Path of Shadows
This freshman offering of Ascension Games clocks in at 81 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 75 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
Disclaimer: This book went up in my review-queue do to me receiving a dead tree copy and not having to print everything out. My review’s verdict was in no way influenced by receiving this copy.
Ah, shadow magic – scarcely a concept in 3.X has been so prominent and yet so utterly ill-defined and mechanically sucky. Thankfully, 3pps have a knack for singling out such systems and then developing them -take a look at Radiance House’s Pact Magic, Interjection Games’ Truenaming or Dreamscarred Press’ Akashic Mysteries, for examples. In the meanwhile, Interjection Games has provided us with two classes, which, in theme, oscillate between light and darkness, the edgewalker and the antipodist, but that’s it, to my knowledge. One massive issue of the original shadowmagic was its exceedingly restrictive nature and the balancing just…well. Not working, at all.
So can this pdf remedy this much maligned, but utterly stylish power-source? The pdf kicks off with a massive introduction, including explanations for the reference abbreviations used and then dives into the Nightblade base class – the nightblade receives d8, 6+Int skills, proficiency with simple weapons, longsword, scythe, rapier, short sword, shortbow and spiked chain and light armors, but not shields. Shields and armor heavier than light incurs arcane spell failure chances. Nightblades also receive spontaneous spellcasting via Charisma of up to 6th level, drawn from their own spell-list. The class also receives 3/4 BAB-progression and good ref- and will-saves. Evasion is gained at second level and this level also provides access to the so-called shadow surge – this is an expendable resource that can be gained as a standard action that provokes attacks of opportunity. Several nightblade abilities require the expenditure of a shadow surge – think of it as the class’s analog of the psionic focus. with the additional caveat that a nightblade may expend shadow surges to reroll Stealth checks – for actually competent sneaking. At 8th and 17th level, the nightblade can store +1 surge, so that’s a deviation from psionic focus. Abilities like increasing darkvision (with worthwhile alternate benefits if you already have it!), hide in plain sight at 8th level (where I can stomach it!) and yes, dimension door hopping – with caveats for feat-qualification etc. High level nightblades may see perfectly in the dark and when they cast shadow conjurations etc., they increase the real component of their shadows.
At 3rd level, the nightblade receives a nightblade art, +1 every three levels thereafter – think of these as the nightblade’s talents; when applicable, the save scales via the plus half level + cha-mod-formula. Now while you can get combat and metamagic feats via these talents, they actually provide very unique benefits for the discerning gamer -benefits that significantly deviate from rogue talents etc. and help enforce a unique identity – while effects like full speed stealth plus miss chance upgrade for concealment gained from darkness to total concealment-levels, increases to touch attack AC and higher level options to expend shadow surges to attack against touch AC would pretty much all be options I’d somewhat expect a shadow-themed character to be able to pull off. On paper, attacking versus touch attack by expending shadow surges may look pretty nasty, but the 1/round limit imposed by action economy and the need to regain shadow surges means that this option is powerful, but thanks to the level-prereq and the requirement for set-up, in game actually worked rather well. It should be noted that tank-y creatures, dragons and similar creatures with bad touch ACs should take heed around nightblades, but that is something that is just as true for magi and similar characters, so no balance complaints there.
However, beyond these more conservative ones, there are some talents that can be considered ambitious from a mechanical point of view: Take force teleporting foes or shifting shadow/darkness-related spells from target to target – these are not simply concepts to translate into crunch, much less crunch that is concise enough to withstand my nitpicking of terminology and looking for loop-holes. Kudos where kudos are due – I consider tackling such complex options in a freshman offering, with this level of competence, nonetheless, an impressive feat!
Obviously, now, the defining feature of shadow magic back in the day was the structure of paths, which required some planning, yes, but also provided a feeling of organic development. Nightblades must select a path at 1st level – but within each path techniques loom: One is gained at first level, one at 5th and every 5 levels thereafter -these can be likened to the linear gain of order or bloodline abilities. They are also more than just the addition of techniques – each path comes with a path power, modifies the shadow surge to sport additional options AND modifies the list of available nightblade arts by adding exclusive arts to the list available, providing an element of player agenda that is absent from the linear ability progressions of cavaliers, sorcerors etc.. So yes, the choice of one of the 5 paths is the most important one for the nightblade and radically changes the way in which the given classes play – this extends to the point where the paths offer a more distinct variety in playing experience than most archetypes offer over the base classes they modify. It should also be noted that e.g. path powers scale in their potency and the paths also determine the capstone ability gained.
