Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Player’s Companion Review: Champions of Corruption

Paizo’s September 2014 Player’s Companion
 release is Champions of Corruption.  The final book in the Champions of series, this guide is focused on helping players develop evil characters and ground them in the evil organizations that plague the Inner Sea.  From the beginning, you can see that the designers took this task seriously.  On the front cover, Seltyiel is killing a unicorn.  I kind of like that the unicorn doesn’t look all that good though.  It would be a lot harder to see Seltyiel killing something that looks super sweet.  Rather, it’s milky white eyes make you think that perhaps the unicorn is the corrupt one and the iconic is trying to defend himself.  In fact, throughout the entirety of the book, the art makes it clear that these are not characters to trifle with.

Gods & (Summoned) Monsters
The guide’s inside covers feature familiar material to other readers of the Champions of series.  On the front inside cover we have a chart detailing the evil gods.  This could actually be really helpful during character creation.  I think I may pull out the ones from Champions of Righteousness & Champions of Balance next time the party has to make characters.  I’m hoping this will be helpful both for world immersion and for reminding them that it would not hurt to have an actual healer in the party.  Much like the previous two Champions of books, this one closes with a feat improving the character’s ability to summon evil monsters.  Like the other two, when a character with this feat summons a creature off the evil monster list, the summoning takes only a standard action.

Moral Uncertainty
Normally the “For Your Character” and “Rules Index” two pages seem like waste to me that could be much better filled with world-building or crunch product.  Here Paizo has introduced ideas that are interesting about how they frame evil—certainly ambiguous.  They’ve included a “Did You Know” box about Hermea and the inherent disagreements about how to characterize Mengkare’s alignment.  Newsflash: Paizo staff can’t even agree as to whether or not Mengkare’s experiment is interesting to him or actually among the most diabolical things happening in the Inner Sea region.  Adopting this viewpoint makes sure that any game taking place in Hermea is that much more interesting by giving us a rationale on how a character’s complex motives could make it evil or not in the eyes of some beholders.

Further Alignment Arguments – But Without the Flaming!
Next we are treated to some information about “Why Be Evil.”  This should be required reading with some actual interesting answers for any character that wants to play evil.  A lot of the tropes that are often picked up by chaotic neutral characters can be found here.  Motivations for evil characters should be well thought out.  I especially thought that terror made an interesting motivator.  The making evil fun call out box present some seriously important and well thought out things that any campaign including evil characters should consider.

Next Paizo takes us through philosophical underpinnings of the three illegal alignments. There are also call out boxes for each evil alignment (teamwork, alliances, and affinities for lawful, neutral, and chaotic evil, respectively) that discuss why an evil character might actually be interested in working with the party and putting up with group decision making as opposed to just killing everyone and taking the loot.  

Thoughts on alignment: MAD POINTS FOR RECOGNIZING THAT NEUTRAL EVIL IS ACTUALLY THE REALLY BAD ONE.  Chaotic evil always gets that wrap, and while it is evil, it’s chaotic nature also often makes it ineffective.  Good call on making the character philosophy for the psychopath neutral evil—it gives people an idea of just how horrible this alignment really is.  The horrifying mind magic trait complements this really well.

Noting that chaotic evil characters are probably the least likely to judge or even care about other characters’ alignments also makes them more compelling. I always have trouble really getting into the idea of a CE character or villain because I just see them as being irredeemably insane and therefore just dismiss them as options, but this has given me some things to think about.  A chaotic evil character with known poor impulse control would be really fun to try running.  Ideally, he’d have family or someone he’s obsessed with in the party.  He might go to any end to make sure that she gets the love and lovely treasure he believes she so richly deserves.

Evil in the Inner Sea
Next the guide contains an overview of how evil works as an organizational force in the Inner Sea.  I did not much care for the ‘Evil Planes’ call out box.  There are so many other options for ‘local’ places where evil is interesting and worth exploring that this is weak sauce.  Better to have given us something more in depth on something in the Inner Sea.  There are several options in the Other Dens of Evil section and I’d have liked to have seen one of them explored rather than just noting (somewhat repetitively) that there are riches to be gained on the evil planes. 

