Delve not into caverns nor dungeons, but the threatening darkness of the unknown with this newest supplement for the Pathfinder line. The theme of this work is an air of esoteric mysticism: mystery and secrecy dot a landscape where you can never be sure of your safety, or even the reality around you. Spellcasters may now be hidden among ordinary folk, practicing devilish rituals upon the minds of unsuspecting victims. The dead haunt and infest the living in their hopes for new power. Pathfinder: Occult Adventures forges a path away from the power fantasy you would expect from a high fantasy game: players are meant to feel unsafe and off balance, fitting with the horror theme. The feeling of uncertainty and mystery is reinforced throughout the book, keeping control out of the hands of the players.
The book itself is 271 pages with new classes, archetypes for existing classes, feats, spells, items, a look into the new realm of psychic magic, as well as advice and rules for running a game with themes of the occult. The pages are laid out beautifully, with easy-to-read text and borders covered in twisting sigils, subconsciously evoking images of dark, mysterious magic creeping into our familiar world. The pages are slightly darker than your usual RPG book, everything overhung with a vague shadow, continuing to enforce the theme. Well-crafted paintings illustrate a world of dim awe that awakens a fearful atmosphere and gets your GM in the right state of mind when crafting his or her adventure.
The new classes offered in this book are wonderful offerings that provide fantastic new options that fit perfectly into the dark world the book is attempting to craft. First up is the kineticist, a martial practitioner who uses his or her own body to channel the elements. This class feels right out of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but has enough flair to fit into the realm of the occult. For instance, these abilities most often manifest in times of violent or traumatic stress. At first level you choose an element (with additional elements chosen at later levels) that affects certain skill levels and abilities, but also adds differing elemental effects to all of your talents. Kineticists gain “wild talents,” which are similar to spells but are only available to this class. Keeping with the theme of sacrifice and pain, a kineticist may “burn” HP to power these talents at will. Wild talents vary not only by element, but type as well. There are options for attack, defense, and various ways to manipulate the battlefield. I love the fact they have a section devoted to utility talents, keeping the class versatile and opening up roleplay options.
Next up are mediums, who channel spirits through their own bodies, using their talents and knowledge in a kind of conditional possession. But beware, you must constantly battle the spirit for control or your body could be overtaken by this geist! Again, the theme of uncertain power comes through beautifully, helped by the dark implications of the classes’ abilities. Mediums have limited access to psychic spells, but their main feature is channeling. Each day a medium can channel a spirit of one of six types, ranging from archmage, champion, trickster and more depending on the skills suited to the task at hand. The medium must constantly monitor the Influence exerted by the spirit, which can be increased to gain more power throughout the day. A medium can also gain a taboo, limiting his or her behavior in accordance with the spirit’s desire, to decrease influence. The potential for great storytelling exists here with a class that is both thematic and thoroughly versatile.
Mesmerists bend minds to suit their whims, manipulating others through hypnotism, enchantment, and illusion. They begin with innate bonuses in bluff and feint, surrounded by a subtle psychic veil of deception. All of their abilities revolve around interpersonal manipulation, including reducing will saving throws, dazing opponents with hypnotic stares, and varying types of charms and spells. A fascinating feature available to mesmerists are their Tricks: hypnotic suggestions they can plant in willing (yes willing; the interpersonal party conflict could otherwise be devastating) participants to grant them extra boosts to their abilities. These tricks can help avoid damage, outwit foes, strengthen willpower, and many other valuable maneuvers on or off the battlefield. As you might suspect, the mesmerist is very much a support character. While the class provides limited combat utility, in the hands of a creative player this could be a subtle yet consistent force to aid the party’s goals.
Occultists are the closest to a frontline fighter, being the only class able to access the heavier armor and weapon proficiencies. This right here is your good old fashioned Dresden/Constantine archetype and I love it: a character mixing combat with psychic magic, though most of the power comes from implements. Occultists have access to items varying in different schools of magic that channel their abilities. These items of course correspond to the school, necromancy being channeled through a skull and divination through a crystal ball. The occultist is a well rounded class due to multiple avenues of power, but also very thematic. Occultists use magic circles, other-worldly contacts, and homemade implements in their quest to solve the mysteries of the unknown.
Psychics are the book’s dedicated caster class, mainly devoted to the new psychic spells. As Paizo’s first official foray into a psionic class, I am pleased to see the flavor they chose with its development. Many of the typical class features are there, but the tone feels less like an eastern meditative mind or mild sci-fi concept while including tropes at home in a fantasy setting. The power’s source feels darker and more mysterious than simple pursuit of self perfection. Psychic magic can be cast purely from the mind, without requiring normal components or even freedom of movement. Instead, psychic magic requires emotional or thought components, requiring the caster to be in the appropriate state of mind when summoning their energy. As for psychics themselves, they cast from a “Phrenic pool” of points that they can expend in greater or lesser quantities for certain abilities to augment their effectiveness. Most of the abilities are built around self manipulation, increasing the power of the caster. The psychics chosen discipline determines which ability score contributes to the phrenic pool, as well as which spells the psychic has access to. These disciplines, also highly thematic, center around where the power is derived from pain, faith, psychedelic drugs, et cetera.
