Pathfinder Review: Occult Adventures

I’m not even going to try and count the number of hardcover rulebooks released by Paizo for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game. Even excluding the ones for the Campaign Setting line it’s a lot. Occult Adventures is the most recent. The big GenCon 2015 release. Let’s delve inside…

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Similar to Mythic Adventures, this book is an optional rules expansion for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game providing rule options designed to add a new tone to a campaign or adventure. In this case, the occult: magical mysteries, otherworldly forces, and the supernatural.

The 271-page book features six new base classes that fill over 75 pages (1/3 of the book). Each of these classes also receives 4-pages of archetypes, and there are 14 archetypes for the other classes: 2 alchemist, a barbarian, 2 bard, 2 cavalier orders and 1 cavalier archetype, 1 fighter, 1 inquisitor, 1 investigator (psychic detective. Woooo!), 2 magus, 1 monk, 1 paladin, 2 rogue,  2 sorcerer bloodlines, and a witch archetype. Phew. Rounding out the book is 14-pages of new feats, 36-pages new spells for pretty much every spellcasting class, and 22-pages of new items. Plus a bunch of pages of advice, new rules, and more.

The Classes

Each of the six new base classes is large enough to warrant its own mini-review.

Kineticist

At 19.5 pages the kineticist the longest of the six new classes, which is ironic as its ostensibly the simplest. The kineticist is the archer-type character that “shoots” rocks or flame. It’s the least subtle of the classes being similar to a bender from the Avatar/Legends of Korra series or the protagonist of Stephen King’s Firestarter.

The size of the entry is mostly because all its class features are unique and not spells, and thus contained in their own entries.

The kineticist is a Constitution-heavy class, since the saving throws of its blasts and abilities rely on this. This makes it rather unique to the game, and likely a little hardier than its d8 Hit Dice suggests. It also needs a good Dexterity for its ranged attacks, but can otherwise dump-stat almost everything.

The class has changed a little since the playtest, having gained a fair but of utility (and some skills). Its damage looks okay; as the class relies on a ranged touch attack, they should hit often, especially at low levels. Even with Dexterity as a secondary stat they should hit often, but can only a single attack each round, which should prevent them from being too potent. The damage of their blast increases at the same rate as sneak attack, but doesn’t include weapon damage or iterative attacks. Energy resistance will really hurt the kineticist.

Details for the class spread out all over the place. Each element has its own list of wild talents that are listed in several separate categories: kinetic blasts (further subdivided into simple and combo), defensive, infusion, and utility. Not sure why they didn’t give them separate names, like defensive talent rather than defensive wild talent. They also could have placed the non-variable talents (simple blast and defensive wild talent) with elements rather than require players to flip to three different sections of the book.

Not all elements are created equal; aether and air don’t get 9th level wild talents. Air gets to pick five wild talents after level 14 but their list only contains two. Even with universals, there’s only a third choice, so two of their endgame wild talents have to be low level. Wild talents also have an “effective spell level”, and kineticists can only take wild talents that have a level half their level, which is rather unintuitive. Since they’re not spellcasters and wild talents aren’t spells, needing to wait until 4th level to take a 2nd-level wild talent is needlessly complicated.

While the kineticist has more utility, they still need to choose non-combat options. There’s no automatic cantrip (or knack as it’s known).

Photo 2015-08-01, 1 13 12 PMMedium

The medium channels spirits into themselves, evoking tropes of ghost whispers and TV psychics as well as elements of seances. It’s the most improved class between the playtest and the final book. I’m super impressed.

The old medium was a “ghost talker” in name only, lacking any ability to deal with the established ghosts and spirits in the game. The new medium has a power to affect haunts, which is excellent, and the Location Channel ability lets them talk to specific dead people. All great stuff that really hammers home the tone of the class.

The influence mechanic of the medium is much more solid, and the lists of spirits is significant more manageable. Each spirit has a taboo, that give a nice mechanical and role-playing penalty for gaining too much influence rather than a vague penalty.

The medium is potentially very flexible, as the choice of spirit can let it shift between roles in a party. However, in practice, feat choices and gear purchased will likely push it to regularly take one spirit (or maybe two); if the medium favours the Champion, it will likely have a magical weapon and Weapon Focus, which become useless if switches to Guardian, and it will lack the magical heavy armour ne Ed to take advantage of the benefits of that spirit. Playing with an inherent bonus system from Pathfinder Unchained would help

Mesmerist

Hypnotist and stage magician, the mesmerism can be somewhat described as the “anti-bard”, which debuffs enemies and is better at lying rather than diplomacy or music. But much of the time the mesmerism also buffs allies.

