It'd time to take a look at one of the darker settings out there:
This campaign setting is 258 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 250 pages of content, so let's take a look!
Kicking off with a general introduction, we are introduced to the central topics of Vathak - the land of the native Bhriota-humans has been conquered by the monotheist forces of the Vindari, who have established a rather xenophobic colonialism that has been met with a response truly dreadful - from the bowels of the earth of Vathak, the Old Ones are awakening, their spawn having already eliminated slowly but surely most subterranean cultures and now they are pouring into the land, serving as a twisted infection of reality itself.
As with most campaign settings, we kick off this pdf by introducing the stats for the respective races:
Bhriota get + 2 Str and Con, -2 to Cha, +2 to intimidate, a bonus feat at 1st level, familiarity with axes and Bhriota-weapons, providing a set of racial traits for human ethnicities, something I usually tend to do in my home-game as well to make non-human races stand out more as weird and different beings, both in mindset and culture. If you are a fan of Ravenloft, you will be familiar with Calibans, the deformed beings that have been exposed to twisted magics in the mother's womb, deformed in various ways. Vathak has an analogue race in the cambions, who get +2 St and Wis, -2 Cha, +2 to intimidate, are slow, get darkvision, count as monstrous humanoids, stealth is always a class skill with a +2 bonus for them and they treat their cha as 2 points higher with regards to their sorceror abilities and spell, if applicable.
Dhampirs, the half-blood scions of the almost exterminated vampire lords of Vathak, get +2 to Dex and Cha, -2 to Con, +2 to Bluff and Perception, +2 to saves vs. diseases and mid-affecting effects, light sensitivity, are treated like undead when it comes to positive/negative energy, can detect undead 3/day (though the spell is not in italics) and take no penalties from energy drain, but can still be killed by it. The Romni take a cue from Ravenloft's Vistani in that the race gets skill-bonuses depending on the clan they belong to. They don't gain an additional skill point at first level or whenever they gain a level, but do receive one bonus feat at 1st level. They get +2 to Dex and Cha, but -2 to Int and are set apart by an interesting fluff that has them a race of beings with heterochromia - they all have one golden eye, which, aesthetically-speaking, I consider rather cool.
The quiet and sneaky svirfneblin are the survivors of the onslaught of the Old Ones' spawn and get +2 to Dex and Wis, -2 to Str, -4 to Cha, are small, get +2 to AC, darkvision 120 ft. AND low-light vision, +2 to stealth while underground, +2 to Craft (Alchemy) and Perception, stonecunning, SR of 11+class level, +1 to the DC of illusion spells they cast and are under constant nondetection and may 1/day cast blindness/deafness, blur, disguise self at their class level. If this list doesn't make it abundantly clear: These are essentially the sloppily-converted ECL+3 or 4, I can't remember, race from the 3.5 days of old - at this massive array of powers, the race can in NO WAY even be considered rudimentarily balanced and is completely and utterly BROKEN. My advice: Ignore them and substitute regular gnomes, who generally disguise themselves as street-urchins in Vathak. And yes. I'm aware that the ARG-svirfneblin share these traits. Which is my point here, btw.: Paizo sometimes gets it wrong - hardcore. And the ARG-svirfneblin are just such an example. I'd really be interested in knowing what the designers smoked to consider the race balanced in contrast to even the other ARG-classes... But back to Vathak.
The final race fully described would be the Vindari, essentially the colonialist dominant force in the lands of Vathak. It should be noted that all of these races come with extensive favored class options and age, height and weight tables and that other races like the rare and all but extinct dwarves and elves also are covered.
After that, we're off to the new classes included for the setting - 5 to be precise. For brevity's sake I'm not going into my usual details regarding the respective classes and only provide you with a short overview each. All right? Let's go! The Apostle is a servant of Vathak's One True God and as such must be Lawful good (though the domain write-up features a glitch that mentions lawful neutral... which would be the more interesting option, thinking about medieval Catholicism...). They only get a few skill points and access to spells of up to 6th level, but they gain access to a linear progression of hymns (which can be used a limited amount of times per day) and they also get access to an array of prayers that are organized in four categories (lesser, moderate, greater, true) that must be prepared like spells but work as spell-like abilities and are interesting, though for my tastes a bit too close to spells in format and presentation - opting for a more courageous alternative and all-out banning the cleric class would have perhaps been the more prudent thing to do.
Blade Slingers are imho a base-class no one needs - an agile throwing weapon specialist. Boring and better off as an archetype. The Eldritch Conjuror is Vathak's take on cultists, i.e. casters that dabble in the madness of the Old Ones and are blessed with madness and changes to their anatomy. He spontaneously casts from the summoner-list and gains bonus abilities depending on the Great old One-Idol s/he chooses. Okay class, but honestly not sure how appropriate this is - would have been better off as a summoner-archetype instead of a full-fledged alternate class. Rifleers are rifle specialists that gain bonus damage versus flat-footed and helpless opponents as well as access to a wide variety of trick shots. If you're thinking they'd use gunslinger mechanics, you'd be wrong - and honestly, their mechanics are not better, so a wasted chance and an unnecessary incompatibility there. The final new class is the Sword Dancer, a class that uses sword dance in a mechanic similar to a barbarian's rage, including an array of abilities that work like a momentum/movement-themed version of rage powers.
