Unfettered Dreams: Malefex
The first installment in Dreamscarred Press‘ Unfettered Dreams-series clocks in at 19 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page introduction/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 14 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
The Malefex class gains d8 HD, 6 + Int skills per level, ¾ BAB-progression, good Ref- and Will-saves and proficiency with simple and martial weapons as well as light armor; the class also begins play with trapfinding, More important, though, would be the malefactions, the signature curses and jinxes of the class. They may be used as a swift action; at 8th level, a malefex may trigger two malefactions at once with the same swift action. These are supernatural abilities that target a single creature or object, with a medium range (100 ft. + 10 ft. per class level – the pdf also lists that for your convenience!) and require a clear verbalization of a curse against the target. Kudos: Telepathy can be substituted, if available. It should be noted that the class qualifies for skill unlocks, so if you’re playing with them, that’s another plus. I tested the class without them in a more gritty context as well, and rest assured that it works perfectly in games without them as well.
Malefactions do not provoke attacks of opportunity and they require either line of sight or at least an idea where precisely the target is. At any given time a malefex may have up to 3 + ½ Wisdom bonus malefactions in effect, and only one in effect per specific malefaction – kudos for the anti-spam-caveat here! Dismissing a malefaction is a free action and they last indefinitely, provided the malefex has some way of perceiving the target – once out of the malefex’ awareness, the target has to endure 1 minute before the malefactions cease to operate. The malefex begins play with two malefactions, which increases to up to 17 known at 20th level. At 12th level, the malefex may affect all opponents in close range (as per spell range) with a malefaction invoked, but may not invoke that malefaction again until all creatures affected by it no longer are under its effects. This does count as 3 malefactions for the purpose of determining how many malefactions a malefex may simultaneously maintain, though.
Malefactions are grouped by power: At 1st level, only least malefactions can be learned; 6th level unlocks lesser malefactions, 11th level unlocks greater malefactions, 16th level grim malefactions and 20th level provides the apex: The malediction. The save DC of malefactions is equal t 10 + ½ class level + Wisdom-modifier. Malefactions that require Fort-saves can affect objects and beings sans Con-score and they are categorized as curse effects. This is important for a number of reasons, one of them being that the class has the wrack class feature, which translates to +1 to atk against cursed creatures, which further increases by +1 at 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter. Additionally, attacks executed versus such creatures add the malefex’ Wisdom modifier to damage. “But curses are mid-to high-level options!” Yep, but it should be noted that the class makes use of the cursed condition, which is properly defined here: Basically, any creature currently affected by a curse is considered to be cursed; hexes do not qualify, only abilities and spells with the curse-descriptor. (Minor nitpick: Spell-reference not italicized.) The condition doesn’t do anything on its own and persists for as long as the target is subject to at least one curse – it represents basically a set-up for combos/follow-up tricks. I’ll return to the precise effects of malefactions in a bit, but let’s first establish the base chassis of the class, all right?
At 2nd level, the malefex adds Wisdom modifier, if positive, to Fortitude and Reflex saves; at 4th level, flanked creatures suffer a -2 penalty to saves versus malefactions, even if the malefex is not the flanker. Beginning at 5th level, we get Back-Alley Bargains, which translates to a +2 insight bonus to Appraise. Really cool: The malefex may concentrate as a move action on a type of item (like poison, magic weapons, etc.) and sense the direction and distance of the closest of such shops within one mile. This is really handy and ties in with the back alley street-life/black market connections vibe. At 7th level, the malefex gets the most German form of humor, Schadenfreude. At 7th level, the malefex gets 5 temporary hit points whenever a creature in close range (as per spell ranges) fails a saving throw versus a maneuver, spell or SP with the curse descriptor. This increases to class level temporary hit points at 14th level. These do stack with themselves, up to a total equal to ½ the malefex’s maximum hit points, and last for 1 minute. Also at 14th level, the malefex may expend as a move action, up to 4 such temporary hit points per class level, healing 1 hit point for every 4 temporary hit points thus expended. Okay, unsurprisingly, I have a problem here: Since malefactions have no daily limit, we do have, essentially an infinite healing exploit here. Granted, a slow and pretty ineffective infinite healing exploit, but an infinite healing exploit nonetheless. Now, I absolutely maintain that, from a design-perspective, this is not justified: A simple caveat could have prevented any ability to cheese this. However, from a practical point of view, at 14th level, the effectiveness of this strategy is so limited, even if you carry around bags of kittens to curse, that it is, ultimately, just sad. I can picture a wounded high-level malefex lying in the hard-boiled, noir gutter, cursing, time and again kittens, down on her luck, as her blood mingles with debris. Perhaps it’s the flavor of the class, but that image does have a certain appeal to me. Do I consider this, design-wise, an unnecessary shortcoming? Yes. Do I think it breaks the class? No, and for once I may actually not remedy it, because this picture, of a malefex cursing her kitten, with tears in her eyes, kinda suck with me. For abuse, the exploit’s too slow and action-intense. Still, for certain groups, this should be borne in mind.
