Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Occult Adventures


First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had a strange little add-on at the back of the Player's Handbook: psionics. Through a very lucky die roll during character creation, your character could get a mind power that made your character considerably more powerful than everybody else's characters. Psionics were an optional part of the game that I personally never used and I never played in a game that used them. However, they were clearly used by some people because later editions of the game kept bringing them back, and revising and refining the rules for them. Psionics were always mind powers, but it varied whether they were completely separate from divine and arcane magic, or just a third kind of magic. But whichever approach was taken, they always used completely different mechanics than spellcasters—such as the power points used in Third Edition.

Psionics have remained absent in official Pathfinder products (until now); however, that hasn't stopped publishers of Pathfinder compatible material from adapting them. Dreamscarred Press has released several very popular products on psionics, for example. But as popular as a third party product might get, there are always those players and gamemasters who want to see official support.

So along comes Occult Adventures, released this past August, which brings psionics—sort of—into official Pathfinder. The “psionics” in this book come in the form of psychic magic, which is a third form of magic controlled entirely by the mind. The thematic overlap between psychic magic and psionics is clear, even though the book never actually uses the word psionics. Renaming psionics as psychic magic separates this version completely from Third Edition—important as psychic magic uses completely different mechanics from Third Edition psionics, unlike core Pathfinder, which is a revision of Third Edition. In fact, psychic spellcasters use exactly the same mechanics as arcane and divine spellcasters, bringing psychic magic completely in-line with the rest of the game. This also has the added benefit of making it possible to use both psychic magic and psionics from companies like Dreamscarred Press in your games (there'll be a lot of thematic overlap, but the systems remain distinct).

Occult Adventures, however, is more than just psychic magic (although psychic magic does take up a significant portion of the book). It introduces a variety of new options inspired by mythical powers of the mind—things like auras, chakras, and possession. These things, including psychic magic, are collectively referred to as “the Occult”, a concept first introduced in Occult Mysteries.

There's a lot to like about Occult Adventures, but perhaps the thing I like most is that the options within truly succeed at giving a new and distinct feel to the game, something Mythic Adventures tried desperately to do, but didn't fully succeed at. Occult Adventures adds a level of mysteriousness to the game—which is quite a feat given that Pathfinder is already filled with countless bizarre creatures and magic, to the point that even the weirdest don't really seem all that out of the ordinary. But most of Pathfinder is built around gaining power and might. Adventures involving the occult, however, focus more on mystery and uncovering knowledge, and situations where great power may not actually be of any advantage.

I think Occult Adventures is a book that GMs should consider carefully before using in any particular campaign. You could open up the occult classes and other options in the book for use in any standard campaign and they would work, but I think you would lose some of the feel and essence of the book. Instead, a campaign really should be planned around the inclusion of these options. That doesn't mean the campaign has to be all occult. You could easily have a campaign where none of the players play occult classes, but still include elements of the occult, for example. What I'm saying is that the inclusion of the occult shouldn't just be random. It needs to be planned for and developed. So you might not use the book in every campaign, but those you do use it in will gain something special from it.

Occult Adventures opens (after an introductory overview of the book) with six new occult classes. Pathfinder has reached a point where introducing more classes is a bit...dangerous. By that, I mean that there are now so many classes in the game that it's difficult to add more without overlapping in some way with a class that already exists. This is one of the major problems I have with the Advanced Class Guide. The ten classes in that book don't really add anything new to the game; instead they purposely overlap with already-existing classes. The six occult classes, however, manage to find new, unfilled niches in a rapidly decreasing field.

For the most part, I really like the occult classes. They each manage to add something new and distinct to the game. If there's a downside to them, however, it's that a couple of them are quite complex. They have a stiff learning curve to playing them, making it difficult to whip up a new character on the fly. In particular, this makes them rather GM-unfriendly. Designing NPCs is a rather time-consuming activity at the best of times. Designing a character with a class like kineticist will take even more time. I can only hope that some future NPC Codex-style book eventually provides us with some pre-made ones.

First up is the afore-mentioned kinteticist, which is both my favourite and least favourite class in the book—favourite for its style and originality; least favourite for its complexity. While reading the kineticist section (which is one of the longest for any class in any book at nearly 20 pages), I found myself frequently having to flip back to reread parts in order to understand everything. Although I figured it all out, after then going on to read the rest of the book, I will now have to reread the section again before actually creating a kineticist character.

Kineticists control the elements around them. Every kineticist chooses one of five elements to be her primary one: aether (telekinesis), air (aerokinesis), earth (geokinesis), fire (pyrokinesis) or water (hydrokinesis). Kineticists gain a number of “talents” that provide them with various abilities (there are several categories of talents as well), a burn ability which lets them go beyond their normal limits in return for other restrictions, and several other abilities. In some ways, kineticists are reminiscent of 3rd Edition warlocks in that they don't cast spells, but instead use supernatural abilities to create magical effects. The similarities pretty much end there, though.

What I really like about kineticists is their flavour. They stand out as being very different from other classes. They're not spellcasters, but they're not non-spellcasters either. Like other occult classes, their focus is on mental abilities rather than physical ones, but those mental abilities create some pretty potent physical effects.

