This installment of the Path of War-series is 45 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page of SRD, leaving us with 42 pages of content, so let's take a look!
Okay, one thing out of the way - I assume at this point that you're familiar with the terminology of PoW, that you are aware that now per-encounter abilities have a precisely in-game defined time-frame and that PoW does NOT represent standard Pathfinder-balance - the aim of this series is to add power to martial characters, with special martial-arts style maneuvers and new classes. This means that balance, by design, is different from what you'd get in regular PFRPG. I'm not going to criticize the increased power of these characters, since that's the design-goal. Relevant for DMs would be the fact that with these guys around, war of attrition no longer works - since maneuvers can be (with some actions required to regain them) performed ad infinitum, resource-depletion as a strategy akin to dealing with spellcasters no longer works with PoW - or at least, is significantly less effective. This caveat out of the way, If you're interested in the basics, check out my previous PoW-reviews.
That out of the way, let's take a look at the difficult concept of a defensive warrior, herein exemplified by the new warder base-class. Warders get d12, 4+Int skills per level, good fort and will-saves, full BAB-progression, proficiency with all armors and all shields and start game with 5 maneuvers known, 3 readied and 1 known stance. Over the 10 levels, these expand to 16 maneuvers known, 10 readied and 6 stances. Maneuvers expended can also be regained by this class in a unique way, by entering the so-called defensive focus. First, there is a passive benefit - warders get the combat reflexes feat and use int-mod instead of dex-mod to determine AoOs per round. Recovering maneuvers as a full-round action, the warder gets an interesting ability - he sets up a defensive perimeter, threatening an additional 5 ft., + another 5ft. per 5 initiator levels (not sure whether that's intended and shouldn't be CLASS levels instead - multiclassing warder/warlord/stalker and having this one grow at full force seems excessive to me). Until the beginning of the warder's next turn, he may make AoOs against targets provoking them in this increased perimeter. The warder may still move as part of these AoO, but only up to his speed - this feels a bit powerful when compared to similar defensive builds, but I guess that's intended. Finally, the warder imposes a penalty equal to class level + int-mod to acrobatics-checks made to prevent AoOs from the warder. At 10th level, this becomes worse - the warder's threatened area becomes difficult terrain for foes and his own movements don't provoke AoOs anymore when in defensive focus.
Not provoking any AoOs by moving anymore can break A LOT of builds - which doesn't seem so bad. Want to see these get truly scary? Reach weapon + creature with reach + size-increase (the latter especially for PCs) - deadly. I'm seriously not sure whether +25 ft. reach IN ADDITION to all the reach-increasing tricks out there isn't...well...insane.
Warders also increase their ally's defenses by mere proximity, granting a +1 morale bonus to AC and will-saves to all allies within 10 ft., scaling up to +5 at 17th level and increasing range to up to 30 ft. Nothing to complain about the defensive aura here. At 2nd level, the Warder also gets an ability called Armiger's Mark -usable 1/2 class level + int-mod times per day, and no more often simultaneously than against 3+int-mod targets, as a free action, warders damaging foes may mark them to force them to attack the warder for warder's int-mod rounds at -4 (scaling up to -8) to atk and with a spell failure chance increased by 10% +1% per 2 levels. No save. Which brings me to an issue here - I GET the idea of this ability - it's intended to force a target to attack the warder (and not the healing-spamming cleric/druid/oracle). I actually applaud that! What I don't like is that there's no scaling, no success/failure-dichotomy here - personally, I think the ability would be more rewarding (and exciting and balanced), if the target got a save to negate the penalties imposed by the mark BUT NOT the ability's crux, i.e. still have to attack the target. Now at 9th level, a warder can expend two uses of this ability to impose the penalty to all creatures within 30 ft. on a failed will-save for int-mod rounds. While being limited by a save and being language-dependant (meaning unlike the mark, it does not work against animals etc.), I still think that this debuff as a free action is a bit excessive. At 16th level, warders may regain maneuvers by dropping marked foes to 0 hp.
The class also receives a bonus combat (or teamwork) feat at 3rd level and every 5th level thereafter. At fourth level, warders may use int instead of dex to calculate their ref-saves and initiative (making them essentially a 3 good save-class - which is excessive). In contrast, reducing armor check penalty by 2 over the whole class feels not that impressive. Personally, I'd nerf the former ability and improve the latter - also to allow for slightly more varied char-builds - i.e. dexterous warders instead of strong warders.
