Saturday 28 November 2015

Champions of Corruption

At its heart, Pathfinder (and many other fantasy roleplaying games) is about playing heroes who go on great quests to vanquish the forces of evil. Along the way, the heroes develop great powers and acquire awesomely powered magical items. Of course, there can be a lot more to it than just this: the heroes form relationships with other characters, both other heroes (the other player characters) and various other people (the non-player characters); the heroes can create items of their own; they can open businesses; they can fall in love. The breadth of possibilities is huge, but for the most part that heart of good heroes fighting evil remains.

Yet even that doesn't have to be immutable. Not every character a player creates in the game is necessarily good. There are nine alignments and only three of them are good, after all. Three fall in the neutral range, and many players will choose those alignments for their characters. They allow for characters who may not be bastions of goodness, but still rise up to fight against evil and save the day. But what if players don't want to save the day? What if they want to be the ones the heroes would normally fight against? What of the three evil alignments?

I'm not a big fan of evil campaigns myself, though I can see the draw. After all, the game is about pretending to be someone you aren't, and playing evil is perhaps the ultimate expression of that. And even if it's not the sort of thing you want to do all the time, playing an evil character just once to give it a try is a tempting lure (I have certainly done it). The difficulty with evil campaigns is that evil characters can have a hard time working together. It only takes one PC to turn on the others and suddenly the whole game falls apart—and possibly even the gaming group if some players aren't happy with what has occurred. But if you can get past the difficulties, then an evil campaign can have its own rewards.

Champions of Corruption is the third Pathfinder Player Companion book to take a close look at the alignments in Pathfinder and offer options for players playing those alignments. I was very impressed with the first two books, Champions of Purity and Champions of Balance, and so was greatly looking forward to this book. Even if evil campaigns are not my cup of tea, a discussion of evil in the game is an important thing, especially when there has already been a discussion of good and neutrality.

I am happy to say that Champions of Corruption does not disappoint. While I would consider it my least favourite of the three alignment books, it's still a very good book, offering an in-depth look at what it means to be evil and providing interesting options for evil characters. And just because it's a Player Companion doesn't mean that it's just for players. GMs can get a lot of use out of this book to flesh out villainous NPCs.

Like the previous two alignment books, Champions of Corruption has quite a bit of “fluff” text—more than typical of Player Companion books of the last few years. It needs to take care to precisely define exactly what evil is since alignment can cause a lot of debate over definitions. The layout of Champions of Corruption is very similar to that of the previous two books as well. It opens with a section of “Why Be Evil?”, which covers reasons and motivations for characters to become evil—particularly in a world where the afterlife punishments for evil are hard fact. Why do people still commit evil acts knowing that Hell, Abaddon, and the Abyss may await them? This section provides a few answers.

The opening section also has a lengthy sidebar on “Making Evil Fun”. This discusses the importance of having all players on the same page when it comes to running evil PCs. Conflict between characters, if any, should not spread to conflict between the players, and that is an ever-present danger if players have different expectations of the game. Of course, this is true of any game, but it is even more so when some or all of the PCs are evil. Different people have different boundaries and everyone should be aware of those boundaries before play begins. This sidebar is, perhaps, the most important part of this book.

The book then begins looking at each of the evil alignments in detail, starting with Lawful Evil. As with the previous alignment books, three example philosophies are included with each alignment, showing the different ways the alignment can be played. In addition, each section discusses the advantages and challenges of the particular alignment, and gives an overview of opportunities and allies for that alignment—examples include locations and organisations that fit within each alignment, character types that are typically of that alignment, and so on. Finally, each section concludes with two new traits appropriate to characters of the particular alignment.

Each of these three two-page sections also contains a sidebar about how well characters of the particular alignment cooperate and work with other characters. I particularly like the way each sidebar is named—“Lawful Evil Teamwork”, “Neutral Evil Alliances”, and “Chaotic Evil Affinities”—giving right off the bat an idea of how well these characters get along with others. The information contained within each is also very valuable, particularly for Chaotic Evil characters. There are reasons for such individuals to choose to work with other people, either short-term or long-term.

