Greetings, my viewers. You may notice that the format of this blog post is different than usual. Don’t worry, it’s not your computer screen or a hallucination brought on by the vengeful spirit of Horace Wells come back from the grave to take revenge on you for your last successful trip to the dentist. Instead, the reasoning is quite simple: this isn’t a written-in-WordPress post (dun dun dun)! To cut things short, with how often I’m on the road and out of the house lately, it’s far easier to type up a post in OpenOffice and copy-paste it later than keep waiting until I’m at a good Wi-Fi point before I continue writing. So think of this as a test run of that formatting; if you don’t like it, feel free to give some feedback in the comments, but hopefully it won’t be too abrasive to the eyes.
Moving on to the topic at hand…religious games. They exist. The D&D book Testament: Roleplaying in the Biblical Age by Green Ronin Publishing is not one of them. This is a game that has religion in it, rather than a religious game. What’s the difference? Well, in my mind, the difference between a game that has religion in it and a specifically religious game is that the former doesn’t prejudge itself, while the latter attempts to proselytize you rather than try to strive at being…you know…a game. The fact that the pantheons of all the playable cultures are equally valid should probably be your first tip as to what you’re getting into. As a Universalist Unitarian – as well as someone that understands what the phrase “religious-themed fiction” means, for that matter – I have no qualms with this, but if you are a dominionist or keep a scroll of Summon Fainting Couch handy, you have been fairly warned.
In the Beginning
Testament introduces itself by explaining just what this book is all about: namely, having adventures of literally Biblical proportions. The gods and their planar realms actually exist, giants and monsters truly roam the Fertile Crescent, angels and demons really do wage battles for souls, and those Sumerians and their demigod heroes are off gallivanting about as they fight against the forces of chaos. The game splits itself up into 9 eras of Old Testament play to choose from, ranging from the Antediluvian Era (a time of very-present Heavenly and Hellish entities and when God hasn’t yet done his whole “drown everyone that can’t get to safety” shtick) to the time of the Maccabees and the Seleucids. The game as-is proposes you play as an Israelite, but there is a note on “alternate campaigns” based around other cultures. While almost every player in a Testament game is human, you must choose a specific nationality that dictates your cultural dos and don’ts and what classes and prestige classes you can legally take in the game; the nationalities given are the Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, and Israelites.
Just past the notes on classes and languages of each nation, you get introduced to the Flaw system. Every player in Testament has to have at least one flaw, though they are roleplaying-based rather than mechanical in nature. These flaws range from lesser entries such as Vain and Boastful up to more notable flaw such as Racist, Warmongerer, and Superstitious. Yes, I said Superstitious. “But Rappy,” you say, “how can a setting where gods and monsters are real have a flaw called Superstitious?” Well, the Superstitious flaw as marked going from the logical note that gods and monsters exist to the flawed existence of going so far as to read signs and portents every time you have an ingrown toenail or get a bad haircut. Unlike the optional drawbacks system in Unearthed Arcana that compensates for your flaws by granting free feats, the fact that the flaws system here is both mandatory and provides no in-game benefit means that it is a specifically roleplaying-oriented feature, and one that not every player might find themselves happy to be saddled with. Personally, I see why the Green Ronin designers would have chosen to add such a feature into a campaign setting that focuses heavily on morality and the balance between success and failure in the eyes of your culture’s deities. Also, my personal favorite flaw presented is Profane, wherein you don’t give two shits what rites and sacrifices your deity/deities demand of you, and instead follow your own path. Viva la resistance!
A Cleric is a Cleric is a Levite Priest
The next items on the agenda are the new classes and prestige classes. You knew these were coming, so don’t fuss and just look at the list of what we have here.
Levite Priest (Israelite Base Class): As the section header indicates, the Levite Priest is a base class that acts as an Israelite-specific replacement for the Cleric class. Unlike Clerics, Levite Priests are burdened with two clauses as to their God-given divine spellcasting: they cannot use any of their priestly abilities if they are deemed unclean, and they can only replenish their spell power by an animal sacrifice at either the Tabernacle or, after the Tabernacle’s gone, Solomon’s Temple. As they level up, the Levite Priest gain the power to cast demons out of possessed individuals, resistance to arcane spells, the ability to craft several minor boon-granting holy items, defenses and powers against snakes and dragons, specialization in disease spells to spread those good ol’ “God is pissed” plagues, boons to aided armies, the ability to turn or rebuke dragons as Clerics turn/rebuke undead, and a final level capstone of imbuing a terrible uber-curse on anyone that manages to kill them without any chance of a saving throw. Even if the killing was out of self-defense or an accident. Yep, that’s Old Testament God, alright.
Psalmist (Israelite Base Class): Because the Israelites get plenty of special goodies in this book, it’s of no surprise that they also have a second “like a typical D&D class, but special” base class. In this case, the Psalmist is like a Bard…but for God! Like the Bard, the Psalmist uses musical magic to influence the hearts and minds of others; unlike the Bard, however, Psalmists get the clap-your-hands-if-you-believe powers of creating a saving throw-boosting worship circle or having other worshipers of the Hebrew God sing along to their tunes to boost their power.
Champion of Israel (Israelite Prestige Class): Most of this religious warrior prestige class’s powers are based around boosting physical damage and attacks to, as one man once said, kick ass for the Lord. Oh, and they get a bonus when fighting alongside other Champions of Israel or God-devoted Paladins, so there’s that.