Extended defense unfortunately doesn't work - 1/day (+1/day every 3 levels) as an immediate action, warders may designate a counter readied, which the warder may then execute as a free action at will until the start of his next turn. The thing is - free actions can't be RAW performed when it's not your turn. So we have a conundrum here - also regarding the counter itself; It *could* be spammed infinitely since there is no caveat there - if one presumes a free action to work also on another's turn (which it doesn't), action economy gets all jumbled for the counters (not to start with implications for other free action tricks of other classes...). A more elegant solution would have imho be to simply allow the ability to let the warder execute the counter at will as a substitute to regular AoOs provoked by his opponents - simple, elegant and sans this action economy labyrinth the ability opens.
At 7th level, warders can expend one use of their mark to expend int-mod readied maneuvers and replace them with an equal amount of known maneuvers as a full-round action. At 15th level, a warder may make fort-saves against the atk that would reduce him to 0 hp or below and instead have an item absorb the damage, potentially getting the broken condition...per se cool. The problem is, what happens to indestructible armor/artifacts etc.? Seriously, a warder with these is a force to be reckoned with... while not 100% foolproof, at 15th level, the ability comes late enough to make me still consider okay. In direct comparison, gaining +int-mod to AC versus crit-confirmation rolls at 19th level feels rather anticlimactic. The capstone again is rather epic though, allowing the maintaining of defensive focus as a move action, while also netting aegis bonuses, immunities and preventing death from hit point damage - he is "unable to die from hit point damage" - each round consumes aegis marks, though, and at the end of this ability, he's exhausted, which can only be cured by rest. per se cool...but: The warder's immortal via hit point damage - so far, so good. Does that mean that a 200 hp dragon-flame blast hitting the warder simply does no damage or that he can't die from it if his hp are down to 49? What after the blast? Assuming the warder would die at -16 hp, would he be at -15 hp and unconscious (meaning the ability would cease immediately?)? Would said warder be stable or die the next round on a failed check? Or is the warder locked at 0 hp and staggered? Or is the warder's hp locked at 1hp for the duration of the ability? Some clarification would help make this cool capstone really awesome...
All right, next up would once again be the short primer on the Knowledge (martial) skill (still sans info which non-PoW-classes should get it as a class skill...) and new (and old) feats from the PoW. So let's see how these fare! General feats to specialize on disciplines, learning more maneuvers etc. and letting other classes wilder among the maneuvers presented as well as offering the finesse etc. feats already known from the previous installments. The feats also include one that doubles the duration of the aegis mark ability. One feat. Doubled duration. Even within PoW, this is BROKEN. Extra marks is okay - as is the option to make foes demoralized and marked flee from you (which is probably smart - two massive debuffs don't make for a good melee...) and finally, the feat that nets temporary hp in exchange for a penalty with full attacks is back; While not broken, it's also not particularly awesome - it's essentially a free array of temp hit points as long as full attacks are performed, which makes for a very strange in-game logic indeed...
Next up would be the maneuvers - Golden Lion and Primal Fury you'll know from the Warlord (covered in my review there), Broken Blade from the Stalker (ditto) - but there's also a new discipline, namely Iron Tortoise. I will ONLY cover Iron Tortoise in this review.
Iron Tortoise's associated skill is Bluff and it requires proficiency with shields. This discipline is defensive in nature - which I applaud. I also enjoy that NONE of the maneuvers uses a skill check for attack-mechanic! Yeah! One of the most powerful counters allows the initiator to make an opposed attack roll + shield bonus versus the incoming attack as an immediate action - success negates the incoming attack, while failure still nets you a DR of 50/- against it. Yeah. Ouch - but the true joke is - not that much better than the level 6 version, which does essentially the same, but "only" nets DR 20/- on a failure.
