EZG reviews Path of War: The Stalker
This pdf is 56 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a total of 53 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
So…what is this? Remember 3.X’s Book of the 9 Swords? Yeah, it’s the spiritual successor. In order to properly review this series, let me tell you where I’m coming from: I own the Bo9S and when I first read it, I loved it: Essentially, much like in fantasy martial arts movies and anime, the approach is to grant martial classes maneuvers and stances to allow them some of the versatility of the casting classes and that concept rocks. Unfortunately, the Bo9S’s classes proved in game that they were not exactly well-balanced – from weird, cumbersome mechanics to determine available maneuvers to flawed balance within the disciplines (e.g. utterly op Diamond Mind, ridiculously weak Setting Sun), playtesting soon showed that I was swept away by the coolness of the concept and should have checked the system more thoroughly. Also from this experience arose my utter disdain for per-encounter abilities – while on paper, they may not seem that jarring, in game they proved to be exceedingly frustrating for both my players and me: Encounters are arbitrarily defined interruptions of the game – they can range from 1 round to multiple days in theory and basing the availability of abilities on such a random interval is just bad in my book. Take this example: PCs storm into a room, kill two goblins in the surprise round, combat over. 1 round later goblins from the adjacent room enter and combat breaks out again. In this example, per-encounetr abilities could be used twice for double the oomph. Had one goblin survived the initial assault, the new goblins would have entered combat, meaning all per-encounter abilities could be used only once. Basing any availability on anything but hard rounds, minutes, i.e. non-random time-frames is bad design in my book and one of the reasons I opted against 4th edition as my system of choice. And yes, I’m aware of the judgment-ability’s duration as the ONE example of an encounter-spanning ability that has its duration thus defined, but judgment also has a daily limit. That being said, I’ll be professional and mention design-philosophy like this when I see it and probably complain about it, but I won’t condemn the pdf for it – I’ll try my utmost to remain neutral. I do love the idea of maneuvers and giving fighters “nice things”, as the pdf puts it – so whatever way this review goes, I actually do want this to succeed.
So, does Path of War succeed where its trailblazing predecessor failed? Let’s take a look! The class introduced herein would be the Stalker, who gets d8, 6+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB-progression, good will-saves, proficiency with simple and martial weapons and light armors, starting at 2nd level +1 dodge bonus to AC (+1 every four levels), starts with 6 maneuvers known, up to 4 readied and 1 stance and develops that to a total of 21 maneuvers known, 12 readied and 6 stances over the course of 20 levels. The Stalker has access to a total of 5 disciplines (which are maneuver-groups somewhat akin to schools of magic): Broken Blade, Solar Wind, Steel Serpent, Thrashing Dragon and Veiled Moon. Unless otherwise noted, maneuvers are extraordinary abilities that do not provoke AoOs and at 4th level and every even level after that, Stalkers may retrain one maneuver and choose another. The lack of restriction apart from not being able to surpass the level-restriction means that, while you can’t freely retrain maneuvers as you could other class abilities, you may later exchange lower level maneuvers for higher level ones. The key attribute for the stalker’s maneuvers would be wisdom – here designated as primary initiator attribute modifier. Now, each character may ready maneuvers – reading these requires meditating and focusing ki for 10 minutes. This means that readied maneuvers can, time permitting, be changed – which is nice. No single maneuver can be readied more than once. Now where I start cringing is with the sentence: “He begins an encounter with all readied maneuvers unexpended, regardless of how many times he may have used them…” – not because of the unlimited usability, but because it’s EXACTLY the immersion-breaking problem I described earlier: Many short combats: You excel. One long, epic battle with various phases? Tough luck. Now to be fair, Path of War is MUCH smarter than Bo9S in its basic approach – as a standard action, stalkers may recover 1 expended maneuver and as a full-round action, wis-mod, min 2 expended maneuvers. When using the latter option, the Stalker gets a +4 insight bonus to AC – which makes no sense to me. The replenishing of resources should not offer a significant, non-scaling defensive boost that especially at low levels, is simply too much. Also: Why do these not provoke AoOs? The latter has the Stalker “centering his spirit completely to re-align his perceptions of the battle and his place in it.” – that screams AoO to me.
