The Alternate Path: Martial Characters
This pdf clocks in at…wait…what? 119 pages? Okay, this’ll be a long one. Of these pages, 1 page is devoted to the front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 116 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
So, there are classes herein – a lot of them, and they are defined pretty much by their cultural niche and concept – being labeled as exotic classes, since they may be more specialized than a given class, but still taking the same niche. So no, these do not count as alternate classes. Rules-wise, we are introduced to so-called “trappings,” items, which, much like e.g. an arcane bonded object, is a defining item for the class – 4 feats allow for the utilization of such trappings in additional ways, limited negation of disarms, functioning after being broken or rerolling confirmation rolls. Clothing can, via one feat, grant the benefits of the endure elements spell while wearing the trapping – which is not bad, though I wished the feat was slightly more precise regarding the benefit applying to the effects only. Feral Feats may be taken in lieu of rage powers or favored terrain. War feats can only be used AFTER initiative has been rolled. In an interesting rule, the pdf codifies morale and suggests bonuses for the side which currently is dominant in that regard, a system supported by 3 feats.
The pdf also suggests house rules for e.g. allowing skill-boosting feats like Athletic to grant the skills as class skills and a rules that allows for a 1-round period of grace for killed characters to be healed…which is a bit odd, once death magic and non-damage-causing magic enters the fray. I think this rule was intended to apply only to hit points, but still – not a well-presented rule. I do like the idea of granting favored class status to a PrC in addition to the base class. The notion to 12-hour retrain favored enemy and terrain is problematic from a rules-perspective, though understandable. The flexibility is nice, but the lack of retraining cost makes it a bit too easy to switch in my book. The book also champions normalization of groups via an easy mechanic and sports a retro-active crazy-prepared (within reason) option to retroactively have bought certain items. While this works in GUMSHOE, the presence and significance of such a rule makes the game progress smoother and de-emphasizes careful planning – whether you like that or not depends ultimately on your own forte.
Now usually, I’m a big fan of realistic, simulation-style combat, but shieldbreaker may go a bit too far, making shields take damage when blocking weapons, rendering the item-class even more…less optimal. Using reposition to halve shield bonuses? Now that one I can easily get behind – makes sense to me and is concisely presented. Are you looking for a combat option that emphasizes more savagery? Well, in theory, making each attack provoke an AoO that is executed AFTER the attack may sound like a good theory; in practice, though, this rule makes the already impressively powerful ranged weapons more powerful. From a fluff-perspective, an assumption of general illiteracy makes sense and is something I used in my games before. Another rule makes combat MUCH more deadly – weapons with one rule deal their damage die + enhancement bonus as bleed damage and an easy fatigue/exhaustion-threshold makes sense. Chances of big creatures knocking smaller ones prone also makes sense. The book also has a rule that means when an attack hits touch AC, but not regular AC, the character would receive the attacker’s Str-mod in damage still – I also experimented with this rule in dark fantasy contexts and it is interesting, though it further emphasizes offense over defense. Making weapons grant bonuses to AC make sense, though the limitation is not my favorite. Allowing for Con-check driven ferocity when downed below 0 HP is also something I tried in my games. Personally, I’m not a big fan of regaining 1 hp stable status upon landing a killing blow on a foe.
All of these variant rules can be used and combined and three sample arrays of rule-combinations are provided.
All right, that out of the way, let us take a look at the significant array of new base classes (9, to be precise). The first would be the adventurer, who gets d10, 6+Int skills, full BAB-progression and only good saves. They also get simple and martial weapon proficiency and a bonus feat at 1st level and every 4 levels thereafter. The adventurer can grant himself luck bonuses as free actions 1/2 character level times per day and receives wild-card crazy-prepared of items equal to 100 gp times character level, to be upgraded to 1000 gp times level. While the items adhere to a weight limit, the free and easy access to magic items can be an immensely unbalancing factor, depending on your group: Need scrolls that protect you versus the elements? Got them. Amulets that increase the carrying capacity of the fighter buddy? All ready.
