Paizo’s newest release for Pathfinder 2nd Edition (PF2e), Book of the Dead, will finally let players play as a host of undead, ranging from ghosts to liches, but sadly the book is ultimately let down by a desire to balance the experience which ends up greatly diminishing the entire affair.
The book is divided into five sections. The first of these sections contains information on fighting the undead; the second section covers player options if they wish to play as an undead character; the third section is the bestiary; the fourth is a primer on undead nations; and the fifth is a short adventure for undead characters.
The first section is well done and has some interesting new weapons and items to allow you to fight the undead, but if you’re interested in buying the book I’m going to assume the second section is what you’re really interested in. And if that’s the case I’m afraid I’m going to have to be bearer of bad news – it is underwhelming and will most likely lead you to rethink the idea of playing an undead character. In short, if you use the character options here you’ll never really have the experience of playing a standard undead creature, but rather playing a variant of that creature who, for some reason, is markedly different from the norm.
The options covered in the second section are ghost, lich, mummy, skeleton, vampire, and zombie. All of those, bar skeleton which is an ancestry, are archetypes that can be taken at level 2, bar the lich which requires level 12. The book does also have a variant rule for starting as an undead at level 1.
It’s clear that Paizo are deeply concerned with maintaining the balance of PF2e, and they note that the character options presented in the book are neutered, effectively, to fit within the existing balance. So undead player characters, for example, are not immune to disease, poison, etc, like the standard undead is, because that would throw the balance off, but instead receive a small bonus to saves against those things. For the same reason undead player characters are not immediately destroyed when they hit 0 HP. The book does note that GMs can allow players to have the standard undead experience, but none of the book’s content is geared towards supporting that playstyle.
The problem is that, in attempting to maintain the idea of ‘balance,’ Paizo have sacrificed both narrative congruence and a lot of the flavour that would make a player want to play one of these creatures. It’s certainly a worthwhile objective to try and maintain the balance of the game, and no one wants a return to the arms race of 3.5, but it feels like Paizo are fetishizing balance and subsequently over-correcting and removing options that could lead to really flavourful and evocative player characters because they’re afraid that an option will be too powerful. We saw something similar with the Automaton race, and the decision not to class them as constructs, in Guns and Gears.
It’s particularly disappointing given that the rarity system of PF2e seems like a natural tool to gate player options which are more complex, maybe more powerful in certain regards, without running the risk that they unbalance the general play experience. It may be that they don’t wish to use the rarity system in that way, but given that one of PF2e’s main draws over competitors like D&D 5e is the ability to create distinctive and flavourful characters it would certainly seem to be in Paizo’s interest to explore how they can allow these more complex options.
To be honest I’m not even sure letting players play undead characters, with all of the standard bonuses and maluses, would actually unbalance the game in any real sense. The positives are powerful, but they’re largely balanced by how problematic the negatives are. I think immunities and weaknesses are relatively easy to work with as a player and as a DM; it would be easily acquired and consistent numerical bonuses where I would be most concerned about the game’s balance given the tightness of the maths.
Where the book shines is in the lore and its descriptions of what undead are, and what becoming undead does to a person or creature. The book is written as a narration by Geb, a powerful necromancer who inadvertently became a ghost, and there are great tidbits buried through the book that are going to be immediately useful to DMs running both homebrew and standard games. A particular favourite is a note that the language spoken by the undead, Necril, is innate to all undead, and that anything that becomes undead finds themselves able to speak and understand the language, and that no one is really sure why that is or what it means. Paizo’s writing on these background aspects of the lore has been consistently fantastic, particularly in this book and Secrets of Magic, and long may it continue.
The bestiary is interesting and has a range of creatures for parties of different levels to encounter, but it is not as memorable as it could have been and many of the monsters are variants of existing concepts. That’s not to say the bestiary is bad, but rather that it feels more like an amuse bouche rather than a reason to buy the book. Having said that there are several monsters that feel like legitimately noteworthy additions to the overall bestiary. Monsters like the Ecorche, an undead who collects and wears the skin of its victims, are perfect creatures to hang a mid-level to high level campaign around, and the little lore snippet describing it speaking to the skins of those it’s flayed, and those skins whispering back, is fantastic and campaign worthy in its own right.
The book’s art is worth mentioning, both for its quality and for its variance. Some of the pieces, like the art for the Fluxwraith or the Lacedon, are fantastic – evocative and technically executed to a very high standard. Unfortunately, that is not consistent over the entirety of the book, and a number of the illustrations are simply not well done at all. There is also an overall issue of art direction, with certain illustrations being slightly cartoonish, or sometimes simply amateurish, and not really fitting with the other pieces.
The book lists 23 different artists as being involved in the book, the majority of whom I presume were freelancers, and that shows. Having said that, this is a long standing issue with the artwork for PF2e, and Book of the Dead is much better in this regard than some of the other material released.
Overall I would have to say that the Book of the Dead is not what I would have wanted in regards to player options; I certainly don’t imagine any of my players being interested in the options when they get a chance to review them. More importantly I think the unwillingness of Paizo to present options which have both notable benefits and notable hindrances is both disappointing and detrimental to the quality, and player experience, of PF2e. Paizo may certainly disagree, and given their experience with the system they built they may absolutely be right, but I can’t shake the feeling that the PF2e chassis can do more than it is currently being used for, and that it won’t achieve its full potential if Paizo doesn’t develop more of a willingness to push those limits. Frankly, having read the book and considered the options, my hope would be that Paizo reworks these options at a later date. As the player options currently are, I would suspect for most people they’ll be dead on arrival.