FAITH - The Sci-Fi RPG Core Rules 2.0 (RpC Engine)

FAITH - The Sci-Fi RPG Core Rules 2.0 (RpC Engine)

This massive RPG clocks in at 433 pages minus the covers etc.; once you take credits and the detailed, general index away, you’re left with 426 pages, not including the 4 pregens and 3 general sheets included for your convenience.

This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. The review is based on the massive full-color hardcover.

All right, I am going to deviate somewhat from my usual reviewing style while tackling this beast and separate the review in 3 sections, namely formal qualities, game engine and setting.

The first thing you’ll notice upon laying eyes on the book, is that the cover image evokes a sense of advanced Cyberpunk-ish aesthetics. There is a reason for that, an Altered Carbon flashbacks you may have are entirely justified, as the game does not necessarily lend itself to Shadowrun-ish cyberpunk, but works rather well in more extreme versions for the genre. That being said, make no mistake: FAITH is very much a sci-fi game in aesthetics and its ambition, and not one of the many space-opera-ish games out there. But we’ll get back to that later. The second thing you’ll notice upon opening the book, would be layout and artwork. From color-coded riders on the side to boxed texts, the layout of the book is engineered to make its use simple: Advanced rules have their own, shaded boxes, as do examples of play/rules in action. This provides clear visual cues for the use of the game.

And then there would be the aesthetic component. FAITH is easily one of the most beautiful RPG books I have ever laid my eyes upon. I am not kidding. See that cover? I’d actually argue that it’s one of the weakest artworks in the book. We get panoramic vistas of alien cityscapes and planets, drop-dead gorgeous depictions of the races, and the quality of the artwork throughout is on par with expensive video-game artwork books. I am not kidding when I’m saying that many a conceptual artwork unlocked in current triple A-videogame titles pales before the sheer aesthetic joy evoked by many of the artworks within. Even better, the book actually has a distinct and unified art style, which is 100% coherent and concise. Now, it should be noted that the artworks for the races include nude renditions of the alien and human races, so if any depiction of a non-sexualized human body offends you due to some irrational taboo, then that’s something to look out for. Then again, if that’s the case, you probably wouldn’t get anything out of this book in such a case, as it is a book that focuses on big questions in a plethora of ways.

As stunning and gorgeous the book is on a visual level, I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing for the editing. While the vast majority of the book is presented in a level of precision and care you’d expect from such a big core book, and thus remains very much a precise, well-crafted book, there are sections interspersed throughout the book where concentration seems to have wavered, one of which, unfortunately, is the introductory section, where e.g. a doubled paragraph and more formal glitches can be found than you’d expect from a book that showcases such stunning visuals. The somewhat uneven editing remains one of the most obvious imperfections of the book.

Now, I have seen some reviews accusing FAITH of being a hybrid between a card/board-game and a RPG. I’d frankly argue that this is a folly. FAITH employs cards as randomizers, yes, but the book does not require any special cards, miniatures, etc.. You can purchase the FAITH-specific decks, sure, but the game works just as well with regular decks of cards. It should be noted that e.g. items all come with their gorgeous artworks, and while these can be had as cards, the book also features them, including their gorgeous artworks. As a card-based game, the game spends some time advising on how many card decks you should have. Personally, I’d strongly advise in favor of each player and GM having their own decks. The value of an ace is 1, jack 11, queen 12, king 13. That’s pretty much all you need to know, value-wise, to play FAITH with regular cards. Now, the FAITH deck (which I do not own and haven’t used) knows 4 suits: Wilderness, Urban, Space and OS – all of these suits have their own icon and correspond to one of the suits of the classic poker deck. Jokers are special: They can only be played in specific circumstances: After declaring successes and failures, you may play a joker to improve the level of success of one success, or decrease the success of an enemy by one step. So yeah, no one should feel that tracking these basics overexerts their mental faculties.

It should be noted that a key concept of FAITH is that each player has 7 cards (humans may have up to 8), and may not look into deck or discard pile. Players may not share the values of the cards in their hands, not show them o other players, but they can provide general hints of how well they’re doing. When do you draw again? Well, that is one of the most intriguing aspects of the FAITH game: It grants the GM pretty much perfect control over the difficulty setting, if you will, of any given sequence. FAITH divides the game into scenes, and at the beginning of a scene, everyone draws up to their maximum hand-size of cards – usually 7. The hand-size is a general indicator of physical and mental fatigue. Characters are assumed to succeed in most regular actions, unless contested. Initiative is governed by its own Skill, and turn are taken according to set value. However, a character may choose to Rush, by discarding one card and adding its value to their initiative score, but only at the start of a round. There are two statuses a PC can have each round: Ready and Spent. If the character is Ready, he can perform an action or wait – if the character is Spent, he can’t do something and must wait for the next round – this is important, as the PCs can attempt counteractions, which, obviously, means that they use their action. This basic framework allows for surprisingly dynamic engagements.

