Path of War
The final version of the first Path of War book clocks in at 165 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with a massive 160 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
A short lesson in history: Back in the 3.X-days, there was one particular book that divided the fans of D&D like few before – the “Tome of Battle”, more commonly known as the “Book of 9 Swords”, henceforth abbreviated Bo9S. This book took martial characters and provided choices for them – somewhat akin to spellcasting, with the target goal of making them more interesting. And the book at once succeeded and failed spectacularly. Why? Well, first of all, the respective disciplines of martial traditions were not properly balanced among each other. Secondly, the book utilized per-encounter mechanics, which broke in-game immersion and logic in ways most obtrusive. Thirdly, the mechanics, while innovative, utilized a whole array of options that could easily be broken without even trying. It happened by accident once in my game. The mechanic to regain maneuvers of two of the classes was sub-optimal to say the least. So, after some trepidation and a unanimous vote, my group banned the book.
Fast forward to 2013/14 -Dreamscarred Press releases the first supplements of Path of War, the spiritual successor to Bo9S, and after a highly controversial review, actually listens and includes improvements – but how many? Well, let’s check this one out!
In case you’re not familiar with the basic premise of PoW – the supernatural, extraordinary and spell-like special tricks these classes may execute, their “spells”, if you will, would be called maneuvers. Each character has a so-called initiator-level, which, much like a caster-level, influences the power of many of the options herein. Maneuvers are grouped in different categories: Stances offer passive benefits and can be maintained indefinitely – unlike all the other maneuver types, which would be strikes, boosts and counters. The names of these categories are pretty self-explanatory, but for completeness’ sake: Boosts provide benefits, buffs if you will. Counters can usually be initiated as immediate actions to react to foes/actions. Strikes would be the active, in your face attacks.
Maneuvers are grouped in different levels, ranging from 1 – 9, and in disciplines, which can be considered schools. Each martial class receives a certain list of available disciplines to choose their maneuvers from and has its own way of replenishing maneuvers.
In my reviews of the constituent pdfs, I have analyzed the respective 3 base classes Stalker, Warlord and Warder in detail, hence I will not go into the finer points here – also to avoid bloating the review further. As short summaries – Stalkers are the maneuver-dual-wield rogue/assassin-style class and quite focused on crit-fishing. Warlords are the fighting commanders that command amidst the troops and Warders would be the dedicated tanks that draw the foe’s ire and keep their allies safe while they take the brunt of the foe’s wrath.
Stalkers receive ki and have two options for the regaining of maneuvers – 1 maneuver for a standard action, or wis mod, min 2, for a full-round action – neither provokes AoOs, which is good. However, what still irks me on a design point of view – the latter option also allows the stalker to move his base speed AND receive a +4 insight bonus to AC AND add deadly strike as bonus damage to the next attack/maneuver he executes. This would be a significant bonus and imho one that would have been better off as a scaling benefit – i.e. the tying of class level to the AC-bonus granted. Why? Because playtest showed that, especially at low levels, regaining maneuvers can be used to make the stalker a rather great blocker when regaining maneuvers, when a true strategy/decision-making process behind regaining maneuvers could have provided so much more interesting decisions in combat. At higher levels, stalkers may also use ki to exchange readied maneuvers for other maneuvers, but since that one is based on a resource that is finite, I do like it.
Now I mentioned crit-fishing – that’s where deadly strikes come in – each time, stalkers score a crit against a target, they deal bonus damage against said target for a limited array of rounds. Weapons with higher crit multipliers receive more deadly strike bonus damage. Ki can also be expended to activate deadly strikes, which renders especially high crit multiplier weapons powerful for the stalkers using them. The issue of stacking deadly strike durations has thankfully been cleaned up – while I’m never going to like the mechanic, it now works as intended and thus has my blessing.
The same goes for combat insight, which would be a passive tree of abilities that allows him to add wis-mod to a variety of rolls, scaling with the level. It is my joy to report that the broken regaining of expended ki that failed the kitten-test in the original stalker has been eliminated – kudos! Now if you’re like me and have had some experience with multiple attributes being applied to the same roll, you’ll realize that both combat insight and some stalker talents allow for some significant stacking of powers. The same fine-tuning goes with the option to regain ki via maneuvers – a daily limit with a HD-cap prevents abuse. Alas, melee strikes at range and ignoring all AoOs provoked by movement for wis-mod rounds via ki still are nasty. While I’m still not sold on the Stalker, this marks still a significant improvement over the first iteration of the class.
The Warder’s regaining of maneuvers does not feature a bonus like the stalker’s. Warder’s marking, based on dealing damage to the target and thus forcing it to attack the warder at penalty still feels to me like it could use a saving throw – like the grand challenge, which high-level warders can execute to debuff all opponents within 30 feet as marked. It should be noted for posterity’s sake that this one still feels rather strong as a free action to me. The saves of the class become rather broken at fourth level – int-mod to ref-saves, and initiative in lieu of dex-mod for ref-saves – this makes their saves better than those of the monk. That being said, I’m very glad the designers have made the extended defense ability actually work. Now one obvious glitch is still here – high-level warders may deflect blows that would reduce them below 0 hp to armor/shield, wrecking the items instead – I generally love this ability, but the lack of a caveat for indestructible items and artifacts is a bit nasty. Oh well, since the ability is resolved via the broken condition, at least the artifact can’t be repaired and maintains its condition…I guess. Still, would have preferred the ability to properly specify what happens in such a case. The capstone of the class still doesn’t work – “unable to die from hit point damage” still is pretty opaque – I *assume* this translates to still receiving the damage, but simply not dying, correct? But what once the ability elapses? Is a warder below 0 hp staggered? Or does the capstone grant immunity to hp-damage while in effect? The capstone, alas, still is not anywhere near operative.
The Warlord class is perhaps my favorite from the PoW-classes, mainly because I consider the maneuver-replenishment of the warlord the most interesting – it works via gambits, i.e. actions that provide a bonus upon success alongside the replenishment of maneuvers, while imposing minor penalties on a failure. The problem here with the original warlord still exists – while the gambit-system per se is cool, its fine-tuning is badly broken. A warlord charges a foe – if he hits the target with the first attack after the charge, all allies in range receive warlord’s + cha-mod to damage for their next attack. It should be noted that the penalty for failing a gambit is only a -2 penalty to all d20-rolls. Conceivably, a warlord with cha 20 could grant his allies a+5 damage boost at first level – without daily limits. Shooting into melee (not hard with precise shot) can penalize the foe via another gambit by cha-mod to AC etc. Remember, that is the type of action used to regain maneuvers. I still consider the system per se damn cool, but the math and risk/reward-ratio behind the maneuver-regaining is wonky at best. Worse, the warlord can still charge kittens to grant allies damage-bonuses against actual foes or shoot kittens to grant them temporary hit points. On the plus-side, bonus-types have been cleared up and now are actually properly codified.
The warlord’s presence, gained at 2nd level, is still the equivalent of a level 15 bardic performance, perhaps better. Yeah. Still broken as all hell. For a detailed comparison, please check my warlord-review. It should also be noted that the ambiguities of their effects still are here.
The new skill to identify martial maneuvers still lacks information which, if any non-PoW-classes should receive it as a class skill. Among the feats, thankfully, the utterly broken Defensive Web has died the fiery death it deserved. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for tactical rush, which allows you to 1/encounter move your movement as a swift action. Victorious Recovery still can be kitten’d as well, though these latter two feats still are within the parameters of what can be considered okay. What is not okay would be extended mark – ONE feat, no prereqs, double the duration of all the warder’s armiger marks. Yeah. You’d have to be an idiot to NOT take this – it makes it highly unlikely that ANY enemy ever can stand long enough to see the mark go away.
Now I won’t be redundant and blabber on about the feats, instead going ahead to the maneuvers themselves, all right? We kick off the maneuvers after an explanation of terminology etc. with a whole new discipline, the evil-alignment exclusive Black Seraph. Based on intimidate, it is an offensive, deadly discipline – that allows you to intimidate kittens to heal yourself as a supernatural ability. Remember, maneuvers can be regained infinitely. This means FREE INFINITE healing as long as any PC or kitten is around. What about negating attacks with intimidate? Doesn’t sound so bad? Well, look for items, spells and class features that net bonuses to intimidate. Yeah. Here I’ll go on a tangent – the mechanic to use a skill-check versus an attack roll or another skill-check is a 3.X remnant. It was broken back then, it is worse in Pathfinder – less skills, less expensive skill-boost items translate to easier buffed skills. Add to that the mathematical convention of d20-roll versus fixed value instead of 3.X’s d20 vs. d20 and we have an assortment of maneuvers herein that simply do not work smoothly in actual play. It’s the square-shaped chicken in a vacuum issue and an unnecessary relic of an older system that is only here as a remnant of the proverbial balance ruins on which PoW was built. I really wish the designers had just shrugged off abilities like this instead of re-introducing what never worked well back into PFRPG. Need an example? Veiled Moon is tied to Stealth, now look at the ways you can buff that through the roof. Yeah. One of the more powerful maneuvers of that one switches positions with the target if the creature fails perception versus your stealth. As an immediate action. No save. This is a nigh-guaranteed insta-kill for just about every character, especially casters, who has not maxed out perception AND is buffed to cope with it. Before breaking the skill check with items.
Back to Black Seraph: What about a level 3 boost that nets you a 10-foot movement sans AoOs and adds +2d6 damage “that ignores damage reduction” – I assume, only the bonus damage ignores ALL DR? Why not tie it to specific types of DR? It should be noted that per se, the discipline offers some nice options that combine strikes with debuffs. However, I do not get why none of the strikes receive the [pain]-descriptor – at least the debuff conditions obviously are pain effects and should not apply to those immune to it. This is especially odd since other disciplines like Veiled Moon take quite some care to apply the proper [teleportation] descriptors. Oddly, this oversight also applies to quite a few other disciplines.
