The Book of Arcane Magic Print E-mail
Written by Ryan. Costello, Jr   
Friday, 11 December 2009 16:02

Publisher: 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming

The first sourcebook released by 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, the Pathfinder RPG third party publisher that will be releasing Strategists and Tacticians: The Definitive Guide to Clever Warfare. Hopefully with as little bias, this review can inform curious fans of the products they have to offer.

Expectations

My first exposure to The Book of Arcane Magic was an interview with Robert Thomson in an episode of Atomic Array. So I knew going into the book that it featured arcane academies, new bloodlines, and a whackload of spells. It being a new third party publisher’s first release, I did not know what to expect of the quality, but I could tell a lot of passion went into the book.

The fear when picking up a third party publication is that the book will feel unprofessional, unmitigated, even hackneyed, especially when the book’s authors are the publishers. When the only people that can say no are the people that would be hearing it, the product can suffer from a total lack of filtering.

At a Glance

The layout of the cover is great, with a distinct frame that fits the genre and a nice textured red with a hint of brown. However, I just do not like the artwork within the frame. The male fails to capture the feel of an elf or even a half-elf and just looks like a pointy-eared human, while the female suffers the clichés of comic book women, with huge breast, a pose that cannot be comfortable, and an outfit that defies gravity. Of all the spells that could be illustrated, both are casting spells that produce tiny colourful balls.

The interiors have two distinct flavours, which makes sense given two artists worked on them. Jason Ammons’ pieces have the right mix of shading, detail, and use of white space to pop in black and white. Most of his art is used for the chapter headers, setting the tone nicely. Kate Ashwin’s pieces do not work so well. Although there is obviously talent to the work, the emotions most of her art evoke feel inappropriate. For example, page 12’s Victim of Cold Feet looks like it belongs in a webcomic. There is nothing wrong with soft edges and bubbly features in the right context, but in this context it undermines the spell it is supposed to be evoking. Granted it is a 1st level spell, but the art should not make it feel like just a 1st level spell.

Outside the art, the layout is nice and clean, feeling neither cramped nor padded, The ringed border helps the visual dynamic, making it easy not to notice that there is very little art in the book.

Highlights

Not Just a Collection of Options

The Book of Arcane Magic is a fun read. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the lives of arcanists Marcus D’Lyn and Dissin Bi’Jou. These sprinkled paragraphs draw the reader into each chapter. We meet them discovering an ancient wizard’s secret spellbook, leading directly into the chapter on spells where the reader gets to discover the contents of that spellbook as the narrators do. By the end, the reader may even feel an attachment to these characters whose journey they followed. Definitely a clever writing devise to illustrate with words rather than the more expensive illustrations.

If the excerpts were followed up with drivel options, I could hardly recommend the book. Instead, the book introduces many clever and useful options. Of particular note is the talent the Thomsons have for naming options. The names of their spells walk the line of descriptive and derivative, giving a strong sense of the spell’s effect based on name alone without being simple names like “cone of lightning”.

Specific

The Book of Arcane Magic is not as similar to Wizards of the Coast’s Complete Arcane as one might assume. Whereas Complete Arcane’s function was to introduce relevant arcane options for any class, The Book of Arcane Magic narrows its focus. With a subtitle like A Sourcebook for Bards, Sorcerers, and Wizards you know this will be a good book for your wizard but useless for your ranger.

The reason this is a highlight is because The Book of Arcane Magic does not need to find something for every class. Instead of having to fill pages with options like arcane raging that serve no function to most classes and few barbarians will use, bard players, sorcerer players and wizard players can rightfully expect something of interest in almost every chapter of The Book of Arcane Magic. Space is left open for a variety of new familiars, extensive information on colleges of wizardy and bardic schools, and a lot of spells.

Foundational

Anyone could fill a spell chapter with evocation spells that pair areas of effect with energy types in ways the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook missed. It takes greater insight to spot gaps in the mechanical foundation of the game and fill them. Spells like transparency, which allows a sorcerer or wizard to look through solid objects, have multiple uses and give characters opportunities to adventure in new ways.

Furthermore, there are a lot of low level spells in The Book of Arcane Magic, including several cantrips. As these are the spell levels that characters have the earliest and most access to, there is more need for these levels than most sourcebooks cover. Every wizard that was ever rolled in Pathfinder or 3.5 D&D has had at least a few 1st level spells. Here are a few more to mix things up nicely.

Low Points

Sparse Filter

My fear of third party publications comes true, although barely. At least three quarters of the options in The Book of Arcane Magic are well written, clear, and actually quite clever. Of the remaining quarter, some suffer from minor clarity issues or spelling and grammar mistakes that an editor really should have caught even in one pass. So most of the book is fine. But not all of it.

