Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
An infamous book in the 3.5 library, it was highly advertised and eagerly anticipated. Almost as soon as it was released, it was discarded. Where did Magic of Incarnum go wrong? Is it as bad as all that?
I was caught up in the hype when Wizards was pushing Magic of Incarnum on their website. Any time I’ve taken this one off the shelf and flipped through it, I’ve given up early. Now that I am going to force myself to read this one cover to cover, I hope that somewhere inside I will find something worthwhile.
At a Glance
If you can find a better looking cover, please point me in that direction. Magic of Incarnum’s cover is alive with energy, with mesmerizing blue bolts emanating from a vial of pure incarnum. That vial is secured inside a jewel encrusted metal containment unit. Clearly this is a great power source. The circle patterns on the hinges and corner guards are unique, and the colour scheme really comes together. If only you could judge a book by its cover.
Incarnum is blue. Many incarnum powers and feats are named after blue shades: azure; cobalt, midnight, etc. As a result, vibrant uses of blue link almost all of the artwork in Magic of Incarnum. This book is full of original artwork and is truly stunning. The first illustration we see is on page five, Arstor the Pentifex Monolith by Wayne Reynolds. There is a short story on the opposite page about him that I believe was included because the artwork was so inspiring. When I found his figure in the Unhallowed D&D Miniatures set, I immediately recognized him even though I had never used an option from Magic of Incarnum. Artwork that leaves an impression.
As will be discussed later, Incarnum’s rules are not easy to follow. The artwork does the best job it can showing what the rules are trying to say. Like on page 65, we see a Halfling by Franz Vohwinkel with several soulmelds (more on those later) bound (more on that later) to her chakras (more on those later). In this case, the crystal helm, bluesteel bracers, and airstep sandals. What is great about this illustration is that the soulmelds (seriously, more later) are clearly items of great power without looking like magic items. Magic items traditionally are jewel-encrusted and absolutely fabulous. These soulmelds (just wait, I’ll get to it) are simple in their design but stand out because of the alien material they are made of.
Halflings seem to be useful tools for demonstrating how Incarnum works, because there is another Halfling, this time illustrated by Chris Trevas, on page 165 that is an example casserole. She has a crystal helm soulmeld (more later) bound (more later) to her head chakra (more later). She has an adamant pauldron soulmeld (more later) shaped (more later) but not bound (more later) to her shoulder chakra (more later). And she is wielding a magic bow. Her helm looks like an actual item whereas her pauldrons look like creations of energy. The first step in using a soulmeld is shaping it, which makes an ethereal blue apparition in the shape of a piece of armour or a weapon but clearly a creation of magic. The second step is binding the shaped soulmeld to a chakra, which gives the item weight and body. This illustration lets you see the difference.
Incarnum is one of those few new ideas that is both completely new and fits perfectly into Dungeons & Dragons. It is a power that is forever around us, that special kinds of adventurer can tap into and forge special equipment from, even physically alter themselves to improve their combat prowess.
Where the idea gets dodgy is when you start talking about the power of souls. Using souls as a power source is not a fresh idea. It has been around D&D for a long time, and has always been evil. In fact, the Book of Vile Darkness suggests it is one of the most depraved of evil acts. How then can Wizards hand us a sourcebook that talks about using the energy of souls alive, dead, and not yet born and tell us there is nothing evil about it?
Think about it this way. Essentia is a soul’s fuel. Essentia is not a soul in the same way gasoline is not a car. Using Essentia to shape soulmelds is like using gasoline to boast a fire. The act of using it is not harming cars and is not specifically stealing from cars. The difference is that Essentia is recyclable, hence it is the soul energy of those not yet born. Funny enough, I had this entire car metaphor in my head before my recent trip to Mexico, where I found out essencia (note the ‘c’) is Spanish for gasoline.
Binding a soulborn uses recycled Essentia, Essentia that once belonged in a soul. Good meldshapers (the term that describes anyone with even the smallest pool of Essentia or ability to shape soulmelds) say “May I?” to the souls that used the Essentia they are about to tap into. Evil meldshapers do not, and this is called necrocarnum, which goes back to what the Book of Vile Darkness was talking about.
There are classes built around the use of Incarnum, but it takes a dedicated and patient player to go that route. However, any player can find something useful for their character in Magic of Incarnum without having to marry the sourcebook.
