Martial Arts Guidebook
This massive supplement clocks in at 63 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 59 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Disclaimer: I was an IndieGoGo-backer for this book back in the day, but was in no other way associated with the production of this book.
This was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the behest of my patreons.
So, what do we get here: Basically, we get 6 schools of martial arts that teach so-called techniques. Techniques can be gained via a plethora of options: Number one would be the Martial training feat, which nets a character permanent access to one technique, which can then be used at-will. Alternatively, there is the Steel Discipline-feat, which nets 3+Int-mod Steel points per day, which can then be used as a resource to activate a martial technique. If the character already has grit, panache or kit or a similar resource, said resource receives an expansion and can then be used to activate a technique. Beyond that, one should realize that access to the school teaching the technique is considered to be a given requirement, putting the reins firmly in the hand of the GM, including a discussion on how to base technique-acquisition on roleplaying. Speaking of which: Technique-acquisition sans expenditure of feats via roleplaying also does sport a concise mechanic for such a means of introducing the material herein.
All of this should already hint at the dual focus of this book: On one side, this book is all about giving martial characters more interesting options, but it is also about providing a social context for martial characters. “But what if a character has no x feats to burn?” Well, you see, that’s pretty much one of the truly beautiful components of this book: From antipaladin cruelties to gunslinger deeds, there are plenty of alternate class options to allow such characters to utilize the techniques introduced in this book, a component also supported via the new favored class options that are introduced with the explicit purpose of making techniques more easily accessible. This level of customization options btw. also extends to the techniques prerequisites, which come with 2 different sets: Essentially, just about everything regarding the acquisition of techniques is modular.
Okay, so what exactly do we get in this pdf’s respective schools? Well, first of all, this is very much a roleplaying book, as opposed to being simply an enumeration of crunchy bits: Each of the martial schools sports a detailed, well-written introduction, concise pieces of information regarding the respective traditions, information on the respective training grounds, concise adventure hooks (including hazards etc.), boons to be gained from a positive association with the respective school…and new magic items – including nutrition-granting tea, for example. The schools also provide unique feats as well as sample characters – a copious, diverse array of them.
The intriguing thing about the crunchy bits here would be, to me, that they are ultimately perfect examples of Rite Publishing’s virtues as a publisher in that they blend high concept fluff with interesting crunch. Want an example? Sure: The Wushin Mountain’s diverse schools sport quite a few interesting feats, one of which ought to trigger all my hatred: Stone Swallower allows for the regeneration of ki, a limited resource. Why am I not frothing at the mouth and bashing it? Simple: For one, I love the idea that this feat requires the swallowing of stones for a unique visual. More importantly, though, the strict limitations of the daily uses of the feat render it powerful, yes, but also balanced.
Now as for the techniques – there are a lot of them and a lot of schools to choose from: The dwarven-inspired Badger Style, for example, allows you to break free of grapples and even from being swallowed whole with penalty-less full attacks…and there is “Humble the Mountain” – which is just so awesome: If you hit a foe with it, you reduce the foe to a kneeling position before you, which, while not rendering the target helpless, makes for awesome visuals – and yes, flying et al covered as well. Scaling bonus damage based on BAB versus foes, ignoring DR and hardness may sound brutal, but ultimately, it is the limitations of the technique that render it mathematically feasible in EVERY game. What about a technique that allows you to retaliate against foes that attacked you before with increased efficiency?
The polearm-based Axe Beak style lets you add weapon qualities temporarily to your polearm. What about a mechanically valid way of spearing your foe with a thrown polearm, charging him and retrieving the weapon in one fell swoop? The two-hand-fighting/double weapon-centric trickery of Fox Style allows you to increase your weapon’s reach and is surprisingly a style that allows for some unique tricks, while e.g. the Tanuki Style’s Shadow Dodge allows you to use smoke pellets for pretty awesome dodge-then-retaliate moves. Otter Style martial artists may kick foes back to strike them with their ranged weapons or execute ranged disarms and perform melee attacks with crossbows and bows and even grapple foes with your bowstring, strangling them!
Now if all of this does sound too WuXia for you in style, you’ll be glad to hear that Western martial arts are covered in this book as well: The first of these would be pretty much your swashbuckling/fencing-style school that allows its practitioners to on-the-fly pick up disarmed weapons, ignore difficult terrain, etc. – including using 5-foot-steps to charge or force movement (save negates) with each attack you perform: A simulation of binding weapons with reciprocal movement can also be found among the techniques here. Very interesting from a mechanical point of view: The stances of this school allow for the modification of your initiative score, providing different benefits depending on your position – and if that sounds like too much book-keeping for the GM, just follow the pdf’s advice and have the player track initiative. It’s definitely worth it!