At the end of the round, there is the so-called maintenance phase, where each character that is not traumatized currently and hasn’t taken neural damage that round, regains a point of neural health. After that, the next round starts. Maintenance phases can happen in non-combat situations as well. As noted before, FAITH assumes actions to be successful and knows three degrees of success: Regular, decisive and critical – decisive successes are successes by 5+, critical ones by 10+. Simple. If an action is difficult to perform due to time constraints, or the opposition of environment, characters, etc., then we enter a “Confrontation.” The triggering character determines the action, with related skill and attribute used, using up to one Activated and one Sustained effect. The GM declares the number of cards to be played. Any affected characters aware of the action declare counteractions. Interesting here: Counteractions, unlike the action triggering the confrontation, may only affect the triggering individual. Played values of cards are compared and if the counteraction surpasses the value of the triggering action, it cancels the triggering action. It is only successful versus targets with a lower value. For example, if you throw a grenade into a room with two targets, and one declares to jump out of the room’s window, while the other attempts to run away, and the former is successful, but the latter isn’t, you still blow up the guy that attempted to run, while the guy jumping through the window got away. If the first guy had chosen to kick the grenade back, you’d have been in trouble…

Whenever a character performs an action, he uses a skill. If a skill value is 0, the character suffers a disadvantage. Skill values are decreased by 1 for each damage point (physical and neural) suffered, to a minimum of 0. Neural damage suffered from Activated or Sustained actions occurs as the action resolves, and hence does not penalize the action. Advantage and disadvantages are represented by plus and minus-symbols and add/subtract 5 from the value, respectively.

Now, I’ve already mentioned attributes: The respective attribute determines how many cards you can play per round to add to the values set by the skill. When a player plays a card whose value is equal or less than the Skill, he may draw another card. When the environment in which a card is played corresponds to the suit of the card, the player may also draw a card. This is called ambience. A character also have an affinity with a suit: When playing a card that corresponds to the affinity and in the proper ambience, the player instead draws two cards, one of them in hand, the other must be either be placed on top of the deck or discarded. In case you were wondering: There are only 12 skills, and to state explicitly what I implicitly mentioned before. At character creation, you assign fixed values to them: one 5, one 4, two 3s, two 2s, 3 1s and 3 of your skills will be 0s. You also get 60 points to assign to the 6 attributes (Agility, Constitution, Dexterity, Faith, Link and Mind) and skills, allowing for further customization. Now, it should be noted that Skills and Attributes do not necessarily have a fixed connection. Athletic skill, for example, can be used with Constitution or Agility. Attributes also have maximum limits, depending on the race chosen and the traits of that race – those would be basically a combination of racial and cultural components; planetside and spaceborn characters have different traits, for example.

The game knows both physical and neural health as hit point-like resource, with physical health being twice Constitution, neural health being equal to twice the Mind value. = neural health knocks you out, 0 physical health means you’re bleeding out. The game knows an additional damage that does not apply to characters directly, ACS, adaptive circuit severance, usually inflicted by hacking and neural assaults. Repairing and recovering health via Medicine and Surgery are btw. not something you’ll do instantly, so damage does matter. And that’s already pretty much the whole basic system.

If that sounded somewhat hard to grasp, then that’s not due to the system being complex, but due to the fact that the game system plays rather differently from most RPGs. Miniature play is supported, should you choose, but unlike most d20-based games, it is by no means required to get the most out of it, you can play FAITH in full theatre of the mind-mode sans any issues. All rules, including play examples etc., fit comfortably on 113 pages, with the basic core rules only taking up 25 pages. FAITH is easier to grasp if you approach it without preconceptions from other games.

Now, once you compare the total page-count with the amount of pages taken up by the rules themselves, you’ll end up with 300 pages unaccounted for. Indeed, the book presents these BEFORE the rules of the game. The vast majority of this book is devoted to the setting, and there are two different aspects that set this massive setting apart.

The first of these aspects would be the importance of “Religion” – now, I am putting this term in quotation marks, as, while the game is called FAITH, I’d argue in favor of the game actually lacking faith in the traditional sense. Faith, as a term, denotes belief in something without empirical evidence, often in spite of it. In fact, as an atheist, this aspect had me very concerned. Science-fiction often makes sense due to the lack of supernatural elements, and once you introduce too much magical aspects, it’s progressively harder to maintain your suspension of disbelief without the game becoming space opera-ish. Now, I have commented on the like before, but while I *like* space opera-style gameplay, I expect more from any game that designates itself as sci-fi; I expect an internal cohesion, that things make sense. Faith, per definition, lacks sense, lacks the empirical foundation that lies at the heart of good science-fiction. So how does FAITH handle this aspect, how does it sell you on the concepts of deities in an otherwise rational universe?

Well, I’d argue that the gods are not really gods in the way that we think about them. Instead, they should be seen as a combination of a Weltanschauung, Zeitgeist and general, value-based ideology; 5 such deities have been identified, with their true names collated from thousands of different representations across different cultures. These concepts/beings are Ergon (cooperation, empathy, teamwork, social concerns), Hexia (intuition, vision, learning, self-improvement), Kaliva (competition, action, adaptability, strength and struggle), Vexal (change, freedom, passion, movement and hope) and Ledger (opposition to all dogma and rules, the trickster/adversary that seeks to undo the work of the other gods). So, while the gods exist undoubtedly, they are basically distilled powers of philosophies, extremes of moral and rational values, and each has a vision of sorts for the universe, each represents the core principals for a plethora of different factions. Now, why do I think that there is no faith in FAITH? (Again, a good thing, in my book!) Well, because the gods are ideas manifest that exist. There’s empiric proof that they exist, and people embodying the ideals of their gods have divine powers of significant proportions. Each god has a diverse set of commandments, and since adhering to these grants powers, as soulbenders can twist reality in accordance with the doctrines of the deity.

Ultimately, there is no question that requires faith; there is no REQUIREMENT to believe in something uncertain with a lack of evidence. “Belief”, arguably, does not enter the picture at all. After all, the gods are a fact, they are ideals made manifest, and as such, are subject to scientific inquiry within the context of the setting; not pseudo-science à la creationism etc., mind you. In the universe of FAITH, philosophy and, indeed, faith itself, is as tangible a force as intelligence, education, etc. is in our world. This focus on the empirical realities also extends to the fact that there is no afterlife myth for any of the gods – irrational notions of heaven or hell have been abandoned when the gods were proven to actually exist in the tangible, material universe. This way of integrating gods into a sci-fi context did a remarkably good job at conveying not only the wonders, but also the horrors that spring forth from the philosophies represented by the deities. So yes, this is an intelligent, creative and genius way to establish general philosophical baselines that transcend the conditions of existence of vastly different species.