The Broken Blade discipline still features a strike based on a fixed acrobatics DC of 15 that allows the initiator to move 10 ft towards or away from a foe sans provoking AoOs and attacking as well with bonus damage – why not use the existing rules to move in threatened squares with a bonus? DC 15 becomes ridiculous rather fast. Worse, more often than not, these mechanics completely ignore already existing ways to produce an effect , producing redundancy and ambiguity of the results of actions that simply wasn’t necessary. Why tie the success of a trip executed by a martial artist to a ref-save instead of CMD? No, seriously. Yes, I am aware that this does not break anything. But the devil’s in the details – dwarves, for example, no longer receive their stability bonus to this save, falling just as easy, perhaps easier than less stable foes. This is a harmless example, chosen intentionally to illustrate the point – PFRPG as a system features quite an array of tied mechanics and if you ignore an established way to doing things, you necessarily have to take these into account. PoW, unfortunately, often simply does not do this, instead creating its own context and thus leads to more confusion than necessary. Next time the dwarf gets tripped, he’s eligible to ask whether his stability bonus does apply…and if not, WHY? And yes, I am aware of spells doing similar things. But spells are not strikes – I will get on that later on.
For now, let’s just say that Path of War does not need these wonky mechanics – there are a vast plethora of examples in this very book that prove that neither the system, nor the respective disciplines needed these relics to work, which renders the maintaining of them all the more puzzling. Golden Lion would be such an example – apart from one single counter (skill vs. atk – see above) the discipline works conspicuously well without these blunders and is generally superior to the White Raven that spawned it. Iron tortoise, which renders shields actually damn cool and useful, utilizes the compared atk-rolls in counters and shield bashes, but that one’s at least not as bad as skill vs. atk. The level 6 counter that negates an attack OR nets you DR 20 if you fail your counter-attempt still feels too nasty for me – its bigger brother has been nerfed down to DR 40/ on a failure, but still -even within PoW, that’s massive. Where math goes into a corner to cry would be burnished shell – atk + shield bonus versus incoming targeted spell against CASTER-LEVEL Check – if you win, you negate the spell. Weapon Focus (ray)? Pff, wasted that feat, my friend. This one counter neuters all targeted spells utterly. Even within PoW’s design paradigm, broken.
Primal Fury can be quoted as an example on how disciplines can work without (many) of the aforementioned relics – only one counter uses the skill-check nonsense. One particular counter deserves special mentioning here as one of my favorites – it allows the initiator to attack a weapon that has hit him – if the weapon is destroyed by the attack, the damage is mitigated. Elegant, cool, works perfectly within the established context of PFRPG-rules – why not utilize mechanics like this one more often?
Why do we instead get strikes that use e.g. sense motive to attack (against AC) AND deal double damage. The issues with Scarlet Throne persist. The second new discipline would be Silver Crane, the good equivalent to the evil Black Seraph. Conversely, Silver Crane’s Blessing suffers from the same kitten-test failing infinite healing, with the restriction that practitioners of Silver Crane would require evil infernal kittens with damned souls to maintain their good alignment. If those can be arranged for, they may heal allies as well, though! Yay! Infinite healing for the whole group! -.-
On the plus-side, counters to shed negative conditions, for example, make sense to me – so kudos there! Steel Serpent still suffers from a discrepancy between poison fluff vs. poison rules, but I can live with that. Generally, Steel Serpent, Solar Wind and Thrashing Dragon exist and what I complained about in previous reviews mostly still holds true. Veiled Moon’s counters still make evasion and even mettle go home to cry – stealth in lieu of saves etc.
Now this review is already long, so let’s go through those archetypes on fast forward, shall we? The judges ambiguities have been cleared up; Final judgment has been moved to level 15, where it actually works. Divine Abolishment’s targeted greater dispel strikes are still quite powerful, too much for me personally, but still: Kudos for cleaning this guy up! The Soul Hunter now has a kitten-caveat of nothing below 1/2 HD…but why not tie it to the soul hunter’s level? This way, I’ll have to take an advanced kitten with me; Still does not work. The Dervish Defender now need to actually dual-wield to use the two-weapon defense, which is neat. On a flavor-side weird would be that the archetype still does not receive the improved/greater TWF-feats for a massive hidden attribute/feat tax. Granted, this is a cosmetic gripe, but still – if the high-level ability mentions “mastery of TWF”, you’d expect the archetype to know the feats. The ranged Hawkguard Warder has been cleaned of a wording issue and both Sworn protector and Zweihänder Sentinel are okay. Bannerman and Steelfist Commando for the Warlord are okay. The defensively-minded Vanguard Commander with his option to break the immediate action-limit a limited amount of times per day still feels a bit too strong for my tastes.
Now as new content, we receive two archetypes that allow psionic characters to wilder in PoW’s systems – one for the psychic warrior, one for the soulknife. The Psychic Warrior Pathwalker learns up to 13 maneuvers, 7 readied, 4 stances, of up to 6th level. Each discipline receives its own psychic warrior path and…oh boy. Expend psionic focus for full attack at the end of a charge – yep, that would be free pounce. Urgh. Balancing between the respective paths is…strange, to say the least. The War Soul Soulknife receives the same amount of maneuvers and trades psychic strike and the 10th level blade skill for them. Interestingly, they have a mechanic to regain maneuvers upon the defeat of foes that actually manages, via HD and int-cap, to defeat the bag o’ kitten issue – nice. The new blade skills provide the necessary mind blade customization. The option to throw mind blades and combine it with maneuvers, though, needs a heavy whack with the nerf-bat, analogue to the maneuvers that allow you to do this.
We also receive the awakened blade PrC – 10 levels, d10, 4+Int skills per level, full initiator level progression, new maneuvers known at every even level, additional maneuvers readied at 3rd, 6th and 9th level, +1 stance at 3rd and 8th level, 8/10th manifester progression and full BAB-progression, 1/2 will-progression. They also receive an omni-buff-focus, may expend the psionic focus to use an additional counter per round and at 6th level, any semblance of balance that could be achieved via action economy shambles away and whimpers, as psionic focus and maneuver regeneration become tied to another. Worse, by expending a readied action and the focus, these guys may grant themselves standard or move actions to be used as part of the counter, allowing them to add a strike, a cast, movement – you name it – to the game. This is essentially taking the one limitation of counters and throws it out the window. The capstone makes the powerful super-stance of the PrC effectively permanent. Urgh.
Okay, quick run of the PrCs – have they been repaired or are they still on the level of the supplemental content pdf? Battle Templar: Reach of the divine nerfed down to powerful, but okay – kudos!!! The same cannot be said for martial healing, which STILL nets the Battle Templar and his allies INFINITE HEALING. At this point I ragequit this PrC and move on to the next. The bladecaster’s bonus damage is still untyped, the stance still broken, though a tad bit less so than before. The Dragon Fury is still nice, still fails the kitten-test. Mage Hunters have been somewhat streamlined, but still receives what boils down to evasion for all 3 saves. The capstone, which eliminates the option to cast defensively, is the other nail in the coffin for this class – Knowledge (Martial) DC 21 to realize it before hand? Nice, only casters don’t get the skill as class skill, rendering that one just unfair. At least the infinite heal exploit is gone…it’s now only infinite temporary hit points. The Umbral Blade would be my shining light (ironically) at the end of this PrC-tunnel – this one has been salvaged and is the one PrC I can’t find it in me to complain about – indeed, the PrC serves as a nice example what can be done with the PoW-system -scaling class-specific NON-BROKEN stances, cool imagery. Two thumbs up -were the whole book like this, I’d be singing a whole different tune!
We close this pdf with 6 organizations, so-called martial traditions, to include in your game and advice for creating and adapting these traditions. I generally liked these, though I would have loved organization/fame-rules for them.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect -I noticed a couple of typo-level/italicization glitches. Layout adheres to Dreamscarred Press’ two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes with an additional, backgroundless, more printer-friendly version. Artwork ranges from original full color to b/w stock and does not adhere to a uniform style. The pdf comes fully bookmarked in both versions for your convenience. Production-value-wise, there is nothing to complain here.
Lead designers Chris Bennett and Andreas Rönnqvist with codesigners Jade Ripley and Sabrina Bennett have managed to write the worst emotional roller-coaster ride of my “reviewer-career.” Alternation between cheers and resigned face palms to this extent has never been so frequent in a series. But how does the final book fare?
Path of War is better than the Book of 9 Swords. It is more refined, less jumbled together. Alas, it also chooses to inherit some of the worst traits of its predecessor and reintroduces them to PFRPG, when the base system purposefully got rid of them.
The explicit design intention of Path of War is to bring martials up to casters in power-level, to “give fighters nice things.” I applaud that. I want that. Only problem is, PoW overshoots the target it set itself. Before you start booing and hissing, let me elaborate. We all have been there – wizards get the fireball and suddenly can clear whole groups of enemies while the fighter diddles his thumbs. DMs have seen this since the beginning of our hobby, through all iterations. When did this become a problem? Well, as soon as player-entitlement started to set in – suddenly, players started whining if they couldn’t rest after every 2nd encounter to regain their nova-capacity and in a strange quirk f fate, DMs everywhere didn’t tell them to plan better, to conserve their resources, but rather obliged. Thus, the 5-minute adventure day was born and with it, fighters and martials grumbled even louder. Now PoW does bring up the new martial classes up to the damage potential of casters – this is correct and should silence the whining on that front. So everyone’s happy, right?
