Path of War Expanded – The Mystic
This installment of the Path of War Expanded-series clocks in at 55 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with a massive 51 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
As always with Path of War-reviews, note that I am NOT judging this book in accordance to the power-levels assumed in vanilla Pathfinder, but rather according to the level of power Path of War assumes. If you’re not familiar with my stance on Path of War, its strengths and weaknesses, I urge you to take a look at my review of the book – also, since this is an expansion to the system and e.g. the fact that per-encounter abilities have a precise time-frame as well may not be known…but will the mystic attain the level of coolness of the harbinger?
Mechanics-wise, the Mystic receives d8, 4+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and martial weapons as well as light armors and shields, 3/4 BAB-progression, good Will-saves and begins play with 7 maneuvers known (which scale up to 21) as well as one stance, scaling up to 7. Mystics can have 5 maneuvers readied at 1st level and increase that to up to 12…however, here, things become interesting: Much like To9S’s Crusader, the Mystic does not have 100% reliable access to her maneuvers: The Mystic, before her first turn, determines 2 maneuvers, which are immediately accessible to her; thereafter, each round grants her one randomly determined maneuver from those of her readied maneuvers, unlocking this one for the remainder of the combat. If using the Lightning Recovery or Victorious Recovery feats, the mystic can immediately unlock such maneuvers, providing an option for players that are not 100% fine with the random nature of this mechanic. If, during a combat, the mystic would have not withheld maneuver to unlock left, she instead gets all readied maneuvers back and may choose 2 new ones to be immediately unlocked. The number of maneuvers granted at the beginning of combat increases by +1 at 3rd level, 6th, 9th and 18th level by one maneuver, but unlike the base chosen two, these are randomly determined as well.
The Mystic key-ability is btw. Wis and the class also receives a so-called animus – this means that mystics count as class level arcane spellcaster levels for the purpose of prerequisites and stacks mystic levels with caster levels for the purpose of item creation etc. Upon entering combat, the mystic receives 1 + Wis-mod animus pool; this pool increases by +1 every subsequent round and lasts for 1 minute out of combat and whenever the mystic initiates a maneuver, she adds an additional +1 animus to her pool. Animus may be spent as part of a maneuver initiation action for e.g. a cumulative +2 insight bonus to d20 rolls (atk, CMB, skills) associated with that maneuver, up to a maximum of 3 animus spent for a +6 bonus, increase the DC by +1 per point of animus spent. 4th level unlocks 2 animus spent per maneuver for +1/2 class level damage. Alternatively, animus can be used to ignore 10 points energy resistance or 5 points of damage reduction. The latter is a bit problematic: DR is not a unified concept: DR/adamantine or DR/epic is significantly more powerful than DR/magic – a finer and more precise scaling here via animus spent would have made the ability significantly fairer and more streamlined. At 9th level, mystics can target foes up to 30 ft. away with a melee maneuver or move up to movement rate as a teleportation-effect as part of the initiation – nice to see the acknowledgment of it being a teleportation and the line of sight caveat. 13th level and 19th level unlock up to 4 and 5 animus spent per maneuver, but do not unlock additional options.
Animus is important in other ways, though: Mystics are attuned to the elements and when they ready maneuvers, they select an active element and associated energy type. Whenever the mystic initiates a maneuver that deals damage, the mystic may spend one animus to change the damage type to the respective active element. As a standard action (or as a free action upon assuming a new stance) she can change the active element. If the character is psionic, her active element and active energy type are the same and if the mystic has the Elemental Flux discipline, she treats the active element as the active element for Elemental flux.
It should be noted that the class also has a reset for readied maneuvers, namely blade meditation: As a full-round action, a mystic can spend 1 animus to immediately receive and EXPEND (*NOT* initiate!) the maneuvers readied, the mystic receives a new set of maneuvers as per the default rules of the mystic’s ready-mechanic. Being slightly more vulnerable during this period, foes attacking the mystic still have to contend with the raging elemental maelstrom unleashed: Until the start of the next round, foes attacking the mystic receive 1d6 points of active element damage, +1d6 per point remaining in the mystic’s animus pool. The class also receives bonus feats at 2nd, 12th and 17th level, being able to choose from Item Creation and Combat feats. 2nd level provides a +1 insight bonus to AC versus psionics and spells (and psi-like and spell-like abilities), increasing by +1 at 6th level, 11th, 16th and 20th level by +1.
