One of the biggest complaints I’ve often heard about magic in Pathfinder (and its direct predecessors) is in reference to its distinctly “vancian” nature. That is, spells are cast using the fire-and-forget system, where they’re prepared ahead of time and then lost once cast – and only by people who have devoted themselves to studying how magic works, at that. This eliminates a lot of classical depictions of how magic operates.
Incantations, when they were introduced, fixed a lot of that. Here was a magic system that anyone could use, that didn’t need to be prepared ahead of time, and that was inherently dangerous. It was one of the best sets of optional rules, and once it was released…it was completely forgotten about. It was amazing to see how, for all the flavorful potential incantations had, they were near-totally ignored. Luckily, Zombie Sky Press has stepped in to fill the void with their highly-evocative debut book Incantations from the Other Side: Spirit Magic.
All too short, Incantations from the Other Side is a thirty-nine page PDF. Despite being a new publisher, Zombie Sky Press hits the bulk of the high points with the technical construction of the book. For example, there are bookmarks here, going to the introduction, each of the book’s three major sections, and the index. This is good, though I found myself wishing that there had been nested sub-bookmarks for each section of the book (e.g. to the various incantations, sidebars, etc). That’s not really necessary, but it’s one of those little things that helps go the extra mile.
In regards to the book’s illustrations, the artwork here was impressive for not only its quality, but in how well it complemented the subject matter. This is most obvious in the color illustrations, which are done in subtle, somber tones and in a style that reminds me a lot of Picasso’s work (though I’m no art connoisseur, so take that with a grain of salt). Given how the forms of magic here are described as being rustic and/or alien, these pictures work very well to evoke that feeling. My only complaint was how the largest pictures, which usually accompany the start of a new section, are often broken over two pages, which interrupts them somewhat. Beyond those, there are several black and white illustrations, most of which are arcane diagrams spread around some of the incantations, helping to reinforce the ritual aspect of these spells.
The book opens with a short introduction to the idea of spirit magic. Before going any further, it should be made clear exactly what the book means by that particular term. Spirit magic – manifested in the game by the use of incantations – is where you’re using magic to bargain, entreat, or otherwise communicate with a powerful entity that’s not of the mortal world. The book’s introduction does explain the spirit world a bit, mostly in the context of it being a distorted reflection of our world, which cannot be reached by mortals and vice versa. Hence, spirit magic is the only way to interact with spirits.
The first section of the book deals with vodou (aka voodoo). This section also has an introduction, mostly to discuss the particulars of vodou spirits, known as the loa, so as to grant a better feel for how they’re portrayed. Only after this are the incantations, largely centered around themes of possession and necromancy (such as creating a “zombie” or allowing a loa to possess you so it can be questioned). A common theme throughout the book is also front and center here – that the incantations themselves are tied to specific spirits, whether as individuals or in groups. The loa in this chapter are divided into three groups (each getting their own sidebar; where the members of it given short descriptions), each of which has several members; the various incantations are only meant to be used with a specific group, and each member of that group has dominion over a certain portfolio, and affects the incantation slightly differently – in fact, you often can’t perform an incantation to a certain spirit without undertaking other, special preparations first. It is, needless to say, a small but excellent mechanic for tying the new incantations to particular spirits, giving them all their own flavor.
The second section is called the Middle World, and deals with the spirits of Slavic mythology and folk tales. It opens by describing about a half-dozen such spirits in detail (moreso than the myriad spirits of the vodou section), including how they should be called prior to performing an incantation – you can do one without first calling the proper spirit, but that’s a great way to anger it. Unlike the vodou incantations, these have a much more down-to-earth feel, very reminiscent of folk lore. For example, one ritual makes it so another person cannot live without you – literally, as they can’t breathe when not in your presence. Another, based on the idea that everyone has an animal that shares their soul, allows you to find your animal and permanently bond with it. As with the vodou incantations, only certain spirits can perform certain incantations.
Now, it should be obvious at this point that I quite enjoyed this book, but it was the last section that really did it for me. The last chapter, titled The Arcanum, is in regards to the Lovecraftian spirits of the dark, unknowable areas of the spirit world. The title is in reference to the singular term often used to collectively group the secret societies that spring up around worshipping/communicating with these entities. This chapter describes the fewest spirits, only five, but discusses how each has “masteries,” areas of dominion where they wield power greater than any mortal. Similar to the preceding sections, contacting these alien creatures requires prerequisites, but in this case it’s a prerequisite incantations to initiate contact with them in the first place. This initial incantation alone has other possible uses (once contact has been established), which made it very cool and drove home the imagery of a cult trying to make for greater contact with their otherworldly patron. The other incantations are an eclectic variety of things, from imbuing yourself with some of your benefactor’s power (which applies a new template, included here), to turning a person into the cult’s puppet, ensnared beyond even death’s ability to release them.
My biggest complaint about Incantations from the Other Side is that it left me wanting more. Each of these chapters could easily have been much longer, filled out with more spirits and more incantations, as what is here fires the imagination. Beyond that, the only thing I didn’t like is that some of these incantations seemed like altered versions of existing spells – Behold the Epithelius Mirror, for example, is a twisted version of the clone spell. Now, I know that a lot of incantations were originally basic spells in ritualized form, but these are so much cooler when they’re doing things that normal spells can’t do. Having said that, this particular issue didn’t come up very often, so it’s a minor point.
In all other ways, this book is what every RPG designer hopes their sourcebook will be: inspirational. Just reading it made me think of all sorts of adventure possibilities, both in a standard Pathfinder game and for settings where magic works differently. This book will definitely stir up new ideas and directions for your campaign, all the things that are in the spirit of good gaming.