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Thank you very much for the extensive comment and for being professional! It's unfortunate that my review's timing was bad. I did re-download the latest version on OBS. :(
I agree the "bog of kitten"-test is a deliberate exaggeration, since I know no DM that would stand for it. But it also is rather crucial regarding good design - after all, if RAW does allow for this in theory, what if the PCs are burnt resource-wise and have to look for all possible advantages? Let's say a demon lord is conducting a ritual, your resources are spent - kill kittens for the greater good? Would you, as a DM, then say no? By being sloppy with abilities that can fail the kitten-test, you put DMs in a harsh spot that is simply unnecessary. I maintain that the kitten-test is valid and failing it a sign of bad design. Especially since there are abilities galore out there that you can use as a guideline to avoid failing the test. Even good players and good DMs can be tempted by the bag o' kittens.
Covenborn: I maintain cherry-picking saves and changing enchantments to other saves, making disease-like effects ref-based etc. is not a matter of imagination, but just utterly confusing design and upsets the in-game logic big time. YMMV.
Balance: I do not agree that balance is subjective. It is *partially* subjective, yes. Because campaigns and groups differ, because player capabilities differ, because intended power-levels differ. If you#re developing for the core-market and don't have the explicit goal of improving a class that's too weak (like Drop Dead Studios did for the Rogue), then there are the numbers. And numbers don't lie. So yeah, there is a subjective component and balance isn't a monolithic entity, but neither is it a completely subjective hocus-pocus.
Oh boy. I thought I was clear. The warlock is broken due to a vast plethora of reasons, some of which you have addressed. Others... let me rephrase.
Damage type = force. Best damage-type there is. No resistances, no DR, nothing to protect one from it. Plus: No penalties when attacking incorporeal targets. Broken.
Revelations: Revelations are better than feats. Getting one at every level is strong, being able to choose freely from ALL lists (which are limited and balanced among themselves for a reason!) is insane.
Blast-comparison: We have a couple of logical fallacies here in your reasoning. Wizards (at high levels) can pwn almost ANYTHING if they're prepared AND have the Spells AND don't get killed first. That comparison is moot. Sorcerors may be able to better blast areas - but the comparison with the warlock does not work. Most of their spells are corporeal, no benefit versus incorporeal targets. Their blasts use regular energy-type and thus are subject to immunities. Unlike force. And most importantly: They run out of juice. Warlocks NEVER run out of juice, their blasts are an INFINITE resource that is subject to next to no restrictions. Blasts scale fast and explode in damage-potential - compare the damage output of a blast with a comparable magic weapon. Then bear in mind that the magic item does require resources to get and can be destroyed, sundered, stolen, etc. You won't get anywhere close to base damage of a blast with any regular magic weapon, even with feats. Then add range.
CMD-hole argument: The Warlock's CMD isn't necessarily worse than that of any comparable class. It's not as good as the one of a melee fighter, courtesy of BAB-progression, but it's damn sure not crippling.
Invisibility-argument: Invalid, since by the same reasoning you could argue that no class that has neither blindsight, nor see invisibility et al has a response to it.
Gunslinger-comparison: Seriously? The warlock-player, sorry to say, obviously has no idea how to handle the class. I *LOVE* the gunslinger-class. I really, really do. But oh boy, is it crippled beyond believe. Bad range, high, constant costs for bullets (perhaps that's a German thing, btw., but ALL DMs I know track these!), etc. - ouclassing these dudes at their range-game isn't hard...at all. You don't even require broken/very powerful archetype-combos à la Synthetisist or Zen Archer.
That's an issue with playtesting - players have different abilities to maximize a class. Four of my players are superb min-maxers, the others are more focused on story, flair, etc.Handing the latter a class will yield no particularly evil builds, but giving such a class to the former...ouch. Another thing to be aware when doing in-house playtesting -be aware of your group's and world's agreed upon conventions and recall that other groups don't have these. You often *know* what a friend means, but codifying it in proper rules is hard. The Karuna Sattva is a candidate here, as is the Diplomatique. I'm *sure* you have an established code of conduct in your game; I assume that in your game, curses, insanities etc. don't feature as prominently. In other campaigns, they do. Netting a class an option to get rid of them sans level-scaling via DC can break many a game: Think of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Greek or Norse mythology - curses, especially those handed down by the gods, can create adventures. Same goes for insanity and plagues. By taking away the option to have the affliction scale and the Karuna Sattva fail at taking a curse, many a story is ruined. In *your* game that may not be the case - in a pandemic-style campaign, it might be.
I do still stand by the statement that Interjection Games' Ethermancer is the vastly superior Warlock for PFRPG (or any d20-based game, for that matter).
