Game: Encyclopaedia Arcane: Chaos Magic
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 1st, January 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 9
Average Score: 4.50
Do you find the spells lists in Dungeons and Dragons to be a bit restrictive? I know it gets to me at times. I can’t really claim to be much of a fan of the way White Wolf’s Mage allows you to compose spells either, not so much because of any flaws in the way the system lets you bundle the spells together but because of the extremely weak Paradox concept. Mongoose Publishing as produced Chaos Magic as the third game in their Encyclopaedia Arcane range. The book follows on the heels of the Necromancy and Demonology titles and this one introduces a new brand of magic. Chaos Magic offers up a way to rid yourself of spells lists and it does it in a balanced way. I was all set to be cynically sceptical and yet again I was won over by the Mongoose writers.
The Chaos Mages are often of average intelligence but with an unyielding thirst for power. Remember that as any power gamers in your group try to wriggle the very last drop of benefit from the chaotic magic system. The premise is straight forward enough, rather than using the static spell lists in the books the Chaos Mages put together the spells they want on the spur of the moment using a six-stage shopping list. The more ambitious the spell the harder it is, for example, upgrading a Casting so it can effect a group of people rather than just the caster himself increases the DC of the spell. Should the Chaos Mage be unfortunate enough to fail his casting roll then he suffers a backslash. These raw energy failures have striking and entirely notable effects on the mage character and simply cannot be ignored by their players. Whether the spell is successful or not the Chaos Mage is drained of a little more energy and simply cannot get away with casting spell after spell after spell.
I think Mongoose Publishing are continuing to make a strong name for themselves and one of the reasons for this is the tight editing that their products exhibit. On the day my Chaos Magic book arrived I had read other reviews of other products where the reviewer had spotted paragraphs that simply stopped mid-sentence and I was all primed to try and spot similar errors in this Encyclopaedia Arcane but I’m glad to say that I was thwarted. I’ve not yet been able to find a single typo. I wonder if I can write this review without making one myself? The book flicks well too. The “flick” test is the quick way to check the typesetting. If you can flick to a page and then quickly find what you were after from it then you know the formatting is good enough. If you have to struggle with tiny columns of text squeezed down the sides of pictures then the book has failed the test.
Chaos Magic represents growing confidence from Mongoose Publishing and as readers we benefit from this. An example of this would be the (colour) Chaos Magic Summary Sheet that is printed on the inside of the front page. Another example might be the designer’s notes included near the back. Some people have said that with these short books (64 pages in total) that the inclusion of designer notes or flavour text is a waste of precious space. I can see how that could be true but with Chaos Magic it is not true. The flavour text really does help put across that using Chaos Magic and running the risk of the backslash is an insane risk. The designer’s notes really do help to put the book in context.
Another feature of Mongoose Publishing’s growing confidence, I think, is present in the artwork. Fantasy art is prone to muscled barbarian women in chainmail bikinis and thus, as a genre, rates slightly on the riskeé scale. Chaos Magic, with its tentacled creatures and naked chaotic familiars, rates one notch up on that same scale of riskeé art.
There is, of course, a lot more than fantasy art in the book. The overview of Chaos Mage makes a good job at explaining why people become Chaos Mages and who they might be. Although it might take this simple mind another read of the book, or the key pages, to decide whether someone trained as a “static” mage can become a Chaos Mage at a later point or versa versa (albeit, not both at the same time). The Chaos Magic section that presents the “build-a-spell” system that I am so enamoured with is easy to read and makes sense; a combination of both clear writing and precision editing. The Price of Chaos, the details of the horrid backslashes from failed spells, is a huge section that notes seven paths towards fatal chaotic mutation. In fact, this chapter could have survived at half the size and if I could think of anything else that should have been included in the book then I would complain that Price of Chaos was too long. I think the book pretty much includes everything I wanted and so I cannot really whinge. There are the inevitable Prestige Classes. Okay. To be fair, they’re pretty good prestige classes, each one of them shows a flair of imagination and I can think of ways to use all of them as plot twists in games. On that level they work well. This reviewer has a growing bee in his bonnet about the use of Prestige Classes as shameless power-up cookies for players and the likes of the Bloodcarver and Doomsinger can certainly be accused of that. Having had great success in detailing why Chaos Magic is so dangerous and risky these classes then offer up improved and enhanced ways to try and deal with it. That’s not all; despite the slim size of the book there is room to include rules for Chaos Mage created magical items and infusion. There’s the chaos familiar too.
I’ll pause to consider the Chaos Familiar. I think it works well. The concept of a familiar would of course be different for a mage who’s understand of the basics of magic is fundamentally different and yet, if you ask me, it would be one of the things that an author would miss. Sam Witt does not miss it; instead the Chaos Familiar system makes a lot of sense and fits with the continued theme of the book. I especially liked the way that Chaos Familiars grow a little once the Chaos Mage reactions a certain level of power.
If you let your guard slip I fear, despite the author’s best efforts, that Chaos Magic could be used as a power gamer’s codebook. You need to use the provided balances in the system if you want it to work. I think, though, that it shouldn’t take all that much effort to make the new rules work and for that I’m thankful. I personally think that the Chaos Mage will make a wonderful reoccurring villain for either high fantasy or low fantasy games and there aren’t that many foes that can stand astride that gap.