The mesmerist is slightly changed from the playtest. It still fixes opponents with a hypnotic gaze, lowering their Will saves. This is handy ability as the class is has 6 levels of spells, so it’s DCs will always be a little lower than a full caster’s. The mesmerist can also eventually tack on a secondary penalties, including one that allows the mesmerist to affect undead and other creatures typically immune to mental damage. This is funky, but super useful. The class also has the opportunity for decent damage, as attacks against the target of its stare deal extra damage. But only once a round, so it doesn’t stack well with iteratives. But, it never misses, so there’s that.

The weak part of the class are its tricks. Most are super situational and require a trigger, so they might not go off if the party is facing the wrong opponents. A few are traps at low levels and work better when the mesmerist has more tricks. However, they don’t have a duration, so the mesmerism can just implant them at the beginning of the day and activate when needed.

The mesmerism is somewhat interesting but my least favourite of the new classes. It could arguably have been a bard archetype replacing music with stares.

Occultist

The magic using occultist imitates occult detectives, such as John Constantine, John Silence, Harry Dresden and a wealth of others. An occultist relies on items and relics for their magic rather than personal knowledge.

The concept is interesting and there’s a lot of solid additions since the playtest, such as seeing auras, reading objects, and contacting outsiders. All abilities that fit the tone of the class. The occultist can also draw magic circles to capture creatures. The expansion of that last ability – fast circles – is weird: it allows the occultist to make magic circles as a full-round action, making it something that can be done in combat. Don’t they need to move to draw the circle?

Sadly, no real example implements are given; it’d be very easy to forget the flavour of this class, and just have a character using a “ring” or “amulet” rather than holy relics or enchanted items. Hopefully the inevitable splatbook detailing the classes’ place in the world of Golarion will contain a list of sample artifacts.

The occultist has a reservoir of power, mental focus, which can be placed into items to give a static buff so as long as the item has any focus remaining. But imbued focus can be expended for small bonuses during combat. If the occultist expends all their focus, it depletes the items. It seems unlikely an occultist will drain an item, so each likely holds at least 1 point hostage: a 6th level occultist will have nine or so points but only five will be usable. However, some of the abilities granted by the imbued item overlap with standard magic items (the so-called “big six”), so the benefit of an imbued item might be unnecessary. But, I suppose it might free up the slot, allowing more fun non-standard item choices.

The based on literary archetype of the psychic detective, but the occultist wears medium armour, has  access to shields, and can wield martial weapons. It’s a little odd.

Psychic

A full caster class, the psychic is not very interesting. This is to be expected as it’s has 9th-level spells, which are the majority of its cool things. Spells are its class feature. The psychic also gains some minor telepathic abilities, which are mostly flavour but still nice.

The key non-spell abilities are a pool of phrenic points, which modify spells by tacking on an extra effect, adding a small self-buff, or allowing the psychic to affect creatures normally immune to mental magic.

The psychic casts spells using its Intelligence, but one of two different stats  determine the phrenic pool, which is handy for making very different types of psychic. Regardless, the psychic is mentally heavy, and psysical stats are not really needed.

The psychic also has disciplines, which are the generic “build choice” option, granting small supernatural abilities. Disciplines are so-so mechanically but have some neat flavour, describing the way your character unlocked their psychic powers. I’d hoped to see more unique ways to spend phrenic points in disciplines, but the two mechanics are somewhat disconnected. This is so archetypes can remove one without negatively affecting the other (although, no archetype in the book actually gets rid of the phrenic pool). I’m not a fan of archetypes getting rid of signature abilities of a class: there should be *something* common to all variants of a class.

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Similar to the medium, the spiritualist calls upon spirits for aid. In this case, the spiritualist calls on a phantom that fights as their ally. The class is a pet class, like the druid, summoner, or hunter. There’s slightly less lore in function around summoning a spirit to fight at your side, but it works.