Next up is the medium, a class that channels the power of spirits—the souls of long-dead powerful individuals from legend and myth. There are six kinds of spirits, one for each ability score. These six kinds of spirits also bear the same names as the mythic paths, which, while potentially confusing, is logical and shows the interconnection of all these kinds of things. Each kind of spirit provides the medium with specific abilities and taboos. In this way, they work similarly to sorcerer bloodlines or oracle mysteries (spirits are not like animal companions or eidolons). However, mediums differ from sorcerers and oracles in that they can change their spirit each day. This makes for both a really interesting character class and a greater level of complexity. Writing out a stat block for a medium can present a difficulty since so much can change depending on when characters encounter them—more so than just swapping out prepared spells.

Mediums also gain access to a small number of psychic spells, following the same progression as a paladin or ranger, except that they also get 0-level spells (called “knacks”) from 1st level. Like all other psychic spellcasters, they are spontaneous casters and don't have to prepare spells. I like the addition of 0-level spells to the slow spell progression. It gives mediums just a little extra twist.

The next class is the mesmerist, which is one of the more straight-forward classes in the book. It is also, in my opinion, the least interesting and the least successful at carving out its own distinct niche. Mesmerists basically cover the same sort of role as enchanter specialist wizards or any other spellcaster that focuses on mind-control magic. They have a middle spell progression like that of bards and gain similar access to skills. Their abilities focus mostly around hypnosis and other means of controlling people. One advantage to mesmerists is their straight-forward simplicity, which is rather refreshing compared to some of the other classes in the book. Designing a mesmerist character will be a relatively quick activity.

Next up is the occultist, a class which channels pyschic magic through items called “implements”. There are several implement schools, which correspond to the schools of magic. Occultists begin knowing how to use only a couple implement schools, but gradually learn more as they advance in level. The implements schools known affect not only what spells an occultist knows, but also what spells are even on the occultist's spell list (thus affecting whether the ability to use various kinds of magic items like wands). It is possible for an occultist to learn an implement school more than once to increase access to spells from that school.

On first read, the occultist can seem somewhat complicated, but once you figure it out, designing one is actually fairly straight-forward. I really like the flavour of a character that carries around a collection of small trinkets, items that might seem worthless to others, but allow the character to channel all kinds of magical abilities.

The next class is the psychic, which is the primary spellcaster of the occult classes. The psychic is the occult version of the arcane sorcerer and divine oracle. Every psychic has a psychic discipline, which works similarly to a sorcerer's bloodline. Disciplines provide bonus spells and various specific abilities. Of the occult classes, psychics are perhaps the most variable as they are full spellcasters and have access to the largest variety of spells. They have the most options when it comes to specialising (and no doubt, future supplements will introduce more spells and more disciplines).

The final class in Occult Adventures is the spiritualist. Spiritualists make contact with spirits called phantoms to differentiate them from the spirits of the medium. Given the name spiritualist, one might think that it would make more sense to call these ones spirits, but I suppose phantom doesn't make much sense for mediums, and I'm not sure what else to call mediums' spirits. At any rate, phantoms work similarly to animal companions, and spiritualists do not swap phantoms around day to day like mediums swap spirits. Although the mechanics of phantoms work more like animal companions, their flavour is more like that of a summoner's eidolon. Summoner is one of my least favourite classes, so this has turned me off the spiritualist a little bit, but I also have balance issues with the summoner, which are not as readily apparent with the spiritualist.

The second chapter of Occult Adventures offers numerous archetypes, starting with archetypes for the new classes, followed by a selection for other classes. The new classes get four pages each (although kinteticist technically only gets three and a half pages due to a half-page introduction to the chapter). This amounts to four or five archetypes per class. These archetypes do a good job of adding interesting variations to the classes. The blood kineticist, for example, is a hydrokineticist who focuses on manipulating the water in people's blood, while the storyteller is a medium with just a hint of bard thrown in. The storyteller focuses on the legends that their spirits forged in life. Sha'irs are occultists who channel their powers through minor genies (a concept that will be familiar to people who use or used the old al-Qadim campaign setting for AD&D) instead of implements. The amnesiac is a particularly interesting archetype for psychics. Amnesiacs only remember a portion of their spells each day, but gain a spell recollection ability that gives them a chance to then “recall” other spells (essentially learning brand new spells).

Other classes generally get one or two archetypes each, although there are some classes (like cleric and oracle) that are not represented at all. These new archetypes, not surprisingly, focus on adding a few occult abilities to the older classes. By far my favourite of the bunch is the promethean alchemist. Promethean alchemists can craft constructs via alchemical research rather than magic and gain a homunculus companion in place of the usual alchemist bomb and mutagen abilities. This is the perfect archetype for people who want to play a Doctor Frankenstein-style character or some other mad scientist-type who wants to create life. Other archetypes include the phrenologist (for bards), ghost rider (for cavaliers), and the false medium (for rogues). Amidst these archetypes there are also a couple of new cavalier orders and sorcerer bloodlines as well. I particularly like the ectoplasm bloodline. Overall, there's a lot of interesting variety.

