The Battlemage’s Handbook
This expansion-book for the Spheres of Power-system clocks in at 45 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 40 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
After a nice bit of introductory prose and some notes on how to use this book, we begin with the new class options presented, the first of which would be the combat engineer alchemist, who replaces alchemy with being an Int-based Mid-Caster and a spell pool of his level + int-mod, with each level granting a magic talent and War sphere as a bonus sphere at first level. The archetype gains alchemical engineering, which focuses on creating so-called devices, which are single-use alchemical items used to enhance sphere talents, working per default only with totems, though that may be rectified. Using a device expends a use of the bombs class feature, but unlike bombs, devices do not need to be created beforehand and are used as part of the action activating the talent. Devices that enhance sphere abilities that are attaches to targets necessitate a touch attack with the device to do so. When the engineer uses a device, he can add 1 modification, + another one for every 4 class levels thereafter, culminating at 5. (It should be noted that some modifications count as multiple modifications.) At total of 12 such modifications are provided and include having to save twice, making the sphere ability conveyed as though a bomb. For 4 modifications, the device may even create sphere abilities the engineer doesn’t know – he still has to meet the prerequisites. Better MSD and fuses complement an interesting array, and we also get very shorthand-style discoveries that list, somewhat oddly, their prerequisites in the discovery-names, which also are bolded. Needless deviation here, but ultimately cosmetic. The discoveries are cool and tie in with other spheres as well as including a reduction of multiple-modification-costing device costs.
Next up would be the Dark Presence eliciter, who gains the War sphere and treats his CL as class level and increases the save DC of the sphere by +2 (same bonus applies to the three social skills), which also increase at 6th level and every 6 levels thereafter by +1. This replaces persuasive. 3rd level nets Soul-Piercing Gaze. The archetype gains custom hypnotisms, the first of which makes the target lose Dex-mod to AC for one round on a failed save. 4th, 10th, 16th and 19th level provide confusion, non-lethal damage, nauseating (sickened on a successful save!) and hopelessness, replacing the inspire greatness/heroism, liberate and reverence abilities. The capstone allows for the expenditure of multiple hypnotism uses to affect multiple enemies within a totem’s area – cool one, though I wished that sort of interaction came sooner. The divine heretic warpriest is a Cha-governed Mid-Caster, with class level + Cha-mod spell pool and a magic talent each level. He gains Steadfast Personality at 1st level, using Cha as the feat’s governing attribute and two spheres as domain spheres, one of which must be War. He also gains Totemic Aura as a bonus talent and the Personal Conflict drawback, no drawback if he already has the War sphere; if both are already possessed, he instead may choose a War bonus talent. The second sphere is freely chosen and domain spheres employ class level as CL. Fervor is modified to allow, as a swift action, expend a use of a sphere ability with a casting time of 1 round or shorter, and the ability thus enhanced may only affect the divine heretic and his equipment and effects that move with the character work as well. Ongoing effects are extended by Charisma modifier rounds. This replaces fervor and, in essence, makes abilities that target others or multiple targets personal instead – system-immanently, this is an ability I’d keep a very close eye on, as it is pretty wide open; not broken per se, but definitely an ability that should receive some GM oversight.
Instead of channel energy, 10th level yields domain mastery: Expend 2 fervor to add a magic talent for a single sphere use, with the talent chosen from domain spheres. When used in conjunction with fervent casting, this costs no additional fervor. The capstone nets a 1/day swift action ability to use an unlimited number of self-targeting sphere abilities to target himself or equipment, but spell-costs are retained.
Next up would be the ghost sovereign soul weaver archetype, who replaces Heal with Knowledge (nobility). 2nd level nets a linear ability progression of royal commands that can influence ensouled creatures. The basic buff sports a layout relic, a blank box, as an aesthetic aside.. Higher levels let you cause critters to attacks others; causing others to move, buff bonus upgrade…nice. The 18th level ability to use a standard action to execute a “full-round attack” –this may be further expanded by also allowing for movement by also expending a move action – per se interesting, but also very strong…and potentially bring for the player. This replaces blessings and blights., 4th level nets the option to call forth twilight courtiers, undead designed per Conjuration + undead Creature. 8th level provides totem/mandate-less rally and requires, like calling courtiers, soul expenditure. The capstone allows the character to be whisked away temporarily to the afterlife and to auto-resurrect with negative levels. These sovereigns also have their own twilight kingdom, made with Create Demiplane – interesting!
The Iron mage hedgewitch adds Intimidate, Knowledge (history) and knowledge (nobility) and 4 + Int skills per level. The archetype has good Fort- and Will-saves, poor Ref-saves and loses one tradition. He does gain the War sphere, at class level equal CL with it and a bonus feat with a limited choice-array. The archetype gains casting ability modifier authority points per day, which also represents the maximum cap for them – they behave somewhat like grit, but also take allies into account. Thankfully, they cannot be kitten-cheesed. Iron mages may use a command 1/round; use of a command when it’s not the iron mage’s turn instead consume next round’s command. It would not do the archetype justice to just make it out to be grit-like, though: You see, the ally caveat allows for more reliable regaining of points, and the commands, which are gained in a linear manner, interact in interesting ways with both totem and mandate. Minor complaint: E.g. answer the call lacks the italicization of rally. Plus-side: Moving totems, moving allies, temporary momentum points…damn cool (and more on that later. The archetype also provides an array of tradition secrets, which interact in similarly interesting ways with the base engine of the class – my favorite archetype herein so far: Interesting, unique and meaningfully different playing experience.
