Psychic Duels In The Theater of The Mind– Previewing Paizo’s ‘Dark Archive’

by Anton Kromoff

Welcome to the table.

The Storyteller is under the weather, thanks to Talon and her vile microbic machinations. Even in these times of convalescence, the Theater of The Mind is open, and that is precisely what I wanted to talk to you about today.

As many of you know, Paizo will soon be releasing their newest rulebook Dark Archive. Dark Archive comes in at 224 pages and contains two new character classes, a library of secret lore, paranormal gear, and mini-adventures. The whole thing is an absolute delight, and once again the fine game makers over at Paizo have crafted a book in such a way that you are not flipping from one side of the tome to the other, hunting for the information you need. Each paranormal topic is carved into its own section and feels intentional and elegant.

I can never say enough about how hard the layout team and game designers work hand-in-hand to ensure that regardless of if you are a player, storyteller, or casual reader you are able to enjoy this book.

There is so much to talk about in Pathfinders Dark Archive, from the Thaumaturge class that melds magics and religions into this weirdly twisted and beautiful Esoteric Jugernaught of knowledge and forbidden power, to a section on cryptids that is so fleshed out it feels less like pages from the Weekly World News and more like a deep dive into the notebook of Fox Molder or Wendle The Slime Hunter himself.

One of the stand-outs is the section on Mindscapes.

As a Storyteller, Mindscapes are a really fun addition to the table. Tabletop role-playing games rely heavily on imagination and theater of the mind things, like uniform settings and foundational set-pieces typically ground and bind the party’s understanding of the location their party is in. A haunted forest evokes the feel of the cold wind through the trees, long shadows, the smell of pine and old earth, and the distant howl of wolves. These settings can become familiar, easy to evoke, and unfortunately even in a world of dragons and warlocks a bit stale. Opening things up to Mindscapes creates this weird and wonderful sandbox that has no limitation.

Mindscapes can be hyper-detailed, with each petal on the stain-glassed flowers that grow through the iron grass fields on the hills of clockwork cogs having a color and shade all their own. These spaces can also be much more free form and unfinished, with vague voids of color drifting into each other and spiraling semi-constructed clouds in colors that have never been seen before. The way one appears in a Mindscape is also a lot of fun and gives all sorts of freedom to the players and storytellers.

In the mindscape, the player is not their actual physical form but an astral projection. It draws from the sense of self to craft a facsimile of the projector but it does not always have to be the way that one appears in the waking world.

For example, I, Anton The Storyteller, use a wheelchair to get around am currently covered in more surgical scarification than I would have ever liked, have to bags under my eyes, and while oh so adorable, I on occasion find myself less than pleased with how I appear. In the Mindscapes, I would not appear in my small well-worn wheelchair but rather cross-legged on a large open book that floated along at varying heights so I could be eye to eye with whoever spoke to me. My scars would be golden tattoos of text passages from my favorite stories and my eyes would never look dull and pained.

From a narrative perspective, this allows a fun and unique way for characters to explore themselves in various fluid forms through the theater of the mind. It also allows for some pretty fun combat experiences. One of the most notable is the Psychic Duels.

For those of you not familiar with how Pathfinder’s Duel mechanic works, let me offer a quick refresher. In a normal Pathfinder duel, combat functions pretty much the same as regular combat, with a few exceptions. At the start of the duel, each participant makes an initiative check, just like in standard combat. Because duels are always planned and expected, there is never a surprise round. Some duels can start with a face-off and a flinch or break would need to be used to resolve that. In those cases, a Bluff, Intimidation, or Sense Motive check would be used in place of the initiative check.

Each player checks in at the beginning of the next round, and as long as someone does not withdraw, the duel continues. If someone withdraws, the duel ends immediately for all involved, even if the other party wants to continue.

Players can act normally on their turn but all actions must target or affect themselves or the entity they are dueling. During a duel in addition to their nromal actions, each participant can make use of a list of cool special immediate actions only available to those participating in the duel.

The Psychic Duels work similarly as stated before, with as expected some notable exceptions like all psychic manifestations are nonlethal, those engaged in the duel can only cast battle form spells, or the participants body is disturbed or harmed shaking them from the psychic space. As a refresher, when you take on a battle form with a polymorph spell unless otherwise noted, the battle form prevents you from casting spells, speaking, and using most manipulate actions that require hands. Ultimately if there is some kind of doubt about whether you can use an action or not your Storyteller can let you know. Your gear also gets absorbed into your form and you can’t activate items or anything in this form.

An option for Imagery of a Psychic Duel gets really really fun. Upon entering the psychic duel, a creature’s psychic avatar manifests in the minds of the duelists. The mental manifestation looks vaguely like the duelist but also takes on aspects based on their mental abilities. Where this gets really fun and I think provides an amazing opportunity for players to flex their own narrative voice is the psychic avatar, which is when a duelist attacks their form shifts based on what they do. A brutal strength-based attack may see a manifested mace enlarge and grow stone spikes as it crashes down on success or crack and warp on a failure.

The imaginative nature of this form of combat is unbound by any constraints and in a really cool way. As a long-time Storyteller, I feel that these kinds of unique encounters can help players who want to learn or feel more comfortable on the other side of the screen find their voice.

Aside from all this, there are also really fun new archetypes like the Psychic Duelist, the Sleep Walker (I may have built a whole campaign around this while convalescing), the Mind Smith, and so much more… and all of this is contained in one small section of this book.

When I tell you that Dark Archive is so stuffed with the stuff that makes the occult-loving weird fiction magic headspace players and storytellers happy it really really is.

Once again Paizo has created something that is not only an amazing gaming manual, but a book that is fun to read. 

As someone who used the Occult Adventure books from Pathfinder First edition, I really can’t stress how much this book is going to become part of my go-to pile. You can pre-order your copy of Pathfinder Second Editions Dark Archive at this link.

Until next time, if you can float on a giant magic book with all your childhood scars turned into your favorite book passages… do that, it’s way cooler than the alternative.

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