What RPG nerd doesn't want their very own copy of the Necronomicon? Paizo's Book of the Dead doesn't go so far as to claim that it's exactly the Necronomicon, but if you've ever wondered what the Necronomicon would contain, you can easily imagine this being dangerously close to it. I've sequestered myself safely within a circle of salt, I've cast the hallowed spell, and I'm reading through the Book of the Dead. Over the course of five posts, I'll review it chapter by chapter. This post covers the preface and chapter 1, "Prayers for the Living."
Well, I say a "preface" (singular) but actually there's a preface to that preface, so I mean "prefaces." The flavour preface is titled "A New Acquisition," and it's written by a fictional scholar who has discovered a set of scrolls by an ancient necromancer. This book ostensibly contains the contents of those scrolls.
The actual preface is (fictionally) written by Geb, and it sets up the perspective of the rest of the book. This is more important than you realise, and it's subtle messaging from Paizo that this book is written from a unique perspective. This isn't a 5e book with a bunch of "witty" quips from a character in a voice you barely recognise, it's a book written from the perspective of a specific NPC with useful sidebars from the Paizo authors.
Chapter 1 starts off by discussing the different kinds of undead you're likely to encounter out there in the fantasy world. It seems like it would be standard stuff, and I guess in a way it is. There are mummies, ghouls, zombies, vampires. They're the "consummate undead", the "hungry undead", and the "formless undead." Sometimes they're defined by what drives them (hunger, hatred, and so on), and other times by how they came to be undead (by choice, by intentional magic, by spiritual unrest, and so on.)
The one thing they all have in common is that they are undead because of negative energy. It's negative energy that causes an undead creature to persist beyond life. This is, of course, why channeling positive energy harms the undead and it's why holy water universally is an effective weapon against them. It's also why some regions of the world are prone to the rising dead. A place "polluted" by negative energy is obviously more likely to have its dead rise again in undeath, animated by negative energy, and driven by hatred for the living.
Most significantly, it's negative energy that compels the undead toward "a profound antipathy toward living creatures." In fact, the undead you meet that aren't actively malicious toward the living are only kind by force of will. They're achieving the near-impossible by resisting their own undead nature.
For many of us, half the fun of roleplaying games is the systematization of fiction. The few times I did connect with people socially as a child, it was through conversations about the hierarchy of popular fiction. Would Predator or Alien win a fight? Could Voltron save the world from Godzilla? Is a Beholder more dangerous than a Red Dragon? And on and on.
As you grow up, some of the debates evolve. Does a rapier deal the same amount of damage as a warhammer? What physical attributes are involved in a grapple-hold?
A good RPG provides answers, at least within that system, to these kinds of pointless questions. The first section of Book of the Dead services those arbitrary debates.
It's not essential information. You can run Pathfinder without knowing the pretend metaphysical interactions between negative energy and an undead creature. It will likely never come up in your game that combining zombie workers and living labourers increases workplace accidents. But for many of us, this contextual information is fodder for debates at the gaming table, both in-game and out of game. Look, I've had to explain to a player why a liqued that was poisonous to ingest didn't permanently blind an enemy NPC when it was thrown into their face. This stuff never matters...until the moment it does.
I love reading this kind of material. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I picked this book up, and chapter 1 delivers.
I don't know that I'd want every book to turn this trick, but the perspective of Book of the Dead is from an evil necromancer. That leads to some surprising opinions in the text. For instance, the book states that Pharasma can't tolerate undeath only because Urgathoa escaped the Boneyard. Reading this felt a little like blasphemy to me, which is amusing because it's fiction, and neither Pharasma or Urgathoa exist. But I'd never read anything printed by Paizo that called Pharsma petty, or called into question Pharasma's doctrines.
Personally, I'm a fan of Pharasma and Sarenrae, and I'd much rather be on their side than on Urgathoa's side. Changing the perspective of the narrator is effective, though. It cleverly makes the book feel like part of the game. It's you against Urgathoa now, dear reader. Are you strong enough to resist? Or will the twisted logic of the long-undead Geb beguile you into the realm of the undead?
There's a collection of items in chapter 1, from the obvious to the subtle. Obviously, Sarenrae's famous symbol, Dawnlight (seen in every shot of the iconic cleric Kyra) is listed, but at different levels. There are specs for Dawnlight, Greater Dawnlight, and Major Dawnlight.
But there's a lot more, like an Ectoplasm Tracer (faerie fire in a perfume bottle, more or less), the Lady's Spiral whip, a Grim Ring, a Celestial Peachwood sword that damages undead so spectacularly that you suffer 1d6 of negative energy damage yourself, bottled sunlight, life salt, talismans, and so on. I don't know any Game Master who's going to complain about too many magic items. Even the minor ones (or maybe especially the minor ones) are great filler for chests and treasure hoards.
Not all items in this chapter are magic items, though. There are mundane items significant to cults of the undead, and folk remedies and wards (some more effective than others). There's priceless little details about the items and their uses, too. For instance, holy water may become cloudy when you're in an area where there are undead. Garlic and onion stems, otherwise green, wither in tainted geographic regions. It's all just filler for the Game Master, and that's exactly what I expect from this kind of book.
There are a few player options presented in chapter 1 that are relevant, in some small way at least, to the undead. These are the "safe" player options, the ones that are likely to be allowed in any standard Pathfinder game. Options for an evil campaign are presented in chapter 2.
I love the background system in Pathfinder 2. Because they influence ability scores and grant feats, they actually serve to shape your character. I can see any of these backgrounds fitting perfectly in a Ravenloft or Ustalav campaign.
The archetypes are great, too. There's the Exorcist, Hallowed Necromancer, Soul Warden, and the Undead Slayer. In Pathfinder 2, you adopt an archetype by taking the feats of the archetype instead of your class feats (see page 219 of the Core Rulebook.) It's a sort of variant class, and works wonders for flavour and focus.
This is a great start. I'd heard a lot of excitement about this release, but I honestly hadn't intended to pick it up. After all, I've got a great book by AEG about the undead already, so I don't really need another one. But I was at the small game store and this is the Pathfinder book they had, so I bought it, and so far I'm really happy I did. I don't need a reminder of why I love Pathfinder and why I admire Paizo, but if I did need one, this book would be it. Full of great ideas, full of lore to draw on as a Game Master, and lots of great items and player options. It's a fun book. It's a good read. But it's also practical and useful in my game.
Next, I'll continue on to chapter 2, "Hymns for the Dead."