Expand Your Mind, Expand Your Game
Introducing “Alternate Paths: Ascetic Characters”. This book is designed with the very experienced player in mind as it presents alternate rules and classes that are more suited to their needs.
Awakening System: This system allows a character to reach “enlightenment” by accepting (on a personal/spiritual level) certain universal truths. When gained, they are a vulnerability (as accepting them is painful and difficult to one’s self-identity) that, once they reach a certain level of realization, is replaced by a powerful bonus. Once several have been “realized” all realized awakenings become “Enlightenments”, as it takes the realization of many fundamental truths to reach oneness with the universe.
Chakra System Revamp: Christos Gurd has retooled the Chakra system and made it a lot easier to implement, a lot more practice to use. If you already use the current chakra system, this one is very easy to convert over to it. There are also rewritten chakra feats and 2 chakra-based archetypes.
Investiture System: This is a sort of replacement for the magic item system in Pathfinder, but it can be used in conjunction with it too. It allows characters to “invest” part of their own aura/soul into items to give them magical power.
Philosophy System: This new sub-system replaces the current alignment system with philosophies (Absolutism, Nihilism, Consequentialism, Virtuism, Logicism, Machiavellianism, etc) that plays nicely with the current alignment system (so, yes, you can “Smite Nihilism” as an Absolutist Paladin). The system has optional interplay with the verbal duel system from Ultimate Intrigue. It’s very easy to use and we think that it has a more depth than simple good and evil / law and chaos morality.
New Feats: This book includes class support feats, but also a slew of new “chakra feats”, and some thematically appropriate new feats. This includes one that grants you the ability to “detect hostility”, some stuff relating to past life regression, a Heal-centric feat that allows you to cure mental conditions, and an “Opera Style” of martial arts that allows you to “fake it” (you are more a stunt-man than a martial artist). We also bring back the Qinggong Feats from Dragon Tiger Ox and give them some love!
New Base Classes:
Flowmaster: An absurdist, “drunken-master”, improvisational martial artist. Drawing from inspirations like Jackie Chan, Voldo, Bruce Lee, and many more- the flowmaster knows how to roll with the punches! You can think of them as “chaotic monks”, but that doesn’t really sum them up. They lack the supernatural powers and rather rely on their own martial philosophy and eccentricities. They are masters of improvised weapons, able to counter-strike foes with debilitating blows, and have a unique style of combat that can hurt yourself if you are unlucky or destroy your opponent quickly if you are (may the RNGs ever be in your favor...)! (d10, full BAB, 4 + Int, good Fort & Ref)
Ajna: The Ajna is a psychic martial character with a powerful third eye. They are competent fighters on their own but when they allow their spirit to leave their body- they become an unstoppable astral warrior. However, they have an achilles heel. They leave their body behind, unprotected, while they do this. On top of their powerful “projections”, they have 6 level psychic casting, a mastery of telekinetic martial arts, limited astral projection, and unique perceptive abilities. (D8, medium BAB, 4 + Int, good Will, 6 level psychic casting)
Kashun: In this book we introduce a power source we hope to harness again in the future. This power source, “Kashoom” is a pervasive “cosmic energy”. Kashun are martial artists who can contort their body like an old TV antenna to get the best “reception” of this cosmic force. They strike odd, dramatic, poses and charge their kashoom energy- unleashing it in powerful and decisive ways. This class features a host of unique poses and effects that can be generated by way of those poses.
This massive pdf clocks in at 86 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 82 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This pdf was moved up as a prioritized review in my review queue at the request of my patreons.
And now for something completely different! In the grey area between the divine and psychic spheres, there lies a character's personal philosophy; at last those of us prone to contemplation and self-discovery will know these notions and, indeed, in various media, we often have philosophies clash, as their chosen champions and Weltanschauungen clash on the fields of battle. This conflict of ideologies goes beyond the political border and draws its sustenance from a primordial, internal wellspring of conviction. As such, the concept of personal potential for divinity represents a crucial aspect of this book's take on make, so if the divine is uniquely and expressively tied to the acts of deities and their agents in your game, the base notions will require a bit of expansion.
In conjunction with the material herein, the first chapter, depicting diverse philosophies, would represent an interesting expansion regarding the different alignment based class features present in the PFRPG system: Philosophies are contextualized with parallel and opposed philosophies, creating a different interaction; the pdf manages to concisely codify the translation from the two-axis default system. As a nice bonus, the base array of philosophies presented herein could easily be expanded upon and/or combined with more, should the GM require the like. This would btw. be as good a place as any to note that wise sayings and proverbs grace almost every single page. At the lower center, you get a new one, often a tantalizing one.
