Advanced Skill Guide (SFRPG)

Advanced Skill Guide (SFRPG)

This massive supplement clocks in at 151 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 4 pages of handy index, 1 page KS-thanks, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 140 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
…who am I kidding, I’d have moved this one up in my queue, even if it hadn’t been for that request.

Why? Because this is the book that translates easily my favorite PFRPG-crunch book EVER to SFRPG. I am, of course, talking about the winner of my Top Ten of 2017, the “Skill Challenge Handbook”.

You know, the book that, like no other before or since, should have been part of the core rules.
Yeah, if you’re like me, you probably have started smiling just a bit right then and there.

However, and this must be made abundantly clear by even a cursory glance at the page-count, this is obviously not all there is to it. We do not have a simple translation of a book to another system here – oh no. This book begins with a chapter on Leadership. Yep, you guessed it. This also is the Starfinder-equivalent of Ultimate Charisma, yet another masterpiece of a book.

But, once more, there is more to it, so let’s take a look at the nit and grit, shall we? After a brief piece of introductory prose, we begin with a glossary of terms: In case you’re not familiar with the terms “cohort” and “follower”, the pdf clearly and concisely defines them. Same goes for the basic mechanics: A Leadership check is a d20 roll, to which total level and Charisma modifier are added, and Leadership checks are treated as either Diplomacy or Intimidate, depending on the style of leadership employed. Leadership modifiers are determined by the GM, and are the result of your playstyle.

There also would be the Leadership score, which is the sum of character level + Charisma modifier, + a bonus to indicate fame. Further modifiers can apply, and concise tables provide sample check DCs by difficulty, as well as a selection of suggested modifiers. If you need a representation of a group effort, there would be PLS – Party Leadership Score, which is calculated and explained in similar and easy to comprehend terms.

Things become a bit more detailed when we take a look at cohort creation – here, the book deviates strongly from previous iteration, in that it employs (gainfully, I might add), the Alien Archive’s NPC-creation guidelines with minor tweaks to allow for an overall very smooth and painless creature creation. Different methods of cohort creation, from promotion to recruitment (including costs to hire) are presented and the book does present different degrees of simulation depth for cohort progression: If you, for example, don’t have the inclination of tracking cohort XP in the traditional sense, you can check out the option presented for one-roll adventuring abstraction, which does not bog down the game. (Of course, you could play cohort-only sidetrek adventures as well…) If that is still too intrusive, you can resort to the autoleveling guidelines, and if that sounds like a hassle – rest assured that tips for players and GMs alike are included to make the process of adding cohorts to the game simple and smooth.

Followers, then, are more akin to redshirts with names and personalities – once your players have a massive space ship with a huge crew, you may well want to have example followers – and indeed, the pdf provides; once more, in an organic manner: The concept of good and master skills is used in abbreviated form for the different roles these fellows may have, once more allowing for a super smooth integration that distinctly can be identified as a Starfinder-centric solution.

The book goes further. In the next chapter, we take a gander at reputation. Fame is a representation of how well you’re liked and known within an organization or region. On the flipside, there would be infamy, of course. These two are collectively known as reputation. “Deeds” would be the term assigned for things you are famous or infamous for, and as a whole, the rules use Starfinder’s “significant threat” rule and transpose it to organizations – in short, reputation only matters and should come into play with significant organizations. I am not kidding when I am, time and again, emphasizing how Starfinder-centric these concepts have been realigned: The reputation section, for example, takes theme-choices into account.

While reputation, as a whole, is a more narrative system, it is not one that leaves the GM or player hanging or in doubt regarding precise implementation. Instead, we receive detailed and precise guidance pertaining reputation shifts, sample fame rewards for certain thresholds…and favor. Favor goes hand in hand with fame and represents basically your ability to call in favors, a kind of social currency. Both favor purchases and deeds, just fyi, have been supplemented with handy tables that provide amply guidelines to run the system or smoothly expand upon it.

But perhaps you and your group are less interested in empire-building and the grand game, and rather would develop the way in which the PCs interact with NPCs and one another? Fret not, for if you’ve been dissatisfied with “I roll once and change the attitude” type of scenarios, if you enjoy the more personal takes and exploration of bonds, whether they be among rivals and enemies, families or lovers, then you’ll very much enjoy the next chapter, for here we take a look at relationships. For simplicity’s sake, they are grouped in 4 rough categories: Animosity, familial, peer and friendship. All of these are tightly defined. The relationships themselves may be roughly categorized in the healthy and dysfunctional departments, somewhat akin to the dichotomy used for the reputation system, and while this is a bit of a simplification, there is a difference here: The system tracks not an objective value of good/evil, but rather the intensity of the relationship! This is VERY cool and a smart choice. It eliminates the “love”-threshold. You know, “reach this many points to get love.” Instead, each character will have different preferences, reactions and the like, and relationships are dynamic. You can actually switch from a familial relationship to animosity to friendship, for example. And yes, you can fake relationships. You can, of course, roleplay all of this, but in case your group tends to favor quicker resolutions, they are provided once more. And yes, they have been designed to allow for quick and painless resolutions. They will not slow down your game – unless you and your group choose to explore them.