Speaking of which: Know how many games that take place in space, how many universes/franchises spam you with differently-colored humans? FAITH does no such thing. There are 4 races to play, with a lot of variance within the races to account for different environments and cultures. Here, the book does something genius: You see, we as human readers are presented the realities of the setting, but considering how universal translation has pretty much gotten rid of language barriers, the alien races are linguistically coded – one, for example, employs Inuit nomenclature, while another uses Chinese terminology. Considering the very dominant role of English and associated nomenclature in RPGs, this adds a linguistically based marker for alterity. There is a reason for these choices hard-coded into the setting as well.

There is another component that sets this game apart from e.g. Star Trek and similar franchises; somewhat akin to e.g. Mass Effect, humans are relative newcomers to the universe. You see, mankind manages to bomb itself back to post-apocalypse and wrecked earth. For a not clearly defined timeframe, we have basically lived on a constant downhill slope. Meanwhile, a rather nasty alien species of conquerors saw its empire fall, a former slave race rise to the status of empire, and another take to the stars. We, as a species, only enter the stage of FAITH’s universe as second-class citizens, for, as it turns out, humans may suck at adapting to space, but we’re actually physically really powerful in comparison and we make formidable soldiers. Thus, a majority of humans in FAITH are sterilized second-class citizens and feared soldiers that fight the battles for the two major competing empires, with post-apocalyptic gameplay being still very much possible in the ruins of earth.

Anyways, the second race that acts in a similar manner would be the Raag, who have marsupial-like pouches and are the only race to be physically more potent than humans. The Raag have a matriarchal system, with males being more impulse-driven and violent than females, and it should come as no surprise that they are somewhat connotated as spacefaring nomads/soldiers, with a rigid clan-structure (where adoption into a clan is a significant step) and serious differences between the clans regarding their outlook on life. The Raag serve as an example for something that the book does PHENOMENALLY well. This would be the depiction not only of biological realities of the species within, but also of the cultures that sprang forth due to their collective experiences. The way in which the races are depicted is, without engaging in hyperbole, pure genius and a triumph of fantastic prose-writing and world-building. The cultures and traditions depicted are absolutely stunning in how alien they are to the human reader, and in how believable they still remain at the same time. There is a staggering amount of detail and internal cohesion and logical interconnectedness that renders all of the different cultures presented more alive than 99.99% of alien cultures depicted in science-fiction media, regardless of whether in roleplaying context or beyond that; if more sci-fi novels had this compelling and engrossing prose, I’d be reading more in the genre.

The interconnectedness of lore also extends, unsurprisingly, to the influence of the deities, which tie in with churches, factions, groups, etc., so yes, the world-building is absolutely mind-blowing and compelling – to the point where I had a hard time putting the book down.

This is, at least for me, even more true regarding the two massive empires, the Iz’kal and the Corvo. The Corvo are the guys that “found” humans, and their vast empire, the Corvosphere, represents pretty much the default made of play assumed by FAITH, with the vast Dyson Ring (yes, gravity works properly!) of Tiantang being probably the default starting area for most groups. Now, the Corvo are somewhat insectoid, but remain actually kinda sympathetic…in a, for humans, utterly horrifying manner. You see, Corvo psychology has basically taken Keansian economic ideology and upped it. The Corvo have developed a truly uncompromising hyper-capitalist meritocracy that may be well read as a scathing satire on Western, first-world culture and Chinese economies, but what would be just a satire is further enhanced by the vast differences in the way that Corvo psychology works. Sans the human need to cling to ideals and certain societal structures, the rampant, one would say virulent, growth of the Corvo made them superbly adaptable and cutting-edge; there is a sense of backstabbing and uncompromising harshness ingrained in them, but logically, a society this advanced would have issues, right? Automation, after all, already is problematic for us, much less an even more advanced culture! The Corvo, with a wise taboo on AI, are primitive in one way that makes their culture work: They have developed a direct-to-brain-interface, and a vast amount of the poorer populace must lease out the processing power of their minds for hours and days on end, powering the complex calculations required by the advanced society. This is a stringent and poignant way to depict the fact that we, ultimately, sell the time of our lives in every form of work, job, etc. – it’s the one finite resource, and being required to cease being conscious, to lose sovereignty over your mind and body for the time, can be a thoroughly twisted concept from a human perspective. This, combined with the vast Corvo megacorps that de facto rule the race, means that the Corvosphere can easily provide all the Cyberpunk and Transhumanist context you might require. All the themes of exploitation of the individual, all the struggles versus corporate greed and intrigue – all this is firmly at home in an empire that, ultimately, is familiar to human readers, yet absolutely, distinctly radical and uncompromising. Alien. Uncanny. I love it.