All the base-classes sans ninjas and samurai and the new classes also get new class options/archetypes in the chapter, ranging from patrons and hexes to aberration-hunting paladins etc. Beyond these class options, which mostly are solid, though nothing that blew me away, we also get a wide variety of feats that allow cambions to succeed at amazing feats of strength, spew acidic bile or use your cloak-fighting skills to get a 20% miss chance versus foes etc. Overall, the feats are solid, though none particularly stood out as brilliant to me. Perhaps I've simply seen too many feats by now.
The equipment-section provides an array of firearms as well as local weapons, most of which actually come with an artistic representation and feature some weird weapons like spigots that drain your blood - though probably not, as suggested, via a vacuum. Various interesting mundane tools are covered as well, as are numerous cool drugs that provide tangible bonuses for the risk of addiction. Two vehicles are part of the chapter as well as an array of sinister magical items. The obligatory spell section provides along-side thankfully comprehensive spell-lists that cover all casting classes a variety of magic that seeks to evoke themes of horror and dread. Unfortunately, many of the spells are simply not that iconic, falling into the been-there, done-that-category and if they manage to evoke cool imagery, are sometimes undermined by the writing: A spell that infects a target with hatching barbed worms s/he has to vomit up has a rather awesome imagery, but sentences like "The stomach of a touched victim begins to rapidly swell, and within their lower intestines, there begins to form thousands of worms.[sic!]" (SoV, pg 129), rip me right out of the setting.
by now, we have taken a look at 126 pages of crunch and delve into the setting itself. Vathak is essentially a small continent that could be plugged into other campaign worlds and the respective write-ups of the lands, complete with heraldry, city-statblocks, haunts and hooks galore are actually a joy to read and both interesting and inspiring. So much so, that I consider them to somewhat offset the relatively weak crunch so far. Indeed, for idea-mining purposes, this chapter is a joy to behold and paints an interesting panoply of lands with rather excessive issues and in dire need of any heroes they can get. Especially jarring then the fact that the writing, while generally rather good, sports faulty prepositions and conjunctions here and there as well as several other, minor glitches that detract from the otherwise interesting setting.
The section on religions is rather short - as it should be, for there is but One True God. Taking a cue from Christianity and the behavior of monotheist religions throughout time, Fat Goblin Games is doing the courageous thing and resist including a whole pantheon of gods, instead opting for this One as a counter-point to the Old Ones also featured in this chapter. While my heart cringes when I see alignments attached to these elder beings, overall I applaud Fat Goblin Games opting to go a route that is less thread. Kudos! Secret societies and factions are also introduced here before we delve into the Gamemastering chapter.
This was what I was looking forward to the most, to be honest: Beginning with an introduction that offers tips for inexperienced horror-DMs, we move on to an actually useful adventure-generator that delivers the idea-starved DM a base foundation to craft an adventure from. Okay, I guess, if you need one. The Fear and Sanity-system included in the book works thusly: Each character has character level+wis-score sanity points they can lose by encountering terrible events or delving into forbidden knowledge, resulting in insanities from the GM-guide. No new ones in here, though we at least get a sample list of appropriate san-losses for events and creatures and for studying tomes of forbidden knowledge. As a personal nitpick of mine: Sanity can be regained via high-level magic and at a RAPID rate, 1 point per level, sans magic, making insanities at best a laughable inconvenience. When compared to how hard it was in Ravenloft (or CoC/ToC) to get rid of insanity, that's almost insulting. On the cooler side, we get an array of weather hazards as well as a nice selection of diseases, some of which sport multiple phases as well as an ok trust-system.
We also get advice on creating settlements as well as 50 different hooks before delving into this book's bestiary-section, where a wide variety of creepy creatures await, some of which you might know from Creature Monthly #1 - unfortunately, a glitch in one of the creatures taken over has not been addressed, reeking of cut-copy-paste. On the plus-side, the artworks ranks among the finest most disturbing PFRPG-artworks I've ever seen and being b/w actually works in their favor. Gloriously twisted. The setting also provides a list of setting-appropriate critters by bestiary (nice) as well as multiple encounter tables, but no index, which is a mayor downer for a campaign setting of this size.
Editing and formatting are of a varying quality - ranging from very good to problematic, the excellent writing is oftentimes interrupted by aforementioned wording issues that rip one slightly out of what could have easily been a thoroughly joyous read. Formatting issue like spells that are not in italics and lines that aren't bold but should be can also been found throughout this book. Layout on the other hand is a feast for sore eyes. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that this is the most beautiful b/w-layout I have seen since reading the Monsternomicon by Privateer Press. It's just fun to look at this book and thankfully, the team of Fat Goblin Games has opted for a two-column standard over the more cluttered 3-column one that some of their pdfs sport. The same holds true for the artwork - we all know by now that Rick Hershey is an immensely talented artist, but seeing his b/w-drawings makes me honestly wish he'd go more often for this route over color - the artworks herein rank, hands down, among the most gorgeous I've ever seen and the cartography is top-notch as well.