Essentially, resource-management should require and reward smart tactics, not simply impose a action-tax. If a Stalker had to think whether to use his last maneuver and temporarily retreat from battle to replenish them, there’d be more strategy here. And the AC-bonus needs to DIE or at least be somewhat nerfed at low levels – why not go with a scaling bonus, perhaps +1, +1 for every 4 levels?. Seriously, +4, think about it: It’s the maneuver-refreshment-tank! Constantly refresh and tank. Nah. Stances are the second resource of the stalker and changing stance is now a swift action. Stances cannot be retrained and are not expended. Also: The encounter-refreshment is simply an unnecessary design-relic from Bo9S at this point – with the option to refresh maneuvers via actions, we have clearly defined guidelines to refresh them in a set time-frame concisely defined by the rules – why overly complicate the mechanic and add a reason to metagame to the mechanic? Just get rid of the at this time thoroughly unnecessary per-encounter refreshment. And yes, sans the per-encounter humbug, I actually consider this mechanic utterly AWESOME. So the baseline WORKS! At this point, I was smiling from ear to ear.
At first level, the Stalker also gets a ki-pool of 1/2 level +wis-mod. As a swift action, stalkers may add a +4 insight bonus to perception of sense motive. At 5th level, he may use ki to enhance his deadly strikes, adding his deadly strikes to all martial strikes initiated for wis-mod rounds. What are Deadly Strikes? Whenever a stalker scores a critical hit, this ability activates for wis-mod rounds, increasing damage by 1d6 at 1st level +1d6 for every four levels after that. Weapons with higher crit-modifiers deal d8 and d10 bonus damage instead when within 30 foot of the target. I’m not 100% sold on the overall usefulness of this ability – when crit-fishing via keen-builds etc., it gets a bit powerful, but in combination with the ki-powered component, it does work – only, it does not specify whether the benefits/durations stack – what if one scores a crit with a maneuver via the ki-activation of Deadly Strike, do the durations overlap? Stack? Also “The stalker must be able to see the target well enough to pick out a vital spot and must be able to reach such a spot.” – what does that mean? Does concealment make it impossible to hit the target with deadly strikes? What about those with fortification?
At 7th level, stalkers may expend 1 point of ki as an immediate action for a +4 insight bonus to saving throws. At 9th level, stalkers may also expend ki to get a readied maneuver available as a swift action. At least that’s what the pdf specifies: “The character spends one ki point and may trade a readied maneuver for a maneuver known of the same level or lower and have it immediately readied and accessible for his use as a swift action a number of times per day equal to his Wisdom modifier.” So does that mean that the temporarily available maneuver can be executed as a swift action? Or does it require a swift action IN ADDITION to the action it would usually take to activate? I’m honestly not sure, though I assume the latter.
At 2nd level, the Stalker also gets combat insight, which adds wis-mod to ref-saves and initiative – not a fan of adding any two attributes to the same skill/save etc. – especially since wis already covers will-saves -it’s like adding con-mod to ref or will-saves: It makes no sense in game and can easily turn unpleasant. Later, he gets uncanny dodge, may regain ki or expended maneuvers when successfully criting. This latter ability fails the “bath of kittens”-test: While I don’t object to maneuvers being thus regained, ki is a non-replenishing resource. Taking a burlap sack of kittens and criting the hell out of them (if you don’t hit, you can sedate them first) would allow a stalker to regain all expended ki as long as his/her kittens don’t run out. And yes, the example is ridiculous and the ki-abilities of the class not that impressive. But Ki stacks usually and more than one class uses it, as do various feats. When combined with other classes and options, this infinite replenishment of ki quickly gets out of hand – and needs to die a fiery death. At 18th level, stalkers get blindsight 30 foot. Okay, I guess.
At 3rd level and every 4 levels after that, a stalker gets a stalker art, essentially the talents of this class. a total of 18 such talents are provided and cover e.g. the advanced study-feat, +10 ft. movement and +wis-mod to acrobatics-check (again: two attribute modifiers to one skill – broken in my book) and expend ki to further increase speed, but at the cost of temporary fatigue. What’s problematic would be combat precognition – choose one foe as an immediate action and spend 1 point of ki to make said for roll all attacks against you twice and take the worse result for 1+wis-mod rounds. NO SAVE. Supernatural ability? Seriously? This needs a mind-influencing-caveat, a save, something to bring it in line with e.g. the misfortune hex, which lasts only up to 3 rounds but extends its effects to more rolls and can only affect one target once per 24 hours and which comes witha SAVE. The defensive bonus when regaining maneuvers can be further enhanced by a 20% miss chance and even total concealment with a 50% chance. Now does the latter also mean that line of sight is broken as usual per total concealment? Relevant for spells and potentially broken as all hell, as it would allow the stalker to slowly creep forward sans being targeted. Also: I consider an AoO in line for the base ability and both would make this impossible, so in case there’s a revision/ you houserule this, keep that in mind.