At 10th level, we get the Cool Under Fire ability: Select up to Wisdom modifier skills – the malefex may take 10 when using these skills, even if usually prevented from this by circumstances. 13th level yields break enchantment 2/day as a SP. At 13th level, the malefex may teleport her land speed as a move action, but only to a place to which she has line of sight. At 16th level, we get “A Dark and Stormy Night”, tapping into the clichés of a cursed place: Basically, the malefex can generate a 30-ft.-aura reminiscent of a haunted/cursed place as a standard action, which nets the malefex’s allies +2 to Intimidate and also yields concealment; foes take -2 to saves and the penalty is doubled versus fear effects. This is codified properly as an illusion (shadow) effect. 17th level lets the malefex, 4/day as a free action, force a reroll of a save versus a malefaction, which must be declared after the save rolled, but before results are made known. A single save may only be rerolled once. At 19th level, the malefex may teleport adjacent to a creature suffering currently from a malefaction as a move action, regardless of distance, eliminating the need for line of sight or effect, gaining a brief glimpse of the 10 ft.-area prior to teleporting to safely choose destination squares.
Okay, so those would be the linear abilities: The class also begins play with the school of hard knocks class feature: They begin play with one knock and gain an additional one at 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter. These are really flavorful and basically constitute the talents of the class: Bad penny, for example, allows the malefex to ritually designate an item as the penny, which may then called into possession of the malefex, even across planar boundaries, which can be a godsend for infiltrations, etc. Gaining both Improved and Greater Unarmed Strike, using Wisdom modifier for attack rolls (but not damage) allows the class to have some brawling competence from the get-go. While I am generally not a big fan of e.g. + Wisdom modifier to Disable Device checks, the ability also allows for saves versus effects like explosive runes (“explosive” not italicized), which is a neat angle I enjoy. At 6th level, malefexes may choose to gain AoOs when a creature targets an ally, even with ranged weapons, but only within the first range increment. This is very potent, but a 1/round caveat keeps it from being OP – it is an aspect of the skirmishing angle of the class. Speaking of which: Also locked (rightly so) behind 6th level, Gang Up allows for flanking bonuses, regardless of positioning of malefex and ally. This, once more, is pretty potent, but ensures that e.g. rogue-malefex-teams can be pretty amazing tag-teams.
Gaining Ability Focus for Malefactions, bonus feats or substituting Wisdom for Knowledge can also be found. Catch Off-Guard and Throw Anything make sense, but in a cool twist, the ability that grants these feats has a synergy effect with bad penny. It is also one of a few knocks that may be selected an additional time, increasing the benefits. Another nice ability allows the malefex to treat lower-grade equipment as better, even with the ability to be selected a second time, adding a special ability for armors or weaponry. Kudos: The usual +10 limit may not be exceeded. Gaining a Bloodforge Heritage feat. We may also gain a variant renown that nets identities – and yes, this may be upgraded and the pdf reprints the talents for your convenience. These may be further built upon with another knock and social talents. Rogue talents, psychic reading as a SP and 1/day teamwork sharing as well as quicker Disable Device to gain access to places complement this section. I really liked the very strong, thematic leitmotif of the hard-knocks character, the supernatural anti-hero detective, etc. – the knocks are thematic and flavorful.
