Monday 5 May 2014

Undead Slayer's Handbook

Undead are an iconic part of fantasy roleplaying. There are few campaigns that won’t, at some point or other, include a few undead, be they mindless skeletons and zombies or more powerful undead like vampires and liches. Many campaigns will feature undead quite frequently and may even focus on them. The PCs may consist of vampire hunters, carefully stalking the creatures of the night. Or perhaps they seek out restless spirits like ghosts and spectres in order to send them to their proper rest. The Undead Slayer’s Handbook is a book that is geared specifically towards these kinds of characters. It provides tools and options for Pathfinder characters who hunt the undead.

While the Undead Slayer’s Handbook is a bit of a niche product, it still has a fairly broad scope, as undead are bound to show up at some point in just about any campaign. This makes the book more widely usable than a book like the Dragonslayer’s Handbook. Even in campaigns focused on dragons, PCs aren’t likely to encounter a lot of them. However, even in campaigns that aren’t focused on undead, PCs are still likely to encounter quite a few undead creatures, from zombie minions to vampire overlords.

The book breaks undead down into four categories: consummate, hungry, incorporeal, and mindless. Similarly, it also breaks those who hunt undead down into four categories: exorcists, necrologists, redeemers, and stalkers. These categories are fairly broad, but are not necessarily all-encompassing. It is also possible for a single creature or character to fit into more than one category. As such, these categories are not meant to be definitive, but rather provide a useful framework for discussing undead and their slayers. The book opens by defining these categories, and also provides some generic information on what everyone on Golarion knows about undead and some of the organizations (like the Knights of Ozem) dedicated to slaying undead.

The book then provides some basic information on “Preparing to Slay Undead”. Included in this section is a new feat chain. Bless Equipment is the start of the chain and the other feats include Align Equipment, Improved Bless Equipment, and Greater Bless Equipment. These feats allow clerics (and other characters who can channel energy) to sacrifice uses of channel energy to instead add temporary properties to weapons and armour. These properties include things like bane and ghost touch. What I like about these feats is that, while they will certainly prove useful against undead, they will also prove useful against many other creatures as well. There’s nothing requiring the type of bane chosen to be undead, for example. Align Weapon is a feat that many groups will be happy to have, as it gives them an easy way to get past some types of damage reduction without having to have spells prepared in advance, making it a great feat to have when facing things like demons and devils as well as the undead.

With this introductory material out of the way, the book then begins looking at the four kinds of undead, with two pages devoted to each one. Each section includes a general description along with necrology and habitat, as well as “Slayer Tools”—new equipment that is particularly useful for the given type of undead. Each section also includes a “Haunted by Undeath” sidebar, which introduces two new regional traits related to the type of undeath being discussed.

First up are the consummate undead, which are undead who chose their existence. Liches are the most obvious examples of consummate undead, but they can also include vampires, mummies, and others. Hungry undead are creatures like ghouls, who have a compulsion to feed on the living. “Feeding” does not necessarily mean literally eating living creatures (although in the case of ghouls, it does); it also includes creatures, like wights, that drain the lifeforce of the living. Incorporeal undead are the bodiless ghosts and spectres that haunt the living. Finally, mindless undead are creatures like zombies and skeletons, undead that are generally created by necromancers and other villainous spellcasters to be minions.

The slayer tools presented in these sections consist of a variety of alchemical items and kits. There are inexpensive things like garlic tablets (at 20 gp each) for holding vampires at bay, and more expensive items like spiritbane spikes (300 gp), which are alchemically treated iron spikes that gain the ghost touch weapon quality when you slash them across your flesh (causing yourself 1d6 points of damage). There’s a good variety of items that nicely expand the alchemical options available to player characters—and as alchemical items, they can be used by just about any character of any class.

Following the sections on each of the undead types is the centrefold that appears in most Pathfinder Player Companion volumes. This one is on “Dealing with Haunts” and presents a cross-section of a manor in which various iconics can be seen fighting different kinds of undead. Single-sentence insets on this illustration provide a description of how haunts work in the game, including how to notice haunts, the kinds of effects they have, their weaknesses, and how to destroy them. While the information is useful to players, like so many of these centrefolds, it really isn’t necessary to spread it out over two full pages. The artwork is actually quite beautiful, but it doesn’t add anything to the text or serve any useful purpose. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to be illustrating haunts. Valeros and Kyra are quite obviously fighting physical skeletons and zombies respectively, and not haunts. Feiya is encountering some sort of spirit-like undead which might be a haunt, but her portion of the picture still doesn’t really illustrate any of the insets regarding haunts. Overall, this centrefold ends up being a lot of wasted space. The text takes up about a quarter-page at most, leaving one and three quarters of nothing at all.

The book then goes on to look at the different kinds of undead slayers, spending two pages on each. Each section contains an overview of its type of slayer, but otherwise each section contains different kinds of options for characters. Exorcists are characters who focus on driving away spirits and other incorporeal undead. The section on exorcists contains a new cleric archetype (roaming exorcist) and two new spells. Necrologists see undead as a way of gaining historical knowledge and seek to pry that knowledge from the creatures before destroying them. The section on necrologists includes a witch archetype (medium) and several new alchemist discoveries. Redeemers seek to free souls from undeath so that they can continue their journey to the afterlife. Their section includes a monk archetype (spirit master) and a new feat, Holy Water Assault. This feat gives characters a number of new options for using holy water in combat. Finally, stalkers simply hunt down undead to destroy them. Their section has a new ranger archetype (corpse hunter) and two new feats.

The next couple sections of the book include new spells and magic items for all kinds of undead slayers. The book then ends with a new prestige class called the soul warden. Soul wardens were originally commandos in the Nexian army during the Age of Destiny, but today, they are just individuals who have uncovered and mastered the secrets of that ancient organisation. Soul wardens gain a number of abilities centred around channelled energy to harm undead. Amongst other things, they gain the ability to spontaneously cast a select number of spells by expending a use of their channel damage ability.

There are a couple of additional sections on the two inside covers. The front one contains a chart of the most common undead showing their type, origin/description, recommended slayers types, and recommended tools for slaying them. The inside back cover is, perhaps, the most interesting thing in the entire book. It discusses “Undead Paraphernalia”, and in particular, discusses the difficulties with acquiring necromantic materials such as onyxes (which are often required as material components). It includes a system for determining the legality of necromantic paraphernalia based on the settlement (using the settlement stat block rules from the GameMastery Guide). While the rest of the book has a lot of interesting options for characters, what I like most about this section is the flavour it adds to the setting. The game tends to have only the barest guidelines over what characters can buy where (creating an incredibly bizarre economy), and this little touch helps show that, sometimes, certain items may not be instantly obtainable just because characters have enough gold.

On the whole, I like the Undead Slayer’s Handbook. It scores over similar books like the Dragonslayer’s Handbook and the Demon Hunter’s Handbook by being of wider use despite its slightly niche focus. Many of its options (from feats to alchemical tools) will prove useful against more than just undead opponents, making them still good choices for campaigns in which undead appear infrequently and are not the central focus. It’s not a “must have” book, but it’s certainly a useful one.

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