The next section also can tie in with that – it pertains alternate and secret identities, and it is one chapter that I wish had been slightly more Starfinderized: The default assumption here would be that a series of Disguise checks is sufficient to establish a secret identity, which, while quick and painless, struck me as a bit…easy, at least in the long run. For brief covert identities and the like, sure, but for long-term identity change, some notes on the use of Computers to delete electronic trails and the like would have made sense to me. (But then again, I’ll return to that aspect down below – and why I don’t consider it to be an issue here.) the subchapter does talk about different means of compromising your identity, and how secret identities and shifts can influence reputation and relationships. And guess what: Having your cover blown is not a pleasant experience. Juggling multiple secret identities is btw. also noted.

Now, the pounding heart of this book, obviously, would be the skill challenges. If you’re familiar with the “Skill Challenges Handbook”, you’ll notice some overlap here and will be already familiar with the central concept.

Basically, a skill challenge represents an encounter-situation that can range from a group dealing with a super-computer’s complex self-defense system,a s it’s steering the vessel into a black hole, in the mainframe to a game of chess. Skill Challenges may be undertaken between teams (representing contests), and can span different increments of time: From long trips across the surface of a blasted planet under a dead sun, to a high-speed chase, the engine can cover pretty much anything. Running a skill challenge may seem daunting afirst, but once you’ve read the rules, turns out to be exceedingly simple: You determine awareness first, so yeah, there can be a surprise round. Then, you determine initiative order and proceed to run it akin to a combat, save that it is not a combat, but a collective task.

“Winning” a skill challenge is referred to as “clearing” it, and, depending on the skill challenge, you have several methods: Some skill challenges may require an accumulation. Drawing that moon rover from the ditch, for example? Accumulation.  When working against an opposing team, points can be used. Movement-related ones track squares, and for straight win/lose situations with a less pronounced focus on grades of success, “successes” are the tracked method makes most sense.  It should be noted that there are actions noted for PCs to in-game interact with the respective skill challenge – obscuring trails, for example, is relevant when embarking on a skill challenge that is based on squares as clearance method.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How do you beat an accumulation skill challenge? Well, let#s say your researching who the replicant-serial killer is, all right? You research, and roll a relevant skill, as determined by the GM. You have a success, and then take a look at the progress rating. For example, 22. Since you succeeded at the task, you accumulate value of by 1d4 + the ability score modifier associated with that check. Once you’ve beaten the progress, you’ve cleared the skill challenge. Being particularly good grants you bonuses, and may move you up in the dice-chain. Class skill? You roll one die size larger. High enough insight bonus? Ditto. To keep things interesting, these skill challenges generally have thresholds noted, where things happen, complications can occur, etc. Let’s say you’ve repaired a part of the mainframe of a desolate space station as you cleared threshold value 8 – electricity is suddenly restored…and the cargo doors open as part of the booting system, freeing whatever was locked inside…

This is perhaps one of the most potent and remarkable aspects of this system – while it can work on pretty much any timeframe, it similarly can slot in seamlessly with combat...and back out of it. What Do I mean by that? Well, you can easily slot skill challenge into skill challenge, Matroishka- or Inception-style.

Let’s say the planet the PCs are currently on is blowing up, and they are escaping the interstellar tyrants that have their homebase on the planet. The PCs embark on a grand skill challenge tracking abstract squares, as they hustle across the planet towards the dilapidated orbital elevators: Atop those, there is a ring of space stations surrounding the planet. (Yes, unrepentant Gundam fanboy here…) As they arrive at the elevators, the planet starts breaking apart…but the damn bullet train is old and needs to be fixed and maintained. Unfortunately, an alien species feeds on the thing, eating it while the PCs try to get it to start – enter a contest. As they finally get the thing running, the kill-squad sent from the tyrants has infiltrated the train – as the PCs make a desperate race for the top, trying to accumulate enough resources, combat breaks out….and even if they succeed, they’ll still need to get out of the system…

That is but one example of interwoven skill challenges, and once you get how these work, space’s the limit. Scratch that, not even that! To infinity and beyond! (Sorry, will punch myself later for that one…) The system may look daunting at first, but one glance at a statblock for such a challenge should tell you a lot about it…and once you understand it, you’ll realize how elegantly this one skill challenge statblock codifies a complex series of circumstances. In use, the system is so smooth, you basically don’t even need to make a statblock. You can run this spontaneously. The precision of all the definitions for increments, time pressure etc. are ultimately there to adhere to the conventions of the game, but in person, I can explain this whole system in under a minute. Heck, I actually implemented it without telling anyone, and it works. A quick-thinking GM can assign PC actions to the general actions within the respective skill challenge.

Basically, what the rules here do, is to allow you to structure how you think about the mechanic presentation of the challenges within. No GM really needs stated that some skill challenges can only allow for a certain amount of failures. Still, the rules are presented within, in order to allow you to write a quick and concise challenge. Similarly, backlash by hazards, traps and attacks, demerits (losing progress) – all there. Beyond thresholds, there also are obstacles – exemplified with the sample task of steering a vessel through an asteroid field. Chases would, obviously, be another example, and one that gets its own coverage – in detail.