The Third Suns (get it? “The first son inherits, the second is for the church, the third for the military…”) would be pretty much Zweihänder-based martial arts for templar-style knights: Here, we get glory-techniques that can provide the stuff of legends: Brutal offense, at the cost of potential vulnerability, this style is all bout high risk/reward ratios and potentially, means to find a glorious death…or triumph…which would be as good a place as any to also comment on the rather impressive fact that, where a given technique overlaps with a feat, the techniques actually feature proper synergy/additional tactical option, showing a thoroughly impressive level of system-knowledge and mastery. The Halls of Ivy under the Oaks, then, would be an elven tradition that is basically the representation of the concept of bladesinging, blending magic and martial arts: As such, the techniques require the sacrifice of spells…or, via a feat, impose a temporary penalty on your Constitution-score. Now here’s the interesting component: The sacrificed spell’s descriptors actually change the effects of the respective techniques! Yes, this is as well-crafted as you’d expect it to be. Better yet, the techniques provided herein allow for the expert countering of magic (and crippling of spellcasters further enforced by new weapon properties), making the technique a great alternative to similar tropes. There is also a truly devastating aura at long range that can utterly cripple the whole opposition with unique effects per descriptor- but at a steep cost to yourself that will mean you won’t pull it all the time.
The Martyred Arrows school, strongly aligned with a clan of gargoyles, allows for its practitioners to utilize the unique teachings to part winds, make trick shots to cripple the opposition or fire a last-ditch shot at an opponent right next to you sans AoO or penalty…potentially in combination with other school-techniques. And there is Marty’s Arrow. Fire at a foe and save. If you make the save, you only are reduced to -1 hp. If you fail, you die. The opponent hit, however, also needs to save or die. If you choose to willingly fail your save, the opponent also takes bonus damage equal to your remaining HP. And yes, this is a death-effect. So, on one hand, I want to complain about this technique…but then again, I’m a sucker for heroic sacrifice last ditch shots and the scaling save means that even characters with a good Fort-save run a very real risk whenever they unleash this one…so yes, not going to complain.
And then, finally, there would be the Ludi of the Waiting Koi – the gladiatorial type school. The techniques here are visceral and intriguing: As an immediate action, you can e.g. lower your AC as a response to an attack, interposing an attack with a net, tanglefoot bag etc. for one of the best counter-strike representations I’ve seen in quite a while. Better yet, as befitting of the school, we actually get synergy with performance combat and negating immediate and readied actions targeting you via shields allow for unique tactical options…and yes, net/piercing weapon-follow-up combos are part of the deal.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard with b/w-bamboo-borders and the pdf sports copious amounts of high-quality b/w-artwork, most of which is new. The pdf comes fully bookmarked.
Timothy Wallace, Matthew Stinson, William Senn, Ben McFarland, Mike Wise and Aaron Phelps took some time to get this book done – sure. But know what: the wait was very damn well worth it! When Path of War hit sites, I expected that one to eliminate the necessity, but then was kind of disappointed by Path of War’s explicit focus on high-level gameplay, on fantastic power beyond the means of some tables.
The Martial Arts Guidebook’s main difference from this system lies in multiple instances: For one, more than the crunchy bits, this is very much a sourcebook that grounds the disciplines in a concise narrative framework. The balance of the martial arts maneuvers here is impeccable – and it manages something I did not expect.
The Martial Arts Guidebook takes table variation into account in an almost unprecedented manner. The fact that you have not 1, not 2, but, depending on how you count, up to 5 (!!!) ways to introduce this book’s content to your game means ultimately that, depending on your campaign, you can limit these or de-limit them. Want full-blown martial arts? No feat-tax, easy access. Want point-based mechanic? Available. Want feat-tax based techniques? You can have those as well. Even the most gritty of 15-pt-buy campaigns can use the content herein – and so can high-fantasy 25-pt-buy rounds: The system works organically and smooth in either and manages to display a thoroughly impressive synergy with feats – it is here the guiding hand of Ben McFarland as a superb developer of exceedingly complex material can be seen at work – even when limited resources can be regained, there is always a fair balance here, no power-creep – this book is NOT about numerical escalation, this book is about broadening the options, about making combat more interesting and diverse – and it excels at its goal.
Let me reiterate this: On one hand, this is a thoroughly inspired book of crunch – but on the other hand, reducing it to this component would be a disgrace to the book; it is so much more. The styles presented here do not exist in a vacuum, though you can sure use them as such. Instead, the detailed information on the schools in this book render the techniques simply intriguing, organic components that can guide full-blown adventures, with sample NPCs and hooks galore. I did not expect to like this book and absolutely feel in love with this book, particularly since the options provide amply unique gambits and tactical options that can be introduced singularly or as complete packages into any given campaign sans unbalancing the material. Let’s sum it up: Great fluff, great crunch, potentially perfect synergy with just about any Pathfinder-campaign…what more could I ask for? Well, simple: A sequel. The techniques provided in this book are brilliant and even if you take the crunch away, you’d get a thoroughly inspired book, one that has me wanting more. Whether Conan-esque grit, high fantasy WuXia or a more martially bent Western setting, this book delivers in spades – 5 stars + seal of approval and nomination as a candidate for my Top ten of 2015!