The problem is: Spells are not Maneuvers. Maneuvers are an infinite resource, whereas spells are a finite resource. Spellcasters can be bled of their resources…fast. And then they are the crappy, fragile dudes and ladies that can’t do jack. The strategy of resource-conservation falls right of the edge with maneuvers – arcane pool, ki pool, rage rounds – all pales before these tricks, not necessarily by potential, but by the sheer fact that unlike all resources against which I can compare these, maneuvers are infinite. Yes, they have less AoE-oomph than spells, but their power-gain still is not limited in any way. This fundamentally changes the power-dynamics not only between classes, but of the whole game. Non-martial melee classes and their interaction with PoW receive next to no consideration apart from a paltry feat-tree, when especially the introduction of one PoW-class into a regular group quite probably will invalidate them. The high-AC fighter will never, ever even come close to the warder, the rogue (even talented + rogue glory-update) will pale terribly before the stalker and a paladin’s smite turn ridiculous fast when compared to the tricks a warlord can pull off.
So is PoW balanced? Not in the traditional sense of PFRPG. If you had issues with psionics or pact magic or similar subsystems – well, this one amps the power-curve up far beyond these. Whereas usually, it requires a degree of system-mastery and tricks to produce strong, very powerful characters, the PoW-classes already have an above-average competence built into their relatively linear frameworks, even before maneuver selection.
Now this sounds awfully negative when it shouldn’t – PoW’s classes do many things right and offer interesting mechanics and some damn cool ideas. While personally, I don’t like the stalker’s crit-fishing, the warder and warlord make for interesting options. The maneuvers are stylish and breathe an aesthetic of anime martial arts and over the top fighting styles you may enjoy.
PoW is, to me, more divisive even than even the Book of 9 Swords – on the one hand, I consider the balance within the frame of PoW okay, on the other, I don’t think it works well with its casting brethren or any other class. So I went ahead and tested. And know what? All of my above assertions proved to be valid… and my martial PCs had no more to do than before in any situation that was NOT a battle. Granted, their attacks were more diverse, mobility increased, foes melted like butter in the sun – but beyond combat, when spellcasters cranked out the utility and research/investigation tools…they still encountered lulls where twiddled their thumbs and grumbled about limited skills/non-combat tricks.
PoW enforces a certain playstyle that is implicit, but unfortunately, not explicit in the rules – very high fantasy. Rogues, monks, fighters, cavaliers and potentially (depending very much on your take of them, how many resources you allow, etc.) even potentially rangers, paladins and inquisitors have imho no place in a campaign with Path of War. They are utterly outclassed unless the PoW-class is in the hands of a novice and the regular martial class in the hands of an experienced player. If a campaign is on a Dragon Ball level of power (and that is NOT meant as chiding or belittling, so put away the torches and pitchforks!), Path of War will be just what the doctor ordered. Many of the abilities herein just ooze rule of cool and should provide a lot of entertainment and “did you see what I just did”-moments – I absolutely understand why PoW has fans. A part of me belongs to that camp. DMs should take heed to ensure that the casters are not overshadowed completely, though. As a DM, to enjoy PoW, you have to have no issue with the infinite maneuver regaining and the inability to bleed your PCs dry. If you are okay with that and are looking for truly high fantasy, this may just be what you want. If comet-throwing, dragon-solo high fantasy is what you’re going for, then Path of War will fit the bill perfectly.
Now if you are an old-school player, enjoy the challenge of 15-point-buy and less over the top fantasy, if you like your fantasy low (or rare magic) and gritty, then avoid this like the plague -this is very much anime-style fantasy, not “A Song of Fire and Ice.” or Conan
So far, both playstyles do not help finding a final verdict, though. So on to the mechanical execution – and again, things become difficult for me, though less so than I feared. On the one hand, quite a few of the very worst examples of broken %&/ have been eliminated and fixed – the content herein is superior to the one on the WiP-versions in every way. However, it has not been universally fixed – especially among the interaction with other systems like spellcasting and psionics, the horrible ways to utterly break the system can still be found. While the majority of the content herein is streamlined, aforementioned 3.X-relics taint quite a few maneuvers and if I can enhance particular attack-negating counters with massive bonuses beyond what any buffs to regular attacks would render possible, we have issues. An adept of veiled moon plus invisibility (+20/+40 to stealth…), +5 to perception for 2,5K…the buffing options of skills are simply too much, too easily gained for my tastes. Still, these, I could still chalk up to “increased power-level.”
Worse, there are options for infinite healing. Multiple ones. These constitute the ultimate in design sins for me – they render all WBL-assumptions utterly ad absurdum and break in-game logic harder than a dragon crashing into a wall of force midflight. Another, though comparably minor thing the playtest did show would be that the disciplines not necessarily are balanced perfectly among themselves. While not in the realm of “useless vs. imba”, damage + condition-dispersal was not always on one power-level.
“So steh’ ich hier, ich armer Tor – und bin so klug als wie zuvor.” I love PoW, it’s ideas, some of its mechanics…more so than many, many pdfs I’ve read. I also loathe it for what it fails by a margin to deliver. With a tighter balancing, proper advice for non-initiator classes, a little bit of fine-tuning of classes and maneuvers, a cleaning up of relics, utility-options beyond combat and perhaps (sacrilege!) an alternate rule for maneuvers that are expended and remain expended until rest, like spells, this could have been the martial arts book everybody, me included, always wanted.
Only you, dear reader, can decide in which camp you’re situated – cool or crap, it’s, more than with any other book I’ve reviewed, a matter of perspective. One half of me want to smash this to pieces as it constitutes the worst power creep I’ve seen in ages with 1 star, while another parts just loves it to death and wants to slap 5 stars + seal of approval on it. In the end, I do consider multiple infinite healing tricks and options that are way too powerful even within PoW’s context 2 strikes against the book, but not enough to condemn it utterly. Had this no issues beyond the relics and outclassing old martial classes, I think I would have gone 4 stars with it.
In the end, I urge fans of high fantasy that want to dive headfirst into this to check it out; I also advise fans of low (or even medium) fantasy to steer clear and avoid this like the plague. I urge any DM to carefully consider allowing this book. Read EVERYTHING very carefully and ban the broken pieces. My final verdict will clock in at a very close, borderline 3 stars – the pieces that are good, are too good to dismiss.
Over 5K words in this review alone…so many hours. I’ll put the book aside for now. Unfortunately, it won’t make its way into my regular game, but I may one day pick it up again for crazy one-shots, until I have some time on my hand to rebuild this from the ground up to be balanced with barbarians, paladins etc.
Thank you for reading this 10-page monstrosity of a review, whether you agree with me or not, I hope I have given an adequate impression of the series and provided enough information for you to decide whether his is for you or not.
You can get this divisive book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop.
I remain yours truly,
I mostly enjoyed and agree with your review. As with the Tome of Battle and 3.5 homebrew disciplines that came before it, certain maneuvers have to be examined with a critical eye and tweaked or gutted. I’m also irritated by the retention of strange mechanics like opposed skill checks vs. attack rolls. However, I have a few issues with your assessment of this book’s level of balance. Certainly the classes are in no way balanced against classes like the rogue or barbarian. But I feel those classes continue to be hamstrung by legacy mechanics and game assumptions that new Pathfinder classes such as the Alchemist and Inquisitor have long since left behind. If your balance point is Conan then the Path of War classes are definitely not for you, but I’d argue neither are the magus or the summoner.
You state that maneuvers are not spells, and you are right, you can’t compare them apples-to-apples. Maneuvers are ‘infinite’ (in respect to uses per day, but are limited in combat by needing to be recovered), but they are also weaker in most cases than spells, especially in respect to duration. For example, compare Demoralizing Roar to level 1 wizard/sorcerer spells like Color Spray. One is a one-round save or suck you could get once or twice per combat, the other is a 15-foot cone save or lose, for more than one round against most opponents at first level, once or twice per day. Which one is more powerful? Hard to say. Maneuvers give Path of War classes more tactical options, but you still won’t see them dropping foes down conjured chasms or taking over their foes’ minds. They will NEVER overshadow casters, because what casters do is different. I’ve yet to use any of the material in this book, but I’ve had a lot of experience with ToB and hombrew disciplines, and I just am not seeing where you’re getting “Dragon Ball level of power”.
Finally, that whole ‘kitten test’ argument is patently absurd. Any GM who allows that kind of obvious rules exploitation deserves to have their game broken. You write off so many excellent maneuvers and abilities as ‘broken’ because there’s no specific language banning this stupid abuse, but if you just use common sense that would never be an issue in the first place. They’re meant to be used in combat against enemies, and in that context they’re perfectly balanced.
Anyway, overall a good review. Can’t wait to get my hands on a color print copy soon.
Thank you for the long and comprehensive assessment of my review and your take on Path of War. 🙂
Regarding the kitten-test-argument – yes, you’re right. It’s patently absurd. That’s the whole point of the argument. And I agree, any DM who allows his/her game to be broken by this deserves it. However, we’re not talking home-brew/campaign – we’re talking about “professional” game-design. And while *my* group and probably *yours* sees no issue, there is bound to be a combination of DM vs. Player-arguments out there that simply are not necessary. Not all groups gel well together – just take a look at the trouble-shooting forums for ridiculous rules-exploits. Now it is my firm belief that designers should always strive to avoid generating rules that can lead to internal strife in a group by exploits like the kitten-exploit. That’s why the example is ridiculous and over the top. And kitten-exploits *can* be easily prevented with a scaling HD-caveat, so why not include one? *That* is what I take offense at and that is why I will always complain about issues like this. If your group doesn’t suffer from unreasonable behavior, great – I’m glad for you. The whole argument that abilities that fail the kitten-test are bad design, though, retains its validity in my book.