Now, I already mentioned the malefactions and at this point, you want to know what they do, right? So, their presentation is pretty much akin to maneuvers or spells – they are governed by type and alphabetically within that type; we begin with least malefactions and move up to the most potent ones. They note targets, saves and descriptors – all are curses and a few are mind-affecting or fear-based. Okay, so, what do they do? For example, Baleful Glare nets -2 to CL/ML and concentration checks, saves and skill checks- Face Stealer imposes a -2 penalty to Charisma and disguises the malefex as the target. If the target is slain while under this effect, his corpse’s face becomes utterly featureless! Now this is flavorful and has adventure-ideas baked right into the effects. Glued Boots is really cool from a tactics point of view: No more 5-foot steps or withdrawal and halved movement…oh, and you become faster. This is a theme, btw.: Steal Stamina, for example, nets you +2 to Dex and Str, and fatigues the target. Penalties versus steal and disarm can also be found and items may lose hardness or become broken due to Sands of time. Tongue Tie can net spell failure chance and penalize social skills…no complaints here.
Among the lesser malefactions, we have an option to steal fast healing and regeneration AND make the target ignore a scaling amount of healing. Nice! Confiscate: Blood nets you temporary hit points when targets bleeds. There are more of those “Confiscate:”-malefactions and they follow similar design paradigms. As an aside, I can see that being really fun to play at the table. Decree: Anteros lets you designate a target, to which the character becomes hostile. Embargo: Alacrity is a really potent and cool debuff: Swift action maneuvers, SPs, psi-like abilities etc. are reduced to a move action. Forbiddance: Flight’s effects are self-explanatory and no, may not be abused to kill off flyers en masse. Interdiction: Sorcery punishes attempts to cast spells, manifest powers etc. with untyped damage (which is not so much as to render that broken); subverting fear-immunity or causing targets to become shaken if they don’t focus on you. Nice! (As an aside: If you use Horror Adventure’s alternate fear-progression, the ability is worded in a way that allows for the use of that system!) No complaints here either.
With greater malefactions, things start to become really potent: Chink in the Armor strips the target of all DR and hardness and bestows -2 to saves. Ouch! Now personally, I would have made ignored DR based on type and implemented a scaling here, but at 11th level, I consider this to be okay. Delusion is interesting: Regardless of whether a save is made, it’s -4 to atk and Perception – on a failed save, the poor sod also suffers from 40% miss chance. Suppressing ongoing powers or spells (including the option to hijack benefits!) makes for a cool trick. Really cool: Make an item broken; on a failed save, the target takes magic piercing damage from the shards. Reducing immunity/resistance also can be really nasty. Dragon malefex team-up just got very scary. Just sayin’. Once more, I have no serious complaints against the options presented here; while potent, they are in line with analogue benefits granted by other classes and class options.
The most potent regular malefactions, the grim malefactions, are appropriately brutal: Blood for blood causes the target to suffer half the damage it inflicts on you; if you’re dropped to 0 hit points, the target may be stunned for 1 round on a failed save. This is an interesting Mexican-Stand-Off-type of ability; it tracks only actual damage taken and may not be cheesed. Circe’s word is a temporary baleful polymorph. Decree of Exile has a limited duration and strands the target temporarily in a demiplane. Stagger + gaining haste is strong, but neat…but it does have an issue. You see, I consider it quite feasible to reduce the number of malefactions I can place by 1 for e.g. perma-haste. Just carry a kitten with you and there you go – courtesy of the lack of durations per se, the buff may be thus maintained infinitely, at the cost of a slightly reduced debuffing capacity in combat. This is, yes, cheesing the buffing aspect here. Yes, it should be no problem for the GM to forbid such actions. The puzzling thing to me is that malefactions usually have effects localized on the target or grant less potent benefits. So yeah, I consider that to be an aspect that could use a limiter.
