Path of War Expanded: Harbinger
This pdf clocks in at 32 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 28 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
Before we dive into the analysis of this pdf, let me first make some things clear -I am not going to judge this pdf as per the power-level of the base game and instead take a look at it in the context of Path of War and its increased power-level -anything different would be rather ridiculous regarding an expansion to said system, after all. Conversely, this is not going to be a rehash of all my different takes on individual rules-decisions of Path of War that ultimately, to me, are unnecessary design-relics. If you’re not familiar with the gripes I have with the base-system (and the opinions which diverged from mine on that, after all, I do not consider my reviews to be the only valid opinion!), you can read up on them in the extensive discussion on my site and certain boards. Hence, I will try to limit my complaining about these old gripes to a minimum, should I encounter them. Got all of that? Great!
This pdf introduces a new Path of War-class, the Harbinger, who gets d8, 4+Int skills, 3/4 BAB-progression, good fort- and will-saves and proficiency with simple and martial melee weapons, light armor and shields. The harbinger begins play with 5 maneuvers known, 3 of which can be readied and 1 stance, increasing this to 16 known, 10 readied and 6 stances at 20th level. Maneuvers may be chosen from Cursed Razor, Primal Fury, Shattered Mirror and Veiled Moon. For my issues with the old disciplines, please check my reviews of those. I’ll return to the new disciplines later. Harbingers can be considered the brooding anti-heroes, the dark bringers of woe and as such, contemplating1 0 minutes of negativity allows the harbinger to ready other maneuvers. In order to regain spent maneuvers in combat, Dark Claim is used – as a swift action, the harbinger can claim a creature in close range she can see – this lasts for a number of rounds equal to 1/2 her class level.
A harbinger can only have up to Int-mod creatures claimed at a given time, though such creatures provoke AoOs when leaving squares threatened by the harbinger with the withdraw action. The harbinger automatically knows the location of claimed creatures, though creatures not seen still receive total concealment and this does not prevent flanking etc. Whenever the harbinger activates this class feature, she recovers one maneuver and when she vanquishes a claimed target, she recovers Int-mod maneuvers. Alternatively, a harbinger may focus and spend a standard action to regain a maneuver. This mechanic is versatile indeed and worked pretty well in my playtest – while I personally prefer maneuver regaining to have a drawback to provide a more strategic process (and a playing experience with more high/low-phases), I really enjoyed how this plays out -clever tactics are rewarded: If played smartly, a harbinger will not want for maneuvers, though they *can* run out of them, requiring the expenditure of actions. Personally, I do believe it should be easier to run out of maneuvers. Still, the tying of the mechanic to setting up future maneuver-recoveries puts player agenda higher on the level, without providing the warlord’s imho too significant benefits for doing so. More importantly, this enhances the skirmisher playing experience the class obviously goes for.
First level harbingers add 1/2 their Int-mod to attack rolls, 10th level harbingers also add full Int-mod to damage rolls, offsetting their 3/4 BAB. I am NOT a fan of dual stats to any roll, but that is documented by now, alongside the obvious means to min-max the s*** out of such a set up, right? They also get +10 ft. movement rate, increasing this by a further 10 ft at 10th level. At 2nd level, the class gets Dark Focus – a kind of specialization on one discipline, which nets +1 competence bonus to atk and save DCs with boosts and strikes of said discipline, increasing the bonus by a further +1 at 5th level and every 4 levels thereafter. 6th level nets wither Advanced Study or Discipline Focus as a bonus feat; 10th level nets a second discipline and 14th level provides the option to spontaneously expend a maneuver readied to spontaneously perform a maneuver known from the Dark Focus, which has a level equal to or lower than the expended maneuver. Finally, 20th level makes all maneuvers known of the chosen disciplines count as readied in addition to the ones readied regularly.