The war hero fighter also gets a kind of fleeting resource – greatness, which may, interestingly, be also replenished with breaking shields, succeeding saves, etc. Cool here: Anti-kitten-abuse caveat included! Here’s the interesting component: While not becoming a spellcaster per se, the war hero can, whenever he achieves greatness, trigger an aura, which may duplicate spell point cost-less talents or Totem of War, with higher levels granting totems, multi-aura activations, etc. – nice representation of the gloryseeker and certainly more interesting than the base. The wardmage mage knight is basically a bodyguard-style archetype that may intercept attacks on warded creatures, replacing 1st level’s talent. Resist magic is replaced with a variety of virtues – these are interesting, but sometimes a bit weird: Dedication costs a standard action, for example, and allows the character to make an unlimited amount of such intercepting attacks, which can become ridiculous pretty fast; just picture how war would look between these fellows. It would have been more feasible to us a hard, scaling cap of additional intercepting attacks here. Still, there are some cool tricks here, including ones that reward having specific spheres. 7th level provides another interesting angle here, allowing the target of an attack to be marked, treating any creature the target attacks as warded. This replaces marked and mystic defense is replaced with scaling DR versus enemies intercepted.
The final archetype would be the warmonger symbiat, who replaces Fly with Bluff as class skill and gains a variant proficiency list. He gains War Sphere and Totemic Presence and the Personal Conflict drawback; as usual, already having access to the sphere cancels out the drawback and alternate choices for those that already have the gained options are included. CL is equal to class level; totems have a 60 ft.-radius and allies within the radius may expend momentum from the archetype’s pool. Instead of trap sense, we get a scaling initiative boost, and he gets the option to change weapon damage of allies…which is interesting. Highly problematic: Doubling a successful attack of an ally as an immediate action. So, god-strike, crit-fisher ally and you = double ridiculous damage. Not getting anywhere near my game, particularly considering that the already very potent second attack doesn’t even require line of sight or a roll, which is a bit puzzling, considering that the higher level abilities are potent, but weaker.
The pdf then sports an array of new class features: We get 3 new armorist arsenal tricks, which include substituting casting ability modifier for Strength or Dexterity when wielding a bound/summoned weapon, for example, as well as new special weapon qualities – which are not properly formatted. Eliciters can now choose two new emotions loyalty and resolve; the former is cooperation-focused, while the latter focuses on buffing allies. 10 new mageknight mystic combats include spell point based enhancement of attacks as though using sacred weapons, sharing a mandate versus marked targets or potent swift action assaults can be found: Full BAB-attack with class level as bonus versus marked targets are pretty strong.
Anyways, we also get 3 new rogue talents (once again, oddly formatted), which may sound not like much, but they’re all killer: Not only do they sport interesting interactions with mandate and (rally) talents, they also have an option to be treated as ally for the purpose of a spell, SP or sphere ability – which is pretty amazing. However, this does not cancel being treated as an enemy, which can result in some really wonky interactions. Similarly, limited amount of target abilities and the talent, how do they interact? Can the rogue hijack another’s place? No clue. I really like where this is going, but RAW, it could have used some further gestating.
Then, we begin with the heart and soul of this pdf, namely the magic-section: The War sphere’s talents are codified in various categories that are defined properly; totems (distinguishing between totemic aura and fixed totems), rallies (immediate action ally buffs for targets in totem-range or affected by a mandate), mandates that exist between two characters and there are (momentum) talents, which may be used as a standard action by spending a spell point, granting a momentum pool for 1 hour per CL, holding caster level + key ability modifier points that may be employed by allies within 30 ft. – easily my favorite component of the sphere’s mechanics, btw. – neither activating the pool, nor using it generally provokes an AoO, btw., making this party-driven resource really cool. Momentum, per se, is amazing, let me state that loud and clearly – and the talents offer e.g. the option to use swift actions and 3 momentum to grant yourself another attack at the highest BAB – which brings me to a peculiarity of the book: The bonus-attack-granters, exceedingly potent, universally stack with haste, an interaction that should not work according to PFs regular paradigm. It doesn’t have to break your game, but in the hands of a skilled powergamer, these options become pretty shredder-prone. Particularly since aforementioned momentum talent does not have a minimum level or similar limiter.
