This is the third (but not final) part of my review of Paolo Greco's Chthonic Codex. This covers the third book: Mysteries and Mystagogues. The first and second are here and here.
In relation to the standard D&D three-book pattern, the closest equivalent to this would be the Dungeon Masters Guide. Read mainly or entirely by the DM and referred to almost entirely before the game, used to construct the world.
We Have Assignments -
Exceptional Events and Reasons to Roam
This is a kind of adventure hook / mission generator. Its based around the kind of thing a powerful wizard would bully a group of apprentices into doing, or the kind of things they would fuck up entirely on their own.
Distinctively, its grouped into chains of consequence. Meaning you can start anywhere in the chain and take it as a single encounter, mission or event, or start at the beginning and use each entry as a series of unfolding events.
I have not seen anything quite like this done before. Its a bit charming, a bit irregular. Paolo writes 'soft' entries, which gives you more freedom in interpretation but makes them less 'tool-like'. The chains of consequence are not all chains, some are starbursts of parallel but possible related events.
Incidentally Missing Magical Ingredients -
This is a simple, useful mini-list that pretty much anyone could hack or lift for a range of purposes.
Exceptional (Yet Somehow Not Uncommon) Events
More like a list of simple adventure seeds or event-prompts. You can roll on this one right away. The events are neatly expressive of the strangeness of academic life, that weird half-job and its mad politics and its organisation. Its a bit like a corporation, a little like a cult, something like a religion.
Academic Accomplishments -
These are specific in-game actions that unlock 'tiers' and abilities from AFG, Paolo's game. I do not know how that works. But, I assume its roughly equivalent to his version of levelling up'. So in this game we can assume that you get better when you do these things. This is interesting, its a bit like the 'keys' from Shadow Of Tomorrow.
This is an idea I have considered myself, I have never seen it done long-term in a game but I would be very interested to. It means that in AFG: CC your ambition is specifically to win the Bear owl Jousting contest, or bind an otherworldly being in a cyst in the earth. To achieve that in-game thing. Those specific things can help you advance.
So you could mix this with customary levelling up and let the players work out what they want to do, and, crucially, you can tell them how it works or not. If they know that if you sleep over the Gorge of Dreams, this make them investigate in a specific reward-oriented way, if they don't know which specific things cause you to advance then they become strange experimenters, and of they don't know the system exists at all, until they trigger it by doing something, then that's another kind of game entirely. These will all bind you into the world in a different way.
Like everything involving experience, it shifts the game a lot. The implications are wide spread and hard to predict.
Mysteries and Initiations -
This is a new spell-getting system.
So we already have the boring standard method, the more interesting one-roll method and the one where you become a hermit.
Now we have these strange quasi-angelic ancients who guard spells and make you go on ritualistic quests. The exact details of these rituals cannot be recorded of it will piss off the Mystagogues that guard the spells. So most things have to be communicated by analogy
(Oh, everything has an AA BB CC rhyme scheme)
A. INSIGHTFUL PHENOMENA
These are all aspects of the natural world, smells sensations and relations. An initiate of that mystery is meant to reveal these (but maybe you could just observe them and get an idea. That would make them an encounter "you notice the ridges on the narwhales have a strange complexity". That would be a way of making the world interesting for wizards, it makes them poets of reality almost. Its also a very MU thing to do, slowly watching paint dry over days so that that cracks in its surface reveal a hidden mystery.
Examination and dedicated study of this leads you to:
B. GATHER IMPORTANT PARAPHERNALIA
This is a list of simple, strange, broadly-gettable objects. So you get all this stuff together and study it for a few days, then you find THREE OMENS.
AN INITIATE MARK, A SECRET PLACE, A RITUAL
The rituals are maybe silly, maybe time consuming, maybe deadly, maybe expensive. The marks are mainly just difficult and strange.
C. Then some MYSTAGOGUES turn up
Ok, again, some 'funny' some very serious, each gives you an INITIATION CHALLENGE and possibly a BOON as well. The challenges are sometimes hard, some super easy, some just eat game time, some demand the DM come up with something.
The boons are funny and half of them are curses or broken, old school players will know that a cursed object is just a trap that hasn't been re-purposed yet, but still...
then there is a REVELATION which is another thing you have to do.
The revelations are less-horrible or difficult things which sometimes you have to do, and sometimes just happen to you.
How do I feel about this?
An average roll is going to have people spending money and time. Doing at least one ridiculous thing, and doing at least one difficult or dangerous thing. That's not bad if you consider it as an average roll.
But, you could also get difficult-as-fuck missions for low level rewards, or super-simple missions for high level ones. Most importantly, the quests don't really lock into the type of power you are trying to get. This sort f half makes sense. Mystagogues are really old and have probably got strange over the years, plus rituals accrete detail like barnacles, plus everything can be a metaphor for a different thing. But if you roll it old school, it might not be satisfying. But it might be charming. Depends on your feelings about tone.
I wouldn't rip this out to use it a little somewhere else. If you use it consistently in-setting, the strange and the ridiculous even each other out. You would get to expect that maybe one day you wear a shoe on your head and another something tries to eat your heart. That way, if you get a 'silly' mission, instead of feeling ripped off, you feel relief.
I really like the pictures of the Mystagogues. they are my favourite thing about this section
they are not funny at all, they are serious and strange. Not like anything else, maybe super old wizards that got too magic, or genius loci, or like tarot cards you forgot existed, now come to life.
