Welcome, welcome! Gather round! Today we’re taking a look at an awesome new release for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game that focuses on the dark and creepy land of Nidal. That’s right! Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Nidal, Land of Shadows.
Now, before we get started, there’s one thing I need to state plainly, right up front. This is NOT a family friendly book. It’s not the book you want to bring with you to read at the laundromat or on the bus, and it’s not a book you’re going to get a lot of ideas from for games involving children, or the many gamers who prefer a fun, carefree kind of game. This book is dark. It’s disconcerting. More specifically, it features body horror, mental and physical torture, as well as imagery and content that may disturb some readers. If you’re a gamer who doesn’t enjoy (or enjoy experimenting with) such content in your d20 games, then this is NOT the book for you. I’d suggest such readers pass on it, and pick up another of the wonderful books that are available for Pathfinder.
However, if you’re the kind of reader who enjoys exploring the dark side of Golarion, then I highly recommend this book. A few similar products that it reminded me of are Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Horror Adventures, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Book of the Damned, Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Horror Realms, GameMastery Module E1: Carnival of Tears, and the Pathfinder Adventure Paths Second Darkness (specifically Book Four: Endless Night) and Hell’s Vengeance (which begins with Book One: The Hellfire Compact). Use these other products as a measure to judge whether or not this book is right for you.
Those of you who regularly read my blog may wonder why I bothered to invest in a book with mature content when most of the time when I GM my children are involved (a six and seven year old). That’s a fair question! This book was not chosen with them in mind. This book was for me. Why?
For starters, I have no other content outside of the Inner Sea World Guide, and the Pathfinder Module: The Midnight Mirror, that features Nidal. None. To me, that spot on the map is a giant question mark. I know the basics, but nothing else. Second, I’m the kind of player that likes a wide variety of experiences in my games. Yes, I love a happy, feel-good, fun game. I love character development, social interactions, and humour. But, I also love horror. I want my dark locales to actually be dark. The evil in my games should be disturbing, and disconcerting, not shallow and cliche. Within reason. Games are only worthwhile when the players find them fun, after all. This book on Nidal did just that.
Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Nidal, Land of Shadows is written by Liane Merciel, with additions by Lyz Liddell, Ron Lundeen, and Mark Moreland. It’s cover features awesome artwork by Kiki Moch Rizky that depicts the iconic hunter, Adowyn, and the iconic bard, Lem, facing off against an umbral dragon! This book is a thick softcover book which weighs in at 63 pages long. As a book in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line, it contains information on the locations of Golarion (Nidal, specifically). It does not feature new archetypes, or other character options. But, that doesn’t mean this is only a book for GMs! They’re awesome for GMs, of course, but they’re also great for helping players of all kinds create fully-formed characters from different locations. In addition, I find these books really fire up the imagination. They spark ideas for both adventures, side quests, villains and characters.
The inside cover features a gorgeous map of Nidal, complete with labels, scale, and beautiful tiny depictions of the major settlements, drawn with care. The book is split into four chapters. ‘Living in Shadow’ is a ten page look at what life is like for most citizens. ‘Gazetteer’ is a thirty page look at the locations found within Nidal. ‘Threats in the Gloom’ is a twelve page look at the various locations which are particularly well suited to adventuring. And ‘Bestiary’ is a nine page look at some of the unique creatures found within Nidal’s borders. The entire book is filled with darkly beautiful artwork, some of which may be disturbing to some readers.
The first chapter of the book, ‘Living in Shadow,’ begins with a wonderful Nidalese sermon which really helped put their view on their (horribly evil) religion into perspective. If read with the proper gravitas I swear it could make a shiver run down your spine. Very atmospheric! Its accompanied by some gothic artwork of a vampiric noblewoman looking out across the city. After this is a short, half-page summary of Nidal, it’s origins, and its culture. Up next is a gorgeous image of a Nidalese Horselord and about a page worth of text on the history of Nidal. This includes what life was like before they became thralls of Zon-Kuthon. There’s also information on the government of Nidal and some of its important personages. Nidal is a theocracy dedicated to Zon-Kuthon, headed by the Black Triune, and governed by the Umbral Court. After this there is information on some of the rare citizens you might come across in Nidal, including Caligni, Fetchlings, and the terrifying Kytons. Then we get a glimpse of what life is like in the decadent cities of Nidal, and the rural countryside. Spoiler Alert: It’s WAY different. Haha. There’s also a short section about the different kinds of religious and underground resistance found within Nidal. There’s also a discussion on Nidal’s relations with other nations, and a full page timeline showing important dates in Nidal’s history. Oh! And a delightful (disturbing) image of Zon-Kuthon, the benevolent (NOT) god who rules Nidal! Such a photogenic guy! (Note the sarcasm.)