So what are the paths about? The path of the Bloodied Chain offers the option to conjure forth umbral shackles that entangle creatures, while also adding fear-based effects at higher levels – i.e. you receive some rather powerful and unique terrain-control options. The theme of fear-based debuffs also is represented in the shadow surge ability, which allows you to extend the fear-based conditions on your adversaries. This and the fear-themed techniques gained render this path a good friend to Dreamscarred Press’s Dread-class; in my playtests, the two worked together as a nasty double-team that could actually offset the lack of a primary melee class. And no, I do not consider this one to be broken, though combining the dread’s immunity-breaker with the nightblade proved to be very efficient. It should also be noted that intimidate can cause full-blown “frightened” as a condition for this path. The exclusive arts here provide for some awesome visuals – beyond detecting fear, adding bleed damage to the umbral chains at 9th level or centering the chains on the nightblade, rendering the effect mobile at 15th level.
The second path, the path of the darkened fortress, can be likened to shadow magic’s kind-of-but-not-really magus, blended with duelist-tricks: For example, weapons can be conjured forth and enhanced with special abilities, but they remain shadowy. The shadow surge can be used as an immediate action for a significant self-buff that starts as being applied only to a single attack (GOOD!) and then scales up to lasting a turn at 10th level. The path abilities net you arcane bond, but with a variant – both object and familiar-choices can be blended with your form – which can be rather significant in the context of infiltrations. The path also helps with the crafting of magic items, allowing the nightblade to ignore progressing amounts of spell prerequisites. Fortification-style effects are also part of the deal and high level nightblades with this path receive their own pocket dimension in the plane of shadows. The arts available allow for the extension of weapon qualities and also sport e.g. the option to enhance the bonded object/familiar with unique benefits. Extending the ability to create shadow armament to ranged and dual weapons should also be considered pretty interesting, especially since the latter (one playtest candidate, btw.) sport a balancing mechanic that is simple, yet efficient.
The path of eternal night provides you with a means of creating a short-range energy vortex of negative energy that may not heal, but frighten undead. The shadow surge use here requires a standard action to enforce a reroll of a d20, but can only target a creature once per 24 hours. The path abilities of this rather sinister path allows the nightblade to destroy creatures that are dying and use them to power himself – think of it as a powerful, death knell like effect. This ability would be very strong, especially since the action economy scales and goes down from standard action to swift action – however, the smart choice of a daily limite rendered this a viable ability in game. Interesting would be an immunity not gained by most classes – the path renders immune to negative energy damage, which renders these folks exceedingly effective at killing hostile clerics – interesting! The path also sports an option to make a foe’s shadow rise up against the adversary. The arts allow for additional means of enhancing corruption, with e.g. damage upon leaving the aura etc. All in all, an interesting path as well.
The path of the ravaging void gets a very interesting path power, which allows you to change the energy type of energy spells – which is pretty much an awesome trick and though it extends to supernatural abilities, the wording covers those. So far, this has been pretty much a homerun, but alas, the shadow surge herein imho can require a more distinct scaling mechanism – the shadow surge is a ranged touch attack with a range of 30 ft. that deals 1d6 cold damage, +1d6 per 2 levels +cha-mod. While the damage itself is not impressive when thinking about the fact how shadow surges etc. eat actions, the scaling feels a bit off still – perhaps I’m spoiled by Interjection Games’ ethermagic, but as far as warlock-y blasts go, this, while not bad or broken due to the limited range, could have imho used some more versatility. The path techniques provide elemental resistances and allow you to suffuse your elemental spells with shadow energy, adding debuff effect insults to the elemental injury – I really like this idea-wise! Now where things become very interesting would be the option to expend spell-slots to duplicate elemental energy damage dealing spells, which, however, only remain partially real. A handy table spares you making calculations or the like, so kudos. All in all, this can be considered the battle mage among the paths, with severe distortion effects that play well with damage-casters and psionics.