Mystic isolation nets the target SR, but only for benevolent and harmless effects…which is devious and cool. Dimensional anchor is per se is useful…but the malefaction Witch’s Prison adds a cool idea to that: If you move too far away, the target instead teleports to you, in spite of the effect. A more penalizing rage, individual silence, negative levels via the black spot-growth whenever you hit them…neat.
Finally, there are the maledictions, the capstone abilities. Word of doom kills basically every defensive quality the target may have: Resistances, DR, fast healing, hardness, immunities…etc. Brutal. Word of Horror Unending nets a negative level and 3 attribute damage to all scores per round, with each round offering a save to negate. The Waerloch’s Word is cool: You can only use it 1/week…but if you do, you make an item intelligent. Permanently. Worse, the item wants to kill its wielder. Ever felt like your kitchen/elevator/etc. was out to get you? 😉
Okay, so, as a whole, I really loved the malefactions. With a few minor aspects, I consider them to be worthwhile, engine-wise interesting and unique. I particularly enjoy how, in spite of them not sporting any flavor-text, they often manage to evoke a concise theme via their names alone.
Supplemental material-wise, we get favored class options for the core races as well as aasimar, changeling, dhampir, hexbreather, merg, kitsune and shabti. These interact in some cases with racial abilities, allow for limited hex access, etc. No complaints here. The class gets 8 different feats: The aforementioned Ability Focus is included for your convenience; if you have two or more malefactions, you can take another one – up to 3 times. Talented Jinxer increases the maximum number of active malefactions at any given time by 2. Street Lessons nets you +1 knock. Wrack and Ruin adds Wisdom modifier bleed damage to cursed creatures hit via the wrack ability. Spreading Misery lets the malefex move a malefaction from a foe reduced to 0 hp to another target within 100 ft.; time spent, if applicable, does not reset upon being transferred and the new target gets a save. Grudgebearer lets you choose a creature type (or type/subtype) available from favored enemies; the type takes a -2 penalty to saves versus malefactions. (This may obviously be chosen multiple times, applying its benefits to different types.) Honed Maliciousness lets you bypass curse immunity – and yes, prerequisites are sensible.
Rogue, slayer and vigilante may choose a malefex knock as a rogue/slayer/vigilante talent. Rogues and slayers may not choose evasion, rogue talent or combat feat (avoiding redundancy) and use Intelligence as governing attribute instead of Wisdom. The vigilante does consequently not have these limitations and uses Charisma as governing attribute. Rogue and slayer may choose curse adept as a talent, gaining a single least malefaction, usable 1/3 class level + Int-mod times, with 4th level as a prerequisite. Once more, intelligence is the governing attribute here. As advanced talents for slayer and rogue, the classes can gain a least or lesser malefaction, with the same restrictions as the previous talent. The vigilante gains a variant: Least or lesser may be chosen (with lesser malefactions requiring 10th level) and Charisma is the governing attribute. Since vigilante talents are worth slightly more, the malefactions thus gained may be used ½ class level + Cha-mod times per day. All such options allow the classes to treat their class levels as malefex levels to determine malefaction effects.
Finally, there also is an archetype included in the deal, the rustpicker. These fellows replace the malefaction gained at 1st level with the ability to have all weaponry treated as cold iron, using the better values for hardness and hit points. Instead of the knocks gained at 1st, 6th, 9th and 15th level, the rustpicker gains Brilliant Planner as a bonus feat and does not need to replenish the brilliant plan fund after procuring 20+ pounds of objects, only the invested gold is taken into account when it needs replenishing. Objects and services below 1 sp in cost are treated as 1 sp, preventing cheesing there. 3rd level enhances Brilliant Planner, allowing for the replenishment of 100 gp per character level and this takes only 4 hours. 6th level lets the character designate a container as her rucksack. While this item is worn, a brilliant plan no longer increases weight. Additionally, the brilliant plan fund may be replenished by placing an item inside and meditating – upon completion, the item vanishes, its value added to the fund, up to the usual maximum. Nice: Cursed items and artifacts may explicitly not be removed from play thus. Starting at 9th level, the rustpicker may enact the brilliant plan to withdraw an item (not a service) as if drawing it from her person, which usually means a move action, though the rules specify potentially quicker draw options. 12th level makes the rucksack behave as a handy haversack sans monetary value. 1/day, mage’s magnificent mansion as an SP is also gained. AT 15th level, brilliant plan funds may be replenished anywhere and objects or services may be procured regardless of place, provided they are available on the plane of existence. Starting at 7th, victims of malefactions take + class level damage when receiving damage from a source other than the malefaction. At 14th level, this also imposes a massive -6 penalty to Dexterity. This replaces schadenfreude and its upgrade. Instead of break enchantment, the archetype nets 2/day banishment as an SP at 13th level.
