This installment of the Path of War-series is 52 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 49 pages of content, so let’s take a look…
…wait. Since my review of The Stalker was met with downright hostility by some people (but not the designers, I should add!), let me make some things clear: I have excessive experience with To9S. And while I loved the basic concepts, its flaws became abundantly clear in game. One caveat DM’s ought to have in mind when using PoW is that the classes herein are INTENDED as a power boost. Multiple d6-bonus damage, attack negation etc. is beyond the capabilities of regular martial characters and since their abilities can universally be refreshed infinite times, these tricks can be pulled off more often than the spells of a caster, thus making a DM’s war of attrition as a tool much less effective. So no, we’re not looking at regular PFRPG-balancing here. In short: DMs should be aware that PoW increases the power-level of the party.
Path of War has established, as a spiritual successor, a superior take on the concept of To9S, one that works much more streamlined.
Why do I consider it superior? Take the refreshing of maneuvers: By allowing for actions, i.e. concisely defined time-frames, as a means to refresh maneuvers, the classes are more in line with the in-world logic. I consider per-encounter refreshing of abilities, pardon my language, stupid, since it makes no sense in-game – an encounter can span any duration from 1 round to, hypothetically, hours and is a metagame concept that makes in-game no sense.
Or rather: MADE. Path of War is SMART – we actually now GET a concise in-game definition of per-encounter abilities, one THAT MAKES SENSE in-game!!! Yes, you can now put away your axes.
This takes care of an unpleasant relic from the 3.X days and streamlines the whole system. Excellent. I already explained the basic system, just in case you’re not familiar with it – essentially, Path of War wants to bring martial characters more in line with the casters, allowing them to use martial maneuvers, essentially supernatural martial abilities that they can use to destroy their opposition. These maneuvers have different sub-categories: Boosts tend to buff/debuff as instant effects, stances are maintained and offer bonuses as long as they’re active and strikes are special attacks. Finally, there are counters, which you can usually use as a reaction to attacks etc. – many of these utilize immediate or swift actions, which means as a player, you ought to be rather familiar with these types of actions to properly plan your action economy.
Another caveat before I FINALLY start the review – the goal of Path of War is a power-upgrade for martial characters. As such, I will not reference other martial classes in direct comparison – PoW-classes, by design, are supposed to be superior, something DMs ought to bear in mind. That means, my balancing complaints, should any come up, do not refer to the power-level assumed by CORE-martial characters, but rather to potential issues within the frame of PoW. I, of course, will otherwise be the obnoxious complainer about any issues that I see. Got that? Awesome!
So let’s take a look at the Warlord! The warlord gets d10, 4+Int skills per level, good fort-saves, full BAB-progression, proficiency with light and medium armor, bucklers and simple/martial weapons. They start with 1 stance, 6 maneuvers known, 4 maximum maneuvers readied and expand these to 18 maneuvers known, 11 readied and 6 stances at 20th level. Now I’ve already touched upon regaining maneuvers and the warlord may regain an expended maneuvers as a standard action… or the warlord may use a so-called warlord’s gambit.
Each gambit can be initiated as a swift action and consists of 3 components, a risk, a rake and a reward. The gambit describes a risk, an action the warlord must undertake. If the action is successful, the reward of the gambit kicks in, thus rewarding combat behavior that is not the “I attack routine” – cool. When succeeding the gambit, the warlord regains cha-mod, min 2 maneuvers. If he fails, he only regains one maneuver. If a maneuver helps a warlord accomplish a given task, it should be noted that it can used to succeed in the gambit by initiating it. However, a gambit cannot be used to refresh a maneuver that is expended as part of the gambit, thus preventing the looping of maneuvers. Warlords start the game with 2 gambits chosen from a list of 15 and gain another one at 4th level and every 4 levels after that. Now if a warlord fails at a gambit, s/he incurs a penalty of -2 to d20 rolls for one round – which seems harsh, however, one should bear in mind that ANY d20-roll required to succeed at a gambit (be it skill, CMB/attack/whatever) gets the warlord’s cha-bonus as a luck bonus, which can be quite a significant bonus – for many 1st level warlords this will probably mean at least +3, more realistically +4 or even +5 – which is more than an improved xyz-feat would grant.