3rd level Mystics may, as a move action 1 animus to affect up to Wis-mod allies within line of sight with her elemental glyph, lasting 1 + Wis-mod rounds and new glyphs supersede glyphs already affecting a target. Glyphs are supernatural abilities and add new effects at 3rd, 8th, 13th and 19th level. Beyond the elements, metal, darkness and illumination provide buffing options – air e.g. is about movement, darkness concealment etc. The mystic also receives solid chances of emulating unknown spells. At 5th level, the class gets an interesting ability: When targeted by spells/psionic powers or spell/psi-like effects that have a Fort or Ref-save partial, she may substitute a Will-save AND is unaffected on a successful save. If she fails, she receives 1 point of animus, but this ability only works while unencumbered and in light armor. The ability is very powerful, yes, but its limitations mean that it works actually pretty well in the Path of War-context. At 6th level, the mystic may 1/day as a free action swap a readied maneuver with another one the mystic knows, +1/day at every 4 levels thereafter. At 9th level, the mystic may utilize animus to suppress magical/psionic effects for Wis-mod rounds. 15th level allows for the expenditure of a move action to gain 1d6+Wis-mod animus points…which can be used outside of combat and, as a capstone, the mystic may create a glyph with the effects of two glyphs at the same time – brutal.
So what kind of supplemental material do we get here? First, one should mention feats: Using Animus for healing would be one – while the healing granted is low and has a 1/encounter cap, the feat can be abused to result in infinite healing by picking/ending fights with either kittens or friendly PCs. Note: I do not, as a reviewer, consider the feat per se broken, but if you’re like me and do not want any kind of infinite healing anywhere near your table, then I’d suggest banning this one. The other feats allow for an increased energy resistance ignoring with a chosen element, more animus, more maneuvers and better action economy for the reset ability. An interesting feat allows you to not only increased damage die of katanas by one step and treat them as light weapons…which is per se relatively brutal…I mean, come on…katanas are not a weak weapon – why them of all weapons? There is also a feat for other classes to gain animus. The pdf also sports two archetypes for the class, namely the aurora soul and knight chandler. The aurora soul modifies skills and proficiencies and basically is an unarmed variant of the mystic with modified disciplines available, bonus feats to make unarmed combat viable and a defensive bonus to AC. A solid, function-driven archetype.
The Knight Chandler on the other hand is a pretty detailed, complex archetype: The knight-chandler needs to be non-evil and, at 1st level, receives a soul candle, a fist-sized mote of light that sheds illumination in a radius depending on the knight chandler’s illumination pool. Once per round, the knight-chandler may will, as a free action, to move the candle up to her speed, ignoring difficult terrain, but being unable to pass through solid objects. If the candle is within the knight-chandler’s space, she can have the candle move with her. Additionally, as a swift action, the knight-chandler may summon the soul candle to her square. Allies within 15 ft. of the candle gain resistance to the active element, equal to the number of illumination points in the knight-chandler’s pool and the candle is only weakened in magic-dead zones, not suppressed.
Outside of combat, the knight-chandler has 1 point of illumination in her pool; upon entering combat, she adds +1 illumination point per round. She may also use a swift action to gain 2 illumination points and receives one whenever she initiates a boost. She also gains Tap Animus, which means that she does have animus in addition to her illumination pool. Starting at 3rd level, knight chandlers can utilize candle magic, beginning with votive effects and unlocking lantern effects at 8th level and bonfire effects at 15th level. The effects projected may be changed as a swift action. While it is relatively clear that only one effect from the respective lists can be in effect at a given time, I think explicitly stating this would be a wise choice to prevent ambiguity. The relatively close limitation of the soul candle’s light is what makes these work, for the effects are rather brutal: More five-foot-steps, teleport, flat-out immunity to death effects…and then, there would be the bonfire effects, which provide AoE fast healing for infinite healing for the whole group and even ability score damage healing for initiators and a life 3-style option to reduce the pool to 1, but also receive immediate healing for 1/2 maximum hit point total plus an end to just about all negative conditions. I consider the latter to be pretty problematic, since it basically flat-out prevents death negating any damage that would bring the character below 0 Hp when used. Then again, seeing the ridiculous amounts of damage initiators can dish out, abilities like this may be actually needed in the long run. This does not change the fact that this is basically infinite healing once again, meaning the archetype will limited in its usefulness for some tables – as much as I like the archetype’s mechanical frame, it won’t get anywhere near my table. At higher levels, knight-chandlers may share boosts or counters readied with allies and as a capstone, the archetype gets an apotheosis alongside an increased illumination pool minimum.