And nope, I won't give up on you or your co-designers - you do have potential and ItB: Witch is a step in the right direction.
Hope that clarifies all the stuff and thanks for engaging in a civil discussion! (Also: Thanks, Malwing - I share all your observations.)
Part II of my review:
And don't start the whole "But casters dominate all encounters"-b&@%$+*@ with me. If you as a DM can't bleed casters dry and let the group rest after every encounter, then you're doing it wrong. I've been DMing for more than half my life and forcing casters to think when to unleash arcane destruction is a basic tactic that seems to be lost on quite a few number-crunching whiners that point to the paper and complain that casters are oh so much better.
What I'm getting at with this rant - the warlock has no resources for his/her primary attacks and as such needs to be compared to all other limited-resource-less classes - and instead of falling somewhere in line at the upper power echelon, it essentially boots even the casters out of the water.
Another gripe of a completely unrelated topic- during playtest, it turned out to be fun for one of my players, mainly because said player enjoyed wasting any CR-equivalent threat...but he badgered me to include in this review that he "got bored, fast, because there is no strategy here." You have your tools, you use them - that's it. Interjection Games' Ethermancer, with its unique buffs, spell pool mechanic and various modifications does everything this class tries to do infinitely more compelling and IS BALANCED and requires some forethought on how long your battle will wage, of when to buff and when not. It's not a perfect class, but it's not as OP as the warlock, it rewards tactical planning of the expenditure of etherpoints and still manages to portray the blast-all-day-long class without utterly breaking the game by offering sufficient drawbacks. It also tackles counterspelling and offers options beyond blasting everything to smithereens. The Ethermancer works, this does NOT. This class is BROKEN and needs a revision. I can't recommend this class even to utter n00bs entering a game of pro-number-crunchers, since the wording ambiguities make many an ability harder to understand than it ought to be. I've rarely seen a base class that can break a game this easily. Steer clear.
Next up would be a 10-level-PrC, the Covernborn. Coverborn get 1/" BAB-progression, 1/2 will-save progression, 2+Int skills per level and require class features from sorc, oracle and witches, namely accursed bloodline, coven hex and oracle's curse, requiring essentially one level sorc, witch and oracle - and the consumption of a hag's heart. Now essentially, this class is a theurge-like class, offering +1 level of spell-progression for both arcane and divine casting at all levels except 1st, 4th and 7th, where the class instead gets fixed divine or arcane progression or, in the case of level 7, has to choose which one to take. It should also be noted that the covenborn needs to choose which arcane class to progress - sorc or witch. The PrC also gets an array of hag/fey-themed spell-like abilities to choose from and may "choose between Fortitude and Will based saves for her spell-like abilities." That's not how spell-like abilities work. Also: Does that mean it's ONE choice or can the Covenborn choose for each individual ability? How can charm monster be based on FORT? Makes no sense to me. The capstone allows the covenborn to transform into a hag, complete with all spell-like abilities etc. - do they choose which save to use here as well? While I get the requirement to offset the dual casting progression, the kind of dead level of one of the arcane base-classes is a bit weird design-wise. An okay theurgish PrC, I guess, though not particularly compelling to take. It also has minor formatting issues like "3 a day" instead of 3/day, but that's just minor nitpicking.
Next up are 5 new mysteries - Intoxicant, Sand, Secrets, Volcano and Wrath, all coming with nice icons, though I don't get why some get a sample fluff-line, whereas other don't. The intoxicant mystery is actually rather cool - shrouding yourself in euphoria-inducing smoke, hallucinating items into existence - cool ideas here, though the wording of the latter is problematic - -"When under the effects of an intoxicant the oracle may make a DC 15 Will save to believe an item is real. If failed the item functions as normal but has no effect on other creatures."[sic!] I don't get it. Could the oracle hallucinate a key to a door and open it? A weapon? Could a weapon be made to attack an object, but not a person? Can the oracle opt to fail the save? Is the item generated upon a success or failure or either way? Why are there so many punctuation glitches here, rendering an already confused and imprecise ability even more confusing? Using blood to poison others with consumed intoxicants on the other hand is rather cool. I really, really like this mystery, but many of its revelations require some cleaning in at least formal criteria, partially also in wording. The Sand mystery lets you e.g. look through solid surfaces and over all can be considered solid, if not particularly strong - still: Kudos!