Now in some campaigns, this may be nice and something a given group enjoys. Personally, I loathe the ability with all my heart and consider the limitations not strict enough. At 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter, the adventurer receives a talent that include counting as having access to all spells for crafting purposes, quick drawing items from backpack etc., very limited healing (that could use a scaling mechanism to retain its relevance). On the plus side, spellcasting scavenging is represented in a surprisingly concise manner that even takes classes like palas or ranger’s decreased CL into account – kudos! At higher levels, the adventurer may preroll a limited number d20s and later substitute them for rolls, with the capstone allowing for rerolls of all d20-rolls and an even more freeform item-generation. While I get that in some campaigns, the crazy-prepared ability can be a true blessing, in others, it may well be a truly annoying alien element that can spoil the fun of other players that like planning ahead…and the balancing control of GMs on item availability. While I belong firmly in the second group and would not allow this ability sans some serious restrictions and nerfing, as a reviewer, I have to swallow my distaste here. On the plus-side, I do enjoy that this guy is a martial that is useful beyond combat thanks to skills etc. In the end, I consider the class a little bit too strong due to its powerful chassis. Nor for every group, but definitely a class some groups will love.
The Athlete base class has d10, only 2+Int skills per level, proficiency in simple weapons and light armor as well as automatic proficiency with sports equipment, 3/4 BAB-progression and good Fort- and Ref-progression. The athlete begins with the option to use his determination to reroll failed rolls, with saves and skills receiving a bonus on the reroll attempt, with every 5 levels increasing the bonus granted by +1 and also providing +1 use. More important and defining, though, would be the position class feature: The position offers an array of changes, including, in e.g. the defender’s case, an upgrade of HD from d10 to d12, better BAB-progression or swifter movement. Additionally, each such position allows for additional uses of determination. A new position is learned at 5th level and every 5 levels thereafter. Beyond this chassis-modifying ability-suite, athletes are obviously defined by their sports, which provide bonuses depending on the sport – somewhat inelegantly called “skill bonuses”, but the rules are clear enough in their intended meaning. For the purpose of feat prereqs, athletes use their full level and they also receive inherent physical attribute bonuses at 2nd level and every 4 levels thereafter. 8th level nets evasion and higher levels provide take 10-options for related skills and even a take 20-option at level 20. The class is supplemented by baseball and soccer-weaponry. An okay class, though the few skills somewhat limit it in non-combat environments.
The Gladiator gets d10, 2+Int skills, full BAB-progression, good Ref- and Will-saves and proficiency in simple weapons, gladius, light and medium armor and also a school of combat, which further modifies the proficiencies, bonus feats and specific special tricks the class learns -Bloodpit Fighters, for example, get sneak attack, while the dimachaerus reduces two-weapon fighting penalties and can even get bonuses in the end…so yes, these have an inherent scaling. 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter net maneuver specializations that go beyond the base feats, employing gladiatorial points. When the gladiator does something that would make him grant a performance check, he may use the point to power class features and the like – the synergy of renewable resource-management and performance combat is pretty awesome and allows for some rather unique options. Fighting for the gods, life and death of those vanquished, are determined by a coin toss – which is surprisingly tense at the table in actual play. This gladiator did not look as cool as it actually played on paper – I really like this beast, as it manages to make performance combat matter sans crowds. Two thumbs up, though, once again I wished it had more non-combat utility. Still, a great class that has been added to my homegame’s roster! (FYI: I upgraded skills per level by +2 in my home game.)
