Friday 5 December 2014

Chtonic Codex - Academia Apocrypha Review

The last one gave you monsters, this one gives you you. A character to play. Specifically an apprentice mage in the Valley of Fire. So this is kind of the Players Handbook for the Chthonic Codex. All of the classes are Magic User.

Let’s go through what you find inside.

The 5more system

Paolo has come up with a handy d6 omni-system for deciding things that is also a skill system.  It seems simple, but like a lot of apparently simple systems the granularity that isn’t on the dice ends up seeping into the game, with good and bad effects, which we will examine as we go on.

I prefer a d20 but whatever.

Did I whine about this already in the last review ? I’m whining about it again now.

Apprentice Preparation

So we have a new casting system. I am one of those people who daydreams of playing a Magic-User, then takes a long look at the rules for that in almost any game and thinks ‘fuck no’. So this review comes from an essentially sceptical place.

Magic points.
Each spell only once per day.
Only casters generate magic points.
Spells and points come back at dawn.
You can get other sources of magic points.
A new learn magic spell that isn’t read magic.

Rules for learning magic are exactly as irritating as I have always found them

I like that spells are renewed by the sunrise, which is simpler than memorisation and easy for everyone to understand.

I like the new ‘read magic’ equivalent  ‘Unveil Arcana’ which is a bit like that and ‘Identify’ which make sense to me as magic comes in all kinds of crazy forms. If you fall asleep with something next to your head you learn about it in your dreams without expending the magic points. I like that.


You get free stuff when start. One thing you do not get is a weapon. (You do get a knife and staff but they are almost the only normal weapons mentioned in the entire book, which fits the feel of the ‘Magic University’ setting and makes it more fully a problem-solving-improv game rather than a fighting game.

Since the free stuff depends on your college I would probably have put it in those sections. That way you can print it out for each player.

(Artificers do get a crossbow maybe (or even a gun!))

Then there is a list of 180 rrrrandom items. This is a slightly more ‘Blackadderish’ list than the mainly-serious ‘Zakish’ list that matches the tone for most OSR item lists. It’s a bit more gonzo and funny than the rest of the book and in a slightly different way.

I smell Barry Blatt on this list.

Art Of Magic

Oh god rules for crafting rope

hhhnngg, rules for picking flowers

Somewhere there is someone who dreams of going to a fantasy land full of adventure and danger and becoming a pharmacist. But not here.

Does anyone ever research spells? I feel like Brendan might. I must have read spell-research rules in about 20 games. Never seen them used. Well they have to have some as that’s what this game is about and here they are

Rules on spell casting - this bit is interesting

Some questions. Can anything be a curse? That is, a normal spell with a negative effect cast with a specific trigger that you say out loud? Or is it just things with 'curse' in the title? If its anything then that’s a very innovative and wide-ranging change.

Dispensations - these are very good, more on these later

Alternative procurement! – There is raw magic oozing out of the earth and you can go down there to huff it like fumes and invent spells. This is what everyone will be doing. So you can go into the caves (for a low low price) get lost and go crazy. Then you get the spell but there is something freaky about it that makes you mental or mutated or obsessed with some strange thing. Good. This makes the dullards up top carefully researching spells look even more boring.

Mana-Tar gives you magic points and also acts on you a bit like a drug with some serious side effects. This is good, turns mages into sketchy addicts.


Fire Dervishes

If I was going to bet on a single simple idea from Chthonic Codex going out into the wider nerdosphere and becoming a new fragment of the Generalised Fantasy Arcytype it would be the reinvention of fire mages as Sufi Dervishes.

It was about time someone weaponized Rumi. The character of the Fire Mage and the mystics relation to god match perfectly. You fall in love with the fire, the closer you get to it the more pure your love becomes. As you empty of everything else the fire loves you more and more. Except this time the fire is not a metaphor.

The spells are ok fire spells. Hope you like burning stuff. The dispensations involve losing control and endlessly dancing so that works. High Level spell Invocation of the Raptor of Embers is my favourite reincarnation spell that I have read anywhere so far.


Door mages essentially. The dispensations are excellent, leading to players talking to doors, obsessively building their own doors with fancy embellishments and leaving secret marks, circles and glyphs everywhere. These guys start off as someone who is really good at running away and end up as a general TARDIS mage.

There are some very powerful but highly specific spells limited by both what you need to do them and the fact that, like all colleges, you can only be this college. No mixing and matching.


Be friiiiends with the animals and annoy the DM by bringing like twenty pokemon to every fight and constantly playing the flute.

Example Spell: Xanathon's Xenophilia

“This spell effects two beings of very different species. The two subjects of the spell will save or be very very physically attracted to each other, regardless of inconvenient incompatibilities.”


The only problem here is the spell doesn’t specifically say they will produce viable young, which I think is the point? Unless you just like watching them fuck.