On a downside, while this pdf is bookmarked, it doesn't sport nested bookmarks, which in combination with the lack of hyperlinks or index, makes navigating this book harder than it ought to be.
Damn. this is yet another book where I curse being a reviewer - for I want to like this setting and its great ideas. But really, I can't. Because it sports some compromises that hurt it. For a setting all devoted to Lovecraft's mythos, this campaign setting sports a remarkable lack of understanding where the horror comes from. Let me elaborate: Lovecraft's appeal lies in the indifference and futility of the struggle versus the cosmic forces that at best are indifferent to our existence. Understanding actually unhinges. Adding wisdom as a BONUS to sanity points runs directly contraire to the central tenet of Lovecraftian horror, namely that ignorance is bliss and that the reality behind our perceptions is a horrific place. Both in sanity rules and in the tweaking of PFRPG-rulesets, Shadows over Vathak fails to capture this feeling. The mythos is not to be fought, it is to be survived - at best and only temporarily. In a setting where the creatures are actually well-known, they lose a huge chunk of what makes them scary. Furthermore, we have a problem of systems: While I get that Golarion wilders in the mythos as a pulpy sojourn to have players battle icky tentacle-things once in a while, this is not Golarion. To truly live up to the idea of Lovecraft as the setting purports to, it would have required some massive tweaking of the base mechanics.
Having some experience with a d20-based mythos-game (no, not the terrible d20 CoC...), I would have expected the following: Alternate Hp/health-rules. Barbarians with 200 Hp+ will not be frightened by rats with human heads. Player characters in PFRPG are much too powerful to remain afraid at higher levels in a horror-sense (as opposed to fear of powerful foes). If, however, your level 5 character has 23 health, the whole thing changes - after all, 3 attacks could be the end. Second, the issue of magic. In a world where the Old Ones rise, we'd need some magic that is tainted - Ravenloft and Darkness & Dread followed this concept and I've run numerous campaigns where the corrupting nature of magic, first a ground for complaints by my players, has greatly enhanced the roleplaying potential. It also explains why there's no local wizard academy to blast those aberrant horrors to kingdom-come with a barrage of fireballs. Speaking of wizards: Make arcane magic inherently alien and potentially maddening. I did in my home-game and it worked well - explaining also why not every damn town has its local mage and being much more in line with the Mythos-notion of spells eroding sanity and being WRONG.
Third, the Fear- and Sanity-system herein is almost an afterthought and insulting in its lack of complexity, especially when there are so many interesting and great systems out there that beg to be converted to PFRPG. Fourth: I love the inclusion of monotheism but would have considered a more radical solution a better way: No clerics, no druids, no divine casting. Oracles only (for the One True God and the Old Ones) - and that class should be stripped of just about all spellcasting, with healing being reserved to divine prayers that are not always granted. Using magic to offset disease, poison, parasites, madness etc. ruins many types of horror and in a setting devoted to the spirit of utter futility of the struggle versus the alien creatures - divine magic feels much too common, too alleviating. If it was as rare as accounts of medieval wonders, then this would work.
Fifth: Where are the Incantations? Much more in line with how spells work in the mythos, incantations and rituals, as well as research rules are yet more crucial things missing from the pages of this book.
All of these variant rules suggestions, all a staple of horror gaming, would have greatly complemented this book, offering true mythos-style horror-fantasy while at the same time allowing for more pulpy/mainstream-usages of the setting. Instead, we essentially get a standard fantasy setting - a dark one, yes, but one I maintain that is less horror-themed than Ravenloft because it fails to grasp what makes horror work - either the personal or them impersonal level. There is so much space devoted to classes, spells and feats, of which about 90% is in my opinion superfluous and not particularly interesting or fails to utilize e.g. gunslinger rules. If all of this space had instead been devoted to provide more fluff, more rules to set this setting apart and make it work as HORROR, then this could have been the best setting ever for me: The potential and ideas are there, but as written, the rules almost guarantee that a game set in Vathak will sooner or later devolve into a PFRPG-slugfest instead of a desperate struggle for crucial information to stop a dread ritual.
Mind you, in spite of great research rules (SGG's Anachronistic Adventurers: The Investigator) and Ritual-rules (Zombie Sky Press' Incantations) already existing for PFRPG. Hell, even a more appropriate holy character exists with Necromancers of the Northwest's Priest from the "Book of Faith". So much potential, so much wasted potential.
If you're looking for Lovecraftian horror, then this setting does simply not deliver. If you're looking for a dark fantasy setting with aberrant primary foes and can see beyond all the issues and don't expect all the rules that this setting would have required to make its premise work or just an idea-mine, the this still might be worth checking out. When all is said and done, though, this campaign setting imho still fails to do what it sets out to do. My final verdict will thus be 2.5 stars, rounded down to 2 for the purpose of this platform.