Why do I mention that now? Because it shows the level of care and going the extra mile that sets this apart as a book that shows that it is near and dear to the designer's heart. Another subsystem introduced herein would pertain forms of awakening that radically change and alter how a character plays, depending on the form of enlightenment sought. Each of these awakenings generally has 4 steps, and these begin with a major penalty that slowly mutates into a strong and powerful boost, often a rather gamechanging one. A character with e.g. a loss of self identity may not refer to him/herself by name or as an individual and may be targeted by touch spells while within 30 ft. However, further, the character may actually cast personal spells on those nearby, which represents an exceedingly potent option, as you all are aware. The presentation of the awakening mirrors its theme, depicting the respective steps in a zig-zagging motion - very interesting and nice mirror of the theme. Being treated as all genders or all alignments represent other, massive boons for those following these paths to enlightenment....heck, you can even be disbelieved.
So yes, as you may have noticed, these awakenings to some higher principle are extremely potent; infinite use temporary hit point buffers can be, for example, gained by those studying detachment, while others may automatically reincarnate. Judging the balance of these options, ultimately, is simple not possible in the traditional sense; they radically change the way the game works for the character in question and have serious repercussions for the realities of the gaming world. In a world, where such quests are far-spread, the conflict of nations can become a truly nightmarish metaphysical hellscape, as philosophers of detachment stoically battle with the eternally reincarnating neighboring nation. On the other hand, if you are looking for ways to represent mechanically the exceptionalism of PCs striving for enlightenment of the respective senseis and masters of their kind, then you'll have a one-stop-shop for unique and potent boss-options. In short, this can act as a template for characters or whole worlds and whether these options are balanced or not within the context of your game hinges greatly on the roleplaying required from the player, the prevalence of the concept, etc. - it may not be for everyone and not always perfect, but oh boy, I love it. I mean it. We need more here. Can I please have cosmic indifference in an expansion to supplement panlocation? Extremely evocative and suffused with gorgeous, perfectly chosen public domain art. Big kudos for this chapter.
The next system presented here would be slightly more conservative, namely the investiture system. Basically, each character receives an investiture bonus that begins at +1 and increases by +1 at 5th level and then again at 8th, 12th and 16th level. The character also begins play with a maximum of 2 investitures and increases that to up to 7. Finally, we begin play with one aspect and increase that to up to 11 at 20th level. Basically, the idea here is to use one's aura to enhance a diversity of items, allowing player choice in that regard. As such, while there is some thematic overlap with PFU's automatic bonus progression, the precise representation is different nonetheless. You see, weapons and unarmed strikes can get bonuses to atk and damage, armor and shields to AC, and other items can be laced with bonuses to saves. Bingo, this is basically an answer to the Christmas Tree syndrome, and, more importantly, to the "boring numerical magic items you need to make the numbers come out right"- issue faced in many a game. This also means that PCs will not necessarily drown in magic items they have no use for, so in particular for rare magic games or games of groups that prefer magic to feel magical, this represents an easy way to make the retain the system's numerical feasibility. Beyond that, the aspects, presented much like in the same formatting as feats, allow for a degree of customization that is intriguing - we have the classic elemental bonus damage special weapon qualities codified thus, for example.
The elegant thing here would be that you can either just award them as you'd like per the suggested level progression...or, due to the easy feat-like presentation, make them a type of martial arts school/feat-type for low/rare magic games. Beyond that, some aspects actually allow you for quicker investiture or extra tricks - so now, this is not a simple system, but one rather a relatively easy system that can be implemented in a variety of ways.
Thirdly, we are introduced to a variety chakra system - using this system consumes the 1stm 7th and13th level feats and they are unlocked in a specific order, with benefits generally scaling . All chakras may be opened as a move action, and require swift action concentration to maintain, with 7th level providing the option to open chakras as a swift action as well and 18th level allowing the user to gain two benefits at once. Chakras may be identified and disrupted via various means, with the root chakra at the base of the ladder available from the get-go. Subsequent chakras are unlocked at 4th level and every even level thereafter, with open chakras penalizing the character's Will-save, making the constant maintenance of open chakras a dangerous proposal. Each of the diverse chakras has at least 4 different abilities for having the chakra open, with benefits ranging from SP/spell-duplication to a variety of other options that include pretty early true seeing. Somewhat annoying: spell-references and the like here tend to sport nonstandard formatting. My least favorite of the 3 systems, mainly due to the overlap and the "all in"-type of the system; either you get all or nothing and the flexibility is pretty pronounced. I can see this system to be somewhat problematic.
