This installment of the Psionics Augmented-series clocks in at 19 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 2/3 of a page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 15 1/3 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
The highlord class gets d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and martial weapons, all armors and shields, excluding heavy shields. First level yields a base of 1 power point, which improves up to 128 at 20th level. Powers known scale up from 1 to 20, drawing from the psychic warrior and tactician power lists, capping at 6th power level; the governing attribute for powers is Charisma. The class gets ¾ BAB-progression, as well as good Fort- and Will-saves. The highlord begins play with two talents – one chosen from the highlord’s list, and one chosen from the tenet.
As similar classes, the highlord gets a psionic collective, which improves in range, with 15th level eliminating range and 19th level extending collective across planar boundaries. Interesting: The highlord’s powers are very much fueled by desires; as such, their powers are unmistakable and impart a sliver of the highlord’s desires – this may not have rules-repercussions, but is one amazing narrative angle I very much enjoy. The highlord’s collective begins slightly more (at least potentially!) offensive focused than usual, as the class gets Unwilling Participant from level 1, save that the saving throw DC is 10 + ½ manifester level + Charisma modifier. Additionally, a member of the collective dying does not prompt a save.
Now, I already mentioned the tenets, right? At first level, the highlord chooses a set of tenets, which are essentially a linear ability progression not unlike a bloodline or an order, for example. Each such tenet also bestows a unique psionic power exclusively available to highlords of that tenet. The tenet also governs the so-called lifeblood resonance – a means of punishing those that oppose the highlord. This resonance causes 1d8 points of damage, +1d8 for every 4 levels possessed, capping at 6d8. 3 Tenets are included within. Each tenet also nets a conscription, a unique way to force adversaries into the collective. The tenet also determines the first so-called decree (think active talents here) and a skill affinity, a bonus equal to half class levels to a skill and an associated ability.
The class gets a psionic bonus feat at 2nd, 9th and 16th level, and 3rd level nets gift of power, which adds the network descriptor to a chosen power, with another such choice at 6th level and every 3 levels thereafter. This can be really strong. This level also nets telepathy. At 5th level, the highlord gains highlord’s mark, which, after spending a week in a region, establishes a territory – a cube of 10 ft. per highlord level. This area is influenced by his convictions bleeding into it, and is then regarded as under the highlord’s control Controllers or otherwise owners can make opposed Charisma checks to retain control. The highlord may also, as a full-round action, designate a collective member to bear his mark. Mark-bearers may act as a channel for the highlord, allowing you to use Charisma-based skills through the creature, communicate through it – you get the idea. Only a single location or creature may be marked at one time. 8th, 14th and 18th level provide upgrades here, allowing for simultaneous maintenance as well as providing buffs to collective members in the designated area. Later, the DC to avoid being forced into the collective becomes harder, and a bonus to atk and saves can be found. Highlords learn to use class abilities and powers through the marked and finally, we increase the number of marks available at the same time.
Starting at 5th level, the class gets tribute: As a move action, the highlord may designate a single feat, item enhancement, power or spell effect from the willing (important!) members of the collective. The highlord gains the effect of the chosen tribute; if the member loses the collective, the highlord does not lose the effect. It should be noted that duration is equal to the duration of the tribute on the affected collective member. 11th and 17th level increase the number of tributes the highlord can have in place at a given time. Feats chosen as tribute require that the highlord meets their prerequisites (thankfully!), but he may use tributes to get basically mini-feat-chains. Thanks to the prerequisite requirement, I am okay with this. Similarly, caps on item enhancement etc. are retained.
At 6th level, the class receives lifeblood siphon: When manifesting a psionic power, the highlord may designate a collective member, who takes damage equal to the power points used and becomes staggered until the next turn of the highlord. The highlord is refunded half the power’s power points. The save DC to resist this is 10 + the power points that would be refunded + the highlord’s Charisma modifier. This ability may only be used once per round, and it also is modified by tenets.
As noted before, the highlord gets decrees, basically the talents of the class, with 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter yielding another decree. These require expenditure of psionic focus to activate, and while a decree is in effect, the highlord may not regain psionic focus. Decrees may be dismissed as a move action, as dismissal or the end of the decree does refund the focus, though some decrees sport instantaneous effects – these do not refund the psionic focus, basically attempting to prevent spamming thus. Psionic Meditation allows for the dismissal as a swift action instead, and unless otherwise noted, decrees are mind-affecting, have a save DC of 10 + ½ class level + Charisma modifier, and creatures immune to mind-affecting effects may forgo the immunity and deliberately fail the save. 10th level unlocks greater decrees. The capstone lets the highlord, when he’d be destroyed, sacrifice a member of the collective instead. This is properly codified, and, once more, can’t be cheesed with kittens! Kudos!
