Lost Paths: Voltaic – Child of Thunder (Priority Review)
This class-supplement clocks in at 53 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 9 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 40 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.
This class uses the initiator system featured in Dreamscarred Press’ Path of War-books, but does not necessarily require them – as a nice courtesy that avoids book-flipping, we get all reference material herein; this includes the Eternal Guardian, Solar Wind and Thrashing Dragon disciplines, as well as Pathfinder Unchained’s Stamina-engine.
If you do not like Path of War’s design decisions, you might want to read this review in its entirety nonetheless; there is a good chance that the voltaic might work for you and your table, even if Path of War is generally not deemed suitable for the type of game you’re playing.
In case you are new to Path of War, it should be noted that the sub-system assumes a power-level beyond what PFRPG-classes usually offer; it is closer to a power-fantasy than other subsystems released for PFRPG, and operates under different design-paradigms than standard-PFRPG. I strongly encourage you familiarizing yourself with the system in depth before introducing it in your game. In can be a godsend for some tables, but it can also break the game for others. That being said, I review materials supplementing sub-systems within the context of their respective sub-systems, so please bear that in mind – this review takes a look at the voltaic in the context of a game that has determined that Path of War works for them.
Okay, that out of the way, let’s take a look at the voltaic! The class gets d10 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and martial weapons as well as all armor and shields, including tower shields. The voltaic has full BAB-progression, good Fort- and Ref-saves, and begins with 3 maneuvers readied, and increases that up to 12, though it should be noted that the voltaic is pretty different from other initiators, which are tied to new feats, so let’s talk about two feats here.
The first of these would be Spark of Inspiration, which requires a BAB of +1 and no levels in a martial initiator class or martial maneuvers from another source, preventing abuse there. This feat nets you a stamina pool and the ability to spark in combat; the feat lets you spark when an enemy critically fails to hit you, or when you critically hit an enemy, and also nets you the Eye of the Storm stance – more on that later. If you dislike this, or have one player who just seems to be too lucky (in spite of what the laws of probability dictate!) there is an XP-based variant as well. Good! Why? Well, two sessions ago, one of my players, for the first time in over 20 years, failed to roll at least 2 crits in a single session.
Anyhow, the basic idea of sparking is using a new maneuver bia a kind of stress-unduced mid-battle insight, treating their BAB as the initiator level, but still needing to meet all other prerequisites. When a character rolls a natural 20 on an attack roll, they can choose to replace the critical confirmation roll with an Intelligence check vs. DC 10 + the level of the maneuver to be learned. On a success, the character learns a single strike or boost they qualify for, from any discipline that counts the weapon that scored the critical hit as a discipline weapon. The maneuver is then placed into the character’s suite of maneuvers as a readied maneuvers. Alternatively, when an enemy rolls a natural 1 on an attack roll versus the target, the character may attempt to spark, learning a counter instead. If the check is successful in the latter check, the counter is automatically triggered in response. Finally, when performing a skill check in combat and rolls a natural 20, the character can attempt to spark and learn a boost, with the skill corresponding to that of the discipline. The CR of the creature thus used must be at least equal to the character’s class level, avoiding abuse there. A hard cap is imposed to prevent abuse: A character may only spark 1 + Intelligence modifier times per level, not including temporary increases to Intelligence. The list of maneuvers readied via sparking can include up to 2 + ½ BAB (minimum 1), with a total possible maximum of BAB + primary initiation modifier. An excess can be used to replace a previously learned maneuver with a new one. This may also be done via 15 minutes of uninterrupted rest.
Psionic and spellcasting character takes a penalty to Intelligence checks made to spark equal to their highest level spell or power or SP; racial SPs are not counted for the purposes of this limitation, and interestingly enough, akashic options are accounted for as well, using the total number of binds unlocked as the equivalent of the highest spell level known. This is an elegant take. Once a maneuver has been learned, the sparking character does not use the usual recovery methods; instead, the character has a stamina pool equal to character level + Constitution modifier, and using a maneuver expends points equal to the level of the activated maneuver. A character with 0 stamina is fatigued, and the character gets to recover Constitution modifier points such points by taking the total defense action, and the pool is fully replenished after 15 minutes of rest. But what of Stances? Well, stances are learned via the Learn Stance combat feat, which has a similar exclusivity-cause that prevents other initiators from taking it, and the feat may be taken multiple times.
Now, this engine might look pretty simple on paper, but it actually creates a rather unique experience in play – in many ways, it could be likened akin to a more anime-esque way of treating how maneuvers are learned (which is perfectly in line with Path of War’s aesthetics), and it feels, as a whole, very organic; sufficiently so that I can see some groups generally preferring it to a sufficient degree to make a switch to this variant initiation in its entirety. In an interesting manner, the engine inherently rewards exposing the martial character to risk, learning new maneuvers as a consequence of being exposed to danger – the whole angle feels surprisingly right when employing it, and makes the engine feel more martial. I seriously like it.
