Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Harrow Handbook


One of the greatest challenges with making new options for Pathfinder games is making those options stand out, making them memorable and different from what has come before. The sheer volume of books available for Pathfinder (especially when you include all the Campaign Setting, Player Companion, and Adventure Path books) can be intimidating and it makes it difficult to remember every single new option available. Most end up forgotten and never used. Even when they are remembered, it’s difficult to remember which book to find them in. Several recent Pathfinder books have done well in presenting new options that really stand out. From the Alchemy Manual to Inner Sea Combat and Inner Sea Gods, these books use their new options to develop the campaign setting, drawing on the setting’s flavour to enhance the mechanics, and using the mechanics to enhance the setting’s flavour. And now, The Harrow Handbook adds on to that list.

The harrow has always been one of the defining aspects of Golarion. Every campaign world has fighters and wizards (well, the vast majority of them, at any rate), but no other campaign world has the harrow. Of course, as the harrow is based on real-world tarot, other settings could certainly have tarot-like cards and fortune telling, but they would have their own versions and something quite different from the harrow. But the harrow is more than just Golarion’s version of tarot. It is uniquely tied to the mechanics of the Pathfinder game itself. Harrow cards have six suits. These suits represent in-game characteristics, but also the six basic attributes of all Pathfinder characters. The cards are also tied to alignments—a system that is very defining of Pathfinder and its progenitor, Dungeons & Dragons. By tying the harrow so closely to metagame mechanics as well as in-game aspects, you have something that can be exploited by players for their characters—and with that, an opportunity to create some truly original characters not seen in any other campaign world.

The Inner Sea World Guide already has the harrower prestige class and the Harrowed feat, but The Harrow Handbook goes beyond those, providing new and exciting options for all kinds of character classes. I should note that this book does not provide descriptions for interpreting each harrow card, as those have already been published elsewhere (with the original Harrow Deck released by Paizo and now with the new Deluxe Harrow Deck); however, the two inside covers do contain illustrations of all 54 cards in a standard harrow deck (with three suits on each cover). The fact that there are 54 cards in a harrow deck nicely overlaps with standard real-world playing cards, so that GMs and players don’t have to own actual harrow decks to use them in game. You can simply assign each card to one of the harrow cards. Alternatively, the book suggests that you can simulate the cards using dice; however, this method can produce some probabilistic problems as rolling dice is independent probability and drawing cards is dependent probability (in other words, each time you draw a card, that card is no longer in the deck, which alters the probabilities for the next card you draw; dice don’t know which cards have already been drawn, so the probabilities never alter).

The Harrow Handbook opens with a look at how people across the Inner Sea Region view harrowing, along with an overview of how a harrow reading is performed. It then moves into covering the history of the harrow, along with descriptions of some of the “lost” harrow cards. Over the centuries, harrow decks have changed (indeed, in its early years, every deck was different), and this section provides descriptions of five prominent cards that used to be part of harrow decks. One of the best things about this book is how it blends the mechanical options with flavourful backgrounds, and the inclusion of things like lost cards is a great example of this. This section also includes a new monk archetype, the harrow warden.

The book then looks at using the harrow as a means of divination. Along with this is a look at how people become harrowers. By this, it is not referring specifically the prestige class, but rather anyone who uses a harrow deck for divination. The section includes two new buildings for use with the kingdom-building rules and downtime system from Ultimate Campaign, as well as a new spell, greater harrowing, a more powerful version of the harrowing spell from the Inner Sea World Guide. The following section includes a system for generating a character’s background using a harrow deck. This method works with the background system from Ultimate Campaign, but replaces random dice rolls with a spread of cards.

Of course, while the harrow is generally associated with divination, harrow cards can be used for other things—particularly playing games. The next section of the book provides the rules for three games that characters (and players) can play with their harrow cards. On the not-so-moral side of things, false readings of harrow cards can be used to swindle people out of their money and belongings, and this section provides a new rogue archetype, the Sczarni swindler.