The Secrets mystery generally is about knowledge and secrets, with frightening, maddening effects and the like. It also has a very weird ability that replaces dex-mod with cha-mod to AC and ref and "Your armor's maximum Dexterity bonus applies to your Charisma instead of your Dexterity (see FAQ."[sic!] So, does that mean an armor can hamper bonus spells, DCs and the like? Where is the FAQ? Why isn't it included in this pdf? I'm NOT going to google the web for information required to run a particular pdf. One note to ALL designers: If your wording requires a FAQ, that's bad enough, but can't be avoided in some cases. Not including said information in your product and forcing your customers to search it and potentially bump site-hits is NOT a way to generate a faithful fanbase. If it's required to run your product, INCLUDE IT IN THE PDF or go back to the drawing board and make a better ability. Now apart from that gripe, the mystery per se is nice - somewhere between knowledge and dark tapestry in style. The volcano mystery allows you to conjure forth a 20 ft. x 20 ft. micro volcano that deals 2d6 non-scaling fire-damage, half on a failed save and +1d6 points of damage for 1d3 rounds after that. Solid per se, but a) why doesn't the damage scale? b) Do those who succeeded the save still take the damage on subsequent rounds? Is the conjured lava an instantaneous effect or does it remain as long as the +1d3 rounds take? Lava Fists also don't work as intended - the ability allows you to 3+cha-mod times per day make sunder attempts with your bare fists "at no penalty." But unarmed strikes AND sunder-attempts provoke AoOs sans respective feats. And unarmed attacks do a whopping 1d3 points of base damage! Usable 3+cha-mod times per day? Where can I sign on? /*sarcasm off* Seriously, needs power-upgrade...badly. The wrath mystery offers a nice adaptive aura, damage-dealing mist etc. It should be noted that an imprisonment effect sends targets off to Gehenna to be held and driven mad - slightly awkward if your game still features that plane from the 3.X days of old, but nothing to fault the author for. Overall, this one works somewhat better than most crunch herein, though wording also offers problems here - see Pillar of Salt: "You may call down a pillar of corrosive power as a full-round action. This pillar may target a group of enemies, no two of which are more than 30 feet apart." So... does the pillar hit all in a 30 ft. radius? can it zigzag from foe to foe if they're no more than 30 feet apart? Are these individual strikes? Define the amount of eligible targets? Utterly obtuse and incomprehensible. Also, it deals 4d8 acid damage +2 per oracle level - I assume the level-based bonus damage ought to be acid damage as well. Utterly insane: "Everyone with line of sight to the targets (note the plural here!) must make a ref-save or take 2d8 acid damage and be stricken blind for one round per class level. Required class level: 3. Now compare ANY damage spell from ANY list with that. It can be used cha-mod times per day; Too strong. Don't believe me? Open plains, flying, warfare - this revelation can blind whole armies! Broken!
The pdf also offer 4 new curses - The Addled curse is a nice take on the addiction curse. The distracted curse allows you to impart the shaken/later dazzled and at +1 save, confused) condition on ALL targets that fail a will-save against your spells. No duration given for the additional effect. Doesn't work/too strong. Madness allows you to somewhat mitigate confusion et al and can drive creatures psychotic, as per the new CR+1 template. The Ominous curse is all about intimidation, penalizing almost all other cha-based skills with -5, but netting +5 untyped bonus to intimidation - too big a penalty and too big a bonus for my tastes - you can already make demoralization monsters sans such a massive boost. Not broken per se, though.
Editing and formatting could have required another pass - next to no spell names are italicized, punctuation glitches abound and bolding and similar minor issues are partially inconsistent as well. Layout adheres to an easy to read 2-column full-color standard and sports much less blank space than the magus-installment of Into the Breach -good and kudos! The pdf comes fully bookmarked, with two dead bookmarks relics labeled "Bookmark 53 &54" respectively, but these don't impede usability.
Designers Frank Gori, John Belliston, Jeff Harris and Matt Medeiros have good ideas - the concepts behind the archetypes and e.g. the intoxicant mystery are solid and show a speck of brilliance here and there. A speck. I won't mince words here - this took me forever to get done and not due to page-count or the like, but due to the amount of issues. Balancing is completely all over the place - from ridiculously weak options to utterly overpowered ones, which constitute btw. the majority of this release, this feels like an alpha. How most of the content herein could get past any playtesting is beyond me. Several options will even be overpowered in the most high fantasy of games. The Warlock class needs to be scrapped and rebuild from scratch - it is the most broken class I've seen so far for PFRPG in any publication. The archetypes offer issues. The PrC is weird. Even mysteries and curses aren't flawless and sport the other crux of this pdf: Ambiguities. A LOT of them. If the balance-concerns you might have, that aren't even consistent within one mystery or archetype, don't break this pdf for you, the latter will. There are so many imprecise wordings and glitches in here, it's painful, partially taking cool concepts and rendering them unusable or unnecessarily obfuscating what exactly an ability is supposed to do. Scaling either exists and is OP or doesn't and makes for utterly ridiculously weak options. Crunch-writing is all about getting math, syntax and semantics right and this one doesn't for any even remotely consistent stretch of text.