(Its Christopher Stanley again, does he have a web site Paolo?)
Mere Parodies of Mysteric Powers -
These are like spells, but also general mutations-powers-abilities. They basically bonds with the world that make you interact with it a certain way. Embodied again, instead of abstracted. Living things again. Snake on a stick is cool.
Laws Of Reality -
"Reality hides deeper laws that we don't understand yet. Some we can use, but we can't explain how they work. They mock us. This is not acceptable."
This is a generator for certain mystic laws or processes that always work the same way, some of which might be commonly observable, some hidden from general knowledge. For instance, if a woman breaks glass under a bridge, it can freeze the water there.
This is interesting. Maybe a bit awkwardly laid out. This is only a pre-campaign thing, but its quite different to anything else. Quite different. It makes all of the PC's investigators.
Could you hack this for an already running game?
If you are running a medium sized game, you probably couldn't bang them in right away. But if its small, then they wont have encountered most of the possible permutations yet, so you could use the uncommonly-know ones. And if very big and wild, then players have probably forgotten most of the situations that might have triggered one, so maybe you can use them then.
Apotheosis Of The Grand Sorcerer -
How you become the top guy, and a specific top guy as well. The ritual and precess of becoming the Grand Sorcerer of the Valley of Fire.
This is a good idea. Its player and Dm orienting in a specific way. Why wouldn't you want to become Grand Sorcerer?
The fact that the ritual is described with its events and items, characters and roles, means there is a lot you can do with it. You can try to fulfil it, to become the GS. You can witness it from the outside, you can try to subvert it (90% of D&D parties will be doing this). (This is an interesting ritual. How do you become Pope of Vorn anyway?)
It's like a setting book that just has a bank with a shitload of money, and describes all the protections in detail and leaves it at that.
(So they have a democracy / guaranteed fair resolution spell, that's appropriate, a Thaumarchy would have one.
This is the best name possible for an underground mapping system. It's not bad. Simple. Dice-drop and intersecting lines, not very 3d but its Karst not Underdark.
Chthonic Contents -
This is what to put on your Chthonotron. The range of things is relatively small, but most complex options have separate generators for creating crypts, cave complexes, hermitages, goat villages, monasteries etc.
So the effect of this would be to be surrounded by repeating types of things, but each different and with its own character. Multiple shrines, multiple gorges etc. You can sometimes throw sacrifices into the gorges to please the Chthonic Gods that live down there.
The section here on Farms is good, or at least, exists, agriculture is poorly-used in most D&D games. Making Farms Interesting is the OSR final frontier for people who are annoyed that the Pellanor Fields aren't actually fields (ie me and me alone.)
The Monk Rules link into the Rules of Reality stuff and the Mystagoge section. This is really good. It produces unique OSR monks (cowl and habit monks not punching monks) that gain specific knowledge of reality the more weird shit they go through. This is quite different to spell casters or clerics.
WHATS THE PRICE OF A GOAT THOUGH
There are lots of situations in this book where you really need a goat. Or part of a goat. And there is an entire race of goat-people who, presumably, wouldn't take too kindly to you just stealing and killing goats. This could end up like the taxis in superhero games, where everyone has magic powers but they all forget to buy a car so the Justice Squad ends up taking a bus to the fight. What is the Goat-Gelt Paolo?
Hypogean Travel Shenannigans-
Essentially an encounter table. One of very few tables that you might roll on during the game.
The layout of text-blocks, lines and dice results on the page 47 is good. there could be a "1-3 4-5 6" line across the top of the page as you will be rolling that every time, but you can write that in yourself.
Some of the more complex results require yet more table rolls.
Fancy Trinkets -
Ok these are alright, same humour-useful balance as the rest of the game
Ah FINALLY the kleinplastik! These are really really good. An excellent combination of art and rules and text. Weapons, treasures and adventure seeds. The fact that you can sculpt your own makes them more like evil or powerful shapes that can be learnt and exist somehow outside the materials used to make them. Haptic spells if you will. The choices of shape and form are simple, effective and imaginative benefits-drawbacks backed into the rules make them endlessly-replicable put one in your COC game. If you steal one thing from Chthonic Codex, steal this.
Loot and plunder-
This ties together all the treasure tables up to this point into an overall generator quite well.
Some statistical stuff on how to generate your own School of Magic.
On Truth -
Attitudes to take towards the text, treat-as-real, related fiction or what most people will do, just botch up all the stuff you found interesting in one big thing.
Then some name generators for character and gods.
To Sum Up-
This is a setting-generation-before-play book and definitely not a Vornheim-seat-of-your-pants book.
Charming, warm, silly, some high points where text and image meet. The Mystagogoes and Devouring Idols in particular. Highly individual. If you were looking for a school-of-magic setting to drop into your world, now you've found it. Brings a world to life.
A series of chasms filled with processions and groups of weirdo's all engaged in inexplicable rituals, all trying to gain power over each other. The monsters are not the opponent in this setting, its the organisation you belong to that will cause you most trouble. Everything leads back to the Schools.
A mixture of humour and danger which you may or may not like, depending on your character and preferences. If you don't want to risk losing a character trying to get, as treasure, a Suede Lead-Lined Suit, then you will want to hack it.
Sometimes densely-interconnected rulesets, often to useful and unique effect, but limits cannibalisation and also ensures you need meaningful familiarity with the text
I am not done with this. There is still some stuff left in the box so will review that next and along with that, give my summing-up and opinions for the whole thing