Incarnum feats are easy to understand and easy to use. They provide a bonus comparable to other feats, but this bonus can be boosted by investing Essentia into the feat. Each Essentia feat you take increases your essential pool by one. So if you only ever take one Incarnum feat, you can use it like any other feat. If you happen to take two or three, you can use each to their minimal abilities or you can maximize the potential of one of them.
The racial substitution levels either take a non-Incarnum race and add an Incarnum twist, or take one of the Incarnum races introduced and emphasize its non-Incarnum potential.
There are two types of spells included in this book: spells that affect Incarnum, which are mechanically necessary; spells that you can invest Essentia into, which are a great idea, provide another use for Essentia, and open up a ton of multiclass options.
Finally, there are the Prestige Classes. What’s amusing is how much easier it is to learn the prestige classes without Incarnum class prerequisites than it is to learn the base classes this book introduces. The Incandescent Champion, Incarnum Blade, and Spinemeld Warrior are great starting points for anyone intrigued by Incarnum but intimidated by the base classes.
Incarnum Character Sheets and Essentia Tracker
There is only so much room on a character sheet. Generic sheets are usually fine, but they are just not built for out-there concepts like Incarnum. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast included a new character sheet designed specifically for Incarnum characters, and a special sheet to help track where your Essentia is invested. Absolutely necessary, considering invested Essentia changes from round to round. Wizards even had the forethought to suggest sliding a counter along the sheet rather than circling and erasing every round.
Incarnum. Essentia. Soulmeld. Chakra. Shape. Invest. Bind. Meldshaper. These are the new terms you have to memorize in order to understand the options presented in Magic of Incarnum. Which reminds me: Incarnum is not magic, so disregard the title of the book that introduces this complicated idea. Disregard it completely, because the word “Incarnum” is hardly used inside the book. It is a name for the concept without any mechanics attached to it.
Here is a glossary that hopefully will make reading this review easier:
Incarnum: The name given to the entire concept of using soul energy in non-evil ways to make yourself more powerful. Much the same way “magic” describes spells and casters.
Essentia: That which fuels souls and enhances the power of Incarnum. If you are familiar with the Expanded Psionics Handbook, Essentia is your power point reserve.
Soulmeld: Items fabricated through soul energy that can be enhanced in a multitude of ways.
Chakra: A Soumeld must be tied to an area of the body. The areas of the body that can have Soulmelds are called Chakras. They match up (mostly) with the areas of the body that magic items can be worn on, ie hands, brow, shoulders, etc.
Shape: The act of creating a Soulmeld around a Chakra.
Invest: Investing Essentia into a Soulmeld can improve the effect or unlock a new effect that can be improved through Essentia investment. Incarnum feats and Incarnum spells can also be improved through the investment of Essentia. So can magic items. The investment of Essentia is the basis of Incarnum.
Bind: Binding a Soulmeld unlocks its greatest effect, which can be improved by the Essentia invested in the Soulmeld. A Soulmeld can be bound to the Chakra it is shaped over.
Meldshaper: Anyone that can do any of the above is a Meldshaper.
Microsoft Word badly wants me to believe that the majority of the above paragraphs is misspelled. Well Word, like you, will have to bear with me because there is more.
All three classes have heavy alignment restrictions, because the use of Incarnum is heavily tied into a character’s soul. Conceptually this makes sense, but it never pays off. Instead it is just a fact about Incarnum that confuses an already confusing system. There are virtually no Soulmelds with an alignment descriptor, in particular Chaotic and Lawful. There are a slew of evil Soulmelds, but most of them also have the Necrocarnum descriptor, which is evil by default. In fact, there is virtually no purpose to any of the descriptors. Of the nineteen descriptors mentioned in the introduction to Soulmelds, four are not even used. There are no Soulmelds with Air, Death, Earth, or Water descriptors. A large majority have “None” listed as the Descriptor, another extraneous detail bloating the rules.
Maybe Magic of Incarnum would not be so complicated if the order of the chapters were rearranged. Instead of starting the book with a chapter on races, which are only loosely tied into the book’s theme, and then chapters on classes and character options, which are magnificently useless without an explanation of how Incarnum works, the book’s first chapter should have been the basics of Incarnum. The introduction does go into Incarnum’s important concepts, but does not offer enough information to understand the class abilities of the base classes in chapter two. Truly, chapter one should have been “All About Incarnum” where it combs through every detail a player needs to understand, using as many metaphors and examples as it takes. This isn’t Wrath of The Dragon Gods over explaining the difference between arcane magic and divine magic, this is Magic of Incarnum underexplaining Incarnum.
