It’s generally accepted that one of the flaws of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition was the all-powerful dominance of spell-casters at higher levels. For many, as a quick visit to the Paizo forums will show, the need to fix the Fighter is still an issue with its ultimate successor, Pathfinder.
Path of War is Dreamscarred Press’ attempt to power-up the non-spellcasting classes, using fighting styles and maneuvers to give them access to spell-like abilities, and allow them to stand alongside reality-shattering Wizards. In some ways, this is an unofficial successor to the somewhat controversial D&D3.5 supplement, The Tome of Battle.
So what do you get for your $20? In terms of pure content, there is a huge amount here. The 165-page full-colour PDF contains:
- 372 martial maneuvers spread across 11 different martial disciplines.
- 3 new classes specifically designed to take advantage of the new maneuver rules.
- 35 new feats, mostly for the new classes and/or maneuvers.
- 9 Archetypes for the new classes, two psionic archetypes, 6 new prestige classes and 6 Martial traditions that offer some strong background flavour.
Presentation-wise, this product is all about the content. Past the exciting cover, reminiscent of Paizo’s Pathfinder style, this is very much a low-art book. You are supplied with two PDFs: the Lite version, offering a pure white background, and the Full version, with sepia-tinted pseudo-parchment background and rather clunky sword and axe images for page edging. The text is fairly dense, without much white space. In 165 pages, there are 33 images, most of which are single warriors with no background. For me this isn’t a barrier, but if you’re someone who enjoys inspirational art, you may find the text-heavy presentation hard going.
The bulk of the book details the spell-like powers usable by those of a martial bent. Stances are passive abilities, generally only one of which can be active at any one time. Maneuvers on the other hand are akin to D&D4 Encounter Powers but with ways to recharge them in longer combats. Grouped into ten different styles, maneuvers provide a large number of colourful abilities that have the potential to make the martial classes every bit as complex and effective as spell-casters. Maneuvers can be used by any character willing to make a pretty hefty Feat investment, but it’s when using the new classes that they really come to life.
Path of War opens straight into the three new classes, which is certainly the RPG tradition, but on this occasion I would have preferred to have covered the basics of the new Stances & Maneuvers first. The Stalker is a roguish warrior type with borderline psionic abilities; the Warden is a heavily armoured master of defence; and the Warlord is a slightly jumbled mix of both battle-leader and performance fighter.
My first impression was that they were all munchkin classes that I wouldn’t let within a 10’ pole of my game. I like to evaluate classes from the D20 tradition on the basis of how many “feat equivalent” abilities they have. For example, as the Toughness feat gives +1HP per level, a D8 hit die is worth 4.5 feats over 20 levels. It’s a pretty blunt tool, but does give a broad comparison between classes. Using this method, by 20th level the Pathfinder Fighter scores 133 feats and the Rogue 158, compared to the new Stalker, Warden and Warlord classes who come in at 194, 203 and 198 feats. As I thought: munchkin.
On reflection, however, I’m not so sure. Yes, these classes are much more potent than the Fighter and the Rogue, but those are under-powered classes. What Path of War provides is the sort of things spell-casters have had forever: area attacks, the ability to invoke a wide range of conditions and effects and, critically, abilities that can bypass some of the usual defences that high-level spell casters put up against martial attacks. I suspect each of these new classes would slot in to a party of high-level spell-casters and ability-laden Paladins and Rangers without too many issues.
In terms of the other crunchy stuff, the Feats are fine, mostly building on the maneuver rules. The additional Archetypes make even more of the three new classes, with abilities like adding INT to AC even when flat-footed and shield bonuses for PCs armed with two-handed weapons among the generous gifts on offer here. The Prestige classes include the Bladecaster, with the interesting ability to sacrifice spell slots for combat bonuses, and Mage Hunter, which somewhat strangely combines a focus on killing spell-casters with the ability to cast arcane magic. As with the whole of this supplement, there is some really interesting stuff here but GMs should handle with care and be prepared to tweak to fit their own campaigns.
Mechanically, Path of War is not without its problems. The classes have a lot of front-loaded abilities, making them a must-have 1 or 2 level dip for any martially-orientated character and probably over-powered at low levels. The class special abilities vary a great deal in their utility, with some looking too good to be true. For example, a 1st level Stalker can take a special full-round action to recover WIS bonus in spent maneuvers whilst moving base speed with +4AC and adding 1d6 Deadly Strike damage to the next attack she makes after this action. Even without recovering maneuvers, that’s a very potent defensive / set-up action right there.
There is also a lot of book-keeping involved in running the new classes. Stalkers, for example, not only have the core stances and maneuvers, but also Ki Pool, a resource pool used to activate a range of special abilities, and numerous buffs such as Deadly strike, which gives a damage bonus for critical hits against individual targets for a number of rounds.
In terms of presentation, one or two of the rules aren’t brilliantly explained and lumping stances and maneuvers together in “The Art of the Blade” chapter seems like an odd decision given that they operate in very different ways, although I guess it might work for in-game reference. There are also some minor issues with the text of the book, including typos and some odd sentences (“It is not needful to ready your stances ahead of time”) that suggest it could’ve used a touch more editing.
However, in many ways my biggest gripe is that Path of War didn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. Although the new classes are interesting additions, I think Dreamscarred Press missed a trick by not providing more explicit like-for-like replacements for the sadly maligned Rogue and Fighter. The decision to give the Warden D12 hit dice with full Armour proficiencies and more skills and skill points than the Fighter makes it pretty obvious that the Fighter’s time is nigh. It’s just a shame that this book doesn’t quite provide me with a drag-n-drop replacement.
Overall, this is a nicely put together, evocative book. It introduces (or perhaps more accurately, re-introduces) a different way of thinking about the purely martial classes and does so with a huge amount of colour and flavour. Would I use it in my game? As writ, probably not. But it’s great value for anyone who has an interest in “fixing” the Fighter. If your Pathfinder game has stalled, with reluctant warriors and emasculated thieves fed up with being constantly trumped by their spell-casting colleagues, perhaps you should give it a try.
A copy of Dreamscarred Press’ Path of War was provided for review.