Of the less severe problem, the voice and word order vary from Paizo published Pathfinder material. Whereas something like the charge of the valiant spell reads “Your spell allows a charging character to make a full attack at the end of his charge,” a Paizo spell would read more like “When the subject of the spell makes a charge, it can make a full attack.” Again, a minor complaint, but it takes away from the immersion when a verse feels intangibly off.

Of the more severe problem, there are balance issues. Again, there are only a few of these cases, but some are severe. Village Idiot, for example, is a bard 3, Sor/Wiz 4 spell that reduces are characters Wisdom to 3 with no save allowed. Effectively this can deny any cleric or druid their spells for the duration of the spell (rounds/level), and it reduces all targets’ Will saves. A mighty Pit Fiend would be a failed SR away from dropping 27 points of Wisdom, dropping its Will save from an 18 to a 5. That Pit Fiend would be left susceptible to domination, illusions, and other abilities that affect the mind. Such as the monstrous bloodline’s bloodline power Evil Eye, another option with questionable balance. Creatures that fail a Will save against a sorcerer’s gaze are dazed for three days. Dazed is the condition that denies a character all its actions. The Core Rulebook notes that most daze effects last a round. This is because a character without actions is effectively furniture. It feels like there is a typo in that spell as nothing else a 9th level character can do castrates a character for so long, even once per day.

Most of The Book of Arcane Magic is better balanced, but a responsible GM will want to review any option his players take from it just in case.

Fact-Focused

The Book of Arcane Magic constantly refers to specific examples and uses absolutes. The entire chapter on Colleges of Magic is backwards. It introduces eight colleges of magic (one for each school of magic) and three bardic schools (separating the bardic perform skills). The chapter names and outlines specific colleges and schools and then suggests in a sidebar that GMs can make up their own. Instead, the chapter should have given broad examples that apply to all colleges of a certain type (for example, colleges of illusion tend to have a higher concentration of gnome faculty than most other colleges of magic) and mention a few clever names per institute. I have no use knowing that Bartek’s School of Transmaturgy had been raided by dark elves, but I would like to know what schools of conjuration tend to look like, what classes their students attend, and other nonspecific ideas.

A sourcebook should be designed as a guide for employing the options, but an in-game tour guide. The less stated as fact, the more flexible the options are and the more a GM or player can feel ownership of them.

Lack of Page Economy

The Book of Arcane Magic is less than 70 pages long and yet it feels like it could have been shorter. Many of the sorcerer bloodlines introduced grant the claws bloodline power, and so the extensive paragraph explaining how claws work could have been summarized once, or replaced entirely with a reference to the page in the Core Rulebook that all the information comes from. Similarly, the college of magic and bardic school graduate feats are very repetitive.

Also, the majority of the magic items just follow the rules for magic item creation set forth in the Core Rulebook using the new spells introduced. It’s nice to have the work done, but it’s nothing someone couldn’t have been themselves. The same goes for the sample characters in the bloodline section, useful in certain circumstances but not what I want in this book.

Juicy Bits

College of Magic post-graduate feats are a great mix of fluff and crunch. Although the section on running colleges of wizards was too specific, having the names of colleges in these feats feels appropriate.

A few spells stood out as particularly fun or effective. Bird’s Eye View creates a nice visual as it grants the caster a top-down view of the world around them. It actually means that a player looking down on his figure on a battlemap is seeing exactly the same thing as his character is seeing. Additionally, it means the caster has line of sight around corners and behind cover.

Miss is brilliant in its simplicity. The subject of the spell suffers -10 on its next attack. A sorcerer could be real trouble with this spell.

What is a fate worse than death? Given the availability of resurrection magic, plenty. One example is nevermore, a 9th level spell that wipes the universe clean of any knowledge of the subject’s existence. Bonus points for including a bizarre exception to those that forget, intelligent undead.

The bloodlines introduced are a lot of fun, with a few that stand out. The feline bloodline is perfect for an Egyptian-based sorcerer. The lycanthropic bloodline makes good use of the bloodline powers and goes beyond the standard format of bloodlines. The mixed bloodline is appropriately random, representing the stew of magical blood in the offspring of different sorcerers.

Even though this is a sourcebook for bards, sorcerers, and wizards, there is a one page appendix with spell lists for clerics, paladins, and rangers.

Overall

4 Winds Fantasy Gaming proves that it is a capable third party publisher for the Pathfinder RPG. At $15.95 for the print version and $10.95 for the PDF, this sourcebook, smaller and cheaper than their later releases, is a good example of what the company can do. In the time we wait for more Pathfinder RPG sourcebooks from Paizo, The Book of Arcane Magic is a great source for new spells and ideas.

If You Liked This Book…

It shares some ground with the 3.5 WotC sourcebook Complete Arcane.

Starving for more spells? Try the 3.5 WotC Spell Compendium.

If you’re unsure about investing in 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, check out the free Book of Arcane Magic web enhancement, featuring the reborn sorcerer bloodline.

Date Released: August 2009

Date Reviewed: December 11th, 2009