We also get easier qualification for critical feats and increased crit ranges. On the worse side of things, one Stalker Art allows the Stalker to expend one point of ki as a swift action to use deadly strikes in all attacks (not just maneuvers) against the target for wis-mod rounds. When successfully criting, the duration is instead extended by one round. Now where this becomes a huge clusterf*** is with the application of deadly strikes via ki to maneuvers – do they stack? At what duration? This whole complex of abilities and their interaction needs a thorough cleaning up. Another art allows the stalker to “While recovery[sic! – should probably read “recovering”] maneuvers as a full round action, the stalker gains the use of the Combat Reflexes feat (using his Wisdom modifier in place of his Dexterity modifier) and on attacks of opportunity triggered while he is recovering maneuvers, the stalker may add his deadly strikes damage to these attacks.” – so what happens if the Stalker already has combat reflexes? At 11th level, the stalker may learn to regain 1 point of ki whenever s/he reduces an opponent to 0 hit points or below with a maneuver. This once again fails the basic kitten test. Stalkers may also conceal their presence as per the cloud mind psionic power (though that should probably be Sp, not Su) – the same extends to the art that allows you to duplicate charm monster, which imho needs a reduced duration since the DC is as regular (13+wis-mod) and ki isn’t a particularly scarce resource for stalkers.
Where balance takes a nosedive would be with Phantom Reach: As a swift action, the character may “[…]spend one ki point and the character may initiate a melee martial strike with a range of melee attack with a range of close (25ft + 5ft / 2 levels).” Yeah. Full attack melee at range. While strikes with a range greater than melee don’t work with this, it’s still VERY powerful – as is the option to spend one point of ki to move for wis-mod rounds sans provoking AoOs. Yes. 1 ki= no movement AoOs. Do I really have to explain why that is insanely broken? These two abilities need a massive whack with the nerfbat.
At higher levels, stalkers may initiate 2 strikes as a full round action 1/day, later up to 3/day. As a capstone, the stalker can spend two points of ki as an immediate reaction to being hit by an attack, spell or ability to attack the target with a readied maneuver. I’m not sure whether the readied maneuver can be expended or not for the purpose of this ability, though. Other than that – appropriately cool capstone, though one essentially crippled in its impact due to the presence of the ranged stalker art – its only point remaining would be that it’s reflexive and has a potentially longer range – that’s it. When a talent-like ability available at 3rd level can steal the majority of the thunder of a capstone, something’s severely wrong here – and it’s not the capstone alone…
So that’s the base class. We also get the new Knowledge (Martial)-skill, which essentially is spellcraft for maneuvers. Would have been nice to see DCs for style-feats and similar non-maneuver tricks. Also: A list of classes that should get this as a class skill when playing with Path of War would have been more than appreciated – fighters should e.g. have it added to their list of class skills when using the Path of War-rules. We also get 17 “new” feats, though extra ki isn’t new and the usual suspects à la +1 stalker art, increased DC for one discipline etc. can be found here. We also get feats to add more maneuvers, have more readied maneuvers, 1/day recover a maneuver as a free action. There also is a feat which allows you to quick draw multiple weapons (and has a minor +2 bonus to CMD vs. disarm)…wait. Quick Draw. Allows you to draw weapons as a free action. So what are the benefits of this feat? Sheathing weapons! Since they are RAW exempt from the benefits of Quick draw and since disciplines require certain weapons, the feat may be useful for all groups not handling sheathing weapons as drawing them as per the RAW. Using weapon finesse with double weapons is a nice one, as are the 6 feats that allow other classes to access the martial discipline of choice and learn maneuvers. A feat that allows you to enter a fighting style and execute a maneuver at the same time also rather rocks. However, there are issues in here as well: First of which would be a feat that allows you to add dex-mod to damage in place of str. Which would be no issue for me, since it only applies to finesse-compatible weapons. However, with the option to go weapon finesse with double weapons, the thing gets ugly. I once had a character in my home game that had exactly that ability – and believe me, the result was ugly. Not sold here. Speaking of “not sold”: Greater Unarmed Strike allows you to essentially go for a poor man’s monk unarmed damage increase from 1d4 to 1d10. Not complaining about the nerfed damage, mind you – but sans the option to make the attacks count I don’t see the long-term benefit here. Oh well, that are minor complaints compared to some of the issues with the base-class.