When we’re treated to an explanation of the evil organizations of the Inner Sea, it’s the same treatment.  Again there’s a call out box related to other organizations—would have been nicer to see something shorter here and more on one of the evil organizations that they covered.  Also, thanks for bringing back the Rushlight Society!  They add an interesting piece of spice to Magnimar and are easy to forget for some reason.[1]

Classes & Archetypes
                New Subdomains: Cannibalism, Corruption, and Greed have some neat abilities.  Greed’s ability allows the character to steal the effects of a spell being cast by another caster.  What it doesn’t do is allow you to know what that spell is.  It’s unclear whether or not you can use a spell craft check to learn what spell is being cast in conjunction with this ability.  I’d hope that’s the case, but it’s not totally clear.  Corruption’s ability to make people do evil acts or be sick is just downright devious!  I think in game that I’d want to flavor it as requiring the target of the spell to do something evil that’s in line with the deity granting the subdomain power’s portfolio.
                Dread Vanguard (Antipaladin): This generically evil anti-paladin trades his spell casting abilities for some pretty amazing evil area of effect considerations.  This anti-paladin also need not be beholden to a singular deity, but can be attached to a force—by taking his spells away and giving effects that are much more evil than they are of chaos, you actually have something slightly more akin to an eldritch knight.  But, the eldritch knight-lite hasn’t had to deal with the troubles of multiclassing.  Along with the vile leadership feat, this is another great option for creating a villain in a campaign.
                Alchemist Discoveries:
                         Pickled Quasit - The alchemist for the party I GM is currently working on reforming a goblin and Wart wreaks havoc all over the battlefield.  A quasit promises to be just as fun!
                         Plague Vector - Looks awesome, but also incredibly complicated.
                         Tainted infusion - Amazeballs.  This looks like too much fun.
                Raging Cannibal (Barbarian): Derives its power from violent cannibalism.  Highlight ability comes at 6th level when the barbarian gets a sort of modified power attack when using her bit.  She takes a -1 on her attack roll and adds 2 points of bleed damage.  Much like power attack, every 4 levels the attack penalty becomes one greater and the bleed damage goes up by 2 more.

                Damnation Feats: These are really cool!  First of all, I like how their bonuses and penalties both build off of each other.  I don’t love the magic feat, but the ones that create resistances and boost intimidate are nice.  Actually, the box text on page 25 expands the list of spells that should have the evil descriptor such that the maleficium feat looks a little more attractive. The one that masks alignment is a must for GMing for parties with paladins!  
                Betrayal Feats: These are the dark side of teamwork feats.  These feats let you do absolutely terrible things to your allies in an effort to get wildly awesome bonuses.  Archers can get rid of the penalty for shooting through an ally or into melee at the expense of possibly hitting their allies.  You can force people to switch places with you.  You can use your allies as shields to avoid damage.  You can even gain stupendously huge bonuses to your damage when flanking if you’re also willing to hit your flanking ally.  RAW, you and your ally must take this feat.  I get while that’s the case RAW, but I wouldn’t require it at home.[2]
                Non-magical item destruction feats: Page 23 treats us to a selection of four feats that all relate to breaking items and gaining effects (intimidation, area of effect shrapnel damage, improved improvised weapon).  These all seem like they’d be fun for a brawler or other martial class that has the ability to change out feats.  They also look fun for playing a barbarian or any martial character in a campaign where “real” weapons are hard to come by![3]

Traits & Drawbacks
                Foul brand (drawback) places an evil god’s holy symbol into your flesh.  It imposes penalties based on where on your body it’s located.  The trait won’t let the character use the brand as a holy symbol, which seems like a shame.  If you embrace your branded nature, might as well get something out of it.
                Punish insurrection (combat trait): Gives you +1 to attack and damage rolls against members of the same organization as you, so long as their standing in the organization is less than yours.  As a GM, I love this trait for a villain, especially if I have a PC that is a former member of an evil organization.  However, I think I’d also want to home break a response trait that would allow those who have left an organization and are now fighting against it to do the same thing.  That could be fun especially in a campaign that dealt with Hellknights or the Aspis Consortium.
                Umbral Unmasking (drawback) means you cast no shadow and it freaks people out.  Warded Against Nature (drawback) makes animals avoid you, which is another interesting effect.
     Wicked Leader (Social) trait: I’m going to use this book mostly for villains, so it won’t matter as much (because as the GM I can just let them have lackeys of any level I want).  If I had to play my villains as close to crunch though, this and Vile Leadership would be de rigeur.