If you need further means to modify these skill challenges and want an even tighter array of subrules, you’ll have a whole chapter of special qualities to modify them with: Obstacles, and, as noted, opposition, are covered. When you’re bodyguards for the ambassador’s daughter, whose word may save the galaxy, if you can only convince her… then you’ll want to take a look at the section on influence challenges. If you’re familiar with the way in which Ultimate Intrigue etc. structured social situations and cross that with skill challenges, then you’ll have an idea of how the system works: We basically get a “social” variant of a statblock that focuses more on personality and background, noting biases and strengths as well as weaknesses.

If you instead plan to talk in front of the board of directors of an interstellar megacorp, then you’ll want to check out the section on verbal duels. From allegory to mockery, this is indeed the first of these subsystems/skill challenges that I’d categorize as a mini-game of sorts. Knowledge of associated strategies and how they interact is important…but know what? It actually puts an end to the endless discussions that go nowhere, and it can make social interaction exciting for tables that usually prefer the tactical aspects of combat over storytelling.

For all of these, samples are provided, though, and let me make that abundantly clear: This is not a plug-and-play book of ready encounters. Instead, this teaches you how to use the system and make it your own. Extra design advice, a table of suggested sample DCs by difficulty rating and CR, suggested accumulation, square and success values by CR – ultimately, this is a ginormous guide that aims to teach you an easy system that can make literally everything, from treks across blasted desert planets to researching galactic archives, potentially exciting and interesting. It’s a system that inserts player agenda into what usually amounts to boring, singular pass/fail die-rolls and cutscenes, instead emphasizing the collective experience.

Okay, but we’re still not done. There is another massive chapter – and it’s called combat maneuvers. This chapter introduces an alternative means of resolving, bingo, combat maneuvers. Design-wise, the alternate maneuver system mirrors the way in which Starfinder treats AC: The Maneuver Defense (MD) value is subdivided into PMD (Physical Maneuver Defense) and MMD (Mental Maneuver Defense). The values are calculated as follows: 10 + ½ BAB + Strength modifier (PMD) or Charisma modifier (MMD). All combat maneuvers, and the feint and demoralize skill uses, as well as the Antagonize feat, target these now. Yes. Non-feat taxed antagonize is back. Honestly, it was one aspect of SFRPG that puzzled me as much as in PFRPG. Why lock insulting an enemy, arguably something pretty much anyone can do, behind a feat, while feinting, something I IRL would suck at, is available via skills? But I digress. Maneuvers are listed alphabetically, and are listed with action to activate, skills that can be used, and effects. Descriptors, if any, are noted as well. You basically check the skill against the respective MD. Crushing foes, scaling them…simple. Less simple would be the act of determining these values fro critters. Thankfully, a massive table lists suggested values by CR and array. (As an aside: The array is called spellcaster, not mystic…) Don’t like that? There is a means to use the system in conjunction with the standard KAC +8 solution.

What’s the effect of implementing it? Well, PCs are more likely to succeed at combat maneuvers…but so are enemies. If you are dissatisfied with how hard combat maneuvers are to execute in Starfinder, then this will yield approximately a 25% increase in chance to execute them, which can, particularly in more melee-centric situations, make them game more versatile and nuanced. The new “humiliated” condition is also introduced herein – and, in case you were wondering, there is a whole, massive array of feats that allow you to further customize your characters to make maximum use of this new system. In a rather embarrassing slip-up, the feats refer to the Improved Combat Maneuver feat – which has been rebranded as Improved Maneuver to avoid confusion with the Starfinder core feat. Unfortunately, the references of the feat in the section’s prerequisite lines have not been adjusted that way. It’s a cosmetic glitch, but still a pretty nasty one. Particularly since the Improved Maneuver feat’s special line even erroneously references itself as Improved Combat Maneuver… Also in this section would be the Unlock Skill feat.

Which ties in with…the Skill Unlocks. These can be gained by feats, themes or awarded freely, depending on your preferred playstyle, and include several that interact with other components of the book. At Fame 20, you can, for example, be Aloof without taking a penalty to Leadership score. With Blood Kin, you have a better rapport with your relatives, with Accomplished Climber, you gain a climb speed. Tehre are more unlocks here than I can conceivably cover without ruining the functionality of this review – suffice to say, a handy table organizes them by area of interest – looking for reputation unlocks? All collected in one section. If this notion was not indicator enough: One of the interesting and impressive components of this book would be the fact that all of these can be combined. The pdf does, for example, provide guidance and notes that skill unlocks can make for great relationship rewards…

Of course, considering the new combat options, we also receive a couple of new tricks for character classes: 4 new envoy improvisations, and an expertise talent, as well as tricks, for mechanics, soldiers and operatives may be found. The pdf then closes with 4 solid themes: Contender, scion, fixer and vigilante, before providing a handy glossar. Slightly hilarious: The vigilante gets the “Duel Identity” class feature. No, he is not particularly adept at dueling. That’s a typo.

Editing and formatting on a rules-language level, as a whole, are very good. However, on a formal level, the pdf does suffer a bit and is not 100% up to level we usually get to see from Everyman Gaming. Particularly in the few instances where a typo can make a rule slightly harder to understand, I couldn’t help but cringe slightly. Don’t get me wrong; this is still a tightly-presented book. Layout adheres to the two-column full-color standard of the Star Log.EM-series, adapted to the big book, and the pdf sports a ton of Jacob Blackmon artworks, many of which are brand new and pretty massive. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. My physical copy hasn’t yet arrived as per the writing of this review.

