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Thread: Liber Vampyr
Wednesday, 24th March, 2010, 02:08 AM #1
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
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- Oct 2002
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Vampires are one of the sexiest fads going around lately. While the idea of the vampire predates even Bram Stoker’s famous novel – itself more than a century old now – there seems to be a lot of new life for these undead icons nowadays. From the Twilight novels to television’s The Vampire Diaries to films such as The Vampire’s Assistant, vampires are everywhere, thriving in their re-interpretation as sympathetic anti-heroes.
While role-playing games haven’t ignored this phenomenon – indeed, White Wolf has been there since early on – Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s newer cousin Pathfinder, have never had an easy time with the idea of vampire player-characters. Simply put, in a game about heroes, it was hard to justify playing a character that has no soul and drinks the blood of others. That the mechanics make playing a vampire very difficult at best pretty much killed the idea for all but the most dedicated of players.
And that was pretty much the end of the story regarding D&D and vampires. Until very recently when a new company called Necromancers of the Northwest (as opposed to generalist wizards who’re of a coastline) suddenly appears out of nowhere and – for free no less – releases a Pathfinder supplement dedicated to playing vampire PCs. Let’s pull back the lid on this coffin and see if what the Necromancers have raised (un)lives up to its hype.
The book in question is titled Liber Vampyr, a ninety-page PDF that weighs in at a fairly hefty forty-five megabytes. This certainly isn’t a deal-breaker, but I get the feeling that it shouldn’t be quite that large, based on the size of PDF products of comparable pages.
Unfortunately, the size of the file may have something to do with the manner in which it’s formatted. I call this unfortunate because, immediately upon looking at the book, it’s clear that there is some sort of problem with how the text appears. While everything is readable, roughly half of the text is selectable, and the rest is not. What this means is that, on a given page, some of the text will be in crisp, thin lettering, while the rest of it is blurred very slightly, making the letters appear thicker and slightly more rounded. The overall effect here is that it makes the book look rather sloppy, as though the font is changing chaotically. There are other detriments to this as well, such as how it makes it very hard to copy and paste sections (if you want to copy something to a character sheet on your computer, for example), or if you want to do a word search in the book.
After that, the rest of the book hits some fairly high marks in technical presentation. The bookmarks are expertly done, for example, and the pages are all presented on a cream-parchment background, which makes them look like they’re part of an old tome.
In regards to the artwork, I quite liked what there was of it. Notwithstanding the cover image, there are six pieces of art here, each at the opening of one of the book’s chapters. Each one is from a different artist, and they run a wide variety of styles. One is black and white, with heavy use of grey shading. Another is a photograph. A third uses vivid (albeit dark) colors. The styles are all different here, but the quality is noticeable, usually for how they take a fairly dark and often minimalist portrayal of their undead subject matter. Kudos to the Necromancers for drawing upon such a (blood) pool of talent!
So what about the subject matter of the book itself? Let’s go through it chapter by chapter.
After the table of contents, the introduction begins the staple of having each chapter open with a brief bit of fiction. Following this, the introduction gives a brief overview of the book’s theme, and then goes over a handful of terms that appear in the book, e.g. a blood point is an expendable point you gain when you drink blood from someone, and the blood point pool is the most blood points you can have at once (and can only be replenished by drinking more blood).
The first chapter covers vampire classes. There are three to be found here, the revenant warrior, the revenant ascetic, and the revenant mage. It should be noted that these classes can only be taken by revenant vampires (the “breed” of vampires that this book largely revolves around), which is a template presented in the last chapter – you may need to detour and read that template first for these classes to make more sense on your initial read-through.
Before delving into the classes themselves, it’s worth point out that there’s immediately a helpful sidebar regarding what vampiric actions are and aren’t evil, in terms of alignment. This is extremely useful – so much so that I’d call it almost necessary – when running vampire characters, since questions of, as an example, draining blood from an innocent person but not killing them, calls up alignment questions.
The revenant warrior is a full-BAB progression martial class. It has very few class-based powers (one of which, as a note, had two different names between the class table and the description; tsk), which initially makes it seem weaker than a typical Pathfinder fighter. However, it also has the largest blood pool among the three new classes, and gains the most blood powers known. This means that, more than their ascetic or mage counterparts, revenant warriors are calling up vampire powers again and again.
This, it should be noted, is a commonality among these three classes; that a significant portion of their power comes from their access to blood powers, and the blood points they spend on them (something not dissimilar from psionic powers known and power points). What’s odd, at least to me, is that revenant warriors gain the most blood powers/points. Doesn’t it seem like a meditant-style vampire monk, or a mage with training in arcane abilities, would have more? Mechanically, this balances out, since it lets the otherwise-narrow fighter have versatility alongside casters and monk-types, but in terms of flavor it’s hard to reconcile. The text makes at least a token effort to do so, going on about how revenant warriors are closest to the primal, predatory nature of what it means to be a vampire, but I’m not sure how well this really works.