After the phenomenal prose depicting the Corvo empire, of how wondrous and at the same time, horrifying, it turned out to be, I couldn’t fathom how the empire of the Iz’kal could hold a candle to it. Well, if you thought the Corvo are strange, you’ll be blown away by the Iz’kal. This race ‘s most defining characteristic is undoubtedly them being empaths; their physiology allows them to commune with each other, and their society is build on their premise. It’s also bereft of currency. Yes, you read right. Neither is there trade per se. In a lesser book, in the hands of lesser writers, the Iz’kal would have become a utopian counterproposal to the Corvo, but they, ultimately, are just as frightening. Birth rates are controlled, and your aptitude is judged by the state, which then proceeds to assign careers to you. If you need a piano, you’ll get one, but if you don’t use it, it’ll be withdrawn and assigned to another being. In short, the Iz’kal society is one that is characterized by submission of any form of personal agency to the collective will of the state and society. The in-character prose, pieces of which are interspersed throughout the whole book, drives that home just as well, as the fall of a Corvo paragon did in the previous chapter: The Iz’kal are NOT humans with a thin alien-coating; they are radically different in their psychology and the way in which their society is depicted made me truly SHUDDER. As someone who generally did not identify with the status quo, with the dominant opinions and cultural streams from a young age, I was truly horrified by this seemingly utopian, willful loss of individual agency, assumed by a whole species.

Think about it. You like singing. You’re good at it. The state determines that, genetically, you’re better suited to become an engineer, a task that brings you no joy. You’ll be an engineer, no discussion. In a way, we have a Kantian utopia that goes to the logical conclusion, that loses what we consider a very basic right. A *human* right. The Iz’kal are not human, and it becomes ever more apparent as you read, as you learn that the compromised self-determination even extends to the integrity of their own DNA, with genetic adaption being another aspect that the state exerts influence over. Those that lose the empathic/telepathic organ or have it damaged, become something…else. Indeed, the society of the Iz’kal is predicated on this physiological peculiarity, and as such, is much less welcoming than that of the Corvo.  Now, there are movements, there is diversity here – but it is one that is rooted in a mindset that is utterly different from anything you usually get to see. In a way, this chapter can be read as just as scathing a satire as the chapter on the Corvo, but once more, reducing the Iz’kal to that would do a disservice to the superb writing.

While I have depicted both of these empires and cultures as somewhat horrifying, they, at the same time, are beautiful in a way; in gleefully vapid, prejudice-free consumerism that accepts beyond social status, race, etc.; in a harmony that seems utterly impossible to achieve. I knew after finishing reading about these 4 races, that I’d fail the book. Indeed, I rewrote this whole section more than once, and every time, I ended up disliking what I wrote; every time, I felt like I failed to encapsulate the vast complexity, the logical connections, that make these cultures and races feel so alive. As such, please take my word for it: What I wrote here barely scratches the surface of the races and their cultures, as each chapter introduces a vast array of factions and organizations, as well as a ton of adventure hooks and sample NPCs, which include a ton of movers and shakers. If you’re not inspired to run whole campaigns after each chapter, I don’t know what will do the trick. The writing here is frankly one of the best I have ever had the pleasure to read in a RPG-book.

So, is everything amazing regarding the world-building? Well…no. There is one aspect that feels, at least to me, like a foreign body in an otherwise inspired setting. That would be the Ravagers. These fellows are basically the xenomorphs/Tyranids/boogiemen that made Iz’kal and Corvo enter a truce of sorts. The Ravagers are a species that assimilate biomatter, reproduce it and basically can duplicate anything they absorbed. This allows for doppelgängers, we have vast, planet-sized queens, collective intelligence – it’s basically the swarm. Now, the prose in the chapter, in the form of scientific logs, feels aptly apocalyptic and horrifying, and the choice in favor of black backgrounds here emphasizes the level of threat these seek to evoke, but as the big, bad race, the Ravagers lack the same super-inspiring complexity of ideologies and cultures that the playable races offered, and their angle, while somewhat distinct from the aforementioned frame-of-reference aliens from various franchises, never reaches the same level of pure creativity of the playable races. In short, they are just good/very good, in a massive section that provides pure, intellectually-exhilarating excellence.

Formatting is very good, while editing, as mentioned before, is slightly inconsistent and represents the one formally not perfect aspect of the book. The layout and particularly, the artworks employed throughout are amazing. The artwork is particularly impressive and the interior artwork is actually even better than the cover artwork! The massive hardcover employs thick, glossy, high-quality paper and the production value of the massive book are impressive.

Okay, so I’m not sure regarding who did what in this book, so I’ll list the authors in their noted roles: As producers, we have Jon Egia and Helio de Grado listed; game designers would be Carlos Gómez Quintana, Mauricio Gómez Alonso and Helio de Grado, while writer credits go to J. C. Alvarez and Carlos Gómez “Quntana” (I assume a missing “I” here), with E.G. Quinzel as a guest-writer.

Now, as far as game design is concerned, I felt like the sequence of the rules-presentation could have been slightly streamlined; since playing FAITH is pretty different from your regular RPG, reading the rules required some close attention on my part. That being said, if you do not have a ton of experience with RPGs, that aspect will actually be easier. The system puts control firmly where in belongs, into the hands of the GM. Rules-wise, this s an interesting change of pace that is easy to grasp and master once you’ve managed to understand the basic premises. So yes, FAITH is a good game.

That being said, I firmly believe that, even if you have no interest WHATSOEVER in the system FAITH uses, in the game aspect of this book, even then, you will probably love this tome.