Judge (Israelite Prestige Class): This prestige class represents the Judges, as in the Judges the Book of Judges is named after. With evil-smiting, an aura of truth-telling, and general “I know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good…or I’ll summon an angel to help me beat you senseless, or just outright put a curse on you” abilities, this is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it class; in particular, those that feel that “Detect Evil, smite, repeat” Paladins are the bane of D&D should definitely be aware of this prestige class beforehand.
Prophet (Israelite Prestige Class): I could simply note the blatantly obvious fact that prophets focus on divination spells and leave it at that, but I won’t. In addition to that, a Prophet gains defenses in the forms of both damage reduction and spell resistance, the ability to consecrate areas, the power to judge a person’s piety, and permission from God to use resurrection spells without being given the divine shunning.
Khery-Heb (Egyptian Base Class): Yay, another nationality finally gets some love! The Khery-Heb is the Egyptian equivalent of the classic D&D Wizard. The majority of the Khery-Heb’s class abilities focus on crafting magical items and scrolls (including special scrolls that can cast spells based on the really-real-special-totally-awesome magic crafted by the hands of the gods themselves), but one other ability in particular is worthy of note: Divine Vessel. This ability allows a 15th-level or higher Khery-Heb to take on the animal mantle of their deity, granting them special powers based on it; for instance, a Khery-Heb who primarily worships Thoth gains baboon features and more potent spells, while one devoted to Mut becomes vulturine and is immune to death-based spells.
Ren-Hekau (Egyptian Prestige Class): If you want to specialize beyond the Khery-Heb, the Ren-Hekau is the prestige class for you. It focuses on a very specific aspect of Egyptian magic: namely, true name magic. While I know some of you out there might be rushing for your vomit bags at the mention of “true name magic”, don’t worry, this prestige class has more usefulness than the Truenamer, I promise. Most of the Ren-Hekau’s abilities focus on either discovering true names or boosting verbal spells; indeed, this is the first class I’ve seen that actually punishes you for a metamagic feat, with a Ren-Hekau losing their powers if they take the Silent Spell feat. In addition to their spell powers, the Ren-Hekau can separate their spirit (the ka) from their body, allowing it to take the form of a hawk of Horus. While the separate ka allows for spying and a quick resurrection if the human body is slain while the ka remains free, there are also downsides: namely, that spells can’t be cast via the ka, and that if the ka is taken down, the Ren-Hekau has a save-or-die on their hands.
Magus of the Starry Host (Babylonian Base Class): Like the Khery-Heb, the Magus of the Starry Host is a Wizard analogue. Unlike the Khery-Heb, however, Magi of the Starry Host (MOSH from now on) are of a class that divorces itself from the scrolls and craft of the Wizard and Khery-Heb, instead becoming what could be called a spellcasting astrologer. The MOSH derive powers from a certain star, and the stars also guide them on pilgrimages to places of power that can teach them new spells or move in ways that allow them to utilize divination.
Qedeshot (Canaanite Base Class): The Qedeshot, a priestess of Asherah/Ishtar that the Bible referred to as prostitutes (because to the followers of Chastity Belt Jehovah, these types of rituals were seen as just another form of the world’s oldest profession), is a practitioner of tantric magic that acts as a Bard with dancing replacing music. If you don’t know what tantric magic is, you probably are either too young to be reading this blog or just not familiar with its widespread presence in various old school religious and occult societies.
Spy (General Base Class): Ooh, here’s our new base class for all of the nations. The Spy is sort of a hybrid between the Rogue and Ranger of standard D&D, having the stealth and people skills of the former combined with the minor spellcasting and fleet-footedness of the latter.
Desert Hermit (General Prestige Class): The Desert Hermit is a master of the elements, with abilities that focus on harnessing the harsh powers of the desert and surviving heat and cold, powers of divination from both the shifting sands and visions in dreams, and eventually gaining so much respect in the eyes of elementals and genies that they will not willingly attack the Desert Hermit unless the hermit is the one to deal the first blow. One could almost say this is meant both a “wandering Israelites under Moses” and proto-John the Baptist prestige class, but I’m thankful it wasn’t made into yet another Israelite-only PrC for this book.
Idol Maker (Almost General Prestige Class): What do I mean by “almost general”? Well, the Idol Maker prestige class focuses on the creation of magical items in the form of effigies of their deities, eventually being able to animate them as special types of golem imbued with innate spells. It is available to ever nation…except the Israelites. God’s not too big on the prestige class, what with his jealous hording of followers and the whole “no idolatry” thing.
Master Charioteer (General Prestige Class): An entire prestige class dedicated to enhancing one’s prowess with combat and defense while in a chariot? …Okay. Sure, I guess it works if you want to do a player tribute to Ben-Hur.
Royal Astrologer (General Prestige Class): Another divination-boosting prestige class, with the bonus that this one gets to subtly reshape the future and use a horoscope to get a special save-or-die attack on a specific person.
With all of these prestige classes laid out, what conclusions can I make? Well, first off, in spite of the Israelites hogging many of the unique classes and prestige classes, the other nations make up for it by having appealing and interesting ones that also don’t require one to be Lawful Stick-up-Ass or its slightly toned down sibling, Neutral Stick-up-Ass.
With our first part complete, we’ve gotten the basics and the classicses to lay out the starting ground. In the next part, we’ll dig much deeper with feats, faith, mass combat, and money as we deal with chapters 3 through 6.