And here’s the epic conclusion!
2) Ghostwalk Monte Cook and Sean K Reynolds
You probably think I’m crazy.
In fact, half the reason I wrote this list might have been so I had an excuse to tell you how good Ghostwalk is.
PS: This book is nearly perfect.
First, it adds a completely original notion to the game: that you could play your character as a ghost after death. Even better is why Monte Cook and Sean K Reynolds came up with this notion: to turn the hassle of character death into an opportunity. Which is mind-blowing: It solves an out-of-game problem with an in-game, ingenious solution. Simply glorious.
So you get two new ghost classes, new feats and spells, and some nifty new gear. Already this book is ahead of the game. But on top of that, it’s a Core +1 book—you get an entire setting to put it all in. (If only, say, Tome of Magic or Magic of Incarnum had done the same…) The city of Manifest and the surrounding nations are compelling: ectoplasmic ghosts mingle with humans, embattled elves fight yuan-ti, dwarves guard the Paths of the Dead, humans oversee ogre slaves, clerics worship interesting deities and guard against Orcus, etc. In fact, one of the successes of this book is that it works just as well without the new rules—take away the ghost PCs (or even the ghosts full stop) and I still want to play there. Manifest is as alive to me as Korvosa or Waterdeep.
But what makes this book indispensible is what happened next: The authors put every other spare great idea they had into the setting as well. Just because.
There are sidebars, paragraphs, even throwaway sentences in GW that would have rated whole articles in Dragon Magazine. For example: 1) Every magic weapon in GW has a name—if it was worth enchanting, it was worth naming. 2) One of the feats is a result of your PC undergoing sorcerous manipulation…while in the womb. 3) Because their elements cancel out, the fire god and the water god literally cannot perceive each other; they have to infer the other’s presence from context.
The whole book is like that!!!
It never feels not-D&D—it doesn’t try too hard (like I felt Cook’s Arcana Unearthed was somewhat guilty of) nor is it even as extreme Eberron. It’s just D&D thought out absurdly well.
(And I want to be sure that Reynolds gets as much credit for that as Cook—Monte Cook is (quite rightly) the splashy name of the 3.0 era, but every Pathfinder fan knows the outstanding level of work Reynolds brings to the table.)
The only thing about this book that falls short is its conception of the afterlife (a vague, underpowered and underpopulated archipelago that calls to mind old-school fantasy/sci-fi settings à la Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld or the edges of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea. I’m sure that was intentional but I didn’t dig it—treat it as a way station on the way to Pharasma’s Boneyard or just ignore it create your own. [Edit: Turns out that section and the adventures were requested by WotC.] Also, they didn’t manage to squeeze in a map for the setting (thankfully, you can find the misplaced map online). But these are small quibbles.
Since it’s a Core +1 book, you can start playing Pathfinder campaigns in Manifest right away with just a little rule-nudging. If you play in Golarion, Manifest could easily replace or sit alongside Magnimar or Absalom. Or it might be across the world—perhaps with the Starstone on one side of the world, a city of the dead provides balance on the other. Or you might never use Manifest as a setting to itself, but you’ll read and re-read GW over and over for ideas to steal for your own campaign.
Here’s the kicker. In fact, it almost puts this book at #1. Thus book is crazy cheap. WotC barely advertised or supported it at all. No one talks about it. Currently Amazon has it selling used for under eight bucks—that’s Chipotle burrito money—and I’ve occasionally seen it offered for as little as $3. Even Reynolds’s own company, Paizo, lists it for only $9.99—and there are zero reviews.
This. Book. Is. A. Steal. Get. It.
In fact, the only reason this book isn’t #1 is that one of its authors had already written…
1) Book of Vile Darkness Monte Cook
Every great hero needs great villains. Book of Vile Darkness gives you the tools to make them.
Chapter 1, all by itself, serves up six new evil gods, two new evil races (one of them the most terrifying halflings outside of Dark Sun), seven fetishes and addictions, two malign sites, and four evil villains (one of whom leads children on a chains to power his armor). Oh, and a mediation on the nature of evil in role-playing game.