The final path would be the path of the twilight veil and I LOVE the path power – based on HD of the target, the spatial distortions caused by the shadows can provide devastating debuffs to the target creatures and 2nd level nightblades of this path can additionally turn invisible via shadow surges. Where the ravaging void is the sledgehammer, the twilight veil would be the scalpel – several illusion-themed techniques and arts allow for serious customization of illusion tricks. Furthermore, the power-enhancing arts are pretty cool here, allowing you to affect creatures usually immune to your distortions. This is kind of the oddball, the one among the paths that imho requires the most investment, but in the hands of a capable player, it may very well be the most rewarding – the exceedingly nasty distortion power can cover somewhat the terrain control and the almost unlimited invisibility are powerful indeed when handled correctly. Why am I not shrieking for the nerfbat? Easy – the invisibility can’t be stacked/prolonged, keeping the character from staying out of sight ALL the time. Still, this enables a nasty guerilla style gameplay that has found its fans at my table. The class also sports FCOs for aasimar, dhampir, drow, fetchling, tiefling, wayang and core races.
The next chapter is devoted to a plethora of archetypes and new class options with shadow magic, obviously, as a unifying theme. Alchemists can e.g. modify their body to benefit from the nightblade’s enhanced concealment efficiency or craft bombs that duplicate effects of darkness and better sight etc. are part of the deal. There is also an antipaladin who receives a potent, scaling aura of darkness that allows himself and his allies to see through the, later damaging blackness. Barbarians can choose from two totem power trees (and an unaligned one), wherein an already existing bite is enhanced or add str-damage to her attacks while also receiving defenses versus certain conditions. Both have in common that they require certain build types and enhance them and both, to me, feel a bit on the strong end – dice increase + crit x3 for a bite via one rage power is a tad bit too nasty in my book, especially seeing how this also nets full Str-bonus when using bites in conjunction with other natural attacks…And yes, I do have such a claw/bite-barbarian in my game and if they do not need one thing, then it’s a way to deal even more damage…
Shadow priests channeling darkness instead of regular energy, bloodragers with a new custom bloodline, anti-disease lunar guardian druids – all pretty solid. The stygian striker magus can be envisioned as the nightblade crossover – less frontlines, for skirmishing (with evasion etc. and modified saves to back this up) and the monk archetype provided is also one that should be considered relatively solid, with ki allowing for more flurry attacks. Oracles can suffer from a curse that makes people forget them and choose a new mystery, while paladins can opt to channel light to dispel and suppress all those nasty effects. Rogues may wilder in nightblade arts and shamans may choose the new darkness spirit.
Nightblades, thankfully, also can join the archetype-fun: Caster/summon-themed Dark Conjurors, a more martially-inclined one (thankfully with path restriction to avoid warlock-y abuse),a rogue-crossover with sneak attack et. al and an infiltration-specialist can also be found. Finally, there is an archetype that pays for the access to two paths at once with a crippled progression of the shadow surges, paying for an increased array of options with less on-the-fly-flexibility and spells.
Fans of shadow-themed races like fetchlings and wayangs may enjoy the feat-section particularly – there are quite a few racial feats for them to set them apart, with generally a fitting theme of shadows, darkness-enhancing, etc. – modifying a summon-list’s half-celestial/fiendish creatures to instead be shadow creatures would be an example here. Overall, these feats felt solid, but didn’t blow me away per se. Good craftsmanship.