I do not subscribe to your hypothesis that maneuvers do not overshadow casters – you are, of course, right, in your assertion that casters retain superb flexibility, especially in crowd-control and utility. However, maneuvers as an infinite resource imho *should* be less effective than a finite resource, so there’s a discrepancy. I never said maneuvers as such were broken – they’re not “as a whole”. However, the amount of infinite damage output you can dish out overshadows even barbarians, paladins etc. -easily. Have you seen a good barbarian’s or paladin’s damage output? That’s my point of comparison – as stated, neither rogue nor monk make valid points, but the other classes? Yeah, I think they do.
Now as for the “Dragon Ball level of power” – not dying due to HP damage, ignoring massive chunks of DR and resistances, free skill-based teleporting, multiple infinite healing options -now, to me, that is dragon ball level of power. It most certainly has nothing to do with any gritty or even halfway “realistic” fantasy and is much closer to over-the-top anime and VERY high fantasy – that’s not a bad thing per se, but it does mean that for quite a bunch of groups and campaigns, this simply doesn’t work. So yeah, we seem to have different definitions of what can be considered dragon ball levels of power. 😉
Thank you for your kind words, extensive feedback and for commenting!
All the best!
Thank you for your review! Meaty, detailed and with concise recommendations for different tastes. I believe I read your reviews of the non-compiled pdfs within days of you making them available, but I somehow managed to miss this most important one of the compiled “finalized” PoW. Anyways, I hope, despite my request being so late it’s not even funny, you can find the time to lessen the confusion I’ve felt growing while reading your reviews of especially this product.
In short, I really would like to know what your play style and “benchmarks” in terms of PC power levels are, because I find it difficult to understand many of your reviews’ statements regarding the power level of certain mechanics and the PoW classes in general. Or rather, I’d like to know what “benchmarks” you believe your target readers have. Here’s few example statements, accompanied by the most immediate confusions/questions they generate in my head when reading them:
“What is not okay would be extended mark – ONE feat, no prereqs, double the duration of all the warder’s armiger marks. Yeah. You’d have to be an idiot to NOT take this – it makes it highly unlikely that ANY enemy ever can stand long enough to see the mark go away.”
Considering that, at 2nd level when it’s gained, armiger’s mark lasts for at least 3 rounds, or more likely 4 – 5 rounds (if following the same basic idea as that expressed by your comments on the warlord’s stat distribution), I find it really hard to see the idiocy of not prioritizing Extended Mark. Do fights in your games generally last more than four or five rounds without the outcome having been decided? Or more precisely, do enemies the PC’s are able to hit with melee attacks in the first rounds of combat typically remain standing four or five rounds later (if most of the frontline PC’s also do so)?
“Only problem is, PoW overshoots the target it set itself. Before you start booing and hissing, let me elaborate. We all have been there – wizards get the fireball and suddenly can clear whole groups of enemies while the fighter diddles his thumbs.”
If you use the wizard’s fireball as an example only in the most symbolic “1st edition” kind of sense, I may see what you’re trying to say here. But especially in regards to PF (or 3.x in general), in my experience a wizard that uses fireballs, or virtually any kind of direct damage spells, is either an extremely specialized one-dimensional (and thus probably sub-par) wizard, or simply a very poorly built and/or played wizard (from a tactical point of view). More to the point, in a game where the wizard getting fireball causes the fighter to start diddling his thumbs, I would say the martial/caster balance problem is way more serious than it usually is. Meaning that game would probably benefit more than most from having the “high optimization floor” PoW classes replacing the fighter. Might even work all the way up to 20th level without the wizard completely stealing the show. Would you say the wizard getting fireball is usually a game-changing event at your table, from a martial/caster balance point of view?
“The high-AC fighter will never, ever even come close to the warder, the rogue (even talented + rogue glory-update) will pale terribly before the stalker and a paladin’s smite turn ridiculous fast when compared to the tricks a warlord can pull off.”
In my view, the high-AC fighter is so far below the theoretical average power level of the Paizo classes it should have been massively revised or, at the very least, covered in big bright warning stickers to make it less of a trap for less experienced players. The rogue is, I believe, generally viewed as sharing the vanilla monk’s sad position as the worst PC class in the game. Neither of these classes will avoid having their mechanical usefulness being completely and utterly overshadowed by most other Paizo classes to begin with, so I fail to see the relevance of the PoW classes also doing so. In addition, those classes will improve their usefulness greatly, probably more than virtually all other Paizo classes, by having PoW feats.
“…even potentially rangers, paladins and inquisitors have imho no place in a campaign with Path of War. They are utterly outclassed unless the PoW-class is in the hands of a novice and the regular martial class in the hands of an experienced player.”
While I can agree that a ranger would need to work hard in order to match initiators, it is in my experience fully possible to do so (for example by going for a mounted archer ranger). The paladin probably won’t even have to work very hard, especially with the Empyreal Knight, Holy Tactician or Sacred Servant archetype. The inquisitor is already firmly on the same level as the initiators and works perfect in the same campaign as them (though the inquisitor will likely have slightly less power in terms of direct offense but greater versatility/utility). In what regard do you believe these classes to be “utterly outclassed” by the PoW classes? Overall versatility, general combat usefulness, raw average damage output or all?
“Unfortunately, it won’t make its way into my regular game, but I may one day pick it up again for crazy one-shots, until I have some time on my hand to rebuild this from the ground up to be balanced with barbarians, paladins etc.”
In my view, barbarians and paladins (along with bloodragers) are the strongest martial classes Paizo have made, and perfectly able to play nice with the PoW classes without the need for any rebuilding on either side. That said, I do think the difference in general performance between a poorly built/played PC of one those Paizo classes and that of a highly optimized one, is considerably greater than the difference between a poor and an optimized PC of one of the PoW classes. Which, in most games, should make it much less likely an inexperienced player will end up with a mechanically irrelevant PoW PC than a Paizo martial PC – something I regard as an advantage of the PoW classes.
Which brings me to my two most important questions:
1 – In your reply above you write: “However, the amount of infinite damage output you can dish out overshadows even barbarians, paladins etc. -easily. Have you seen a good barbarian’s or paladin’s damage output? That’s my point of comparison -…”
And what is that damage output typically, in your experience? Say at levels 6, 11 and 16. In my experience, the average damage output of barbarians and paladins will typically match that of initiators, and a barbarian can even surpass them. More importantly, both barbarians and paladins potentially also have very strong mechanics besides raw damage output the initiators cannot even come close to replicating, such as spell sunder or celestial ally.
2 – You wrote: “DMs should take heed to ensure that the casters are not overshadowed completely, though. As a DM, to enjoy PoW, you have to have no issue with the infinite maneuver regaining and the inability to bleed your PCs dry.”
I’d say that the more spellcasting a class has, the greater the risk of it overshadowing the PoW classes. While this may of course vary depending on the length and intensity of your average adventuring day, full casters, especially the classic wizard and cleric, typically reach a point were them having to cut the day short due to being out of ammo becomes a non-issue, and that point is usually well before level 10. A DM that has to take heed to ensure the party’s casters are not overshadowed by its initiators has a much greater balance problem s/he should focus on, IMO. Namely that the general competence of the group’s caster players is much lower than that of the group’s initiator players. What do you think the main reason for our near opposite experiences and views are?
(As a sidenote, I’m generally not a fan of anime dragonball style martials, and the game I currently GM is stylistically very far from that. The PoW classes and martial maneuvers still work absolutely fine flavor-wise as well as mechanics/balance-wise, but full casters, straight vanilla fighters, rogues or monks would not.)
I would be very grateful for a response, and a little surprised and impressed, considering you wrote the review two months ago.
All right; let’s tackle these point by point:
First, I compare average damage output and how easily it can be achieved. That means I take a look at whether a class has an infinite resource that can outperform a finite resource at a given level. This includes comparing the relative means of how easy you can achieve the effect – if you need 5 rounds of set-up to make a given combo work, it’s worth considerably less. If an enemy has to botch x saves, the same applies. If that does not yield immediate approval, I go on to the next step.
Then, I pull out either a homebrew module or a commercial one and have a party tackle it, with one player trying one of the classes to be tested. usually, I let my players choose, unless I need feedback on a particular class; hence, some classes I considered solid in the first place receive some playtesting as well. I also tend to build NPC-adversaries from teh 3pp-classes to challenge my players and see how they perform on the other side of the screen…and to minize the factor of player-competence regarding builds. Most of the time, I’m right with my predictions, but not always. Hence my emphasis of seeing how a character plays. I try to run at least one low fantasy scenario and one high fantasy scenario. A “balanced” character in my book thus also works for different point-buys and “genres” or “play-styles”. (Monks would, for example, suck in this area hardcore, since they are nigh unplayable at 15-point-buy.)
Now regarding the armiger’s mark – it allows for no save and lasts for quite some time; with the feat, no boss monster can ever hope to outlast it. And yes, my boss-adversaries/BBeGs tend to last more than 5 rounds thanks to mooks, careful defense plans and smart item/buff combinations. So yeah, i do consider that an issue, but only an extension of the issue of the base ability. The mark extends its usefulness not only to melee; so yeah, I do consider it an issue.
My fireball example:
I concur with you, that a wizard (or any caster) focused solely on destructive spells isn’t particularly fun or efficient. It remains a fact, though, that spellcasters are significantly more efficient at clearing large swaths of enemies; Even if a fighter is focused on annihilating many weak foes, he will never as efficiently mow down adversaries as AoE effects. So yes, in a way, reaching the big AoE-spells *is* a gamechanger still; less so than in previous editions (2nd edition’s HD-cap…*shudder*), but still. It allows for the clear and efficient destruction or large enemy groups with a pretty low resource expenditure. In melee and ranged fighting, there’s always the looming 20/1 5% chance looming and with it, the potential expenditure of healing.
