The Alternate Path: Martial Characters 2 – Fight Smarter
This massive installment of the Alternate Path-series clocks in at 79 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD, which leaves us with an impressive 75 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Okay, so the Alternate Path-series has carved a rather unique niche for itself in the context of splatbooks, focusing less on just adding to the pile of options and instead, showcasing some experimental and rather unique options – this time around, smart combat is the theme, and as such, the book begins with its mission statement and advice for the GM to make combats more interesting – and to not penalize players for not taking certain skills. This, among others, mentions the importance of terrain and skill challenges, the all but forgotten option to yield in combat and the like – as an aside, for skill challenges, check out Everyman Gaming’s phenomenal Skill Challenged Handbook – it should be core. It’s that good. Anyways, milestone-based leveling is also touched upon, before we dive into the new rules.
The first of these variant rules would be reactions: These are not a copy of 5e’s reaction-system, mind you: Instead, it allows the player to take a standard action as a reaction, with the two actions behaving just like swift actions and immediate actions. This adds a massive increase of dynamics to the combat – on the plus-side, implementing the system devalues bland “I hit 6 times with my weapons” full attacks (as they can’t be performed when you took a reaction). However, at the same time, this vastly changes the combo-dynamics, devalues AoOs and AoO-based builds and de-emphasizes long-term strategy for combats or at least increases the variables to an extent where prediction becomes very, very hard. Suffice to say, readied actions lose all relevance upon implementing this – and thankfully, the pdf does offer serious in-depth advice regarding the implementation of reactions: Class-based restrictions, basing them on feats, imposing of penalties – there are some serious and helpful pieces of advice there. Whether you like the flow of combat thus modified or not ultimately depends on your table – if your group is like mine and already has a lot of fluid movements and changing front-lines, then this may perhaps not be as amazing. If, however, you’re struggling to make combat something else than trading of full attacks, then this may be really amazing for you. All in all, an interesting variant rule-set.
Secondly, we look at the options for the conservation of attacks – iterative attacks are not particularly well-regarded in most tables I know. The system allows characters to sacrifice these iterative attacks in favor of bypassing hardness/DR, a +1 to atk, 3 may be sacrificed for a 5-foot step and 2 may be sacrificed for reloading or fighting defensively sans penalties. I am not a big fan for the atk-bonus benefit and as a whole and while the system does prevent abuse via TWF, flurries, etc., I do think that just replacing the iterative attacks with a kind of pool of options would have made sense. The implementation of this rule greatly favors single, devastating attacks – so if you’re building god strike characters or focusing on Vital Strike etc., this can be a bit ugly. Here, some discussion on the ramifications of the implementation would have been nice.
Next up would be simple grapple rules – which, while functional, do decrease the options available to the grapplers. The pdf suggests providing free Improved combat maneuver feats to increase their value – which generally is not necessarily a good idea, considering how other options build on them. Going with an extraordinary ability would have probably been smoother and retained the feat-tree-structure. I am, however, a HUGE fan of the variant aid another rules presented here: Providing a leg up and allowing for variant swift and full-round action aid anothers adds a tactical dimension to aiding your fellow adventurers.
The pdf also provides a couple of variant, inverse skill-uses: Torture via Heal, Ignoring via Perception or Misusing Magic Items – the first of these is less interesting, but in particularly, Misusing Magic Items can yield hilarious results – a successful check lets you roll d20 on a massive table. And yes, you can bestow transient sentience on an item. (As a minor formal complaint – spell-references are not always concisely italicized in the book.) We also get brief rules for wall jumping and running (cool) and a really cool fill-in of a rules-hole: The pdf contains an adept and sensible way of dealing with burrowing movement: The 3D-movement, hardness of surfaces and DR granted by material per 5 feet certainly will be used in my game. Speaking of 3D-movement – the proposed levels-approach makes sense and is easy to implement.
Finally, we have rules for cooking strange stuff in dungeons – as a minor complaint, “and large size creatures count as x2 large size creatures.” Should read “and Large size creatures count as x2 Medium size creatures.” – sizes are capitalized and there is a slightly confusing misnomer here. As a whole, I wasn’t too smitten by this cooking-variant. I’ve seen the concept done in a more rewarding manner.