Alexander Augunas and Matt Morris deliver what can be considered to be a crown jewel among SFRPG supplements; we get a book with a sheer impact and coolness, a mighty toolkit that usually only sees the light of day in this extent towards the end of a system’s lifecycle. Having this near the beginning of Starfinder’s lifecycle is amazing. Simple as that. It is no secret that I consider many of the concepts within this book, the whole notion of skill challenges, to be pretty much a stroke of sheer genius. Having them coupled with some of my favorite tricks, as inheritors of Ultimate Charisma’s legacy, puts just icing on the cake. I applaud the degree in which the systems herein have been modified to represents Starfinder’s peculiarities, and once more, I am left to say, clearly and explicitly, that the very concept herein should have found its way into the core rules.

Now, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some potential complaints to field: The editing, as noted, could have been tighter. I also would have loved to see more space combat-y things and peculiarities – sure, you can easily simply adjust what’s here to the space context, and the skill challenges present actually do just that…but some exclusives would have been nice. But that is not a fair complaint to field. You see, at first glance, there are a lot of similarities between this and the original PFRPG files; if you own the original files, you will constantly feel the casual familiarity that you expected to find…but once you take a more in-depth look, you will get to see the work that went into this tome…and the achievement that codifying the skill challenges this way, ultimately is. Regardless of system. This book was branded as the tome that will bring skill challenges to SFRPG – and more.

And, editing snafus be damned, it succeeds admirably. At this point, this is the most rewarding toolkit for SFRPG I am aware of. It will literally enhance any game it’s used in, and a GM who understands how this operates gets some of the mightiest narrative tools for a d20-game you can fathom on their hands. The concept itself may no longer be novel in all but its implementation into the system, but it doesn’t have to be. What you see on the cover, the exciting teamwork challenge? That can be yours.

Skill challenges have enriched my games like no other crunch supplement. If you play Starfinder and are not yet familiar with the notion, or if you don’t want to do the math and all those little tweaks…well then gets this ASAP! It is a mind-blowing experience. Now, if I were to rate this solely on its formal properties and disregard the content and its vast impact, I’d frankly have to rate this down to 4.5 stars, rounded down, due to the editing glitches. However, even if I were to divorce skill challenges from all the other components, which elegantly entwine, yet remain optional, they’d suffice to make the editing snafus as but trivial.

To state this in an abundantly clear manner: This book can radically improve pretty much every aspect of your game, of your GMing, of your playing experience. You don’t have to read everything. You don’t have to implement what you don’t want to – you can just cherry-pick what’s right for your and your group. Once you’ve understood this, you can implement its components on the fly, you can tell exciting stories that you couldn’t before. In short: This is, formal snafus or none, still a milestone and a masterpiece. I consider this to be perhaps the most important Starfinder supplement currently released by a 3pp. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my EZG Essentials-tag for Starfinder. And had its predecessor not won last year’s Top Ten, and thus disqualified this one from being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018, you could find it there as well.  This is, by all accounts, a must-own supplement for Starfinder.

…now, can we have a sequel book with more skill challenges, tricks and tweaks? 

You can get this inspired tome here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


EZG reviews Club Anyone: An Interface Zero Novel

An Endzeitgeist.com review

And now for something completely different!

Club Anyone is a novel that clocks in at a total of 308 pages of content, with visual representations of the setting helping to envision the setting, TRIC city, on Mars.

This review was requested by one of my readers. I have received a print copy of the book for the purpose of an unbiased review.

It should be noted that this book contains well-written descriptions of sex, substance abuse and the like – these are not gratuitous, and they are written in a concise and well-presented manner, but I felt the need to state this for your convenience. While I try to be as SPOILER-free as possible in my discussion below, I do SPOIL some structural surprises that the book has to offer. I only do so in an abstract manner, but I do so nonetheless in my discussion below; if you like the notion of cyberpunk/scifi-noir, then check this out sans reading further; if you’re skeptical regarding the genre, then you may want to continue reading.

So, let me preface this review with a couple of observations: This book takes place in Gun Metal Games’ Interface Zero setting, which means that it can draw upon a wide variety of different concepts and established lore – at least in theory.

This is, at once, a potential boon for the book, and, if one takes a look at the books released for other roleplaying games settings, a potentially huge issue. Don’t get me wrong: I have devoured a ton of Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, etc. novels in my day…but at one point, they all started to bore me to some degree. A central issue of books based on roleplaying systems is the question of system-adherence and structure: Roleplaying settings, system-immanently, expect not a single protagonist, but rather a whole party of them, and in my experience, there’s a pretty good chance that one or more characters end up as annoying – and the more such protagonists there are, the more disjointed is the sense of immersion, the less room you have to develop the characters in question. We can add to that the huge issue of the adherence to the system, which represents a gigantic Catch 22-scenario: If you deviate from the system’s realities, you end up disappointing the expectations of those wishing for a faithful depiction of the realities of the setting. If you adhere to them, you’re often left with issues regarding the story that you actually want to tell – the rules don’t always lend themselves to helping make the experience of telling a novel’s story exciting.