The Guardian gets d10, full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves, 2+Int skills, proficiency with all martial and simple weapons and all armor, including tower shields. While wearing a shield, these guys may expend attacks of opportunity to interpose himself in the line of foes threatening his adjacent allies. To do so, he attacks with +Dex-mod and +shield-bonus versus the target’s AC. And no, I’m not complaining about competing rolls here since the ability retains roll vs. fixed value as a paradigm. On a success, the guardian becomes the new target of the attack, which is probably the best designed level 1 bodyguard ability I’ve seen so far. It should come as no surprise considering the focus of the class, that shield tricks and a charge that ends with e.g. Heal-checks or similar aids to allies are part of the deal, though I found myself rather surprised at the ease and simplicity of this design – and why it hadn’t been done before. Speaking of shield tricks – these allow you to one-hand two-handed weapons, but at the cost of not being able to perform more than one attack in a full-round action. Better nonlethal damage output, SP shield other and both numerical options and more allies to be shielded complement a tightly focused class that plays surprisingly well, making armor and shields matter. A rewarding choice, though I’d once again advise for +2 skills per level. Still – kudos! I’ll certainly be using these guys!
At d10, full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Will-saves , 4+Int skills and proficiency in simple weapons, light armors and shields, the inheritor is defined by the legacy of her name and honored ancestry. Basically, you get trappings as well as an ability-suite called lineage, defined by two characteristics like “Beloved” or “Wicked” that provides a modification of class skills and also determines the boons the class gains. The class begins with 1 boon and receives +1 at 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter and they do include attribute bonuses. Additionally, inheritors can channel their ancestors as a swift action, a total of 1 minute per level per day – some effects of the boons chosen only become available while channeling. Additionally, the class is defined by hereditary attributes/the option to substitute mental ability scores for attack-bonus calculation and defense; alas, the high level option of 2 attributes to attack are a bit too much for my tastes.
The Tataued Warrior gets d10, a trapping, 2 +Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons, light armor and shields and prepared divine spellcasting guided by Cha, drawn from the ranger’s list with certain modifications and probably is the best example of what I’d consider an exotic class: Following battle protocol (e.g. formal bows) provides benefits for the class, including the possible substitution of Cha-mod in attacks and later even damage-rolls. The defining feature of the tataued warrior, though, would be the ritual weapon, which can be activated as a swift action. Once powered, it acts as a magical weapon. That being said, the flexibility regarding enchantments and their scaling benefits is offset by a fatigue cool-down after use, similar to barbarian-rages. The scaling here is pretty conservative, just fyi, so even low-powered groups should be able to use this one. For high-powered groups; I’d suggest improving the enhancement-bonus granting-progression of the ritual weapon. The defining class feature beyond that, though, would be tataus, gained at 1st level and every even level thereafter, codified by level – and being awesome. While combat utility is here, the tataus provided often feature a drawback at higher levels, providing ample roleplaying potential and justification for superstitions. Furthermore, they allow, when wisely chosen, for actually relevant out of combat options. 6th level self-haste via battle-chants and flexible spell preparation/exchange-options complement an interesting class I really enjoyed, particularly thanks to the significant array of choices this offers!
Thanes receive d10, 2+Int skills, full BAB-progression, good Fort-saves, proficiency with simple weapons and the great club – and that’s pretty much in on that front. Defined by size and brawn, the thane is basically the bully of the battlefield, increasing accuracy and damage output against targets smaller than him. It should then come as no surprise that the class features size-increase (a brief table of weapon damage progression for larger sizes would have been appreciated here) and is particularly adept at using big weaponry. The class also receives a talent selection, but still constitutes my least favorite base class herein so far – reason being that its limited proficiencies, skills and its size can be a severe hindrance: There are dungeons too cramped for large creatures and the added space occupied cannot offset a second character. Furthermore, the lack of defensive options of the class makes it play like a bully: A nasty punch, but can’t take one himself. The thane is basically, in spite of size and potency, a pretty bad glass cannon and the magus provides the more interesting playing experience in that field.