Want more? Chapter 2 has delicious variant rules including curses, possession, hiveminds, and how to suggest the lingering affects of evil. Need to know how much an iron maiden costs? Look in Chapter 3. The cancer mage and vermin lord prestige classes? Skip ahead to Chapter 5.
I could go on like this. But I’d be wasting your time. You already know whether or not this book is for you.
I will add that that this book also happens to be the perfect mix of crunch and lore. The new vile spells are as evocative as they are effective, as is the tidy feat list. And while lore GMs will enjoy devouring the demon lord and archdevil write-ups, crunch GMs will be salivating over their savagely high CRs and their fully statted-up servitor NPCs.
Pathfinder’s authors have made no secret that they wanted Golarion to be darker, wilder, and more adult than previous settings had been. Their answers to the Caves of Chaos and Iuz the Undying were Hook Mountain and Lamashtu. In a world of bloatmages and Red Mantis assassins, BoVD’s vile feats and spells fit right in. In terms of rules and atmosphere, BoVD is essential for your Pathfinder game.
Find a copy. It won’t be cheap. You can probably snag a used one for $20–$30, depending on how pristine you want to go. But you won’t be disappointed.
Further reading: Good isn’t nearly as much fun as evil to read about. But it can be more fun to play. So while Book of Exalted Deeds was never going to delight in the same way as BoVD, it earns high praise just for trying. More feats and spells make it a useful player resource, and the wide range of new monsters and personality-filled NPCs should please GMs. Once you have your copy of BoVD—particularly if there’s a paladin or strongly good cleric in your group, or if you’re planning on a lot of planar play—BoED is not a bad next choice. [Edit: It also marries well with Chronicle of the Righteous.]
That’s my list. 18+ books, all with D&D on the cover, but with plenty of Pathfinder potential inside waiting to be unlocked. I hope you enjoyed.
Now what books are on yours?
And we’re done!
Again, here’s the original thread if you want to see redditors’ comments. Once more, thank you all for the likes, reblogs, and comments. I know we usually do monsters here, but I love diving back into old books and trading memories and recommendations, so this is definitely a conversation we can continue. If you’ve got a list, definitely let us know.
Meanwhile, here are some thoughts I’ve had in the 10 months since I first submitted this post to Reddit:
As I said in Part 1, there are conspicuous absences here. I’ve seen too many glowing reviews of Heroes of Battle, Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords, and Weapons of Legacy to feel like this list is complete until I’ve read them. (That still hasn’t happened yet in the intervening year. Also, since writing the original version of this, I’ve seen enough reviews of the Spell Compendium to make me go “Hmmmm…” on that as well.)
What if we throw away my “...for Pathfinder GMs” part of my thesis? There might be some shifts in order— the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, for instance, would climb into the top tier—but I think the list holds up.
Other books that aren’t particularly useful for Pathfinder fans but are strong on their own: I’m not a class splatbook guy and don’t even have most of the Complete series. But Complete Arcane is too interesting to overlook, and Complete Mage’s reserve feats go a long way toward solving the “I’m out of spells; we have to sleep” problem in a fast-paced-combat or story-oriented campaign. As a subrace junkie, I have a soft space for Races of Faerûn (even if Pathfinder’s Advanced Race Guide is even more awesome). (Other Forgotten Realms books that kept catching my eye last night as I browsed my collection: I could read Eric Boyd write about gods in Faiths and Pantheons all day, and I was actually shocked at how much I enjoyed Lost Empires of Faerûn, especially since I originally bought it only because there weren’t any more Realms sourcebooks on the shelves.)
Also, I still pick up used 3.0/3.5 books from time to time when I get lucky in used bookstores or online. Currently sitting in my half-read pile are City of the Spider Queen, Magic of Incarnum, Player’s Guide to Faerûn, Power of Faerûn, and (though technically not a WotC project) the Rokugan setting book. It’s a toss-up as to whether my next move is to finish them off first—half-read books really bug me—or get caught up on my unread-but-anxiously-awaited stack of Pathfinder softcovers (unread Pathfinder books bug me even more, and Wrath of the Righteous is calling…). I’ve also got a stack of unread Dungeon Magazines and third-party books (Coliseum Morpheuon, for instance) waiting for me. If they’re good, I’ll be sure to report back…
One last big thought: I also would really love it if the books I’ve called Core +1 books became a model for a certain number of Pathfinder or third-party books in the future.
