Saturday, August 28, 2010

How it Works: Pact Magic

This is a unified ‘How it Works’ section for all the pact-making classes from Secrets of Pact Magic (and those who tap into pact magic through other means). This does not include the Tome of Magic’s Binder, though there are similarities.

Getting down to business, spirit binding is pretty much what it sounds like; you barter, haggle, and coerce spirits into lending you their power- usually four or five abilities that tend to be passive, at-will, or have a five-round recharge- through a ten minute ceremony. Fundamentally, this works in a manner similar to the Tome of Magic version. Every spirit has its own legend, persona, quirks, themes, and all that rot. In fact, they all get their own nice, organized two-page spread sorted by spirit level first, then alphabetically within their given level, because that’s how anyone who’s looking for a given spirit is probably going to look through them anyways. Huzzah. Also, there are charts that are actually useful, giving you every spirit’s name, level, the page it’s located on, and a list of its powers. You know, the information that’s actually useful in a chart for all the spirits.

To form a pact, you make a binding check rolling 1d20 plus your binder level plus your charisma modifier (usually) versus a DC set by the spirit; the higher the level of the spirit, the harder it is to bind, and you need a certain minimum level to bind any given spirit at all. Lots of modifiers can tweak it up or down, but generally, regardless of the result, you get the spirit’s power. The results are as follows:

If you succeed, you get the powers with little consequence. You can hide whatever physical sign is associated with the spirit (like, say, horns) at will and it does not influence your personality.

If you succeed by a margin of ten or more, you gain an additional power, a capstone ability, which is generally the most powerful or significant ability (your mileage may vary). This is a nice reward for a good binding check.

If you fail your binding check, you still get all your powers, however you cannot hide the spirit’s physical sign and it has an influence on your personality, so be careful if you’re not fond of eating babies or being an anarchist for the day or… *looks for a good-aligned one* helping people without hesitation. More inconvenient than it sounds. Failing also impacts some specific abilities and is generally more significant than in Tome of Magic.

If you fail your binding check by a margin of ten or more, well, let’s just say you can expect to eat more babies in the future. Your alignment shifts one step towards the spirit’s alignment, and if you fail a will save, the change is permanent.

Save DCs for granted abilities are determined by your constitution modifier, which tends to make most pact magic users pretty tough regardless of their hit dice.

To make these binding checks, annoying requirements for any given spirit make their ‘triumphant’ return. Granted, most of them are just, “dump a few skill points here,” even if the skill requirements tend to be harsher, but a lot of them get oppressive and annoying. One spirit’s requirement is, “Must be in sight of an elf riding a dragon.” Yeah, there’s a reason I don’t enforce those requirements. You can attempt to bind a spirit without meeting its requirements, but that imposes a -6 penalty on your check and if you fail the check, you outright fail to bind the spirit at all. Adding to the annoyance, there’s no chart listing the requirements, so you have to go digging through the spirits themselves to plan ahead and make sure you actually qualify for the spirits you want. Even if that means… gaining the ability to lay eggs? There’s a reason one of my first feats on my binders is usually Ignore Binding Requirements, if they’re being enforced. If I haven’t made this point clear, I consider this an optional rule to be ignored. And one I’ve spent too much time on already, so it’s time to move on.

All spirits also have an associated constellation (similar to spell schools), a favored enemy, and a favored ally. If you are a spirit’s favored enemy, you take a -4 to your binding check, but otherwise, these don’t have much immediate value and are simply referenced for other feats and abilities.

And then, all spirits offer four tactical bonuses. These are little actions and conditions related to the spirit’s persona. For example, for one spirit, you meet criteria if you drink a cup of tea, fight near a hobgoblin ally, successfully use the spirit’s Dazing Strike ability, or move through rocky terrain. When you meet these criteria, you get a +1 bonus on all d20 rolls for three rounds, and these bonuses stack. It’s difficult, but if you meet multiple criteria, the bonuses can get rather large, especially if you’re binding multiple spirits at once. Like getting a +6 on an attack roll with your bow for having sex with a shape-changing chicken while drinking tea brewed from the blood of infants! A silly example, of course. Actually, unless your spirit has a pretty easy bonus (for example, I believe one grants you a +1 for using a bow), they tend to be a bit contrived and more easily met by villains. Like a fire giant binder getting a +2 for sitting on a throne that’s on fire. And anything that encourages thrones that are on fire is a good thing in my book.

On that note, time to mention binding multiple spirits. Classes from SoPM aren’t like the Binder, who can bind, say, three vestiges of up to 6th-level at level 14. Rather, if you can bind 5th-level spirits, you can bind one 5th-level spirit or any combination of spirits that adds up to five; two 1st-levels and a 3rd-level, a 4th-level and a 1st-level, two 2nd-levels and a 1st-level, and so on. Certain abilities can modify this. In general, SoPM spirits don’t scale quite as well as Tome of Magic spirits, but the way binding multiple spirits works this time around as well as the more well-rounded nature of most of the binding classes this time around, it’s for the best.

There are a great many feats that futz with all these aspects. If you don’t like physical signs, binding requirements, alignment shifts, or personality shifts, there are feats to ignore each of them. If you hate all of them, here’s hoping you have a bunch of bonus feats. If you like capstone abilities, there’s a feat to reduce the required margin of success to five (which really helps as some of the higher-level spirits have very high binding DCs). If you want to play up favored allies and enemies, there are a couple feats to grant bonuses related to them. There’s a feat to make tactical bonuses last longer. There are feats rather more fleshed out than Spell Focus to play up constellations. Various classes tend to play with these aspects a little more.

And then, there are anima spirits. Anima are a little different from the unique spirits that are the default. They’re generic. They don’t have a constellation, or favored enemies, or personality/alignment shifts, or tactical bonuses. They don’t even have a level; rather, you can bind them at any given level, and their abilities grow stronger if you bind them as a higher-level spirit. It costs a feat to access these spirits, but their flexibility and lack of baggage can be very useful, even if they do tend to be a mixed bag.

Finally, there are some ways for non-pact magic classes to dip into the pact-making goodness. The first is an optional rule for trying out pact magic in which spellcasters, instead of preparing spells for the day, you bind spirits up to the highest level of spell you can cast. Since spirits are (generally speaking) less powerful than spells for most purposes, this is generally a raw deal for most save, say, folks who only get up to fourth-level spells anyways, but it’s a good way to sample pact magic in an existing campaign. If you’re not using that variant rule, there’s a feat you can take that has the same effect, as well as alternate class features for the Bard, Druid, Ranger, and Paladin that trade spellcasting (and, in the case of the Paladin and Ranger, additional class features… for some strange reason) for spirit binding at the same rate as they’d normally gain spells.

Then, there’s Minor Binding, a feat pretty much anyone can take to gain a little bit of binding. It lets you gain one granted ability from one first-level spirit. There are two additional feats that improve upon this, one letting you take two abilities and the other letting you bind up to a third-level spirit in this way. Finally, there’s Supernatural Dabbler from web supplements, which lets you trade out spell-like abilities to bind spirits for granted abilities. Not many classes get enough spell-like abilities for this to be worthwhile, making it more useful for monsters than PCs, but some do, and as a DM, I’m all for any ability that lets a succubus trade Detect Good for a laser that renders the target so overwhelmingly horny that they cannot properly defend themselves. And it’s rather scary when that marilith reveals that she has the power to actually eat spells cast at her (gained for a couple minutes at the expense of her Summon Demon ability).

Secrets of Pact Magic and Villains of Pact Magic are available from Radiance House Publishing. The official site is, which includes information, free samples, and supplemental materials.

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