The second issue pertains lore-depth: You can’t assume every reader to be intensely familiar with obscure setting-details, but explaining them all in detail can result in huge, and potentially boring exposition dumps. This is an issue that we can observe with many comic books nowadays, where the interconnectedness and background canon has reached a ridiculous depth that makes them less accessible than they once were.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the type of story: Many books falter due to trying to tell a pen-and-paper-RPG-story in the guise of a linear book; perhaps one with only 2 – 3 players, but nonetheless. Combined with the above, this makes for quite a burden for the author, even before taking the need to be canonical into account.

Let it be known that “Club Anyone” manages to navigate these pitfalls admirably; to the point where the book made me intensely curious to read more from the setting. It does so in a pretty smart manner: Instead of jamming exposition dumps into the narrative where they wouldn’t fit, the book introduces a precious few concepts that all characters would be familiar with (and thus not talk about) in the beginning of a few of the chapters, in the guise of Encyclopedia Brasilia entries or a delightfully amusing advertisement for a piece of tech. Note that I experimented with skipping these, and the story and plotline STILL work without a hitch; they just serve to bring you up to speed with the setting.

The more important decision, and what really ultimately made this book work, is the protagonist Derek Tobbit. He is not a superhero, an outlaw, a chosen one. He is just a regular megacorp programmer, one who specializes in bioroids – think of these basically as lobotomized, programmable clone/machine hybrids. In the first chapter, the prologue if you will, we witness Derek become a hero of sorts on his first day at work on Mars after migrating there for the job…only to have him plunged into a personal catastrophe that spirals out of control on a personal and more global scale.

This approach manages to achieve something rather impressive, namely that it, by letting us share in the protagonist’s triumph, immediately generate sympathy for the man, which is then further developed upon. We have a relatable main character from the get-go. This is so important, because the novel could be described as a scifi-noir-thriller: We do have a very human and fragile individual here, not an iron-clad superman, but the cynicism that is so prevalent in noir aesthetics, is, at least in the beginning, absent.

Aforementioned personal tragedy and struggle then proceed to have this average Joe become pretty much steeped in the vortex of grime and twilight that we associate with noir aesthetics; in this, the early section of the book, the writing becomes pretty bleak, cynical and suffused with a rather potent sense of pessimism, one constantly enhanced by the dystopian corporate control, the omnipresence of augmented reality. It is here that, at least for me, some of the most remarkable (and wise) sentences throughout the book exist. The interaction with the severely limited cab-service AI Aygee, which poignantly remarks “Sorrow exists, Derek Tobbit,” serves as one example of this notion, and also as a kind of leitmotif. It should be noted though, that the book remains more personal and never reaches the sense of cosmic bleakness and nihilism that e.g. suffuses the “Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” or similar books by Dick et al. We remain deeply entrenched in the noir-aesthetics, and indeed, the book, without putting too fine a point on it, manages to retain the human dimension that is so crucial for noir-aesthetics. In a way, the Augmented Reality angle that is so important throughout the book represents a subtextual transgression of the boundaries of how reality is read by the characters, and proves to be the catalyst for the most potent narrative forces, both benign and malignant.

Indeed, one could argue that “Club Anyone” is exceedingly successfully and engrossing in the way it manages to encapsulate the tropes of the noir genre, and then proceeds to slowly subvert them; yes, there are plenty of examples regarding the tropes you’d expect within, but they are, on an intrinsic level, subverted in their tone and outcome. In a way, the book, like the leitmotifs of augmented reality and corporate control, controls them on a structural level, but transforms them in a rather benign and surprising manner; at one point, the narrative ceases to revel in the grime of Blade Runner-esque darkness, and transforms into a page-turner, a high-octane conspiracy high-scifi page-turner.

It is this bait and switch that represents one of the strongest points of the novel, and one of its weaknesses, depending on how you read it: On the one hand, there is careful deliberation in the motif of rebirth, which is also applied to genre that you’d associate this book with. On the other hand, I’d lie if I said that I didn’t get a kind of thematic whiplash during this turning point. Once it has passed, things happen quickly and ferociously, and the plot speeds up significantly. At least for me personally, this second part of the book felt like it could have used a couple of extra pages. There are a lot of unique and captivating ideas and set-pieces briefly touched upon, but ultimately, this section rushes to the inevitable conclusion in a more sped up manner than I would have liked; with 50 – 100 extra pages fully developing the transition in genres and character growths during it, the book would have ranked as one of my all-time favorite scifi novels.

As written, the almost post-modern playfulness with genres and expectations does not realize its full potential in this second half of the book. However, that is not to say I did not enjoy myself – quite the contrary! While this second half loses a bit of the gravitas of the first half, it did, even in its imho weaker sections, provide more entertainment than the entirety of the sluggish blandfest of oh-so-critically-acclaimed “2312”; it’s also smarter and, in my opinion, more successful in its world-building/setting-utilization than that book.

In short: “Club Anyone” is a surprisingly fun and intelligent novel; it sports interesting and well-written characters you can relate to; its plot and tweaks actually managed to entertain and often, even surprise ole’ me. It’s also the least bleak noir-story that can still be called “noir” I have ever read, and for that alone, deserves accolades. Whether you consider the very condensed narrative a plus or minus depends on your perspective; personally, I could have seen this cover a full trilogy of books – easily! That being said, in spite of not being 100% enamored with the second half of the book, I have rarely found myself this profoundly touched by a science-fiction novel, as in the first half of this book. Considering that this is Lou Agresta’s first published novel, it represents an impressive achievement in more than one area: The characters are relatable and interesting, the pacing had me turn page after page; the prose is oftentimes profound without being artificially obtuse, and the deviations from genre-conventions make the book stand out. Similes and metaphors, both cleverly tweaked and original ones, provide an optional cosmos of associations for the well-read that adds a surprising level of associative depth to the proceedings.