The first base class contained herein would be the flowmaster, who receives d10 HD, 4 +Int skills per level, full BAB-progression as well as good Fort- and Ref-saves. The class begins play with Throw Anything and Catch Off-guard and begins play with the option to render himself flat-footed as a free action; if rendered flat-footed thus, he can recover as a swift action. While thus rendered flat-footed, the flowmaster gains a bonus to AC equal to 1/2 class level "to a minimum to her Dexterity modifier" - does this mean that he gains a minimum bonus equal to his Dex-modifier? I assume yes. Enemies also gain no insight bonuses when attacking flowmasters. 2nd level and every even level thereafter nets a so-called eccentricity, which would be akin to a talent of the class, including Douglas Adams' Aboyne, which translates to significant bonuses versus opponents whose competence exceeds that of the flowmaster. The class can also use a touch-attack to make himself flatfooted and also make the target of his attacks flat-footed and may even fight while asleep.
The class also receives scaling damage with improvised weapons as well as evasion; beyond that, we do receive a skill check bonus when attempting something radically new. 4th level yields the interception ability, which presents counterattacks versus foes that miss the flowmaster while within their threatened area; these do begin with multiple options at 4th level, 8th level, 10th level, 13th level and 18th level providing new abilities. These generally are very cool, though e.g. the 18th level ability puppet, which allows the flowmaster to define a swift action or determine the target of a single attack on the creature's next turn, could be more precise. At 5th level, the flowmaster may execute an unconventional strike instead of a regular attack, which does receive a bonus, but also basically adds a "misfire" - on a natural 1 or 2, he hits himself. Instant-drawing imporvised weaponry, scaling DR and improved evasion complement the archetype. All in all, a pretty cool, unconventional martial artist class. And yep, favored class options for the core races as well as some exotic LRGG-races would be included here.
The second class herein would be the Ajna, who gain d8 HD, 3/4 BAB-progression, good Will-saves, 4 + Int skills per level and spontaneously may cast psychic spells via Wisdom, of up to 6th level, drawing upon their own spell-list. proficiency-wise, they receive only simple weapons and light armor. As a move action, the Ajna can render herself helpless, as she generates a projection that must stay within 60 feet, +10 feet per level. This projection may be maintained for 4 + Wisdom modifier levels, +2 levels per class level thereafter and, cool, temporary increases of Wisdom do explicitly not feature in this array. This projection sheds like, is incorporeal. Cool: The projection shares items etc. and the pdf lists the projection's incorporeal benefits are included for your convenience. They also begin play with Third Eye. Utterly OP: 2nd level Ajnas can execute melee attacks versus targets within 60 ft. +10 ft. per level - I don't have an issue there, but I do have an issue that the ability ignores line of sight/effect and that it converts damage into the very powerful force damage. At 3rd level and every 4 levels thereafter, the character receives self-discoveries...which partially are a bit weird, featuring e.g. DR/force - when energy types usually use resistance instead. Here, the pdf is also pretty inconsistent, sporting force damage rays that deal significantly less damage than the aforementioned at range melee attacks. Increased projection etc. are included here, as is a haste like bonus attack at the highest BAB.
Starting at 3rd level, an Ana and his body may swap places as a swift or immediate action - this should probably be codified as a conjuration (teleportation) effect. At 6th level, the character may use rounds of his projection to power telekinesis, with higher levels yielding astral projection and the like. I really like the projection base mechanic and the concept of the class, but personally, I feel that this one needs some polishing; it feels very rough around teh edges regarding its benefits and pretty front-loaded. The concept could also, imho carry more.
The pdf also features a new source of power, named kashoom, a kind of cosmic energy that may be channeled with the proper forms and stances. The Kashun class would use strange martial stances to do just that. The class receives d10 HD, 4+ Int-mod skills per level, full BAB-progression, good Ref-saves as well as proficiency with simple and martial weapons and light and medium armors. They begin with 3 poses known and increase that to up to 10 at 20th level. A kashun in such a pose cannot benefit from a style or stance and wearing heavy armor instills 25% failure and they require concentration and may be entered as a free action. Starting at 2nd level, he may once per round as a swift action, transition from one such pose to another, firing an arc of cosmic lightning at a nearby target. Kashun become aware to breaching of planar boundaries at higher levels and, at 4th level, when not moving, the kashun can generate charge tokens, which may be expended to charge crackling energy into his attack, with 8th level improving the charging process. The class later takes a penalty to Intimidate, but also is bolstered regarding Diplomacy and fear effects.
At 1st level, the character also chooses a resonance, a linear bloodline-like ability; 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter yield another benefit based on the resonance chosen; these also influence aforementioned cosmic lightning ability. It should be noted that these follow-up abilities are not linear, though, allowing for some choice. These include gaining charge when moving around, increased movement rate, modifications to the pose-restrictions, etc. Beyond the resonance-specific ones, the pdf also sports several options that are universal, i.e. that may be chosen by each resonance. The poses are pretty interesting, with each one featuring at least 2 different, deadly tricks - including, once again, at-range force-damage conversion of strikes and e.g. short-term temporal stasis to negate hits, but no - can't be cheesed here.
