Game: Masters of Arms
Publisher: Second World Simulations
Review Dated: 20th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
Oh great. A book of prestige classes, 36 prestige classes in 96 pages for $18.95. That’s just over 50c a prestige class and would sound fairly cheap if the d20 world didn’t already ooze with thousands of prestige classes. But wait, there’s more going on in Masters of Arms than just yet another collection of prestige classes. This is a Second World Simulations product and the lead author Steven Palmer Peterson wields one of my favourite writing styles in the entire industry. Peterson’s style is great at getting across flavour and detail clearly and succinctly. There’s a lot of complex game mechanics in this book. The only thing that drives me mad in the use of first person. “I” is an opinion, a chat or a friendly review – so my dull academics taught. The dull academics have won and I just can’t stand it any other way.
In terms of money there’s still more at hand than just 36 prestige classes. Masters of Arms is a book with a clear theme: weapons and interesting uses for these weapons. The prestige classes are just the natural evolution of that. The book makes heavy use of technical combat manoeuvres; multi-staged attack moves which gobble up your entire turn in an all-or-nothing attack or do-or-die defence. These manoeuvres come with additional basic definitions for game quirks like brute strength or what it means to target opponents on either side of you in a system without facing. SWS also recognise that readers who want the sort of combat mechanics that this book brings may also want to deal in terms of Wound Points and Vitality Points and so there are notes throughout explaining how to do this.
As the d20 system matures I’m surprised to find that so many supplements style themselves for the lowest level of experience and game intelligence of possible reader – ie, for the newbies. Some supplements could clearly be entry points to the hobby or the d20 system and so have to pitch to this level but a book such as Masters of Arms which sets out to expand on the basic rules is unlikely to be bought by a beginner. Masters of Arms is not a book written for the beginner. There’s insightful and helpful game mechanics discussion early on in the book. Early on we’re talked through an investigation to see whether the extra damage done by a sample combat move (the threefold strike) is so greater than a normal combat round as to be effectively broken. In just a few paragraphs we look at the actual math and make the comparison. This time round Peterson trumps the boring academics and managed not to put me to sleep by talking about numbers. Later on there’s an awful seven-paged set of game rules for the phased construction of combat manoeuvres. It is awful, we’re warned up front that it’s not so the feint hearted. There is even a downloadable spreedsheet command from SWS to help you with the maths. Right at the end of the book you’ll find a summary sheet for manoeuvres templates.
You’ll quickly notice that each and every one of the prestige classes are detailed through the full 10 levels and that’s a great bonus. You’ll also notice that there is a special ability at every level to. Oddly, though, at a first glance, every one of these special abilities seems to be a new feat. This would make the prestige classes overpowered. All is not how it seems though; the feats available are limited to the manoeuvres that the class can access. This works for me. This is expanding the system without breaking the system. The names of the prestige classes follow a clear pattern too; everything’s “[weapon type] master”. Where as it’s not original it does avoid a pet peeve of mine that sees the synonym come in to play and it’s impossible to refer to the prestige class in game. With the suffix “master” appended to everything then it’s clear from any character discussion that they’re talking about someone capable. For example, “Renton is a swordsman” would leave you with little clue that ‘swordsman’ was a special title and yet you’ll find prestige class books that use that sort of name for their classes. A better name, perhaps, would allow for discussions like, “Renton is a rapier master”.
Some of the weapons and prestige classes make use of exotic weapons. These weapons are typically straight from martial arts. The stats for any new weapons are presented in the book. Weapon starts and armour are actually further developed by Masters of Arms. Weapons have a penetration value and armour a hardness score. These do what you’d expect them to do; some weapons are better at getting through armour than others and some styles of armour are better at resisting damage (which isn’t quite the same thing as helping the wearer resist damage).
It’s worth noting that not all the exotic combat styles and weapons are inspired from real world arsenals. There are manoeuvres and prestige classes based on purely fantasy weapons – such as the immovable rod or even telekinesis. These fantasy forms are in the minority but are certainly my favourite offerings. Their inclusion helps keep the RPG element firmly in mind in a book that might sound rather more technical without them.
Masters of Arms is not an original book but once you get over that it’s hard to find fault. The artwork is good but rare, the formatting is clear and the text size isn’t too large and neither does it leave you squinting at the page. The credits page has the nice touch of listing people’s websites along with their names. I believe this is Second World Simulations‘s first print product; the company being picked up quickly after high quality PDF supplements like Bodies and Souls: 20 Templates and the future really does look promising.