I found this chapter was the incredibly useful in helping me understand life in Nidal. I had forgotten that the Nidalese people used to be horselords. Although I knew that they were the only civilization to survive Earthfall and the Age of Darkness (sort of), I hadn’t quite realized how important it was to their history. It’s a source of constant pride. Proof of the validity of their beliefs. It also means that they have relics, written works, books, maps, and actual, reliable artifacts and history from that time. From before that time. Refugees from other places — say… Azlanti and Thassilon for example — would have fled to Nidal for safety as refugees. it was once the literal centre of civlization in the Inner Sea. The Absalom of it’s time in a world of darkness, death, and barbarism. Even the poorest farmer would still have housewares and relics handed down through the millennia. Family heirlooms that are older than nations. Even if you only count Nidal’s history from the moment they made a pact with Zon-Kuthon, they’re a nation over 10,000 years old. That’s… monumentous. This nation’s history makes it particularly useful for anyone wanting to make a character with ties to ancient civilizations, including some of the new character options from Pathfinder Player Companion: Blood of the Ancients.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the difference between city life and rural life, as well as about the Black Triune. For those of you who don’t know, they were the original horselords who beseeched Zon-Kuthon for protection for their people from Earthfall. Although the evil Zon-Kuthon granted their desires and saved their people (making them the only civilization to survive Earthfall and the Age of Darkness without crumbling) it also transformed the horselords into literal servants of Zon-Kuthon’s. They are his will made flesh. Eternal and unloving. They rule Nidal to this day, though they are rarely seen by any outside the Umbral Court.
The Gazeteer begins with a moving quote from a retiring Chelish Ambassador to her replacement about the cold beauty, harsh cruelty, and ancient knowledge which can be found in Nidal. I particularly loved the last line:
“…It is a place, for better or worse, that you will never forget. You can’t. The scars remain forever.”
Such a wonderful, atmospheric quote — again. Whoo! Love it! It’s accompanied by artwork depicting a Varisian caravan approaching a Nidalese city, surrounded by wildlife that looks rather ominous. Past the opening quote is about a page and a half of information about Nidal’s culture and politics, followed by details on their four major holidays.
Note to self: Don’t celebrate the Eternal Kiss. Or The Festival of Night’s Return. Or The Shadowchaining. Or anything, really. In fact, let’s amend that to: never visit Nidal. Haha. Honestly, I adored reading about the holidays! They were the perfect balance of ‘holiday’ and dark horror. Shivers!
After this we get to the bulk of the Gazeteer: details on a ton of locations, all of which are shown on that loverly inside-cover map I mentioned earlier. There’s a total of 55 locations which are detailed in this chapter, including two major cities (Pangolais and Ridwan) which include their own maps, and multiple locations within them. The Gazeteer’s locations include cities, towns, settlements, ancient ruins, dangerous locales, and natural features. They run the gamut from ‘safe’ and ‘unique’ to ‘deadly’ and ‘disturbing.’ It’s got a really great variety. A lot of these places sparked ideas for campaigns, adventures, and character origins — not all of which are evil. In fact, the most useful part of this chapter may be in it’s ability to make you realize that you can adventure here. You can be a hero in Nidal. I don’t mean just as a sweeping revolutionary who tries to change Nidal, but as a Nidalese person who lives and survives here. A local hero. In addition to details on the places, there’s information on important figures, enemies, and plenty of plot-hooks. There’s also a ton of useful references for where you can find further information on those places, people, and topics (both within this book, and in other books).