This class is about seducing frogs, stabbing people and being naked. Maybe you are a friendly Dr Doolittle type or maybe you are Ash from Alien looking at the Geiger monster in a jar and talking about its ‘perfection’.


These guys look into the future every night and then spoil everyone’s fun by worrying about it all day. The class is mainly about moving odds around, getting intimations of the future and trying to shift things generally in your favour. The dispensations work well with making the character obsessed with the future, with doing or not doing certain things.

The basic fortune-telling mechanism is another occasion where I must revolt against Paolo’s use of the D6. Instead of one d20 or d100 you get like a five stage process of d6 rolls.

Question, they say if you are down a well and look up, you can see the stars. Much of this game is assumed to take place underground, if you look up from a cave through a narrow well-like crack in the day, can you do stargazing then?

There is another really good high level spell in ‘Call Down The Baethilus’ which I think is what they cast on Monkey in journey To The West to trap him under that mountain.


Immortality, blood, pineal glands, eating hearts, messing with bodies another good high level spell essentially makes you Sauron. Much of it specifically ‘evil’, so if you want the play the #notallnecromancers necromancer or the ‘Don’t We Need Slytherin Really’ guy then you will have a hard time doing so.


In a sense this is half a school given in the spell list. It’s all meant to interact with the crafting system I skipped past earlier on. You can make commander data and gradually upgrade him. A bunch of other rather odd spells. For people who like building things really. You get a gun! (I mentioned that already). There would be a lot of interaction with the DM to decide what you can or cannot do but the possibilities are wide open. Go from MacGuyver to Aulë.


The big deal with these guys is they can heal you and also they know a lot about plants. They are almost the only guys who can heal you. I wish that was more interesting. Interacts with the plant rules the same way artificers interacts with the crafting rules so they are almost both half-a college if you just read the spell list. Scrap you might like this. Plants?

There are some very nice pictures of plants.


I like these guys, simple rules too, spells are characterful and appropriate, goat based. The most original of all the schools. Paolos goat fetish really came out with this one.

Asceticism - this is another form of spell research which is less boring than normal spell research. No books, no stuff, one tenth the cost, at least twice the time, sit on your own and think. People are going to be like Patrick you don’t want to search for plants or build things but you do want to sit alone in a cave and  to that I say yes that is who I am.

Captivating Container is a pure, excellent fairy-tale spell.

This class turns you into the guy who turns up an a Greek Myth and you are like ‘Fuck no hero don’t talk to that guy’ but they do and end up fetching hot girls for a Cyclops to eat because they made the wrong deal. Well now You can be That Guy. The weird soothsayer from Act Two who fucked everyone’s shit, running in and out of your self-made karst on your goat legs.

Three Spells About Undergound Trees

At the end there are three spells about underground trees.

There they are.


Dispensations in the spell descriptions are elements of the imagined world which, if they are in place, allow the Magic User to cast a spell without using Mana. Or in standard Old School D&D, without using a spell slot.

This is interesting. It does several things I like.

It offloads complexity onto the written document so you don't have to remember it all the time. But does so in a short and simple way that doesn’t add much weight to the spell description.

It gives strong impetus for the PC to interact with the world in a certain way in order to gain advantage.

So a Gatekeeper spell is that you can talk to doors and see what went through them. But if you build your own door and make it fancy with at least 100 worth of stuff then you can always talk to it without cost. So gatekeepers end up in houses and buildings full of really fancy doors they made themselves.

Dervishes can animate tiny spirits from fire. If they choose to they can do this for free, but they get more spirits and cannot control what they do.

Chimerists can make frogs into giant frogs, but if they seduce the frog first they don’t need to burn the spell points.

This leads to mages doing a lot of mage like stuff, looking for weird things, building things, dancing, playing instruments etc. It produces excellent magelike behaviours which the player will fully indulge because it gets them something if they build their own doors.

They are a bit like Carcosan Rituals but embedded into the Players info rather than the setting.

Question: do level 9 spells take 9 mana to cast, or one? If its one then the dispensation for high level spells is not that useful since for a 9th level mage burning 1 mana isn’t such a big deal, if its 9 then the dispensations are VERY useful indeed.

How would it work, what would you do with it ?

If you use this as-written you get a bunch of disparate mage PCs who are all going to act stranger and stranger but really can’t get much done on their own. So the stage is set for co-operation and conflict.

The characters of the schools are embedded well into the objects, spells and behaviours that surround them.

If you want to tear it up and turn it inside out you can turn the Players handbook into a setting relatively easily. The schools become mages you can talk to who both need and resent each other. The specifics of the Dispensations become quest seeds.

I would make a Karst desert full of Goaty hermits in caves or on the tops of poles and Fire Dervishes spinning endlessly on pools of vitrified glass.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic review of what (I hope) is a fantastic supplement. You do an excellent job of conveying how fresh the ideas are. I bought the book because of this review.