Now regarding the high-AC-fighter/talented rogue example – that one was intended mainly for my audience’s sake. There are quite a few groups out there that like these concepts and while I concur that they may be subpar choices regarding raw power, they have their place at many a table. Heck, I’ve had a pretty efficient high-AC talented fighter at my table and most CR-appropriate enemies could hit that guy only on a 20. Would they benefit from PoW-feats? Yeah, probably. Would that be appropriate for all tables? I don’t think so, but this may be a matter of taste.
Regarding the other base classes:
Ranger: Yeah, you can make deadly. specialized ranger builds. They require a lot of investment feat-wise and can execute massive amounts of damage. I currently have a talented ranger in my game, so yeah, I see that one. However, the class is also pretty much a specialist in damage. If I were to try the same with PoW, that would be much easier.
Paladins: Code + works mainly versus evil foes. Paladins are fearsome and can dish out vast damage against enemies, but only with finite resources AND focused on evil foes. They can make fearsome boosting commanders, but pay for that in other capabilities.
Inquisitors: Can be pretty deadly, can also suck hard. Require imho more optimization than the ranger; may outclass the PoW-classes in non-combat utility…for as long as their limited resources last; thereafter…not so much.
My gripe, generally, is that even these classes can be outclassed by PoW; even if you do optimize the regular classes, the optimization remains mostly one based on finite resources and specialization, whereas all PoW classes have infinite resources and require less specialization to perform at the same level.
Which also brings me to the average damage issue: You asked for my benchmark damages and that question isn’t easy to answer; On paper, a 6th level barbarian can easily break 80-100 DPR; Higher levels don’t scale upwards that strong unless you go for the hard combos; The issue lies quite frankly in the fact that for PoW especially, numbers are deceptive. Barbarians, for example, pay for such a high damage output with pretty crappy defenses that make them high-hp glass cannons that only survive due to their solid saves and high hp. (Whereas the magus glass cannon survives due to defensive spells…magus without them? Very squishy…) Many High-DPR-builds simply suck in play; they’re mainly interesting in combat. That’s another reason I tend to run characters through modules – to ensure that they aren’t square-shaped chickens in a vacuum.
You can always argue that a certain class can perform on par with another class, but once you taken the disparity between classes that require finite resources and have restrictions imposed on their performance with that of infinite resource classes into account, things start looking differently. Suddenly, a class may perform on par with an initiator for some time (or even outperform it) and then…fuel’s out.
Which also brings me to your question regarding the different experiences regarding caster/initiator overshadowing. Here, once again, we have the basic crux of my argument – casters can overshadow any class, as long as their fuel lasts; similarly, all Paizo martials with special tricks have a daily fuel bar, after which they’re bled terribly dry. My experience is that most successful DMs simply don’t let their higher level PCs freely rest – whether time is an issue, random encounters, whatever; take away the capacity to rest and the casters have to be pretty conservative regarding the use of their spells and similar abilities, especially since there are many things that can be made possible in the first place by spells…the utility component has to be balanced versus the efficient destruction of large amounts of foes. As soon as initiators enter the field, the groups suddenly has an unlimited access to a significant array of tricks on par with quite a few spells. Suddenly, the casters are reduced to the utility/terrain control-role, which is cool and dandy with me, but what about the sorc or oracle who wants to rain down fiery death? They have a limited fuel as well, whereas initiators can go all day long.
Whether this becomes a problem or not may depend on the playstyle of the group, but I know that there are quite a few people out there who have a significant issue with this -for a better mental image: Many classes have a “nitro-boost” for their damage/capacity. Once that#s empty, they need to refuel.
Some classes don’t have nitro – they continuously perform at a given level, with minor fluctuations. PoW-classes have a nitro-boost that recharges very fast and gain benefits while recharging. No matter how well a DM performs, no matter how competent the casters are, the initiators will always outlast them due to infinite resources. Both in my game and several games I regularly attend, casters running out of fuel is pretty much something that happens OFTEN. I don’t think either my stance or yours are wrong here – it very much boils down to playstyle, I think. If you assume an adventuring day that only sees a certain amount of encounters, you are absolutely correct in your statement that casters won’t run out. If you aim for more challenging modules/adventures that do not adhere to this design decision, modules where the PCs, bled dry and wounded, chug down their last healing potion to defeat the BBeG after smashing through his lines of defense, then yes, there you have the problem surface. The vast discrepancy in experiences boils down to different ways of playing the game, none of which are wrong or right.
Now one more thing: Since, at the Paizo-boards a poster was offended at my DBZ-remark…I’m an Otaku myself and all for high-end, high fantasy campaigns; Heck, I’ve had a whole über-over-the-top gestalting campaign where, at one point, an epic PC could command a whole ocean to squash all adversaries. I’ve also had dark and quiet horror campaigns where the psychological trauma and slow deterioration of PCS was the focus, mixed with politics galore. What I’m trying to say is: I hope you haven’t taken offense at that remark – it was not intended as a barb or the like. It was merely intended as a way for telling people: See this one? For this type of game, this works perfectly! Alas, not for all games.
I endeavor to provide as neutral a feedback as possible and am still not sure whether I failed hard to emphasize time and again which components I loved about PoW and which I considered flawed or at least, not appropriate for all groups. As a reviewer, without some of the more broken components, I think this would have reached 4 stars with an explicit recommendation for high fantasy groups. Oh well…as a private person, I wished the system was fuel-based or at least had such an alternative and instead of going into the “depth”, went into “breadth”, allowing martials to excel in the utility/terrain control fields beyond combat.
All right, I hope my answer helped clarify the review. Thank you for your long post and its professional take on diverging opinions! I really appreciate your time for typing it and your inquisitive, mature tone!
All the best,
Sorry for the late reply, Real Life (TM) happened before I had a chance to post.
First off: Wow! Not only did I get a reply, but also one that is to the point and rich in content, with free extra everything and the secret special T.G. sauce on top, delivered in virtually no-time! Despite me being what I’d call “a problematic customer”, stuck poking around in the pile of old stuff. I’m surprised (in a most positive sense), impressed and grateful. Thank you!
Your reply cleared up a lot of my confusion, but I do have a few lingering question marks which somehow resisted your eloquent attempt at straightening them out. Gonna do my best to keep this brief and try not to get stuck in semantics or minor details, despite most of this being nitpicks, really.
Your evaluation process generally seems to be about as good as it realistically can be, IMO. And a lot better than whatever it is most other reviewers seem to consider a proper evaluation. Cudos.
Regarding armiger’s mark / extended mark feat: To clarify, I don’t find it strange your BBEG’s tend to last more than 5 rounds. I find it strange your game often includes combat in which a PC damages a foe in melee, and neither the PC or the hit foe is biting the dust five rounds later. In my experience, this is instead a rare situation, since it means the PCs as well as the opposition are surprisingly unwilling to focus fire, being remarkably poor at/unlucky with dealing damage and using other shut-down effects, and/or the melee PC and the hit foe having an insane durability way beyond comparable to the power level of their offense.
Of course, it happens that the PCs for example manage to sneak up, get a surprise round or win initiative and actually get to hit a slippery BBEG with a melee attack before he has had a chance to activate his amazing mobility/avoidance abilities/hordes of blocking minions/whatever, and from then on he simply won’t be caught in melee again, at least not before those five rounds have expired. Or there is some special story elements in play which makes the combat very different from the standard “incapacitate or fail/die”. But this is, again, a rare thing IME, not something worthy of a feat. If the no-save marking wasn’t mostly limited to melee range, I would be a bit more inclined to agree with you. As is, I think you’d have to invest plenty of resources beyond Extended Mark to make some kind of “kiting” warder who is able to mark at range and then purposefully making herself hard/impossible for the marked enemy to target. Kinda hard to do, I think, especially considering the typical powers of tougher high CR BBEG’s, besides also having questionable value, since it’ll most likely result in the warder being unable to do anything of use in the combat except avoiding the marked BBEG.
To sum up, I’d say the related Extra Mark is typically a better feat investment than Extended Mark.
(As a comparison, look at your benchmark barb’s melee DPR. Or better yet, look at the HP, AC and melee damage output of a few somewhat melee-focused typical BBEG monsters – many (most?) would actually kill themselves in less than 3 or even 2 rounds if they were able to power attack themselves, so imagine what they do to a less durable PC within their melee range. In this case, a PC that also has had the audacity to mark them, meaning they’ll rarely have a reason for spreading their love instead of going full out on that uppity tin can in their face. And since even the melee guys are obviously able to damage the BBEG, most of the other members of their party probably are as well. So, even when factoring in things like DR and unusually high AC, once even the hard-hitting melee cannons are withing range and start firing, stuff go down, quickly. Which usually means either the BBEG or the warder marking him is out of the fight well before the 5-round mark expires, sometimes even before it comes into play.
Anecdotal “evidence”: in my current campaign, the warder has marked plenty of BBEG’s, some of which probably have been too horribly deadly to be called anyway near appropriate challenges and which also have lasted way more than 5 rounds, but they have, with one exception, never been marked for that long, as that would mean they were in melee without going down or taking down the warder. The exception was an enemy which decided to end the combat by fleeing, rendering the mark useless.)
Please let me know what I’m not seeing here, or if this somehow simply boils down to play style or some similar less concrete factor I’m not understanding properly.