Generally, I think this somewhat undermines the point behind gambits – refreshing maneuvers, especially at low levels, should not entail such significant bonuses: To compare: A paladin’s smite evil would apply in a similar manner to the attack and is limited in daily use. And yes, I am aware that the smite’s bonus damage is the primary benefit of the ability, but still. Gambits do have some limits, though -they can only be used once per encounter. Some gambits also provide benefits to allies within 60 feet – for example, when using dastardly gambit, a warlord tries to use dirty trick. If s/he succeeds, s/he and all allies get the warlord’s cha-mod to a single attack against the target in the next round. Other gambits allow you to follow up on successful combat maneuvers initiated via gambits to follow up with an AoO against the target, usually with +cha-mod bonus damage.
Granted, the gambits do not offer AoO-free combat maneuvers, but also, their risk is often rather minor – Pinhole Gambit requires the warlord to make a ranged attack into melee, with one feat rather easy and with a decent cha-mod, it even makes precise shot not necessarily required. Additionally, the foe takes a penalty equal to the warlord’s cha-mod to AC for a round if the gambit succeeds.
I LOVE gambits – their concept is downright friggin’ AWESOME. How do you get players to play more risky, more diverse? Offer them actual incentive to do. Tying the whole process to maneuver replenishing is a win-win – make more interesting combat decisions and be rewarded for it by getting to do more of your favorite tricks. This mechanic rewards planning and smart playing and that is always good in book. However (I can hear the “boos” as I’m typing this), I do think the system needs some fine-tuning. Why? Because there currently is simply no reason NOT to gambit. At low levels, cha-mod as a bonus is a huge thing in itself, even before the additional benefits come into play. Let’s take the pinhole gambit as an example, shall we? So, a warlord starts the gambit to shoot into melee. If the warlord doesn’t have precise shot, the cha-mod of Cha 18 would completely offset the penalty for shooting into melee, if he does have the feat, we’re looking at a +4 bonus to atk. If the attack hits, the target incurs a -4 penalty to AC. Furthermore, our warlord would regain 4 expended maneuvers upon hitting. This is the success criteria. The failure criteria would be to incur a -2 penalty to all d20-rolls for 1 round. Yes, this trick can only be pulled off once per encounter (thus no complaint in that regard), but it is, especially at first level, a VERY powerful trick. Still, not enough to make me yell OP…at least in the context of PoW.
What does irk me about it, would be that the system seems to somewhat deconstruct its intent – as far as I’ve understood, the intention of gambits would be to reward risks in certain contexts, but the penalty on failure feels like it is not in a significant relation to the rewards. Due to not scaling both benefits and drawbacks, the former start off as strong, whereas the latter become more and more insignificant over the levels. This becomes especially apparent when taking a look at acrobatic gambit, which rewards an acrobatics check through a threatened square by dealing +1d6+cha-mod damage upon a successful attack. At first level, that can be rather impressive, double damage even. At let’s say, level 10, I can’t imagine anyone being impressed by this -especially since CMD for acrobatics-DCs scales differently (i.e. more rapidly) than AC (as per pinhole gambit) does. Now apart from this rather different scaling (and thus, diverging utility of the gambits), I do think that right now, there is simply no reason not to use a gambit if you can…ever. After all, you only get -2 to all d20-rolls (which is unpleasant at low levels, but there are worse debuffs out there) and still regain one of your signature tricks. And this relative minor consequence for failure detracts from the potential of the whole concept – if the penalties (and benefits!) did scale and were at least a bit more severe at higher levels, their significant benefits would make enacting a gambit no less rewarding, but actually more exciting for the player – can s/he pull off the gambit and regain her arsenal or be kicked in the shins, only regaining a portion of his/her arsenal? That would be the situation where the whole group holds the breath and stares at the dice as they roll…
Another issue would be that two gambits fail the kitten-test: Brave gambit requires you to charge a foe, then nets all allies your cha-mod as bonus to their first attack. You could throw a kitten in the field, initiate a gambit against said kitten dies horribly, which emboldens your allies. Weird that here, among all gambits, the tie of the bonus to the target of the gambit has been forgotten. Second failed kitten-test: Deadeye Gambit. Initiate a called shot against a kitten. He and all allies within 60 feet gain cha-mod hit points. While this infinite AoE-healing via shooting kittens, takes long due to the definition of per-encounter in concise terms, it’s probably still an oversight not intended and makes potions of healing and similar low-level healing items completely obsolete.