I cannot overstate how excellent the world-building is. I cannot overstate how logical, how clever, how intellectually-stimulating this book is. This book provided the most compelling example of world-building I have read in a long, long time. In fact, all of the different societies are so compelling that you really want to play in these environments. The attention to detail given to the Corvo and Iz’kal makes them and their cultures feel alien, and freed of the constraints of hegemonic storytelling traditions. This really manages to feel like you’re a human reading, through a universal translation about societies and people that are utterly different from anything you usually experience in either real life, or fictional media. There is an attention to detail, to narrative options, that, from the take on the gods, to the societies and factions, suffused all levels, from the global to the personal. This is distinctly a science-fiction book; it is intelligent and tackles the big questions of morality, identity, nurture vs. nature, consciousness, etc. - you name it, FAITH provides. Heck, you can alternate between more cyberpunkish sessions, exploration of the wormhole-labyrinth/final frontier, operations vs. the ravagers, post-apocalyptic survival, diplomacy, infiltration…the game engine is robust, but the campaign setting, the utterly GLORIOUS setting, is what makes you stay. Heck, even if you prefer another game-system, it is my fervent belief that you’ll find a huge treasure trove of pure, amazing excellence in this tome. While not as refined as I’d like it to be regarding the copy editing and sequence of rules-presentation, this book hence still constitutes a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. The game represents a great change of pace, and the world- and culture-building is inspired on a nigh-unprecedented level. This book is definitely worth 5 stars + seal of approval, and is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.

You can get this great setting/game here on OBS!

Want print + cards? You can find the bundle here!

Endzeitgeist out.


Spheres of Might (PFRPG/SFRPG)

Spheres of Might (PFRPG/SFRPG)

This massive rules-book clocks in at 238 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page forewords, 1 page blank,1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 229 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was requested by my patreons.

All right, we begin this massive beast of a tome with a brief piece of introductory prose to get you into the proper mindset, before explaining the basics of the system: Each character gets a series of talents, called combat talents. The number of these is defined by the class, though a feat exists that nets you an additional one. A combat talent may also be spent to gain access to a combat sphere, gaining that sphere’s base abilities and providing access to the sphere-specific talents. If a character would gain a sphere they already possess, you instead choose a talent. Saving throws, if any, are based on DC 10 + ½ BAB of the attacker + the relevant key ability modifier, here called “practitioner modifier.” If a character uses a talent, but has no class feature that defines a practitioner modifier, you default to Wisdom. Multiclass characters may use the higher of the two modifiers of their practitioner modifiers – this is important, since it retains multiclassing viability sans requiring a feat tax. Combat training nets you bonus talents that usually, but certainly not always, mirror the BAB-progression: Full BAB is equal to “Expert”, ¾ BAB-progression to “Adept” and ½ BAB-progression is equal to “Proficient.” This codifies talent-advancement in a way that is independent from the classes and easy to reference, while also providing an elegant balancing tool. Furthermore, characters may choose to exchange feat-progressions they’d gain to instead purchase Proficient or Adept combat talent progression – this, fyi, maintains compatibility with Spheres of Power.

And that’s already the basis of the system! Nope, I am not kidding! It’s that simple and elegant.  That being said, there is more associated terminology that we need to define, some of which you’ll know from standard Pathfinder. It is a testament to the foresight exhibited by the authors that e.g. the Attack action as such is properly defined – something that regularly causes confusion on the various messageboards. This step is also important, since some combat talents and e.g. Vital Strike, both modifying an Attack action, can be applied to the same attack. This also properly mentions the interaction, or rather, lack thereof, with e.g. Cleave and similar Standard action-based attack forms. In short: Attack action =/= standard action. The definition here also makes clear that we can expect the book to reward flowing combat, i.e. fights that do not boil down to just trading full attacks and waiting who keels over first. “Special attack actions” should also be noted – they behave pretty much like attack actions, but only one per round may be executed. This is an important balancing caveat.

“Associated feats” denote feats whose effects can be duplicated by specific talents, which also means that the talents can act as prerequisite-substitutions for the associated feats. This is important once we get to the feat-groups that require a significant array of feats to qualify for and retains transparency in that regard without invalidating the feats themselves.

Now, the book does something really clever with action economy to combat the tendency to constantly just trade blows. The book takes a two-pronged approach here. The first would be the battered condition, which imposes a -2 penalty to CMD and also prevents you from executing AoOs. Furthermore, certain talents have different activation actions or effects versus battered targets. The condition may be removed simply enough – the Life sphere’s restore  does the trick, as do effects like lesser restoration…and here, things become interesting: You can get rid of it via taking the total defense action. This obviously costs you precious actions, but it makes sense – when we picture being subjected to a battering down, like e.g. in the original Star Wars trilogy or similar media, it makes sense that you have to collect yourself. The second approach here would be the introduction of the martial focus. Any character with a combat talent or a feat granting access, gets the martial focus after a minute of rest or after taking the total defense action. HOWEVER, you may never regain the focus more than once per round. You may expend this focus as part of making a Fort- or Ref-save to have the result rolled treated as 13, and, analogue to psionics, there is a VAST amount of options that is based on expenditure of the focus. Once more, we have an action economy game here, and one that ties into the battered condition: Since you regain the focus as part of the same condition-removing action, this encourages you to actually alternate between combat strategies. Additionally, the base ability use allows you to be more reliably competent versus things that you should be capable of evading.

This modification of basic combat strategies are absolutely amazing, but the book does not stop there, not by a long shot. We also get rules-clarifications for e.g. double-barreled weapons and e.g. improvised weapon damage by size. Similarly, unarmed damage now scales independent of class, which is a huge plus as far as I’m concerned. The number of talents the character has governs the damage inflicted.

Now, the book does not just leave you in the dark regarding actual expressions of martial arts in the game world. You do not have to read and digest the whole book to start using it: Instead, we begin with a massive chapter of martial traditions, some of which are gained as part of the proficiencies of a class. This codifies basically a talent array for you, not unlike e.g. combat styles of the ranger class. One could also see them as thematic suggestions and the book provides notes on designing your own martial traditions. This section, beyond codifying mini-talent-trees, can also be seen as a perfect guideline for your own tinkering. Want to have a shield master? Check the tradition. Steppe rider? Suitable talents noted. I love this.

