturation states, “At the end of the ninth day, she then emerges reborn, with the earth child wild talent in place of one of her 3rd-level or lower utility talents” (p. 8). The implication seems to be that kineticists need an open slot to gain these new abilities with the Crystal Womb saturation being an exception (since it replaces another ability). However, I think the text could be clearer on this.

Additionally, I have concerns about either interpretation. On the one hand, automatically gaining a new ability upon attunement provides a tangible reward, but threatens game balance by putting the character ahead of other characters (unless the GM were to tie the new ability into wealth by level, but no such method is included in this book). On the other hand, needing an open slot or replacing an existing ability maintains game balance, but makes one wonder whether it's really worth it. Some of the attunements are quite intense. Why go through them when there are standard abilities of equivalent power available in Ocullt Adventures that don't require attunement? For example, the Eye of Abendego is the example air saturation. To attune to it, an aerokineticists must “fly around the entire perimeter of the Eye of Abendego without stopping, while succeeding at a series of 12 consecutive DC 40 Fly checks” (p. 8). There are also penalties (such as 50d6 points of damage) for failing the checks. Based on the map in the Inner Sea Poster Map Folio, the Eye of Abendego has a diameter of approximately 450 miles. This would make its circumference over 1400 miles (450 × 3.14). With the wings of air talent (which grants a fly speed of 60 ft), this would take the aerokineticist well over a week non-stop to complete (extrapolated from the speeds of travel for an 8-hour day given in the Core Rulebook). While there are certainly magical means to deal with the lack of sleep and fatigue incurred to accomplish this, I'm not sure it's worth it. The aerokineticist gains access to a powerful ninth-level talent, but I'm not convinced it's any more powerful than other ninth-level talents (and indeed, there's the question of whether it should be from a game-balance stance). I love the flavour of the saturations, and the idea of atttunement creates wonderful story images of people completing grand quests to gain new abilities. Unfortunately, the flavour and the game mechanics just don't mesh particularly well.

For mediums, the book introduces legendary spirits. These are the spirits of historic Golarion NPCs that mediums can call upon. They include such people as Abrogail Thrune I, who struck the bargain between Cheliax and Hell, and Arnisant, the general who sacrificed himself in the battle against Tar-Baphon so that his allies could achieve victory. Each legendary spirit modifies one of the standard spirits in Occult Adventures similarly to an archetype (Arnisant is a guardian spirit, for example). This does a great job of imbuing medium spirits with more world flavour, making them less generic and more unique. However, I am concerned by the inconsistency between this book and the recent Occult Origins. That book introduces a legendary spirit for Nex, but requires mediums to take the Nexian channeller archetype in order to channel Nex. Occult Realms allows any medium to channel any legendary spirit as long as they complete a particular task first (generally a fairly minor task that is easily accomplished with a single ability check). It's a minor concern, I suppose, but I could wish for greater consistency.

Psi-tech allows gamemasters and players to blend psychic magic and technology—making a great addition to areas like Numeria and campaigns like Iron Gods. Psi-tech discoveries work similarly to a wizard's arcane discoveries introduced in Ultimate Magic. A psychic can learn a psi-tech discovery in place of a phrenic amplification or a feat. Psi-tech discoveries include things like the ability to create force fields of laser blasts. There is also a new psychic discipline in this section of the book, the mindtech, which allows psychics to communicate with technological objects and machinery.

Next, the book introduces Thassilonian phantoms for spiritualists to summon. These phantoms represent the seven sins of Thassilonian lore. Envy phantoms work as jealousy phantoms and wrath phantoms as anger phantoms. The book then provides details for greed, lust, and pride phantoms. Gluttony phantoms are said to “blur the lines between spirits and corporeal undead in ways that confound most modern-day spiritualists,” and sloth phantoms are exceedingly rare. Full details on neither are included in the book. This is presumably due to space reasons, but it's a bit of a shame. That one line about gluttony phantoms makes me really want to know more about them!

Finally, the first chapter looks at umbral mesmerism, a technique practised by mesmerists in Nidal. It includes some new bold stares and mesmerist tricks, as well as the umbral mesmerist archetype. There are two new spells as well.

While I've spent a lot of space writing about the first chapter, it actually comprises a fairly small portion of Occult Realms. The bulk of the book is taken up by the second chapter, which looks in detail at six specific locations around Golarion, each one having some tie to the occult. Each is quite different from the others, showcasing the breadth of options available to the occult in Pathfinder. Each realm gets four pages of detail, which generally include a history of the area, a gazetteer, and “occult secrets”. The latter are adventure and campaign hooks that GMs can use to entice their PCs into visiting the realm.

The Centre for Psychogenic Advancement is a university on Hermea, a country that has had only minimal development so far. Denebrum is located in Orv (part of the Darklands). In it, the neothelids, servants of the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, plot to conquer the entire planet. The Grand Sarret in Jalmeray is an espionage training centre. It also contains a great library of occult secrets. The Temple of the Sunken Sign is an ancient temple complex in the Sodden Lands, originally constructed by the cyclopes of Ghol-Gan. It was later taken over by a group from Lirgen called the Eight Stars, and today is controlled by a mixture of cultists and monsters. The Vergan Forest in Razmiran is a hot spot for pyschic power and is mostly inhabited by Razmiri dissidents, who use the forest to hide from the authorities. Zi Ha is a nation of samsarans who reside on the mountaintops of the mountain range of the same name in Tian Xia. Each of the six locations is full of a flavour, and they would all make great places to set adventures or campaigns in.

The third chapter continues to look at locations, but moves beyond Golarion to other planets and planes, showcasing again just how many different ways there are to use the occult in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting. There are six locations again, but this time, each one only gets a single page of detail. Although it's not a lot, there is still a great deal of flavour in each location, and each one gives enough information to provide GMs with something to build further upon.

The final chapter looks at occult rituals and idols. Rituals were first introduced in Occult Adventures as a form of spellcasting that anyone, regardless of character class, can potentially learn. Rituals are not without their dangers, however. This chapter presents several new rituals specific to Golarion. Each of the rituals is connected in some way with something from Golarion's history, such as aiudara activation, which does pretty much what it says (the aiudara are the “elf gates” that elves used to travel across the solar system). The rituals here are all fairly powerful ones (the lowest being 4th level), including the 9th-level eternal apotheosis, which presents one method of becoming a lich (devised by Socorro, the Butcher of Carrion Hill), and waking the drowned god (also 9th-level), which calls up Tychilarius, a powerful being from beyond the stars (and whose stats are in Occult Bestiary).

Idols are perhaps one of the most interesting new things to be added to Pathfinder, and I can't wait to use one in a game sometime. Idols are objects that have gained sentience and a great deal of power. They are similar to intelligent magic items, but they are not intentionally created. Instead, they awaken due to intense prayers or sacrifices made to them (or more specifically, to something they represent). Idols require worshippers to maintain their sentience and to gain more power. The number of active worshippers they have and how much those worshippers have sacrificed to them determine how powerful they are and what kind of abilities they can possess. This means that idols can also become less powerful if they lose followers. The book contains the rules for using idols in the game and two sample idols, the Earthbound Reliquary and the Effigy of the Raven-Mother.

Overall, I am very impressed with Occult Realms. It contains a wealth of new material for GMs to add to their games. It fills in details on some of the areas of Golarion that there has been little information for, while simultaneously maintaining the sense of mystery and the unknown that is the basis for the occult in the game. I highly recommend it to anyone who uses both Occult Adventures and the Pathfinder Campaign Setting.

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