At 3rd level, harbingers may 1/encounter (thankfully now defined in in-game time in Path of War, so no more complaints regarding that!) move up to her speed as a swift action, increasing this by +1/encounter at 9th and 15th level; however, at these very same levels, harbingers can also opt for fly speed, swim speed and immunity to inhaled toxins/no more breathing required, or climb speed with bonuses to disarm and grapple OR the ability to teleport up to her speed as a move action – while the latter sounds like it is the most powerful of these, that would be a flawed assumption – the action economy versatility does somewhat balance these out, though teleport and flight remain clearly the stronger options. On a nitpicky side, though, I do believe that this short-range teleport ability does need to specify that it is a conjuration [teleport]-effect. Why? To maintain balance with existing mechanics that block teleportation-effects. Still, not a grievous oversight here.
At 4th level, the harbinger may initiate a readied strike as an immediate action once per encounter whenever she reduces a foe to 0 Hp or below, with the strike being required to have an initiation action of one standard action, +1/encounter use at 10th and 16th level. The limit helps to keep this in line and makes it a good resort when a harbinger needs an extra oomph. Now granted, this ability, while not looking like much on paper, is actually very powerful – seeing how, in many games, the GMs are not as adept at drawing out combats, these abilities may be considered very painful for a continuous micro-novaing through “small” encounters. 5th level provides a +2 bonus to AC and Ref when moving more than 10 ft. in a given round, rewarding alacrity – as does the 11th level ability, which allows for the movement of 1/2 movement as an immediate action 1/encounter. I like this ability per se, but does it have the capacity to waste e.g. attacks or spells executed against the harbinger? This messing with the movement economy is not bad, but some clarification would be nice.
As a nice mind game, at-will magic aura at 7th level makes for a flavorful ability, though one that imho would make sense at a lower level. 8th level nets better flanking and 12th level makes claimed targets shaken. 13th level provides one nasty control-trick – for Int-mod rounds, the harbinger may treat close range as melee reach for the purpose of initiating strikes, smartly avoiding the whole mess with reach and threatened areas – which is good! However, in an odd kind of way, the ability somewhat feels like it actually contradicts how the class plays – first, you’re all about mobility and then, you extend your reach like a turret? Odd and an ability that ultimately feels like a jarring change of pace that does not fit within the frame of the class and its feel – like a foreign object. This ability fits better into a different class. 18th level allows for strike initiation (strikes with standard action initiation only) as an AoO and 19th level strikes IGNORE ALL IMMUNITIES. Ouch!
Okay, so the base frame of this class is very interesting and it is one of the most solid of the Path of War-frames provided so far – it also makes the flexible skirmisher concept, usually pretty hard to pull off, work very well, so yes, over all, I do enjoy the class, though it could use a tad bit more options to choose from among the class abilities to enhance the diversity among members of the class. However, I do see an issue and this would lie in the excessive increase of DCs – since the class uses Int for almost everything and does not suffer from a significant MAD, the sample builds, thanks to Dark Focus, managed a level of DC that surpassed other initiator classes and casters in direct comparison – with the power of the maneuvers, this constitutes a balance issue even within the context of Path of War even before taking other abilities into account, one that needs to be rectified.