                Shared Suffering: You take 1d6 / every odd caster level you possess (up to 5d6 at 9th level) by stabbing yourself with a knife cracking with necromantic energy.  You then target one creature within long range to take that damage plus your ability score bonus that attaches to your spell-casting class.  On balance I do not love this spell and at first I wondered where it would be useful at all.  The target does not get a saving throw (though spell resistance still applies).  So, I guess that it might be useful against an opponent with a high AC that the party’s having trouble finishing off.  That seems like something of an esoteric use, meaning that this is a far better choice for a spontaneous caster than it is for a prepared one.  Of course, being esoteric, would a sorcerer waste a spell slot on it?  Maybe it’s actually best for a hybrid class like the arcanist.
                Wracking Ray: If this hits, it’s going to cause some major problems for your target.  It does 1d4 Dexterity and Strength damage per 3 caster levels possessed (max 5d4).  But, it’s a 5th level spell, meaning that the minimum it’s ever going to do is 3d4 (7.5 average) damage to BOTH of an opponents scores—that’s going to seriously undermine an opponent’s attacks and dodging ability.  A Fortitude save halves (DC 18 minimum), but that can be tough for a monster with a weak fortitude save and you’re still going to get nice effects out of this even if the opponent does save.  This is worth adding to any spell list.

Magic Items
                Shadow Piercings: Neat Nidalese flavor and crunch.  The Guide gives instructions for creating new magic items that mix body piercings and shadow magic.  The piercings have to be placed in specific slots, but also allow another magic item in that slot to function as well.  Each shadow piercing has a minor, major, and greater form, which give increasingly better bonuses.  From a story perspective, I’m a little bummed that they don’t have any effects on characters for adding them (like cybernetics in the Technology Guide), but they might be less attractive for characters if they did.
                Amulet of Euphoric Healing: This thing is AWESOME!  The amulet’s user can imbue her healing spells with an addictive force.  Anyone healed by the user risks becoming addicted to the character’s healing magic and also takes a -2 penalty on Will saves against the caster.
                Collar of Unliving Servitude: A must for all necromancers.  The collar can be placed on an undead creature by a living creature, linking the one placing the collar and the undead creature.  From that point on, anytime the living creature takes negative energy damage, it’s transferred to the undead as healing.  The same is true for when the undead creature takes damage from positive energy.  Also, fun flavor—imagine these being involved in living-undead marriages in a place like Geb to really bring the two together!
                Ring of Plagues: Let’s just say that you do not want to be the person inflicting damage on the wearer of this ring.
                Sinner’s Wage: Amazing little tool for any enchanter.

                New rooms: Want a room filled with blood of virgins that can reverse the effects of aging?  Paizo has you covered.
                New poisons: Here we have poisons with some new and unexpected effects: slowing victims’ move speeds, impeding their concentration checks, and impeding their ability to sleep.  These are some effects that would drive PCs bonkers!

Wrap it up!
Champions of Corruption makes for a fantastic read.  The options presented here are incredibly powerful, some might even say too powerful.  Paizo’s staff has also done an excellent job incorporating the evil themes into Golarion.  This book is going to see a lot of use at my table.  But, it’s not going to see much use in the way of a Player’s Companion.  What I’d really like to see is more books like this in the Campaign Setting line.  This seems like a natural extension of Inner Sea Magic and Inner Sea Combat.  If this were in the Campaign Setting line, I’d give it four stars.  As a Player’s Guide, it still succeeds, but not quite as well as Champions of Purity or Champions of Balance.

3 stars.

[1] Maybe they are covered in greater depth in Shattered Star, which I haven’t read or played.
[2] These are the sorts of things that makes an evil character fun mechanically.  Yes, it will piss off your allies.  But, it’s totally within character.
[3] And those are real folks!  I’m a player in one right now!