Spiritualists seek truth by communing with the dead to find their answer. Each seeker begins play with a phantom, a bound spirit who can either hide in the spiritualist’s consciousness sharing knowledge, or manifest physically to aide in combat. The physical form can shift to suit varying needs, and the incorporeal benefits are not insubstantial as the phantom protects your willpower and buffs appropriate skill rolls. The class focuses around strengthening the bond between phantom and spiritualist, using it to empower both of their abilities. The phantom has its own skills and feats as well as limited ability to cast the spiritualists spells, making it the real combat utility of the class. Phantoms differ in type based on the emotion most prominent in the spirit’s death and gaining appropriate associated abilities. While the spiritualist appears at first glance to be virtually indistinguishable from the summoner class, and indeed shares many abilities, there are some key differences separating the two. Summoners increase their power through the summoning of multiple creatures beyond their eidolon, an ability spiritualists lack. Instead they continue to augment their connection to their phantom, gaining increased perceptive abilities such as being able to see invisible creatures.
Occult Adventures also includes numerous archetypes for these or existing classes. If the six classes in the book do not satisfy, existing ones can be modded to come into an occult setting to fit perfectly. Most other classes get at least one archetype, all of which are imaginative and mechanically relevant to an occult game. I find particular appreciation for the different approaches these archetypes allow for such an experience, often giving cultural diversity a chance to add flavor to your game. You can, for instance, play a Japanese-themed Kami Medium to give a different tone to the campaign.
Yes, blood kineticist is an option.
What follows are new feat and spell lists that are all heavily thematic and enable intriguing new options for gameplay. They are mainly intended for the new classes, but there are also options for existing ones to help fit them into the world of the occult. These spells and many of their implications are dark, painting a picture of a violent, disturbing world that should be limited to adult gamers. This is not a problem for me, as I prefer a game with darker tones, but I do want to stress the feeling this book provides of a world filled with murder, ritual sacrifice, and mental manipulation. On the plus side, while these spells are exciting and useful, they do not strike me as so inherently powerful as to make older options obsolete. I do not detect distinct power creep from this supplement, though I am sure some power gamer will soon prove me wrong.
The next two book sections consist of new rules and advice on running an occult game, aiding the GM in crafting an appropriately dark experience for the new world. New rules for possession, rituals, psychic duels, aura readings, and other relevant concepts come off concisely and simply enough to not be a hassle to add to your game. One could adopt or drop them at leisure but would be well advised to incorporate some of them and create a mechanically backed delve into the unknown. The Running section is a standard though well penned exploration of what you might already expect: mystery, violence, power at a cost. I would be happy to play or run any of the story seeds provided, which cover a wide range of the genre as well as adventure types. There are also advice on mindscapes, other planes, et cetera to help flesh out your game world.
While it happens in every section, these two most successfully do what I believe is the main function of any RPG book, filling the mind with ideas. While reading through I was bombarded with games I could run with these tools, challenges and mysteries for my players swelled in my mind. It is heartening to see Paizo maintaining its commitment to the simple mantra of making a game that is fun to play.
The book finishes off with a listing of items that is, in a word, awesome. They are every bit as dark, useful, and treacherous that occult items need to be to add flavor to a game instead of just adding power. Your GM can fill the world with violent, esoteric instruments to play on your expectations and keep you on your toes. That said, they are powerful enough to be relevant in other games and compete with existing items.
Only one of many items that alone could be the seed of an adventure and appropriately captures the atmosphere they are trying to achieve.
Occult Adventures is a wonderful way to get a new experience from the Pathfinder system. That makes its audience somewhat limited, as I admit someone unfamiliar with Pathfinder might be better sent towards the World of Darkness or Call of Cthulhu than try to learn the Pathfinder system specifically for an occult game. That said, someone who did so would not regret it; the themes of empowerment in Pathfinder have been pleasantly toned down in this book even as more options are given to the players. The new classes, items, and spell options are exciting without being game breaking, and I foresee great adventures coming out of this book.
So, an unequivocal recommendation, right? Well…Some might not consider this book complete. However high quality this book and its options are, notably absent are any new creatures or races to fit into the occult world. To be a complete adventure companion I would have liked the inclusion of, for instance, thematic enemies like Illithids or eldritch abominations. Where are they, you ask? Well, step right up, because those will be available in a separate Occult Bestiary supplement, available for preorder from Paizo Publishing! I understand it is common practice to separate player’s guides from bestiaries, and that on its own this book is enough to get you going for some great occult games. The fact remains that I can’t help but feel there is something missing here. This book, while thematic, beautiful, and filling my head to the brim with new ideas, does not contain everything I want to run such a game. Fans may expect this publishing style already, and maybe there will be enough content in the unreleased book to justify it, but that does not excuse what is not present in this book (or the fact that you need to buy two to get the full experience). That said, small issues do not eliminate the fact that this is a quality product you would be proud to have on your shelf. Good gaming and careful out there: you never know who you can trust these days…