The revenant ascetic is easily the most disappointing of the new classes. Almost entirely devoid of inspiration, this is a monk with some slight tweaks. There are a few odd changes, such as combining the ki pool with the blood pool, but for the most part this is the monk all over again. Really, I’ve never cared much for the rigid nature of the monk’s powers – there should instead be a wide variety of possible monk powers that characters can take at various levels, like rogue talents. Having the monk simply be repeated here, with almost nothing new brought to the table, is just bad design. Where’s the new martial art invented around the concept of taking blood from your enemy in combat? Where’s the power that lets you resist the effects of not sustaining yourself on blood through sheer force of will? There was a lot of potential for this class idea, and it was squandered.
The last new class, the revenant mage, doesn’t quite fall into the same trap as the ascetic does. A sorcerer, this class is saved by the fact that you don’t have a standard sorcerer bloodline, but rather gain (every couple of levels) the ability to spend increasing amounts of blood points to use metamagic feats without having the spell level increased (and, at 20th level, to regain expended spell slots). This isn’t bad, but punishes the character who doesn’t want to utilize metamagic feats – I wish there’d been even one other option for revenant mage class abilities.
A few pages at the end of this chapter are dedicated to what it means to play a revenant character, a surprising addition but not an unwelcome one, since I think that too often sourcebooks just dump a load of mechanics and walk away without talking into what it means to play a particular type of character. A demigoddess of revenant vampires is mentioned here, but never expounded upon, which perfectly matches the lack of any option for a revenant clerical character; an oversight in what the book offers PCs.
One other thing I want to mention was what wasn’t here. Given how important blood points/pools are to these characters, I wish there’d been general rules for how even characters who take levels in other classes could gain a small blood pool and a tiny handful of powers as they level up – as it stands now, they only have a blood pool of 1 from the revenant template, and it can’t be expanded without taking one of these classes (or taking the Expanded Blood Pool and Gain Power feats). I can certainly see why they made this decision – to use the psionics example, those characters don’t gain new powers or power points when taking a non-psionic class – but this seems to force revenant characters into these classes (or taking a feat tax) more than I’m completely comfortable with.
The second chapter presents supplemental rules in the vein (vampire pun!) of new skills, feats, etc. Surprisingly, the Necromancers don’t actually present any new skills per se, but rather have new uses for old skills, such as what kind of Disguise check it is to have your revenant vampire look totally human, and what various knowledge skills can tell you about these vampires and/or their cruomancy (blood magic – what you spend blood points on, for the most part).
The new feats found here aren’t very many, having just over twenty, and run the gamut from not bad to truly inspired. There’s some very creative stuff here, from a feat that lets a living person gain a blood pool and cruomantic powers, to a feat to create living thralls or even gain the strongest blood magic powers. The chapter then ends with a brief overview of necrosis, a condition that effects undead who are cut off from their animating force…such as if a revenant vampire is in sunlight. A sidebar covers how other undead might be affected (e.g. a lich in an antimagic field, a ghost in a holy place, etc.), which makes for some very cool ideas.
Like the class section, the chapter on prestige classes brings three new entries to bear. The first one is also by far the best: the blood cultist. This is a prestige class for a living person who forms a close bond with a vampire. It gains a willing source of blood, and you gain powers from your bond when your blood is taken. This is fascinating since it really seems to open up a great new dynamic for PCs (especially since the vampire you bond with becomes a cohort – though a sidebar covers how it should NOT be subservient to the PC with this prestige class). Ultimately culminating in becoming that type of vampire, this class offers some very great role-playing opportunities.
The same can’t quite be said for the second class, the vampire disciple. This class is basically the standard Pathfinder vampire template, broken down into a level-based progression. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it feels odd that the normal vampire is suddenly being highlights, rather than the revenant vampire. Still, I can understand the design choice, since this offers more freedom to those who want to utilize the more traditional vampire in a more PC-friendly progression. Interestingly, there’s a multi-step ritual that must be undertaken to enact this slow transformation into vampire-dom, which is detailed in the Steps of the Sanguine Path web enhancement. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on that very much because the entire web enhancement is written in what I found to be a highly of-putting cursive font. Why use such a font when normal type was good enough for the main book? It’s quite unpleasant (at least to me).