And no, I did not complain about all glitches in this review. I hate dishing out verdicts like that, especially if good ideas are this present, but this pdf has nothing that would warrant any mercy, no mitigating, flawless gem at the bottom of this crackerjack box - 1 star.
Reviewed first on Endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here and on d20pfsrd.com's shop.
The Text of Defensive Web is:
"Whenever you spend a full-round action to
By any means. This does no say "make a move action, 5-foot-step, or similar means of movement to leave it." The feats specifies "ANY means."
Thank you very much for the catch, Insain Dragoon. I did indeed make a mistake regarding the mage hunter's spellcasting and will immediately rectify it in all the usual places.
As for the level 15 fast healing - I'm not saying the fast healing is excessive for the level - I'm saying rendering any resource-expenditure for healing FOR THE ENTIRE PARTY obsolete breaks the the in-game logic hard, breaks the believability of the world hardcore. Any ability that fails the kitten-test, and I will stand by this, is all caps BAD DESIGN.
And I *DID* read the entire document. Multiple times. I spend *A LOT* of time with all PoW-books, comparing, making chars etc. And yes, I did make a mistake here. I don't particularly like the insinuation I did not properly read the book, but to each his own opinion.
However, wonky wording remains just that, wonky wording. Failed kitten-tests remain just that. A feat that flat-out prevents any escape from melee via any means remains broken and bad design.
Just my 2 cents, of course.
EDIT: I can't edit the above post, but please ignore this particular half sentence, which I ended with "Admittedly, a nitpick" - this one did not influence my final verdict in any way.
Part II of my review:
The Bladecaster gets d10, 4+Int skills per level, full BAB progression, 1/2 fort-save progression, 8 levels spellcasting progression, limited martial maneuver progression- notice a similarity? Yeah, this one is the arcane equivalent. At 1st level, the PrC can " The bladecaster may select one arcane spellcasting that he possesses;" and cast that sans arcane spell failure in light armor. What is "one arcane spellcasting"? A spell? ALL spells granted by e.g. levels in wizard? One arcane spell-list? Don't know, though I assume the second option... The PRc also gets a special stance that allows the PrC to sacrifice spells for bonuses - and this one is insanely powerful - damage-potential of the spells outclasses the benefits by far. Or so it seems - you get e.g. +1d6 bonus damage per spell level - of the sacrificed spell's energy type if applicable OR, if not UNTYPED. Not even force, UNTYPED. You know, the damage-type you can prepare against? Now even slashing, piercing - UNTYPED: Urgh. What about spell level to ALL saving throws? 5 x spell level resistance to ALL ENERGY TYPES? Yeah, duration only scales up to 3 rounds, but still. (Don't get me started with cantrips, btw. - the class ignores them completely.) Then again, the class gets a martial strike/cast spellcombat-like ability - as a swift action, useable 1+ initiator-mod times per day. Which renders me baffled - does this override the casting duration of the spell in question? Is it in addition to the swift action/action required by the strike? Does the spell still elicit a SR/save etc.? This ability needs severe cleaning up and gets utterly OP at later levels, when it actually gets a REACH. Countering spells via initiator-checks may also be powerful, but at least the ability works as intended and sans wonky mechanics. As a capstone, spells requiring an attack can be used to deliver martial strikes - even as a capstone in Path of War, broken - no more range limits. All melee strikes on range. Against touch AC. Urgh. At least the casting still potentially provokes AoOs here...
The third PrC, Dragon Fury, gets d12, 4+Int skills per level, +1 maneuver at every odd level, +1 readed per day at 3rd, 6th and 9th and +1 stance at 3rd level, full BAB-progression, 1/2 fort+ ref-save progression and is all about two weapon fighting - less penalties, power attack as if main-hand for both (or even as if two-handed), repeated counters - all mostly cool. At 8th level, the class gets a kitten-bag-fail ability that recovers an expended maneuver for every foe brought to 0 hp.(Insert Kitten-Bag rant again, plus nonlethal damage still not taken into account...). The capstone is cool, though - move 2x movement rate and attack like crazy. Neat capstone. The first PrC herein that I don't want to throw into the deepest fiery pits of hell - this one's actually cool. Nice!