The phantom is a weird type of undead that’s not an undead, but an outsider. I imagine this is so it can have a Constitution score and be healed by positive energy, but this is a little funky and is really twisting the lore of the game to accommodate a quirk of the mechanics. The phantom is also

This class is very much the unchained summoner with “eidelon” crossed out and “phantom” written in its place. It has a lot of similar abilities gained the same level. However, the spiritualist doesn’t summon additional monsters, which makes it a *much* better class in my mind. Instead the spiritualist can do things like see the invisible, calm angry spirits, and sense the undead. And unlike the hunter, the spiritualist is limited in armour and weapons, reducing the abuse of having two characters acting at the same time, which can abuse the action economy of the game. It seems much more balanced that the other pet classes, and unlike the others I’ll likely allow it in my game.

The Good

This is a great concept for a book. On paper it seems odd: a book on supernatural mysteries for a game system where 4/5th if the classes have soMe magical ability. But it works, and contains good advice on adding that mystery to your campaign. If I run one more Pathfinder campaign, this book will likely be the centerpiece. It’d be neat to do a Carrion Crown campaign with this book as the primary source, along with a few other choice classes. And thus book seems essential for the forthcoming Strange Aeons adventure path, due out August 2016.

The iconics characters are nice as always. Their stories – which are on the Paizo website and not this book – are always interesting. They got a little long this year, which makes me nervous: whenever comparable fiction increases in length it usually means editing is getting lax. As always, Wayne Reynolds provided the art for the iconic characters. Paizo continues its focus on diversity, with these iconics being from the equivalents of southeast Asia and India, as well as child, an elderly individual and overweight. The only nonhuman is a halfling. There is a lot more art in this class section of this book, with small pieces throughout, highlighting the gear of the iconic character. Some of this gear is interesting and relevant, but some is super-filler. Still, it breaks up walls of text, which is needed with the class entries getting so long. While seeing a firestarter iconic’s hockey stick is bland, it’s much better than no art.

The book includes new uses for skills with a psychic flavour. This is interesting and preferable to forcing a new skill into the game.

This book offers a replacement for the venerable magic jar spell: possession. This includes both a new spell and expanded rules, clarifying some of the oddities of body swapping. I like magic jar, but is certainly imperfect and does not mesh well with standard fictional portrayals of possession, especially by outside entities.

There is lots of information on mindscapes, which are tied to psychic duels. It’s a lot of detail for something that might be used once or twice, even in an occult game, but cool nonetheless. Without running a psychic duel in a mindscape the functionality of the rules is uncertain, but I’m curious to try.

There is slightly expanded information on the planes, mostly updating the descriptions or compiling details that have been added over the years. There’s not much in this section though, so the old Great Beyond book is still the definitive source of planar information. Man, I really want Paizo to do a big hardcover on their planes. Especially expanding details on the Dimension of Dreams. The concept of a dream plane has been kicking around the game since the era of 2e and no one has really done much with it.

Photo 2015-08-01, 1 14 33 PMThe Bad

The book doesn’t tune into any stories. It’s not really needed for an AP or story they wanted to tell, and Paizo has been writing adventures with occult themes and tone since, well, ever. Rise of the Runelords had done occult themes. Unlike Ultimate Combat or Mythic Adventures, it’s not a book they *needed* to tell their stories. Which suggests if they don’t *need* it then neither do we. However, it’s much more relevant than the Advanced Class Guide, which was pure filler/bloat. And potentially ties into the 2016 fall Adventure Path.

11 pages in the book are taken up by class spell lists. Not spells, just lists of the spells.

There are no new monsters or updated versions of classic monsters. You need to buy the Occult Bestiary for that content.

The signature ability of psychic spellcasting is “undercasting”. Essentially, thus means when you learn a spell with variable levels of casting (think cure wounds or summon monster) the character always knows the highest level and can cast any of the lower variants. This is so-so and nit really enough to make psychic magic distinct from arcane and divine magic. And there’s maybe a half dozen spells that make use of undercasting, so they’re limited to the psychic, making them less a property of psychic magic and more a psychic class feature.

The classes in this book have little establishing flavour text. While they have the amount comparable to other Pathfinder classes, it feels lacking now.

The Ugly

This book includes a LOT of just tacked on lore, typically in the class section. It often doesn’t “fit” the world of Pathfinder, or does so in a very inelegantly. For example, aether is a big deal to some kineticists (20% really, being the generic “telekinetic” build), and is described as “the rare substance formed when elemental energy affects the Ethereal Plane”. However, aether has never been mentioned before and is not mentioned in the expanded description of the Ethereal Plane in this very book.