Poor Race and Class Choices
There are four new races introduced, three of which can be described as human-like. Not humanoid, human-like. Azurins are humans born to human parents that have tapped into an Essentia pool that changed them in the womb. They look exactly like humans except their eyes glow. Rilkans look exactly like humans wearing scales like forearm guards and chokers. Except they aren’t wearing these scales, they actually have them. Put them in a long sleeve turtleneck and there is nothing non-human about their appearance. Even though they have the reptilian subtype, they have human faces and really are one of the most human looking non-human races ever seen in a D&D manual. The Skarn are the other most human looking non-human race ever seen in a D&D manual, although they are at least somewhat alien. The Skarn have hooked spines jutting from their calves, forearms, and along their (appropriately enough) spines. You know the blades sticking out of Batman’s gloves? Just like that.
There is only one visually different race and that is the Dusklings. Like a cross between Yoda and Dr. Zaius, Dusklings are savage humanoids that are naturally tied to Incarnum.
The Azurin backstory works pretty well and helps bring Incarnum into a campaign, but it would have been much more interesting if it was a template that could be applied to any race without racial Incarnum abilities. Speaking of races without racial Incarnum abilities, the Skarn and the Rilkan are barely tied to Incarnum. Why are they even in this book?
Then come the classes. The Incarnate, the Soulborn, and the Totemist. The Incarnate is technically four separate classes because of its strict alignment restrictions: Good Incarnate, Evil Incarnate, Lawful Incarnate, and Chaotic Incarnate. All useless. It is designed like a primary caster, which just serves to prove how different Incarnum is from Dungeons & Dragons’ other magic systems. There are only two offensive Soulmelds on the Incarnate’s list: Dissolving Spittle and Lightning Gauntlets. One is a ranged touch attack, the other a melee touch attack. Combined with the class’ limited weapon proficiencies and poor base attack bonus progression you are left with a class that can not do much in combat.
A lot of the Incarnate’s other Soulmelds give bonuses to skills, so it could be argued that the Incarnate is diverse in that respect. Except that it only gets a couple of skill points per level, so these do not so much boost the class’ skill use as make up for its otherwise lack of skills. And since Soulmelds are chosen at the beginning of the day, there is virtually no flexibility. If the Incarnate expects to be on a boat one day and climbing a mountain the next, he can choose his Soulmelds accordingly. If he expects to be boating and climbing the same day, he has to compromise.
The class really is pointless. It gets surprisingly good armour proficiency, which combines with defensive Soulmelds to create a hard target. Sadly, its d6 Hit Dice means it is no meat shield. Some Soulmelds allow it to heal, but only itself until fairly high level. It can’t fight, it can’t buff, its abilities are utilitarian but only to a point. Before 7th level, the class can only shape four Soulmelds, and since it basically needs Dissolving Spittle and Lightning Gauntlets shaped, an Incarnate can barely explore the depth of its Soulmeld selection, the most vast of Magic of Incarnum’s three classes.
The Incarnate is not a poor man’s sorcerer. It is not even a poor man’s warlock, from Complete Arcane. It is a poor man’s bard.
The Soulborn (not to be mistaken for Soulmelds) is like a paladin that substitutes religion with Incarnum. Except that it barely gets any Soulmelds or Essentia, or Charka Binds. Level four is a huge tease. Because of the nature of Incarnum, you can shape any soulmeld on your list. So upon reaching level four, a Soulborn player can now read the entire Soulborn list, discovering the variety of Soulmelds at its disposal, how investing Essentia into these Soulmelds improves them, until ultimately they are bound to Chakras and live out their full potential. Upon reading this entire list, they must then pick one single Soulmeld, which they can not invest any Essentia into for two more levels and much later to even dream about the weakest of the Chakra binds.
It is like a young boy being told that if he eats healthy he will grow big and strong and may one day win an Olympic medal. But right now that young boy does not have that medal, is not big and strong. He is faced with a plate of vegetables and is asking himself if it is at all worth it.