Now I’ve already covered the basics of maneuvers: Here some additional information on how they work: They require no concentration, but disarm, grapples etc. may prevent you from executing maneuvers. When mentioning movement etc. as part of a maneuver, these components (but not the initiation of the maneuver) may incur AoOs. Now what the pdf fails to specify would be whether a successful AoO against the initiator due to e.g. a movement would suffice to interrupt/cancel the maneuver. I assume so, but I’m not sure. Variables are determined essentially by a maneuver’s caster level-equivalent, dubbed initiator level – these also determine the maximum maneuver level the martial artist may choose. As a minor gripe, the explanation of how maneuvers are (ex) or (su) could use a rephrasing – “The abilities of a martial discipline work fine in an antimagic field” would be simply wrong for supernatural abilities – add in an “extraordinary” and we’re game and the wording is less confusing!
Now regarding the maneuvers – veterans of Bo9S will recognize a lot of the terminology – boost, strike, stance, counter etc. – we get all the explanations of actions etc. concisely presented – including, unfortunately, at least for me, a “definition” of the encounter as a timeframe. Why not simply go x rounds/initiator level analogue to spells? Why use this convoluted, metagamey, unnecessary…I’ll cut the ramble short. Why not use rules analogue to PFRPG-design standards and instead insert this worse, metagamey duration? I don’t get it. What I do get and dig are the ties of respective disciplines to weapon types -broken blade maneuvers require, for example, the initiator to be unarmed – and focuses on brawny assaults, snatching weapons etc. – essentially the spiritual successor of setting sun. Steel Serpent is about using piericng/slashing damage and poison-style effects. Solar Wind would be the ranged fire-themed discipline. Thrashing dragon requires two weapons/double weapons. Veiled Moon is somewhat akin to a certain shadowy discipline from the Bo9S, but focuses more on supernatural effects, featuring some mind-affecting maneuvers and a certain reliance on the ethereal plane. It should be noted that the pdf doesn’t prohibit the combination of regular combat maneuvers (or vital strikes) and strikes -some clarification on these would be appreciated, as would be whether counters count as attack actions for the purpose of the vital strike feats and similar options.
Now to keep this review from bloating even further, I’ll just mention a couple of great (or not so great) maneuvers from the disciplines, which btw. come with comprehensive lists in the beginning. Let’s take the first one, shall we? At 8th level, adamantine fang is close to the apex of power, dealing +12d6 damage and bypassing all DR (even DR/epic? Don’t think it should…) as well as requiring a will-save against DC 18+initiator attribute modifier (why not say 10+maneuver level+ initiator modifier, as per the established standard? This formatting peculiarity extends to all maneuvers and honestly, feels like it’s only making the mechanic slightly opaque…) or be PARALYZED for 3 rounds. Ouch. Thing is – is it will or fort? The text says will, the saving-throw column of the maneuver fort. Adamantine Knuckle mentions a duration of 1 turn, which is rather odd duration-wise. The thrashing dragon maneuver Alacrity on Wing is broken as written – it allows you to use an acrobatics-skill-check to negate an attack (and yes, I’m aware of Paizo’s precedents – they’re broken as well – skills should never be able to negate attacks – they can be boosted to easily…) – if successful, the initiator may make an unarmed or melee attack for two wielded weapons at +2d6 damage. Sooo….does that mean both at full BAB? At the TWF-penalty? Can both attacks be freely chosen? (Becomes relevant if one weapon has a superior enchantment…) – as written unusable. 10ft-teleportation via stealth-checks versus perception may sound like a good idea – but what if multiple adversaries watch the initiator? Does it still work? Also: Skills are ridiculously easy to buff through the roof – why not tie this to other abilities? A minor image is left in the wake and it DOES count as a teleportation/figment effect – so generally: Awesome maneuver, especially since AoE-effects are also covered in the description, but it needs clarification.
Turning incorporeal and acting as a foil for teleportation is damn cool, as is a stance that negates the TWF-penalty. The Steel Serpent-effects suffer from one particular issue: They are poison-themed, but don’t really follow Pathfinder’s take on poisons – they essentially deal attribute damage, but have no frequency, no required array of consecutive saves required to shake them off. Reducing the amount of attribute damage and instead spreading the respective damage would have been nice, as would have been a caveat that immunity versus poisons offers at least a bonus against the poisoned ki they use. Blend with the Night should probably have the appropriate (glamer)-descriptor. Steel Serpent’s level 1 stance Body of the Night allows you to add skill ranks in heal (but not other bonuses) to stealth as a competence bonus – cool. Breath of the Moon allows you to cause confusion, which is neat. Ignoring all armor bonus unless coming from force effects on the other hand feels kind a weird and can create potentially disputable borderline cases. Using touch attacks etc. instead here would have made this perhaps work better, but that’s a nitpick. Generally one point I have observed with counters would be that they often allow for full attacks as a reaction to being hit – which feels excessive to me. At the cost of an immediate action, that would enable a character to essentially execute two full attacks per round – especially nasty when combined with flurries, TWFs and similar attacks. Generally, I’d nerf those down to single attacks – that’s still powerful enough and transports the concept without becoming ridiculously exploitable at higher levels.