Now the book obviously also features disciplines, some of which I’ve already mentioned. Since I have already covered shattered mirror in my review of the harbinger, I will not be going into details there. The book does sport 3 new disciplines, though, the first of which would be Elemental Flux, associated with Spellcraft and available for monk, thrown weapons and light blades. Elemental Flux requires elemental damage of some maneuvers to be determined in advance, but may choose this as a standard action. Furthermore, quite a few of the maneuvers in the discipline can be augmented via the expenditure of animus points. It should come as no surprise to the reader, then, that we’re dealing with highly flexible offense/defense options here – unlike other disciplines, the significant flexibility of elemental flux is pretty hard to counter when combined by the resource-management of the mystic. For future-proofing purposes, this bears mention. As provided, though, the discipline is also highly interesting, with more than one maneuver offering wildly diverging in effects beyond just switching the respective energy damage types – and ultimately, I found myself enjoying this component most about elemental flux: While thematically, I did not consider the discipline too captivating, its flexibility is what ultimately makes me enjoy it. It should also be noted that the respective elemental benefits are pretty well-balanced among themselves. So yes, I was positively surprised here!
The second discipline herein would be Mithral Current, associated with Perform (dance) and the weapon-groups light blades, heavy blades and polearms. The discipline also has a unique flair and mechanical component: Being pretty much about Iaijutsu-style quick drawing, the discipline codifies a type of requirement for certain maneuvers that requires the wielder to properly draw a weapon immediately prior to utilizing the respective maneuver. The concise definition here is pretty much glorious and it should be noted that it does make basically for an optional component that can add additional effects to the respective maneuvers. It should also be noted that some maneuvers and stances here do allow for free sheathing of weapons as part of their usual effects. The discipline also does sport numerous rather interesting defensive tricks – alas, unlike some other more recent Path of War-installments, we once again have a more pronounced emphasis on skill-checks as substitutes for more valuable numeric options like AC etc., adding in the swinging effect more than in e.g. the harbinger’s designs and making the content presented here feel less streamlined…and, again, more prone to being gamed. On the plus-side, the actual gaming flow of calm turning to brutal counter-assault and visuals of mithral current are fun.
The third discipline covered herein would be the Riven Hourglass, with the associated skill being Autohypnosis and the weapons being light blades, flails and hammers. Here, things get highly problematic in my book – no-save negative conditions and a 1st level strike that kills action economy for the target: Strike the Hourglass has this nice effect: “If it hits, it deals weapon damage as normal, and the target can only take a single move action or standard action during its next turn.” Okay, so this 1st level strike prohibits the use of free or swift or immediate actions on the target’s subsequent turn and cuts his actions in half, SANS SAVE. 1st level maneuver. This is, even in Path of War’s context, broken. What about a boost you can initiate only at the start of your action that lets you grant a touched target your standard, move or full-round action? 4th level. Riven Hourglass is HORRIBLY BROKEN. It allows you to break any semblance of action economy and is chock-full with abuse-the-system-to-smithereens-combos. I’m at this point used to Path of War playing fast and loose with balance, even in the increased power-context of the series, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to come up with a plethora of ridiculous ways to break…everything with this discipline. Urgh.
Editing and formatting are very good – the complex rules-language employed tends to be precise and well-crafted, though there are some discrepancies regarding the consistency of what abilities need saves and what don’t. Layout adheres to Dreamscarred Press’ two-column full-color standard and the pdf sports numerous gorgeous full-color artworks. The pdf comes with a second, more printer-friendly version as well – kudos!
Chris Bennett and Jade Ripley’s Mystic is an interesting class: The heir apparent to the Crusader, the Mystic has a flow in its maneuver availability I very much enjoyed on paper and, from experience, classes with a flow require playtesting. The Mystic, and this is interesting, is not the first Path of War class with a flow: All classes can freely and easily regain maneuvers and as such, there always was the flowing motion inherent in the system. The Mystic takes this up to 11…or at least, makes you think it does: Basically, the class feels like it’s afraid of its own self-imposed limitations. We get a class that says: No reliable maneuver-access…unlike the default “you do x, y or z”. Which is not bad per se, but it does mean that the class plays less unique than you’d expect from the set-up. A similar process can be observed in my mechanically favorite component of the mystic: The way in which animus increases over the rounds hearkens back to an escalation die-like 13th Age-style mechanic coupled with resource-management. It pretends to require serious resource-management…when it really doesn’t.