Chapter 3 is new feats, while Chapter 4 is psychic spells. While there are a lot of interesting options in these two chapters, in many ways, these are also the most run-of-the-mill chapters in Occult Adventures. New feats and new spells are kind of a given in any book (even if they're somewhat more important in this book), and there are so many feats and spells in the game already, that it takes a lot to make new ones stand out and be memorable. Nevertheless, there are a few that have caught my eye. Xenoglossy, for example, is a fascinatingly bizarre feat that lets you, through use of Linguistics checks, speak with another person who doesn't share a common language with you. Synesthesia is a spell that simulates the actual condition of synesthesia, where sensory input is processed by non-standard senses, such as noises having colours and so on.

One thing, however, that makes psychic spells stand out from arcane and divine spells is the alteration to components. The spell descriptions still list components in the standard way (e.g. V, S, and so on) since some of these spells can be cast by divine or arcane casters. This similarly allows occult casters access to core spells like detect magic. Instead, occult casters interpret any somatic component (S) as an emotion component instead, and any verbal component (V) as a thought component. For emotion components, psychic spellcasters channel their emotions as part of the spell's energy. Thought components represent mental constructs that the spellcasters must picture in their minds. These two components have no visual aspect detectable to other people, truly linking psychic spells entirely to the mind.

Although Chapters 5 and 6 represent a relatively small portion of the book, they are the chapters that truly make the occult into something unique within the game. These are the chapters that bring about the most flavour and are, by far, the most interesting to read.

Chapter 5 is on “Occult Rules”, which include things like auras and chakras. It begins, first, however, with occult skill unlocks. This is the one thing in the book I'm not particularly enthused about. Although skill unlocks share a name with a similar option introduced in Pathfinder Unchained, they are not exactly the same thing (there are already too many things with overlapping names in the game—race traits versus racial traits, class level versus spell level—there really don't need to be any more). Where Unchained's skill unlocks provide a few new abilities to skills based on the number of ranks a character has, the skill unlocks here are essentially brand new skills and work like entirely new skills, except they're not new skills. They are even presented in alphabetical order by the unlock's name and not the base skill's name. Dowsing, for example, is an unlock for Survival and has its own rules for use, including DCs and so on.

Also, in Pathfinder Unchained, skill unlocks are only gained through a feat and that feat gives you access to new abilities for just one skill (although the new rogue class gets access to additional skill unlocks). In Occult Adventures, there is a feat (Psychic Sensitivity) for non-occult classes, but characters capable of casting psychic spells automatically gain access to all the skill unlocks. I'm really not sure I like this all that much, particularly because one of the improvements Pathfinder made over 3rd Edition was consolidation of skills, yet this essentially unconsolidates them (although it admittedly doesn't change the number of skill points you have to spend). It also gives psychic spellcasters numerous two-skills-in-one skills. Every rank in Diplomacy, for example, now also gives a rank in Hypnotism. It just feels like too much.

The remainder of Chapter 5, however, contains a lot of very interesting things, from the afore-mentioned auras and chakras, to rules for pyschic duels (which are a bit complicated but look like a lot of fun). There is a section which discusses possession. This is not so much new rules on the subject, but a clarification on existing rules that are spread out over numerous books and sometimes a bit contradictory. Occult rituals are like primitive spells. Even non-spellcasters can use them, but they come with a price. Every ritual has a backlash and a penalty for failure.

Chapter 6 is on “Running an Occult Game” and offers advice for how gamemasters can incorporate the occult into their games. There are several suggested themes that GMs can use, as well as a number of adventure seeds. The focus of this chapter is entirely on flavour and it succeeds wonderfully. There are also a few new rules options for GMs. Loci spirits are kind of like good versions of haunts. They are created when psychic energy combines with powerful emotions. There are also some new rules for haunts (as well as a clarification or two) and several new sample haunts. The chapter also contains information on using ley lines in the game, and details on mindscapes—the locations where psychic duels are fought.

There is an extensive section on “Esoteric Planes”. These aren't new planes; rather, they are a different way of looking at the existing planes. In particular, esoteric thought views the Positive and Negative Energy Planes not as opposing creation and destruction planes, but rather as two halves of the same thing. This section makes for a fascinating read and is a great way to add a twist to the typical understanding of planes in the game.

The final chapter of the book provides new equipment and magic items. This is another of those necessary chapters that can feel a bit run-of-the-mill. However, there are some very interesting items here. My favourite is the soul portrait. This magical painting of the owner stops the owner from ageing physically. Instead the picture of the owner ages. I can see lots of fun things GMs can do with this item and an antagonist NPC who turns out to be much, much older than she appears.

Overall, Occult Adventures is a great addition to the Pathfinder game. It does more than just introduce a bunch of new classes and create Pathfinder's version of psionics. It adds a whole new flavour and style of campaign with new rules options that back that flavour up. I eagerly look forward to trying out some of its ideas in a future campaign.

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