The Broken Blade Stance fails to mention at what BAB the additional attack it grants as part of a full attack is. The Thrashing Dragon capstone strike can insta-kill up to two foes with one strike – while not include the massive damage or HD-based mechanic usually used by death effects in PFRPG? Also weird: Desert Serpent Mirage uses competing attacks to determine whether it works (and it’s by far not the only maneuver herein) – that’s not how PFRPG handles such situations. It’s roll versus fixed value, analogue to CMB/CMD – less variance than via 2d20s that way. As written, that one is too heavily based on luck. Using acrobatics versus AC to render an opponent flat-footed also feels plainly WRONG to me – that ought to be CMD, am I wrong? Then again, said maneuver uses a skill instead of CMB. Which brings me to a crucial balance concern – skills are easy to buff, CMB is not. In 3.X, there was no CMB/CMD, hence we needed the broken skill vs. X rolls and all the possible exploits they entail. Now in Pathfinder, A vast majority of the moves herein should either be against CMD or utilize CMB. Instead, these inorganic relics and all the inherited problems remain, making the respective balance of the individual maneuvers herein all too often simply a very fragile thing, wholly dependent on the player in question being not interested in exploiting the obvious gaps in the system.
Editing and formatting are okay – I noticed a couple of minor glitches, flawed italicizations, open brackets and the like. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and with a second, more printer-friendly version.
Oh boy. This is one of those depressing reviews for me. But due to completely different reasons than I expected. I expected to have to continuously bite my tongue due to per-encounter-mechanics and just take them for what they are. Turns out, the per-encounter refreshing is just an afterthought that could simply be eliminated from the equation without any significant impact on the usability of the class – so why is it still there? Oh well, I don’t care, I was happy – this looked like the Bo9S I always wanted – after all, the basic mechanisms finally work! Yeah!
And then I started reading the class – thoroughly. Beyond the focus on fishing for critical hits and the ability to make some really nasty combos due to the availability of ki, the class feels overpowered to me – the maneuvers already are a significant power-gain over other melee classes, but that was to an extent the design-decision and thus not something I’ll hold against it. What I do hold against it is the at low levels OP tanking maneuver recharge AC-bonus and failing the kitten-test. Twice. That alone is enough to disqualify the class as a 1-star failure. This class needs a thorough revision.
Then, the feats and maneuvers came. And I really loved the majority – the concepts are iconic, tactical, cool. They mop the floor with Bo9S. They are superior. And then I started analyzing and, once again, my grin slowly dropped – author Chris Bennett is a very capable designer and it shows in the maneuvers. The rules-language is mostly very precise even in complex situations, to the point and well-crafted. The thing is – all too often, one can see a relative inexperience with Pathfinder’s rules. Once you apply a fine-toothed comb, you stumble across a vast array of rules solutions that deviate from how things are done and established in Pathfinder. The reliance on MANY skill-checks versus AC (which, while not without precedent, is widely considered VERY BAD design), multiple instances of roll versus roll, insta-death effects – you name the relic, it’s here. Were I to rate this as a D&D 3.5-supplement, I’d rate it probably around3.5 to 3 stars, perhaps even 4 due to the issues with the class, but an overall working system, but as written it is suffused with design-relics that just have no place in the PFRPG-system, especially since there often already are precedents on how the respective crunch is handled. It’s essentially introducing two competing rules for the same thing – it dilutes the system’s rules-syntax and causes confusion and is traditionally something I have always penalized HARD.
Is this a bad supplement? It depends on whether you care about rules-syntax and consistency within a system – If you don’t mind that these rules follow their own precedents, then this still, with its flaws, is a solid 3 stars. If you do, if you don’t want competing atk-rolls, skills versus ACs and all those balance-nightmares/exploits back in your game, then STEER clear. For you, this is a 1-star throwback to some of the worst rules-decisions of 3.X. Since I really, really, really want this system to work, since I can see the obvious talent and since I love A LOT of the IDEAS behind the maneuvers, I’ll settle on a final verdict of 2 stars, though mechanically, this supplement failed for me. I’m hoping for a thorough redesign/update/clearing up of this supplement – it’s only easily fixable details that don’t work, the basic framework is awesome and this can still be cleaned up, brought in line with existing rules and made into a legendary 5 stars + seal of approval supplement.