It’s so, so thrilling to pick up a book and find both a sensible amount of new rules material and a setting to go with it. To pick up a book like Ghostwalk and get Manifest in the bargain is pure joy…let alone to get Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, or Rokugan. To know that you can run a campaign with nothing more than that new book, the Bestiaries, and the Core Rulebook—bliss.
Don’t get me wrong—I love Golarion. And I hope Paizo keeps adventuring there for a long time. But even the game world that billed itself “The Best of All Possible Worlds” can’t be a home for every concept. I’d love it if a book like Ghostwalk let Paizo stretch their legs a little bit—perhaps for a niche Golarion setting, like the Dragon Empires, Vudra, or Arcadia, that deserves more than a softcover but not the full Inner Sea World Guide treatment. Or perhaps for a rules system that would work in one city: bullfighting, dueling, and an honor system in Taldor, maybe, or genie-taming in Qadira. Or perhaps there’s a style of play or a rules concept that doesn’t fit in Golarion but is still worth exploring. Steampunk…aerial adventures…Arabian adventures…low-magic…an all-Darklands campaign…aquatic adventures…Gothic horror…frequent resurrections…a double world involving the fey or spirits…evil humanoids…all of the above and more might deserve the Core +1 rules plus setting treatment.
I also know that, for a lot of publishers, hardcovers pay the bills. (That may not be the case for Paizo, with its subscription models, but still…) And there are only so many more hardcovers Paizo can put out before veterans like me start doing the math and worrying that a new edition is on its way, if only to keep the lights on. New rules/setting combos might be a way to extend the life of the edition and expand the brand. Certainly it’s one of the reasons 2e AD&D last so long.
This can go too far—one of the things WotC learned from TSR was not to cannibalize its audience with too many settings. But by keeping new settings to limited runs of a single book or two, you avoid that problem. You draw in players with new options, crunch GMs with new rules, and fluff GMs like me with new setting and story. (I’m slogging through Magic of Incarnum’s new powers and feats as we speak, and I so keep wishing they’d devoted the back half of the book to a setting that made the concepts come alive and convinced me to spend time learning the new mechanics.)
There’s another change to the landscape that makes me wonder if this is a viable idea: the rise of indie RPGs. So many people out there are putting out their version of slimmed-down 1e D&D or are exploring places fantasy role-playing doesn’t normally go (names like Dungeon World, Savage Worlds, Lamentations of the Flame Princess…even Monsterhearts!). I wonder how many of them could be satisfied by Pathfinder, so long as they knew they only needed the Core Rulebook, the Bestiary, and one other book?
Finally, the reason I want more Core +1 books is I want to be surprised and delighted within Pathfinder. Golarion has managed to do so, over and over, but it is still a known commodity, with a map that gets more filled in by the day. Magazines might fill that role—one of the old joys of picking up Dungeon Magazine (or Dragon Magazine’s fiction) was getting new sites, towns, cities, and worlds with every issue, worlds both canon and non-—but magazines are hard to maintain. (The only candidate I know of, Gygax, is a quarterly labor of love.) So a book format is the way to go.
Give me Golarion, but once a year, give me Ghostwalk. Give me Golarion and Paizo’s Al-Qadim. Give me the Pathfinder version of Tome of Magic’s binders or Magic of Incarnum’s soul magic, but with a home and gods and a land. Once a year, give me elemental-powered steampunk. Give musketeers vs. faeries, or dirigible fights over a fantasy North America with dinosaurs and a shamanic spirit world. Give me Golarion and that—just once or twice a year—so I have a home and vacation destinations for my imagination.
Thanks again for reading and for your patience this week as I focused on life stuff. (I still have more life stuff to tackle, but regularly Daily Bestiary entries should resume next week, and I’ll try to play catch-up so my schedule allows. Have a great weekend!