Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Magical Theorems and Dark Pacts

Dyson Logos might be one of the coolest names I've ever heard. I don't know if it's the author's pen name or his real name - but either way, it's still pretty awesome.

Alright, on with the review. This time around the Traveling Spellbook is looking at Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts, published by Zero/Barrier Productions and written by Dyson Logos. This is a big book that clocks in at 157 pages filled to the brim with all kinds of magical goodness packed into five chapters. 

The first thing that struck me about MT&DP is the fact that there is no art. None. But its a bit deeper than that. The content of this book is so well written, well laid out, and engaging that its not until after I read it for the first time and began to go through it for a second time that I noticed the lack of art. Logos's work is so engrossing that I'll make the bold claim that it doesn't need art. In fact, given that Logos does fine art in his own right, I wonder if it was a conscious choice. The lack of art evokes the aesthetic of being a physical tome, a traveling spellbook if you will. It subconciously draws the reader into the text of the document. It's subtle and powerful and very well done. Or I could be completely off base, and Logos just didn't feel like doing art or hiring an artist - but I doubt that very much.

Chapter One: Spellcasting Classes presents ten new classes who rely in a large degree on magic or divine spells in their adventures. Logos begins by offering his own presentations on the traditional Magic-user, Elf and Cleric classes. For the most part these classes are very, very similar to what is presented in the Labyrinth Lord core rules, with the most changes being present in the Wizard (Logos's version of the Magic-user). Logos offers Wizards access to 10th level spells. Now, at first I had a knee-jerk reaction of "No! This is going to be broken!" But, I was wrong. What Logos has done with 10th level spells is place some truly campaign changing spells and put them in the catagory of 10th level. This includes iconic spells like Wish, Gate, & Time Stop along with a few others. By breaking the mold and making these 10th level spells, Logos gives the subtle nod to the fact that these spells are god-like in power and should be treated as such.

The Elf is renamed the Elven Swordmage. Other than the change in name, this class functions exactly as the Elf in the Labyrinth Lord core rules.

Then we come to the last MT&DP "reskin," the Cleric. Logos's clerics function almost exactly as those presented in the Labyrinth Lord core rules except for their turn undead ability which has been changed up a bit. While the ability itself as written by Logos isn't as powerful as it was presented in the LL core when one looks at the straight numbers, clerics have the potential to destroy an undead creature that has been turned when they reach certain levels. So it's not just a simple matter of potentially turned, always turned, or destroyed. When clerics face certain undead they might be turned, destroyed or neither depending on the compared level of power of the undead foe and the cleric. It's an extra rule and it might not suit everyone who wants to keep their old school games pretty streamlined, but I like it. If not, the rule can easily be ignored or the referee can just use the original rules for a cleric.

Logos offers seven new spellcasting classes, each of them both simple and still with a unique twist. He's truly embraced the philosophy of Labyrinth Lord being a framework and it shows.

First up is the Elven Warder, who is an elf with strong ties to nature. Combining limited spellcasting with some nature-based stealth abilities. They are permited the use of all weapons and armor, but many of their abilities are hampered when wearing armor - which offers a flexibility to the class. If necessary they can suit up and move to the front lines, but the class is clearly at home when operating in the wilderness and in the capacity as a scout or ranger-type role.

Enchanters fall somewhere between a bard and an illusionist. They have a broader selection of weapons than their wizard cousins, but are still prohibited from wearing armor. In addition to a collection of spells that focuses on trickery, deception and charm, they also have the natural ability to craft an art object that can inspire powerful emotions in those who look upon it. In my opinion this is definitely a social class, which might seem at odds with the old school stereotype of constant dungeon crawling - but I think the freedom of OSR gaming can actually facilitate easier role-playing if the referee allows it and thus makes the Enchanter an asset to most adventuring companies.

Next we have Fleshcrafters, who practice a kind of unnatural form of transmutation magic that is unnatural and reviled by most civilized societies. They have a spell list that is more limited than wizards or clerics, but they do not need to memorize their spells ahead of time - as they draw upon a kind of unnatural application of magic transmited through touch. While this is an interesting and creepy class, I noticed that Logos has omitted any text in the class description regarding weapon and armor restriction for the Fleshcrafter. Given their limited spell choice and limited method of application of said spells, I presume that they are able to wield all weapons and armor - but his is a nebulous area, and something I believe was an unintentional omission on the part of the author.

If the Fleshcrafter corrupts the body, then the Healer restores it. Written as a kind of folk witch or commoner midwife, the Healer does exactly what it says: Keeps you alive. But the subtle tone of the descriptive text and abilities gives them a distinct feel and could make for a lot of good role-playing opportunities. Personally, I got a kind of "Miracle Max" vibe off of them, and that's a good thing. Also, I can't imagine any adventuring party that would turn down the company of a class the specializes in keeping you alive even more than a Cleric.

Speaking of holy magic, now we come to the Inquisitor - which was not what I expected. I was expecting a sort of paladin variant focused on demon slaying. What I got was a truely historic inquisitor. These militant evangelists have fewer spells and less weapon and armor options than their clerical counter parts, but instead they have a unique and powerful ability called Authority. It functions similar to Turn Undead, but can actually be used to command living beings through sheer force of will - or even dominate them into submission. While this ability could easily be abused by aggressive players, the other restrictions on the class and the fact that its a non-magical ability left me feeling like it was fairly balanced or even less powerful over all, when compared to the cleric.