The third and final class introduced in Magic of Incarnum is the Totemist. This is a fine class that is well balanced and provides the player with enough access to Soulmelds to have a good time. The flavour is nice, tapping into the Incarnum of the wild and mimicking the abilities of animals and familiar D&D monsters. Really, if you are interested in playing an Incarnum base class, the totemist is your only option.
Virtually no other sourcebook even mentions Incarnum, with the notable exception of Dragon Magic, which provides four new soulmelds (see above). On the one hand, if you want to play an Incarnum character, you have everything you need in one spot. On the other, this is basically it. Good luck convincing your DM that your homebrewed soulmeld (see above) isn’t overpowering.
The Blink Shirt is a great Soulmeld that is versatile, logical, and easy to understand. Shaping it taps into the incarnum of blink dogs and lets the character use dimension door at a limited range as a standard action. Investing essential into it increases that range. Binding it lets the Totemist use the blink spell, or use dimension door as a move action. It has a small thematically tied variety of powers that are not overpowering but extremely useful.
Cerulean Sandals almost make the Incarnate and Soulborn classes intriguing. A single Soulmeld that provides the meldshaper with the ability to walk on water, increase land speed, and fly.
Totem Avatar is a hefty Soulmeld for combat-oriented Totemists. It gives bonus hit points right off the bat, and can be bound to a wide variety of chakras, each offering a different combat-useful option, like damage reduction or natural weapons.
The spell Incarnum Arc is a versatile cousin of lightning bolt. A single casting allows several rounds of bolts, the damage of which can be increased through essential investment.
Warlocks (from Complete Arcane) gain a versatile new invocation. Drain Incarnum not only does as the name indicates, if invoked on a target without an essential pool, it deals Wisdom damage.
If you are intrigued by Incarnum but (rightly) unimpressed by your class options, the Incandescent Champion prestige class might be for you. It has a fast-growing Essentia pool, and a series of easily understood class features that offer useful abilities, like bonus to melee attacks, fast healing, a ray attack. Getting this prestige class so right but the similar base class Soulborn so wrong is very unfortunate.
Normally I complain or begrudgingly accept monsters being included in non-DM geared sourcebooks. For example, I accept that not having any Incarnum-based monsters in the game would be unfortunate, and shoving a bunch into a Monster Manual would impose Incarnum on gamers that might not be interested. So fine, a monster chapter belongs in Magic of Incarnum. What I did not expect is to fall in love with one of these monsters as, potentially, a playable race. The Soulfused Construct is a template that brings a construct to life through Incarnum exposure. There is something about the description of these confused, simple creatures that defy nature that makes me want to play one. Like playing the Frankenstein monster as portrayed in Monster Squad, a hopeless oaf that maybe gets attached to another PC and acts as their pet.
When DMing at Quantum Cards, one of the players bought Magic of Incarnum and multiclassed his rogue with Totemist. A rogue with dimension door is a very interesting tactic without the drawbacks of a sorcerer’s frailty.
Unconvinced that the Incarnate was as useless as it seemed, I built one and progressed it through six levels. Against all odds, I even managed to roll two natural 18s during character creation. The end result? A useless and dull class.
The content of Magic of Incarnum can be divided into two categories: awesome and awful. I would say that the awesome outweighs the awful two to one. Unfortunately, the awful options are mostly the more basic choices and stuffed into the start of the book. There are repercussions of this. Because the Incarnate class is so terrible, all that class’ Soulmelds, half of the total Soulmelds in the book, will never see use.
The reality is this book will never see as much use as other sourcebooks because, more than any other, it requires a DM that understands the rules and a player that will not abuse them. One overused Soulmeld or debatably interpreted rule and an entire gaming group can be soured on the entire Incarnum concept. Which is a shame.
If you have this book, give it another chance. Pepper in a few Incarnum feats, maybe an Incarnum spell, to demystify the concept. Then try a prestige class. And if you get good enough, play a Totemist. Fun can be had with this book.
If You Liked This Book…
There is no getting around the similarities between Magic of Incarnum and the Expanded Psionics Handbook . Give it a whirl.
Many of the Totemist Soulmelds enhance natural weapons and natural armour without actually granting either. If you want to explore races that can employ these bonuses, flip through Savage Species .
Date Released: September 2005
Date Reviewed: August 2008