Let’s start with the new base classes. The Gunslinger is already my favorite new toy – a cool class, with a nice pool points mechanic (Deeds), full BAB, AC bonus for light or no armor… and firearms. I’m nuts for firearms in D&D since forever (no, I don’t know the reason, especially given that in real life I’m scared of guns). The Ninja is nothing new (especially if you knew the Complete Adventurer’s version) – it gets all you expect from the classic concept. In terms of rules, the class is a rogue that uses a slightly altered ki pool mechanic from the monk. The last class is the Samurai, a remake of the cavalier with a great thematic ability called Resolve – which allows the character to ignore a range of conditions, varying by level.
Next we have new stuff for classes… tons and tons of it, so I’m gonna quote only a few. The beastmorph is an alchemist archetype where mutagen gives you bestial shapes. The armored hulk and the titan mauler are both very fun archetypes for the barbarian. For the bard, there’s the “Indiana Jones archetype” (the archaeologist) and the dervish dancer (a martial-version of the class). The cavalier finally has an exotic mount option (beast rider) and even an odd musketeer archetype (shouldn’t the gunslinger get this?). The cleric gains a bunch of traditional archetypes (crusader, evangelist etc), while the druid gets new animal shaman archetypes. For the fighter we have classic themes, but with unusual mechanics (the brawler and the unarmed fighter seem strange at a first, but after I built a character with them I was impressed). Other good archetypes are the tactician and the unbreakable. For the inquisitor, there’s a witch hunter archetype. The anti-paladin gets a death knight-variant (the knight of the sepulcher). The ranger gets a cool underground archetype. Rogues get knife master, pirate and other classic themes.
Together with firearms, Oriental themes are a common presence in Ultimate Combat. We have the aforementioned musketeer (cavalier), holy gun (paladin), sensei (monk), kensai (magus), sohei (monk) and spellslinger (wizard) – just to quote some.
Unlike the APG, Ultimate Combat has archetypes for the new classes (ex: the kensai for the magus). It also has new discoveries, rage powers, cavalier orders, inquisitions, arcanas, rogue talents etc. There’s literally a lot to digest here.
The next part is feats, including Grit feats (for the gunslinger’s Deeds), Performance feats (for theatric combats in arenas), Style feats (more about these later). By now, Pathfinder has already covered a lot of common ground, so we begin to get odd, specific or just unexpected feats.
Assassins will be happy with Adder Strike and Betrayer. Druids will love Planar Wild Shape. Some feats introduce new resource mechanics, like BolsteredResilience (double your DR at the cost of becoming fatigued) or Fortified Armor Training (which seems like a variant of the Shields Shall Be Splintered! rule). Finally, we have the comeback of an old favorite of mine – Cleaving Finish! (another one would be Close-Quarter Thrower).
Now – Style feats. These are Pathfinder’s official answer to martial arts styles and I’m relieved by the fact that they doesn’t follow the horrible system from the 3rd Edition Oriental Adventures.
Each martial art is a chain of feats, beginning with a Style feat. To activate a Style feat you must spend a swift action. Only after that you can use the feats of a particular style. Simple and yet tactically interesting. For example, Crane Style let you fight defensively with just a –2 penalty, while Boar Style let you change the type of your unarmed damage, besides granting a bleeding attack (once per round) if you hit a foe twice.
Again, there’s a lot to see here. In general, they’re all great stuff. A minor nitpick of my is just the nomenclature… some are awful (Haunted Gnome Assault?) and draw closer to the terrible names commonly employed in D&D 4th Edition’s powers and monsters.
Next topic is equipment, including rules for weapons of different materials and times. Ultimate Combat covers a lot of ground here, with eastern, gladiatorial and primitive weapon and armor lists (and firearms; unfortunately, no radium pistols or high-tech stuff). The rules are simple, followed by nice suggestions (like using iron against fey in a Bronze Age setting).
We also have new subsystems. The first is Duel, a great set of rules that (finally!) manages to include counterspell, dodge and parry options that make sense. Excellent for dramatic final battles. Next is Performance Combat – basically a lot of rules to influence the crowd in an arena. While the system is solid, I found that, in the end, it’s too much detail for small benefits (maybe more victory points options would fix it).
Ultimate Combat covers siege engine and structural damage (how I missed those), and devotes an entire chapter to vehicles. Nothing really new here but the updated rules and stats are definitely useful.
Now to the fiddly bits: Variant Rules. The first is a classic: Armor as Damage Reduction. And – again – we get a bad system, where the DR granted does not compensate for the reduced AC (at least the folks at Paizo give DR proportioned to a character level). I still believe that rules like these should be followed by parry/dodge/defense options (like Conan d20). Maybe something can be extrapolated from the Duel subsystem. Next variant is Called Shots. There is lot of new effects (for each body part) and the rules seem good, presenting a plethora of tactical options. Piecemeal armor is for Military History (and GURPS) fans – I admit that it didn’t have the patience to read it. The variant rule is your classical Wound/Vigor system – I actually quite a bit of these rules. They aren’t new, but present a clear and more logical system for abstract Hit Point and true injuries. I’m greatly tempted to use this system in my next Pathfinder game.
Ultimate Combat has also a chapter devoted to spells, so I’ll resort again to my friend (and player) Leoz, for a sample selection of interesting dweomers: Ablative Barrier is a good defense option; Abundant Ammunition is cool but a potential source of abuse; Arcane Cannon is awesome (it reminds of a Torment spell), so is Deadly Juggernaut and Siege of Trees; Healing Thief is the type of asshole spell that every player wants; Mirror Strike has a short weird description. Communal and Litany spells are all awesome (and very powerful).
Ultimate Combat has Paizo’s by now widely know standards in regard to layout and art quality. It’s a beautiful and sturdy hardcover with 253 pages. While I thought that I already had enough of rules for my Pathfinder, the sheer volume of useful stuff cramped inside this book made me reconsider. I totally recommended it! I also find Ultimate Combat obligatory if you’re planning on running Dragon Empires products.