Friday, October 26, 2012

Shadows Over Vathak: The Doom That Came to Ravenloft?

Fantasy Horror’s tough. In classic fantasy games you’ve got people with magic swords and fiery magic descending into underground lairs to kick monster ass. How do you actually scare a player besides threatening to take their stuff away? Shadows Over Vathak presents “A Campaign Setting Book of Lovecraftian Survival Horror.” If you’re doing fantasy and horror there will be inevitable comparisons to Ravenloft. Shadows Over Vathak invites that comparison- presenting elements like vampires, gothic attire, and pseudo-gypsies. But it wants to be darker than that- does it succeed?

I should note that while SoV is a Pathfinder product, I’m not a PF gamer- not really a d20 or 4e person either. So in my review I’m not looking at the system mechanics, feats, balance, add-ons, or rules. Instead I’m focusing on Shadows Over Vathak as a sourcebook and setting for playing a fantasy horror game. What does it offer? Is it interesting? Is it consistent?

Shadows Over Vathak is 258 pages in pdf form. The book uses the classic two-column layout with decent text design. The body text font’s a little small- but it never feels dense. It has several different fonts but the application is consistent and doesn’t go overboard. The pages have an elaborate grey-scale background which gets in the way in the corners from time to time. It looks cool and atmospheric, but also busy. I haven’t tried to print the pages so I’m not sure how that would impact. SoV is generally readable on PC screen and tablet. There’s original artwork throughout the book- some of it quite nice. The art’s uncredited in the book, but the publisher told me it ought to be listed as “Rick Hershey and Team Fat Goblin.” I’d be curious about some of the individual credits for the art here. The character art’s quite good and the monsters are especially disturbing as befits the genre. The writing’s solid, but there are some typos and clunky sentences throughout. Some of that’s rulespeak and some of that could be solved by editing for tightness. The book lacks an index, which is too bad, though the front one-page index should steer users.

The page and a half preliminary material for Shadows Over Vathak is titled “Never Explain Anything.” That’s an odd statement- but one the authors hold to in a couple of ways. SoV began as a 24 hour rpg challenge- combining Lovecraftian/Eldritch horror and Survival horror. The material apparently takes place in the same world as Steampunk Musha (which will apparently be coming out in PF form). That takes place on an isolated island on the world of Vathak, one apparently not riven by the same forces as the one described in the book. The basic premise is that the rapid expansion of an Empire caused the release of “Old Ones” who have corrupted the land. The problem I have here is that the book doesn’t do a great job of setting the context- when did this happen? how long ago are we talking? Some of the tone seems to suggest these events are recent, while others that it took place generations ago. What’s the speed of this threat? Even as you read further it isn’t clear. There’s a suggestion early on that this will be a survival horror setting, but it looks much more conventional. The Old Ones look more like Big Bad with corruption as its forte. These seem to be forces and creatures which have been operating for many, many generations, rather than a recent and critical event. I think that needs to be made clearer at the beginning along with a sense of what the players will actually be doing in the setting: typical adventuring or something else? Having that information before plunging into 100+ pages of character creation options would help put that material in context.

The first chapter covers the unique races/ethnicities of Vathak. SoV chooses not to capitalize the names of the different ‘races’- which I assume is a style guideline from Pathfinder. It took me a bit to get used to. The book presents six races- breaking down the basics, in about a page and then moving to practical matters. These include alternative racial traits, the race as different classes, and favored class options. I’d have liked a little more background on the groups- especially for the more marginal and evil tendering ones. How do those fit within a group? What might drive such people to become PC types? The six are:

Bhriota: A darker skinned, tribal group who practice ritual scarification. They worship the Old Ones. The race seems to lift from some of the more unpleasant aspects of Lovecraft- his association with dark or swarthy skinned folk with evil and bestial natures. That might be problematic for some groups. I would like to see some ideas on the challenges of playing a bhriota character against that type.
Cambion: In classic D&D, cambions are half-human/half-demon. Here they’re a race of people mutated by the taint of ancient evil. Physical deformity accepted as a sign of corruption. Cambions have a huge set of social disadvantages against them- essentially being seen by all races as monsters. I’d like to see some discussion of how that works in the context of an adventuring party.
Dhampir: Child of a vampire father and human mother (and not apparently the other way around ever). They have some disadvantages associated with that, but some of that can be bought off with alternative traits. These aim for more gothic horror than Lovecraftian.
Romni: The gypsy race of the Vathak setting. They have some negative social limitations, but nothing as severe as the cambion. Romni who interact with outsiders are seen as unclean for the rest of their lives- putting some real obstacles to plots in their way.
Svirfneblin: Sinister gnomes, depicted in the illustrations with a generally oriental appearance. They live deep underground close to the horrors invading the world.
Vindari: The most wide-spread and imperious of the human races. Their invasion seems to have triggered off the bad stuff--they are closest to the typical human of other fantasy games.