The pdf also sports new classes – 5, to be precise. The first of these would be the calculator, who gains d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, full BAB-progression, good Will-saves and proficiency with simple and martial weapons, light and medium armors and shields, excluding tower shield, as well as with battle tomes. Calculators may enter computation mode as a swift action – this requires concentration and further swift actions to maintain and fear effects end it. While in computation mode, the calculator deals minimum damage and may not be affected by morale bonuses. However, they receive the computation bonus to all Knowledge checks and attack and damage rolls with ranged weapons, finesse weapons and one-handed or lighter melee weapons. This computation bonus equal to ¼ of the calculator’s level and may never exceed the character’s intelligence modifier. Okay, so is that minimum 1? No idea, alas. More importantly would be that the calculator gains 1 point of brilliance at the start of the calculator’s turn while he maintains computation mode. Question: If the character enters the mode for one round and then proceeds to end it on the second round, does he get this point or not? A calculator can only sustain the mode for a maximum of 1 minute and proceeds to take 3 times their class level in nonlethal damage upon ending computation mode.
A calculator’s brilliance pool may never exceed ½ class level (minimum 1) + Intelligence modifier (minimum 1) and may meditate for 1 minute to fully replenish the brilliance pool. The calculator begins play with one formula (the “average formula”) – formulae may be entered as a free action while in computation mode and they are incompatible with combat styles. Another formula is gained at 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter. The aforementioned formula lets you deal average damage, btw. Other formulas allow the character to e.g. treat an attack as using full BAB, gain Quick Draw and Combat Reflexes for 1 round, etc. – these formula, unsurprisingly, cost brilliance to activate. Immediate actions can be used to reduce the damage incurred to minimum damage. Finagle’s Law can be a bit problematic, allowing the character to deal maximum damage – with high critical multipliers and multiclassing, this one can be very, very potent and should probably be relegated to the higher levels or feature another restriction.
2nd level, weirdly, nets a +1/4 class level bonus to saves versus illusion spells or those with the emotion or fear descriptor and imposes a similar penalty to all Charisma-based skills. This lacks the minimum 1-caveat, making 2nd level in essence a dead level RAW. Mathematical savant is interesting and gained at 3rd level – it grants an approximate idea of the success-chances of certain actions – and yes, GMing-advice is provided. Problem: No activation action is provided. Also at 3rd level, the class gets to choose a calculator axiom, with another one gained every 3 levels thereafter – these basically represent talents sans activation cost – including proficiency with firearms, constant detect chaos/law and the ability to ascertain morale bonuses/penalties (not a fan) and bonuses to AC versus lawful targets, damage versus chaotic ones. There also are a couple of such abilities that require brilliance point expenditure.
There also are some interesting stances here – a minor complaint: Improved stances do not require their base stances as prerequisites, which they should, seeing that they have no effect without them. Ally-boosts to concentration or precision damage caused are also interesting. Apart from these minor inconsistencies, this section is rather interesting. Probability prediction, gained at 5th level, is interesting: As a free action, the calculator may 1/round at the start of an enemy’s turn call out an action – if the enemy follows this action, the calculator imposes penalties on the enemy or otherwise hampers them via ally-support. At 8th level, whenever the calculator in computation mode rolls a natural 3, he can spend a point of brilliance to invoke Pi and treat the result as a natural 20. At 19th level, the calculator may spend 1 point of brilliance at the start of their turn, treating all attacks as using the highest BAB – nasty shredder, even at 19th level, and strangely favoring TWFs. The capstone renders immune to death effects, critical hits and possession and lets the character assume an “intangible state” as a swift action. This does not exist. I think this is supposed to mean “incorporeal”.