But let us get back to the class at hand: The voltaic begins play with martial flexibility, allowing them to take a move action to gain the benefits of a combat feat for 1 minute, with 3 + ½ class level (minimum 1) uses per day, and feats with limited daily use take their assortment of daily uses from this array as well, so no cheesing there. At 6th level, two feats may be thus retained at a given time, with one available as a swift action, two as a move action; one may be used as prerequisite for the other. 10th level improves that to three at a time: 1 feat as a free action, 2 as a swift action, three as a move action; at 12th level, one combat feat may be gained as an immediate action, three as a swift action; at 20th level, any number of combat feats may be gained as a swift action, but in all instances, each feat counts as a daily ability use. The voltaic begins play with Spark of Inspiration. 2nd level nets Learn Stance, with 5th level and every 4 levels thereafter netting an additional Learn Stance.
At 3rd level, we get the high voltage ability, which adds +1d4 electricity damage to the voltaic’s natural attacks, unarmed attacks and manufactured weapon strikes, which explicitly stacks with shock et al. This die roll is also added to the Intelligence checks made when sparking in a rather cool way. At 7th level and every 4 levels thereafter, the die size of this die increases by one step according to a well laid-out progression in die-sizes. This bonus damage may be suppressed or reactivated as a free action taken once per round.
At 4th level, the voltaic chooses one of 4 paths of the storm, which proceed to grant scaling benefits every 4 levels, including the capstone, so this one should be well-contemplated. The path of the echoing thunder lets the voltaic retain one feat from martial flexibility until the class feature is reactivated, with 12th and 20th level increasing that by +1 feat, and 8th and 16th level netting Extra Stamina as a bonus feat. The path of focused strikes nets Weapon Focus, and when martial flexibility is used, the voltaic may select one additional feat, but loses them all during any round they make an attack with anything other than the Weapon Focus weapon. 12th level nets an additional martial flexibility bonus feat; 8th level nets Improved Critical with the focus’d weapon, and 16th level Critical Focus. 20th level provides the option to manifest said weapon as a weapon of pure lightning, which is treated as a +5 weapon dealing electricity damage.
The path of the rolling thunderhead nets additional bonus combat feats, making this the most prosaic of the paths. Path of storm’s flurry, finally, is my favorite, as martial flexibility increases the high voltage die size while active (two die-sizes at 16th level), and the voltaic, when making a full attack with a single weapon, gets a 30-ft.-range ranged touch attack as part of that attack, dealing high voltage as bonus damage, with a -2 to atk as a payoff for such flurries. The range of these increases at 8th level to 60 feet, and 12th and 20th level provide iterative attacks here. This is a very cool core engine, and it could be justifiably be used to build a whole class around it.
At 14th level, the voltaic gets static shield: The first time each round that the voltaic deals electricity damage to a target with high voltage, they add the number rolled on that die as a deflection bonus to AC for 1 round. At 18th level, half that amount is added as an insight bonus to saves for the same duration. Electricity damage reduced to 0 does not trigger this effect. Once more, the static shield ability is a compelling one, and could justifiably carry an entire archetype with a finer differentiation and flexibility – I genuinely like it. The class comes with favored class options for ceptu, elfves, gnomes, humans, oread, sylphs and wolgers.
If the above weird races were no indicator, and in case the logo meant nothing to you: The voltaic comes with a whole page of unique characters for the context of the phenomenal City of 7 Seraphs campaign setting, including anon-binary oread, mirrorkin, rhyzala…the flavor-centric write-ups are genuinely great, and I wish we got full stats for them. Really nice and flavorful, and I’m happy to see that we get more material for C7S!
I got a big chuckle out of the header for the “sparketypes” – love me some unobtrusive humor to lighten up crunch! These archetypes are intended to allow other characters make use of the sparking engine. The unlimited warrior fighter loses heavy armor and tower shield proficiency in favor of 4 + Intelligence modifier skill points and an expanded class skill list. Spark of Inspiration is the first-level feat, and 10th level’s bonus feat is replaced with the ability to use stamina as a buffer to prevent falling to 0 or fewer hp: I like that one. The capstone presents a delimiter for sparking.
The deathseeker rogue gets simple weapon proficiency as well as a single exotic or martial weapon of their choice; trapfinding is replaced with Spark of Inspiration, and the archetype uses class level as BAB for maneuvers readied. 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter, the rogue talents gained then are replaced with target weakness. This ability allows the rogue to decrease the size of their sneak attack damage die to gain ghost touch, increase them, but make the attack mind.affecting, set the damage to 2 per die and transform it to force damage, or reduce sneak attack damage die amount to impose negative levels on a failed save. These all are interesting, and could conceivably carry a more complex design as well. As an aside: A moderately talented designer or GM can make this archetype work easily with variant rogues such as the legendary rogue – just saying.
Finally, the volt dancer unchained monk must be chaotic, and gets Spark of Inspiration at 1st level as the bonus feat. Ki strike’s DR-overcoming abilities are replaced at 3rd level with storm strike, which allows the monk to use ki as a swift action to change damage types to cold, electricity or sonic. 10th level’s ki power is replaced with average maneuverability fly speed equal to fast movement bonus, with 12th and 15th level improving maneuverability.