Now, the book contains no less than 8 new classes. If I analyze these in the level of depth that I usually go for, then this review will become a bloated 30-plus-pages monstrosity, so I’ll be a bit briefer than usual. The first class would be the Armiger, who gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills, full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Ref-saves, proficient talent progression and may choose a mental attribute as practitioner modifier. This would also be a good time to note that classes here grant e.g. a martial tradition when taken at 1st level – this provides access, obviously, but also prevents multiclass-cheesing. The armiger is obviously inspired by games like the latest Final Fantasy, centering around the idea of customized weapons, each of which grants a sphere and talent – basically, you have combat modes hard-coded into the class, and no, you can’t cheese that with dual-wielding. Only one customized weapon grants its benefits at a given time – though TWFing with them, obviously, is still possible. The class also gains options to cycle through these special weapons, which also improve. The low general progression regarding talents is offset by the modes, making this an inspired class. I really, really adore it.

The blacksmith get d10 HD, 4 + Int skills,full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves as well as Expert martial progression, with Constitution as governing practitioner modifier. The blacksmith is obviously somewhat equipment-themed and can provide benefits to allies by finetuning their equipment, basically providing 24-hour buffs. They also are sunder/anti-construct specialists, gaining scaling bonus damage and later learning to damage natural armor/weapons. The class also has some serious crafting prowess going on and the class receives an array of smithing insights that can provide e.g. Gunsmithing, damage objects to hurt their wielders, etc. He can also learn to reforge items, which is pretty cool.

The commander gets d8 HD, 6 + Int skills per level, ¾ BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves and Adept martial progression, with Int or Cha as governing practitioner modifiers. Now, there are a couple of really good, commander-style classes out there. As far as favorites are concerned, Amora Game’s battle lord from Liber Influxus Communis, and, obviously, Dreamscarred Press’ Tactician come to mind. Where the former is a leader from the front, the latter is a coordinator defined by a psionic network and psionics. The commander is, chassis-wise, closer to the latter. The commander actually has next to no overlap with both: While tangible and potent benefits for allies are the bread and butter of these fellows, we also have terrain-specific tricks and logistics specialties – these provide really uncommon and intriguing benefits that focus on adventuring beyond combat. This class is fantastic. Love it to bits.

The conscript gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Ref-saves as well as Expert martial progression, governed by one of the mental attributes. This is basically the “build your own” SoM-class type class. From dual identity to banner to studied target, it allows you to customize options galore and also comes with sphere specializations, basically bloodline/domain-ish linear ability progressions that kick in at 3rd, 8th and 20th level. This is the class for the folks who want a certain skillset be viable sans requiring a ton of multiclassing shenanigans.

The scholar gets ½ BAB-progression, good Ref- and Will-saves, d6 HD, 8 + Int skills per level and proficient martial progression governed by Intelligence. Beyond being capable of providing some healing, we get flashbangs, DaVinci-style gliders, etc. – this is basically the Renaissance ideal of the universal scholar, embodied as a class. Super helpful, versatile, interesting – and perfectly capable of working in even no/low-magic games. That is not to say that this fellow is not viable in your regular fantasy setting though! I really love how the system allows you to play a really smart, versatile non-magical scholar. Another huge winner.

The sentinel gets d12 HD, full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves, 4 + Int skills per level, as well as expert martial progression, using Wisdom as governing practitioner modifier. The class, unsurprisingly, is the tank of the roster, and is an actually viable defensive base class. It is pretty technical in comparison, but comes out rather nicely. I am not a fan of the decision to be able to use Wisdom bonus instead of Dexterity to govern the one, at least pro forma, bad save of the class, but the capping of class level here prevents low level characters with universally good saves. Otherwise, the focus on challenges, ability to lock down targets etc, is nice., and stalwart, one of my least favorite abilities in all of Pathfinder (evasion for Fort AND Will) is relegated to 9th level. So yeah, I enjoy the class more than I figured I would!

The striker gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, good Fort- and Ref-saves, full BAB-progression as well as Expert martial progression governed by Constitution. The class is something of a monk-ish specialist, but that, at least in theory, sounds less interesting in the system, with monk-ish powers not more broadly available. Well, instead of just slapping several talents on the class, the striker takes a different approach: It is, in essence, a mana-bar martial. Let me explain: The striker has a resource called “tension” that increases upon taking damage, upon successfully hitting creatures, and upon moving a lot. This builds and may be expended to generate special effects, with the class gaining striker arts, which can provide unique effects or expand the ways in which you can spend the resource. And no, you can’t hoard it out of combat, and it doesn’t have a dumb per-combat mechanic. The playing experience here is really interesting and fun – but from all the classes, this is one that has the most expansion potential. Basically, you have a cool resource-management game in addition to the spheres-engine, making this a surprisingly strategic class to play.

Finally, there would be the technician, who receives d8 HD, 6 + Int mod skills per day, good Ref- and Will-saves, 3/4 BAB-progression as well as adept martial progression governed by Intelligence. This class takes up no less than 18 pages, and it is a BEAST. This is, in essence, the practical inventor to the scholar’s more theoretic approach; the sapper, the golemsmith, the pulp fantasy exploring inventor. It is the most complex class herein and the one that requires the most amount of system mastery, but it rewards you for allowing for an impressive amount of different concepts being realized even before you begin diving into the depths of the spheres system.