Now there are two archetypes provided herein – the Crimson Countess and the Ravenlord. The Crimson Countess deals damage to creatures claimed – 1d4 at first, then 2d4 at 6th level, +1d4 every 4 levels thereafter. The ability per se is rather cool, though I have an issue with the damage being untyped – the lack of a means to negate the damage renders the character extremely potent against any threat that is short on HP and great on alternate damage-negation. This, theoretically, allows for very easy high-DR construct-slaying, for example. Applying a proper damage type would help here. At 2nd level, the crimson countess receives a pool of vitae points equal o the number of claimed targets, with a max storage capacity equal to the class level of the countess. The pool drops to 0 after 1 minute out of combat and the countess receives +1/2 Vitae points as morale bonus to atk and damage rolls made via maneuvers, +2 when executed against claimed creatures. The ability also scales with levels, providing unlocking additional means of utilizing vitae, with further untyped damage equal to her class level to all claimed creatures as a move action, additionally potentially providing 1d6 hp per creature claimed – the healing may be none too much, but it still makes me think that my countesses would carry bags of kittens around for handy claim-kills and infinite personal healing. *sigh*
On the plus-side, the ability does provide an expansion of the recovery options available, with higher levels netting forced teleportation (which should specify that the effect is a conjuration [teleport]-effect for the purpose of interaction with base rules) and a 1/encounter option to shove off half damage (or ability damage) to a target claimed creature – the latter can be extremely powerful, though the archetype actually prevents the worst of the ability’s potential for OP abuse by establishing a minimum required amount of vitae to execute it, requiring a set-up. The capstone provides an exceedingly lethal save or take damage ability, though one that thankfully does not suffer from the base class’s increased DC-issue due to this replacing Dark Focus. On the awesome side, the class receives the powerful ability to turn into a big pool of blood and reform later, getting a bunch of unique benefits while in said form. This archetype, in a nutshell, replaces agility with reliable damage-output – though swift action movement is still here. I love the fluff of this glorious beast. The Crimson Countess actually will see some use in my game (ONLY as an NPC-class) with very minor tweaks and imho, this archetype play radically different, with the minimum of vitae points putting player agenda and planning higher on the agenda than I would have expected. This is not a cookie-cutter archetype and it is fun – some minor tweaks can make it work even within my conservative preferred power frame.
The second archetype, the Ravenlord receives a bird-exclusive animal companion with the harbinger’s Int that shares in several class abilities – now the clue is that the ravenlord may have the companion execute maneuvers, though only one strike may be executed per round by the pair. The interesting component here would be that they also generate a small area of debuffing gloom whenever the OTHER executes a strike, allowing for a fluid (and EXCEEDINGLY fun) switching between roles and benefits. Also: They actually can be defended against by being designated in proper rules-terms – good, since the penalties are massive. Still, no complaints against this awesome mechanic. Higher levels net increased durability for the messenger and switching teleportation (again, insert core-rules-interaction-mechanic). While this archetype has the Dark Focus issue persist, if you take this one’s issues away (which is none too hard for an experienced GM), you get a thoroughly compelling and interesting archetype I sincerely enjoy.
Now this book also sports new feats, which are interesting – there are two mutually-exclusive feats that penalize claimed creature’s atk by the number of creatures claimed, but only either when attacking creatures other than you or against you – but you may only choose ONE of these feats – either you divert or you kite, essentially. Making claimed creatures provoke AoOs when 5-foot-stepping through your threatened squares is cool as it emphasizes the tactics of the class. I also like a feat that lets you claim up to +2 creatures with one action, but I do think it should have a low minimum level – my gut’d say 5th level. Adding debuff effects to claiming, additional uses for limited abilities – the usual is here. Reach through Darkness is odd – it lets you treat creatures claimed that are 35 or more feet away from you as though they were only 30 ft. away for the purpose of powers, maneuvers and spells – this means yes, the target is considered in range. This is VERY powerful, though the lack of mitigation of line of sight/effect still limits the feat a bit, rendering it only a slightly ridiculous, instead of utterly ridiculous- thankfully! The Sin Eater feat is interesting in my book – it nets you twice the HD of a vanquished claimed creature as temporary hit points. Jup, kitten-proof. Kudos! I also like the ability to increase your movement rate by 5 ft. per creature currently claimed. Over all, perhaps the most solid feat-chapter I’ve read in a given Path of War-installment, with plenty of unique tricks.
Now you are, of course, interested in the two new disciplines herein, right? Well, the first would be Cursed Razor. This discipline is associated with heavy and light blades and spears, with Spellcraft being the key skill. Shattered Mirror, the second discipline, focuses on heavy and light blades and close weapons and uses Craft (glassmaking, painting, sculpture or sketching. Broken Mirror offers stances to curse temporarily foes hit by you and strikes that add nasty spell failure chances (also to divine casters!) – nice! There also would be a pretty interesting counter, one where I actually *drum roll* LIKE the fact that it’s powered by a skill-roll. Why? Because it’s a magical counter and it requires the target to be cursed – this requires set-up and provides a grounding of the odd mechanics within the context of the gameworld. Oh, and it helps that the effect is not one that vastly benefits from maxing the hell out of the skill. That being said, the “cursed” caveat employed by some of these maneuvers imho should be defined, unless the harbinger-class is intended to be the ultimate oracle slayer.
