Pathfinder Review: Occult Adventures Playtest

 

Note: this review is on the playtest material of Occult Adventures.
For my review of the final book please click: here.

Paizo is doing their annual play testing for their next GenCon hardcover book. This time the book is Occult Adventures. It sounds awesome, being the (official) Pathfinder version of psionics, but with a tone of Victorian spiritualism and mystery rather than mental superpowers. I’m a fan of psionics and have various psionic books include the Complete Psionics Handbook for 2e, the Psionic Handbook for 3e and 3.5e along with Dreamscarred Press’ updates to the Pathfinder ruleset. I rather like the idea of mental magic and people unlocking doors of the mind to discover supernatural powers. But the tone of psionics can be a little more fantastic than I would like. Occult Adventures seems like a nice compromise whole also adding some wonder and mystery to the world of magic.

This books sounds pretty awesome. I wanted this book two years ago, when I was doing a Ravenloft campaign.

Kineticist

This is the psychic magic ranger that “shoots” rocks.

This class really reminds me of benders from Avatar: the Last Airbender. The kineticst can just launch blasts of fire or water or force. They also seem to be the oft-requested Constitution-based class that use Con for many of their powers, such as the damage from their elemental blasts. This and the regularity of their blasts remind me a lot of the warlock class from D&D, especially the 3e version that has at-will magic blasts and gains abilities that shape and customize their blasts.

The class suffers from a pure combat focus. This is a DPR type class that blasts people with boulders or jets of fire. They have almost no skills (and a *tiny* skill list). They can’t become a skill monkey role like the face, the sage, the acrobat, or strongman. Despite likely having a high Dex (it’s typically their hit stat), they cannot train into Acrobatics. There is a healer power that can be taken, but it’s not ideal as it deals nonlethal damage in the process, so that’s another role they cannot fill.

Despite being able to fire gouts of flame at will the character has no mechanical ability to, say, heat water or light a campfire or generate torchlight. The aether (read telekinetic kineticist) can choose the Light Touch wild talent to used an amped up version of mage hand, but that comes at the expense of offensive ability, and there’s no regular mage hand equivalent. So the kineticist can hurl a 20 kg rock across a dungeon chamber but cannot levitate a 2 kg object slowly to their hand.

During the 2014 and Beyond panel at GenCon the catchphrase for Occult Adventures was “more Penny Dreadful, and less Professor X” (coined by a staff member from Obsidian Entertainment). Which makes the kineticist pretty darn ironic and it would feel very much at home on the X-men (along with the Ultimate Psionic‘s soulknife).

It feels like a 4th Edition D&D striker class complete with combat utility powers, the only difference is formatting.

Medium

There’s nothing quite like the medium in the game. It’s has 4 levels of spellcasting but is exceedingly flexible allowing the class to be, well, anything.

The medium forms bonds with spirits to gain powers. They pick a new spirit each day gaining powers from that spirit based on their medium level. However, spirits have influence on a medium and if the medium uses the same spirit repeatedly the spirit takes control of the body for a day.

The medium needs a lot of work. A LOT of work. It’s a serious mess.

–edit–

11/04/2014

Okay, I misread a major ability of the medium, so I rewrote this entry.

Like the kineticist, the medium lacks built-in utility. The medium can ostensibly talk to spirits, but only spirits from their list and then only to get powers. So they can talk to spirits, except for any other spirits in the game, such as the dead, the undead, or haunts. You’d think a class called the medium would get some ability to cast speak with dead (or a variant that doesn’t require a body). It’s been commented that some spirits might grant this ability, which seems odd. A little like having a cleric that needs to take the “divine” domain to interact with god or a sorcerer that needs to be of the “arcane” bloodline to cast spells. But that’s silly. While it should be possible to have options that veer away from the base concept of a class, those are archetypes. The basic assumptions of a class’ abilities should *not* be optional.

The medium even has a limit on the number of spirits it can talk to, which really makes it feel like a “medium” in name only. Change the name of the spirits to, oh, vestiges, and this stops being the medium and becomes a binder.

The class has no dedicated role. In theory this is useful for a class, allowing a player to play the class they want, while still filling a gap in the party or adapting to the needs of the adventure. But you cannot easily use the same spirit again and again (not without risking losing control of your character) making it tricky to stick with a single role needed at the table. If the party needs a healer they always need a healer, not a healer every other day. And while the class can pick different roles, the player will still need to build their character around a specific role or two, picking feats and ability scores that complement that role. Which makes the daily flexibility irrelevant as options will need to be comparable (almost identical) to the planned role.

The weakness of spirits having influence over the character is very awkward. It’s such a heavy penalty (the spirit takes over and makes you do vague, undefined things) for what amounts to roleplaying reasons. And it’s such a vague penalty. Can the spirit riding in the medium meat suit join you in an adventure? Does it just become the medium with a different personality? What if the party is deep in an extradimensional dungeon and the spirit cannot go off and do its own thing? Really, it’s also not all that hard to avoid. If a penalty never comes up, why even have the penalty? That just adds complexity.  It’s also been said that the penalty is easy to avoid by having downtime. Except downtime is annoying. It’s so annoying an entire subsystem was added to give other characters something to do while some classes take their necessary downtime. And not every adventure (or adventure path) lends itself to downtime. You can’t just pause saving the world to take a day off.