As noted before, there are tenet, three to be precise, included within, so let’s talk about them: Caretaker highlords follow the tenets of cultivation, gaining the caring hands power (and yes, exclusive powers may not be learned via Expanded Knowledge) – this is basically a rather potent condition-remover – the power has 6 different potential effects depending on power points spent. The potency is held in check (and made imho more exciting!) by requiring manifester level checks to treat poisons, diseases etc. – kudos! Particularly since the power has no less than 4 different augments that allow you to increase your reliability when healing conditions, remove more, etc., and the power gets the complex verbiage right. Big kudos there!
Now, the lifeblood ability, lifeblood shield is…really smart. I had a kneejerk “Oh NOES” moment when first reading this one, but it was actually not justified: Once per round, as a free action, when a collective member takes damage, the highlord can cause the offending creature lifeblood resonance damage; the collective member is then healed for half that damage, but here’s the important thing: Capping at the damage taken from the triggering attack! Now, yes, I very much think that there ought to be a save for lifeblood resonance. And a damage type. That being said, I love how this can heal and punish at the same time. You can’t abuse it with a bag of kittens either. Kudos. 8th and15th level allow for an additional use of the ability per round – and yes, the ability even manages to state that it may be used when it’s not the highlord’s turn. Impressive construction here!
The tenets nets the inspire decree (more on that later) and missive as a talent. At 2nd level, the tenets nets +1/2 class level to Diplomacy and may aid collective members as a move action, regardless of distance, line of sight, etc. The siphon ability allows caretakers to choose to not stagger or damage targets, instead healing them for an amount equal to ½ power points used times Charisma modifier. Before you start yelling: This use does thankfully not refund power points.
The second tenet is that of oppression, which designates a highlord as a despot. The exclusive power here would be suppression link, which may be manifested as either a move or standard action with slightly different effects: Either use nets entangled as a condition, as said targets may not move away from your position, and you may drag them around – you may even do so as part of a move, though at half distance – and yes, this does note minimum move range properly. The power even gets the dragging into hazardous terrain caveat right and comes with 6 (!!) different augments, which include better concentration, conditions imposed and action economy. Lifeblood resonance allows for the draining of collective members (once more with an anti-abuse caveat) and conscript more targets into the collective at once. The starting decree is falter, the starting talent, suitably, telepathic leash. The tenet yields a bonus to Sense Motive and allows for the reading of thoughts of collective members. The siphoning ability is relevant when a target would be affected by both siphon and power: A failed save versus either affects the target as though the saves versus both were failed.
The third tenet included would be the tenet of dominance, which designates the highlord as the sovereign. The tenet-exclusive power would be omnipresence, which is pretty cool: It lets you threaten nearby spaces, even when you wouldn’t, and allows you to be treated as originating from these spaces for line of sight/effect, etc….and collective members EXPAND that area! This means that smart positioning in conjunction with this power can result in frickin’ amazing teamwork strategies. This is very strong, yes, but also very, very cool! 5 augments include miss chances. The lifeblood ability allows for nearby (30 ft.) weapon attacks to add the resonance’s dice as bonus damage versus foes forced into the collective. As before, higher levels allows for this to be used more often per round. The conscription mechanic allows for Charisma modifier to be added to atk when using weapons to attack a target within 30 ft. If he does, he causes lifeblood resonance damage instead of weapon damage, sans additional bonuses, and attempts to force the target into the collective. The first decree is damage distribution, the first-level talent vim (italicization’s missed here). The buffed skill is Intimidate, and beings made friendly remain so while part of the collective. The siphon nets a temporary buff to atk and damage, which is untyped. Making that one typed would have imho made sense.
A total of 20 highlord decrees are provided within, with 3 of them requiring 7th level to take. These decrees include the option to immediate action move a condition to a collective member (again: Can’t be cheesed thanks to HD-limit! DSP-crew, I could hug you right now…) , hide a collective member from others, gain a reroll versus a mind.-affecting effect and have, in case of failure, collective members make the save, distribute damage among the collective…and there is one that is somewhat, potentially problematic: Devour the weak nets you a standard action coup de grace, which also heals and nets temporary power points – triple the HD hp, HD temporary power points. The latter last for Charisma modifier rounds. While the power points don’t stack, this still can actually be cheesed with kittens. It’s not very effective, granted, but it still was kinda puzzling for me to see, considering how deftly the pdf has managed to avoid cheesy tricks in its general framework. I’d strongly recommend a minimum HD-caveat to avoid abuse. Expanded Grasp is interesting, as it’s activated as a free action and then allows for swift/immediate action expenditure to improve conscription or Unwilling Participant. Debuffs, exerting a tribute from unwilling members (requires analysis of the tribute’s target ability first), an ability to force a target to immediately follow a course of action (with a caveat that prevents limited use ability wasting), making a collective member a living shield, directing movement as a swift action – the decrees are varied, potent and meaningful in how they impact the options available to the highlord and their allies.
