Monday, June 6, 2011

Augury - Ultimate Magic

The first chapter is all about classes. First, we have the new class: the magus – the newest attempt at a playable fighter/mage (or gish). While I don’t appreciate the fact that the magus has a different spell list from the sorcerer/wizard and a limited spell progression (why can the cleric/druid/oracle can have 7-9th level spells, but the magus don’t?), it is a very interesting class and its Arcane Pool mechanic is a brilliant piece of game design. The class uses d8 for HD, has two good saves (Fortitude and Will), 2 skill points per level and start casting at light armor (progressing later to medium and heavy armor). It’s not a spontaneous caster. The basic ability of the Arcane Pool is to give a magic bonus (and special qualities) to the magus’ weapon. During the class progression, a magus acquires new “Arcana”, learning different ways of spending his Arcane Pool. A thematic feature of the magus is the ability to execute a melee attack and cast a spell at the same time (almost like the two-weapon fighting rules).

Like the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic presents new alternate class features – a great way to customize your character without resorting to feats or prestige classes. The highlights here are, in fact, the new base classes from the APG. The alchemist, for example, besides new discoveries, gains archetypes like clone master, reanimator and internal alchemist. The bard gains masterpieces – improved and more potent uses of bardic performance (I particularly enjoyed the design decision that a masterpiece can be bought by using either feats or spell known slots). Monks can swear vows to increase their ki power (a simple but very flavorful mechanic); a similar attempt was made with the paladin. Summoners can better customize their eidolons; can have more than one eidolon at a time or even morph with their pet. The cleric has variant channelings and the classical cloistered cleric archetype; the druid can have vermin companions or even a pack of beasts (or align himself with dragons, menhirs, storms… even dinosaurs); the oracle gains new mysteries and can be dual-cursed; the inquisitor can choose between archetypes like exorcist, heretic and sin eater; the ranger can specializes in traps; sorcerers gain new bloodlines (and can be crossblooded or wildblooded); witches gain new patrons and hexes; wizards gain “discoveries” that can be bought with feats (beside new schools and archetypes); even the magus gains archetypes, one of which I’ll not elaborate about… *cough* Elric *cough*.

Chapter two is your typical miscellanea. First there’re spellblights: a mixture of magic diseases, eldritch backlashes and weird conditions (with random tables!). They can also be inflicted by certain spells or feats. Spellblights are divided in minor and major. Two examples: “ebon eyes” invert the way your eyes react to light and darkness (minor blight), while “spell sap” subjects a caster to mental damage or even catatonia after spellcasting. A curious (and very interesting) variant is the section dedicated to “benefits of harmful conditions” (for example: a bleeding caster could use his condition to improve the damage of inflict wound spells).

Spell duels are our next topic. I was disillusioned to find that these are only “arena” style rules for formal duels between spellcasters, something that rarely find useful. I would be a lot happier with improved or variant rules for dispelling and counterspelling. The section about outsider binding is mostly systemless, with useful and entertaining information about true names, substances aligned (or opposed) to each outsider, as well as tips about the goals and interests of each major outsider race. The last part of the chapter deals with rules for constructs, new familiars, spellbooks and how to design spells. The spellbook bit has rules for “preparation rituals”, a great idea to reinforce the importance of grimoire during an encounter or adventure (instead of just to prepare and store spells). There’s a lot of material to digest in this chapter and I probably will come to consult it in future readings.

Let’s now take a look at the new feats. Most of the new abilities are built upon or improve core class features (like revelations, curses, judgments etc). One of the new features here are the critical feats geared toward spells, like “accursed critical”, that allows the caster to cast a bestow curse (if he knows it) as an immediate action when he confirms a critical threat with a spell or spell-like ability. Some of these feats even inflict spellblights. The new metamagic feats are all about dealing damage in more versatile ways (but there’re exceptions like “echoing spell”). Ultimate Magic bring good abilities like “deny death” (automatically stabilize as long as you ki pool is above 0), “eldritch heritage” (non-sorcerers gain a bloodline power), “fearless aura” (a paladin’s allies are now immune to fear), “extra arcane”, “spell specialization”, new thematic summoning feats, “quick channel”, “remote bomb”, “wild speech” etc.

Among the oddness are feats like “antagonize” (that allows you to taunt or provoke a character), “create reliquary arms and shields” (use your magic item as a holy symbol… which is odd, since I nothing forbids you from just placing a normal holy symbol upon your magic armor, shield or weapon’s pommel), “implant bomb” (explosive zombies!). My favorite feat is “theurgy”, which allows a nice mixture of divine and arcane spells.

High on the cool factor is “create sanguine elixir” (pass part of your sorcerer bloodline powers, through a potion, to an ally)

Chapter four is probably the most innovative. It brings an entire new spellcasting system, called words of power. Instead of learning and casting spells in the normal fashion, a spellcasting character can choose to be a wordcaster, using the new system. There’re three types of words: targets, effect and meta words. You pick one target word, one or more effect words (limited by your level) and – optionally – one or more meta words. Each word has a level to limit a wordcaster’s access to it. This system basically allows you to build the core elements of the simplest spells, but lacks enough versatility to simulate esoteric or specifically powerful effects. What is interesting is that the authors state that the words of power are actually a primeval approach to magic, that still survives in archaic cultures and obscure traditions. A nice idea on how to use this subsystem in your campaign setting.

Ok, time to comment on the spells. Ultimate Magic has a good number of new spells. I’m going to be honest here and admit that today I’ve little patience with spell lists, particularly 3rd Edition onwards. Most spells are just damage-dealing effects done in different ways (for example: cascading damage or alignment-based effects). Sometimes I think that I have lost touch with Pathfinder’s newest design mechanics, as I fail to understand effects like boiling blood (1 point of fire damage/round for a 2nd-level spell?), polypurpose panacea (this one should’ve been a group of new cantrips), ride lightning (a 9th level effect for this!?) and virtuoso performance (this should’ve been a feat or class feature). I’m also becoming more and more against the bard as a spellcasting class, as the great majority of its spells seem to be a traditional arcane effects “plus music”.

Still on spells, probably the dumbest name goes for blessing of the mole (a paladin spell!) and the funniest goes to mad monkeys (you never have enough monkeys on your game). On the other side, we have some amazingly cool or flavorful effects, like cape of wasps, blood transcription, countless eyes, divine pursuit, eagle aerie, ice crystal teleport, interplanetary teleport and wall of sounds. These dweomers either reminds of fantasy fiction or are just enough bizarre to satisfy my (growing) eccentric tastes. There’re also good spells on the utilitarian scale, like bungle, familiar meddling, control summoned creature, battlemind link, malfunction and witness. A curiosity is that Ultimate Magic has a great number of disease-based spells, Nurgel must be very happy.

Ultimate Magic is not as useful as the Advanced Player’s Guide, but it still full of great resources and ideas. Though for me that’s not a negative point, I must point out that Ultimate Magic doesn’t have new magic items, which is a little odd given that it’s a magic supplement (as I’m dead tired of reading magic items’ entries outside of a specific setting or adventure, I find the omission negligible). For those that are happy with the options of the Core Rulebook and the APG, Ultimate Magic isn’t a mandatory acquisition (the magus’ niche can be filled, albeit differently, by the eldritch knight prestige class). For Pathfinder fans, still hungry for more, it is definitely a must-buy (particularly because it expands the new core classes of APG). Ultimate Magic also keeps Paizo’s quality standards (and the amazing art and layout). Fans of 3.5 version will also find useful stuff here.