Gaming for Cheap Bastards Day, Part 2

Pathfinder Player Companion: The Harrow Handbook (Paizo, Inc. – $12.99)

The Harrow Handbook is one of the sub-line of inexpensive 32-page saddle-stapled player books for the Pathfinder RPG. Even though these books give invaluable world information at a low price, it’s a format I’m not fond of. Saddle-stapled books age prematurely and look cheap when put next to perfect-bound paperbacks and hardcovers. Even moderate handling can damage the cover (my copy has a wrinkled corner less than a week after I bought it), and pages are far more prone to ripping out than other binding styles. 32 pages is also not really long enough to exhaustively cover any subject, especially one as important to the setting concept as fortunetelling and the Tarot, er, Harrow is to Pathfinder. But, until Paizo commissions an author to do an expansive book on the Sonnorae Deck of Harrowed Tales, this is The Harrow Handbook we’ve got. So, onward!

In the realm of Golarion, the Deck of Harrowed Tales is the magical archetype of all divination decks – and I do mean that. The introduction to the book explains how Sonnorae, the creator of the Deck of Harrowed Talesbound a sliver of the Realm of Dreams into her deck, and so doing made it the archetype to which all other decks eventually converged. (Also, she was a transgender woman. Representation COUNTS!)

Misgivings with format specifics aside, THH packs as much information into its 32 pages as we could hope for, starting with Gambit (note: not actually Gambit) on the front cover throwing fiery Harrow cards at a number of enemies. It’s a highly dramatic image… and doesn’t have a damn thing to do with divination, which is what Harrow cards are all about. It does, however, illustrate the Deadly Dealer feat (page 15). Construction-wise there’s not really much to say – the pages are Paizo’s normal glossy, full-color paper and the images of the full Harrow Deck filling the front and back covers form a de facto 33rd and 34th page to the booklet. The inside back cover includes information on making one’s own deck, and presumably a player with sufficient motivation and art skills (or a sufficiently motivated artistic friend) could make their own Harrow deck on whatever cardstock they wished.

The pages that specifically deal with the cards, handle each suit as a whole and character building options that relate to that suit. You don’t get the individual interpretations of each card’s artwork that you would get in a proper tarot book. This is a game supplement that talks about the Harrow Deck, but it’s not really about the Harrow, and that wastes substantial amounts of potential story space. The Harrow Deck, especially in its easier to handle deluxe edition, is gorgeously illustrated and deserves a handbook about its use that is much more expansive and useful in play.  These twelve two-page spreads each include a class archetype and a number of feats linked to Harrow, which can inform and improve a Harrow themed game.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the two-page spread on crooked Harrow. What we needed was more research in this part of the book on actual crooked fortunetelling and how that worked because the section we got was packed with story seeds and interesting ideas.

The magic items in this book are also awesome (both functionally and as story seeds), but a few of them (most notably the Man Mountain Armor, Bastion Boots, and Rabbit’s Blade) are only questionably linked to the Harrow.

The Harrow Handbook introduces some alternate spreads to the nine-card “tapestry” (all of which are easily recognizable as well-known and well-understood tarot spreads in the real world), and generally replaces the “misaligned” concept (that is to say, a card that is not in a position that corresponds with its D&D alignment) by using the “direct/reversed” system of interpretation that tarot cards use. This is a very solid change and I want to encourage it to continue in all future Harrow decks, because the alignment consideration is one that probably sounded good when they were writing the damn thing, but does not work very well in actual use.

My overall impression of The Harrow Handbook is mixed, largely due to the tight page count forced on it by the format. A 64-page or even 96-page book would have been better, but also more expensive. If you’re playing Pathfinder, in Golarion, it’s a worthwhile purchase at its price with a lot of good adventure seeds in it that tie directly to Varisia.

Up next: The Everyone Everywhere List.

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