The medium doesn’t really seem to fill any roles particularly well. For example, not having the skill selection to really be an out of combat utility class. Gaining a +1 to all skills every four levels doesn’t compare with actually having training in a skill. The class doesn’t have an obvious primary ability score. It uses Charisma for determining its spirits and spellcasting, but it’s only a 4-level spellcaster, so its Charisma just doesn’t need to be a dump stat. It does have the social skills, so it *could* be the party face, but there are better psychic magic options for that. Similarly, I’m not sure what they expect the medium to do from round to round in combat. It doesn’t have a lot of built-in options for actions during combat. They have 3/4 BAB, d8 hit dice, and limited weapons so they’re really not meant to be regular front line combatants. But they also don’t have any spells until higher levels. Many of their abilities seem to imply this class is expected to be a Dex or Str primary class smacking people around, but there’s just something odd about a class evoking John Edward running around in chainmail cracking people over the head with a mace.

There are also a crap ton of spirits: one for each combination of alignment and ability score. That’s too damn many. Even if each were dirt simple (which they’re not) reading through that many options is a pain in the butt. And it needs to be done every other level. Every six or so games prepare for some serious homework. 54 spirits just feels unnecessary. The hook of each spirit representing an alignment and an ability score is okay but leads to a forced symmetry. There’s not 54 good ideas for spirits, there aren’t 54 concepts that are just crying out for a spirit. And there’s certainly not 216 unique mechanical powers crying out to be added to the game. A lot of the spirits are just going to be plain bad. For a book like this there are deadlines to meet and a LOT of the spirits are going to end up being dismissed as “good enough”. Filler. I’d much rather see nine really good spirits tied to alignments that all medium can choose from, and have those modified by ability scores. So the medium adds his chosen stat to the spirit desired at that time. The list of 54 could remain as names/concepts of the spirits along with their compulsions, but each doesn’t need to be a unique butterfly.

The medium also holds a daily seance to channel a spirit. This takes an hour, like memorizing spells. Except at 2nd level the medium can invoice the rest of the party, meaning wizard-types need to spend an hour preparing their own spells then another hour while the medium communes with the departed. In theory the wizard could prepare their spells during the seance, but that makes zero sense as the wizard can not prepare spells in a distracting environment, and seances strike me as distracting. Again, this feels like slapping a medium-type name on an unrelated mechanic. The medium/binder is invoking their spirit/vestige and it’s just called a seance to make the class cosmetically seem like its source material.

The medium feels like the game designers and developers playing telephone. One group comes up with the story concept for the class and sends it to the other to design. They start designing, find a neat mechanic and follow that as it develops. So there’s a drift between the intended design and actual design. A disconnect between what you expect the class to do and what it actually does. The medium has drifted away from being an actual medium, and really needs to be refocused.

Mesmerist

The psychic magic bard that hypnotizes people instead of inspiring them, with a dash of witch and its evil eye.

The class is basically the hypnotist; the mesmerism touches someone to implant a spell-like ability that can be triggered later. I.e. the mesmerist snaps their fingers as the rogue sees a phantom flanker or the fighter shrugs off an enchantment.  Which is interesting and fairly tactical: you need to choose the target ahead of time and hope they need to use the buff. There’s some educated guessing going on. And the mesmerist is also skilled at removing conditions from allies, which can be handy.

Unlike the bard, the mesmerist doesn’t seem to have any ability to accelerate combat by providing a damage or accuracy buff. Their buffs are much more situation and far less universal than “making an attack roll”. The bard is already a class that can be a little boring to play, not having a lot to do on their turn after the first or second round (until a minimal level of spells are gained). The mesmerist seems like it has the same problem, only with the player waiting and hoping for the opportunity to trigger their special power. As triggering is an immediate action, the mesmerist still lacks actions to take on its turn. It’s a passive class.

Amping up the mesmerist’s hypnotic stare is likely a solid fix. It’s such a minor penalty and could easily be buffed. Adding far more options to the Bold Stare feature and giving them more often would be nice. Some utility powers could just be provided, so the mesmerist doesn’t need to choose between combat and social effectiveness.

The mesmerist also lacks the bards out-of-combat versatility, not being able to buff allies’ skills, fascinate creatures, or offering bardic knowledge. There’s a few potential fixes for this. As a Houdini-style character, the mesmerist  could have Disable Device on its skill list. They could also have the ability to aid people’s skill checks even if they’re not trained. Perhaps they could induce rerolls of failed skill checks, even checks that might not normally be attemptable a second time (by focusing the person’s memory to aid their recall of knowledge).

Occultist

The psychic magic gish. The occultist a limited spellcaster that can cast up to 6th-level spells, wear medium armour, and use martial weapons. But it learns spells unlike other spellcasters.