There’s very little support for existing classes, even by way of feats and archetypes. This is really a book focusing on the new classes and their options. This makes it difficult to add to an ongoing campaign and it works best with a brand new campaign where the tone can be established from the start. But how many people are starting new Pathfinder campaigns these days?

Aura colours. I’ve tried to use auras before in other game systems, but always been super awkward in play. First, like all divination, it can derail a plot by revealing secret motivations. And it requires having a cheat sheet of colours handy.

Chakras are terrible. The idea is interesting, but the saving throws required are ridiculous. It’s two pages of content only for monks, as no other class has enough ki points to make it work, but monks are unlikely to have the stats needed to pull it off without building their entire character around the option.

The classes in this book really emphasis the nitty-gritty aspect of Pathfinder, with every rule having to fill every loophole for the sake of RAW, such as specifying abilities can be used with non-hand prehensile limbs or being activated “as a free action even when it isn’t your turn”. Many powers feel much, much longer than necessary due to the wealth of clarifying text. So often reading a new power feels less like something magical and more a legal document. For a book on magical mysteries of the mysterious, this is rather ironic.

Similarly, all the classes in the book are long. As long as the longest classes from the Core Rulebook. Getting into any of these classes involves a lot more reading, and there’s no simple two or three page class for people who don’t want to pick from a giant list of options. There’s no “fighter” or “unchained barbarian”.

The book wastes half a page explaining how archetypes work. With eight other books referenced, it seems unlikely this will be someone’s first foray into archetypes.

Page 175. How does this art fit? It feel like something they just had lying around. “We need some art for a short chapter. What have we bought but not used?”

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There is a bloodbender kineticist archetype. It even looks somewhat Inuit, conjuring thoughts of Katara from Avatar: the Last Airbender.

The kineticist got all the cool feats: kinetic leap, interweave composite blast, parting blast, kinetic counter. All super evocative and thematic.

The explode head spell. ‘Nuff said.

Occult rituals a neat idea. I like the idea of powerful magic spells non-caster characters can perform, or accomplish as a group. It works with the narrative of someone accidentally casting a potent spell from a spellbook. Conjuring a demon is a classic example: why does Faust need to make a deal for magical power when he’s already a 14th level caster? And so often in play you want a lower level group to be able to perform some sort of magical deed that the rules say is impossible, like planar travel. The balancing factor of requiring numerous skill checks means these rituals are mostly going to be done by high level casters though, as no one else is going to have that many ranks in knowledge skills. But the framework is good and just needs some hand waving or DM-induced limitations.

There’s lots of advice on running occult games, including some campaign seeds: brief outlines for an adventure. It’s a short section but does the job.

There are revised haunt rules, including options allowing non-clerics to deal with haunts. A much needed change.

There are lots of fun items, both magic and mundane. A few choice examples include a drowsing rod, hypnotist locket, phrenologist’s kit, straitjacket, tin hat, ventriloquists’ dummy, dreamcatcher, four-leaf clover, ganji doll (read: voodoo doll), lucky horseshoe, shrunken head, haunted doll, and monkey paw. Plus the soul portrait, evoking Dorian Gray. Fun stuff.

There’s also Loci spirits, a form of positive haunts that bless creatures. A great idea.

Final Thoughts

I really like his book. It’s been a long time since a bought a Pathfinder hardcover and said “I want this in my game, right now!” Let alone had a book I wanted to base a campaign around. I’m pretty much done with Pathfinder and looking forward to finishing my Skull & Shackles game and switching over to a 5e homebrew. This book makes me want to hold off for one more Pathfinder fling

But, I’m a Ravenloft fan from back in the day so I’m pretty heavily this book’s target audience. So… bias alert.

There’s a lot of excellent stuff in this book, and the balance and quality seems much tighter than the Advanced Class Guide. If you’re the kind of person who likes the occult, wants to run a game with more wonder and mystery in its magic, likes a dash of horror in their fantasy, or simply wants to play a wizard that’s more Dresden than Gandalf then this book is for you. If you like fantasy super heroes and non-subtle games and enjoy blasting waves of orcs with magic.. well, the kineticist is pretty cool as well.

 

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If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is available for purchase. The electronic copy is available on Kindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspace and Amazon. Purchases from DriveThru easily allow me to purchase new PDFs for review purposes.

The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, and all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded. The final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.