Spreading curses inside your aura, using brands to disrupt abilities – the discipline as such provides an intriguing array of options. The maneuvers also allow for paralysis – which is problematic since the maneuver in question ignores immunity to the save-or-suck effect, which, especially considering the VERY high DCs harbingers can get, is too nasty in my book. That being said, long-range teleporting foes into adjacent non-difficult terrain, attack with bonus damage? Cool! Plus: It gets the descriptor-thingy right! High-level stealing of abilities is also evil and fun. This is, no hyperbole, my favorite discipline so far -strategic, bereft of legacy-rules and logic bugs and focused on nasty debuffs and unique tricks, it is powerful – at low levels, perhaps a bit too much. But still – over all, the most PFRPG-feeling discipline I’ve read so far, with issues stemming primarily from the nasty and excessive DC-stacking of the base class.
The Shattered Mirror lets you do something interesting – utilize, for example, the atk of the last attack of the foe, dealing nasty damage to the target. Know another thing? The Skill/attack-material here is intriguing – using a skill IN ADDITION to attack rolls to add benefits to strikes? Now that a) makes sense to me and b) is elegant and avoids the easy stacking of bonuses on skills – kudos! A very powerful maneuver would be Equivocate – choose a target: When said target is subject to a power, psi-like ability, spell or spell-like ability, you also receive the benefits – and vice versa. While VERY powerful, this also allows for a vast array of exciting tactics. That being said, it is WIDE OPEN for abuse. You can elect to fail saves, so this one ability makes dragon-slaying pretty easy – establish this one, no save, eat harm and watch the colossus eat it as well – have I mentioned that the effects apply to single target spells and so on, even mitigating invalid ranges. OUCH. This needs some serious nerfing in my book. I’m not a fan of using a craft-check in lieu of a save, but that one will not break the game. Doubling strikes and setting the range at close is powerful – as is a strike that curses a target to receive damage equal to what it inflicts – thankfully of the same type. Still – nasty and also open for abuse, though to a lesser extent. Imho, such a maneuver should have a caveat that precludes AoE-damage from being reflected multiple times. The capstone covers a save-or-suck strike that imprisons the target’s soul – yeah, ouch. Cool imagery, though. Shattered Mirror is an odd discipline in that it imposes, much like Blue Mage/Mimic-style-classes, a task on the GM – namely one that should be *very* aware of the potential of NPC/Monster abilities being hijacked. This does not need to be an issue, but it could be one since that type of foresight usually is not required – and yes, I can see a GM walk face first into a brick wall here.
I maintain, though, that integrating a scaling-mechanism into the ability-hijacks would help maintain a balance for less experienced GMs.
Much like Cursed Razor, I really like this discipline – though, once again, there are some maneuvers herein that can, even in Path of War’s context need a serious whack with the nerf-bat and restrictions – still, very much more refined and versatile than what I’ve seen so far and, especially regarding the design-aesthetics, closer to the conventions of PFRPG. This does feel more like an offering belonging to PFRPG for me.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant formal glitches. Layout adheres to Dreamscarred Press’ full-color two-column standard and the pdf comes with nice artworks (partially stock) and is fully bookmarked for your convenience. The pdf comes in two versions, with a second one being more printer-friendly.
So, I was not looking forward to reviewing this. Path of War was a colossal amount of work and ended up, in spite of me trying to be very clear regarding my gripes and issues with the system, a controversial review. I honestly wondered whether I should review Path of War Expanded at all since the fans seemed to, at least partially, not want any criticism of the system and since the detractors just wanted me to bash it – neither of which ultimately was my intent. In the end, when Dreamscarred Press sent me the file, I admired the company’s integrity and figured “What the hell.”