The Mage Hunter, at d8, 4+Int, 3/4-BAB-progression, 1/2 ref-save progression and get access to spontaneous spells up to 4th level. Which they can cast governed by their initiator attribute - which is a blatant breaking of how spells are cast by any class. Int, cha, wis - can see that. I'm so tough/strong, I can cast magic? Nope, sorry. Admittedly a nit-pick, though. The mage hunter may expend spells as part f martial strikes to dimensionally anchor foes (which is nice, though aforementioned feat is better...), add damage-dealing dispel magic effects to strikes etc. The criticism of the former iteration of the simialr ability still applies here. There is also a class ability/stance that allows the mage hunter to cast spells as a swift action as part of a martial strike (see criticism above) AND not take any damage when making a save vs. an effect that has partial effects. That is a combined mettle and evasion. Mettle was broken in 3.X and has, for good riddance, not reared its ugly head in PFRPG. This is worse, even in the context of Path of War. Nuff said. The capstone, which eliminates the option to cast defensively, is the other nail in the coffin for this class - Knowledge (Martial) DC 21 to realize it before hand? Nice, only casters don't get the skill as class skill...Also: Hit point regeneration via SR and even granting temporary hit points. Doesn't sound so bad? AT this level, your PCs will have At-will abilities, which translate, once again, to INFINITE healing, though this time "only" for the character, not everybody. Still, broken as hell, even for a capstone.
The final PrC, the Umbral Blade, gets d10, 4+Int skills. full BAB-progression. limited maneuvers and 1/2 ref-save progression and is all about a connection to the plane of shadow, increasing power of veiled moon etc. Which is kind of cool, though I'd suggest a minor re-fluffing here, if only to avoid confusion in planar environments that lock out cross-planar effects. Using wis INSTEAD of str-mod to damage is in this context fine with me -kudos here! What leaves me utterly baffled would be "Blade of Night:" As the umbral blade’s shadow blade becomes a conduit for darkness and shadow, he is capable of opening a dread gateway within his soul to cause this darkness to surge through him and through the open conduit that is his weapon. The umbral blade may charge his shadow blade with this power as a move action, and later when needed, he may release this power as a free action as part of an attack or martial strike. This hungry and chilling darkness inflicts cold damage, and Blade of Night is added to each attack that the character makes during the round it is activated on." What the friggin' hell does this mean? Does it change regular damage to cold damage? If so, is there a more convoluted way to say it? I don't get, at all, what this ability does. Which is a pity, for the signature stance of the class rocks and is really evocative in its imagery, increasing its power over the levels into essentially an area, where it nets at-will blink (no italicization in the text), bonus HP and even turning incorporeal. One potential issue - the pyramidal way martial maneuvers are organized means that the changing effective stance level can lead to some confusion here. Better stealth, hide in plain sight and shadowy apotheosis also work. Over all, another solid, if not perfect PrC.
Editing and formatting are worse than in previous Path of War-installments, with more glitches and rules-ambiguities. Layout adheres to DSP's 2-column full-color standard and the pdf utilizes stock art that is thematically-fitting. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and in two versions, with one being more printer-friendly.
I feel like I've jinxed it. Author Chris Bennett's last two Path of War-supplements on the Warder and Warlord were vast improvements and had cool rules, neat ideas, streamlined design. They were not perfect, yes, but still - they worked. And honestly, the archetypes herein do mostly a good job and left me generally smiling. Then came the feats and PrCs.
All right, to make that clear - I judge this pdf not by regular PFRPG-power-levels, I don't compare it with fighter or, whatever divine being you worship or ignore, rogues and monks, but rather by the one implied by all previous Path of War-installments. The characters therein can compete with spellcasters on a damage-output level, while not suffering from depleting resources - which changes the dynamics of the game, yes, but it remains manageable. Most abilities are single target and somewhat restricted by atk, by a balance that may not be standard PFRPG, but it exists - good, that leaves SOMETHING for the casters to do beyond utility spells. The martial PoW-classes are a bit on the short-end regarding in-class variation, so adding archetypes = exceedingly good idea. In fact, I was utterly stoked about this release. Then I read it. So many failed kitten-tests. Infinite maneuvers. And then, the feats came. Want to know how broken some are? I can name HORRIFICALLY OVERPOWERED feats by Rogue Genius Games I'd rather allow into a 15-point-buy-low-magic-game than letting "Defensive Web" get anywhere near even a mythic game. This is not an increase, it is an escalation. Not starting with the caster/martial combo-classes that make the magus run to the next corner and cry his eyeballs out. Even if you just shrug at the power-level and think "Endzeitgeist is an idiot who's just nitpicking and complaining" - riddle me this: Do you consider PrCs that can net a whole group infinite healing good design? Nope? Thought so. This pdf is far from unsalvageable and indeed, some of the content works for me and fared exceedingly well under scrutiny/playtesting. That being said, this is still the most flawed of the Path of War installments to date and has ample issues that require fixing. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 1.5 stars, rounded up to 2 for the purpose of this platform.