The Merchant Prince is by far my favorite class in this supplement. A kind of swashbuckling or noble businessman who dabbles in magic, they have a small collection of spells as well as an ample selection of weapons and armor that combine with special abilities to reflect business acumen and financial savvy to create a kind of jack-of-all-trades. I love, love, love this class.

What would a book on magic be with out a Necromancer, right? Logos's version is simple, quick and it works. With a restricted spell list, a rate of progression that's almost as good as a Wizard, and the innate ability to limit nearby undead from being turned or destroyed, the author has managed to create a tightly packaged class that still brims with just enough evil.

But more evil still than the Necromancer is the Pact-Bound - Spellcasters who made a deal with a great and evil entity to gain arcane power. Though they are equal in power, diversity and proficiency of magic as any wizard, as the Pact-Bound increases in experience level they become more and more hideous and unnatural,. After long enough, they eventually appear to be completely inhuman - marked forever by the vile trade they made in a mad power grab. 

By contrast the Theurge is a kind of divine wizard if you will. reciting liturgical prayers and hymns in a manner similar to a wizard's arcane incantations. They have unique combination of utility and healing spells as well as a few more surprising spells - like lightning bolt and magic sword that make them a well-rounded class that could easily serve as a combined magic-user and cleric for a small band of heroes.

Finally, we have the Unseen. They are a thief/magic-user hybrid with a few unique special abilities. They're not as skilled at theivery as thievies and nor are they as adept with the arcane as magic-users, but creative players who combine the options presented in this class with find that they can hold their own against things offered by any dungeon. At first read this class even seemed a bit too powerful, but given that their spells are almost all utilitarian in nature and that they have a d4 hit die, they might work. I'd have to see one in play to be certain one way or another.

Chapter Two of Magicial Theorems and Dark Pacts features new spells as well as reprints of spells originally found in the Labyrinth Lord core rules. While some might regard this as filler, I think it's a matter of convience. Having everything in one place for your class and its spells is always a good thing in my opinion. Now, with so many new classes that deal wtih the arcane, it was necessary for Logos to devise new spells to help evoke the feel of each of these classes. For the most part the spells read in a balanced fashion, but a few do stick out. 

Bad Luck seems a bit overpowered, even if it is restricted to the new Unseen. Forcing a target to re-roll their saving throw after a success and take the second roll if its worse thriteen times before the spell effect ends is a bit much, even if the target does get an intital save to avoid the effect entirely. That spell sticks out in my mind because it's really the only one that felt really out of joint. Several other new spells like Daggers of Nur seem balanced, flavorful and a lot of fun.

Chapter Three: Magic Items & Mystic Charms is more than just a listing of new trinkets for your game. Logos takes time to go into why magic items are important and how the referee should take the time to make them as flavorful and unique as possible. I couldn't agree with him more and am really glad to see him addressing this.

The magic items themselves are absolutely fantastic. They're flavorful and evocative and can easily be dropped into an existing game very, very easily. Logos also introduces the concept of Mystic Charms. These are trinkets with very minor magical benefits when used in specific situations - usually for protective purposes. There's even a rule about having too many and this making them difficult to retrieve. I couldn't help but think of the scene from the film The Mummy where the weasley guy is hold up a bunch of holy symbols at the mummy and it takes a few minutes for the mummy to recognize one. Mystic Charms could definitely be useful, if not overdone.

Chapter Four: Creatures and Elementals could have been used to pad the page count on this book by throwing a whole plethora of new monsters at us, but Logos keeps it clean and quick. Instead of stating whole new elementals, he gives quick one or two line modifications to existing elemntals to make them into the new subtypes offered in the book. This coupled with two half-page monster listings is really a nice way to do it in my opinion. What easily could have bloated this book into a 250 page monster was done in an honest way that keeps page count and price down.

Chapter Five: Magical Theorems & the AEC addresses how to use MT&DP with the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, but I get the impression that the author has the point of view of "it's not my first choice of how to do things, but it's your game." A quick page offering hit die upgrades for those of you who are into that kind of thing and how multi-classing works with the new classes is all you get - but to be fair it's probably all you need.

So, my final thoughts on Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts? It's $9.99 for the PDF on, and I'm really reluctant to spend more than $5 on a digital product. That being said, there's a lot of good stuff in here. So much so that I'll probably end up picking up a physical copy. Logos's Lulu page offers the hard cover for $35 and the softback for ten dollars less. 

I'd definitely recommend the PDF. If you like what you see, decide whether or not its worth plunking down $30-$40 (after shipping) for the book itself. What's nice is that with books that featrue new classes you can easily buy the PDF, print out the pages pertaining to your specific class and go from there. 

There's a lot of useful material in here, but I'd be reluctant as a referee to just throw it all in there and see how it jives in a single campaign. Instead, I'd probably allow bits and pieces as suits an individual campaign or use some of the variants for NPCs so they have a few new tricks up their sleeves when pesky adventurers come to bother them.

1 comment:

  1. Great review.

    I spent some quality time with MT&DP myself recently and I love how it can really be seamlessly added to any "Basic Era" game. I have been using it in my OSR mashup game with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and my own Witch book.

    It is really a fun book.