Now, the pdf does sport a page that I really wished more classes would feature – a page that deals with how to integrate malefexes into an ongoing campaign, ideas of what malefactions actually are, etc. – the pdf mentions psychic potential, bad memories, half-remembered curses, myths, songs taught by weird grannies and plain ole’ grudges may explain that. The notion of a neighborhood guardian or covert malefex, protecting (or terrorizing) a community similarly are touched upon; the leitmotifs of a person hardened by a tough life, of killer-instincts, etc. are very much evident in nomenclature etc., but this page further emphasizes the feeling that the class is designed to evoke – and what you could do with it in your campaign.
Editing and formatting are very good – while I noticed a few minor formatting guffaws, none of them compromised the rules-language integrity. Rules-language is as precise as we’ve come to expect from Dreamscarred Press and while the minor kitten-exploits imho are not necessary, even they remain within the paradigm of what most groups will complain about. Layout adheres to Dreamscarred Press’ nice two-column full-color standard and the full color-artworks are nice. We get a second, more printer-friendly version and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Jade Ripley, with additional content by Forrest Heck and N. Jolly, delivers basically the class that was attempted in varying degrees of success before: The 5th-man debuffer. Where hexblade imho failed and similar options went a more spell-centric route, the malefex stands singularly, as a one-of-a-kind class. There are two reasons for this. One, the class, unsurprisingly, considering the authors, sports a unique engine that provides a distinct playstyle – the malefex plays differently from comparable classes, which is a very big plus as far as I’m concerned. Secondly, and to me, that is just as important, it has a strong, distinct sense of identity, one that is not prescriptive via a overdetailed description of flavor, but one that suffuses the class in ability-names, in how its pieces gel together. With minimal word-count, the class manages to use names and effects to generate a distinct identity.
That is a huge plus. Just as important for me is that the class follows a design-aesthetic that reminds me of the Occult Classes – and indeed, I’d classify the Malefex as such in its design-aesthetics. You see, the class not only sports combat-relevant options and tricks to escalate numbers and combat output; yes, there are some potent tricks here, but the class focuses on being a versatile class that can contribute in meaningful ways to the game beyond its combat capabilities. Secondly, the abilities of the malefex, surprisingly, in spite of their very much crunch-centric presentation, manage to have story-seeds and ideas woven into them. You can read the class and have an adventure- or encounter-idea based on a malefaction etc. In short, this is a class that is a meaningful contributor to the roleplaying experience beyond combat performance.
That does not mean that the malefex can’t hold her own in battle, mind you: The class manages to provide a potent, valid skirmisher/rogue-y stand-in with a nice supernatural angle. While the class is pretty potent, it never strays into territory that I’d consider to be OP or broken for the levels at which an ability is unlocked; the malefex should provide no issues in even lower-powered or 15-point-buy games. In very conservative games, a couple of the ignore DR/reduce immunity/etc. tricks may require finetuning, but as a whole, I consider the malefex to be a universally appealing class.
The interesting crazy-prepared archetype and the solid supplemental material, as well as the overall package ultimately conspire to make this my favorite design by Jade Ripley so far. The malefex is truly intriguing, oozes flavor and its detailed guidelines for flavor etc. add icing on an awesome cake. This class is interesting, inspiring and well-made, and it is only the 2 minor kitten-exploits that cost this pdf the nomination as a candidate of my Top Ten of 2017. Don’t let that deter you, though: The malefex is a cool, flavorful and worthwhile addition to the game, a great representation of the debuffer/skirmisher-role. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
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