I pulled out my copy and scheduled playtests for the material herein. Granted, playtests whose announcement did not elicit much excitement from my players, but when I actually read and ran this one, it turned out to be a thoroughly interesting class – my favorite in the whole series, in fact. The harbinger feels distinct, very distinct – more so than the original Path of War-classes. It is also, thankfully, bereft of any infinite-healing exploits ( with the exception of the Crimson Countess, who can be kitten’d and does get fast healing in blood pool form, but only late in the game), streamlines obsolete mechanics away and instead incorporates the heritage, including mechanics, in a frame that fits more organically with the PFRPG-rules. Chris Bennett and Jade Ripley have, on a formal level, created so far the best Path of War-class out there that has the most refined design-aesthetics. No make-believe damage types, no easy +20 atk.-exploits…nice.
That being said, purists may want to be aware of the very much annoying need to still specify what is “cursed” – which, ultimately, alas, could devolve in the final book into yet another inorganic make-believe term that requires massive revision on part of the GM like the loathsome ‘*&%§$ that is holy/unholy damage. Let’s hope the definition does not go this route. EDIT, since two people have made this observation: Yes, I am aware of Cursed Razor specifying what “cursed” is in the intro-text of the discipline. Alas, there are a couple of issues with that: The cursed condition has no direct effects, which is a violation of how conditions work. Secondly, the term “cursed” is already heavily used in Pathfinder in a context where it does NOT pertain to effects of Cursed Razor, rendering the referring to the “condition” somewhat problematic. In order to future-proof this beast and render it less ambiguous, I’d strongly suggest a fixed definition of the condition set apart from the discipline as well as a new name for the condition that is not already assigned to a plethora of contexts. Or at least very specific referrals towards the condition as specified, as opposed to the other meanings of the word.When e.g. a boost refers to “when you initiate this boost you gain a +1 luck bonus to AC for each cursed opponent within medium range (100 feet + 10 feet per level), up to a maximum bonus of +5.” there is no mention of the cursed condition, which creates a gaping loophole.
And yes, much like previous Path of War classes, the optimization threshold for the classes is pretty much non-existent – you *will* get a *very* efficient character out of this without needs to optimize; If you do, you’ll get a beast, which also remains one of the reasons I am pretty much convinced that, as much as I like this class, the harbinger will not fit into low-powered games.
The harbinger is a fun glass cannon/controller/skirmisher-hybrid that plays very much like a magus on steroids that specializes in actually effective skirmishing tactics over move-into-melee and kill, something the PFRPG-rules usually discourage. Now yes, the class does have some balance-streamlining issues – the escalated save DCs are NASTY and blow the saves against the maneuvers to a point that is beyond what I’m comfortable with, even in a Path of War context. So yes, I do believe that there is some streamlining to be done here. At the same, I have to applaud that the archetypes actually radically change the playing experience. This pdf, essentially, constitutes very much what I hoped to see from the get-go from the series. Would I allow the class in a regular power-level game? No! The harbinger is a debuff monster that can be very nasty and its overall optimization-requirements are very, very low. But I actually *will* do the work to nerf it for use in my game. Why?
Because I genuinely like the concept of the class and because the new disciplines have some pretty unique tricks I will use for monster special abilities etc. and to make some REALLY nasty adversaries. Plus, I am actually going to use this class in more high-powered games for adversaries, since none of the design-decisions create a frame I can’t fix or modify to suit my needs. So yes, this can be considered a good class, one that borders, in the context of Path of War, on the edge of greatness. And as a reviewer, I absolutely applaud what this pdf represents!
At the same time, I still am very much conscious of this class being not for every group – if what you observed in Path of War galled you to no end in components that pertained to balance as opposed to those related to design-aesthetics, then this will still not be made for you.
Now if the minor hiccups are cleaned up and with minor filing off of rough patches to streamline some unbalanced components, this has the potential to be glorious. My final verdict, after much deliberation, clocks in at 4 stars, mainly due to the balance-concerns I still have, even in a Path of War context. Note that, much like the original Path of War, this amps up the power-curve of your game and if you’re conservative regarding PC-balance and interaction with established concepts (or if you’re playing gritty low fantasy etc.), you should detract a star, though all herein is more refined than the first book. Consider my interest for the series reignited!