The face-changer would be obviously inspired by the Men of Braavos, must be non-good and gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, full BAB-progression, good Ref- and Will-saves and proficiency with simple and martial weapons as well as light armor. The shapechanger begins play with the ability to disguise self as a Su, which does not allow for a Will-save to bypass. Okay. What’s the duration? CL for purposes of dispelling/ability-interaction? He can use it ½ class level (min 1) + Charisma modifier times per day. Starting at 2nd level, as a touch attack, they can store a creature’s mind – only one may be stored at any given time. The mind stored may then be accessed via Intelligence checks to recall information from it. 4th level upgrades this to work via touched objects that have been at least a year in the target creature’s possession. 3rd level’s surgical strikes is problematic: On a natural 15 or higher, you roll to confirm: If you do, effects that usually only trigger on a critical hit do trigger and you add + Dexterity modifier as precision damage to the damage caused. This makes fishing for crit builds and those that add critical hit effects via weapons or abilities very potent. Also at 3rd level and every 3 level thereafter, you gain a spy craft, which helps when going in deep cover – speaking a language sans actually speaking it, bonuses versus targets whose minds are held, changing places with a creature slain (generating the impression that the assassination attempt was foiled), morphing into the form of a loved one of a target – the abilities are interesting, but some are slightly exploitable: Killing spree nets you +2 to damage per foe killed, up to +1/3rd class level. Hand me the kittens, please. Similarly, there is an infinite, slow healing exploit. 4th level allows for the swift action reshaping of features, altering gender, race or age automatically. Okay, what’s the DC to notice the face-changer? 8th level provides a fluid form variant as an upgrade and 12th level nets polymorph – which is, unlike the previous ones, a SP. The previous ones have the magic interaction issues noted before.
7th level yields assassination – Dex-based save after 1 round study, on a failure, the attack’s target is reduced to 0 hit points. The ability may be used 1/day, +1/day for every 3 levels thereafter. The capstone lets him perform unlimited assassination attempts per day. 15th level upgrades the action required to swift and 20th level provides unlimited doppelgang…which is weird, for RAW, the base ability doesn’t specify a concise duration as the governing CL-component is opaque. Also weird: The pdf talks about allies and enemies and lets the face-changer define these anew each round, which is per se an amazing mechanic – the class, however, doesn’t do anything with it. Also, since quite a few abilities etc. sport caps on maximum number of targets, this can be a bit weird at the table.
The third class would be the nobody, who gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with hidden and rogue-y weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and good Ref- and Will-saves. The nobody’s defining class feature is nonperson: As adherents of the grand Nothing, nobodies are hard to remember – it takes Intelligence-checks to recall them and 7th and 15th level further make it harder to remember them. While the class addresses how issues with adventuring companions are handled, the pdf does fail to italicize a spell-reference here. The nobody may enter a null state as a move action, for up to 4 + Intelligence modifier rounds per day, +2 rounds per level after that – that should be class level. Nobodies in a null state are hard to recall: The first time a creature sees them, it has to succeed a Will-save to perceive them. Fats movement or attacks etc. end a null state in progression. Creatures get +4 to notice the nobody when they can see him enter a null state. Yeah. This is pretty much a better variant of Hide in Plain Sight at first level. And frankly, it is very, very potent – not because of what it does, but because the ability is not codified regarding balancing components like effect-types etc. At 5th level, he can choose invisibility (improved invisibility at 9th level)as a SP instead, regarding the benefits – which, frankly, is worse in quite a few cases. 9th level also, confusingly, upgrades the null state to being treated as natural invisibility. This looks like a revision at some point went haywire.