Did I mention the option to share teamwork and betrayal feats (yes, qualifying as abettor…) or to draw the attack/ability of foes to the highlord? 10 different greater decrees are included. Some of these do have a power point activation cost. These greater decrees include tribute-sharing, Geth’s mind control…and a save or die, which, while costing 8 power points, is pretty nasty, considering the tough saving throw DC. It also suffers from aforementioned cheese-option and feels like a bit overkill; a hex-like “once per 24 hours” or the like would have made sense to prevent spamming of the effect. And yes, I know, focus expenditure, but still – really nasty and an ability that should have further limitations. Compare this to commanding a collective member to carry out a coup de grace and you’ll notice what I meant. Forcing formal one-on-one duels is cool. Hand of intervention is pretty OP: As an immediate action, you negate any lethal attack on a collective member, instead clocking them in at -1 hit points, and stable. Yes. This RAW does include the attacks of deities, instant-death effects, and the like. This is a capstone-level ability, not something with unlimited daily uses held only in check by action economy. (No, it does not have a power point cost.) Word of Law is interesting, in that it allows you to decree a specific action, which may then, on a failed save, not be executed, with consecutive chances to shake off the effect.
The pdf includes an extensive favored class option-list that includes rare races and psionic races. The pdf also sports 11 feats: Extra gift (based on gift of power) and decree, gaining an alternate conscription method, -2 to atk and AC for members of your collective versus you…some basics. Blood Reveler lets you once per round add Charisma modifier to lifeblood resonance damage and temporary hit points gained from it. Collective Focus is a second focus to affect collective only, and thankfully prevents stacking of psionic focus with e.g. Psicrystal Containment or Deep Focus. Communal Overchannel lets you redistribute overchannel damage to a collective member (save negates). Mind Trace lets you gain a power or feat from the collective, and retain it if the target leaves the collective. The 1/day and prerequisite-requirements you need to meet both serve as limits that prevents this from being broken. Opportunistic Conscription lets you use Unwilling Participant on a target that has just failed a save versus a collective member’s ability as an immediate action. Sadism is a bit problematic: You gain temporary hit points that stack up to half your maximum hit points with each other when a collective member takes damage, with temporary hit points equal to half damage. These fade at a rate of one per round, and the activation of the feat requires an immediate action and psionic focus expenditure, sure – but still, can someone hand me my trusty bag of kittens, I need to slowly build up my Sadism-shield…Punisher is interesting: When a collective member misses, you may, as an immediate action, deal lifeblood resonance damage to the target.
Editing and formatting, on both a formal and rules-language level, are top-notch, though, on the rules-language level, the few cheesable abilities detract slightly from the integrity of the file. Layout adheres to Dreamscarred Press’ two column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The interior full-color art is nice indeed, and the pdf comes with a second, more printer-friendly version. Kudos!
This is the first book by Michael Shih I’ve laid my eyes upon, and let me make that abundantly clear – it is one of the most impressive freshman offerings I have ever seen regarding class design. The Highlord juggles top-tier-complexity rules language with deceptive ease, though this may also be due to the experienced developer hands of Forrest Heck.
Considering the density and complexity of the design herein, I am duly impressed: I can count the number of issues I have with this file on one hand, and frankly, all are easily remedied by either banning the offending decrees or nerfing them. Neither require expert skills on part of the GM, and while I bemoan the presence of these offenders in an otherwise sublime offering, they can’t really mar the class for me, particularly considering the freshman bonus.
I did not really know what to expect from the highlord – a tactician on speed? Well, not really. The highlord is radically distinctive from and different from most commander-classes I’ve covered in its, almost eerie focus on personal dominance. Once could call it a psychic warrior/tactician hybrid, but that would not do the class justice – it’s 100%, radically different from either.
The highlord is not a commander, the highlord is a ruler. There is nothing benign in the class, and the flavor, as a whole, made this the single creepiest class I have reviewed in ages. Perhaps it’s my fondness for the Berserk manga and the cover, but I couldn’t shake one image: This class is a psionic Griffith. The focus on desire and flavor, the subjugation of collective members, the decrees – the highlord oozes this flavor that makes, even a benign, good character feel like a being distinct, like someone not quite mortal. You know, like this creepy, almost super-human being. Like how, at once point we thought of as rulers, as god-given lords over the lesser masses.
The flavor evoked is hard to describe, but it is at once inspired and distinct. Yes, the save-or-die ability really needs nerfing; yes, the infinite-use temporary power points-granting tricks should die for more gritty gameplay…but honestly, the pdf sports a grand total of 4 abilities that could use a nerf for lower-powered games. And none of these are really that bad. They require very deliberate cheesing, and while blemishes in an otherwise inspired rules-chassis, they fail to tarnish the class.
The highlord is an inspired, complex class – it offers a unique playing style, has its unique theme and flavor, and represents a great addition to the game. While usually, I’d round down from my final verdict of 4.5 stars due to the cheeses noted and the OP save-or-die greater decree, there is a ton to love, and this is the author’s first offering. Hence, I will round up. One more thing: This class does get my seal of approval. As a person, I absolutely adore this fellow.
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