Club Anyone is a really captivating proof of a very promising talent, one that has me excited for future offerings. Taking the freshman bonus into account, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. Even if you absolutely loathe noir storylines, this is worth checking out.

Sorrow exists, yes…but so does happiness.

You can get this fascinating novel here on OBS!

Want print? You can find that here on amazon!

Endzeitgeist out.


Ultimate Covenant Magic

Ultimate Covenant Magic

This massive supplement clocks in at 160 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 3 pages of SRD, leaving us with a massive 155 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, long, long before, back in 2013, before we even could conceive of Occult Adventures becoming such a great Paizo book, there was a humble pdf that fluttered on my digital shelves. It came with an unpretentious cover that read: Legendary Classes: Covenant Magic. It included a base class, then called “medium”, which proceeded to blow my mind, earning the supplement a spot among my Top Ten PFRPG products. Then, there were expansions, and these actually managed to retain the quality and imaginary vision of covenant magic.

In a way, this was an occult class, before “occult class” was a thing; you know, a class with a complex and rewarding action economy and player agency that does not simply escalate numbers, but instead has unobtrusive and rewarding ROLEplaying angles baked right into its very design. This may just be me, but with the release of Occult Adventures, I never stopped thinking of Covenant Magic as pretty much one of the origins of this rewarding school of class- and RPPG- design.

Now, it should be noted that Ultimate Covenant Magic is NOT simply a rehash of the previously released material; Purple Duck Games have gone the extra mile here, which should be obvious from the get-go when simply comparing pagecount; moreover, the ducks have went through Covenant Magic with a  finetooth-comb and reassessed all components herein, ironing out the very few rough patches the original files offered, while heaping new content galore on top – this is how compilations should be!

Fast forward to today and the issue of nomenclature: We get this – the ginormous, ultimate iteration of an already stellar system. With Occult Adventures’ release, this book renames its first class covenant mage. The covenant mage gets d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and Charisma-governed spellcasting of up to 6th level – however, in a radical and daring departure from most classes, these are actually spell-like abilities, with all that entails. It is testament to the robustness of the engine and the skill of the designers involved that this never breaks the game. Covenant mages may not learn aligned spells, unless the covenant mage matches the alignment…OR has a covenant with a creature of that alignment! Yes, you can actually cast evil spells as the good guy here…with all that entails.

Now, as the name makes abundantly clear, the focus here are covenants. But wait, sounds familiar? Isn’t there the phenomenal “Grimoire of Lost Souls” already out there? Well, yes, but Purple Duck Games’ system has a radically different focus – covenants are themed around general themes, not necessarily individual spirits – you could have a covenant with a sidhe court, with qlippoths and the like, as opposed to pacts with singular entities. The focus sounds similar on paper, but in practice and roleplaying, actually is radically different. It should also be noted that the systems work remarkably smoothly and distinctly when used in the same game, and could allow for a covenant/pact-only game without much hassle. One of these days, that’s just the campaign I’m going to run!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was talking about player agency before, and the class, from level one onwards, and again at 3rd, 7th, 11th, 15th and 19th level, gets a spirit boon – basically the talent-list of the covenant mage: These are not simple “You get class feature xyz”-tricks, btw. Wanted to sap speed with a touch attack? You can do that. Conjure forth a shield of roiling spirits? Once more, you can do that! Of course, a better, detective-style speak with dead can be found here, and the basic themes you’d expect have representations, but the list brims with enthusiasm and design-glee – one that is based in the scaling guidance imparted on the covenant mage by virtue of their spirit guide; and yes, while intangible (so no phantom-like pet), this lone, humble ability can engender great roleplaying all on its own…and changes the system in exciting ways, for some abilities require that the spirit guide be sent away/used in a specific manner. If you’re familiar with shadow-usage in shadow magic-based systems, you’ll get what I’m talking about. This could have just been, mechanically, a cool-down timer. Instead, it has this nifty little narrative angle that you can take or leave. It should be noted that the already pretty impressive list of spirit boons is expanded on later levels – multiple times. These alone provide more options than many classes have.

Now, a central component of the covenant mage’s engine and perhaps one of the most impressive and concise rules-operations for a caster I know, would be their trance: 4 + Charisma modifier rounds, +2 rounds per class level after 1st; this trance may be entered as a move action, nets you rage-like bonuses to Constitution and Charisma as you channel entities, and allows the spirits to speak through you – which is a GREAT idea to explain why you can’t use spell completion/trigger items in a trance. It’s these little components, where even the tiniest thing makes sense from a narrative point of view, that set this apart…of, and then, there would be the covenants. Oh, and being knocked unconscious nets you +1 free, final round of trance. No, you can’t abuse it, but it does allow the respective entities to deliver threats etc. and corresponds with the classic and evocative tropes.