“It remains a fact, though, that spellcasters are significantly more efficient at clearing large swaths of enemies; Even if a fighter is focused on annihilating many weak foes, he will never as efficiently mow down adversaries as AoE effects.” I agree to some extent. If we’re actually talking about AoE effect spells except for direct damage vanilla spells (like vanilla fireball), they can contribute enormously in many fights and basically end mook horde combat before it even has started. But fireball? Maybe a few times during the first couple of levels the wizard has access to it, in situations where the terrain allows for the long range and large area to matter, and the mooks are creatures of a CR no higher than APL -3 (so the fireball will actually take out at least about a third of the hit mooks on average). In later levels, or in less favorable terrain, or versus tougher opponents, vanilla fireball tend to suck big time in comparison to the best 3rd level combat spells available to the wizard IME. It doesn’t really matter much that the fighter is incapable of mowing down hordes of mooks quite as efficiently, because the cost (those 5% risks etc) of losing that efficiency is usually pathetically small in comparison to the wizard not having a more appropriate and bigger gun to pull out when the veritable dung really hits the propeller, typically when the party faces the really high CR fight of the day. I’d guess in easily more than 75% of the typical level 5-6 adventuring days in published Paizo adventures (or say 95% of the more challenging fights), it would be a bad idea for the wizard to prepare fireball in even one of his few precious 3rd level slots. Which doesn’t exactly make it much of a game changer compared to other low level spells like, say, haste (which I do consider a true game changer in most parties).
So to summarize: I find it confusing your original sentence didn’t say something along the lines of: “We all have been there – wizards get haste and suddenly combats turn into cakewalks while the fighter just keeps doing exactly the same thing he did before.” That would’ve made perfect sense to me.
(Of course, various boosts and metamagic like empower, maximize and especially dazing can turn low level multitarget damage spells into both damage powerhouses and/or really good BFC spells, useful during many levels IME. Though if the wizard is doing this, s/he certainly won’t be 5th level and should probably have been sorcerer rather than a wizard to begin with…)
And yeah, 2e fireballs… Ouch! Don’t wanna remember those…
Regarding the other base classes
This pretty much puts the finger on a big part of the issue. Yes, it’s easier to get somewhat similar damage output results with the PoW classes, but during a large majority of levels in most campaigns, I’d say it’s rather damn difficult, not to say impossible, to supersede those of optimized Paizo martials in a meaningful way (read: a way which makes it actually have an impact on most real game combat). Which is the whole point. Paizo martials tend to suck at anything besides damage, and unless they devote a very large majority of their resources (optional class features/feat slots/gold/etc) to increasing damage, they will suck even more in comparison to casters. PoW classes, on the other hand, have a much higher optimization floor especially damage-wise, and are allowed to get to comparable damage levels while also actually having meaningful build choices and tactical options in combat, something the Paizo martials sorely lack and which has been the prerogative of casters only. The warder is a good example, being the first published PF class with a working defender mechanic AFAIK. A warder doesn’t have to spend much resources on improving damage output at all, because s/he doesn’t even have to be able to deal tons of damage in order to be really useful in combat, from level 1 to level 20 (though she will run out fuel, likely before the party’s barb does).
(Moving some of the class-specific stuff here, since it seems to be mostly about the fuel issue.)
Paladins: Code + works mainly versus evil foes. Paladins are fearsome and can dish out vast damage against enemies, but only with finite resources AND focused on evil foes. If you accept it as a somewhat neutral and “intended” basis for comparisons, have a look at the foes in published Paizo adventures and campaigns (excluding those few ones explicitly not intended for good guy hero PCs). How many of those foes are not evil? And more importantly, how many of the more tough and story-wise greater foes are not evil? I’d guess it’s roughly about 80-90% of foes in general, and 95+% of the major ones that are evil. If the code is actually supposed to be some kind of balancing factor for the pally in those campaigns (or just simply most campaigns, I guess), Paizo have truly and utterly failed. But I suspect that is not the intent of the code.
Inquisitors: Can be pretty deadly, can also suck hard. Require imho more optimization than the ranger; may outclass the PoW-classes in non-combat utility…for as long as their limited resources last; thereafter…not so much. Yes, rather frighteningly large difference between optimized and poor, as with most Paizo classes.
My gripe, generally, is that even these classes can be outclassed by PoW; even if you do optimize the regular classes, the optimization remains mostly one based on finite resources and specialization, whereas all PoW classes have infinite resources and require less specialization to perform at the same level. Well, this begs the question: how many rounds per adventuring day on typical average, typical minimum, and typical maximum, do you assume PCs to be in combat? And how many separate combats are those rounds typically spread out over?
My own approximate answer to this would be something like:
Average: 2 combats totaling 10 rounds
Min: 0 combats totaling 0 rounds.
Max: 8 combats totaling 25 rounds
So, looks like I have a much larger variation, a greater maximum and less than half the average number of combats per day of those typically expected in most published adventures, I guess. It should be noted that very few or none of these combats are walks in the park mostly designed to see whether I can fool someone to waste a precious limited ability. Instead, I mostly aim for the easiest of them being relatively risk free if the PCs simply think before they act and apply somewhat sound tactics, but downright lethal if they just go rushing ahead. The most difficult ones typically require them to pull out their biggest guns and really sharpen up in terms of teamwork, preparations (if possible) etc., or they will most likely simply fail/die. This is because both I and my players generally want combat to really feel dangerous, scary and deadly, not something you can waltz your way through with a minimal risk of being seriously hurt or killed.
Now, in my 25 rounds typical “worst case scenario” fuel-wise, there won’t be many Paizo martials at risk from running out of fuel for any critically important stuff like say rage (unless they are really stupid) at some point in early mid levels (6 – 8-ish). Some more limited or true “daily spike” stuff, like a warder’s armiger’s mark, a warlord’s warleader or dual boost abilities, a pally’s smite, or a 4th level caster’s spells will of course still need to be more carefully saved for when really needed, but on the whole, both Paizo and PoW martials will by this time basically get through those 25 rounds without having to think much about planning daily resources if they simply take care to inform themselves on what to expect from the opposition. Casters can of course still be completely drained of useful ammo way before they can find the time and place to rest, even in high levels, but as a comparison a 10th level wizard typically has quite a few more spells per day (not including cantrips scrolls, wands, pearls of power etc.) than a 10th level barb has rage rounds.
IME, somewhere around the same level when the martials start lasting through my long day without much problem, it also starts to become a really tricky or impossible DM task to try and exhaust the full casters without also unintentionally causing a complete drain of also the martials’ limited abilities at best, or a TPK at worst. Provided, of course, the full casters are reasonably smart and plan ahead reasonably well. The reason is that the smart casters simply won’t pull out their big guns unless the situation really warrants it. And they can by this level usually get along just fine by, for example, carefully selecting the most effective and versatile long-lasting buffs spells and apply them to everyone in the morning with a cheap extend spell rod to typically have them last even longer than needed, and bying/crafting cheap 1st level wands for non-emergency and not very CL-dependent but frequently used stuff (like CLW, Protection from Evil, Enlarge Person, Mage Armor, Shield etc). And then in most not very threatening combats they simply plink away with some rather pathetic spell or power they have available at-will, or more commonly just simply stay out of harms way. If it’s a modest challenge, they may cast a few well-placed lower level spells, along with a few of a bit higher level if it’s actually a somewhat challenging fight. Of course the rest of the smart party will approve of this behavior and actively support it, since they all know that their biggest guns are nearly always, without competition, the full casters’ highest level spells, and those must be preserved for when the need is really dire, not wasted in mere “CR equal to or lower than APL” fights. To exhaust such casters and force them into using the bigger guns, the DM will also inevitably increase the risks for the entire party, since running several more seriously challenging encounters in a row without a rest is an increasingly risky business, regardless of the full casters’ behavior.
Not many levels later, the “cast in the morning, benefit all day” starts to turn into “cast today, benefit tomorrow” and in higher levels also “cast today, benefit forever”. Which means the casters are even less likely to get exhausted unless the entire party also is (including PoW classes, indirectly).
Besides this, there’s another even more important item closely tied to the whole fuel issue, and that is what I like to call “shine power”. Even if say the wizard class was actually meaningfully hindered by its spells per day even in higher levels and did not include access to the most famously broken/OP spells, the class would still feel like it completely overshadows all martials, Paizo as well as PoW ones. The root of this lies partially in the truth that dealing 10 average damage in five fights regardless of how challenging those fights are, is not nearly as mechanically useful as only dealing 3 average damage in the four easy encounters and then 25 in the final hard and most important one, even if the total damage is much lower than the other alternative. Replace damage with “combat impact” and you have pretty much the relationship between the wizard and most martials (though of course only the fighter is typically so completely lacking in any kind of dynamic to be as static as the above numbers, but you get the general idea). Add to this that besides being “the guy that steps in and saves the day when the going gets really tough and the other classes don’t have what it takes” (mechanically as well as usually noticably so in the game world), the wizard gets to have the perfect solution to any other problem, combat related or not. So what if he can’t win 10 super villain battles per day or can’t often provide the greater teleport which moved the entire party to the critical location in the right time? He very damn rarely needs to do either more than once per day in order to shine way brighter and more frequently than any martial class can. As an example, try to set up a typical adventure problem/challenge a 15th level martial would be able to solve but a 15th level wizard wouldn’t.
Here, once again, we have the basic crux of my argument – casters can overshadow any class, as long as their fuel lasts; similarly, all Paizo martials with special tricks have a daily fuel bar, after which they’re bled terribly dry. I’m wondering how and how often this have an actual meaningful mechanical impact in levels after, say, 6th. Besides, most of the Paizo martials have either a very long lasting daily fuel bar (barb rage), or an extremely limited but non-vital ability similar to the daily boosts of the PoW classes (pally smite).
My experience is that most successful DMs simply don’t let their higher level PCs freely rest – whether time is an issue, random encounters, whatever; I don’t always prevent the PCs from sleeping, but yes, it frequently happens the situation makes it very hard or impossible (as can be seen in my “typical max # combats/day” above).
take away the capacity to rest and the casters have to be pretty conservative regarding the use of their spells and similar abilities, especially since there are many things that can be made possible in the first place by spells…the utility component has to be balanced versus the efficient destruction of large amounts of foes. And this is where I don’t follow your reasoning anymore. I believe the supposed “balance by daily spell limit” is more or less an old relic from a time when the wizard was vastly different and the class imbalances considerably smaller and/or also very different. It may once have been quite true and relevant for especially many earlier edition vancian casting classes, but the reasonably competently played 3.x/PF wizard will simply bypass/safely ignore so many of these barriers (besides having such a vast number of spells per day to begin with) this stopped being true more than 12 years ago. If you manage to dry out the party’s wizard, you’re also highly likely to expose the whole party to a considerable risk of a TPK, since in a smart party, the wizard is generally the last PC to go dry. It doesn’t really matter if the PoW classes are relatively safe and sound, they still won’t survive without sound party members.