Animus is a cool mechanic that has the potential to be extremely entertaining…but in practice, the system awards blasting away: If an enemy’s still standing after you run out of animus, that slightly limits your options…but not in a manner that is strictly stifling for even a short duration or render it problematic: Basically, I love the ability’s frame-work…but it’s not really required for the class. Most combats can be defeated sans tapping into the animus-mechanic. Basically, I feel like this class is afraid of requiring the use of its resources and playstyle: It introduces these cool mechanics, these unique tricks, has the mechanical means to provide a flow and then tells you: “You don’t need these, but if you do use them, you’re even more awesome.”
On the design-side, the high flexibility of Elemental Flux and Mithral Current’s draw-component are truly astounding and render play with them exciting, though they do hint at another discrepancy. I also absolutely adored the Knight-Chandler’s soul candle mechanic, if not all components of the particular execution here.
My intense dislike for skill-check substitutions is back in full swing here; after the Harbinger’s maneuvers clothed such mechanics in effects that sported less potential problems, we have them here again…though, again, in a way that does show growth over the original Path of War, with an emphasis on defense and, since it represents more of a personal preference, is not a key component of my verdict. The book does sport some discrepancies with no-save nerfs and the like.
I think, if you’re reading this far, you may be one of my readers using the original Path of War or at least being interested in the system. I’ve rambled on about a narrow implicit playstyle that does not take table-variation into account in one particular context: Unlimited healing. This installment once again does provide such options, which eliminate this pdf for a significant amount of tables, mine included. And then there would be Riven Hourglass. The harbinger’s Shattered Mirror *could* be broken in some campaigns and brilliant in others. Riven Hourglass is just friggin’ broken, regardless of context or powerlevel. It begs to be abused to kingdom come and you don’t even want to know what an evil GM can do with this…or what a halfway decent adventurer group can make with this beast. This discipline needs a serious nerf and some significant limitations to make its utterly broken action-shifting more restrictive. “That’s just EZG rambling, he doesn’t get Path of War.” Wrong. Path of War’s emphasis on getting more power, more versatility out of your actions, if anything, exacerbates the problem this discipline poses.
In the end, the mystic does sport some conceptually brilliant mechanic innovations, but is too afraid to truly capitalize on them and make them the focus of the class – to me, this felt like the class, time and again, tries to apologize for its own mechanics, stating: “See, it’s not so bad, you still get all your crucial tools when you want them.” – and that undermines the unique framework the mystic offers. The harbinger’s only issues were one out of place ability and the escalating DCs far beyond any you’d otherwise see. However, its accomplishment boils down to being a fun skirmisher that requires the player to treat it as such. The Mystic, in contrast, has these great flowing set-up mechanics…but doesn’t strictly require them. It does feel like the class was revised time and again to cater to the taste of people that did not like the class’s random maneuver-mechanics – which, to me, is a shame, because it undermines the unique and compelling identity the class actually sports. Worse, the increased flexibility the maneuvers of the new disciplines offer do look like they were balanced to work with regards to a more limited availability, like there was once the intent to offset the lack of control with more powerful options – something the class no longer requires. And yes, this extends to the animus-mechanics.
While I do consider some options here to be brutal power-creep and yes, broken, there is still a whole lot to like and truly interesting material to be found herein. Still, to me, this falls a long way short of the harbinger. It should also be noted that, while Mithral Current and Elemental Flux on their own are powerful (and Elemental Flux surpasses ANY elemental-themed option in power and flexibility, including Solar Wind), Riven Hourglass is pretty much the equivalent of throwing any sense of balance to the wind – it imho hurts this pdf…and it hurts Path of War as a whole. Even in my most high-fantasy of campaigns, I will not allow this anywhere near my table, which is a first for the series – I can conceive of campaigns where infinite healing is no issue and while I won’t run one, I don’t judge. Riven Hourglass, on the other hand, begs to be broken in any context.
It should be considered a testament to the quality of the other content herein and the pdf’s mechanical innovation that this one does not sink the pdf. Ultimately, the Mystic is an exercise in brilliant highlights and darkest shadows – and hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3 stars. Even fans of Path of War should take careful stock before allowing this pdf, though.
On another note: While Path of War’s lead designer Chris Bennett and I disagree in many instances regarding design, he has always been a courteous gentleman in his interactions with me – and he is in need of help: He has recently been suffering from a medical condition that makes the situation of him and his family precarious. So if you want to help Chris get back on his feet, consider donating to his GoFundMe – which can be found here.
Finally, Dreamscarred Press has started a patreon to support their crunch-heavy, unique books. The patreon includes the option to have a say in the priorities of the release of supplements and it can be found here!