The final prestige class is the vampire hunter. Nicely managing to avoid Buffy parallels, it walks a thin line between being focused against undead as a whole, and vampires in particular. It does a fairly good job, though I found at least one instance of not meshing with the Pathfinder rules (undead can be critically hit and sneak attacked by anyone now, guys – no need for a class ability that does that). The nicest part about this class, however – and indeed, all of them – is that after the mechanical presentation, there’s an expanded section regarding what it means to play a member of these classes, how they appear in the game world, etc. It’s a nice little touch that goes ignored far too often.
The fourth chapter is the one with perhaps the most bite too it (second vampire pun!). This covers the blood powers that blood points are spent on. There’s actually a very impressive level of mechanical presentation here, as the book covers how they work with magic, their different types and families (families being like sub-schools of magic), and more before presenting a list of blood powers. Oddly, blood powers range only from 0 through 7th level, which seems strange that they don’t go all the way to 9th, given the fairly obvious parallel with spell levels, formatting, and such.
Somewhat disappointingly, a lot of the blood powers work like existing spells, reducing them to little more than spell-like abilities. Again, this is understandable given how traditional vampire powers from contemporary and older sources are already very well covered by the basic list of spells, and to be fair a lot of them have some degree of tweaking (speak with predatory animals only, for example), but even so it just felt like far too few of these were unique in effect. Does it really matter if you take on the form of a dragon from a vampire power or a form of the dragon spell?
Speaking of spells, that and magic items are the subject of the fifth chapter. This is pretty spartan, having seven new spells and three new magic items. While some of the spells are very apropos in what they do (pity the vampire who tries to feed on someone under the effect of a corrupt blood spell), others just seem weird in their inclusion. Spells to transport between mirrors? Can vampires even do that, what with no reflection and all? The new magic items are a bowl that keeps blood fresh, a collar that keeps a person under another’s influence, and a protective amulet, which are nice, but I thought that there’d be something about a magic coffin, something that eliminates a vampiric weakness or two, etc. More could have been done here.
The final chapter presents us with five new monsters, including the aforementioned revenant template for player characters. Also for PCs is the new, non-undead race known as the culled ones. Between that name, and that these guys sparkle in sunlight, I bet you can guess where inspiration for these unholy abominations were drawn from…but at least you’ll have an easier time getting your girlfriend to game with you, now.
The feral vampire is a cool idea that suffers somewhat in the execution. Basically, this is a vampire who is fairly human in appearance and temperament so long as they’re well-fed with blood. But the longer they go without it, the more they turn into a hulking monstrosity that needs to feed. In essence, this is a series of mini-template strung together, which sounds awesome but seems like it’d be very difficult to keep changing a character’s stats around. Of course, I may be overthinking it, since these are definitely supposed to be NPCs, and so are likely only “on screen” during one stage of their transformation.
The nosferatu is inspired by the Murnau film of the same name (itself drawing on folklore), and here is regarding as an evil spirit that inhabits a corpse and so spreads corruption and pestilence where it goes. It’s a solid template, and works well to establish a thing that’s recognizably a vampire, but is quite different from what most PCs will expect.
The psychic vampire isn’t a “vampire” per se at all. Rather, it’s a psionic template that’s applied to a character that drains the mental energy of others for themselves, though it’s just as fatal to the victim. It’s interesting to see the psionics rules being referenced here, since no official Pathfinder conversion has been released yet (nor has the Dreamscarred press Pathfinder psionics rules), but it works just fine, though I’d like to know if this template’s power points apply to a psionic character that already has a power point pool.
Finally, we come to the revenant vampire template itself. The main thrust of this template is that, while you do become undead with it, you have the new Risen subtype. This keeps you closer to your mortality than most undead, removing your flat immunity to mind-affecting effects (though you get a bonus) and to things that require a Fort save but don’t affect objects. So you won’t be subject to a disease, for example, but a medusa can still petrify you. If this sounds too powerful, just remember that Eberron’s warforged had roughly this same level of immunity without a level adjustment. Beyond that, this template has a lot of the traditional vampire weaknesses, albeit not quite as fatal, but it was interesting to note that these guys don’t require a coffin to sleep in. Following that is a very brief shout-out by the authors to people they want to thank, and a small list of inspirational material, that’s the end of the book.
The Liber Vampyr is impressive for what it brings to the game table, both in quantity and quality. This book is a godsend for anyone who wants to play a vampire character, and for DMs who want to lend emphasis to vampire NPCs. It’s not without it’s problems, however, from areas of technical presentation to some bits that lack innovation, and it wouldn’t be unwelcome if the Necromancers of the Northwest went back and polished up these rough spots. Even with those, however, what the book does well eclipses what it doesn’t, and given that it’s free (make no mistake, this could easily have been a for-purchase product) there’s really no reason not to put it to good use. Grab a copy of Liber Vampyr and put some bite back into your game!
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