Reviewed first on Endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here and on d20pfsrd.com's shop.
@Malwing: Unless you're actively looking for stuff to dislike (Which you don't seem to do), being nitpicky and critical helps the designers more than writing an "OMG, diz iz teh awesum!"-review, so don't ever be afraid of voicing constructive criticism.
Expect to see oracle and witch very soon as well, btw. - they are very high on my priority-list.
Also: Great to hear that you'll revise ItB: Magus at some point - as mentioned in the review, there are some glorious gems in here and talent *does* show. :)
Dweorg and Dwergar are dwarven ethnicities of the Aventyr setting. While they are similar to what default dwarves are like, there are some minor differences in stats, traits etc. - I don't have my info ready and a lousy connection where I am, but yeah. Will check again tomorrow, but you shouldn't run into any problems with them...
Part II of my review:
Here, let me go on a slight tangent: AAW's modules provide statblocks for two systems that are related, but distinct and different - and both have in common, that their details eat up space. 60 pages of 3.5 stats, 64 PFRPG-stats. This means that you probably won't use the stats of the other system, right? Well...it actually depends. Personally, for example, I HATE how PFRPG weakened the Demilich. I'm taking the 3.5 statblock of that one over the PFRPG-equivalent and make a conversion of it - and having the statblock already done helps here. Perhaps that's just me, but I actually like how this results in alternative builds available for a minimum of work. Plus: Take a look at the page-count. Even sans using the statblocks of one system, this tome still clocks in at a massive 400+ pages. That's a lot of material.
Editing and formatting are top-notch - while any book of this size will sport a lonely glitch here and there, the overall book is surprisingly error-free. Now I've already gushed about the drop-dead gorgeous, superb layout. I'll do so again - It adheres to beautiful, stunning two-column standards and each of the different styles used is beautiful in its own right. Then there would be the artwork. I'm not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that this is one of the most art-intense 3pp-books I#ve seen so far, with quite an impressive array of "show, don't tell" full-color pieces that are simply stunning and, at one glance, help immerse the players in the epic. The pdf comes with a vast array of bookmarks, indexes for statblocks and the different layout styles further help with navigation. Kudos! Now, as you know if you've ever purchased an AAW-module, the cartography by Todd Gamble and Jonathan Nelson, quite extensive and improved from the already great original pieces, is simply stunning. As per the writing of this review, I don't yet have the hardcover in my hands, so commenting on the quality of the binding, paper etc. is not yet possible. HOWEVER, I do own quite a bunch of AAW-print modules and they have in common that they use high-quality paper, glossy covers etc. - production values of a top-notch level beyond what I usually get when purchasing print.
When I reviewed the original trilogy and when the kickstarter was announced, Jonathan Nelson and the whole AAW-crew told me, they'd make this book a full-blown 5-star + seal of approval beast. Big promises indeed and, to be honest, I was somewhat skeptical - the original trilogy worked well and had its glorious moments, but it also had some severe weaknesses regarding tying the modules together and some minor logic bugs. These are gone. Now you may not realize this in the beginning, with the start being rather slow and relatively linear, but this is not only a huge, sandboxy module, this is the most expansive underworld/underdark-sourcebook I've read in ages.
The second half of the "Second Darkness" AP, back in the day, felt somewhat soulless to me - yes, the underdark depicted there was strange, had deadly creatures and cool hazards and the finale rocked. But it, at least to me, felt like a big kind-of-dungeon. It didn't feel like a cohesive, huge world, with its own rules, culture, flora, politics. Yes, it was a HUGE step up from 3.5's exceedingly boring slugfest "City of the Spider-Queen", but still - to me, it fell short: Of the level of detail I expected, of actual believability. Perhaps that's just the scholar in me, but there are many components to making fantastical settings work and the underworld should elicit wonder, this slack-jawed awe, this feeling you're not in Kansas anymore and have entered a world governed by strange rules and convention different from the surface world.
Rise of the Drow manages to pull this off. The AAW-crew has an uncanny knack for crafting believable, unique cultures, social norms and the like and the places and their inhabitants depicted herein adhere triumphantly to this tradition, with the guest-authors Brian Berg, Christina Stiles, Jason Stoffa, Joshua Gullion, Kevin Mickelson, Mike Myler, Owen K.C. Stephens, Will Myers, Chris Bayes, Curtis Baum, Justin Andrew Mason, Michale Allen, Rory Thomas, Todd Gamble and Steven Helt (and yours truly, at least I hope so!) bringing their A-game to the table and add their talents to the basic frame crafted by Stephen Yeardley and Jonathan Nelson. Most surpisingly here - the narrative cohesiveness of the voices of the narrative and the book - too many authors ften result in disjointed prose, something thankfully absent here. Oh, and take a look at this list - notice something? Yeah, that's pretty close to a veritable who's who of great game-designers, with several publishers among them.