Additionally, they get limited use touch attacks that deal scaling force damage and that impose negative conditions and later, even dispel effects and more creative tricks. These do NOT break the cloaking of the class. 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter yield upgrades to the array available, not unlike deeds. These include phasing targets away to the nothing for a round, being forgotten, etc. However, the abilities do have in common that they are missing some balance-components: Forgetting folks should be mind-affecting; silence-like effects lack a duration, spells are not italicized. It’s frustrating, really – the effects are interesting and generally, make sense. 3rd level and every 4 levels thereafter, the nobody gets to choose a powerful sense and becomes undetectable by it, requiring Perception to notice them. 5th level yields void spike, the ability to cause negative levels with a 1d4-round cooldown, with 9th level and every 4 levels thereafter increasing the amount of negative levels caused by +1. 6th level nets constant nondetection and 10th level provides the option to become incorporeal while in null state at an increased round cost. The capstone provides immunity to critical hits and precision damage as well as the option to 3 + Int-mod times per day, as a standard action, destroy a creature on a failed save – 20d6 on a successful save. Ouch. At 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter, the class gets to choose an obscura, the talents of the class, which include entering null states as immediate actions in response to being targeted by a spell, attack, etc. Since this doesn’t move the character, I assume he is treated as invisible, with line of sight broken. More rounds of null state, fast stealth -you get the idea. AoE force damage, pocketing items into the Nothing – the class has flavor galore, but the important balancing tidbits, from clarifying durations to effect types make it problematic as a whole. A non-turn-ending, move action dimension door, exclusively to an adjacent to creatures, for example, is pretty damn cool and it, like many components of the class, would have deserved a bit more delicacy. As written, it is a VERY, VERY potent Stealth class. Unlike the previous classes, this one does get favored class options, btw. It also gets an archetype, the student of the sphere: Instead of the touch attack, they can basically conjure forth the lite-version of a sphere of annihilation and instead of void spike, he can later split these in smaller orbs. See, this one is really, really cool; amazing, even. That holds true for the whole class, mind you – with a bit of fine-tuning, this is a great class.
The sapper class gets d8 HD, 8 + Int skills per level, ¾ BAB-progression, good Fort- and Ref-saves and begins play with Catch Off-Guard and proficiency with simple weapons, throwing axes, handaxes, picks (light + heavy), saps and all martial ranged weapons as well as firearms, if the campaign uses them. They are proficient with all armor and shields, including tower shields. The begin play with Int-governed bombs (like the alchemist) and these have a ½ class level damage progression, capping at +10d6 at 20th level. While they last only one minute, they CAN be handed off to allies…and they are Ex. So yes, they work in zones sans magic. Sappers also start the game with sabotage: A target hit by a bomb becomes flat-footed (or even prone, on bad failures) or takes a penalty to d20 rolls, governed by sapper levels. Only one sabotage can be used on a creature in a given round and the critter gets a Ref-save to resist the effect.
At 3rd level, sappers can consume bomb uses as a swift action to create distracting harrier auras with a scaling range. 15th level allows for the regaining of bombs via item destruction – with a cap to prevent cheesing the ability. 19th level increases the Dc to resist the harrier aura. The capstone potentially breaks non-magical items in the aura and suppresses magic items – which may then break…REALLY cool.
5th level nets an insight bonus to damage with firearms, on damage rolls vs. objects and with sundering weapons. They bonus increases every 4 levels. 10th level yields interdiction, which can drain spells, rage, ki and similar limited resources with sabotage – damn cool! And yes, the list cannot be comprehensive – that’s why the pdf has guidance to determine the points/slots thus consumed. Kudos! 2nd level and every even level thereafter yields a sapper art – these include bomb discoveries, obviously, but also adding the sunder property to bludgeoning weapons, counting as being equipped with a portable ram and crowbar, Disruptive, better dirty tricks, putting down landmine-bombs and terrain control via bombs, creating bridges, barriers or clearing underbrush, no longer misfiring…this class is a) balanced, b) cool. Now I wished the class got more sabotages as it progressed, but after the concerns with the previous ones, I was rather happy to find this fellow. Now, due to the lack of spellcasting, I’d strongly suggest giving this fellow more bombs per day as the levels progress than what he currently has, but that as an aside.
The final new class would be the scout, who gains d8 HD, full BAB-progression and good Ref- and Will-saves as well as 8 + Int skills per level. …WUT? With that chassis?? Okay. Proficiency-wise, he gets simple weapon and all martial ranged weapon proficiency, proficiency with all exotic ranged weapons (!!!) and all simple and martial firearms as well as light armor. Scouts have a stamina pool equal to their Constitution score, which is increased by certain feats like Endurance, Diehard, etc. Starting at 5th level, they get +1/3 class level to the total stamina – I assume, rounded down.