Remember that this ability can be refreshed relatively easily. See what I meant in the beginning with PoW adhering to a different power level than standard Pathfinder? Still, within PoW's frame. Another boost of the discipline allows the initiator to heap cumulative penalties against targets other than you upon foes for each successful attack you hit them with. What's fundamentally broken is burnished shell - which renders all spells requiring attacks utterly useless - by succeeding an attack against CASTER LEVEL (lol, 5? 10? Even for 20 - The discipline cannot possibly fail this one!), the maneuver negates the targeted spell. Disintegrate? Pfff! The check is the same for all spell levels! Its DC is ridiculously low at ANY level range! Oh, the maneuver is LEVEL 3. Seriously? Even in PoW's increased power-level, this is utterly, completely INSANE. Not all maneuvers have problems, though - whirlwind shield-bashing foes? Yeah - works and is cool. I also LOVE that there's a maneuver that lets you add shield-bonus to fort and ref-saves against specific attacks- simply because that's one of the iconic things that shields ought to be able to do: Fireball incoming: Hiding behind the shield may save you from being burnt to a crisp! Yeah, that one works neat! Another high-level attack I like can attack multiple foes with one shield bash and massive bonus damage, knocking foes back! an opposing attack roll including movement to negate attacks on allies also works rather neatly! In contrast the shield bash attack to negate incoming non-spell/power attack-level 1 counter once again somewhat rubs me the wrong way, though here mainly because of the d20 vs. d20 fluctuation. This is a matter of personal preference, though, and unlike the skill vs. attack complaining I did (which does have massive issues), attack vs. attack will not cause me to rate this pdf down.
I do like the stance that makes your armor count as one step lighter, shield throwing and yes, the inevitable defensive position-style stance. Overall, I have surprisingly few issues with the whole discipline and consider it perhaps the best one so far...if you can deal with one concept.
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn't notice significant glitches, though here and there ambiguities have slipped past rules-editing. Layout adheres to DSP's two-column standard and artworks are mostly thematically-fitting stock-art. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Chris Bennett's growth as an author is quite interesting to observe - the warder feels more concise than the previous classes and makes for a very interesting take on the defensive fighter, with a lot of interesting abilities and some rather cool ideas. That being said, while it doesn't fail the kitten-test this time around, there are some rough edges in this class as well, though decidedly less than before.
The same can be said about Iron Tortoise - gone from this discipline are the 3.X-relics, all vanished in favor of more PFRPG-oriented mechanics. While personally, I'm not a fan of opposed attack rolls (why not resolve it versus opponent's CMD?), I can live with attack versus attack since they adhere to the same scaling mechanism and thus can be balanced against each other. The vast majority of the discipline works rather well and while there are some components which can use some balance-tweaking, overall, within the increased power-level of PoW, I can see it working well.
This pdf is the so far most refined Path of War installment. That being said, as written, one can create a terror-inducing tank indeed - I could hand this to one of my players and get a strong, but balanced character. Much like the other PoW-books, I could also hand this to one of my number-wizards (get it? spellcaster-analogue...Okay, I'll hit myself now and put 2 bucks in the bad-pun-jar) and they'd utterly break balance with the other classes.
So overall...Yes, there's some filing off of rough edges to still be done here - though less than before. Another note I feel I should mention would be the concept of aggro - many abilities herein force foes to attack certain targets and reward/penalize certain actions on behalf of the warder's foes. While personally, I don't necessarily mind the concept (though I'd penalize the hell out of a player not properly rping WHY s/he draws the foe's ire/how s/he interposes her/himself into attacks!), I can imagine certain DMs being annoyed by this - I'm mentioning this primarily because two of my playtesters were exceedingly annoyed by this. It should also be noted that this class is VERY linear; Not much choices class-option-wise.
How to rate this, then? I actually like the class abilities (and, even if the class isn't revised/further streamlined, will scavenge the hell out of it!), but some of them as written, require some finetuning. The same goes for the new maneuvers, some of which vastly outclass others in power/usefulness. The good news here is that these glitches, unlike previous complaints I had in the series, can be VERY EASILY fixed - they require no incision into central mechanics or the like and boil down to minor fixes, though the amount does accumulate. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 -with the caveat that if you mind neither the glitches I noted, nor the strength or the aggro-drawing concept, you should DEFINITELY round up to 4 stars instead. A moderately talented DM can smoothen the rough edges him/herself.
One final promise - I *will* revisit ALL maneuvers in the final, inevitable compilation and once again see whether this series manages to become the legendary book it sets out to be or whether the minor rough edges remain.