Now, the pdf also presents a whole new discipline, the spark of battle, which has Acrobatics as the associated skill, and the weapon groups heavy blades light blades and close weapons. We begin with the customary list of maneuvers by level, and then proceed to list the maneuvers in alphabetical order, which is slightly different from the level-based presentation in the reference material, but that is a purely aesthetic gripe. One unique property of the discipline, unsurprisingly, is that many maneuvers have a Special-line that allows for unique tricks if the initiator has the Spark of Inspiration feat. Take the very first ones, Aerial Dash – it’s a boost as a swift action that increases speed and lets the initiator walk through air, falling if not reaching solid ground…though the use of stamina can keep them aloft! Aerial Step is a lower level version that allows for controlled descents. The Backfist level 1 strike lets you execute a weapon and unarmed attack at the same time, with -2 to atk for both…and here, the use of the Spark of Inspiration angle is perhaps more interesting, as it lets you 5-foot-step between these attacks, even if you have already!
Bladestrike, the level 1 counter, is also exciting – it is one of the counter that let you, unsurprisingly, counter an attack by targeting an enemy weapon with a…sunder attempt! Yeah, I know! I expected to read about an easily-cheesed skill check as a substitution attack roll here, as that has always been my primary issue with the whole Path of War engine….but no skill check here. In fact, the discipline is wholly BEREFT of the more glaring core problem of Path of War’s martial discipline-engine, in that it does not substitute skill checks for attack rolls. Not once. Instead, it uses skill checks with the associated skill in order to ENHANCE the benefits of the respective maneuvers, or to determine the extent of their effectiveness; in the latter case, the discipline shows a strong awareness of how easy it is too boost skills via items etc.
To give you an example: Soaring Falcon Flurry is a level 7 strike that is initiated as a standard action. The initiator jumps into the air, and makes a DC 20 Acrobatics check, making a single ranged touch attack versus a foe within 30 ft., who takes 5d6 sonic damage, and is staggered for 1d4 rounds on a failed save. For every 5 points by which you beat the DC, you get an additional such attack against a different target, up to a maximum of 6 total attacks versus 6 targets. If you have Spark of Inspiration, you can spend a stamina point to treat the result of the Acrobatics roll as a 15. This has a proper cap, a potentially devastating damage output, and yet can’t be cheesed. It has this awesome anime/WuXia-aesthetic that I love, is appropriately powerful, and yet won’t break the game. Or take Skyscream, which increases the damage die size it causes if you make your Acrobatics check. Grounding Rod lets you use Acrobatics in lieu of a saving throw, but only versus electricity damage, which might sound lame at first…but you get to redirect the attack!
I absolutely adore this discipline. I mean it. Did I mention that the strikes, boosts, etc. are consistently typed with descriptors? Heck yes.
The pdf closes with the aforementioned reference material, which takes up 22 pages, with a general recap of the martial initiator system’s rules taking up another 2.5 pages.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on both a rules-language and formal level; I noticed no significant issues in this book. Layout adheres to an elegant, nice-looking two-column full-color standard with awesome full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with nested bookmarks and all.
Christen N. Sowards and Michael Sayre have done it; they achieved a vision that I had since the beginning, since Path of War first hit digital shelves: They have used the powerful engine, the amazing anime/WuXia-esque aesthetics of the system, and stripped it of the things that can be easily used to break the game, cheese attacks, etc. I am incapable of crying due to joy (I instead enter a flabbergasted mode of stammering where my usual eloquence falls by the wayside), but if I were capable of it, this might well have done it; in many ways, it showcases what I’ve been saying all along: Path of War doesn’t need any of its broken components, of the aspects that needlessly limit it, to work, be fun, or succeed at its design goal. In the future, I’ll just point at this masterpiece and rest my case.
Power-level-wise, and regarding the playing experience, the voltaic is a potent class – it’s not intended for gritty low fantasy, obviously – but it works within the design paradigms of the upper end of the game. If your game tends to favor lower powered characters, I have a little suggestion for you that anybody can implement: Limit the voltaic to the new discipline. Done. You’ll have a powerful character, but not one that’ll break your game.
The balancing employed here is sublime, and if anything, being set against the reference material herein, which is btw. not close to the highest power-level you can get with Path of War, this difference in quality will be evident.
In short: The Voltaic is Path of War, thoroughly – it breathes the aesthetic, it is exciting to play, and showcases how well you can use the system… all without Path of War’s more problematic parts. And we get a novel, fun alternate initiation engine that you can customize to boot! I frickin’ adore this book. I’d recommend it even to people like yours truly that limit Path of War use to certain types of games, but love e.g. akasha, psionics or pact magic. I really found myself wishing that we had a whole revision of Path of War to the standards set herein – such a book would been all but mandatory in my games. This is absolutely phenomenal. 5 stars + seal of approval, recommended not only to fans of Path of War. This also gets my “Best of”-tag, as it’s imho the best Path of War-design to date.
You can get this fantastic class here on OBS!
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