Now, a covenant mage selects an influence – these can, for example, be angelic choirs, abyssal hordes, draconic, the occult, the unity, etc. Here, we have a bloodline-ish ability suite that nets a bonus language and determines the capstone of the class. However, they ALSO govern special spell-like abilities while in trance (scaling with levels) and trance covenants, which also scale. Sounds a bit bland for you? Nothing could be further from the truth! Just take the qlippothic redeemer. Some qlippoths argue that extinction of mortal life may not be the way to go to reclaim the abyss – you just have to ensure that no more chaotic evil souls go down there! Hence, there is a qlippoth-sponsored influence with the goal of redeeming everyone! I ADORE this. Doing the right things, for horrifically wrong reasons can make for a fantastic character concept and interaction with an influence that is malign and alien and just wants everyone to get along. That’s the yarn great tales are spun from.

Covenants are grouped in 5 groups, which are progressively granted by the respective influence chosen: Least (1st level), minor (5th level), major (9th level), greater (13th level) and superior (17th level), just fyi. It should be noted that each influence notes a variety of creatures associated with the influence in question, and that such creatures may be called by the covenant mage with their séance ability. Did I mention that these fellows can deal with haunts (You really should take one along next time you go into that haunted mansion/ancient, haunted battlefield…), that the trance engine scales and that item activation etc. also follows a concise progression? The covenant mage is a class you have to play to truly appreciate, but oh boy. Ähem. Sorry. Did it sound like I might that class a wee bit? ;)

Anyways, this is NOT where the book stops; where, previously, we had but this one covenant-devoted class, we now get two: The book introduces the dervish, who gets d10 HD, 4+ Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and martial weaponry and light armor and light shields, as well as fast movement, full BAB-progression and a good Ref-save 4th level nets the SPs of the covenant mage style, once more governed by Charisma, scaling up to 4th spell level. You may have deduced as much from the presence of fast movement, but uncanny dodge at 2nd level would be another good indicator what we have here – a hybrid class of covenant mage and barbarian.

And, I know what you’re thinking: “Now Endy will whip out the uninspired hybrid-bat.” Well, frankly, that’s not required. Quite the contrary, in fact. The class employs the trance engine; it has paths, which are the equivalent of influences (and yes, we get a ton of them, though not one for every single influence, only for those that make sense in the frame provided); it gets trance powers (kinda akin to rage powers and paths come with suggested trance powers) – oh, and the class is actually a solid skirmisher! I kid you not! Heck, path chosen influences, at high levels, the DR, with 8 different DRs noted, to account for thematic differences! This level of care is impressive; indeed, I’d like to state that the warrior-mystic angle has rarely been done this well; while the parent classes are obvious from the design choices made, the dervish manages to feel and play unique and exciting, rendering it one of the very rare examples of a hybrid class that deserves its name, that deserves being included in the game, that has its own identity and soul.

Now, here begin the 28 pages of archetypes – and while both covenant mage and dervish get AMPLE of choices here, it is my pleasure to mention that they are not alone: Wanted a covenant-using summoner? You can find that here. Inner Eye Fighters represent a rewarding covenant fighter option…oh, and did I mention that the book comes with full occult support, providing a means for Paizo’s often maligned medium class to become cooler via covenants? Or the death negotiator spiritualist? Does haggling with spirits for power sounds like a story that reminds you a cherished villain/hero in a comic book? Well, guess what: We even get a vigilante archetype here, with the spirit-chosen! Oh, and what about covenant-related hexes for both witch and shaman?? Want a covenant magic with anti-tech guide tricks? An engine-tweak by donning masks? Covenant mages with hexes, revelations or bloodlines? Yep, you’re covered. Similarly, if you want a divine dervish, unarmed mendicants or mounted dervishes, you’ll find what you’re looking for inside.

Now, beyond influences, covenant magic as a system is NOT hard-baked into classes; or, well, it kinda is in a way, but in theory, pretty much anyone could use it! Why? Well, the 5 different covenant ability strengths are concisely codified for Gm and players alike, with save DCs based on the patron’s Charisma and HD. This may come off as surprising, but the mere existence of this simple and easy to grasp component (with prices, assuring WBL-consistency) helps against the murder-hobo syndrome. Players are less likely to want to slaughter, for example, the fey over there, when coming to diplomatic terms with them could provide cool, unique powers…and from the GM’s perspective, that is a rewarding way to dish out treasure and segue into new adventures. The gp-value table makes this pretty much a no-brainer task – look at a table, done. It doesn’t get more comfortable than this.  Now, if all this contract-stuff sounds dry or too wishy-washy for you, rest assured that you’re not left hanging: The details and components are discussed in a concise and helpful manner, including the consequences of breaking covenants, etc.