At first glance the concept for this class seems odd. The occultist uses items that are magical but not actually magic items, which are used to gains spells of a certain school. They’re specialists who gain more schools at higher levels. The idea strikes me as drawing from the idea of psychic/occult detectives. They’re most akin to spellcasters like Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, Hellboy, John Constantine, the Winchesters, or even Harry Dresden. Adventuring types who kinda sorta know spells but rely on relics and “magical trinkets”. The occultist doesn’t just cast burning hands but breaks out their blasting rod, and doesn’t overtly cast mage armour but presents the fingerbone of St. Gerome to ward off harm. I rather like the idea but since the class comes alive when the relics are emphasised, it really needs a sidebar of example items.

I like that the class can also do fun things like reading reading and creating magic circles. Small abilities that really hammer home the tone of the class. I really wish the mesmerist and medium had flavourful little powers like that.

Honestly, the armour and weapons of the class actually detract from the flavour for me. It feels like the need to fill the “gish” slot on the psychic magic Bingo card, and means the occultist loses some extra occultisty flavour. I don’t see scale mail and greatswords being overly necessary. As the psychic version of the investigator/rogue, they should be limited to light armours.

Psychic

The psychic is, of course, the psych magic equivalent of the sorcerer or wizard. It’s a spontaneous caster so it’s closer to the sorcerer.

As a full caster, the psychic doesn’t get a lot other than spells. And because it’s spell list is meant to emphasise it’s a psychic caster, it’s somewhat limited. So it’s a sorcerer with fewer options of spell schools. Thankfully, while limited, there’s enough of a range of spell choices for a few different types of caster. Honestly, it gets such a broad range of different spells I wonder why they didn’t just say it could pick from the sorcerer/wizard spell list and add a few choice extras in.

The psychic gets two unique mechanics: its discipline and its phrenic pool. Disciplines are basically the psychic’s version of a school/bloodline granting new spells and minor powers (along with determining the ability score used for the phrenic pool). Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The disciplin or lore for example: it’s lets you use your Wisdom for your phrenic pool but grants a bonus on Use Magic Device checks (a Cha skill). Neither seem particularly lore-ish

The phrenic pool seems like a casual nod to psionic power points of classic d20 psionic powers, but not being usable to cast spells. They’re spendable for some minor benefits. Very minor. Almost forgettable. There’s so few options and they’re so limited it would be very easy to build a character that doesn’t have any use for their phrenic pool. Like the discipline of abomination that does gain a spell that would benefit from its phrenic pool unto 10th level.

As the two options are connected, with the discipline determining the phrenic pool’s ability score,  it’s odd that the discipline powers don’t use phrenic points. It makes the two class features needlessly dissociative. I think it’d be much more interesting if disciplines offered set uses for the phrenic pool, providing different ways of spending the points.

Spiritualist

The psychic magic summoner. It gains a phantom as a pet and has 6 levels of casting. Only it seems much more balanced than the summoner. (I imagine this is a preview of what we can expect the revised summoner to look like in Pathfinder Unleashed.)

The phantom is a little odd. It’s an outsider, but the reasons for this are not really stated. This doesn’t really seem to match the lore or origin of the spirit. (And the type is really buried in the text. I had to hunt for it.) I imagine the reason is for the extremely meta reasons of requiring a Con score, needing the phantom to be healed by positive energy, and affected by mind-affecting spells. I wonder if making the phantom a positive-spirit (tied to the positive energy plane rather than the negative) could be used to handwave those problems away while still letting the creature be “undead”.

Honestly, the spiritualist seems a little weak. It seems like in their efforts not to make the spiritualist as good as the summoner they overcompensated. Just being able to only cast up to summon monster VI, and requiring the full round, and not being able to keep summons around for a minute should help. As does not being able to customize and overly tweak the phantom/eidolon. The phantom seems much more in line with the druid’s animal companion, but the spiritualist themselves doesn’t seem as potent as the druid.

The spiritualist does gain some nice utility, being able to see invisible, detect undead, and transfer action denial conditions to their phantom. The detect undead ability at level 5 seems lacklustre, especially at that level. The wizard and cleric are getting 3rd level spells and the spiritualist gets the ability to feel the presence of undead. And unlike the paladin, it doesn’t start as if they’d been sensing for multiple rounds. It’s a bit of a lame level.

Final Thoughts

There’s some neat stuff in Occult Adventures but it doesn’t quite feel ready. There are a lot of problems with the classes and many are only “occult” in name, having very tenuous connections to the flavour and intent of the class. The story of the classes is good, but the execution just feels a little lacking. While the classes are doing some experimental stuff I wonder if they’re still being held back by expectations of what classes should be in the game. I’m guilty of that as well, pointing out the weakness of some of the classes round-by-round combat options.

Occult Adventures seems like a much more interesting book than the Advanced Class Guide and there should be a lot more room for interesting options, variant archetypes, and alternate types of adventure. It’ll be interesting to see where they go with the book.