Monday, August 8, 2011

Augury - DragonCyclopedia: The Combatant

DragonCyclopedia: The Combatant is my third review about this small series of PDFs that introduce new mechanics for the classical archetypes of Pathfinder. The Mage is a new version of the wizard/sorcerer; the Priest is a new take on the cleric; the Combatant is alternate version of the Fighter.

As usual, the author ideas are really captivating to me and I enjoy the approaches that he takes with these classes. In terms of balance I admit that these new classes appear to be a little more powerful, which is probably the only concern with these products. However, I believe that ideas therein each DragonCyclopedia PDF more than counterbalance this fact.

The Fighter lies at the heart of an old problem: how to keep an entry-level class in Pathfinder and, at the same time, to satisfy veteran players which desire more tactical options and mechanics for their warriors. This theme is always brought up from time to time. Recently Mike Mearls, designer responsible for D&D 4th Edition, wrote about it. The infamous (for some) Book of the Nine Swords for D&D 3.5 attempted in fashion to deal with the problem. While it provided an extremely fun system for the warrior classes, it undeniably made the Fighter class an antique (some argued that supplements like the Player’s Handbook II had already done that). Discussions aside, even I ventured into this treacherous terrain – I created a complex variant of the Fighter class for my home games and I’m worried that it may make the official core class less appealing.

After this digression, let’s take a look at how DragonCyclopedia: The Combatant deals with this old chimera. Right at the introduction, Glen R. Taylor reasserts his design philosophy. The Combatant is a new option, made to better create famous fantasy and historical archetypes not supported by the actual Fighter class. In theory, both Combatant and Fighter can be used in the same campaign.

The Combatant has good Fortitude and Reflexes saves, more skills and skill points than the Fighter. Not a good beginning. It loses Weapon Training, Armor Training, Weapon Mastery and Armor Mastery. Good. It can buy Fighter-only feats. Not so good.

The Combatant’s mojo is his Martial Arts Styles. It starts with one style, gains a second at 9th level and a third at 19th level. Each Martial Arts Style describes a core weapon, 6 and degrees of technique (initiate, novice, apprentice, journeymen, master and grandmaster). To my great relief, the new class doesn’t the horrible martial art system from Oriental Adventures. Instead of that synergy system, we a get a far clever approach: each style lists a number of “style feats” (usually combat feats). The total number of stile feats possessed by a Combatant indicates his “combat bonus”. This bonus is both a number (from +1 to +6) and a technique degree. So, basically, a Combatant is motivated to buy certain feats; after a certain number of feats he gains a “combat bonus” that goes to all his attack rolls and CMB rolls using the core weapons of his style. He also gains access to the various techniques of that style.

The techniques are the Combatant’s exclusive abilities. They’re also the high and low points of the product. Some are very interesting, like the swashbuckler’s novice technique, which allows the character to treat any magic weapon in his hands as a defending weapon. Others are normal or a little dull (like most of the armor master’s and archer’s techniques).

DragonCyclopedia: The Combatant presents 14 styles and tons of new feats, besides a new type of magic item (magic brands or tattoos). The new feats are very potent and will probably be extremely useful for all classes – especially combative ones.

Some feat chains – like the various Elemental Stances feats – will result in very powerful characters; although I must say I do like the idea of slowly progressing on an esoteric martial discipline, searching for masters in far and hidden temples, that kind of stuff (good campaign ideas). However, this doesn’t change the fact the power level of these feats are higher than usual. While I believe that feats too should scale with level requirements, this is a design philosophy unfortunately not fully supported, either by Pathfinder or by the old 3.5 Edition.

Despite all the commentaries regarding “power-creep”, DragonCyclopedia: The Combatant accomplishes what it set itself to do – it’s now possible to build characters like swashbuckler (light armored/unarmored Fighter), a martial artist (unarmed Fighter) or even a pulpish Tarzan-like warrior (a feral Fighter). The price is another good encouragement to buy this great bundle of ideas.