Some of my favourite places to read about were the Atteran Ranches (which is a great place to create characters who want to be members of the underground resistance), Auginford (a small settlement which recently unearthed a disturbing monument), Blacksulfur Pond (a pond connected to the Shadow Plane), Brimstone Springs (where a devil is enjoying a ‘delightful’ prank), Grayfrond (home to a creature based off a chilling Inuit folk creature), Stormhollow (a village whose inhabitants were slaughtered by kytons — and still walk the streets today as mutilated husks), and, my personal favourite, The Library Without Light, which is home to ancient texts and relics dating back to before Earthfall. If any of you own this book, I’d be curious to hear what your favourite locations were!
The next chapter, ‘Threats in the Gloom,’ begins with a recounting of an adventure in Nidal, by an Aspis Agent. It’s dour and dark, and perfect. And the art that comes with it? Creeeeeeepy! After this is looks at eleven different dangerous locations in Nidal, dedicating about a page to each. It includes the classes of powerful denizens, the kinds of creatures you can encounter there, features common to the area, as well as history, and plot-hooks for these locales. Once again, there’s a wide variety of locations here, from dungeons, dangerous wilds, haunted places, and urban areas. Those of you looking for more information on hidden bastions of good should check out the ‘Plains of Night’ and ‘Undervale.’ ‘The House of Lies’ is a great location for those of you looking for reasons for foreigners to visit. ‘Shadowreach’ revisits the legacy of a character from the Council of Thieves Adventure Path (Ilnerik Sivanshin who was mentioned in Council of Thieves: Book 3: What Lies in Dust, and featured in Council of Thieves: Book 5 – Mother of Flies). Looking for something darker? Check out the ‘Tower of Slant Shadows.’ Not only does it have connections to the wonderful Curse of the Crimson Throne Adventure Path, it’s also (in my humble opinion) the creepiest thing in the entire book. Yikes! I wish I had thought of that for my home game of Second Darkness… My personal favourite locations in this chapter are ‘Castle of the Captive Sun’ wherein a vampire keeps a collection of divinely descended beings prisoner, and tortures himself with holy artifacts! Very cool! And Barrowmoor, which is land filled with ancient burial mounds of the Nidalese Horselords. It’s steeped not only in creepy a atmosphere and a bunch of undead, but also in the occult, which I ALWAYS love. Barrowmoor is also the setting of the Tomb of Attai Horse-Speaker, which was published in its entirety in Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Tombs of Golarion. Honestly, it’s one of my favourite tombs I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
The last chapter of this book is the Bestiary, which collects six random encounter tables (which contains a few entries which pleasantly surprised me!) and six new monsters. The creatures vary from CR 2 to CR 8. There’s a new kyton, of course, called the suffragan. It’s born from the souls of another new creature, the joyful thing, which definitely is my pick for the most disturbing creature in this book! Yikes! The strongest monster on offer is the hive brute. For more information on hives you can check out Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Horror Adventures. I’m not a big fan of most plant creatures, but there is a cool shadow plant called the shadow fern which I actually really like. There’s also the smokeshade, which is a tiny extraplanar, incorporeal, aberration that looks like a patch of shadow. In addition to being an enemy, these little guys can be taken as familiars by casters of at least 7th level with the Improved Familiar feat. They’re actually quite fun, flavourful critters, that enjoy forming themselves into different rude shapes in order to mock other people or pantomime insults. I want one! Haha. But, the definite winner for the most useful creature is the shadow animal template. Not only can it be used to make shadow tainted creatures, it’s abilities are chosen from a list, which makes it very adaptable. It’s super useful, and really well done.
And that brings us to the end of Nidal, Land of Shadows. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It made me think about Nidal in a new way, which made it playable. It also gave me a lot of good ideas for characters and adventures set in this morbid, horrible place. But, keep in mind, this book is NOT for everyone. Only purchase this book if you enjoy adding dark horror to your games.
Those of you looking to more fully immerse yourself in Nidal should pick up the Pathfinder Tales novels: Nightglass and Nightblade, both of which are written by Liane Merciel. Player’s looking to make characters from Nidal, should check out Pathfinder Player Companion: Blood of Shadows, or Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Horror Adventures.
Thanks for taking a walk through the darkness with me!