Now, the book also contains a ton of archetypes for your perusal: Alchemist, antipaladin, brawler, cavalier, fighter, gunslinger, hunter, investigator, magus, monk, paladin, ranger, ninja, rogue, samurai, slayer, swashbuckler, thaumaturge and even the vigilante get their due here, and that is before we take a look at the archetypes for the new classes, some of which made me smile from ear to ear. Battlefield armigers, for example, modify their chassis to instead make an improbable weapon, like an axe-bladed crossbow or the like. The iron chef blacksmith is a neat take on the battle cook, while the techsmith provides the means to poach in the technician’s playground, while doctor or slime savant scholars make for meaningful tweaks of the base engine of the class. Some of these tie in with the spheres system to a rather impressive degree, with e.g. the adamant guardian changing the focus of the sentinel from challenges to patrols, while another interacts with the berserker sphere. There also would be basically a true neutral paladin-ish variant here. Striker can opt for blackpowder or mutation specialties, and expert shadowed fists, scouts and grappling specialists are covered here as well. Technicians may elect for the mad scientist archetype (yes, you can make shrink rays…), and a suit pilot and basically a mythbuster can also be found here.

The whole classes/archetypes-chapter has been a huge surprise for me. You see, as much as I like Spheres of Power, I’m not the biggest fan of its classes. To me, they always felt like vessels to conduct the sphere-engine, not like truly distinct concepts that would make me go for them on virtue of their own engines. This book does not suffer from this limitation. I absolutely would love to play, in slightly varying degrees, all the classes introduced within this book. There are a TON of amazing concepts here and the engines presented for the classes are actually compelling and interesting BEFORE you start adding the sphere-engine! Furthermore, the classes herein allow you to do unique things that set them apart before diving into sphere-selection. That is a huge plus as far as I’m concerned. Add to that the fact that the classes actually manage to present compelling engines that reward versatile playstyles even before the main meat of the system is in place, and we have what must be called a resounding success.

Now, approximately 60 pages are devoted to the respective spheres. I cannot go into in-depth analysis regarding all of them here, but to give you an idea of the different spheres: Alchemy, athletics barrage, barroom, beastmastery, berserker, boxing, brute, dual wielding, duelist, equipment, fencing, gladiator, guardian,  lancer, open hand, scoundrel, scout, shield, sniper, trap, warleader and wrestling would be the spheres.  Alchemy nets you options to improve classic items, fused grenades, condition-healing, stimpacks, etc. Athletics sports concise rules for climbing around on big foes, wall run, etc. Barroom covers your improvised weaponry and drunken master tricks. Berserker, much like in the Fate/Stay-series, is about staying power and destroying stuff. Boxing features a nice counter-mechanic. Brute nets you Hulk-like stomps, topple foes, etc. and gets manhandle options to add further debuffs. The duelist sphere has a well-designed bind weapon-mechanic and can generate nasty bleeding. The equipment sphere sports the item-specific tricks. Now, I am not the biggest fan of the Fencing sphere’s Parry and Riposte, as it is based on an opposed attack roll, but its use of martial focus prevents the mechanic from bogging down gameplay.

Gladiators are specialists of boasting and demoralizing targets, the former allowing for actually tangible benefits. Guardian has two packages – challenge and patrol, the former of allows you to kite, while the latter lets you set up a defensive perimeter of sorts. I really enjoy this sphere. Lancer also is really cool, providing concise mechanics for the impalement of targets, making spear-wielders etc. more interesting and viable.  Open palm and scoundrel are pretty self-explanatory, while the scout sphere focuses on keen perception, taking abilities usually relegated to rangers and characters that fit the ranged specialist or detective trope and makes them more universally viable. The shield sphere allows you to spend AoOs to increase AC and makes the often maligned item class more viable. Huge plus there. The Sniper sphere is something I have NEVER seen before for Pathfinder: It is a BALANCED, yet potent option for the sharpshooter concept. Thanks to essentially bonus damage for single shots, trick shots and the like, it is actually very well made. It even has a viable, powerful, yet balanced variant on the headshot-concept. The trap and wrestling spheres and warleader spheres do what you’d expect them to. It should also be noted that some sphere nets you 5 ranks in an associated skill, with progressive levels providing further boosts at higher levels. Snipers can shoot into melee sans penalty, etc. – you get the idea. The chapter, as a whole, is inspired. I do not envy the designers that will work on e.g. expansions to impaling options, for example, as the engine is VERY concise and could break if handled without due care, but as a whole, this chapter must be, once more, considered to be a resounding success of epic proportions.

Now, this would be as well a place as any to comment a bit on the design paradigms employed and what they mean for you: Spheres of Might did not attempt to offset caster/martial disparity. This feat is only possible by making martials ridiculously powerful and allowing them to basically behave like casters. And if you do want full-blown responses for every eventuality, why not play a caster in the first place? I believe, firmly, that playing a caster and a martial character can and should be somewhat different playing experience. The central issue with martials lies in a plethora of design decisions of the core game. Low skills per level meant less out-of-combat usefulness, which hampers roleplaying. Spheres of Might addresses that and fixes it. More importantly, though, the system’s focus on iterative attacks makes single target damage seem like the end-all raison d’être for martials. There’s a reason so many threads focus on improving AC, damage output, accuracy, and the like. The issue at the root of a lot of player-frustration with regular martial characters does imho not lie in their potency, but rather in the playing experience itself. It simply isn’t that interesting to walk up to a foe, roll X standard attack rolls for as much damage as possible, rinse and repeat. GMs will need, in such cases, to focus on mobility of foes or start a numbers-race that isn’t fun for anyone. And yes, you can accumulate a variety of different options for martial characters, but it takes time, feat-investment, etc. In short, you’ll still be doing your specialized routine. Very well, granted, but the experience can still be somewhat stale. This issue can be further exacerbated by certain classes having what conceivably should be general notions, hardbaked into the chassis, making some martial classes always exceed others in their available options for certain ability-trees.