The massive pdf also features a significant array of feats to pursue: Several of the feats are intended for use in conjunction with the chakra-system presented herein; but beyond those and the class enhancers you'd expect, there also are quite a few very cool feats that make sense from both a narrative and conceptual point of view - e.g. one that lets you employ Heal to suppress/alleviate a variety of mind-influencing conditions. Cool! Past Life Regression and Obsession allow the character to dabble in past lives, though admittedly, I prefer Legendary Games' iteration of that concept. The base Chakra-using feats from OA have been, just fyi, been revised to work in conjunction with the system herein. Pretty cool: Dragon Tiger Ox' classic [Qinggong]-feats are expanded, gaining three nice, new options. The pdf also provides a complex 5-feat chain of feats that represent the Opera Style of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, etc., allowing for the minor imitation of Style feats. As a nitpick - usually, not all feats in a Style's chain have the Style-descriptor - only the basic Style-feat, since feats with the descriptor require entering the style.
The pdf concludes with the vajrayana monk archetype for the monk/unchained monk and the guru ajna, who both are focused on the chakra system. Finally, the enlightened barbarian is pretty cool (yep viable for regular and unchained barb) - they get more skills per level, but must spend those on mental pursuits and the rage feature is altered to allow for concentration and yield bonuses to mental attributes, with the 2nd level allowing for mental attribute dependant feats. Solid.
Editing and particularly formatting are a bit of an issue here: While rules-language, for the most part, tends to be pretty precise while juggling complex concepts, we find, time and again, diversions from the established standards, particularly regarding the formatting of spells etc. And yes, there are instances where that makes reading an ability problematic and more cumbersome than what it should be. Layout adheres to a nice, elegant 2-column full-color standard, sports neat full-color artworks and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks.
One can see the different authors of this pdf: Scott Gladstein, Dayton Johnson, Ian Sisson and Christos Gurd have delivered a pdf that sports A LOT I absolutely adore. The philosophies, the modularity of investiture and awakenings, etc. are amazing and provide, particularly for advanced GMs comfortable with crunch-operations, some amazing material. Similarly, the flowmaster is damn cool; the ajna is innovative and the kashun has some seriously cool tricks...but the devil is frankly in the details here. The ajna's hiccups in particular, the readily available force damage etc. make an impression as though something went wrong there. Similarly, and more grievously, the editing and formatting is unfortunately not as consistent in those sections as I'd love them to be. The presentation of the revised chakra system can also be slightly confusing at first reading - you should definitely be familiar with the original. There is a lot I could complain about in this pdf, a lot to nitpick and tear apart.
Thing is, I really don't want to do that. Because I actually am pretty positively surprised by a lot herein. The flowmaster can actually reproduce the fighting style of Voldo, one of my favorites from Soul Calibur; the kashun's poses, while sometimes problematic, similarly have some serious coolness and provide an interesting playing experience...and I adore 2 out of the three sub-systems presented in the book, in spite (or because!) of the massive impact they have on the game.
It is also pretty apparent that this pdf is a labor of love; you can feel the heart's blood oozing from this pdf and not one of the options in the book is bland cookie-cutter design; all options have some seriously complex and intriguing tricks that set them apart, make them feel distinct. As an advanced GM who is perfectly happy to modify content, tweak crunch, etc., I really, really like this pdf.
In fact, I really wish this had received a thorough editing pass by a very strict, nitpicky PFRPG-dev.
I am the nitpicky bastard, but this book still should be considered to be an amazing offering for the select demographic it's aimed at. It's not, let me make that clear, a book you'll just whip out and play with. This does require a bit of work, but it's worth it. The concepts in this book have candidate for Top Ten-level potential, but with the glitches and hiccups that are here, I can't rate this as highly as I'd like to - the highest I can go with this book, alas, would be 4 stars, though I really, really want to recommend this particularly to people who are looking for some seriously cool tweaks for campaigns. If you're an advanced player or GM and look for a radical change of pace, for something fresh and actually INNOVATIVE, chances are that you'll absolutely LOVE this pdf (or like me, parts of it!) and will gladly look past its issues. I enjoyed this more than many more refined books with better editing. This is, in short, the very definition of a diamond in the rough. I can't slap my seal on this, but think of about 2/3rds of this book as pure, glorious amazingness.
Reviewed first on endzeitgeist.com, then submitted to Nerdtrek and GMS magazine and posted here, on OBS, etc.