The spell-chapter does provide a cool rules-clarification for spells utilizing the shadow of the caster and provide, obviously, a significant means of providing shadow/light-control. Interesting for other classes – there are spells herein which interact with e.g. shadow surges, making the latter not just an isolated class feature. Interesting would be terrain control spells to confine targets in e.g. areas of darkness, while shadowy wings that can also be used to attack foes and furthermore, allows for channeling 1/cast – nasty and versatile, but I like it. From the ageing capstone, there are other interesting effects – for example, a complex spell which alters an illusion to allow for the execution of quasi-real attacks via the infusion of shadow stuff – as such area attacks, attacks, energy etc. are covered with unique benefits. There are also lunar prophecies or the option to conjure forth the all-consuming maw of the nightwave. Ways to suppress extraordinary senses would also be an interesting move for spells. However, there also are minor modifications/improved versions, like e.g. a darkness/cold-based variant of flaming sphere. Shadow-based necromancy spell-duplication is also covered, as are chaotic overlaps between planes. I also like the concise definition of shadow length for attacks on a shadow, which reflects its damage to the origin of the caster. A new spell-class to summon evil, horrific creatures also can be found herein. There is also a highly complex class of spells that allows for the conjuration of umbral servants for the nightblades, which essentially act on their own after a nightblade’s turn -these are fun, allowing e.g. a called magician to freely apply metamagic to certain spells cast close to it, etc.
The final chapter provides ample new magical weapon/armor qualities and specific items – with artworks depicting them that are downright inspired and rank among the best such I have ever seen in any given supplement – WOW. The twilight reaver scythe looks so badass, I just NEED to show this picture to my players, even without knowing that it’s a +2 cold iron keen greater umbral scythe that allows for surge storage on crits…
The pdf also sports a handy two-page index and artist-credits.
Editing and formatting are excellent – I noticed no significant issues while reading this – none. The 2-column full-color layout used in this book is GORGEOUS. I mean it. This is one of the most beautiful roleplaying book I’ve seen any 3pp produce, an impression also underlined by the GLORIOUS original full-color artwork by Jasmine Mackey, Bryon Oshihiro, Danielle Sands, Al Savell, Nicoleta Stavarache and Trevor Verges – the artworks, from vistas to spells to characters adhere to a glorious style that is uniform and concise. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I’m saying that this book, in visual, aesthetic quality, could have been a Paizo-book. It’s that beautiful. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, but I’d sincerely advise you to get this in print – unlike quite a few PODs, there is no big chance of an errata invalidating this book. This book looks better than quite a few kickstarted books I could name. Yes, THAT beautiful.
What a furious first offering! This is quite frankly the best first offering of crunch I’ve seen a novice designer produce in ages. Last year saw plenty of adventures of newcomers providing an extremely high quality, but new crunch tends to require most designers some time to get right. Well, this is Ascension Games’ first product and it does NOT require any leniency on my part. Author (and layout/editor!) Christopher Moore seems to not only be able to edit his own texts, quite a feat, imho, he also provides a level of professionalism with regards to rules-language one sees scarcely, almost never among novices. The language is so precise, it can be considered on par with the errata’d, good Paizo-books. Beyond that, this pdf offered a level of system-mastery and a level of awareness of obscurer rules I quite frankly almost never get to see. While I have some personal gripes against one component or another herein, none really hold up on a professional level and boil down to personal preferences; number-wise, including extensive playtests, this book held up admiringly well. Few books can claim to withstand this level of deep scrutiny to such an extent, especially considering the level of interaction with obscure and complex elements among the design elements. I was positively surprised to see all of this – but where the book shines most is with the material that takes chances and provides things to do that no other spell or system can achieve – it is the unique effects, which stand out and while I absolutely adore the coverage of just about anything one could ask for in sucha context, I still would have loved to see even more of the inspired, unique effects that can be found herein.
Remember, this is just me being an utterly spoiled bastard of a reviewer – this book is, without engaging in hyperbole, up to the level of crunch-mastery exhibited usually only by established, experienced crunch-masters and blends this with production-values out of this world, visually more on par with Paizo than what you’d expect from a 3pp, much less a new one sans a KS providing the funds. This is a hugely impressive book that catapulted Ascension Games to the landscape of my table and to my radar; I can’t help but be excited about the things to come and more such supplements and I certainly hope we’ll see more material for the Nightblade – the class is inspired and fun and clearly, its potential is not yet tapped. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, given without the slightest hesitation, falling short of becoming a candidate for my top ten of 2015 only by a tiny margin. Still, this is thoroughly, exceedingly, impressive. Congratulations to the Ascension Games-team – you have impressed a jaded reviewer.