Scouts may duplicate a lesser version of invisibility (Stealth-bonus equal to scout level, minimum +2) while not moving, ½ scout level (minimum +0) while moving – they can activate it for 1 point of Stamina. Starting at 6th level, hostile actions do not break this cloaking. Starting at 10th level, cloaking does not cost stamina anymore and at 10th level, the scout may spend 1 stamina as a move action to dimension door, sans ending movement. I think the cost is supposed to be higher: 14th and 18th level reduce it by 1 to a minimum of 1, but the cost already IS 1…Ridiculous: Range is equal to the scout’s overland movement.
They begin play with darkvision 60 ft. (+30 ft. if they already have it) and double that range at 5th level and they are treated as having keen senses for the purpose of prerequisites. Starting at 3rd level, the scout gains more options here: First the options to not be caught off-guard by invisible targets and better noticing them, then all-around vision (plus seeing through magical darkness) at 7th level, x-ray vision at 11th level, lifesense at 15th and true seeing at 19th level. This array is prefaced by the following: “Starting at 3rd level, the scout can gain the following suite of abilities provided they expend 1 stamina at the start of their turn as a free action:” Okay – does that mean 1 point per round of activation? Can the scout have multiple effects in place at once? Do the costs in stamina stack? No idea.
When unencumbered, the scout also gets scout movement – ½ class level as a bonus to Acrobatics to bypass obstacles and ignore difficult terrain at 1st level. RAW, this includes damaging terrain, which it imho shouldn’t. 3rd level adds scurry (+10 ft. movement rate, scales up to +60 ft.); 6th level provides feather fall and caps falling damage at 5d6 and 9th level provides spider climb (italicization missing). These cost 1 stamina to activate and once again, I have no idea whether the costs are cumulative or not. At 1st level, the class can spend a free action to gain a +1 competence bonus to atk against a creature until the start of their next turn, increasing that by +1 at 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter. 2nd level provides evasion and the ability to make a party travel overland at the scout’s speed. Additionally, targets more than 60 ft. away take +1d6 precision damage per 4 scout levels, minimum +1d6, from the scout’s attacks. Starting at 5th level, the scout is constantly under the effects of a mundane variant of the alarm spell’s benefits. 4th level yields uncanny dodge, 8th level improved uncanny dodge. As a capstone, the scout auto-confirms ranged critical threats and recovers 2 stamina per round.
Starting at 5th level and every odd level thereafter, the scout gains an exploit. These are the talents of the class and they include combat feats (at fighter level -4), ranged combat maneuvers, 1/day regaining Constitution modifier stamina points upon reaching 0 stamina, spending 3 stamina to double base movement rate for a round, swift action 3-round haste for 3 stamina, doubled range increments for all ranged weapons…you get the idea. Basically, the class does what it sets out to do: Depict a nigh untraceable, extremely potent ambush sniper. If you ever thought that the ranged combat ranger’s DPR was too bad or that he was too easy to pin down, this class is basically that guy on speed. Suffice to say, I won’t let this anywhere near my table. I shudder at the thought of what even moderately competent optimizers can do with it.
The pdf also sport a ton of new feats: Extra class ability feats, for example (erroneously referring to Nobody as Cipher). There is an Indiana Jones-style use-whip-as-hand feat that’s actually well-made and really cool. There is a feat to remain hidden at -8 to Stealth while attacking. The Befuddling Basics Style is an interesting take of unlocking combat maneuvers while retaining the feat-tree. There is also a feat, weirdly with the [Tag]-descriptor, that lets you combine two combat maneuvers. Another feat lets you make an attack with a creature you have just killed. OP: Over-Prepared Combat renders a target you have identified flat-footed against your attacks after identifying it. A take on the concealed damage trope is okay – but personally, I really liked the option to use razor wire to generate protection from arrows – problem here: Duration? Does it move with you? If so, does the movement require actions to maintain the globe? Using razor wire to make traps etc. is pretty amazing. Reminded me of how bad-ass Walther in hellsing was and really made me want to use these, in spite of the minor inconsistency noted. Seize the Initiative lets you retroactively grant yourself +4 to initiative, -4 to atk in the first turn and prevents the use of precision damage. Still, considering how damage outclasses defense most of the time, this is problematic. There is also a feat to stand up from prone position that is better than restricted class talents. Not a fan. Several feats allow for magus-spell-poaching. Spellwire Style combines razor wires with touch spell delivery – which is 5 kinds of awesome – seriously – the wire-feats here are damn cool and there is another feat-tree for them beyond those already noted. Problem: RAW, the Style-trees don’t work. The follow-up feats have the [Style]-descriptor – a character may usually only be in one style at once and the follow-up feats are usually combat feats, making the descriptor-choice here plain WRONG. That doesn’t break them, mind you, but it is jarring.