Another nitpick I have here would be with the bonuses granted to allies as part of successful gambits – as per the writing of this, they are universally untyped and thus stack with other sources. They probably should be labeled as luck-bonuses (like the one the warlord gets when executing a gambit) or as morale bonuses (which would make more sense to me) – in either case, they would prevent stacking with defense buffs and thus make the whole gambit-system more streamlined. To cut a long ramble short: Glorious class feature that could use some streamlining both in its system and in balance between the ranged and maneuver/melee gambits.
Beyond gambits, warlords may, at 2nd level a warlord may maintain a so-called presence as a move action (free action starting at 7th level) – there is no choice here, the progression of presences is linear. Not that you wouldn’t take the second level presence: All allies within 30 feet get the Diehard-feat and + warlord’s cha-mod to saves against death effects, fatigue/exhaustion and poison effects as a morale bonus. Yeah. That means, for a significant amount of effects, the allies get the equivalent (again, presuming a cha 18 warlord) the equivalent of Inspire Heroics, a level 15 bardic performance. More if the cha is higher. Okay, I can see the tighter focus on which saves this is applied to as a mitigating factor. Paladin’s get their SU aura at 3rd level, after all…the aura that nets allies +4 to saves against fear. Within 10 feet. Okay, I won’t compare those two, though presence is Ex and thus not subject to antimagic fields. What does irk me, beyond that would be the warlord’s presence neither requiring line of sight, nor actions to maintain. nor audible or visual components – there is simply no way to negate it. RAW, the presence doesn’t even stop if the warlord drops unconscious or is paralyzed. The ability also fails to specify whether allies already unconscious get to choose whether to benefit from diehard upon the warlord using the presence or upon falling to/below 0 hp. What if an ally is unconscious and the presence is initiated? Does the unconscious character get to choose whether to remain lying or start acting as per the feat or are only conscious allies eligible to receive the bonus?
At 5th level, a warlord may use rallying presence to add his cha-mod as a bonus to will-saves of allies versus fear, death or compulsion effects within 30 ft. The overlap with death effects here is a bit strange, as is the fact that this presence, though received later, can actually be interrupted. At 11th level, 2 of the presences can be maintained at the same time and at 15th level, all 3 may be maintained at the same time – bear in mind that these are morale bonuses, though and thus the overlaps between the first two don’t stack.
The final presence works – starting at 9th level, the warlord and all nearby allies within 30 feet get character level + cha-mod temporary hp upon the warlord being reduced to 0 hp. at this point, the action to enter the presence is a free action. HOWEVER, as Caedwyr pointed out (yes, I did not catch that one), the reflexive nature of the presence doesn’t work – free action can only be taken upon one’s turn. While the ability uses the word “immediately” in the wording, it does NOT state that receiving the benefits of this presence requires any actions. As written, the presence can be adopted as a free action, but does nothing until its conditions are met. I’m not entirely sure whether the intention was to make this presence available reflexively or not – in dubio pro reo, though, so I’ll assume the ability works as intended.
At 3rd level, the Warlord gets the Warleader ability, which translates to receiving a teamwork feat that the warlord, as a standard action (later as a move action and even as a swift action), can share with allies. Alternatively, the warlord can thus benefit from an ally’s teamwork feat – for a total of 3+cha-mod rounds. The ability can be used 1+cha-mod times per day. The warlord also learns to add cha-mod to will-saves at 3rd level and later, when flanking foes, instead of the net +2, warlord and ally flanking a foe get +cha-mod instead of +2 to atk. The warlord also gets a bonus to atk and damage when using a weapon associated with a fighting style when in a stance of said style.
At 6th level, warlords learn to execute 2 boosts as a swift action 1/day, +1/day every 6 levels after that, use aid another for allies at range with cha-mod instead of the standard bonus. As a capstone, a warlord may enter two stances simultaneously.