Following the look at each evil alignment, Champions of Corruption then takes a look at various evil nations across the Inner Sea Region of Golarion. Specifically, it looks at Cheliax, Geb, Nidal, Razmiran, and the Worldwound. Included with each of these is a regional trait. It also mentions a few other locations more broadly and includes a new social trait that evil characters can select. A sidebar discusses evil planes like the Plane of Shadow and the Negative Material Plane. While the information the nations here is not in-depth, the idea is to give players a starting point for deciding their characters' backgrounds, allowing them to then seek more detailed information elsewhere. Of course, characters don't have to come from these nations, as evil can potentially develop anywhere.

The next section looks at a few evil organizations such as the Aspis Consortium and the Umbral Court. However, a significant portion of this section is given over to detailing a new feat: Vile Leadership. This feat works like Leadership except that it rewards, rather than hinders, leaders with cruel reputations. I have mentioned in other locations that I have a love-hate relationship with the Leadership feat, and I don't really view Vile Leadership any differently. PCs will form a variety of relationships with NPCs regardless of whether they have feats dictating how they form relationships. Leadership is meant to help with game balance in this regard, but it does lead to issues all its own. Vile Leadership seems like little more than a patch to explain how evil warlords get retinues of followers when Leadership decrees that they should lose all those followers. The problem is, villains in adventures manage to get retinues of followers without having any kind of Leadership feat whatsoever, so what's the point?

The remainder of the book focuses on mechanical options for evil characters and is a bit of a mixed bag. There's a lot of good stuff (most of it, in fact), but for a few things, I question just how useful they are. There's an interesting section on dealing with dark powers. It contains new category of feats called Damnation feats. These feats actually get more powerful as a character acquires more of them. However, taking the feats also taints the character's soul, making it harder and harder to raise the character after death as the soul has already been claimed. There's some great flavour to these feats and they provide some decent abilities and bonuses. They're a good way to mechanically represent deals with the devil.

On the other hand, another section contains another new category of feat: betrayal feats. These are special teamwork feats that rely on characters betraying each other in combat. It's a bit of an odd concept since, like other teamwork feats, at least two characters must have the feat. By taking the feat, you are giving permission to your allies with the feat to then use that feat against you (as they are giving you permission to use it against them). When one of these feats is used, there is an initiator (the one who activates the feat) and an abettor. For example, Ally Shield allows you to grab an ally and use that ally as cover from an attack. The ally then potentially takes damage instead of your character. I'm not sure how frequently teamwork feats actually get used, though I suspect it's not very often (in my own games, Precise Strike is the only one any of my players have ever taken and used). I suspect betrayal feats will see even less use. They're too reliant on sacrificing your own allies, and while I suppose that sort of thing can happen with evil characters, it's also the sort of thing that increases the likelihood of player conflict.

Amongst other things in the book are several flavourful new subdomains (such as the cannibalism subdomain, which includes the rather gruesome power, “consume the enemy”), a few new archetypes (such as the dread vanguard, an antipaladin archetype), some new spells, more new feats, and some new magic items. Amongst these is an entire new category of magic items: Nidalese shadow piercings. These are magical body piercings created using the Craft Shadow Piercing item creation feat (also introduced in the book). Shadow piercings provide various bonuses and special abilities based on which part of the body they are created for, and there are minor, major, and greater version of each kind. I love the flavour of these magic items, as they tie in perfectly with the flavour of Nidal. The added great thing here is that these are useful to more than just evil characters. Although Nidal is an “evil” nation, there's nothing about shadow piercings that makes them specifically evil. Their powers include things like a +2 competence bonus to CMD against grappling for minor body piercings, darkvision for major eye piercings, or the ability to use air walk once per day for greater suspension piercings. Any of these could easily be used by characters of other alignments, making this book a little more widely useful. Shadow piercings are easily my favourite option in this book.

When looked at as a group, Champions of Purity, Champions of Balance, and Champions of Corruption provide a great, nuanced look at alignments in Pathfinder. They take an aspect of the game that is iconic yet fraught with its own issues, make it more understandable, and give it a greater context. Champions of Corruption is the weakest of the three (though still a very good book in its own right), due partly to a few underwhelming new character options and partly to the fact that I feel it offers the fewest new insights into the alignments it covers—though perhaps that is because the very nature of the game means that the evil alignments are already the most detailed. Defeating evil is what the vast majority of adventures and campaigns are based upon, after all. Overall, I think Champions of Corruption will be a valuable resource for any group. Even in groups without evil PCs, GMs will find the book useful for the evil NPC villains that their PCs must go up against. Now, I wonder if there will ever be any books covering the law-chaos spectrum...

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