Advanced Races: Werelions
This installment of the Advanced Races-series clocks in at 14 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page ToC/editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 10 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This installment kicks off with a short, general look at the race of werelions and does sport a short box of their role within the Midgard campaign setting, though you should be aware that the level of detail provided is far below what one has seen in similar installments of the series – which is somewhat a pity, since lion prides as a social union and their adaption to humanoid cultures would have made for an interesting playing ground, which the pdf only touches upon.
Rules-wise, natural werelions receive +2 Wis, -2 Cha. In shifted form, they utilize the stats that are higher – base or animal. In hybrid and animal shapes, they also receive +2 to Str and Con. Werelions are humanoids with the shapechanger subtype. They are medium and receive a 40 ft. base movement speed. Per default, they are not infectious and they receive a penalty to all social interactions when dealing with other lycanthropes. They can change shape as a move action, with equipment melding into animal, but not into hybrid form. For balance’s sake, only lesser lions are available for low level shapechanges – more on that later. In hybrid form, they receive a 1d6 bite attack and two 1d3 claw attacks – both fail to specify whether they are considered primary or secondary attacks. And yes, *I* am aware how such interaction is usually handled, but I maintain that the pdf should still list that for convenience’s sake. They also receive low-light vision.
Now the scaling of this rather strong race can be handled via two methods. First of which would be a kind of racial paragon class – any time after 5th level, they can gain a level in their racial class as a favored class, receiving +1 BAB, +2 Fort-saves, skill points equal to the character’s favored class 1d8 HP. The level also nets them the option to shapechange into full-blown lion form, +5 natural armor in lion shape, animal empathy with lions, DR 10/silver. They also can choose alternate favored class options for +1/2 increased AC or +1 DR/silver instead of their favored class bonus – both VERY powerful when compared to other FCOs.
The racial paragon-level, when compared to similar creature builds, feels pretty strong – especially since the base creature already is very strong. It also is exceedingly, terribly clunky. It’s essentially a single prestige paragon level, crammed into a character’s regular progression without rhyme or reason or a proper presentation – don’t get me wrong – it *is* functional. But from a design aesthetic perspective, there are A LOT ways to handle this more organically without introducing a make-believe mechanic that does not exist in regular PFRPG. This feels like a work-in-progress list of stuff the race ought to be able to do, crammed into a thoroughly inorganic way right into the heart of the class/race-progression – and that’s before the confusing, non-standard presentation comes into play. Urgh.
There is also the option to render a werelion as an infected lycanthrope via a CR +0 template that nets +10 ft. enhancement, shapechange (akin to the non-upgraded natural werelion’s, though it does require constitution checks) and the same attribute upgrades when changed. In a different take, the race receives a penalty to all die rolls on failed attempts to change. On nights of a full moon, the checks to assume human form become much harder, whereas those to change into animal/hybrid form receive a significant bonus. They also suffer from the curse of the hunting moon – 3 nights a month, they uncontrollably change (which somewhat contradicts the above assertions of implied control) they need to hunt down…something. Oddly, the ability references a reduction of penalties… which probably refer to the significant problems the race faces when living through full moon nights without kills, but a slightly crisper pointer towards that would have helped. Akin to natural werelions, at 6th level they can receive a similar upgrade to their power-level, increasing their template’s worth to CR+1 – which may be nice, but DOESN’T HELP PLAYING THEM.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way – this is 3.X design-philosophy in anything but name. The races are STRONG already – adding the respective paragon-levels, we receive what amounts to an ECL jammed in at higher levels to create a semblance of balance that is simply not there. Even when compared to the exceedingly strong lamia, the werelions remain too strong in my book. Worse, they don’t necessarily excel at what they set out to do – the penalties for failing to hunt ANYTHING are laughably lax and nigh impossible NOT to fulfill for just about any character – yes, this includes warriors et al. Unfortunately, this also renders the very notion of lycanthropy being a curse, of becoming a monster, essentially ad absurdum. This whole racial presentation is utterly baffling to me – it violates just about every way in which racial presentation is usually handled and does so without introducing a mechanical consistency/balance that would warrant it.
Werelions also get age, height and weight table and aforementioned lesser lion statblock is provided herein as well – which somewhat conflicts with the templated approach. As for rules-options, sorcerors may choose the new lion-blooded bloodline, including natural spell and the option to wildshape into scaling leonine form. The sorcerors may also spontaneously convert transmutation spells into a temporary bonus to atk and damage that do not multiply on crits – I just don’t get why it is SP. It think it should be Su or Ex since it explicitly states that it can’t be dispelled anyways. And becoming a huge lion as a capstone is pretty cool, but also not a reason to take the bloodline – for most sorcs, the melee focus will be a very, very bad idea.
Generally, a conceptually pretty nice, though not by any means perfect bloodline that had me flash back to one of my favorite Solomon Kane comics. Inquisitors may elect to become Ndau, or hunting lions. When these inquisitors slay a prey and consume part of the body (which they can either do slowly or rushed), the inquisitor receives a bonus depending on the organ consumed. The prey needs to be sentient and yes, the ability is kitten-proof! The higher the level, the more parallel benefits can be maintained – a total of 9 benefits are provided and yes, rushed and ongoing benefits are totally different – nice! (And it better be, since it replaces, spells, domains and judgments…) Ndau also receive woodland stride, quarry and a capstone that further enhances their tricks. Know what? I really, really like this archetype – it fits rather neatly with the concept and its bonuses make sense. That being said, the lack of spells also means that the class damn well could have used an additional power-gain – it is flavorful, yes…but it could use a power upgrade.
