Wednesday 11 June 2014

Occult Mysteries

As much as I like the Pathfinder Campaign Setting of Golarion, I’ve often felt that one area of weakness is in conveying what typical inhabitants’ lives are like. The products do a great job of setting a general tone for various areas of the setting and filling in geographical details and history. We learn a lot about the places you can visit, but a lot less about what you can do there, from the festivals and pastimes of the locals, to styles of dress, to art styles and cuisine, and to personal beliefs. I’ve mentioned more than a few times in my reviews my frustration at the lack of explanation of just what a cavalier order is—how it fits into the setting, how it interacts with governments and other organizations. The Prophets of Kalistrade are mentioned in numerous supplements as having strict dietary and sexual prohibitions, but those products never—not once!—actually say what those prohibitions are. These might seem like minor points not worth mentioning, especially since the focus of the game is on adventurers having adventures, not adventurers having normal, everyday lives. However, it’s often the little details that add the most flavour. They may be background elements, but they help to make the setting seem more real and alive.

Occult Mysteries is a product that takes a step towards addressing some of these issues. It doesn’t answer the questions about cavalier orders and the Prophets of Kalistrade, and it doesn’t give information about day-to-day life in any particular part of the world. However, it does offer incredible insight into the beliefs of the people of Golarion, and into their thought processes. The book looks at a number of “mysteries” from across the world—the strange things that people haven’t quite been able to explain, but have many hypotheses about. These include creation stories, the exodus of the gnomes, and the missing Volume 5 of the Pathfinder Chronicles. The book also looks at traditions like astrology and numerology, secret societies, and infamous texts of great power.

Occult Mysteries opens with an in-character letter from the Curator of Apocrypha at the Forae Logos in Absalom to the Curator of Impossible Texts at the same facility. The letter discusses the dangerous texts in their collection. This isn’t the first time a Pathfinder Campaign Setting book has opened with an in-character work, but it has been quite some time since the last one did—not counting the brief in-character quotations that frequently appear at the beginning of chapters. I rather wish they did this more often, as these little stories provide a useful illustration of the world itself. They help to show us the world rather than just tell us about it. Sure, we get a biased view of the world, as it’s from the point of view of just one person (and in this particular case, a rather arrogant individual), but even biases give us an insight into the world, as it gives us an idea of the kinds of biases present.

The first main chapter of the book covers “Mysteries of Golarion”. These include the aforementioned creation stories, gnomes’ exodus, and Pathfinder Chronicles Volume 5, as well as the Aucturn Enigma and Veiled Masters. There is also a brief discussion of the death of Aroden in the opening of the chapter. With each of the main topics covered, the book provides a discussion of the known facts along with various theories people have come up with to fill in the missing blanks. I will admit that I sometimes wish Golarion books would provide the absolute truth to gamemasters. In general, they only provide the full truth in adventure modules or adventure paths when that truth is integral to the story. Otherwise, they leave the blanks to be filled in by the GM. Nonetheless, while I may sometimes wish for those blanks to be filled in, on the whole, I think the approach they take to be the better one, and it certainly works best for this book. It allows every GM’s campaign to be unique, and it avoids the hazards of players reading up on the material and using their meta-knowledge in the game. Also, by looking at the in-world beliefs and not the absolute truth, it creates a greater understanding of the people of the world, because we, as readers and players, can react to the mysteries in much the same way the people of the world do. We can better understand the thought processes that lead them to the beliefs they have, even if those beliefs ultimately turn out to be false. In this particular case, the various opposed theories about the “Mysteries of Golarion” provide an insight into the paranoia regarding the Veiled Masters, the superstitions that provide the basis for creation myths, or the more reasoned, logical approaches to the disappearance of Pathfinder Chronicles Volume 5.

The second chapter covers “Secret Societies”, looking at eight different groups in total. These range from the Church of Razmir, to the Esoteric Order of the Palatine Eye, to the Harbingers of Fate and others. Each group receives an overview of who they are and what they do, along with game stats and membership benefits using the standard system for factions and organizations used throughout Campaign Setting products. There are also suggested uses for each society. This chapter provides more direct truth for GMs than the previous chapter and should probably not be viewed by players unless their characters belong to these societies. There is quite of lot of useful information and many secrets to be found here.

The third chapter, “Esoteric Traditions”, looks at the occult practices of the people of Golarion. Of course, given that Golarion is a fantasy world with real magic, these practices are generally more than just superstition. They have real powers associated with them, and each section in this chapter provides ways to use these traditions in the game, along with the basic background information on the beliefs that form the bases of these traditions. Included are extensive overviews of astrology, the Harrow, mortification, numerology and spiritualism. What I like about this chapter is that each section isn’t locked into a specific format (which is often the case in Campaign Setting and Player Companion products). Each section is four pages long, but otherwise the type of material in each varies considerably. The section on astrology contains a couple tables, one detailing the Cosmic Caravan, Golarion’s version of the Zodiac, and the other a list of astrological events and their game effects. The mortification section contains the feat Agonizing Obedience and several “agonies” that go along with it. These agonies provide various game benefits in return for rituals performed. As a warning, some of them are really quite gruesome. There is also the pain taster prestige class for followers of Zon-Kuthon.

One of the more intriguing sections is the one on numerology, which includes two basic forms: arithmancy and sacred geometry. Arithmancy believes that each linguistic unit has inherent power. Every word can be broken down into a numerical value. Sacred geometry believes that certain shapes have inherent power. The section includes a feat for each form of numerology. Each feat can be used to enhance spellcasting in some way. A third feat, Calculating Mind, further enhances the Sacred Geometry feat. These feats can add a lot of interesting variation to spellcasting, but they also involve quite a bit of math, which has the potential to slow the game down somewhat. I would recommend that only players who are comfortable with making quick calculations take these feats.

I should point out that, given the recent (and excellent) book, The Harrow Handbook, one might wonder how much overlap, if any there is between that book and the section on the harrow in this book. There is actually very little overlap. This section focuses primarily on introducing a system for using a harrow deck as an alternative set of Plot Twist Cards. GMs can use in-character harrow readings to help determine actual events in the game. A mechanical benefit and plot seed is included for each harrow card.

The fourth and final chapter of the book is “Occult Writings”. It looks at six specific texts, providing chapter breakdowns, along with specific spells, abilities, and other powers contained with each book. The Aleh Almaktoum (also called the Book of the Dead) is an Osirian treatise on necromancy. The Book of 1,000 Whispers is the source of the belief system of the Harbingers of Fate. It contains prophecies for the years 4606 until an undisclosed time believed to be 4714. The first few years of prophecies (before Aroden’s death) are accurate, but then become more and more nonsensical. Also included are The Inward Facing Circle (a treatise on diabolism), the Lost Gospels of Tabris (hidden for centuries by the Esoteric Order of the Palatine Eye), Secrets of the Dreaming Dark (an anonymous work investigating the Dark Tapestry), and Uniting the Flesh (a book of anatomical diagrams).

Perhaps one of the nicest things about Occult Mysteries, though, is that it continues the trend (seen in books like The Harrow Handbook and Inner Sea Combat) of presenting game mechanics options that are flavourful and enhance the setting. In the sea of mechanical options available for Pathfinder, this helps them to stand out and be memorable. Overall, Occult Mysteries is a very good book that expands the setting in a new way and provides a great insight into the people who live there.

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