The book also has some notes on using the standard fantasy races- with a twist. Most dwarves, elves, gnomes, and haflings, have been exterminated or enslaved- usually by the Vindari. It adds another layer of complexity to the question: how can these characters get along without killing each other?

As with any sourcebook of this kind, soV offers some new classes:
Apostle: Lawful good servants of The One True God. Looks like a compromise between cleric and paladin.
Blade Slinger: Speedy throwing experts.
Eldritch Conjuror: Spell user messing with the dark arts and slowly being corrupted and driven insane by them. Yet another way to make your party divisive. Some interesting NPC ideas here, moreso than PC. I like that they get “Idols” to worship and invoke.
Rifleer: A gunslinger, but with a rifle.
Sword Dancer: Speedy sword experts.

The section which follows looks at all of the standard classes as well as the new ones presented. It talks about how those fit within the setting. It also offers a new archetype for each on, with various mechanical differences and additions. Some of these sound pretty cool- and there’s a useful amount of non-system discussion here. The game throws a lot of scattered ideas, requiring the reader to assemble their own sense of the world. If you’re looking to adapt the material, that presents something of an obstacle. New feats, equipment, weapons, armor, wondrous items, and spells follow. This mechanical and character material takes up roughly the first half of the book- up through page 135.

SoV next moves on to present the lands of Vathak- following the conventional gazetteer approach. It begins with a page on the days of the week and some holidays, and then launches into a few pages on each of the lands of the continent. Each land begins with a brief history, again with no specific dates or sense of when these histories occurred. Is this generations ago or yesterday? There are some scattered date references in the other material of the section, but confuses the set up. The nation entry has two major parts. First it goes through all of the cities- with mechanical and demographic notes, followed by a paragraph or two of background. Then it offers a paragraph or two about the land in general and the important locations within it (like forests or rivers). Each region has a set of regional traits, offering benefits for having come from there. There’s also a smallish map and usually a sidebar with a unique trait for the land. The material here focuses on volume over depth- going through the six lands in about thirty pages. That sets up the sandbox, but makes it hard to see the whole of the setting.

Next, fourteen pages present the religions of Vathak. This breaks significantly from most classic fantasy rpg backgrounds. On the one hand, you have the Church of the One True God. That’s a wealthy, rigid, and organized group with influence across the continent. It has sub-orders and divisions, but for the most part looks like the classic pre-Reformation Catholic Church. They have inquisitors, of course, and present an interesting contradiction. Most players I know dislike large-scale authority, but the alternative in this case is even less palatable: the cults of the Old Ones. Several gods and cults are presented, ranging from Chaotic neutral or Chaotic Evil. Those who follow these paths are insane- the classic bad guys from a CoC campaign. This offers some interesting and relatively well-drawn ideas for opposition in a Vathak campaign.

One of the most potentially interesting sections follows, where the authors lay out how to actually GM a horror fantasy campaign. They begin by setting out themes- elements to put into play and particular genres. In each case, I wanted a little more discussion- especially some analysis, hooks, suggestions for how to make these abstract suggestions work in this setting. From that brief discussion of horror, it suggests typical fantasy adventure themes (trade, disaster, journey) and provides a decent random adventure generator. This actually takes up several pages, building up the starting plot and then randomizing parts for the acts of the story.

From the general GMing discussion, the book moves to some system tools the GM can use to manipulate the players and story. Trust is introduced as a concept- with the players gaining and losing reputation and acceptance. Thankfully the mechanics are fairly loose for that. Next, as to be expected in a game of Lovecraftian horror, there’s a discussion of fear and insanity. The latter works pretty much like Call of Cthulhu, with PCs having sanity points and losing them for encountering the weird. It doesn’t do a great job of considering the players’ backgrounds or even the fact that adventurers might have a higher resistance to such shocks. There’s mention of treatment in asylums- a concept that would have been worth exploring. What do those look like in a fantasy world? What do they look like in Vathak? Is there a different stigma attached to madness given the presence and influence of the Old Ones? Sanity can also be lost through forbidden tomes, like the handful presented in the text. Seven pages cover weather and five cover diseases- two natural phenomenon useful to creating a sense of dread. The section finishes up with six pages on creating villages- this feels incomplete, as if they had a bigger section and cut it down.