After that, we are introduced to the Knowledge (martial) skill to identify maneuvers etc. – nice one, though I hope the final book will offer information on which non-PoW-classes ought to get this as a class skill. Next up would be new feats, 17, to be precise. 6 of these allow non-PoW-classes to wilder in PoW-maneuvers. Of course, expected feats can be found – for example one to learn more maneuvers/stances, one that nets you another gambit, an extra maneuver or a focus on a discipline and its weapons that increases saving DCs and weapon damage. Increased damage for unarmed attacks (significant for non-monks), entering both a style and a martial stance via the same swift action – all possible. Deadly Agility, which allows you to add dex-mod to damage instead of str-mod when using a finesse weapon also deserves mention, as does a feat that allows you to finesse double weapons. Another feat allows you to 1/day regain a maneuver as a free action. There also is essentially an improved version of quick draw and a feat called martial power. This one allows you to incur a -1 penalty to melee atk and CMB-checks to gain 2 temporary hit points. This increases by -1 and +2 temporary hit points when your BAB reaches +3 and every +2 thereafter. The temporary hit points increase by 50% if you wield a shield. You may only use this feat as part of a melee attack or when initiating a maneuver. Temp hit points only last one turn, but the feat doubles as an alternative combat expertise. All in all, solid, since its limit means it does not fail the kitten test.
Now let’s get a broad overview of the maneuvers, shall we? If you have the Stalker-pdf, you’ll notice that both the thrashing dragon and solar wind disciplines also are available for the warlord. They also get access to the Golden Lion, Scarlet Throne and Primal Fury disciplines. It should be noted that among these, only the scarlet throne has an equipment restriction – the maneuvers require the initiator to have a shield, buckler or ring of force shield in order to initiate the maneuvers. The Golden lion discipline can be hearkened to the White Raven of the To9S, focusing on buffing allies and charging into battle, allowing the initiator to provide additional flexibility to the respective ally. Additional 5 ft. steps and even move actions for allies resulting from your attacks are distinct possibilities for adherents of the golden lion, as is the initiative moving of allies that at my table, once was rather well-liked. Primal Fury on the other hand, surprisingly often is about destroying the weaponry of foes, coming off as a combination of martial arts and a fighting style reminiscent of savage battle skills, whereas scarlet throne is defensive, but also allows for quite some celerity while moving around the field of battle.
So…I actually have good news to report – no insta-death effects. And only a couple of the new maneuvers herein follow the “make an opposed skill-check versus attack roll”-formula. As I’ve mentioned before in various contexts, I consider skill-roll versus atk/AC not optimal. Skills had been easy to buff in 3.X, and they’re more easily buffed in Pathfinder. Don’t believe me? Look for items that net you a significant skill-bonus, note the cost and then find an item that nest the same bonus to atk or AC. Note the price of that item. Compare. Same goes for spells. Yeah, note a slight discrepancy there? Also: Note how many bonuses to said skills granted by magic items are untyped and how many different slots grant those bonuses…much more stacking potential than atk/CMB.
I can see the outrage flare up again “You hate on the key concept of To9S 1111eleven!!!” No, I don’t. The basic concept is maneuvers and using them/managing them, not rolling a skill versus something that adheres to completely different scaling-mechanisms, also regarding treasure/WBL/buff-spells. “But this is required to maintain the feel of Path of War!” No, it’s not – take a look at Golden Lion. A grand total of ONE counter uses diplomacy versus attack roll. ONE counter. Other than that, the discipline is completely free of the d20 versus d20-roll/skill-check using relics. Two of the primal fury maneuvers use survival. Unfortunately, scarlet throne relatively heavily relies on sense motive versus x. I’m not getting into the perception/solar wind stuff or thrashing dragon/acrobatics. I particularly object to “roll skill x to negate attack z”-maneuvers. They are essentially better evasions against more common attacks, exceedingly easily buffed through the roof with inexpensive items.
Some of the maneuvers herein could also use some minor clarification, unfortunately also sometimes tied to said skill versus X-mechanics. Take thrashing dragon’s devastation roll: Here’s the text:
“The martial disciple’s movements are so quick and precise, his deadly strikes are hard to evade. With a sudden twist and Acrobatics through the opponent’s defenses, the disciple strikes hard into the exposed and undefended foe. The initiator must move at least 10 ft. alongside his opponent and make a Acrobatics check equal to the target’s AC. If successful, the target is considered flat-footed until his next action due to being put off-balance from the strike, and the attack inflicts an additional 6d6 points of damage.”