Don’t take that the wrong way, though: While I do consider these components to be problematic, there are also a lot of really cool tricks that made me smile: Fast healing/regeneration-suppression via totems, using momentum to demoralize, counterattacks after misses – there is a lot here to love, even before adding benefits to rallies. Minor complaint: I did notice, for example, a reference to the Escape Artist skill not capitalized properly. Also weird: Half of page 23 is blank, making it look like there’s an artwork missing and some text cut off – it’s not, but it generates a somewhat unpolished look there. On the massive plus-side, subverting charms and compulsions, quicker totem movement, buffing negative energy…there are MANY really cool tricks here that made me think of quite a few fun character concepts, like sharing movement, etc. The advanced magic section is rather brief and focuses on attaching totems to vessels or buildings; here, just fyi, the italicization is also not consistent.
The pdf also contains more than 50 (!!!) feats/drawbacks. These include bonuses to Intimidate (not properly capitalized in the pdf) after using a War sphere ability, forbidden lore/totem.crossover, several Dual Sphere talents (like rally allies in wards or dismissing an aegis to reduce the spell point cost of a rally), using Combat Stamina as a spell-point substitute for basic (rally) talents, to be precise, for rallying yourself – which is the only thing that saves this from being OP –Stamina as a replenishing resource acts as a delimiter, so care should be taken if/when building on this. Using spell points as part of a full-attack to replace the first attack with a sphere or supernatural attack is an impressive feat, and one that manages to get its high-complexity verbiage done properly. Synergy between banner and totems, regaining points spent on a self-rally, and a whole array of feats that build on Squadron Commander, which basically establish a collective (the squadron), allows the PCs to gain increased benefits from totems and do so cool stunts…what about e.g. a high-level totem-upgrade that makes foes fade and become less real, treating others as incorporeal? Yeah, that is pretty damn cool.
Beyond the huge feat-array, we also get 6 nice, meaningful traits, 3 generic drawbacks and 4 sphere-specific ones. The pdf also sports new magic equipment – one of these would be the selfless armor quality, which can be used to inflict nonlethal damage to the wearer to grant buffs, which is really cool, since only a full night’s rest helps recover it, making for a per se glorious set-up – unfortunately, the item lacks the caveat that it should not work for creatures immune to nonlethal damage. A shield for amateur interception and 4 different war staff properties can be found. We get banners imbued with totems and there are rally-items – to avoid cheesing, you can only use one of them per 24 hours: Kudos!! And yes, there are stone spheres, which, bingo, serve as mandate items.
The bestiary section sports the blood brothers template (CR +2), which sports a couple of tricks – weird: There are no blank spaces between words in any of the trick-names, which makes sense for some, of them, but not all. Still, throwing your ally, making a miss into a feint for the ally…cool. As a balancing mechanism, these may btw. only be used once per combat – people don’t fall for them twice…usually. (Insert my rant against “per-combat” making no sense in-game here…)
The pdf closes with a page of Player’s advice – which, oddly seems, to reference material that has since been renamed (or not yet released), making the page a bit weird.
Editing and formatting, on both a formal level and rules-language level, are not as tight as usual for Drop Dead Studios. There are more formatting issues and minor hiccups than usual, but at the same time, rules-integrity manages to juggle highly complex concepts. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard and the pdf employs solid stock art, as well as quite a few artworks that are probably original, since I haven’t seen them before. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Andrew J Gibson’s battlemage’s handbook has me more torn than any previous Spheres of power-expansion. On one hand, this book does a phenomenal job of providing amazing engines for the War sphere, an upgrade it certainly required. On the other hand, the pdf, more so than usual, feels like it could have used some additional editing and development. The options here, while cool, often feel a bit weird in internal and external balancing. Spheres of Power is already a wide-open system and the couple of unlimited use-tricks and the synergy tricks need careful monitoring. The explicit stacking of swift action full BAB-attacks with other options and haste also represents an escalation that I don’t consider to be necessary…and potentially unpleasant. Considering that Spheres has a built-in options to differentiate between lower-key and more high-powered gameplay, this component in particularly feels like it could have been handled more elegantly.
In short: While the War sphere needed a power upgrade, this handbook imho overshoots the target-line and comparing power-levels of some options, it looks a bit like some minimum-level-requirements etc. were lost or not implemented. The book, in short, ends up closest to the shapeshifter’s handbook in power-level, a development I consider somewhat troubling for the series, considering that Spheres of Power’s original selling point was to feature more toned down, non-vancian casting.
That criticism out of the way, from a mechanical perspective, I absolutely ADORE the engines employed herein, even if I disagree with some details of the respective implementations. While I wholeheartedly disagree with several balancing-decisions herein, there are plenty of solutions that I like. Similarly, evocative combos, cool tricks, flavorful, high-difficulty crunch – you can find all of that in here. In short: If this had been a bit more streamlined in the dev-department, it would have been my favorite Spheres-expansion so far, bar none, perhaps even Top Ten candidate-level. However, the rough patches and editing/formatting hiccups that make this feel a bit less polished, do drag it down from the level of excellence that this would otherwise represent. In short: This is a very good file, but one with rough patches that a GM should be aware of; my final verdict is 4 stars.
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