The Undying has d8, 2+Int skills, proficiency with all armors and simple/martial weapons. The undying receives scaling bonuses versus fear and pain effects, but pay for this conditioning with the requirement to obey orders. Here’s the deal of the class: You want to die. The first time you die each level, you’re resurrected as per true resurrection (CL information would be appreciated for magic-suppression-interaction), +1/day at 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter.However, undying already die at 0 HP – but the cool thing here is that, when they resurrect, they unleash so-called phoenix arts, the first of which is gained at 4th level, +1 every 4 levels thereafter: From bursts of light to devastating flame-novas and AOE-heals, these are pretty much awesome. Only one burst can be applied, +1 at 10th level and the class receives further abilities themed around the extremely evocative concept. Okay, if you’ve read my review of Rite Publishing’s “Secrets of the Divine: Madness, Death, Justice, Healing,” you’ll know that I really like the idea of a campaign focused on returning characters. If you’re like me, this class elicited a “Hell no!”-response nevertheless – when it shouldn’t. You see, while powerful on the defensive side and while the deaths seem incredibly strong, the class is in a bit of a dilemma: In order to work at peak efficiency, the undying has to die – which makes it more vulnerable. The bursts are very powerful, but they need to be just that…and the increased vulnerability of the class further helps here. It’s surprising, but in playtest, this one turned out to be very much killable and balanced, particularly due to scaling issues against mind-control. Yes, you have your nigh-unstoppable undying…but you may want to be careful with that enchanter over there…oh, and actually being mind-controlled and then slain by your allies is a valid strategy here that should result in no bad blood. This class plays completely differently from any class I’ve seen so far. Ambitious and oozing flavor, these guys are theme-wise by far my favorites in this book and may be worth getting the book all on their own!
Okay, you may very much call me out on this one, but I’m not sold we actually needed the Wrath class, a hybrid of rogue and inquisitor. Paying for rogue abilities with the inqui’s spells, their eponymous wrath can be pictured as an always-on judgment with singular targets. That being said, this 3/4 BAB-progression class does have something some other martials herein lack: Non-combat utility galore. Oh, and the rogue talents the class can exclusively access are superb – there is, e.g., one that allows the wrath to suppress divine energy (channeling, spells…) and another that allows you to fluidly poison weapons after crits. Or what about the genius ability I’ll scavenge for inquis, which allows the wrath a massive (+20) bonus to notice invisible foes? (Yes, that sneaky invisible guy will SWEAT in his corners and try hard not to move…) I was pretty much surprised by this one in that I actually liked some design-decisions here and enough unique material to set it apart versus the parent-classes – so kudos there!
This book also contains PrCs galore, all but one (the Storm Envoy) featuring full BAB-progression over their respective 10 levels. Seeing how this review already passed its fifth page as I write this, I shall be brief. The aforementioned Storm Envoy would be a legendary courier you employ when you need things delivered to hostile places like war zones or the abyss. Storm Envoys receive increasing speed as well as agility-related options (e.g. Acrobatics at full speed), self-haste and the option to utilize their vast speed to duplicate spells, from teleport to mirror image by tapping into the resource-management of the PRC. All in all, a cool one.
Speaking of which: The Mystic Seeker would be a representation of the famous, eerily accurate blind fighter trope, managing to get blindsense/sight-progression down rather well – though the interesting component would not be the limited true strikes they can unleash, but rather the high-level option to completely re-do one of their turns, explained by their preternatural insight. Interesting!
The Lone Wolf would be just that – a powerful representation of the solitary skirmisher, the savage soldier that loses animal companions and t5he like, but finds so much more potency in their solitude, including immunity to fear, but at the expense of their cynicism thwarting any morale bonuses. The PrC is iconic and cool.
The Frog Knight would be an agile knight – D’uh – and can jump really well; additionally, he’s pretty great at amphibian warfare tactics and provides nice synergy with Dragon Tiger Ox’s more differentiated (and tactical!) unarmed attack rules. Sure, this is a bit of an odd PrC, but still a cool and valid option.