Spheres of Might changes that. In other terms, the central design paradigm employed here is one that focuses, with tremendous success, on breadth rather than depth. Instead of adding a fireball’s worth of bonus damage to your attack to make up for the “lost” full attack, the system focuses on giving you MORE options to choose from. Yes, damage-enhancers are a choice, but they are not your only recourse to contribute to a combat situation in a meaningful manner. You can buff. You can debuff. And the very core of the system already rewards variance, doing different things each round. Do you expend your focus and execute talent xyz? Or do you get rid of that battered condition first? Do you focus on damage, generate a set-up, debuff a foe? The system makes different attacks MATTER. They are no longer just vehicles to transport more or less static damage values. Playing a martial character suddenly involves strategy. Choices beyond making a certain build. This has a rather remarkable effect: Suddenly, low-magic games, ones with a more pulp-like aesthetic, perhaps even ones sans magic whatsoever, feel more interesting for the players. As an added benefit, this takes one of the toughest challenges a Pathfinder-GM faces off the shoulders of the GM. You are no longer solely in charge of making the battlefield dynamic, of making combats require more than “I hit as fast and hard as I can.”

This changes the playing experience all on its own and supports a rather impressive array of playstyles that are simply less rewarding without this system.

But what if you actually *do* want high fantasy, potentially perhaps more significant boons that those assumed by your average Pathfinder adventure? Well, that’s where the book thankfully takes a cue from Spheres of Power: The high-powered, truly potent and more fantastic options are found in their own chapter, codified as legendary talents, organized by sphere. Here, you can, for example, find double jumps à la Devil may Cry, leaving speedster-style afterimages,  the rules to make a philosopher’s stone via alchemy, execute Final Fantasy-style dragoon leaps, infinite ammo, generate a staircase of arrows/bolts, fire-breathe alcohol, instantly call animal allies to your side, rip open space and time, generate cyclone cut dual-wield effects, etc., generate vacuum with your strikes – you get the idea. Basically, this chapter includes the more over-the-top, fantastic options. The decision to distinctly set these apart if one of my favorite components in Spheres of Power, and I am glad it was retained here. So yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too. We also get a couple of new feats (and ones referenced, meaning you won’t have to skip books – kudos!) as well as an assortment of new traits and a ton of favored class options. These deserve special mention, for they seem to follow the design paradigm that class/race combos that are slightly less optimal should gain slightly better FCOs. I like that. The book also contains new drawbacks and sphere-specific drawbacks, which can further help customizing martial traditions and differentiate between schools. The equipment section includes some stuff that made my southern German heart swell – I know I need a battle stein! And yes, 10-foot-pole as codified as weapons. Never leave home without it! A few weapon mods and magic components can also be found here.

Now, the book does not leave the GM sitting alone in front of the book. Advice on running cinematic combat, martial monster tactics and talents and traditions – all concisely explained. The book also contains a massive bestiary (CR 1 – 21) of sample monsters modified to use the system and furthermore features an NPC-codex.

Oh, and that’s not all. The final chapter provides a surprisingly tight conversion appendix for Starfinder, which is a definite plus. At the same time, applying the concise conversion notes will take time. Furthermore, while Starfinder is similar to Pathfinder, it is still its own beast, and frankly, I found myself wishing we’d get a full-blown version of the book dedicated exclusively to Starfinder. The conversion guidelines are better than I anticipated, but ultimately, they represent a graft for a system for which this wasn’t necessarily intended.

Editing and formatting, while not perfect, are pretty damn close. The proof-readers did a very good job here, particularly considering the massive crunch-density of this ginormous tome. Layout adheres to a solid two-column full-color standard and the interior artwork is significantly better than in any other Drop Dead Studios book I’ve read so far. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. I do not (YET!) own the print version, so I can’t comment on its merits or lack thereof.

The team of primary authors Adam Meyers, Andrew Stoeckle, Michael Sayre and N. Jolly, with contributions by Amber Underwood and Siobhan Bjorknas, have provided an impressive…
…ah, who am I kidding?? This is a frickin’ masterpiece, pure and simple! Yes, I am not a fan of every single design decision herein, but I adore A LOT about this book. As in 99.999% of it.

As in: O M G, this is amazing. Spheres of Might is a jack-of-all-trades in that it allows for a wide array of different character concepts, but more than that, it actually enhances the experience of playing non-casters by making them significantly more rewarding. The classes are more inspiring than the vast majority of stand-alone classes you can purchase. The very engine this champions enhance the game all on its own, and the design of these martial spheres deserves lavish praise. More than even spellcasting, this completely tweaks, redefines and imho improves a central aspect of the game we all know and love.

Spheres of Might is one of the most inspired, well-crafted books of crunch I have ever read. It is not only well-made, it truly inspired whole settings, while campaign-ideas. Every single aspect of this book, every chapter, sports some truly remarkable ideas and gems. This surpasses Spheres of Power, a book I absolutely love.

The final verdict, hence, should not surprise anyone: This is 5 stars, gets my seal of approval, and is a hot contender for the number one spot of my Top Ten of 2017. Furthermore, this tome represents such an impressive improvement regarding versatility and playing experience quality, that it receives my EZG Essentials-tag – this book should be on the shelf of any self-respecting pathfinder GM.

You can get this milestone, this masterpiece, here on OBS!

You can support Drop Dead Studios making more Spheres-content (for now, Spheres of Power, though!) here on patreon!

Endzeitgeist out.