So…what does “alongside” mean? I *assume* it means the target moves through two squares adjacent to the target, which would mean that an acrobatics-check against the opponent’s CMD per threatened square, CMD +10 when moving full speed for half speed movement. But is this acrobatics-check in addition to the one the maneuver calls for? If so, why? Why is AC the opposing value, not CMD as per the standard of moving through threatened squares? Does the maneuver’s use of acrobatics incur AoOs or doesn’t it? Also: Why not simply use the CMD/CMD+5-formula standard in acrobatics?
Another example for a maneuver that could use a bit (literally – just one word…) of rephrasing would be Primal Fury’s Panthera on the Hunt – per se a cool strike – full round action, charge at +2 (for a total of +4) and it ignores “attacks of opportunity from moving through a threatened square.” I assume this means ONE threatened square, not ALL in the charge. If so, then please specify this and also, please denote whether the initiator can freely choose which square doesn’t provoke the AoO.
It should be noted, though, that the VAST MAJORITY of the maneuvers actually work sans such clunky mechanics and do a MUCH BETTER job at utilizing Pathfinder-streamlined rules…at least the new ones.
Editing and formatting are good – while I noticed a typo and relic here and there, the vast majority of the pdf is concisely-written and well-edited. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard, with original pieces of art and stock being mixed. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and with a second, printer-friendly version.
So…Path of War: The Warlord. I’ll be honest. After the stalker, I did not look forward to reviewing this one. I was consigned to being “that guy who hates on PoW”, in spite of actually believing in the concept and trying to help make it better. After reading this pdf, I was pleasantly surprised – I said it in my review of the stalker – Chris Bennett is a talented designer…and here it shows, even more so than with the stalker. There are reasons for this claim:
Number 1: Per encounter is concisely defined, maintaining in-game logic. Great! Number 2: “Skill vs. X”-rolls obviously aren’t required for PoW – in fact, I am of the certain conviction that the system can perfectly work without them. The decrease in their prominence is a promising factor in favor of the system and its streamlining within established PFRPG-rules.
Beyond that, the warlord as a class is just…rewarding as all hell. The capable, cool commander is a neat trope and the warlord is great at fulfilling it…though it does have its rough edges. Even within the increased power-level presumed by PoW, the presence-abilities need to be knocked down a notch. As written, they are extremely powerful when compared to similar effects, both among spells and class features by casters and martials alike, not starting with them requiring no actions to maintain or somatic/visual components.
The gambit system is a stroke of brilliance, but as written above, I think that the risk/reward-ratio is off, somewhat negating what the system tries to do – instead of being a tension-inducing choice for the players to actively make, right now it feels more or less like a non-maneuver maneuver, a cooldown that’s actually a defensive maneuver in disguise, if you will. Add to that the fact that the gambits vary more than a bit in strength and we have a couple of strikes against the pdf, even when assuming PoW’s increased power level. Some sort of scaling instead of fixed bonuses would make these components much more useful (and balanced over the levels).
But not enough to put this pdf in the box. Overall, we have a massive improvement over the last PoW I looked at and generally, a superior book that shows A LOT of promise. I sincerely hope that some of the rough edges will be filed off prior to finishing the compilation, for this pdf actually renewed my hope in the PoW-series, making me actually want to take a look at the warder very soon.
How to rate this, then? As mentioned, I see a couple of rough edges, but the discrepancy between could be/and is-state is much less pronounced. If you don’t mind the skill-check issues, minor wording hick-ups and mentioned power-level of the warlord, then I encourage you to check this out – while not perfect, I do think that fund can be had here. Since the design is much more in line with PFRPG-standards, since this time the class doesn’t fail as hard the kitten test: it still fails it, twice, but is less easy to abuse than usual due to the concise definition of per-encounter.
Still, while I do see quite some potential for improvement and streamlining, I still consider this installment of PoW a big step in the right direction. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 – while I’d love to rate this 4 stars or even higher, the failed kitten-tests, minor ambiguities and rough edges do crop up, even when assuming the increased power-level of PoW. If you didn’t mind the examples given in this review, then check it out – I’m fully aware that not everyone is as critical regarding these things as I am and chances are, you’ll enjoy this.