Game: Academy Handbook: St. John’s College of Abjuration
Publisher: Malladin’s Gate Press
Review Dated: 27th, February 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 22
Average Score: 7.33
The heads up on Malladin’s Gate doesn’t look good. At US $6.50 the 41-paged PDF Academy Handbook: St. John’s College of Abjuration doesn’t seem to manage the superb value for money that many ebooks do; although it is still a good price. Opening up the PDF and scrolling down past the faux leather cover and quickly skimming pages to the bottom means that you’ll discover there are no illustrations in the product either. On screen this Academy Handbook can become a sea of text at times and it is easy to loose your place. On the other hand, this is an easy product to print off. The absence of colour, pictures or sidebars means that all you face is the simple procedure of pressing the print button (although I opted not to print the first three pages and read the rest in bed). St. John’s College of Abjuration is less of a sea of text once it escapes the screen and makes it to paper. This seems to be pretty much true for all illustration light PDFs.
That’s just the first glance and first glances generally are unreliable witnesses. Rather than judging a supplement by first appearances, I much prefer to base approval or criticism for it on whether it achieves what it sets out to do. This is what we’re told of the supplement’s aims:
“The purpose of this is to create a book that, for players is both a splat book and an interesting read that makes them think about how and where their character learned their magical abilities.” We’re told that it’s designed not to be a headache for GMs either and to give them something that’s self contained and easy to slot into an existing campaign world.
Rather surprisingly, St. John’s College of Abjuration manages this. You’ll rarely catch me using splat and interesting in the same sentence but I will here. There’s a trick, see, a cunning ploy. This Academy Handbook wraps it’s nicely thought out splat in an in character dressing. The book, for the most part, reads to you as if it where a college guidebook. The “Introduction to Abjuration” course has lectures in St. John’s Great Hall on Tuesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Along side this, in comment boxes, are a couple of zero and first level Abjuration spells. I found myself reading the timetable primer for something called “Deadzone Theory” and thinking . o O (Oh, that sounds interesting) and that was the point I had to admit Malladin’s Gate had managed to inject readability into splat. The balance between this dressing and the splat is right. The supplement never gets too carried away with timetables, introductions from lecturers or the running of the school. This is true even when it detours to explain how the college is divided into two competing houses and gives examples of the sort of pupil behaviour that could see their house credited or docked points.
Harry Potter? Yes, ‘fraid so. I couldn’t shake that feeling even though there have been plenty of wizard college books before the Potter boy and there will be plenty of famous wizard college books after the mania goes. These wizards aren’t cheeky school kids though, they’re grown men and women. Guilds and mercenary companies sponsor many of the students. Mercenary sponsored gradates are expected to pay back their tuition fees by performing on the field of battle. You can use the College as a self-contained drop in for your own campaign world but there’s quite clearly the world of Malladin’s Gate all around the college in the supplement. There’s some help in integrating these Malladin’s Gate inspired world features into your game. St. John, himself, is a deity and we’re told his alignment and domains, just enough to use him but we’re also told that any suitable deity with Protection as a main domain will do or perhaps St. John is an important servant of a deity that does exist in your world. There’s nothing to get hung up on here.
The splat core of the product is composed of the four primal elements; core classes, prestige classes, new spells and new feats. The core classes present themselves in an interesting (you guessed it, that word again) way but they do throw away any idea of keeping the core classes as universal and distinct as possible to the wind. These new classes are all pretty much restricted to those who attended St. Johns and there is plenty of overlapping. This isn’t a bad thing as such, it’s just something to watch, imagine how many core classes you could invent if you had one for each Fighter variant you could think of.
The two houses that make up the College of Abjuration each have a representative core class. The religious (of the Protection deity St. John) and spiritual Pendeghast House tends to produce the Devout Abjurer. This is a 20 level core class that can be multiclassed with Wizard if you so want. Actually, they’re called “subclasses” and you can only ever have one subclass. The Devout Abjurer casts spells as the wizard but can not take spells from certain schools, they receive their abjuration speciality bonus and can also cast divine domain spells from the Protection domain. Their friendly rivals in house Hardacre offer up the Fortamancer subclass; so called because these abjurers channel their defensive magics into their body. The Fortamancer has a reduced number of spellslots but is very much tougher; d8 hit points and Damage resistance appearing and then improving at high levels as a class special. The Guild Scholar abjurer subclass is similar to the Fortamancer in that they’re not quite as well rounded wizards but wouldn’t look out of place on the battlefield. It’s the class special abilities that prove to be the grumble point. The specials don’t tend to be very exciting and they’re certainly rather rare. The Devout Abjurer is the worst offender, getting only Scribe Scroll at level one and then Turn Undead at level three. Nothing else. These god-fearing wizards don’t even pluck up the courage to summon a familiar.
If the house you went to at college can so hugely effect what sort of Abjurer you turn out to be then what about your race? Sensibly the supplement looks at the effect the core rule PC races might have and it does it in two ways. The first way is a block of racial adjustments: advantages and disadvantages. There are even a few options as to where and when to apply this pair – perhaps the disadvantages apply to the whole race but the advantages only to Abjurers. The advantages and disadvantages are a bit of a stretch at times and do rely on some campaign setting racial stereotypes. Dwarves need to be naturally magically resistant (rather than, say, having their +2 bonus because they’re especially good at magic) and so their disadvantage is the loss of a whole extra magic school type due to specialisation. On the whole it seems to work. If you have a half-orc who’s managed to learn some Abjuration magic then I can quite believe its very much harder to distract him from casting spells by prodding him with an arrow than it is to distract a halfling abjurer by prodding him with the same arrow. That’s the sort of thing that this set of ads and dis-ads makes possible. The other racial approach is Life Paths. These are effectively tiny (three level) prestige classes with a special emphasis on the class’s special ability.
Prestige classes make their appearance as we look at some of St. John’s Alumni (in other words, some prestigious ex-students). In essence this chapter takes four NPCs, writes them up (stats and all) and then presents a seven level prestige class that relates to the specialised but successful path taken by each. This produces the Arcane Shieldman (again with the wizards can be warriors too), the Monk of St. John, the Paragon and the Antithaumaturgist. I know; seven level prestige classes are kind of weird. I prefer to look at them as two levels better than a skimpy five level class rather than three levels shy of a full ten level class.
It’s at this point in the short but well packed supplement that you’ll catch up with my introductory comments about timetabling. By literally dividing Abjuration into classes the Academy Handbook is able to present sets of feats and new spells bundled together by theme. It certainly works, someone like myself who doesn’t like splat much rarely entertains the thought . o O (I want!) but I do here. The flipside to that is that some of these combinations can be rather powerful. The declared goal for this product is to avoid giving the GM headaches but I think the GM will have to watch that these rules aren’t used to create characters that are either all-powerful abjurers or fish out of water as the circumstances dictate. Generally you want to be somewhere in between for the best part of the game and not always stuck at either extreme.
A bunch of True Rituals (read: powerful spells) and adventure ideas draw the Academy Handbook to a close. The appendixes are especially useful given that the supplement spreads the new feats and spells around as the flavour text divides them up. You have the full Abjuration Spell list at your fingertips and the new Abjuration Feats too.
It just goes to show that you shouldn’t rush to dismiss a book or an idea. I was surprised that Academy Handbook: St. John’s College of Abjuration works so well. It does work well and the supplement does manage to reach its goals. This Academy Handbook is genuinely useful and interesting and I don’t think it will be too hard to avoid the pit falls that this level of specialism can dig up.