As soon as initiators enter the field, the groups suddenly has an unlimited access to a significant array of tricks on par with quite a few spells. Suddenly, the casters are reduced to the utility/terrain control-role, which is cool and dandy with me, but what about the sorc or oracle who wants to rain down fiery death? They have a limited fuel as well, whereas initiators can go all day long. How can any PoW class mimic for example causing a 40 feet diameter spherical fire explosion within a range exceeding 800 feet, threatening all creatures within the sphere with tons of damage and becoming dazed? I think I would understand what you’re saying here if they could do that, but alas… And how exactly would initiators reduce full casters to a utility/terrain control-role? By removing their summon monster spells?
Or am I just totally missing your point here?
The PoW classes having much less limited fuel than sorc or oracles would really matter if they actually did much of the same things and were on about the same power level. But since neither applies here, your argument here is, IMO, be a bit as if, say, trying to convince me the barb is OP by stating that the typical 11th level wizard cannot cast as many spells per day as the typical 11th level barbarian can make attacks while raging per day. And besides, generally speaking, any kind of argument which go along the lines of “Hey, what about the poor sorcerer/oracle/druid/cleric/witch/wizard, it cannot do X like this martial class can” is just bound to fail, since most players with a lot/bit of PF/3.5 experience (including me) will, I suspect, just think “Oh, really? Great!”
IMO and from what I’ve seen so far, the PoW classes are thankfully not even close to the same power level as any full caster class, regardless of whether their maneuvers actually had been limited in much the same way as say sorcerers’ spells per day or not.
You are probably very familiar with the class Tiers by JaronK. Regardless of how you regard that system, after literally hundreds of hours of very experienced groups playing with the PoW classes and discussing them, just about all agree the initiators firmly belong in T3 along with the magus, inquisitor, alchemist, bard and quite a few other Paizo classes. And I have to say I’m very much one of those agreeing with this, after having play tested and seen them in regular play over time. By this, I don’t mean to say you should simply accept this as some kind of truth just because some bunch of self-proclaimed hardcore nerds happen to have the same views (amazingly) on this. But I do think it may be wise to look up why they agree on this and why not a single one (AFAIK) has voiced a concern about the fuel issue, (while complaining about / questioning virtually everything else, of course).
How and why do you think your experience differs so much from mine? Personally, I don’t actually think it can mostly be based on something like number of combats per day, even though that may further emphasize our different views. Instead, I’m starting to suspect a combination of level of typical PC optimization, most common party level, typical span of campaigns, etc.
On paper, a 6th level barbarian can easily break 80-100 DPR I assume by this you mean, more exactly, something like:
“More than 80-100 average damage consistently dealt to enemy of a CR=level (ie 6) with an average AC (ie 19) in a full attack while raging, including DPR caused by critical hits, greater hit chance of iterative attacks due to permanently available de-buffing effects of first attack etc., but excluding temporary buffs other than rage”.
If it is, have you also often seen, in an actual game, Paizo martials easily and regularly one-shot killing enemies of a CR at least equal to their level, without being glass cannons or being dependent on daily abilities limiting them to just a few such one-shots per day?
Barbarians, for example, pay for such a high damage output with pretty crappy defenses that make them high-hp glass cannons that only survive due to their solid saves and high hp. OK. Since they have solid saves and high hp, what exactly makes them glass cannons? Is it not having a Ref or an AC quite equal to those of a typical melee ranger or warlord? And since we’re on the subject, how about the barb’s DR coming into play, does that change your view of the barb being a glass cannon? And if so, how high would you say that DR have to be for you to stop consider the barb a glass cannon?
High hp and solid saves does most definitely not describe a “glass cannon” IMO. Rather the opposite (an adamantine cannon?). Add DR (which can be boosted to quite ridiculous levels without sacrificing much in terms of damage output) and formidable rage powers such as superstition, and the barb is much less of glass cannon than for example any vanilla fighter or ranger can ever hope to become IME. Those classes will have a better AC, especially in higher levels, but it will likely not be high enough to be kept on par with enemies’ attack bonuses and really matter. And if they do have such AC, it simply means they’ve invested heavily in a defense which has lost most of its value, since the really dangerous foes they face will typically not primarily target AC. In fact, I’d say only one Paizo martial is straight up even less of a glass cannon than barbs, and that is of course the pally (although I guess some monk archetypes may also be equally durable, but not really my area). So, IMO the barb typically “pays” next to nothing for their high damage output potential in comparison to the other Paizo martials. Neither do I think the barb “pays” for the exclusive unlimited access to absolutely awesome (in a relative “Paizo martial”-sense) abilities like spell sunder, pounce or come and get me, spell sunder even allowing them to be really good at something, even in high levels, besides dealing and withstanding melee damage (which most other decent melee martials also can anyways). Instead, I’d say reasonably well built barbs are mechanically pretty much straight up better than virtually all other Paizo melee martials in a vast majority of parties, campaigns and combat situations, with the possible exceptions of the similar bloodragers and certain pallys with greater versatility and action economy via summoned creatures/extraplanar allies. In addition, barbs get enough skill points per level to actually find some real uses for them even outside of combat, something way too few other Paizo martials do.
As a sidenote, I think it would be interesting to find out what actually caused this barbarian/rage mechanical superiority to begin with. Although it of course mostly pales into nothing when compared to the caster/martial difference, I’ve even heard of crazy speculations/rumors along the lines of one/a few of the devs at both WoTC and later Paizo (no names) having some weird fetish thing associated to rage. Which would be hilarious, but unfortunately not likely to be true…
Re DBZ: No, I did not take offense! Thanks for asking, though. Come to think about it, I’m the one who should be worried about being unintentionally offending in my related remark in my first post. And to clarify, I can enjoy the anime/DBZ “fightan magic” style, but probably because I’m an old fart who didn’t grow up with it, I generally don’t like it in my D&D/PF games. Instead, I prefer a rather gritty, harsh and a bit scary style, but have no problem combining that with high fantasy (if you’ve read any Old Norse sagas/stories you probably get what I mean). And I’ve even mixed in some steampunk-ish technology in my current viking/renaissance setting, I think/hope without making it feeling the slightest quasi-victorian or any less dark and gritty, thankfully.
Finally, I must also say that I agree with a lot of things in your review, both good and bad, Just happened to get stuck on the stuff I didn’t quite understand or agree with, and wanting to know more. And thank you again for your reply. You have gained a frequent visitor and reader, that’s for sure.
No problem! I’m always open for a mature discussion!
Now regarding Armiger’s Mark: This may boil down to a difference in playstyles. Pathfinder per se is geared towards high damage output > defense, meaning that it is easier to deal damage than prevent it, right? Well, yes, but it is pretty easily possible for the DM to offset that – via lair defenses, items, bodyguards, spells, etc. I have to respectfully disagree with your assertion that the warder’s mark is mostly melee range-based – indeed, a pretty basic strategy is to be moderately competent at ranged combat. The ability specifies “Whenever the warder attacks a foe in combat and inflict at least 1 point of damage, as a free action he may mark them as his foe and attempt to continue to force them to engage the warder only.” Note the lack of a melee caveat. This means that a warder can hit a target via a lucky shot/buffed ranged shot, mark the foe, cackle with glee at the decreased efficiency and know that the enemy can’t outlast the massive debuff the mark imposes. Unlike all similar debuffs, there is NO WAY of removing the mark. No save, no SR, no dispel – no counter measure. It’s get hit and (moderately) suck. I think you may have misread the armiger’s mark here to only work in melee, when actually, it works just fine with ranged combat. So, that in mind, extra mark *may* be a better feat-investment, but that depends on the circumstances.
On an unrelated topic regarding your DPR-example and the staying power versus one’s own attacks – you are, of course right in your observation that most creatures could kill themselves pretty fast. Once again, though, it remains a question of builds – more on that later, though.
So yeah, regarding the mark, there indeed was an issue you overlooked, namely the ranged capacity. (Note that this allows the warder to use both composite bows etc. as well as touch-based ranged weapons to deliver marks…)
Onwards to the next topic – or rather, conglomerate of topics:
Re fireball: Yes, I should have probably made the whole statement clearer and for that I apologize. At the same time, though, what other AoE-damage spell is this iconic, transports this easily the basic issue? We all know how it, it’s immensely gratifying and it can instantly pull off the clearing swipe. I concur that haste and slow and quite a few other 3rd level spells can be better save-or-suck-choices, but there is no better way to mook-wipe than using AoE-spells. Even good melee/ranged fighters would requre multiple rounds and one such spell frees them to deal with whatever adversary they face. Now your argument is mainly based on commercial modules and I get back to that below. Bear with me and keep this one in mind. 🙂
This pretty much puts the finger on a big part of the issue. Yes, it’s easier to get somewhat similar damage output results with the PoW classes, but during a large majority of levels in most campaigns, I’d say it’s rather damn difficult, not to say impossible, to supersede those of optimized Paizo martials in a meaningful way (read: a way which makes it actually have an impact on most real game combat). Which is the whole point. Paizo martials tend to suck at anything besides damage, and unless they devote a very large majority of their resources (optional class features/feat slots/gold/etc) to increasing damage, they will suck even more in comparison to casters. PoW classes, on the other hand, have a much higher optimization floor especially damage-wise, and are allowed to get to comparable damage levels while also actually having meaningful build choices and tactical options in combat… Emphasis added. Tactical options. That’s exactly my contention. regular classes published by Paizo, especially since they gave up any semblance of balance ages ago, can easily be broken/made into deadly DPR-power-houses. Alas, they pay for this efficiency by being, almost unanimously, one-trick-ponies that are downright boring. The specialization makes them impressive on paper and shreds any opposition that has to meet them on their own terms. This does, IME, not translate to a good gaming experience. The PoW-classes do take exactly that damage output as a justification for their own power. They point towards “Broken combo xyz” to justify their own power-level. This is a logical fallacy in two different ways: First, pointing towards something that is bad design can not be used to rationalize other issues: Think about the ARG’s race-builder guidelines – they’ve been used time and again to claim that certain races are on the same power-level, when that obviously isn’t the case. Secondly, you hit *exactly* my point – the PoW-classes offer a wide variety of different tactical options without a need to specialize to be at an above-normal efficiency level. And unlike aforementioned builds, they do not expend finite resources while doing so. Heck, even the recharge-moves provide tangible benefits!