The chapter also depicts a new type of feat, namely [Friend] feats – these require a bond between player characters and provide synergy boons: AC-bonus while near a wild-shaped druid friend, save-bonuses versus the school of your wizard buddy, +5 ft. movement while near your raging barbarian buddy. These are nice ideas, though one deserves special attention, as it represents more of an alternate rule and the pdf acknowledges such: Collaborative lets an ally take a prerequisite-less feat of yours to qualify for a given feat, prestige class, etc., but this locks the feat and prevents retraining. This can, obviously, provide some issues, when e.g. follow-up abilities build on the loaned feat; at the same time, it can make sense in some contexts, so yes – I’ll treat it as a valid variant rule, since the pdf clearly designates it as potentially causing issues.
Editing and formatting are not the strong suit of Little Red Goblin Games. While not bad per se, there are a lot formatting issues. More importantly, this pdf’s rules-language could really have used a strict and nitpicky dev to look at the power and finer rules-interactions. The big picture works, mind you – but its small things like effects not properly codified that turn a potent ability into a problematic one. Layout adheres to a nice two-column full-color standard and the pdf sports some solid full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Scott Gladstein, Ian Sisson and Christos Gurd’s latest Alternate Path was frustrating for me; you see, I REALLY like a ton of what I’m seeing in this book. The LRGG-crew is best when they’re experimental and you can say many things, but they don’t do cookie-cutter or bland. None of the classes or options herein are boring or sucky. At the same time, I really wished this had gone through the hands of a really picky dev. The options presented herein do have some issues in their rules-language and the details of their functionality and that drags them down quite a bit. Apart from the scout. The scout is just…*takes a deep breath* Anyways, what I’m trying to say is, is that this is *SO CLOSE* to being truly amazing. All of the classes have something really cool going for them, but whether it’s the inconsistent absence of FCOs for most of them or the finer details in the rules, this feels like a very much raw offering; like a beta-test of a very good, perhaps even a great game, but one that needs some serious work before it reaches the excellence and awesomeness it promises. From grossly undervaluing the power of Stealth (when playing by the rules) to the potent tricks, there is a strange sense of less balancing here. Take the sapper in contrast, who could really use more bombs over the levels, seeing that all cool class features are reliant on the expenditure of them and compare that to the others.
Can I recommend this? Tentatively, yes. You see, if you don’t consider this to be a run-as-is supplement, but rather a collection of experimental rules, and if you’re confident in your abilities to judge the impact of these options, then oh boy, I’ll guarantee that you’ll find some gems herein. At the same time, this is a very raw offering that fluctuates in the potency of its tricks rather wildly. A game that embraces the scout’s power will sneer at the relatively tame sapper and vice versa. The rough-edges in some of the ability interactions will require GM-calls. Still, while I should hate this book, I don’t. I enjoy it. Heck, I can see folks loving this. Why? Because it is creative and sports some seriously intriguing angles to pursue, significantly more so than many, many books I’ve read. As taken in its entirety, I can’t go higher than 3 stars for this: We have a mixed bag with some true gems, but also some less amazing components here. That being said, if you instead rate this for the cool scavenging options, you’ll get some real gems out of it – when rated as a grab-bag where you take some and leave some, then this suddenly becomes much more compelling – even with the flaws, this is at least 3.5 stars, rounded up, in such a context- And since I have a policy of in dubio pro reo, this is what my final verdict will be.
You can get this creative, if a bit rough, collection of cool ideas here on OBS!