As a vast module, Rise of the Drow manages to weave a vision of drow as efficient, deadly adversaries to be feared indeed, with so much going on, so much additional material and level of detail, that I can almost guarantee that no two groups will play this vast module in the same way. Want to go linear, run this like an AP? No problem. Want your players to explore and truly get into the meat (or rather: rhizome!) of the underworld and go full-blown sandbox? No problem either. Your players start experimenting with magical spices? There you go, full blown table of unique effects. In fact, the only module that came close to this in structure (but not in detail) would be the legendary, unavailable closed patron project "Empire of Ghouls" by Kobold Press, then Open Design, which reigned supreme since I managed to get my hands on it as my all-time favorite underworld module. Where I'm getting at is: I can't, with all the modules I've read, for the life of me, mention a single underworld-module in any iteration of a d20-based system that would be on par with this beauty. Mind you, that from someone who is actually rather sick of the drow as adversaries.
Now don't get me wrong, this book surely isn't perfect. here and there, certain magic items or effects could have used a slight streamlining and not all supernatural effects the PCs will encounter have the crunch detail to e.g. dispel them...but personally, as much as you'll be stunned to hear his...I like this decision. Why? Because thinking of 2nd ad 1st edition, there were so many cool terrains, weird magical effects, strange phenomena - all not codified with caster levels and the like. And honestly, in some cases I think the game is better off that way. Magic, when pressed in too tight a corset, ceases to be magic and becomes a science, something you can study and predict. Now, before prospective adventure authors start grinning: No, I have not lowered my standards, for where it is necessary, where it is feasible (i.e. in the vast majority of cases), the module actually uses spells, effects etc. and provides all of this information. And personally, I don't think I need harvesting DCs or a check to but mushroom fragments into a bottle of alcohol and dissolve it. This beast of a sourcebook/module is exceedingly detailed, but in a matter that makes sense. It leaves room for the strange to be strange. And overall, the crunch felt more refined than e.g. the at times problematic supplemental crunch used in e.g. Razor Coast.
It also offers a cornucopia of uncommon ideas, one of the best final fights (and penultimate bosses), a glorious mini-game, takes the capabilities of the high-level PCs into account, offers freedom sans losing its track. And while I probably won't run the saga again now, I will do one thing - scavenge the hell out of this book. The impressive amount of improved and new content makes this a great purchase even for those that own the original trilogy. I'm going so far as to suggest this being a truly worthwhile purchase even as a kind of regional sourcebook to plug and play in your game- you won't find an underworld-sourcebook of this quality anywhere else.
I already went into the pricing (this book is not cheap), but honestly, one look at the page-count (even minus the statblocks of the system you won't use) shows you why I still consider this great: To give you a relation - Razor Coast, another massive premium content sandbox, has a rather ill-fated, ineffective "build-your-own-AP"-chapter that confused me and almost ruined the whole experience for me. Said chapter of Razor Coast took up 100 of the 500+ pages and some less-than-perfect crunch ate more pages from the otherwise superb tale of colonialism and dark fantasy pirate-mega-module. What I actually used in both Rise of the Drow and Razor Coast is approximately on par, with Rise of the Drow even winning by a margin. So yeah, in relation to one another, I think the price for this massive, full-color premium book is damn justified.
So let's sum up my ramblings: This is the best currently available underdark sourcebook to scavenge ideas from, a glorious sandbox, an epic module with a furious climax and extremely high production values in the layout, art and cartography-departments to boot that fuses the sense of old-school underworld-exploration wonder and level of detail with a pressing, action-paced new-school approach and manages to please both my old-school sensibilities and my craving for cinematic, epic new-school scenery. This is a massive accomplishment and the measure by which all future underdark/underworld modules will be judged. It also is a no-brainer 5-star+seal of approval-book and a candidate for my Top Ten of 2014 - no matter whether you run this or just scavenge its pieces: This verdict holds true even if you never want to run this and just take components for your own game. Once the print copy arrives, it will get an honored place next to my copies of Slumbering Tsar, Rappan Athuk, my Midgard Campaign Setting and Coliseum Morpheuon as one of the books that defined Pathfinder modules for me. Have I mentioned I really, really don't like drow anymore?
Posted first on Endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS and d20pfsrd.com's shop. Cheers!
