Occult Adventures

Speaking of class design.

I knew I was going to get Occult Adventures as soon as Paizo announced it. I figured it wouldn’t be the same as the amazing Heroes of Horror, but I’d hoped it would be in the same wheelhouse, and I wasn’t disappointed. I have a soft spot for things just outside the known, close enough for us to us to have theories about what’s happening but where the resolution is usually a shrug and an “it’s just weird.” I like it even more in D&D, where everything’s supposed to follow the same understandable, easily-manipulated ruleset. When something happens that can’t be definitively explained by a spell or class feature it’s just unsettling enough to keep players on their toes.

Occult Adventures is a book about things that are “weird” by the standards of the setting. It’s about people who summon phantoms (which aren’t quite ghosts), people who channel energy from items (which aren’t quite magical), and people who manipulate energy (in ways that aren’t quite spells). It’s about magic that looks like known spells but doesn’t work in exactly the same way, to the point where it looks like cheating to the uninitiated. It’s about using energies that have always existed but never been leveraged before, conducting pitched battles that only exist in the combatants’ minds, and tweaking yourself and the world around you until it’s all vaguely, almost imperceptibly unsettling.

This is a book of three parts: character options, occult campaigns, and new magic (pithily: people, places, and things), and not in equal measure. The new classes and class options take 122 pages of a 270-page book. If you count the incredibly meh feats section the “people” part of the book is 130 pages. Psychic magic accounts for another 74 pages. The rest of the book is about the weirdness you can accomplish now that there are rules for it and how a DM is expected to bring it all together. Unlike Heroes of Horror OA is definitely more a book for players than DMs, but not really to its detriment.

First and foremost OA is a book about classes, and those classes are really neat. Of the six new classes I could see myself playing five of them and I really want to play four, which is about the highest praise I can give a class. Even the kineticist, which the Paizo faithful have already rejected as an uninteresting, underpowered waste of space, solves a specific problem I’ve had with D&D for close to ten years, so I’m pretty pleased all around. Occult classes are a bit light on healing so a fully-occult campaign might need to double up on cures, but I don’t see any other major problems with the classes except that a number of them are really, really hard to understand from a first read. I have a bit of an issue with themes of the classes as a whole but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The archetypes for the new classes are equally interesting. Many of them expand the classes in meaningful ways, granting new powers instead of just stealing features from other classes. The archetypes for existing classes…less so. There is some new ground, like the magus who can pull weapons out of his brain, but there’s a lot more of the feature-swapping changes. That’s great if you’re interested in the specific swaps the designers wanted, but I usually only get excited about them if they fit the character concept I already had half-built. None of them strike me as a must-have.

Spells are spells. There’s only so much I can say about them: some are neat, some aren’t, some seem balanced, some don’t, and so forth. The only major things in the magic chapters are psychic spells and undercasting. It’s possible that psychic spellcasting is more powerful than normal casting because all psychic spells are stilled and silent and casting them doesn’t have arcane spell failure. But it may be less powerful because the thought components make spells devastatingly easy to interrupt and emotion components give a large number of creatures effects that shut down psychic casters. Maybe they balance each other out. I’d have to see them at the table. Until then I can only really say it seems thematically distinct. Undercasting, however, I love. I may make it more of a thing.

Pathfinder books tend to have some sort of “and then some other stuff” chapter. OA is no exception. Chapter 5 has information on new skill uses (weird—I’m not sure how I feel about some classes being allow to use several skills better than other classes because they were published in a later book), auras (pretty neat), chakras (ugh, so much text accomplishing so little), psychic duels (great idea for story, terrible idea for gameplay), possession (because this seemed like a good place to explain the designer’s intentions on it, why not), and rituals (actually pretty neat, as long as you’re in an occult setting). Haphazard chapters like this always make me wonder what could have made it into the book if space was not an issue. If we hadn’t spent two pages on explaining possession, would we have a small section on a psychic afterlife, or a psychic version of the adept for NPC dabblers?

The last chapter of relevance is the one that covers DMing occult campaigns. Weirdly for a book so focused on players, I think this is my favorite chapter. The rest of the book is incredibly rules-dense, narratively and numerically complex (often unnecessarily so), and frequently outside the comfort zone of normal d20 because it can be. This chapter ties it all together, explaining how to present the occult not as a violation of the rules and setting but as a facet of it that’s only as unsettling as you need it to be. It’s the “why” of occult rules, the sort of thing most books put in the introduction that for some reason didn’t make it into this book until nearly the end.

In a nostalgic reminder of the 3.5E Complete Whatever series, the chapter on items isn’t substantive enough to merit discussion.

All told, I like Occult Adventures but I feel like I shouldn’t. I suppose I like the classes and DMing section more than I dislike the archetypes for pre-existing classes or the potpourri rules or the feats section (who, exactly, was really hoping for a way to modify the shape of their skull through ritual binding?). It’s certainly not 3.5E psionics, and I’m of the majority who feel that’s a good thing. There’s certainly stuff in it I want to use as soon as reasonable, and there’s almost enough material to run a full occult campaign.

But that full occult campaign is almost mandatory. There’s a theme throughout the book of persistent otherness, like the occult world is adjacent to but separate from standard Pathfinder, and I don’t like that. I don’t want a single player’s class throwing a ton of new rules, spells, world-building, plots, and theme into a campaign that wouldn’t benefit from it, but that seems to be an understood result of using anything from the book. So unless I can commit fully to an occult campaign, I’ll end up doing what I usually do: strip all the flavor away from the things I like and use just the mechanics as a skeleton to run what I really want. It’s almost gotten to the point where I’d purchase a flavor-free version of most books just to take up less room on my shelf.

So I guess I recommend Occult Adventures if you really like an occult feel, or if you’re good at reskinning, and I happen to be both. Otherwise the new mechanics aren’t worth the baggage.

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