The first half of the book concludes with “Other Ways to Use the Harrow”. This includes summoning and cursing. The Harrowed Summoning feat allows you to empower summoned creatures with the magic of the harrow. The cartomancer archetype is a witch archetype which uses a harrow deck in place of a familiar. There are also a couple new witch hexes and a new spellblight. A sidebar in this section introduces one of the most interesting new feats I’ve seen added to the game: Deadly Dealer. This feat (which cartomancers and the card caster—a magus archetype introduced later in the book—gain for free) allows characters to use harrow cards as thrown weapons, with each card behaving like a dart. This feat is basically a means to create Gambit from X-Men in Pathfinder!

The centrefold in the book provides four alternate harrow spreads. When performing a harrow reading, the cards are usually laid out in a three-by-three grid; however, the spreads here provide alternative methods of laying out and reading the cards. Each method described also contains an example illustration of the layout. A sidebar contains a brief discussion of “forbidden paths”—the kinds of readings most harrowers will refuse to make. I’ve complained in the past that the centrefolds in Player Companion books are often (though certainly not always) a waste of space; however, this is an example of one done right. The space is used well, the text is not short to the point of being useless, and the artwork provides a clear benefit to players. Most importantly, there isn’t a pile of empty space on these two pages.

The second half of the book takes a look at each of the six suits in the order that corresponds with the typical order of ability scores. With each suit, there is discussion of the in-game meanings and interpretations of that suit, along with new character options. Each of these sections also contains a sidebar with a fable about the origins of one of the cards from that suit (the Big Sky with hammers, the Rabbit Prince with keys, and so on). These six sidebars absolutely have to be my favourite things in this book (and there’s a lot in this book that I really like). Stories like these add flavour and colour to the world in a way dry description can never achieve. As they are not the literal origins of the cards, but rather fairy tales, they offer an insight into the mindsets of the people of the world—something that can often be lacking in both Player Companion and Campaign Setting books. I really can’t emphasize too much just how much I adore these stories.

Of the various new character options introduced in these sections, some of the more notable include the suit seeker (an inquisitor archetype) in the section on the suit of shields, the aforementioned card caster in the section on the suit of books, the solar mystery for oracles in the suit of stars, and the harrow bloodline for sorcerers, found in the section on the suit of crowns. There are also new rogue talents and bardic masterpieces with the suit of keys, and a summoner archetype and new eidolon model with the suit of books. The suit of hammers section contains a new cavalier order: the order of the hammer. This order (and to a slightly lesser extent, the combat feats in the same section) is the only thing in The Harrow Handbook that I’m not that enamoured with. Apart from the name of the order, there really isn’t anything about it that links it to the harrow. It doesn’t even have a philosophy or outlook that in any way acknowledges the harrow. It’s simply an order that respects might over all and believes the strong should rule the weak. In a book utterly oozing with flavour, this order stands out as quite flavourless—just a collection of uninspiring abilities like “mighty bash” and “crushing grapple”. The combat feats in this section are also surprisingly detached from the harrow and suffer in flavour because of this.

The final two pages of the book contain new equipment and magic items related to the harrow. From a simple harrow carrying case to fate-reader’s lenses, there are some useful and interesting items here. I particularly like the rabbit’s blade. This broken magical longsword is linked to the story of the Rabbit Prince and functions like a +2 short sword. When the wielder is being ganged up on by multiple opponents with no allies within 15 ft, the sword also grants use of either the Cleave feat or the Great Cleave feat (depending how many opponents there are).

The Harrow Handbook is the perfect example of how to mix “crunch” with “fluff”. Apart from the brief aberration that is the order of the hammer and a few combat feats, every option in the book has story value as well as mechanical value. This book adds life to the campaign setting in a way many other Player Companion books fail to, by developing something that is uniquely Golarion. This book is overflowing with flavour and I absolutely love it as a result. It is, without doubt, one of the best books in the entire Player Companion line and will be seeing a lot of use in my campaigns.

4 comments:

  1. I had actually been trying to build an effective Deadly Dealer character for a while, so this book was well received. The Card Caster Magus seems like a fun build, plus you get to do a terrible Cajun accent. At least until the rest of your party slap it out of you.

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  2. why is gambit throing his cards ??

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    1. I'll admit I'm not an X-Men expert, but as I understand it, Gambit's powers include the ability to convert potential energy into kinetic energy. He tends to use his abilities on cards, which he throws and makes explode. Or something like that. The Deadly Dealer feat and a couple of the archetypes in The Harrow Handbook let you create a character who can do similar things with harrow cards.

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