Commandos are basically Rambo-the-PRC, with great stealth and several specializations that include limited spells, barbarian rages and the like as well as a focus on ambushes -and here, the commando is downright OP: Gaining a limited number of special, additional solo surprise rounds per day – basically, before rolling initiative’s done, these guys can get a free surprise round out of the deal. In the hands of an experienced player, these guys can be true nightmares – while I like the flexibility and design of the chassis, I’m not too big a fan of the PrC’s numbers.
Finally, there would be the Bogatyr of the Dying Light – sworn to hopeless causes, there only traditionally are 23 of these knights only unleash their full potential against foes stronger than they are – including, at higher levels, ignoring DR. The PrC also gets resolve and some neat offensive and defensive tricks, making these guys not only flavorful, but also pretty iconic and rewarding to play.
Beyond all these classes and PrCs, this massive book also sports 6 pages of feats – why else would I have explained the [Feral] and [War]-descriptors in the beginning of this review? So yeah, there are quite a lot of feats herein, including a follow-up-feat for Weapon Focus that extends its benefits to all of your proficient weapons, nonlethal damage causing demoralize-attempts and the obligatory class-enhancing feats. The book also sports traits o further emphasize the rival-trait and a feat to grant yourself temporary hit points 1/day. Now, as you know, I’m not a big fan of revising feats unless there is a specific reason – adding grapple to Weapon Focus’ options would be one such case, while the revisions in particular of the critical-feats here make sense to me. That being said, this obviously is a matter of taste. The pdf then closes with a rather impressive amount of unique weapons, ranging from Qian Kun Ri Yue Daos to heavy rapiers and dire kukris.
Editing and formatting on a rules-level are surprisingly tight for a book of this size. On a formal level, though, there are quite a few glitches like its/it’s, missing letters and the like. The PrCs are also inconsistent in their listing of iterative attack-bonuses or their omission. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard, with each class receiving a great full-color artwork. The pdf is fully bookmarked for your convenience.
The team of designers of Little Red Goblin Games (here Scott Gladstein, Caleb Alysworth, Christos Gurd, Ian Sisson and Dayton Johnson) have surprised me with this book. You know why? because I’ve seen a lot of martial classes and, for the most part, specialist martial niche classes end up feeling to me like they could have been handled via archetypes in most cases. Not so here – each of the classes herein has a complex framework of abilities that justifies the classes standing on their own. The PrCs sport high concepts and make sense as classes not immediately available – they get the “Prestige”-component right, something many, including Paizo’s, often fail at. There is a more important factor, though: This book follows the first commandment of design in all instances: “Thou shalt not be boring!” Achieving this is harder than it sounds when you’re confronted with a jaded bastard like yours truly.
While not each and every component herein is perfect, there certainly are instances in this book I’d consider absolutely glorious: The Undying is narrative potential galore for the GM and a very uncommon experience for the player and it alone is book-seller-level awesome. The Guardian is really cool as well and I do enjoy the tataued warrior – much more so than I thought. While the Adventurer will never get near my games, I know it will find its niche out there. Add to that some rather cool PrCs and we have a book that lacks any objectively bland content – we could argue about some design decisions of commando and wrath, sure, but still – the significant majority of this huge book of crunch saw me smile and even inspired me in some cases…and ultimately, I’d rather have some awesomeness and some components that slightly over/undershoot their mark than a grey paste of blandness that’s perfectly balanced.
The majority of content herein is well-crafted, if plagued by none-too-precise editing here and there and hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars with a recommendation if the content even remotely interests you – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better bang for buck ratio and it’s been a while since a single crunch-book has seen as many classes being allowed in my games …so yeah…this is one of those cases, where components of a book actually excited me. As a reviewer, I may not be able to give this five stars for its formal and, sometimes, balancing flaws- but the components I love definitely justify slamming my seal of approval on this book. Hence, my final verdict will be 4 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this inspired, massive book here on OBS!