The different evaluation of the importance of “fuel” is made readily apparent in your example of daily combat rounds:
Average: 2 combats totaling 10 rounds
Min: 0 combats totaling 0 rounds.
Max: 8 combats totaling 25 rounds
This is nowhere even remotely close to my own experience. I tend to have at least 4-5 combats in the hot phases of urban adventures, more in dungeons. Your breakdown of average combat-before-resting shows exactly what I was getting at – a significant difference in playstyles. In my games, I try to play adversaries according to their stats and personality, which also brings me back to your example regarding armiger attack dispersal – if an animal is attacked, then yes, it can be diverted from foes. If a moderately smart (Int 10) fighter is hit by the big armored guy, why should he start dispersing attacks? Same goes for giants and dragons and similar smart foes. An enemy with even a modicum of int, wis or even levels should know that a party of dudes that can heal also means that they better should annihilate whomever they attack. The focusing of damage on one target is not an advanced tactic, it is something nearly all of my creatures do. (And don’t get me started when I play creatures that have a high Int or some that are known for their efficiency…) You pointed towards the assumed daily combats of Paizo-modules, which brings me to the basic issue here: The CR/average encounters per day-clusterf*** that is part of PFRPG’s difficulty-curve assumption. Now I’m going to voice one very strong opinion of mine that I’ve voiced time and again: The “fair” adventuring day is bullsh**. It’s a ridiculous easy-mode for almost all modules, to ensure players that their precious characters can’t die. It takes the challenge out of adventuring. And worse, it enhances the feeling that the world is there, CR-coded and aligned for smooth PC-power-gain progression. Finally, it enforces player-entitlement and provides justification for bad DMs to kill off characters via bad combos. I consider the APL/X Encounters-per-day-are-balanced design philosophy something bred in theory, which imposes limits on one’s game world that detract immensely from the individual’s sense of immersion. I’m pretty old-school in that regard and PC-death is *not* uncommon in my games. (I also have a ban on resurrection-magic, requiring quests etc., but that is for another rant.) Have you ever noticed that quite a few official modules seem to assume that the PCs can easily rest in just about every dungeon, without rhyme or reason? The intelligent adversaries just wait to be slaughtered, just so certain classes can nova away all opposition again and again. How many modules provide anti-intruder-strategies and more than a suggested buff-suite for one foe? Yes, this is a problem, and one that is implicit, rightfully so, in game design – because the designers try to cater to the highest possible target audience.
There are quite a few groups that do not want PC-death or even the threat of TPKs. These groups, usually, work exceedingly well with the suggested daily combat by Paizo, and also with your max encounetrs per day, though some players would already start whining there. 😉 This is NOT a wrong way to game – there is no such thing. But in such a scenario, obviously, the fuel issues do not come up, PCs are more powerful than their opposition and they can, even without resource-management, achieve success with a modicum of luck.
Adventure design also supports other playstyles. For example what I’d call the hardcore-old-school style. Where foes react to incursions into a dungeon, where defense strategies are drawn and resting in a dungeon becomes a nigh impossible act. In this type of game, players need to carefully tailor their resources to the challenges faced and will have to face down perhaps a whole dungeon-level (or chapter in a module) sans resting, burning through precious scroll upon scroll, potion upon potion, daily use item upon daily use item. In this playstyle, the PoW-classes, due to their infinite fuel become an issue. Since their damage output is MUCH more versatile than even optimized builds of regular paizo classes and since their options are balanced against caster-damage output, they suddenly render this whole playstyle pretty much nonfunctional. Most classes can be bled out; they can’t. Your example regarding the act of bleeding barbarians out of rage is pretty interesting, since they are relatively hard to bleed dry, yes. But most of their efficient tricks are keyed into rage – with brings the whole argument full circle.
Of course, you have a point, saying that PoW classes alone have a hard(er) time once everyone else is bled out – but that’s beside the point. My point was that they can go on and on and on, like the duracell bunny. They don’t become vulnerable. Their resources can’t be depleted with some very minor exceptions. There are options to heal yourself (and even the party!) ad infinitum in PoW, options which extend, at least partially, this benefit to other characters. Now I am aware of this being a limited phenomenon you can easily expunge as a DM, but you shouldn’t have to. It still remains terrible design in my book.
So that would be my take on different playstyles/expectations and why I consider the PoW-classes problematic in that field.
Now your following tangent on casters versus initiators misses the point I was trying to make. I am not saying that initiators are bad because they’re on par with casters, I’m saying it’s bad that initiators are beyond/on par with optimized builds of non-casters, utilize a significant array of tools that can equal casters in terms of damage output AND have infinite access to said tools, which ALSO are much more versatile than aforementioned optimized builds…but even that alone wouldn’t have made me opposed to the concepts of these classes. What made me settle on only 3 stars are rather the glaring design issues and relics PoW unfortunately sports.
I know about optimization tiers, yes. I don’t consider them always a good indicator of the power of a given class. Most optimization guides are worth a reading, but, much like the square-shaped-chicken-conundrum, they often (not always, of course!) are theory-crafts, made in a vacuum rather than in actual gameplay. That is not intended as a dismissal towards their math, their opinions or their validity etc. – it just means that I do not consider them to be the end-all final word on any given class. And T3…well, let’s just say, I disagree. There are many different playstyles and most guides assume playstyles that may or may not be valid for some campaigns. What is OP in one may work superb in another. There’s too much variance in practice for my tastes and they do not support either the psychological component (“coolness” factor) or the game’s reality in many cases, focusing on combat. That’s fine! It’s what they are meant to do. It just means that I do not consider them an argument that can stand on its own. (And neither do I expect anyone to do the same regarding ym reviews, mind you – I try to write them in a way that still sports enough information for people to make up their own mind!)
Now there is another thing you brought up, which is pretty interesting – an assumed AC of 19 for level 6. In my game, that would be pretty much an easy shot, below average. I’ve had quite a few PCs in my current campaign that were beyond AC 30 at this point. One of my players actually has written optimization guides and they all are very rules-savvy – probably more so than an average (not intended as insult!) “casual” PFRPG-gamer.
Which brings me to why I consider barbarians “glass canons” – or better, “squishy meat cannons” since you seem to object to the glass-term. You are, of course, right in the assertion that one can make barbarians with tremendous staying power. One can also make barbarians that deal insane amounts of damage. You can’t do both, at least not in this level of efficiency. Specializing in damage-output, you get shredders, yes. But they won’t have much to show for on the defensive side. You can make defense-builds with great AC, DR etc., but they won’t be as efficient as their shredder brethren when it comes to dishing out damage – you just don’t have enough feats and rage powers to cover all bases. Which once again brings me to aforementioned specialization point. Now yes, they do not need to pay particularly much for that, but they have to pay nonetheless. More versatile? Depends on what your campaign looks like, what your combat or combat-similar scenarios look like etc. I also have my theories on barbs, but were I to write them down now, I’d be sitting here in a few hours and I don’t have the time right now – maybe some other time.
This, however, is a completely different point from the whole PoW-discussion above, with one nice point – barbs receive skills. Yeah, but rangers are better off in that department. If it’s non-combat utility via skills/spells, rangers surpass barbs. (I am aware that I’m skimming over the whole fighter/ranger assessment, but that is for another discussion. Hope you don’t mind.) But that’s not what PoW is about – PoW is about numerical and tactical escalation in combat, not about broadening the non-combat options available to martials. PoW classes can’t quench the fire that is consuming the building, etc. They still for the most part hit enemies, only in fancier ways.
As a final note: Your game sounds pretty much like my own main-campaign (which is not used for playtesting) – gritty, dark, harsh. And yes, I do think that palas can have a VERY hard time depending on how you play them/enforce their restrictions. But that is for another discussion. Finally: Nice to see another aficionado of Norse sögur – I actually have an MA in Scandinavian literature, language and culture, speak most of the Scandinavian languages fluently and some of my translations of Icelandic short stories have been published. Glad to make the acquaintance of a fellow enthusiast for that style of gameplay. Also: Your mixing in with steampunk elements and Victorian/renaissance-influences seem to mirror pretty much how I developed my Ravenloft game. 🙂
Hope that clarifies the components that were not part of a discussion on the merits/issues of basic Paizo-material and apologies for not having the time to indulge in a full discussion of these as well.
(And yes, were I to review Paizo-material, there’d be quite a few 1-star-files there…)
P.s.: Since I forgot that component: If the above wasn’t clear enough – my players consider most commercial modules utterly boring and much too easy. All modules I run, with the exception of playtesting, receive a SIGNIFICANT difficulty upgrade to render them challenging, but this practice has not, nor will it ever, influence my reviews.