The book finishes up with a large section on monsters and encounters (pages 216-253). After talking about common creatures and how they might appear in the setting, SoV launches into some super-creepy stuff. The seventeen monsters offered here look particularly unnatural- with evocative illustrations for each one. There’s a weird mismatch here though. Some of them are classic corrupt and icky beasts. Others are clearly pastiches and adaptations of Cthulhoid creatures- essentially Mythos beasts with the serial numbers filed off. But then the book also includes the explicitly Lovecraftian Mi-Go. Why would you do that? If you’re going to include one direct Mythos beastie, why not include all of them? Why not have Old Ones and cults refer to Nyarlethotep and Yog-Sothoth? Or you could tell the GM that’s what’s going on, but conceal it from the players. Regardless I now know what it takes to craft a Mi-Go Brain Cylinder (Craft Wondrous Item, gentle repose, magic jar, 7 ranks in Heal; and 2,500 gp).

I’m of two minds about Shadows Over Vathak. On the one hand, I enjoyed reading it. It has some clunky bits and I skipped through a lot of the mechanics. But the cool details, interesting ideas, and useful material kept me moving along. I like the Ravenloft-done-darker vibe from it. Some of the ideas for archetypes and groups were especially rich and could be lifted out for other games. On the other hand, I’m not sure the book as a whole holds together. It wants to be Lovecraftian, but doesn’t go all the way. It would like to be a useful for running fantasy horror, but the actual discussion of what that means- and how that fits in a dungeon-crawling world- only takes up a couple of pages. There’s clearly an attempt to keep the history open- lacking dates- but I think you need to have some better context. At the very least, talk about the implications of setting the coming of the Old Ones ten years ago versus a century. It may be that’s not the intent of the authors- they may have a specific sense of the chronology. If so, then they need to go back and make that more explicit for the readers. I’d like to see more about what a Vathak campaign looks like- some advice and guidance on kinds of arcs. More importantly, how should you deal with a party likely be at each other’s throats given the class and race choices. There’s a lot of untapped potential here- ideas thrown out without connection or rich development.

BUT again, that’s coming from someone who wouldn’t use this for Pathfinder. So any judgment I’m making has to be taken in that context. It may well be that the PF mechanics and ideas turn the supplement up to 11- I’ll be curious to read a review by someone coming from that direction. I also have to say that the phrase “survival horror” has a pretty distinct meaning to me- implying post-apocalypse or death world scenarios- civilization has collapsed or been driven to the brink. Obviously zombie games fit into this. Shadows Over Vathak doesn’t feel like survival horror.

I spoke recent to someone who ported their Pathfinder game over to Strands of Fate. Nick said that had been pretty easy for them. I suspect if I were to run SoV I would use something like that. I would keep the nature of the game somewhat away from the players. The names of the Old Ones presented would be a cover- each would actually be one of the Mythos Gods and discovering that would be a meta-game moment for the players. I’d also probably emphasize the survival horror elements. Either the coming of the Old Ones would be more recent or something would be happening now that suggests there’s about to be an apocalypse.

Note: I received a free copy of this product from the publisher.


  1. Ok, this looks cool and right up my alley.

    I am picking up a copy.

    1. I should also mention that the [i]Shadows Over Vathak[/i] pdf is at a discount over at RPGNow until the end of October ('12). If you're at all intrigued, they have it for a great price.

  2. Using "Romni" in a game anywhere surrounding this election year is a sure way to break the horror vibe and cause chuckles every time it is mentioned. I know for certain we could not take that seriously at my game table and there'd be constant jokes.

  3. The original core book for Iron Kingdoms has very similar problems. There is too much flavor text hidden within the rules. I think for less experienced gamers, this can be good. It sneaks everything into the book and fills their subconscious whilst they read about leveling up.

    SoV does sound interesting, if a little clunky in the reading. I agree with your statement on survival horror, in that by way of your review, I see nothing that is survival horror. Was there nothing in the book about being on the run (ala 1980s tv genre) from the Old Ones and trying to stop them? Or maybe an area of the world where they had already come through the "gates" and were expanding from? They need something that makes the players scream, "WE'RE GONNA DIE! WE'RE GONNA DIE! Oh, crap, we're dead."

    Still, it sounds like a good effort that needs a GMs guide to clean it up.

    1. i think part of my disaapointment is that I can see the potnetial here. They strike off in a direction which could be cool but then the don't actually go very far. The set up many promises- interesting ones- but don't fulfil them. There's sketches of those in the section on GMing, the nation bits, the random adventure generator, and the old ones. But all of those could have been done with more attention. And the basic flaw in clarity- in setting up the material- is an editorial problem which could have been addressed.