On the favored class options line, we receive one for barbarians, bards, druids, rangers, rogues, sorcerors, oracles (3 mystery-specific ones!), witch, battle scion, shaman and spell-less ranger. I really liked these, in spite of the formatting being obviously non-standard – special FCOs for archetypes/class features are a neat idea that ought to be explored further. Kudos for that, in spite of the presentation botch.
A total of 8 new racial feats allows you to improve your lion forms sans taking the racial level, gain (DM approval-based) infectious lycanthropy or faster transformation. Making your lycanthropy harder to remove will also be on the must-have list for quite a few characters. That being said, the AoE-demoralization roar and the +10 ft. when withdrawing/running/charging-feat can be considered a tad bit too strong in my book. I absolutely LOATHE the feat that lets you detect shapechangers per Perception – not due to mechanical issues, but rather due to the fixed DC that does not account for Disguise. Yes, it can be thwarted by certain spells, but still – why not take disguise into account? Seems only fair, doesn’t it? As far as overly specific detects go, still not a bad one, in spite of my personal antipathy towards the concept.
A total of 5 different traits (all specifying their proper trait-type!) can be found herein – and are universally just oozing fluff. Two spells would be next: Predator’s Gaze nets you a gaze attack that renders a target flat-footed AND cannot move from their current square. Rather powerful, but also extremely interesting – but it suffers from confused mechanic – the spell has a duration of 1 round +1 round/level. It can be activated as a swift action, whereupon the target of the gaze has to save – got that. The target can’t move from the square and is flatfooted on a failed save for one round, got that. But how long does the “no movement”-part last? Also one round? For the full spell’s duration? Is the gaze discharged upon use? Can multiple creatures be rendered unmoving by the same spell? Depending on the answers to these questions, the spell may be either strong or utterly overpowered.
The second spell would be Hunter’s Discerning Sight, which allows you to determine alignment components, falsehoods etc. – essentially a combo-detect spell. Okay, I guess. The pdf also sports 2 new magic items – one that enhances claws and one that allows the wielder to activate rings, wands, potions, staves and wondrous items melded into your form – which is very powerful, though thankfully the pdf mentions that the items still provoke AoOs etc. – but can they still be disarmed? Stolen? If not, then this needs fixing… If a character owns both items, the former allows claws to utilize the enhancements of weapons.
Editing and formatting are generally pretty good – there are almost no formal, true glitches; rather than that, we receive a couple of non-standard formatting instances that may catch you slightly off guard and make the content more difficult to grasp than it ought to be. Layout adheres to Kobold Press’ beautiful two-column full color standard and the pdf does sport downright gorgeous full-color artwork. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Ben McFarland and Brian Suskind are obviously talented designers and Ben in particular was the reason I did not cringe at the thought of reviewing this pdf – he has proven time and again his ability to handle complex concepts. Ben, my man, I’m sorry. I love your other designs, I really do. But what has happened here?
This pdf feels very much like a half-baked work-in-progress book. The solutions for the scaling of the race, while well-intentioned, just don’t work within the frame of the Pathfinder-rules. The callback to what amounts to templated ECL-races directly contradicts how races are handled in EVERY other publication.
Now don’t get me wrong – while too powerful to fit into every campaign, the werelions generally can be considered a powerful race that can enrich a given campaign – of that I have no doubt. However, there are a couple of instances in the base racial traits, wherein the power of the werelions could have easily been scaled in easier and more versatile ways – specifically, in the upgrades for the natural and infected werelions. First, racial paragon levels would have benefited from coming with a proper table – as a kind of racial paragon PrC…or alternatively, as something that spans multiple levels…or as feats. (Eric Morton’s Animal Races-series uses racial feats pretty well to grant otherwise powerful abilities with a concise scaling mechanism…) The amount of benefits gained is more than significant and stretching them over more levels, feats, fcos…whatever… would have made for a slightly smoother experience in my book.
Yes, that can be chalked down, at least halfway, to a matter of design-aesthetics. The new content provided beyond the imho broken base racial presentations ranges from downright brilliant/innovative (class ability-/Archetype-specific FCOs? Cool idea!) to problematic (spells…) and the minor formatting issues would be another strike against the pdf.
And then, there would also be the missed chance with the relative lack of fluff – information on individual takes on classes, relationships with other races etc. The like can’t be found herein, rendering this pdf more crunch-centric than previous ARs. This constitutes a missed opportunity in my book, especially knowing how good Ben McFarland is at crafting awesome cultures/fluff and considering the tabula rasa nature of werelions, who have not yet been covered by similar publications.
Some of you might not care about the wonky level-insert. About the relative lack of fluff. About the exceeding power-level of the race. For you, this may be a 3 stars-file. But as a reviewer, I can’t let this pdf stand at that point – for people emphasizing fluff, for those looking for elegant fluff that seamlessly works, for those shaking their heads at the thought of the crammed-in racial level… this pdf simply does NOT deliver what it easily could. For you, this is a 2-star-file. My final verdict will clock in in-between, at 2.5 stars, rounded up by a teeny, tiny margin to 3, but only since a capable DM can properly make what is in here work smoothly.