So, the covenants – the list of covenants included here, you know, the one that handily lists all the covenants alphabetically, ordered by power…is 4+ pages long. We’re talking about over 30 pages of such abilities, which allow you to breach through barriers, gain a kind of truespeech, a literally stunning voice, high level save-rerolls – they make sense! Want, for example, control of the strands of fate? Well, you better find a really potent being with mythic power or hero points…or a norn! Have a new buddy from the elemental plane of earth? Stone fists. Just sayin’! Know a potent undead or outsider with energy drain? Hej, when you get on with them, you may learn the art of the Soul Stealer… There also are a couple here, obviously, that are more limited, but you get the idea – this OOZES flavor. And yes, the classic restoration of youth can be bargained for… This is, in essence, a continuation of the design-paradigm that made the class options stand out – and it’s, in a way, the beating heart of the book; this is where we not only get material that can easily be integrated into any game, we have enough covenants provided and succinct, clear guidelines, that designing new ones should not prove too big a problem for anyone. This may sound dumb coming from me, with my love of fiddly, highly complex systems, but this level of accessibility is amazing. You could hand this to players and have them tinker with it. The system is that accessible. Oh, did I mention the page of mythic covenants that help if you’re playing mythic games? Oh yeah.

Now, I should note that, usually, only covenant mages and dervishes can strike covenants, but the 10-page character-options section provides the feat-basis for universal access, though higher-powered games can ostensibly ignore these; as a whole, this provides the grit and investment decision I love to see, while the aforementioned detailed explanation of the covenants themselves allows the system to be used without prescriptively requiring them. If you’re playing a regular game, use the feats; if you’re going for high-fantasy, go the direct route – simple. Oh, and guess what? Mythic feats AND rewarding Story-feats included! As an example, Spiritual Defiance allows you to enhance the numerical bonuses of trance sans gaining the usual abilities, as you defy your influence. You’re grinning right now, right? I know I am! Really cool: The pdf acknowledges modifying three feats from Pact Magic’s chassis – in the TEXT, not just the SRD. That bespeaks of integrity. Oh, and yes, we also get both traits and drawbacks – and yes, bonus types are TIGHT. There also are a couple of new spells to be found, and we even get two background tables, Ultimate Campaign style, for Covenant Mages and Dervishes. Want advice, and I mean EXTENSIVE advice on running covenants in your campaign, on negotiating contracts, a ton of sample potential patrons for covenant-users? Variant offerings that codify life force, souls and even integrate with Horror Adventure’s corruption-mechanics? This delivers. Heck, we even get two cool sample organizations! Oh, and guess what? Two templates, a ton of NPCs (yep, up to CR 19…), and we even get two ready-made PCs for the new classes, at level 1 and 7.

Editing and formatting are top-notch. From bonus type to rules language integrity, this is an achievement of a tome. Layout adheres to a nice, printer-friendly 2-column standard with purple highlights. The pdf sports a significant amount of nice full-color artwork, though fans of Purple Duck games may be familiar with the pieces. The pdf comes with extensive, nested and detailed bookmarks, making the use of the material herein super simple. Oh, and this being Purple Duck games, the whole text is open content. Yes. This is too rarely mentioned, but it’s one of the things I adore about Purple Duck Games.

David N. Ross and Julian Neale, with additional writing by Mike Myler, provide a masterpiece. I mean it. This is the OG of the Occult design philosophy, and it is superbly impressive, more so than it ever was before – and that’s saying something!

You see, I am very much cognizant that my love for complex, fiddly systems à la Interjection Games’ tinker or Michael Sayre’s Akasha is no secret; at the same time, complex systems are not for everyone; while a new system may provide a unique playstyle, not every player enjoys trying to wrap their heads around, for example, an engine like the kineticists. This is where covenant magic comes in. The genius of the design employed here is twofold: For one, the book manages to provide a crunchy system that is rich in story and actual roleplaying potential, which is not something many books achieve. But more importantly, it marries this potential with a playing experience that is utterly distinct and different from all Paizo-classes…while not requiring that you learn one bit of new system! This book manages the impossible feat of having the cake and eating it, too – it teases, coaxes and persuades the d20-system underlying Pathfinder in new and exciting shapes and forms.

If you’ve read the Paizo-classes, you can play this. This is the most accessible subsystem I know, at least in this range of excellence; for, while it retains its superb accessibility, it also manages to do utterly unique things with its engine; it manages to carve out its own, distinct and design-as well as flavor-wise, unique identity.

This ranks among my favorite 3pp-crunch books out there. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Ultimate Psionics” or the “Grimoire of Lost Souls.” Yes. That good.
Let me put it differently: I have a policy regarding my Top Ten-list: If the components of a compilation have won a spot on my Top Ten, the compilation can’t be featured on it once more. I have never been this tempted to break this rule. I won’t, as that would be unfair. But oh boy, do I want to!

Ultimate Covenant Magic is a masterpiece that oozes passion, care and attention to details; it’s, as noted, the small things that add up, that elevate this book to the lofty place it occupies in my esteem. My final verdict for this masterpiece, unsurprisingly after my glowing review, will be 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my EZG-Essentials-tag as a book I wouldn’t want to miss in my games. Why? Think about it: You can use covenants to combat that Christmas Tree syndrome of PCs with too much gear…replace magic item-rewards with boons and blessings that come with obligations and your game will take on a whole new direction.

Anyways, while it can’t feature on this year’s Top Ten list, this does get the candidate for my Top Ten of 2018 tag as well – to mark it as a book that has number 1-contender qualities.

One more thing: Purple Duck Games is currently designing their Porphyra RPG – they will carry the torch of Pathfinder’s first edition with their very own spin. Books like this are what this game needs, so if that sounds like something you’d love, support the Purple Ducks!

You can get this glorious book here on OBS!

You can directly support Purple Duck Games here on patreon!

Endzeitgeist out.