Part II of my review:
We also get 7 new arcana, which include limited ranged disarms (does it still provoke an AoO from adjacent foes? Interaction with improved/greater feats?), arcane sundering, a lame bonus to intimidate, coup-de-grace as a standard action - per se okay. One arcana uses per-encounter, which is flawed design in PFRPG. And no, not gonna repeat my numerous rants against it. The Magnetic Shield arcana may be nice, with its 50% miss chance etc. - but it could use a duration, analogue to spell shield and similar non-instantaneous arcana. Transfusion allows a criting magus to steal hit-points - 1d4+int-mod PER ARCANA POINT. No save, no cap - oh, and the HP are gained as temporary hit points sans duration. Can I hear "Bag o' kittens?" Yeah! Kill till you crit, then blast those points away for mass temp Hp. -.-
The charge breaker-immediate action-spell is nice, though -force-shield hit/trip attackers rules! The primal curse of fire touch attack-spells are slightly too strong for level 3, dealing fireball-level damage and on a failed save half of that again on the following round sans save. For a level 2 spell, Primal Curse of Thorns is also very strong -up to 5d6 points of damage, fort halves, every time the creature makes a move action, attacks or attempts a ref-save? That's INSANE. No chance to negate? Do you have any idea how fast you can rack up damage via this one? Time Shift, a lesser, fast haste and the thundershift spell, which teleports you and lets you enter with a force burst are okay in my book and actually spells I like, though I'd be careful when to hand them out.
The pdf closes with 9 feats, one offering scaling benefits for the expenditure of arcane pool points for atk/damage. Another feat allows you to add +10 to concentration for 2 spell levels. Metamagic Adaptability, which allows you to spontaneously change metamagic feats applied to spells, is interesting, though its caveat for spontaneous casters makes no sense. Want yet another example on utterly thrashing action economy? Reflexive caster. Cast a spell with a casting of standard action as an immediate action in lieu of an AoO. Yeah, it's AoO-chain territory, can break the max amount of casts per round...or can it? Immediate actions are restricted to one per round, AoOs aren't. Still, chain territory and as such not that elegant, if not broken per se. It is not clear whether the cast counts as an AoO or not for purposes of determining max AoOs per round, though. Now teleport tracking and stepping up through teleport effects...now those options are downright awesome in 3 kinds of ways!
Editing and formatting are in the upper echelons, but I did notice a couple of minor glitches. Layout adheres to a one-column (two-column for feats/arcana) full-color standard. Layout generally shows some unfortunate choices - for example an ability's name on one page, with all text of the ability on the next page. Additionally, there's A LOT of blank space at the end of archetypes, chapters etc. Combined with the broad columns and a lot of blank space between the abilities, the pdf somewhat elicited an impression of trying to expand the page-count. I'm rather positive that sans these, the pdf would lose at least 5 pages. Artwork does not adhere to a unifying style and ranges from stock-art I've seen before to neat artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and hyperlinked for your convenience. No complaints there.
A lot of authors worked on this one and it is my joy to report that there's some real talent here - Frank Gori, Andrew Hoskins, Jeff Harris, Kiel Howell, Kyle O'Hara, Scott Bingham, Scott Hall and Taylor Hubler - some of you guys can be proud indeed. Why? Because I love the arcane tactician TO DEATH. I'm not kidding when I say it's one of my favorite pieces for the magus ever made. Not too strong, but flavor-wise oh so awesome. Some spells and two feats also are downright brilliant and on 5 star + seal of approval level. Alas, these pieces are the minority. Now don't get me wrong, I am aware that this is harsh - but the rest of the pdf...oh boy! There are so many imprecise wordings (that have NO PLACE in crunch), subpar balanced archetypes, nonsensical options etc. herein, it hurts - especially since (apart from obvious filler material) more often than not, the ideas here are high concept and fun - but the ability to perfectly execute these ambitious options more often than not seems to not have been up to par.
Now I don't usually comment on price-points that much, unless a product is a steal or overpriced, mostly because I think the race to the bottom is a bad tendency. That being said, for the page count, with the very blank-space happy layout AND with the amount of glitches, I do consider this to be overpriced.
This pdf has quite a few cool ideas, but since the execution is so flawed in quite a few cases that many of the abilities don't work as intended (or make no sense), I can't unanimously recommend it - indeed, I was getting ready to thrash the hell out of this pdf, but the good pieces of content are simply so cool, I figured it does have some reason to exist. Hence, I'll settle on a final verdict of 1.5 stars, rounded up to 2 stars for the gems that can be found herein if you're willing to wade through all the problems.
Reviewed first on Endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here and on d20pfsrd.com's shop.
Getting these books out in the first place should be considered a win - so yeah, as far as I'm concerned, you did already win - respect, gratitude and the knowledge of how much joy you created. Whether you win the ennies or not, I'm probably not alone in being exceedingly thankful this beast finally saw the light of day...